As I recall, the first time I encountered David Foster Wallace’s work was the cruise ship essay. This seems to be a common starting point; it’s certainly one of his more accessible and funnier pieces. For me, though, it had a certain personal significance. I had recently been on a cruise myself (not of my own volition), and my precise feelings about the experience were: never again. It was terribly gratifying to find someone who was not only taking an axe to one of society’s more ridiculous holy grails, but was doing so in a way that was both comprehensively intelligent and appealingly human.
I think this explains a lot of DFW’s appeal. Most of us are deeply uncomfortable with various aspects of our absurd society, but since most of these things are taken for granted, we can rarely express our feelings in a way that’s understandable to other people. In Wallace, we found someone who not only felt the same way, but was sharp and observant enough to express those feelings in a way that really brought the issues to life. It’s not hard to see why people yearn for a sort of intellectual-yet-human role model to help us navigate a confusing world. As it turns out, though, that person didn’t exist. We had to invent him.
I consider it a bit of a personal failing that it took me so long to figure out what Wallace’s problem was. Naturally, this would have been a lot more useful back when his mythologization was still a work-in-progress rather than a fait accompli. The truth is, I was so excited to find someone who seemed to be speaking to my concerns in an intelligent way that I failed to listen to my own feelings. The way that Wallace felt about his cruise was actually not at all the way that I felt about mine. The beginning was the end.
For Wallace, the problem with cruises is that they’re too good. Contrary to the typical American view of luxury being the goal of life, Wallace considers the experience of luxury to be an insidious form of nihilism – he pointedly highlights the cruise’s promise that patrons will finally be able to do “Absolutely Nothing.” If the struggle to manage and fulfill one’s desires is what constitutes the actual experience of life, then a situation in which all of one’s desires are met automatically without even any thought being involved is basically the same as having no desires, which is basically the same as not existing (if this is all sounding a bit Nietzschean, you’re going to have to hold your horses).
The basic problem with this is pretty obvious: not only are cruises not “too good,” they aren’t even good. Cruises suck. In addition to the fact that a cruise ship is basically just a crowded, extra-nausea-inducing hotel and the fact that the “entertainment” is all pathetic summer-camp-for-adults garbage, a cruise experience is fundamentally unenjoyable due to the way it smacks you in the face with its own exploitative nature. Maybe I’m a freak, but I don’t find the experience of being waited on to be any fun, particularly when it manifests itself as an army of servile brown people standing around every corner, sporting plastered-on smiles while waiting on pins and needles for the chance to be ordered around by some pompous Hawaiian-shirt-wearing tourist jackass.
The same effect is in play once the ship reaches one of its Remote Island Destinations. You get funneled off the ship directly into a ersatz strip mall full of chintzy tourist trash. The fact that this setup is so wildly incongruous with its location makes unavoidable the realization that it is there because of you, that the money you paid for the cruise is funding exploitation, that your presence on the island is white supremacy in action. The usual way to understand cruising is that it’s the closest middle-class people can get to being upper-class, but it’s actually more like the closest that alienated office workers can get to being imperialists.
In his typically annoying way, Wallace makes an incisive observation about this while also completely dismissing its importance:
“the ethnic makeup of the Nadir‘s crew is a melting-pot melange . . . it at first seems like there’s some basic Eurocentric caste system in force: waiters, bus-boys, beverage waitresses, sommeliers, casino dealers, entertainers and stewards seem mostly to be Aryans, while the porters and custodians and swabbies tend to be your swarthier types – Arabs and Filipinos, Cubans, West Indian blacks. But it turns out to be more complex than that”
no it doesn’t shut up stop talking. Christ. Racism is not a god damn intellectual puzzle for smart white people to thoughtfully pore over. It’s physical oppression, and you’d think that experiencing it in such close quarters would make that obvious. It did for me, anyway. Contra Wallace, the cruise experience did not make me feel pampered. It made me feel like I was on a plantation.
The reason it’s so difficult to figure out where DFW stands is that he pretty much never puts his foot down. He always leaves himself an out. For example, in an earlier post I accused him of advocating for a “kinder, gentler” ruling class. Not only does Wallace preemptively head off this accusation, he uses the exact same reference:
“Besides, the rise of Reagan/Bush/Gingrich showed that hypocritical nostalgia for a kinder, gentler, more Christian pseudo-past is no less susceptible to manipulation in the interests of corporate commercialism and PR image. Most of us will still take nihilism over neanderthalism.”
