Friday, April 22, 2011

Concentrated Deskwork by David Foster Wallace

At one point Ms. Neti-Neti herself apparently got confused or distracted, and opened the wrong door, and in the wedge of light before she could push the heavy door closed again I caught a glimpse of a long room filled with IRS examiners in long rows and columns of strange-looking tables or desks, each of which (desks) had a raised array of trays or baskets clamped to its top, with flexible-necked desk lamps clamped at angles to these fanned-out trays, so that each of the IRS examiners worked in a small circle of light at what appeared to be the bottom of a one-sided hole. [These were Tingle tables, an Examinations convention with which I became all too familiar – although no one I ever talked to knew the origin of “Tingle”, as whether it was eponymous, or sardonic or what.]

Row after row, stretching to a kind of vanishing point near the room’s rear wall, in which there was incised another door. The most striking thing about it was the quiet. There were at least 150 men and/or women in that room, all intently occupied and busy, and yet the room was so silent that you could hear an imperfection in the door’s hinge as Ms. Neti-Neti pushed it closed against the force of its pneumatic strut. This silence I remember best of all, because it was both sensuous and incongruous: For obvious reasons, we tend to associate total quiet with emptiness, not with large groups of people. The whole thing lasted only a moment… [but] I reverberated from the sight of all those intent, totally silent examiners for quite a while.

Here is probably an apt place for some exposition on my background re: silence and concentrated desk work. In hindsight, I know that there was something about the silent, motionless intensity with which everyone in that opened door’s instant was studying the tax-related documents before them that frightened and disturbed me. The scene was such that you just knew that if you were to open the door for another brief instant ten, twenty, or forty minutes later, it would look and sound just the same. I had never seen anything like it. Or rather I had, in a way, for of course television and books often portray concentrated study or deskwork just this way, at least by implication. As in e.g. “Irving knuckled down and spent the entire morning plowing through the paperwork on his desk’; ‘Only when she had finished the report did the executive glance at her watch and see that it was nearly midnight. She had been completely absorbed in her task, and was only now aware that she had worked through supper, and was famished. Gracious, wherever did the time go? She though to herself.’ Or even just as in ‘He spent the day reading.’

In real life, of course, concentrated deskwork doesn’t go this way. I had spent massive amounts of time in libraries; I knew quite well how deskwork really was. Especially if the task at hand was dry or repetitive, or dense, or if it involved reading something that had no direct relevance to your own life and priorities, or was work that you were doing only because you had to –like for a grade, or part of as freelance assignment for pay from some lout who was off skiing.

The way hard deskwork really goes is in jagged little fits and starts , brief intervals of concentration alternated with frequent trips to the men's room, the drinking fountain, the vending machine, constant visits to the pencil sharpener, phone calls you suddenly feel are imperative to make, rapt intervals of seeing what kinds of shapes you can bend a paperclip into, & c. This is because sitting still and concentrating on just one task for an extended lengthy of time is, as a practical matter, impossible.

If you said, ‘I spent the whole night in the library, working on some client’s sociology paper,’ you really meant that you’d spent between two or three hours working on it and the rest of the time fidgeting and sharpening and organizing pencils and doing skin- checks in the men’s room mirror and wandering around the stacks opening volumes at random and reading about, say, Durkheim’s theories of suicide

There was none of this diffraction in the split-second view of the room, though. One sensed that these were people who did not fidget, who did not read a page of, say, dull taxpayer explanation about the deduction of some item and then realize that they’d actually been thinking about the apple in their lunchbag and whether or not to maybe eat the apple right here and now until they realized that their eyes had passed over all the words (or, given the venue here, perhaps columns of figures) on the page without actually having read them at all – with read here meaning internalized, comprehended, or whatever we mean by really reading vs. simply having one’s eyes pass over symbols in a certain order. Seeing this was kind of traumatic.

