Does This Tumblr Page Make Me Look Smart? Infinite Snark and The Decline of Western Civilization

When a Facebook friend recently posted a photo of his hot-off-the-press copy of David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King, I groaned. Not because I dislike DFW: I have read and enjoyed his collections of essays, I wish his commencement speech could replace the one that Eliot Spitzer gave at my graduation ceremony, and I have been circling Infinite Jest for the last month or so. No, the groan was directed at the photographer and the possible reasons one might post such an image. If I’m in a bad mood (and clearly I was when I groaned), I might believe that this person is using the photo to delineate his standing as a Cool Kid: he’s the type of kid who uses Facebook to show off his DFW purchases, link to songs by The Weekend, and upload Hipstamatic shots of the New York City skyline. If I’m in a more gracious, introspective move, I might find more similarities than differences between these activities and my own Facebook pursuits: badmouthing American Psycho and other Cool Kid signifiers, digging up old clips of Adam McKay’s short films from Saturday Night Live, posting links to a blog where I talk about recent films that I have seen. I am sure my Facebook activity makes people groan all the time.

In other words, my own contributions to online discourse frequently center on art that I’ve recently purchased or consumed. To badmouth someone for using the web for the same reasons would be hypocritical and kind of obnoxious. Which brings me to the subject of a recent piece in The Boston Phoenix, the Tumblr site People Holding Infinite Jest. In “Does This Book Make Me Look Smart?” Eugenia Williamson talks to Chris Braiotta, a Somerville resident who has launched “a one-man campaign to document the phenomenon of how people use [Infinite Jest] as a lifestyle marker.” Braiotta has beef not only with the people who show us they’re reading Jest: he also finds the content of the book (which he has not read, outside of a snippet of Jest tattooed on somebody’s calf) to be worth railing against:

“It was this combination of overbaked slop and Gen-X anomie, way after anybody should care about Gen-X anomie [...] It’s the Jonathan Livingston Seagull of people with vanity master’s degrees…It has nothing new to say. ‘Advertising’s taken over everything!’ Well, how about that. I think Saturday Night Live covered that in 1983. We can move on from that accurate and stinging critique of our society.” 

There’s a lot to hate in Braiotta’s “critique” of a novel he’s never read: his use of the phrase “Gen-X anomie” not once but twice in a single sentence, his bad metaphors (“overbaked slop”? Is it cake or porridge, son, because it can’t be both), his variation on the now-cliche “[insert old thing] called, he / she / it wants its [insert thing old thing discusses] back.” My favorite part of this statement, however, is the cognitive dissonance between Braiotta’s lambasting of Wallace’s “social commentary” as tired and his own decision to tap into the zeitgeist by creating a Tumblr page which amounts to saying little more than “people use their purchases to construct their identities.” Nick Hornby called, he wants the plot of High Fidelity back.

And unlike Hornby, Braoitta is less interested in examining why the performances of our identities frequently entail the rattling off of recent cultural acquistions: he’s more concerned with taking a page from Vice‘s “Dos and Don’ts” feature and writing snarky (and not very funny) captions in which he imagines what these DFW poseurs are thinking about. More annoyingly, Braoitta wants to have his cake and eat it too, in the sense that he hopes people don’t misread his site dedicated solely to mocking these people as a site dedicated solely to mocking these people: “As dumb I think people are for reading this book, I don’t want them to accidentally make them feel bad about themselves. [...] They’re just nice people, reading a book and taking a picture. Getting excited about a book isn’t the worst thing in the world.” He can’t even pass up the chance to call them “dumb” while arguing that he doesn’t want them to feel bad!

That being said (here’s where I go after my own cake), a Tumblr page is not typically a forum for serious intellectual discourse, and the snap judgments and snark remind me of conversations I’ve had with friends at bars and in Facebook comment threads. But Braoitta is the subject of my ire today for the way these kinds of conversations have overwhelmed and drowned out serious critical discourse online (and in print: the feature on Braoitta in the Phoenix is given more space than the review of The Pale King [which I did like!] found in the paper’s “Books” section). Snap judgments are typically the start and end of these sorts of discussions, and while a clever barb might get you higher page views and an interview in the local paper, assuming the mantle of Cool Kid Too Cool For The Cool Kids doesn’t seem worth it in the long run.

I guess I’m also sensitive about what passes for “funny” these days: it doesn’t seem like much effort is needed to get something passed around Facebook and Twitter beyond an engaging concept with a solid elevator pitch (looking at you, disappointing-yet-popular mash-up of The Wire and Victorian literature). Kenneth Goldsmith recently wrote a smart post for Harriet about why certain memes — particularly those that successfully adopt poetic strategies to engage with their audiences — have more traction than others. I liked Goldsmith’s piece because it argued convincingly that web humor can have depth and substance behind it: on the other hand, sites like People Holding Infinite Jest, while somewhat popular, are no deeper than a kiddie pool.

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