Entries from March 2009
27 March 2009 · 11.00 pm · by ag1646 · 1 Comment
In class there was a little bit of discussion regarding whether Everything and More even needed to include all the technical math terms, symbols, and proofs. Since DFW seems to be trying to illuminate the historical/aesthetic aspect of infinity, why not just stick to descriptive writing, right? For most of the people in class, it seemed that the math became a big headache. Some math majors felt that the technical aspect of the book came off as reductive and serous. For most of the humanities people, the math jargon was either ignored or dismissed as way too abstruse. I’m going to submit, however, that the technical breakdowns are necessary for Wallace to communicate the beauty and profundity he sees in the history of infinity.
(Note: whether Wallace conveys this effectively isn’t what this post is addressing. I’m just saying if this is what the book is going for, technical explanations are necessary)
A key component of the aforementioned communication is our ability to appreciate the subject Wallace is dealing with. Wallace needs to show us not just why, but how, to appreciate Cantor’s discovery. Since appreciation, I think, derives from experience, we need to some how experience the buildup toward infinity.
Analogy: We appreciate Michael Jordan’s jump shot because we know how difficult it is to make a basket over a defender. We appreciate Wallace’s essays because we know how hard it is to write well, and we’ve read lots of mediocre writing. In the case of Everything in More, we need to experience the abstractness and difficulty in thinking about infinity to truly appreciate the astounding discoveries of Cantor and company (another subject of our appreciation is the historical context: mathemeticians being dismissed as heretics, their battle against the beliefs of time, etc., but that’s for another post).
Hence Wallace’s opens the book by saying that “abstractions ha[ve] all kinds of problems and headaches built in, we all know” (11). He’s already starting to get us to think about this stuff in a broad sense. When we actually get to specifics like derivatives, integrals, and number lines, we accordingly need more specific explanations. It’s arguable that broad definitions could get the job done, e.g., to just say that an integral is the “area bound by a curve” – and Wallace does this in the emergency glossary (p. 109) - but it doesn’t do much in communicating serious meaning, I think.
If one actually sits down and fights through one of these proofs, however, one might actually gain deeper apprecation for the ingenious mind behind it. For most non-math people, these concepts are not easy – that’s the point. If we can feel the difficulty of these abstract ideas, we can begin to form some sense of the sheer brilliance of Cantor, Dedekind, et al. It’s more than paying lip-service to their genius because they’ve been exalted by history; it’s more like feeling it. To know, empirically, that they have done something incredible. And as far as I can tell, beauty and profundity always manifest as feelings.
Tags: discussion · reading response
27 March 2009 · 12.25 pm · by sherlockelly · Comments Off
In case it got lost in the bowels of the blog:
Infinite Jest Tour of Boston
Tags: reading response
25 March 2009 · 3.25 pm · by Ryan · 2 Comments
We started talking about the nature of addiction at the end and whether there’s a positive aspect to it, but I don’t know if it was fully covered. So, let’s have ourselves a thought experiment:
A corporation produces a drug we’ll call soma after the Huxley product. However, this drug’s existence is free from the other bad things in Huxley’s novel. All that happens in this thought experiment is that the company produces the product and various governments subsidize the product so anyone can have it as much as they want for free. We’ll further imagine that any possible externalities from this (e.g. the governments withholding funding to screw the public/coerce the public, any tax problems, etc. etc. ad nauseam). All that’s happening is that the public has unlimited access to a drug with no side effects that creates a euphoric, psychedelic high.
The question is, is this a bad thing?
And, to add another comparative layer, if this drug had vicious withdrawal symptoms that wouldn’t kill but would force the person back into drug therapy, is that a bad thing?
And the third question is, how is this different than any other kind of addiction? Isn’t life, in that it’s a process designed to elicit pleasure from activity, an addictive process? And how do we escape this cycle of addiction?
That’s a lot to digest, I know. I’m interested in hearing your thoughts.
25 March 2009 · 3.21 pm · by kk · Comments Off
While finishing up Everything and More, I came across a familiar paradox:
“Russell also has a famous way to set up his Antinomy in natural language, to wit: Imagine a barber who shaves all and only those who do not shave themselves-does this barber shave himself or not?” (Everything 278 IYI2).
