Wednesday, February 23, 2011



  1. If I might, I'd like to ask for some commentary on these videos, as in, like, what's the poster's opinion of them. It's my understanding that this blog has been critical of Wallace in the past, but what is to be gleaned from this particular pairing of videos, one of which is Wallace being dumb about grammar and the other of which is him giving some opinions about fiction?

  2. He's being more than dumb, he's being crazy. He's seething, it's unbearable, it's driving him to suicide. He's being slowly killed by William Safire - whose ideology was harmful in many ways.

    I think Wallace is an exemplary case of the way the ideology of individualism can sicken bourgeois individuals. Here is a guy plainly being made sick and unable to live in a world with others by the promises of bourgeois ideology. Even though he was rich, successful, and admired.

    Has this blog been critical of him? I find his fiction masterfully mediocre (sometimes vulgar and cheap, like the story in the NYer about the toddler's burnt genitals, sometimes just ingratiating and shallow) and think there isn't much to say about it.

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  4. though i am of course open to being convinced otherwise.

    ...and I would say this individualist sickness, in less severe cases, is on display in a lot of fiction and narrative audiovisual product.

    and i think it's related to the kind of pseudo-left analysis now which narrates thomas jefferson as the protagonist of a democratic praxis which was only limited in its sympathy. (the framework of utopia by some magical expansion of existing privileges, "inclusion", that Dean Spade criticises, as if there is no capacity to understand resource transfer, expropriation and exploitation, except perhaps as once in a white notable as "David Harvey"'s idea or some other branded "insight".)

    that is, there are a lot of damaged bourgeois guys who can understand disparities, "inequality" in a crude bourgeois individualist way, and make comparisons between discrete things, but who are incapable of grasping reproductive relations. who even have a horror of (their own) historical materiality which guarantees this inability. Wallace is stating it intensely and fanatically - historical materiality is robbing him of life. Stealing seconds. Killing him. Disproving Platonism and Pauline Christianity with every soughing respiration of the beast! He's an extreme, but of an ideology that dominates his class and thus mass culture.

  5. I read the entirety of "Infinite Jest" and I did enjoy it (as much as anyone can 'enjoy' a book about addiction anyway). I'm not going to argue that it is a great book, though; while I am interested in reading his short stories, I have no real interest in defending him as an author.

    I do agree with you about that "individualist sickness," though I might partly be misunderstanding you, as it seems to me that that sickness certainly wouldn't be limited to 'bourgeois individuals' (though I suppose that the more one comes into contact with 'bourgeois individualist' product, the more susceptible one would be to that sickness). It seems like "Infinite Jest" at least was a sort-of railing-against that individualism (all the AA scenes point toward collectivism of some sort, as well as many of the scenes at the tennis academy, though that has it's own sort of individualism bound up with it) and in his own life it seems that his attempts at getting religion were probably attempts at shedding that individualism. It is certainly plausible that his station in society is what caused him not to be able to take that extra step to really be able to see beyond individualism.

    At least in terms of grammar/language, I'm not sure how much of an influence William Safire was -- Wallace was a fellow whose mother, when he was a child, would fake a coughing fit if he made a grammatical mistake and wouldn't stop until he realized his mistake and corrected himself.

  6. creepy story about his mother.

    "It seems like "Infinite Jest" at least was a sort-of railing-against that individualism (all the AA scenes point toward collectivism of some sort, as well as many of the scenes at the tennis academy, though that has it's own sort of individualism bound up with it"

    i don't think what you find in the fictions in that sense, as representations, says much, i think this is really pretty random. has more to do with what books the author happened to have read than it has to do with his real worldview. the deep ideological individualism appears more in the authorial relations to the product than in the "story told" or the world depicted. its as mluch there in his nonfiction, where presumably he had to defer to events outside his control, as in his fiction.

    his famous federer piece has quite a lot in common with remnick on ali. the intense erotic spectatorial experience is put on display in these acts of devotion to the male athlete god. they both know, and celebrate the knowing, that this experience will be shared a certain way by fellow devotees, etc.. Both Remnick and Wallace flaunt their own priestly greatness too - their prose as a kindred gift to that which it describes.

