all at once

I feel like this class would have been a lot different if I had been in, as they say, a ‘different place.’ My freshman year I blogged my heart out, but now I just feel like I’m running out of gas. Probably senioritis doesn’t count, but it sure feels like it should. (It may not be senioritis. It may be Wallace-itis. Something that fills and deepens a need I have yet to pin down). Thanks to Wallace my poetry has improved and I’ve been experimenting with footnotes. The aspect of Wallace I enjoy most is his humor. Something I recently liked was the bit about someone reading Howl aloud in a Chaucerian accent. Also; “You’re the second most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen, the first most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen being former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher” (925).

 

This class has pretty much defined my semester (perhaps my year), and it’s all I can talk about. My dad said, “Sorry for talking you into that class.” It’s a strange body of work to be digesting right as I’m heading out.  On Friday I was overjoyed to be done with Infinite Jest and I’m looking forward to discussing it. Last night when everyone was having a jolly time at the Seven Deadly Sins party all I could talk about was the different kinds of depression.   Today I wiki-ed for a little while, and I got pretty overwhelmed (is emotional distress a sufficient excuse for anything anymore?). I don’t know if I have the right kind of something for this kind of thing. All I want to write about is Infinite Jest and I told my dad today that I’m going to reread it this summer. Who knows if I actually will, but it’s a nice thought.

 

I can’t get the room full of all the meat he’ll ever eat and all the excrement he’ll ever shit out of my head. So maybe that’s my problem. Like Hal, I’m thinking of everything all at once. Joelle tells Gately “this is why I couldn’t get off and stay off…Did you ever hear of this fellow Evel Knievel? This motorcycle-jumper?” (859).  Side note: Also, I was sure that something was going to happen between Joelle and Gately.

The Pale King: Boredom, the Tradition of Being Dull, and Originality

Boredom, the Tradition of Being Dull (or The Tradition of Boredom), and Originality

DFW’s novel about a group of IRS agents attempts to tackle the topic of boredom in perhaps what is perceived to be one of the most boring of professions: that of the tax accountant. I say “perceived to be” boring because it is the profession that Wallace chose as the center of his novel and being a right-brain person I perceive most left-brain activities to be innately boring when they don’t require the right brain’s functions.

Though in thinking about why DFW decided on accounting as a profession to analyze boredom, why he took classes in accounting as prep, I start with a theory I call the “Tradition of Being Dull.”

This tradition is one where an institution believes that being professional means being humorless, dry, tedious, by-the-book, repetitive, uninteresting, characterless, bland, bromidic, humdrum, lifeless, mundane, stodgy, unexciting, tame, wearisome, and generally un-creative.

An example from my personal experience is when I suggested books for the freshmen summer reading.

I recommended Jon Stewart’s “America (The Book): A Citizen’s Guide to Democracy Inaction” and Stephen Colbert’s “I Am America (And So Can You!).”

Both are public figures popular among the freshmen student population and both bring attention to news events that frosh most likely would not have heard about otherwise – the results of last year’s Pew Survey showed that watchers of their respective news shows are more aware of current events than viewers of “real” news channels.

Link: Report on Pew Survey on HuffPost

Poll results:

The Colbert Report 34%
The Daily Show 30%
News magazines 30%
O’Reilly Factor 28%
Lou Dobbs Tonight 27%
MSNBC 25%
C-SPAN 24%
Daily newspaper 22%
NBC News 21%
Letterman/Leno 20%
Larry King Live 19%
ABC News 19%
CNN 19%

(My summer reading was a book by Fareed Zakaria, and his network (CNN) ranked at least 15% below Stewart and Colbert, who broadcast for only an hour four days a week.)

Fox News 19%
CNBC 17%
Personality magazines 13%
Religious radio 12%
CBS News 10%
National Enquirer 9%

Considering it’s the last summer before college, providing relief with comedy would ease the transition better than some dry work that probably won’t get read by most students (and if the books aren’t read by the majority, hasn’t the school poorly invested money?)

And though there is data from a respected survey to back up making the decision to make the summer reading something that will more likely be read, the deans respond by saying “we need something more serious.” And thus the deans enforce the Tradition of Boredom even though it may be costing them money.