“Lenore nodded. â€˜Gramma really likes antinomies. I think this guy here,’ looking down at the drawing on the back of the label, â€˜is the barber who shaves all and only those who do not shave themselves’” (Broom 42).
In The Broom of the System, Wallace uses the barber paradox as more of a plot device than anything else. Lenore Senior leaves the drawing of “a person, apparently in a smock. In one hand was a razor, in the other a can of shaving cream. Lenore could even see the word â€˜Noxzema’ on the can. The person’s head was an explosion of squiggles of ink” (Ibid.) for Lenore Junior as a clue to the whereabouts of Lenore Senior. While Lenore Senior is indeed big on words and antinomies, the barber paradox is not really all that important to the story in the end.
In Everything and More, on the other hand, Wallace uses the paradox as it was originally used by Bertrand Russell in an effort to explain Russell’s Paradox. Russell’s Paradox, from what I can glean, is a long proof that eventually ends with the paradox that the set of normal sets is both normal and abnormal (sorry if I’m butchering this, math friends). Basically, the paradox here serves to help readers gain a better understanding of Russell’s Paradox through more concrete language than the original theorem offers.
My question, then, is why? Why does Wallace use the barber paradox in both The Broom of the System and Everything and More? I know this is backtracking to the beginning of the semester, but reading the paradox in its “original” state in Everything and More makes me wonder all the more exactly what it’s doing in The Broom of the System. Also (and here comes some sort of fallacy, I’m sure), I think it’s really interesting to note that The Broom of the System was Wallace’s senior thesis, which came just a few short years after his abrupt “click” away from the world of math. It’s interesting to see that math still plays a role in his first novel, no matter how subtle it may be. Furthermore, Wittgenstein apparently tried to prove that Russell’s Paradox was incorrect and should be disposed of. I don’t know if this movement got much of a following, but it is worth noting, especially given Wallace’s many Wittgenstein-like characteristics.
When I read The Broom of the System at the beginning of the semester, I had no idea that the barber paradox was as famous as it is-in fact, I had never heard of it before. But after having read Everything and More, it makes me wonder if the paradox plays a larger role in The Broom of the System than as a mere plot device, or something to just ponder over while reading page 42 and then forget about. Any thoughts?
Tags: reading response
23 March 2009 · 10.39 pm · by mr · 2 Comments
In this new section of Infinite Jest, Wallace puts a lot of attention directly on addiction, specifically the recovery process. His story of Boston AA meetings, especially from Gately’s perspective, exposes some of the nuances and details of rehab. Sections in particular that highlight this are on pages 200-205 and 343-367.
Most notably the passage mentioned above reminds me of a concept Wallace suggested on page 202 and in footnote 70 called the “abusable escape.” When recovering from addiction, DFW explains that patients cope with the emotional tension of withdrawal from whatever substance by finding a new pastime to fill the void. He says on 202, “That sleeping can be a form of emotional escape and can with sustained effort be abusedâ€¦. That purposeful sleep deprivation can also be an abusable escape. That gambling can be an abusable escape, too, and work, shopping, and shoplifting, and sex, and abstention, and masturbation, and food, and exerciseâ€¦” (Infinite Jest 202). Now, what becomes immediately clear is that just about anything at all can become an abusable escape. Anything. DFW obviously selects opposing principles in his definition, likely to drive home this very point. He also continues the idea in footnote 70, which I believe is another example of significant material being left out of the main text (like we briefly discussed in class on Monday the 23rd).
That footnote is significant in that DFW uses the long list of harmless pastimes (yoga, chewing gum, solitaire, cleaning) to show that to a recovering addict, just about anything (“ad darn near infinitum”) can replace the offending substance. He even suggests that the addiction recovery process is an emotional, abusable escape from addiction, a notion that seems almost contradictory. He says in footnote 70, “quiet tales sometimes go around the Boston AA community of certain incredibly advanced and hard-line recovering persons who have pared away potential escape after potential escape until finally, as the stories go, they end up sitting in a bare chair, nude, in an unfurnished roomâ€¦until all that’s found in the empty chair is a very fine dusting off of white ashy stuffâ€¦ (Infinite Jest 998). Recovery from addiction here proves to be an addiction worse than what they had before. Addiction to avoiding abusing emotional escape becomes avoiding emotional escape all together.
