Tuesday, June 30, 2009
Infinite Summer: Morbid? Culturally Imperial? Morbidly Culturally Imperial?
Am I alone in finding the whole idea of Infinite Summer a little morbid? The renewed interest in David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest is an obvious Good Thing—a first step toward popular as well as academic canonization—but having lived through the recent Michael Jackson Media Event, I can’t help but wonder whether the desire to read Wallace’s novel is akin downloading Thriller because Some Important Someone died. Do I sound like I’m thwacking some straw man with shovel? Because I’m not:
I have a confession to make. I don’t even like David Foster Wallace. And I don’t mean that I found Infinite Jest too lengthy on the first run-through. I mean his accessible stuff. His tales from cruise ships and lobster festivals and tennis matches and radio studios . . . So why am I here?
The short answer is that David Foster Wallace died.
That’s Ezra Klein, writing at A Supposedly Fun Blog. I’m not complaining because famous bloggers (Matthew Yglesias and Julian Sanchez among them) are horning in on my territory—although I will note that the first thing I ever published online was a mediocre seminar paper titled “Demand and the Appearance of Freedom: The Role of Corporate Media in David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest,” but only just to note it—nor, despite the above, am I really even complaining that Klein’s interest was piqued by Foster Wallace’s suicide, as a more charitable excerpt shows his interest to be far less morbid:
The slightly longer answer is that David Foster Wallace died and I cared. That was, to me, a surprise. Lots of people die. Just the other day, Ed McMahon died. It hardly registered. But Wallace was different. I read everything I could about his final days. I posted a memoriam on my site. I watched readings on YouTube. It affected me. I don’t know if it’s because he was a young writer who was felled by the violent bubble and froth of his own mind and that a small part of me relates to that. I don’t know if it’s because he was, in some way, unique to my generation, and as such, one of my own.
In the end, what’s interesting about the 25-year-old Klein’s post about the 46-year-old Foster Wallace’s novel is the notion that someone who was 18 years old when the Clash first performed in America and someone who was 18 years old the year Joe Strummer died can be said to belong to the same generation. How does that work? I’m tempted to blame it on the Internet:
Once you could identify someone’s taste by the cut of their concert tee—London Calling vs. Combat Rock, The Clash vs. Operation Ivy, Operation Ivy vs. Rancid, &c.—now that all these these bands (mostly) belong to the past tense, they’re part of that enormous cultural pool from which more recent generations sample freely. For example, someone Klein’s age will never experience the pain of the endless, fruitless search for something like the first Clash album (which, contrary to that link, has not been in print continuously since 1979), as CDNOW was in decline during his formative years. To people for whom almost everything has always been immediately available, the idea of what constitutes a culturally-determined generation is bound to be a little fuzzy.
Note that I’m not criticizing Klein for being born in a time of cultural plenty—I would rather not have spent the better part of a decade searching for this in vain—I’m merely pointing out that his inclusion of Foster Wallace among his contemporaries dumbfounds me . . . unless I chalk it up to the novel instead of the man. Wallace might not be Klein’s contemporary, but Infinite Jest could be. Now that I’m reading it again, I’m struck by how contemporary it feels. Everything that annoyed me about it in 1996 still annoys me now—the footnotes, subsidized time, the too-frequent self-indulgent sentence—but everything that felt new in 1996 still feels new now.
Given how we imagine ourselves into an intimacy with our favorite authors, it makes sense for people twenty-five years younger than Foster Wallace to feel a generational affinity for him on the basis of his novel; but that doesn’t really work, now does it? I mean in the academic sense, the means by which we identify Author X as belonging to Period Y and analyze his or her work in light of the aesthetic of Period Y. We don’t, in other words, seriously consider historical feelings of contemporaneity the way we experience our own, inasmuch as I’m fourteen years younger than Foster Wallace but, like Klein, count him as “one of my own.”
I think a few things are in play here as to the generational question. One is how DFW has always been marketed as a sort of wunderkind--even in some obituaries, the “boy genius” trope was fairly pervasive. I think a lot of people were surprised to find out that he was over 40 when he died.
Secondly, I’m not sure inter-generational fuzziness is most importantly an internet-related question, especially since the blur is actively pursued from both sides of any generational divide, this having been the case for longer than the (commercial) internet was around. I’m not sure cultural plenitude accounts for my dad continuing to listen to Top 40 long after it stopped playing “his generation’s” music, nor does it explain all the 40-year-old hipsterish folks I see at Arcade Fire shows or whatever.
