Entries from March 2009
23 March 2009 · 11.41 am · by cgf02007 · 1 Comment
Rarely on blogging day do I have anything that I would deem “valuable” to contribute to the class blog. Today is no exception; however, I have found another person’s words valuable enough to confidently call this a worthwhile post.
“Number Theorist Michael Harris is a global leader in the arithmetic theory of automorphic representations…Harris received his Ph. D in 1977 from Harvard University. He taught at Brandeis University until he moved to Paris VII in 1994. Since 2001 he has been a member of the Institute Universitaire de France, and is currently visiting Harvard University. ” (UCLA Distinguished Lecturers Series 2004) In 2004, Harris reviewed Everything & More (E&M) for Notices of the American Mathematical Society. His comments put E&M in terms I, lacking a mathematical background, could not have: it “is laced through and through with blunders of every magnitude” (“A Sometimes Funny Book Supposedly About Infinity,” 632). Harris elaborates on a few of these blunders (635-636), which are called by another reviewer a “smattering of technical infelicities” (New York Times Book Review). Harris also suggests a couple of reasons why so many blunders occur in E&M, suggestions which I will consider in order of the intensity of discomfort I felt upon reading them, from is-DFW-pretending-to-be-intelligent (more uncomfortable) to DFW-is-so-intelligent (less uncomfortable).
Harris’s more disconcerting suggestion is that Wallace simply does not know as much as he claims to know, and that Wallace’s writing is revered on the basis of pop-cultural blind faith. He says, after illuminating just a few of Wallace’s blatant (to the mathematician) mistakes, “Will DFW’s “real following” be upset to learn that the author may neither know nor “know” as much about trigonometric series as he appears to believe?” He then refers to a series of topics–covered in great length in Infinite Jest–about which Wallace apparently made myriad mistakes: “Or that, by extension, his familiarity with optics, Quebecois dialect, and psychotropic drugs is not as extensive as the numerous footnotes to IJ suggest? Will they have any way of finding out?” (636) This last question is what really jarred me, because had I not read this review it’s entirely possible that I never would have known that DFW had misrepresented Quebecois dialect or misinformed the reader about psychotropic drugs. But, what Harris doesn’t explicitly state is that he’s conflating “errors” in two very distinct genres, pop technical writing and fiction, two genres in which mistakes may serve entirely different purposes (including no purpose at all, except to highlight the insufficient knowledge base of the author).
Despite the fact that Harris conflates “errors” in both genres, he notes the possibility that errors could be serving an intentional purpose for Wallace. Before quoting Harris, I want to point out my knee-jerk reaction to the notion that errors can serve a function other than to point out the ineptitude of the author. It seems that critics attempts to give errors a positive utility in pieces of writing of any kind (especially nonfiction, especially scientific, semi-biographical nonfiction) are the equivalent of spinners on a broken-down 1991 Honda Civic hatchback with 200k plus miles–only for show. I immediately think they tend to have zero legitimate value but make an otherwise shitty object seem for a second interesting and worthwhile. This is wrong, I’m ready to admit. In Portrait, Joyce has Jesuit priests repeatedly quoting bible verses then claiming that they come from nonexistent books and chapters of the bible, which none of the other characters ever contest. It happens with such frequency and consistency that most critics believe it to be Joyce’s sly way of showing the oft-unchallenged moral justifications priests used in their proselytizing. But there are some critics who still think Joyce simply made mistakes, and my gut tends to side with those critics on matters like these.
So back to Harris–
“A college student and fellow passenger on the Boston subway spotted me reading E&M and asked me what I thought of the book. My response was substantially equivalent to the present review. She had also read the book, of which she understood very little, but “I assumed it was me.” Reading IJ had also been hard work, so she had no reason to expect E&M to reveal its secrets without effort. True enough. Much that appears to be casual in IJ turns out to be crucial to understanding the structure as well as the author’s intentions. The same may conceivably be true of E&M, that the book only appears to be about the mathematics of infinity but that the author’s real purpose is elsewhere: to tell a story or a joke whose point this reviewer has not worked hard enough to grasp. I have worried about this sometimes. But it has not kept me from getting out of bed in the morning.”
