Author Archives: jl

Considering the lobster

After the usual hyper-observational riffs on the Maine Lobster Festival, DFW asks the question that sets the piece apart from most food/gourmet journalism: “Is it all right to boil a sentient creature alive just for our gustatory pleasure?” (243) This seems to be the most salient question, and is often referred to in books reviews that attempt to summarize “Consider The Lobster” or point out what makes it special. But DFW goes on to ask a set of related questions: “Is the previous question irksomely PC or sentimental? What does “all right” even mean in this context? Is the whole thing just a matter of personal choice?” (243)

The last of the related question seems to engage in ethical theory: People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals “thinks that the morality of lobster-boiling is not just a matter of individual conscience”. This led me to wonder what the immorality of boiling the lobsters consists in–that there is something intrinsically wrong in the act–as well as whether this vague sense of moral discomfort has to do more with how squeamish it makes us feel (individual conscience). The latter prompts (at least) two further questions: 1) Why does it makes us squeamish to think about what goes on when we boil lobsters? Is it because we feel pain and can therefore imagine how torturous it would be by projecting ourselves to be in a similar scenario? 2) What if someone is simply quite unperturbed and possesses an extremely limited capacity for such squeamishness? What if a lengthy explication on animal rights and the neural make-up of lobsters is met with a blank countenance and a “so what”? Thinking such a person to be morally regrettable would seem to blame the person for having a limited capacity for such moral squeamishness, but can someone be blamed for such a thing?

One of the reasons for abstaining from inflicting harm on others and to treat all other humans as ends in themselves rather than as means to an end is that we all share the capacity for rational thought. It is this rational nature that distinguishes us from animals. The importance of this fundamental similarity is that it provides us with a reason to treat others as we would want others to treat ourselves. Our rational nature affords us dignity and thereby forms the basis on which all human actions have to take as the supreme limiting condition. But I don’t think most of us would consider a lobster rational. What then, would the Archimedan point be, that would enable us to convince a blank-faced-shrug-of-the shoulders-lobster-afiocionado that there is indeed something morally repugnant about boiling a lobster in a pot? Or is there nothing intrinsically wrong about the act itself? Is it that all we can do is to express our distaste for such as act, which would then render PETA and the like sententious and even self-righteous for thinking something subjective to be objective, and wanting to impose (forcefully) what is essentially nothing more than an opinion on others?

Autonomy, Addiction & Appetite

“This appetite to choose death by pleasure if it is available to choose — this appetite of your people unable to choose appetites, this is the death. What you call the death, the collapsing: this will be the formality only. Do you not see?” (319)

Marathe suggests to Steeply that “your Bureau‘s fear of this samizdat” (318) is an acknowledgment of how the U.S. citizen has come to “choose nothing over themselves to love.” This inability to choose with care seems to arise from a culture of inundation: since every demand can be met with significant ease, there is no need to question the impetus behind each demand, and to compare their relative urgencies, necessities, and contribution to one’s well-being. The U.S. citizen is unable to transcend their “own wishes of sentiment” to something greater than themselves — sentiment here implies confinement to the realm of one’s own subjective viewpoint. Hence the threat of dying for pleasure, alone, becomes one that is especially malignant considering the U.S. constitution. Marathe illuminates the centrality of the desire-makeup of the “U.S.A. persons in their warm homes”: (1) how in solely making the Entertainment cartridge available suffices to establish a legitimate threat, and (2) how “killing Colombians and Bolivians to protect U.S.A. citizens who desire their narcotics” merely served to temporarily cut-off the means to appeasing the desire without affecting the desire at all — “How long was it before the Brazilians replaced the dead of Colombia?”

Freedom of the will, autonomy and choice are enmeshed in a complex manner. Again, Marathe’s remarks are insightful:

But what of the freedom-to? Not just free-from. Not all compulsion comes from without. You pretend you do not see this. What of freedom-to? How for the person to freely choose? How to choose any but a child’s greedy choices if there is no loving-filled father to guide, inform, teach the person how to choose? How is there freedom to choose if noe does not learn how to choose? (320)

Prima facie, freedom is simply the lack of constraint, but that negates the will portion of free will. There could not be any imposition of will in the face of entire arbitrariness. Hence, freedom in a positive sense is the capacity to act for reasons rather than on the basis of feelings, impulses, or desires. We are most free when we act in accord with reason, as opposed to desire; the latter might even compromise our autonomy.

