Saturday, December 31, 2005

irrelevant maundering about an adolescent pot-smoker

Enjoy this fun little attack on a David Foster Wallace essay. The DFW essay is about why it's really good to get angry about signs in grocery stores that read "12 items or less." That is, why it's good to be excessively hung up on strict language rules. The rebuttal is fun (mostly) because it points out those instances in the article where DFW (unintentionally) breaks those rules himself. Such as:
p. 51: "Part of this is a naked desire to fit in and not get rejected as an egghead or fag (see sub)." Sub is a preposition. The word Wallace is fumbling around for is infra 'below.'
In fact the cool way to say what he wanted to say was vide infra. That is, if "cool" means "using old Latin phrases nobody understands anymore". Which it generally does. There are other fun swipes at the Wallace, such as:
The haughty tone is bad enough, but in fact nothing is "demonstrated" in the footnote. The first part is irrelevant maundering about an adolescent pot-smoker; he continues with a deep bow in the direction of Wittgenstein, whose "very complex and opaque and gnomic" argument is summarized to the point of absurdity, and concludes with a grandiose bit of hand-waving about "class, race, gender, morality, pluralism... You name it." Nothing was delivered.
Furthermore, in a metafilter thread, it's alleged that Wallace has since changed his essay to correct the glaring errors. Anyway, kids, the black letter law is that prescriptivism is bad, except to the extent that this rule is an absolute, in which case the rule is bad because only the Sith deal in absolutes.


Jason Goldman said...

That's the first thing by Wallace I ever read, back when it was in Harper's. I recently re-read it as part of his new essay collection ... which I think is pretty hot.

So, I don't think the point of the essay is "prescriptivism yay!" There's a whole section on "prescriptivism boo!" in fact.

I think the point is more along the lines of society would be better if we could hold passionate beliefs and figure out constructive ways to discuss them (which probably involves language in some way and the rules which govern it).

As for the revision thing, a bunch of the essays are presented in different forms in the new collection. The Rolling Stone one, Up Simba - about the McCain campaign, is something like 8x as long. Maybe correcting mistakes should have been called out in some way ... I dunno. But changing the esssays when they're reprinted in a collection is kinda standard. Franzen changed the whole fucking point of his Harper's essay when he came out with it in book form.

In conclusion then: I am a DFW fanboy, but I think there's more going on in the Usage essay than Safire-esque hand-wringing.

Matt said...

I agree, there's certainly more going on, his argument is certainly more complex than I've presented here. I think what creates the problem is DFW's very offhand rejection of descriptivism in the essay. He gives a nuanced argument very little time and attention. The whole "It takes all of three seconds to come up with an answer to this" part is problematic - if I'm not of DFW's cant when it comes to the prescriptivism/descriptivism debate, then I'm not going to be terribly pleased to see it strawmangled.

I will say, though, that the eschaton passage in Infinite Jest is one of the funniest things I've ever read, and is reminiscent (in the very best way) of Dr Strangelove.

Jason Goldman said...

I still recommend very much the essay collection. The Up, Simba one is great as is the vicious John Updike review.

A number of them have problematic elements where it seems there's argument beneath the (sometimes questionable) argument being made.

I think it makes for interesting reading tho'.