E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction

October 18, 2009

E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction

David Foster Wallace



 E pluribus unum= out of many, one.  This phrase was created and put on the Great Seal of the United States after declaring independence.  It is meant to speak to the diversity and unity of America.

 E unibus pluram=from one, many.  We are alone, yet alone together in our viewing of television.


I Like to Watch

                       Wallace begins by comparing fiction writers with “oglers.”  His point being that writers of fiction strive to present the most realistic image of life in their work as possible; and to accomplish this, fiction writers are constant observers of human activity.  What Wallace finds unsettling is that a new generation of fiction writers seems to be looking to television as a means of learning about people.  Wallace argues that turning to television is a mistake as it does not provide an accurate depiction of normal life.  Television is not showing the same average life that a voyeur may see looking through his neighbor’s window simply because that’s not what people want to see.  Well, most people.  Television, according to Wallace, is about desire and showing people what they want to see.  Wallace equates this desire with sugar.  The point being that while sugar may make things taste better, too much of it can have a long lasting and negative impact.

 The tag of voyeur does not fit when applied to watching television.  Wallace writes, “What classic voyeurism is is espial: watching people who don’t know you’re there as they go about the mundane but erotically charged little businesses of private life.”  Watching television does not make one a voyeur, you are simply a viewer.  Television is the exact opposite of voyeurism.  With television, you are not watching people who don’t know they are being watched, but instead watching actors who are portraying characters.  Wallace takes this argument even further, “It’s ultimately not even actors we’re espying on, not even people: it’s EM-propelled analog waves and ionized streams and rear screen chemical reactions throwing off phosphenes in grids of dots.”  Wallace closes by saying that those dots are being viewed on a piece of furniture no different than a couch or coffee table.

Throughout the piece Wallace continues to reference a finding which said people view an average of six hours of television per day; with, in Wallace’s opinion, lonely people watching considerably more.  These large doses of television are shaping the expectations of what it means to act natural.  He mentions how whenever it is apparent that someone is uncomfortable in front of a crowd it is said how unnatural they look.  Conversely, anyone who is comfortable acting in front of a crowd is deemed natural.  Equating acting with being natural is a mistake.  This leads to the characters on television to be considered natural and real.  Viewers become familiar with characters and often times talk of them like they’re old friends.  People become more intimate with the character than with members of their own family.

A person is smart.  People are dumb, panicky dangerous animals.-Men In Black

      Mentioned above is Wallace’s belief that television is about desire and giving people what they want.  As a result television has become “low art, the sort of art that tries too hard to please.”  Apparently this is nothing new for Americans.  Wallace cites Alexis de Tocqueville all the way back in 1830 as being of the belief that Americans were as easy to amuse as a baby whose face you jingle your keys over.  According to de Tocqueville Americans enjoyed forms of entertainment which stirred “the passions more than to gratify the taste.”

            For all of the love we’ve given complexity, Wallace does not see it as the norm in television.  As mentioned before, Wallace considers television low art.  But the blame isn’t put on television.  Wallace is of the belief that the sole purpose of television is to gain viewers by appealing to as many people as possible.  So when Wallace writes, “television is vulgar and dumb because the people who compose Audience are vulgar and dumb” he’s blaming the audience for television, right?

Yes and no

 “Television is the way it is simply because people tend to be really similar in their vulgar prurient* and stupid interests and wildly different in their refined and moral and intelligent interests.”       

(*Prurient= having or intended to arouse an unwholesome interest in sexual matters)

This is the car crash mentality.  Though you know it’s wrong and shouldn’t watch, you do anyway.  This is the reason VH1 is able to get away with everything it shows.  I’m looking at you Bret Michaels.

 Wallace goes on to write that television has viewers trained.  But instead of salivating at the sound of a bell, television has trained viewers to expect and look for low art every time they sit down. 

-“the Audience really craves sameness but thinks, deep down, that it ought to crave novelty.”-

           This is why whenever a show tries something new and makes an attempt to break away from what is expected as the norm, often it is put down by the almighty hand of the Audience. 

It’s Better Here

  Television has viewers caught in a lonely, depressing cycle.  Lonely people watch a lot of television because they have nothing else to do in their lives and are afraid to leave the comfort of their living room.  However, when they turn on the television, they see a number of different worlds, all of which are better and more desirable than theirs.  They see a world populated with amazingly attractive people who never seem to have anything bad happen to them.  And in the event they are victim to a slight misfortune, it is more often than not corrected by the end of the episode.  This assurance that the television world is better than your world only locks a person more into a sense that they need television.

            Wallace writes that a viewer consuming six hours of television a day will come to relate to certain characters.  They will see themselves in certain characters.  However, that viewer will then demand to see some of the character in himself.  It goes without saying that someone who watches six hours of television a day will have little in common with the people he watches.  This mass consumption of television has led to a shift in values.  Once characters on television become an idealized image, the viewer will want to become more and more like what they see.

