Sunday, September 28, 2008

"A snivelling, ingratiating, billion-dollar cur"

In an interesting essay on David Foster Wallace's recent suicide, Julian Gough makes the case that Wallace should have avoided academia altogether. Gough: "He was an immensely gifted and original writer, with a brilliant, hyper-analytical mind. The two things such people should avoid are marijuana and universities."

I have no thoughts on that right now (I'm too busy preparing for classes!), but have often wondered about something else Gough talks about: why do so many intelligent people spend their time critiquing the more idiotic forms of mass culture? And is it worth it?

"Like so many academics, he became obsessed with the white whale (or pink elephant) of the authentic. He spent much of his time attacking forms of language of which he disapproved (pharmaceutical jargon, advertising, corporate PR). This was literary criticism disguised as literature—grenade attacks on a theme park.

Wallace was not alone in this; it happens to most American academic novelists... They waste time on America's debased, overwhelming, industrial pop culture. They attack it with an energy appropriate to attacking fascism, or communism, or death. But that culture (bad television, movies, ads, pop songs) is a snivelling, ingratiating, billion-dollar cur. It has to be chosen to be consumed, so it flashes its tits, laughs at your jokes, replays your prejudices and smiles smiles smiles. It isn't worthy of satire, because it cannot use force to oppress. If it has an off-button, it is not oppression. Attacking it is unworthy, meaningless. It is like beating up prostitutes."

I've often thought the same thing. It's probably why I've never been very interested in journals like Adbusters and their good fight against tripe. The problem is that writers are very often inclined to comment, overtly or obliquely, on the culture around them. They're a sort of anthropologist, and I can't imagine how you could capture the texture of modern culture without discussing the pop culture that so many people seem to be steeped in.

But how should intelligent people comment on meaninglessness without their comments becoming meaningless? Should novelists pass over this "industrial pop culture" in silence and get to the work of creating pockets of meaning in the world? I certainly know plenty of profs who do just that: they spend their days reading Latin or archaic French; meanwhile, they'd not be caught dead knowing the first thing about American Idol or Baywatch. Are they on the right track? Should we all be "dropping out" and "tuning in" to more meaningful things?

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