Daniel R. Smith
As I have outlined in an earlier post, the YouTube community associated with the Vlogbrothers, John and Hank Green, have heard from David Foster Wallace on many occasion. Being somewhat of a literary hero of (fellow novelist) John Green, the YouTube community have learnt from Wallace’s novels even if they’ve have never had the pleasure of reading him directly. As stated in my previous post, there is good reason for Wallace being something of an icon for VlogBrother John Green and YouTube vlogging communities more generally.
The first is, of course, in part generational: J. Green coming of age around the time Wallace’s fiction became a beacon of American culture. But also, it says something about YouTube vlogging culture more generally: they are a generation saturated by popular culture, raised on television and obsessed with ‘the self’, and a generation made aware of their obsession with the self as they diarise their lives, entertain others and are paid handsomely for this – see the June 2013 special of The Culture Show on the vlogging revolution in entertainment here.
But with YouTube vlogging, there is something that goes beyond the mere corporate aspect of entertainment and there is something of Wallace’s observation and philosophy of popular culture inherent within it. Moreover, I want to suggest that David Foster Wallace’s insights into pop culture and the generational experience he wrote of could be fruitfully analysed and explicated by a discussion of YouTube vlogging. And what it confronts is the obsessional dimension of the self and the longing for community which so plagued Wallace and found its way into his fiction and confrontation with pop culture. Wallace is both a way into a new media – YouTube – which confronts the self and negates his previous concerns with popular culture.
Confronting Wallace’s vision of fiction with video-blogging
Speaking in a BBC interview in 1995, Wallace stated:
“there is something magical, for me, about literature and fiction. And I think it can do things, not only what pop culture can’t do, but that are urgent now. One is that, by creating a character in a piece of fiction, you can allow a reader to leap over the wall of self and imagine himself being, not just somewhere else, but someone else in a way that television and movies, that no other form can do. Because I think people are essentially lonely and alone and frightened of being alone.”
This quoted piece sums up much of Wallace’s philosophy of popular culture: its inherent loneliness and its inability for others to imagine themselves as other people, to take the position of the other person. A hallmark of modernity, loneliness has been written about and theorised by many in sociology and philosophy, from Kierkegaard’s writings, through Adorno and to Reisman’s The Lonely Crowd and Putman’s Bowling Alone. But with Wallace, it becomes identified with pop-culture (as with Adorno and Reisman and Kierkegaard) but negated through writing fiction and having the reader encounter the novel as a text which tells them through others what they too feel by having them ‘be someone else’: ultimately it is a dramatic act which seeks to highlight this to the reader and allow their own reflexive engagement to bring them to awareness. In his Infinite Jest, Wallace allows his narrator to reflect upon this loneliness and suggest this:
“…Hal, who’s empty but not dumb, theorises privately that what passes for hip cynical transcendence of sentiment is really some kind of fear of being really human, since to be really human (at least as he conceptualises it) is probably to be unavoidably sentimental and naïve and goo-prone and generally pathetic, …One of the really American things about Hal, probably, is the way he despises what it is he’s really lonely for: this hideous internal self, incontinent of sentiment and need, that pulses and writhes just under the hip empty mask, anhedonia.
…This had been one of Hal’s deepest and most pregnant abstractions, one he’d come up with once while getting secretly high in the Pump Room. That we’re all lonely for something we don’t know we’re lonely for. How else to explain the curious feeling that he goes around feeling like he misses somebody he’s never even met? Without that universalising abstraction, the feeling would make no sense.” (Wallace, 1996:694-695, 1053, n.281, my parenthesis)
The ‘hideous internal self’, the self of others and the position of others, a community of values and sentiment, is the enemy of Wallace’s generation: the ‘whatever’ generation of ‘hip cynical transcendence’ and irony that, as I noted previously, he takes to by tyranny of non-commitment to anything, especially meaning – making sense of others and oneself for others. What Kierkegaard called, in The Sickness Unto Death, despair as either wanting to be rid of oneself as made up of internality and reflection on experience, that which Wallace’s Hal Incandenza experiences in Infinite Jest, and despair as unaware of having a self, that which Green muses on through Wallace’s Pale King experience of boredom. Indeed, we can take loneliness and boredom as two spectrums of experience in a pop-culture, television and entertainment, saturated age: either we are lonely for a community of sentiment or we are bored in need of stimulation as the hideous internal self rears its anhedonic head.
