A Critique of David Foster Wallace: Part Two: A Supposedly Fun Thing That I Will Never Do Again / “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction” / “Getting Away from Already Being Pretty Much Away from It All” / “David Lynch Keeps His Head”

An Analysis of A SUPPOSEDLY FUN THING THAT I WILL NEVER DO AGAIN (David Foster Wallace) by Joseph Suglia

I have written it before, and I will write it again: Writing fictionally was not one of David Foster Wallace’s gifts.  His métier was, perhaps, mathematics.  David Foster Wallace was a talented theorist of mathematics, it is possible (I am unqualified to judge one’s talents in the field of mathematics), but an absolutely dreadful writer of ponderous fictions (I am qualified to judge one’s talents in the field of literature).

Wallace’s essay aggregate A Supposedly Fun Thing that I Will Never Do Again (1997) is worth reading, if one is an undiscriminating reader, but it also contains a number of vexing difficulties that should be addressed.  I will focus here upon the two essays to which I was most attracted: “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction” and “David Lynch Keeps His Head,” a conspectus on the director’s cinema from Eraserhead (1977) until Lost Highway (1997).  Wallace seems unaware of Lynch’s work before 1977.

In “E Unibus Pluram,” Wallace warmly defends the Glass Teat in the way that only an American can.  He sees very little wrong with television, other than the fact that it can become, in his words, a “malignant addiction,” which does not imply, as Wallace takes pains to remind us, that it is “evil” or “hypnotizing” (38).  Perish the thought!

Wallace exhorts American writers to watch television.  Not merely should those who write WATCH television, Wallace contends; they should ABSORB television.  Here is Wallace’s inaugural argument (I will attempt to imitate his prose):

1.) Writers of fiction are creepy oglers.
2.) Television allows creepy, ogling fiction writers to spy on Americans and draw material from what they see.
3.) Americans who appear on television know that they are being seen, so this is scopophilia, but not voyeurism in the classical sense. [Apparently, one is spying on average Americans when one watches actors and actresses on American television.]
4.) For this reason, writers can spy without feeling uncomfortable and without feeling that what they’re doing is morally problematic.

Wallace: “If we want to know what American normality is – i.e. what Americans want to regard as normal – we can trust television… [W]riters can have faith in television” (22).

“Trust what is familiar!” in other words.  “Embrace what is in front of you!” to paraphrase.  Most contemporary American writers grew up in the lambent glow of the cathode-ray tube, and in their sentences the reader can hear the jangle and buzz of television.  David Foster Wallace was wrong.  No, writers should NOT trust television.  No, they should NOT have faith in the televisual eye, the eye that is seen but does not see.  The language of television has long since colonized the minds of contemporary American writers, which is likely why David Foster Wallace, Chuck Klosterman, and Jonathan Safran Foer cannot focus on a single point for more than a paragraph, why Thomas Pynchon’s clownish, jokey dialogue sounds as if it were culled from Gilligan’s Island, and why Don DeLillo’s portentous, pathos-glutted dialogue sounds as if it were siphoned from Dragnet.

There are scattershot arguments here, the most salient one being that postmodern fiction canalizes televisual waste.  That is my phrasing, not Wallace’s.  Wallace writes, simply and benevolently, that television and postmodern fiction “share roots” (65).  He appears to be suggesting that they both sprang up at exactly the same time.  They did not, of course.  One cannot accept Wallace’s argument without qualification.  To revise his thesis: Postmodern fiction–in particular, the writings of Leyner, DeLillo, Pynchon, Barth, Apple, Barthelme, and David Foster Wallace–is inconceivable outside of a relation to television.  But what would the ontogenesis of postmodern fiction matter, given that these fictions are anemic, execrably written, sickeningly smarmy, cloyingly self-conscious, and/or forgettable?

It did matter to Wallace, since he was a postmodernist fictionist.  Let me enlarge an earlier statement.  Wallace is suggesting (this is my interpretation of his words): “Embrace popular culture, or be embraced by popular culture!”  The first pose is that of a hipster; the second pose is that of the Deluded Consumer.  It would be otiose to claim that Wallace was not a hipster, when we are (mis)treated by so many hipsterisms, such as: “So then why do I get the in-joke? Because I, the viewer, outside the glass with the rest of the Audience, am IN on the in-joke” (32).  Or, in a paragraph in which he nods fraternally to the “campus hipsters” (76) who read him and read (past tense) Leyner: “We can resolve the problem [of being trapped in the televisual aura] by celebrating it.  Transcend feelings of mass-defined angst [sic] by genuflecting to them.  We can be reverently ironic” (Ibid.).  Again, he appears to be implying: “Embrace popular culture, or be embraced by popular culture!”  That is your false dilemma.  If you want others to think that you are special (every hipster’s secret desire), watch television with a REVERENT IRONY.  Wallace’s hipper-than-thou sanctimoniousness is smeared over every page.

Now let me turn to the Lynch essay, the strongest in the collection.  There are several insightful remarks here, particularly Wallace’s observation that Lynch’s cinema has a “clear relation” (197) to Abstract Expressionism and the cinema of German Expressionism.  There are some serious weaknesses and imprecisions, as well.

