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December 23, 2010 3:41 PM   Subscribe

Philosophical Sweep: to understand the fiction of David Foster Wallace, it helps to have a little Wittgenstein.
posted by Lutoslawski (29 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite

 
That's just what my reading of Infinite Jest needed - even more references to look up.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 3:51 PM on December 23, 2010 [3 favorites]


Speaking only for myself, I'll be glad when every story, every essay, every line and every word this guy wrote is published, so I can stop hearing about him. No more unpublished works discovered, please. No shopping list, no diary entry, no letter from camp.
I don't see how Ryerson's (linked) piece or this post enlighten the reader.
posted by Ideefixe at 3:52 PM on December 23, 2010 [3 favorites]


David Foster Wallace = Thomas Pynchon as a Reaganite
posted by outlandishmarxist at 3:57 PM on December 23, 2010


Mark Costello is underrated. Big If is a brilliant novel.
posted by chavenet at 3:59 PM on December 23, 2010


David Foster Wallace = Thomas Pynchon as a Reaganite
posted by outlandishmarxist

eponhysterical!
posted by chavenet at 3:59 PM on December 23, 2010 [1 favorite]


Christ, not this shit again.

I find it particularly enlightening that not a single one of the provided examples of Wittgenstein's influence on Wallace is really philosophical in any meaningful sense. Come on, now you need to be a philosopher to "get to the core of things"? And seriously, lame puns ("The map is not the territory!" LOOOLL!) and allusions to undergraduate coursework ("Meaning as use!" LOOOLL!) do not make Wallace sound any more sophisticated.
posted by nasreddin at 4:04 PM on December 23, 2010


[]
posted by clavdivs at 4:09 PM on December 23, 2010 [1 favorite]


More seriously, I think this would have been an okay article if it wasn't for the author's bizarre insistence on genuflecting before the earth-shattering brilliance of college senior DFW. It's pretty clear, even from the article itself, that his understanding of philosophy was kind of shallow: everything boiled down to the horror of the abyss and existential angst and blah blah blah. (In retrospect, it's hard not to see his psychological problems permeating his view of everything.) Why does he have to be a philosophy rockstar in addition to being a widely-respected author? Give the guy a break.
posted by nasreddin at 4:15 PM on December 23, 2010 [3 favorites]


Oh, now I see--it's from the introduction to his newly-published senior thesis. No wonder. They could probably have published the guy's used toiled paper and found someone to blurb about how precocious and incisive it was.
posted by nasreddin at 4:18 PM on December 23, 2010


nasreddin: "Why does he have to be a philosophy rockstar in addition to being a widely-respected author? Give the guy a break"

This happens to so many good writers with a powerful following, though. I adore Burroughs, for example, but some of the things he's been given credit for make me wince.

I've only read The Broom Of The System (which I quite liked) and Infinite Jest is still sitting there, waiting for me, but I can see just from the one slim volume I read why he attracted the following he did. And continues to do.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 4:22 PM on December 23, 2010


This happens to so many good writers with a powerful following, though. I adore Burroughs, for example, but some of the things he's been given credit for make me wince.

Yeah, fair enough. Being successful in a truly multidisciplinary way is something that happens a lot more rarely than most people think.
posted by nasreddin at 4:28 PM on December 23, 2010


Well, I think Mr. Wallace himself would be the first to cringe at this article. David Foster Wallace wasn't a philosopher and he never claimed to be; he was a writer of fiction, which was a very important distinction, I think, for him.

I read Broom... after I read IJ, and Broom really pales in comparison.

More than anything, the publishing of his senior undergrad thesis seems like another money guzzling whore move by the Napoleonic Columbia University.
posted by Lutoslawski at 4:49 PM on December 23, 2010


Back when we had wags, one of them said something like 'after an author has died, it becomes increasingly hard for his publishers to put out new works.'
posted by jamjam at 4:58 PM on December 23, 2010 [1 favorite]


In retrospect, it's hard not to see his psychological problems permeating his view of everything

True, but to see his psychological problems as permeative really misses out on much of what's interesting about his writing, and it kind of sucks that, as with Sylvia Plath, the great lines this guy wrote are forevermore going to be read as slightly oblique suicide notes.

David Foster Wallace wasn't a philosopher and he never claimed to be

But he did pretty seriously aspire to be, to the extent of enrolling in the Harvard Ph.D. program in philosophy. So no, he wasn't a philosopher, but philosophy was way more than a hobby.
posted by escabeche at 5:52 PM on December 23, 2010 [1 favorite]


I have found it is enough to sit in Barney's car eating packets of mustard.
posted by Astro Zombie at 6:18 PM on December 23, 2010


This misrepresents Wittgenstein and some popular misrepresentations of the same.
posted by phrontist at 6:33 PM on December 23, 2010


> Oh, now I see--it's from the introduction to his newly-published senior thesis. No wonder.

