Thursday, December 13, 2012

A R.L. Reading of Philip K. Dick

It occurred to me that it might help to provide a radical literalist reading of some works in order to better get at what and how this works as a philosophical lens or mode of thinking.  To begin with I have chosen one of my favorite science fiction authors (of which there are many), Philip K. Dick.  I think that he works particularly well for the discussion because he dealt with many of the themes that David Foster Wallace was concerned with (reality and humanity namely), and his writing is familiar to most in that so many of his stories and novels have been made into movies.

So, before I advance any further, I will warn readers that there my be some spoilers in the following post, so be aware of this if you feel that you want to read P.K.D. without having anything ruined.  I will say though that it might be impossible to ‘spoil’ Dick’s works, which hold up to multiple readings and interpretations and are just such a cool and weird experience that explaining them is akin to explaining the Grand Canyon or anything spectacular in nature that really just ‘has to be seen.’

It might be best to start with Dick’s essay “How to Build a Universe That Doesn’t Fall Apart Two Days Later” in that this essay deals with how Dick thinks of reality.  I think that this is cogent in that ‘reality’ and honesty and the literal are somehow all related.  Dick begins the essay by saying, “the two basic topics which fascinate me are ‘What is reality?’ and ‘What constitutes the authentic human being?’ (2).  Dick was concerned with authenticity and truth, both of which for him were part of what constitutes reality. 

The idea of reality in the singular was incredibly complicated for Dick, and a concept he didn’t seem to believe in at all.  First he talks about what might be going on in a dog’s head, a dog’s version of reality and that this reality is certainly different for the dog than it is for him, which leads him to believe that his reality is different from other humans.  This leads him to wonder, “If reality differs from person to person, can we speak of reality in the singular, or shouldn’t we really be talking about plural realities?” (2).  Dick is saying that reality is nothing more than a rational (or irrational as the case may be) construct made by individual human minds.  Sure, there might be what is called a ‘consensus view of reality’, that which most humans agree is real – most often what the senses can verify – but what of those things that lie beyond the senses?  Dick postulates this as a rather slap-dash definition for reality: “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away” (3).  This is nice as it goes.  I am fine with reality and belief existing separately, but this then makes me wonder if ‘belief’ is real?  This then leads me to wonder if belief is part of our inner intellectual and emotional makeup and if in turn that is capital R ‘real’?  I believe so, and I think Dick does as well, and it is this that I think radical literalism is getting at.  Belief and reality are separate, but belief is real all the same.

Discussing the concept of reality is tough, but I think it is at the heart of radical literalism.  Reality is subjective in so many ways.  Dick writes, “as soon as you begin to ask what is ultimately real, you right away begin talking nonsense” (5).  I think there is a lot of truth in this statement.  The real is formed in many ways inside of us.  We can all agree that the desk we sit at is real, or the person whom we hug at night is real, but is there a consensus on what love is or how it operates in this same real world?  It isn’t the empirical that we question or get at when we talk of the real, it is the amorphous and the intangible that we most often poke at and prod.

Dick further complicates the idea of reality by separating it from the idea of truth.  He sees reality as something that can be manipulated, “The basic tool for the manipulation of reality is the manipulation of words.  If you control the meaning of words, you can control the people who must use the words” (7).  Again, I have talked about in my blog post “Radical Literalism Succinctly Defined (Sort of)” that words themselves are metaphoric or symbolic representations of actual items, thoughts, ideas, concepts etc.  Dick is suggesting that these symbols can also be tools of manipulation and that not only do they represent reality, they can create reality.  He goes on to say, “But another way to control the minds of people is to control their perceptions.  If you can get them to see the world as you do, they will think as you do.  Comprehension follows perception” (7).  Now we have words as reality creation and reality creation as perception creation all of which serves to control.  Dick has literalized the world of words in that words now have the direct and nearly tangible power to control one’s reality.

From this we can extrapolate that Dick viewed writing as a way to make tangible and therefore literalize his own thoughts and therefore his own reality, which in turn augments the reality of his readers.

It might help to think of Dick’s writing in terms of feedback loops.  Negative feedback loops look to maintain homeostasis, or an even equilibrium, which then causes a pendulum swing as systems attempt to find balance towards a central set point.  For Dick this oscillation might be produced by one simple question: “what is reality?” (2), with ‘reality’ operating as the set point or spot at which equilibrium is attained.  What Dick does that is interesting, though, is not to attempt to create, or portray a negative feedback loop, but instead to create works that employ positive feedback loops, which add amplification away from the target or set point. He says, “Our memories are spurious, like our memories of dreams; the blanks are filled in retrospectively.”  He does not trust memories, which, it might be argued, are one of the prime builders of reality (especially in non-fiction writing).  He goes on to say that not only are memories filled in, but also that they are “falsified”, which means, “We have participated unknowingly in the creation of a spurious reality, and then we have obligingly fed it to ourselves.  We have colluded in our own doom”, which then makes us, “victims of [our] own product” (7).  This is a negative feedback loop in that we, as humans, have a set point for what it is we conceive to be reality, and we then doctor or “fill in” out past, our memories, to suit that notion, which then takes us closer to the set point. Normally we, as humans and readers, tend to try and get closer to reality.  So, taking reality as the set point, a positive feedback loop, such as those Dick builds in his texts, would tend to swing or oscillate further and further away from this.  This is why Dick’s stories tend to feel less and less real as they go on. 

It seemed that for Dick it was easier to get at notions of reality by looking closely at the unreal via positive feedback loops. Dick says that, “I like to build universes which do fall apart” (4) so, again, we can see that he was working with positive feedback loops in that he wanted his stories to progress further from the set point of reality.  The implication here being that he starts his stories with moments or in places recognizable enough to readers to feel real, and then he goes about tearing these places apart in order to question reality – Dick is questioning what is real by taking a close look at what we normally think of as clearly unreal. 

