Freedom From Authenticity

Last night I listened to a recording of David Foster Wallace’s Kenyon College commencement address.  I know, I know. Wallace is one of these people around whom personality cults form, and its hard to take those people seriously. If it helps, there’s this one guy who is really ticked at Wallace for what must have been some horrible thing Wallace did to him, like having had the temerity to be alive at the same time as he. I also know that Wallace could at times be a rather nasty human being, or so some have reported. That said, the man said some really important and true things which need to be heard again and again.

These things as it turns out, or as I hear them now, in this particular frame of mind that I am in, have everything to do with authenticity. This is not because Wallace is talking directly about authenticity and its discontents, but because he understands, intimately it seems, what it feels like to be the sort of person for whom authenticity is likely to become a problem, and without intending to propose a solution to this problem of authenticity, he does.

Authenticity becomes a problem the second it becomes a question. As William Deresiewicz put it, “the search for authenticity is futile. If you have to look for it, you’re not going to find it.” Authenticity, like happiness and love and probably everything that is truly significant in life partakes of this dynamic whereby the sought after thing can be attained only by not consciously seeking after it. Think of it, and now it is a problem; seek it, and you will not find it; focus on it, and it becomes elusive.

So authenticity is the sort of thing that vanishes the moment you become conscious of it. It’s what you have only when you’re not thinking of it. And what you’re not thinking of when you have it is yourself. Authenticity is a crisis of self invoked by a hyper-selfawareness that makes it impossible not think of oneself. And I don’t think this is a matter of being a horribly selfish or arrogant person. No, in fact, I think this kind of hype-rselfawareness is more often than not burdened with insecurity and fear and anxiety. It’s a voice most people want to shut up and hence the self-defeating quest for authenticity.

What does Wallace have to say about any of this? Well, first, there’s this: “Here is just one example of the total wrongness of something I tend to be automatically sure of: everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute centre of the universe; the realest, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely think about this sort of natural, basic self-centredness because it’s so socially repulsive.”

This is what he calls our default setting. Our default setting is to think about the world as if we were its center, to process every situation through the grid of our own experience, to assume “that my immediate needs and feelings are what should determine the world’s priorities.” This is our default setting in part because from the perspective of our own experience, the only perspective to which we have immediate access, we are literally the center of the universe.

Wallace also issued this warning: “Worship power you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out.”

So then, worship authenticity and … 

But, Wallace also tells us, it doesn’t have to be this way. The point of a liberal arts education — this is a commencement address after all — is to teach us how to exercise choice over what we think and what we pay attention to. And Wallace urges us to pay attention to something other than the monologue inside our head. Getting out of our own heads, what Wallace called our “skull-sized kingdoms” — this is the only answer to the question of authenticity.

And so this makes me think again of the possibility that certain kinds of practices that help us do just this. They can so focus our attention on themselves, that we stop, for a time, paying attention to ourselves. Serendipitously, I stumbled on this video about glass-blowing in which a glass-blower is talking about his craft when he says this: “When you’re blowing glass, there really isn’t time to have your mind elsewhere – you have to be 100% engaged.” There it is.

Now, I know, we can’t all run off and take up glass blowing. That would be silly and potentially dangerous. The point is that this practice has the magical side effect of taking a person out of their own head by acutely focusing our attention. The leap I want to make now is to say that this skill is transferable. Learn the mental discipline of so focusing your attention in one particular context and you will be better able to deploy it in other circumstances.

It’s like the ascetic practice of fasting. The point is not that food is bad or that denying yourself food is somehow virtuous or meritorious. Its about training the will and learning how to temper desire so as to direct and deploy it toward more noble ends. You train your will with food so that you can exercise it meaningfully in other, more serious contexts.

In any case, Wallace is right. It’s hard work not yielding to our default self-centeredness. “The really important kind of freedom,” Wallace explained, “involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.” I know I’ve cited that line before and not that long ago, but the point it makes is crucial.

Freedom is not about being able to do whatever we want, when we want. It has nothing to do with listening to our heart or following our dreams or whatever else we put on greeting cards and bumper stickers. Real freedom comes from learning to get out of our “skull-sized kingdoms” long enough to pay attention to the human being next us so that we might treat them with decency and kindness and respect. Then perhaps we’ll have our authenticity, but we’ll have it because we’ve stopped caring about it.


