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David Foster Wallace, on Television, on Television as the Dominant

I’m very fond of quoting from Roman Jakobson’s 1935 essay “The Dominant”. Lately I’ve been thinking about this passage in particular:

We may seek a dominant not only in the poetic work of an individual artist and not only in the poetic canon, but also in the art of a given epoch, viewed as a particular whole. For example, it is evident that in Renaissance art such a dominant, such an acme of the aesthetic criteria of the time, was represented by the visual arts. Other arts oriented themselves toward the visual arts and were valued according to the degree of their closeness to the latter. On the other hand, in Romantic art the supreme value was assigned to music. Thus, Romantic art oriented itself toward music: its verse is musically focused; its verse intonation imitates musical melody. This focusing on a dominant which is in fact external to the poetic work substantially changes the poem’s structure with regard to sound texture, syntactic structure, and imagery; it alters the poem’s metrical and strophical criteria and its composition. In Realist aesthetics the dominant was verbal art, and the hierarchy of poetic values was modified accordingly.

I think we can at least agree that some mediums resonate more strongly in the culture, in a given time and place, than others. Opera and ballet no longer have the cultural influence they once did—nor does painting. And neither does literature, not since the very early 1900s. They were all supplanted in the 20th Century by radio, then cinema. (In this post from yesterday, I was exploring some of the influence that cinema, being a dominant medium, has had on the culture.)

Some have argued that cinema started losing its dominance in the 50s or 60s or 70s, being supplanted by television (which has, since the 90s or the 00s, been supplanted by the internet). I find argument that very plausible; even the major film studios have acknowledged by this point that theatrical film releases are essentially ads for later DVD releases (multiple DVD releases).

This morning, I found a nice contemporary illustration of this idea of television as the dominant medium of our time—or at least of the 70s through 90s: David Foster Wallace discussing the dominance of television while on television (and now on the internet):

A few passages worth noting:

I think, in a weird way, the condition, sort of commercially for fiction, has—bears a little bit on the aesthetics of writing right now, because, at least, at least the generation I think of myself as part of right now, was raised on television, which means that, at least I was raised to think of television as my main artistic snorkel to the universe. And I think that television, which is a commercial art, that’s a lot of fun, that requires very little of the recipient of the art, I think, affects what—affects what people are looking for in various kinds of art. And I think, um, can make the sort of fiction, which—if I can lump a bit, which I think all three of us do—stuff that’s at harder than average, weird, requires some work to read.

Wallace’s response is to oppose that (at least to some extent):

The thing that, the thing that interests me in a lot of the stuff that I think I do, has to do with a lot—commercial entertainment, its efficiency, its sheer—its sheer ability to deliver pleasue in large doses, changes people’s, changes people’s relationship to art and entertainment. It changes what what an audience is looking for. I would argue it changes us in deeper ways than that. And that some of the way that commercial culture and commercial entertainment affects human beings is one of the things that I sort of think serious art and fiction ought to be doing right now.

Note, too, his complaint against the (then-)contemporary avant-garde (although I’d argue it still largely applies):

Ten years ago, I was reading a lot more avant-garde stuff, and I thought it was very cool. Um. One of my complaints right now, um, is that, because I think commercial entertainment has conditioned readers to want, um, kind of more easy fun, I think avant-garde and art fiction has sort of relinquished the field, and is now—Basically, I don’t read much contemporary avant-garde stuff because it’s hellaciously unfun.

It is, as he notes, a double-edged sword. Luckily (and Wallace alludes to this), Roland Barthes has given us at least one solution to the problem. Literature’s pleasure is not television’s pleasure—and yet it must respond to television’s widespread and easy pleasure, and to audiences expecting that pleasure. (I personally don’t despair too much about it, because that’s a great tension, and great art requires great tension.)

  • A. D. Jameson is the author of five books, most recently I FIND YOUR LACK OF FAITH DISTURBING: STAR WARS AND THE TRIUMPH OF GEEK CULTURE and CINEMAPS: AN ATLAS OF 35 GREAT MOVIES (with artist Andrew DeGraff). Last May, he received his Ph.D. in Creative Writing from the Program for Writers at UIC.

15 thoughts on “David Foster Wallace, on Television, on Television as the Dominant

  1. i don’t understand why writers feel the need or desire to discuss their “place in the culture” as marginalized by television and movies or something. seems passe or something to worry about/jaw about whether or not one has relevancy, dominance, or importance in “the culture.” maybe? i don’t know, i just don’t dig it when writers make themselves out to be woeful, under-appreciated victims of a big bad cultural ADD. is it “artistic,” “avant-garde,” or “interesting” to be a fuddy-duddy or a whiner? in place of the angle “people today have no patience, they don’t want to dedicate themselves to my involved, difficult work,” why not simply *be* interesting, exciting, whatever that means to you, and not talk about it or whether the culture gets it or gets it enough. i think if you *are* “that,” people will get it more than you anticipate.

    1. I think that what Wallace is saying here is useful inasmuch as it helps one comprehend why one’s doing what one’s doing. We all like to think we’re rational individuals, but the truth is we’re often just following the greater cultural logic. Which isn’t necessarily logical.

