The Pale King – Chapter 19

Dear Dave,

I remember it well: I had recently received my invitation to present my paper at the ‘Work in Process’ Conference in Antwerp, and I was spending every spare moment reading and annotating my copy of The Pale King.[1]  I took the book everywhere; on this particular day it was to the beach near Ventura Harbor.  We were meeting some friends there to let our kids play in the sand and water while we parents talked and enjoyed the beautiful weather.

After lunch, as the kids were hauling buckets of muddy sand up from the water’s edge to their sand castle spot, and as we watched seagulls dive-bomb unattended picnic baskets, I took a seat in my beach chair to continue plowing through the thicker-than-my-Bible unfinished novel.

And while sitting there, I turned the page to begin reading § 19.  Now, I typically stay out of political conversations and I guess I have just grown to be jaded and cynical like the rest of my generation.  But I do appreciate common sense, and I love to listen to those who just tell it like it is.  So my pen was going crazy as I kicked into speed-reading mode, devouring the words on the page.

As I revisited the chapter this week, I quickly realized there was nothing really to say that you haven’t already said better.  So instead of writing about and responding to the section, I thought it would be best to simply copy some of my favorite quotes and let them speak for themselves.

So here it goes:

‘There’s something very interesting about civics and selfishness, and we get to ride the crest of it. Here in the US, we expect government and law to be our conscience. Our superego, you could say. It has something to do with liberal individualism, and something to do with capitalism, but I don’t understand much of the theoretical aspect—what I see is what I live in. Americans are in a way crazy. We infantilize ourselves. We don’t think of ourselves as citizens—parts of something larger to which we have profound responsibilities. We think of ourselves as citizens when it comes to our rights and privileges, but not our responsibilities. We abdicate our civic responsibilities to the government and expect the government, in effect, to legislate morality. I’m talking mostly about economics and business, because that’s my area’ (130).

‘It may sound reactionary, I know. But we can all feel it. We’ve changed the way we think of ourselves as citizens. We don’t think of ourselves as citizens in the old sense of being small parts of something larger and infinitely more important to which we have serious responsibilities. We do still think of ourselves as citizens in the sense of being beneficiaries—we’re actually conscious of our rights as American citizens and the nation’s responsibilities to us and ensuring we get our share of the American pie. We think of ourselves now as eaters of the pie instead of makers of the pie. So who makes the pie?’ (136).

‘Something has happened where we’ve decided on a personal level that it’s all right to abdicate our individual responsibility to the common good and let government worry about the common good while we all go about our individual self-interested business and struggle to gratify our various appetites’ (136).

‘What my problem is is the way it seems that we as individual citizens have adopted a corporate attitude. That our ultimate obligation is to ourselves. That unless it’s illegal or there are direct practical consequences for ourselves, any activity is OK’ (137).

‘I think the syndrome is more the not-voting one, the I’m-so-small-and-the-mass-of-everyone-else-is-so-big-what-possible-difference-does-what-I-do-make, so they stay home and watch Charlie’s Angels instead of going to vote’ (139).

‘This is a kind of ghastly irony, if you think about it, since a form of government engineered to produce equality makes its citizens so individualistic and self-absorbed they end up as solipsists, navel-gazers’ (141).

‘De Tocqueville’s thrust is that it’s in the democratic citizen’s nature to be like a leaf that doesn’t believe in the tree it’s part of.’

‘What’s interesting in a depressing way is that tacit hypocrisy—I, the citizen, will keep buying big gas-guzzlers that kill trees and tickets for The Exorcist until the government passes a law, but then when the government does pass a law I’ll bitch about Big Brother and getting the government off our back.’ ‘See for instance the cheat-rate and the appeals percentage after audit’ (141).

