"E Unibus Pluram" is an essay written by David Foster Wallace, published in 1993 in the small circulation journal The Review of Contemporary Fiction, and later collected in A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again.
The article is subtitled "television and U.S. fiction", and that is exactly what it is about, although it can also be generalized to be about the impact of television on American culture in general. The essay was written and published before David Foster Wallace became famous for infinite jest, and is about many of the issues that would be famous in that book.
The essay is 60 pages long, and as it is written by David Foster Wallace, contains many asides and linguistically and thematically spiraling sections, but the overall premise is that television, once something that was earnestly watched for its own sake, it became something watched with the knowledge of the viewer of the fact that they were watching television, and usually with the knowledge of the viewer that watching television was a somewhat unclassy way to spend time. There are some asides about the psychology and sociology of the viewer, especially of the educated viewer (including fiction writers) who watch television with cynical detachment. The way this has influenced the fiction of several writers, such as Don Delillo, is also discussed. The essay ends with perhaps its most important point: the corrosive effect of irony on discourse, especially when irony is used to stifle dissent. The essay has to be read for all of this to be explained fully.
The essay raised two important issues for me. The first is how it fits into David Foster Wallace's overall body of work, and what it says about him personally. The essay, like many of those written before infinite jest, seems to be preparation for the novel. Much of the essay focuses on the dichotomy between earnestness and irony, or more generally between "Being" and "Thinking". It seems to have a hard time deciding on which one is preferable. While Wallace condemns the hyper-ironic recursive mode of thought, it also is impossible to go back to being purely earnest, not just because of the political and social problems with this, but because once self-awareness is released, it can't be reversed. Although the exact philosophical versus biological nature of depression is a question I don't want to get into, it also seems like Wallace's inability to reign in his mind was a major factor in his depression and suicide.
The second major issue this essay brought up for me is how much of a generation gap there is in attitudes towards television. Or rather, how big BOTH of the generation gaps are. Part of this is because, for the most part, television plays a less central role in the lives of people of my generation than it did in the lives of either David Foster Wallace's generation, or in the previous generation. Most notably, the essay was written in the early 1990s, and so is about the first thirty or so years of popular television. When Wallace was writing, the Golden Age of non-ironic, earnest television, the Father Knows Best era, was still fresh in people's minds, and the ironic era of television was seen as directly a result against that. However, from the viewpoint of 2011, television has been ironic for far longer than it has been earnest. The average traditional age college student today was born after, for example, The Simpsons came on the air. Someone would have to be 40 or over to ever remember watching television that was not somehow self-referencing or deconstructive. And for the past ten years, television has also continued the trend by "reality television". In other words, most of the essay's contents are, for the present viewer, not exactly a revelation.
But it is still surprising to me to encounter the people who still treat television in a straight ahead fashion. My grandmother, who is a media-savvy person and has worked in television herself, were talking about Bob Barker, the former host of The Price Is Right. She said that she preferred the new host Drew Carey because he was not as vain and self-promoting as Bob Barker. To me, Bob Barker is a ham, and that is a fitting thing for a game show host to be. I am sure that if I had taken the time to explain this to my grandmother, she would agree, but it would be a matter of conclusion, not perception. For me, without analysis, I perceive Bob Barker as a character played by Bob Barker.
This is different from how someone of my father's age watches television. My father is well aware of the irony and lack of realism in television, and is aware of the form of television programs and advertisements. While watching television with my father, we will say, for example, during police procedurals "Well, half an hour to go...this has to be the red herring", or, while watching an infomercial, we try to guess when they will double the offer, or throw in some free gifts. This is an amusing activity for both of us. This also seems to be the type of ironic viewing that Wallace addresses, and is himself involved in, in the essay.
And, what is especially interesting to me is that while the dichotomy between earnestness versus irony in watching television is the focus of the essay, and is a real dichotomy amongst earlier generations, one of the options is not discussed: not watching television altogether. Which is, honestly, something that is indeed the case in my generation. Not to say that people in my generation don't watch television, but it is not a central activity or source of entertainment. This is not to claim some moral superiority for my generation, as if spending an hour hitting reload on Facebook to see which of your friends have posted new pictures of their cats is somehow a better use of time than watching an hour of sitcoms. But it is interacting directly with other people, and not with a simulacrum of other people. In other words, I believe that technology and society has, in some ways, made the entire issue of television, and the attitude which it is viewed, moot.
I apologize for spending so long in the last paragraph to provide my own examples of what Wallace was writing about in the essay, and also for focusing on what is only one issue presented in his fascinating, detailed essay. Many of the issues that he writes about reach beyond the stated subject matter, and the full essay should be read both for what it says about Wallace's overall writings, and about contemporary society.