Tag Archives: Consider the Lobster

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.

A Matter of Preference

Lobsters? Lobsters. David Wallace sure knows how to pick them. In the namesake essay “Consider The Lobster”, Wallace’s journalistic style drifts back to land after spending sometime away on the Nadir of “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again”, and reaches the annual Maine Lobster Festival among feverish carnivores prepared to inhale upwards of 25,000 pounds of lobster flesh. The MLF understandably falls into opposition with PETA proponents, or those who find the ‘Being Boiled Hurts’ view of a higher ethicality. Like all of the other pieces of nonfiction Wallace has been recruited to write, “Consider The Lobster” focuses a great deal on the ethical implications of human consumption. In the end, Wallace’s journalistic endeavor turns into a discussion of personal ethics and presence/lack of thought that goes into eating another sentient life form. Though, I found “Consider The Lobster” to differ from Wallace’s previous topics. One way this piece differs is in the way he specifies his discussion. Instead of focusing solely on consumption or tourism, “Consider The Lobster” seeks to understand the ways in which awareness and thoughtfulness factor into the act of consumption.

One of the ways in which he specifies his discussion is in his choice to focus on the lobster as an instrument of consumption. Lobster is a delicacy, a product of the sea harvested for the human palette to enjoy. While Illinois fair junk food and cruise ship buffets are certainly interesting sites of people eating food, there’s something comparatively profounder about Wallace’s choice to focus on this particular gentrified crustacean. And so, Wallace’s personal preference in a lot of ways mirrors the preference that’s at the heart of the troubling questions that “arise amid all the laughter and saltation and community pride” at the MLF (253). Wallace writes, “the whole animal-cruelty-and-eating issue is not just complex, it’s uncomfortable. It is at any rate, uncomfortable for me, and for just about everyone I know who enjoys a variety of foods and yet does not want to see herself as cruel or unfeeling” (246). I found this passage to be really interesting because it not only acknowledges the discomfort that arises out of our preference over what we consume, but Wallace also lets us know that he himself is uncomfortable even talking about it.

Wallace continues to provide us with personal information as he talks about his approach when it comes to this whole ‘animal-cruelty-and-eating issue’. Wallace prefers to “avoid thinking about the whole unpleasant thing” (246). Moreover, he defends his own carnivorous behavior on the grounds that he has self interest in mind and has failed to work out “any sort of personal ethic system in which the belief is truly defensible instead of just selfishly convenient” (253). Wallace makes his personal preference and the reasoning behind it clear. I found that a lot of what Wallace chooses to expose complements the presence of the PETA proponents and in a way softens the details of the all the “other ways to kill your lobster on-site” (249).

The series of questions Wallace finishes with managed to summarize a lot of the questions I had in mind as I read “Consider The Lobster”. For me, he manages to turn a cultural gathering into a site of ethical debate into a platform for cerebral inquiry when he poses questions such as, “is your refusal to think about any of this the product of actual thought, or is it just that you don’t want to think about it?” (254). In the end, I felt as if Wallace manages to expose the connection between preference and the factors of conscious/unconscious thought. Though this connection isn’t one every really reconciled of fully understood, it boils down to matter of preference.

Freedom of Choice

After I read “Up Simba” I couldn’t help but think back on DFW’s thoughts on freedom in his Kenyon commencement speech.  

The crux of the commencement speech is that you have the freedom “to exercise some control over how and what you think.”    You can either rely on your brain’s hard-wired default setting: being “hypnotized by the constant monologue inside your own head,” or you can choose something else.  Something more empathetic, compassionate, mature.  To not revert to the automatic thoughts you have about a situation or a person, but actually take the time to think, to put yourself “in their shoes.”  It’s not easy, that’s for sure. But you have the choice between the two, and that’s for sure also.

In “Up Simba” there is a similar choice to be made.  Either we can dismiss McCain as another lying, conniving demagogue or we can believe that he is genuinely trying to inspire a nation to be the best it can be.  For the latter DFW makes a strong case, which primarily relies on McCain’s choice to follow POW code as testament to his selflessness.  It’s uncertain whether this fact is enough to push voters past their cynicism toward politics.  It’s certain, however, that you can choose whether it is enough.  