      Being able to see those influences is, I think, always a good thing. I read Wallace as wanting to see the influence TV has had on his own work, and to better be able to both enjoy and criticize it (the double-edged sword, but also an artistically productive tension). And since he was someone who wanted to reach a mass audience (his decision), it was useful for him to be able to say, “Hm, today’s audiences are conditioned by television to expect this, so if I want to get them to read my book (which isn’t TV), then perhaps I should meet that expectation halfway, even though I ultimately want to move their expectations and attention somewhere else.” Which strikes me as being a very practical thing to do. Wallace’s understanding of that was a large part of his genius, and his success as an artist.

      1. i appreciate dfw’s efforts at explication, so i don’t mean to criticize that effort, for the record.

        i just don’t think anxiety or analysis re the extent/nature of one’s influences, or the following of the “greater cultural logic” is necessary or even relevant for artists.

        i don’t think artists need to explain or understand (in the sense you are describing) why they produce what they do or why. i prefer it when artists think and act simply as artists and not as academics, historians, or commentators. i think the turn towards culture studies, politics, and theory has worked to somewhat “kill” the elements of art that i appreciate most—the emotional, the human, the aesthetic (purely aesthetic), and the spiritual.

        i know that may not be a popular perspective in the current climate.

        1. specifically, why would an artist want or think that she is “a rational individual”? art isn’t rational, i don’t think, even though it often is produced, to some extent, with an end in mind. i would claim it is still not rational, and rationality is not something for which i strive.

          1. I certainly don’t know. I think people are semi-rational, but also semi-irrational—artists included. Art itself can be either or both; I like both types, but tend to prefer the irrational, myself.

        2. I think I almost entirely agree that recent trends in academia have been largely hostile toward the human and the spiritual in art, and especially toward aesthetics—have you read Curtis White’s The Middle Mind, by any chance? he discusses that problem very well there—but I also think that’s a separate thing from an artist “needing to explain or understand” what he or she does. Which is a very old impulse, going back to the very beginning of art, I’d imagine.

          Some artists like analysis, others don’t. DFW was a pretty analytical guy, and I don’t think he could have made the art he did without being that.

          I myself adore analysis (obviously), and find it extremely useful. (I also find criticism and theory very useful, especially formalist stuff.) But in my art-making I’m mostly intuitive and emotional, and ultimately channel the analysis/criticism/theory toward the irrational.

          But I know that’s also just how I do it. Different strokes for different folks, and all that.

  2. “This morning, I found a nice contemporary illustration of this idea of television as the dominant medium of our time—or at least of the 70s through 90s: David Foster Wallace discussing the dominance of television while on television (and now on the internet)…”

    It seems like through your qualification (“at least of the 70s through 90s”) and through your parenthetical (“and now on the internet”), you’re suggesting that “the dominant” medium — or rather meta-medium — is the computer.

    At least this is how New Media theorist Lev Manovich sees things. I have to paraphrase here but he advances the idea that the computer is now able to translate all previous media. Is that where you were going?

    1. I’d have to think about that, Michael. I don’t know Manovich’s work, I’m afraid.

      It seems to me that computers are largely synonymous with the internet these days. (That’s what people mostly use them for anymore, right?) It does seem increasingly true that people are spending more and more time using things like email and Facebook, reading websites, etc. than sitting in front of TVs. Indeed, even TV is online now, largely, and TVs are becoming web-browsers in addition to being TVs (convergence).

      And I imagine that’s all changing people’s expectations of how information should be structured and encountered—which is what really lies at the heart of what Jakobson (and Wallace after him) is discussing.

      1. This stuff comes from his book _The Language of New Media_ — I still haven’t read enough of Manovich to really know what to think of him, but he has an idea of our “culture of remixability” that I find to be pretty powerful…

        It seems that he is more oriented toward production than you are — that is, he’s interested in the computer as a machine that can process and transform old media: one can use a computer to edit film, create music, design images, upload scans of old manuscripts, etc. as well as watch TV, surf the web, and engage with social networking.

        So computers can be synonymous with the internet, as you say, though this is with an eye toward consumption… of course, Michel de Certeau has convincingly challenged the distinction between production and consumption (consumption is a hidden poiesis) but that, I think, is another story.

        It seems that Jakobson is also interested in production here (despite his dismissal of the elephants that presume to teach zoology…) — so I don’t see it so much as “expectiations” but aspiration…as in Walter Pater’s phrase “all art aspires to the condition of music” (which Jakobson obviously had in mind).

        1. I’m personally very interested in production (I just bought a laptop partly so I could more easily edit video, since my desktop is conking out), but I don’t think most people are. I think it’s great that people can now more easily edit their own songs and movies and make visual art, etc., but let’s face it: I think most people are playing Farmville and posting pics at Facebook, chatting through IM, playing Guitar Hero, watching videos at YouTube, etc. Which can all be creative in their own ways, but can also be pretty miserable wastes of time. (When I was purchasing my laptop, another customer was also buying one, too, and her main concern was that she be able to play Farmville with it. Maybe she’s an experimental Farmvillian?)

          That crankiness aside, though, yes, I think it’s extremely encouraging that the computer can be used for so much creation and interaction, and not just straight passive consumption. I’ve seen tons of great art at YouTube, made with Flash media, posted in online fanfiction forums, etc.

          That itself said, people who want to create will always find ways to be creative. You can be creative with a TV—shooting it is a good place to start…

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