‘It probably does start with Rousseau and the Magna Carta and the French Revolution. This emphasis on man as the individual and on the rights and entitlements of the individual instead of the responsibilities of the individual. But corporations and marketing and PR and the creation of desire and need to feed all the manic production, the way modern advertising and marketing seduce the individual by flattering all the little psychic delusions with which we deflect the horror of personal smallness and transience, enabling the delusion that the individual is the center of the universe, the most important thing—I mean the individual individual, the little guy watching TV or listening to the radio or leafing through a shiny magazine or looking at a billboard or any of the million different daily ways this guy comes into contact with Burson-Marsteller’s or Saachi & Saachi’s big lie, that he is the tree, that his first responsibility is to his own happiness, that everyone else is the great gray abstract mass which his life depends on standing apart from, being an individual, being happy’ (144).

‘I don’t think the American nation today is infantile so much as adolescent—that is, ambivalent in its twin desire for both authoritarian structure and the end of parental hegemony’ (147).

‘You can see where it’s going. The extraordinary political apathy that followed Watergate and Vietnam and the institutionalization of grass-roots rebellion among minorities will only deepen. Politics is about consensus, and the advertising legacy of the sixties is that consensus is repression. Voting’ll be unhip: Americans now vote with their wallets. Government’s only cultural role will be as the tyrannical parent we both hate and need. Look for us to elect someone who can cast himself as a Rebel, maybe even a cowboy, but who deep down we’ll know is a bureaucratic creature who’ll operate inside the government mechanism instead of naively bang his head against it the way we’ve watched poor Jimmy do for four years’ (147).

‘The way adolescents make a big deal of rebelling against parental authority while they borrow the keys to Daddy’s car and use Daddy’s credit card to fill it with gas. The new leader won’t lie to the people; he’ll do what corporate pioneers have discovered works far better: He’ll adopt the persona and rhetoric that let the people lie to themselves’ (149).

We’ll have a tyranny of conformist nonconformity presided over by a symbolic outsider whose very election depended on our deep conviction that his persona is utter bullshit. A rule of image, which because it’s so empty makes everyone terrified—they’re small and going to die, after all—’

‘Christ, the death thing again.’

‘—and whose terror of not really ever even existing makes them that much more susceptible to the ontological siren song of the corporate buy-to-stand-out-and-so-exist gestalt’ (149).

Well said, my friend.  Well said.

[1] To be completely honest, I had written my proposal purely on conjecture.  I had not yet read TPK, but I had read enough about it to have a general idea of its plot* and characters and themes.  I put together some ideas that touched on those themes and made connections to some of your other works I had read, enough to write an intelligent-sounding 500-word proposal.  For at least the first half of the book, I have a sometimes overwhelming sense of dread that I would finish the book and realize that the thesis in my abstract would not actually be defendable.  Somewhere around the “Irrelevant” Chris Fogle chapter, I began to breathe a little easier.

*I would argue, as I have before, that the novel really has no definitive plot.  It has a lot of back stories and character development.  But plot, not so much.

A Really Fun Thing I’d Love to Do Again – Day 4

Friday, September 23, 2011

For the second time during this adventure I was jolted awake at too late an hour.  The combination of jetlag, pure exhaustion, and a tiny Benadryl tablet resulted in approximately ten hours of much-needed, very deep sleep.  Some unknown noise in the hallway startled me awake and set my heart to racing.  My heart rate then doubled its already quickened pace when I saw that it was 9:15am.  The morning’s first speaker was set to take to the podium in about fifteen minutes.  I shot off a quick email to Toon to let him know I was running late, took a very quick shower, grabbed a piece of bread from the breakfast buffet on my way out of the hotel lobby, and walked as quickly as I could to the University.

Unfortunately I missed the first presenter entirely[1] and walked into the lecture hall through the back door partway through Allard den Dulk’s presentation.  The themes he touched on – mostly centered around choosing what to pay attention to – were similar to the ones I presented, but he approached them from a more philosophical angle.  Allard’s adding Kierkegaard to the equation gave me a lot more to think about in terms of my own thesis, as well as gave me more food for thought for my Wallace-and-religion ideas.  Adam Kelly and I talked about these ideas during the lunch break.  He said that in pursuing this train of thought, I absolutely need to read Kierkegaard.