Just wait 'til they find Wittgenstein's novel.
posted by jfuller at 6:49 PM on December 23, 2010


OK. Am I alone in really not appreciating Wittgenstein? No, language is not the limit of understanding. This is empirically demonstrable, and with non-human subjects, no less. It strikes me as a giant, useless rendition of Socratic word-games - language is used as a weapon against thinkers, instead of as a tool to help thinkers express what they are thinking.

It boils down to this - Thought comes before language. You can come up with verbal communication preceding complex thought, but you cannot come up with a language formed before thought, and the communication of thought. I defy you to try.
posted by Slap*Happy at 7:55 PM on December 23, 2010 [3 favorites]


They're publishing DFW's senior thesis and this is the preface? I can't imagine a more unsuitable preface! The whole thing is about how Wallace (purportedly) turned away from formal philosophy in order to get in touch with his Wittgensteinian feelings, but the thesis itself is the just the sort of formal philosophy that the preface derides! The one place Ryerson mentions the content of the thesis, he writes, "There are reasons that he is better known for an essay about a cruise ship." Yeah, way to respect the subject matter and your audience. (This essay is an adaptation of the preface; I bet that bit isn't in the actual book.)

I'm also pretty skeptical that Wallace turned away started hating on technical philosophy. The evidence Ryerson provides is scanty. We get quotes like this:

"But as a flesh-and-blood reader with human feelings, he also knew, though he had never articulated it out loud, that as you labored to understand the Tractatus, its cold, formal, logical picture of the world could make you feel strange, lonely, awestruck, lost, frightened—a range of moods not unlike those undergone by Kate herself."

I bet the reason he never articulated it out loud is because he didn't think it was true.

Later Wittgenstein is philosophy for people who are bad at philosophy. Because he waved the whole tradition aside and diagnosed most of analytic philosophy as a kind of disease, he gained a bunch of acolytes who just don't get it---who would rather read books about cruise ships than epistemology---and they appeal to him in order to deride things they don't understand. Wittgenstein himself was allowed to make hugely hyperbolic and sweeping claims about technical philosophy because he himself was good at it. His arguments did not depend on formal logic being cold and unfeeling.

(The above paragraph's claims are not universally true, of course, but they are largely true.)

I'm also disappointed that DFW thought the private language argument was a good argument.
posted by painquale at 9:27 PM on December 23, 2010


On second thought, maybe it's a commercially savvy idea for the publishers to put in a preface like this. Readers are gonna buy the book to see what DFW says about fate, and then they're gonna freak out when they see how techy and formal and meaningless to them the work is. But then they'll be consoled with a preface that says: "Don't worry, readers, as DFW grew up and became more of a flesh-and-blood-human like the rest of us, he too thought that this was a cold and uncaring and inhuman way to approach deep problems."

It's pretty absurd that they're publishing this thesis. Neither the people who will understand it nor the people who won't understand it will get anything from it.
posted by painquale at 9:37 PM on December 23, 2010 [1 favorite]


to understand the fiction of David Foster Wallace, it helps to have a little Wittgenstein

As someone who has a little Wittgenstein I can say that no, no it does not. What is far more helpful in understanding the fiction of David Foster Wallace is to combine the following words in the correct order, which is any order you like so long as you leave number three until last.

1. Self-regarding
2. Tedious
3. Tosser
4. Overblown
5. Overrated
6. Absurd
7. Word-wanking

It's long past time this particular literary emperor's not-even-very-new clothes were recognised as non-existent.
posted by Decani at 12:04 AM on December 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


Well you sure make a strong case! What other names can you call him?
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 10:27 AM on December 24, 2010 [2 favorites]


painquale: Your username says a lot about your commitments.

Later Wittgenstein is philosophy for people who are bad at philosophy.

Care to elaborate on that? What's so horrendously flawed about his thinking?
posted by phrontist at 1:48 PM on December 24, 2010


No, language is not the limit of understanding.

Did LW maintain it was in his later work? Not as I read him (quite the opposite, in fact), but I'd be interested to hear why you think he did.
posted by phrontist at 1:55 PM on December 24, 2010


painquale: Looking at your profile I see I misinterpreted the meaning of your name. I searched your posting history for other mentions of LW, and found this comment in which you defend Dennett (who has written often about his debt to LW, and who studied under Ryle, who was also so influenced). So now I'm really curious about your dismissal of LW.
posted by phrontist at 2:23 PM on December 24, 2010


Once again, I'm ever so glad I did not read the comments before I read the link. I won't even bother to enumerate what I got out of it, since the commentary here is quite the shit pile.
posted by kaspen at 2:31 PM on December 24, 2010


"unfortunately we're still stuck with the idea that there's this world of referents out there that we can never really join or know because we're stuck in here, in language, even if we're at least all in here together" = = Christmas, and I defy all haters to actually argue that.
posted by kaspen at 3:46 PM on December 24, 2010


phrontist, I think Wittgenstein is mostly great. My comment was aimed at Wittgensteinians, not Wittgenstein. He attracts bad philosophers.
posted by painquale at 4:19 PM on December 24, 2010


"I think I had a kind of midlife crisis at twenty, which probably doesn't augur well for my longevity."

Dude.
posted by DZack at 10:12 AM on December 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


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