    but in this kind of production the profound faith in a ludicrous mythology is on display. one senses the difference bertween wallace and remnick is remnick alos notices the things that don't fit the mythology and doesn't care because he's elitist to the core and he dismisses all the incongruities as effects of human stratification. Wallace is more fixated on the muthology; it angers him that it fails; he doesn't have an explanation, just a hatred of and resentment of the world that doesn't accord. For remnick, his merit and ali's are the beginning. Wallace is not sure his merit is so grounded. If the mythology is questionable then there is no knowing for sure. His famous commencement speech, we see him "trying on" this idea that other people are subjects equal to himself, but he can't really tolerate or believe it. He has to make them protagonists of tragedies in order to appease his own olympian wrath and loathing.

  7. There's a the other side of bourgois individualism (a sickness of luxury) - which is a hideously widespread loneliness and alienation. Not necessarily a choice or lifestyle among lower classes, but very much there (seen as Lynchian mutants by Wallace).

    Some people serve up an ideology, other people just have to eat it.

  8. ("the depressed person" seems associated with the approved language.)

  9. "
    Some people serve up an ideology, other people just have to eat it."

    yeah, DFW is always compared with franzen, moody, moore, and congratulated (all of 'em) for their grappling wih the special problems of their class and undertaking, but they should be comlpared to sarah schulman too, and good writers of basically formally traditional literary novels who are not engaged in the class war this way.

  10. Well I guess I’ll offer a qualified defence. I agree that Wallace’s output is massively ideological, and his diagnoses of the problems with the society he inhabits mostly foolish and/or reactionary. But I think the work can and should be read symptomatically, and to the extent that it has an expressive (rather than an analytic) function (which I think is a large part of what fiction’s for), that’s ok. I don’t require novelists to be right, so long as they accurately and rewardingly convey something about the world, which I think Wallace does plenty, albeit not always for the reasons he (presumably) thinks. I also think he has a good visual sense, and that his convoluted prose is able to describe visual phenomena that I haven’t seen well described in prose elsewhere. (Stuff like torrential rain running down a window ‘in lustrous sheets which overlapped complexly’.)

  11. Thanks Duncan - agreed. Mainly...

    Unlike his usually associated fellows, Wallace is engaged in a direct response to Pynchon and Gaddis. The stories are writing schooly, but IJ is another matter. There is a particular grappling with the equivalent of photographic realist "metafiction" issue in IJ that takes up a relationship to Gaddis and contrasts interestingly to A Frolic of His Own which came out as Wallace was finishing IJ. I think this is another place where the corrosive individualism is visible and not as - as you say irrelevant - recommendations and solutions. Wallace is interested in the text as institution, he has a hunch this is of importance, but he can only engage it from this existentialist point of view, solipsist (patient, prisoner) caught up in an oppressive nightmarish cage that has also invaded him and is operating from within. (I realise my early feelings about his work seem justified by his later revealed severe mental illness.) Gaddis puts on display a dialectic (or what I think you somewhere described as the fallacy of the distinction betweens structure and agency - Gaddis shows this is a fallacy but also why it appears, why it has an apparent existence, and in a very very funny way) and its really very funny; laugh out loud funny and clever and with an appearance of "true" as a result. Wallace shoots for that but it's actually a complaint, it's not funny, it's too personal, it's grievances and preoccupations and private vengeance on the bad grammarians (and mom i guess); he knows there is a critique demanded there, fodder for satire, but his motives are too personal and too apparent to sustain that comic distance. He could do it technically you sense; he could write something like A Frolic of His Own, but he can't becalm his pedantic vendetta enough, his wounded self. It all is sort of deteriorating into the maimed child and "the depressed person". I think.

    But I agree in the sense that this is actually what interests me in his stuff - the contrast to Gaddis particularly, which is contemporary but from an author from a different and distant generation.

