Last time I explained how David Foster Wallace’s approach to the politics of language in “Authority and American Usage” ended up backing him into a reactionary position. That essay can’t be considered a representative example, though, because Wallace obviously had some personal issues re: grammar snobbery that contributed to the muddling of his argument there. Once is an anomaly, twice is a coincidence, but three times is a pattern. Today I’m going to argue that the issues with Wallace’s general approach were not coincidental.
I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit that I was unable to finalize my argument here until encountering this Reddit thread, which is the only place I’ve seen DFW’s work described as reactionary. That was the last piece of the puzzle. I had been unable to make sense of Wallace’s consistent errors because I was assuming that he was “on my side.” Most discussion of Wallace seems to suffer from this same problem. People assume he was a good guy who was doing his best but had some problems, when in fact he was fundamentally misguided. Taking a genuinely adversarial approach to his work clarified everything for me, but more than that, I think this approach actually makes his work much more valuable. At the very least, it’s pretty clear by now that the DFW-as-self-help-guru approach is a dead end, so we ought to try something new.
In summary, Wallace’s general approach to political issues in his nonfiction writing was:
- Generalize and simplify the issue by imposing a commonly understood framework on it (e.g. liberals vs. conservatives, authority vs. anarchy, irony vs. sincerity). This results in both an overly broad approach and a dismissal of radical opinions, even when they’re directly evident in the subject matter. It also makes readers comfortable by allowing them to start from a framework that they already take for granted.
- Intellectualize the issue by bringing in as many ideas as possible, but fail to draw a strong conclusion, or even any conclusion at all. This confuses the issue and makes it look like there’s no real solution. Again, this makes readers feel comfortable, because Wallace isn’t “pretending like he has the answer,” and his writing doesn’t push anyone into making any real commitments.
- Fall back on a basic reactionary position, usually either traditional authority or individualistic who’s-to-say-ism. Step 2 makes this seem like the only possible option, and Step 1 allows this conclusion to seem much more broadly applicable than would be warranted even if it were justified.
There’s one very important tactic that Wallace uses constantly to support both steps 1 and 2, which is Both Sides-ing. This is basically the argument to moderation, but used to denigrate rather than support a position. Rather than arguing that a position must be right because it is moderate (Wallace never gets around to actually arguing in favor of any position), Both Sides-ing simply argues that anyone with an “extreme” position on either side of an issue must be wrong simply because they’re extreme. Ironically, this is the favorite tactic of precisely the type of modern thinkers that Wallace was deeply opposed to: those who believe that ridiculing a position is the same as arguing against it (namely, South Park Republicans). Naturally, Both Sides-ing is an inherently conservative tactic, since it denigrates any position that might actually change something.
To be clear, none of this has anything to do with what Wallace’s explicit political opinions were. The issue is not that he was secretly a conservative and was therefore a bad person or whatever. The issue is precisely that he was trying to be a good liberal, but his approach turned him around so consistently that he ended up defending banality.
For Your Consideration
The easiest place to start is “Consider the Lobster,” which tackles a relatively straightforward moral issue and leaves little room for complications. The ostensible purpose of this article is to cover the Maine Lobster Festival for Gourmet magazine, but Wallace, commendably, uses the opportunity to question the morality of meat eating. As Wallace puts it, the question is pretty simple: “is it all right to boil a sentient creature alive just for our own gustatory pleasure?” The problem is that the answer to this question as phrased is pretty obviously “no,” but Wallace spends the entire essay avoiding this conclusion. (Notably, he starts backtracking immediately, before even beginning to consider the actual issue: “Is the previous question irksomely PC or sentimental?” We certainly wouldn’t want to be sentimental about a moral issue.)
