2.2 "Little Expressionless Animals" as image-fiction


"Little Expressionless Animals"(39) is set behind the scenes of "Jeopardy", one of the most popular American game shows. Since every American with a TV-set is probably familiar with it, it is the perfect object for a defamiliarizing presentation. In writing about this show, Wallace tries to prolong and intensify the perceptual process with which viewers usually receive it. This he achieves by defamiliarizing and complicating the show. It is defamiliarized first through its presentation in words (a more difficult medium than images) and second through the depiction from another angle, i.e. behind the scenes. It becomes even more complicated because Wallace does not present it as a final and easily consumable product but as a production process. He shows it to be the outcome of a complex network of interpersonal relations and emotions.

Also, the complex structure of the story affords some integrative (perceptual) work on the reader's part. Wallace states:

Readers [of "Little Expressionless Animals", V. H.] I know sometimes remark on all the flash-cuts and the distortion of linearity in it and usually want to see it as mimicking TV's own pace and phosphenic flutter. But what it's really trying to do is just the opposite of TV ? it's trying to prohibit the reader from forgetting that she's receiving heavily mediated data, that this process is a relationship between the writer's consciousness and her own, and in order for it to be anything like a full human relationship, she's going to have to put in her share of the linguistic work.(40)
This "share of linguistic work" required for an adequate understanding of the story consists mainly in putting the fictional events into a chronological order. The consecutive passages do not seem to follow an inner logical connection. This cohesion is only attained in retrospect, as the reader is forced to actually work with the story in order to put the pieces together. To sharpen the reader's awareness of the importance of chronology, Wallace places dates at the beginning of the first few passages. The primary aim of the story is thus not to please the reader, but to lead him to some kind of higher awareness. It also fullfills Wallace's demands for "serious" art, i.e. art for which the consumer has to expend energy.

The structure of the story does not differ much from other, even more complicated works of literature. To be identifiable as image-fiction it therefore has to offer some insights into what it means to live in an image-culture. I have grouped these insights into four topics which reverberate throughout the story.
 

1. The financial logic of TV

Wallace describes TV as a "low" art because its primary aim is to make money and therefore to please the people. Throughout the story there are reminders of the financial nature of TV, references to market-shares and the Nielsen ratings of "Jeopardy". The reader is constantly kept aware that all decisions leading to the final show are made for monetary reasons. This becomes most obvious at the emergency policy meeting where a contestant rule is to be discussed. Should the rule be abandoned which states that each contestant can only be on the show for five slots? If so, that would mean the end for Julie Smith and an already enormous market-share. The question is already settled in the beginning of the meeting, for it is less a discussion than a presentation of Merv's decision to the staff. Moreover, it is not even Griffin's decision but that of Triscuit, a company that airs commercials during the breaks of the show. As Merv's mouthpiece, the shiny man, puts it:
See that window? That's where the rules go. Out the window [...] I mean does he [the TV-entertainer] cling blindly to the rules for their own sake when the very goal and purpose and idea of those rules walks right in off the street and into the hearts of every Triscuit consumer of the free world? (p. 25)
And later Merv says,
We're thinking perpetuation, is what we're thinking. Every thumb over at Triscuit is up on this one. (p. 28)
It becomes clear where the real power is and how the decisions are made. The only rule is to make money.

2. The breakdown of the boundary between the inside and the outside of the TV-set

There are many instances in the story in which people actually respond to the things going on in their tube as if they were confronting a human being. This is exemplified in scene in which the character Dee and her TV-set carry out a conversation. Wallace underscores this impression by personalizing the tube: "'Let's all be there,' says the television." (p. 8) "'Does your husband still look at you the way he used to?', asks the television." (p. 9) Throughout the whole scene the TV-set is "saying" or "asking" something and the character responds, thereby granting it human features. The reader is further alerted when Faye relates the story of how Trebek played a joke on Sajak. During Sajak's show "The Wheel" Trebek tampered with the applause sign so that the audience was falsely applauding when the candidates lost. This strongly implies the artificiality and arbitrariness of TV. In the context of Dee's conversation with her tube this anecdote makes the reader aware of how blurred the boundaries between the real and the artificial images on TV already are for Dee (and millions of other viewers!).

