TOM BISSELL

NAZIS, NUREMBERG, AND GOLD-DIGGING WOMEN

FROM BLIND DATE TO SHOAH, MAYBE THE TRUE EVIL RESIDES IN A FAILURE OF OUR IMAGINATION

DISCUSSED: Harry Evans, David Foster Wallace, Jean Baudrillard, George Clooney, Michael Moore, Virginia Woolf, Evan Marriott, Corey Feldman, John Updike, Martin Heidegger, Tariq Aziz, Albert Speer, Martin Amis, Adolf Hitler, George Steiner, W.H. Auden

In 1993 (Remember 1993? William Jefferson Clinton was inaugurated, Jurassic Park became the biggest movie of all time, Harry Evans admitted the twenty-nine Random House books that made the New York Times’s “Notable Books” list that year collectively lost $600,000, Brutus Beefcake wrestled Hulk Hogan for the WWF Championship belt, and the first wholly graphical interface for the World Wide Web was created) David Foster Wallace published in the Review of Contemporary Fiction an essay entitled “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction.” It would prove a piece of criticism as influential as it was habitually quoted. Wallace argued, among other things, that television (“an incredible gauge of the generic”) had become one of the prime source materials for young fiction writers in search of “what Americans want to regard as normal.” Without simplemindedly demonizing television, Wallace made a fearsomely intelligent case that television, “a syncretic, homogenizing force that… both fears irony’s capacity to expose, and needs it,” has had an interesting but ultimately solipsistic effect on many American fiction writers. If, Wallace argued, we all watch, on average, six hours of television a day, then it followed that “how human beings who absorb such high doses understand themselves will naturally change, become vastly more spectatorial, self-conscious.… We spend enough time watching, pretty soon we start watching ourselves watching. Pretty soon we start to ‘feel’ ourselves feeling, yearn to experience experiences.”

The most widely consulted reality dispenser the world has yet known, television has altered if not forever scrambled our reality-processing machinery. Indeed, considering the distinct ways television has affected human interaction, what many of us regard as reality might as well be called Reality™. But since “E Unibus Pluram” was written, certain developments have made the reality-television dialectic even more complicated. Most prominent among them has been the phenomenon of reality television, or, as I am going to call it, Reality Television, which, like “interim government” and “friendly fire,” is one of the language’s more hideously modern contradictions in terms. To an extent scarcely conceivable even ten years ago, Reality Television allows its subjects and audience alike to watch themselves watching, “feel” themselves feeling, and “experience” all manner of experiences. Everything that is happening onscreen is happening to “real people.” (The con here is mild, but the “real people” angle explains why so many reality shows insist on constantly specifying people’s occupations. We are not simply looking at Jeanne from North Attleboro, Massachusetts; this is Jeanne, Director of Marketing, from North Attleboro, Massachusetts.) Dismissed are the actors who, as Wallace noted, are “absolute geniuses at seeming unwatched.” Seeming watched is now the point. That lithe young woman mountain biking over a ladder planked between two buildings in downtown Los Angeles or that grizzled man gathering firewood along some deserted rind of beach in Oceania might as well be you. Could be you. After all, it is real.

But what is reality? Better put, what is American reality? Jean Baudrillard once wrote that American reality is “a hyperreality.… Americans, for their part, have no sense of simulation. They are themselves simulation in its most developed state, but they have no language in which to describe it, since they themselves are the model.” Baudrillard wrote that—he also wrote, “America is a giant hologram”—in the late 1980s. Baudrillard seems to have foreseen some of the possibilities of simulation that would one day be available to Americans, but even he could not have guessed how weirdly, literally correct he would one day be. Reality Television works on exactly Baudrillard’s assumption: We are all simulated people now.

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Tom Bissell is the author of the forthcoming Chasing the Sea, a travel narrative of his journey through Uzbekistan to the Aral Sea. His short story collection, Death Defier and Other Stories from Central Asia, will appear next year. He lives in New York City.

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