  12. Thanks Qlipoth - that's very interesting. I haven't read Gaddis, so I can't compare. But what you say about satire seems right - as well as the cage operating from within - that's very overt in Wallace's earliest stuff, 'death of the author' business, subjectivity entirely an artefact of language coming from outside, and it's of course still being chanelled in his later stuff's use of different jargons, colonising the self which dreads a lack of independent existence - jargons of marketing and therapy, etc. And yes, he always loses his bearings when he moves to satire, his social analysis becomes very fantasised very quick, and the cartoonish unfunny satire is partly there to cover that, I think - to make it bit less visible that it's all immediate projection - he knows it's ludicrous at some level but still thinks it's true - and satire, exaggeration, bringing out the supposed inner essence regardless of absurdity, lets that circle be squared, or fudged.

    In terms of the analytic content, Infinite Jest understood itself to be about consumerism, I think - the basic problem of postindustrial capitalist society the rapacious consumption of luxuries by its pampered citizens. I'm interested to see the new unfinished book when it comes out, because the New Yorker etc. imply he's moved to the sphere of production: redemption from rapacious and soul-destroying appetites comes from submission to the demands of work, mystical bliss attainable through meditative attention to the labour of IRS bureaucrats. That would make a neat ideological companion piece. But I agree it's not what's most interesting about the work.

  13. "'death of the author' business, subjectivity entirely an artefact of language coming from outside"

    yes, but its not theoretical in feel; it seems really like a very weak hunch of self and will, same as althusser. that is, it's really felt. almost all the nifty pomo fiction he shares these gimmicls and concerns with didn't focus on people "feeling" that language was speaking them, but being convinced of it despite the fact that they felt very strongly their own selves and will and individuality. Transformations are as real as anything else - the protag is really turning into Chesterton, and eating books. that was the contrast worked by pomo -- that the theoretical critical consciousness can undermine our emotional sensation of certainty. with Wallace it's an older problem, of madness. but transformed into this pomo gimmick (in contrast to sartre or nabokov or lernet-holenia or whomever). He's not sure he's there, he has a hunch he's not there, he feels the absence and the invasion and its painful.

    consumerism - yes, but i have another "but" which is that the "topic" is consumerism, because he's kvetching, he's annoyed, and this is what he wants to lacerate someone about, this passive greed and dependence, but it's a ruse in terms of the book's content because the whole spectacle of the book - and it's not a good book according to the criteria by which the stuff he likes is usually judged, its actually pretty crappy - the whole spectacle of the book, the reader's engagement, is about his own compulsive flagellant labours, his puritanical work ethic to which he calls the reader as witness and to a point confessor. The book is kind of shallow and empty of content, it's not intelligent or generous, it's narrow minded and bnased in the display of clichés and pastiche of political stuff drained of content, but it is this spectacle of his writing it, his jutsification of himself by this busywork, this batting the ball back until he drops from exhaustion.

  14. much of the book is stuff he couldn't bear to toss, on feels, or digressions which are so ordinary and familiar (MIT students are nerds! 'what do you mean by alcoholic?') its just there to show he would leave nothing evoked unrecorded, undocumented, he's a ferociously tireless scribe of the consciousness steeped in cocaculture.

  15. a very weak hunch of self and will, same as althusser

    ha, yes. And this too:

    an older problem, of madness. but transformed into this pomo gimmick

    Though not just gimmick, I think - I credit his claim that this is how things feel, as you say - that something experiential is captured by these structural involutions etc. Don't know to what extent this is a historically new, or newly dominant, set of experiences, or whether it's just that the expressive resources in the air allow for an easier articulation of something a bit historically broader, new resources for speaking of this kind of madness. The pomo theoretical stuff makes sense to me as an articulation of that social-historical moment - it's bubble thinking, the idea that everything's free-floating and ungrounded and signs, money, don't ultimately refer to anything objective, that belief and hype is enough to keep things going, it's all spectacle. So I get why these theoretical and literary tricks would be lying to hand for Wallace's generation, for the articulation of something else - a sense of personal self-absence, say. But I have a less clear sense of why the experience of self Wallace records would be distinctive to his social-historical moment - bourgeois individualism, yes, but that's not new.

    its just there to show he would leave nothing evoked unrecorded, undocumented

    yes and different motivations for this - on the one hand the fear of loss of self, and so the need to nail down every fleeting experience as a fixing of self, a making-more-permanent; on the other hand a belief in the task of the novelist as chronicler, and an investment in the justification of self through performing this task, and being seen to perform it - but most of all, I think, a need to differentiate self from all this experience and affect - the sense that this stuff is all invasive as you say, that it needs to be expelled, expunged, rendered exterior, it has to be down on paper and out there so as not to be clouding the real self-relation - the more cliched and familiar the stuff is the more this need's felt. & these motivations can conflict.