The case study of a drug addict might help to shed some light. The following is the account given by the philosopher Harry Frankfurt in “Freedom of the Will and the concept of a Person.” Our desires can be conceived of as taking a hierarchal structure. There are 1st-order desires “A wants to X,” where X is an action and 2nd-order desires which are the desires to hold certain 1st-order desires: “A wants to have 1st-order desire X’.” Within 2nd-order desires, there are cases where (1) the agent wants “simply to have a certain desire” and (2) when “he wants a certain desire to be his will”. The first case involves the simple desire to hold a certain desire without being moved by it all the way to action. The second case involves the agent’s desire that a certain desire constitute his will, which are termed “second-order volitions” and is essential to being a person (compare “this appetite of your people unable to choose appetites, this is the death”). Will here means effective desire–one that moves (or will move) a person all the way to action. The will is not coterminous with first-order desires (what one wants to do) since it picks out the specific desire that overrides the rest in effectively manifesting itself in action. While first-order desires can remain unsatisfied, one’s will necessarily results in action. With that in mind, we can see how free will does not concern the relation between what one wants and what one does, but is instead concerned with the relation between second-order volitions and the will. Hence, to have free will is to want what one wants to want.

Now, addictive desires might function in two ways. Consider the examples of the demonic regulator and demonic possessor. The demonic regulator monitors the action of the agent to ensure he performs action A. It steps in to regulate his behavior upon observing him veering away from performing that action. If the agent came to perform action A on his own accord, the demonic regulator would have no influence over his deliberative process. Therefore, the agent’s action not only reflects his autonomous will–it is brought about by it. The fact that his ability to perform A depends on the permission of the demonic regulator does not preclude the possibility of him acting freely and of his own free will.

On the other hand, the demonic possessor basically usurps the agent’s consciousness, taking complete control over him and making decisions on his behalf without him knowing. The agent thinks that he is functioning as an autonomous being, but his existence is really a form of demonic drunken stupor. Just like how drunkards often proclaim themselves not to be drunk, he truly believes that he is in total control of himself. He thinks he is doing what he wants to do, but this is merely a delusion. From a third-person perspective, the agent is not himself; his autonomy has been revoked by the demonic poxssessor. His ability to critically self-evaluate his desires has been radically impaired to the extent that his actions have to be attributed to the demonic possessor rather than to himself.

In the case of addicts, it is difficult to ascertain which analogy is more apt in describing their desire-makeup. One’s subjective attitude towards their first-order desires might be informed by it (as in the possessor), and hence one’s autonomy might be undermined by the addiction. If that is the case, it becomes impossible to know if a certain action accords with the true autonomous will of the individual. Or, if , as in a culture of inundation where first-order desires are easily attainable, there is little need to posit second-order desires since there is no imperative to pick out effective desire. This lack of second-order volitions seems to be the death referred to by Marathe. The autonomous self cannot be instantiated when devoid of the ability to choose what one wants to choose.

Chronic Ambivalence

“it’s not clear whether Y is pathetic and spineless or incredibly strong and compassionate and wise” (133)

“Whether this is because he has a strong paternal urge and really wants to raise the baby or whether he just feels vindictive about getting served with divorce papers and wants to stick it to the lady by denying her primary custody is unclear.” (134)

A great source of the anxiety that drives many of Wallace’s characters/narrators seems to be a kind of chronic ambivalence whereby one’s motivations are not transparent even to oneself, leading to an ambivalence with regards to the true motivations that drive us and the corresponding morality   attached to the different kinds of motivations. This seems to render one   preternaturally unable to be sincere and or to have any genuine conviction in one’s words/deeds. Scrutinizing one’s motives seem to be a futile venture, leading down either one of two undesirable paths: 1) self-deception by self-consciously adjusting the perception of oneself and projecting this perception as actual self 2) paralysis brought about by maniacal vacillations between what one thinks one’s real motivation was. This paralysis is exacerbated by the fact that the act of examining our motivations can itself elicit a shift in motivation, or perception of the motivation, to something more amenable to such a scrutiny, which would then demand a reevaluation of the post-examination (order 1), which would itself demand a revaluation of post-examination (order 2) and we find ourselves in familiar recursive territory.