This is part of the argument in “E Unibus Plurum,” and he has to say this here because his anti-irony conclusion seems to lead pretty obviously to a re-adoption of traditional values. But note that this is not actually an argument, because Wallace obviously does not “take nihilism.” So, is Wallace merely talking about appearances, saying that the Reagan option would be appealing if it were presented better? Or is this rejection based on principles, and in favor of a third option? Given the essay’s conclusion, isn’t an accusation of “neanderthalism” precisely the sort of “risk” we might expect an “anti-rebel” to take? Meaning Wallace actually is in favor of this? He doesn’t say. All he does here is merely defend himself against the expected charge of political conservativism.
So, what I want to say now is that Wallace was “impossible to pin down,” but guess what:
“And make no mistake: irony tyrannizes us. The reason why our pervasive cultural irony is at once so powerful and so unsatisfying is that an ironist is impossible to pin down.”
Emphasis Wallace’s. Implying of course that Wallace himself is against this position and therefore can be pinned down. At this point, what I’m interested in is why Wallace constantly argues in this manner. Because these aren’t flukes: this sort of automatic backpedaling is an intrinsic part of his M.O., to the extent that it often occurs in the space of a single argument.
For example, part of “E Unibus Plurum” is devoted to debunking a utopian argument that asserts that improvements in technology will resolve the social problems with TV and turn it into a vector for liberation. It’s a transparently silly argument, and Wallace gives it the usual treatment. But then he produces the following paragraph:
“Oh God, I’ve just reread my criticisms of Gilder. That he is naive. That he is an ill-disguised apologist for corporate self-interest. That his book has commercials. That beneath its futuristic novelty it’s just the same old American same-old that got us into this televisual mess. That Gilder vastly underestimates the intractability of the mess. Its hopelessness. Our gullibility, fatigue, disgust. My attitude, reading Gilder, has been sardonic, aloof, depressed. I have tried to make his book look ridiculous (which it is, but still). My reading of Gilder is televisual. I am in the aura.”
Set aside whatever counterarguments you may be considering, and instead ask yourself: why did Wallace write this paragraph? If he actually thought this was a valid criticism of his argument, one expects that he would have, you know, fixed his argument before publishing it. It can only be that Wallace felt that he had to make his argument the way he did, and then do the best he could to do stifle the “televisual” aspect of it with this disclaimer. But that’s obviously wrong; it was obviously within his abilities to have made a straightforward factual argument without ridiculing his target. Rather, then, this paragraph exists because Wallace wants to believe that this is the only possible way of doing things, that he can’t escape “the aura.”
This same dynamic occurs even more provocatively in Wallace’s essay on Dostoevsky. The theme of this essay is that Dostoevsky is an important role model for modern Americans due to the fact that his work is both highly artistic and deeply moral. Naturally, this argument is part of Wallace’s overall claim that we’re “too ironic” nowadays and we don’t know how to be “sincere” anymore.
It is in this context that Wallace writes the following:
“Frank’s bio prompts us to ask ourselves why we seem to require of our art an ironic distance from deep convictions or desperate questions, so that contemporary writers have to either make jokes of them or else try to work them in under cover of some formal trick like intertextual quotation or incongruous juxtaposition, sticking the really urgent stuff inside asterisks as part of some multivalent defamiliarization-flourish or some such shit.”
That bit about the asterisks refers to this essay itself, throughout which Wallace interpolates Big Moral Questions in a manner like such as the following:
“** Is the real point of my life simply to undergo as little pain and as much pleasure as possible? My behavior sure seems to indicate that this is what I believe, at least a lot of the time. But isn’t this kind of a selfish way to live? Forget selfish – isn’t it awful lonely? **”
So again, what Wallace is doing here is explicitly criticizing his own approach rather than trying to fix it. This is a very odd move, because it results in Wallace neither having his cake nor eating it. He could have presented these issues directly, allowing them to stand on their own, or he could have gone deeper into his criticism, attempting to figure out a better way to ask these questions. As it is, half-assing it and then calling himself out like this blunts the immediacy of his questions, making the whole thing feel like little more than a parlor game – exactly the result that Wallace was so afraid of.
So, at this point, there’s only one possibility. Given how central this mistake is to Wallace’s argument, he can’t be doing it on accident. It must be the case that Wallace has a specific positive motivation to present his arguments in this way, to force himself into this apparent double bind. Recall also the way that Wallace’s sloppy arguments in his journalism just so happen to overlap perfectly with his ideological concerns. For example, Wallace thinks that the “Descriptivist” position on linguistics is that “there are no rules,” just like “televisual” irony supposedly means that “nothing means anything anymore,” just like the problem with politics is that “young voters” “don’t believe in anything anymore.” What we’re looking at here is a case of motivated reasoning.