Wallace goes into a lot of detail about lobster biology, which isn’t totally irrelevant. The question of whether a creature has moral status actually is dependent on things like whether it feels pain, and grounding the issue in practical reality is much more effective than appealing to vague principles about Mother Earth’s Creatures or whatever. He also brings in the philosophical backing of Peter Singer’s famous utilitarian argument against meat-eating in Animal Liberation. The thing is, as Wallace frames the issue, the only argument on the side of meat-eating is one specific variety of pleasure, which means animals win as long as they have any moral status whatsoever, and it doesn’t take long to get to the conclusion that lobsters do. Furthermore, Wallace draws a contrast between the way we deal with “uncute” animals like lobsters as opposed to cows (he points out that, in contrast to the actually-existing World’s Largest Lobster Cooker, the idea of some state hosting the World’s Largest Killing Floor is totally implausible), demonstrating that we implicitly give animals like cows much greater moral status. But he totally fails to bring out the obvious implication of this: if eating lobsters is at all questionable, then eating cows is almost certainly immoral.
The other important thing Wallace does here is to Both Sides the issue by presenting both the festival’s glib sponsors and PETA as ideologues who are refusing to really consider the issue the way Wallace is. While it is trivially easy to make PETA look like a bunch of clowns, Wallace never actually presents a counterargument to the claim that killing things for no reason other than your own enjoyment is immoral. Wallace’s dismissive attitude towards PETA is indicative of a very basic lack of intellectual seriousness. Arguments are right or wrong on their own merits, regardless of how “fanatical” the people espousing them are. This is part of what it means to actually take a side: committing to the issue itself regardless of what a bunch of jackasses it ends up allying you with.
In a footnote, Wallace conveniently provides a perfect summary of the way in which he uses intellectualism to advance a radically anti-intellectual conclusion:
“Suffice it to say that both the scientific and philosophical arguments on either side of the animal-suffering issue are involved, abstruse, technical, often informed by self-interest or ideology, and in the end so totally inconclusive that as a practical matter, in the kitchen or restaurant, it all still seems to come down to individual conscience, going with (no pun) your gut.”
Sure, you could try to actually think about the issue, but everything is just sooo complicated, plus all those so-called “scientists” are just self-interested ideologues anyway, so you might as well just do whatever you feel like. This is literally the reactionary impulse dressed up as insight, literally Bill O’Reilly in a lab coat.
And so, Wallace ends with little more than a shrug of his shoulders. After amassing all the information necessary to draw a real conclusion, Wallace remains “concerned not to come off as shrill or preachy when what [he really is] is more like confused” and throws the question to his readers as an open issue. I mentioned that it was commendable for Wallace to have broached the issue in this forum, but his good intentions are completely undone by this conclusion. The piece as a whole allows its readers to feel like they’ve deeply considered all the facets of the issue, while in effect giving them the license to continue doing whatever they feel like, because how can any of us know what’s really right? If someone as smart as DFW can’t figure it out, wouldn’t it just be arrogant for the rest of us to pretend we have an answer? A commitment to continue considering the issue might not be such a bad conclusion in a different type of society, but in the world we actually live in, the slaughterhouses are going to keep churning out death until we actually do something about it. They aren’t going to wait around while we ponder difficult moral conundrums. Passivity is acquiescence.
(Not so incidentally, while Wallace does bring up the issue of factory farming and how it makes meat-eating immoral even if killing animals is not immoral, he never – and by “never” I mean in the entirety of his written output as far as I’m aware – actually brings up the issue of capitalism. He does talk about easier things like “commercialism” or “consumerism,” but I don’t recall him ever using the real c-word. I’m actually not sure what to make of this. It’s implausible that he was unfamiliar with Marx et al., but it’s also implausible that someone so concerned about the problem of meaninglessness in American culture could so thoroughly ignore the obvious culprit.)
All Aboard the Straight Talk Express
The other obvious place to go for Wallace’s political approach is his one essay actually addressing electoral politics: “Up, Simba,” his account of John McCain’s 2000 primary campaign. In retrospect, this essay is terribly easy to make fun of, now that McCain has actually had his shot and blown it about as hard as humanly possible. But despite his sympathy for McCain, the point of Wallace’s essay is not that he’s necessarily a great guy who should be president. It’s about what we actually want out of politics, and why we’re not getting it.
