In his essay “Big Red Son,” the American writer David Foster Wallace provides a scathing critique of the spectacle of the mainstream entertainment industry; specifically he focuses on the absurdity of the Academy Awards. Wallace decries the Academy Awards for their commercialization, lambasting them for setting up the entire show as a means of congratulating themselves and trying to prove they are still a valid art form. Wallace points out the hypocrisy of rich celebrities in $5,000 gowns proselytizing cliches of humanism and social justice, written for them to recite by publicists. How once respectable film festivals like Sundance or Cannes have become enterprise zones. How more attention is given to the marketing campaigns of films than to the films themselves.
To Wallace, the epitome of the postmodern irony is how we know that this is the case but still watch anyways. We know and understand everything within the industry is all manufactured, or that rich celebrities are hypocrites, and the fact is, we choose not to care. Despite the fakeness, millions upon millions still tune into award shows. In the social media age Wallace never lived to see, viral tweets talk about the very manufactured nature of award shows—yet the same people still watch. No matter how much this hypocrisy hurts, we simply pretend there is joy; we pretend things are still funny, rather than bleak and depressing. We laugh at Bob Dole shilling out for Visa or former Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev selling out for Pizza Hut. Wallace puts it bluntly: “everything sucks,” and we are so painfully aware of that fact.
Wallace’s criticism of the mainstream entertainment industry can be applied to the U.S. political realm, which has become its own entertainment industry. Both Democrats and Republicans are right-wing, capitalist, imperialist parties that uphold a system of exploitation of the working class and actively maintain the status quo for wealthy elites. Yet, they still feign consideration the working class. Just as massive spectacles like the Academy Awards exist for the entertainment industry, there exist the national conventions for politics wherein tens of millions of dollars are spent manufacturing highly aestheticized nonsense. Rich politicians spew the same banal sayings the same way celebrities do, while the token POC, LGBTQ community members, disabled people, veterans, etc. are recognized but never see any real legislation enacted to help their communities.
Politics has become a theater production: where politicians are the actors and the political process is the show. Democrats and Republicans fight with one another, then unanimously support increasing the military budget or spending trillions bailing out large corporations. Some of the more tech-savvy politicians will quote each others tweets with snarky comments or insults but this banter does not do anything; it’s all performative. There is always lively debate within political chambers or even radical dissenting views from the more “extremist” members of the party (Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez for the Democrats, Marjorie Taylor Greene for the Republicans) but they are nothing more than controlled opposition who cannot really do anything because they are so outnumbered.
Nothing seems to happen or change: President Joe Biden promised two thousand dollar checks “right away” after being elected but that payment did not happen. He promised an end to deportations, detentions, and ICE concentration camps but that never materialized, because Biden serves the wealthy elites rather than the people. Instead, Biden sold weapons to Egypt, continued mass deportations, and bombed Syria. The Biden administration has even gone as far as saying they might start “filling in” parts of the border wall. Juxtaposed with all this is some oddly haunting “journalism.” Constant news about Joe Biden’s dog biting people or pooping in the White House, or how Jill Biden dressing a certain way makes the people “feel seen.” Hundreds of thousands may be dead from the pandemic, we have a gilded age level of inequality, a climate crisis is rapidly approaching, and yet there remains so much manufactured nonsense on television and in news media—fabricated junk.
U.S. politics also possesses this unfortunate circumstance: a cynical postmodern condition of being aware of our rather pathetic situation and participating anyways. Both political parties blatantly do not care about the people, they purportedly serve, and the masses seem to understand this, but continually vote for them and allow them remain in power. History has shown that liberal candidates cannot be “pushed to the left,” and will not take action to help the working class. There exists a widespread consensus that the government does not care about the people and would actively harm them. Despite this discontent people do not take action in defense of themselves. Just as Wallace concludes with the entertainment industry: everything sucks—and we know it sucks. Yet we would rather continue to consume and pretend there is any sense of joy than admitting the depressing reality.
Wallace talks about self-irony and self-referencing within TV programs in his essay titled “E Unibus Pluram.” T.V. programs and commercials refer to each other via intertextuality. Programs and commercials all have a sense of self-irony; that is, they begin to make fun of themselves. To Wallace, this radically changes the relationship between the program and the subject; no longer can we laugh at an idiotic commercial when the point of the commercial is to be absurd. Absurdly idiotic sitcoms are so purposely stupid that we can hardly criticize the low quality writing because that’s the point—and when you point it out it appears as if you simply don’t get it. The same could be made about professional wrestling: the interactions and sets are all fake, but there enlies part of the appeal. If you point out how it’s an illusion and not real you are seen as “not getting it.”
The latter sentiment carries over to the political landscape. Politicians do not care about us, neither does the government, nor some bureaucratic organs—but to point this out is to “not get it.” There is such a pervasive sense of detachment that comes with the pessimistic cynicism of our postmodern condition. We buy into the spectacle because we cannot bring ourselves to admit to the depressing nature of our political reality. Many have seemingly embraced the bleak idea that there really is no alternative. The younger, more radical generations are filled with what Mark Fisher calls “reflexive impotence” or the accepting that there is nothing one can do to change anything, so why act? Deep down inside, many of those who do protest or organize understand that there is not much they can do, except refrain from admitting that everything really does suck. The mass commodified nature of capitalism is what breeds this very irony, and this irony cannot be reformed out of the system. Revolutionary action is a must. Radical change cannot be enacted to a system by working within the confines of the system itself, which is why there is a necessity for real organizing and action beyond electorialism.
By Ajay Chakraborty, Contributor