Wednesday, May 11, 2005

a literal post on irony

David Foster Wallace, writing perhaps in a tradition that extends from K's great wanderings in a land of timeless bureaucracy that may or may not be the condition of (possibility for) writing or 'literature' itself, is often referred to as a "master" of style and parody. His hilariously convoluted depictions of corporate focus groups (see for example "Mister Squishy" in Oblivion), where complexities and absurdities of both plot and language combine into a making-extreme of what would otherwise be—just below the radar of psychosis—the anxious endurance of the banal everyday (in the future-shaping world of politics and advertising anyway), nevertheless give off the faint but unmistakable odor of gloating ease, if not that of an habitual avoidance. The vulgarian might say that they are responding merely on demand, excessively clever best sellers (how could they not be, with an author photo like that!?), cute, mental masturbation, and ultimately sort of harmless. I would disagree. I think his writing is often brilliantly dark and useful in teasing out the grotesque underbelly of our cultural proclivities (but are they natural?). Even if the ways in which his text often seeks to immunize itself (against itself!) is often exhausting and...dare it be said...tiresome. As if the only way to write was on speed, emptying the contents of one's head as immediately as possible.

But private irony does have its limits. And may not be adequate as a response to a time when naked pyramids of prisoners, unmistakably reminiscent of the dehumanization that took place in the Nazi camps, are the chief export of the world's only superpower. Irony is also a superficial, if perhaps indispensible comfort, on the everyday plane of rhetoric. But is there not something crucial missing from the recourse to irony (Kierkegaard's famous pronouncement notwithstanding), something along the lines of a pathos of indignation?

Or might it be the case that the very function of irony is a certain enslavement to deferral, to a perpetual future. Maybe there are reasons Foster Wallace is unable to write simply, like Blanchot. The social disease called humanity, "freedom" or whatever has after all evolved a bit, as have its syndromes. Which is not to suggest, of course, that DFW is on par with Blanchot or Kafka, only that there is a certain continuity there, in an evolving relationship to things like alienation and bureaucracy. The challenge today would seem to be how to meaningfully and persistently critique the merely symptomatic, without, perhaps, resorting to a formulaic or un-trembling engagement with pyschoanalysis. Does Foster Wallace's writing fall victim to its own irony, or risk giving the impression that such self-sacrifice is merely inescapable, inevitable, or natural? How to account for the impact of one's words in the dissemination of today's market? Is there a duty to respond (or to assess the response already inherent) to the market forces that lend creedence and legitimacy to one's words? Do such questions grant fiction an inflated status, unjustly on par with "philosophy"? As much as one may enjoy disagreeing with Rorty, his suggestion that literature is the new philosophy invites further speculation:
Since Hegel’s time, the intellectuals have been losing faith in philosophy, in the idea that redemption can come in the form of true beliefs. In the literary culture which has been emerging during the last two hundred years, the question “Is it true?” has yielded pride of place to the question “What’s new?” Heidegger thought that that change was a decline, a shift from serious thinking to mere gossipy curiosity. (See the discussions of das Gerede and die Neugier in sections 35-36 of Sein und Zeit.) Many fans of natural science, people who otherwise have no use for Heidegger, would agree with him on this point. On the account I am offering, however, this change is an advance. It represents a desirable replacement of bad questions like “What is Being?”, “What is really real?” and “What is man?” with the sensible question “Does anybody have any new ideas about what we human beings might manage to make of themselves?”

Undoubtedly the solution is to read, again, people like Blanchot.
Update: Oldrottenhat has a nice post up on David Foster Wallace, and I agree with his assessment and recommendations very much. Brief Interviews With Hideous Men also has its moments. From "The Suffering Channel" in Oblivion, this passage for various reasons caught my eye:
'But it can't be too big,' she said.
'The piece, or the venue?' Ellen Bactrian always had to pat the ear with all the studs in it dry with disposable little antibiotic cloth.
'We don't want Style readers to already know the story. This is the tricky part. We want them to feel as if Style is their first exposure to a story whose existence precedes their seeing it.'
'In a media sense, you mean.'
The executive intern's skirt was made of several dozen men's neckties all stitched together lengthwise in a complicated way. She and a Mauritanian exchange student in THE THUMB who wore hallucinatorily colored tribal garb were the only two interns at Style who could get away with this sort of thing. It was actually the executive intern, at a working lunch two summers past, who had originally compared Skip Atwater to a jockey who'd broken training, though she said it in a light and almost affectionate way—coming from her, it had not sounded cruel.(323-4)

Ok but "hallucinatorily"? Really.

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