After lunch, Emily Hagg spoke on the topic of self-hood and politics, making connections between §19 and the Chris Fogle story.[2]  Emily made an interesting connection between the self and politics in observing that Fogles misses his politics class when he stumbles into the accounting class that would change his life forever.  Equally interesting was her connection between Meredith Rand’s story to Shane Drinion and the civics discussion in §19.  Just as Meredith’s soon-to-be husband’s health deteriorates as she becomes more self-aware and self-absorbed,[3] so does our political health deteriorate as we citizens become more self-absorbed.

This session’s second speaker, Tore Rye Andersen, spoke on Wallace’s writing as a whole, and his essay, “E Unibus Plurum” and TPK in particular, as a response to postmodern literature.  Tore argued that Wallace committed a form of patricide as he broke away from the stylings of his postmodern predecessors to focus on literary sincerity rather than postmoderism’s trademark irony.

The second panel of the afternoon was of particular interest to me as both Conley Wouters and Matt Barillo spoke on the use of information and technology in both Infinite Jest and The Pale King.  Conley made and intriguing point regarding the defining of one’s self in relation to information and technology.  Our humanity, Conley argued, comes in part from our ability to ask questions.  In this sense, Lane Dean, Jr. loses part of his humanity when he loses that ability in his job as an IRS wiggler.

Matt referenced heavily the writings of philosopher Mark Poster who argues that technology is stealing our humanity.  He applied Poster’s arguments to IJ and TPK to show how digital media is removing the self from our sense of identity, and that the more digital the communication and information, the less attention we give it.  Probably the best example of this from TPK is the “split identity” of the “author” David Wallace.  The HR computer system can’t reconcile two employees with the same names, so it merges their identities, causing the mix-up when David Wallace the “author” arrives at the Peoria Processing Center.

I sought out Matt during the break to discuss his ideas further with him with my back-burner Engaging the Media project in mind.  The ideas he presented about the digitized identity were particularly fascinating and would have to be explored further when I get back to rewriting my book.  We talked about how the digital age and rapidly advancing technology are having a huge impact on the current generation of teens and kids who have never known a world without digital media, and therefore define relationships and even their own identities in very different terms from older generations who came to digital media later in life.  The break time seemed all too short as I wanted to continue to pick his brain and learn more about Mark Poster’s ideas, but it was time to go back into the lecture hall for the final keynote address.

Dr. Marshall Boswell, arguably one of the top experts in Wallace studies, took to the podium, promising that despite having everyone take and present his material, he would have something new to contribute to the discussion.  His reading of the text had been a purely historical and political one, arguing that Wallace wrote the book in large part to show us the long-term consequences of the Reagan-era tax cuts and economic policies.  Equally important to this political and economic criticism was Wallace’s criticism of our society’s apathy to our civic responsibility, drawing our attention once again to the discussion of civics in §19.  The apathy and boredom that plague the wigglers in the text also plague us in our attitudes toward politics and civic duty.  Additionally, his paper was peppered with anecdotal examples pointing to the seemingly prophetic nature of Wallace’s final novel.  As he was writing the paper, his news feed was filled with story after story that seemed to jump right off the pages of TPK.  The civics discussion has just as much relevance today as it did in the mid-80s during which the story is set.

Marshall’s presentation concluded an incredible conference.  Being the conference virgin I was going into it, I had nothing to compare it to, but others kept saying that this was by far the best Wallace conference to date.  It was great to see the interconnectedness amongst all our papers and ideas.  And the on-going conversations during the coffee breaks and in the cafes after the conclusion of each day’s proceedings were great.  Everything about the conference proved to be so much more than I could have ever hoped.

