The Soul Is Not A Smithy

December 20, 2010

Now, if I can get self-indulgent for a while, I want to write briefly about David Foster Wallace, whose work (novels, essays and short stories) I was very keen on in my early twenties and continue to admire, though more ambivalently. One of Wallace’s big preoccupations was the contamination of ethical seriousness or authenticity by satisfaction taken in the perception of others’ perception of one’s self as ethical. E.g., from his essay on Joseph Frank’s literary biography of Dostoevsky:

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?

Or from the start of the story Good Old Neon, in which the dead narrator explains the reasons for his suicide:

My whole life I’ve been a fraud. I’m not exaggerating. Pretty much all I’ve ever done all the time is try to create a certain impression of me in other people. Mostly to be liked or admired. It’s a little more complicated than that, maybe. But when to come right down to it it’s to be liked, loved. Admired, approved of, applauded, whatever.

Or indeed from the extremely problematic essay on John McCain that appeared in Rolling Stone during the 2000 presidential primaries [I don’t have a copy to hand], in which McCain’s straight-talking maverick honesty is contrasted with politicians who say only what’s in their political interest.

I don’t want to write at any length about David Foster Wallace, here, but I think he serves as a useful example, at least, of a reasonably common attitude: one that contrasts genuinely ethical actions with those that are prompted, instead, by the ‘social conditioning’ of others’ approval. I believe Brandom’s work gives an extremely detailed and carefully worked-through explanation of exactly why that attitude is wrong. It makes no sense to contrast actions that are undertaken for genuinely ethical reasons with actions that are undertaken simply because the actor seeks the approval of a specific social circle or perspective. There is nothing to normativity beyond the possibility of such social-perspectival approval and disapproval (and the practices via which such approval and disapproval operates – I’ll obviously discuss this further in future posts). Brandom’s account of ‘normative phenomenalism’ demonstrates that normativity can – and I believe should – be understood in practice-theoretic, social-perspectival terms, without positing anything else as an additional explanatory factor.

This suggests, to me at least, that Wallace’s work’s visceral anguish at the difficulty of locating a source of ethical action that can be understood as something other than, in some more-or-less complicated and mediated sense, oriented towards admiration, approval or love, is to be explained by the fact that no such source could possibly ever be located – and Wallace’s work’s anguish’s basis is thus to be located in the conviction or expectation that such a source is possible, together with a recognition that no actual empirical ethical action examined can be found to meet this criteria. This attitude produces, in Wallace’s work, two poles: on the one hand a horrified pain at the apparent lack of ethical authenticity in our actions; on the other hand a leap to a transcendent religious standpoint that can validate our ethical actions without their normative source being found in social approval. I believe that both of these poles (which complement each other) are wrong, and can be rejected.

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3 Responses to “The Soul Is Not A Smithy”

  1. j. Says:

    have you been reading sean kelly’s blog for his (w/ hubert dreyfus) forthcoming book, all things shining?

    he uses dfw as one of his most-contemporary instances in a western humanities reread in light of heidegger.

  2. duncan Says:

    That’s interesting, thanks, I hadn’t seen it.

    I have to say though, I’m always a bit puzzled as to how many people manage not to notice the (to my eyes fairly clearly telegraphed) religious elements in Wallace’s work. I think the authors’ surprise at the discussion of religion in All That suggests a bad reading of Wallace’s corpus. (He’s probably closer to Heidegger than they think! 🙂 )

  3. j. Says:

    i suspect their interest was more that it would be explicitly thematized; the rest of their reading basically puts dfw and others into religion-or-para-religion territory.


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