On the flipside, The Office acknowledges the Tradition of Boredom and changes one element: it makes the tedious humorous. There is nothing more bland or unfunny than paper products. The writers for the show acknowledge this and their success is the result of bringing jokes into a setting that is usually humorless — this element occurs within the show and in the general idea of why The Office would be entertaining: the audience sees a familiar place and reacts to the silliness of the familiar being broken, and within the show the other “offices” of the corporation are portrayed as being boring and less successful in comparison with the Scranton branch (the story’s main setting) — a story arc involved this analysis wherein the company’s executive (named David Wallace) asks the boss of the Scranton branch what he’s doing at his branch that makes it more success than the others. The punch-line is that the boss doesn’t know what he’s being asked, as his own silliness seems normal to him — it doesn’t occur that he is part of the element that breaks the Tradition of Boredom, and we, the audience find this hilarious and the show seems endlessly successful as a result.

This analysis thus leads me to think that The Office fulfills part of what Wallace wanted to do with his third novel: analyze how boredom breaks down within an IRS-like context.

Words I Learned

I thought this was blogpost worthy:

http://dfwwords.wordpress.com/

Thanks for an awesome class

I have not yet finished Infinite Jest, but I would like to write my final blog post now so I can spend Sunday doing Spanish homework and finishing the book in a more relaxed manner, so I guess this is just a random collection of reflections on Wallace’s work and the class as a whole.

Prior to taking this class I had only read one or two of Wallace’s short stories. This was during the summer after I had gotten in early decision and someone had informed me of this apparently brilliant author that taught at my future school. At this point I was pretty obsessed with finally going off to college and anything Pomona related. I bought Oblivion and read through a few of the stories (Mr. Squishy left me rather disappointed, to be honest), but I think I mostly had the book because it was one more thing that I could buy that had some Pomona significance and I   was so pumped to come here. When Wallace died I was really shocked and selfishly disappointed that I never got to take a class from him, but I still had not grasped how amazing and important a writer he was until I started reading some of the articles written following his suicide.

When I was looking through the available courses for second semester a friend informed me that the DFW class had been added to the list. I guess I just took it because it fit into my schedule and I was curious to see what all of the fuss was about. Over winter break I joked with my parents that the course might only entail reading Infinite Jest and writing a book report, and that this would be a plenty big enough workload in itself. When I learned that we would be reading all of Wallace’s work, I got a little worried.

While this has certainly been the most reading I have ever done for a class in addition to a fair deal of work writing on the blog and so on, it has also been my favorite class so far in college, perhaps in my life. The more of Wallace’s work that I read, the more I grow to appreciate his genius and the unique qualities that make his style of writing so enlightening. It would be an educational enough experience to simply read all of Wallace’s work, but to have twenty-some other students, all of whom are very intelligent, as well as a professor who knew the author personally helping to analyze and interpret the writing is a phenomenal thing. I really wish I didn’t have any other classes. It is fantastic that we can all sit around a room and open the doors to new ideas for one another, see things from each others many different perspectives. And the work is such that there is always more to find. Had I been reading these books alone, I am sure it would have been enlightening, but I wouldn’t have come close to the comprehension or grasp of his writing that I have right now.

I guess all I am really getting at is that I am extremely glad I took this class instead of macroeconomics or intro to psychology. Not only have I picked up some new favorite books, but it has enabled me to begin to have an understanding of where literature can go in this era, how our modern day issues ought to be dealt with in writing. I feel an even stronger (selfish) regret that I never got the chance to learn from him when I was in just the right place to now that I have taken the class, but then again, I have learned from him, just not in person.    

Narration and Tennis

This is my second time reading Infinite Jest, and my second time being relatively confused by the ending. I have to say that the second reading is much easier than the first, and that you really do pick up a lot more details and make more connections the second time around.

One thing I didn’t pay too much attention to on my first reading, but that I noticed this time (partly due to our class discussions) was the use of the first-person narrative throughout the course of Infinite Jest. Or rather, the lack thereof. As we discussed in class, most of the novel is written in the third person; in the first 700 or so pages, there are only a few spots where that breaks and the story is told in the first-person. In the last 200+ pages, however, Hal’s story begins to be told in the first-person, yielding some interesting thoughts and results. One particular insight that I found interesting was Hal’s acknowledgement that “I didn’t want to play [tennis] this afternoon, even if some sort of indoor exhibition-meet came off. Not even neutral, I realized. I would on the whole have preferred not to play” (954). Throughout the last few Hal-related scenes in the book, we start to see his destruction that becomes painfully evident in the first scene of the book, which is the last chronologically. My main question about this passage is, what do you do at a tennis academy when you no longer have the drive to play? It’s clear that Hal still plays tennis at the end (or really, the beginning) of the book, because he’s being recruited for college-level play. So this desire to not play appears to be a problem in Hal’s mind, not one that he actually physically goes through with.

