Repackaging the Archive (Part IV): Some Notes on Sincerity in David Foster Wallace’s Uncollected and Less-Well-Known Work

Where is your compassion?  Where is my compassion?

—Lullaby for the Working Class[1]

Wittgenstein Week is over, something I perhaps shouldn’t have been looking forward to as much as I was; cf. now working through David Foster Wallace’s[2] uncollected and less-well-known oeuvre[3] as quickly.  For my sensitive summer nerves, w/ nothing to do but sit around reading short story after short story for days, I must say I’m missing good-ole Wittgenstein Week.  For instance, I can now, w/ the exception of most book reviews, say confidently that I’ve read pretty much everything DFW has published, in whatever venue (say, even including letters to the editor in The New York Times and Harper’s, and a story in an obscure journal printed on dot-matrix paper [if you can believe it]).  (This is also to say that when I sat down to write just now I hadn’t even quite considered the archival implications of this last statement.)  I thought I’d be glad, that getting through all of Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, The Blue and Brown Books, and Philosophical Investigations in a week would be the “hard,” “taxing,” “draining,” “etc.” work;—and believe me, it was—that I’d come out the other end primed and ready for the “fun” work of reading DFW.  Boy was I wrong.

I am currently quite eager to read one of the first collections of essays on DFW coming out next month, Consider David Foster Wallace: Critical Essays, edited by David Hering, specifically an essay on what is being called the “new sincerity” by Adam Kelly.  I feel the DFW that gets read the most—his novel(s) and his journalism—continually hint at or give great meaningful gestures toward sincerity, but perhaps b/c of their form never really achieve what so many of his short stories do so devastatingly, howling-fantod-inspiringly well: they are un-dauntingly sincere.  Painful sincerity.  So sincere that reading the deep ironies of something like John Barth’s much anthologized “Lost in the Funhouse” acts like a kind of balm.  For the sensitive summer soul, the cold analysis of Wittgenstein is far preferable to the at times crushing-lack-of-irony in some of DFW’s short fiction.  Esp. when one reads story after story of people who simply cannot connect w/ one another, for every reason under the sun; or else people who are almost supernaturally connected[4] and subsequently get dramatically, heart-wrenchingly sundered from one another.[5] Basically, where’s Paul de Man when you need him?

His work is just so sad.  The humor found in Infinite Jest or his journalism is muted at best in his short work, and it becomes at times so dark that I’ve literally had to simply put down the book, copy-paper, or computer.  Many people have argued that this is DFW trying to transcend/go one step past postmodernism, and though there may be a distinctive ring-of-truth in that claim, his brutal sincerity—perhaps sincere b/c, like some dialectical parallax, his irony can be equally brutal—seems to simply come from a complete lack of belief in the possibility of real sincerity (; the only way to even begin to hope to construct something authentic is to be so brutal w/r/t emotion etc. b/c the “real” emotions he is trying to construct simply don’t exist in the real world).  His piece on The David Letterman Show, “My Appearance,”[6] demonstrates this quite nicely.  The ground of any sincerity being possible anywhere w/in the space of the story has been more-or-less annihilated, as the last sentence (among others) clearly implies: “And so I did ask my husband, . . . just what way he thought he and I really were, then did he think.  Which turned out to be a mistake.”[7] Or for instance, consider one of the character’s take on Mr. Letterman himself: “‘He’s making money ridiculing the exact things that have put him in a position to make money ridiculing things.”[8] To perhaps oversimplify, what DFW is so clearly criticizing throughout this story is the hipper-than-thou, against all clichés, ironic, detached, cool, postmodern, always-apt-to-ridicule stance (toward pretty much everything) par excellence.  (And furthermore, never celebrating anything, god forbid.)  Of course there’s really no foundation in anything true to back up this stance that perhaps most of us are more familiar w/ than we’d like to be.[9] The general malaise over truth(s of any kind) has been so infectious to simply create an entire simulacral culture w/ no authentic grounding in anything except its own irony.  (And of course) This is an old story (simulation, etc., esp. for the late 80s).

