Quote #17: David Foster Wallace (2006)

We don’t think of ourselves as citizens in the old sense of being small parts of something larger and infinitely more important to which we have serious responsibilities. We do still think of ourselves as citizens in the sense of being beneficiaries—we’re actually conscious of our rights as American citizens and the nation’s responsibilities to us and ensuring we get our share of the American pie. We think of ourselves now as eaters of the pie instead of makers of the pie. So who makes the pie?

On Waves and Cycles

In political science – and the social sciences in general – there is a perennial debate about the character of change – whether change comes in waves or if instead it is cyclical. This is most prominent in discussions clarifying and giving shape to the nature of revolution, a focal concern in the West since first Mercantilism and then Enlightenment triggered modalities of regicide, revolt, and rebellion across formerly feudal Europe, thus paving the way for republicanism, parliamentarianism, representational democracy, and other liberal and self-governing forms of government in tandem with rational (and irrational) arguments against divinized hierarchies and monarchical power [NOTE: our newest augmentations to participatory governance were shaped to accommodate the Industrial Revolution and, even more recently, the Digital Information age; exactly what these tweaks were (beyond a widening definition of citizen) and their larger significance remain contentious and on-going]. A historical generality can be drawn: anything which hampered (or seemed to hamper) the cultural flow of the age (be it the flow of goods, ideas, capital, binary code, etc. ) was seen as a form of tyranny, a word that still today harkens back to the authoritarian rule of unchecked kings, and sentenced (sometimes swiftly, sometimes haphazardly) to be lopped-off. The debate between waves and cycles has to do with explaining the continuity of tyrannical hampering (i.e. Why does authoritarian injustice keep bubbling up after both rhetorical advancements and cultural practices – even laws! – become bedrocks of developed civilizations?) – and the always-recurrent response or corrective to privileged impingements, now ambiguously referred to simply as “change”. Is change seasonal, or is change generative?

This well-known dualism is strangely united in its use of ecologically-centered metaphors. Waves are as well known a natural phenomena as any; when one thinks of how metaphorically they apply to political analysis of revolutions, it is hard not to think of Katsushika Hokusai’s “The Great Wave off Kanagawa”. The idea is clear: the phenomenon is a one-off swelling tied to the contingency of the moment (the political philosophy of Alain Badiou and his notion of the “Event” seems closely related). On the other hand, the cyclical or seasonal metaphor is equally rooted in ecological consciousness. There is in fact no true cycle outside of the natural world, merely analogies, or else a mechanical rotation, which is a synthetic (robotic) imitation/doubling of a cyclical process. Claude Monet’s “Haystack” series is illustrative of the idea as it relates to our understanding of historical revolutions: different but not different; each historical event offering up a variant refraction of another (or all others); slight shifts sometimes apprehended imperceptibly, other times seen as unheimlich. The issue that these ecology-minded metaphors pose is that ecological change is essential to explain socio-cultural change, yet at the same time, it is ecological change which is now the tyrannical thing. This the case whether one is a tree-hugging environmentalist or a hoax-mongering conspiracy theorist: ecology – including the ecological forms of waves and cycles – hampers cultural flow. Social and political change in an ecologically terrifying world has, therefore, paradoxically lost – or is in the process of losing – its metaphors.

The problem is classic chicken-and-egg algebra, and not unlike etymological questions that surround ancient myths. Take the word odyssey as a structural example: Homers’ Odyssey is the story of Odysseus’s great odyssey. When we use the word odyssey now, are we using a word that is itself being poeticized by the Greeks, or is it only after the story of Odysseus that we then use the word that first referred to Odysseus’s-quest to now mean epic-journey? (This is an especially improbable head-scratcher when you think about how many hundreds of years the story was orally circulated before it was finally transcribed) Is The Odyssey a story of a prescribed word or a word born of a story? In political and social terms, global warming has returned us to a place of similarly uncertain origins, a “nonlocality” where historical causalities seem to have arrived in a state of suspended animation.

Seneca unwittingly points to such a suspension or gap in On the Shortness of Life:

Men are tight-fisted in keeping control of their fortunes, but when it comes to the matter of wasting-time, they are positively extravagant in the one area where there is honor in being miserly.

This quote pops with irony in our age of click-bait, fake news, and touch screens, but his simple point (Why waste your life?) is undermined by something more deeply disturbing: Is life nothing more than wasting-time? David Foster Wallace’s repetitive use of “wastoid” in The Pale King makes this point well: something at first mocking becomes descriptive and in the end a poignant rephrasing of “human”. Importantly, both Seneca and Wallace still rely on an ecological metaphor to shape their rhetorical/poetical expressions, as the abstraction of time is not mechanized without the observable change of the natural world, in this sense wasting, decomposition, decay. The day before last, Stephen Hawking said we wastoids have roughly one more millennia to whizz toward another rock because this one won’t fit the bill. It is hard to imagine a future where technical marvels advance while the foundations of our understanding of the world – the world itself – becomes violently uninhabitable.