As DFW says in the closing lines of the essay, “whether [McCain’s] truly ‘for real’ now depends less on what is in his heart than on what might be in yours.”  

 

The Purpose Behind Formatting?

The content of Wallace’s essay “Host” is as usual quite intriguing but, as is also often true, the formatting was a little tough to read through. I understand when he uses experimental formatting in his fiction, especially his short stories, because often the resulting emotions/awareness caused by the formatting are similar to those that curse the narrator (like the inability to exactly convey thoughts because they do not translate well to English). But it’s difficult for me to believe that Wallace uses the same reasoning for his non-fiction, especially when the topic of the essay seems to have little to do with these anxieties.
In “Host,” after all, Wallace shadows a radio talk-show host and his station cohorts, and describes (with some editorializing) them and what they do. It seems like a straightforward issue; as a reader initially I did not at all see that, because on the first page is some crazy stuff that I had to figure out. By now, as Wallace-readers we are used to footnotes and sometimes other similar structures, but in-text blocks that look more like parts of a flow chart than paragraphs in an essay completely threw me off. At first it was difficult to navigate these blocks, because they do not always appear near the point in the main text to which they refer. I would read them too early, not understanding the context; or I’d realize that I already read past their relevance. And then the blocks themselves could have other blocks extending from them into other, again seemingly random, locations on the page.

Like all of Wallace’s writing oddities, I hoped that I would get used to this one over time so I could actually pay attention to the content of his essay–which, for a non-fiction piece, seems appropriate. And I did eventually get used to it, at least a little bit; a sort of rhythm emerged, where I’d make sure to finish sentences and then go back and read any relevant text blocks, reading them in full before going on to their own sub-blocks. It just required some organization. But I have to wonder why Wallace would put the reader through this in the first place. I don’t remember much of the beginning of the essay, when I was still coming up with a system of reading. Why would he want to obscure meaning in this way? Perhaps he knew this would happen and made sure the beginning stuff wasn’t very important (and, looking back at it, it doesn’t seem crucial to understanding the rest of the essay, since a lot of it comes up again)–but that doesn’t answer the above question. . . .

Let’s look at some of the things Wallace says in “Host.”

“The fact of the matter is that it is not John Ziegler’s job to be responsible, or nuanced, or to think about whether his on-air comments are productive or dangerous, or cogent, or even defensible” (281).
“These ads, which are KFI’s most powerful device for exploiting the intimacy and trust of the listener-host relationship . . .” (298).
“[In talk-show radio, there is] the near total conflation of news and entertainment” (310).

Most of this essay appears to be about the interesting job of John Ziegler, but there are some tidbits like those above that draw attention to some of Wallace’s own possible issues. First, we have discussed Wallace’s authority in his writing, and how we basically believe everything he says. Is it his job, then, to be “responsible, or nuanced” in what he says? After all, like Ziegler, he is not actually a journalist, he is simply a writer who easily shares with us his own opinions on the subjects he covers. Unlike on the radio, Wallace’s writing is not interspersed with ads, but one does have to keep in mind that it is always an interested third party (i.e. Atlantic Monthly) who pays Wallace for this writing, and one has to wonder how much this affects the “reporting” and possible bias (which, on the other hand, we know exists in some form anyway). Finally, while Wallace’s writing is not “news,” it is informative of the world around us, especially of those aspects we aren’t completely familiar with, and is simultaneously (at least, usually) entertaining. The most interesting sentence to examine here could be, “Sometimes Mr. Z. calls endorsements ‘disgusting’ and says ‘The majority of talk show hosts in this country are complete and total whores’ ” (298).

Is it possible that, because of the similarities previously noted between his job and Mr. Z.’s, Wallace might consider himself a writing “whore”? Could this be why he makes it so difficult, through the formatting, for the reader to really get past a surface glimpse of content, because this realization is too personal and unflattering and frightening?

