Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Humility of David Foster Wallace - In response to Maud Newton

A note of introduction: This blog is a response to the article. posted on the side, written by Maud Newton entitled Another Thing to Sort of Pin On David Foster Wallace (Which is already a somewhat lame way to make fun of Foster Wallace.) It’s a fun article about David Foster Wallace, and blogging, but if neither of those topics interest you, then neither will this blog post.
In this blog, I attempted, as much as possible, not to indulge in my obsession with David Foster Wallace. I often quote him, my ideas are clearly mostly watered down versions of his ideas, and my style, if I you can refer to how I write as a style, mimics, weakly, his style. But now, I think it’s time to indulge in some DFW dorkiness to defend some claims made against his writing. Listen, I love DFW, but I think we’ve sainted him too early, and I do think problems exist in his writing, both theoretical and technical problems, but this argument against his writing just seems reductive.  Maud Newton, in her somewhat endearing though ultimately simplistic article, argues that DFW always equivocates in his arguing. He constantly uses qualifiers, changes register from high brow to low brow, and use all sort of verbal tics to make him liked by the audience. This essentially closes the argument by encompassing the whole argument because in truth, she claims, he’s not making an argument but just having a friendly conversation in which he cuts off any possible criticism by alluding to all possible criticisms. In essence, she claims, he makes the arguments through establishing both his intellectual credentials and his home grown normalcy so you trust him completely when he finally makes some kind of ambiguous argument. Newton, as does Geoffrey Dyer goes on to use this as a stepping stone to decry some of the annoying tics of bloggers, which is not the topic here. Here is my straightforward response. Newton and Dyer misunderstand DFW’s rhetorical tools and their usages both in his fiction and his non-fiction.(There are many holes to puncture in Newton's argument, but this should suffice.)
I claim that Newton and Dyer misunderstand DFW’s rhetorical tools in that they believe he uses them either because he cannot transcend the postmodern ironic stance without indulging in naiveté, or he wishes to ingratiate himself so as to not come off as an ass trying to force morality upon us, which to them, lacks directness and bravery in argumentation about important matters. Ultimately though, it’s his and our obsessive need to be liked as opposed to our ability engage in true debate that pushes us to write with qualifiers and in a style that makes you feel like we are just friends, talking, not trying to actually argue for anything.
But, to make an argument based on DFW’s own work, mainly from some of his stories, and his essay Deciderization, I contend that much of these rhetorical tools and examples stem from DFW’s humility, not arrogance, from his clear understanding of the smallness of his opinion relative to the complexity of the topic, of his constant self-doubt regarding his judgments in life, even towards the complexity of topics such as race, eating animals, and abortion. Let us for a minute run with this explanation i.e. that at the root of much what we refer to as DFW’s tics lies humility and not arrogance or an obsessive need to feel liked.
            In his essay, Deciderization¸ DFW explains that we lived in an unprecedented time of total noise in which it becomes increasingly harder to know who to trust, what to read in the news, and how to form an educated opinion on the whole spectrum of issues facing the normal human being. I still, despite my attempts to read up on the topic, understand little in the ways of economics. I cannot remember the last good clear argument on a topic, whether, abortion, or the economy that did not smack of bias, which of course exists in every argument, but what DFW captured so well, was the trouble with forming an opinion in our world. Hence the need for footnotes, and qualifiers, because when it comes down to it, there is no simple argument about whether we should or should not eat meat, or whether we can judge the porn industry, whether McCain is a calculated manipulative politician or a genuine believer in his vision for the country because of the need to take into account too many factors.
Additionally, why do we judge DFW by foreign standards? When did he claim to attempt to write arguments in the old Mark Twain Fashion? Why should we judge his output as if he was an ethical philosopher? In fact, DFW really only contended to make an argument, explicitly, once, in his essay on TV.  In his other writings, he opted to present the complexity of what it means to live as a human being today, as a person bombarded by leftist and right wing propaganda that both kind of sound intelligent, but never seem to present the full picture, as a person who lives in a time in which knowledge and opinions are tenuous at best because we know how entrenched they are in our personal experiences, and how much arrogance about our opinions ruins relationships, causes global issues, and just steeps a person in narcissism.