I’d always felt frustrated and embarrassed about how much reading and writing time I actually wasted, about how much I sort of blinked in and out while trying to absorb or convey large amounts of information. To put it bluntly, I had felt ashamed about how easily I got bored when trying to concentrate.

As a child, I think I’d understood the word concentrate literally and viewed my problems with sustained concentration as evidence that I was an unusually dilute or disorganized form of human being [46], and had laid much of the blame for this on my family, who tended to need a lot of loud noise and distraction going on at all times and undertook almost every kind of activity with every available radio, stereo, and television set on, such that I’d taken to wearing special high-filter customized earplugs at home from the age of fourteen on.

It took me all the way up to the age of finally getting away from Philo and entering a highly selective college to understand that the problem with stillness and concentration was more or less universal and not some unique shortcoming that was going to prevent me from every really rising above my preterite background and achieving something. Seeing the enormous lengths that those elite, well-educated undergrads from all over the nation went to to avoid, delay, or mitigate concentrated work was an eye-opening experience for me. In fact, the school’s social structure was set up to prize and esteem students who could pass their classes and assemble a good transcript without ever working hard. People who skated by, doing the absolute minimum required for institutional/parental approval, were regarded as cool, while people who actually applied themselves to their assignments and to the work of their own education and achievement were relegated to the status of ‘grinds’ or ‘tool’, the lowest caste in the college’s merciless social hierarchy [47].

The upshot, though, was that up until entering college, where everyone often lived and did homework together in plain mutual view, I’d had no opportunity to realize that fidgeting, distraction, and frequent contrived breaks were more or less universal traits. In high school, for example, homework is literally that – it’s done at home, in private, with earplugs and KEEP OUT signs and a chair jammed up underneath the knob. Same with reading, working on journal entries, tabulating one’s accounts from a paper route, &c. You’re with your peers only in social or recreational settings, including classes, which at my own public high school were academic jokes. In Philo, educating yourself was something you had to do in spite of school, not because of it – which is basically why so many of my high school peers are still here in Philo even now, selling one another insurance, drinking supermarket liquor, watching television, awaiting the formality of their first cardiac…

[47]…It was either Acquistipace or Ed Shackleford, whose ex-wife taught high school, who observed that what was then starting to be codified as ‘test anxiety’ may well really have been an anxiety about timed tests, meaning exams or standardized tests, where there is no way to do the endless fidgeting and self-distraction that is part of 99.9 percent of real people’s concentrated deskwork. I cannot honestly say whose observation it was; it was part of a larger discussion among younger examiners and television and the theory that America had some vested economic interest in keeping people over-stimulated and unused to silence and single-point concentration. For the sake of convenience, let’s assume it was Shackleford. His observation was the real object of crippling anxiety in ‘test anxiety’ might well be a fear of the tests’ associated stillness, quiet, and lack of time for distraction. Without distraction, or even the possibility of distraction, certain types of people feel dread – and it’s this dread, not so much as the test itself, that people feel anxious about.

A Matter of Difficult and Dangerous Belief by Michael Montaigne (1533-1592)

I follow Saint Augustine’s opinion, that a man were better to bend towards doubt, than incline toward certainty, in matters of trial and dangerous belief.

Some years are now past that I traveled through the country of a Prince who, in favor of me, and to abate my incredulity, did me the grace, in his own presence, and in a particular place, to let me see ten or twelve prisoners of that kind; and amongst the others there was an old beldam witch, a true and perfect sorceress, both by her ugliness and deformity; and such a one as long before was most famous in that profession.

I saw both the proofs, witnesses, voluntary confessions, and some other insensible marks about this miserable old woman; I inquired and talked with her a long time, with the greatest attention I could, yet I am not easily carried away by preoccupation. In the end, and in my conscience, I should rather have appointed Helleborum [a cure], than Hemlock [a punishment]. Captisque res magis mentibus, quam consceleratis similis visa. ‘ The matter seemed liker to minds captivate than guilty.’