“A postmodern literary lion slobbers all over the former candidate in Rolling Stone”

Shortly after “Up Simba” was published, Salon.com’s Bill Wyman wrote a pretty sardonic parody  of the essay: David Foster Wallace: Ain’t McCain Grand?

The Lobster Finally Considered?

The question that David Foster Wallace raised in the titular essay of Consider the Lobster-that is, do lobsters feel pain when they’re dropped into a boiling vat of water?-has finally been answered (or at least tested) by Queen’s University Belfast:

http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/03/090327072759.htm

Even though the research discusses another type of crustacean, the hermit crab, it seems clear that the conclusions of the article would apply to lobsters too, with further testing. According to the article, “We know from previous research that they can detect harmful stimuli and withdraw from the source of the stimuli but that could be a simple reflex without the inner ‘feeling’ of unpleasantness that we associate with pain. This research demonstrates that it is not a simple reflex but that crabs trade-off their need for a quality shell with the need to avoid the harmful stimulus.” Wallace addresses this point quite succinctly, stating that “to my lay mind, the lobster’s behavior in the kettle appears to be the expression of a preference; and it may well be that an ability to form preferences is the decisive criterion for real suffering” (251). Lobsters, too, have been known to “exhibit preferences,” and it’s been proven that they can “detect changes of only a degree or two in water temperature” (252). A lobster, therefore, probably doesn’t prefer the boiling hot water that it gets dropped into before it is cooked, and thus “behaves very much as you or I would behave if we were plunged into boiling water (with the obvious exception of screaming)” (248).

It’s really interesting that this research would come out right before we read this story, and it certainly gave me a new lens with which to read it. For one thing, Wallace was yet again correct in his claims. Ag1646 recently wrote a post about Wallace and his authority, and I think the issue is once again prevalent here. Although he referenced his “lay mind,” Wallace obviously had some solid scientific information that was confirmed by scientific research five years later (251). But even before I had read about the research, I found myself trusting Wallace by the end of the work, believing exactly what he was telling me. And although Ag1646 posed a similar question, I have to wonder what that authority does for the readers, and how it can affect their readings of his work?

Wallace ended this piece with a series of questions, which was an interesting new step for him. After asking about whether the reader can “identify with any of these reactions and acknowledgements and discomforts,” he ponders the term “gourmet” (253). Wallace writes that “I’m not trying to bait anyone here-I’m genuinely curious. After all, isn’t being extra aware and attentive and thoughtful about one’s food and its overall contest part of what distinguishes a real gourmet? Or is all the gourmet’s extra attention and sensibility just supposed to be sensuous? Is it really all a matter of taste and presentation?” (254). Can a person be a “gourmet” and not consider the more gruesome aspects of food preparation, like the boiling of live lobsters? Or is it all about the sensory details like taste? I wasn’t sure I fully believed Wallace’s claim that he wasn’t trying to “bait” anyone, because it seemed that he was looking for a particular answer to these questions. Any thoughts?

DFW on Tourism: Is he right?

In “Consider the Lobster,” the title essay in this week’s collection of nonfiction, DFW travels to the Maine Lobster Festival.   While much of the article explores the morality and ethics behind boiling live lobsters and whether or not they feel pain in ways similar to humans, I was most struck by his small, almost tangential rant about tourism.   He addresses the concept in pretty pessimistic terms, and comes to conclusions that would not be expected (which is I suppose normal coming from Wallace).   Usually his critiques are cogent and insightful, but this one left me wondering.  

Significant time is spent discussing the more economically driven part of the festival, which even includes a movement that aims to recast lobster’s posh image and encourage a wider lobster eating audience (240).   Here, Wallace uses a footnote to explore the nature of tourism and its effect on people, as he says, “I confess that I have never understood why so many people’s idea of a fun vacation is to don flip-flops and sunglasses and crawl through maddening traffic to loud, hot, crowded tourist venues in order to sample a ‘local flavor’ that is by definition ruined by the presence of tourists” (240).   This hearkens back to his experiences on the cruise ship; I’m sure that these “tourist venues” are packed with professional smiles.   He even goes as far to say, “[Tourism] is to spoil, by way of sheer ontology, the very unspoiledness you’re there to experience” (240).   He blames tourism’s intrinsic nature for this problem, saying that tourism is a self-destructive practice that can never accomplish the goals it has set out.   In both pieces, the cruise ship and the lobster festival, Wallace locates the value of tourism as purely pecuniary, and even may cause the degradation and destruction of supposedly “real” places.

