Two citations (David Foster Wallace/William H. Gass) and a (not so) very short note on the muck of contemporary consciousness

‘I miss TV,’ Orin said, looking back down. He no longer smiled coolly.

‘The former television of commercial broadcast.’

‘I do.’

‘Reason in several words or less, please, for the box after REASON,’ displaying the board.

‘Oh, man.’ Orin looked back up and away at what seemed to be nothing, feeling at his jaw around the retromandibular’s much tinier and more vulnerable throb. ‘Some of this may sound stupid. I miss commercials that were louder than the programs. I miss the phrases “Order before midnight tonight” and “Save up to fifty percent and more.” I miss being told things were filmed before a live studio audience. I miss late-night anthems and shots of flags and fighter jets and leathery-faced Indian chiefs crying at litter. I miss “Sermonette” and “Evensong” and test patterns and being told how many megahertz something’s transmitter was broadcasting at.’ He felt his face. ‘I miss sneering at something I love. How we used to love to gather in the checker-tiled kitchen in front of the old boxy cathode-ray Sony whose reception was sensitive to airplanes and sneer at the commercial vapidity of broadcast stuff.’

‘Vapid ditty,’ pretending to notate.

‘I miss stuff so low-denominator I could watch and know in advance what people were going to say.’

‘Emotions of mastery and control and superiority. And pleasure.’

‘You can say that again, boy. I miss summer reruns. I miss reruns hastily inserted to fill the intervals of writers’ strikes, Actors’ Guild strikes. I miss Jeannie, Samantha, Sam and Diane, Gilligan, Hawkeye, Hazel, Jed, all the syndicated airwave-haunters. You know? I miss seeing the same things over and over again.’ …

The man tended to look up at him like people with legs look up at buildings and planes. ‘You can of course view entertainments again and again without surcease on TelEntertainment disks of storage and retrieval.’

Orin’s way of looking up as he remembered was nothing like the seated guy’s way of looking up. ‘But not the same. The choice, see. It ruins it somehow. With television you were subjected to repetition. The familiarity was inflicted. Different now.’

‘Inflicted.’

‘I don’t think I exactly know,’ Orin said, suddenly dimly stunned and sad inside. The terrible sense as in dreams of something vital you’ve forgotten to do. The inclined head’s bald spot was freckled and tan. ‘Is there a next item?’

—From David Foster Wallace’s novel Infinite Jest (1996).


Perception, Plato said, is a form of pain.

The working consciousness, for instance, is narrow, shuttered by utility, its transitions eased by habit past reflection like a thief. Impulses from without or from within must use some strength to reach us, we do not go out to them. Machines are made this way. Alert as lights and aimed like guns, they only see the circle of their barrels. How round the world is; how like a well arranged. Thus when desire is at an ebb and will is weak, we trail the entertainer like a child his mother, restless, bored and whining: what can I do? what will amuse me? how shall I live? Then

L’ennui, fruit de la morne incuriosite,

Prend les proportions de l’immortalite.

The enjoyment of sensation as sensation, a fully free awareness, is very rare. We keep our noses down like dogs to sniff our signs. Experience must mean. The content of an aimless consciousness is weak and colorless; we may be filled up by ourselves instead—even flooded basements, some days, leak the other way—and then it’s dread we feel, anxiety.

To tie experience to a task, to seek significance in everything, to take and never to receive, to keep, like the lighter boxer, moving, bob and weave, to fear the appearance of the self and every inwardness: these are such universal characteristics of the average consciousness that I think we can assume that popular culture functions fundamentally with regard to them.

—From William H. Gass’s essay “Even if, by All the Oxen in the World.” (1968). Collected in Fiction and the Figures of Life. The lines of verse are from Baudelaire, which I suppose is a third citation, no?


The very short note:

So I read Gass’s essay almost immediately after reading the section of Infinite Jest cited above, and now I can’t help but think of Wallace’s novel as a long digressive indirect response to Gass’s polemic on popular culture. Which of course is a radical reduction, but hey let’s leave that aside for a moment. Wallace conflates entertainment—particularly what Dwight Macdonald called “masscult”entertainment—with drugs and alcohol as two measures we use to “be drunk or doped or mad…dunced and numb” to our “completely aware” selves, to cite Gass again. In his essay Gass makes the same comparison (to opium, first, and then alcohol), before just laying it out as sharp as possible:

…popular culture is the product of an industrial machine which makes baubles to amuse the savages while missionaries steal their souls and merchants steal their money.

(So I’m over the two citations promised in this post’s title, and not sure how very short this very short note is, but).

Gass concludes his essay by pointing out that “none of his complaints are new,” but he reiterates that “This muck” — popular culture — “cripples consciousness.”

If Gass’s diagnosis was accurate, then let’s say little Dave Wallace, probably like in first grade when Gass’s essay was published, let’s say little Dave Wallace’s consciousness was mapped in that muck (cf. Orin’s nostalgia for TV above; cf. so much of Infinite Jest that I’ll broadly refer to here). And because he was mapped in that muck, consciousness-wise, Wallace attempts to reconcile pop culture in a way that Gass refuses to—like, Wallace has to—because the muck is quickly saturating culture, by the time that little Dave Wallace is old enough to cipher but probably not understand the words in Gass’s “Oxen.” (Please do not think I’m suggesting little Dave Wallace read Gass’s essay when little Dave Wallace (LDW?) was in first grade. I just enjoy the image). The muck inflicts consciousness, to borrow Orin’s verb.

