If presented with propaganda, micro-or-macrocosmic, I would simply say "No, thank you"
I have a bit that I like to do whenever David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest comes up in conversation; I either recommend, instead of reading 1000 pages, just watch the first 10 minutes of Adventureland (2009), or read the shortest Barthes semiotics text you can find and be done with it. I think about why I don’t like David Foster Wallace fairly regularly; he’s a more interesting person than he ever was an author, and almost every time I’ve read his work with any regularity, it was the closest thing to a “hate-read” I could imagine. The ability to turn instruments for literary analysis into the entire schtick of a novel is the kind of manufacturing of a narrative lens for cultural analysis that has always struck me about Wallace.
I think about this one essay, in particular, about a midwestern state fair, where he catalogs the events, the food, and the people of rural Illinois as if he’s an anthropologist observing a primitive culture (the 12-year-old’s mindset fantasizing about leaving their regressive small town behind, that level of condescending cringe)— this is, again, a man with a doctorate- and it gets me thinking about the assumptions even the experienced casual observer can make about places and its people based on something as simple as Wallace’s elitism, or more commonly, when we talk about other cultures, the ethnocentrism that comes from imperialism, occupation, etc.
From Wallace’s superior vantage point, he saw his narrative, his words and thoughts, as worthy of communicating to amplify on the messaging of theorists, and surely thought of himself as a theorist, consciously or not, but fails to conclude this is the environment that produced everything singular about him that sets him apart from other authors of his era that lack his relatability (i.e. standard nerds like Jonathan Franzen, and guys like William T. Vollmann, both of whom have had well-received, critcally, epic novels without the iconography that came to Wallace from Jest and his essays). It’s an issue of awareness.
Taking this discussion to the real world, we can look to the example of non-fiction like Shutting Out the Sun, which is one American businessman’s exploration of Japanese subculture of millennial hikikomori; young men (usually) who self-withdraw from a society they feel ill-equipped to participate in. Michael Zielenziger, the author, wildy speculates that Japan's tradition-steeped society, its aversion to change, and its distrust of individuality are “stifling economic revival, political reform, and social evolution” are key factors in this, but almost the exact opposite is true if you consider the actual cause, rather than seek to ascribe blame exhonorating your role in these factors’ impact.
Post-WWII during the occupation, the US-led occupation government imposed extreme economic and political reforms, offering a new social framework for the rights of their citizens, and in effect, normalized a complete rejection of traditional Japanese culture, at least in any meaningful quotidian way, to become a stable, if entirely repressed, corporatized state that offered its citizens a more robust state in return than the occupation was willing to provide its own citizens; it’s no wonder, following the model of Western capitalist thought, albeit deliving on many of the promises of capitalism while remaining neglectful in many concrete ways, younger people, borne of generations unfamiliar with how to cope with this, were left behind and produced a generation of maladjusted hermits.
Zielenziger, in this text, ignores the American role in shaping this highly conflicted culture in presupposing this is a matter of traditional Japanese values leaving these young people behind, rather than the inverse, where the new careerist ambitionism that, in the 40’s and 50’s was the only road out of decimation (for example, Japanese pilots after the war ended had no possessions except their flight suits, and this was a common fashion on the streets of Tokyo until 1948 when a lot of programs for housing and job placement fully ramped up). Whatever you make of the appropriateness of sanctions post-WWII, the occupation was about manufacturing a compatible market of consumers, adjacent to its newly-acquired colonies in Southeast Asia, not rebuilding a state (as was the case in West Germany, at the time).
Zielenziger, like Wallace, takes the approach here from authority, while paternalistically diagnosing a problem they, themselves, are projecting as a cause onto; this pathological desire to identify a problem, without the acknowledgement of your/your class interest played in what causes said problem. The motivations are fundamentally different in scale, but similar in opportunism; laughing at rubes in a self-aggrandizing essay, pathologizing a culture as repressed while your industry colonizes their economies, it’s really all the same mentality, with varying levels of social acceptability as analysis. Their conclusions that something singular is happening are correct, but their premises for why are ultimately self-serving.
