David Foster Wallace as reactionary

(Part 1)

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

(Part 3)

Tense future

As a person who reads things on the internet, you may or may not be aware that David Foster Wallace wrote a thing about grammar one time. The linguistic aspects of the piece have gotten their share of attention, on account of the fact that people just freak the fuck out about language for whatever reason, but Wallace’s fundamental claim is that language is inherently political; as such, the linguistic argument he makes here is also a political argument. Note in particular that, as published in Consider the Lobster, the title of this essay is “Authority and American Usage.” The important word there is “Authority.”

Structurally, the essay, which is ostensibly a review of a usage guide written by Bryan Garner, begins with an overview of the relevant linguistic issues, transitions into a political analogy for those issues, and then moves back into linguistics to discuss what Wallace feels is the importance of Garner’s book. The political analogy here is important because it means that Wallace’s conclusion about Garner is simultaneously a political argument. The purpose of this post is to explain what this argument is and why it’s wrong.

To start with, there are a number of factual and argumentative errors in Wallace’s essay that need to be discussed insofar as they inform his political analogy. Wallace starts by dividing language-carers up into “Descriptivists” and “Prescriptivists” (he consistently capitalizes both terms to make them seem like real affiliations that he’s not making up, so I’m going to be just as much of a dick and consistently put them in scare quotes). The immediate problem with this is that neither of these groups actually exists. “Descriptivists” are actually “linguists,” that is, people who study language and try to figure out what’s going on with it. The fact that they take a “descriptive” approach is a matter of necessity, not ideology; it’s just kind of how you have to approach things if you want to learn about them.

“Prescriptivists,” meanwhile, don’t exist for the opposite reason: they’re just people who have opinions about language; there isn’t anything specific that unites them. Everyone has opinions on language; a “Prescriptivist” is just anyone with enough privilege to get their opinion in the paper.

Wallace frames “Descriptivism” as a “rejection of conventional usage rules in English,” but this can’t actually be the case, since language obviously had to exist in studiable form before people could start applying explicit rules to it. In fact, the situation is the opposite of what Wallace claims: it’s prescriptive rules that only make sense in the context of an already-existing language; if people weren’t already doing things “wrong,” there wouldn’t be anything to complain about.

And obviously no language is ever created out of “conventional usage rules” in the first place, despite Wallace actually claiming that “language was invented to serve certain very specific purposes.” I’m going to give him the benefit of the doubt here and assume this is a convenient shorthand for “language arose in response to certain necessities” (so, uh, not that much of a shorthand, I guess), but it still indicates a fundamentally flawed way of looking at the issue.

Wallace’s claims here are ultimately based on the idea that the publication of Webster’s Third in 1961 was “the Fort Sumter of the contemporary usage wars,” due to the fact that its introduction set forth the “basic edicts” of “Descriptivism” for the first time. Nothing about this is correct. As this article explains, Wallace’s facts here are wrong in every important way. First, the text in question was not published in Webster’s Third. Second, it was not written by Philip Gove, the editor of Webster’s Third; it was quoted by him from the National Council of Teachers of English. Third, these were not new principles; they were endorsed by the Council precisely because they represented an existing consensus. Thus, it is not true that “Descriptivism” emerged as an “attack” on traditional grammar; to the extent that it qualifies as an ideology at all, it was merely an academic consensus that gradually spread out to influence society in general.

Wallace analogizes “Descriptivists” to political liberals and “Prescriptivists” to political conservatives, which is where the above errors start to become significant. His claim that “Descriptivism” “quickly and thoroughly took over US culture” is, by analogy, equivalent to the familiar conservative argument that liberalism is a recent phenomenon that emerged to attack traditional American values. In fact, Wallace makes this analogy explicit: he claims that “the ideological principles that informed the original Descriptivist revolution” were “the rejections of traditional authority (born of Vietnam) and of traditional inequality (born of the civil rights movement)” (bonus curmudgeon points: he says this in the middle of a complaint about “Political Correctness,” again, capitalized).

The political argument here is wrong in precisely the same way as the analogous linguistic argument. Power accumulation in human societies is a natural phenomenon; it’s only after a particular power structure has been established that it gets framed as “traditional” for the purpose of justification. Furthermore, as long as there’s been arbitrary authority, there’s been resistance. The concept of a “traditional” past that allows the struggle for justice to be framed as a recent aberration rather than a fundamental part of human history is a myth propagated by the ruling class, for obvious reasons.

