Three Pound Brain

No bells, just whistling in the dark…

Month: October, 2011

Semantica

by rsbakker

Aphorism of the Day: Consciousness is the gear that confuses itself for the whole machine. Thus are two thousand five hundred years of philosophical megalomania explained. 

This started as a response to Abalieno…

So science gradually provides an entirely new vocabulary for self-understanding, one consilient with the mad therapeutic bounty of neuroscience and utterly at odds with intuitive self-understanding, let alone received cultural norms. Historically, whenever science begins substituting explanations, the preexisting explanations lose all credibility. Evolution is a great example of an entire explanatory system that ran afoul powerful, conflicting cultural norms. You can be damn sure that his new scientific vocabulary will not fly, that people will opt for a wild diversity of counter-arguments, each one of them convinced that the experience they felt, that was the foundation of existence, let alone life, had to be more than smoke and mirrors. Meanwhile more and more people will be cured and so on, cementing the cognitive legitimacy of neuroscience. The instruments employed by government and corporate interests become ever more effective. A profound crisis rocks jurisprudence. All human life is medicalized. We find ourselves living in this bizarrely bifurcated world, where people assert, with religious fervour, that their hearts speak true. But where they are administrated and ministered to as biological machines. A bifurcated inverted world.

What other outcome could their be? So long as the tools provided by neuroscience are effective, they will be patronized by those seeking competitive advantages – by power. All the masses who believe in some X will only have speculation and tradition to constrain their beliefs, so they will continue to speciate, more and more accounts as to why This Comes First.

Terrifying to think about: the very foundation of meaning as object of social manipulation. You could say the process began with the Enlightenment, with the organization of our societies around the technical exploitation of our labour and our environment. Another way to put this is that <em>technical exploitation </em>is the engine of our social system. And as it plays itself out, the meaning-friendly alternatives will come to seem more and more tenuous, ‘fringe’ or ‘commercial.’ You will see the a profound realignment of cultural identifications. Embracers. Mopers. Hopers. Deniers. All four will scramble to lead lives of hedonic excess. The Tweakers will run everything, especially the ten-thousand channel show called ‘meaningful existence.’

A few will even believe it.

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Truest of the true. Falsest of the False

by rsbakker

Aphorism of the Day: One man’s fantasy is another man’s self. [postscript: this aphorism was revised because the previous one was shite]

I’m guessing that a number of people find themselves wondering what any of this philosophical or literary stuff has to do with fantasy.

Outside the way epic fantasy colonized and reorganized my adolescent imagination, my interest in the subgenre falls into two general categories. There’s the eclectic nature of its audience, the way it spans so many cultural fault-lines. And there’s the way it fits into the greater puzzle of human history, culture, and psychology.

Scriptural worlds are almost universally anthropomorphic. Why? Because social cognition seems to be some kind of natural default, the primary way we are prone to make sense of complexity. For our ancestors, the world was cut from the same psychosocial cloth as their communities because that was where intuition led them, and they had no reason to suspect otherwise. The rise of scientific inquiry changed all that. As it demolished the credibility of these anthropocentric worldviews, the world necessarily became more and more inhuman, something that contradicted our preposterous sense of self-importance at every turn, eventually revealing a world that cuts against our default intuitions in many troubling respects.

I see epic fantasy as a kind of ‘scripture otherwise.’ A large part of its appeal lies in its iteration of anthropocentric worlds, ontologies that serve our default understanding of the world. All fiction caters to the vagaries of human cognition, but none to such an extent. As such, epic fantasy possesses tremendous social and cultural significance, recording, at almost every turn, the antagonism between modernity and the human soul. Agency is distributed through the natural world (as opposed to restricted to humans or nonexistent). History has a closed narrative structure (as opposed to being open-ended and pointless). Morality is not only objective, but simple and unambiguous (as opposed to intractable or illusory). Events, regardless of scale, are intentional (as opposed to random). Social relationships are local and familial/tribal (as opposed to bureaucratic and incidental). Reality is accountable to human need and desire (as opposed to opaque and indifferent). Epic fantasy, as I like to say, offers us a ‘photographic negative’ of modernity.

The subgenre is often derided as ‘escapist,’ but for me, it’s important precisely because it’s consolatory in such a fundamental, encompassing way. Once its kinship to living scripture as opposed to myth (dead scripture) is highlighted, the absurd proportion of the cognitive stakes involved becomes clear. Where ‘scripture’ is the truest of the true when it comes to narrative, ‘fantasy’ is the falsest of the false, something that is somehow more fictional than fiction.

Only one ontological model straddles this divide: the human. Plug this model into a religious narrative and it commands absolute belief. Plug it into a fictional narrative and it commands utter disbelief. Truest of the true. Falsest of the False.

And this model just happens to be the immovable basis of how we understand others and ourselves…

And this is so fucked up in so many ways that I don’t know where to begin.

A Virtual Black Box

by rsbakker

Aphorism of the Day: Middle-age is that peaceful epoch between having boners and committing them.

Having read what must be one of the worst reviews of Thomas Metzinger’s Being No One I’ve ever encountered, I just had to respond, particularly given the resonances it has with our awesome debate on Infinite Jest. Graham Harman thinks that Metzinger’s recent influence on Continental Philosophy, which I consider a tremendous breakthrough, is in fact a deplorable development. Why? Primarily because Metzinger thinks thinkers like Harman are simply wasting their time, when Harman thinks they are doing precisely what “any serious philosophy” should do. At stake, then, are two very different conceptions of philosophy: one that draws as much scientific water as possible (Type I), and one that draws its own, conceptually prior water (Type II).