Unfortunately, what Wallace actually wants out of politics doesn’t seem to be anything that would actually help anyone. McCain’s policies are casually rattled through at the beginning; one might expect that the point of Wallace’s focus on McCain would be to ask how exactly a supposedly honorable straight-talking kind of guy arrives at these sort of positions, but in fact policy never comes up again. Instead we’re treated to a whirlwind tour of the McCain campaign’s buses and ad strategies and hotel arrangements, with constant condescending lectures from Wallace directed at those Young Voters who, for some reason, don’t care about politics.
The deep irony of this essay is that, for all his finger-wagging, Wallace is actually behind his “apathetic” targets. Wallace thinks the problem is that no politicians are honest anymore, that the government is “corrupt,” that there’s nothing to believe in. Wallace is afraid he’s “too cynical,” when in reality, he has only scratched the surface. Just as the problem with capitalism is not the morality of its participants, but its inherent structure, so too is the problem with the ruling class not that it consists of criminals and morons, but that it is a ruling class. This is what makes the article’s obsessive detailing of the shenanigans of the McCain campaign so deeply ridiculous. Wallace is concerned that we don’t care about politics anymore because it’s all just a bunch of clowns, and his response to this problem is to give us a tour of the circus.
It’s actually worse than that, though, thanks to the fact that John McCain is one of the few politicians who has actually been through some serious shit. Wallace uses his considerable skill as a writer to detail McCain’s harrowing experience as a Vietnamese POW, and it’s impossible not to feel some real sympathy here. The problem is that, in doing this, Wallace isn’t actually leaving the circus. As mentioned, the question of how McCain’s personal experiences led to his largely revolting political positions could have been really interesting. But for Wallace, the point is merely that McCain has some sort of abstract moral authority that we should respect for some unspecified reason. The problem here isn’t hard to see: McCain is among the biggest warmongers in the U.S. government, which is really saying something. How exactly does the experience of having been a POW legitimize advancing the sort of policy that creates POWs? Not only does Wallace not have an answer, he doesn’t even seem to realize there’s a question here.
Wallace summarizes his own political outlook as follows:
“Even in AD 2000, who among us is so cynical that he doesn’t have some good old corny American hope way down deep in his heart, lying dormant like a spinster’s ardor, not dead but just waiting for the right guy to give it to?”
Okay, “lying dormant like a spinster’s ardor” is some fucking killer writing, but as a simile, it’s exactly as wrong as the general argument. The spinster rejects romance not because she’s loveless, but because she refuses to play a game that she knows to be rigged against her. In the same way, Wallace’s Young Voters reject electoral politics not because they’re “jaded,” but because they have accurately assessed the situation and concluded that voting will not get them what they need. Wallace, meanwhile, is unable to conceive of any political progress that does not involve electing a Big Important Man to be the boss of America.
The thing is, despite all of his hand-wringing, Wallace is more than willing to blithely dismiss people who actually do believe in things:
“There are, of course, some groups of Young Voters who are way, way into modern politics. There’s Rowdy Ralph Reed’s far-Right Christians for one, and then out at the other end of the spectrum there’s ACT UP and the sensitive men and angry womyn of the PC Left. It is interesting, though, that what gives these small fringe blocs such disproportionate power is the simple failure of most mainstream Young Voters to get off their ass and vote.”
As a sensitive male leftist, I now regret never having had the opportunity to tell Wallace to go fuck himself. Seriously though, this is textbook Both Sides-ism: if only the Normal People would vote, we could get rid of all those crazy extremists and just have a nice, normal society where nobody ever complained about anything or made anyone else uncomfortable. (Also, in what universe do feminists have “disproportionate” political power – that is, in the direction that Wallace is implying?)