I quote Harris at such length because every portion of the passage had a different effect on my perception of E&M. I have certainly found reading IJ to be a task that requires freqent back-flipping and OED consulting, but did not for some reason think that E&M would require the same sort of effort. Probably because it is introduced by Wallace as a piece intended to claim that Cantor’s work is “interesting and beautiful” (7) through simplistic explanations of the math behind his work. Multiple times Wallace says that appreciating Cantor’s work will not require advanced mathematical training. I understood that as assurance that someone could casually read E&M and appreciate Cantor’s contribution to mathematics. Upon second examination, I realize that this assurance is not necessarily a license to read any less carefully than one must read IJ to find beauty. But that the errors Wallace makes in E&M are media through which he jokes about the efficacy of pop technical writing or the impossibility of representing truth when discussing abstraction (New Yorker’s reviewer Jim Holt’s and Harris’s ideas, respectively) requires a level of careful (read: blind) reading I find impossible to perform without being told to.
This is Harris’s less disconcerting idea, that DFW has a master plan behind all the errors and that Harris just couldn’t decode that plan. Just as Holt and Harris argue that E&M’s errors are attributable to authorial intent, one could argue that a master plan behind the errors in IJ is identifiable, if told where IJ’s errors are committed. For example, the misinformation about psychotropic drugs, which fills a good deal of the footnotes and if one has read certain other DFW probably reminds one that DFW seems to have some personal experience with the Physician’s Desk Reference, could be perceived as a recognition that even with access to endless information about drugs and a passionate interest in their ability to mask reality, there are simply too many ways to mask that reality to keep straight. Another reading is that the side effects and chemical properties of the endless list of drugs in IJ is ultimately meaningless, because in one way or another they all seek and fail to do the same thing–mask reality. These are just off the cuff, Swiss cheese level interpretations, but the spinning-hubcap critic could certainly come up with some compelling, difficult-to-refute arguments if given the time. My point is that any time errors are found in a text that bring the author’s credibility into question, the critic/reader can take two paths, justifying the error’s using the intentional fallacy (or maybe the affective fallacy, or maybe both) or admit the author’s fallibility and humanity.
We are very reluctant to treat Wallace to the latter.
23 March 2009 · 11.26 am · by tammy · Comments Off
In Infinite Jest, Wallace writes about Tony Krause in the process of Withdrawal: “He’d naively assumed that going mad meant you were not aware of going mad; he’d naively pictured madmen as forever laughing” (303).
The fact that Tony “naively pictured” and “naively assumed” suggests that going mad does not mean forever laughing and that going mad does not mean you are not aware of the process (of going mad). Then what does going mad mean?
Suppose that Tony is in fact going mad. Then for Tony, madness certainly entails an awareness of itself. The text, however, does not explicitly state that Tony is aware of his madness. Instead, the text defines madness by what it does not mean: madness does not mean laughing forever, does not mean being oblivious of one’s own madness. The text leaves the reader to infer what madness actually means. What does the text leave the reader?
The text leaves the reader with an absence or a voidâ€”in particular, one that results from an extraction (like a dentist extracting a tooth and leaving you with this hole where your tooth used to be). Immediately before discussing Tony’s naÃ¯ve assumptions about going mad, Wallace discloses that “He [Tony] was haunted by the word Zuckung, a foreign and possibly Yiddish word he did not recall ever before hearing. The word kept echoing in quick-step cadence through his head without meaning anything” (303). In the first sentence, Wallace declares “Zuckung” as the word that haunts Poor Tony. In the second sentence, however, Wallace does not use the word Zuckung again. He does not say, “Zuckung kept echoing.” Instead, he simply writes: “The word kept echoing.” That way, the word becomes a void, emptied of its content, just as it becomes emptied of its meaning: “The word kept echoing in quick-step cadence through his head without meaning anything.” Incidentally, Wallace does not provide the reader with the meaning of Zuckung (according to the Internet, Zuckung means twitch, spasm, or convulsion in German).
Another effect of “The word kept echoing in quick-step cadence through his head without meaning anything” is that the vagueness and generality of “The word” gives the reader space to fill in another word, a different wordâ€”in which case, for me, the word would doubtlessly be “time.” Throughout the paragraph in which this sentence is embedded, “time” crops up repeatedly; the word “time” keeps echoing in quick-step cadence through the reader’s head and perhaps, “without meaning anything.”