Let me begin with some New Theory disclaimers: First, I admit that I was almost offended by Harman’s introduction, where he cherry picks various texts to paint Metzinger as something of a condescending, sneering prig. Having corresponded with the guy, I know for a fact that he does not confuse his speculation for gospel, that he’s quite willing to chuck any number of his commitments (his representationalism, for instance) for the sake of honestly considering alternatives. He knows how tentative his claims are. That said, he is a philosopher, and as such, prone to make sweeping judgements, and therefore easily accused of any number of character defects. There’s a reason our relatives roll their eyes when we ‘get worked up’ at Thanksgiving dinner. The only thing worse than a critic is a know-it-all, and philosophy requires that one be both. We’re all condescending, sneering prigs!

So be warned, my reading of Harman is probably as motivated as Harman’s reading of Metzinger.

Harman’s critique follows precisely the same pattern I once used in all my critiques back in my Continental Philosophy days: First, you attribute a series of Problematic Ontological Commitments to your victim, then you argue a number of Ontological Corrections. So with Heidegger, most famously, you argue that Philosopher X is trapped within the “Metaphysics of Presence,” an ancient, foundational conceptual mistake that became an implicit assumption in almost all subsequent philosophy – the inferential Wrong Turn that means all subsequent inferences will lead to Dead Ends.

The idea, you see, is that you need to get your assumptions right, if you’re going to have any hope of finding whatever it is you’re hoping to find – Being, in Heidegger’s case. This approach makes philosophy Very Important, because these foundational assumptions are inaccessible to empirical investigation.

The glaring problem, however, is that we have no way of arbitrating between differing sets of ontological assumptions, simply because they don’t admit empirical investigation. Even if you happened to win the “Magical Ontology Lottery,” you could only hope that you might have won, and otherwise assume that over time your ticket would be lost in the shuffle with all the others. 

If philosophers like Metzinger, scientific naturalists, express commitment to a realism they feel no need to defend (because they really don’t take philosophers like Harman all that seriously), they generally do so because they think science implies it. (I personally think it’s a historical artifact – most of the Anglo-American philosophical tradition finds its historical roots in a reaction against Hegelian Idealism – because I don’t see this particular scientific implication). Otherwise naturalists just don’t think human beings are qualified. This is almost certainly the case with Metzinger. And I think it illuminates what it is that Harman finds so objectionable (to the point of larding his paper with the loaded rhetoric noted above) about philosophers of his ilk: their dismissiveness of Type II philosophy.

So here’s the single, simple question I want to pose to Harman: given the abstract ambiguity of his subject matter, and given that he almost certainly suffers from (to crib the list I used for my Nietzsche paper): actor-observer bias (fundamental attribution error), ambiguity effect, anchoring effect, asymmetric insight illusion, attentional bias, availability heuristic, availability cascade, the bandwagon effect, Barnum effect, base-rate neglect, belief bias, black swan effect, clustering illusion, choice bias, confirmation bias, congruence bias, consensus fallacy, contrast effect, control bias, cryptonesia, deprivation bias, distinction bias, Dunnig-Kruger effect, egocentric bias, expectation bias, exception bias, exposure effect, false memory, focusing effect, framing effect, future discounting, gambler’s fallacy, hindsight bias, halo effect, impact bias, ingroup bias, just-world illusion, moral credential effect, moral luck bias, negativity bias, omission bias, outcome bias, outgroup homogeneity bias, planning fallacy, post-hoc rationalization, post-hoc ergo propter hoc, projection bias, observer-expectancy effect, optimism bias, ostrich effect, positive outcome bias, positivity effect, pareidolia, pessimism bias, primacy effect, recency effect, reaction bias, regression neglect, restraint bias, rosy retrospection effect, selective perception, self-serving bias, Semmelweis reflex, social comparison bias, stereotyping, suggestibility, sunk-cost bias, superiority illusion, status-quo bias, trait ascription bias, transparency illusion, unit bias, ultimate attribution error, wishful thinking, zero-risk bias, why should anyone think he’s doing anything other than waving yet another cognitive lottery ticket around?

This was the question that I couldn’t answer, my private road to Damascus.

The fact is, I’m every bit as dismissive as Metzinger is. And I’m dismissive of Metzinger for his occasional (apparent) Type II lapses – much as I’m dismissive of myself! (I think I lapse all the time).

Humans are theoretical incompetents, Dude. Otherwise, we only think you’re silly to the degree you take yourself seriously. I would argue that it has never been more obvious that no one knows what the fuck is going on, and that’s what makes this such an exciting time for speculation: Being No One is a profound, magisterial exploration of several new possibilities that cognitive neuroscience has opened up, an early salvo in what will quickly become a barrage as more and more thinkers try to figure out what all these crazy new facts mean.

The idea isn’t to give up on speculation, just to recognize how bad we are at it – which is just to say, to be self-critical. If you want to start with categorical assumptions, cook up some new Problematic Ontological Assumption to replace, say, ‘Correlation,’ knock yourself out, just please don’t commit to them, and for God’s sake, don’t proselytize. Show a little psychological and historical self-awareness. Is this Problematic Ontological Assumption the One? Pardon me if I say, Not bloody likely.

Those of us looking to the sciences to cook up our assumptions are doing so for good reason: Because we know we’re stupid! We know that, for better or worse, humans are incapable of rationally resolving theoretical debates outside of the institutional framework of the sciences. If we’re out on a limb, you guys are clinging to twigs. And now that science is making real inroads across the humanities, that annoying empirical breeze you feel is about to get a lot more gusty.

The fact remains, science has finally cracked open the Black Box of the soul. If the historical pattern holds true, this means all the old speculative discourses of the soul are are doomed to suffer the fate of other prescientific discourses. It may not seem like it now, but as the steady drip-drip-drip of empirical data points spawns new guesses, new theories (not to mention technologies that utterly reorganize the soul and not just the world), you will find yourself contributing to what is likely just another obscure historical curiosity.