In the short story “I Hope I Shall Arrive Soon”, Dick creates a character named Victor Kemmings who is in a “homeostatic device” which is showing a “malfunction” (455). What Dick does with this is to create a situation in which it is not the physical condition of Victor that is in trouble, but it is his consciousness that is in danger.  The danger is that he will be “conscious for ten years”, which means that the ship’s computer will have to “feed” Victor “sensory stimulation” (456). There has been a disassembly where the body and consciousness are now separate.  So what Dick does here is to literalize the concept or idea that the mind and body can exist separately.  Instead of intellectualizing the concept, Dick literally pulls Victor’s mind out of his body and places it in the control of his ship’s onboard computer’s matrix.

In A Scanner Darkly a drug called Substance D operates to literally disassemble user’s identities as well. In the book Fred, the story’s protagonist, finds that he needs to reassure himself of his identity as his drug use continues, “When you get down to it, I’m Arctor” (168).  He goes on to lament, “I’m slushed; my brain is slushed” (168).  Fred here is starting confuse his own identity with his undercover persona, that of Arctor.  Substance D has created a rift in Fred and he is starting to come apart.  Later, during an examination by psychologists, Fred/Arctor is told that his brain is sending “two signals that interfere with each other by carrying conflicting information” (208).  The psychologists go on to say, “bilateral function is not mere duplication; both percept systems monitor and process incoming data differently…one tells you one thing, the other another” (210).  The suggestion here is that both Arctor and Fred are becoming real; the split is becoming literal and not just perceived (or mis-perceived).  Fred’s/Arctor’s brain is split in two, and each half encapsulates a personality, each of which inform, spy upon, and question the other.  The psychologists say of this, “It is as if one hemisphere of your brain is perceiving the world as reflected in a mirror.  Through a mirror.  See? So left becomes right, and all that that implies” (212). It is at this point that he receives a final moniker: Bruce.  This new persona (Bruce) is the result of a complete disassembly of the original Fred persona.  Not only has the original persona come apart, but also now Bruce, the nearly catatonic leftover personality, has no sense of reality any more.  Bruce is the result of two competing realities both of which contradict the other resulting in a deep sense that nothing is real.  Dick is talking about the dangers of drugs, which have the ability to change the ways in which people construct reality and the ways people perceive the world.  He does this by literalizing the split in personality, by literalizing disconnection and disassembly.

While many of Dick’s stories and novels employ a positive feedback loop-like structure to get at notions of reality, Dick seemed to fear that in society these problems operated more like a recursive feedback loop, which is to say that drugs and technology feed into the ways humans behave, which in turn feeds back into the ways that people manufacture both drugs and technology, all of which is like a snake eating its own tale.  Dick says of all the detrimental recursive loop-like aspect of technology that,
the problem is a real one, not a mere intellectual game.  Because today we live in a society in which spurious realities are manufactured by the media, by governments, by big corporations, by religious groups, political groups – and the electronic hardware exists by which to deliver these pseudo-worlds right into the heads of the reader, the viewer, the listener (3).
He sees reality as something that can be ‘manufactured’ and his concern is that individuals, or maybe even humans as a whole, are not the one’s doing the manufacturing, but instead that reality is being determined by outside forces, whether those forces are corporate, the media, or other. 


Science fiction is a great vehicle for the radically literal.  It allows for the creation of landscapes and ‘realities’ that recontextualize reader’s senses.  Science fiction writers aren’t relegated to talking about alienation as a concept, they can simply plant an alien (from another world or system) into our world; in other words, they can create a literal alien.  This is essentially the plotline of The Man Who Fell to Earth and Starman and a host of others.

In Answer to Some Thoughtful Questions

I was recently asked some questions in regards to what I have put forth in my discussion of radical literalism that I think might help to push the conversation forward.  I was asked, “How does radical literalism operate to be constructive?” and “What is the difference between postmodern metanarrative and inner metanarrative?” and “What does it mean to say that, ‘we can not escape irony’?”  These are important questions, but I am not sure that I have an easy answer for each individually.  What I can and will do is to have a larger conversation that I hope will address the general nature of these questions and hopefully provide answers that are if not succinct then at least not overly ambiguous.

I have already covered some of the ways in which I think radical literalism operates, but I suppose that I haven’t talked specifically how I think that it offers something constructive.

Since this entire venture is predicated on the work of David Foster Wallace, I think it best to turn again to his writing.  The first feature of radical literalism is the ‘single entendre’, the expression of sentiment without irony (or postmodern irony at least) and with sincere intent.  In a word: honesty.

For starters let us take a look at Wallace’s article (later bookified) titled: “McCain’s Promise.”[1]  In the very beginning of the book (I should say that for anybody looking to cross reference what I write here with what Wallace has written that I will be drawing from and citing from the book version of the original article which was written for Rolling Stone) Wallace has what he calls the “Optional Preface” (3).  The very title is radically literal in that he is attempting to honestly and without duplicity tell the reader that the introduction is optional, that while it has information, it is not integral to the understanding of the article in any way.  So, radical literalism is an attempt at all times to be honest.  The preface itself is riddled with this same brand of honest dialogues.  He says of the article that it is, “just meant to be the truth as one person saw it” (4).  He understands that the word ‘truth’ is loaded, or that it can only convey so much and that non-fiction can only be truth as filtered through perception – in this case Wallace’s.