I walked out of the lecture hall with ideas for new research and a renewed passion to continue my reading and writing of Wallace.  The conference also left me with a desire to continue in this world of academia.  Since my master’s program was all online, it lacked – and I didn’t realize it until now – the wonderfully stimulating conversation that I had found during these past two days.  There is no substitute for conversation about great literature over coffee or drinks.  Although I don’t think I’ll ever have the chance to go back to school for a Ph.D.,[4] I felt so at home amongst this group of academic scholars.[5]

Shortly after Toon’s closing remarks, several of the participants had to rush off to catch planes and trains to get back home,[6] but the rest of us decided to make our way back over to the old town area to continue our conversations over drinks at one of the cafes.  We enjoyed several hours of wonderful fellowship over a couple rounds of beers.[7]  Particularly memorable was Marshall’s story of his correspondence with Wallace to ask some questions as he wrote his book, Understanding David Foster Wallace.  He received a handwritten letter from Wallace in response to his inquiry with very thoughtful answers to his questions.[8]  He said he never met Wallace in person, but was very grateful for the time and thought that Wallace put into the letter.

The conversation turned to teaching stories as we all recounted run-ins with difficult[9] students.  It seemed that each of us – whether it was my experiences in the high school classroom, or Marshall’s experiences in creative writing classes, or Brittany’s experiences as an RA in the dorm – has had a moment in which we’ve wanted to tell a student, “You are being a f***ing idiot.”[10]

After several hours and several more rounds of drinks, we all decided we were very hungry and that it would be wise to put food into our stomachs before having any more alcohol, so we wandered over to a little Greek restaurant a few blocks away.  We ordered several platters of food to share amongst the group, and then waited… and waited… and waited for it to arrive.  The food was delicious, but 90+ minutes was an awful long time to wait for it.[11]  But we had no problem filling the time with wonderful conversation.  We talked politics and literature, and somehow the conversation always made its way back to Wallace.

After devouring the food set before us and settling the tab, it was time to say good-bye.  It was now nearly 11pm; the others were off to enjoy another round of drinks, but I thought it would be best to get back to my hotel.  Despite my sleeping in that morning, I was still exhausted and jetlagged.  I got directions back to the main street that runs through the middle of town – along with directions on avoiding the Red Light District a few blocks over – and made may way back to my room.

[1] My utmost apologies, Brittany.  I look forward to reading and / or listening to your paper when either the print edition or the audio version become available.

[2] A recurring theme was developing as almost every speaker thus far had relied heavily on these two passages in the analysis of the text presented in their papers.  In fact, Marshall Boswell commented several times throughout the first day and a half that the disadvantage of presenting last was that he was going to end up giving a very short presentation because most of his ideas had already been presented.

[3] This self-absorption is actually a good thing in Meredith’s case in that she begins to care about herself and her own well-being, which brings the emotional healing she needs.

[4] Frankly, it just wouldn’t be practical for me.  There is no way I could sell my soul to a university for four or five years and support my family on the meager grad student / T.A. stipend the university gives you.  I would, however, love to go back for an MFA in creative writing.  I’ve looked into some programs which sound very promising; there’s just the minor detail of about $15,000.

[5] And the burgeoning field of Wallace studies seems to be attracting really cool scholars.  These aren’t the stuffy academic types in tweed jackets smoking antique pipes as they chortle about the social ironies of Victorian literature.  This group – many of them hailing from the most prestigious universities in the world – was very down-to-earth and just fun to hang out with.  My kind of people, as my wife said when I first stumbled upon the Wallace-l community.

[6] At this point I was a bit jealous as these individuals spoke of trips of two, maybe three hours as I looked several days ahead to my nearly twenty-four hours of travel that awaited me.

[7] I kept to only one round, which I nursed over an hour or more.  It was one stinkin’ good beer, I must say.  But once again, the fear of some interaction with my migraine meds prevented me from having any more.

