On Inside David Foster Wallace's Private Self-Help Library

I was introduced to Miller's text in therapy for intense anxiety disorder + various schizoid-spectrum related conditions. Many folks are missing the point by focusing on the mother or the child as reified organisms, rather than the mother-child-context system that includes the organisms, their interactions, the various information flows into and out of each one and the error correction that takes place when something goes awry (for discussion see G. Bateson, an interdisciplinary thinker and early cybernetician that Wallace was surely acquainted with (see various discussions of scenarios dripping with Double Bind Theory (a GB invention), situations in DWF's work, e.g., Infinite Jest (IJ))... Wallace understood GB's Double Bind theory that Bateson had laid out in seminal ranging papers e.g. "Double Bind 69", and the "Cybernetics of Self" (the latter of which dealt with addiction and recovery via AA, but peered through the lens of type theory, systems theory and cybernetics to unpack the logic of AA's first 3 steps...)). The solution is not corrective action on the mother's part but the recognition and participation (as a humble component) in the larger family dynamical system that the mother is but of a part. Eliminate reification (the project that The Pale King set to tackle, is the inevitable byproduct of thinking carefully about such systems, understanding that the Occidental dualism of mother/child is a false categorization that only serves to foster alienation and damage, and to create a situation in which the mother-child-context-error-correction-(...) system can unfold in a more natural fluid manner, with less attention paid to the individual participants and more to the system that hovers a frame up (just out of reach if the mother is signalling in such a manner to create a double bind (BTW, using frame is a cheeky way here as it is a piece of technical vocabulary utilized by GB but also, obviously, a tip of the hat to DFW's meta-frame narrative roots)).

The case Miller outlines is the classical example of double bind signalling (which GB contended could lead to schizo-spectrum disorders, or in less egregious cases (genetically and environmentally) poets, writers, artists, theoreticians). In the classical DB, the mother signals with one gesture (lingual, physical motion, facial expression) that she loves her child (for example, assume she looks down at the child and says, "I love you."). That is the primary signal which needs to be frustrated in order to create the double bind. Further assume that the mother makes a strong grimacing facial expression and looks away after speaking in a distant, cold manner. Here we have the elements of a classic double bind, that is, the child is signaled to believe that the mother loves her/him, but simultaneously is signaled that the mother does not love her/him, but in fact, that the mother actually dislikes the child (this signal is communicated extra-lingually as is often the case). Thus, the child has two incompatible ideas about the world, a part of the world that is important and, as such, threatened by this incongruity. The only way for the child to rectify the situation, bring the world back into a focus that makes logical sense, is to "pop the frame" and move up in the hierarchy of nested "frames" that we are all always embedded in, especially when using language, and that form a set of Venn diagram Russian Dolls that the child must now mitigate. The easiest method the child can activate to bring the upsetting split world back into coherence is to pop up a frame and ask, in a candid reasonable way, why mommy makes terrible faces when asserting her love for the child. Assuming a thoughtful non-abusive mother that has the capacity (mentally and emotionally) to deal with such exchanges, she follows her child up a frame in the narrative and answers the query to her child's satisfaction (e.g. "I'm sorry sweetheart, I DO love you, however, I got momentarily distracted from our discussion by an issue that I have to deal with at work." or "Well honey, I love you but I am conflicted about you and my love for you and it causes me much grief and resentment when I verbally articulate my love for you and you are so filled with joy, while I feel empty inside. (Admittedly, this last one is a but harsh and pretty mature casual conversation but what with all the advances in pre-K pedagogy and our culture's emphasis on teaching our children to handle quite sophisticated problems (be they from problem sets or the "real world") at an early age, it might not seem so far fetched... And it seems a helluva lot more reasonable than raising a child in a stilted, stunted, communication-tangle where noise and feelings of terror and grief predominate, rather than one in which adults speak candidly to children and raise them to be a part of a larger system, to feel pride in taking a stand against reification, and opening up, dilating the information pathways that link the individual elements (child, parent, toy, cookie) into a system in which the participants are in a constant dance of creative becoming. All this is to say, I think DFW, having backed his familiarity with GB out of various jargon and scene elements (most notably the previously mentioned "The Cybernetics of Self," which introduces double binds, the map-territory distinction, a reading of the crucial first three steps of the 12 steps of AA, read via a cybernetics/information theory driven epistemology and a whole host of other conceptual machinery and theoretical thingys that DFW relies on heavily throughout IJ. Ex-reified mother-child-(...), there is no "problem," in fact, the possibility for it vanishes structurally. We have the system, unified, acting and interacting, dancing on the stage... We also have, if you spend a little time and do the reading, a tight theoretical framework from which to parse and understand one of the best novels of the late 20th century: Infinite Jest.