Having established his framework, Wallace spends quite a lot of time debunking a phantom version of “Descriptivism” that allegedly claims that literally every utterance made by any speaker in any circumstances is 100% correct English, i.e. “there are no rules.” Nobody actually believes this, yet Wallace still feels the need to make arguments like “you can’t actually observe and record every last bit of every last native speaker’s ‘language behavior’.” No shit. Isn’t it pretty obvious that no one is actually trying to do this? General advice: if you feel the need to make an extremely obvious argument like this, you probably don’t understand the position you’re arguing against.

Again, this is analogous to the conservative talking point that anyone against any kind of existing authority is a radical who just wants to destroy society. I should probably clarify here that I’m not arguing that Wallace is himself a political conservative; he’s obviously not, and he implicitly allies himself with liberalism in this essay. The issue is precisely that it’s odd that his argument so closely mirrors the basic mythology of U.S. conservatives. As we’ll see, the problem is not Wallace’s explicit opinions, it’s his approach.

Wallace eventually gets around to the “Descriptivist” argument that’s actually relevant, which is that language consists of a set of actual rules which all fluent speakers instinctively follow (and therefore don’t require explicit elucidation from newspaper columnists), plus a set (actually several sets) of optional rules based on dialect, setting, etc., which may be followed or not without general loss of comprehensibility. Nobody is going to actually misunderstand you if you end a sentence with a preposition. The rest of the essay is a refutation of this argument; specifically, Wallace’s claim is that the “arbitrary” rules that “Prescriptivists” propound are not elitist window-dressing but are actually super important.

I’ve seen some people claiming that Wallace’s argument in this article actually ends up supporting “Descriptivism,” so it’s worth being explicit about his position here. He refers to the first (fake) version of “Descriptivism” as “Methodological Descriptivism” and the second (real) version of “Descriptivism” as “Philosophical Descriptivism,” and then claims that “This argument [“Philosophical Descriptivism”] is not the barrel of drugged trout that Methodological Descriptivism was [ed: yeah, arguments that you make up for the purpose of discrediting your opponents tend to be pretty weak], but it’s still vulnerable to objections,” before moving into “a more serious rejoinder to Philosophical Descriptivism.” The point of all this is that Wallace sets up “Philosophical Descriptivism” as the good kind of “Descriptivism” in order to argue against it. His ultimate conclusion about Garner’s usage guide is that it’s great because it makes a good argument for “Prescriptivism.” For example, when Wallace claims that Garner is “cunning” because he “likes to take bits of Descriptivist rhetoric and use them for very different ends,” he’s making it pretty clear whose side he’s on. Wallace’s explicit purpose in this essay is to defend “Prescriptivism.”

Now, as part of arguing against the good kind of “Descriptivism,” Wallace introduces a very interesting/bizarre argument involving – wait for it – Wittgenstein (if you were hoping that this discussion of David Foster Wallace was not going to end up involving Wittgenstein, I sincerely apologize). This is a multi-stage argument that’s going to take a little bit of work to get through, but it’s important because, as mentioned, the problem with this essay is Wallace’s approach, and his path through this argument makes that problem particularly clear.

The argument actually starts off rather insultingly. Wallace buries it in a footnote, claiming that it’s “lengthy and involved and rather, umm, dense,” and suggesting that “you’d maybe be better off simply granting the truth of the proposition.” As fucking though. This sort of fake homeyness where Wallace tries to act all casual and friendly while also implying that he’s so much smarter than you that you couldn’t possibly follow his argument is by far his most annoying characteristic.

And in fact, the argument isn’t hard to follow at all. It begins with a discussion of the fact that each of us experiences only our own mental states, and that we have no access to anyone else’s. For example, I’m aware of the particular sensation I have upon seeing the color red, and you’re aware of the particular sensation you have in response to the same stimulus, but between us, we have no way to confirm that we’re actually having the same sensation. There is no evidence that can be collected for or against the proposition that the sensation I have upon seeing red is the same sensation that you have upon seeing green. Oddly, Wallace presents this argument as the ridiculous fantasy of a stoned teenager, when in fact it’s just obviously correct. And it’s not merely correct, it’s part of one of the major problems of philosophy: the hard problem of consciousness. Wallace claims that this is a “solipsistic conceit,” but it’s no such thing; it relies on the assumption that other people have mental states comparable to one’s own.

What makes all this sloppiness on Wallace’s part especially odd is that it has nothing to do with his actual argument, which is Wittgenstein’s argument against private language. He claims that the idea of “private colors” is the same as the idea of “private language,” but that’s clearly wrong. The problem of private experience is that we can’t verify each other’s experiences, but we obviously can verify each other’s language choices; that’s what the entire essay is about.

