by Guy Walker
Tumbling through black space, naked and shivering, I grope awkwardly at the aimless hologramic fog. Something is terribly wrong here. The sky is littered with digitized two-dimensional sparkles; bouncing hearts and doggy noses and ears gone astray, they scatter across the empty void like tumbleweeds; erratic and gruesome gifs bob and float like plumes of glitter. I soon realize these are only the mockings of stars—not light from millions of years away through their boiling tumors of nuclear fusion, but immediate and shallow, outlined with a crude magic marker. The doggy noses are fat and not cute, and mimicking a huge ass with a ribbon of warts on top. This is awful. I look up—or wherever up seems to be from my dispassioned and boorish summersault—and see two thick thumbs the size of skyscrapers tap and swipe randomly, smearing grease like a slug across some invisible barrier. Then, a jolt. And suddenly my formless arena is engulfed with an incomprehensible horror of Youtube makeup tutorials and high definition porn and presidential campaign ads and tsunamis of indecipherable Reddit posts. The entirety of the internet floods over me in the flash of a few minutes, a DMT-like cascade of an entire species’ desperation pleading to be heard.
To feel the gravitational weight of anything, my entire conception is ravaged by a global pandemic. I wake, but the clear distinction between the hallucination of dream and this fleshy terrain here and now is unclear. A cold wind howls outside, rattling my weighted single-pane window, a stale feverish condensation dripping on the inside glass from behind the curtains. Finally, I emerge from my room for the first time in months, perhaps years, realizing that this solitary confinement has been self-imposed all this time. I open my phone. Nothing. A dreary haze waits ahead outside, as two English robins bathe themselves in the birdbath. But all of a sudden one of the birds flickers with television static and vanishes. But static comes from electromagnetic waves from supernova explosions, or the sun, which makes this hallucination all the more confusing. Oh god, I remember that all my exes hate me, and I deserve most of it. Probably all of it. What the hell. I’ll go back to bed. A new season of Earth Planet is out, advertised as extremely bingeworthy.
This is much better. Our sense of nature’s operative machinery is perplexed by another outlandish documentary blockbuster, narrated by a crumbling erudite Englishman.You watch a tiger clamp into the neck of a gazelle at the bank of a river. The HD pictures sold to us as being sharper than real life—the thirty-thousand frames per second capturing every single water droplet mirroring the scenic barbarism on its glossy spheres. Don’t go outside—this is better than real life. Don’t let your children turn over stones and prod curiously at grubs and earwigs—teach them Pokémon Go, where they can chase illusory toy monsters into oncoming traffic or changing rooms at the mall, the hopping neon fragments titillating the masses the way a porch light does for all the country moths. How could we have possibly strayed this far? The coastal redwoods drenched in moss and chandeliers of a dew-soaked spider’s web, and the underground mycelial circuitry that entangles young vulnerable saplings in with the many-century-old torso of healthy forest—this is meant to serve our self-hating narcissism in some way, surely.
I’ve never had a difficult time of tending to the punctuated throes of social responsibility. Most of us are hallmarks of highly educated insouciance, witnessing our major natural habitats burn to a few last smoldering remnants, or the oceans churn and bake into reservoirs of plastic debris. There’s a spray-tanned gameshow host with severe brain damage running my country, tossing bundles of dynamite into the gears of international diplomacy. I’ll watch this all happen through my phone, my neck propped up by three pillows and molding itself into a permanent swollen nodule and double chin. I’ll wake up with all the lights on, an expensive cocktail glass spilled across the goose feather duvet, my willowy legs naturally awkward as they stick out of my Christmas underwear like two pointless roots. My eyes are starting to hold a permanent festering squint, unattractive and more serious by the day as they register the bohemian death drive of our species. I switch on my camera’s selfie mode, and study the slow rot passing across my face. Magnified enough, our skin is an abandoned agricultural field, spoiled of its terraqueous innocence with poisons and perfumes like they were crop-dusters.
There’s no use in trying to deny the neon spectacle just waiting there in its quiet rectangular blackness. It’s there, in your hand now, but when it’s not, it’s waiting, whispering from its depths for you to pick it up again and stuff yourself with the mildest intoxication yet again, your bloated edges spilling out onto the floor. You’ll do this, on average, one hundred and fifty times today. That’s about once every six minutes, if you’re awake for sixteen hours a day. I remember reading Guns, Germs, and Steel many years ago, where Jared Diamond quoted research that stated the average American household watches seven hours of television a day. Published in 1997, we’ve come a long way.
