Sunday, September 14, 2008

More thoughts on DFW

Before I head off to work today, I feel compelled to get down some further thoughts re:DFW.

It's comforting to read all over the web so many eloquent thoughts on the meaning of DFWs work and his importance in the lives of so many readers. Since I first read the news last night I've been thinking about why his work had such strong resonance for me and his other fans. In my last post I quoted an article which referred to his "maniacal energy" and his "exuberant experimentalism," and these characteristics made his writing a blast to follow. But I think at the core of his perspective there was a quiet outrage at our predicament, softened by a sympathy for us feeble creatures who seem only to sink deeper into this morass.

It's a central theme in Infinite Jest, he addresses it directly in "E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction," and also in his 2005 Kenyon Commencement Address. I'd argue it's an implicit theme in "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again," and many of his other works. The predicament as I refer to it is of two parts: our placation and our obfuscation. We are encouraged by forces all around us to remain blissfully ignorant in our "default" mode.

The "default" mode is reinforced by the bombardment (from the media, advertisers, and culture in general) by stimuli, stimuli specifically designed and engineered with the effect, often intentionally, to sabotage our capacity for critical thinking. Our "default" status is as non-thinking addicts of one sort or another.

From the 2005 Kenyon Address:
If you're automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won't consider possibilities that aren't annoying and miserable. But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options.
In the "default" setting, we are pleased to be sheep, which is sad in proportion to the amount that it prevents enlightenment. We are too often not only just sheep, but arrogant sheep.

I think at the core of DFWs voice is a profound melancholy over the ubiquity of this stimuli and the trap that it presents not only for us as culture consumers and he as a culture provider, but for all of us as citizens. In his introduction to the 2007 edition of "The Best American Essays," he gives this swirling, ubiquitous stimuli a name: "Total Noise."
Here's an overt premise. There is just no way that 2004's reeelection could have taken place - not to mention extraordinary renditions, legalized torture, FISA-flouting, or the passage of the Military Commissions Act - if we had been paying atention and handling information in a grown up way. 'We' meaning as a polity and a culture.

. . .It's amazing to me that no one much talks about this - about the fact that whatever our founders and framers thought of as a literate, informed citizenry can lo longer exist, at least not without a whole new modern degree of subcontracting and dependence packed into what we mean by "informed."

. . .[in reference to an essay contained in the collection] That last one's of especial value, I think. As exquisite verbal art, yes, but also as a model for what free, informed adulthood might look like in the context of Total Noise: not just the intelligence to discern one's own error or stupidity, but the humility to address it, absorb it and move on and out therefrom, bravely, toward the next revealed error. This is probably the sincerest, most biased account of 'Best' your Decider [a double reference to DFW as the editor of the collection, in contract to the other Decider, GWB] can give: these pieces are models - not templates, but models - of ways I wish I could think and live in what seems to me this world.


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