And it’s also what the argument against private language is about. Now, I’ll admit that I haven’t read Wittgenstein, and I’m not claiming to know all the issues and implications here, but I think I can get through the basic argument without butchering it too badly. Basically, the only way we have to verify that our language usage is correct is to test it against other people. For example, if you and I are listening to a piece of music and I start talking about “arpeggios”, and you respond by talking about the same part of the song that I was thinking about, then I know that we’re talking about the same thing. If I were just talking to myself, I could pick an arbitrary aspect of the music and call it an “arpeggio,” but I would have no basis to call this a correct definition. Specifically, if I came up with a set of criteria that defined an arpeggio, and then picked part of a song and tried to decide whether or not it contained arpeggios, it would be impossible for me to be wrong regardless of which way I decided.

The only thing that can “disprove” my definition is another person. For example, if I start talking about the arpeggios in a song with someone else, and they say “what the hell are you talking about, that’s not an arpeggio, it’s a trill,” then maybe I’m using the wrong word. Of course, it’s also possible for the other person to be wrong, which we could find out by verifying it with more people and eventually achieving a common consensus about what the word refers to. Thus, language, as they say, takes a village.

And this is precisely where Wallace goes with this argument: “if the rules can’t be subjective, and they’re not actually ‘out there’ floating around in some kind of metaphysical hyperreality . . . then community consensus is really the only plausible option left.”

Now, this is starting to seem pretty strange, right? Wallace claims that “community consensus” is the only way that correctness in language can be determined, but he presents this as a refutation of “Descriptivism,” despite the fact that the idea that consensus rather than authority is what determines correctness is precisely what “Descriptivism” is. This, presumably, is what has fooled some people into thinking that Wallace is making a “Descriptivist” argument here. But, as mentioned, Wallace is arguing in favor of “Prescriptivism” as embodied by the particular usage guide that he’s favorably reviewing. There’s only one way to reconcile this, and it’s fairly disturbing: Wallace thinks that authority is the best way to establish consensus.

This argument obviously has implications that go far beyond whether splitting infinitives is cool or not, which is where the political aspect of all this comes in. But before getting into that, I want to make it absolutely clear that this is in fact the argument that Wallace is making, since at first blush it seems kind of implausible, not to mention borderline fascist.

Wallace’s ultimate conclusion in this essay is that Garner’s usage guide is awesome because: “Garner structures his judgements very carefully to avoid . . . elitism and anality.” “His personality is oddly effaced, neutralized.” “Garner’s lexical persona kept me from ever asking where the guy was coming from or what particular agendas or ideologies were informing [his judgements].” “Garner, in other words, casts himself as an authority not in an autocratic sense but in a technocratic sense. And the technocrat is not only a thoroughly modern and palatable image of authority but also immune to the charges of elitism/classism that have hobbled traditional Prescriptivism.”

Question: why is any of this a good thing? Why is it good for Garner’s persona to be “effaced” and “palatable?” Why is Wallace happy that a person with an unknown agenda is trying to tell him what to do? Why is it a good thing that Garner is immune to charges of elitism? What if such charges would be correct; what if he actually is an elitist? What if traditional “Prescriptivism” was justly hobbled?

The reason these things are good for Wallace is that they prevent Garner from being undermined as an authority. The question of whether or not Garner deserves to be treated as an authority is, for Wallace, irrelevant. Wallace explicitly celebrates Garner’s book as “basically a rhetorical accomplishment,” meaning that its actual correctness is beside the point. This is the core of Wallace’s support of “Prescriptivism”: the conviction that there must be an authority, no matter what.

(Incidentally, Wallace recommends Garner as a “technocrat” on the basis that’s he’s a lawyer. Is there any dystopia more nightmarish than a technocracy run by lawyers?)

Wallace claims that authority must be earned, but he doesn’t back that shit up. While he does allow that “Prescriptivists” can be wrong, his only actual objection to “Prescriptivism” as an enterprise is that it has a bad public image, hence his celebration of Garner’s purely rhetorical accomplishment. The only thing that “Prescriptivism” ever needed was a image enhancement, and that’s what Garner has supposedly provided.

To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with giving advice on language use. In fact, I’ll give you some right now: when using a pronoun to refer to a person of unspecified gender, you should use “they” in all situations where it’s not completely confusing, and use “she” otherwise. The reason for using “they” is that it already has some traction as a gender-neutral singular pronoun, and since it’s basically impossible to artificially introduce a new word as a basic part of speech like this, “they” is our only shot at a gender-neutral singular pronoun. The reason for defaulting to “she” is that literally everything else in society is male-default, so this is one easy thing you can do to help turn the tide, even if it’s a purely symbolic gesture. You can’t just always use “she,” though; if the gender of the referent is specified, then you need to use the appropriate pronouns. Even if you’re a gender abolitionist, denying the gender identity of actually existing people is actively harmful.