Alas, poor Wallace: A Review of Infinite Jest

by rsbakker

Aphorism of the Day: Particular people are narrow people precisely because they always know what they like. Accidents, guesses gone wrong, uneaten entrees: these are what make us whole.

Aphorism of the Day II: There’s no better punchline than missing the punchline–unless you happen to be the punchline.

In a 1997 Charlie Rose interview, when asked about the hundreds of footnotes scattered through Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace claimed that he needed some way to disrupt the linearity of the text short of making it unreadable, that writing requires “some interplay between how difficult you make it for the reader and how seductive.”

Like lovers and assholes (and reviews), books sort readers.[1] I would argue that books like Infinite Jest identify you–your affiliations, your beliefs and values, your politics–with the same degree of accuracy as monster truck rallies.[2] “When I was younger,” David Foster Wallace explains in a 1996 interview with The Boston Phoenix, “I saw my relationship with the reader as a sort of sexual one. But now it seems more like a late-night conversation with really good friends, when the bullshit stops and the masks come off.” Books sort people the way conversations sort people: the talk you have with your mom on Saturday morning is not the talk you have with your boss on Friday afternoon, and certainly not the talk you have with your best buddies on Saturday night. All of our relationships have a conversational mode appropriate to them, a manner of communication tailored to the expectations our audience. We like to tell ourselves that we’re ‘just speaking our mind,’ but in point of fact we’re conserving/cultivating a certain kind of social persona, one intended to facilitate our various relationships: to make our mom proud, to impress our boss, and to crack up our buddies.

This is as true of novels as it is shooting the shit or obligatory familial phone-calls. A novel is, first and foremost, a mode of communication, a kind of relationship between a actual writer and a certain number of actual readers. And as with any communication, judgments concerning propriety will be inextricably bound to who is sending and who is receiving under what circumstances.[3] It makes no more sense reviewing a novel absent its particular communicative context than it does evaluating conversations with your mom, boss, or buddies. The success or failure of any human communication depends on the adequacy of the how and the what to the who–something which is especially true of modes that purport to challenge notions of adequacy.

This is the whole reason why publishers are keen to plaster testimonials on the cover of their books: to milk our authority and social proof biases. Infinite Jest is literally festooned with blurbs from a galaxy of authoritative sources: It arrives literally armoured in literary authority. We are told by a variety of serious people (who are taken very seriously by other serious people) that this is a seriously serious book. There can be little doubt that as far as the 1996 literary ingroup was concerned, Infinite Jest was a smashing communicative success.

Which should be no surprise. “I come to writing from a pretty hard-core, abstract place,” Wallace explains in The Boston Phoenix interview. “It comes out of technical philosophy and continental European theory, and extreme avante-garde shit.” Given who he was, and given he saw this as a conversation with good friends, and given that the seriously serious readers likely shared, as good friends often do, the bulk of his attitudes and aesthetic sensibilities, it’s easy to see how this book became as successful as it did. Infinite Jest is the product of a ingroup sender communicating to other ingroup receivers: insofar as those other receivers loved it, you can say that as a communication Infinite Jest was a tremendous ingroup success.

The problem is that one can say the same about the Turner Diaries or Mein Kampf.

I don’t pretend to know what literature is any metaphysical sense, but I do think that it has to have something to do with transcendence. What distinguishes literature from fiction in general is its ability to push beyond, beyond received dogmas, beyond comfort zones, and most importantly (because it indexes the possibility of the former two), beyond social ingroups. This is why communicative success and literary success are not one and the same thing. And this is also why outgroup readers generally find ingroup estimations of literary merit so unconvincing.

Make no mistake, Infinite Jest is a piece of genre fiction: something expressly written for a dedicated groups of readers possessing a relatively fixed set of expectations. It just so happens that this particular group of readers happen to command the cultural high ground when it comes to things linguistic and narrative. One of many cynical tidbits I came across pulling this ‘review’ together is how Little and Brown ultimately decided that the size of the book, some 1079 pages, would contribute to its sales by turning it into something that could be bragged about. As with any other ‘elite’ subgroup, literary practitioners are prone to self-identify according to perceived competencies, especially when those competencies dramatically exceed those of the hoi polloi. The most difficult missions are reserved for the special forces–those with specialized training–not the regular army. “I’m somebody who can’t even own a TV anymore,” Wallace confesses, “because I’ll sit there slack-jawed and consume enormous amounts of what is, in terms of art, absolute shit.”[3]

What we have here is a good old-fashioned authority gradient, one indexed according to a perceived hierarchy of difficulty. At the top stands, to use Wallace’s phrase, ‘extreme avante garde shit,’ and at the bottom, ‘absolute shit.’ It is the ease of the latter that allows the difficulty of the former to so effectively sort individuals according to certain kinds of competencies. Of all the reviews of Infinite Jest I read, my favourite has to be Lisa Schwarzbaum’s in Entertainment Weekly. In a truly wonderful piece of ironic prose, she admits defeat, “with one crabbed hand gripping the cover like a claw and the other raised like a limp white flag,” deferring to the opinion of “more disciplined” reviewers with a culture-serf’s eye-rolling genuflection, saying, in effect, ‘Well, I can’t read it so it must be a masterpiece.’

Schwarzbaum found herself sorted into the ‘absolute shit’ pile, “longing,” as she puts it, “for an unedited Joan Collins manuscript.” A true ‘White Flagger,’ to use the book’s idiom. Even Bob Wake, the Wallace fan whose site has the best selection of reviews, puts scare-quotes around ‘critic’ when referring to her. Apparently she’s not one of us–not really.

How could she be when the joke flew over her head?