Wallace: “Except now for Richard Pryor, has there ever been even like ONE black person in a David Lynch movie? … I.e. why are Lynch’s movies all so white? … The likely answer is that Lynch’s movies are essentially apolitical” (189).

To write that there are no black people in Lynch’s gentrified neighborhood is to display one’s ignorance.  The truth is that at least one African-American appeared in the Lynchian universe before Lost Highway: Gregg Dandridge, who is very much an African-American, played Bobbie Ray Lemon in Wild at Heart (1990).  Did Wallace never see this film?  How could Wallace have forgotten the opening cataclysm, the cataclysmic opening of Wild at Heart?  Who could forget Sailor Ripley slamming Bobbie Ray Lemon’s head against a staircase railing and then against a floor until his head bursts, splattering like a splitting pomegranate?

To say that Lynch’s films are apolitical is to display one’s innocence.  No work of art is apolitical, because all art is political.  How could Wallace have missed Lynch’s heartlandish downhomeness?  How could he have failed to notice Lynch’s repulsed fascination with the muck and the slime, with the louche underworld that lies beneath the well-trimmed lawns that line Lynch’s suburban streets?  And how could he have failed to draw a political conclusion, a political inference, from this repulsed fascination, from this fascinated repulsion?

Let me commend these essays to the undiscriminating reader, as unconvincing as they are.  Everything collected here is nothing if not badly written, especially “Getting Away from Already Being Pretty Much Away from It All,” a hipsterish pamphlet about Midwestern state fairs that would not have existed were it not for David Byrne’s True Stories (1986), both the film and the book.  It is my hope that David Foster Wallace will someday be remembered as the talented mathematician he perhaps was and not as the brilliant fictioneer he certainly was not.

Joseph Suglia

 

 

IN MEMORIAM TO IDENTITY by Kathy Acker / An Analysis of IN MEMORIAM TO IDENTITY by Kathy Acker

 

An Analysis of In Memoriam to Identity (Kathy Acker) by Joseph Suglia

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE FACTS ON FILE COMPANION TO THE AMERICAN NOVEL

Resonating with the title of Kathy Acker’s most mature work, In Memoriam to Identity (1990), is the notion that the self is inseparable from its own becoming-other, from the forms that it assumes and the masks that it dons.  The book serves as a series of largely disconnected epitaphs to a discarded concept of identity—that is, to “identity” conceived as transcendental and substantialized subjectivity that would endure unchanged through time and exist a priori independently of all relations to the other.  What Acker’s book suggests, in a manner that seems disjointed and even at times haphazard, is that personal identity is based on the exposure to the other person that is revealed by sexuality (the final and perhaps most significant word of the book).

Three cycles of narrative intersect with each other: 1.) A willfully anachronistic and reconstructive transcription of Rimbaud’s biography (broken off arbitrarily when Acker grew disgusted with the poet’s imperialist conversion) interspersed with references to AIDS and postmodernist theorist Jean Baudrillard (here decried as a cynic), deliberate mistranslations of Rimbaud’s verse, and intentionally unacknowledged citations from Büchner, Lautréamont, and Artaud—members of the counter-tradition of subversive literature within which Acker would like to insert herself.  Of foremost importance to her is Rimbaud’s impassioned relationship to Verlaine, who is compelled to choose between a socially unacceptable liaison with the boy and his responsibilities as a father, husband, and member of the bourgeoisie.  The narrative is set against the background of the Franco-German War of 1870.  According to the logic of Acker’s repoliticization, the Germans appear as yuppies who wage a ceaseless battle against the unemployed and arrogate to themselves services that only they can afford.

2.) A narrative oriented around Airplane, a young girl who exists in a relationship of absolute dependency to her rapist (later nominated as her “boyfriend”)—a relationship that mirrors, despite Acker’s own self-interpretive claims, Rimbaud’s relationship to Verlaine.  She is inexorably driven to dance at a strip club.

3.) A transformative replication of Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury that concerns the sexually voracious Capitol, who is erotically obsessed with her brother Quentin.  Her goal, to couple with every man in the world, is the indirect endeavor to achieve sexual congress with her brother, the only man who matters to her.  Capitol is the pure desire to consume men, the will to conquer through copulation; she generalizes her male sexual partners to the point at which they are reduced to nothing.  Because Capitol can never remember any of the men with whom she couples (and does not exercise any discrimination in her choices), she not only erases these men as individual human beings: By eliding all memory, she effectively destroys her Self as an identity that would persist through time.  She “herself,” a female Don Giovanni (and this is the joint that links her narrative to the Rimbaud section), is “No One”: non-identical with herself; “she” is a multiple series of drives to overcome men through sexuality.

4.) “The Wild Palms” alternates successively between the narrative of Airplane and that of Capitol; both narratives are sutured together in counterpoint (this is a Faulknerian practice).