Here’s another straightforward contention, maybe we shouldn’t outgrow this type of thinking. Maybe we should always cling to this humility in our opinions. Now of course, some decisions must be made in life, but many decisions I make, or many of the beliefs I take do not matter in the larger scheme of things until I insert arrogance into the equation. For most people, it would seem, the question of an abortion remains abstract. Now, despite this fact most people assume an opinion on the matter, which can cause adverse affects, arguments, extremism etc. I would like to contend that DFW understood this problem, he understood that most of the moral quandaries of life are not the moral quandaries philosophers refer to as borderline cases, i.e. those cases that are all but impossible to actually argue for without making fundamentally unfalsifiable assumptions. Instead most of the moral heavy lifting involves how we relate to other human beings, how we feel towards them, how we judge them, how we balance the onslaught of self-centeredness with the need to transcend ourselves. Because most of the moral quandaries Newton wants some direct argumentation on do not affect the normal life of a normal person. That is, until we begin to think we actually fully know the answer to those unanswerable problems.
For DFW, most knowledge should be treated as precarious, as tentative because most knowledge stems from our self-centeredness, which doesn’t always bring harm, it just colors our view always, as a default. I would like to contend that qualifiers battle this self-centered arrogance, the arrogance to not see that my opinion, though internally justified in my being, might actually be wrong. Perhaps then acting upon it without fleshing out all of the sides of the argument, without seeing its complexity takes away the dignity from the human choice.
Again, why should we expect that DFW will answer the issues of abortion, when did he ever attempt to? You cannot fault an author, or an essayist for not writing an opinion on a matter. DFW wrote on what he found interesting, meaningful, relevant to everyday life, and possibly morally instructive, but the morally instructive part came from inside the object under scrutiny not external to it and in some senses, this leveled a stronger argument, which undermines Newton’s point. From the Big Red Son, I came away, if we must feel forced to talk about the practical value of any literature, which appears to be a strange assumption, feeling dirty, like I needed a shower partially because the subtly scathing criticism came from an inside view, from an attempt to not judge, to really immerse the author in the culture under investigation. To talk about the ambivalence, ambiguities, complexities, confrontations that plague these people. He humanizes everything and in doing so provides a lesson in day to day morality, not in the borderlines cases of morality that most ethical philosophers’ cannot give uncontested answers to. The lesson he gives, if a lesson must be given, is one of the complexities of human complexities, how even in the places we normally assume the worst, beats the heart of a human being we can understand and relate to, even find beauty in (the elder cop in the Big Red Son Essay).
 Similarly in his essay on vegetarianism he opts not to give his personal opinion not so as to be liked by all but because it's simply too complex a topic to confidently say one side is right and the other wrong. Instead, he forces us to confront the issue of why we choose what we choose as opposed to attempting to force us to think one way. In our world, do we not need more people like this, more people who see the multi-faceted side of all issues as opposed to those who push one path?
So perhaps, all these annoying tics are really just a smart person’s way to say, “Hey look, here is an issue I care about. It’s complicated, as is pretty much anything important in life, but it still demands our discussion. So let’s try to discuss it like friends, without resorting to simplistic argumentation, or snap judgments, let’s try to first truly understand both side of the topics and then you, as an autonomous dignified human being can draw whatever conclusion you want because that’s how we respect each others autonomy. Not by brow beating us into opinions, but by presenting the whole picture so we can then choose for ourselves.” Maybe.
I apologize for the hastiness of this post. In the next post, I hope to provide more examples of some real moral claims found both in DFW’s fiction and non-fiction, and also to hone in on some more subtle arguments Newton makes, but I believe this provides one quick answer to a reductive claim against an author who fought tooth and nail to bring morality back into literature.
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1 comment:

  1. Awesome, Joe. Your argument sounds plausible to me, even with the little I have read of DFW. I think also here, you practice what you preach.