Technological progress begets neurological-psychic regress, “an entertainment-market of sofas and eyes…a floating no-space world of personal spectation…total freedom, privacy, choice” (620). Except then all this mediation starts to curl in on itself to the point that the proverbial serpent is eating its own tail and we desperately search for a way out of the self-consuming cycle. We ditch the screens and yearn for “the fellowship and anonymous communion of being part of a watching crowd, a mass of eyes all not at home, all out in the world and pointed the same way” (621). Better this visceral collectivity – the neural entanglement of proximal beings that gets severed when we’re all too busy sending out our avatars to live for us – better this than become a species of Mrs. Montag’s sitting spectrally and spectatingly in the eerily perfectly-named “living room” of our conforming houses, acting out a Bradburyan nightmare reawakened in DFW’s Post-but-still-Wasteland America. What is it about collective viewership that makes entertainment and experience so much more endurable, even desirable? But so then why are we so bent on watching and consuming in the main? Why are we all so eager to go home when there’s nothing there for us except the gnawing reminder of our self-determined isolation?
To be fair, I’d rather sit and home with that rat of a problem than watch a fucking pond drain, thankyouverymuch. “Silence of presence v. silence of absence, maybe” (625). But in your Total Worry masquerading as Total Empathy, DFW, did you ever think of your reader as much as you think of that poor engineer? But that’s probably the point, to get us out of our tiny skull-sized kingdom to participate in something beyond ourselves (and to imagine that we aren’t alone in our spectation, i.e. reading of this book). We’re on a team of Fosterites, and surely it’s a winning team!
But then you go and make dinner at E.T.A. somehow the most interesting thing anyone could ever read about, and that interest is without the drama of Stice-Hal (although the description of “the players’ different CPUs humming through Decision Trees” about their rank/value, contingent on the Stice-Hal pseudo-conflict, is fantastic) (629). It’s the sensory feast that you treat us to. I feel full by the end of the meal after bearing witness to the no-duh-but-I’ve-never-stopped-to-notice-it diversity of people’s eating habits (e.g. “with the neutral joyless expression of somebody dispensing fuel into his car”), and to the powdered milk inquiry, and to “the blurred sexuality and indecisive postures of puberty” at this “comparatively unsexual place” (631, 636). There’s so much energy in the room, and DFW channels it so effortlessly into not just a scene but a world. Describing the U.S.S. Millicent Kent “with breasts like artillery and a butt like two bulldogs in a bag;” concentrating on Stice’s Jedi concentration of “trying to flex some kind of psyching muscle he’s not even sure he has” to move a cherry tomato toward the center of the bowl; capturing perfectly the myriad anxieties consuming every athlete as they consume everything they can to replenish themselves to handle the all-consuming quality of said anxieties…like how does DFW do it?
And then – though Fuller gets fatigued by it – there’s the diverting one-sided conversation about Steeply’s father’s obsession with M*A*S*H, which shows that the Entertainment has precedence, albeit in a purportedly nonlethal way (Neil Postman would disagree, i.e. as I’ve mentioned before, we are all, according to him, amusing ourselves to death, and he postulated that now-unremarkable, sadly banal thesis over 30 years ago). Steeply doesn’t conclude the anecdote suggesting that M*A*S*H killed his father (family heart problems, so it was a genetic thing, the death, not the inclination to entertainment), but more to point out, weirdly, that he gets the obsession thing. “Weirdly” because he spends the entire anecdote angry at his father for all the conspiratorial leanings of his obsessive spectation, which then must have been so hard on his mother (so it goes for all mothers in this world, it seems). (Note: I initially wrote, accidentally or Freudian-slippingly, hard in his mother. You’re welcome.) Anyway, in the end, Steeply believes that his father, in his death repose, looked like he “misplaced” something. Marathe suggests “lost.” But no. “Misplaced” (647-8). What is it that we’ve lost or misplaced in this purgatorial existence? And why are we expecting (seemingly, judging by our habits) to find it in Entertainment?
I’m not even going to touch the “time in the shadow of the wing of the thing too big to see, rising” business (651). Gives one (i.e. me) the fowling hantods (sic).
I will say that shit that happens to you in youth sure does seem to linger and creep up in unexpected moments/places (in unexpected forms/behaviors/beliefs).
So then we get to watch the Stice-Hal match alluded to in the dining hall. Like the Gately fight scene several “chapters” before, the action is masterfully executed, and we’re drawn to places off-court that keep everything lively (e.g. Orin’s sexual escapades, which reinforces the thing for Hal where “lifetime virginity is a conscious goal” because “O.’s having enough acrobatic coitus for all three of them,” his brother trinity) (634). We’re sitting with Helen Steeply throughout the match, whose urgently waiting to speak directly with Hal but who keeps getting blocked by E.T.A.’s strict rules against such contact during “training and inculcation,” as DeLint puts it (660). Because the point at E.T.A. is to learn to see and not be seen. Plenty of time to be seen, i.e. be the object to be spectated (consumed), as though that’s where your value comes from, you’re being consumed (your being consumed). Even though “audiences will be the whole point,” the benevolent goal at E.T.A. is to get these kids out of themselves, ego-decentric, ego-less even (661). They aren’t statues, nor should they be statues, but they are unthinking bodies following orders for their own good. Like anyone, “they’re here to get lost in something bigger than them” (660). We’re all trying to swim in that ocean, man. Trying to feel apart of the universe from which we sprang, to swim in the cosmic sea of all life, to escape the prison of our minds. Where/how do we learn such transcendence? E.T.A. and Ennet House, well they’re as good a place as any, right? What’s your path to a team? To a winning team, no less? Patriotism? Fandom? Watching or playing? Observed or observer?
“Carved out of what, though, this place?”