So all this begs the question, where does emotional escape end and abuse of that escape start? All the cited activities seem relatively painless and certainly not intrinsically or chemically addictive, so it becomes difficult to discern exactly when abuse starts. The same is true of addictive substances, but usually you can tell when addiction’s starting because lives start getting messed up. Recovering patients need activities to pass the time and keep their mind off of Substance, but how much is too much exactly? This is where Don Gately’s section (343-367) comes in, especially when he begins to discuss Joelle. He perhaps uses observation of others as an escape, but with Joelle Gately takes a markedly keen interest. DFW says, “but this Joelle van Dyne, who Gately feels he has zero handle on yet as a personâ€¦” (Infinite Jest 364). So is Joelle an example of Gately abusing his own emotional escape? Or does it not matter because observing people is harmless and seems to help keep his own substance addiction at bay? It’s worth thinking about, I think.
Also, why does DFW draw such a distinction between Boston AA meetings and other places? Just a side note I guess.
Tags: reading response
23 March 2009 · 1.35 pm · by tleggett · 6 Comments
Reading DFW’s Everything and More I feel as though I am entrenched in a literary version of the Discovery Channel. Just as the Discovery Channel is bringing an interesting but very difficult concept to new light, DFW does the same in this work using the tools and tricks of a modern fiction writer instead of multiple screenshots of surreal landscapes. Aside from the new subject matter, a different side of DFW seems to be revealed in this self acclaimed ‘booklet’: the book is written in a [chronological] series of sections, catch phrases are defined, there is an index. I think that these were added to ease reader confusion and are atypical of DFW’s writing. IYI is an a abbreviation that I truly find it hard to take seriously after reading Wallace’s earlier work: of course I’m interested, if I wasn’t why would I take the time to read. I think that when Wallace presented his original edit of E&M to the “Great Discoveries” editors it may have come off as pretentious and high minded. Without an ‘IYI’ and a reachable glossary, DFW assumed that his readers could do the math just had never taken the time. I’m almost sure the editors forced the forward and glossaries. This is helpful, but took a lot of merit from the text itself. The book now is presented as a way to almost ‘dumb down’ the math so that everyone could learn and skip over parts which proved too difficult. This brought in reviewers who thought of the book as ‘infinitely confusing’ or ‘when good novelists do bad science’. DFW was never trying to do science, only make scientific thinking more accessible to those who never took the time to try it. In this way DFW proves to be a Discovery Channel for literature, never does Planet Earth claim to be making discoveries but it can open unexperienced eyes toward uncharted waters. DFW cringes at mathematicians in the audience the way the Discovery Channel cringes when ecologists are in the audience. I think he does a wonderful job explaining what I don’t understand. Do you?
Tags: reading response
23 March 2009 · 12.57 pm · by will · 3 Comments
Reading through Everything and More with DFW’s McCaffery interview discussion of the purpose of art in mind, I’m tempted to treat mathematics as a language, and assess its value as a method of communication. Now, in some ways, math’s a great language: It’s a formal system. As DFW went over in §1, this basically means that it starts with a set of axioms and then deductively derives all other expressions from the relationships and properties of these axioms, or from previously deduced expressions. The driving force of the expansion (or to use DFW’s term abstraction) of a formal system is going to be the purification of that system, the rationalization of relationships and aspects of the system which seem paradoxical, or irreconcilable. A perfect formal system would be one that was totally free of contradiction or paradox at every level of abstraction, each statement being deductively provable as consistent with the system or inconsistent, true or false; Infinity proves to be such an interesting subject because it has, throughout history, been a chink in mathematics’ armor, it has been an imperfection in the formal system of mathematics since Zeno (Mathematics being a formal system aspiring to perfection, the attempted solutions to the problems of infinity literally are the history of mathematical progress). Anyway, because math is a formal system, two different people who understand math will understand it in close to exactly the same way, all proven propositions can be understood by anyone who reads through the proof. An almost exactly mutual body of knowledge is shared by people at the same level of mathematical knowledge. This is great communication-wise because it means that we’re all very much on the same page, all vocabulary is singularly and perfectly denotative, all symbolic representation singularly interpretable, and thus the knowledge contained within each symbolic representation is communicated perfectly by that representation.