What you’ll notice about the above advice is that I have an agenda. If you disagree with my political goals (e.g. you don’t support absolute gender equality), or you agree with my goals but think my tactics are misguided (e.g. you don’t think gender-neutral language has any practical effect on equality, or you think you have a better way of going about it), then you have reason to disregard my advice. If, on the other hand, I had presented my advice as merely being a “rule” which you are obligated to follow in order to write “correctly,” then your only grounds to object would be “nuh-uh.”

Thus, by supporting this second type of advice, and by supporting Garner’s “invisible” persona, what Wallace is actually supporting is arbitrary authority: correctness without values.

Let’s back up a bit and look at how Wallace gets here. First, he establishes an oversimplified framework for the basic issue using commonplace ideas that everyone’s already comfortable with (“Descriptivists” = “liberals” = “rules are bad” vs. “Prescriptivists” = “conservatives” = “rules are good”). This makes us feel like we know where we’re standing and prevents any deeper aspects of the issues involved from rising to the surface. As one example, the post-war equality movements contained a radical approach to language criticism that went well beyond merely rejecting prescriptive rules. A number of feminist dictionaries were produced that explicitly challenged the patriarchal assumptions embedded in everyday language. This is the sort of real political challenge that demands to be addressed directly, but Wallace is having none of that. He’d much rather survey the general landscape from 10,000 feet in the air.

Furthermore, Wallace actually does recognize that his liberal/conservative split is an oversimplification, but he fails to address the implications of this. Specifically, he claims that “Political Correctness” (there aren’t scare quotes big enough) is an example of “liberal Prescriptivism,” which is entirely correct. As in my example above, “Political Correctness” is “Prescriptivism” with an agenda. But Wallace goes on to merely issue the standard complaints that “Political Correctness” represents “a whole new kind of Language Police” (this is getting to be painful to type), without realizing what this means for his argument. What it means is that “Prescriptivism,” like any other type of statement about what’s “right” and “wrong,” is always based on a value system. Thus, the kind of disinterested “Prescriptivist” that Wallace sees in Garner cannot exist. Everyone works from an ideology, and Garner is no exception. The fact that Garner seems not to have an agenda is precisely the danger: an invisible ideology is one that cannot be challenged.

An important aspect of Wallace’s oversimplification is the way it allows him to pay lip service to inconvenient arguments without actually following through on their implications. Significantly, Wallace admits that “traditional English is conceived and perpetuated by Privileged WASP Males,” but note the cutesy way he phrases this, and they way he puts the admission that this claim “is in fact true” in a footnote, as though this were an extraneous point. In fact, it is the very heart of the issue at hand: since we know for a fact that existing authority is fundamentally oppressive, Wallace needs to do a damn sight better than recommending an authority on a merely rhetorical basis. This realization should have caused Wallace to rethink his entire argument, but presenting it as a side note allows him to glibly glide by.

Second, Wallace busts out his trademark intellectual fireworks by bringing up as many Big Ideas as he can, as fast as he can, which naturally results in all of them being underanalayzed and unconvincingly connected to the actual issue at hand. In the Wittgenstein example above, we saw Wallace segue between unconnected ideas without justification, fail to place those ideas in their proper philosophical context, and finally draw a conclusion entirely at odds with the arguments that were supposedly used to support it. Importantly, Wallace’s conclusion is the result of smuggling in an unstated ideological premise: that authority is required for establishing a consensus. This premise is precisely what Wallace needs to argue for here in order for his conclusion (that an “expert” usage guide is required to resolve the “usage crisis”) to hold, but his fancy footwork allows him to get away without even mentioning it.

Finally, having avoided the implications of the relevant arguments while sneaking in his own unconscious preferences, Wallace is free to drift down onto a comfortable conclusion. Sure, the issues of language may be “complexly political,” but all that’s really needed to resolve them is for a Reasonable Man to write a new usage guide that everyone can agree on. Isn’t it comforting to know that things really are that easy?

The political implications of all this should be pretty clear by now. Wallace’s proposed solution to the “authority crisis” created by the post-war equality movements is, by analogy, the same as his solution to the “usage crisis” created by “Descriptivism”: the reestablishment of a credible authority – any credible authority. This lends a rather dark irony to Wallace’s concluding statement that Garner’s approach is “about as Democratic as you’re going to get these days.”

Wallace is, of course, wrong. The solution to the “usage crisis” is for people like Wallace and Garner to get off their fucking high horses already. Which, recall, does not mean that they aren’t allowed to give advice. It means that they have to stop pretending that their preferences are rules and open themselves up to ideological challenges based on the values they hold that inform those preferences. Analogously, the solution to the “authority crisis” in politics is not to establish a kinder, gentler ruling class. The solution is to finish what’s been started.

(Part 2)