Also, a 25-year-old reading IJ and calling it “one of my own” might be a little bit of a stretch, but if he has a 30-year-old older brother or sister (or just some slightly older friends), I’m not sure it’s really that strange. In situations like that, I think age can flatten out a little bit--how many 11- or 12-year-olds were hooked on Nirvana because their 17-year-old sibling was listening to it?--without it being chalked up to some sort of imperialism or internet-fueled inter-generational appropriation.
But in regards to the morbidity of Infinite Summer, I’m not entirely certain it’s really that awful a thing to be morbid about. I think a lot of people--because DFW was thought of as being or remaining so young--were hit with a huge feeling of, “Oh jeezus, my time here could be really short. I better start doing some of those things I’ve always meant to do.” And one of the most obvious things in that category was read IJ. I guess that’s opportunistic, but I’m not sure if it’s really a bad or unseemly form of opportunism.
The parallel with Michael Jackson seems inexact, since David Foster Wallace died nine months ago.
I’ll confess that Infinite Summer is spurring me to read Infinite Jest—but I was totally going to read it before I even heard about Infinite Summer, going so far as to borrow The Girlfriend’s copy. And just to make sure I’m not a total follower, I’m staying ahead of their schedule. So… yeah, so there.
"how many 11- or 12-year-olds were hooked on Nirvana because their 17-year-old sibling was listening to it?”
Yeah. I’ve always considered SoCal punk as “my music” even though I was about 8 years old when the scene actually existed. My older brother had an extensive collection and I just sort of absorbed it.
A great many people my age (dead center of “generation X") identified with Douglas Coupland in a vague sort of way even though he was a decade older than we were.
It’s been interesting seeing IJ grow into this huge intimidating icon. I read in ~98 or 99 but I don’t think it had become an institution by then.
It reminds me of Gravity’s Rainbow. I read it when I was 18 and had never heard of either it or Pynchon. If I had been aware of its outsized reputation my whole experience of the book would have been different.
To just completely sidestep the interesting stuff you wrote on generations, I’m struck by the implication that being morbid is a bad thing. I mean, *of course* it’s morbid. But death is real, and part of dealing with that reality is finding ways to be productively morbid. This strikes me as quite a good one, actually; I’m thinking of picking up a copy and joining in myself; my experience was a lot like Klein’s, and while it makes me feel a little strange to admit it, DFW does suddenly seem to mean something to me now that he didn’t before, though I don’t have any real powerful sense of why.
Your hypothesis about the always already available is interesting, but I think there’s a pre-Internet trend for generations to adopt formative works by people who are older than they are. For example, none of the big Yippies—Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, etc.—were baby boomers, but they dominate that generation’s consciousness and it’s fair if inaccurate to want to appropriate them.
One is how DFW has always been marketed as a sort of wunderkind--even in some obituaries, the “boy genius” trope was fairly pervasive.
This seems right on the money to me, i.e. “Only the young can be wunderkinds, so they must be like me!” Factor in that Klein and Yglesias are themselves wunderkinds, I can see why the affinity would be even stronger.
without it being chalked up to some sort of imperialism or internet-fueled inter-generational appropriation.
I meant “imperialism” lightly in the title—I don’t think the kids are desperately trying to conquer my cultural stuff—but this isn’t something I’m really in a position to know about anymore because I’m old.
“Oh jeezus, my time here could be really short. I better start doing some of those things I’ve always meant to do.”
Point taken. Still, I have another fifteen or so years before I catch up to DFW, and yet I didn’t feel that sudden rush of mortality (likely because suicide isn’t something that befalls you) (or maybe because I already had it a few years back with the cancer).
And just to make sure I’m not a total follower, I’m staying ahead of their schedule.
I didn’t mean for this to be a criticism of cliques or clique-ish behavior, but if people were reading it out of an obligation of hip, I’d still get behind it. Given how little fiction our pundit class reads, this strikes me as an unqualified good thing.
I read in ~98 or 99 but I don’t think it had become an institution by then.
It sort of came out of the womb that way, though. Somewhere in my files is the mess of a timeline my friends and I scraped together back in ‘96.
