Tag Archives: Host

On Hope and Cynicism

It seems important to recognize a few things about cynicism. Firstly, that cynicism needn’t necessarily be expressed humbly, or doubtfully. A good way to think about this distinction is to compare David Foster Wallace’s cynicism in Up Simba, to John Ziegler’s cynicism on his radio show. Ziegler is dogmatically cynical, self righteously cynical and what this dogmatism amounts to is the belief that there is no choice but to be cynical, that cynicism is reality. In fact of course we can choose, we can choose to believe OJ was innocent, and that McCain had only Chris Duren in mind during his phone call. In Up Simba, David Foster Wallace is at least partially pointing out that cynicism is interpretation, editorializing so to speak, and that what makes or breaks any Anti-candidate is whether he’s able to convince us to choose not to be cynical. But what exactly goes into this decision?

If John Ziegler’s case can be extrapolated, I think we can probably see cynicism as the product of a kind of embattled fatigue. Ziegler’s cyncism about the innerworkings of commercial talk radio seems totally justified by his experience there. You get the feeling from Ziegler’s professional narrative that those hosts who choose not to be cynical about the talk radio industry do not survive in it. Wallace seems to see Ziegler’s universal cynicism as an extension of his justified and pragmatic cynicism w/r/t talk radio. Wallace doesn’t see this extension as justified, and I think most of us would agree, I think most of us see the world and everybody in it as basically too big for any answer to the question ‘should I be cynical.’ Most of us figure that there’s at least a possibility that people are basically good, and that we just can never know enough not to doubt our cynicism w/r/t the world at large,

It is this doubt that must be capitalized on by the anti-candidate, and one of the things that made Obama so amazing earlier this year is that in the 2008 election we voters probably had less of this doubt than at any other point in US political history. Eight years of Bush has left most Americans feeling about Politics the way John Ziegler feels about the talk radio industry: totally, justifiably cynical. When people talk about Bush’s splitting america and intensifying partisanship, what they’re really saying Bush did is make Americans less doubtful of their cynicism, on both sides of the aisle. The Idea of the anti-candidate is to bypass people’s dogmatically ingrained political cynicism by appealing to their still hopeful belief in sincerity’s existence in the world at all, to present their candidate as a person before a politician because Americans feel they can still trust people even if they feel they can no longer trust politicians.

The danger of the anti-candidate is that by capitalizing on our doubt that we should be cynical about everything and everyone, it forces us, political cynics all, to be cynical about where such a feeling of doubt comes from. We become worried that this doubt is not justified by the vastness of the world but cultivated by strategists for political interests, and this worry is deeply, philosophically troubling. Cynicism about campaign slogans becomes a heavy heavy thing when the slogans in question are “hope” and “change.” What’s so problematic about the anti-candidate is that if we can’t believe in him, it seems like we can’t believe in anything, so we believe in him, fervently, even though we know we probably shouldn’t.

The Purpose Behind Formatting?

The content of Wallace’s essay “Host” is as usual quite intriguing but, as is also often true, the formatting was a little tough to read through. I understand when he uses experimental formatting in his fiction, especially his short stories, because often the resulting emotions/awareness caused by the formatting are similar to those that curse the narrator (like the inability to exactly convey thoughts because they do not translate well to English). But it’s difficult for me to believe that Wallace uses the same reasoning for his non-fiction, especially when the topic of the essay seems to have little to do with these anxieties.
In “Host,” after all, Wallace shadows a radio talk-show host and his station cohorts, and describes (with some editorializing) them and what they do. It seems like a straightforward issue; as a reader initially I did not at all see that, because on the first page is some crazy stuff that I had to figure out. By now, as Wallace-readers we are used to footnotes and sometimes other similar structures, but in-text blocks that look more like parts of a flow chart than paragraphs in an essay completely threw me off. At first it was difficult to navigate these blocks, because they do not always appear near the point in the main text to which they refer. I would read them too early, not understanding the context; or I’d realize that I already read past their relevance. And then the blocks themselves could have other blocks extending from them into other, again seemingly random, locations on the page.

Like all of Wallace’s writing oddities, I hoped that I would get used to this one over time so I could actually pay attention to the content of his essay–which, for a non-fiction piece, seems appropriate. And I did eventually get used to it, at least a little bit; a sort of rhythm emerged, where I’d make sure to finish sentences and then go back and read any relevant text blocks, reading them in full before going on to their own sub-blocks. It just required some organization. But I have to wonder why Wallace would put the reader through this in the first place. I don’t remember much of the beginning of the essay, when I was still coming up with a system of reading. Why would he want to obscure meaning in this way? Perhaps he knew this would happen and made sure the beginning stuff wasn’t very important (and, looking back at it, it doesn’t seem crucial to understanding the rest of the essay, since a lot of it comes up again)–but that doesn’t answer the above question. . . .

Let’s look at some of the things Wallace says in “Host.”

“The fact of the matter is that it is not John Ziegler’s job to be responsible, or nuanced, or to think about whether his on-air comments are productive or dangerous, or cogent, or even defensible” (281).
“These ads, which are KFI’s most powerful device for exploiting the intimacy and trust of the listener-host relationship . . .” (298).
“[In talk-show radio, there is] the near total conflation of news and entertainment” (310).

Most of this essay appears to be about the interesting job of John Ziegler, but there are some tidbits like those above that draw attention to some of Wallace’s own possible issues. First, we have discussed Wallace’s authority in his writing, and how we basically believe everything he says. Is it his job, then, to be “responsible, or nuanced” in what he says? After all, like Ziegler, he is not actually a journalist, he is simply a writer who easily shares with us his own opinions on the subjects he covers. Unlike on the radio, Wallace’s writing is not interspersed with ads, but one does have to keep in mind that it is always an interested third party (i.e. Atlantic Monthly) who pays Wallace for this writing, and one has to wonder how much this affects the “reporting” and possible bias (which, on the other hand, we know exists in some form anyway). Finally, while Wallace’s writing is not “news,” it is informative of the world around us, especially of those aspects we aren’t completely familiar with, and is simultaneously (at least, usually) entertaining. The most interesting sentence to examine here could be, “Sometimes Mr. Z. calls endorsements ‘disgusting’ and says ‘The majority of talk show hosts in this country are complete and total whores’ ” (298).

Is it possible that, because of the similarities previously noted between his job and Mr. Z.’s, Wallace might consider himself a writing “whore”? Could this be why he makes it so difficult, through the formatting, for the reader to really get past a surface glimpse of content, because this realization is too personal and unflattering and frightening?