Total Noise

Thinking quite a bit this weekend about David Foster Wallace, who committed suicide Friday.

It — his death, by hanging it appears, a detail somehow oddly relevant — caused me to re-read his introduction to the 2007 Best American Essays. You should read it, too.

Wallace, in explaining his choices for the collection, suggested we live in a world of "Total Noise" — the "tsunami of available fact, context, and perspective" that renders us helpless, intellectually immobile. Wallace gives this example of how drowning in information has paralyzed us, kept us from our most important civic duties:

Here is an overt premise. There is just no way that 2004’sreelection
could have taken place — not to mention extraordinary renditions,
legalized torture, FISA-flouting, or the passage of the Military
Commissions Act — if we had been paying attention and handling
information in a competent grown-up way. ‘We’ meaning as a polity and
culture. The premise does notentail specific blame — or rather the
problems here are too entangled and systemic for good old-fashioned
finger-pointing. It is, for one example, simplistic and wrong to blame
the for-profit media for somehow failing to make clear to us the moral
and practical hazards of trashing the Geneva Conventions. The
for-profit media is highly attuned to what we want and the amount
of detail we’ll sit still for. And a ninety-second news piece on the
question of whether and how the Geneva Conventions ought to apply in an
era of asymmetrical warfare is not going to explain anything; the
relevant questions are too numerous and complicated, too fraught with
contexts in everything from civil law and military history to ethics
and game theory. One could spend a hard month just learning the history
of the Conventions’ translation into actual codes of conduct for the
U.S. military . . . and that’s not counting the dramatic changes in
those codes since 2002, or the question of just what new practices
violate (or don’t) just which Geneva provisions, and according to whom.
Or let’s not even mention the amount of research, background,
cross-checking, corroboration, and rhetorical parsing required to
understand the cataclysm of Iraq, the collapse of congressional
oversight, theideology of neoconservatism, the legal status of
presidential signing statements, the political marriage of evangelical
Protestantism and corporatist laissez-faire . . . There’s no way. You’d
simply drown. We all would. It’s amazing to me that no one much talks
about this — about the fact that whatever our founders and framers
thought of as a literate, informed citizenry can no longer exist, at
least not without a whole new modern degree of subcontracting and
dependence packed into what we mean by ‘informed.’

Emphasis mine.

In this world of Total Noise, we have a choice — to depend upon writers like Wallace's essayists to "process and arrange" facts, opinions, data to offer us something "clear without being simplistic, comprehensive without being overwhelming, and critical without being shrill." Or, "to retreat to narrow arrogance, pre-formed positions, rigid filters, the ‘moral clarity’ of the immature."

Which gets us to the predicament we're in now. And yes, that means we now write about Sarah Palin — again. I think part of the liberal blogosphere's collective hysteria over her selection by McCain has been the sickening feeling that the Republican campaign strategists have a better, more sophisticated understanding of Total Noise. Even if many — certainly most — haven't read the essay, they intuitively understand what is going on, the simultaneous appeal to "pre-formed positions" and "rigid filters" ("We like Sarah because she's just like us," the portrayal of the Barack Obama as alien, different, exotic, not like you) while relentlessly slinging mud, knowing it will get lost in the Total Noise (in this case, the pretense of "balanced journalism" in which the media attempt to find equal fault in both sides). In the world of Total Noise, you can tell ten times the lies of the other side, without worry, as most of the time, in the search for balance, the lying will be presented as a 50-50 affair. As so many stories purport to tell us, "Both sides do it!"

We were, of course, told this in the year 2000. And yet again in 2004.

So, for those without the time to sift through the deluge of claim and counter-claim, the evidence to debunk or support each, we depend on honest brokers, to present the facts unambiguously and clearly for us. We have fifty days.


One thought on “Total Noise

  1. Pingback: Drowning in a sea of information « Many Thousand Glittering Motes' Blog

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s