(You can find the essay in question here in HTML form, or here in pdf form.)
E Unibus Pluram is a rather long and complex essay by David Foster Wallace, published in 1993. By turns, it discusses late-80s US fiction, the history and future of television, voyeurism, loneliness, advertising, and a handful of other topics, in an attempt to get to the bottom of a problem that he sees as vital to understanding modern US culture. The first and most obvious argument he makes is that, on average, we all probably watch too much television. He states that the goal of television broadcasting, which nobody has ever tried to deny, is to maximise the aggregate number of hours that human beings spend watching it, and that at some point in the 1980s the producers and marketing executives realised that the most logical way to reach this goal was to make television an addictive substance.
"… the analogy between television and liquor is best, I think. Because I'm afraid [the average viewer] is a teleholic. Watching TV can become malignantly addictive. TV may become malignantly addictive only once a certain threshold of quantity is habitually passed, but then the same is true of whiskey. And by "malignant" and "addictive" I again do not mean evil or coercive. An activity is addictive if one's relationship to it lies on that downward-sloping continuum between liking it a little too much and downright needing it. Many addictions, from exercise to letter-writing, are pretty benign. But something is malignantly addictive if (1) it causes real problems for the addict, and (2) it offers itself as relief from the very problems it causes."
Watching as many as six hours of television a day is bound to make people lonely, and TV is a good enough imitation of human contact that it can be used to ameliorate the acute pain of that loneliness. Thus TV can create its own demand.
"If it's true that many Americans are lonely, and if it's true that many lonely people are prodigious TV-watchers, and if it's true that lonely people find in television's 2D images relief from the pain of their reluctance to be around real humans, then it's also obvious that the more time spent watching TV, the less time spent in the real human world, and the less time spent in the real human world, the harder it becomes not to feel alienated from real humans, solipsistic, lonely. It's also true that to the extent one begins to view pseudo-relationships with Bud Bundy or Jane Pauley as acceptable alternatives to relationships with real humans, one has commensurately less conscious incentive even to try to connect with real 3D persons, connections that are pretty important to mental health. For [the average viewer], as for many addicts, the "special treat" of TV, begins to substitute for something nourishing and needed, and the original hunger subsides to a strange objectless unease."
So TV is addictive, I think we can accept that. But at this point, about a third of the way through the essay, it becomes clear what the essay is ultimately about: irony. Its use in modern culture, its effects on the human psyche, and its consequences for fiction writers. Both in 1993 and the modern day, irony was/is one of the techniques that television shows relied/rely upon to function at a basic level, and to provide the many hours of entertainment that we look to them for. Almost every show on air takes it as a given that anything that is said in any particular episode doesn't matter, canon and meaning are always secondary to entertainment value, any resemblance to real life is accidental, and nothing that happens really needs to be remembered once the credits start rolling. This attitude of "I don't really mean what I say" is, according to Wallace, the foundation of irony as we know it, and it plays an essential role in sustaining TV's addictive potential.
"Since television must seek to compel attention by offering a dreamy promise of escape from daily life, and since stats confirm that so grossly much of ordinary U.S. life is watching TV, TV's whispered promises must somehow undercut television-watching in theory ("Joe, Joe, there's a world where life is lively, where nobody spends six hours a day unwinding before a piece of furniture") while reinforcing television-watching in practice ("Joe, Joe, your best and only access to this world is TV")."
Wallace argues that, like most other addictions, TV as it existed in 1993 (and probably still today) is toxic to Western culture, because of the way it interacts with those people who would criticise or deconstruct it. George Bernard Shaw said, "You use a glass mirror to see your face; you use works of art to see your soul", but Wallace seems to take the view that serious works of art are instead responsible for helping us see the truth in our collective soul — our culture. So then, if it is the responsibility of serious artists to respond to the damage that TV does to us, what are they to do? The traditional response would be satire and ironic send-up, which would aim to expose the strangeness and idiocy of the times for all to see. But Wallace argues that this approach can no longer be effective in the modern world.
"And the reason why this irreverent postmodern approach fails to help the [writers] transfigure TV is simply that TV has beaten them to the punch. The fact is that for at least ten years now television has been ingeniously absorbing, homogenizing, and re-presenting the very cynical postmodern aesthetic that was once the best alternative to the appeal of low, over-easy, mass-marketed narrative."
Put simply, TV has become too ironic for irony to be used against it. It is immune to criticism, because any serious attempt at criticising the sickly culture is swallowed up, replicated, and disseminated as another TV show about how awful modern culture is, which flatters the viewer for being disgusted or bored or annoyed by the show that is coming up next. Everything is made ridiculous, and so any attempt at ridiculing the ridicule gets lost amongst the rest, and TV charges on unperturbed.
"The reason why our pervasive cultural irony is at once so powerful and so unsatisfying is that an ironist is impossible to pin down. All irony is a variation on a sort of existential poker-face. All U.S. irony is based on an implicit "I don't really mean what I say." So what does irony as a cultural norm mean to say? That it's impossible to mean what you say? That maybe it's too bad it's impossible, but wake up and smell the coffee already? Most likely, I think, today's irony ends up saying: "How very banal to ask what I mean." Anyone with the heretical gall to ask an ironist what he actually stands for ends up looking like a hysteric or a prig. And herein lies the oppressiveness of institutionalized irony, the too-successful rebel: the ability to interdict the question without attending to its content is tyranny."
So then, what are we to do, if the old ways of responding to a weird and unhealthy culture are useless? Wallace proposes three possible solutions.
