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It's time we said when a thing is bad
Yes, it was bad
David Foster Wallace’s “9/11, as Seen from the Midwest”, published October 25, 2001, in Rolling Stone, gives the view from Bloomington, Illinois, in the immediate aftermath of the attack. It’s a classic DFW essay in that the narrator functions as a kind of alien trying to make sense of, or even just participate in, the customs of the “normal” people around him. He feels, in his words, “alienated” from them.
For example: DFW starts out self-conscious about the lack of flags on his lawn, goes out in search of one, eventually finds some craft supplies at a gas station, fashions one from hand. Later, the scene shifts back to the immediate hours after the attack, when he, televisionless, finds himself at a neighbour’s house, watching the coverage.
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There’s a crowd there. People from his church are filing in and out, using the telephone, crying in the kitchen, having the geography of Manhattan explained to them. This last fact is how the essay comes to a kind of moral argument, and that argument looks something like a binary between the innocent and the guilty; the naif and the cynic; the pure and the fallen.
There’s a distance between the author and the crowd around him, a “vague but progressive feeling of alienation from these good people.” They don’t stop to wonder if Dan Rather’s “hair being mussed is not 100% accidental, or that the relentless rerunning of spectacular footage might not be just in case some viewers were only now tuning in and hadn’t seen it yet.” They don’t wonder about the similarity of Bush’s speech to Bruce Willis movies; they don’t worry about which of this is genuine or artificial or authentic or staged. They just take the broadcast at face value.
One of DFW’s great literary strengths was that, despite knowing he was smarter than everyone around him, and despite effectively saying as much in his writing, there was just always enough kindness in his writing voice for the reader to forgive him. At his neighbour’s house in Bloomington, DFW even goes as far as to imply these innocents are, at least in some ways, better than him (and by extension, better than you, the reader of literary essays in Rolling Stone). He looks at them with some envy, plagued by the sense that there is some cost to knowledge, some dark burden to insight. He mourns his alienation, regrets it.1
This all comes to mind because I spent Sunday night watching the Oscars. I saw the Hugh Grant interview (good), the Jimmy Kimmel monologue (bad), the Cocaine Bear bit (bad). And I saw the speeches: Brendan Fraser (bad); Michelle Yeoh (bad); Ke Huy Quan (atrocious).
Because my Oscar-viewing friends were cynics like me, the progressive feeling of alienation didn’t really kick in until yesterday, when I found on every write-up, tweet, and instagram story the same message propagated: these things were good, actually. Then I felt very confused, very alone, very insane.
The Oscars – everything from the speeches to the movies – were not good, they were bad, and my sense is that they were so bad even the most innocent among us could sense it. I’m pretty sure you, the reader, knew they were bad. In fact it’s crucial to the argument of this essay that the badness of The Oscars was apparent to all. You’re just not supposed to say so.
Take the speeches – so lauded in the media immediately after. They were forced and trite and sentimental. One felt infantilised and depersonalised. Anyone who has ever worked with celebrities (alas, yes, I have) could see the fingerprints of an immense industry of flacks and hacks at work. Those people had written the speeches and designed the strategy and chosen the clothes and coordinated the focus groups. They had laboured in service of one goal, and that was to market their given actor-brand-commodity in such a way as to maximise Reach and Engagement with a view to maximising Return On Investment. Working with celebrities helps one to know this but I doubt that much insider knowledge was necessary – the whole show was so lazy, clumsy, and inartful in its artificiality that even the least media literate could not help but feel queasy.
What a shame. I think the fact that Ke Huy Quan, to choose the most egregious example, whose story is so powerful and affecting in its unvarnished form, could be bullied into giving a speech so rote, so pat, so intentionally- and strategically- and artificially-shaped by publicists and agents and market-segmentation experts; and his person, once so refreshing in its meek, authentic enthusiasm, could be denatured by pressures to ham-it-up-for-the-camera and hit-the-right-notes and build-momentum-for-the-next project – well, I think it should make us all feel gross.
And I think this helps explain why, despite so many of us knowing that today’s cultural production is bad, we continue to pretend it is good. The fact that it threatens to make us feel gross is why we refuse to acknowledge it for what it is. It’s also why we roll our eyes when others pierce the veil for us. We exert on each other immense social pressure to go along with it, to be a good sport, to not spoil the fun. We all know we’re eating garbage, but you’re not supposed to say so. Doing so reminds us of the bad taste in our mouths. Looking squarely and honestly at what is before us would be to look squarely and honestly at our fallen, manipulative, denaturing world.
Consider that significant parts of the show were taken up by paid advertorials for Disney and Warner Brothers hosted by major celebrities. Even Margot Robbie, who was at school with me and is a woman of prodigious talent, was reduced to the level of a Saturday-morning infomercial hostess. I’m not sure I can describe the disappointment I felt – a woman who made it so far from South East Queensland, only to find herself shilling for the wheels of capital; the organs of our cultural production.
I remembered in that moment one of the great lines from the playwright Eugène Ionesco, describing his intent with the Theatre of the Absurd:
I want to reveal the mechanisms that lie behind the stage, the ropes and the pulleys. I want to make the audience aware of the fact that they are not only spectators, but also actors in the drama that is being played out before them.
The irony is bitter – Ionesco was part of a movement that exposed the artifice of the theatre to bring people into a new relationship with performance. On Sunday night the ropes and pulleys were exposed, but no such innovation was happening: they simply saw no need to hide the manipulation. The audience has apparently no objection to manipulation. The showrunners can rely on us to be so inculcated in this climate of mediocrity as to never complain.