            All one has to do is look at what products are most advertised and they will see what I have labeled the desire to be: hot, happy, and hard.  No matter what the program, the commercials are pushing a large amount of chemicals.  The three most notable are pills which seek to help you with weight loss, depression/anxiety, and erectile dysfunction.  This type of advertising pushing for a pharmaceutically new you can be said to come from a desire to more like the characters from television.  To go with the identification that Wallace mentions, the six hour a day audience now wants to be thin and attractive, live in a happy cheery world, and be able to have sex whenever they want (though not for longer than 4 hours),  just like their favorite television characters.

“TV’s real pitch in these commercials is that it’s better to be inside the TV than to be outside, watching.”

Rage Against The Machine

           In the beginning of the essay Wallace writes how television is having an impact on the world of fiction.  There is, however, a group which Wallace sees as fighting back against television.  He writes that there is fiction “written mostly by young Americans…and made a real attempt to transfigure a world of and for appearance, mass appeal, and television.”  The name Wallace gives this is image-fiction.

            According to Wallace, image-fiction had its origins in the 70’s but picked up steam in the 90’s.  The apparent goal of image-fiction is to comment on how television has trained society to recognize symbols and characters.  They achieved this by including those very symbols in their works.  Wallace provides some examples of works of image-fiction:

 A.M. Homes- The Safety of Objects– “features a stormy love affair between and boy and a Barbie doll.”

 Michael Martone- Fort Wayne Is Seventh on Hitler’s List– “a tight cycle of stories about the Midwest’s pop-culture giants—James Dean, Colonel Sanders, Dillinger”   

   The hope is that in reading these works, people will come to realize their dependency on visual images and see the ridiculousness in it as well.  Wallace writes of image-fiction that it “is not just a use or mention of televisual culture but a response to it, an effort to impose some sort of accountability on a state of affairs in which more Americans get their news from television than from newspapers and in which more Americans every evening watch Wheel of Fortune than all three network news programs combined.”

                  While Wallace finds it admirable that image-fiction is trying to make a stand, he writes that it cannot work because television has already beaten it to the punch. 

 “Image-fiction doesn’t satisfy its own agenda.  Instead, it most often degenerates into a kind of jeering, surfacy look ‘behind the scenes’ of the very televisual front people already jeer at”

 One of Us

           “U.S. pop culture is just like U.S serious culture in that its central tension has always set the nobility of individualism on one side against the warmth of communal belonging on the other.”

 Wallace writes on the irony which exists in advertising.  He notes that even though the audience being sold to is very large, ads try to appeal to the individual.  Products claiming to help someone express themselves and to standout from the crowd are being marketed to audiences of millions of people at a time. 

These ads use the idea that “people are always most vulnerable, hence frightened, hence needy, hence persuadable, when they are approached solo.”  Ads are taking the lonely six hour viewers and speaking to them directly, making the viewer even more insecure in telling them that without a certain product, things may get worse.

            Wallace does note a change in advertising from earlier generations.  There was a time when a viewer was simply told to buy something.  However, with the trend in individualism, a consumer does not want to be told what to do.  To get around this, the viewer must somehow come to the feeling that they need a product. 

            How advertisers come about that is changing as well.  With the advent of multiple recording devices, the viewer now has the option of bypassing ads entirely.  This has led to ads attempting to become more watchable and seen as less of a nuisance.  To this effect, ads are becoming more and more like shortened films and shows.  When even that won’t work, ads are placed in shows themselves.  This goes back to the idea of identifying with characters.  If your favorite character stops at Burger King or has an i-phone, the viewer may crave those products as well.

Wallace writes that television does an excellent job of convincing us that we need television more than television needs us.  Going back to the lonely viewer, they are scared enough to venture out into the real world.  Yet television serves to frighten them even more by convincing them that without possessing certain knowledge (gained only by watching television) you will be ostracized even more in the real world.  To prevent this, you need to watch more television.  God help you if you’re the one who showed up to work one Friday and didn’t know what “shrinkage” or “puffy shirt” meant.  And imagine the looks of disgust one would receive if while in a group someone pulls off a masterful “that’s what she said” and you don’t get the joke.  The punishment for such a mistake is banishment from the group, leaving the unblinking, non judging television as your only friend.

Remember Last Week?

           Remember last week, the Dawson article talking about more mobile forms of entertainment?  Wallace talks about George Gilder, and how Gilder thinks along those lines.  Gilder is of the belief that making entertainment more mobile will break us from the chains which lock us to the couch.  The rest of Gilder’s argument goes something like this:

“My real dependency is on the fantasies and the images that enable them, and thus on any technology that can make images fantastic.  Make no mistake.  We are dependent on image-technology; and the better the tech, the harder we’re hooked.”-Wallace

 Wallace writes that new technological advancements will only help to strengthen television’s grip.  No matter how we watch television, we are still watching television.  Dawson mentioned how watching on a smaller screen would force the viewer to concentrate more, that’s exactly what television wants you to do.  It is the constant job of television to convince you, through television, that your life sucks and the only place to go for comfort is right back to the very thing which hurt you in the first place.






4 Responses to “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction”

  1. […] information about David Foster Wallace’s Essay “E Unibus Pluram” is now up at Ryan’s blog.  Take a look while you’re taking a break from wading through […]

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