Author Archives: will

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.

An at least marginally workable definition of Happiness

Here goes nothing, Happiness or unhappiness is the product of either of these processes: 1. You look at yourself, treat yourself as other or object, and make a judgement about yourself (this judgement could be moral, aesthetic, whatever), 2. You look at everything but yourself, the outside world, and make a judgement about it. You’re happy when these judgements are positive judgements, unhappy when they’re negative. If happiness is what you want, than you can adjust the process in a few ways to get it.  

One way is to alter the quality of your perception, say through drugs. Some recreational drugs change how we see ourselves, they can make us forget, they can make us feel (read ‘see ourselves as’ if you’ve lost the perception angle) wittier, smarter. Other drugs change how we see the world. On drugs the world can just feel better to move through, look prettier, more forgiving and fun. recreational drugs in general can make us see the same object which we were ambivalent about or even judged negatively while we were sober in a different way, they’re rose colored glasses.  

Another way to effect happiness is to positively alter the object of your perception: yourself, or the world around you. This is the traditional method of achieving happiness. Selfwise, you work out so you can judge yourself beautiful, you go to school so that you can judge yourself learned, you act morally so that you can evaluate yourself as a moral person. Worldwise, you get a wife and kids and an job doing work that’s meaningful to you, or you sorround yourself with luxury (although this can be a drug-like perception alterer more than a world alterer perhaps), you go into politics and try and effect positive change, you join AA and kick your addictions. At any rate, so long as you keep the same rubric of judgement, this method will get you way happier for way longer than drugs.  

Which brings us to another way you can effect happiness within this process, by changing your rubric of judgement. You can look at your object (whether the looking is reflexive or the object external), and rather than changing how you see the object or changing the object itself, you can change your understanding what would constitute good and bad, beautiful and ugly, moral and amoral; you can change your method of arriving at a positive or negative judgement. Asceticism represents this kind of transvaluation, so does Nihilism (because true nihilists aren’t all torn up about the abyss like we are).  

The final way you can effect happiness is by The Entertainment, which fits into none of these categories. The Entertainment gets rid of (or at least completely distract us from) the whole self/world object entirely, and puts instead a wholly positive thing before our eyes. It eliminates dissatisfaction with self and world by diverting our attention from them, and in so doing it eliminates consciousness but not perception.  



Math as Communication

Reading through Everything and More with DFW’s McCaffery interview discussion of the purpose of art in mind, I’m tempted to treat mathematics as a language, and assess its value as a method of communication. Now, in some ways, math’s a great language: It’s a formal system. As DFW went over in §1, this basically means that it starts with a set of axioms and then deductively derives all other expressions from the relationships and properties of these axioms, or from previously deduced expressions. The driving force of the expansion (or to use DFW’s term abstraction) of a formal system is going to be the purification of that system, the rationalization of relationships and aspects of the system which seem paradoxical, or irreconcilable. A perfect formal system would be one that was totally free of contradiction or paradox at every level of abstraction, each statement being deductively provable as consistent with the system or inconsistent, true or false; Infinity proves to be such an interesting subject because it has, throughout history, been a chink in mathematics’ armor, it has been an imperfection in the formal system of mathematics since Zeno (Mathematics being a formal system aspiring to perfection, the attempted solutions to the problems of infinity literally are the history of mathematical progress). Anyway, because math is a formal system, two different people who understand math will understand it in close to exactly the same way, all proven propositions can be understood by anyone who reads through the proof. An almost exactly mutual body of knowledge is shared by people at the same level of mathematical knowledge. This is great communication-wise because it means that we’re all very much on the same page, all vocabulary is singularly and perfectly denotative, all symbolic representation singularly interpretable, and thus the knowledge contained within each symbolic representation is communicated perfectly by that representation.  

But exactly what kind of knowledge is communicated by mathematics? Pure math hopes to get at a more perfect understanding of the formal system of mathematics, a refinement of the language so to speak. Basically the knowledge pure mathematicians hope to communicate is knowledge about math itself; what does and doesn’t fit into the system, how and why. This makes pure math a bit esoteric (which tends to be the complaint of most high school pre-cal students, who find themselves asking why they need, or even would want, to understand trigonometric identities) but also makes it kind of the metafiction of mathematics, and the type of math that advances mathematics itself most consistently. Case in point, historically, pure math has tended to invent ideas which are only later discovered to be ‘useful.’