Evidence to this is that many people appear to believe the Oscars are in some way a measure of good cinema. Well, members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences occasionally do stumble over the truth, but usually they pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing had happened. Any alignment between the awards and genuine merit is accidental and fortuitous. The Oscars is of course not an attempt to seriously decide the best film of the year, it’s an organ of capital designed to facilitate and encourage the sale of particular entertainment products. Like an infomercial.
I’m in danger here of suggesting that any of this is new; I’m at risk of going all kids-these-days. Let me clear – I doubt there was ever a time where this particular cultural artefact, the Oscars, was anything approaching good. What I think may have changed is the decimation of everything else. The obliteration of both folk culture and the high brow has been such that one looks at the Oscars and sees the ceiling of cinema, just as one looks at, say, the New Yorker, and sees the ceiling of writing. There is just enough serious filmmaking and serious writing ongoing that these appraisals remain incorrect – but in this winner-take-all era of cultural production, those “serious” endeavours are harder and harder to see next to their ever-growing middlebrow whales. The victory of mass culture has been so total that many are skeptical there ever existed anything else.2
You can see from these last sentences that I’m getting towards my true source of irritation, and that is mass culture, mass entertainment, as both commodity and capital form. What does this mean? What it means is that the defining feature of what is sometimes called “late capitalism” is the cancerous growth of culture-and-entertainment as products of capital, in place of and over the top of art as a means of expression and insight.
Capital has requirements of its products. In the cultural realm, as any other, the demand is that products succeed on the market – that is, as commodity. And this new commodified cultural form denatures what might otherwise have been. What characterises artefacts produced by the culture industry? My own, incomplete summary is that they don’t exist to teach us things we don’t know, but to teach us things we have already learned. That’s what sells.
This is all pretty standard Frankfurt School stuff. Adorno went as far as to define art by those objects that break us out of our pliant relationship to capitalist hegemony (for him, at the time, that meant Beckett and Schönberg). Many others have tackled the same with different formulations: Randall Jarrell thought art to be that which resisted mass culture by privileging an eternal pursuit of beauty. And Fisher’s own formulation was less interested in art’s definition than in the descriptive claim that the culture industry traps us in a cycle of nostalgia. Nothing new is created because the market does not reward anything new.
I won’t dive deep except to insist that across all of these thinkers the claim is that mass culture works to establish and police its own ideology, its own field of meaning. It works to put us to sleep, to turn us into mouth-agape seals clapping for fish. And I’ll close by saying we have a duty to, uh, not do that.
If we take a closer look at Harold Rosenberg’s view, as in The Herd of Independent Minds, then we have to remember that mass culture aims at the common denominators of human experience. (Again, that’s what sells.) “Aims at” is here doing a lot of work, because one of Rosenberg’s deeper points is that mass culture also seeks to create that common denomination. To see this, consider the difference between a common situation (an circumstance people regularly do find themselves in) and a common experience (an affective response supposedly shared by all people).
From a common situation, Rosenberg wants to say, an infinite number of experiences might arise – one for every person. But a common experience is mass culture’s insistence that affective responses be uniform. “In sum,” he writes, “mass-culture—making operates according to certain laws that cause it to be potentially ‘true’ of the mass but inevitably false to each individual.” Or, put another way, art features an individual in a common situation, but products of mass-culture feature individuals who do not exist; fictitious, aggregated everymen who stand in for the experience mass-culture demands of us. The outcome is that we are trained to become such everymen. And we all end up pretending, saying, (maybe even, in some sense, believing?) that the Oscars are good.
I worry that I’ve lost you – come back to me by remembering DFW’s gentle patience with the innocents of Bloomington. I framed that patience as a kind of virtue – and I think it is. But I think that virtue has its limits, and one of those limits might be felt when we find ourselves afraid to say that Ke Huy Quan’s speech was bad.
Rosenberg’s point, and I’m endorsing it here, is that in a society that seeks to replace art with mass culture, and in a world in which mass culture means the replacement of the heterogenous individual with the homogenous everyman, something like DFW’s “alienation” should not be mourned but celebrated. Here’s Rosenberg, in 1948, almost writing a letter to DFW:
…When current critics influenced by Marxist terminology talk of alienation they mean something directly contrary to Marx’s philosophical and revolutionary conception. They mean not the tragic separation of the human individual from himself, but the failure of certain sensitive spirits (themselves) to participate emotionally and intellectually in the fictions and conventions of mass culture. And this removal from popular hallucination and inertia they conceive as a form of pathos!
He goes on:
Nothing could be more vulgar, in the literal meaning of the term, than whining about separation from the mass. That being oneself and not others should be deplored as a condition of misery is the most unambiguous sign of the triumph in the individual of the ideology of mass culture over spiritual independence. It is a renunciation of everything that has been gained during the past centuries through the liberation of mankind from the authoritarian community.
“…The most unambiguous sign of the triumph in the individual of the ideology of mass culture over spiritual independence.”
Yes. It’s time we said when a thing is bad.
In weaker moments, DFW slips in to a kind of Suburban Pastoralism.
Once our current mode of economic production established its primacy, it got to work obliterating the cultural relations and practices that lay before. Take first the economic matters: everything from principles of reciprocity and redistribution to long-held conceptions of the household got swept away and replaced with new understandings of commodity and market (this is all in your Polanyi). And the same pattern soon followed, necessarily, in the cultural space. By the mid 20th century, the capitalist mode of cultural production was finishing off folk culture, too.