That privilege it hath pleased God to give some of our testimonies, ought not to be vilified, or slightly communicated but mine ears are filled with a thousand such tales. Three saw her such a day in the East; three saw her the next day in the West, at such an hour, and in such a place, and this and thus attired, verily in such a case I could not believe myself. How much more natural and more likely do I find it, that two men should lie than one, in twelve hours, pass with the winds, from East to West? How much more natural that our understanding may by the volubility of our loose-capering mind be transported from his place or that one of us should by a strange spirit be carried on a broom through the tunnel of a chimney?

Touching the oppositions and arguments against my opinions that honest men made unto me, both there, and often elsewhere, I have found none that tie me yet, admit that mine is not always a more likely solution than their conclusions. True it is that proofs and reasons grounded upon fact and experience I untie not for indeed they have no end but I often cut them, as Alexander did his knot although when all is said and done it is an over-valuing of one’s conjecture to by them cause a man to be burned alive.

I am neither a Judge, nor a counselor unto kings, very far from any such worthiness, but rather a man of the common stamp and both by my deeds and sayings, born and vowed to the obedience of public reason. He that should register my humors to the prejudice of the simplest law, or opinion, of custom of this village, would greatly wrong himself, and injure me as much. For in what I say, I gape for no other certainty, but such as was then my thought. A tumultuous and wavering thought. It is by way of discourse only that I speak at all and nothing by way of advise. Nec me pudet, ut istos, fateri nescire, quod nesciam. ‘Nor am I shamed, as they are to confess I know not that which I do not know.’

Many abuses are engendered into the World; or to speak more boldly, all the abuses in the World are engendered upon this, that we are taught to fear to make profession of our ignorance, and are bound to accept and follow all that we cannot refute, We speak of things by precepts and resolutions but I am drawn to hate likely things when men go about to set them down as infallible. I love, on the other hand, those words and phrases which mollify and moderate the temerity of our propositions" "It may be', 'Peradventutre', 'In some sort', 'Some', 'It is said', "I think' and such like and I have been a teacher I would have put this manner of answering in their mouths, inquiring and not resolving: 'What means it?', 'I understand it not', 'It may well be' that they should have rather kept the form of learners until three score years of age than present themselves Doctors at ten, as many do. There is some kind of ignorance strong and generous that for honor and courage is not beholding to knowledge: an ignorance which to conceive rightly there is required no less learning than to conceive true learning.

I would not be so hardy to speak, if was your duty to believe me: and so I answered a great man who blamed the sharpness and contention of my exhortations. When I see you bent and prepared on one side, with all the endeavor I can, I will propose the contrary to you, to resolve and enlighten your judgment but not to subdue and bind the same. God hath your hearts in his hands, and he will furnish you with a choice. I am not so malapert as to desire that my opinions alone to give sway to a matter of such important. My fortune has not raised them to so powerful and deep conclusions.

Truly, I have not only a great number of complexions, and an infinite many of opinions from which, had I a son of my own, I would dissuade him, willingly make him to distaste them. What? If the truest are not ever the most commodious for man, he being of so strange and untamed composition: whether it be to the purpose or from the purpose, it is no great matter.

"Of the Lame and Crippled", Florio's Montaigne, Third Book, Chapter 11. edited and abridged.

Monday, April 18, 2011

The Novel by Richard Rorty

Given the immense influence the novel has come to have in recent times, it is hard for us the remember that such writers as Milton and Spinoza, Dr. Johnson and Hume, Burke and Kant, were familiar with only a few, rather primitive, examples of this genre. The burgeoning of the novel in the 19th and 20th centuries has altered the the map of the Western intellectual world and it has done so in ways that the philosophers and literary critics of the 17th and 18th century could never have foreseen.