  16. thanks Duncan...

    I suppose being older gives me a different perspective - I remember when this book came out and its buzz and also the environment into whihc it appeared.

    The Gaddis was a big factor in this environment, a long awaited book by a master of this american literary novel that preceded and anticipated the then dominant environment, which was postmodern - but this caricature, this idea of the frivolous nature of the metafictions and the magic realism, was just taking hold.

    the major postmodern novels in English, the historiographic metafictions, were not frivolous textual games but serious and complex explorations and investiations of language, history, power, accumulaton and exploitation. Wide Sargasso Sea, Beloved, Linden Hills, Mama Day, Foe, Possession, The Volcano Lover, Chatterton, The Quincunx Cambridge The Poisonwood Bible, Oscar and Lucinda, The Remains of the Day, Sacred Hunger, Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book, Almanac of the Dead.

    There was something requiring analysis about these young white guys from Northeast Ivies declaring in the early nineties that US literature and anglophone world literature had become frivolous and superficial and they were going to restore concern for real people real life....

    they were speaking into a literary environment whose major figure was Toni Morrison, author of profound literary novels, richly political, personal, historical, that also sold well. There were a lot of American women writing profound books that sold well then, and some were even making money in film adaptations (Walker's Color Purple, Naylor's Women of Brewster Place) ; you can criticse these adaptations on many grounds, and the books too of course, but lacking sincerity and historical concern and "everyday life", interiority, psychology, is not a charge you could make stick on these, though many of these books had pomo characteristics (Linden Hills is Dante's Inferno) There was something bizarre about the declaration of intention to repair the situation, to reinject gravitas and realism and feeling, to rescue literature from pomo irony.

    So, the stance taken about literature - "it's all sarcasm and reflexivity" - and this feeling of the vanishing self, definitely had to do with these guys' class and race. The loss of (male, white, Northeastern Establihsment) privilege is one element of the loss of self. They are feeling the lack of "identity", agency in history, in the very sense that others are feeling the intensity and making a flourishing art. Plenty of white male American writers embraced this new condition in which their particularity had become visible as their pose of universality - of containing all, owning all - vanished and made substantial stuff, sometimes angry about it (Gaddis, Bret Easton Ellis, Powers to a point) sometimes just engaged (Wallace Shawn, Delillo's early stuff, Roth, Vonnegut, Barth, Kushner). But there was this pack of liberals who were just baffled by the competition, by the fact that their confessions and opinions weren't simply assumed to be interesting stuff to take seriously, the last word in consciousness. There were kind of faking an aspect that the historiographical metafictions had built in, which was this drama of the relation of the (situated) author to the fiction which is mediated by history and textuality. Beloved and Foe are very clear examples of this feature - the authorial trauma of Beloved, the authorial anxiety and penitence of Foe.

  17. yeah, so, forgot to conclude, re: the loss of authorial solidity and the mission to reform literature for these novelists after the period of magic realism and historiographical metafictions...

    Perhaps they don't want the actual inherited role, their actual position in social order and history as they now can't help but see it (the mythology frayed), and so they prefer to have none. They vacate as constant baptism. It's a kind of evasion perhaps. Or perhaps it's an effect of taking too seriously whiteness self-fashioning unracedness (this is the individualism I mean really, US capitalist spectacle society individualism, not so much a 19th century bourgeois individualism from which it follows). Maybe the bubble and whiteness are linked in this particular pathology of the flickering out, the faded individual trying to self-fashion.

    (A funny book I loved which is probably guilty of the pomo rap sheet charges is Pfitz. Andrew Crumey. It's about this but in a light comic way, descendant of Sterne via Calvino.)

    Anyway I was thinking of this old unfortunately lost post (maybe not lost, I should check), which is about the origins of the idea of "magic realism" in initially this concept of the "marvellous real" that Alejandro Carpentier offers in a preface to his novel about Haiti, and then Jacques-Stephen Alexis advocated a magic realism of a sort - they were both positioning against modernism as an elitism but and as evasion of concrete history.