The outcome of this programme that, reasonably, could not accomodate everyone, was the production of an economy that emulated the prevailing ethos of corporate America at the time— megacorporations employing everyone, in predictible sectors like elections, finance, and defense, all running 386 droneware in their cubicles by the end of the 1990s- and the intentionality of all of this is no more apparently than in the markets that began to crop up in the 1950’s to service the interest in westernization.
The story of consumer fashion in Japan, for example, is the exemplar of Western occupation influence that went as well as it could have; every sphere of influence that can come from style was influenced, commoditized, and streamlined into production for consumption by Japanese audiences living in this new Westernized utopia. Jazz, blue jeans, Ivy League aesthetic, business aetheticism, etc. The phenomenon of Japanese people embracing these styles is couched in terms of the styles being that iconographic, while the reality is that colonialism has that effect on populations; what is available will, ineveitably, coalesce into some complete form of itself when it’s completely divorced of context.
The assumption being made in this kind benevolent occupier mindset, even more than half a century later, is that we masterminded a utopia, when the reality is that this is the natural progression towards postmodernism; it’s more aggressively that thing than the original thing, itself, in its commoditized form. It’s something everyone recognizes, and because it’s so readily its own signifier in others, social critics like these are able to ignore its significance to themselves.
Unlike “Consider the Lobster”, which he characterizes as less of a freakshow than the fair just merely a regional quirk for the New England pseudo-bourgeoisie, I don’t feel Wallace took the Illinois state fair seriously in his observations; it felt punitive, it feels self-serious, and it feels almost resentually posturing as distant. It felt reactionary. He describes everything—and I do mean everything, from the food, to the people, to the weather, and so on – and describes the landscape of the rural Midwest as desolate, culturally and physically. This is, however, consistent; the late Wallace was a conservative, a McCain supporter who feigned objectivity while aboard the Straight Talk Express. It’s natural he would also ignore the that the midwest is the epicenter of American labor organizing, that Illinois is the home of the supercomputer, the web browser, and even today, all manner of industrial and technological triumph. All of this aside, the people who live there are still people, and the complicity of his politics, the class he occupies as an intergenerational academic, and bestselling author tasked with covering a state fair for Harper’s magazine, it’s a microcosm of the problem Shutting Out the Sun has, where the paternalistic attitude seeks to ameliorate the responsibility of the observer’s ideology on the circumstances its critiquing. Ultimately, what we find ourselves dealing with here is, above all else, a rejection of class analysis in a rapidly self-organizing capitalistic system, because if we were to analyze and identify the class prerogatives, it would become clear who are the observers, and why, along with a motive for viewing any population with such contempt.
I am drawing this comparison for a pretty straightforward reason: What do you make of a system that requires blame be laid in order to justify its flaws, and all of these efforts to lay blame only seem to exhonorate the system and its proxies (not as individuals, but agents of an institution), while making cariactures of its participants? It’s a not-so-subtle, specific type of propagandization that itemizes and divides in the same way any type of categorizing does in media, draped in the ersatz authority of academic/industry-compliant language that signals an objective observer, and not an accomplice to the (alleged) problems they’re reporting on at the expense of their common humanity with their subject.
In Wallace’s unfinished final novel The Pale King, set in 1985 Peoria, IL, the reader is taken through soulcrushing amounts of minutiae and everyday existence, awaiting a sublimation of all this “boredom” into something better on the other end. One imagines the passage of time as a narrative device here, that something better inching closer, and closer, and ultimately, you are left with the existentially uncomfortable question of whether or not you had any right to believe better things were possible to begin with, and the real value is, tritely enough, in the journey, where you can consume crumbs of joy into, at scale, moments of positive satisfaction.
The urban sprawl of the mind, much like its real world counterpart, can be a force for unhealthy saturation of our most destructive impulses, or a force for productive, self-satisfactory introspection in service of a rich internal life. The ability to humanize others in the way we humanize fictional characters we are meant to relate to shouldn’t be at a premium in the types of analyses, but concerningly enough, perhaps this is as good an explanation as any for the sort of class interest protectionism that seems to ignore that all humans share, communally, these same desires, and that the distinctions are the power structure working, not anything organically keeping us apart.
Recent things I’ve read, listened to, or watched that I am now recommending: