Television in a Postmodern World and Why It Sucks

As the country shifted from a mindset of community and brotherhood during World War II to a more competitive and “keeping up with the Jones’” mindset, the literature of modernist ideals transitioned t a more cynical stance toward the post-war prosperity. Writers began to disregard traditional modernist values in order to more brutally satirize the society they live in. Pynchon and Vonnegut left no stone unturned, as they not so subtly bashed every institution and facet of American life including religion, military, large corporations, music, and love. The movement thrived as the postmodern authors’ audience gobbled up the black humor and cynicism layered throughout postmodern literature, but as the decades drove on postmodernism started to taste a little stale. David Foster Wallace was one of the first the first authors to realize that maybe the “milk” of postmodernism was souring. Thus he helped literature move into a new age inspired by the cynicism of postmodernism now known as the “new sincerity” with the ideals of not just there to be mocked but to be sought after and explored in a story.

The clashing mentalities of postmodernism and the new sincerity come to the forefront on the ways each genre describes television. In Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, the “tube,” as the characters call it, is the center of absurdity ad clichés to be mcoked. For example, Oedipa Maas and Metzger gaze mindlessly at a movie about a boy, his father, and their St. Bernard traveling through the Mediterranean on a quest to restore the father’s honor. Ultimately ending in disaster, the movie represents the absurdity of the movie/television industry displaying a highly unrealistic situation that is compounded by incessant song. David Foster Wallace addresses this lack of sincerity present in postmodern television in his essay, E Unibus Pluram. In it, Wallace notes that television has become increasingly self aware as shown in novels such as The Crying of Lot 49, and the public in general have turned to systematically mocking every facet of television as well. As a result, the television industry seeks to “beat them to the punch” so to speak by mocking itself. So now television satirizes itself to entertain an audience that only watch the programs to heckle their absurd frames of reference with anyone who will listen. As the layers of irony and self-referential humor deepen, any room for sincerity and true emotion disappears. Television in Wallace’s mind has become cesspool of overused irony rather than an introspective look at humanity like it could be.

At the end of his description of the modern state of television and fiction, Wallace predicts a new generation of rebels that “might be the ones willing to risk the yawn, the rolled eyes, the cool smile, the nudged ribs, the parody of gifted ironists, the “How banal.’” These rebels would steer society away from its dependence on irony as a defense mechanism and begin to address real problems with an enthusiastic sincerity. With this prediction, Wallace underscores another important distinction between the ironists/postmodernists/satirists and the sincere. This idea of rebels displays optimism for the future that no postmodern work could ever show. Sincere people hope that the world will improve and address the real problems of their world rather than covering them with irony and satire.

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