With all these problems, people still must do it for some sort of benefit, right? There must be some human value to be found, some soul searching or greater meaning, or else people wouldn’t bother.   Right?   Not for Wallace, who says, “intranational tourism is radically constricting… To be a mass tourist, for me, is to become a pure late-date American: alien, ignorant, greedy for something you cannot ever have, disappointed in a way you can never admit.” (240).   DFW claims that tourism affects the human psyche in the same way it ruins the tourist venue.   Since tourism will not provide any enlightenment or deeper truth about being alive, and instead undermines what it means to be individual, nothing at all is to be gained from any of this.   He has exposed a very problematic cycle, and one that is likely unstoppable in modern culture.   The question then arises:   Is this theory believable?   I probably would’ve had fun at the Maine Lobster Festival, just maybe not anymore after reading this story.   I would have left thinking that it was a positive experience.   Why exactly don’t most people feel alienated or constricted?   Don’t many local economies (and even small countries) depend on tourism to sustain themselves?   Is a tourist really just “an insect on a dead thing”?    

not really about the work itself (but believe me, i read it and liked it)

As is to be expected with Favid Woster Dallace’s nonfiction, Consider the Lobster has been easy to grasp. Over winter break, my dad gave me a few of these essays on CD and I listened to them on the plane. DFW himself reads them and it’s pretty cool (and helpful) to hear his voice. This is the only book I’d read previously, and it’s been nice to revisit. While I enjoy these works, I feel like they are a bit formulaic. There’s the seductive intro, then the big drawn out descriptions and then a vague conclusion. But I guess we are all getting pretty used to that, right? Something we haven’t really talked about is: what do we do if we get sick of DFW?? (Whenever someone asks me how I’m doing I talk about DFW, and I carry around Infinite Jest and, depending on where I am in the novel, I abuse substance or start abstaining and I think about the ‘Hideous Men’ pieces when I’m with someone). What do we do when an author takes over our minds? What do we do when our sentence structure begins to mimic DFW’s (and we can’t pull it off)? Dear blogland: how are you all getting through these last few weeks?

Wallace and Authority

In “Authority and American Usage,” Wallace applauds Bryan A. Garner’s ingenous appeal to ethos his A Dictionary of Modern American Usage.  Garner, according to Wallace, is able to transcend (and possibly solve) the descriptivist vs. prescriptivist issue by establishing himself as an authority figure – “a professional who realizes that he can give good advice but can’t make you take it” (123).  

I think that this ability to cultivate authority is also one of Wallace’s unique writerly trademarks.  I remember when I first read Wallace, one of the things that I was most taken with was his how he could get me to just trust him.  We’ve discussed in class to some extent how he does this –  sincerity, encyclopedic research, compassion, sheer intellect, sensitivity, and pyrotechnic skill all seem to contribute to this effect.  

These aren’t so different from Garner’s imputed qualities:

“It turns out that ADMAU’s preface quietly and steadily invests Garner with every single qualification of medern technocratic authority: passionate devition, reason and accountability…experience…exhaustive and tech-savvy research…an even and judicious temperament…and the sort of humble integrity that not only renders Garner likable but transmits the kind of reverence for English that good jurists have for the law, both of which are bigger and more important that any one person” (123-124).

I can’t help but feel that the same things apply for Wallace.  Even in this essay, Wallace abides by the same technocratic principles that make Garner so sucessful.  Wallace’s willingness to take on the issue of authority and american usage, explain to the reader why it’s a relevant issue, provide copious research and background to support his arguments, convey sincerity and humility, communicate an issue that’s bigger than himself (the democratic spirit),  all persuade me to submit to his, Wallace’s, authority.  

This happens for me in every Wallace essay, without fail.  

Similar feelings anyone?