Another facet of Wallace’s writing that I see really getting at the idea of honesty are his asides in footnote form.  These footnotes are often moments where he is taking great pains to provide a level of honesty to and for his readers as well as his subjects.  In the Optional Preface he includes one of these footnotes dedicated to the Rolling Stone editor letting readers know that while the editing process was tough, the editor was fair under some pretty tough constrictions (6).  We can see through this footnote that Wallace is concerned with honesty, the whole picture of events, the reader’s understanding of those events, and the people involved with those events.
He operates in almost the exact same way in his introduction to the 2007 The Best American Essays anthology of which he was the guest editor.  The first line of the introduction reads, “I think it’s unlikely that anyone is reading this as an introduction.  Most of the people I know treat Best American anthologies like Whitman Samplers.  They skip around, pick and choose…The editor’s intro is last, if at all” (xii).  We see the same attention to the reader, to audience.  He is attempting to identify the audience as well as identify with the audience.  Also, he again has a footnote dedicated to the series editor, Robert Atwan, which attempts to provide an honest depiction of the overall process of deciding what to include in the anthology and just how much of that choice is up to the guest editor.  Wallace is going through pains to give equal and fair representation to all involved.  So, I would say that honesty is part of radical literalism and specifically honesty in the form of inner metanarrative that operates to expose rather than ironically contradict one’s self.  Also, I think that honesty can be seen as constructive. 
Honesty can be constructive in criticism for instance.  Criticism often involves brands of honesty that can operate to bolster an argument or strengthen a piece of writing, even if the criticism looks to disassemble what the creator has created.  So when I talk of honesty and radical literalism’s brand of single entendre honesty, it is this that I am getting at – honesty as constructive language that looks to add to content, meaning, or purpose to a given message or work.

As for the question of how we are to escape irony, or whether that is possible, I am not sure how to proceed.  I think that it is safe to suggest that Wallace suggests that irony is “tyranny” in “E Unibus Pluram”, but what does this mean exactly to radical literalism?  When I say that we ‘can not escape irony’, something I put forth in my November post: D.F.W. and Radical Literalism, what I am really getting at is the ways in which the media operates.  We are surrounded by television, the televisual, movies, advertisements of all kinds and the list goes on.  It is this we cannot escape.  But I don’t want to sound fatalistic, which is why I provided a sort of Hebdigian reading of Wallace’s “E Unibus Pluram”, because I think that the individual can find space for revolt from hegemony in that we can simply mean what we say on a one-to-one basis.  In our inner lives there is room for honesty, for the treatment of emotions, ideas, and conceptual thought as authentic and it is here that postmodern irony has run its course. 

[1] There is a double irony here with the name in that it could mean that McCain is making a promise or that he has promise, which makes me wonder if Wallace provided the title of the article himself, or if the editors, as is usually the case, provided that for him. Following the title is the statement: “Aboard the Straight Talk Express With John McCain and a Whole Bunch of Actual Reporters, Thinking About Hope.”  This sounds much more “Wallacey” in that he is basically telling his possible readers that this article is not written by a reporter and that instead it is written by D.F.W., a well known and respected fiction and essay writer and that the ways in which he goes about writing are vastly different from the standard reporters.  Also, I should mention that there is a certain amount of irony in the fact that Wallace is aboard the “Straight Talk Express” in that is what Wallace is known for and politicians are not.  At any rate, not all irony is postmodern and deconstructive, and not all irony is dodgeable. Maybe I will talk about that at some point, but I will leave it for now.

Radical Literalism Succinctly Defined (Sort of)

