Talk straight

In the New York Times magazine, Maud Newton delivers a spot-on exegesis of the ambivalent, self-second-guessing rhetoric of the late David Foster Wallace and one of its unfortunate legacies:

How we arrived at the notion that the postmodern era is the first ever to confront the tension between sincerity and irony despite millennia of evidence to the contrary is no mystery: every generation believes its insights are unprecedented, its struggles uniquely formidable, its solutions the balm for all that ails the world. Why so many of our critics are still, after all these years, making their arguments in this inherently self-undermining voice — still trying to ward off every possible rejoinder and pre-emptively rebut every possible criticism by mixing a weird rhetorical stew of equivocation, pessimism and Elysian prophecy — is another question entirely.


…so much of what passes for intellectual debate nowadays is obscured behind a veneer of folksiness and sincerity and is characterized by an unwillingness to be pinned down. Where the craving for admiration and approval predominates, intellectual rigor cannot thrive, if it survives at all.

Maud, as usual, is absolutely right–and I don’t say that just to win her approval. Recently someone forwarded me an email exchange where one party felt aggrieved, hurt, and worst of all, excluded. In response to these complaints, at one point the other party said, “You come across like you’re criticizing me,” the implication being that criticism of another’s actions was somehow beyond the pale. I see this same thinness of skin in many (but by no means all) of my undergraduate students: an eagerness for approval, a strong desire to avoid conflict, and a tendency to take anything less than a “gold star” as a personal reproach.

And I see the same thing in my children and, at the risk of being Foster-Wallace-esque, in myself. Indeed, the anxieties and neuroses I reveal in my book (Buy it! Read it! Like it!) stem in no small part from this compulsion to be liked.

Working for approbation is not corrosive per se. It can be quite useful if one is trying to win elected office, make a living as a comedian or, I don’t know, sell a book. But as a way to live it is, finally, a mug’s game: if we can’t stomach disagreement, challenges or criticism of any kind–intellectual, social, emotional–then we aren’t really living.

Are we?

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5 Responses to Talk straight

  1. I have a more sympathetic view of Wallace. To me, his distinguishing feature was not his obscurity but his transparency. His neuroses, chronic depression, and ultimate suicide were all plainly laid out in both his fiction and nonfiction. He was a brilliant, flawed, tragic human being who was brave enough to explore his vanities and demons on the page–not through self-indulgent memoir, but through character development and philosophical and linguistic inquiry. In short, Newton treats Wallace’s text without considering the man himself. That’s perfectly fair, of course. I just think it misses the point.

  2. Maud Newton has failed to offer a legitimate argument. She cannot cite examples to support her claim. Please see my through rebuttal.

  3. mangrist says:

    …I know the way so many of my students and younger colleagues write and speak. The need for approbation has trumped the need to put an intellectual flag in the ground (present company excepted of course). Do I lay this at the feet of DFW? I most certainly do not (unfortunately I think he is not widely read among most of my peeps). Nor do I think that anything Maud said of him diminishes his work. I can’t offer an Excel spreadsheet or any other tangible data other than what I observe in my own life, but Maud’s main contention rings true to me.

  4. mbt outlet says:

    The president and first lady are not concerned about being invited to those children’s wedding. How ludicrous to have made up “sources say”.

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