The Howling Fantods
David Foster Wallace’s great fear was what he referred to as “solipsism.” The most vivid expression of this is the fate of Hal Incandenza that opens Infinite Jest: living a rich inner life while being completely unable to communicate with the outside world.
“’There is nothing wrong,’ I say slowly to the floor. ‘I’m in here.’
I’m raised by the crutches of my underarms, shaken toward what he must see as calm by a purple-faced Director: ‘Get a grip, son!’
DeLint at the big man’s arm: ‘Stop it!’
‘I am not what you see and hear.’
Distant sirens. A crude half nelson. Forms at the door. A young Hispanic woman holds her palm against her mouth, looking.
‘I’m not,’ I say.”
The main characters of Infinite Jest, Hal Incandenza and Don Gately, are of course transparently based on Wallace himself; hence, Wallace is here expressing what he sees as the dangers of his own personality and habits. This dramatization of Hal’s terrible fate is precisely Wallace’s expression of his own fear.
As everyone knows by now, one of DFW’s big influences was Wittgenstein. He’s explicit about this in exactly one place: “The Empty Plenum,” his review of David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress. Unfortunately, this is early DFW, before he had gotten his bad habits of pseudo-academic-ese, intrusive name-dropping, and pointlessly convoluted phraseology under control. It’s badly written, his argument is unclear, and he spends a lot of time on some really weak gender analysis that I’m going to ignore. Still, one does what one must.
Wallace’s central claim is that the philosophy espoused by Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus amounts to advocacy of solipsism. Very, very briefly: the Tractatus claims that facts about the physical world are the only things that we can meaningfully talk about (“The world is everything that is the case,” and “What is the case, the fact, is the existence of atomic facts.”). But “facts” themselves exist only in our minds; thus, Wallace’s worry here is that:
“This latter possibility – if internalized, really believed – is a track that makes stops at skepticism & then solipsism before heading straight into insanity.”
In other words, all we have are our own experiences, and those are unreliable, so if we take this seriously, what we actually have is nothing, pure chaos.
This doesn’t really have much to do with what Wittgenstein was actually talking about. For him, the importance of this argument was that statements about ethics or metaphysics become meaningless. It was a philosophical problem, not a personal one. Still, it would seem that Wallace’s fear has some justification. We know how hard it is to get through to other people just based on everyday experience; it’s not too much of a stretch to take this difficulty seriously.
But “solipsism” is the wrong term for this issue. The whole point of solipsism from a philosophical standpoint is that there’s no way to actually tell the difference between Solipsist World and Non-Solipsist World. It’s a purely philosophical problem, but what Wallace is talking about is the experience and the feeling of not being able to get through to other people.
The other term Wallace likes to use for this is “loneliness,” which is closer to what he’s talking about, but still not totally precise. Wallace was, after all, a well-known author with plenty going on in his life. He wasn’t “lonely” in the obvious sense of the word (one can, of course, be lonely without being alone). So instead, the term I’m going to use is “intellectual isolation,” the fear that nothing that goes on inside our heads can ever really get out into the real world (and, perhaps even scarier, vice versa). Wallace’s specific fear was that, no matter what he said or did, he could never really express himself to another human.
When we understand the issue in this way, it becomes quite clear that this was the underlying impulse that motivated much of Wallace’s work. One of the notable things about Wallace’s oeuvre is how much he wrote about how to write – not in the technical sense, but in the philosophical sense, i.e. how one ought to write. This was his attempt to resolve the problem of intellectual isolation.
And while Wallace was pretty obviously projecting his own concerns onto Wittgenstein’s philosophy, it just so happens that Wittgenstein got around to addressing this problem as well. As Wallace mentions, Wittgenstein performed a dramatic about-face after the Tractatus, such that his second major work, the Philosophical Investigations, amounts to a direct refutation of the argument in the Tractatus. In the Investigations, Wittgenstein turns his approach around completely: rather than trying to determine the basis for language, he looks at language as it actually exists and is used. What he finds out here is one of those simple insights that has deep implications. Rather than language being purely referential (that is, only communicating physical facts) language is actually not referential at all; it is purely functional (that is, it’s a tool for social interaction).
The reason for this is that language is how people interact with each other, not how one person interacts with the world. If you were alone and looking at a tree, you wouldn’t point at it and say “look at that tree.” But you would do so if you were with another person and you wanted to draw their attention to the tree. You might even do so if there were no tree at all, and you were trying to trick the person. In such a case, your utterance obviously doesn’t refer to anything in the real world. Rather, it performs the function of making the other person look.
