Sunday, November 18, 2012

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.

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