David Foster Wallace wrote endlessly about being raised by television. He would lead his own tv watching marathons, getting drunk and high as he obsessed over his own hypnosis of the thing, the shampoo commercials and applause-track sitcoms and real-crime dramas all blurring together into a mass rotating circus act. The marijuana binges in Infinite Jest are clearly autobiographical; the years that Hal Incandenza wades through have been replaced by sponsored advertisements—Year of the Whopper, Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment, Year of the Trial-Size Dove Bar. You can imagine Wallace, stoned out of his mind, slouched in an antique loveseat torn along the seams, watching hours of grainy television, suddenly jolted by the epiphany that this orgiastic circus of commercials will eventually manifest into a dystopic branding of everything, even the Gregorian calendar. His short story, “My Apprentice” is about the swirling anxieties of a fictional female celebrity entering David Letterman’s formidable arena. “Little Expressionless Animals”, a short story in his 1989 collection Girl With Curious Hair, uses Jeopardy! as the platform to write a tale of lesbian romance. For Wallace, television was the new and compulsory chamber around which our dramas are told. Tolstoy used the ballroom or the battlefield; Melville, the sea; Hemingway, the African plains; Beckett, indeterminate locales in Ireland, or perhaps just the rambling mind; where virtually every other writer used the obvious landmarks of this miserable sodden frontier, Wallace knew there was no more frontier to be had. The illuminated screen is where we are born now. It’s where we copulate, argue, fall in love, and apparently now where we declare war.
In a 1996 interview with Charlie Rose, Wallace said he was “raised to view television as, more or less, my main artistic snorkel.” It’s what bonds us as humans, like a monotheistic tribe of bland rituals, our coruscating angst impressed beneath the fuzzy glow. At the time of the interview, the television set had long taken the position of the fireplace as the centerpiece of a home—the fireplace, of which, was always intended less as a device to heat the home, and more to mimic our ancestral storytelling origins—to gather the family around, in their holiday-themed onesies, sipping hot cocoa with both hands, dissembling their semi-glossed happiness into feigned resistance.
Chomsky said something about the television show being the filler that stations jammed within the real programming—the advertisements. Whatever real meat is in a hotdog. Television, Netflix, Instagram, Twitter, fucking TikTok—this is what we do. It’s the interface in which the flowering stink of spring is fully realized. We still have to occasionally make our brief little forays into the shallows of the outside world—afraid and vulnerable, glancing at others from behind our sunglasses, with the same obvious terror advertised across our face that a dog has when taking a shit on a crowded sidewalk, knowing full well we are now prey. Or when we go get drunk with friends, the conversation is often about what we watch when back in our curtain-drawn dens, with the insufferable veneer of any of it being artistically beneficial. This isn’t a cynical move. We just don’t have conversations to the maintained stature as in My Dinner With Andre. Our enviable dramas are on the other side of the screen. And today, we have the means to puppeteer ourselves as some clumsily drawn hero—we’ve become our own miniaturized Lawrence of Arabia’s on wherever our localized online universe exists.
The great French literary titan, Louise Ferdinand Céline, understood well that of all our drooling spluttering orifices, the mouth was the most unredeemable and profane. “When you stop to examine the way in which words are formed and uttered,” he wrote, “our sentences are hard put to survive the disaster of their slobbery origins. The mechanical effort of conversation is nastier and more complicated than defecation.” Everybody knows this, whether they realize it or not; it’s why most people prefer to send text messages than listen to each other speak on the phone. It’s why the laughing-crying emoji was awarded Merriam-Webster’s Word of the Year a few years back. The belching profundity of the mouth suffers more through its chronic aching and throbbing, through the discolored leakage of so much exclaimed barbarism. We are perspiring with libidinal fatigue—better to lay in bed with our head supported by a gallery of pillows, with an episode of Golden Girls playing on the telly, and hammer something barely coherent with our thumbs. Better to sit hunched over on the toilet until your legs fall asleep, the pigment from your turds long ago leaking into the toilet water like a rotten teabag. (I receive a text from my boss: “lmk if da shit gatorade , coo? Honey pot too chill.” Fo sho. I got you, boo.) You sit at a series of missed traffic light on the Sunset strip with forty cars behind you, every one of them staring down at their phones—these pulsating factories of imprisoned aurora—doing that selfie-wheel-of-fortune thing, looking cute or ironically disappointed when they find out what Disney princess they are, or what squiggle they are, or what insect they are, or what hole they are. Whatever. Plato’s cave got a renovation. We throw pebbles at jetliners thirty-thousand feet high. We sell pictures of our feet on the internet to pay off student loans.