But what if this isn’t the case? What if Schwarzbaum, the superficial pseudo-critic, turned out to be the most perceptive of all? The most serious thing in Infinite Jest, after all, is the most silly thing: Entertainment. And surely Schwarzbaum–a reviewer for Entertainment Weekly no less–should be the acknowledged authority.

Which brings me, at elliptical last, to the book itself. This selfsame authority gradient, it turns out, comprises the very keel of Infinite Jest, and not just metaphorically. The story orbits two groups of people: the denizens of The Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House at the bottom of some Bostonian hill, and the young residents of The Enfield Tennis Academy at the top. Where the bottom-dwellers struggle to regain the basic competencies of life, the top-dwellers struggle to master the competencies that will take them to the Show. Wallace’s digressive style, which often numbed me with its mania for trivial detail, makes the book seem thoroughly postmodern at the outset, where scenes and characters arrive in fragmentary collages rather than organized according to traditional story-telling logic. But this turned out to be a kind of scale illusion: Wallace inundates you with so many details that the narrative arc is several hundred pages in shining through. Early in the book we are introduced to something called ‘the Entertainment,’ a video cartridge reminiscent of the old experiments allowing monkeys to directly self-stimulate their brain’s pleasure centres: apparently it’s so entertaining that it robs viewers of every desire except to continue watching. As the story progresses, it becomes clear that the Entertainment is in fact a ‘lost film’ made by James Incandenza, the alcoholic founder of the Enfield Tennis Academy, either entitled Infinite Jest IV or Infinite Jest V.

Just about everybody (with the exception of poor old homodontic Mario) is looking for redemption. There’s the Incandenza family, which has found itself imperfectly sutured around the suicide of James. The mother, Avril, whom others regard as unforgivably loving and attentive, and whose insatiable nocturnal sexual appetite looms like a peripheral shadow throughout the text. The oldest son, Orin, a pro-football kicker who is obsessed not so much with seducing married mothers, as ruining their capacity to find fulfilment with their husbands. The physically and intellectually disabled middle son, Mario, who oddly functions more as semiotic gap than as a character, and who was closest to James even though he is likely the incestuous child of Charles Tavis, Avril’s half-brother and present administrator of Enfield. And the youngest son, Hal, a world ranked junior tennis player, who possesses a perfect lexical memory in addition to his father’s strangely dissociated personality.

Then there’s the Ennet House ‘family,’ which has found itself imperfectly sutured around their multiple addictions. Of these many characters, Don Gately is far and away the most prominent, a petty criminal and pharmaceutical narcotic addict, who has miraculously found himself first at Ennet House rather than prison after a botched burglary led to a homeowner’s death. At first Gately’s connection to the Incandenza clan is tenuous: he finds himself in Ennet (initially as a resident, then as an employee) rather than prison because the dead homeowner, who was Quebecois, was believed to be related to the Entertainment by federal investigators. Eventually, however, he begins falling in love with a new resident, a recovering crack addict named Joelle van Dyne, who, aside from being the radio personality known as Madame Psychosis, is Orin Incandenza’s former girlfriend, as well as confidante of Orin’s father James–the principle actor in, you guessed it, Infinite Jest.

The world of Infinite Jest is secondary–a caricature, a representation of our world with certain problematic processes, personages, and institutions ontologically exaggerated (in a manner commensurate to their significance)–much like the maps you find at amusement parks. He depicts a faux near-future dominated by the politics of ‘experialism,’ the need to divest power and territory in order to eschew responsibility for the phantasmagorical wastelands produced by the book’s primary novum, annular fusion, which generates waste products (transported via skyline-dominating catapults) that destroys organic life only to spur monstrous regrowth. A kind of binary logic dominates Wallace’s humourous worldmaking: the wasteland, the Great Concavity (formerly known as New England), is home to monstrous hamsters and gigantic feral infants. And Canadians, who seem to be concentrated in frightening high-crime ghettos (intimidating decent Americans with their beards, suspenders, and flannel), constitute America’s greatest terrorist threat, none moreso than the dreaded Wheelchair Assassins, an Extreme Quebecois Separatist movement who hopes to use the Entertainment to so damage the United States that Canada will be forced to expel Quebec from Confederation to save face.

To be honest, I found most of these gags too whimsical to be all that funny, especially given the tragic backlighting. Reality is a function of detail: the information lavished on narcotics and pharmaceuticals, for instance, anchors what is a bloated, cartoonish future to what is a relentlessly miserable here and now. At so many turns I had the sense that the absurdity of his world wasn’t so much a critique of our world as a description, as if his illuminating disproportions were calling attention to a lunacies that Wallace thinks we cannot avoid.

Another place where I found myself out of step with the apparent critical consensus is Wallace’s portrayal of drugs and addiction. Although many of these sections contain some of his most penetrating and beautiful prose–particularly his (borrowed, I’m told) analysis of AA as a form of anarchic fascism–I found myself bumping into artifice at least as regularly as profundity. Perhaps because of my own history, I really had the sense of a 33 year-old possessing personal–but ultimately passing–familiarity with addiction and addiction problems trying to be raw and authentic. I was also troubled by what struck me as a sordid voyeurism: at times Wallace seems to wallow in the miserable life stories of various addicts for the sake of… [substitute rarified rationale here]. More and more, it seemed to be a kind of ‘loser porn,’ almost as if the systematic (and quite interesting) suppression of sexuality in the book (‘fucking’ is typically referred to as ‘X-ing’) needed to be systematically released in gratuitous descriptions of drug-related abjection. Instead of grinding orange bodies we get convulsing grey ones.