(Relatedly, Wallace refers to Rolling Stone‘s politics as “ur-liberal,” which, first of all, is not what that prefix means, and second, fucking lol.)
This is also a great example of Wallace’s habit of leaning on tired tropes when he has no idea what he’s talking about. By 2000, third-wave feminism had happened, and the term “womyn” was way the hell out of vogue. The name “riot grrl” was actually an explicit parody of the idea that spelling a word differently was politically meaningful. Also, ACT UP? Was about dealing with fucking AIDS. Which is really what the problem is here: we’re looking at a thought process that, while trying to find a way to make politics meaningful again, sees preventing people from dying as a “fringe” project of the “PC Left.”
Only You Can Prevent Forest Fires
Interestingly, Wallace’s dismissiveness of AIDS as a political issue has a precedent: the 1996 article “Back in New Fire” (I’m not seeing this one online). It appears in the posthumous collection Both Flesh and Not, and is, from a moral perspective, the worst thing Wallace ever wrote (Both Flesh and Not is actually valuable specifically because it contains much of Wallace’s worst writing). It is literally a defense of AIDS as a new source of meaning after the alleged vapidity of the sexual revolution.
I don’t think I need to explain what’s wrong with this; moreover, the extent to which the existence of this essay means that Wallace was a bad person is irrelevant. What is relevant is the fact that this argument, which is among the worst possible arguments that a person can make, is a direct result of the flaws in Wallace’s approach that we’ve been discussing. It starts by taking as a given the common framing of the sexual revolution as something that “cheapened” sexuality by making it too “easy” (hint: this is wrong), then addresses the issue on an intellectual level that ignores both the fact that people were and are fucking dying and the fact that their deaths were a political choice. The AIDS epidemic was ignored for the very basic reason that it primarily affected gay, black, and poor people. If you’re looking for meaning in AIDS, this is it: it’s a disgustingly vivid demonstration of how this society of ours actually works. But Wallace’s purely philosophical approach to the issue makes him totally blind to this important truth, so instead he winds up arguing that “the casual knights of my own bland generation [ed: speak for yourself] might well come to regard AIDS as blessing, a gift perhaps bestowed by nature to restore some critical balance.”
What’s really interesting/sad about this essay is that Wallace was close to getting it right. Regarding the virus itself, he points out that “natural things just are; the only good and bad things are people’s various choices in the face of what is.” Exactly. People, both those with power and those without, did make choices about what to do about AIDS, and those choices say something very important about the very issues that so concerned Wallace: what sense we can make of the sort of society we live in, and what we ought to do about it.
Love Me, I’m a Liberal
This dismissiveness of basic political issues in favor of lofty intellectual meandering was in fact one of Wallace’s running themes. Wallace never met an instance of racism or sexism that he couldn’t reanalyze as something that didn’t have to make anybody uncomfortable. When considered as a pattern, this actually starts to get deeply annoying, so you’ll have to forgive me for having a little fun here.
In “Host,” Wallace profiles right-wing radio host John Ziegler, whose primary political opinion seems to be that he hates OJ Simpson. Wallace details how Ziegler has been fired from several jobs due to his inability to refrain from publicly deploying every white bigot’s favorite word at every opportunity, and then analyzes the situation as follows: “John Ziegler does not appear to be a racist as “racist” is generally understood. What he is is more like very, very insensitive,” raising the perplexing question of what exactly Wallace thought the word “racist” meant. Similarly, regarding Ziegler’s attitude toward women: “Mr. Z is consistently cruel, both on and off the air, in his remarks about women. He seems unaware of it. There’s no clear way to explain why [ed: ?], but one senses that his mother’s death hurt him very deeply [ed: ???]”
Wallace’s essay on the porn industry, “Big Red Son,” is potentially the record holder for Longest Sustained What About The Menz-ing.
“Feminists of all different stripe oppose the adult industry for reasons having to do with pornography’s putative effect on women. Their arguments are well-known and in some respects persuasive. But certain antiporn arguments in the 1990s are now centered on adult entertainment’s alleged effects on the men who consume it.”
