Slumming in Hipsterdom

Ramon Glazov has an interesting article about David Foster Wallace. Although long, it is a good read. Ite isn’t just about DFW, but other similar writers: William T. Vollman, Hubert Selby jr, Bret Easton Ellis, and Dave Eggers.

I don’t have strong personal opinions about any of these writers, as I’m only vaguely familiar with most of them. That said, the article resonates for me in its takedown of hipster lit.

I’ve never liked word play that serves no purpose and, much worse, that hides its own superficiality and emptiness. It is intellectual gymnastics, a self-absorbed verbosity of little substance or depth. It is hipster pseudo-/anti-intellectuality with, as Glazov explains, an often crypto-conservative or crypto-Calvinist taints:

David Foster Wallace is a subtler bigot than Vollmann, and a better writer, but, like Selby, he’s still a Calvinist – I think that’s what you call someone who believes human beings are doomed to be wankers no matter what. It’s a lazy ideology that fits the Eggers circle like a glove: “Well, it’s not like I could ever be completely sincere about my parents’ deaths, without at least some profit motive, so I may as well stop trying altogether and hope you’ll love me out of reverse psychology.” But while it works for Augustine to question his motives endlessly, getting all miserable over the fact that even his best deeds have microscopic traces of selfishness, there’s no good reason to worry about this unless you believe in a literal Hell. In fact, it’s downright annoying behaviour for anyone born after the Middle Ages. I guess I can forgive religious people for it, since they’re doing it out of sheer terror, but I can’t forgive mopers who expect sympathy for expecting sympathy for expecting sympathy and expect me to care. And unlike Augustine (who at least had some belief in free will) writers like Eggers and Wallace don’t even try to break out of the pattern because they find it cleverer to flaunt their (painless, terrorless) yuppie version of Mediaeval Scholasticism. (Or worse – because they think “analysis-paralysis” is the only intelligence there is.)

And it’s the rehab clinic chapters of Infinite Jest where Wallace’s prejudices really come out. This is the opening to one of them:

If, by virtue of charity or the circumstance of desperation, you ever chance to spend a little time around a Substance-recovery halfway facility like Enfield MA’s state-funded Ennet House, you will acquire many exotic new facts.

(A list of “exotic new facts” follows for about six pages.)

The most interesting word here is “you” – this is the chapter where Wallace reveals his ideal reader. And what kind of reader is that? Apparently, someone who finds it “exotic” that “females are capable of being just as vulgar about sexual and eliminatory functions as males.” Or “that cockroaches can, up to a certain point, be lived with.” Or “that not all U.S. males are circumcised.” Or that “black and Hispanic people can be as big or bigger racists than white people.” So, Wallace pretty much admits that his book is written for pampered yupps who’ve never lived in a house with cockroaches or heard a woman swear before.

From Glazov’s perspective, it obviously isn’t just using a lot of words to say little. It is also saying something that wouldn’t be palatable if the message weren’t hidden.

It’s not unlike racism being translated into and obscured by color-blind language. It isn’t even clear that the message is consciously understood by the one communicating it and so isn’t a simple case of intentional vagueness and misdirection. People who speak this way likely also think this way. They don’t know how to get to the point because they don’t know what their point is and it is in their self-interest to never seek greater clarity. It is an existential unwillingness and inability to be accountable for their worldview. The implications are too great to be spoken of directly.

Maybe this relates to the complaint some make about the undercurrent of conservatism in post-modernism, an anti-intellectual and anti-Enlightenment reactionary worldview. Maybe it is similar to why the Dark Enlightenment seems counter-culturally cool to a certain kind of person, so alternative that it seems subversive while in actuality justifying the status quo.

I’m not entirely sure about my ultimate conclusion about DFW or this particular assessment of his writing. I do think, more generally speaking, that Glazov gets at an important point about what goes for good writing in many literary circles. Either empty or unpalatable, some writers don’t merit the acclaim they receive from critics and fans, although it could be argued about which writers should be included in this criticism.

Anyway, Glazov’s conclusion about hipsterdom appeals to me:

That’s all Infinite Jest boils down to. An anti-intellectual (yet amazingly pretentious) Calvinist cautionary tale that makes the same death threats about thinking that Requiem for a Dream made about drugs – “Brains: Just Say No!” Plus a few voyeuristic scenes of depraved poor people in a rehab centre. Bum fights, in other words. Cleverish ones. Hobo torture porn for postgraduate smirkers.

Still, if the great Ned Flanders Lookalike Association of hipsterdom has one talent, it’s finding an excuse to adore practically anything. Poking fun at these vermin is like trying to kill bedbugs with pine-scented air freshener. They’ll always find a way to survive, at least until the rest of us take to the streets, form brigades and make it unsafe to be post-ironically ironic after dark. And even then, they’ll just join another, rottener subculture. Eventually, some Wallace groupie will find a way to spin everything in this article into a plus. I can already imagine the blurb: “Brilliant! Like a bum fight refereed by Einstein and Descartes!”

But that doesn’t make it any less of a bum fight.

That is an interesting way of putting it: bum fight. I guess that is like blacksploitation/blaxploitation films, but a high culture literary version of it “refereed by Einstein and Descartes”.

I’m not quite as dismissive as this. If someone appreciates reading DFW, it doesn’t bother me. I found it hard to get into some of his writings, but I feel wary about asserting his writings are without value and should be avoided by all. Even if it is fancied-up trash writing, there could still be enjoyment in slumming in hipsterdom.

As for my tastes: Give me Joe Bageant or Henry Fairlie, easily accessible writers who combine worthy ideas with personal observation. Give me some hard-hitting scholarly analysis like Michelle Alexander or insightful cultural analysis like David Hackett Fischer. And, if imagination is what is desired, give me the playful and probing vision of Philip K. Dick or the dark contemplations of Thomas Ligotti.

I just don’t do hipster lit. But each to their own, I guess.

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