The emergence of the novel has contributed to a growing conviction among intellectuals that when we think about the effects of our actions on other human beings we can simply ignore a lot of questions that our ancestors traditionally thought relevant. These include Euthyphro’s question about whether our actions are pleasing to the gods, Plato’s question about whether they are dictated by a clear vision of the Good, and Kant’s question about whether their maxims can be universalized. Instead, a decision about what to do should be determined by as rich and full a knowledge of other people as possible – in particular-, knowledge of their own descriptions of their actions and of themselves. Our actions can be justified only when we are able to see how these actions look from the points of view of those affected by them.

Most novels tell us how other erring mortals think of themselves, how people quite unlike ourselves contrive to put the actions that appall us in a good light, how they give meaning to their miserable or tragic or banal lives. The problem of how to live our own lives then becomes a problem of how to balance our needs against theirs, and their self-descriptions against ours. To have a more educated, developed and sophisticated moral outlook is to be able to grasp more of these needs, and to understand more of these self-descriptions.

I have said previously that religion, in its unphilosophized form, resembles the novel in that it attempts to put us in relations to persons which are not mediated by questions of truth. The relation between a pious but uneducated Athenian of the 5th century and one of the Olympian deities, like that between an illiterate Christian and Christ, is an attempt to find redemption by getting in touch with a special, very powerful, immortal, sort of person. As Nietzsche said in The Birth of Tragedy, that sort of search for redemption becomes tinted with questions of truth only when Socrates, “with his belief in the explicabality of the nature of things,” suggests that “the mechanism of making concepts, judgments and inferences is to be prized above all other human activities.” The search becomes philosophical only after people like Socrates and Euripides have taken a skeptical stance towards the gods, a stance that Homer, and perhaps Aeschyles, would have been incapable of adopting.

The big difference, however, between religious worship and novel-reading is that immortals are the object of adoration or self-abnegating love or fearful obedience, rather than people in whose shoes we are trying to put ourselves. As soon as we begin to want to understand the gods, or to make Christianity or Buddhism reasonable, religion begins to fade away and be replaced by philosophy. That is why Martin Luther described such attempts at reasonableness as diabolical temptations and why Kierkegaard described them as occasions of sin. But novels rarely offer us god-like heroes and heroines, to whom our reaction resembles that of religious believer towards deities ( though some, of course, do – Superman comic books and the fantasies of Ayn Rand, for example.)

Obviously, the novel is not the only literary genre which helps us achieve a more developed and sophisticated moral outlook. Homer’s epics, Herodotus’s travelogues, Thucydides’s history, Theophrastus’s characterology, and Plutarch’s biographies did this sort of work in the ancient world, supplemented by such primitive fictions as those of Petronius and Apuleius. In our own time, ethnography, historiography, and journalism continue to broaden our sense of the possibilities open to human lives. But the novel is the genre which gives us most help in grasping the variety of human life and the contingency of our own moral vocabulary.

Novels are the principle means which help us imagine what it is like to be a cradle Catholic losing his faith, a redneck fundamentalist taking Jesus into her heart, a victim of Pinochet coping with the disappearance of her children, a kamikaze pilot of the Second World War living with the fact of Japan’s defeat, a bomber pilot who dropped fire-bombs on Tokyo coping with the moral price of America’s victory, or an idealistic politician coping with the pressures that multinational corporations bring to bear on the political process.

Novel-reading often increases tolerance for the strange, and initially repellent, sorts of people. But the motto of the novel is not “to understand all is the forgive all.” Rather, it is “Before you decide that an action was unforgivable, make sure that you know how it looked to the agent.” You may well conclude that it was indeed unforgivable, but the knowledge of why it was done may help you avoid committing actions that you yourself will later find unforgivable. That is why reading a great many novels is the process by which young intellectuals of our time hope to become wise. This hope is the same that drove young intellectuals of the 17th and 18th centuries to read a great many religious and philosophical treatises.

