The best intellectual moments I’ve had come from a mixing of disciplines. Maybe the first times I really felt this is freshman year of college, taking English Literature courses, Economics, third-year Calculus, and a seminar on the last 100 years in Germany. Keith Gessen
recently mentioned the parallel development of literature in a piece on DFW, “In the 1920s you have your Russian modernists and your Anglo-American modernists and German modernists, and they’re all very much alike but that makes sense because they knew each other and all read the same books, but you’ll also, if you look, find Bulgarian modernists and Portuguese modernists, and so on.” What’s always fascinated me is the zeitgeist carries across disciplines as well — modernism, for example, doesn’t just refer to thematically unlinked movements in different disciplines; modernism is a term that gets at something essential underlying intellectual pursuits from math to literature to philosophy to economics.
Sometimes one discipline takes the lead and another one doesn’t catch up for a decade or so (and this lag is disappearing) — something like the Supreme Court in the ’50s taking the lead on civil rights in Board v. Brown and Congress not really getting their act together until the 1960s. Or you can take two modernism-busting ideas in literature and math: T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland and Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem (maybe Cantor’s theorem is a more appropriate comparison because of its attempt to encompass everything into a set: if a number is not a member of this set, it’s a member of this set) — both start the hamster wheel of recursion and self-reference turning, and less than a decade apart from each other.
As skeptical of our times as DFW was, he did have a positivist streak; he really believed that the dense scholastic insights of Cantor and Godel, Heidegger and Kant, could be useful to the average person — if only they weren’t written in such a complex — even poorly written — way. Caleb Crain wrote up an insightful account of DFW’s thoughts behind Everything and More. Reviews more or less savaged Everything and More, which is too bad. In E&M, DFW takes up the very real problem, at least very real to me, of trying to get out of bed in the morning by thinking about it, hoping that my thoughts will actually bleed into action, that through my thoughts, I’ll find myself on my feet. (A posting on this theme but taking a totally different tack [relating to Keith Gessen’s All the Sad Young Literary Men and Benjamin Kunkel’s Indecision] can be found here.) DFW compares getting out of bed by thinking about it to the problem of infinity throughout the history of math: the gap between thought and action is comparable to the infinitesmal gaps between discreet numbers, the limit of . Mathematicians through the years have come up with a variety of solutions to plug the infinite holes in the ship of mathematics, each solution creating a new leak. The project of mathematics hasn’t been completely sunk by the leaks, mostly because of the pragmatic uses of math and the technological uses it has begat. But it does take a certain leap of faith to bridge the infintesmal gaps, or the problems of limits in math — much like you have to eventually just get up and not cycle through self-referential thoughts. There is a quasi-Godlike spiritual element to this leap of faith move, even in mathematics. Caleb Crain forces DFW to make it explicit in his interview, “Probably a Kroneckerian [i.e., someone who doubts the independent existence of mathematical concepts—CC] would say, infinity and god are the same sort of thing, they’re pie-in-the sky dreams of people who haven’t adjusted to the ineluctability of limit in the universe and so like to dream of something without that, and it’s really just a unicorn.” DFW, on the other hand, is a Platonist: “I personally think that God has particular languages, and one of them is music and one of them is mathematics, and that’s not something I can defend, it’s just something I’ve felt in my tummy since I was a little kid, but how exactly to try to make sense of that and to fit it in any kind of a working philosophy, much less cross the street to buy a loaf of bread is a different matter.”
I’ve long been particularly taken by the period beginning after the turn of the 20th century, when the battle between Kandinsky, representing [haha] a spiritual, subjective abstraction, and Picasso, for the dominant paradigm. I’m not learned enough to tell you that this was the front lines of the paradigmatic shift, and that they, on the heels of Cezanne, really were the standard bearers and not, say Schoenberg late in his Expressionist phase. (The who-came-first game is not a bar bet resolvable by a quick Google — it’s a disputable matter of degree anyway. Besides, Schoenberg worked with Kandinsky in The Blue Rider essays. In any case, it might’ve been Nietzsche or even Hegel to really start a modernist phase based on the conscious recognition of contingency; we can argue about it.)
I would’ve loved to have written a thesis on that paradigmatic battle for the soul (or mind, as it turned out) of what we now call the modernist movement. As postmodernism was bred of modernism, we still haven’t escaped the hold of Picasso splitting of the self against itself in his analytic cubism. A philosophical link can be seen between Heidegger and Kandinsky — thankfully Kandinsky makes the analogy easier because of his writing “Concerning the Spiritual in Art” in which he, much like Heidegger would later, sees the artist as a prophet. [Probably should write more here.]
I’m not sure how yet, but I’m going to have to weave De Certeau into this. Perhaps it wasn’t until De Certeau, who seems to have been either rediscovered or at least appreciated for the first time in the last decade in American academia, that we started to put back together the pieces of the table that Picasso smashed up. And I’m not sure it had a mirror in literature until DFW, who battled the snarkiness of ironic subject positions (again, inherited from Picasso through Gaddis and Pynchon, perpetuated by say, Derrida [maybe even Foucault, but that’s a different argument] and flowering most fully in the world of ’90s network television). Maybe the answer to the “getting out of bed in the morning” problem of postmodernism and self-reference had to grow out of the radical self-doubt, radical skepticism of the rational project. It’s reductive of DFW’s project to essentialize his intent in philosophical terms — the humanist in him didn’t think philosophy could be as moving or even instructive as fiction — but there’s some great stuff in Infinite Jest that can be used to extricate his deep insight and place it in something of practical layman’s terms. Caleb Crain draws a parallel to Infinite Jest that I think is spot on and gets at what a post-fractured (post-Picasso, post-postmodern) world might look like, or at least one version of it. In Infinite Jest, the character Don Gately, a recovering addict, begins to go through the 12-step process of AA in which submission to a Higher Power is a key component. It doesn’t really matter who or what the higher power is — it’s the submission itself that’s critical, the submission can lead to a break of the cycle of addiction. And there’s this suggestion that the actual understanding of the mechanism of how this submission works doesn’t matter either; as Crain puts it, “if he has a merely technical response, it will eventually work.” It’s rational to be irrational. Note the leap of faith necessary to bridge the gap here between thought and action: Gately needs to submit himself to a Higher Power and deny the strength of his own self — even though he doesn’t know how it might work, he has to surrender that control over himself to the force of the Higher Power in hopes that it will, in fact, help him overcome his addiction. Notice further that this leap of faith is breaking a self-referential cycle, namely that of addiction, in which more and more signifiers point back to addiction. The parallel in math being that it is useful in a pragmatic sense to believe in the infinite — all sorts of technical and scientific applications are possible because of an elision of the problems of and debate surrounding infinity. Ever since the Incompleteness Theorem, a Kroneckerian viewpoint of the world has taken hold — a worldview that denies the existence of the infinite and, by extension, a Higher Power. Yet math goes on, and the necessary maybe fictional paradox of infinity continues. (Could the Incompleteness Theorem be avoided through an infinite recursion of metalanguages in combination of the reducibility axiom [which basically states that 3.9999 etc = 4.0]? This seems to just sneak in the answer through the backdoor — you elide the problem of infinity through the reducibility axiom. But maybe the elision is the point itself….)
I’ll have to get one of the No Record interns to dig through my notes from 2003 and find the exact title and progenator of a wonderful exhibit in Zurich that involved different pathways of walking through the city: up building walls, around electrical poles.
Derrida conference at Ohio State University, where a professor disdains, “Someone always suggests we need to transcend dualism.” That guy was an asshole.