This is clearest in highly contrived situations, such as a job interview. The standard sort of exchange like Q: “What is your greatest weakness?” A: “Oh gosh, I don’t know, I guess I’m a bit of a perfectionist” isn’t mean to elicit any real information, it’s just for the interviewer to get a feel for the candidate. Most of the interview is really contentless; it’s a sort of “test” to verify that the candidate can respond to situations in the appropriate manner. Wittgenstein calls this sort of situation a “language game,” and each utterance of this sort can be thought of as one possible “move” in the game.
The insight, though, is that, on a fundamental level, all communication is like this. There are only language games, and every possible utterance is a move in whatever game we’re playing at the moment. A “private language” that could be used by only one person to refer directly to the physical world is an impossibility. The connection between language and the physical world is entirely mediated by other humans.
When Wallace gets to the part of “The Empty Plenum” where he explains the argument from the Philosophical Investigations, he doesn’t follow it through to its conclusion like he does with the argument from the Tractatus. This can only be because he doesn’t think the argument resolves the problem, and, indeed, the fact that he spent the rest of his life trying to work it out shows that he didn’t have a solid answer. But he did have an approach, whether it was consciously chosen or not.
Recall the argument Wallace makes about linguistics in “Authority and American Usage.” His claim is that the “Descriptivist” argument advocating “the abandonment of ‘artificial’ rules and conventions” must result in “a literal Babel,” and this is why prescriptive language rules are necessary. Recall further that Wallace makes this claim while discussing Wittgenstein’s argument against private language. We can now finally understand why Wallace makes the bizarre move from “language is purely social” to “arbitrary usage rules are required for understanding.” It’s because he was between a rock and a hard place. From the perspective of the Tractatus argument, language refers to real things, but it can’t actually be used to communicate our internal thoughts and feelings. Whereas under the Investigations argument, “everything is permitted”; language can be used for any purpose, but it has no grounding, so we can never really know what’s being said. Note that this latter argument is exactly the same as Wallace’s objection to irony: when someone is being ironic, they can say anything, but you can never really know what they mean.
And this is precisely the dilemma that Wallace was attempting to overcome as a writer: the issue of how to really communicate what he wants to say. Which means we’ve finally come to the heart of the matter. This is the central issue which all of Wallace’s work was an attempt to resolve. The approach that I’ve previously identified – Wallace’s sublimation of his own feelings into intellectual argument – was his attempted solution (though of course he never actually felt that he had succeeded).
Hence Wallace’s conclusion in “Authority and American Usage.” He accepts that language is fundamentally social and not a formal system, but he still thinks arbitrary usage rules are required. What he’s getting at here is illustrated best by his position with regard to African American Vernacular English. Wallace, unlike most “prescriptivists,” is aware that AAVE is a fully functional dialect and not a “degraded” version of “normal” English. The fact that “Standard” English and not AAVE is the prestige dialect in our society is entirely arbitrary (I mean, it’s the result of white supremacy, obviously, but it’s “arbitrary” in the academic sense). Wallace knows this, and yet he still demands that his students fully embrace Standard English. Why? Because the existence of a formalized standard dialect resolves his dilemma: having a single rigorously defined means of communication allows us to express ourselves such that we can be absolutely understood. This is the root of the prescriptivist anxiety against “ambiguity,” at least for Wallace. What matters to Wallace is not that his dialect specifically is the prestige dialect, but rather that there is a prestige dialect at all, regardless of which dialect that is.
The reason for this is that Wallace feels this is the only way for humans to really be able to communicate. It evades the Wittgensteinian Scylla and Charybdis (words are great) by preserving the social aspect of language that allows us to express ourselves, while providing a solid foundation that allows us to be unambiguously understood.
And it is this same approach that Wallace took in his writing and argumentation. He could have merely expressed himself as an ideological writer a la Dostoevsky, but then he would have been giving up on making sure that other people understood him (the Investigations approach). Or, if he had gone the academic route and made purely intellectual arguments, then he wouldn’t have been expressing himself at all; it would be as though he didn’t really exist (the Tractatus approach). Instead, he attempted to navigate a middle path through the double bind: he took his own feelings and anxieties, and “rigorously defined” them as intellectual arguments, such that everyone else could understand them.
Okay! So, you remember that all of this is the position that I’m arguing against, right? Yeah. Because this doesn’t actually work. It’s a con. And it wouldn’t be nearly as much of a problem if it weren’t for the fact that everyone fell for it.
