Thursday, June 2, 2011

David Foster Wallace Weighs in...

In the last post, we left off discussing how a certain age group might hold the key to using the current technology in a less masturbatory, more social and creative manner(Side note: Have you ever looked at someone’s Facebook page and thought, oh, this is really interesting and creative?) Before we continue with that conversation, there is one aspect of the Better Never group that needs to be discussed. In fact, it's a mixture of the Better Never and the Ever Was.

In a sense, the Ever Was group's claim that we've all heard this before is correct. We can draw on many examples, as Gopnik does, in which thinkers (curiously, mostly of the literary-type) lamented the affects of technology on relationships, identity, and even religion (See Heschel's God in Search of Man, but really much of Heschel entails an attack on the perceived hubris of science and its effects on religious attunement.) Erich Fromm, a revered psychoanalyst and social commentator wrote his most famous book The Art of Living, in part as a reaction to his perception of capitalism causing a breakdown in the fabric of society, identity, and love. Fromm, in his book (highly recommended, regardless of your stance on Capitalism vs. Marxism), after explaining the effects of capitalism on society focuses in on the effects of unbridled capitalism explaining that, "Love, now, is often nothing but a favorable exchange between two people who get the most of what they can expect, considering their value on the personality market." In short, capitalism, because it teaches us to think and live as consumers, eventually seeps into our expectations of love. We look to love to solve our problems, to take, but not to give etc.

Franzen then just uses a more topical example of the consequences of a consumer-focused market, but for us, it's important to see the legs on this concern. Not to say that the Internet, and the pervasiveness of gorgeous gadgets that proliferate like Jewish babies in Egypt doesn’t affect us in unique manners, but the Ever Was provides perspective that we've been worrying about this since the advent of capitalism, if not much earlier. It’s hard to know if the longevity of this claim attests to its truth or to its falsity. Either we are worrying about nothing, or the worry grows ever more urgent because with each passing year we grow shallower. (For a lengthier exposition on the effects of capitalism and globalization on Love see many of the writings of the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman.)

I find it hard to substantiate this claim in serious manner. Like God, to some philosophers, this claim is unfalsifiable. One the hand, you can say yes, this is who we are today, our identities entail less complexity, and to truly love presents a greater challenge, but how could we ever prove this in a convincing manner? We can’t compare it to “love” in the past. On the other hand, you can say, no, that’s ridiculous, we still feel mysterious to ourselves, we still feel complex, and we still love truly and deeply. Not only can we not disprove this claim, but if these thinkers are correct then Identity and Love might inevitably take on a different definition for a different generation. Therefore, when people say, “That’s ridiculous, I dont feel that way” we cannot know if people feel that way because these writers' claim lacks truth, or because our sense of identity and love has already changed so that we only think we truly experience love and the complexity of our identity, but in fact we only know a watered down version of each.

Importantly, there is a third, voice, a third worry, in this Better Never camp. David Foster Wallace, another 40-something white author who tackles the same issue, chooses to focus on the existential worry behind our obsession with technology. Foster Wallace (DFW), who killed himself two years ago, left an unfinished novel that was recently published posthumously. The novel, he said, was meant to tackle the issue of the soul-killing boredom of everyday life. In the novel, The Pale King, he writes:

“Maybe dullness is associated with psychic pain because something that's dull or opaque fails to provide enough stimulation to distract people from some other, deeper type of pain that is always there, if only in an ambient low-level way, and which most of us spend nearly all our time and energy trying to distract ourselves from feeling, or at least from feeling directly or with our full attention. Admittedly, the whole thing's pretty confusing, and hard to talk about abstractly but surely something must lie behind not just Muzak in dull or tedious places anymore but now also actual TV in waiting rooms, supermarkets' checkouts, airports' gates, SUVs' backseats. Walkmen, iPods, Blackberries, cell phones that attach to your head. This terror of silence with nothing diverting to do. I can't think anyone really believes that today's so-called 'information society' is just about information. Everyone knows it's about something else, waydown."