I mean, *of course* it’s morbid. But death is real, and part of dealing with that reality is finding ways to be productively morbid. This strikes me as quite a good one, actually
I have another post, half-finished, in which I touch on the suicide angle: it’s not just that this is a work of genius, but it’s a work of genius by a guy who killed himself after a struggle with depression and addiction about people who are struggling with depression and addiction. I decided to hold off on that angle because a lot of people haven’t read the book yet and I didn’t want to color their reading.
Your hypothesis about the always already available is interesting, but I think there’s a pre-Internet trend for generations to adopt formative works by people who are older than they are.
Absolutely, but doesn’t it seem a little different now? That is, it’s one thing for there to be a New Wave revival, but another entirely for New Wave to remain in this sort of always accessible, perpetual present, so that at any moment some new band might come along and be New Wave all by their lonesome.
That is, it’s one thing for there to be a New Wave revival, but another entirely for New Wave to remain in this sort of always accessible, perpetual present, so that at any moment some new band might come along and be New Wave all by their lonesome.
I’m certainly no musicologist, but I wonder how much sampling has played into the promiscuity of eras/styles. I mean, clearly a band like Interpol or the more recent Crystal Stilts ripping their sound almost wholesale from Joy Division is a quite different thing compared to Kanye structuring his songs significantly around Ray Charles or Curtis Mayfield samples, but I wonder if that sense of permanent accessibility/permanent presence isn’t related to new attitudes about how older music can be repurposed.
But I’m still not convinced that it’s an internet-related development--I mean, it’s always seemed to me that growing up in Manhattan in the 80s or 90s was basically the same thing, in cultural plenitude terms, as growing up with Amazon--that obscurity was sometimes an obstacle, but not a dead end.
Scott writes, “We don’t, in other words, seriously consider historical feelings of contemporaneity the way we experience our own, inasmuch as I’m fourteen years younger than Foster Wallace but, like Klein, count him as ‘one of my own.’”
I wonder, though, if we might want to begin considering an author’s “historical feelings” when historicizing his/her work. Folks in the thread above have already mentioned the phenomenon of feeling affinities with the art of a particular generation that is not actually one’s own. I know I identify at nearly every level with the music of 1976 to 1986 moreso than any other period (from The Modern Lovers’ first LP to, say, the C86 artists, with punk, postpunk, new wave, etc. in the middle).
I wonder if this can be found in the work of writers. What would it mean for a novelist today to feel such an affinity for, say, Dickens and Thackeray that what she wrote goes beyond mere pastiche or imitation? Sure, we’d want to historicize that very affinity: what’s going on in 2009 that moves an artist to feel close to 1840?
Ian Baucom writes about historical influences that come from further back in the past than one’s immediate social context. The common figure in pomo historical fiction of “the ghosts of history” seems to be one typical way of considering this issue. Peter Ackroyd and Iain Sinclair are all over this issue, seeing contemporary culture as too often a victim of lingering and unfinished business from a distant past. Pynchon charts similar dynamics. A novelist like Wilson Harris sees our entire hemisphere as still acting out scenes from pre-Columbian history and mythology.
I’ve never found a good way of thinking about what might be called multi-dimensional historicism. I tried to do it in my dissertation by following certain tropes backwards from a contemporary text through different manifestations of the same ideas from past moments, charting, for example, Bharati Mukherjee’s themes of the wilderness back through Susan Howe and his work on Dickinson, back through Lowell’s dramatic version of Hawthorne’s short fiction and late-60s/early-70s American studies, back through W. C. Williams’ ideas about the American grain, back to Hawthorne, back to Rowlandson and Puritan writers, etc.
It’s not about progression, somehow, with one set of historical conditions displacing another, with one set of literary texts conveniently fitting into the “slot” of a demarcated set of social influences. I don’t think history (natural, personal, or social) works that way. I think the past has long hands that tug at us from thousands of years and miles away. A kind of synchronic, spatial historicism.
It’s not all that popular now in an era of New Historicism etc. (and maybe I’m just historicizing historicism) but academic analysis didn’t always entail “the means by which we identify Author X as belonging to Period Y and analyze his or her work in light of the aesthetic of Period Y.” In fact often just the opposite, the identification of the universal elements in Author X which would speak to Period Y, Z, A, B, and maybe even C. That’s not to say that these sort of New Critical/pre-Foucault arguments are always spot on or entirely coherent or anything; I’ve just gotta throw the old Devil’s Advocacy-branded curve-ball out there.
At any rate: the status of any potentially quasi-universal-type literary elements now in a radically networked age is a super interesting topic.