Reinstating Reality: David Foster Wallace's Short Stories



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1. “Death of the Author”


Glyn Williams states, “The essential feature of structuralism resides in Saussure’s emphasis on structural linguistics”[Wil99]. In Course in General Linguistics (1916), Saussure emphasized the random relation of any linguistic signifier to its signified and heralded a new era in linguistics, which later shook the foundations of knowledge. Meaning is constructed merely by relations to other terms (signifiers), and it is humans who attribute meanings to terms in a system which only consists of internal differences: “I mean that it is unmotivated, i.e. arbitrary in that it actually has no natural connection with the signified”[DeS59]. Saussure’s emphatic declaration of the “arbitrariness of language” and its internal “referentiality” would have far-reaching consequences in social sciences and humanities. He foreshadowed that “[n]o longer can language be identified with a contract pure and simple, and it is precisely from this viewpoint that the linguistic sign is a particularly interesting object of study; for language furnishes the best proof that a law accepted by a community is a thing that is tolerated and not a rule to which all freely consent”[DeS59].

His concepts of langue and parole were widely used in the structuralist movement. Parole is a distinct language item, which can only be deciphered if we are already in possession of the overarching language knowledge, the langue. The langue consists of “the set of linguistic habits which allow an individual to understand and be understood”[DeS59]. Structuralists use the same paradigms for a systematic approach to other domains and look for similar underlying structures. Early Barthes (his structuralist phase) analyses contemporary sports, designs and fashion. He interprets different behaviors, items, and accessories as part of a network of interrelations where their significance is the result of “their place in an overall structure, and the structure is of greater significance than the individual item”[Ber02].

The move to post-structuralism is in fact a faithful adherence to fundamentals of Saussurean thought and structuralism; namely doubting the same grand narratives and structures[Ber02]. The very structures that structuralists looked for are suspected to be mere constructions in their own right. The web of language is thus our only reality: “Language is allowing and confining. It allows the subject to state and thereby to recognize her/his desires and imaginary experiences, but these can only be expressed and recognized in terms of the concepts and words already in language” [Wil99]. The social is merely of a linguistic texture and post-structuralists underline the impossibility of setting the social and linguistic apart. Foucault “shares with Nietzsche the claim that all knowledge and perception is a matter of perspective, a perspective which can be changed, thereby changing the conception and knowledge”[Wil99]. Therefore, prevalent forms and systems of knowledge and thought that have been handed down by previous generations have to be unpacked in favor of new and emerging forms of knowledge.

Barthes is a crucial figure as he “bridges the gap between structuralism and poststructuralism”[Cud99]. The leap is illustrated in his essay “Death of the Author” (1967), where he questions the conception of authorship as a historically recent idea. Post-structuralism questions the notion of subjectivity. Subject’s self-conception of her/his identity and the world is shaped merely by language and the social; it is “being constituted rather than pre-given”[Wil99]. According to Barthes, the author is “the result of capitalist ideology, which has accorded the greatest importance to the author’s ‘person’. The author still rules in manuals of literary history, in biographies of writers, in magazine interviews . . . [T]he image of literature to be found in contemporary culture is tyrannically centered on the author, his person, his history, his tastes, his passions”[Bar78].

The critical work around David Foster Wallace and Oblivion Stories (2004) is usually shaped by Wallace’s “single-entendre” ideals and convictions. His encyclopedic Infinite Jest with its digressions, convoluted plot, complex language, and an epic 96 pages of endnotes lauds the simple steps of AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) that helps its characters recover from addiction. Wallace had published his manifesto in a 1993 essay titled “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction”. Its last paragraph illustrates a quintessentially romantic vision of rebellion and sincerity:

The next real literary "rebels" in this country might well emerge as some weird bunch of "anti-rebels," born oglers who dare to back away from ironic watching, who have the childish gall actually to endorse single-entendre values. Who treat old untrendy human troubles and emotions in U.S. life with reverence and conviction. Who eschew self-consciousness and fatigue. These anti-rebels would be outdated, of course, before they even started. Too sincere. Clearly repressed. Backward, quaint, naive, anachronistic.

