The hubbub prompted me to dig up something I wrote last summer, a response to “Another Thing to Sort of Pin on David Foster Wallace,” Maud Newton's essay about DFW’s writing tics and their negative influence on other writers. Oh, it really stuck in my craw. Actually, it made me furious. And then it made me marvel that I still had the capacity to get furious about that sort of thing. As I get older, I find it increasingly hard to care about stuff, just in general.
I let it sit for so long because it felt very DFW 101. But in reading it today for the first time since August, I realized it’s less a response to some lady’s (misguided! ridiculous!) argument about an important writer’s legacy, and more a tribute to this dead stranger whose each and every “um” made me feel less alone.
***To me, nothing’s more gross and gimmicky and intellectually dishonest than a critic who faults an artist for what they do best. In a recent piece for NYT Magazine, Maud Newton decries David Foster Wallace’s use of phrases like “sort of” and “um” in his essays. Not only do these colloquial fillers obscure the author’s own arguments, she says, but they also have infected the blogosphere with a rampant sort of word-diarrhea that is clouding our thoughts and dumbing down the discourse.
Newton seems to see the blogosphere as a sprawling work of DFW fan non-fic, a sweeping generalization that strikes me as descriptive and useful, if odd and incorrect:
In the Internet era, Wallace’s moves have been adopted and further slackerized by a legion of opinion-mongers who not only lack his quick mind but seem not to have mastered the idea that to make an argument, you must, amid all the tap-dancing and hedging, actually lodge an argument. Visit some blogs—personal blogs, academic blogs, blogs associated with some of our most esteemed periodicals—to see these tendencies writ large. … The ‘sort ofs’ and ‘reallys’ and ‘ums’ and ‘you knows’ that we use in conversation were codified as the central connectors in the blogger lexicon. We weren’t just mad, we were sort of enraged.
In 2011, it’s just silly to talk about blogs as a coherent collective, but I have to admit that to do so seems truthy. Like Wallace’s work, the blog world is vast, confessional, conversational, and fueled by associative intelligence. In fact, it seems possible the whole dang Internet is actually just DFW’s brain in a vat.
Even the casual fan can imagine how DFW, were he alive, might go about making a case for using “sort of enraged” over “mad,” including the footnote where he points out that if NYT Magazine sees fit to publish constructions like “further slackerized,” blogs ain’t the only place where the thought police need to crack down. DFW’s deployment of colloquial qualifiers is nothing if not careful and precise, whether his endgame is meaning or effect.
But that’s him, and we’re us. Newton is right to remind us that the bloggers who have co-opted “sort of”-speak don’t have the brilliant minds of DFW. Heaven knows “Not being David Foster Wallace” ranks high on my personal inventory of deficiencies as a writer. And I don’t know any bloggers who expect to receive a genius grant anytime soon, though someone should really nominate Gabe at Videogum.
Are we bloggers all just lazy parrots that want to sound chummy and clever at the same time? Maybe! But I would like to cast this chamber of echoes in a more charitable light by positing that bloggers and DFW share a similar mission: creating a spirit of community by engaging with the world around them.
Postmodernism is the science of subjectivity, and as such many people talk about it in terms of individual identity: I (and, to a lesser extent, he and she). And that’s if you’re lucky—there are those who believe that consciousness itself is complex and incoherent and fractured, even at the level of personality.
The postmodern dilemma can be summed up something like this: countless factors (known and unknown, real and imagined) contributed to my decision to wear this shirt today. If it is impossible to untangle the cause and effect of an action so banal as that, well, good luck trying convey the inchoate snarl of emotions you feel about something that actually matters to your own mysterious self (selves?), much less to some alien Other.
Some postmodernists see their task as broadcasting this inscrutable “I” as best they can to all the other inscrutable beings in the world. Writers and readers are satellites and aliens that happen to be floating in the same inky space; there is no collective, no room for “we” or for “us.”
Interestingly, DFW saw his task as exactly the opposite, suggesting that postmodernism is a means of connecting yourself with all the dots outside your orbit. Ideas should not so much emanate from the self as push past it; there is only the collective and its constellations of meaning. Only “us.”