One of the greater ironies of this Ennet/Enfield authority gradient is that no matter where they stand, everyone is a loser, only in inverted ways. You have the AA testimonials, ‘lectures’ that compel the listeners to Identify with lives that the well-heeled, hyper-educated reader can only pretend to fathom, with stories of almost cartoonish abjection–that revolt as they entertain. Then you have the Enfield lectures, the parsing of tennis into formal abstractions, the clinical explanations of DMZ, annular fusion, and so on–topics and idioms bled white with absence of passion. The reader is successively dragged back and forth, not simply to Ennet House and Enfield Tennis Academy, but through as well, alternately whipped breathless through various pivotal plot points (such as Joelle’s suicide attempt, or Don’s confrontation with the Canadians), then left to crawl through mountains of trivial information, the dreaded ‘info-dump’ of science fiction shame. From act to fact, drunkenness to sobriety–just like the Concavity, which cycles between wasteland and jungle. At times Infinite Jest actually seems to be semantic version of the waste that is continually catapulted in the background, at once a herbicide and a fertilizer, making a Concavity of the interior of the reader’s skull.

The Gradient, in other words, is everywhere, including the reader. Images can be found within either geographic pole, almost always expressed on the field of language–vocabulary in particular. So in Ennet House you have the culture conflict between the educated and the less educated residents. In Enfield, where almost all the teenagers seem implausibly intellectual (and less interesting and engaging for it), you find it either represented by, or represented in, the films of James O. Incandenza.

In the opening stages of his breakdown (the becoming incompatible of his interior and exterior), Hal finds himself watching, Small Clever Rooms That Utilize Every Centimeter of Available Space with Mind-Boggling Efficiency, forwarding to the art instructor protagonist’s “climactic lecture” about the desertification resulting from something called the “Flood”–a figure which could mean the explosion of cultural production in the digital age–and the “absence of death as a teleological end”:

The art-cartridge critics and scholars who point to the frequent presence of audiences inside Himself’s films, and argue that the fact that the audiences are always either dumb or unappreciative or the victims of some grisly entertainment mishap betrays more than a little hostility on the part of an ‘auteur’ pegged as a technically gifted by narratively dull and plotless and static and not entertaining enough–these academics’ arguments seem sound as far as they go, but they do not explain the incredible pathos of Paul Anthony Heaven reading his lecture to a crowd of dead-eye kids picking at themselves and drawing vacant airplane- and genitalia-doodles on their college rule notepads, reading stupefyingly turgid-sounding shit–‘For while clinamen and tessera strive to revive or revise the dead ancestor, and while kenosis and daemonization act to repress consciousness and memory of the dead ancestor, it is, finally, artistic askesis which represents the contest proper, the battle-to-the-death with the loved dead–in a monotone as narcotizing as a voice from the grave… (911)

Of all the mise en abymes you will encounter in this book, none are quite so dense as this–narrative frames stacked upon propositional attitudes. The way James O. Incandenza’s art internalizes the antagonism between his art and his community. The way the critics, in the course of pointing this out, overlook the pathos of the instructor–the way his passion transcends the ingroup insularity of his lecture. (Wallace, in the same Charlie Rose interview, singles out David Lynch’s Blue Velvet as the transformative moment in his writing career, the point where he realized that authors connected by being ‘true to themselves’). Here we have the classic image of the Gradient, the classroom, where all the institutional cards are stacked in the specialist’s favour, the instructor weeping, speaking with a dead authority about the relationship between the cultural producer and their ancestors to an anaesthetized outgroup (you can almost imagine Schwarzbaum checking her texts). If the reference to Harold Bloom’s Anxiety of Influence wasn’t clear enough, Wallace gives us a footnote to tell us as much. The problem, as Wallace seems to frame it, is the disconnect between the poles, the death of artistic authority (a disconnect that could be attributed to Bloom’s clinamen, the way literary normative traditions, in a constant state of self-reinvention, migrate further and further from the sensibilities of the masses). The instructor references kenosis, emptying, as occluding the tradition, and Wallace describes the students’ doodles as “vacant.” Everyone is dead in this image (as perhaps ‘social efficiency’ demands). Only the weeping is alive.

In a sense, this image unpacks the meaning of the Shakespearean allusion that gives Wallace his title, Hamlet’s famous meditation on death and entertainment: “Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio: a fellow of infinite jest…” Hamlet recalls the love he bore him, and the joy–the entertainment– but now finds himself nauseated (a symptom Wallace continually attributes to depression). The pendulum has swung to death, the implacable teleology, away from comedy to tragedy, the intellectually privileged mode–the depressive mode.

Infinite Jest may be set in the future, but it is–as Wallace is–a creature of the past, something plucked from the grave and pondered, the skull of something once beloved, once entertaining, but now dead. It is a skull, a memento mori–and I cannot but feel that Wallace wanted us to be nauseated. At times you think it’s about redemption in simplicity, the beggar’s humble wilfulness to be healed, but not so. Everyone is stranded in this book: the fact of so many hands reaching, for me, simply makes it all the more stark, even perhaps horrifying. Wallace’s vision is relentlessly cynical and pessimistic–and read in the historical shadow of his suicide, bent.

The book Infinite Jest (Literature? or ingroup entertainment?) is set up as the antithesis of Infinite Jest the art film (Entertainment? or death?), but in the end they are ultimately the same, just as the ‘addicts’ at the top of the hill mirror the addicts below. It’s like the difference between wet and dry trash. A nimbus of pointlessness shadows everything that transpires–even the apparent redemption people find in AA. James O. Incandenza, we are told, committed suicide because he could not bear sobriety. In his case, drinking literally kept him alive. And the same seems to the case with Hal, who literally splits in two–a flat-affect interior and a hysterically emoting exterior–when he abandons pot. Maybe Gately is our point of egress–or is it regress, once his ersatz gallantry is illuminated by his thoroughly sociopathic past, one where ‘kindness’ is the accidental byproduct of disinterest. Does merely lacking the will to harm others make him good? The book, remember, ends with a murder.[5]

