a time for many words

‘E Unibus Pluram’ Twenty-odd Years on


Less than quarter of a century separates the publication of David Foster Wallace’s compelling essay E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction (‘EUP’ hereafter) from the present day, and yet technology and the appetite therefor have advanced without pause in this time, setting us at a far greater remove with respect to the state of the art in entertainment. Here, a critical eye is turned to this intervening epoch, always with some speculation as to what Wallace himself might have made of it, given the ideas presented in Wallace’s essays and magnum opus in fiction, Infinite Jest. In this way, the relevance and urgency of D.F.W.’s message is reassessed for a post-analogue televisual age.

EUP opens by introducing the fiction writer as an ‘ogler’, a self-conscious and voyeuristic creature forever collecting real-world facts with which to make realistic fiction, drinking up the human experience as though for sustenance. These unwatched watchers, Wallace argues, took naturally to the one-way cathode ray through which, we learn, Americans of the 90s watched over 6, for every 24, hours of fictional human situations. Wallace implores the fiction writer and ‘Joe Briefcase’ alike to recognise that TV is not a nutritive surrogate for real-world experience, a fact which finds no better expression than in the survey-finding that while 59% of Americans can name The Three Stooges, just 17% can name three Supreme Court Justices1. Although the average American now watches just over 5 hours2 (and Brit almost 4) of TV per day, communications regulator Ofcom reports that UK adults spend an average of 8 hours and 41 minutes each day gawping at media devices in toto, a shade longer even than the average night’s sleep, of 8 hours and 21 minutes, in the same cohort. It would seem, therefore, that while we now watch fewer hours of TV3, a plausible explanation for this apparent trend toward behavioural moderation is that we are now distracted by screens which appeal additionally to the modality of touch, and serve as mobile, convenient conduits to entertainment in all its beguiling forms4.

Though at first I thought it unnecessary to quote statistics in support of our touchscreen dependence – for are we not all so acutely aware? – as the opening lines of Wallace’s This is Water suggest, some things are so ubiquitous as to be ignored. Consider, therefore, that our smartphone-, tablet- and (wholly-unjustifiable)-phablet-obsession has made itself evident even on our very cortices, presenting as functional and morphological (mal-[?])adaptations in those parts of the somatosensory cortex concerned with the thumbs and fingertips. Consider also the 8 hours and 45 minutes per day the average Brit spends before a smartphone or tablet when vacationing, perhaps the ripest opportunity for in vivo people-watching. These tabloid factoids might appear a digression from the subject of televisual fiction as observed by the fictionist, until, that is, one recognises the Pascalian distraction all screens represent when sought for purposes other than work. Shared too by phone, TV, and every intermediate therebetween is the egocentrism (or what Wallace goes so far as to term ‘solipsism’) of their operation – there is little doubt that Wallace would find the, now lexicographically-accepted-if-not-welcomed, noun ‘selfie’ a darkly amusing confirmation of his prescience.

Of course, touchscreens aside, we more than compensate for our waning TV time with the, prodigiously entertaining and unfortunately-100%-obligatory, computer. The necessity of the thing is what concerns me most. Wallace once remarked, when probed at interview, “I don’t own a TV because if I did I would watch it all the time.” That a revisionist’s Maslow’s hierarchy would now find the internet as the bedrock of its diagrammatic pyramid, considered by many as more important a basic necessity than sex, food and shelter5, is testament to our inability to dispense with this technology as Wallace did with TV. That it should be necessary to remove these devices from our homes in order to save us the expense of will required to abstain voluntarily testifies sufficiently to their appeal to our basest wants. Never before has it been so very easy to justify to oneself the ownership of a computer, a platform on which so many professional and scholarly activities take place. Unfortunately, the computer also functions as a just-click-here portal to everything from one-minute clips of cats doing improbable and bizarrely absorbing things (which short clips conveniently fill the lapses in one’s productivity without incurring the guilt of procrastination), to pornography so lurid as to incite a kind of moral Neo-Luddism. The total choice of entertainment envisioned in Infinte Jest is so widely accessible today that Wallace’s disbelief when discussing in EUP the plurality of cable channels reads today as comical in the extreme. Facilitated by services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime, this inestimable byteage of entertainment is ported to us under the banner of that 21st century alternative to delayed gratification: ‘On Demand’. By a process more convenient even than that of the TP systems of Infinite Jest, the contemporary ogler can obtain mass-appeal programming whatever the hour, passively accepting autocued episode upon autocued episode. Enter a second recent addition to common diction: ‘binge-watching’. This modern phenomenon was recently quantified by Netflix, who report that some viewers will finish a 15-odd-episode series in just 4 days, clocking around 2.5 hours per viewing session. It should come as no surprise that the same ‘horn-rimmed battery of statisticians’ who calculated these figures work in close alliance with the writers of the binge-able, meretricious shows we all know and love. Their binge-ability is inbuilt and, just as Wallace predicted in EUP, programmes are no longer designed to languidly tick-over until metamorphosing into household names, but are instead fast-paced thrill-a-minute 2- or 3-season blockbusters which draw such audiences that many actors now favour them over big movies as vehicles for exposure and wealth. This quite socially-acceptable concept of binge-watching, especially when paired with the aforesaid Maslovian reshuffle, makes the eponymous subject of Infinite Jest, a film so entertaining as to keep one glued to one’s seat through hunger, thirst, and eventually to death, not so hyperbolic as was intended in ’966. That being said, the government is not presently making any concerted effort to quell our desire for this entertainment, as is the case in Infinite Jest, begging the question ‘to what extent is our relationship with modern entertainment pathological, or even a cause for concern?’

