Friday, May 10, 2013

Self-Help, Politics, and that David Foster Wallace Commencement Speech

I've been thinking a lot about self-help lately.  From a left perspective, the critique of self-help culture pratically writes itself: it encourages us to think of our problems as individual, it shuts down critique and collective action, and it blames the victim, telling cancer patients and the unemployed equally that they brought it on themselves but not thinking positively enough. Which is all true enough as far as it goes. But one of the things I liked about Barbara Ehrenreich's Bright Sided  was that, although she makes this case definitely, drawing on her own experience with the truely noxious breast cancer cult , she also talks about the roots of the movement in the nineteenth century, as an attempt mostly undertaken by women to soften the Puritan/Calvinist tradition. There is, of course, a strongly gendered component to the way we talk about self-help: just mention Oprah to the sort of fake-populist who is always waxing poetic about the wisdom of their cabdrivers and watch them go crazy about her self-esteem "cult" and "middlebrow" book picks.

But I've also been thinking about the versions of self-help that circulate in liberal/upper middle-class circles: yoga, meditation, the more "spiritual" claims of certain kinds of foodies.  Since it's graduation season, I've been noticing David Foster Wallace's graduation speech "This is Water" floating around the internet again, and now there's a "film version."   Wallace has riffed on self-help ideas in a good deal of his work, most thoroughly in the depiction of addiction and the culture of 12-step programs in Infinite Jest. His personal library contained a huge number of carefully annotated self-help books, as The Awl's  Maria Bustillos  maticulously detailed. Even without thinking of the tragic end of Wallace's life, it's easy to think about much of his work as a way to redeem self-help from the tyranny of cant. I'm thinking especially of that piece at the end (near the end?) of Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, in which the interviewee struggles with his contempt for his girlfriend's New Age-isms which have, despite the aesthetic offense they give him, saved her life. (A side note which isn't really a side note: it is of course impossible not to think about the end of Wallace's life, and there's no reason to feel one shouldn't out of some lingering New Critical-taboo, which often comes from the same pseudo-sophisicated gendered place as knee-jerk Oprah bashing.)

The heart of Wallace's speech is his discussion of how, ideally, a liberal arts education should teach one not "how to think" but "what to think about" and therefore a way to manage the frustrations of everyday life. Describing a frustrating trip to the supermarket at rush hour he talks about the choice we have to see the others in the supermarket lines as something other than impediments:
But most days, if you're aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her kid in the checkout line. Maybe she's not usually like this. Maybe she's been up three straight nights holding the hand of a husband who is dying of bone cancer. Or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the motor vehicle department, who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a horrific, infuriating, red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness. Of course, none of this is likely, but it's also not impossible. It just depends what you want to consider. If you're automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won't consider possibilities that aren't annoying and miserable. But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.
It's good stuff, really.  One of the reasons I like teaching writing and especially "creative" writing so much is how intellectually and personally powerful it can be for students just to take a step back, to reflect, Here's my question, though: what if you are the "fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her kid in the checkout line?"  Or the clerk he mentions in a previous section, whose boredom Wallace is sure no one at Kenyon could ever imagine? What inner resources are you supposed to muster in order to not yell at your kids? To feel a little less "dead-eyed?" What about to not yell at the liberal arts grad who is looking at you as a symbol of everything about the world that depresses them? And doesn't that liberal arts grad deserved to get yelled at, just a little bit? (And, come to think of it, I'd bet that a Kenyon college graduate mother  (or father!) has yelled at his/her kids at least once in the history of the universe.)  Interestingly enough, just a few paragraphs before Wallace himself tries to steer his audience away from the kind of lazy superiority he falls into here:
Or, of course, if I'm in a more socially conscious liberal arts form of my default setting, I can spend time in the end-of-the-day traffic being disgusted about all the huge, stupid, lane-blocking SUV's and Hummers and V-12 pickup trucks, burning their wasteful, selfish, 40-gallon tanks of gas, and I can dwell on the fact that the patriotic or religious bumper-stickers always seem to be on the biggest, most disgustingly selfish vehicles, driven by the ugliest [responding here to loud applause] (this is an example of how NOT to think, though) most disgustingly selfish vehicles, driven by the ugliest, most inconsiderate and aggressive drivers. And I can think about how our children's children will despise us for wasting all the future's fuel, and probably screwing up the climate, and how spoiled and stupid and selfish and disgusting we all are, and how modern consumer society just sucks, and so forth and so on. 
Wallace insists his argument isn't a moral one, that he's not trying to lecture the Kenyon kids about how to be, to tell them to be more compassionate, but just to think about the control one has over one's mind. But it can't help but be moralism, because he's punching down. He figures that the main problem Kenyon kids will face is all the ordinariness of the world and the people they'll encounter who aren't as special and passionate as Kenyon told them the word would be.  He's counseling them against despair and anger when they find this out. But for people who already know this, isn't anger sometimes the way out of despair?

I'm sure that to Wallace or many who love him it would seem like I'm just doing the same thing he's talking about - running an automatic left tape through the scenario the way the Kenyon students wanted to run the liberal one. They say "modern consumer society sucks"; I say "capitalism sucks." But the thing is, big cars really are trashing our planet, and long drives to stores with musak really do make us miserable. And things are that way for reasons, and those reasons don't have anything to do with mothers who wear too much makeup. In reading and writing about second wave feminism, "Consciousness raising" gets mocked a lot but I don't think you can underestimate the liberating move of saying, this thing - be it rape, sexual harassment, my inability to take my own work seriously - it is a thing, it is not "life." Unlike a lot of lefties, I don't begrudge anyone Oprah or religion or anything that helps, and I think a lot of them actually are genuinely helpful, not mystifications or what have you.  But sometimes we fish need to say to each other: This is not the world. This is not water. This is a tank.