But exactly what kind of knowledge is communicated by mathematics? Pure math hopes to get at a more perfect understanding of the formal system of mathematics, a refinement of the language so to speak. Basically the knowledge pure mathematicians hope to communicate is knowledge about math itself; what does and doesn’t fit into the system, how and why. This makes pure math a bit esoteric (which tends to be the complaint of most high school pre-cal students, who find themselves asking why they need, or even would want, to understand trigonometric identities) but also makes it kind of the metafiction of mathematics, and the type of math that advances mathematics itself most consistently. Case in point, historically, pure math has tended to invent ideas which are only later discovered to be ‘useful.’
Which brings us to applied mathematics. It turns out that anything that can be described quantitatively can also be described mathematically, and so the powers of the formal system, namely unambiguity, can be brought to bear on the real world. In this way, the project of modern mathematical science can be thought of as the description of the world in the terms of a formal system. Indeed, the divergence of science and philosophy came when science embraced the language of mathematics to describe the world while philosophy remained grounded in traditional verbal language. Their projects remain the same, their methods are all that’s diverged. But when you start trying to describe the real world you’re intrinsically limited by the language you’re using, and this is important to keep in mind. It’s easy to see why mathematical platonists see some higher world of mathematical relationships at the core of experience, but isn’t this kind of like claiming the word tree created the thing, that grammatical relationships are at the core of experience? In the end when you describe the world, you’re fitting the world to your language more than your language to the world, so does it really matter what language you’re speaking? is the whole project moot in the face of solipsism? Does the project of pure math succeed, as metafiction attempted, in being modest enough so as to be truly achievable?
Tags: reading response
23 March 2009 · 12.54 pm · by marram · 4 Comments
Math has never been one of my strong points in school and I guess it has to do with the lack of objectivity that I think exists within it. Now I’m not a math major and taking Calculus right now is probably the cause of my hair falling out, but from the way I see Math, I tend to see it as an un-objective subject. When you were young you were taught 2 plus 2 is 4. That is it. It’s not 3, it’s not 5, it’s not 4 1/2, it is 4 and that is final. You get to high school and learn that 2x plus 2 = 4 and that you can solve for x and get an answer. You will always get an answer that can be proven right (or wrong).
So when I learned that there was an “infinity” in math I was shocked. No answer? 2 plus 2 is four, how can you tell me that there is actually a question whose answer is infinity: an immeasurable number of an answers?
Now seeing that we would be reading a book on math, on the concept of infinity, I wondered how it would be possible for an author to take such a subject an write about it in a literary way. I did have more hope because since infinity is infinite and there is no one answer saw this concept as more literary than say a simple algebraic equation that has just one answer. I think by picking infinity Wallace tries to portray an item in math, that although is usually thought of as subjective for a lack of variety in answers, he chose to take the one item that is abstract because it can be an infinite amount of things.
I think Wallace was actually able to do do that right away in “Infinite More.” On page 13 he talks about the concept of abstraction and how it is an answer because there do exists things that we as humans do not really want to know. “The dreads and dangers of abstract thinking are a big reason why we now all like to stay so busy and bombarded with stimuli all the time.” Then come this whole idea about waking up too early and thinking that the floor might collapse comes up. And we get a feeling of paranoia, actual fear that “you know what? The speaker is right, how do I know that the floor won’t collapse on me?”
(As I just arrived last night from spring break and am now looking at my 48 lb suitcase on the floor and wondering if that extra weight might actually crack the floor, my personal paranoia is starting to increase.)
Maybe Wallace wants to show us how the abstractness in Math can be written about in a literary way?
23 March 2009 · 12.07 pm · by erinlikescupcakes · 7 Comments
Can we talk a little about DFW’s use of the word “sexy” in Everything and More? I know it’s minor, but the word choice proved to be distracting for me. Every time he noted that something was for “sexy technical reasons” (73) I was completely put off and spent a while trying to figure out what he could possibly mean calling a mathematical theory “sexy.” I came to two options: either DFW is forcing humor to criticize our society’s obsession with sex appeal, or he genuinely believes that this math stuff is sexy.