He demands for a return to the Locke-an eyes (“born oglers”) for sensations. He knows well enough that with the advent of modernism and postmodernism in literature and philosophy, this has become an idiosyncratic ideal and warns the rebels about this quaint attitude:

The new rebels might be the ones willing to risk the yawn, the rolled eyes, the cool smile, the nudged ribs, the parody of gifted ironists, the "How banal." Accusations of sentimentality, melodrama. Credulity. Willingness to be suckered by a world of lurkers and starers who fear gaze and ridicule above imprisonment without law. Who knows. Today's most engaged young fiction does seem like some kind of line's end's end. I guess that means we all get to draw our own conclusions.[Wal93]

In his fiction, he attempts to deconstruct man’s social anxieties and sometimes offers solutions. In an interview with Larry McCaffery, published in Review of Contemporary Fiction he affirms:

In dark times, the definition of good art would seem to be art that locates and applies CPR to those elements of what’s human and magical that still lives and glow despite the times’ darkness. Really good fiction could have as dark a worldview as it wished, but it’d find a way both to depict this world and to illuminate the possibilities for being alive and human in it. (Wallace, An Interview with David Foster Wallace 131)

His interviews and essays discuss and portray boredom, loneliness, and natural self-centeredness in a quest to find solutions to these problems. The difficulties of real human communication are present in both his fiction and non-fiction. In “The Suffering Channel”, the motto of the Brazilian-owned Suffering Channel is the Portuguese phrase, “A consciência é o pesadelo da natureza”, meaning consciousness is the nature’s nightmare (Wallace, Oblivion Stories [Oblivion] 328). Greg Carlisle’s Nature’s Nightmare: Analyzing David Foster Wallace’s Oblivion (2013) starts its analysis of “The Suffering Channel” with the above-mentioned phrase and argues that “to be conscious of ourselves as vulnerable creatures induces suffering, but we are conscious creatures by nature; and therefore (borrowing Buddhist phrasing) all life is suffering” [Car13].

In summary, criticism around Wallace’s oeuvre is mostly a search for what he talked about in a commencement speech he delivered at Kenyon College (2005), now famously known as This is Water, which contains the barebones of his authorial mission to remedy the modern malaise. The speech starts with the proposition that man’s “hard-wired default setting . . . is to be deeply and literally self-centered and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self”. He mentions that an academic education may exacerbate this tendency to further plunge into self-consciousness “instead of simply paying attention to what is going on right in front of me [us]”. For Wallace, the ultimate outcome of an academic education should be overcoming a solipsistic view of the world. Near the end of the speech, he makes the case for a spiritual or religious belief, because “pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive”. He speaks of “small act of bureaucratic kindness” and closes the speech with a final recapitulation of the ways to avoid self-consciousness by caring “about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day”[Per05]. The lines are reminiscent of Romantics and especially Wordsworth’s musings in “Tintern Abbey”, where he recollects his debt to the beauteous sight of the abbey that has given him “sensation sweet” in “hours [of] weariness”. In the second stanza, Wordsworth declares that certain acts also create the same effect in his soul, such as men’s “little, nameless, unremembered, acts / Of kindness and of love” [Wor01].

Wallace’s has become a gatekeeper to his oeuvre and readers tend to see his texts through the same glasses that were given to them upon entry. However, Baudrillard’s methodology is post-structuralist model and following this method, the present reading of Oblivion Stories would consequently doubt and revisit Wallace’s strongly pronounced ideas in favor of, at least here, a radically different angle that Baudrillard provides. Barthes welcomes the end of the reign of the author: “To give a text an author, is to impose a limit on that text, to furnish it with a final signified, to close the writing” [Bar78]. An effort would be made to go beyond the conscious text in Oblivion Stories, despite the fact that it is driven by strong opinions, and to look for silences and “fault-lines”[Ber02]. Freeing literary criticism from authorial intention would allow for a multivalent play with the text and leaves open the possibility of a more radical perspectival understanding of the text as the intersection of agglomerated discourses. Barthes grants the text the status of “a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centers of culture”[Bar78]. This allows the freedom to move beyond the vestiges of individuality, which is an integral part of the capitalist conception of human, where a product is the finality of production, and a story is the sum of the author’s sentiments[Bar78]. In this light, critics read Wallace’s treatment of boredom, depression, and banality of everyday life as his personal quest to find meaning, and the fact of his depression and subsequent suicide in 2008 enforces this. The end of Barthes essay purports that the death of the author welcomes the birth of the reader. The high priests of commentary along with the author have to be dethroned in favor of the liberation of “unmotivated” signs[DeS59] – regardless of how fastidiously Wallace planted them – and novel perspectives.


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