Which brings us to applied mathematics. It turns out that anything that can be described quantitatively can also be described mathematically, and so the powers of the formal system, namely unambiguity, can be brought to bear on the real world. In this way, the project of modern mathematical science can be thought of as the description of the world in the terms of a formal system. Indeed, the divergence of science and philosophy came when science embraced the language of mathematics to describe the world while philosophy remained grounded in traditional verbal language. Their projects remain the same, their methods are all that’s diverged. But when you start trying to describe the real world you’re intrinsically limited by the language you’re using, and this is important to keep in mind. It’s easy to see why mathematical platonists see some higher world of mathematical relationships at the core of experience, but isn’t this kind of like claiming the word tree created the thing, that grammatical relationships are at the core of experience? In the end when you describe the world, you’re fitting the world to your language more than your language to the world, so does it really matter what language you’re speaking? is the whole project moot in the face of solipsism? Does the project of pure math succeed, as metafiction attempted, in being modest enough so as to be truly achievable?

The nihilism of the nth degree

The problem that postmodernists sought to solve by turns with recursive metafiction and minimalism was that of the mediated narrative consciousness. Pre-modernist texts are primarily premodern in the sense that they try to provide empirical insights about the real world by presenting that world in fiction. Writers of this kind of fiction tended to believe their insights were objectively true, and didn’t really have much of a sense of the limitations of what they could be legitimately insightful about. Modernists and postmodernists recognized that the real world cannot be presented in writing, only represented, and that representation is intrinsically mediated, theirs by linguistic medium and authorial consciousness. The minimalist attempt to resolve the issue is the most obvious workaround, but it rests on the same assumption of a describable world, and considers the mediated narrative consciousness to be a quality of style and not of language itself. The minimalists seek to minimize the narrative consciousness, and thus supposedly its mediation of their presentation of the world, by the reduction of its stylistic manifestations: sub-surface description, authorial judgement on characters etc… They wanted to create uninterpreted pictures of the world then give them to the reader for him/her to draw his/her own conclusions. The Meta-fictionists sought to solve the problem of mediated narrative consciousness by the application of a solipsistic Tractatus era Wittgensteinian understanding of language. If a linguistic consciousness both can’t be done away with and can only even hope to understand itself, than the only subject a mediated narrative consciousness’ can actually hope to be truthful about is its mediation of narrative, writing.

In Octet, Wallace takes the whole project a step further. In a way, it’s meta-metafiction. He first of all recognizes that any answer to the metafictional question of “what is writing” or “what’s the relationship of the reader to the author” will necessarily itself be mediated. The ongoing debate over the intentional fallacy and death of the author are evidence enough for metafictional inquiries non-objectivity. He sees traditional metafiction as the masking of this second order mediation in the same way the postmodern minimalist style can be seen as the masking of mediation in a single-order story.  

Pop quiz 9 is, on the surface, completely direct metafiction, it takes place entirely beyond the fourth wall, it deals directly with the specific question of whether a piece of metafiction can inspire that sense of urgent honesty a reader so often gets from single-order fiction (is the metafictional parable univocal with the straight parables). Its direct form, indeed, more resembles an ordinary belletristic parable on a metafictional subject than a piece of metafiction. Wallace chooses this style in order to highlight the mediated quality of the metafictional subject matter.  

He recognizes that in the post-postmodern US, the audience is always in on the joke, and is very quick to recognize the mediated quality of any single-order story. We evaluate movies for their content, to be sure, but we also evaluate them at least as much if not more on the efficacy of their mediation, the academy awards, except for best picture, all reward not greatness in content but in mediation, and we lay-viewers evaluate movies based on the same model. Thus by presenting his metafictional query in the form of a single-order narrative, he highlights for the marginally savvy post-postmodern reader the mediated quality of that metafictional inquiry.