With each repetition of “time,” time takes on another form; in the end, time ceases to mean anything at all. Wallace writes, “Time was being carried by a procession of antsâ€¦.time itself seemed the corridor, lightless at either end. After more time time then ceased to move or be moved or be move-througableâ€¦.time with a shape and an odorâ€¦.time had become shit itself” (302-303). In the last mention of “time” in the paragraph, Wallace explains that “Poor Tony had become an hourglass: time moved through him now” (303). In this metaphor, Tony becomes an hourglass, a device that measures time, but time does not move through an hourglass; sand does. This warp draws attention to time’s absence. Here, Tony becomes a metaphor for an hourglass and time becomes a metaphor for sand, but nothing becomes a metaphor for time. Nothing can do that. By rendering time a metaphor for a cornucopia of different objects and not allowing time to be a reference for any other metaphor (does this make sense?), this paragraph strips time of its denotation. Time itself becomes empty and extracted.
Perhaps this is what it means to go mad: to be emptied and to be aware of itâ€”the emptiness.
A bridge to Everything and More: Apparently, according to the dictionary, “to extract” and “to abstract” are synonymous. Check out this quote from Everything and More: “Thinking this way can be dangerous, weird. Thinking abstractly enough about anythingâ€¦surely we’ve all had the experience of thinking about a wordâ€”â€˜pen,’ sayâ€”and of sort of saying the word over and over to ourselves until it ceases to denote” (12). Compare it with “The word kept echoing in quick-step cadence through his head without meaning anything.”
Tags: reading response
23 March 2009 · 10.09 am · by elizabeth · 1 Comment
After spending the latter part of my spring break in front of the TV I think I may have come to understand “E Unibus Pluram” in a different more personal light. Don’t judge me, I don’t normally stare at the boob tube for intense amounts of time, but I was at my friends house and blah blah blah. We were being “voluntary shut ins.” We were avoiding the “psychic costs of being around other humans” (22).
After we finished the last episode of Big Love and I was alone in my room I felt drained, empty. Maybe it was because I knew I was heading back to school (this whole concept of “last semester senior” is really sinking in) and I don’t feel especially motivated to do work that should really be a pleasure. TV, like everything that unplugs your brain, puts off you problems. Even though your brain activity is lower when watching TV than while sleeping, I imagine a part of the brain still on and gnawing at problems in circles. (I know this isn’t exactly an epiphany moment, but as my title suggests this is just something I’ve been thinking about.)
The most significant part of the tribute Kathleen wrote and read to us in class is DFW’s feeling that fiction fully used his brain. He was so mentally unlazy and I really admire that. In order to do something well it must become like a meditation and one’s mind must be harnessed.
In our examination of Infinite Jest we’ve identified the theme of escape and release (in the masturbation, drug use and tennis). Those three aspects of the character’s lives illustrate that ways in which they’ve tried to control their brain. This reminded me of: “it is statistically easier for low-IQ people to kick an addiction than it is for high-IQ people” (203). I’m fond of the expression “her mind was not her friend” because it reveals a common difficulty, especially among the more bright folks.
23 March 2009 · 9.29 am · by meg · 2 Comments
I found that in our current section of reading, Marathe and Steeply (but mostly Marathe) have some interesting things to say about choice and freedom. At the start of their current segment of conversation, the two are discussing the film cartridge that has caused a growing group of individuals to watch on repeat basically until they die. Marathe says passionately (as ever), ” â€˜[N]ow is what has happened when a people choose nothing over themselves to love, each one. A U.S.A. that would dieâ€”and let its children die, each oneâ€”for the so-called Entertainment, this film” (318). Marathe considers Americans’ inability to choose what they love, and therefore really only loving themselves, the reason everyone who sees this certain cartridge so far is unable to break away. Craving entertainment is an obvious form of self-love, and this craving coupled with what appears to be the ultimate Entertainment results in the lack of desire (and even inability) to pay attention to anything but that which provides the pleasure. Marathe continues: ” â€˜The appetite to choose death by pleasure if it is available to chooseâ€”this appetite of your people unable to choose appetites, this is the death. What you call the death, the collapsing: this will be the formality only’ ” (319). In other words, the actual ceasing of bodily functions that the film cartridge prompts through catatonia is just the physical representation of what has already happened in the minds of all Americans. Once again this comes from their inability to choose what to love, and so only love themselves. In constantly craving pleasure, then, it is no wonder they would choose death by pleasure over any other cause of deathâ€”but it is in that non-choice that Marathe believes they have already died because they cease to live in any meaningful way. They do not live for others, they do not love something greater than themselves. He is arguing first that the Entertainment does not kill them because they are already dead, and if you want to play semantics and say that it does in fact kill them physically, then that is their own fault. The cartridge would not kill someone who was not already dead in the mind, obsessed with pleasure, because it would not affect them the same way. A person who could choose what to love would be able to walk away from viewing the ultimate Entertainment.
