Infinite Summer

Formed in the summer of 2009 to read David Foster Wallace's masterwork "Infinite Jest".
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 Post subject: why the fancy language? effects and intentions
PostPosted: Wed Jul 15, 2009 8:15 am 
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I was going to post this as a comment to the blog but I've strayed so far from the actual topic of the blog posting that I thought it'd fit better here. And I'd like to hear what other people think. I've heard some complaints about the hyperprecise language, the medical terminology, etc. but I think that choices about the language were very deliberately made, and that becomes clearer the further into the book you get.

I think the language that some people find problematic speaks to our impulse to make actual things (mostly unpleasant or difficult things) abstract so they are easier to deal with... not easier to understand, but easier on the psyche. Obscuring or intellectualizing the meaning of something unpleasant softens the blow. Like, say, an addict who disengages himself by thinking of his disease in purely intellectual terms.

Since I didn't hover over DFW's shoulders when he wrote this I don't know if this was his intention, but now that the book exists apart from its author intentions don't matter as much as what the book has to say itself as an artifact of its time.


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 Post subject: Re: why the fancy language? effects and intentions
PostPosted: Wed Jul 15, 2009 8:40 am 
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DFW was a logophile; he collected old dictionaries and made a point to use exotic words in his writing. Why? Maybe because he liked the way they nettled on the mental tongue. Maybe because uncommon words' meangings are less watered down or muffled than common words. It’s a choice between the scalpel and the butter knife: both can do the jobs knives do, but one is sharper, more knife-ish, less trowel-like. The irony, of course, is that using those ‘scalpels’ makes DFW harder for most people to understand because they’re so unfamiliar.

I've also considered DFW's language choices in this way:

A person’s vocabulary is like a cave system. Every word is a room in that cave. The different definitions/conotations each word can represent are the stalactites, stalagmites, etc. One definition of the word "condone" is “to excuse”; a second is “to give tacit approval to” (Then there is the scenario where a band half-heartedly says they do not condone their fans' mosh pit and then play music that is very clearly meant to inspire more moshing). In the Condone Room of my Word Caves, the “tacit approval” definition might be a huge stalactite in the middle of the room while “excuse” is a smaller one in a corner of the room. In your Condone Room, it might be reversed. We both know both definitions of the word, but we may differ on which is more prominent. This creates potential for misunderstanding. When I say condone, I may be meaning (grammar?) “excuse.” When you hear me say condone, however, you may hear “tacit approval.” Usually, that’s not such a big difference, but it matters to DFW, I think, because that misunderstanding is part of the loneliness he’s writing about, part of the missed connections that this book deals with. Every effort we make to express ourselves to other people is prone to one species of misunderstanding or another.

But there’s another level of loneliness here. Pretend for a moment that we each have the “excuse” definition front and center in our respective Condone Rooms so that when you hear me say “condone,” we’re largely on the same page. Even then, there is variance in our understandings of “excuse” which we can represent by two stalactites’ unique shapes. The size and texture of “excuse” is different for you and I because of our different experiences and the way we’ve interpreted those experiences. To draw out the Word Cave metaphor further, imagine that our caves are made of different types of rock. I pick limestone. You can pick whatever. Because we have different rock types (different genes, experiences, and brain chemical firings) our Word Caves and the rock formations inside of them have developed differently. So even when we think we’re seeing and understanding and hearing the same stuff, we’re not. The difference is probably not too large in most instances, but there is a difference.

Consider ‘consequence.’ What does our generation know about consequence in comparison with our grandparents and parents? We have a million innovations that make it possible to live an insulated and- relative to those generations- less consequence-ridden life. We don’t have to plan ahead or think about the weight of consequences nearly as much as previous generations did because ours is such an instantaneous society. Don’t want a pregnancy but want the orgasms? BC or The Morning After Pill! Have a paper due next week? Cut and Paste! Lonely? Call a friend right now! Step on a nail? Tetanus shot!

Finally, all that might amount to a bunch of bupkiss; I'm vaguely familiar with Wittgenstein and DFW's feelings towards Wittgenstein's thoughts on what words are. Broom of the System plays with the Big W a bit and so does an essay in Consider the Lobster concerning language use. Someone with more confidence in their knowledge of this aspect of DFWs personal philosophy, please clear up whatever confusions I may have created here.


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 Post subject: Re: why the fancy language? effects and intentions
PostPosted: Wed Jul 15, 2009 9:15 am 
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Scalpel, yes. Reading IJ has made me nostalgic for my college days because the campus had a subscription to the OED online. Looking up the etymology for every fifth word Nabakov used in Pale Fire revealed more about the book than going to class did. I can only imagine the interesting things you could pluck out of IJ. If only I had $295/year to drop.


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 Post subject: Re: why the fancy language? effects and intentions
PostPosted: Wed Jul 15, 2009 10:37 am 
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My reasoning on this is a lot less smart than storm's; I know my 'cave system' is much smaller than that! But what comes to mind for me when I encounter DFW's sometimes fancy terminology is that he's playing around with us, like a secret message in the text where he jumps out in kind of smartassy but not arrogant or intimidating way and maybe throws out a word he knows is going to send us off to the teleputer to figure out.

One of my favorite novels is called Mustang Sally, by Edward Allen, from around 1992. I don't know how popular it is, but I've never met anyone else who has read it. It's a really fun story of how an English professor has an affair with a former student-turned-hooker (and daughter of best friend), which leads into this farcical downward spiral through the campus politics of sexual harassment. It includes a short essay by same student, which is hilariously bad (entitied Things Happen in Pairs of Threes), which comes to mind when I read the Helen Steeply's 'heartless' article. But also, there's a part of the plot centered on a conference of the Modern Language Association, featuring presentations with goofy titles like "Degenitized Selvings: Female Gard(e)ners on the Primrose P(l)ath" and "Reobjectivizing Herstory in the Post-Contemporary Rape Canon" and "Five Hundred Years of Your God-Damned Glory: Is Columbus (Be)coming B(l)ack?"

In a similar way--and because I think he is way familiar with that kind of setting--I think much of DFW's stuff is a riff on overbaked 'academese', including elements like footnotes and excessive hyphen use and chapter titles that take up a full page, as well as like the G.T. Day report Struck is trying to make his way through in the famous Endnote 304, and the Moms's militant defense of grammar. He adopts that academic voice and exaggerates (or not!) and plays with it, adding it to the multiple other plates he is spinning simultaneously.

As serious as the themes are in IJ, as heartbreaking as certain passages are, I find myself delighted with how he does this kind of thing. For me, it is like in the middle of the text, at various points, he picks up a ball and says 'let's play.'


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 Post subject: Re: why the fancy language? effects and intentions
PostPosted: Wed Jul 22, 2009 4:37 pm 
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To flog a deceased metaphor, words are the paintstuffs and motifs of the writer-artist. More words, more color, more motifs.

And ditto the notion above that seldom-used words are often substantially less freighted with layers of problematic implications or alternately and more critically are almost always less stripped-mined of actual importance and substance and other tances that I'm sure I'm forgetting than many of the more common words that you just can't get away from, such as 'freedom', which has over time become less word and more animalistic wail indicating herd cohesion.


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