At first I thought maybe DFW was being a little ironic. I’d never venture to call anything mathematical sexy. It just seems silly to refer to something that is logical, lacking emotion and passion, and probably written in a textbook as sexy. Perhaps the usage of the word is a kind of nod to the way the media these days likes to use the word “sexy” to describe basically anything. This comes up a lot in advertising, where anything from Kleenex to apples can be marketed as a sexy product. We’re eager to label something sexy to sell it to someone, because sexy has become the desirable adjective. The placement of a math theory next to the word sexy seems like the extreme outcome of our strange fascination with sexiness.
So is this all in jest? Is the “sexy” terminology here poking fun at the way pop culture can turn anything into sexy, even numbers? Or does DFW genuinely believe math can be sexy? Certainly he finds math to be “beautiful” (1) and wants to convince the reader of the same. But sexy seems to be a bit of an extreme- do we even want to see math as sexy? I’m a bit hesitant. DFW seems to view the complexities of complex math to be compelling. He would like us to engage and become somehow personally involved with the concepts in this book. But is anyone actually convinced that infinity is sexy?
It comes to this question of whether math can be emotional and personal. Is it simply objective and purely logical, or is there personal feeling involved? I’d guess that someone with more experience in math than me could explain a mathematical intimacy that I can’t quite comprehend.
Tags: reading response
23 March 2009 · 11.49 am · by rudy · 1 Comment
On page 1 of “Everything and More,” Wallace tells us what IYI means, “If you’re interested,” he says. On page 2, he tells us that it really means this is “material that can be perused, glanced at, or skipped without serious loss.” The question that I kept thinking as all of these IYIs kept distracting me is why is this the first time Wallace explicitly gives us the option to only read some of the footnotes he has provided?
Before EAM, Wallace includes many footnotes or endnotes in his works. Does this new statement regarding the footnotes explicitly mean that the preceding footnotes have all been mandatory, or have they all been optional up until now? If he intended for the footnotes to be optional, it is hard to see how these new footnotes, the IYIs, can be somehow more optional than optional. Also, if all of the other footnotes are optional, then what status does this place on the non-IYI footnotes in EAM? The only conclusion I can come to is then that the footnotes he has included in all of his other works are somehow mandatory, that they all need to be read even if you aren’t interested in what they have to say or what they are commenting on.
That Wallace uses so many footnotes and digressions in his works then seems to point to a larger problem in some sense, that if these pieces of information should be included in the text itself instead of as numbered notes relegated to the bottom of the page or the end of the book in some cases. His digressions about topics already make the arguements he tries to present or the information he is trying to convey harder to follow. It says to me that he should either learn how to streamline what he is saying, or just not include them at all. This may all sound like complaining, but his footnotes and digressions are one of the things that I enjoy the most about his work, it lends his voice to it, and it makes his works sound like there is someone talking to you as opposed to you reading what someone else has written. The footnotes in that view are then his answers if you were to ask him “What?” as he is talking.
But I digress…why, if these “If you’re interested” footnotes are only IYI, are they not placed as endnotes? They would cease to be in the way. They wouldn’t take up any valuable page real estate. You would only have to see them if truly, you were interested in what they had to say and wanted to know more about something. The footnotes in EAM have been very distracting, moreso than any of the other things we have read by Wallace so far. I found myself several times turning the page, seeing that there are footnotes, and reading those first. This would be followed by finding what on the page needed that footnotes, then eventually getting around to reading the actual page, which is hopefully what Wallace intended us to be reading in the first place. Oftentimes, the footnotes were the more interesting tidbits of information than what he put on the page, but if they are distracting to this level, why not just make a whole book out of footnotes?
Regardless of most of what I have said before, I think this book would have been much better served by using a system of endnotes as Wallace does in “Infinite Jest.” Although I have found myself flipping back to the back of IJ often, it only happens when I run into something that I actually want to know more about what he is talking about instead of being distracted by different sized words which are lurking at the bottom of the page, tempting me with more interesting, but probably more useless comments in the context of the work as a whole. All in all, his footnotes raise too many questions in my mind which are not answered in any of his digressions, endnotes, or footnotes, so I need to find somewhere else to ask and have them be answered.
Anyone still interested?
Tags: reading response