Can a charitable act not be motivated by (partly/subconsciously) an egotism that would much rather have an act of generousity predicated to the self than not? Does self-gratification invalidate the act?   Isn’t the empahsis on voliton to some extent selfish as well?   How can we communicate with another person if we are ourselves alienated from our own identity?


Show, don’t tell. Everyone has heard that familiar maxim of good writing. It probably applies more to fiction than non-fiction, just because some forms of the latter necessarily involve facts, hence telling, although there can be different methods of disclosing the same facts. I’m sure most of us have encountered this dilemma in writing our college applications essays. One of the main reasons showing is preferable to telling is its efficacy in appealing to the reader. You don’t usually get someone to believe that you posses a certain quality just by asserting that you do; the reader needs to feel comfortable about judging your sincerity, level of self-awareness, motives, vastness of experience etc. Also, these qualities are often not binaries and thus there is a matter of degree which one cannot infer from a plain telling. Hence, we have to show, express, display that we are in fact, say, a very capable person by describing the things we do or have accomplished, our dexterity in juggling our multiple commitments, how we proceeded to do things in a particular manner etc., in order to persuade the reader to come to that conclusion.

Fiction can evoke a complex of emotions within us–a churning in our gut–prior to our understanding of how it manages to do so. Literary criticism then attempts to explicate the mechanisms through which such emotions are affected. Presumably, this can illuminate our reading, as well as both enrich and widen our appreciation of the text. Sad to say, when reading “Girl With Curious Hair,” I wasn’t very emotionally engaged with most of the stories, of which “Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way” is probably the zenith of the emotional estrangement. Neither did I feel any amount of analysis might help to facilitate any enjoyment. Most of the stories felt like ideology/theory masticated into fiction, with the overall effect of being really tedious and a drag to read really. And this is in spite of my enjoyment and enthusiasm for the same points made in the essays and interviews DFW has done. I feel like his obsession with debunking the Realists and Postmodernist regarding how fictions relates to reality detracts from connecting fiction to what it is to be human, and one more layer of awareness is just one step further away from my gut. In theory, I might concede that the feeling of disorientation and alienation created by fractured narratives and self-reflexivity as a means to some end might be desirable, but it feels contrived and leaves the reader with little incentive to work their way through it. I was really annoyed by all the emphasis employed in Westward, because I felt it was overly didactic–telling, no, forcing, the reader to acknowledge that “popular culture is the symbolic representation of what people already believe” (271) There’s probably some virtual quota with regards to italics as emphasis in fiction, and Westward just abuses it intolerably. Of course, there is also the prominent titled indicators telling the reader what they are reading is “ACTUALLY PROBABYLY NOT THE LAST INTRUSIVE INTERRUPTION” (346) I found the writing such a turn off, I’m not sure if I know how to accurately and comprehensively depict why I found it so unpalatable. This stands in contrast to fiction which seems much more organic, mysterious, and meaningful, in terms of how it manages to get you in the gut, and you actually desire to find out how. The writing just really doesn’t offer any empathic access to the reader. The narrator forces the agenda too strongly, similar to how D.L. is described, such that one feels that the primary purpose was to make a point, rather than enable the reader to be enlightened by whatever he thought was worth being enlightened by. We get why there are “no windows facing West in here” (256) and that they’re “figuratively unsure about where to go from here” (257) but then we don’t really care, or at least I didn’t. I am curious to understand why Professor Fitzpatrick enjoyed it as well as why anybody else who did did.