If a certain reviewer from the NYT (cough, the paper of record) had done a little homework and actually made an attempt to engage with IJ on IJ's fairly heavy terms, she might not have missed the whole point and penned such a heavily misread, sloppy, facile review of a piece of literature that not only created a new voice, that not only contained interesting formal "stunt-pilotry" and linguistic pyrotechnics (enough to entertain but not so much that it comes off heavy-handed), that not only took Gass' footnote tricks and Puig's (...) dialogical ellipses, Pynchon's funny names and eye for overarching structure, but that took all that the previous generation of pomo black humorists and technical grammar-weenie typological maneuvers and brought them into something that none of DFW's pomosapian predecessors (with the possible exception of Barthelme (whose prose is quite moving... in an keep it at arm's length with a tirade of erudition sort of emotion on the end of a fishing pole sorta thing) could accomplish (Pynchon's characters were intentionally (and awesomely) flat, Barth felt too much like doing a math problem (which I happen to love), Gass' prose was exquisitely academic which t-boned flavor-like into DFW's more populist aesthetics and Gaddis' ornate, flawless, research-rich, dialogue-driven, slices of polished verbage that absolutely astound, but again, in a manner that, strikes a higher (golden) register than DWF. Perhaps only Beckett, Barthelme's lexical father, rings through directly, rhyming with his (self-proclaimed) protege while finding his own anxious nerves to influence in the bramble of intertextual nods, burning originality, attention to detail, comic genius and quite possibly (and still decades on...) the most important themeatics that an American novel can (and should) sink it's Times New Roman teeth into: ADDICTION. If there is a place where writers might be of service her in the US, it is sitting at the nexus of the neurally ancient "GO" reward system, and the relatively new (in biological evolutionary time) "STOP" system that resides in the frontal lobe and puts the check on our animal impulses to fight or make for the hills, where science still hasn't quite put together all the details and where even if all the white lab coats were completely cognoscent of every single tiny inner machination of the reward/pleasure/memory/rational thinking gray matter conundrum, even then, the writer would still be morally obligated to take a crack at the single most important issue in the collective consciousness of the USA (and indeed all credit-flush, hedonistic, post-industrial, late-capitalist states), that is, our preoccupation with feeling good, great, extatic, for a price, even in the face of overwhelming catastrophic consequences for the individual and the complete divorce of the agent/individual/organism from the natural "intertwingledness" (to bring back a Ted Nelsonism - Computer Lib!!!) of all of evolutionary creation, a profound disconnectedness with the environment, with context, with our own sensors and actuators, with the flows that impinge and that we emanate, a divorce from all the rich connection that life has to offer, for the "chance to cop a buzz" or to "feel good for a sec," to "unwind," "have a good time" or "relax."

That is, we trade our connectedness and the reality of our beautiful relationship with our context and all the signals and response, for the next hit... of tennis, academic achievement, sticky hydroponic dank, of TV, of the movies, of stimulus that is empty and dark and atavistic, of a shot of dope or a hit of crack, we trade all of our humanity and our ability to interact with it, for a tiny slice of unreality. We go in circles chasing it, spiraling downward, accelerating, annular... We allow our "education" to reify us from our ecosystem, our home, and move to the dance of jingles, edgy anti-authoritarian ads for premium denim in just the right "wash," the treated fabric defining exactly who we are, signaling our cohabitants on this planet that, we are distressed, that we are torn and rubbed thin in just the right places (but rubbed thin in advance by machines or sweatshop labor, but never by the honest movements of our own body), the places that will get you access to the happening entertainment spots, the best wine, the sink herb, the cracklin'est crack, our frontal lobes completely removed from the flow, driven by a pure ejection of bile and product and emptiness; but an emptiness that with perseverance and hard work can be eliminated by retraining ourselves, clearing the cache and wiping the hard drive clean, by listening and learning how to be right-sized, to be humble, to be driven to find the correct area for us to do our part and contribute, without fanfare and ticker-tape in the air, just working honestly, for the good of the system, our ecosystem, the network of life spread out all across the globe, to fit just perfect into the gears of Mario Savio's famed beast and with just a few quick hacks, creative, technically adroit impulses of effort and thought, we repurpose the machine and with it, the future of the human race.

Pay attention, when a writer as gifted as DFW writed a 1000+ page tome on addiction and then, gives it his best to figure out how to be a cog, to allow onself to be beatifically bored (or perhaps focused on a task so familiar that it envelopes us like a warm glove). We've got a post-industrial late-capitalist problem, created by decades of post-war consumption engineered by the planners to keep America #1, to keep all the lawns green and the houses well maintained, all we know how to do is to spend most of our time doing something that we hate (or at best tolerate) so that we can inebriate and anesthetize ourselves of DVDs, PCP and promotion (contra person... at the risk of trading our humanity for that next Grand Theft Auto Deluxe Edition). David Foster Wallace was trying to point out the problem, in all of its myriad forms, and then work toward a solution, a life for people that includes a sense of purpose, a right-sized humility and a deep understanding that you belong, here, now...

Posted on September 18, 2012 at 3:13 am 0