While I have been writing about David Foster Wallace, and how his work has helped to define a new brand or genre or philosophical take on thinking or writing or creation, I realize that I haven’t codified specifically what radical literalism is.  That is to say that I haven’t provided a succinct definition.  I should state for honesty’s sake (since honesty seems to be a component of radical literalism) that I am not entirely sure that I can state succinctly what radical literalism is, but I will try, and then, with the help of any kindly readers who wish to post in the comments section (which I highly encourage), we can come to a consensus about how to talk about this new ‘ism’.
Radical literalism is at once defined in part by the concept of the ‘single entendre”, as well as the idea that there are truths that lie beyond simple empirical understanding.  So, for instance, thoughts, feelings, ideas, concepts, emotions, et al are now on the table for consideration as capital R “Real” and can be treated as such.  This then suggests that writers are free to write about these emotions, ideas, and the general stuff of the mind and heart at face value, or, if that doesn’t lend itself to the discussion the creator whishes to have, s/he is then able create an analogue that literalizes an amorphous, tough-to-express, or otherwise un-codified real or reality (or unreality or irreality for that matter).
Okay, there.  That is a good first attempt.  Now, let’s unpack it a bit. It might first be a good idea to put out there briefly that there is currently debate surrounding the idea that all non-fiction has to include elements of fiction as it is always and at all times filtered through the mind and voice of a singular writer.  For now, I will pause in my discussion of non-fiction as it is better suited for another posting of its own, but in order to get at what radical literalism is, it might be best to keep the fact that non-fiction is problematic as a genre in mind.
I do indeed see radical literalism as lending itself to what is now referred to as ‘non-fiction’, which is of course filled with fabrication, in that it opens the possibility of creative constructions of a metaphoric nature in order to discuss what is intangible, which would lend itself greatly to the understanding of creative non-fiction by allowing metaphor to operate freely and still be considered real or non-fiction.  Also, the title of ‘radical literalizations’ suggests that these creations be a ‘literal’ representation – that these constructions be treated as real within the writing. So, no longer would a piece of writing talk about concentric rings on water after a stone has been thrown upon a placid pool as standing in for the ripple-effect of life’s choices, but life’s choices would be the stone, the ripples are the affects.  In a radical literalist work, a man doesn’t take an inner journey, he would literally take a journey inside of himself (much like the plot of The Windup Bird Chronicle or Being John Malkovich); it is by doing this that we truly acknowledge the reality behind our human emotions, thoughts, ideas and more, which, for now, are thought of as nothing but aether and fluff and the stuff of intellectual property lawyers.
I recently read Jenny Boully’s The Book of Beginnings and Endings and I think that some of what she has to offer will help to clarify radical literalism.  The book consists of the first page of various articles or essays as well as the last.  The book calls attention through recontextualization to the importance, or lack thereof, of beginnings and endings as well as what might be the arbitrariness of middles.  At any rate, the book deals with ideas surrounding what we, as readers and humans, tend to not only believe, but believe in, including the ways in which ‘truth’ is framed and what and how we frame ‘reality’ or the ‘real’.
Much like Wallace, Boully writes with an earnestness that is at once insistent and clear, but also works hard to ensure that the reader is aware of her desire to get at what is honest, real, and true.  Throughout the book she says things like, “Believe me” (5).  She is concerned with ‘belief’.  Her book also seems to question how one goes about writing the ‘truth’, or one goes about writing in way that is emotionally honest and will be perceived by readers as such.  Boully’s book does some of the work through its very form, not only the first and last pages, but the writing style itself, which is often comprised of short and succinct sentences or statements that are hard to deny or complicate, “The publishing houses give dead authors contemporary book covers and jackets, making it seem as if these writers were still living” (7).  By offering readers statement such as these, Boully seems to be suggesting that a good place to build trust or faith between reader and writer might be with information generally regarded as fact.  It is from this foundation that she is then free to move outward to tougher to express truths.
            Another theme of the book seems to be “faith” or belief.  In a competition of empirical knowledge and that of faith Boully (seems to) suggests that there is no need to choose, that these things are inextricably tied together.  She writes, “Children live in miracles, but for the adult a miracle becomes something unbelievable” (19).  It seems that she sees adulthood as a place where the miraculous is non-belief or that what cannot be explained is interpreted through the idea of the ‘miracle’.  The idea of the miracle is then up for question: if miracles are what we use to explain non-belief, what does it mean to then believe in the idea of the miraculous?  So, we don’t believe in the event that sparked the label ‘miracle’, but we believe the miracle.  How do we express this notion in our writing and creation?
            Boully herself provides a succinct(ish) answer to this question, and a statement that might really help to get at the heart of radical literalism:
For those of you who have reservations about hope, who need more than what you may deem to be speculation, perhaps it will help if you think of possessing wings in terms of metaphor.  In other words, the representation of wings in art represents the actual wings, which in turn represent something else.  The difficulty rests in trying to convey the true meaning of metaphor.  Rather than being a comparison, metaphor serves as a representation of an actuality twice (perhaps thrice or more?) removed (33).
It is tough to unpack this, I find that I want to provide an example, but Boully has already done that with the idea or concept of wings.  I suppose, for me, the best example or way of explaining this, or the way that I have recently been thinking of how this idea of metaphor as put forth by Boully works, is to relate it to language itself.  Words, even the words I am putting to digital code right now, are nothing but metaphorical or symbolic representations of objects, thoughts, ideas, processes, emotions or a million other ‘things’ already twice removed in that they are the familiar alphabetical representations we all know but now also a series of ones and zeros.  But if I say (or type or encode) the word table, a different picture of a ‘table’ will enter your mind than the picture I develop in mine.  I don’t want to get into Socrates and Plato and their “theory of forms”, but suffice it to say, words are symbolic in nature (a third removal?).  Therefore, and I think that Boully would agree, it would be nice if we, as readers, writers, and thinkers, could then invest these symbols with some faith or belief in their ability to express something deep or profound or something that possibly lies outside of the world of words, which means that we must/can treat metaphor literally.  This means, for me at least, means a wonderful, if not drastic, shift in thinking.  What do words like “love” and “hate” mean in light of this thinking?
            Again, Boully’s writing tries to convey this.  She is constantly reaching for truth and understanding by treating ideas, whether written or otherwise, as true in a literal sense, “It was wrong of me to believe that you had invented your stories; even the alluded-to rocks were based on real rocks and so the girl whom you met in the rain, who slipped suddenly into your car to say that she had always loved you, she was true” (3).  Here we have Boully writing about another written piece that may or may not be classified as fiction (the reader is never told), but whether it is or isn’t doesn’t matter, it is the truth behind the words, which are merely symbols for that truth anyways, that matter.  In light of all of this, fiction and non-fiction can be read the same way with the same sorts of reading strategies.  As a matter of fact (no pun intended), it might be a good idea as we start to grapple with these notions, to begin by reading fiction as fact and non-fiction as fabulosa.  Boully, again, sums it up nicely and provides what might be a nice stopping point for this part of the discussion: “What a novel can accomplish that real life cannot is miraculous indeed” (21).

Sunday, November 18, 2012

A Radical Literalist Reading of D.F.W.'s "Good Ol' Neon"

Towards the end of “E Unibus Pluram” David Foster Wallace writes, “The next real literary “rebels” in this country might well emerge as some weird bunch of anti-rebels, born oglers who dare somehow to back away from ironic watching, who have the childish gall actually to endorse and instantiate single-entendre principles” (81).  He is making a case for people who actually and literally mean what they say; he wants artists and creators who, “treat of plain old untrendy human troubles and emotions in U.S. life with reverence and conviction” (81).  There is some difficulty in this in that it will be tough for those who have been inculcated, indoctrinated, and inundated with postmodern irony.  How will we know sincerity when we see it?