Life, Language, Reality

In “Termite Art, or Wallace’s Wittgenstein,” Lance Olsen summarizes Lenore Beadsman Sr.’s view as such:

…language is a system of symbols that filters experience. We only know our lives through what we can say about them. Our understanding of the world arises from our ability to talk about it. Language shapes what we perceive and how we perceive. (204)

Compare this with Leonore Jr.’s expression of Sr.’s view in TBOTS:

Well see, it seems like it’s not really like a life that’s told, not lived; it’s just that the living is the telling, that there’s nothing going on with me that isn’t either told or tellable, and if so, what’s the difference, why live at all?” (119)

On the surface, the two appear to be saying the same thing–something about how life is inextricably bound to words and hence telling, or talking about it, has an important relation to living. However, I think there is some distinction to be made between both claims. Olsen’s summary seems more a strand of linguistic determinism of the Sapir-Whorft variety, which according to wikipedia, “postulates a systematic relationship between the grammatical categories of the language a person speaks and how that person both understands the world and behaves in it.” Hence, the “filtering” and “shaping”. This view was supposed to be most explicitly supported by the fact that Inuits have 26 (i think) words for snow wheras normal humans have something like 4. Later, it was purported that the figure was significantly inflated, but it’s not my concern to contend the veracity of the hypothesis here. If the theory is right, then English-speaking people perceive the world differently from Chinese-speaking people. When Olsen says “our understanding of the world arises from our ability to talk about it,” it isn’t clear what is meant. It seems more accurate and in line with the preceding and subsequent sentences to say: how we come to a particular understanding of the world is influenced by the fact that we possess the ability to talk in a certain way.

In contrast, Lenore Jr.’s expression of Sr.’s view really means something quite distinct. It is the telling about the particular experience that is significant, not how the fact that we do possess this ability to tell structures experience. The former is post-experience, the former is prior to or simultaneous with experience. In the latter case, as the word “determinism” suggests, we don’t seem to have much of a choice anyway; what language we speak is just a by-product of our upbringing and environment. Since the novel is concerned with issues of self and other, possession, and authority, I assume that Olsen’s charactarization is not how Wallace envisioned it. The question is more about how language is used to represent reality. I guess you could say reality neccesarily is language-infused; even so, the realm of consideration here isn’t that between self and external mind-independent reality, but between self assimilated with reality (mediated by language or whatever) and reality or whatever is external to self. In other words how to channel self back to reality through words. As LaVache puts it:

You’re only real insofar as you’re told about, so that to the extent that you’re real you’re controlled, and thus not in control, so that you’re more like a sort of character than a person, really–and of course Lenore would say the two are the same, now, wouldn’t she?” (249)

I’m not sure how Wittgensteinian this is–he is notoriously hard to understand anyway. I think (don’t take my word for it) he was trying to say that in order for language to represent reality is has to share the same underlying logical structure, hence grammar corresponds to fundamental relations in the world. The problem is that we can’t explicate what is common in the structure with language since we to do so would necessarily invoke them; hence we have to show, rather than tell. Also, there are some (real) experiences than just cannot be represented by words, such as religious/spiritual experiences.

Frankly, I don’t really sympathize with this character-without-authority-in-a-narrative dilemma. I had to read “Foe” by J.M. Coetzee for class, and it is concerned with this same point, although I thought done in a much more poetic /enigmatic manner. I don’t ever feel like my experience is tainted by the lack of telling it to someone. Sure, if you don’t, it seems to invalidate the experience to some extent, but, perhaps because I have an introverted/reclusive disposition, it doesn’t really bother me that much. There exist anxieties about the veracity in translating that experience to words and the act of conveying it to others (which “Foe” touches on extensively: the conflict between the desire to create a narrative that is interesting enough for other to want to know and the commitment to truth), but that reflects on what kind of a person you are, rather than whether or not you are a person or not, or how “real” you are.