In fact, Hal doesn’t want to play so badly that he contemplates injuring himself so he is taken out for the day. But he goes one step further in his mind, stating that he could “fall so carefully badly I’d take out all the ankle’s ligaments and never play again. Never have to, never get to. I could be the faultless victim of a freak accident and be knocked from the game while still on the ascendant. Becoming the object of compassionate sorrow rather than disappointed sorrow” (954-955).   The phrase “never have to, never get to” seems to be quite indicative of Hal’s state of mind: in one respect he feels almost compelled by some force to play (“have to”), but on the other hand it’s something he chooses to do on his own (“get to”). His fear of disappointment if he can’t compete at the top levels of play-which he worries about after almost being beaten in a match by Ortho Stice-is evident, but even Hal is confused about who he is afraid to disappoint: “I couldn’t stay with this fantastic line of thought long enough to parse out whose disappointment I was willing to cripple myself to avoid (or forgo)” (955). This line of thought is particularly interesting given that it comes in the middle of several paragraphs of Hal talking about both the Moms and Himself; yet the Moms is adamant about not being disappointed by anything her children do or don’t do, and Himself is dead. So who is Hal afraid of disappointing? My guess is, himself. I think that this apathy is so unlike Hal that his contemplations of self-injury seem frightening and disappointing to himself, but he is so out of sorts that he doesn’t notice that he might disappoint himself. Does anyone have any other ideas of who he might be afraid to disappoint? Or why he doesn’t want to play anymore? Is it just fear of losing, or is it something more-DMZ-related, perhaps?

Did You Know…

…that “onanism” means masturbation according to the OED?   I didn’t.   That puts a new spin on O.N.A.N.   Or maybe it’s just DFW jokes for joking’s sake.

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.

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?

Authority and the Usage…

“Authority and American Usage” was to me, one of the funniest stories in Consider The Lobster. The snoot of a character that we are presented with was comical in the way he expressed his love for language. Statements such as his dislike for “people who use dialogue as a verb” made him look as a very nit-picky character who is obsessed with using language correctly. We get the sense that he is snobby, and even though he was funny, he was also an unlike able character because he made me feel like he was talking down to me. On the other hand, there was also a great respect for someone who cared so much about language, and using it properly.

The splurge David Foster Wallace gives in pages 108 and 109 about SWE (standard written/white language) was one of the best aspects of this essay. While giving a talk to students he states his purpose in his course and the need for good writing. Wallace says that “–it’s not that you’re a bad writers, it’s that you haven’t learned the special rules of the dialect they want you to write in.” Who is “they” though? Professors teaching English? Dictionary makers? The fact of the matter is that there is a Standard Written Way of writing, it’s why we have professors grade our papers and mark down it down for syntax, diction, etc. And if we do not follow the standards of swe then we fail (or at the very least get a 0 on a Spanish paper for 5 mistakes on accents).

I was outraged by some of the things he was saying, and I did think to myself how can he say that these are the way things are that we have to conform, especially when in past works we have read Wallace has said that in order to get out of the loop writers are in now they have to write about what they truly think, not what writers think the public will like. But right after that he says something that made me forgive Wallace.

“This reviewer’s own humble opinion is that some of the cultural and political realities of American life are themselves racially insensitive and elitist and offensive and unfair, and that pussyfooting around these realities with euphemistic doublespeak is not only hypocritical but toxic to the project of ever really changing them” (109).

This I think is his response to acknowledging the way English exists now a days. There is a standard way of writing and it may be bias and racist and whatever else you may choose to call it, but if we ever want to change the standard of writing then we first have to acknowledge it. Which does make sense, in order to solve a problem, you have to understand what is the problem before you can go about changing it. But what Wallace doesn’t answer is HOW exactly we are supposed to go about that change. Ideas?

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.