Solution #1: Be the change you want to see in the world.
The author can become reactionary, fundamentalist, and ruthlessly genuine. Return to the old ways. Wallace dismisses this approach with some rather shaky logic, by deploying an argumentum ad hominem that dismisses the sincere crowd as a bunch of fundamentalist Christians and flag-wavers, who are manipulable and dim-witted. He also makes the more reasonable argument that sincerity can be just as dangerous as irony when it is used in the pursuit of corporate capitalism and vested interests. Anyway, the preceding 15,000 words would be fairly pointless if the solution were as simple as just ignoring the problem.
I think there may have been something of a resurgence of sincerity since the late '90s, though. Some of the most popular and talked-about TV shows — such as The Sopranos, Lost, Braking Bad, Mad Men, Game of Thrones, et cetera — seem to have shied away from irony and just gotten down to the business of making well-written drama with genuine moral themes. Is it the shedding of irony, at least in some isolated cases, that makes this the purported "golden age of television"? Maybe, but let's not get carried away — the longest-running and perhaps most influential TV show of the last 25 years is The Simpsons, and the most-watched TV shows of 2014 were The Big Bang Theory and Modern Family†. As a whole, TV is still irony central.
Solution #2: Look for a technological solution to the technological problem.
Perhaps the sorry state of TV is only a product of its technological limitations, which preclude any significant input from, or interaction with, the viewer. Wallace discusses a book by futurist George Gilder, who in 1990 believed that in the then-near-future, the ever-cheaper silicon chips and fiber-optic cables would allow TV systems to be "hooked up with each other in a kind of interactive net instead of all feeding passively at the transmitting teat of a single broadcaster", and viewers could "enjoy much of the discretion over selection, manipulation, and recombination of video images that is now restricted to the director's booth." Essentially, TV would be superseded by the Internet, which would allow the market for visual media to be completely flat, free, democratic, and unexploitative. We would be our own masters. But Wallace is unconvinced.
"An exponential surge in the mass of televisual images, and a commensurate increase in my ability to cut, paste, magnify, and combine them to suit my own fancy, can do nothing but render my interactive [computer] a more powerful enhancer and enabler of fantasy, my attraction to that fantasy stronger, the real experiences of which my [computer] offers more engaging and controllable simulacra paler and more frustrating to deal with, and me just a whole lot more dependent on my furniture. Jacking the number of choices and options up with better tech will remedy exactly nothing, so long as no sources of insight on comparative worth, no guides to why and how to choose among experiences, fantasies, beliefs, and predilections, are permitted serious consideration in U.S. culture. Insights and guides to human value used to be among literature's jobs, didn't they? But then who's going to want to take such stuff seriously in ecstatic post-TV life, with Kim Basinger waiting to be interacted with?"
I think Wallace's hunch about the internet has stood the test of time — though we can now choose to watch almost anything we want, whenever we want, be it via YouTube, torrenting, Netflix, or whatever, we are still just passively sitting in front of a screen. If anything, the near-infinite power of choice can make the viewer's addiction worse, because now our entertainment can be delivered in the smallest, most discrete packages that appeal to each viewers' tastes exactly, delivering instant gratification with no room for anything else. 7-second Vine videos, hours-long playlists of nothing but kittens & puppies, et cetera. All pleasure, no commitment, no meaning. If TV is ecstasy, then YouTube is crystal meth.
Solution #3: You can't beat 'em, so join 'em.
Be as ironic as possible, and celebrate the new reality we find ourselves in. Irony is the song of the bird that has come to love its cage, so sing! To give an example of this approach already being adopted in 1990, Wallace discusses Mark Leyner's novel/short story collection My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist — a postmodern novel to end all postmodern novels that (apparently) takes the reader on a whirlwind acid trip of pop-culture free-association and frenetic satire. In a way it is an example of how solution #2 plays out, in book form, and Wallace's big criticism is that it is entertaining, but ultimately hollow and completely forgettable. The evidence for this may lie in the book's Wikipedia article (it has no E2 node), which is a perfunctory half-page summary with no discussion of any cultural impact, and just one lonely item in the references section, which directs us to a certain essay by Mr David F Wallace.
I suppose the next question is, Which of the options did Wallace himself choose? As Glowing Fish pointed out, E Unibus Pluram can be read as part of Wallace's preparation for writing his magnum opus, Infinite Jest. Looking at that novel, I believe he chose to accept solution #1, but under the protective guise of #3. Infinite Jest is a huge, sprawling novel with many of the tropes of postmodern fiction: multiple viewpoints, intentionally strange and unrealistic characters and events, name-dropping of brands and movie stars, diversions into esoteric topics and sub-plots, humorous juxtapositions of serious dialogue and surreal context, et cetera. However, at its core it is aggressively sincere. The overarching plot is about an international search for a film that will reverse the stupefying effects of another film that literally leaves its viewers brain dead. The main character is a precocious boy who functions well externally but is unable to truly feel, until his experiments with various mind-altering substances release him from his internal catatonia as his outward behaviour becomes more and more erratic. Does this sound familiar? The novel is trying to shake the reader out from the grip of ironic anhedonia, while the titular film within the novel does exactly the opposite. Whether the novel achieves its goal is another matter, but I think that Wallace hoped his book could help the reader truly feel the toxic effects that all-pervasive irony and insincerity has upon us, and thus, just maybe, save their very soul.
I highly recommend that you read the essay.
† — The Hollywood Reporter - The Highest-Rated Broadcast Series of 2014, and How People Watched Them