DFW and fake reality

I really enjoyed our conversation about the David Foster Wallace essay, and I am excited to read all of your thoughts! I want to talk about his turn to telecommunications at the end of the piece, and his dissatisfaction with the proto-internet as a solution to the problems of TV. Specifically, I’m interested in the way that he frames himself as an entity that is prior to and more real than TV and TC. I think that this is really evident when he explains that, no matter how advanced telecomputing gets, “escape from the limits of genuine experience […] can’t help but render my own reality less attractive (because I’m just one Dave, with limits and restrictions all over the place), render me less fit to make the most of it (because I spend all of my time pretending I’m not in it), and render me ever more dependent on the device that affords escape from just what my escapism makes unpleasant” (75, for me). From this we can see his separation of “genuine experience” from some like “mediated experience” or “virtual experience.”

There are lots of grounds on which he might be basing this distinction, but I wonder how fits with his previous assertions about how fundamental TV is in structuring the way that his generation perceives the world. When he has already established that he can’t view reality in a way that isn’t somehow “cinematic,” I wonder what the utility is in drawing this distinction between real reality and faux reality. Admittedly I am evaluating this in the unfair light of our media landscape today, but I think he misses something when he talks about “my own reality.” What is he trying to distinguish this from? Fake reality? By his own argument, it isn’t really possible to disentangle these two ideas. As soon as I’m a subject in the world, I’m fundamentally made up by the media that I interact with.  

I don’t think that this negates any of DFW’s criticism of TV as it was in 1990. Just because it centrally shapes our form of perception doesn’t mean that it does so in a useful way, or that we can’t criticize it. But instead of saying “the kind of world that we create through TV is really shitty, we should try to find better media forms and better ways to engage them,” he says “the kind of world that we create through TV is really shitty, we should try to stop creating worlds through media.” With this approach, his criticism of TC is inevitably a negative one. As long as he is looking for a kind of media that allows him to return to a realer reality free of “artificial enhancement” (75), he is going to be disappointed.

Again, I think that his criticisms of that specific kind of TV and the way we engage with it (6 hours a day) are really useful. But I wonder how we can apply them productively to modern media, rather than just throwing up our hands. 

3 thoughts on “DFW and fake reality

  1. I think DFW is more aware of what he’s doing than you might be suggesting, though. See the paragraph that he uses to transition from Gilder’s “technological updating” solution to Leyner’s “reverent irony” solution: “My God, I’ve just reread my heartfelt criticisms of Gilder . . . My attitude, reading Gilder, is sardonic, aloof, jaded. My reading of Gilder is televisual. I am in the aura” (189 for me). He later ends the essay suggesting that it is “entirely possible that my plangent cries about the impossibility of rebelling against an aura that promotes and attenuates all rebellion says more about my residency inside that aura, my own lack of vision, than it does about any exhaustion of US fiction’s possibilities” (192). So I dare say that DFW is trying to suggest that TV’s images of its own brilliance produces a corresponding image for DFW of his “own reality” that pales by contrast; this is what keeps him/us hooked to technology-fed fantasies. We’ve never left the rabbit hole of TV-mediated reality, even if it can seem rhetorically like we have.

    • Yeah, I definitely agree. I think DFW’s point that he is reading Gilder “cinematically” is spot on and very self aware. And it’s unfair of me to come at this with a knowledge of what TC is like now — there’s no point in criticizing his “own lack of vision” (which I think is actually not lacking at all, for 1990).
      And I really like your point that his idea of his “own reality” is something that is also produced by the TV culture that he describes. But what I want to push on is the automatic dismissal of the “technology-fed fantasy,” whatever form it takes. Because I think that regardless of how aware he is of it, his argument (about both TV and TC) is moving forward with the assumption that less technological mediation of perception is automatically “realer,” and thus better.

  2. While I completely agree with your argument about the ambiguity in ‘his’ reality and his notions of how TV shapes his reality, I was wondering if he was somehow harking back to the idea of real as ‘untouched by media’. Undoubtedly, he doesn’t say it or even allude to it ever in his essay, as far as I remember. But could his idea of the real be the self unaffected by the media? And that be the comparison he is making? Just a thought. I agree with you that he is contradicting himself here.

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