In light of the argument about choice, the argument about freedom is rather interesting. Steeply argues that it is the temptation in a free society that leads to things like watching the film cartridge. Marathe, however, views freedom differently, pointing out that it is not even well-defined. ” â€˜Your freedom is the freedom-from: no one tells your precious individual U.S.A. selves what they must do. It is this meaning only, this freedom from constraint and forced duress. . . . What of the freedom-to. How for the person to freely choose? How to choose any but a child’s greedy choices if there is no loving-filled father to guide, inform, teach the person how to choose?’ ” (320). Steeply would see Marathe’s “loving-filled father” as someone who forces, who applies that constraint that Americans like to be free from; but to Marathe, there is no way to be free unless one is taught how to choose. If a person is not taught, she will of course choose “a child’s greedy choices”–i.e. those things that demonstrate her self-love, because she does not know how to love something else, because she has not been taught how to choose what she loves.
I personally disagree with Marathe’s view here (quite possibly because I am American and therefore too immersed in my own culture to see it for what it is): I do not see us only as a freedom-from society, I think we are very much a freedom-to place as well. (Concrete example: there have been arguments surrounding the freedom of religion clause about whether atheism is a legitimate choice, because using its wording some argue that it says one is free to choose one’s religion, but not free from choosing a religion; therefore abstaining altogether (being an atheist) is not protected in this clause.) It may be that most of the time our choices are selfish, but I don’t think that is uniquely American; evolutionarily, considering myself the center of the universe is called self-preservation for promotion of the species. I don’t know whether we’re capable of choosing what to love, but once again I don’t find that an American problem, I find it a human issue.
Counter arguments? Corroboration?
Tags: reading response
22 March 2009 · 11.50 pm · by ag1646 · Comments Off
As many posts have discussed, AA operates on cliches and mindless repetition. Whether recovering addicts believe in these trite slogans is irrelevant as long as they, the addicts, keep coming, fighting the disease “one day at a time.” Eventually, those recovering begin to realize that this seemingly mindless method actually works. Understanding plays little to no part of the AA process, in the beginning.
I found it interesting that understanding almost seems in some way inferior to the faith that is required of a recovering addict. The two (faith and understanding) are juxtaposed in the footnote 90 on p. 1000, the dialogue between Gately and Geoffrey Day.
Day, well-educated and articulate, makes a tenable argument against the fundmental beliefs of AA. His skepticism is well justified, and his analysis for the most part logically sound. Day questions the “obvious and idiotic fallacies and reductia ad absurdum” of the program in long sentences full of wit and sarcasm, and overall comes off as a pretty intellectual guy. By contrast, Gately speaks in sentences that are often under ten words long. He iterates cliches. Sometimes these short sentences are requests for clarification of Day’s part. Other times, Gately is giving reassuring signs that he is listening, like “I hear you.” In short, he does not come off as very bright.
Hence, it seems counter-intuitive to me that I somehow find Day’s cerebral breakdown of AA to be full of air, but Gately’s terse replies dense and full. Day’s attempt to understand comes off as flailing and desperate, even though he makes valid points. Yet there’s something moving about Gately’s humility and sincere attempt to keep up with Day. The way Gately is trying to genuinely hear Day, and sympathize with him. Gately’s reticence doesn’t come off dumb, but profound.
