January 02, 2008

both numbing and euphoric

Thank God it’s online, because it deserves to be online, if only to make it linkable, spreadable, digestible by the blogosphere. If you haven’t yet, go read David Foster Wallace’s introductory essay to the 2007 edition of Best American Essays. In it, he compares the task of being “the decider” on the collection of essays to the task of filtering the “Total Noise” of U.S. culture.

It’s worth quoting this graf at length, where he’s working through a list of the pieces he’s chosen…

And yet Beard’s and Orozco’s pieces are so arresting and alive and good that they end up being salient even if one is working as a guest essay editor and sitting there reading a dozen Xeroxed pieces in a row before them and then another dozen in a row after them – essays on everything from memory and surfing and Esperanto and childhood and mortality and Wikipedia, on depression and translation and emptiness and James Brown, Mozart, prison, poker, trees, anorgasmia, color, homelessness, stalking, fellatio, ferns, fathers, grandmothers, falconry, grief, film comedy – a rate of consumption which tends to level everything out into an undifferentiated mass of high-quality description and trenchant reflection that becomes both numbing and euphoric, a kind of Total Noise that’s also the sound of our U.S. culture right now, a culture and volume of info and spin and rhetoric and context that I know I’m not alone in finding too much to even absorb, much less to try to make sense of organize into any kind of triage of saliency or value. Such basic absorption, organization and triage used to be what was required of an educated adult, a.k.a. an informed citizen – at least that’s what I got taught. Suffice it here to say that the requirements now seem different.

He goes on at length and with footnotes (it’s DFW, after all) about the definition of “Best” and “American” and “Essay,” and then comes back to make real the challenges of dealing with Total Noise.

Or let’s not even mention the amount of research, background, cross-checking, corroboration, and rhetorical parsing required to understand the cataclysm of Iraq, the collapse of congressional oversight, the ideology of neoconservatism, the legal status of presidential signing statements, the political marriage of evangelical Protestantism and corporatist laissez-faire … There’s no way. You’d simply drown. We all would. It’s amazing to me that no one much talks about this – about the fact that whatever our founders and framers thought of as a literate, informed citizenry can no longer exist, at least not without a whole new modern degree of subcontracting and dependence packed into what we mean by ‘informed.’