Ultimately, what Wallace’s novels write of is a breakdown of shared experience, meaning and intra-individuality. It is a world where we don’t understand each other and don’t want to experience the position of others, but we remain – as Hal’s narrator puts it – ‘missing someone we have never met’. Some may call this the postmodern condition of some kind but we may call it what Jeffrey Alexander has recently dubbed ‘dramatic defusion’ (2014) in our highly mediated, ‘post-dramatic’ world. In his recent article ‘The Fate of the Dramatic in Modern Society’ (2014), Alexander begins with an excerpt from David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest (1996), a short quote from a lengthy endnote of Wallace’s that recounts a joke called ‘Found Drama’ which, in many ways, stands not only as the foil in Alexander’s paper but also the foil of YouTube vlogging, too, with a self-referential twist: i.e. the Found Drama is what life would be like where it not for YouTube allowing for the creation of a community of sentiment and the development of a ‘self’ aware of its internal otherness, the understanding and imperative of taking the position of the other to be oneself.
The Found Drama is, like Wallace’s text itself, a looping reference to life in society mirrored in sardonic, hip prose so as to confront the condition of anhedonic despair without intra-individual experience and shared sentiment:
This was the joke. [You] got out a metro Boston phone book and tore a White Pages page out at random and thumbtacked it to the wall and…throw a dart at it from across the room…. And the name it hit becomes the subject of the Found Drama. And whatever happens to the protagonist with the name you hit with the dart for like the next hour and a half is the Drama…. You do whatever you want during the Drama. You’re not there. Nobody knows what the name in the book’s doing…. The joke’s theory was there’s no audience and no director and no stage or set because …in Reality there are none of these things. And the protagonist doesn’t know he’s the protagonist in a Found Drama because in Reality nobody thinks they’re in any sort of Drama. (Wallace, 1996:1027–1028, n.145; cf. Alexander, 2014:4).
For Alexander, this joke is precisely that: a drama where the protagonists is unwatched by audience, with no direction or props, stage or set, and especially no sense of being watched so as to experience themselves as a character in a drama, their own drama, at all is ludicrous. Framing his arguments in a historical, as well as anthropological lens, of Western society going from myth and ritual to theatre and performance (e.g. Vernant, 1980; Schechner, 1988), Alexander suggests that contemporary societies suffer from a waning condition of dramatic excitement that binds persons together in a shared community of meaning, purposes and understanding. But rather than being ‘postdramatic’ where no meaning or understanding arises, i.e. living in a Found Drama, we have merely greater effort to make our performance matter and create a community of experience which unifies persons. For Alexander, “drama is fundamental to the search for meaning and solidarity in a post-ritual world.” (2014:9) and this extends, we could say, to Wallace’s claim that fiction allows one to leap over the wall of self and imagine oneself as someone else.
The essence of Wallace’s Found Drama and the desire for intra-individual experience and understanding has a counterpart amongst the YouTube vlogging community, John Green’s own novel Paper Towns (2008). Paper Towns (2008) shares aspects of a Found Drama: a ‘paper town’ is a town depicted on a map which doesn’t exist but remains on the map to protect the copyright of the cartography company who put the map together. Paper Towns is a drama based around a girl who disappears and is found in a paper town, a town she makes real when she take up residence there and lives there before being found by the protagonist. But it works more as a metaphor for existence in stifling suburbia where all is “paper-thin and paper-frail.” (Green, 2009:58) The novel is about how to imagine others beyond their paper appearance and paper existence, or to quote Green speaking of the book, “imaging people more complexly” and how we “mis-imagine other people and how we mis-imagine our stories” as well as a concerned with (im/)possibility of “self-made men.” (Green, ‘Paper Towns Tastic Question Tuesday’, uploaded 10 Feb 2009).
All these aspects fall together neatly with YouTube vlogging: documenting their lives online, the community go beyond a Found Drama view of persons as existing but not acknowledged for their complexity, a nominal notion of self, and also the solipsistic idea that people are what we, ourselves, imagine them to be as well as ourselves being simply self-posited. First, YouTubers have a real concern with ‘imagining others complexly’ as the documentation of their lives online relies upon the fact that they, too, become an ‘other’ to themselves as the videos they upload are memory traces of themselves in video-form addressed to others and, as such, they addressed themselves as ‘an other’ in doing so. Second, they are also concerned with making sure they don’t mis-imagine others and their stories, for they realise that other people view only a tiny portion of their lives through three minute video. Even more, they are aware that solipsism is both ‘bad aesthetics and bad politics’ (cf. Holquist, 2002:33)
One feature of this comes from the use of the lessons of literature, notably Green’s, to inform YouTube community practice. Take the phenomenon of ‘shipping’, the fan fiction of fan communities where fans write romantic scenarios for fictional characters beyond the format of the show, book, etc. YouTubers, themselves, have been subject to such ‘shipping’ by their teenage audience. For Liam Dryden, follower of the Vlogbrothers and prominent members of the YouTube celebrity vlogging community, he takes umbrage with this and justifies it through recourse to a concern with imagining others beyond one’s own self-interpretation and solipsistic position:
“Words like shipping are deeply engrained in a culture engaged with manipulating fiction. So when you place a real life person or a relationship into that system of thinking you’re basically telling the people involved, ‘I don’t like the way you’re living or the choices you’re making, here’s my interpretation of your life so you should start doing that’. Which is a fairly problematic thought process. … they’re left feeling like everything they do is under public scrutiny and ultimately their choices and relationships aren’t theirs to make unless they have public approval. Ultimately I think the problem comes from a lack of imagining people complexly and blurring the boundary of how we should interpret reality and fiction.
