Week 2

Consider the Citizen

05.01.11 | | Comment?

The editor of ‘The Pale King’, Michael Pietsch –

“Would you agree to revisit that scene in the elevator and help us understand who those people are and why they’re there, and, for God’s sake, cut some of the civics? There’s a reason people didn’t enjoy civics class in high school.” http://bit.ly/mAYR6B

From a 2003 ZDF Mediathek interview with David Foster Wallace –

“The idea of being a citizen would be to understand your country’s history, and things about it that are good and not so good, and how the system works, and taking the trouble to learn about candidates for a political office, which means often reading stuff, which isn’t fun, sometimes its boring.”

In this same interview, Wallace laments the decline in civics education in American schools. In ‘The Soul Is Not A Smithy’, the protagonist sits in a “4th grade Civics class”.

“It was 1960, a time of fervent and somewhat unreflective patriotism. It was a time that is now often referred to as a somewhat more innocent time. Civics was a state-mandated class on the Constitution, the U.S. presidents, and the branches of government.” {pp. 68, The Soul Is Not A Smithy, Oblivion}

The centerpiece of this second week of reading has been the nearly twenty page essay for three voices that starts with “something very interesting about civics and selfishness” {pp. 130} and ends with “the ontological siren song of the corporate buy-to-stand-out-and-so-exist gestalt”, {pp. 149}, as 1984 looms near and the capitalist dream is soon to take on a range of new suits and calling cards. The role of citizenship for Wallace took on, in his last books, the role of an antidote to the insular solipsism that characterises the essence of the existentialist human.

When some readers (i.e. myself) of Wallace read for the first time about his church group membership, and his creating with Magic Markers his U.S Flag after the events of September 11 (both discussed in ‘The View From Mrs. Thompson’s’ in Consider the Lobster) it resonated a peculiar feeling – Wallace was so clever, why the need for church and nationalism, regardless of the trauma of September 11? Had he forgotten Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, the past century with its science and its history and its cool and valid cynicism of Everything?

“Am I a good person? Deep down, do I even really want to be a good person, or do I only want to seem like a good person so that people (including myself) will approve of me? Is there a difference? How do I ever actually know whether I’m bullshitting myself, morally speaking?” {pp. 257, Joseph Frank’s Dostoyevsky, Consider the Lobster}

The battle against the selfishness of being alive, that “dithering, pathetically self-conscious outline or ghost of a person” {pp. 181, Good Old Neon, Oblivion} we spend our time, like Sylanshine, the comically afflicted ‘fact psychic’, living “in the world of the fractious, boiling minutie” {pp. 120, The Pale King}, consumed by consuming the world as it relates immediately to us.

“But if I decide to decide there’s a different, less selfish, less lonely point to my life, won’t the reason for this decision be my desire to be less lonely, meaning to suffer less overall pain? Can the decision to be less selfish ever be anything other than a selfish decision?” {pp. 262, Joseph Frank’s Dostoyevsky, Consider the Lobster}

More than simply the mantra of public health services that it is access to community that is the best support for our times of mental anguish, Wallace uses the characters in §19 to, through three filters at the start of the 1980s, tap into some of the precipitating factors, approaching consequences and paradoxes that citizenship in the face of rebellious consumerist voter anti-symbolising and the “rule of image” {pp. 149} that were to manifest in the decades that Wallace came to write his novels in, right through to our biggest rule of image yet, the Internet and its promise of global citizenship. The very particular role that the IRS plays in U.S. civic duty is well chosen in ‘The Pale King’ – what if, as Pietsch lightly remarks, Wallace had the opportunity to discuss editing §19 and had “cut some of the civics”, had injected some more candy, had listened to the advice of 928874551, the IRS employee who explains that “using less sugar than the recipe calls for produces what’s known as a dry cake. Don’t do that” {pp. 105}? Perhaps the point isn’t to make fun that which is not typically fun to learn – the lesson is that it doesn’t need to be fun, it is important, it has consequences, and this is the dry cake that feeds the responsibility and awareness of daily citizenship.

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