The reason all of this matters is that Wallace’s work has almost universally been read in exactly the wrong way. He’s been accepted as an avatar of the current American situation, his earnest confusion and noncommittal intellectualism taken as guidelines. A.O. Scott’s remembrance of Wallace in the New York Times portrays the problem quite vividly:
“The moods that Mr. Wallace distilled so vividly on the page — the gradations of sadness and madness embedded in the obsessive, recursive, exhausting prose style that characterized both his journalism and his fiction — crystallized an unhappy collective consciousness. And it came through most vividly in his voice. Hyperarticulate, plaintive, self-mocking, diffident, overbearing, needy, ironical, almost pathologically self-aware (and nearly impossible to quote in increments smaller than a thousand words) — it was something you instantly recognized even hearing it for the first time. It was — is — the voice in your own head.”
This is a rare example of damning with fulsome praise. This is not how the “shock of recognition” you get from great art is supposed to work. If reflecting what’s already in your own head were all that writing could accomplish, what would be the point? The strength of writing is obviously its ability to capture the sense of internal monologue, but the point ought to be that that monologue is someone else’s, one you couldn’t otherwise hear in your own head. The “recognition” you feel ought to be that of “making the strange familiar,” of not merely encountering an alien perspective but feeling it deeply, such that it becomes a new part of yourself.
What’s critical to note here is the way that Scott recapitulates Wallace’s mistake. He’s aware that Wallace’s work had “his personality . . . stamped on every page,” but then goes on to claim that it “crystallized an unhappy collective consciousness.” This is exactly wrong: it crystallized Wallace’s own unhappiness. And given that Wallace’s unhappiness was in fact the result of serious-fucking-business clinical depression, we have less than no reason to interpret it as a general symptom of society.
Of course, a lot of this kid-gloves treatment has do with the fact that Wallace was a white male. Most people don’t have the luxury of speaking generally; most people are preemptively confined to their own perspectives. People like Wallace are getting an undeserved pass. Again, Scott is aware of this but fails to recognize its significance: he compares Wallace to a bunch of other authors who he refers to as “itchy late- and post-boomer white guys,” but somehow fails to account for the fact that other types of people exist (including other types of white men; not all of us are hopelessly confuddled by phantom postmodernism). These writers, including Wallace, are mapping out one small corner of human experience and not defining a “generational crisis.”
(And I get that Scott is writing an obituary and he’s obviously not going to criticize Wallace here. But the particular way in which he praises Wallace is what makes the point.)
And this is also why it’s so wrong to revere Wallace as some sort of great intellect (I mean, aside from how much of a front the whole “genius” thing was). Everyone’s aware of his personal problems by now, but these have been framed as foibles, evidence that he was a “flawed human being,” a doomed genius. Again, exactly wrong: Wallace’s problems are evidence that he was normal, that he was doing exactly what all the rest of us are doing: trying to make sense of a senseless universe using whatever shoddy tools we happen to have at hand. And this is why the limits of his perspective and the errors that resulted from those limits must be kept in full view.
This is not currently happening. Consider this deeply unfortunate individual, who is terribly interested in what Wallace’s opinion on selfie sticks would have been, had he only lived to tell us. Truly a shame, right? Again, this person has learned exactly the wrong lesson from Wallace: that a rigorous intellectual analysis of her own collection of trivial personal confusions contains the answers to the great questions about meaning and society. Wallace’s projection of his own problems onto the world has encouraged others to make the same mistake.
But the fact that David Foster Wallace was wrong about everything doesn’t mean that his work doesn’t have value. The limited nature of any one perspective is far from a new problem – and it’s far from insoluble. This is actually one of the things that humanity already has a handle on, though perhaps an unwitting one.
Playing the Wicked Game
Here’s the thing: not only is Wallace’s approach not a solution to his problem, it’s actually the only crime: arguing in bad faith. Bad faith is the thing that actually does to communication what Wallace thought irony did: it makes it impossible to tell where someone is coming from. This is why Wallace was able to, for example, write an entire article about John McCain’s candidacy, the point of which was to harangue young people for not having political convictions anymore, and get though the entire thing without ever betraying the slightest hint of what his own political beliefs may or may not have been.
But the reason Wallace couldn’t find a solution isn’t because there isn’t one; rather, it’s because there isn’t a problem. And, ~ironically~, we know this from the very source that sent Wallace tumbling down the rabbit hole in the first place: Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations.