The difference is with fiction stories and characters are given to us as an art form to interpret them as we will …but human lives aren’t. When creating a fandom or joining a fandom for something, it’s very easy to fall into all those typical behaviours even when they don’t or shouldn’t apply. YouTube and social media as a whole are still very new art forms and everyone uses them, creators and audiences alike, and we do need to progress to find a happy interactive medium between those two parties.” (Liam Dryden, ‘Why do we ship real people’, uploaded 26 March 2013)
There is much to be said of Dryden’s speech here. But for now let us focus merely on the theme as it stands, the ability to use YouTube as a space to imagine people more complexly beyond our solipsistic delusions of singularity (as Wallace might put it). What Dryden points out at the end chimes clearly with this and evokes the Found Drama Wallace writes of: YouTubers are not names in a phone book that one can throw a pin at and imagine a story from. Rather they are real people in real events. What YouTube has offered these real people – who are actor and audience, as Dryden points out – is a lens to capture their lives as well as and an archive which people can search and put together a narrative of said lives through following their videos and that of those they vlog with in the community.
From this blurring the lines between real people and narrative which becomes akin to that of fiction, some less savvy viewers view this as a soap opera on YouTube. The phenomena of ‘shipping’ is but one example mis-imagining other people which television and popular culture has generally granted people, said fandom behaviour of treating all media as fiction which Dryden speaks of. But beyond the Found Drama dystopia that Wallace joked of, YouTube offers the dialogical component of comment, response and critique which is beyond that of a Found Drama where no-one watches, responds, acknowledges or is known to be in a drama; or that of televisual media which tells all stories as public fictions and spectacle. What YouTube offers is a combination of fiction with reality, and this is its over-determined quality: the ability for real people in real situations to tell their story, i.e. diarise their lives, and exists in a community which watches and listens is a laudable achievement, one that gives people autonomy, freedom and a voice. But, also, the tendency for this real voice to be received as a fictional plaything is equally damaging as it becomes a limiting conception of their person, tying them to a singular definition that is not their own or own making, the type of feeling Dryden describes as not having autonomy with one’s own choices. We may choose to call vloggers’ vlogs ‘autofictions’: both fiction and non-fiction, real people’s stories told to an audience that possibly interpret them as fictional or at least open to fictional manipulation.
Indeed, real people inspire fictional works and fiction helps people understand their real lives. This is something that John Green is at pains to stress. Green’s current New York Times Bestseller and soon to be released film adaption, The Fault in Our Stars (2012) was dedicated to Esther Earl, a sixteen year old YouTuber who tragically contracted terminal cancer and whose memory is memorialised by the YouTube community with charitable projects and so forth. Yet the author’s note of Green’s book reads,
“This is not so much an author’s note as an author’s reminder of what was printed in small a few pages ago: This book is a work of fiction. I made it up.
Neither novels or their readers benefit from attempts to divine whether any facts hide inside a story. Such efforts attack the very idea that made-up stories can matter, which is sort of the foundational assumption of our species.
I appreciate your cooperation in this matter.” (Green, 2012)
What matters here is the fictionality of TiFiOS being a statement on the experience of illness, mortality, loss and love, not about the girl whose own life may have or have not inspired it. Of course, we all know – the YouTube community – that Esther Earl is a huge influence or at least impetus to the writing of the novel but the story told in the novel is neither her’s nor anyone else’s: it is but a fiction.