Once you take for granted the mediated quality of metafiction itself, once you start writing and thinking meta-metafictionally, there are only two real directions you can go from there. 1: that all communication is mediated unto the nth degree, and all you can do is keep writing meta-meta-meta-metcetera fiction to expose that mediation; or 2: that mediation doesn’t necessarily invalidate message, but that it is dishonest to pretend your message is unmediated. The 1st option is basically solipsistic, if not nihilistic, and I think Wallace sees it as about the most terrible conclusion you can come to. The second option though is itself pretty scary, because it requires you to try to communicate something real and sets you up either for success or failure in that endeavor. Your success and failure are both twofold: you can fail either, 1. because you yourself are an ineffective communicator in a world where communication is possible, or 2. because you chose the wrong option in the first place and tried to communicate when communication itself is impossible; if you succeed though, you both 1. have said something, and 2. said that something can be said. Pop-quiz: Did he succeed?

Solipsistic Greatness

I’m probably convinced David Foster Wallace is obsessed with solipsism because I’m obsessed with solipsism. I’ve been searching for experiences and arguments to refute solipsism ever since the concept was introduced to me through Conrad; “We live as we dream, alone” was a terrible revelation for me junior year and one from which I’ve been reeling more or less ever since. Solipsism was always most obviously for me a question of communication, we live as we dream in that a dream is an experience that is essentially incommunicable, visceral. David Foster Wallace by no means ignores this aspect of solipsism, and I think its why he takes his interpretations of other artist’s work so seriously, he wants to believe he can understand it, to disprove solipsism by the validity of his insight into another’s art. But he also comes at solipsism from another, more unique angle, related necessarily to communication but not entirely the same issue, self consciousness.

Post-modernism has to a large extent been defined by intense self-consciousness, a writer’s writing about writing (let alone about writing about writing like DFW) is an essentially self-conscious act, its the awareness while your doing something, of what that thing really is that your doing. This kind of self-consciousness is the opposite of solipsistic, it rides very much on the assumption that the doing of anything can be understood and interpreted, it assumes a certain kind of communication of understanding is possible, a universality of experience that can be appealed to; you can’t write about writing unless there is something more universal to writing besides your individual experience of it. The most interesting about the David Lynch and Michael Joyce essays is that they portray self-consciousness as something of an obstacle to the actual doing of that thing your self-conscious about the doing of.

It seems David Lynch is able to make films like Blue Velvet and Lost Highway because he’s un self-conscious, David Foster Wallace several times marvels at how Lynch seems to literally not care what other people think of his art, whether it will be understood or not. David Lynch is concerned only with whether he’s realized, by his own estimation, his artistic vision, and it seems that for Lynch to see his artistic vision most clearly he needs not to step back self consciously from it, but immerse himself in it totally. He doesn’t care if the references in his film are lost on most of the audience, indeed he must expect it when they’re references to things like his personal life and obscure old movies. But popular misunderstanding of his work doesn’t seem to be of much concern to Lynch, any more than people who do understand him like Wallace, who apparently is little more to Lynch than a few more cigarettes in his ashtray. This is solipsistic, and it makes Wallace and everyone else a little uncomfortable, but if you can do the interpretive, communicative work as the audience, you realize that this solipsism may be the source of Lynch’s greatness.

Similarly, the Michael Joyce essay struck me as about the solipsistic greatness of a world class athlete. The reflexes required for tennis obviously offer little time to step back and play too much non-intuitive meta-tennis. But more than that Joyce seems to be so intensely wrapped up in what he’s doing that he’s almost unaware of his surroundings, he doesn’t play the meta-game ever, whether on the court or looking at billboards. Initially this seems like stupidity to Wallace, his own particular genius being manifest to a large extent in his ability to play the meta-game at all times. But Joyce is not stupid, and it takes Wallace a little while to realize Joyce’s genius is like Lynch’s; it’s about being so in tune with your natural talents, your vision, that you can just do, that the meta-do that most people fall back on in order to apply their logical intellect to what they’re doing is really an obstacle in the end.

The solipsism of Joyce is that for him living is like dreaming, he’s devoted his life to a pursuit that almost none of us really understand on the same level that he does. It’s why he can never quite explain why he does it to Wallace, the explanation is experiential, visceral, it’s what you feel when you’ve won a big match in front of several thousand people. There’s perhaps a few hundred people who’ve experienced this and I would put forward that even within this elite it’s not the same feeling for everyone, that when you devote your life to something in the complete and unselfconscious way of a Joyce or a Lynch the reasons for doing so become completely personal, solipsistic. I think David Foster Wallace is profoundly uncomfortable with this, because, in the end, it’s a lonely kind of greatness.