But that’s not the kicker.  DFW is trying so mightily to repair or at least construct the scaffolding for grounding something, anything, in sincerity.  And he never does.  The world is (almost) always more-or-less freaking bleak w/r/t sincerity, connection, compassion, warmth, mindfulness, love, etc. etc.; and not always b/c they simply don’t exist, but rather b/c they get absolutely crushed.  (This is also why perhaps his 2005 Kenyon Address was received so well.  It was so [frankly] crazily sincere; and, unlike his fiction, suggests an “answer” to this problem.)

Suffice it to say, the hyperarchivization of DFW is not an experience I would recommend in a(n overly-)short period of time.  It, combined w/ general summer-nervousness, is getting me quite down.  For at the end of the day, a writer I absolutely respect and enjoy often answers the questions in the epigraph that began these brief notes quite simply: nowhere.

[1] “Honey, Drop the Knife,” Blanket Warm (Omaha: Lumber Jack Records, 1996).

[2] DFW hereafter.*

*On a side-note: a brief perusal of The Hyperarchival Parallax will quickly reveal that I am quite footnote-happy, a clear indication of a gratuitous and acknowledged influence by one DFW, so it should probably come as no surprise whatsoever that I am heavily reading him right now for various projects.  This is an influence I’m clearly aware of, to the extent that I am more footnote-happy than DFW ever was, and he is an influence I’m not terribly concerned about having one way or the other.  As Tomaž Šalamun once told me in personal conversation, “It is important to have fathers.  DFW is clearly your father.  Do not shy away from this” (paraphrase; also of note: I was getting a poetry degree. . .).  I cannot quite recall who Tomaž said his father was (perhaps Pessoa or Milosz or Ashbery), but it really could have been any of the (dauntingly-)numerous poets he knew, loved, recommended, etc.  He was a sheer encyclopedia of generous appreciation and warmth re: pretty much anyone who scribbled poesy, so I suppose it could have been a mish-mash of people.  Not even to really mention what Harold Bloom said in The Anxiety of Influence—for surely pretty much any writing-like-undertaking is anxiety-producing—but influence is not necessarily a bad thing, and in fact one to (perhaps) be embraced (at times).  (I’m like the early Cave-In: I wear my [one] influence on my sleeve.)

[3] I owe the easy acquiring of a complete set of bibliographic links to the quite fantastic The Howling Fantods, the site perhaps attending the most carefully and encyclopedically to anything re: DFW.

[4] For instance Lyndon Baines Johnson and “Lady Bird” Johnson in “Lyndon” (The Girl with Curious Hair [New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1989], 75-118).

[5] See “Solomon Silverfish,” Sonora Review 16 (Fall 1987), 54-81.

[6] The Girl with Curious Hair, 173-201.

[7] ibid., 201, emphases mine.

[8] ibid., 188.

[9] You know, those certain people you’ve never heard get sincerely exited about, well, pretty much anything?

Wittgenstein Week Cont.

A quite interesting passage from Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations:

“55.  ‘What the names in language signify must be indestructible; for it must be possible to describe the state of affairs in which everything destructible is destroyed.  And this description will contain words; and what corresponds to these cannot then be destroyed, for otherwise the words would have no meaning.’  I must not saw off the branch on which I am sitting.

“One might, of course, object at once that this description would have to except itself from the destruction.–But what corresponds to the separate words of the description and so cannot be destroyed if it is true, is what gives the words their meaning–is that without which they would have no meaning.–In a sense, however, this man is surely what corresponds to his name.  But he is destructible, and his name does not lose its meaning when the bearer is destroyed.–An example of something corresponding to the name, and without which it would have no meaning, is a paradigm that is used in connexion with the name in the language game” (Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, 2nd ed., trans. G.E.M. Anscombe [Malden: Blackwell Publishers, 1997 (1958)], 27e).