YouTube’s narrative refusion
To return to where we began, YouTube I suggest offers people the possibility to view real people as Wallace suggests of fictional characters, as other’s to themselves and become someone else without negating or curtailing their own individuality or the other’s autonomy. It does so through what Alexander calls ‘dramatic (re)fusion’: ours is a society that may be beyond ritual and myth, the features of a society that binds individual to group and the cosmos, but as Alexander puts it,
Drama displaces yet also encompasses shreds of the pre-modern religious order. Converting cosmos into text, drama projects powerful narratives in which protagonists and antagonists fight against one another’s vision of the good and the right. Identifying with these characters, audiences connect with meanings outside themselves and reflectively work through their moral implications; they learn about heroes and enemies, make epiphanies out of historical events, and experience solidarity with others by sharing catharsis (Baker, 2010). Theatre crystallizes and concentrates these processes in a reflexively aesthetic idiom, but the dramatic form permeates the entirety of modern social life. Without drama, collective and personal meanings could not be sustained, evil could not be identified, and justice would be impossible to obtain. (2010:10 added emphasis).
What Alexander seems to celebrate here is the aesthetic dimension of human experience, the need for drama – fiction and play – to make sense of categories of experience and reflect upon them. (See also Robert Witkin’s notion of the intelligence of feeling (Witkin, 2003)). But for contemporary society, the ability to fuse together a narrative and performance to generate the affective effects, such as solidarity with heroes, epiphanies of historical events, or for us the ability to imagine ourselves as others and their autonomy beyond our solipsistic vision, is more fragmented and requires aspects of refusion or putting back together again. Alexander suggests that over the centuries, the elements which make up ritual and myth, which are theatre and story, have been liberated from social-cultural context and performative setting (text, independent audience, actor, producer, director, props, scenario, author):. Yet each liberation of each component part of drama has been a means to refuse and re-introduce dramatic effect of sustaining collective and personal meaning. With YouTube this has been the case with people being their own creators of text, audience, actor, producer-directors, etc. and as such move beyond the boredom, despair and loneliness that we began with. The ability to diarise our lives for posterity has existed in writing for centuries, with video and videosharing sites it becomes a progressive move in the individuation and autonomy of human’s ability to preserve their histories in media and create a community of sentiment within this.
Ultimately, my point is this: YouTube is a good thing for humans. Yet I need to elaborate a little more, in a theoretical mode, to sustain this claim.
Theoretical coda: Kierkegaard’s Sickness unto Death
In this final section I want to introduce some theoretical elaborations upon the lifeworld of YouTube and our viewing it through the cultural lens of David Foster Wallace’s fiction and philosophy of pop culture. The philosopher I want to introduce is Kierkegaard, namely his writings on the self from The Sickness Unto Death, (a theorist I have evoked on YouTube in an earlier post).
The way into this is concern with began with in Wallace’s fiction: people are lonely and our popular culture of television and mass media strip us of an ability to recognise others and exist beyond our own immediate pleasures and existence as a single solitary self. Against the solipsism of popular culture as Wallace saw it, YouTube offers us another vision of the self. Namely a self that is made up of three component parts: myself, not-myself, myself-as-not-myself, or in Bakhtinian terms “the centre and the not-centre and the relation between them.” (Holquist, 2002:29)
With regards to YouTube vlogging this triadic vision of the self emerges from how the drama and its affective effects are refused in the face of the condition of vlogging: for all intents and purposes it begins as a found drama, ironically. First, the vlogger points a camera at themselves and for the length of time that the are diarising their life, they are the subject of drama and no one knows they are the subject of a drama. Second, once uploaded, the vlog becomes stored on the YouTube website as an archived document, a drama contained to that three-minute video. Once a video, the vlogger has turned their persons into an actor (vlogging personality), script and scenario (subject of the vlog), produced and directed text (video as self-produced-directed and distributed) and, also, audience (a viewer of their own life). The triad that emerges is thus, “vlogger (centre) : vlogger-as- audience (not-centre) : vlogger as actor (the relation between the two).” In Kierkegaard’s terms, the vloggers self is a ‘spirit’:
“Spirit is the self. But what is the self? The self is a relation which relates to itself, or that in the relation which is its relating to itself. The self is not the relation but the relation’s relating to itself.” (Kierkegaard, 2008:9)
For Kierkegaard, the self emerges as a derivation from that which is other to it, (for him God), as the self is not ‘the relation but the relation’s relating to itself’; a bit of a loophole vision of logic but clearly he is suggesting that the self is established as a synthesis of that which is itself, not itself and that which bridges the in-between. Self is the knots or stitches which make up these parts together. And of course the paradox is evident: how can self relate to itself and in that relation rest in not itself (‘God’), or for us, how can the vlogger relate to themselves and rest in that which is not itself (actor and audience (in place of Kierkegaard’s ‘God’))? The point is that Kierkegaard’s theological depiction doesn’t start from philosophical first principles and as such “imposes an epistemological criterion (belief in the paradox) on an existential understanding of the self as constituted by its relations.” (Hampson, 2013:224) And while this conception of the self may defy conventional logic, the point is we know this paradoxical, curlicue vision of self, is true from experience on YouTube vlogging: the vlogger becomes an equal part of the audience as they watch what they upload, and becomes an actor in a drama of their life as they diarise their life and knot them together on their channel viewed by the YouTube community, and they consequently suffer from the ‘despair’ that results from Kierkegaard’s paradoxical positioning of ‘self’.