Wallace and Wittgenstien and Hegel, Oh my!

The title of “The Broom of the System,” comes from the story within it in which Lenore Beadsman Sr. gives her grandson a lesson in Wittgensteinian essence with a broom. She asks young Stonecipher “what is the essential part of a broom” he answers ‘the bristles’ reasoning that without the bristles one could not sweep, where as without the handle you could still kind of sweep by holding the bristles. His grandmother, having used him to illustrate her point says “aha, that’s because you want to sweep with the broom isn’t it? It’s because of what you want the broom for, isn’t it?.” If you wanted the broom to break windows, than the handle would be the fundamental essence of the broom she reasons. The gist being that the broom’s essence is what it’s for, its use and function to a seperate other, that the broom has no essence at all before it is used, that its essence is only and completely defined by that use once it is in effect, and that it’s essence shifts along with what it is used for. Lenore Sr. then explains that people can be understood the same way, basically as possessing an essence defined by their use for other people. People then, have no initial essence before their contact with an other who uses them, and their essence is only in their objectified usefulness. What David Foster Wallace brilliantly does with Wittgenstein’s idea is look at it in the context of the Hegelian Dialectic of the realization of self-consciousness. His argument is essentially that people can, in their capacity as Wittgensteinian ‘objects for’ in the context of a Hegelian dialectic, be required to transform into objects for and for whom, into Hegelian self-consciousnesses. Through successful Hegelian dialogue, Wallace argues, people can become objects that are self-conscious, objects that are objects for and objects for whom and acknowledge themselves as such.

Hegel believed in different terms than wittgenstein that we can only be given an essence through an encounter with an other. We begin, he said, as free-floating selves, with no self-consciousness in that we exist only as a self for whom, not as an object for. When we encounter another self, we understand them at first to be simply objects for us, given that we are only a self for whom, however, we come to reason by analogy (when I am sad, I frown; he is frowning, he is sad) that the other whom we’ve encountered is to itself a self for whom and sees us as an objectified other for. This understanding of the other’s understanding of our essence, leads us to be able to see ourselves the same way, as an objectified other for. We reason by analogy that the other with whom we are in contact has come to this same realization, and understands that it is acting for us, as an objectified other. We then see that we are seen as a self for whom, by the other who has realized and sees itself acting as an object for other. We are then able to once again see ourselves the same way, as a self for whom, but we retain our understanding of ourself as an object for other. We then withdraw from the contact with the realization that we are both a self for whom and an other for, and that we can, in fact, be an other for our self.

David Foster Wallace shows that the narrative of Hegelian self-realization is not impossible given characters defined, as wittgenstein defines them, by their use for others, he shows instead that a fulfilled hegelian dialogue results in the participants using one another in a way that mutually requires the other’s essence to be that of self-consciousness, of other for and self for whom, that the mutual need of a separate self-consciousness mutually creates self consciousness.

Just as the essential part of a broom we want to sweep with is the bristles, initially, the essential part of an other in whom we want to realize our own selfhood is the objectified, seperate, “other” aspect of that self-consciousness. Thus, in the dialogue of hegelian sublation, initially we don’t recognize the other as a free-self consciousness but rather an other for our self, in the wittgenstinian sense, they are an other for our self in this context. That said, we exist for that other in the same manner, our essence for the other is that of an object confirming its selfhood, so we in a witgenstinian sense are also in essence, objectified other. At this point neither being in the dialectic is self conscious yet, both acting in a wittgenstienian sense as an other for one another’s self-realization. However, both then realize (having read wittgenstien I suppose) that they are only an other to one another and thus in essence. With this realization however comes the necessity that they see their counterpart to be the self that their other is for. Thus their counterpart exists for them as a self for whom, and vice versa. Upon realization of this state of being, both realize that they can together be independent self-consciousnesses for eachother’s otherness, and others for one another’s selfness, and thus become independent self consciousnesses in reality. Thus, even if you are defined by your use, a pure object, you can still be a self-conscious self, if you are used by an other in a hegelian self/other interaction, you can be an object with the attribute of self-hood based on your purpose to fulfill in another their sense of otherness.
This dialogue can only be carried out however, if the participants see themselves, in that the see themselves as objects, objects for one another. If either, let alone both, see themselves as objects for a larger, non-personified system, than they cannot undergo the sublation, negation and synthesis of hegelian dialectic. So perhaps what David Foster Wallace wants us to realize is that if we see ourselves as characters in larger narratives, systems, rather than people in contact with one another, than we can never break wittgenstein’s linguistic trap of otherness, that human connection is the only self-affirming act. The question for me is whether or not David Foster Wallace sees it as possible to break away from the narrative, here in real life, to achieve connection at all; I fear he is not an optimist.