As I have said before, I think that the term ‘radical literalism’ describes Wallace’s project nicely, but I haven’t really gotten into what a radical literalist reading of a piece of work might look like.  So, with that, let’s start with D.F.W. himself:

Wallace wrote a story entitled “Good Ol’ Neon” that might shed some light on what single-entendre literature (or radical literalist literature) might look like, or at least one version of it.  This is a story of a man who is going to commit suicide, but, more than that, it is about the thoughts that might flow through one’s head in the moments just before death.  It takes Wallace about forty dense pages to flesh these last moments out, which suggests that in order to truly understand just a few seconds in a person’s head, it might take forty pages of dense writing or more.  Writing for the single entendre is tough work.  “Good Ol’ Neon” is also a narrative that takes place in the first person.  This first person narrative is highly self-conscious, not in the meta-narrative fashion of the postmodern, but in a way that expresses concern for transparency.  We can see this in a passage where the narrator is discussing the act of constructing his suicide note for his sister,
Even as I wrote the note to Fern, for instance, expressing sentiments and regrets that were real, a part of me was noticing what a fine and sincere note it was, and anticipated the effect on Fern of this or that heartfelt phrase, while yet another part was observing the whole scene of a man in a dress shirt and no tie sitting at his breakfast nook writing a heartfelt note on his last afternoon alive, the blondwood table’s surface trembling with sunlight and the man’s hand steady and face both haunted by regret and ennobled by resolve, this part of me sort of hovering above and just to the left of myself, evaluating the scene, and thinking what a fine and genuine-seeming performance in a drama it would make if only we all had not already been subject to countless scenes just like it in dramas ever since we first saw a movie or read a book, which somehow entailed that real scenes like the one of my suicide note were now compelling and genuine only to their participants…(175-6)
This excerpt represents only about half of the sentence.  The narrator is in a spiral of sincerity, of trying to represent something honestly and without irony or double meanings.  He wants to express his pain in a way that doesn’t pander to sentimentality, while at the same time acknowledging his awareness of how insincere honest sincerity might come across. 

This narrative is complicated even more when the narrator steps outside of it in the form of a footnote.  The footnote is a bit discursive and at the end of it is written the words “The End”.  But the story continues, or at least the words continue.  Here Wallace is exposing the falsity of endings, or at least the contrived nature of them.  The story continues (or if not the story, then the writing) to introduce a new character, that of David Foster Wallace, who “blinks in the midst of idly scanning class photos from his 1980 Aurora West J.S. yearbook” (180). But the original narrator remains in control of the narrative.  The narrator lets the readers in on the fact that Wallace is staring at a photo of a classmate who was killed in a car crash, which is how the narrator commits suicide, and is trying to imagine what must have been going through his mind.  Again we can see the story working hard to operate emotionally honest.  Wallace goes through pains, twists himself in pretzels, to work in a way that exists outside of irony.  The story is honestly concerned with empathy, with trying to feel something in a real way.

D.F.W. and Radical Literalism

David Foster Wallace’s essay, “E Unibus Pluram” is written in reaction to and Wallace’s position with postmodernism, and, more specifically, postmodern irony.  He says of irony that it is much like a “Third World rebel” coup in that, “Third World rebels are great at exposing and overthrowing corrupt hypocritical regimes, but they seem noticeably less great at the mundane, non-negative task of then establishing a superior governing alternative” (67).  Irony is great at deconstruction, but it doesn’t insert anything of positive value, nothing additive, in place of what it deposes, debunks, takes apart, or ridicules.  He goes on to say, “Make no mistake: irony tyrannizes us” (67).  He is saying that we cannot escape irony.  If this is indeed the case that would mean that everything has two meanings, the literal and the ironic, which is the equal opposite of the literal.  One can see how this might be depressing after a while.
As I have mentioned more than once in this blog, I believe that it is possible to read David Foster Wallace’s essay “E Unibus Pluram” as a manifesto, and since it is the job of a manifesto to work as a preface, it might be prudent to suggest a couple of ideas or thoughts on what to call this next iteration or mode of thinking that “E Unibus Pluram” is prefacing. 

It might be best to look at another essay from Wallace: “Some Remarks on Kafka’s Funniness from Which Probably Not Enough Has BeenRemoved”.  Wallace talks about Franz Kafka’s story “A Little Fable”.  The reason that this might be useful when thinking of what to call the next iteration is that Wallace’s remarks on Kafka offer a possible moniker.  Wallace also seems to align Kafka with the ethos/pathos presented in “E Unibus Pluram”, that is to say that he considers Kafka as embracing a brand of honesty that concurs with the “E Pluribus Unum” manifesto.

Wallace briefly talks about how he works with Kafka and his (Wallace’s) students: “You can ask [students] to imagine [Kafka’s] stories as all about a kind of door.” Then going on to say that readers of Kafka must imagine themselves as “approaching” that door and pounding on it for admittance, that we (the universal or figurative readers) are desperate to get the door to open, although we don’t know what lies beyond the door.  He then says that when the door finally opens that it “opens outward – we’ve been inside what we wanted all along” (64 - 65).  Wallace seems to think that Kafka’s stories speak in a very real way to our experience as humans.  Not a mediated version of our experience, not a mirror of who we, as humans, think we want to be, but to what is inside of us in reality.  Wallace reinforces this, saying that Kafka’s stories have “an ambivalence that becomes the multivalent Both/And logic of the, quote, “unconscious,” which I personally think is just a fancy word for soul” (64).  Wallace sees Kafka as being concerned with the “soul”, and it seems that what he, Wallace, is worried about this as well, and it is this concern that motivates “E Unibus Pluram”.

Wallace goes on to say that Kafka was “heroically sane” (64).  This might be a good, specific place to start when postulating a moniker for the next iteration because it is this sort of sanity, or call to the actual and factual that Wallace seems to embrace, claiming, “that Kafka’s funniness depends on some kind of radical literalization of truths we tend to treat as metaphorical” (64).  It is this “radical literalization” that I think works best to describe what it is that Wallace is really after.  Radical literalism is another way to suggest that one must mean what one says, that one must be brave enough to “endorse and instantiate single-entendre principles” (ibid). This term works because it fits with the pathos/ethos of “E Unibus Pluram”.  Wallace is after a way to describe and think about the next iteration of contemporary thought and that it should deal with honest literalities.[1] 