Once again, Wallace doesn’t know the facts and relies on a soundbite understanding of the issue. “Feminists of all different stripe” is exactly incorrect: pro-porn feminism is specifically a thing, and at the time this essay was written (again, Wallace is unaware that third-wave feminism happened), it was probably more popular than the alternative. Also, second-wave anti-porn arguments were very much about porn’s effect on men, the effect being that it caused them to beat and rape women. But this isn’t the sort of thing that Wallace is interested in. He opens the essay describing men who have castrated themselves, allegedly because “their sexual urges had become a source of intolerable conflict and anxiety.” Some people might be interested preventing rape and murder, but if a man somewhere is confused and anxious, Wallace is all over it.
One might expect that Wallace’s critical reading of John Updike, “Certainly The End of Something or Other, One Would Sort of Have to Think,” would be a great place for him to finally get around to some motherfucking feminism, but Wallace’s approach is nothing if not consistent. One odd thing about this essay is that people seem to identify the quotation “just a penis with a thesaurus” (referring to Updike, obviously) with Wallace, when in fact Wallace presents this and other dismissive quotes specifically to distance himself from them. What he says about them is the following:
“There are, of course, some obvious explanations for part of this dislike – jealousy, iconoclasm, PC backlash, and the fact that many of our parents revere Updike and it’s easy to revile what your parents revere. But I think the deep reason so many of my generation dislike Updike and the other GMNs [ed: Great Male Narcissists – note how Wallace assumes his own conclusion by using this term] has to do with these writers’ radical self-absorption, and with their uncritical celebration of this self-absorption both in themselves and in their characters.”
Sure, you might think you dislike Updike because he’s a blatant misogynist, but you’re just jealous, or maybe you have daddy issues. I, however, know the real, deep reason why you think you feel that way.
Given how blatantly insulting stuff like this is, it’s clear that a lot of what people see in Wallace is what they want to see. Of course, Wallace’s refusal to ever take a hard stand on anything makes this easy, but it doesn’t account for the motivation. There seems to be a very specific need that people really wish Wallace was filling.
This next one’s mostly for fun. This is an anecdote rather than an argument, but I’m counting it because it’s both representative and hilarious. It’s from “The (As It Were) Seminal Importance of Terminator 2”:
“The fact that what Skynet is attempting is in effect a retroactive abortion, together with the fact that “terminate a pregnancy” is a pretty well-known euphemism, led the female [ed: really?] I first saw the movie with in 1984 to claim, over coffee and pie afterward, that The Terminator was actually one long pro-choice allegory, which I said I thought was not w/o merit but maybe a bit too simplistic to do the movie real justice, which led to kind of an unpleasant row.”
It’s not clear what level of self-awareness Wallace is bringing to this story, but either way: a woman tries to engage him on a feminist issue, and he tells her that she’s being “simplistic” and then explains what the issue is really about from his own much deeper and more informed perspective, which does “real justice” to this action movie with Schwarzenegger in it. Somehow, this ends badly.
Okay, one last example. This one’s important because it’s completely unambiguous: Wallace takes a crystal-clear issue and totally fumbles it. It’s an aside from “Authority and American Usage” which seems to have been cut from the version that was published in Harper’s (as “Tense Present”) and appears therefore to not be online in plaintext form, so I guess I’m going to have to type out the whole fucking thing.
“In this reviewer’s opinion, the only really coherent position on the abortion issue is one that is both Pro-Life and Pro-Choice.”
(Yeah, okay, I could just stop here, but I’ll be professional about this.)