Like I said, the whole “language games” thing is really obvious on the surface – of course we communicate in functional ways that don’t actually refer to anything. The trick is to follow this argument all the way through. If we accept that all communication consists of “language games,” then the obstacles to communication that so vexed Wallace reveal themselves as phantoms: they are merely different games. One retains the options of playing by their rules, or choosing a different game.
Thus, Wallace’s insistence on one “correct” method of communication is essentially cheating: refusing to abide by the rules of any one game, he takes the rules of one game and applies them to another. But the truth is, just as language naturally resolves itself into mutual comprehensibility without anyone policing it, each language game serves its own purposes just fine, as long as you don’t expect one game to be able to do everything.
Consider Wallace’s criticism of John Updike. Wallace’s claim is that Updike is a “narcissist,” and while this is again a misuse of a technical term, it’s a common one, so it’s clear what Wallace meant. He meant that Updike only ever talked about himself, which he highlights via the following Updike quote:
“Of nothing but me . . . I sing, lacking another song.”
But that isn’t actually what this means. That is, I’m not familiar with Updike, so I have no idea what he meant by it, but I’ll tell you what I mean by it. What this quote refers to is the fact that none of us actually has access to anything other than our own subjective experience. So everything a person writes ultimately comes out of nowhere but their own head; even when they’re writing about experiences that are totally alien to their own, they’re still writing about their own experiences hearing about those experiences (or making them up). This is what it means to “lack another song.”
The catch is that this is fine. I mean, it has to be, because there’s no alternative. We actually are each trapped inside our own perspective, but that doesn’t stop us from communicating, as long as we don’t expect perfection. Updike can only talk about himself, but we understand this, and we take it into account when we read his work, and this allows us to derive our own insights from Updike’s perspective, or to gain an understanding of the particular type of person that he is, or even to read him entirely critically as an example of what not to do. All of these things are valuable. (Again, I have no idea whether Updike’s work is actually worth reading by this standard, but we’re talking about the principle here. Here’s a pretty good blog post that makes this argument with regard to Updike specifically.)
And all of this applies just as strongly to Wallace’s work, despite his attempts to dodge the issue. Even on a totally naive reading of Wallace, isn’t it pretty obvious that he consistently “sings of himself”? Like, are we supposed to think that all that shit about tennis was just a coincidence? “Uncritical” self-absorption is preferable to a self-absorption that pretends to universality.
So that’s one game: subjectivity. Another game is objectivity. Consider “Consider the Lobster,” where Wallace invokes Peter Singer as support for the argument against meat eating. Wallace brings up Singer only in passing, on the way to his own quietist conclusion. But he couldn’t have reached this conclusion if he had actually taken Singer seriously, because Singer’s argument is part of a moral framework that doesn’t really give you the option to just “worry” about the issue.
The famous example that defines Singer’s approach goes as follows: You emerge from the tailor’s, having just purchased a very nice outfit for $1,000. As you walk down the street, you see a child drowning in the river. No one else is around to help. You’re a strong enough swimmer to save the child easily, but doing so will completely ruin your expensive new outfit. Do you save the child? Obviously, the answer is “yes.” But now consider that, instead of seeing a child drowning, you arrive home and find a letter from a charity asking for a $1,000 donation to save the life a child in some far away country you’ve never heard of. Do you make the donation? Singer claims that the moral calculus is exactly the same in these two situations, and yet, most of us do not make these sorts of donations whenever we can. According to Singer, we ought to, and this results in a broad obligation to consider the moral effects of our spending choices from a utilitarian perspective. It’s the same deal with meat eating: just as $1,000 is not worth a child’s life, the taste of a good burger is not worth an animal’s life.
The point isn’t whether this argument is right or wrong, the point is that it imposes an obligation. In “Consider the Lobster,” Wallace goes well out of his way to make sure his argument doesn’t impose any obligations on anyone, and this is where he fails as an intellectual. Ideas aren’t toys; accepting an important idea ought to obligate you to change your life. But for Wallace, an idea is just an opportunity to reflect his own confusion. He avoids taking precisely the out that ideas are capable of providing: they can provide us with a framework from which to discuss an issue without having to rely on our own personal idiosyncrasies. “True objectivity” is impossible, obviously. (Singer certainly has his own ideological biases). But so what? That’s no excuse to not do our best.
And again, all of this applies just as strongly to Wallace’s work, despite his attempts to dodge the issue. Wallace does make explicit intellectual arguments which can be accepted or refuted on their own terms. I’ve done a little bit of this already, but let’s stick with the meat eating thing just for simplicity. The conclusion Wallace draws, that “it all still seems to come down to individual conscience,” is the one conclusion that is absolutely invalid. Eating animals is either morally permissible or it is not. If it’s not, you are obligated to avoid it to the best of your ability. If it is, then you don’t have to wring your hands about it. And given the current state of things, the latter is the conclusion that Wallace’s argument actually results in, making his position self-refuting. One does not have the option to stand still on an escalator.