A transcript of Wallace’s address is available here.

Mindfulness Is Not Merely Subtraction

Mindfulness is not merely negation, subtraction, or reduction.

This was the thought that occurred to me as I read Miranda Ward’s reflections on her inadvertent break from the Internet, which concluded with the following observation:

“Why can’t we at least acknowledge that, with or without the internet, we still have to work hard, fight distraction, fight depression, and succumb, every once in awhile, to paralysing self-doubt? So it was nice, while I was on holiday, not to have any mobile phone reception. It’s also nice to be able to video chat with my 86-year-old grandmother in California. Disconnected, connected, whatever: I’m still fallible.”

Indeed, we are all fallible. If we assume that merely withdrawing from certain facets of digital life will by itself render us supremely attentive and mindful individuals, then we are certainly in for a rather disheartening disappointment.

That said, I do think the little word merely is essential. Mindfulness is more, not less than what I’ve called attentional austerity. To put it otherwise, attentional austerity is a necessary, but not sufficient cause of mindfulness. It’s not a matter of starving attention, but training and directing it.

Ordinarily, mindfulness is a habituated response, not a spontaneous reaction. Habituated responses arise out of our practices. If our online practices undermine mindfulness, then moderating these practices becomes part of the solution.

Learning to establish and abide by certain limits is, after all, an indispensable discipline. But imposing limits for their own sake is at best unhelpful and at worst destructive. Limits, as Wendell Berry has written, are best understood as “inducements to formal elaboration and elegance, to fullness of relationship and meaning.” They are for something. 

Mindfulness must be for something. It is about fostering a certain kind of attention and learning to deploy it toward certain ends and not others. 

While doing whatever we call the Twitter equivalent of eavesdropping on an exchange centered on David Foster Wallace and the idea of mindfulness, I was reminded of Wallace’s Kenyon College commencement address in which he makes the following observation:

“The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default-setting, the ‘rat race’ — the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing.”

Mindfulness, in Wallace’s view, is about redirecting our attention toward others; and not only toward others, but toward others as ends in themselves (to put a Kantian spin on it). This latter qualification is necessary because we very often direct our attention upon others, but only for the sake of having ourselves reflected back to us.

There are, of course, other legitimate ends toward which mindfulness may aspire. The point is this: We ought not to be for or against the Internet in itself. We ought to be for the kind of loving mindfulness Wallace advocates — to take one example — and then we ought to measure our practices, all of them, online or off, by how well they support such loving mindfulness.

Too Visible to Be Seen

The late David Foster Wallace opened his well-regarded Kenyon College commencement address of 2005 with a joke*:

“There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes ‘What the hell is water?'”

The point, of course, is that we tend to lose sight of the most pervasive realities. Or, as Wallace put it, “The immediate point of the fish story is that the most obvious, ubiquitous, important realities are often the ones that are the hardest to see and talk about.” This is, as Wallace went on to say, a rather banal observation to make. And yet, it’s not. Or at least, it is an observation that we must make over and over again because, by its very nature, it slips unnoticed from consciousness.

In “The Machine Stops,” an early story of science-fiction by E. M. Forester, the Machine drones on incessantly but the noise is never noticed because it is never not present. In a very different context, C. S. Lewis wrote, “The music which is too familiar to be heard enfolds us day and night and in all ages.” Too familiar to be heard. Too familiar to be seen. Too familiar to be noticed. The most pervasive forms of visibility fade into invisibility. And so it is with all of our senses. There is a paradoxical threshold past which a sensation is too pronounced to be any longer noticed. My understanding is that Hegel made a similar observation about the invisibility of the familiar, but I don’t pretend to be conversant with Hegel.

In any case, the point is simply this: we tend to be disconcertingly unaware of the realities which most profoundly make us the sort of people we are and that give shape to our day-to-day existence.

Sociologist Arnold Gehlen divided culture into background and foreground. He understood this in terms of the choices that present themselves to us. We experience the foreground of culture as a realm in which choices are before us. The background appears to us a realm in which choices are foreclosed. In reality, we do have choices in both cases; but the background elements of culture present themselves with such taken-for-granted force that the choice remains veiled.

In the classic example, we chose what clothes to wear this morning (foreground), but whether or not to wear clothes at all did not present itself to us as a choice (background). Again, ubiquity and pervasiveness serve to blind us. Now putting it that way is unnecessarily pejorative. In fact, we probably couldn’t get very far as individuals or as a society if certain decisions had not moved into the background of culture.