Philosophers and theologians today who are dubious about the idea that novels are important for education think one can answer moral questions by saying, for example, “all children of God Matter” or “all rational agents matter” or “all those affected by our actions matter.” But questions always arise about whether infidels count as the children of God, or the densely ignorant or stupid as rational agents, or whether we are justified in being paternalistic towards those who do not grasp their own best interest. An increasing sense of the vacuity of general formula for deciding hard cases leads us away from philosophy and towards literary forms that tell us more about that these recalcitrant sort of people look like to themselves.

I can sum up much of what I have been saying as follows: people read religious scriptures and philosophical treatises to escape from ignorance of how non-humans things are, but they read novels to escape from egotism. “Egotism”, in the sense in which I am using the term, does not mean “selfishness”, it means something more like “self-satisfaction”. It is a willingness to assume that one already has all the knowledge necessary for deliberation, all the understanding of the consequences of a contemplated action that could be needed, It is the idea that one is now fully informed, and thus in the best possible position to make the correct choices.

Egotists who are inclined to philosophize hope to short-circuit the need to find out what is on the mind of other people. They would like to go straight to the way things are ( to the will of God, or moral law, or the nature of human beings) without passing through other people’s self-descriptions. Religion and philosophy have often served as shields for fanaticism and intolerance because they suggest that this sort of short-circuiting has actually been accomplished. Novel-readers, by contrast, are seeking redemption from insensitivity rather than from impiety or irrationality. They may not know or care whether there is a way things really are, but they worry about whether they, are sufficiently aware of the needs of others. Viewed from this angle, the hegemony of the novel can be viewed as an attempt to carry through Christ’s suggestion that love is the only law.

The person who hopes to render more confident moral judgments as the result of the study of religious or philosophical treatises is usually hoping to find a principle that will permit of application to concrete cases, for an algorithmm that will resolve moral dilemmas. But the person who hopes for greater sensitivity just wants to develop the know-how that will let him make the best of what is always likely to be a pretty bad job – a situation in which people are likely to get hurt, no matter what decision is taken…

”Redemption from Egotism: James and Proust as Spiritual Exercises”, 2001, by permission of the Estate of Richard Rorty.[The Rorty Reader]

Sunday, April 17, 2011

The Pale King by David Foster Wallace

Past the flannel plains and blacktop graphs and skylines of canted rust, and past the tobacco-brown river overhung with weeping trees and coins of sunlight through them on the water downriver, to the place beyond the windbreak, where untilled fields simmer shrilly in the A.M. heat: shattercane, lamb’s-quarter, cutgrass, sawbrier, nutgrass, jimsonweed, wild mint, dandelion, foxtail, muscadine, spine-cabbage, goldenrod, creeping Charlie, butter-print, nightshade, ragweed, wild oat, vetch, butcher grass, invaginate volunteer beans, all heads gently nodding in a morning breeze like a mother’s soft hand on your cheek. An arrow of starlings fired from the windbreak’s thatch. The glitter of dew that stays where it is and steams all day. A sunflower, four more, one bowed, and horses in the distance standing rigid and still as toys. All nodding. Electric sounds of insects at their business. Ale-colored sunshine and pale sky and whorls of cirrus so high they cast no shadow. Insects all business all the time. Quartz and chert and schist and chondrite iron scabs in granite. Very old land. Look around you. The horizon trembling, shapeless. We are all of us brothers.

Some crows come overhead then, three or four, not a murmur, on the wing, silent with intent, corn-bound for the pasture’s wire beyond which one horse smells at the other’s behind, the lead horse’s tail obligingly lifted. Your shoes’ brand incised in the dew. An alfalfa breeze. Socks burrs. Dry scratching inside a culvert. Rusted wire and tilted posts more a symbol of restraint than a fence per se. NO HUNTING. The shush of the interstate off past the windbreak. The pasture’s crows standing at angles, turning up patties to get at the worms underneath, the shapes of the worms incised in the overturned dung and baked by the sun all day until hardened, there to stay, tiny vacant lines in rows and inset curls that do not close because head never touches tail. Read these.