And then me—how could I not come back to me myself me? narcissist that I am, borderline Gen X/Millennial that I am, raised in and on and through popular culture, pop cult masscult commercial cult — the military-industrial-entertainment complex that Pynchon warned us about—and then me, when I went to school, to college, to the college of liberal arts, there in the late nineties, what did I study? The English department was ruled by what they call the popular culture studies. So it was all muck, and the stuff that Gass would call art (or Art) was to be mucked or mediated or interpreted or understood through popular culture.

Which is what I mean to say is that:

And then now—when our Conversation, our Chatter—is all mucked through the muck, through pop culture, just popping popping always pop and chatter—when conglomerated concerns produce Mass Entertainments which we use for the platform, the material, the muck for Our Conversation on all the meaningful mulling matters that mean and matter and mull. And that I find myself often peering through a How-the-hell-did-we-get-here? lens when I tune in to chatter that raves against the dying of some character on a popular culture entertainment, or when yet another headline promises to tell me why some television show’s take on something matters so goddamn much.

And yet but still also—I mean, this is Wallace’s big insight in Infinite Jest, right?—that our consciousnesses, mapped in the muck, are framed in desire and reward, and we are conditioned/subjected into that system of desire/reward, so that we desire the desire, even as our consciousnesses, like Orin above, can sneer at something we love, can dismiss the muck that helped shape us even as we plunge into it, the muck. And—too, part of Wallace’s insight in Infinite Jest—too, the consciousness of the consciousness of the desire of desire—that that’s, like, the contemporary condition. And what Wallace seems to posit, or maybe I’m just way off here, but through all the AA stuff, and Mario Incandenza (who can’t feel pain, people!), what Wallace seems to want to point to is some way out of the muck of pop consciousness, a reconciliation toward a pure consciousness that doesn’t sneer—right?

Last note: Bad Baudelaire (mis)translation. Mea culpa (for all of this, really. These are notes for something more coherent, maybe):

Boredom, the fruit of dismal apathy,
Takes the shape of infinity.

6 thoughts on “Two citations (David Foster Wallace/William H. Gass) and a (not so) very short note on the muck of contemporary consciousness”

  1. I’ve really enjoyed reading your posts: I appreciate the breadth of them, the art, the tone. I am excited to see what you end up having to say on the IJ re-read in general. I’m glad to see that someone else’s writing also gets infected by DFWs style when reading him, I know mine goes straight mimicry when I do. I have a not so short note to share in response:

    I’ve been on a bit of a Heidegger kick as of late so I apologize for how this might all come out. Heidegger talks about “throw-ness” and how we are thrown into the middle of an existing culture (the Muck) and that this is constitutive of ourselves and our understanding of ourselves. Here will be a decent citation that, for me, seems to encapsulate your idea of DWs posited contemporary condition:

    “Whatever the way of being it may have at the time, and thus with whatever understanding of Being it may possess, Dasein has grown up both into and in a traditional way of interpreting itself. . . [b]y this understanding, the possibilities of its Being are disclosed and regulated. Its own past– and this always means the past of its ‘generation’– is not something which follows along after Dasein, but something which already goes ahead of it. [. . .] The discovery of tradition and the disclosure of what it ‘transmits’ and how this is transmitted, can be taken hold of as a task in its own right.” (Being and Time, pg. 41, [H20])

    Heidegger goes on to talk about how the practices of the past can be modified in such ways to produce changes in our Being. With the topic at hand you could say that the mass cult was a moving towards a new practice, or rather, I’d imagine it as being a reworking of past practices: mass pop culture as a replacement to previous mass cultures based on religious or ethnocultural features prior to entertainment in the DFW/Gass sense. That need for community, and control, through shared culture is a whopper. These old communal control practices meet up with mercantile capitalism and whammo, we have the Gass quote about baubles.

    Being younger and enculturated (inflicted upon), DFW is taking what became an idea and practice in Gass, this distaste for mass cult, which by DFWs time already became the ironic-self-distance-sneer style he objected to, and rework it in the Heideggerian sense to produce a change in culture and mind. Maybe I am guilty of meaning seeking, as Gass says, and I do think “this Muck” is crippling in some sense, but it is also completely constitutive of my, and your, and all our persons. I am as inflicted by Heidegger and Rothko and Milton and Shakespeare as I am the Three Stooges and Dr. Phil and Wu-Tang Clan and salty sweet pre-packed snacks. It might be that pastiche is less about mixing high and low culture, or Muck and non-Muck, and expressing a sneerless attaboy to culture in general?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for the thoughtful reply, Joshua. Aping Wallace’s style + 3 glasses of red wine permitted me to write.

    “you could say that the mass cult was a moving towards a new practice, or rather, I’d imagine it as being a reworking of past practices: mass pop culture as a replacement to previous mass cultures based on religious or ethnocultural features prior to entertainment in the DFW/Gass sense.”

    —Yeah, totally—and I think that there’s in DFW, in IJ and elsewhere, a with to return to some of those religious features.

    “It might be that pastiche is less about mixing high and low culture, or Muck and non-Muck, and expressing a sneerless attaboy to culture in general?”

    —And I think, yes, I think that’s what DFW wants to perform in IJ, especially through characters like Gately and Mario and maybe Lyle…but I’m still thinking through it…and I need to finish it. (I’m a little past the Big Fight right now).
    Thanks for the Heidegger citation. I especially like the insight that culture is going ahead of us, is inflicted upon us.

    Liked by 1 person

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