Both Flesh And Not

Excerpts from Both Flesh And Not
by David Foster Wallace

The Empty Plenum

The empty diffraction of the world can map or picture the desacralized & paradoxical solipsism of U.S. persons in a cattle-herd culture that worships only the Transparent I, of guiltily passive solipsists & skeptics trying to warm soft hands at the computer-enhanced fire of data in an Information Age where received image & enforced eros replace active countenance or sacral mystery as ends, means value, Etc. The familiar bitch & moan…

The Nature of Fun

It has something to do with Work as Play. Or with the discovery that disciplined fun is more fun than impulsive or hedonistic fun. Or with figuring out that not all paradoxes have to be paralyzing. Under fun’s new administration, writing fiction becomes a way to go deep inside yourself & illuminate precisely the stuff you don’t want to see or let anyone else see, & this stuff usually turns out (paradoxically) to be precisely the stuff all writers & readers share & respond to, feel. Fiction becomes a weird way to countenance yourself & to tell the truth instead of being a way to escape yourself or present yourself in a way you figure will be maximally likable. This process is complicated & confusing & scary, & also hard work, but it turns out to be the best fun there is.
The fact that you can now sustain the fun of writing by confronting the very same unfun parts of yourself you’d first used writing to avoid or disguise is another paradox, but this one isn’t any kind of bind at all. What it is is a gift, a kind of miracle, & compared to it the reward of strangers’ affection is as dust, lint.

Rhetoric and the Math Melodrama

It may be that mathematics is not generally recognized as one of the arts precisely because so much pyramidal training & practice is require in order to appreciate its aesthetics; math is perhaps the ultimate in acquired tastes.
It’s worth noting that as so much contemporary poetry, classical music , etc. becomes ever more abstract & involute & technically complex, their own audiences get ever smaller & more specialized. With very few exceptions, the people who truly “appreciate” a piece of language-poetry or an atonal fugue are people with extensive educations in the history & theory of these arts. And this increasing exclusivity in the U.S. arts has much less to do with good old “cultural elitism” than with our era’s tendency toward greater & greater specialization—it is not at all an accident that the majority of people that read contemporary poetry are themselves contemporary poets.  

Fictional Futures and the Conspicuously Young

It’s true that there’s something sad in the fact that the sole description of some characters consists of the fact that their shirts say “Coca-Cola” in a foreign language—yet maybe more sad is that, for most of their reading contemporaries, this description does the job. This distaste seems misplaced: it’s more properly directed at young culture so willingly bombarded with messages equating what one consumes with who one is that brand loyalty is now an acceptable synecdoche of identity, of character.
This schism between young writers & older critics probably extends to the whole issue of strategic reference to “popular culture” in literary fiction. The artistic deployment of pop icons—brand names, television programs, celebrities, commercial film & music—strikes those intellectuals whose consciousness as formed before the genuine Television Age as at best frivolous tics & at worst dangerous vapidities that compromise fictions’ “seriousness” by dating it out of the Platonic Always where it properly resides. A fine & conscientious writing professor once proclaimed to our class that a serious story or novel always eschews “any feature that serves to date it,” to fix it in history, because “literary fiction is always timeless.” When we protest that, in his own well-known work, characters moved about in electrically lit rooms, propelled themselves in autos, spoke not Anglo-Saxon but post-WWII English, inhabited a North America already separated from Africa by continental drift, he amended his rulings application to those explicit references that would date a story in the transient Now. Pressed by further quibbling into real precision, he interdiction turned out really to be against what he called the “mass-commercial media” reference. At this point, I think , transgenerational discourse breaks down. For this gentleman’s automobiled Timelessness and our FCC’d own were different. Time had changed always.

It’s not as though television & advertising & popular entertainments have ceased to be mostly ‘bad art’ or ‘cheap art’ but just that they’ve imposed themselves on our generation’s psyches for so long & with such power that they’ve entered into complicated relations with our very ideas of the world & the self. We simply cannot “relate to” the older aesthete’s distanced distaste for mass entertainment & popular appeal: the distaste may well remain, but the distance does not.
And, as pop informs our generation’s ways of experiencing & reading the world, so too will it naturally affect our artistic values & expectations. Young fiction writers may spend hours each day at the writing table, performing; but we’re also, each & every day, part of the great Audience. We’re conditioned accordingly. We have an innate predilection for visual stimulation, colored movement, a frenetic variety, a beat you can dance to. It may be that, through hyper- & atrophy, our mental capacities themselves are different: the breadth of our attentions greater as attention spans themselves shorten. Raised on an activity at least partly passive, we experience a degree of manipulation as neutral, a fact of life. However, wooed artfully as we are for not just our loyalty but our very attention, we reserve for that attention the status of a commodity, a measure of power; & our choices to bestow or withhold it carry for us great weight. So does what we regard as our God-given right to be entertained—or, if not entertained, at least stimulated: the unpleasant is perfectly OK, just so long as it rivets.
As one can see popular icons seriously used in much Conspicuously Young fiction as touchstones for the world we live in & try to make into art, so one might trace some of the techniques favored by many young writers to roots in our experience as consummate watchers. E.g., events often refracted through the sensibilities of more than one character; short, dense paragraphs in which coherence is often sacrificed for straight evocation; abrupt transitions in scene, setting, point of view, temporal & causal orders; a surfacy, objective, “cinematic” third-person narrative eye. Above all, though, a comparative indifference to the imperative of mimesis, combined with an absolute passion for narrative choices that conduce to what might be called “mood.” For no writer can help assuming that the reader is on some level like him: already having seen, ad nauseum, what life looks like, he’s far more interested in how it feels as a signpost toward what it means.