Did anyone else feel this way?
Tags: reading response
22 March 2009 · 9.20 pm · by lrose · Comments Off
The whole concept of clichÃ© has caught my attention recently. At the Ennet House, we get introduced to a character named Geoffrey Day, who proclaims that he has come to Ennet House “to learn to live by clichÃ©s” (IJ, 270). How exactly does something become clichÃ© and what does it mean for one to “learn to live by clichÃ©s?”
To start with a solid definition, a clichÃ© is “a trite, stereotyped expression; a sentence or phrase, usually expressing a popular or common thought or idea, that has lost originality, ingenuity, and impact by long overuse” (http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/cliche). Day, a “recovering” drunk desires to “turn [his] will and life over to the care of clichÃ©s” (270). He wants to seek solace and comfort in phrases such as “One day at a time. Easy does it. First things first.” (270). In so doing, we learn that the result of Day’s surrendering to a life of clichÃ©s is that his life becomes “easier” (271). He explains that before a life a clichÃ©s, “I used to sometimes to think. I used to think in long compound sentences with subordinate clauses and even the odd polysyllable. Now I find I needn’t” (271). Day needn’t think because the clichÃ©s do the thinking for him. All that is necessary to live a life of clichÃ©s is to follow the directions of the short phrases, which have already been thought about, which have already been defined by others. There is, definitionally, no original thought involved in clichÃ©s. Therefore, Day’s life of clichÃ©s is an escape from personal thought or initiative.
Gately’s response to Day’s philosophy of a clichÃ©d life seems to parallel DFW’s own response to modern societies’ creation of clichÃ©. If Gately could, he would tell Day “that the clichÃ©d directive are a lot more deep and hard to actually do” (273). This is the essential point. ClichÃ©s have become clichÃ© because they have been repeated too many times to hold any significant meaning any more. But, the important thing to remember is that at some point in time, before the clichÃ© was a clichÃ©, it actually had meaning. It was once new and original and significant. The only reason that a clichÃ© has lost its meaning is because we have taken it away.
DFW’s work thus far has, in part, been a plea to stop the removal of meaning and value from what become clichÃ©s; from what we create to be clichÃ©s. In his works and in his interviews he calls for a return to the basics: to real love, and genuine emotion, and true sentimentality. But, the problem he faces in attempting to return to these basics is that we as a society have overused these ideas and made stereotypes out of them so that now they have become trite. As he talks about in the McCaffrey interview, love has become so clichÃ©d that we can no longer talk about it or express it without an ironic wink or a nudge. We have created platitudes where there used to be meaningful thought.
As he recognizes this sad fate of meaningful thought, in his writing DFW tries to get us to work to make the clichÃ©s relevant again. This is not an easy task, for they have been so overused and ingrained in us that it is almost impossible to see them as anything but stereotypical. This is why Gately wants to warn Day that clichÃ©s are “hard to actually do.” Contrary to what Day believes to be the case, if one were to truly live a life of clichÃ©s, one would have to live the clichÃ©s completely, fulfilling the value of each phrase. But, in order to do so, one would have to instill meaning back into the clichÃ©sâ€”and this is no insignificant task.
Ultimately, Day and Gately’s comments on clichÃ© highlight one of the biggest issues DFW sees with regard to modern society. But, we are still left wondering how this work to revert the clichÃ©s must be doneâ€”in neither his interviews nor in his writing does DFW give us clear directions. I suppose that merely being aware of the problem is the first step to solving anything, but what can we do next?
Tags: reading response
22 March 2009 · 8.54 pm · by Ryan · 1 Comment
What interests me most about Everything and More is how specifically it’s geared toward making the subject matter interesting for the reader. This isn’t as easy as it sounds – DFW is cognizant that not everyone loves math. His response to this both separates EAM from his other works. For instance, DFW actively works to make the book easier to digest. The Foreword, which he instructs the reader to read, features the names of all of DFW’s acronyms. One of the major devices DFW uses are these acronyms; for instance, in the Eschaton passage of IJ, DFW effortlessly administers such acronyms as AMNAT, LIBSYR, SOVWAR, DEFCON, SOUTHAF, REDCHI, MAMA, ATHSCME, MIRV, SACPOP, INDDIR, SUFDDIR, MAMA-POP, SPASEX, and so on and so forth. By immediately telling his reader “I’m going to make it easier for you to digest this work”, Wallace does two things. Obviously, he’s helping the reader, which makes it easier to attract readers. But the implication of this action is more important: he indicates that he is trying to make the work accessible. This coming from the mastermind behind the fiendish trap that is IJ!