To literalize thoughts and feelings is important to Wallace.  He is not making a call to revisit or reinstitute realism, he is asking that we view as real those things that live within us, the intangible sides of ourselves, our thoughts, feelings, and ideas.  In fact, the case could be made that radical literalism opens up the door for some very symbolic uses of language.  Wallace says, “some of our most profound collective intuitions seem to be expressible only as figures of speech, that that’s why we call these figures of speech expressions” (64).  The thinking here seeming to be that our language, or the way all humans use language, is steeped in the proverbial, the metaphoric, and the symbolic; Wallace says of this, “I might invite students to consider what is really being expressed when we refer to someone as creepy or gross or say that he is forced to take shit as part of his job” (64).  If we begin to really examine what the words we use actually mean that there might be a shift in the way we think about and treat each other.  If another aspect of the manifesto is that it tries to “convince and convert” then it seems as if “E Unibus Pluram” is a rather noble manifesto, one that encourages us to treat our thoughts, ideas, and emotions as if they were literal, which then means that we can honestly examine freely our inner selves, which heretofore has been seen as wishy-washy, pedantic, and worse.  In an interview with Charlie Rose, Wallace sums this up nicely.  When asked, “What can literature do that other things can’t?” Wallace responds, “Good art can make you feel not alone.[2]

[1] As I was reading away, I found that LeClair references and interview with Wallace where he proposes “radical realism” as an alternative to “image fiction” (25).  This was a bit of a surprise to me since I am postulating that “radical literalism” should be the next iteration.  Oh well, I guess that I am not as ingenious and original as I thought.  But even if Wallace was nominating “radical realism”, I will still stick with “radical literalism” (Wallace still having coined that as well) because it feels more original and less attached to another mode or genre, besides, I can’t really afford to start over.

[2] I have no idea how to cite this.  I found the video on Youtube, and I suppose I will just provide the URL or something.  I think that my citation system is way off anyways due to these footnoted asides, which are Chicago I think, while the rest of the essay is MLA.  Oh well, I’ve done what I can.

D.F.W. and Hegemony

To get a better idea of David Foster Wallace’s concerns in “E Unibus Pluram”, I took the text of the piece and input it into a word cloud.  It is really telling:

Created by Leon Erickson with Wordle

We can see that he was concerned with television (obviously), fiction, images, watching, irony, and people – this last being maybe Wallace’s most popular topic; Wallace, in my opinion, was always most concerned with people and the human condition, which is why I think he was so interested in television’s sway on society, he was worried about what it was doing to us all, which is why it might be worth taking a look at Wallace in conjunction with Dick Hebdige’s ideas in “Subculture: The Meaning of Style” concerning hegemony in that there seems to be a direct link between Wallace’s concerns about television and hegemonic control.

Dick Hebdige says, “Subcultures represent ‘noise’: interference in the orderly sequence which leads from real events and phenomena to their representation in the media” (2481).  For Wallace, this “noise” could be said to be postmodern irony, and what he is worried about is how it has made the transition from a “real event and phenomena” to its sublimation and representation in the media.  That is to say that postmodern irony operated originally as a subculture, and “interfered” with the “orderly sequence”, and that at one point it was “real”.  The problem now, for Wallace, is its “representation”.  Maybe “representation” isn’t the right way to think of Wallace’s gripe though, because he seems to be more upset by the fact that it (“it” being postmodern irony of course) has been bodily lifted and set in place as the new norm. Subcultures create what Hebdige describes as “temporary blockage in the system” (2481), but it seems that postmodern irony as a subculture is no longer a blockage, but an integral part of the mediated system and if “E Unibus Pluram” is a manifesto, and manifestos work against previous or old ways of thinking, it is this that Wallace’s manifesto is working against.  He sees postmodernism, and its direct connection to irony, as having been not only corrupted, but co-opted and no longer a subculture at all.

The reason subcultures are thought to be disturbing is that they contest the way people ascribe identity to themselves.  Hebdige describes the disturbance in people’s perceived versions of themselves as “profoundly disorienting” (2481).  That is why subcultures, such as the punk movement, disconcert so many people – they call into question the consensus or media-controlled representational view of the human experience.  Irony is a potent weapon in the fight against these sorts of dominant discourses as, according to Wallace, it has a negative and deconstructive element, what he calls a “deadpan sneer” (49), and also irony is deeply involved with language and discourse in that irony deals with speech directly.  Irony is the act of using words in a way to convey a meaning that is opposite to that which the words mean in a literal sense[1]. 

This is important – that irony is the use of words – because as Hebdige says, “Notions concerning the sanctity of language are intimately bound up with ideas of social order” (2481).  He seems to be saying that a challenge to language, or communication, is an attack on social order.  Postmodern irony has a special ability to attack communication directly, which, at first was, if not a good thing, then at least an effective thing.  Wallace says as much, “Irony in postwar art and culture started out the same way youthful rebellion did.  It was difficult and painful, and productive” (66). But Wallace goes on to complicate this notion, saying that postmodern irony’s initial institution was, “frankly idealistic”.  He also says that postmodern irony served as a “grim diagnosis of a long-denied disease” (66) – the Wallacian idea of “disease” seeming to be a representation of America through pop-culture and media as equitable and balanced and without a fringe element.  Wallace finishes up this thought by intimating that early postmodern irony “assumed that etiology and diagnosis pointed toward a cure, that a revelation of imprisonment led to freedom” (67).  Wallace acknowledges that irony was a capable tool in the early combat of American hegemony, but that it served its purpose and, more than that, it has been co-opted by the very hegemony it once worked against.

This is the crux of the “E Unibus Pluram” manifesto: postmodern irony has not only run its course, it is now working against subculture, or at least has been adopted by mass media – television in particular – in order to “fool” or lull people into a submissive and ever-watchful populace.