All the world’s a stage

If fiction can be reduced to the attempt to represent the world, the main dilemmas facing a fiction writer can be simplified to the following: 1) what is the world like? 2) how best to represent the world through the medium of language? There is a fine line between constructing and depicting; in fact, the current consensus seems to be that it is necessarily construction–even history–the real question is what types of lenses are these construction mediated by (Marxist, Colonial, Diasporic, Oedipal etc.)? Perhaps it is the positing of these lenses that partly motivates the self-consciousness and self-reflexivity of postmodern fiction. James Wood, the literary critic, has criticized Salman Rushdie, Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo, Zadie Smith, and David Foster Wallace for their brand of fiction that he labels “hysterical realism.” (His views and the following quotes are obtained from a review of Zadie Smith’s “White Teeth” that can be found here: He describes the “big contemporary novel” as

A perpetual-motion machine that appears to have been embarrassed into velocity…Stories and sub-stories sprout on every page, as these novels continually flourish their glamorous congestion. Inseparable from this culture of permanent storytelling is the pursuit of vitality at all costs… …Their mode of narration seems to be almost incompatible with tragedy or anguish…what above all makes these stories unconvincing is precisely their very profusion, their relatedness.

Interestingly, Wood’s diagnosis (“An excess of storytelling has become the contemporary way of shrouding, in majesty, a lack”) points to a similar preoccupation that DFW voiced in the McCaffery interview (“That lack is the human”). Wood’s criticism (“Some of the more impressive novelistic minds of our age do not think that language and the representation of consciousness are the novelist’s quarries any more. Information has become the new character.”) can then be seen as stemming from an inability to come to grips with current reality, for the character today is inextricably linked to a surfeit of information. Hysterical realism is Realism in the modern era. Wood’s distinction between “a picture of life” and a “spectacle” is not as clear-cut as his old school narrow-mindedness might conceive it to be.

I think an interesting comparison might be draw between the works of DFW and the likes, and that of Cormac McCarthy–a living writer perhaps generationally distinct (20 years?) from the contemporary writers Wood criticizes. He is considered an heir to Faulkner, on the surface a very different type of writer compared to DFW, but who was himself no stranger to unconventional narrative techniques (As I Lay Dying). In this essay on McCarthy (, his style is characterized as diametrically opposite to the profuseness Wood finds so misguided: “minimally punctuated, without quotation marks, avoiding apostrophes, colons or semicolons — has a stylized spareness that magnifies the force and precision of his words.” I wonder if this might be a product of a difference in attitude towards the enterprise of writing–a lack of self-consciousness that pervades the work of contemporary writers. Note this excerpt:

McCarthy would rather talk about rattlesnakes, molecular computers, country music, Wittgenstein — anything — than himself or his books. “Of all the subjects I’m interested in, it would be extremely difficult to find one I wasn’t,” he growls. “Writing is way, way down at the bottom of the list.”

This stands in contrast to DFW and Jonathan Franzen, who seem fixated with writing as an enterprise. I think contemporary writers seem to be much more acutely aware of their audience, and hence fiction becomes a kind of product–it has to fulfill certain self-imposed criteria according to what the real world is perceived as needing or desiring. Given the vast amount of fiction already written, the product has to meet demand in the face of competition from the canon. Since good fiction deals with what it is to be human, how to say what has surely already been said a million times before in a new and meaningful way? Perhaps it is this question that motivates DFW’s obsession with the execution of his writing. The impetus behind McCarthy’s writing seems significantly less burdened by such anxieties; he almost never grants interviews and does not feel any need to make himself accessible to his readers via the media. He takes it to be a fact the “the novel depends for its life on the novels that have been written”, rather than a source of struggle one must contrive to overcome. Yet, fundamentally, we see the familiar basic criteria of good writing: “deal(ing) with issues of life and death.” McCarthy doesn’t consider Proust and Henry James good writers: “To me, that’s not literature. A lot of writers who are considered good I consider strange.” Indeed, it is curious that James often favors circumlocution (i.e. the excess of words) to depict an impoverished reality, marked by the inability to feel and love. Is this strangeness a failure of the reader or writer? If we want to say the latter, are we necessarily guilty of committing the intentional fallacy?