I am just a lowly blogger, not a master savant like David Foster Wallace (pdf). Yet, I think he identified what I don’t like about much of the liberal blogosphere. I am not saying that I am a paragon of sincerity, but I am totally disinterested in ironic finger-pointing. When I snark on the right, I’m not doing it because I am above it all. I’m in the arena, not the stands.
“The next real literary “rebels” in this country might well emerge as some weird bunch of anti-rebels, born oglers who dare somehow to back away from ironic watching, who have the childish gall actually to endorse and instantiate single-entendre principles. Who treat of plain old untrendy human troubles and emotions in U.S. life with reverence and conviction. Who eschew self-consciousness and hip fatigue. These anti-rebels would be outdated, of course, before they even started. Dead on the page. Too sincere. Clearly repressed. Backward, quaint, naive, anachronistic. Maybe that’ll be the point. Maybe that’s why they’ll be the next real rebels. Real rebels, as far as I can see, risk disapproval. The old postmodern insurgents risked the gasp and squeal: shock, disgust, outrage, censorship, accusations of socialism, anarchism, nihilism. Today’s risks are different. The new rebels might be artists willing to risk the yawn, the rolled eyes, the cool smile, the nudged ribs, the parody of gifted ironists, the “Oh how banal.” To risk accusations of sentimentality, melodrama. Of overcredulity. Of softness. Of willingness to be suckered by a world of lurkers and starers who fear gaze and ridicule above imprisonment without law. Who knows.”
Also, I imagine that Foster Wallace would take great pleasure in flunking Dana Milbank and, to a lesser extent, Chris Cillizza. Both of them strike me as exactly the kind of writers that Foster Wallace was railing against. Both use the artistic tools of the counterculture (detachment, condescension, irony, scorn), but seem to lack any core convictions. What master are they serving? Who likes the smart-alecks in the Peanut Gallery?
It’s twenty years on since Foster Wallace wrote E Unibus Pluram and I could discuss it all day. I’d love to see someone look at the same issues from the perspective of today’s young writers, trained not so much by television as by their smart phones. What realistic novel would contain any dialogue today? Or even eye contact?
Or, how about the advent of reality television and its relationship to Don DeLillo’s barn-watching? Paris Hilton starring as THE MOST PHOTOGRAPHED BARN IN AMERICA! as told by a too-cool-for-school hipster and his silent friend.
Who can look at the state of our government and culture and not adopt an attitude of cynical detachment? That seems to me to be the core problem progressives face, and it relates back to what I always talk about, which is overcoming our countercultural roots. What was bedeviling Foster Wallace twenty years ago was the way that television had become countercultural (probably starting with Saturday Night Live, if not the Watergate hearings), which created a kind of closed circle impermeable to artistic sincerity. To be sincere was to be naïve. To actually believe in anything, you’d have to be an idiot.
But that’s fiction-writing in the early 90’s, while I’m concerned with progressive politics in the 10’s. I think we’ve all become convinced that the whole rotting edifice is beyond hope- our elites have just failed us on every conceivable front. So, the response is to keep watching, but to watch with more and more detachment, as if we aren’t even on the playbill.
One reason I, unlike most progressives, actually like Cory Booker is because I care less about his friends in Silicon Valley and on Wall Street than I do about his can-do attitude. He doesn’t have time to carry around a SHIT IS FUCKED UP AND BULLSHIT placard, and nor should we.
I used to say that we don’t want to be the counterculture anymore; we want to be the culture. But that’s kind of happening by demographic inertia (see: gay rights). What I want to say now is that we need progressive anti-rebels who dare to back away from ironic watching and actually move into the picture where the action takes place. We need people who dare to take the ridicule for actually believing in this country.