Another Hebdigian connection to Wallace’s manifesto suggests that there is a certain irony at work in the sublimation of subcultures.  Hebdige says, “Style in particular provokes a double response”, much like irony’s double meaning –  (and by that I mean its literal meaning and its intended meaning, which is the opposite of its literal meaning) – the double response Hebdige mentions is this: “it is alternately celebrated (in fashion pages) and ridiculed or reviled (in those articles which define subcultures as social problems)” (2483).  So what happens is that subcultures are simultaneously revered and reviled.  They are celebrated for their fashion while at the same time heaped with derision for their apparent lack of intellectual value.  Maybe this is why postmodern irony has been absorbed.  It has the ability to do just what Hebdige locates as hegemony’s goal, to absorb, deconstruct, and re-represent that which its lens is focused on.   Hebdige describes this hegemonic move as “the simultaneous diffusion and defusion of the subcultural style” (2483), going on to say, “those young people who choose to inhabit a spectacular youth culture are simultaneously returned…to the place where common sense would have them fit” (2484).  They are “returned” in that they are labeled in a way that situates them once again in society.  Instead of a teen “punk-rocker” there is the “kid just playing dress up”.  This is what Hebdige refers to as “recuperation” (2484). 

Hebdige gives two rules for the process of “recuperation”:
(1)  The conversion of subcultural signs (dress, music, etc.) into mass produced objects (i.e. the commodity form);
(2)  The ‘labeling’ and re-definition of deviant behavior by dominant groups – the police, the media, the judiciary, (i.e. the ideological form) (2484).

It is of note that Hebdige talks about the “ideological form” since it is this that the “E Unibus Pluram” (as manifesto) is dealing with in a way.  Wallace talks about postmodern irony as having not only been converted, but as having become the new order of ideological form.  Wallace deals with television in particular in “E Unibus”, but he uses television as a representative example of society at large.  He does this by labeling American society as a “culture-of-watch[ers]”, and then goes on to draw connections to television and various forms of artistic expression that influence culture, saying, “the most interesting intercourse is between television and American literature” (41).  So, in a culture-of-watchers, television is king and that this king rules artistic expression, even literature.  Television (the king) informs us (Americans) of who we are – one of television’s goals, according to Wallace, being to act as a “mirror” (53) – and therefore it becomes the driver for how we, as humans, make sense of the world.  Wallace mentions television as being an “institutionalizing of irony” (much like what Hebdige says happens of all subcultures) which then leads to “narcissism, nihilism, stasis, loneliness” (73).  This is what “E Unibus Pluram” is railing against, an end to the double meaning and passive aggressive nature of irony.  It is a manifesto for honesty and sincerity.

[1] Here I wrote down from my own head a definition of irony then checked the O.E.D. then changed a couple of things to make sure that I was in alignment.  I don’t really think that I am paraphrasing or anything, so I didn’t cite this, but I figured I would add this footnote to cover my bases.

D.F.W. and Irony

Iannis Goerlandt in his essay “Put the Book Down and Slowly Walk Away: Irony and David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest” says, “Wallace is constantly concerned with irony” and goes on to say that irony is “a major theme of [Wallace’s] essays and interviews” (309).  This is undoubtedly true. Wallace uses the word “irony” over fifty times throughout “E Unibus Pluram”.  This is important in that Wallace associates irony with postmodernism, and we can see this in the “E Unibus Pluram” as well, he uses the term “postmodern” over fifty times and often in conjunction with the word “irony”[1]. 

For Wallace, these two concepts are inextricably intertwined. He puts forth as the “thesis” for “E Unibus Pluram” that: “irony, poker-faced silence, and fear of ridicule are distinctive of those features of contemporary U.S. culture” and that “irony and ridicule are entertaining and effective, and that at the same time they are agents of great despair and stasis” (49).  He does say that what he is most concerned with is what he calls a “subgenre” (50) of postmodernism, which he intimates is called a number of things from “post-postmodernism” to “Hyperrealism” to “Image-Fiction”, the latter being the term he seems most comfortable with, or at least settles on.  At any rate, these “sub-genres” are all informed by postmodernism.  He then goes on to talk about “irony’s aura” (54).  It can’t be said for sure whether or not Wallace is directly referencing Walter Benjamin’s idea of “aura” from “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility”, but it is highly likely.  Benjamin describes “aura” as being a work’s “uniqueness” (1056), and that this uniqueness is innate.  Wallace’s position on postmodern irony’s aura is that it “has always set the nobility of individualism against the warmth of communal being” (54).  That is to say that most people want to be individuals while at the same time wanting desperately to feel as if they belong.  He uses television advertising as an example of this. 

As a for instance (not from Wallace): Cee Lo Green singing for a 7-Up commercial, “Be free and express yourself, do what comes naturally”, followed by the catch phrase, “Be yourself, be refreshing”.  Irony’s aura at work here being that 7-Up is suggesting that the lone viewer of the commercial can express individuality by purchasing its product while simultaneously it is marketing directly to the masses.  This becomes problematic in that most contemporary art production, from literature to television, adopts the same sort of postmodern irony.

[1] Searching key words in a PDF version of “E Unibus Pluram” provided these counts.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

David Foster Wallace and Postmodernism

David Foster Wallace’s essay, “E Unibus Pluram” is written in reaction to and position with postmodernism, and, more specifically, postmodern irony.  In it Wallace says of irony that it is much like a “Third World rebel” coup in that, “Third World rebels are great at exposing and overthrowing corrupt hypocritical regimes, but they seem noticeably less great at the mundane, non-negative task of then establishing a superior governing alternative” (67).  Irony is great at deconstruction, but it doesn’t insert anything of positive value, nothing additive, in place of what it deposes, debunks, takes apart, or ridicules.  He goes on to say, “Make no mistake: irony tyrannizes us” (67).  He is saying that we cannot escape irony.  If this is indeed the case, that would mean that everything has two meanings, the literal and the ironic, which is the equal opposite of the literal.  One can see how this might be depressing after a while as we would never have a real idea of what to consider real or authentic.


It’s worth talking about the fact that many scholars try to either align Wallace with postmodernism or, alternatively, try to separate him from postmodernism. Part of this section is to point out that I am joining a conversation already in progress as well as to point out that there is a general consensus that there needs to be something after postmodernism, which then helps to bolster the claim that Wallace’s “E Unibus Pluram” can be seen as a manifesto for this next iteration.

