David Foster Wallace: Aerial and Ground Views on Cross-cultural Transmissions

David Foster Wallace, in his personal essay “9/11: The View from the Midwest,” conceptualizes two “basic classes” in American culture, situating them in his adopted home of Bloomington, Illinois. These classes are symbolized by “the SUV and the pickup truck,” modes of conveyance well-suited both to the “extremely flat” countryside and to their respective demographics, be they corporate State Farm employees or local blue collar workers. Wallace, an outsider, constructs an authorial identity for himself that is both a part of, but distinct from, the community at large, and explores the connections between himself and his neighbours in a televisual world increasingly dominated by corporate interests.
Wallace’s use of complex syntax is one of his stylistic hallmarks. He employs long, meandering clauses, heavily studded with modifiers, writing, for example, “Bloomington’s east side is all smoked-glass complexes and Build-To-Suit developments and a six-lane beltway of malls and franchises that’s killing the old downtown.” By loading his syntax, Wallace creates a sense of an America swollen to capacity, jammed full with consumer appeals. Here, he uses asyndeton to great effect, allowing the phrasing to unwind at a breathless pace.
Arcane diction, too, appears throughout the text. Corn “grows steroidically,” a biochemical term that calls to mind agricultural giants like Monsanto, while the green lawns “[sit] in the heat and [seethe]” with repressed frustration. Wallace uses the word “salients” to collectively describe the town’s central features, a five-dollar coinage which is not likely used in Bloomington’s general circulation, but which Wallace, as a seasoned fiction writer, wields effortlessly.
On the other hand, these constructions are offset throughout the piece by simpler, informal diction that connects directly to the middle American heartland. Wallace writes, “both towns together are like 110,000,” using the filter word “like,” so common in everyday conversation, to situate himself within the community. When he writes “B-N is lousy with churches,” he collapses together the post-modern technique of name-shortening, which he has used to great effect in previous work, and a colourful, informal term for ‘plentiful’. He uses hedging phrases, like “pretty much,” or “a little like,” which highlight his subjective take on life in Bloomington. Though he maintains some critical distance, he can also be withering in his assessments, deeming winter “a pitiless bitch.” Wallace’s status as a literary icon, and small-town guy, are negotiated through his churning prose.
When Wallace refers to State Farm as “the great dark god of consumer insurance,” which “owns the town,” he equates American corporate culture with religious myth. He makes explicit the role of business in defining the American socio-cultural landscape, charging the company, and by implication, its peers, with causing “a large and ever-wider split” between white and blue collar citizens. Throughout the essay, Wallace creates a sense that corporate culture is growing more dominant in the civil sphere. Corn, so crucial to the livelihoods of the blue collar locals that it “stretches to the earth’s curve in all directions,” is represented as an “ocean”, a vast and feckless sea that both sustains and threatens, growing on land “so expensive you can’t even find out how much it costs.” This suggests that corporate control is alive even in rural agriculture; the staple crop is priced out of the range of inquiry. The implication is that only powerful agribusiness is capable of producing Bloomington’s endless yields.
In contrast, despite the town’s many churches, there “isn’t much public community” in Bloomington. Connections between people are “basically televisual,” Wallace writes, contrasting with people he has known on the east coast, who are “constantly leaving home to go meet other people face-to-face in public places.” Social networks in Bloomington are mediated through gathering in one another’s homes and watching television. Wallace uses the word “TV” five times in a single paragraph, highlighting its prominence. The centrality of the term suggests that TV cuts across the social classes, and may be the only means of transcending them. “To have a home without a TV,” he writes, “is to become a kind of constant and Kramer-like presence in others’ homes.” This reference to Kramer, a character from a popular TV show, is invoked as an indicator of spontaneous ubiquity, and is doubtless recognizable across the town’s rural and urban sub-cultures. The TV, Wallace suggests, is the primary way of knowing in small town Bloomington.
On the topic of television, Wallace goes further, juxtaposing its consumption with public citizenship. For the people of Bloomington, who “offer you access to their TV in the same instinctive way they’d bend to lend you a hand if you’d tripped in the street,” an instinctive, fraternal loyalty is constructed during TV time, and strengthened in moments of “some kind of must-see, Crisis-type situation.” Here, Wallace again uses the language of television. “Must-see TV,” a common marketing term heard throughout the 1990s, is invoked to comment upon the grand scale of the “Horror”, and the way it is consumed, and reified, by a community of spectators.
Television is also the medium through which isolated Bloomington constructs and communicates its identity with regard to the wider world. New York’s skyline is “recognizable from TV,” though Wallace makes clear elsewhere in the essay that most residents have little sense of the city as a distinct place with its own discrete geography. TV’s dominance in cultural exchange is highlighted in the first end-note of this section, when Wallace quotes a local: “State Farm people ‘sound like folks on TV.’” The power of corporate culture, defused and transmitted through the country’s biggest, loudest soapbox, redefines reference points of local and national identity.
Together these phrases, rhythms, and observations construct Wallace’s persona as an adopted outsider, at once at home in the community and alien to it, connected to his neighbours, but apart from them. One of the most powerful links is corporate culture, manifested through TV, and the sorts of mega-spectacles that “the Horror” provides. TV transcends the urban/rural divide the same way Wallace himself does, as a famous writer in a small town. Wallace brings his description of the region to life in a few short paragraphs, and embeds within it the conflicting, contrasting social lives of its residents.

re: http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/9-11-the-view-from-the-midwest-20110819

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