DFW, later on in the books begins to clue us in to what that something else might be:

"I'm talking about the individual US citizen's deep fear, the same basic fear that you and I have and that everybody has except nobody ever talks about it except existentialists in convoluted French prose. Or Pascal. Our smallness, our insignificance and mortality, yours and mine, the thing that we all spend all our time not thinking about directly, that we are tiny and at the mercy of large forces and that time is always passing and that every day we've lost one more day that will never come back and our childhoods are over and our adolescence and the vigor of youth and soon our adulthood, that everything we see around us all the time is decaying and passing, it's all passing away, and so are we, so am I, and given how fast the first forty-two years have shot by it's not going to be long before I too pass away, whoever imagined that there was a more truthful way to put it than `die,' `pass away,' the very sound of it makes me feel the way I feel at dusk on a wintry Sunday--"

"And not only that, but everybody who knows me or even knows I exist will die, and then everybody who knows those people and might even conceivably have even heard of me will die, and so on, and the gravestones and monuments we spend money to have put in to make sure we're remembered, these'll last what--a hundred years? two hundred?---and they'll crumble, and the grass and insects my decomposition will go to feed will die, and their offspring, or if I'm cremated the trees that are nourished by my windblown ash will die or get cut down and decay, and my urn will decay, and before maybe three or four generations it will be like I never existed, not only will I have passed away but it will be like I was never here, and people in 2104 or whatever will no more think of Stuart A. Nichols Jr. than you or I think of John T. Smith, 1790 to 1864, of Livingston, Virginia, or some such. That everything is on fire, slow fire, and we're all less than a million breaths away from an oblivion more total than we can even bring ourselves to even try to imagine, in fact, probably that's why the manic US obsession with production, produce, produce, impact the world, shape things, to help distract us from how little and totally insignificant and temporary we are."

In a sense, DFW’s point straddles the line between Better Never and Ever Was. For him, technology provides an escape from a reality we all know about, but rarely focus on, mainly the reality of our demise. (If you are keeping count then our obsession with technology threatens not only our sense of identity, or ability to love, but threatens our ability to come to terms with our mortality….) This theme of avoidance, of obsession with entertainment as escape, of the American society built on a need to avoid certain truths, is a pervasive theme in all of DFW’s writing, but it’s not new. In the 60s, Ernest Becker, an intellectual historian wrote his seminal book, Denial of Death, which posits that most, if not all of culture, at its deepest level provides an escape from this truth. For him, as for existentialists, looking death in the face is really the only way to wake up, to fully live. (It’s a hard claim to swallow, but try to think about. Close your eyes. Turn off any sort of external stimulation and just focus on the fact that you will die. It can almost feel like you are touching some sort of electric fence meant to protect you from something elemental and dangerous.)

Again, it’s hard to know what to take from these claims besides an attempt to not simply dismiss them, but to suspend judgment and try to become aware of them in your life. It does not matter if the key into these topics comes from a frustration with technology because these are perennial issues. Existentialists, and other writers believe that you cannot live a full life without an attempt to tackle these issues, but it’s hard to know the line between personal preference and wisdom. Many would say (including Freud) that focusing on death, even for five minutes, simply removes us from life. Yes, death exists, and yes, we avoid it, but why not? (I believe Woody Allen and Diane Keaton have a conversation in this vein in Annie Hall.) I find it hard to say that living without ever focusing on these issues leads towards a superficial life. In fact, I tend to believe that for the most part how compelling these issues sound will depend on your personality. If you find these ideas fruitful towards personal growth of any sort then swallow them whole, but if the idea of spending time thinking about the complexity of your personality, or about your inability to love, or your demise sounds as much fun as a colonoscopy then stay away. The tough part lies in gauging what type of person you are, because in another circular manner, those who say these issues will not help me, some might say, might simply be exhibiting resistance to these ideas, but who knows till you try.

Super JoeTalk.
Thank’s for reading.
Here's a link to DFW's graduation speech. It's phenomenal.

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