So, you’re getting what’s happened here, right? Wallace succeeded despite his best efforts. That’s the amazing upshot of the language games argument: there is no such thing as intellectual isolation. Establishing a connection to other humans isn’t a prize you get for using language really well, it’s a prerequisite to language use in the first place. The mere use of language in any context is necessarily a connection to the broader human enterprise.
Wallace thought that expressing himself entailed this huge burden, but it’s actually impossible not to express yourself, as long as your audience is aware of what game you’re playing. And the problem with Wallace is precisely that he fooled his audience into avoiding this awareness. His approach makes it seems like he’s not playing games, like he’s just a really smart guy doing his best to figure things out, like he’s “the best mind of his generation.” But none of those three things actually exist.
And we’re not beholden to Wallace’s framework; we’re entirely within our rights to fix his mistakes. We don’t have to pretend like he was some kind of generational oracle and discuss him on that basis. We don’t have to play along with his attempted universalization of his own perspective. We can find what’s worthwhile in his work and apply it as needed, whether as insight, counterexample, or cautionary tale.
Once again, Wallace’s argument for linguistic prescriptivism acts as a microcosm of his overall approach. Let’s say you manage to successfully establish some arbitrary usage rule. Great. So what? Why does anybody have to care? Are you actually going to stop people from ignoring your rule whenever they feel like it? You’re not, because you can’t. Whether a person is understood when they speak isn’t up to you. It’s up to the world. And the meaning of Wallace’s work isn’t up to him, either. It’s up to us.
Nietzsche contra Wallace
Here’s a revealing aside from the Dostoevsky essay:
“Nietzsche would take Dostoevsky’s insight and make it the cornerstone of his own devastating attack on Christianity, and this is ironic: in our own culture of ‘enlightened atheism’ we are very much Nietzsche’s children, his ideological heirs, and without Dostoevsky there would have been no Nietzsche, and yet Dostoevsky is among the most profoundly religious of all writers.”
Okay, first of all, this is totally wrong. I’m supposed to be done with the debunking part here, but I can’t let this one slide. Nietzsche only discovered Dostoevsky in 1887 – too late to have influenced the major works that most defined his philosophy, Beyond Good and Evil and On the Genealogy of Morals (in fact, the two men were nearly contemporaries – Dostoevsky’s last work was written in 1880, Nietzsche’s only 8 years later. Nietzsche was never able to read The Brothers Karamazov because it had not yet been translated). It is true that Nietzsche was smitten with Dostoevsky after discovering him; during his final frenzy of work in 1888, Nietzsche repeatedly makes significant use of the word “idiot.” While this is entirely adorable, it’s a far cry from Dostoevsky being one of Nietzsche’s major influences. Moreover, while this is a bit much to get into here, seeing this connection as “ironic” is awfully superficial, as though Dostoevsky could be summed up as merely “Christian” and Nietzsche as merely “anti-Christian.” Nietzsche was, after all, a profound moralist – just not a Christian one.
That aside, it is precisely not the case that “we” are Nietzsche’s children. Most people are not atheists in either the literal or the metaphorical sense. As usual, Wallace is pretending like his own perspective amounts to a comprehensive explanation. What’s actually going on here is that one specific person is Nietzsche’s child: David Foster Wallace.
It might seem like you couldn’t find two more opposite personalities. Nietzsche, the unrepentant elitist, bombastic and reckless, guided by the past while reaching desperately into the future. Wallace, the determined populist, cautious and humble, embedded deeply in the present. Nietzsche was ignored in his own day due to being “untimely,” while Wallace was revered for his (alleged) ability to tap into the zeitgeist.
But the thing about opposites is that they’re two ends of one spectrum. Both men were engaged in a desperate struggle against what they saw as the creeping nihilism of their own time. Nietzsche saw a great void left behind by Christianity’s fading moral authority, a vast, flat plain on which only the “smallest” could survive. Of course, nature abhors a vacuum, even in morals, so the situation in Wallace’s day was quite different. Wallace saw a glut of meaning created by the rise of extreme pluralism, a great cacophony of noise through which no signal could be discerned.
The big difference is that Nietzsche was deeply self-aware in a way that Wallace was not. Nietzsche was explicit about the fact that his proposed new morality was based entirely on his own standards; indeed, that was the point. Wallace, while trying to be egalitarian, stumbled into the same territory unwittingly by universalizing his own particulars.