And this is what makes me think that Schwarzbaum’s review in Entertainment Weekly is perhaps the most incisive of all. She alone is clear-eyed enough to see how tribal the book is, how entangled it is with its ingroup community. She alone gets the joke. I had refused to read any supplementary material while reading the book, hoping to follow the footprints it left in fresh snow. I had known about his suicide, of course, and the catastrophic bouts of depression that precipitated it. And at first, I thought the almost palpable sense of self-loathing and class shame I found in the text were simply an expression of this knowledge: suicide is too dramatic not to become an ‘alternate ending’ unconsciously appended to a dead author’s work. But the details kept piling up, so that at times I was convinced that Wallace was actually voicing a version of my own critique of intellectual culture. There was the bankruptcy of Hal and Pemulis (not to mention James O. Incandenza himself), not so much immovable as imperturbable, able to quantify over all possible worlds given their mastery of language and form. Or the AA’s demand–worse, healing’s demand–for utter intellectual passivity. The vocabulary games, and the way they sorted and alienated. The cliches. And on and on, a perpetual–sometimes even nasty–critique of the very constituency that had made him king.

No, I told myself. It couldn’t be. I was a man with a hammer, so of course I was seeing nails everywhere I looked.

When I finally finished, I began with the Charlie Rose interview, and found that I recognized him. You could just smell it: Wallace was one of those inward souls who despised his own pretensions–in interviews you almost see him grimacing beneath the runaway weight of his own vanities. Listening to him, you had this sense that he hated what he had become, hated the artificiality of what his culture was making of him.

I realized that Wallace actually was the kindred spirit my reading wanted to make of him, that he wasn’t interrogating, as so many reviewers assumed, the problem of community in the canonical way, which is to say, as something that only ‘art’ or ‘intellect’ could save. No. He suffered depression, a malady that some evolutionary psychologists think was selected precisely because it allows us to see past our hard-wired tendency to self-aggrandize. “It seems to me,” Wallace says in his Salon interview with Laura Miller, “that the intellectualization and aestheticizing of principles and values in this country is one of the things that’s gutted our generation.” He’s arguing something far different, far less flattering to his class: that art and intellect are simply another addiction, another Substance, choosing our incommensurable friends, organizing our incommensurable activities, determining our incommensurable vocabularies. (‘Madame Psychosis,’ remember, is a performance artist and a narcotic). All the drugs he references, each of them possessing dry consumer product footnotes, are simply part of a continuum, a line running from the Entertainment to DMZ to Joelle’s veiled face (the book’s primary MacGuffins). Everything has become a drug in his world, something tagged, concentrated, and atomized–unnatural. Especially those things–as Gately’s hospitalization reminds us–that purport to cure or to save us.

Nowhere is this more clear than in Wallace’s narrative and theoretical meditations on Alcoholics Anonymous. The AA experience, Wallace tells Salon, is “hard for the ones with some education which, to be mercenary, is who this book is targeted at. I mean this is caviar for the general literary fiction reader.” He say’s ‘caviar,’ but he could have just as easily said ‘crack.’ He knows full well who he’s representing the AA to (the special forces). “The idea,” he says, “that something so simple and, really, so aesthetically uninteresting … can actually be nourishing in a way that arch, meta, ironic, pomo can’t, that seems to me to be important.”

Simplistic. Cliche. Sentimental. What if these things held the communal key? What are we to make of the chasm between the glowing, effusive testimonials on the book, and the dark and sordid testimonials within? “If an art form is marginalized,” Wallace tells Salon, “it’s because it’s not speaking to people. One possible reason is that the people it’s speaking to have become too stupid to appreciate it. That seems a little easy to me.” The other alternative is that the people speaking have become too self-absorbed to be comprehensible. The AA is a place of retreat in the full sense of the word: a retreat from the world, Out There, certainly, but a retreat from the complications of life as well. A return to the most basic touchstones, those things too worn with use and reliability not to be mocked by those keen to signal their intelligence and entitlement. Make no mistake, the AA is another ingroup, possessing norms and values that Wallace charts with fascinating detail. But unlike intellectual culture, it only sorts people according to need.

“Think Beckett, think Pynchon, think Gaddis,” Sven Birkerts writes in his Atlantic Monthly review, naming the group, anointing Wallace as a celebrated member of his tribe, the Great Ironists. Compare this testimonial to what Gately observes at his AA meetings:

The thing is it has to be the truth to really go over here. It can’t be a calculated crowd-pleaser, and it has to be the truth unslanted, unfortified. And maximally unironic. An ironist in a Boston AA meeting is a witch in church. (369)

A witch in a church–something antithetical. What does it mean to live in a culture where the art most celebrated has become, not simply irrelevant, but antithetical to those most in need?

Isn’t this a tragedy? A glaring symptom of societal breakdown?

It’s here that we see the significance of the divided Hal (the one that so horrifies the admissions committee at the beginning of the novel and so puzzles his friends at the end). He becomes the very emblem of the millennial USA: an anhedonic soul and an infantile face. A society jammed by its communicative contradictions, sorting its populations according to intellect and sentiment, and cloistering them in artificial communities (like Enfield, where the sound of weeping is never far), allowing them to congregate, to interact and so counteract each other’s excesses, only in the garbage heap (like Ennet House, where humanity reigns at once hobbled and supreme).

But the sad fact is that Wallace, by writing so thoroughly for the literary caviar set (adopting their tricks and tactics and sensibilities), made it impossible for them to see past their gratification.[6] Rather than communicate first-order commonalities, he made them the second-order objects of the very ingroup aesthetic he claimed to critique. If reviews count for anything, he renewed their faith in their moribund, ‘gouging’ simulacrum of literature. Small wonder he was so dismayed by the reception: He had failed to escape Enfield after all.