So He Writes It for Her

Wallace does this beautiful thing with athletes in his non-fiction (I realize this is a vague and sloppy sentence by all standards, but any different set of words simply will not suffice-cannot capture the same sentiment). To borrow Wallace’s words, here is a theory. In “How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart,” Wallace writes Tracy Austin’s biography.

The function of “How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart” is binary. On the one hand, Wallace evinces the paradox that the ones endowed with the gift of athletic genius must “be blind and dumb about it” and the ones denied of that gift become the (only) ones who “see, articulate, and animate the experience of the gift” (155). On the other hand, in portraying himself as a member of the latter group, Wallace, in “How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart,” finds his way to express the athlete’s experience of her gift.

In the beginning, Wallace conjectures why Americans purchase sports memoirs. He reasons that “We want to hear about the humble roots, privation, precocity, grim resolve, discouragement, persistence, team spirit, sacrifice, killer instinct, liniment and pain….we want to know how it feels, inside, to be both beautiful and best” (144). His reason for why Americans read memoirs of top athletes echoes his reason for fiction’s existence:   “to give her [the reader] imaginative access to other selves,” to provide the reader “an experience of suffering, necessarily a vicarious experience” (McCaffery 127).

Moreover, Wallace sets himself apart from the athlete, as someone on the other side, someone on the outside, someone yearning for that vicarious experience:   “She was a genius and I was not. How must it have felt? I had some serious questions to ask her. I wanted very much, her side of it” (144). In these lines, Wallace stresses his-the reader’s, the outsider’s-desire to know the feeling of that experience. He begs for an answer to “How must it have felt?” and he emphasizes that “we want to know how it feels.”

His disappointment stems from the athlete’s inability to communicate that feeling or any feeling at all. Wallace laments that Austin’s autobiography’s function is not to communicate or illuminate feeling, but rather “to deaden feeling” (151). More precisely, Wallace’s disappointment arises from the athlete’s utter lack of feeling:   the feeling that readers crave access to turns out to be absent. Wallace concludes that “the real secret behind top athletes’ genius, then, may be as esoteric and obvious and dull and profound as silence itself….just what goes through a great player’s mind as he stands at the center of hostile crowd-noise and lines up the free-throw that will decide the game might well be:   nothing at all” (154). In a way, Wallace concludes that the athlete is ultimately empty-headed, like an automaton that simply acts-thus, not a being incapable of articulating her feelings, but a being lacking the capacity to feel-to be self-conscious and self-reflective. In essence, Wallace depicts the athlete as dead. Accordingly, to Wallace, all the climactic moments in her life seem to be “boiled down to one dead bite” (151). Furthermore, the death of the athlete seems to be associated with silence-a non-linguistic expression.

And Wallace brings her back to life through writing-through translating or perhaps more accurately, imagining her feelings into words. Wallace transcribes Tracy Austin’s non-linguistic, “public and performative kind of genius” (153) into a linguistic, verbal, written kind of genius. By delineating what Austin’s autobiography “could have been” (148), Wallace in effect writes her biography for her. Wallace feels her feelings for her:   “having it all at seventeen and then losing it all by twenty-one because of stuff outside your control is just like death except you have to go on living afterward” (150). Wallace discerns her privation, her persistence, her sacrifice, and her pain for her:   “Tracy Austin’s most conspicuous virtue, a relentless workaholic perfectionism that combined with raw talent to make her such a prodigious success, turned out to be also her flaw and bane” (149). Through his writing, Wallace accomplishes what Tracy Austin cannot:   he makes her “a recognizable human being” (151). Wallace thus brings the athlete to life. The athlete cannot write her own story, for in a sense, in her story, in the center court and “at the center of hostile crowd noise,” there is “nothing at all.” So he writes it for her.

There is so much more to Wallace’s athletes than what I have written here. What do you guys make of his athletes? The other non-fiction one that occurs to me most poignantly is Michael Joyce. How about Wallace’s fictional athletes? Do they have common qualities? They are also different; the fictional ones don’t seem as dead. In a way, Wallace seems to be inventing not only the fictional athletes, but also the non-fictional ones, by giving them life, feelings, and redemption.