Nietzsche would not have been surprised:
“Gradually it has become clear to me what every great philosophy so far has been: namely, the personal confession of its author and a kind of involuntary and unconscious memoir; also that the moral (or immoral) intentions in every philosophy constituted the real germ of life from which the whole plant had grown.”
Nobody’s confused about the fact that Wallace was speaking from his own perspective. But people still talk about his arguments as though they have some kind of formal, universal validity. What Nietzsche is saying here is that this is never the case. It isn’t just the blatantly personal stuff, the supposedly analytical aspects of Wallace’s work are also only expressions of the type of person that he is.
As mentioned, the real trick here is that this isn’t a problem. It isn’t a problem for Nietzsche’s work, which is still valuable despite all the stuff he was blatantly wrong about, and despite the fact that we can no longer countenance his conclusions. And it isn’t a problem for Wallace’s work, because Nietzsche, the ailing diagnostician, has the cure for his crimes:
“The philosopher supposes that the value of his philosophy lies in the whole, in the structure; but posterity finds its value in the stone which he used for building, and which is used many more times after that for building – better. Thus it finds the value in the fact that the structure can be destroyed and nevertheless retains value as building material.”
This is why Wallace’s structure needs to be destroyed: so we can build better.
Of course, it would be irresponsible to stop here without at least getting started on the whole rebuilding thing. This has hardly been a comprehensive overview of Wallace’s work (his fiction is a whole other topic), but we’ve been through enough to draw some basic conclusions.
The first and most important should be obvious by now: don’t try to universalize your own idiosyncrasies. In fact, as soon as you find yourself trying to make a big statement about something like “American culture” or “televisual irony,” it’s probably a good idea to just slow your roll. It’s commonly said that great art takes the particular and makes it universal, but that’s not what that means. It means that by expressing yourself creatively you provide other people with something that they can use to make connections that neither you nor they could have anticipated. You can’t force it like Wallace tried to. All you can do is express yourself within your limitations and trust your audience to meet you halfway. You have to play the wicked game.
When Wallace tried to simultaneously work from his own perspective and be objective, he was trying to avoid being “ideological.” But this is impossible; the point of the term “ideology” is precisely that everyone has one. It’s clear from the way Wallace deploys the term (which he does frequently) that he didn’t understand this. And the solution here is pretty straightforward: we always need to be cognizant of our own ideological assumptions, and we can’t let people like Wallace pretend like they aren’t arguing ideologically.
The second is to interrogate your damn frameworks. Wallace never did this and it always cost him. When he tried to talk about the politics of language, he shoehorned the whole thing into the “liberal/conservative” divide, because that’s all he knew about politics. When he talked about TV, his whole argument was based on the notion that TV was “ironic,” because that’s what everyone always says about it. Of course, this failure is what made his writing so appealing: he was telling people what they already knew (and this is where Wallace’s gift as a writer was more like a curse: it made his arguments more persuasive than they deserved to be).
The last is to not underestimate ideas. This is actually closely related to one of Wallace’s own insights – maybe his best. It occurs a couple of times in Infinite Jest, and it takes the form: don’t underestimate objects. What this means is that objects aren’t just things for humans to use; they have their own aspect of being that affects the way people interact with them. This is clearer than ever with the advent of smartphones, which are objects that are pretty obviously affecting people’s behavior in unanticipated ways. A piece of software is ultimately just an object, but its particular characteristics affect the people who use it. For example, one of the reasons search engines are so effective is not because they’re so brilliantly coded, but because people have learned how to phrase their queries in ways that are easy for a piece of software to process (such as focusing on improbable keywords). More disturbingly, we may even be learning to only want to ask things that can be answered by a search engine. The cliche that can be redeemed in order to describe this phenomenon is “the things you own end up owning you.”
Wallace failed to apply this insight to his treatment of ideas. He treated them like they were toys to bounce around (this is another reason why name-dropping really is a bad thing). Crucially, he treated Wittgenstein’s philosophy as an opportunity to merely reflect on his own anxieties. But as we’ve seen, if he hadn’t done this, if he had actually taken Wittgenstein seriously and followed his argument through, it could have resolved his problems. But this could only have happened if he had been willing to let an argument take him somewhere he wasn’t looking to go.
In a discussion of the “Death of the Author” theory, Wallace defines his position as follows:
“For those of us civilians who know in our gut that writing is an act of communication between one human being and another, the whole question seems kind of arcane.”
Let’s take him at his word.