To start with, Wallace scholar Paul Giles says of postmodernism in his essay, “Sentimental Posthumanism: David Foster Wallace” that “Postmodernism, of course, tended ideologically to reverse the premises of this authoritarian distinction between center and margin, valorizing the latter at the expense o the former” (327).  It is Giles’s contention that postmodernism is about the rural, the edges of the city, which aligns nicely with Frederic Jameson’s assertions. Giles goes on to say that Wallace “tends to flatten this distinction entirely” (327), the distinction being between the center and the margin, or high and low culture as it so often tends to play out.  Giles time and again works to separate Wallace from postmodernism, “Many of Wallace’s stories take issue explicitly with the reflexive dimensions of postmodernism” (331). Giles goes on to suggest that Wallace’s work fits much better in the “posthuman” mode of thinking, which I agree with, but only to an extent – “Posthuman” is a box that Giles seems to be forcing Wallace into, much the same way he is often forced into postmodernism, even though some of his parts don’t fit.  So he is forced to rely on works like Infinite Jest and the short story “Good Ol’ Neon”, which fit nicely, while ignoring pieces like “E Unibus Pluram”, which doesn’t.  Also, it is entirely possible to perform a posthuman reading of much of what Wallace wrote (as well as hundreds of other writers and creators), but that does not mean that Wallace was a ‘posthumanist’.  All in all though I am a big fan of this essay and agree that Wallace should be thought of as doing something that is not normally associated with postmodernism, and to lump him in with that mode of thought usually comes out of not knowing what else to do with him.

Robert L. McLaughlin adds another wrinkle to the conversation.  To start with he positions postmodernism as, “skepticism toward narrative as a meaning-providing structure” which then operates to make “opaque the process of representation” (59).  The suggestion here seeming to be that postmodernism often avers for form over content.  He then goes on to say that Wallace (among others) “implies a critique of postmodernism” (59), which, of course, I agree with.  McLaughlin ends by referring to Wallace as being part of “post-postmodernism” (66), which might sound like a rather lazy place holder for anything better, but makes sense as he concludes his argument by suggesting that Wallace et. al. are still a part of postmodernism and that their views on the subject were nothing more than a “matter of emphasis” (66).  So, rather than find a way to place Wallace in a new vein, McLaughlin just shoves him back into the postmodern box.  Ultimately this leaves me feeling unsatisfied, probably because I am a huge Wallace fan, which I readily admit to, but also because the term ‘post-postmodernism’ again creates a need to always connect what Wallace does to postmodernism in much the same way postmodernism is always attached to modernism.  The argument becomes recursive, which itself feels postmodern and isn’t that what we’re trying to escape?


Lee Konstantinou is doing some pretty interesting work on Wallace and the next iteration of thinking.  He is working on a Ph.D. dissertation for Stanford which is as of yet unfinished, but worth looking at briefly nonetheless.  He intimates that “Wallace uses metafictional form to cultivate reader belief and to short-circuit what he sees as the irony characteristic of American consumer culture” (1).  Much like this blog, Konstantinou has keyed in on Wallace’s concern with irony and, as a matter of fact, has gone so far as to put forth a name for the next generation of thought, which he says Wallace is the forerunner or progenitor of.  He dubs this next iteration “post-irony” (1).  I like this, but I doubt it will catch on (not that radical literalism will catch on!)  I think the problem lies with having to then prove that there was (or is) a form of literary or philosophical thought called “irony” that in turn spawned a spate of artistic endeavors.  I suppose the case could be made though; in writing this essay I found plenty of work on this from Albert Camus’s essay “Irony” from his book Lyrical and Critical Essays, to Giles Deleuze’s discussion of irony in The Logic of Sense.  The task is Herculean though.

I suppose that personally I don’t really like referring to what Wallace was doing as post-irony in that the label then directly links him with irony and serves to operate much like the term non-fiction, which defines the genre only by what it isn’t, but in this case by what it doesn’t want to be or is leery of.


This blog’s genesis is a school project in which we (the students in the class) were asked to think about the nature of fiction and non-fiction and where the future of each might lie.  The syllabus for the course (English 535: Anthologies, Manifestos & Subversions) reads in part: “Nonfiction is an intriguing literary animal—it has overtaken fiction in popularity, yet remains an undercriticized literary form. There is a paucity of sustained nonfiction criticism after a burst of activity around 1989-90”.  The implication here is that non-fiction is problematic in that it is sold as a literary genre, but is critiqued with few agreed upon literary generic conventions.  The syllabus goes on to say, “Many aesthetic declarations and arguments in nonfiction take place in the form of anthologies, with the tacit declarations of aesthetics implicit in the process of choice, and with the statements made openly in anthology introductions and other textual matter”.  While these ‘tacit declarations’ help to offer a consensus view of the state of the essay and the operations of non-fiction, they don’t do much in the way of codifying a cogent and workable set of generic conventions, even when taken in aggregate.  For instance, why is non-fiction defined by what it isn’t?  If it is not fiction, does that make it truthful, or is the suggestion then that it operates as a form reality and if we can have a ‘form’ of reality, what does that mean?

Photograph by Steve Rhodes under Creative Commons license.  Retrieved from
So, in response to these issues, this blog postulates (mostly for fun) the idea that David Foster Wallace offers a new way in which to view ‘non-fiction’ (the scare quotes here to suggest that I don’t have, nor will I postulate a definition for this term) and indeed many new forms of creation from music to literature to architecture et al.  This blog will explore David Foster Wallace’s essay “E Unibus Pluram” in order to set up what I am calling “Radical Literalism” as a mode of thought pioneered by Wallace.  Following this will be a series of what I hope are fun and enlightening readings of various artistic endeavors through a Wallacian lens.