Didn’t Ibsen Write a Play, The Doll’s House? (or, More Wittgenstein Week 2010)

So I have most assuredly reached those annual halcyon days of summer when I turn into a zombified eating, sleeping, drinking, smoking, writing, media-consuming machine.  The evidence for this is that I just watched both seasons of Dollhouse (Joss Whedon, 2009-10).

It happens every summer like the monsoons,[1] and when it hits, the force is equal and the downpour as brief.  For instance, I quite literally had the following thoughts today: “well, if I go get food, and I walk at a fairly brisk rate while reading Wittgenstein’s The Blue and Brown Books, I not only can get multiple functional activities done at once—1) eating, b/c that will help me go back to work refreshed (maybe I’ll even take a nap), 2) reading, b/c that is what I’m doing right now and I would actually waste more reading time getting in and out of the car than if I just walked and read at the same time—but (less) importantly, I can get 3) exercise.  Though exercise probably should have been one of the first thoughts about my walking/reading/eating, or at least just leaving my fucking house for pretty much any reason whatsoever should have occurred to me as a “good thing,” it not only came in as a firm third in my thinking, it was an incidental thing, an added bonus for my over-caffeinated robot-body.

But the tragedy is actually not my becoming-machine, for that is surely something to aspire to at times,[2] but that this moment of summer also always entails (desperately) finding something I can spend mind-numbingly countless hours doing.  Many things, of course, have served this function, and surely not all bad, but more-often-than-not I read too many comic books, or play too many video games, or watch too many sports, or watch too much internet tv.  I tell myself: I’m still consuming media, so how could it possibly be detrimental to do these activities, but the fact of the matter is, in what sick-and-twisted world does one come to the point, after seriously, rigorously, and carefully consuming media all day, where “wind downing” or “relaxing” is accomplished by consuming more media?Well, I’ll tell you.  The kind of world where I feel guilty for doing anything else, like, the crippling question: “why am I wasting so much time not working?” but simultaneously experiencing the full awareness of guilty-type media-consuming (I’m like a really bad media-vegan [or vegetarian, like I eat media eggs, fish, and cheese]), as in, “why am I wasting all this time watching [insert crappy shit here.]”  Most of the time this doesn’t bother me, b/c a 2 hour (at most) crappy SF movie is at least only 2 hours, but all of Dollhouse in a week?  That is many, many more hours spent.  Damn summer.

But anyway, so I of course have something to say about it.  Dollhouse, that is.  (Gotta get something out of it [for my troubles and anxieties, and esp. as a way of celebrating these halcyon days—in other words, make guilt work[3]]).

The first thing to say is that Dollhouse is overwhelmingly a “tale of archival crisis.”  No two bones about it, and though of course much of what I say here will be informed by this insight, I would not like to make it the meat of the matter.[4] But to bring us up to speed. . . .

Dollhouse is a Josh Whedon affair (Buffy the Vampire Slayer [1997-2003] & Firefly [2002]), and I must admit two things: 1) his affairs are not one’s I find all that appealing, and 2) I’ve never seen Buffy.[5] It’s set more-or-less in the present in a panopticon for dolls—i.e. humans who are able to be imprinted w/ any personality whatsoever.  The protagonist, Echo, is able to incorporate many personalities at once by the end (for “good,” as opposed to her male counterpart Alpha, for “evil”), and she ultimately kills the head of the evil corporation.  Two episodes show us 10 years in the future, where the technology to imprint humans has made pretty-much-everyone into mindless killing machines, and postapocalyptic-savior-type-stuff occurs.  Yeah, that’s about it.

The narrative aside, the place I think Joss Whedon excels is that he makes clear some possibilities for the future of serial television w/ this show.  For the past few years all the really good television, though somewhat serial, resembled really ambitious comic-books more than they did the A-Team.[6] (Plots where you pretty much had to see every show to keep up, epic world building, etc.  You can picture it.)  What is interesting about Dollhouse is that it is the very fact that it is a tale of archival crisis that permits it to be semi-successful in heavily serialized form.  Whedon has allowed himself the opportunity for his main actress, the surprisingly good Eliza Dushku, to play a different role in each episode.  Couple this w/ a clear eschatology to the show, and you’ve effectively made it possible for anyone to tune in to any episode, even knowing that the series is moving toward some clearly defined end,[7] and not only understand more-or-less what is going on, but even be entertained (and perhaps think a bit).  There are, of course, some really striking episodes that wholly stand out on their own, and for something that is as, well, I’ll say it, archival as Dollhouse, this feels like quite an achievement to me.

