numb The one thing you have to master before you can be cool as a teenager in the 90’s is the ability to appear numb. You’ve got to be willing to adopt the shrug of indifference toward pretty much everything, you’ve got to have like this sardonic critical distance from enough of your everyday life so that you can legitimately experience it as mundane. The key to being cool is to think basically the meat of your life is soul-crushingly boring. How did this happen? I’ll try to provide Wallace’s account here as succinctly as possible, with the unfortunate side-effect that by distilling his argument, I’m leaving out all that wonderful nuance that Wallace leverages in his prose. Oh well. This is a blog–I’ll save the nuance for my dissertation ūüôā

ASSUMPTION 1: Television is crucial to Western life in the 90’s

The statistic that Wallace throws around like confetti in his famous essay, “E Unibus Pluram: Television and US Fiction,” is that the average American watches six hours of TV per diem. ¬†Other than the eight hour work day, in other words, TV watching is the one thing Americans at this time are doing more than anything else.

ASSUMPTION 2: Television is a machine whose sole purpose is to exploit and cultivate desire

TV’s #1 job is to show us what we want. ¬†We vote on what we “like” via things like Nielsen ratings, and the TV execs pour over those statistics, trying to come up with the next show that everyone wants to watch, because getting a huge viewership means¬†making a windfall profit–advertisers fight tooth and nail to put their commercials in those spots, and spend millions of dollars to make it happen.

ASSUMPTION 3: Because we watch so much television, we become aware of television as a profit-making scheme

All of a sudden, enormous swaths of American culture have become TV connoisseurs, to the point that in order for TV shows (and especially commercials) to sneak past our ability to see through what these TV execs are¬†doing and identify this stuff¬†as revenue generating “product,” these shows have to become increasingly self-aware of themselves as shows. ¬†They have to be witty about the fact that this is TV. ¬†The popular shows or commercials become the shows that we can allow ourselves to enjoy because everyone’s “in” on the joke. ¬†The advertisers come right out and say “Now we’re going to try to sell you some beer, so laugh at these frogs that say Bud, Weis, and Er.”

In other words, due to the arms race that is a given viewership’s bullshit antennae vs. the cleverness of advertisers and TV execs, irony becomes the single most potent weapon these execs have in their arsenal. ¬†Hence the birth of shows like Seinfeld, a self-proclaimed “show about nothing.” ¬†The 90’s was perhaps the most sarcastic decade I’ve ever lived, precisely because of the overuse of irony to outwit an increasingly savvy viewership at this time.

ASSUMPTION 4: Because we watch so much clever television, we start to see ourselves as characters in our own reality television programs, and we aren’t happy about what we see

Here’s where things get real, and this is the core of Wallace’s critique of excessive¬†television watching. ¬†In “E Unibus Pluram,” Wallace writes:

One of the things that makes the people on television fit to stand the Megagaze is that they are, by ordinary human standards, extremely pretty. I suspect that this, like most television conventions, is set up with no motive more sinister than to appeal to the largest possible Audience‚ÄĒpretty people tend to be more appealing to look at than non-pretty people. But when we‚Äôre talking about television, the combination of sheer Audience size and quiet psychic intercourse between images and oglers starts a cycle that both enhances pretty people‚Äôs appeal and erodes us viewers‚Äô own security in the face of gazes. (A supposedly fun thing… 52-53)

If you’ve been on Facebook at all in the past few years, you’ve seen friends posting about the horrendous practice of “Photoshopping” or airbrushing celebrities or models, and the terrible effect it has on young women who develop distorted body images, etc. Take the same principle behind this critique, which is that an obscene amount of exposure to certain fantastically desirable images makes you evaluate yourself negatively in contrast to those images, and you get to Wallace’s explanation for why anhedonia is so widespread in America. We experience actual psychic pain due to the fact that these characters we watch so endlessly on TV lead these amazing, engaging lives, and we ourselves do not find our own lives, which we start to “watch” in the same way we watch other shows, as aesthetically pleasing in comparison. Our lives have become a boring show that, if we had some kind of cosmic remote, we would turn off, or change the channel because of how awful it is, etc. We hate our boring lives, and in order to cope with this emotional pain, we administer liberal doses of anhedonia (a kind of emotional Novocaine), and become completely disinterested in everyday life.

ASSUMPTION 5: Anhedonia’s widespread use as a coping mechanism becomes fashionable

Given the saturation of irony into even the most sacred refuges of TV watching (even for instance¬†Christian television targeted at children, i.e. Veggie Tales, incorporates irony), and the fact that the average youth in America is becoming somewhat jaded about the fact that, no, they will not be receiving one of Marty McFly’s pink hoverboards and will have to make do with pump-up Reeboks instead as they plod along and do decidedly “unwatchable” things like take SAT’s, apply for college, and get a job where they stare at actuary tables all day, the typical youth of the 90’s hears Kurt Cobain’s growling, disaffected voice and says, “Hey! ¬†That’s pretty much exactly how I feel right now! ¬†I’m going to go buy a flannel shirt and a pair of Dock Martens so that I can look more like Eddie Vedder and make my life just a little bit less unwatchable.” ¬†The Grunge movement of the early nineties was basically anhedonia coming out of the closet for that generation (it had already come out of the closet a few times already, ie Holden Caulfield calling everything “phony,” and the Beat generation’s glorification of being, well, beat). ¬†It suddenly became very fashionable not just to be super sarcastic (like in the 80’s), but to become self-aware of the feeling of alienation due to anhedonia and to dress the part of a person who doesn’t care about mundane things, to relate to people who are on Prozac, etc. ¬†Just like the Hippies who took the psychic pain of the Beat Generation and turned it into a marketing demographic, Kurt Cobain’s suicide became a cash cow for Marilyn Manson and the Spooky Kids–a generational “sound,” laden with pain, and super fluent in ironic cynicism, becomes mainstream.

This, I believe, more or less sums up Wallace’s genealogy of anhedonia in the United States during the 90’s. ¬†So how does sincerity come into the picture? ¬†Stay tuned.