Joe Briefcase in the Age of Tila Tequila

David Foster Wallace wrote E Unibus Pluram 18 years ago; the essay is as old as I am. It’s written, than, about american television that I never really experienced. I’m obliquely familiar with the shows he talks about as part of my inevitable matrix of pop-culture knowledge, but for the most part, if I’ve actually seen them it was on the old TV show channel, which means that they’ve basically become nostalgia commodities. Times have changed, in 1990, the top 10 shows on TV were (with the exception of America’s Funniest Home Videos, 60 Minutes, and Monday night Football) all scripted, narrative shows, with actors and directors and classically famous stars to worship for 6 hours a day. Last year, five of the top 10 shows in America fit into that broad category of “reality TV,” and today we split our daily dose of entertainment between TV, and that slapdash variety of internet programming constituted largely by Youtube, Facebook and Myspace. The media that Joe Briefcase consumes today is simply different stuff than his counterpart consumed in 1990, consequently, Joe Briefcase is something of a different person than he was in 1990.

Reality TV shifts the dynamics that David Foster Wallace discusses in E Unibus Pluram. Some things remain the same; We aspire, if anything, more to watchableness today than in 1990. Our sense of inferior watchableness is intensified by reality TV’s implicit message, that we could be on it. It’s when we ask ourselves why we aren’t on it, why we don’t manage to achieve watchableness, that we encounter the paradigm shift reality TV has precipitated. The definition of watchableness has been changed by reality TV. Nearly two decades ago, it was defined by David Foster Wallace as an ability to appear nonchalant under, indeed almost ignorant of, the gaze of millions. Actors who could completely shed their identities for the camera were our idols. It is now those non-actors who can most outrageously express their identity whom we worship. Worship, and imitate. We as a culture have realized it is not the cooly nonchalant who make it onto reality TV shows, but the knowingly buffoonish.  

This etymological shift is likely responsible for and certainly strengthened by what I’ll call internet programming. In 1990, the gaze of millions was really unavailable to Joe Briefcase, today, he has a myspace, a facebook, videos on youtube, photos on flickr, and a niche-blog on his hobby of choice; Even I, despite not having a facebook page, am pictured on facebook. In 2009 The gaze of millions has become ubiquitous and unremarkable. If we still aspired to David Foster Wallace’s 1990 definition of watchableness as non-chalance it seems unlikely to me that we would create myspace pages and youtube videos, and even more unlikely that those pages and videos would feature the kind of amateurish showmanship that they do. We edit our lives down to their reality TV show essence when we put them on facebook, we cut out all the boring scenes of us riding nonchalantly on the subway, melodramatize our relationships, and do our best to fashion out of our amalgamation of representation an image of a person with a strong idiosyncratic identity that demands attention and knows it. Our attempt is further vindicated by the implicit hope that if you demonstrate enough reality-TV style watchableness on your myspace page or in your youtube videos, you may just be discovered and given a reality TV-show, a la Tila Tequila. Today we see those people who attempt to embody DFW’s earlier definition of watchableness as naïve, everybody’s known since they were four that you don’t want to look nonchalant or you’ll be condemned as unwatchable by an embarrassingly low number of hits on your youtube video, your facebook friends will be profoundly unimpressed by your obviously un-exciting, un-reality TVish lifestyle. Don’t they know they’re being watched? If they aren’t careful don’t they know we’ll stop watching?