[8] Marshall’s story was the first like this that I have heard from those who corresponded with Wallace.  I remember another story told to me once in which Wallace wrote a thank-you letter in response to a thank-you letter he received for a speaking engagement at a local cultural center.

[9] Stupid is probably a better word for it.  But in case some of those students actually read this blog, I’ll go with difficult.

[10] For the sake of full disclosure, in telling one of my favorite stupid-student stories, I must confess I did repeat the “You’re being a f***ing idiot” line that several others had used before me.  But I was planning on visiting the cathedral in the center of town the next day, so I could offer a pray of repentance then.

[11] Maybe the slow service was the reason we were the only people in the restaurant that night.

Letter 13: “Host”

Dear Mr. Wallace,

I try to teach my AP English Literature students to pay very close attention to the form or structure of a passage – be it prose or poetry – as it may be a reflection of the content and the theme the author is trying to convey.  This is most true with poetry, in that the rhyme and rhythm often contribute to the meaning of the work as a whole.  Each poetic form has a set of rules to follow, and following those rules can greatly enhance the theme of the poem.[1]

With “Host,” you break from your traditional form of paragraphed text and footnotes,[2] so I immediately tried to figure out why.  Why this format of flowcharts on crack within the body of your text?  Why not resort to your signature footnotes?  I can only imagine the migraines that this essay gave the editors and publishers.

Several pages into it, the reason started to become clear.  The world of political talk radio, of which the subject of your essay, John Zeigler, is a part, is an extremely confusing, mixed-up, jumbled mess.  I recall the transcript of a conversation with a station executive, in which you unsuccessfully tried to get her to define the word “stimulating,” which is the core adjective of the radio broadcast.  Or how Mr. Zeigler was fired from his job as a talk radio host at one station in the midst of a firestorm of controversy, only to be hired shortly thereafter by another radio station in a much larger market that just happened to be owned by the same parent company.  So getting fired actually ended up turning into a promotion.  Trying to wrap one’s brain around the business of “stimulating” talk radio is a difficult task indeed.

But it seems that the jumbled mess that is political talk radio is a reflection of the political system that talk radio talks about.  Like talk radio, politics these days seems to favor personality over actual politics.  Candidates, like the talking heads who praise or persecute them, often seem more concerned about being “stimulating” than they do about affecting policy.  Voters often cast their ballots on the basis of which candidate they’d most like to sit down and have a beer with, rather than who would make the better leader of the free world.  Ever since the famous Kennedy-Nixon television debate, public appearance[3] has become a top priority for any candidate.  Campaign promises and political agendas are reduced to three-second “stimulating” sound bites.  Electing a public official, especially on the national level, seems based more on likability than on leadership.

In addition, politicians, like the pundits, rely heavily on fear and anger to win the favor of the masses.  More important than fixing our problems is telling us who’s to blame for them and how bad things will be if the other guy – or gal – is elected into office.  They – again both the politicians and pundits – don’t want an informed, intelligent citizenry.  They want purely emotionally driven votes, and two of the most powerful emotions that drive voters to the polls are fear and anger.  They thrive off of these feelings, as reflected in the polls and the listener ratings and, most importantly, the advertising dollars.

Your essay here, “Host,” in all its arrows and textboxes, shows us what a huge jumbled mess both our political system and the talk radio coverage of that system truly are.  The form follows the function.  You use a jumbled mess of an essay to illustrate what a jumbled mess it all is.  There is some truth in there somewhere, it just gets lost in all the rhetoric and the tangents and the “stimulatingness.”

My question, then, is who is going to actually make sense of it all for us?

[1] For example, in a villanelle, the first and third lines of the first stanza are repeated throughout the rest of the poem.  This can give the poem a sort of “one step forward, two steps back” feel to it.  These are often poems of lament, and the repetition in the poem gives the reader a sense that the poet is stuck or wallowing in his or her sadness.

[2] And footnotes within the footnotes and interpolations and…

[3] That is, appearance on television and radio, and now online.