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total noise

September 29, 2010

This blog doesn’t get updated enough. It isn’t for lack of stuff to write about. It’s more like I am paralyzed and muted by the sheer volume of it all. (You could take volume as a signifier of quantity or of intensity, because I mean it both ways.)

For example, the other night, my roommate and I found ourselves without plans, streaming Mystic Pizza from Netflix and drinking wine. I don’t want your pity! It was a fate we chose: I’d specifically had a hankering for a vaguely cheesy movie, where the lighting was soft and diffuse and the women had big sweaters and bigger hair.  Mystic Pizza fit the bill. But I said to my roommate during the movie, “I’m disappointed that this isn’t more about pizza.” I could have sworn that the synopsis had paraphrased Mellow Mushroom’s creation myth, and that the movie would be about three stoner sisters working in their cool stoner pizza parlor, being sassy and independent and iconoclastic in their small town. But no. It was just another run of the mill Julia Roberts movie, a boring film where no one grew as a character and the ending was totally happy . And I thought about writing about why stoner movies always feature guys, and how the female pothead archetype doesn’t really exist (enough that Andrew Sullivan brought it up on his blog and Good Morning America did a segment about it and Marie Claire wrote about it), and I probably would have gotten around to making the point that stoners are supposed to be funny and ambitionless and slovenly, in an endearing way, but that we as a society don’t find women as funny as men, and stoners are supposed to be likable but we still don’t generally think of women as likable,  where is our female James Franco!?, Mystic Pizza could never have been about stoners in the “just say no” 1980s and that whole movement has really done some long term damage, blah blah blah.

I never had the mental energy to sit down and write that, because the connected ideas and their connected tangents started to spiral into something unmanageable. Sometimes I think about young people and the economic situation, or what individuals can do to eat more ethically, or how we should think and write about the Tea Party (hint: I do not think Taibbi’s method is the way, though I do share his distaste for the movement. Their ideas are harebrained, but is it helpful to write so dismissively of them as just a bunch of angry white rubes, to compare them to dogs? Are they really just creating a lot of noise, static with no signal? Probably, but then again, will we be wringing our hands wondering what went wrong someday when a Tea Party candidate is sworn in as president?).  I think to myself, “I should update my blog. I could write a post about this.” But I feel now like can’t write about one without necessarily writing about all the rest of it. It is all bound together in a knot that is horrifically Gordian.

If you want to understand why the government does what it does, or why politicians do as they do, you have to understand the government for what it is. It is not nimble and responsive, really, and it’s not a person or a few people. It’s a leviathan with tentacles sucked deep into the muck of treaties and wars and laws of decades past; its limbs are lashed down here and there by various other actors and obligations (China, for instance, holds lots of our debt, so I’m not sure how willing we’d be to force their hand too much on any given issue). Meanwhile, our politicians are short-lived and self-interested, specks of dust compared to the size of the institution they’re supposed to be helming and the systemic ills they’re supposed to be solving.  And the effort it requires to truly understand what we’re up against—should I invoke Hercules or Sisyphus here? Let’s take just one issue for an example. Let’s take the war in Iraq. To understand it fully, you’d probably want to understand the Cold War and all of its proxy wars, the Soviet war in Afghanistan, the money we gave to Saddam Hussein and why; you’d want to learn about the revolutions in the Middle East and our history of meddling there, and you’d want to learn about Al Qaeda and the strain of fundamentalist religious thought motivating its members; you’d want to get familiar with neoconservatism and probably the rise of evangelical Christian-ism in the GOP; you’d want to try to follow the money, the no-bid contracts awarded to Halliburton, or whoever; you’d want to pin down our shifting alliances in the region, when we were or weren’t in bed with Pakistan, you’d want to learn about the long line of generals and their horrible mistakes as well as their unheeded recommendations about how to run the war; you’d want to learn about counterinsurgency; you’d want to learn about how the US military was never built to do this kind of war. That’s just to truly understand it, and then there’s the news coverage to keep up with.

We haven’t even gotten to financial deregulation and the subsequent collapse of the industry and our economy, or the rise of the Tea Party, or health care reform, or growing income inequality, or our crappy public education system, or the drug wars in Mexico, or immigration reform, or any of that. And they’re all interrelated. And that’s leaving aside Europe, Africa, Asia. And that’s also leaving aside trying to keep track of the horse race of US politics, keeping up with the daily jockeying for coverage in the press, for polling points.

So it seems a little presumptuous to say you’re going to write about anything when you also must acknowledge that you don’t understand anything. David Foster Wallace wrote about this already, in his introduction to The Best American Essays 2007, so I feel a bit redundant writing any of this. He said “today’s felt reality is overwhelmingly, circuit-blowingly huge and complex.”  He talks about the “Total Noise,” that barrage of information that is our culture. He has a better example than I do, about trying to understand complicated goings-on like Iraq, and then he says,

“There’s no way. You’d simply drown. We all would. It’s amazing to me that no one much talks about this—that whatever our founders and framers thought of as a literate, informed citizenry can no longer exist,” without subcontracting the legwork to someone else. “Part of our emergency is that it’s so tempting to do this sort of thing now, to retreat to narrow arrogance, pre-formed positions, rigid filters, the ‘moral clarity’ of the immature. The alternative is dealing with massive, high-entropy amounts of info and ambiguity and conflict and flux; it’s continually discovering new areas of personal ignorance and delusion. In sum, to really try to be informed and literate today is to feel stupid nearly all the time, and to need help.”

Yes! I need help!  OK. Whew, I feel like I’ve swept away a lot of the mental clutter by getting that all off my chest. I haven’t written any fiction for two years. My writer-friend suggested that I pay less attention to the news. I think I will have to. I think I will especially pay less attention to the ins and outs of the day to day news cycle. Where does it really get me? I don’t find it illuminating or edifying. Perhaps I should stick to long form pieces about the big ideas. Various people have tried “media diets” before. I’m excited about mine.  I am going to un-subscribe to half of the stuff in my Google Reader and head for

(Maybe other people don’t have the problems I have, with these tangents. But writing this post reminds me that I don’t think I like contemporary American fiction writing. There’s this very specific masculine kind of writing that I’m referring to. I think DFW does it, and I think Don DeLillo, and some other people. It’s so cold and dry and self-centered and self-obsessed. Or something. I don’t know, I wasn’t an English major, I’m not well-read enough to back up this statement. But see! See what I mean! How can I get well-read while also staying well-informed? There aren’t enough hours in the day!)

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