In a sense, the real tragedy of this book is this book.[7] It is simply too entertaining–too mercenary–for the specialists. No matter how they trumpet this or that little intellectual buzz, they come away from Infinite Jest both confirmed and affirmed. Even the AA segments of the story (where Wallace often tries to trick the reader into laughing at events that cause the recovering addicts to Identify) generate little more than a gratifying, paternalistic cramps of empathy. The caviar eaters are ‘moved,’ but only so far–and certainly not so far to ask any of Wallace’s fundamental questions. Infinite Jest, they believe, is a pure instance of their ‘Substance’–which simply means that Wallace, contrary to his ambition, failed to step on his drugs enough. He thought he was poisoning the pill, when in reality he was simply spiking it–feeding the ‘Spider.’ And in this sense, Infinite Jest literally enacts the isolating compartmentalization of modern, media-driven culture that it rails against. The empty, formal soul (intellectual culture) detached from the thoughtless, infantile face (popular culture) with only drugs to connect them, if not through the high, then through the levelling misery of recovery.

The idea behind this review was to look at Infinite Jest, not as a computer chip (or a pill), something isolate and discrete, packed with forms, but as something wrenched out of the electronic gut our society, wires hanging, connections sparking. The idea was to review Infinite Jest as an instance of itself. So perhaps it should come as no surprise that I see it as something faulty, broken, dysfunctional.

I first became interested in Infinite Jest after learning that David Foster Wallace was a fallen philosopher like myself: I became curious because I wondered whether I could identify with him. But for all the moments of miniature joy I experienced, it was labourious, sitting like a wart, ugly with meaning, on the arm of my reading chair for week after week. The experience was primarily one of tedium, and a kind autocannibalistic tedium at that, insofar as I realized that Wallace was intentionally playing the tedious and the difficult against the exciting and the facile. As much as its themes resonated, as much as the puzzles intrigued, I found the effort disproportionate to the reward. The fact is, I believe in story. For me, defections from narrative expectations are simply too easy: anyone can break the rules. For me, the truth of fiction lies in the AA meetings, where stories simultaneously connect socially disparate individuals and spark potentially life-changing insights. This is where Literature–understood as a living event, not as something resembling the canonical skeletons displayed in the museum–happens. In this sense Infinite Jest is more an intricate bauble than a work of art, something that identifies and ornaments more than it challenges or transforms, something far too clever to be truly profound.

Always intelligent. Sometimes funny. Rarely touching.

Wallace is the compelling character here, the weeping teacher, reading something that some hear too well to truly listen, and that others hear not at all. The real tragic story. The true literary moment. For me.

The rest is just dirt and bone.

 

Notes

[1] As readers of Three Pound Brain well know, the interplay between audience alienation and seduction is a primary theme of my cultural criticism. For about a decade now, I’ve been arguing that any contemporary writer vain enough to harbour literary aspirations (such as myself), needs to become self-conscious of the social and technical conditions of their work, at the risk of merely catering to ingroup expectations–‘singing to the choir’–under the guise of challenging received norms and values. I literally think–contrary to, well, pretty much everyone–that the blame for our present cultural straits lies more with the social-psychological dynamics of contemporary arts and academic culture than with (as so many seem to assume) the socio-economic machinery of late capitalism. Not only are humans hardwired to identify themselves, by means fair and foul, over and against other humans, they are also programmed to rationalize those identifications in extravagant fashion. Thus the tribal self-glorification of the Bible, the nightmarish logic of National Socialism, the absurdity of high-school pep-rallies, the popularity of the ad campaign otherwise known as Apple. Thus. Thus. Thus.

[2] All you need do is let the bolus of semantic and normative associations belonging to ‘monster truck rallies’ linger on your palette, and you should taste the complexity and profundity of the social judgements involved, things typically summarized and dismissed with a snort or a smile–so quickly to be all but unconscious. The human brain is a stereotyping machine, designed by evolution to find and to recognize patterns. Since the finding is far, far more labourious (metabolically speaking), it is far more geared to recognizing things ‘already known’ than it is in discerning anything new. Human cognition is literally designed to ‘judge books by their covers’ first, and to only engage in the hard work of actually reading with the utmost reluctance–and it does this regardless of intelligence or education.

 [3] One can adopt a solipsistic, semiotic attitude, treat the novel as ‘text,’ as something abstract existing in abstraction, and so pretend the novel exists for them alone. One can also do crossword puzzles sitting on the toilet.

[4] This quote reminds me of the old joke about the three snobs, the first claiming he doesn’t have a television, the second claiming he doesn’t have windows, the third claiming he doesn’t have eyes–the joke being, of course, the absurdity of touting a kind of blindness as a mark of social superiority.

[5] Of Gately’s criminal cohort, ‘Fax,’ or truth, who makes a comedy routine of simply repeating “It’s a goddamn lie!” in response to everything Gately says.

[6] Because it has to be cognized, the genuinely ‘new’ is all but impossible to recognize. As a result, institutions rhetorically dedicated to originality find themselves in a peculiar bind. On the one hand, the new has to take the form of the old to be even come to attention: any number of generic concessions must be made. As a result, the ‘new’ tends to look an awful lot like the old–to appear rather unimpressive when viewed from a distance. On the other hand, when an institution makes this rhetorical commitment–when they fetishize originality and demonize conventionality–they are doomed to drift ever further from the normative sensibilities of the communities that sustain them. The ‘newish’ might be incremental, but telescoped over time the process gradually rewrites more and more normative expectations, rendering them more and more incomprehensible to mainstream culture. Eventually they find themselves in the peculiar position being neither new nor recognizable–which is to say, artistically interesting in any universal sense or socially relevant anywhere outside of their particular ingroup.

Thus my critical stance toward contemporary literary culture: it seems designed to seize upon and lionize works like Infinite Jest, to universalize what I fear amounts to little more than ingroup self-congratulation.