The TV problem is a multifaceted one. Importantly for Wallace, the immoderate consumption of TV fiction was thought toxic to one’s literary faculties, or to the stuff from which literary fiction is made; and, as Charlie Rose excised from the author in 1996, the preternatural potency of TV as a hedonistic stimulus was deemed to foster addiction, while (as he expanded elsewhere) usurping genuine social experience and convincing the great unwashed that if only they scrubbed their tongues they would find love and acceptance. The first of these points, being contingent upon the fictional nature of the screen’s projection, is unlikely to have intensified since EUP, given the aforementioned shift in preference towards technologies which mediate communications and social networking more so than fiction7; the tablet and smartphone merely draw one’s attention away from the human experience which would otherwise serve to inform one’s creativity, rather than actively replacing that food-for-fiction with the hackneyed fabrications of commercial on-screen entertainment. As an injector of pleasure, however, modern entertainment technology is masterful. Every caprice may swiftly find itself sated, extinguished within a few revolutions of the search engine, or else a few taps on a screen in every sense digital. With respect to social surrogation, too, modern technology is most deft. From the sexual surrogate of internet pornography, a medium which unwittingly instils in its consumers false values, and breeds the expectation of Willendorfian supernormality; to the pansocial surrogate of role-playing games such as World of Warcraft, whose fitting acronym echoes the outcry of men and women so disillusioned by reality as to subscribe to the surreal. And what of advertising? Do tongue-scrapers still line the pockets of Big Cosmetics? They sure do; and that tried-and-tested MO of inspiring in Joe Briefcase the self-perception of utter-and-almost-hopeless inadequacy, hopeless but for the miraculous non-innovation that is Product X (combined of course w/ trusty old Product Y for best results) continues to prove its worth. Naturally, the practicalities of advertising have kept up with the decade-defining advancements of the internet and video-streaming services; indeed, Britain was named last year as the first country to invest more money in digital advertising than in that of all other media combined8. It is estimated that around 5,000 corporate messages are directed at Joe Briefcase each day9; to be heard above such a tumult, the modern marketeer must fairly scream, employing myriad devices of psychic manipulation to cut through the din and exert influence on our desensitised circuits. Following an upbringing in the county from whose verdant meadows Vaughan Williams’ lark ascended, my first day in the Big Smoke was a passing psychosis – without the conditioned Londoner’s reducing valve, 5,000 corporate messages took easy refuge in my Surrey sulci – I was reduced to the floor by the promotional equivalent of the alcoholic’s morning draft. Only on discovering a certain quotation did I restore to mind the immutability of human nature, as manifest in marketing: “Advertisements are now so numerous that they are very negligently perused, and it is therefore become necessary to gain attention by magnificence of promises, and by eloquence sometimes sublime and sometimes pathetic.” (Samuel Johnson, London, 1759). Reams could be, and no doubt have been, written on the subject of advertising’s phylogeny, but for the sake of concision (uncharacteristic, I know) such an explication will be omitted in the present piece.

Speaking on the subject of the internet, when the dot-com bubble was nought but an opalescent sheen on the surface of the stock market, Wallace gave voice to another idea at the centre of EUP: “a nation of people interacting with images rather than each other, feeling lonely and so needing more images […] the better the images get, the more tempting it’s gonna get to interact with images rather than other people.”10 In his essay Big Red Sun, Wallace writes with the same dread on the predicted advent of virtual reality porn, a technology whose social mutagenicity is now, even in its nascence, abundantly clear. These ideas are all perfectly palatable to the intellect, we read them and ruminate, but before sending them southward for internalisation… we look around. Sure, it pains the ego to find one’s date check their phone in mid-conversation, and that kid does look too young to be playing with an iPad, and I suppose Dad’s first house-held vocalisation after 9-to-5 is “I wonder what’s on…”, but as far as is obvious in our daily lives, entertainment technology doesn’t seem to be causing any great problems for society. Or rather, to establish causality in the entertainment-tech-societal-ills relationship is just too tricky, even for TV’s ‘horn-rimmed’ statisticians; besides, having arrived in the world in 1994, pretty much all I know is post-EUP. Post hoc ergo propter hoc inferences aside, if we call to mind a few psycho-/socio-pathologies associated with modernity: the near-disappearance of anything Hobbes would recognise as a community, extreme vanity and egoism, social anxiety, preoccupation with the material world… these ills, which the less forgiving reader might well shrug-off with a derisive “plus ça change…”, these ills can only be cultivated and exacerbated by our obsession with screens, devices which canalise via the pupils commercials so overt in their tactics that we laugh all the way to the bank, and anodyne shows which define a western culture finding ‘watchability’ at its core.