I bring all of this up to register a corollary point regarding technology. Ubiquitous technologies that recede into the realm of shadowy familiarity are perhaps best positioned to exercise a formative influence over us precisely because we have stopped thinking about them.

So take a look around. What technologies have worked their way into the background of our lives, ever present and unnoticed? What choices do they veil? What assumptions to they engender? What patterns of life do they facilitate? What have they led us to take for granted?

These will all be difficult questions to answer — thinking about them is not unlike trying to jump over your own shadow — but we’d better try and keep trying if we’re to live well-ordered lives.


* I was reminded of this little story while reading a fine essay titled, “Orangic, Locally-Grown Technology.”

Teaching What It Feels Like To Be Alive

… it’s the stuff that’s about what it feels like to live.  Instead of being a relief from what it feels like to live.

That is how David Foster Wallace, in Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, contrasted traditional literature with its coherent narrative and a satisfying sense of closure, to experimental or avant-garde literature which typically exhibits neither.  I’ve been thinking about that contrast since I posted the passage a few weeks ago.  Writing that is experienced as a relief from what it feels like to be alive and writing that reflects what it feels like to be alive — I’m wondering if that same distinction could also be usefully applied to teaching.  Can teaching, in the same way, reflect what it feels like to be alive, rather than be a relief from it?

Literature and teaching are both components of the ongoing, ramshackle project we call our education.   When I am most hopeful about what a teacher can do, I see it as not unlike what a very good book might also accomplish.  We might describe it as the opening up of new and multiple vistas into both the world and ourselves.  A good book offers a challenging engagement with reality, rather than the mere escapism that some literature proffers instead.  To borrow a line from Bridge to Terabithia, good teaching, likewise, pushes students to see beyond their own secret countries, to see and to feel what lies beyond and within.  Of course, on my less hopeful (read, more curmudgeonly) days, I feel that convincing students that a book can work in that way is itself the necessary task.

What, then, might it mean to teach so as to reflect what it feels like to be alive?

For one thing, it involves feeling; it is affective.  It reaches beyond the transfer of information to the mind, and seeks to move the heart as well.  This matters principally because while we go about the work and play of living we tend to lead with our hearts and not with our minds (for better and/or for worse).

But in order to move the heart, the heart must be susceptible to being moved.  The numbness that threatens always to settle on us as wave upon wave of stimulation washes over us gently massaging us into a state of mildly amused indifference to reality must be overcome.  This numbness itself might be self-protective, but, while self-knowledge has a distinguished place in the history of education, self-preservation seems a less noble aspiration.  Teaching that leads to feeling must find a way to break this through this self-protective numbness.  Of course, that numbness is itself part of what it feels like to be alive, but it is the part that must first be encountered, acknowledged, and transcended in order to feel all the rest.

Like the artist in Wallace’s view, the teacher has the license and the responsibility

to sit, clench their fists, and make themselves be excruciatingly aware of the stuff that we’re mostly aware of only on a certain level.  And that if the writer [or teacher] does his job right, what he basically does is remind the reader [or student] of how smart the reader [or student] is.

The teacher, like the writer, must themselves be sensitive to what it feels like to be alive so as to teach to that feeling and help students understand it, understand themselves.  Perhaps it is precisely here that teaching has failed students, in the inability to enter into the student’s world so as to speak meaningfully into it.

The trick, of course, is also to do so without falling into the equivalent of what Wallace calls “shitty avant garde,” literature that tries too hard and ignores the reader in its effort to be profound. Trying too hard to achieve this effect without authenticity is fatal.  Likewise with teaching.  Watching Lean on Me or Dead Poet’s Society one too many times will likely do more harm than good.

Good writing and good teaching are both grounded in a deep respect for the reader and the student, not in an inordinate desire to be inspiring.  This is what finally stuck me most forcefully in Wallace’s comments.  His work, his estimation of what literature could do, flowed from a remarkable confidence in the reader.  Perhaps then this is also where good teaching must begin, with an equal respect for and confidence in the student.