Kierkegaard posits the self as a relation-relating to itself and resting in God because, as a Lutheran, he held a Christocentric vision of God, God is Christ, and Christ is both God and human (the ultimate paradox). Christ is both the believer and God, and as I have outlined elsewhere (Smith 2014) the contemporary Christ is the individual, the sacred centre of modern society Durkheim claimed to be ‘both believer and God’: this is not the place to elaborate upon this, so let us place this in relation to what has been written above, the despair of the vlogger: their loneliness, their boredom and their being treated as the subject of fiction. Each category is a form of despair, and it is despair that is able to be figured into the account of the self as paradoxically ‘believer and God’ (a synthesis). Kierkegaard’s vision of self itself carries to inherent possibility of despair, for “despair is the failure of the self to be itself” (Hampson, 2013:230) and as such the failure to be oneself means despair is an always available possibility, “if a person is truly not to be in despair he must at every moment destroy the possibility.” (Kierkegaard, 2008:12) Despair takes many forms, the base of which is the “want to be rid of oneself” (Kierkegaard, 2008:17).
If we take each of our empirical cases at each turn – loneliness, boredom and fictional versions of self – then we can categorise them thusly: loneliness is despair of (a) finitude as lacking possibility and (b) lacking an eternal self. For selves are, in a manner of speaking, concrete and singular and thus take one definite shape or form; the loneliness vloggers feel is such a lack of change, a condemnation to be one singular shape. And it follows from loneliness that they lack an idea of an eternal self, that self Wallace’s Hal Incandenza longs for, and which vloggers lack until they are consummated as vloggers as actor-audience: for they are not grounded transparently, to use Kierkegaardian terms, in that they are not conscious of themselves as a relationship built up of themselves as relations between parts. With boredom, despair is (a) the infinite lacking necessity and is the opposite of loneliness, for being bored may by lonely but boredom takes flight: it goes into the realm of the possible, the persons runs away from themselves as anything means nothing, not committing to something, concrete and necessary. While the third, the despair associated with fictionalised persons despair as a willing to be oneself by oneself, and this despair is a forgetting that one’s self is consummated by others: “Despairingly willing to be its own master, to create itself, such a self severs itself from any relationship to that which has established it, from the idea that there is such a power.” (Hampson, 2013:237) That this relates to fictional selves written by others in the community of vloggers concerns the fact that while vlogger is the author of their vlogs, they too become an actor and audience member (paradoxically, as we’ve noted) and, too, necessary are posited by such a relationship to others who author them, too.
Therefore, the conclusion we now turn to is – having establish that despair is always present and possible in this vision of selfhood – what of this despairing individual? To return briefly to the Found Drama, we know that this would be the case of vlogging were it not for their turning themselves into actor-audiences, consummated by a community of viewers (which includes themselves) and learning of their experiences through being part of this community. We have moved beyond Wallace’s solipsism and beyond our inability to see the world from others’ points of view. We have moved to Kierkegaard’s concern that to be oneself by oneself is impossible, and as such for the self to be itself means that it has to stand in relation to itself grounded in that which establishes it (‘God’, for us, actor-audience in the vlogging community). So the self is a constant struggle, an activity – sickness unto death – that requires constant effort to come to an understanding of itself as to itself, and as to that which transcends it. Despair is “the death of self” (Hampson, 2013:246) and remains a realm of the possible, to live with this constant activity of consummating oneself in this way – in dialogue with self, other and self-as-other, i.e. imagining ourselves more complexly.
Alexander, Jeffrey C. (2014), ‘The fate of the dramatic in modern society: social theory and the theatrical avant-garde’, Theory, Culture & Society, 31(1):3-24.
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Green, John (2008), Paper Towns, (London: Bloomsbury)
Hampson, Daphne (2013), Kierkegaard: exposition and critique, (Oxford: OUP)
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Kierkegaard, Soren (2008), The Sickness Unto Death, (London: Penguin)
Schechner, Richard (1988), ‘Victor Turner’s last adventure’, in Turner, Victor (ed.), The Anthropology of Performance, (New York: PAJ Publications)
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Vernant, Jean-Pierre & Vidal-Naquet, Pierre (1980), Myth and Tragedy, (New York: Zone Books)