    This brings up the divide between those who see literature as politically subversive by deployment of forms which purportedly disturb assumptions about referentiality (and thus ownership) - literature to épater le bourgeoisie - and those who see literature as popular, it's function political without being "subversive" or not on that elitist model. Wallace (and Franzen and a few others) are taking positions in that debate as well, basically saying they want to take lessons from the formal subversion side (which they don't say but assume is their birthright) but return to the sophisticated important popular function; the problem is they don't have a public. The public they would have counted on would not be satisfied anymore by overachieving university students distress about meaning. They were not going to impress a parental generation that had say read Kurt Vonnegut and didn't find these books frivolous, didn't see just at the surface in stories about surplus value and war and mass murder. So Wallace's dilemma there is real - he can't write for the generation of his parents because he has nothing to say about the kinds of things that touch and move them, the big and little questions, so he has to write for contemporaries and younger, and he knows what they are like - he's one of them, they want to be entertained, prodding and soothed in rapid cycles, but they don't have the patience een to be properly manipulated. So he has a real difficulty.

    And the premise of the formal disruption/subversion thing is long obsolete, as financialisation has shown that a lot of volatility is not only tolerable but really good for the elite of the elites (as we once discussed re Derrida), like very tall buildings have to sway.

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  19. another key comparison for IJ apart from Vineland (which is imitated openly) is The Handmaid's Tale, mid 80s, which was adapted to film in 1990, and which is rivalled and answered.

  20. Yes, that's convincing.

    So, the stance taken about literature - "it's all sarcasm and reflexivity" - and this feeling of the vanishing self, definitely had to do with these guys' class and race.

    And explicitly so. This is Wallace writing to Franzen:

    we're all alienated. I think the guys who write directly about and at the present culture tend to be writers who find their artistic invalidation especially painful. I mean it's not just something to bitch about at wine-and-cheese parties: it really hurts them. It makes them angry. And it's not an accident that so many of the writers "in the shadows" are straight white males. Tribal writers [sic] can feel the loneliness and anger and identify themselves with their subculture and can write to and for their subculture about how the mainstream culture's alienating them. White males are the mainstream culture.

  21. I think you're right, in other words. The tribal writers who do not have access to universality by virtue of their class gender or race can't achieve real literary art. Wallace (and Franzen too from what I've read) understands US society along the lines of this breakdown of US literary culture - on the one hand pomo irony, on the other hand a lost or vanishing sincerity, and the hidden premise is the exclusion of anyone participating in tribal particularity from the playing field of culture. Wallace presents it as a formal opposition - sincerity vs. irony - and acts innocent of the loading of the 'sincerity' term - John McCain is sincere; or Wallace's midwest smalltown home environment of the churchgoing faithful; and this sincerity is enough to justify the coding of these things as valuable, commendable, virtuous as if it's an entirely formal choice and the content doesn't matter, even as this pole is advocated as content against ironic form. I don't have the knowledge of US literature to locate this very effectively, but your analysis sounds right.

  22. "Tribal writers [sic] can feel the loneliness and anger and identify themselves with their subculture and can write to and for their subculture about how the mainstream culture's alienating them. White males are the mainstream culture."

    Wow. Yeah this is just the individualiust conviction - whiteness in capitalism - that I mean. It's a longing for race (as community and history and culture) as much as a disdain for it and an expulsion. This is the position from which the fantasy of Avatar, Tarzan etc comes. He needs a tribe, raced others, to adopt him and declare him their leader, one of them and yet superior, like the last Samurai.

    because all the things that are othered in racing are objects of desire and feelings of loss too. and the capacity for literature of the popular kind is one of these things i suppose. modernism, elitist "cold", only is the unraced individuals language; the popular as seen by carpentier and alexis - marvellous real, that is, recording and representing historical reality but also incorporating spiritual reality, dreams of justice and beauty - is raced. It's expelled from white indivuduality, which retains this great authordom. But as this empty will. And this is the curious thing about wallace's take on the postmodern death of author - most pomo novels just show it textually, there is no agony, because the wholme point is there is no self to agonise and mourn iots own absence. in Wallace it's a split, the self-loving egoist is there mourning his impermanence, mourning his own death so intensely its experienced as a present condition. So its really standard individualist psychologistic writing, though there are a lot of trappings of kookiness that signal, without expressing or deploying, the irony and reflexivity associated with certain academic theories.