There is another short passage (p. 13/14) in which Wallace plays with the reader's sense of boundary. The three game-show hosts Alex Trebek, Pat Sajak and Bert Convy sit in front of a TV-set and watch a tape of the World Series from the previous year. They are literally plucked out of the small box in which the American viewer/reader usually sees them and placed in front of it. They behave exactly the same as the ordinary viewer; they drink soda, pretend to know everything about baseball, and talk about their jobs. The reader is allowed to witness them as ordinary guys and normal human beings instead of depersonalized grins.

Later two characters, Dee Goddard and Muffy De Mott, enter into a conversation about the difficulties of distinguishing between the inside and the outside of the tube. Talking about disturbed people, Muffy says that they

had only the TV all their lives, their parents or whomever started them right off by plunking them down right in front of the set, and as they get older the TV comes to be their whole emotional world, it's all they have, and it becomes in a way their whole way of defining themselves as existents, with a distinct identity, that they're outside the set, and everything else is inside the set. [...] And then you hear about how every once in a while one of them gets on TV somehow. [T]hey go home and plunk right down in front of the set, and all of a sudden they look and they're inside the set. [...] And sometimes you hear about how it drives them mad, sometimes. (p. 31)
This passage again deals with the violation of the boundary between the flickering world of TV-images and the existential reality of characters. Instead of a TV-set being treated like a human being, something quite different happens: a human being crosses the threshold into the flickering world of TV and becomes an image. Both passages are similar in their emphasis on the pervasive presence and importance of TV. It is no longer just an apparatus of entertainment, but a thing which constitutes the reality and identity of subjects. At the same time, it deeply affects the sense of reality of the characters, i.e. their ability to distinguish between image and real thing, or signifier and signified. By responding to it, Dee treats the image of the TV announcer as a human being. The same inability to read an image as a mere sign and not as the real thing leads to the madness of the TV-junkie who suddenly sees himself on the tube. He acquires a split personality and is unable to decide which part of him is more real: the one outside or the one inside the tube.

3. TV's psychologizing formulas

During the conversations between the two main characters, the lesbian couple, Julie Smith and Faye Goddard, often make up stories in which they explain to an imaginary audience why they became lesbians. All of these stories are alike in that they are narratives with beginning, middle and end, and that they pinpoint such a complex "thing" as lesbianism to a single reason or occurrence. The central position which these narratives inhabit in the story leads to the assumption that they are also deeply connected with the main theme, i.e. TV. I suggest that these stories mimick the way in which TV represents complex realities: put it into a nice little narrative and offer only one explanation so that people do not get too confused. These stories can be compared to Sklovskij's formulas: as colloquial language reproduces all of its topics in reductive ways, so does TV have a repertoire of stock explanations for everything. We already know the reason: broadcasting-time is money and it would be much too expensive to completely develop a topic. Also, in order to secure millions of viewers, TV has to give them pleasure. Neat little stories with identifiable characters are much more comfortable then complex explanations.

4. The treatment of humans as visual objects and the metaphor of the "expressionless face"

We saw how in the story televisual images are invested with human features, thus indicating a perceptual blur of the boundary between images and real things. But this "perceptual blur" has a more profound side to it: as televisual images become more humanized, real human beings are increasingly treated as mere visual objects. Wallace shows these two processes to be two sides of the same coin by intertwining two perceptual processes in the same scene. While Dee is having her "conversation" with the tube, Julie and Faye are watching her through the remote viewer in Faye«s office, thereby turning Dee herself into an image. Julie tells Faye, "It's mean to watch her like this." (p. 9) Julie seems to have a sense that by spying on Dee they somehow reduce her and divest her of her individual features.