Attending now to what might be called the principal thesis of EUP, to what extent is televisual fiction evident in, and compromising to, contemporary literary fiction? Here I must admit that, aside from Wallace, I’ve not read a great deal of post-90s literature, I’m certainly no authority on the subject. What I have read of contemporary fiction I have found to be highly entertaining and, if not as wholesome as the classics, certainly not devoid of substance, or fiction-made-of-fiction. It is more likely, I feel, that commercial fiction will suffer this fate more so than will literary fiction, almost by definition. So long as this phenomenon can be circumscribed, compartmentalised under the rubric of commercial fiction, I remain optimistic about the future of ‘serious’ or ‘arty’ fiction. Unfortunately, however, commercial fiction is aptly named, and sells like nothing else bound by spine and covers. Commercial fiction’s status as the lesser of two evils (the greater here being TV, though of course only figuratively) catering to the purposes of dreaming and the transcendence of the quotidian, as Wallace theorised of TV, this status may not endure modern entertainment, the genre might suffer a creative malnutrition after 25 years of cannibalism – fiction feeding on fiction (let’s call this ‘mythophagy’). My use of the conditional tense here no doubt betrays once more the limits of my bookshelf, but on discussing with more avid readers of modern commercial fiction, I learned of no evidence of mythophagic behaviour in the genre. Indeed, the so-called ‘upmarket fiction’ that is the chimera of literary and commercial traditions, immensely popular among women especially, is said to rely greatly on the realism and depth of its characters; such a genre would surely be intolerant to mythophagy, a syndrome likely manifesting as a banality and two-dimensionality of characters and their interactions. And yet upmarket fiction is alive and well, accounting for the lion’s share of entries on many bestsellers lists. I provisionally conclude, therefore, that all’s well in this respect.

If any medium is stricken with autophagy, it’s TV, whose bottomless involution of self-reference and self-criticism is surpassed by none. One such post-’96 example of meta-TV, laughable until one discovers its absurdly high ratings, is the BAFTA- and National-Television-Award-winning Gogglebox. For those unfamiliar with this particularly odious programme, I will save you the horror of watching it for yourself. For its highest-rated episode, one in every fourteen UK citizens tuned in to watch other people watch TV. This originally British show adapted for screening in the US/Canada and Australia consists of nothing more than meta-watching, an involution which serves to place the second-order viewer beside a televised TV-watching companion, someone with whom to ‘share’ the experience of TV. I understand there is now a spin-off for small children.

In EUP, Wallace likens the TV industry to that of weapons, insofar as their masters’ culpability for having caused harm is a function of their effectiveness in fulfilling their respective roles. Extending this metaphor, modern entertainment tech being of thermonuclear-scale efficacy, its proprietors should say their mea culpas and restore the merely sticks-and-stones-scale entertainment media of yesteryear… but, of course, such retrogradism would be decidedly un-capitalist, and therefore inviable. So the onus is on us Joe Briefcases to soberly consider our relationship with entertainment technology, and revise the rules of engagement accordingly. For those of us with literary aspirations, Wallace’s message endures: spend less time before screens and more time out there, or else your art will suffer. Wallace saw it as the writer’s duty to infuse big ideas such as those of EUP into the social consciousness, a moral responsibility he practiced as fervently as he preached. Above all others, his avuncular advice that we take entertainment technology more seriously as a definer and disseminator of western culture is as relevant today as it was twenty years ago, and all the more urgent.



1TV-Turnoff Network

2BLS American Time Use Survey, A.C. Nielsen Co.

3Though the same certainly cannot be said of pixel-hours/day, a metric whose numerator seems to grow by the year as TVs approximate ever more closely the expansive screen-walls of Ray Bradbury’s dystopian vision.

4Supporting this theory is the young adult’s especially reduced hours of TV-watching and commensurately above-average use of other media devices.

5Regretfully, this is no hyperbole, q.v. TP-Link survey, Opinium Research survey. I can only hope that these questionnaire respondents were mirthfully exhibiting the ‘screw-you effect’, rather than being honest, valid datapoints.

6Quite apart from thirst and hunger, a recent retrospective study found that watching ≥5 hours of TV per day (i.e. ‘Joe Briefcase’ of USA) increased one’s risk of mortality by pulmonary embolism by 250% above those watching <2.5 hours (Shirakawa et al., 2016).


8According to research by eMarketer.

9Needless to say, such estimates vary wildly, q.v. Choice Behaviour Insights

10“The Connection” with Christopher Lydon (21/02/1996).