To extend my discussion, I’m tempted to talk about: identity as archival in the show, which it surely is and it’s freaking obvious; the panopticon they put the dolls in, where they’re imprinted as infantile, passive, and accepting, i.e. all sorts of (whomever) undertones; having someone yet again messianically save the world who is a multiplicity; and . . . well, I guess there really aren’t really an books[8]—but anyway, these are all surely there and deserve to be commented upon.  But I will refrain, and really for one reason.

No matter how many interesting things Dollhouse may be doing, I never get the sense that Whedon even remotely intends them.  Not even to get into any New Critical territory, but (and this is something I rarely say) Whedon is just bad.  His actors are terrible.  The writing is horrible.  The cinematography under-realized.  And, sad to say, he has very low production value b/c of his low budget.[9] Firefly was the same.  And I say this fully realizing that there are drone-cells of fans out there who worship the guy, and I think ultimately for good reason, but, b/c I feel no reason to even justify this remark w/ pretty much anything, I know he’s in the realm of Adult Swim or Bob Dylan for me.[10]

Whedon is popular b/c he’s the only person who’s shown how one might still do a serial, Law & Order-type show w/ an over-arching, compelling, long (SF) narrative.  He’s bad b/c he’s the first(-ish).[11] His television sometimes feels like a naseous mix of Bionic Woman, Bewitched, Kafka and General Hospital, w/ enough Star-[something] thrown in for good measure.  Don’t get me wrong, I was fucking entertained.  (I mean, I watched the whole series in a week for chrissakes.)  And this will be the ultimate success of this type of serial, for, deep down, our true desire is for a Knightrider remake (w/ David Hasselhof) or else a new Lynch tv show where they give him, like, billions of dollars to make a ten-season show.[12] Someone is gonna come along who learned from Whedon and perhaps give us a good mix of this.  No reason to watch Dollhouse in the meantime, unless you’re interested in the intersection(s) of archives and the Apocalypse.

[1] At least since I’ve been in grad school.

[2] And I mean this w/ no sense of irony, esp. not the irony of the footnote.

[3] It used to be, “make anxiety fun,” what has happened to me!

[4] If you want my take, definition, or defense of this term (as a sub-genre of SF), email me at for a copy of a conference paper I recently delivered.

[5] So whatever I have to say, keep this in mind.  (This is also to suggest I’ve perhaps found my major summer time-suck.)

[6] I.e. a show w/ a high production value.  A challenge: what year do you think they’ll remake Lost?

[7] Much clearer and more satisfying than Lost btw (but of course also not).

[8] Though learning to read is certainly an important step for Echo.

[9] I would love to see what he would do if he was given a blank check.  C’mon Guggenheim.

[10] Things I simply don’t like at all that many people I very much respect enjoy w/ seeming (over-)enthusiasm.

[11] Okay, not even close to being the first.  Just go w/ me.

[12] Do I hear: Television Event of the Decade?  I mean, as the title?

Wittgenstein Week

So, b/c I’m trying to be a responsible scholar, I realized that I needed to read a whole bunch of Wittgenstein in order to talk about DFWs The Broom of the System with a modicum of sense.  In honor of this, I am designating the amount of time to read this amount of Ludwig, “Wittgenstein Week.”  This may, of course, take more than a week.  So, to be wholly participating in WW, I would like to present a brief snippet of the Tractatus.  Like everything, I even found W. talking about apocalyptic-type stuff (of course):

“6.43–If the good or bad exercise of the will does alter the world, it can alter only the limits of the world, not the facts–not what can be expressed by the means of language.  In short the effect must be that it becomes an altogether different world.  It must, so to speak, wax and wane as a whole.  The world of the happy man is a different on from that of the unhappy man.

“6.431–So too at death the world does not alter, but comes to an end.

“6.4311–Death is not an event in life: we do not live to experience death.  If we take eternity to mean not infinite temporal duration but timelessness, then eternal life belongs to those who live in the present.  Our life has no end in just the way in which our visual field has no limits” (Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, trans. D.F. Pears & B.F. McGuiness [New York: Routledge, 1974 (1961)], 87).

Need to read more W. before I can coherently say much else.

Pandorum as Tale of Archival Crisis

I just recently attended the annual Science Fiction Research Association Conference held this year in Carefree, AZ,[1] where I delivered a paper entitled: “Tales of Archival Crisis: [Neal] Stephenson’s Reimagining of the Post-Apocalyptic Frontier.”  I argued for the existence of a significant and unnoticed sub-genre of SF therein by way of Stephenson’s Anathem: what I call the tale of archival crisis.  Though I cannot present that paper here, primarily for reasons that I still have some work to do on it and b/c I want to develop it into a slightly longer piece, I had the great luck to stumble across Pandorum (Christian Alvart, 2009) one night at the conference,[2] via the instant play available on Netflix, and was shocked at the resonance it had w/ my more general theoretical constructions of the tale of archival crisis.[3] It, mixed w/ the rather disappointing Living in the End Times, by Slavoj Žižek—my primary reading recently during various decadent kinds of vacation—has unavoidably occasioned some kind of brief commentary (following).

Pandorum is the kind of (excellent) B-SF-movie[4] that I was surprised to see Steven Shaviro has yet to comment upon.[5] And in lieu of his perhaps much more perspicuous take on it, I submit that it captures many of the features of what I call the “tale of archival crisis” very well.  In short, Pandorum is a film in which the archive mutates/evolves, and this change threatens the very survival of the human species.  In other words, the archive itself produces an apocalyptic-type crisis.

Pandorum is set in a far future where, of course, humans have “exhausted” the earth, have found another planet, and sent an ar/-chive/-k to populate it.  This ship is filled w/ tens-of-thousands of cryogenically frozen humans who have been injected w/ something that causes their mutation/evolution to speed up exponentially[6]; in addition to this, the ship holds the “entirety” of the earth’s biological archive (i.e. DNA, seeds, animals, etc. etc. [one can imagine]).  But (again, of course) things have gone terribly wrong.  (Spoilers.)  For whatever (dumbass) reasons, they’ve only left 3 people in charge of the ship at any time, and one of these people (for reasons that remain scientifically unclear[7]) has gone batshit insane, and killed the other two on duty w/ him.  The film explains this man in mythological terms—i.e. he took total control of the ship, became a sort of god, but got bored so went back into cryo-sleep.

So, the film opens w/ two men awakening from cryo-sleep and, of course, it induces temporary amnesia.[8] One of these men is the god-man reawakened, but we don’t “know” that till the end.  (There’s all sorts of hallucination, psycho-camera-work in between.)  The other is our necessary hero/messiah/whatever.  All this aside, there are 3 striking things about this film:

1)  Near the end of the film, shortly after we have learned that the earth has been utterly destroyed, the characters open the observation windows and cannot help but see an inky blackness.  Dennis Quaid’s character (the god-man) immediately assumes that all creation has been wiped away, that this little ship is the only thing left.  I’m not sure if horror has ever been so effectively boiled down to its pure “essence” than in this scene.

2)  Ben Foster’s (the hero’s) character, Bower, drops into a pit of mutated, sleeping demi-humans, who are usually engaged in constantly cannibalizing everything in sight b/c of the general lack of any food-stuffs on the ship, but at this moment are sleeping.  These “humans,” b/c of the injection for exponential adaptation and evolution they’ve received, have quite effectively “adapted” to the ship.  Their sense of smell is incredible, so Foster has to drape himself in the skin of their cannibalized victims in order to cross their mass of (orgiastically) sleeping bodies.

3)  We learn near the end of the film that, though this journey was only supposed to take b/t 100-200 years, they’ve been asleep/traveling for nearly 1000.  Meaning: plenty of time for evolution and whole new cultural paradigms have been provided for these “humans” to pretty much change into an apocalyptic threat b/c of their archival nature—i.e. they “awake” on occasion from the vast farms of cryogenically frozen humans and “contribute” to the various species’ changes that take place in the film.

Some things should be clear about the above information.  What is encountered in Pandorum is humanity itself encountered as archive.  Both in their spatial orientation—they’re stored cryogenically for populating another planet—and at the very root of their genetic code—they can adapt to whatever their surroundings are, and if they inhabit a dark, far-past its expiration-date-ship, they’ll develop cannibalism to its nth degree.  In addition, the universe itself, for the brief moment when they think creation has been deleted, can be seen as archival—in terms of the “archival remainder”: what is left after the archive has been deleted (meaning everything has been deleted) is merely this part-of-no-part, this piece of humanity left to experience its horrific dying gasps.  Lastly, to traverse the ground[9] of the posthumanity that develops in the film, one must quite literally cover themselves in the archive of the dead, in the skin of those who have gone before.

So it is no wonder that the final scene of the film is the hero “ejecting” the archive from this thoroughly apocalyptic archival-formulation, b/c he’s realized they’re all actually at the bottom of the ocean on the planet they meant to go to in the first place.  So when we get a wide-digital-shot of archives of human beings breaching the surface, with the implied semi-utopian reading that paradise has not only been found, but achieved, we should be skeptical.  What has been released is nothing less than the part-of-no-part, the ineluctable remainder of the archive that just “happened” to be saved from the very logic of the archive itself.  In other words, the archive of Pandorum has virtually no hopeful limits.  The film makes very clear that when you categorize, inject, and “break-down” human beings into their constituent parts (reify them), only their end is assured.  Consequently, the film’s ending is thoroughly ambiguous, b/c to take it as hopeful, we would have had to ignore the entirety of the film, and only participate in whatever ideological illusions still hold today.  We should emerge from its fantasmatic archive-destroying-the-human-species-images w/ another thought in mind entirely: perhaps the only solution is to eject our archive into the void, eject the totality of human “knowledge” (and other stuff) into the void, b/c we’re absolutely doomed (unless we all become bartleby[10]), and that is the only hope we have.  And this, of course, is depressing.  Thank you Pandorum.

[1] See below post.

[2] After watching Allison de Fren’s excellent, disturbing, and timely Mechanical Brides (2010, unfinished), which I excitedly hope is finished and released sometime soon to the general public (i.e. festivals take note).

[3] As in: I just finished a piece delimiting exactly what is going on in Pandorum.  Synchronicity like this should be outlawed.

[4] Btw, one of the arguments used during this conference was that SF represented a significant amount of the highest grossing films of all time, an argument that, if any sort of critical work was applied, would clearly be seen to be an over-generalization at best, and a total ignorance of the really interesting SF that is being made today that doesn’t really gross anything at worst.  In other words, you SF scholars cannot justify yourself by referencing how much Harry Potter Whatever made, but should be consciously and responsibly investing yourselves in the actual interesting and relevant SF that is pecuniarily worthless.  Sorry, this sort of polemic could not help but be occasioned by this gathering.

[5] In other words, I finished watching the film and immediately went to The Pinocchio Theory expecting to see something interesting on it.  It wasn’t there, so in lieu of this imagined document, see his excellent discussion of Gamer (Mark Neveldine & Brian Taylor, 2009), here.

[6] I.e. going to a new planet necessitates quick adaptation.

[7] Suffice it to say that “being in space for inordinate, hopeless amounts of time,” is enough to drive one insane.

[8] I.e. it is thus very easy for the film to insert instantaneous memory recovery at appropriate narrative moments.

[9] In the Heideggerian sense.

[10] According to Žižek.