leopards

Fifty or sixty years ago, one of the most common genres of nonfiction book in this country concerned advertising. Vance Packard’s The Hidden Persuaders (1957) and The Naked Society (1964), Wilson Bryan Key’s Subliminal Seduction (1973), and the many books that addressed the effects of television generally but included advertising as an essential element of their critique: Marie Winn’s The Plug-In Drug (1977), Jerry Mander’s Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television (1978), George W. S. Trow’s In the Context of No Context (1980), Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985). 

This kind of book doesn’t get published any more, because writers and publishers alike know that those authors definitively lost the battle they were fighting. And the white flag of surrender was run up the flagpole when David Foster Wallace published his brilliant and still-relevant essay “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction” in 1993. 

DFW’s essay is the Kafka’s Leopards moment in the American response to television advertising. Here is Kafka’s little parable: “Leopards break into the temple and drink to the dregs what is in the sacrificial pitchers. This is repeated over and over again; finally it can be calculated in advance, and it becomes a part of the ceremony.”