 [7] As I think Wallace feared.

Condemned to the Not-So-New

by rsbakker

Aphorism of the Day: The important thing isn’t to arrive first, but to arrive big.

Aphorism of the Day II: Imagination becomes a curse precisely when it begins catering to ambition. The world starves what hope enslaves.

One of the things I dislike about blogging is the way it reveals the vagaries of my mood. When it comes to novels, the sheer amount of time you spend with the text assures that you revisit each section with multiple frames of mind—the peaks and valleys are levelled through sheer interference as much as anything else. You can be ‘professional’ simply because you garble any trace of your emotional presence into a background of white-noise, the nowhere of the disinterested narrator. Not so with blogging. It’s all laid out for the careful reader to perceive. So much so that I even have a maxim: ‘Do not blog when manic or depressed.’

The rule I’m breaking right now.

I’ve had a busy weekend. The Nietzsche Workshop seemed like a smashing success. The paper I gave, “Outing the ‘It’ that Thinks: The Collapse of an Intellectual Ecosystem” seemed to go over far, far better than I had feared. I had worried that Horst Hutter, the one true Nietzsche scholar on our panel, would savage me on my interpretation of the crackpot messiah; he followed me away from the lectern he was so excited with my claims. I had also worried that Arthur Kroker, the one true culture and technology scholar on our panel, would hammer me for claiming that the humanities (as we know them) were about to go extinct in the wake of cognitive science; he had nothing but the highest praise.

So why so down, baby blue?

In the hurley-burley, I had no chance to read the weekend Globe and Mail. So first thing this morning, after getting my tea and Ruby settled with breakfast, I cracked open the Arts section, only to find that John Barber, the Globe’s lead arts reporter, had written yet another article on fantasy—this one on the literary re-evaluation of what should have never been a fallen genre. He mentions the success of A Game of Thrones, quotes Erin Morgenstern who’s Night Circus has become such a rage, and concludes with Lev Grossman—and in the middle he writes about an upcoming book of essays by the Grande Dame of Canadian Literature, Margaret Atwood, that critiques… you guessed it, the Incredible Shrinking Sublime: “Atwood’s essays,” he writes “present a multilayered argument in favour of magic in fiction, suggesting that what’s really weird (and perhaps passé) are the upstart conventions of social realism.”

I don’t know Margaret Atwood the person, but Margaret Atwood the public literary figure I well and truly despise, as do many others in the Canadian genre community. Why? Well, check this PBS piece out for one. Every time she comes out with something she fears might be written off as genre, she follows this pattern: Upon release, she says ‘This is Literature, not genre,’ then proceeds to do what she does in this interview—give the accepted definition of the genre (extrapolation of real technologies), and then claim that the genre (with the all-important proviso, ‘means to people’) is something obviously silly like ‘talking cabbages’ and ‘lizard men.’ If that wasn’t bad enough, once the book has been safely accepted as genuine literary fiction, she then turns the strategy upside down, claiming that the book is in fact genre and has been all along, in an effort to increase sales. Rather than fight for genre, she literally—explicitly—steps on it to feather her own nest.

I’ve exchanged a couple of correspondences on literature and fantasy with John Barber—he’s even read the “Dancing Bears and Wild Ones” (which is a cruder, earlier version of “The Future of Literature”) in the essay section—but the list of people he references makes clear his interest lies with those already in the cultural spotlight (which is to say, with those people his readers are already interested in). And the fact is, readers will be far more inclined to actually revalue fantasy fiction if they hear the argument from people they already know. In this respect, given all the years I’ve poured into this particular issue, I should be jumping for joy.

But when it’s Margaret Atwood who gets the credit?

Ego, huh? I mean why should this bug me so much? It’s not as though I’m in any way original in claiming that genre needs to be taken seriously (though I think my particular argument is original). Ed Kellar’s mind-bending presentation at the Workshop, which featured J. G. Ballard, reminded me how old the debate is. Christ, it goes all the way back to James and Wells!

Is it just the idea of outsiders, people who built reputations contra-genre, suddenly spinning with the turn of the tide and getting credit (and spikes in their sales) for their hypocrisy?

No. It’s bigger than that. I’ve felt it for some time, I think. The way I felt it after giving my paper (which I’ll be posting shortly) at the Nietzsche Workshop—or even, for that matter, my debate with G. M. Palmer last week. What troubled me so much about the paper was—and this is going to sound strange—that people found it so damn convincing. It’s almost like there’s an exhaustion in the air, an ambient, communal recognition that the old foundations have rotted beyond repair—that it’s time to build a new house. I went in wanting to convince everyone in the audience that this is an age of profound excitement and opportunity. Then I had this premonition, this sudden certainty that arriving first—or at least being ahead of the curve—doesn’t really count for anything, that culture will simply brick you over with nary a trace, especially if you fail—as I have failed—to cultivate the proper institutional affiliations. That the opportunity belonged to others, not me.

Being original counts against you, generally speaking. Being right, counts for nothing. Being accredited, successful, or networked, on the other hand…

And it makes me think that this ‘fighting for the future’ tone I constantly invoke is really just a sham. Have I just been fighting for myself all this time? I worry that my ambitions are every bit as preposterous and absurd as they seem when I glimpse them in the eyes of others.

And at the same time I hate myself for thinking this way: I mean, I’ve worked, been so poor I had to live off rice for a year, so I know that scraping by on my wits month to month the way I do is nothing short of a miracle–especially in an industry wobbling on the edge of collapse. It almost seems sinful, despairing for my old, youthful dreams of recognition when life is slack enough to afford me time to mope like this.

We should all be so lucky.

And yet, always this fucking hunger for more. Always starved. Always incarcerated.

Watching the likes of Margaret Atwood eat.