Yeah, that was clunky. I guess there’s no need to apologize since we’ve already established I’m not DFW. Fortunately, describing how postmodernism can—must—make sense of the world in terms of the “we” is something the big guy himself described in his commencement speech to the students of Kenyon College in 2005:
A huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded. Here's one example of the utter wrongness of something I tend to be automatically sure of: Everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe, the realest, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely talk about this sort of natural, basic self-centeredness, because it's so socially repulsive, but it's pretty much the same for all of us, deep down. It is our default-setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth. Think about it: There is no experience you've had that you were not at the absolute center of. The world as you experience it is right there in front of you, or behind you, to the left or right of you, on your TV, or your monitor, or whatever. Other people's thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real -- you get the idea. But please don't worry that I'm getting ready to preach to you about compassion or other-directedness or the so-called "virtues." This is not a matter of virtue -- it's a matter of my choosing to do the work of somehow altering or getting free of my natural, hard-wired default-setting, which is to be deeply and literally self-centered, and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self.
People who can adjust their natural default-setting this way are often described as being "well adjusted," which I suggest to you is not an accidental term.
Given the triumphal academic setting here, an obvious question is how much of this work of adjusting our default-setting involves actual knowledge or intellect. This question gets tricky. Probably the most dangerous thing about college education, at least in my own case, is that it enables my tendency to over-intellectualize stuff, to get lost in abstract arguments inside my head instead of simply paying attention to what's going on right in front of me. Paying attention to what's going on inside me. As I'm sure you guys know by now, it is extremely difficult to stay alert and attentive, instead of getting hypnotized by the constant monologue inside your own head (may be happening right now). Twenty years after my own graduation, I have come gradually to understand that the liberal-arts cliché about "teaching you how to think" is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: "Learning how to think" really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed.
Bloggers—the good ones—set for themselves the same task, practicing a sort of rigorous analysis that applies not just to the world they dissemble and judge, but also to the very lens used to accomplish that work. Which is where all those riffs—what Newton might call “folksy equivocating”—come into play.
However you wish to cast the language we find in DFW’s work or on blogs—the colloquial qualifiers and fillers like “sort of” and “really” and “um”—the fact is that not every argument worth making can be unpacked in a way that’s straightforward or even sincere. The plain questions and plain answers that Newton seeks seem boring and soulless at best, reductive and lazy at worst. For example, to assert (as Newton does) that a dead writer talked like a plebe in order to make more imaginary friends is, to my mind, presumptuous and condescending.
Sometimes I worry there is something deficient and uncharitable about my age group’s love affair with irony. I suspect it’s a product of growing up in the 80s, when pretty much everything was ridiculous. My demographic loves clever irony (Morrissey), nostalgic irony (90210), peculiar irony (Wes Anderson), wholesome irony (Gilmore Girls), and magical irony (Gob Bluth). But while irony can be layered and rich and satisfying, it’s also always a little dishonest.
Sincerity is a much harder sell. The harsh truth is that pretty much anyone can be situationally lame when you hold him or her up to the light. I love Sufjan Stevens, but can I defend those butterfly wings he wore on that one tour? No. No, I cannot. But occasionally, I tire of viewing our shared cultural references through jaundiced eyes. I yearn for something I can love with a pure heart.
David Foster Wallace is that rare breed of earnest that stands up to all scrutiny. To read his voice as ironic and detached is not a mistake; it’s a tragedy.
If DFW is the spiritual father of pop-culture blogs, it’s because he showed us that our smartest thoughts can be about stupid things. He showed us that equivocation can be a strength instead of a weakness; that, in fact, anyone who is 100 percent sure about their own beliefs is probably sort of a jerk. These are invaluable lessons for those of us who traffic in opinions. Which is to say all of us—everyone—not just bloggers or writers.
And that's DFW's real legacy, beyond all the "ums" and "you knows": he showed us how to craft clever, critical, funny, snarky, and self-aware commentary about the weird wide world with a real spirit of generosity, always extending the benefit of doubt.
He makes us believe we deserve it.