To love, in each context, is to demolish and shape one’s personal history.  The work is an extended, productive commentary on Rimbaud’s dictum, “Je suis un autre,” “I am an other.”  The most productive point of departure for an analysis of this work would be the first narrative, which concerns this dictum most directly.  Rimbaud longs to free himself not merely from the self that he is and has been, but from the stability of identity in general: “I want to die” [21].  He desires “to wake inside someone else’s skin” [23] (a direct translation from Rimbaud’s correspondence), and this self-transformation is only possible by way of a relation to the other human being: “Human flesh needs human flesh. Because only flesh is value” [27].  And later: “I’m waiting! I’m waiting for what I want! A certain type of life which I call LIFE.  So far I haven’t been able to get there because I need another person, V, and what’s happened and is still happening between me and V is nothing, ****… I want blood” [28].  Rimbaud prefers “the vulnerability of real identity” to the bourgeois self (a pre-existing self that would be identical to itself).  R’s identity is, strictly speaking, a non-identity: He is a multiple series of selves rather than the self-sameness of the unique self that would come before all others.  His desire to become other-than-himself, to be exteriorized as his own double, is inextricably bound to his relation to V.  Identity is both constituted and destroyed by the sexual relation.

It is a relation that gives rise to the most intense experience of pain.  Sexuality is not absolute communion, the fusion of the self and the Other, but rather absolute loneliness: What is most distinctive about the sexual relation is the absence of all bonds between the persons involved.  Whereas R’s relationship to V is one of submission, fragility, and addiction, the latter’s relationship to the former is something that could be reduced to a moral decision (Verlaine is able to choose between Rimbaud and his responsibilities as a husband, father, and member of civil society).  One witnesses a certain dissymmetry in the relation between R. and V. in scene after scene of this work.  What marks their rapport is the fact that this relation is unequal and without a future.  The hopelessness of the relation belongs to it essentially and defines both of its members.  Love becomes, as well, synonymous with coercion, the penetration of rape, and the agony of torture: “R’s consciousness of his love for V was a torture rack” [62].  R hates to desire V.  He desires V because he hates V, because V is killing him.  As Rimbaud says to his mentor African Pain: “I need what you’re doing to me because it’s only pain and being controlled which’re going to cut through my autism.  Because it’s pain you give me I love you” [5].  Acker’s “Rimbaud” is inescapably drawn to Verlaine because of the pain that the latter inflicts upon him.  He discovers love through pain and this is the only experience that would allow him to “demolish” “identity” [18] altogether: “There’s no way out but death or consciousness… Break the heart’s dead ice. He knew that the habitual self had to be broken” [16].

When V. withdraws from R’s life altogether in order not to be named a “homosexual,” R accedes to another relation.  It is at this point that R renounces poetry and pronounces poetry’s end—though one cannot assign a precise date, August 1873, for instance, to this renunciation and pronouncement—and is transformed utterly: “Each person has the possibility of being simultaneously several beings, having several lives” [92].  It is not as if Rimbaud discarded his past self as if it were an old shell and entered into a new one (that of an arms dealer and ivory trader).  What is affirmed is the essential instability and uncertainty of all identity: that the “I” is already the “Non-I.”

The renunciation of poetry corresponds precisely to the renunciation of Verlaine and what he represents: the self-sameness of subjectivity conceived as substance.  Such is Acker’s implicit explanation of R’s alleged “silence”—which was not a form of silence at all, but the accession to another order of writing.  It is not merely the case that R has broken with his past self and is transmuted into an imperialist (such is a conclusion that Acker has rejected).  He enters into an experience in which the self is continually annihilated and reformed, an experience in which the self proliferates into a series of duplicable selves or non-selves.  R’s narrative ends with the affirmation of an other consciousness: not a new consciousness that would supersede one that would come before it, but a consciousness that is always entirely other-than-itself.  R’s apparent renunciation of poetry, mistyped as his “silence,” was, in fact, a phenomenological turn toward the experience of the self as an other.

All of Acker’s work is severely flawed and In Memoriam to Identity is no exception.  But these flaws are tied to the success of her densely individuated style.  Acker’s bad writing (and carelessness is in evidence here—I have seldom read a book with more typographical and syntactical errors) might be read, charitably, as a mark of her biblioclasm, of her refusal to fashion a well-crafted masterpiece that would be accepted within the canon of traditional literary history.  Unfortunately, the stylization of the narrative is not immune to this practice.  The description of the relationship between R and V is, I’m afraid, only intermittently compelling and tends to veer toward mere compilation and summary of biographical data.  The deadpan repetition of “facts” from R’s life denies any pathetic identification on the part of the reader.  This, in itself, would not be disturbing if pathos were not what In Memoriam to Identity were all about.  The work is most impressive when Acker gives herself over to the desire, however juvenile, to shock her audience and approximates the punk sensibility of her vastly inferior early novel Blood and Guts in High School (1980), while bringing to the work a far greater intelligence.  And yet the work lacks the critical naivete that made Acker’s early writing (relatively) powerful.  Most troubling in this regard are the frequent intrusions of Acker the Professor and Literary Theorist into the space of the narrative.  Everything proceeds as if the author had surfeited herself with postmodern theory to the point at which she could only write narratives fraught with savvy, self-interpretive statements.  She anticipates the interpretation of her work in the hands of her informed readership.  In Memoriam to Identity thus takes on the strange appearance of a book that reads itself.

Joseph Suglia