“Argument: as of 4 March 1999, the question of defining human life in utero is hopelessly vexed. That is, given our best present medical and philosophical understandings of what makes something not just a living organism but a person, there is no way to establish at just what point during gestation a fertilized ovum becomes a human being. This conundrum, together with the basically inarguable soundness of the principle ‘When in irresolvable doubt, about whether something is a human being or not, it is better not to kill it,’ appears to me to require any reasonable American to be Pro-Life. At the same time, however, the principle ‘When in irresolvable doubt about something, I have neither the legal nor the moral right to tell another person what to do about it, especially if that person feels that s/he is not in doubt’ is an unassailable part of the Democratic pact we Americans all make with one another, a pact in which each adult citizen gets to be an autonomous moral agent; and this principle appears to me to require any reasonable American to be Pro-Choice.
This reviewer is thus, as a private citizen and an autonomous agent, both Pro-Life and Pro-Choice. It is not an easy or comfortable position to maintain. Every time someone I know decides to terminate a pregnancy, I am required to believe simultaneously that she is doing the wrong thing and that she has every right to do it. Plus, of course, I have to believe that a Pro-Life + Pro-Choice stance is the only really coherent one and to restrain myself from trying to force that position on other people whose ideological or religious convictions seem (to me) to override reason and yield a (in my opinion) wacko dogmatic position. This restraint has to be maintained even when somebody’s (to me) wacko dogmatic position appears (to me) to reject the very Democratic tolerance that us keeping me form trying to force my position on him/her; it requires me not to press or argue or retaliate even when somebody calls me Satan’s Minion or Just Another Shithead Male, which forbearance represents the really outer and tooth-grinding limits of my own personal Democratic Spirit.
Wacko name-calling notwithstanding, I have encountered only one serious objection to this Pro-Life + Pro-Choice position. But it’s a powerful objection. It concerns not my position per se but certain facts about me, the person who’s developed and maintained it. If this sounds to you both murky and extremely remote from anything having to do with American usage, I promise that it becomes almost excruciatingly clear and relevant below.”
Does it ever. So let’s ignore the fact that Wallace is throwing himself a spectacular pity party here and – you know what, on second thought, let’s not. Wallace is fretting and sobbing and wringing his hands over the fact that sometimes people are mean to him in arguments about his objectively stupid position. Meanwhile, women are fucking dying from a lack of reproductive health care perpetuated by a tiny minority of zealots who have devoted their lives to a psychotic combination of fear and fetishization of vaginas.
And Wallace’s argument really is objectively stupid. The abortion debate has fuckall to do with whether you think abortion is a good thing or not. The idea that some people are actually in favor of abortions as such is literally an Onion article. The debate is about whether abortion ought to be available, and there’s no middle ground on that. It’s either practically possible to get an abortion, or it’s not. Based on Wallace’s description of his own opinions, it seems he wants abortion to be available but would always advise against getting one. This position is unambiguously pro-choice.
I really don’t think I’ve ever seen a better example of someone tying themselves up in knots by over-intellectualizing what is actually a very simple issue. Furthermore, Wallace is, once again, unaware of the relevant facts. There’s actually a rather famous essay arguing that abortion is morally permissible even if the abortee is assumed to be 100% human. But for all of Wallace’s concern about the issue, he never actually bothered to engage the relevant arguments. Working the whole thing out in his head was good enough for him.
The easy conclusion here is that Wallace was “too intellectual” and ignored the facts on the ground, which is partially true but not really an explanation. An intellectual approach is entirely compatible with the drawing of strong conclusions. For example, Peter Singer, whom Wallace cites in “Consider the Lobster,” makes an unequivocal moral utilitarian argument against meat-eating with disturbingly broad implications that remain controversial. Judith Jarvis Thomson’s essay on abortion, mentioned just above, is another example of using intellectual argument to support a radical position. Furthermore, Wallace was actually quite attentive to the facts on the ground; one of the things his work is known for is the way he vacuums up as much practical detail as possible to feed into his arguments. The problem is that he was often looking at the wrong facts; that is, facts that, correct or not, weren’t relevant.
As is hopefully obvious by now, all of this stuff isn’t just Wallace slipping up. The systematic errors in his approach were consistent, they had a cause, and that cause was Wallace’s tragic flaw.