Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Artificial World


One of the most important books of the last 100 years is Jerry Mander's Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television, which looks at the effect of technology on human beings as a species. Part of Mander's argument is that technology is driving us crazy.

Noteworthy to me is that early in his career David Foster Wallace had a hyper-relationship with television. He wrote long essays about the shows he'd watched in his childhood. (I covered this back in 1994 in a parody in New Philistine #17.)

Most of DFW's writings have been examples of the overstimulated brain. Wallace had an extremely high I.Q., but it was intelligence largely untethered from reality. This was evident to me even in his recent book of "Lobster" essays, full of embarrassingly ignorant, albeit facilely-written, screeds about questions of society or race. He carried the standard liberal qualities of narcissism, arrogance, and wish-to-believe while knowing little about how the world actually operates.

For those who celebrated DFW, intellect was all. In his books he took readers on ever-more convoluted journeys into ever-more solipsistic workings of the brain, through ever-more layered levels of sentences of words piled upon words, linguistic fireworks deconstructing in ever-more complicated ways the meanings and dis-meanings of language itself. The books were pathways into madness and insanity. The real world was glimpsed through distorted funhouse mirrors of the massive amount of information which had been pumped, since birth, from reading, television, and computers, into David Foster Wallace's hyper-developed brain. Like the characters in the sci-fi movie "Forbidden Planet" he'd taken a hit from the brain-boost machine, and it destroyed him.

The danger for America is that our best-educated people are also the most psychotically detached from the natural world. They're the most immersed in the wonders of virtual learning, of artificial reality. It distorts their ability to judge what is actually happening, and fills them with myths about a planet they no longer fully experience..

That, for instance, the oceans will soon cover the earth is to them accepted belief. Eve Ensler writes emotional essays about polar bears without ever having seen one, except for CGI versions in Coca-Cola commercials on television screens, and puts her knowledge of the subject above that of an Alaskan governor who has lived in a wilderness land her entire life. Can you see what's unreal about this? Yet Ensler is affirmed right, because she's of the intellectual "in" crowd and because she carries the received myths of the hyper-intellectual postmodern age on her side; is more sympathetic to the plight of polar bears than Governor Palin, has more feeling for them, because she doesn't know them, even though the feeling is more for HERSELF and her detachment from nature including from polar bears than for polar bears themselves.

The suicide of David Foster Wallace, or of Liam Rector-- the transparent insanity of so, so many of today's literary people-- represents the failure of today's literary ideology. It's a subject I'll explore in Parts Two and Three of this piece.

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