In another passage (p. 34) Wallace effectively illustrates why this kind of watching can be understood as a reduction of its object. One of the stories Faye and Julie create is about a college boy who gradually turns his girlfried into an aesthetic object. He makes her diet, or gain weight, he makes her exercise and supervises her haircuts and make-overs. The only thing he ever does is watch. During the night he watches her naked body lifting weights in his room. Finally, he watches her from outside his window. He has literally put a screen between him and his girlfriend, and thereby turned her one step further into a mere image, or a visual object. Yet, there remains some form of exchange between them, for he can see her and she can see him. This ends the moment he invites his friends to stare at her too. This imitates a TV-like situation: a gaping crowd outside and a dehumanized body inside. The exchange between the girl and her boyfriend is now only one-way. He can still see her, but she cannot distinguish him anymore in the midst of the faces outside, which remind her of carved pumpkins.

Wallace's metaphor for the gaze which strips the object of its individual features is the expressionless face, which is above all distinguished by a blank stare. Examples are easy to find: there is the woman with the "loose face" in the beginning, Julie's mother (p. 3); there are the faces of the people in the movie theater that reflect the flickering images from the screen, thereby becoming screens themselves (p. 4); the TV-crowd is nothing but a bunch of little expressionless animals; there is Merv Griffin's man who has a "shiny face" (p. 24); there are the two dreams of Alex Trebek, one about a cook flipping pancakes that resemble faces (p. 19), and one about a field covered with little bunny rabbits all staring in his direction (p. 36). These are all examples of faces that do not communicate anything about what is going on behind them. The stare of the expressionless face does not perceive any human being it focuses on to be of the same reality as itself, it understands it as an image. This way of watching spares much perceptual work and the need for personal involvement.

Instead of wearing a blank face, another possibility is to simply not face the other person. There is an interesting scene at the beginning of the story in which we are introduced to the whole staff of "Jeopardy". They are all waiting for Julie to arrive, because another show is about to be filmed. They are all in one small room discussing the work ahead, but they hardly ever look directly at each other. Mostly they just catch glimpses of each other in the window. Wallace works meticulously to make this point clear, as there are constant reminders of the reflections in the window, and whenever a person speaks, we are told afterward about the direction in which the person was looking. Here are some examples:

"What we have here, Faye, is a twenty-minutes-tops type of thing," says the director, looking at the watch on the underside of her wrist. (p. 5)
"Thank you ever so much, Janet," Dee Goddard says to the director. She looks down at her clipboard. (p. 5)
Dee squints at her clipboard. "So how many is that all together, then?" (p. 6)
"And I'm sure they're primed," Faye says. She looks at the backs of her hands, in her lap. (p. 6)
In the window, Faye sees Dee's outline check its own watch with a tiny motion. "Questions all lined up?" the outline asks. (p. 6)
"Is what your job is today." Janet stares at Faye's back. Faye Goddard gives her ex-stepfather's wife, Janet Goddard, the finger, in the window. "One of those for every animal question," she says. (p. 7)
The counterpart to the various "expressionless faces" is Julie Smith. She likes "faces whose expressions change by the second" (p. 10) and dislikes "insects with antennae [they do not even have some kind of face, V. H.] and animals in general." (p. 12) She is aware that it is cruel to watch Dee through the remote viewer. In an important scene her face is described:
Julie has the best skin Faye's ever seen on anyone anywhere. It's not just that it's so clear it's flawed, or that here in low sun off water it's the color of a good blush wine; it has the texture of something truly alive, an elastic softness, like a ripe sheath, a pod. It is vulnerable and has depth [...]. Everything about her is sort of permeable [...]. (p. 13)
Julie's face communicates to her partner something about her feelings, it relays emotions instead of holding them back. This is the reason why Julie and Faye have a good relationship. They are the only ones in the story who openly talk to each other. They touch each other and relate the most intimate details of their youth.

The opposition between openness and permeability on the one side, and blankness and expressionlessness on the other, builds the central tension of the story. This shows that Wallace is less concerned with a simple critique of televisual content and form than with the profound effects extensive TV-watching has on people's consciousness and their understanding of themselves and others. Accordingly, "Jeopardy" itself is not the problem, but rather the psychological implications of six hours of watching per day. Perhaps image-fiction can be defined as literature which traces these psychological implications.