E Omnivorous Herbivoram
David Foster Wallace, whose social criticism may have outpaced his fiction in the daring department, wrote a brilliant essay in 1993 called “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U. S. Fiction.” The long-form piece (Over 50 pages) captures DFW on the verge of full bloom, getting matters right in a way that was so powerfully accurate that you knew you were witnessing a rare emergence. I like DFW. Tremendously. Although I never met him (and never will—he killed himself in 2008), reading this essay when it came out was like a first date with a precarious and surprisingly attentive genius who, despite all odds to the contrary, earned your complete trust.
Twenty years later, I continue to value the main lesson of the essay: irony was overrated. Surely, DFW understood irony and, there’s no doubt, should he have been so inclined, the man would have slayed us with it. But irony, as DFW ultimately viewed it, was not only overrated, it was dangerous. It was dangerous because it represented an all too easy way to avoid the deeper authenticity of experience. What, Wallace wondered, could be more tragic than that?
For DFW, the facileness of irony—its wink-wink, nudge-nudge quality—allowed it to pose as biting criticism while in reality serving as yet another example of clever people (to refer to another social critic) amusing themselves to death. For me, a twenty-something who lived life primarily to seek out and savor every nugget of irony, I came to discover that this little message, punctuated with DFW’s enviable brilliance, saved me from going into the wrong cave.
So what does any of this have to do with eating plants? We’ll get there. For now, start by considering exactly how DFW addressed the pitfalls of irony in “E Unibus Pluram.” Highlighting the contemporary literary effort to carpet bomb a nation of narcotized television addicts with sharp doses of irony, DFW—who was said to watch as much as seven hours of TV a day—noted how, despite all the efforts, TV beat the critics (often called the Brat Pack) to the punch. By a mile.
Nobody before Wallace had made this point. Nobody had realized that television’s creators were so deeply aware of their venture’s vulnerability to irony that they quietly coopted irony, throwing it back at the critics and effectively forcing the Brat Pack of writers from the 1980s to turn their well-honed critical knives on each other. Nobody noticed this because our irony-wielding critics—big point here—weren’t watching enough TV.
The best sentence in the whole essay taps into this message. DFW writes, “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. How TV’s done this is blackly fascinating to see.”
Blackly fascinating indeed. And now we can move closer to plants, specifically the vegan effort to encourage more humans to eat them. In this effort, we’re not altogether unlike the culturally astute scribbler-critics whom DFW explores in order to demonstrate their ineffectiveness. They wrote books and articles lampooning the bobble-heads whose lives were centered on “who shot JR?” (For readers under 40, here you go.) Like us, they took on a monolithic cause. Like us, they peered into a thoroughly normalized habit that they thought demeaned the value of life and, in turn, deployed many of their creative talents to change that situation.
The difference is that, for vegans, it’s not irony that the “enemy” has co-opted. It’s our earnestness. Vegans actually tend to have little use for irony. The urgency and moral implication of our message lends itself poorly to this sometimes whimsical form of critique. We are thus deadly earnest. We never make fun of ourselves or go lightly when others take jabs at our mission. Earnestness is our ammunition and we fire it with a vengeance. How could we do otherwise? Who has time to wink-wink-nudge-nudge when animals are being slaughtered by the millions?
The problem is that earnestness, like irony, is also easy to co-opt. The “meat industry”—or whatever you want to call those who control the message for eating animals—has, like television, beaten us at our own game. We’ve said animals matter. They’ve said animals matter. We’ve said food should be ethically produced. They’ve said food should be ethically produced. We’ve said animals are integral to human life. They said animals are integral to human life. They’ve managed the message with so much of their own irony that nobody even sees it as irony. They see it as true. And earnest. The myths have become reality. And if you disagree, just check out this Dodge ad that ran during the Super Bowl.
I wish there was an easy takeaway from this post. But I’m afraid there isn’t, other than to say that, just as Wallace watched a lot of TV to understand something about TV that nobody else understood, we need to engage perhaps more systematically with the meat industry in order to fully understand its ability to shape the terms of the debate in a way that leaves us fighting amongst ourselves.