  23. sincerity vs irony - (derrida's same obsession, cynicism versus naivety.)

    maybe Wallace's value to us is how through him we can dsicover that the "death of the author" is a refusal to be responsible for that particular tribe once Nazis become it's most recognisable figure.

    I saw this incredible BBC series I had no idea existed, BBC 4 history of racism, on youtube.

    Like after reading Plumelle-Uribe's La Ferocité Blanche I feel like it makes sense that at some point the intellectuals claiming this history this legacy this tribe - Enlightenment, the West, Europe - like Foucault would simultaneously say "bnut nobody's actually responsible for anything personally. Nobody's liable." Limited Liability is the model of the relation of the white individual to "the west"'s achievements (all of huanity's achievements claimed by whiteness) - all the profits but none of the blame.

  24. He needs a tribe, raced others, to adopt him and declare him their leader, one of them and yet superior

    There's an incredible (in a bad way) story in Wallace's last collection, 'Another Pioneer', which expresses this precise fantasy - a preternaturally gifted oracle child born in a primitive tribal village, the child's insight and potency of expression enough to send people mad with horrified understanding, the child suffering from existential anguish, "asking rhetorically what the point of all this is, why must he be consigned to life on a wickerwork platform if all he's going to be asked are the sort of dull, small, banal, quotidian, irrelevant questions that these squat hirsute tiny-eared villagers line up under a blazing Third World sun all day with offerings in order to pose, asking what makes them think he can help them when they haven't the slightest idea what they even really need," the child ultimately murdered by the terrified and resentful tribespeople. It's a sort of a 'wow, you published this?' thing.

  25. wow - i see it opens with a funny kind of conrad/kipling pastiche.

    speaking of bubble:

    from one of two reviews of that collection in the NYTimes:

    And there, perhaps unfairly decontextualized (to use a Wallace-type word), you have it: the ostentatiously elongated, curiously bureaucratic, stubbornly overdetermined prose style that is either -- depending on what you think about brevity being the soul of wit -- the coolest thing going in high-quality lit these days or profoundly damning evidence that American fiction is almost bankrupt and, like a desperate central government, is printing up stacks of impressively engraved, stupendously high-denomination bank notes in a bid to delay for a while its utter collapse.

    Because Wallace's writing often conveys the sense of someone trying to bail out a sinking language by working at higher and higher speeds, with bigger and bigger verbal buckets, it's no surprise that many of his stories take as their subject the limits of words themselves.

  26. John Pilger quotes Noam Chomsky in the NS today;

    How did such extremism take hold in the liberal west? "It is necessary to destroy hope, idealism, solidarity and concern for the poor and oppressed," observed Noam Chomsky a generation ago, "[and] to replace these dangerous feelings by self-centred egoism, a pervasive cynicism that holds that [an order of] inequities and oppression is the best that can be achieved. In fact, a great international propaganda campaign is under way to convince people . . . that this not only is what they should feel but that it is what they do feel . . ."

    elite niche entertainments have a role in that too.

  27. Thanks Molly. I think this -

    all the things that are othered in racing are objects of desire and feelings of loss too... the popular as seen by carpentier and alexis - marvellous real, that is, recording and representing historical reality but also incorporating spiritual reality, dreams of justice and beauty - is raced. It's expelled from white indivuduality

    Is particularly insightful re Wallace. I'd not seen, I think, how the racist elements of his work connect up to some of the other psychological dynamics his stuff expresses, so thanks for that. I need to give more thought to all this.

    He coauthored a book on "Rap and Race in the Urban Present", btw, which I've never read 'cause I sort of assumed it would be hideous - but it'd probably be interesting to look at in relation to this stuff. Not that that means I will.


  28. thanks duncan, for the chat and the food for thought.

  29. relevant to this, Zadie Smith in NYRB: