Friday, September 9, 2016

Another Take on Pattern Recognition

Pattern Recognition (Blue Ant, #1)Pattern Recognition by William Gibson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I finished Pattern Recognition again on September 6, 2016, I see about five years since I first read it. I have upgraded my review to five stars, as it is nearly Gibson's best, between Neuromancer and The Peripheral. Pattern Recognition has one distinction in being his only novel with only one point of view, which may mislead some readers as lighter. It certainly has its seemingly jokey moments--Cayce (CASE!) Pollard's major trigger is the Michelin Man--but on reflection the weight and resonance of its streams are heavier and sadder than anything Gibson has written. And no one amongst Cayce, Parkaboy and even Boone Chu are anywhere the physical types that Molly Mirrorshades and the not case of Mona Lisa Overdrive. As if Gibson was saying, enough with the amusing fanboy stuff, here is what is real. There is no question that Cayce suffers from a crippling panic disorder; under other circumstances she would be a shut in. She is the sort of orphan as well, with a lost perhaps deceased father, and a mother who has retreated into the occult (EVP) and no siblings. Cayce has a beautiful life, perhaps, but it is balanced on a needle. She is exactly the person that Hubertus Bigend can manipulate to his own ends, because as resistant and specific as she is, her life depends upon patrons and connections. The tale of the footage is on some level a Macguffin, but Gibson gives enough hints that someone with a knowledge of French New Wave, or Wong Kar Wai, and other impressionistic directors can fill in some gaps. It also is the sigil of the dialectic of joy and despair that ultimate the only story that the internet has to tell us. Maybe like Cayce we should put that lovely computer under our beds for awhile.


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Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Infinite Jest is a young man's book.  It is indeed at times puerile.  And not in the high minded way of Pynchon, when gets into coprophagy and Nazis.  (Too bad Wimsatt and Beardsley did not invent strictures against the perversity fallacy, that the most beastly people do beastly things in the bedroom.  There is no correlation, though there are some activities that are beastly so doing them makes the person beastly.  There is lot to mine here, but current task is Wallace the Young Man.) You don't have to read much DFW to know he was the 14 year old who could drag any conversation into a clusterfuck of inappropriate and humilating references to sexuality, body fluids and anxiety--The Broom of the System has a major character obsessed with a small penis -- so the moments of high comedy in IJ such as the AA speaker who rhapsodizes about having solid shit -- no surprise.   A lot of IJ feels like you have been cornered by the 14-year old boy who, yes, made you laugh back then, sometimes to your surprise, but also revealed himself to be a conversational sink, since he could bring the topic back to his obsession.  Which was not your obsession.  (To be honest, this is not unlike the feeling one gets when reading Norman Mailer obsessing about anal sex, except the aim is not humor.)  At this point (and you hope at his age), you don't think the fascination with the horrible necessarily indicts men as a gender or humanity as a species.  Nor the fact that seen from sides the horrible is funny.  But if one dwells on the horrible at length, if one endows it with some spiritual grace, then it starts to feel like projection.  The walls of irony start to fall and cows go black in the night.  Which in fact might have been DFW's point, as the book ends with the two (protagonists is not the word, because both characters are done to rather doing) are in states of suspension, either in asserted ungodly amounts of pain with hallucinatory and uncomfortable visitations or with a total split of internal perspective and external presentation.

It's not cathartic, and the decision for it not to be is principled, and with precedent.  The circularity of the story is preceded by Joyce (so I am told) and Delaney's Dhalgren, while V and Oedipa Mas build quite a bit of energy by presenting the possibility of a revealed secret which is ever infinitely postponed.  But there is something deadening about DFW's choice, related to how much of the story seems given is being told 14 year old boy who wants to gross you out.   And thesis driven, since ever major character is clearly diagnosed with an addiction, the tendency of which is exactly that of The Entertainment, that is, if possible characters seek to be nothing but there addiction.  The novel verges on the schematic, though again it may reflect a principled decision on the part of DFW.  But it feels very much like that 14 year old boy is now 28 and has had enough struggles and setbacks, both because of his mood disorder and his voracious appetite for substances that, in recovery he paints with the same brush as he did much younger but attempts to purify the gross out, puerile impulse by turning the comedy into tragedy.  Because the attention he received because of his sarcasm, his ability to consider any human activity in its most base fashion, elaborated as it was by his enormous vocabulary and observational spark, indicated something wrong in the very psyche of humanity.  A refining fire was needed.  But the trouble is, the fascination with the horrible in art and in life is not simply because we think, there but for the grace of God, but also because it is DRAMATIC.  In art, of course, it offers the most startling contrasts or, in some cases, magnification.  For instance, not only is Caulfield's teacher gay, but he may also predate on the more sensitive of his students.  Bill in Oliver Twist is awful, but when he kills Jenny he confirms his awfulness.  And the fascination of fucked up behavior is itself a part of what can be called the culture of addiction.   One of the things that communities of users do is discuss what they have done on certain things;  there is always competition at such things.  And there is certainly competition in the recovery meetings described by DFW in IJ -- in fact, DFW has some fun with delineating the various sects of recovery, but he uses Gately's journey as well as Hal's journey to suggest, in contrast to such pain, any amount of narcissism and self-help pablum is acceptable.  The logic:  yes, it is awful, but the opposite is more awful.

Certainly in some cases, but if IJ is an attempt to paint a world that no longer exists, one perspective is achingly deleted.  Virtually every character's failing is laid at the hands of addiction, but it is painfully clear that every character is suffering some mood disorder or another.  It's as if therapy or mental illness is uncool while addiction is cool. in fact, the character the most derided is  the counselor at the Tennis Academy, while Hal's break results in institutionalization and Halcionization. The only episode that hints at Hal's break is his meeting with father in disguise as a therapist, in which guise James Incadenza  hopes he can talk to his son but fails.  There is a description of depression as full-body nausea, which I have read is how DFW described his own condition.  But that is a pause -- DFW is more interested in the mortifications of the flesh brought about by addiction, though they will make a better story. Twitching through a 5 day detox from meth that becomes an addiction to cough syrup is a better story than a character screaming at the walls in suicidal rage.  The ending of both could be the same --disassociation, halcion, death--but the cause of the first suggests agency on the victim.  The victim need not have taken drugs in the first place and would certainly known that the cough syrup, consumed in such quantities might be worse than the disease.  (Though admittedly addiction and obsession can make someone overlook such a problem.)

What I am getting at is that, had DFW spent time delineating in a similar way the mood/mental frailty of his characters, his novel could not have been as cruel to its characters (which is not entirely incompassionate and not without purpose, in some John Gardner sense).  The sequence -- trauma, self-medication, addiction, recovery or death -- is the preferred one, and the one with more comic and dramatic potential.  And thus more likely to allow a tutelary point, which is an indictment of a culture more interested in being entertained.

This is why I cannot read IJ again, or at least prefer not to.  I also think it is not as well made as some of its partisans believe.  There are certainly passages which seem to be housed in IJ simply because they could be.  DFW excelled at the short sketch, the postmodern genre of story as inventory, with plausible segues and juxtapositions that jump off the page. These bits are welcome, but once passed by, it is hard to not ask why they are in it.  I am sure some readers cannot see the relation of the Tennis Academy story with the Terrorist-Entertainment story, and Wallace invites it by drawing circles, but never filling them in.  But that is, folks, postmodernism.  What is much harder to deal with is his diagnosis, which seems juvenile and the projection of a mind that was shaped by its depression.  That, and one simply doesn't buy that the Entertainment would ever work the way Wallace says it would.  With it, he is entering a fraught territory, since part of the diagnosis that mass culture was destroying democracy toyed with the idea that said culture is by nature addictive.  But most research says neither, aside from the fact that drugs and mental disorders are much more efficient way of redrawing synapses.  Since both are also exacerbated by environmental factors such as poverty and cold upbringings, what it comes down is that the fact kids and people watch TV and engage in mass culture is not because it is addictive, but because it distracts themselves from what is around them.  It is palliative and perhaps symptomatic, but not addictive.  The idea that avante-garde film might be addictive--well, David Lynch actually did make that seem possibly, but really, the whole point of being avante-garde is to make people look away.

To say otherwise is to verge on the Sad Professor view of the world.  This view is not uncommon among post-50s white male novelists, but it certainly does not characterize Pynchon, Barth, Barthelme, or DeLillo.  Hide it as much he wanted (and great deal of what is worth the journey is in DFW deflections and evasions of  saying what he really thinks), DFW in IJ too often comes off the grumpy old man harping on how bad EVERYTHING HAS BECOME.  Which is possibly art, but mostly is tiresome and, upon reflection, may have something to do with his feeling that EVERYTHING HAD BEEN DONE.  In other words, howevermuch IJ is looked at as a reflection of its time, to me ultimately it is a projection of the truly unhappy (and physically unhappy) person that was DFW.  It took 15 years to determine just how unhappy,

Monday, June 8, 2015

Attacking the Truth

I think the Chronicle now publishes a version of this article every few months or so. I still think the claim that postmodernist questioning of the epistemology of science much of anything to do with right wing denialism is the very essence of an academic claim, without much validity outside of academia--it's a conflict of the faculties. Most right wing denialism is on the order of arguing against statistical sampling to determine census numbers -- it's a denial of how science is carried out now, not an Attack on Truth. For sure, smart rhetors of the right have lifted arguments made by Butler, Foucault, Latour, etc., on Truth, but the underlying epidemiological claims the Right makes against Science are against techniques that are accepted in science to establish validity of phenomenon (statistical sampling for example), or more radical claims that exceed the horizon of Newton. (Or that whole age of the Earth thing.)
What really needs debunking is the shibboleth that is "evidence-based", especially when it is used in the context of promotion of public policy. In that context, the phrase is almost empty. For instance, none of the reforms touted by No Child Left Behind policies are "evidence based" but are based on gut assumptions such as that the principal should be the CEO of the school, or multiple assessments of learning ("accountability") will help improve schools. If you think just briefly about either, you can see how these ideas resonate, but that is because they agree with assumptions you have or you know people have. This explains the attraction of the zombie idea that austerity will lead budget surplues as much as anything. (In Greece and Kansas, there are strong counterexamples.)
The further oddness of the rhetoric of "evidence-based" in the context of policy is that most scientists are pretty aware that the phrase means "the preponderance of evidence leads us to believe the outcome projected is some% probable, with other scenarios this % probable." A mouthful, which is unhelpful when it comes to media communications, which is why the rhetoric that conveys the idea that "evidence-based" means a "sure thing" wins out. More radically, since Science never establishes something metaphysically, counting on evidence to do that leads to very metaphysical nihilism and nominalism that for which postmodernism is blamed. (Whitehead's phrase, "misplaced concreteness", always comes to mind for me.)
Two responses that emerged in Science in the 1930s against the frailty of its claims were Einstein and Logical Positivism. Einstein, unhappy with the indeterminacy that emerged at the level of quantum physics told us, God does not play dice. Logical Positivism, taking its cue from Russell and Wittgenstein, tried to ringfence all concepts that had truth, according to Science, and banish the rest as metaphysics, i.e. empty or BS. Einstein might be right, but we have no paradigm yet to explain away his worry. (Maybe God is too smart for us.) LP as a system ate its own tail, when folks like Quine deconstructed the idea of verificationism as itself metaphysically founded. So there is no evidence that makes anything a sure thing, just better informed guesses and studies bolstered with better stats and math. Furthermore, if a lot of scientists working roughly in the same area agree, something is up. For some reason, folks have been revisiting Paul Ehrlich's claims about population, which lead to the idea that parts of America would be starving, like now. His are colorful, but the Club of Rome did statistical projections that lead to similar consequences. The similarity with worries about climate change is there superficial. The difference with climate change is that it is not being promoted an individual or a think tank but 1000s of scientists. So preponderance of minds as well as evidence. If someone was a philosopher of science, wouldn't be better to explore why that fact makes climate change something to believe in rather pouring scorn on a different discipline whose ideas seem to have traveled. (Not that the other discipline does not pour scorn on PoS. Time spent in Pittsburgh taught more than I really wanted to know about the conflict of the faculties on cultural studies.)

Tuesday, September 11, 2012


Look at MeLook at Me by Jennifer Egan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A timely book, though it is now ten years older.  I am catching up with Egan, having read A Visit From the Goon Squad.  The same talents there are on display here: a marveling lyric sensibility which alights on objects and people like with interest; a narrative focus on misfits and outsiders, some of whom find themselves inside; a sneakily postmodern meta approach to form; all anchored by a drive to tell story.  To reveal the contents or plot too much would be spoilery, and it is better that you apprehend it as you go, and easy to find out if you don't like surprises.  The bulk of the narrative is the story of a model, who suffered a car accident, and has had her face rebuilt ("80 Titanium screws") such that no one knows her, and the daughter of a friend from high school who stayed back in Rockford, and that daughter's cultivation of friendship and more with an uncle and a former teacher.  Woven through it are materials on industrialism and the Midwest, the sources of modern terror, and the effect of the internet upon identity.  There is a lot going on, but it is well handled, and the frenzy that starts to beset the novel mirrors the car crash that sets the entire chain of events in motion.  And lest it be thought this is informed by that day of September, the book was begun around 1995. Nothing if not ambitious, and virtually fully realized, Look at Me is novel that you can't put down, and then stays with you.


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Saturday, October 31, 2009

Post for All Hallow's Eve

It's scary that Windows 7 is striking me as pretty good for an operating system. Whatever flavor of IE I have to run not so much, but the office package is pretty good too. I still imagine a much simpler text editor would be best for first drafting of anything, but I am not of a mind to abandon the PC paradigm for this iteration. Like I said, Scary.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Setting Fire to Straw

When I was first introduced to New Historicism ...

I really wish that I remembered what I was getting based on the headline. It's suggestive and perhaps it's something I overheard. It's also snappy, which is more than I can say for the first line of the blog, which I am afraid sounds to me pretty 2004, although for some reason I felt somewhat exercised about the New Historicism as recently as last February. Do kids today care about the New Historicism? It had its charms and dooms as almost any literary theory, but for the life of me I can't remember what I had to say back in February 2009.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The Partiality of Postmodernism

It is curious fact, but rarely noted, that all the American novelists that literary journalists* consider who were born before 1950 (Roth, Bellow, Updike, Mailer) have written novels that are (avowedly or not) are "postmodern." Bellow, the seeming exception, with his curmudgeonly paleoconservatism in fact became well known because of his most postmodern work, Herzog, where the professorial protagonist writes to all and assundried historical figures or not in the Berkshires, in search for authentic history, while only bringing back pastiche. Ravelstein has its own irony (figured in the title and name of the character in "ravel," that term where the negative means to make straight), turning upon itself, even as it formally outs a friend of Bellows.**

Roth and Updike are more conscious practictioners, although the latter takes to it more as yet another demonstration of his facility, while Roth writes his most postmodern work The Counterlife (a book strange enough to be compared to Philip K. Dick's Valis) about a rant against diasporism--postmodernism fits self-conscious Roth like a glove. There are of course (successful) exceptions--Robert Stone has never resorted to an ironic structure or narration in his major works, while Alice Munro lovingly mines a territory worthy of Faulkner in a manner worthy of Chekhov--but the presence of postmodernism in the reviewers' canon belies their multiple insistences that arid theses of this mode dry up meaning and muffle readerly empathy. The most insistent demonstration of this is the fact that, after writing The Naked and The Dead, Norman Mailer in his highly conscious quest to be the Great American Novelist had his greatest impact with Advertisements for Myself and his nonfiction novels, The Armies of the Night and The Executioner's Song. More power to the Norman, but at some point American literary journalists should come clean about how, a clean well-lit be damned, they loves themselves some postmodernism.



*Imagine Michiko Kakutani or Sam Tannenhaus, and then try to imagine writers with more imagination, intelligence or, what the hell, elan. There are exceptions to this paradigm, but they do not include Jonathan Franzen when he reviews.

**
and presciently diagnoses how (postmodern) Straussian neoconservatism works