And it continues: his footnotes have returned with a vengeance, but in front of many of them – especially those that are severely tangential – DFW puts a handy bold “IYI” in front of them (another acronym helpfully provided in the Foreword). This makes the book more accessible to the reader, which again makes the work’s content easier to read. And, if memory serves, DFW was fond of mathematics in school, but by stating that he “disliked and did poorly” (2n) in math in school, DFW makes the work more relatable. It is interesting that DFW sees it necessary to make the work easier to appreciate, but it makes sense. For instance, he is highly critical of the overly-complex approach taken by the poststructuralists in his piece “Greatly Exaggerated”. By making it easier for the reader to understand the work, DFW makes his analysis of infinity stronger in the eyes of the audience.
Tags: reading response
22 March 2009 · 7.42 pm · by hopscotch · 2 Comments
My name is Ellie and I am a math major. I admit it, I find myself a hard sciences person enveloped in the world of literature, and I thought that this book would be the missing link in my education, yet I find myself….underwhelmed. I was reading this book on my camping trip over break and my vacation companion asked me, “Could I read that if I don’t really know anything about math? I mean…what would it be like if I didn’t really understand the technical stuff?” I answered that I honestly didn’t know, as I have only approached it from the perspective of a relatively math-savvy person. However, upon reconsideration, I think the answer is quite clear: This book isn’t written for me at all, but precisely for her.
Consistently in the text, Wallace emphasizes his efforts to make this particular book accessible to the non-mathematician, but coming from the other end of the spectrum, I feel a little slighted. I feel like this text, though still distinctly charming in the way only a DFW book can be, is a perfect example of why no one ever writes math in a literary way. Simply stated, you can’t. There are many instances in this section where Wallace attempts to make a very rigorous proof understandable in plain English, and he quite literally loses the definition of the thing mathematically speaking.
Maybe I am being to picky after having had to sit through the rigorous proofs of these theorems and theories and I don’t like to see them boiled down so simply, but I genuinely feel like something has been lost in translation. Wallace himself has claimed that learning the language of math is almost like learning a different spoken language, and I fear that the jump from math to English wasn’t done quite fully.
That small complaint aside, I feel like the parts of the book not spent explaining theory have validated my choices in life. In short, Wallace articulates perfectly the reason I chose to do math and made me feel very good about this decision. The abstraction, the impossibility and the beauty of the infinite and the mind bending skull cracking problems that permeate your skin. When Wallace discusses the perplexing nature of the infinite set of infinite sets on pages 73-74, I am reminded of the first time I was told that something was “provably unprovable.” That is, that it can be shown that you cannot show that there are different “sizes” of infinity (i.e. 1,2,3,… is not “bigger that 2,4,6,…). The class where I learned that was the first time I was totally fascinated and completely baffled by a mathematical concept. In this book, Wallace completely validates that feeling.
I think it is pretty clear that I have mixed feelings on this text. I, like many of you that have already posted, entered this book with a bit of trepidation. After the first 157 pages, it remains. I think that Wallace has spectacularly touched on the interesting nature of the philosophy of the mathematics, but has fallen short in the actual theory. The main point of this post, I suppose, is to see how the other half lives. Without extensive experience in math, is the theory just as riveting as it is something new and different? Or is it just as boring as me talking about my own experienes? Please, elaborate…
21 March 2009 · 10.12 pm · by jtlax45 · 2 Comments
This is one of those times when I’m convinced that the reading Gods (as I understand them) a) must exist and b) have lined things up for a pretty delightful confluence of ideas in the things I’ve read/watched this evening. I’ll spare everyone the details of all non-DFW items – which include Bill Maher and Cynthia Ozick, among others – but I think there’s something worth comparing between the AA section of Infinite Jest and some of the ideas put forth in Everything and More. Please, bear with me for a minute.