David Foster Wallace on Life, Literature, and Writing

I’ve been reading Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace, a book that amounts to a running transcript of David Lipsky’s five days with Wallace back in the mid-1990s during a book tour for Wallace’s then recently released Infinite Jest.  I’ve not read anything by Wallace leading up to this, but I had been drawn to his personality by the numerous mentions of Wallace I’d come across over the last year or so.  I’ve not been disappointed.  It has been an odd thing to feel a deep sadness for the loss of a person you’ve never met, or, in a certain sense, only just met, overheard really.  Reading this record of Lipsky’s time with Wallace, you feel as though you were eavesdropping, and the conversation is so engaging that you can’t quite walk away.  Wallace thus far comes across as a remarkably sensitive, intelligent, and kind individual with genuine insight into what it feels like to be alive.

I wanted to excerpt a passage or two that I thought spoke to some of the issues that I’ve written about here, particularly the sense of being overwhelmed by stimulation and distraction or the fractured, alienated feel of contemporary life.  Remember as you read the selections that this is a transcript of a conversation and so it will not have the polish of prose.  But it makes up for the lack of polish with a certain immediacy and affect that I thought was compelling.

We pick up Wallace discussing traditional narrative with Lipsky.  Lipsky has suggested that literature in the mold of Leo Tolstoy does the best job of capturing the reality of life.  Wallace disagrees:

And I don’t know about you.  I just — stuff that’s like that, I enjoy reading, but it doesn’t feel true at all.  I read it as a relief from what’s true.  I read it as a relief from the fact that, I received five hundred thousand discrete bits of information today, of which maybe twenty-five are important.  And how am I going to sort those out, you know?

Lipsky is not sold, he remarks that he is more taken by the continuity of life, rather than the discontinuity.  Wallace continues:

Huh.  Well you and I just disagree.  Maybe the world just feels differently to us.  This is all going back to something that isn’t really clear:  that avant-garde stuff is hard to read.  I’m not defending it, I’m saying that stuff — this is gonna get very abstract — but there’s a certain set of magical stuff that fiction can do for us.  There’s maybe thirteen things, of which who even knows which ones we can talk about.  But one of them has to do with the sense of, the sense of capturing, capturing what the world feels like to us, in the sort of way that I think that a reader can tell “Another sensibility like mine exists.”  Something else feels this way to someone else.  So that the reader feels less lonely.

There’s really really shitty avant-garde, that’s coy and hard for its own sake.  That I don’t think it’s a big accident that a lot of what, if you look at the history of fiction — sort of, like, if you look at the history of painting after the development of the photography — that the history of fiction represents this continuing struggle to allow fiction to continue to do that magical stuff.  As the texture, as the cognitive texture, of our lives changes.  And as, um, as the different media by which our lives are represented change.  And it’s the avant-garde or experimental stuff that has the chance to move the stuff along.  And that’s what’s precious about it.

And the reason why I’m angry at how shitty most of it is, and how much it ignores the reader, is that I think it’s very very very very precious.  Because it’s the stuff that’s about what it feels like to live.  Instead of being a relief from what it feels like to live.

That struck me as a rather astute analysis of the power of literature and the potential (and pitfalls) of the avant-garde.  I was especially struck by his contrast between traditional narrative in Tolstoy’s mold which Wallace experiences as a relief from what it feels like to live, and disjointed, discontinuous contemporary literature that reflects what it feels like to live.

Wallace goes on to describe once again the feel of life that contemporary fiction should attempt to capture.  Keep in mind that although this dialog feels fresh and contemporary it is over 15 years old and was spoken at the dawn of the Internet age.

… I think a lot of people feel — not overwhelmed by the amount of stuff they have to do.  But overwhelmed by the number of choices they have, and by the number of discrete, different things that come at them.  And the number of small … that since they’re part of numerous systems, the number of small insistent tugs on them, from a number of different systems and directions.  Whether that’s qualitatively different than the way life was for let’s say our parents or our grandparents, I’m not sure.  But I sorta think so.  At least in some way — in terms of the way it feels on your nerve endings.

Finally, here is a brief comment on the privilege and responsibility of the writer which gives us a sense of Wallace’s striking confidence in and respect for the reader:

What writers have is a license and also the freedom to sit — to sit, clench their fists, and make themselves be excruciatingly aware of the stuff that we’re mostly aware of only on a certain level.  And that if the writer does his job right, what he basically does is remind the reader of how smart the reader is.  Is to wake the reader up to stuff that the reader’s been aware of all the time.