Two other writers joined Wallace in his interview with Charlie Rose: Jonathan Franzen and Mark Leyner, both of whom are sad Cimmerian men, but not in any desirable way, not in the way Wallace was. They are awful writers. And solemn men who write about trite things are openly denying their grotesque and balmy impotence. That’s what makes suicide so heartbreaking: those who should, never do, and those who do, never should. They complained together that the ubiquity of television has eaten away at the role of their timid fortune. They are writers, you see, painfully straining to articulate the psychic mess of being awake in a world of romance and betrayal and loss—and they have taken up the noble task of peppering their stories with relatable women and men, where allegorical lessons can be learned along the way. And it’s not fair, you see, that the screen has robbed them of their prophecy.
It’s not difficult to see where this is headed. This isn’t a cynical move that judges the degradation of the mind into illuminated bits of data, the maze of pneumatic tubes whizzing in and out of the atomic hard drive. Quite the opposite. We are being unified into a complete whole, gradually being sucked back into the other side of the screen, where the lyricism of our conversational prose spills from our mouths like expensive fondue. And glossy men in capes and suits conquer smoke-filled arenas like it was an expensive game of laser tag. The conspired fortitude of our heroes overcoming conflict—we will finally be together.
….Long live the new flesh. David Cronenberg’s 1983 classic Videodrome delivered it best. “The television screen,” a mysterious television operator, played by Brian O’Blivion, tells us through another television framed within our own television, “is the retina of the mind’s eye. Therefore, the television screen is part of the physical structure of the brain.” He was right, and I guess still is, but the artful horror of today is far more advanced than a simple television screen. And yet, at over three-and-a-half decades old, the film hits the important marks of technological morphology that we’re dealing with today. By the visual consumption of a plotless television show featuring torture porn and eventual murder, our hero, played by James Woods, gradually transforms into the pulsating machines behind the screen. His hand holding a gun transfigures into a grotesque mass of flesh and gun, unified together into a viscous mess of veins and entrails. His stomach opens up as a vaginal wound, gripping onto video cassettes, guns, and hands, like a cannibalizing anemone. And finally, he gets sucked back into the television screen where he belonged all this time. Where we have all belonged all this time. “You’re reality is already half hallucination.” This is indeed the new flesh, an embryonic culmination of ones and zeroes colliding into a red-stained chamber of gore and ecstasy.
I was infected by the transcendental optimism of Thoreau and Emerson and Whitman at a young age. And I still want to follow their direction. But take the naiveté of Henry Thoreau, for example. He was forever enamored with the soft hymns of the country, and wrote about how we are all born with the same impulses of exploring the outdoors, observable by whatever unwavering spur of children to explore caves and climb trees; and adulthood is merely the ruinous hangover we suffer through, wandering around stupidly, gorging ourselves on expensive dinners, shooing away an ever-expanding list of annoying disturbances, like a cow using its tail to bat away the flies from her eyes. But look at any child today. They are hunched over and commanding the screen like a master conductor. They know home is inside there, somewhere, and they’re trying to figure it out, the secret exchange of passwords to get back in. We were never meant to climb trees and explore caves. Thoreau naively anticipated a Rousseauian-branded return to the unique barbarism of walking on all fours. We are manifesting Voltaire’s Enlightenment. We’ll find a door to the other side.
This is it. We are Nature’s victorious ejaculation, the fermented glob on the crest of a sulphuric pit that has somehow crawled its way into these molds of human flesh. We have committed ourselves to lives that are the equivalent of accosting strangers on the street, shoving our walnut and goat cheese salad directly under their face, asking them for comment. Maybe Wallace and Cronenberg saw it coming, that we would all be self-quarantined in our studio apartments, hunched over our own miniaturized television screens, our eyes bloodshot and eventually rotting. But maybe they were too shrouded by the swirling delirium of the present day to see where it was all headed. Thirty or forty years from now, we won’t be reading Walden from a moss-covered boulder in the evening sun. We won’t be scouring the footnotes in Infinite Jest next to our naked lover. Whatever it is, it’ll be far more fragmented and cloistered than this doggy-eared frenzy here.