Firstly, it’s worth noting that the AA section of Infinite Jest is stunning and impressive and – I have it on good authority – one of the best existing descriptions of what it’s like to be in AA/NA. And one of the big themes of this section is that skepticism about praying “to a ‘God’ you believe only morons believe in”(350) goes out the window somewhere along the way. The most interesting part is that this point does not seem to be when people are deepest in their respective foxholes – everyone is still a skeletal cynic when they Come In. It is instead a slow realization that correlates with the slow decrease in moments of crippling desire for your Substance. As Gately discovers with shock that days have gone by without the Substance even occurring to him, he surrenders for a second time. The first surrender was to the substance, the second surrender is to the simple theoryless fact that AA works. After hitting rock bottom, faith in AA comes not from a strong underlying theoretical framework, but from simple and obvious pragmatism. AA works. Accept it. The reasons it works are almost totally irrelevant; only the effects matter. Use it because it works, not because it’s true.
And this is where I think there’s a narrow but notable connection to Everything and More. Wallace talks about the 17th century’s increasing abstractness and the way in which this lead to the Golden age of mathematics. Math turned away from its earlier grounding in the concrete and the empirical, and these new abstractions paradoxically turned out “to work incredibly well in real-world applications”(Everything and More 107). Calculus is a great example of this growing use of math in science. Calculus is also a great example of the way in which math came to depend on science and real-world applications “to justify its own procedures.” It is this last part that I see as weirdly analogous to AA. Well before the philosophical and theoretical groundwork for calculus was rigorized by mathematicians generations later, calculus was accepted and used for no reason other than its pragmatic usefulness. “In brief, all sorts of formerly dubious quantities and procedures are now admitted to math on account of the practical efficacy”(108). Like AA, calculus was accepted because it worked.
This is not to say that the two are in any way related, but they do strike me as too similar to just pass over. The notable thing is not that people give up theoretical rigor for pragmatism in everyday life; what is notable is that even the most abstract and theoretical of disciplines is willing to do this, too.
(In case anyone is wondering, the tie to Bill Maher is this idea of pragmatic faith as it relates to religion/atheism. Maher is seriously anti-religion, but he makes his arguments mostly on the causal side of the issue. Maher’s strongest argument says that religion is bad because it’s false and symptomatic of human weakness. It seems, however, that a good counter-argument can be made for non-fanatical religion under the umbrella of practicality: religion is the best way to instill societally important values in a population. Similarly, the argument against religion should really be that, practically speaking, religion does more harm than good, that religion doesn’t work. This is how Christopher Hitchens makes his antitheist argument, to much better effect, I think.
Also, note that I’m not trying to endorse one side of the issue or another. I just wanted to point out effect-side faith in an explicit faith-skepticism context.)
19 March 2009 · 10.58 am · by emrad · 2 Comments
1. I was running on College yesterday and noticed a building’s inscription: “This building is a symbol of a house not made with hands… -Eleanor Browning Scripps” It reminded me of “Church Not Made with Hands,” and I thought, how curious, until I realized DFW probably walked past this building quite a bit…
2. I was reading Infinite Jest yesterday outside, trying to position the book to block the sun’s glare, which involved holding it at length above my head. Needless to say, my arms started to ache. I tried to stick it out, but when I got to a passage with a ton of endnotes, and kept having to flip awkwardly in the air, I gave up, flipped over onto my stomach, and started thinking about the endnotes, and the weight that must be transferred every time we move back and forth… The endnotes, I think, illustrated physically (though on a much smaller and less painful scale) the sensation of the bricklayer being pulled up and down. Is Infinte Jest too much weight to pull? It’s certainly a rather heavy book, emotionally, intellectually, psychically- and physically, of course. Does the book exceed the reader’s weight? Sometimes I think it exceeds mine- it’s got this gravity that just sucks me in- into the book’s universe but also into myself, pretty solipsistically, I might add. It’s scary sometimes, because I feel like I’m the bricklayer being yanked around by this weight, and it’s exhilerating, but also unnerving, and whenever I stop reading, I have to just sit there and like, hurt. What would Lyle say about all this? What do you say about all this?