“Where the craving for admiration and approval predominates, intellectual rigor cannot thrive, if it survives at all.”
So spake Maud Newton in the New York Times Magazine this weekend, launching an attack against deceased literary folk-superhero David Foster Wallace for his audience-conscious “aw-shucks, I-could-be-wrong-here, I’m-just-a-supersincere-regular-guy-who-happens-to-have-written-a-book-on-infinity approach” to nonfiction. Her essay is the most nuanced and uncurmudgeonly critique I’ve seen of Wallace, who seems to be as much of an untouchable as you can be in the literary world. She harpoons Wallace’s stylistic affectations, some of which have migrated their way to a broader audience; she then pivots to attack the blogosphere’s worst habits of fake folksiness and argumentative gutlessness, which she thinks have descended from Wallace and undermined our ability to argue. “The idea is to provoke and persuade, not to soothe,” Newton concludes. “And the best way to make an argument is to make it, straightforwardly, honestly, passionately, without regard to whether people will like you afterward.”
Here’s an argument: There are worse things than pleasing your audience, even if you have to click your heels every now and then to do it. Bill O’Reilly is straightforward, passionate, provocative, and doesn’t give a damn what you think. He also boasts a jacket of priors on Politifact, and his style makes across-the-aisle alienation a foregone conclusion. But he’s hardly alone; when it comes to “provoke and persuade,” Fox News already leads the way, leaving a trail of scorched earth behind it. Was Wallace really so bad? Shouldn’t we promote more self-doubt, not less?
Career summary: David Foster Wallace was a complex guy with a huge brain and an unforgettable writing voice — chatty, inflated, constantly sidetracked, perpetually insecure. When mobilized for an argument, Newton writes, Wallace’s prose deployed a specific kind of rhetoric that was “mannered and limited in its own way, as manipulative in its recursive self-second-guessing as any more straightforward effort to persuade.”
Wallace was intensely audience-conscious and worked his ass off to be folksy — at least as much as you can be folksy when, like Wallace, you’re a fan of Ludwig Wittgenstein, the philosopher who once questioned whether we could prove our hands really exist. Wallace’s ever questioning philosophical grounding leads to several peculiar ethical moments. In “Authority and American Usage,” he explained that he was both pro-choice and pro-life, having found himself both unable to justify aborting a fetus or to question a woman who felt differently, acknowledging allegiance to the principle that “when in irresolvable doubt about something, I have neither the legal nor the moral right to tell another person what to do about it, especially if that person feels that s/he is not in doubt.” It’s through moments like these that we can understand the genesis of Newton’s complaints about Wallace. You’d avoid making hard points if you were afraid of upsetting someone; you’d also avoid making hard points if you genuinely weren’t sure what point was correct. Wallace managed to collide these two insecurities.
In Newton’s ensuing criticism of blogs — which she says have adopted Wallace’s worst tendencies without any of his talents — Newton has produced a partial descendant of George Orwell’s 1946 classic, “Politics and the English Language.” From Orwell’s essay:
Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble. If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step towards political regeneration: so that the fight against bad English is not frivolous and is not the exclusive concern of professional writers.
While Orwell’s essay attacks the symptoms of bad writing in his time, Newton’s targets the virus behind the bad in ours — a “craving for admiration and approval” marked by “the unwillingness to be pinned down.” Reading a little deeper into Newton’s criticism, we see the same two implied culprits we met with Wallace: a philosophy of moral relativism that softens critique and a culture of social insecurity that pleads for likes and follows. The two mash together to create a generation of pleasers and hedgers, a digital world of opinionless opinionators. We don’t know what’s right, and even if we did, we wouldn’t want to make anybody mad. And these choices are reflected against the pools of “sort ofs” and “reallys” swamping our prose, like portraits of a spineless Dorian Gray.
But who is “we”?
I’m guessing the “we” that Newton uses to critique bloggers — the same “we” I borrowed for the preceding section — refers to an extremely narrow demographic of (mostly) white, educated, coastally located, socially conscious upper-middle-class liberals. “We” are actually a minority. The majority of anonymous Web commenters express their opinions with all the reflexive irony and polite deference of an alleyway knifing.
So what we’re talking about when we talk about “our” conversational tics is the way that a particular group of people choose to talk to each other. We’re talking about dialect, the tiny little conversational mannerisms that convey solidarity by saying, “Don’t worry, I’m one of you.” In other words, buried in Newton’s essay are unexplored assumptions about how “we” are using language as a tool to gain access to both broader audiences and exclusive cliques. Our adoption of Wallace-isms actually underlines the much bigger struggle faced by journalists and public thinkers today — how to win authority and credibility from distracted audiences, where adaptations of Wallace-y cuteness (and Fox News’s anger) can be seen as end-runs around the declining public trust in longstanding public institutions and intellectual traditions.
One of the great achievements of democratized communication (Twitter, message boards) and our prevailing moral relativism (people have a right to think what they think) has been increased empowerment for larger and larger swaths of previously voiceless Americans. But an unfortunate side effect has been that we put less and less trust in the organizations and public figures that used to speak on our behalf. It’s not that public institutions have gotten less trustworthy, but that we’re now able to identify and quickly disseminate examples of flaws that may have always existed, like poor health care for veterans, Kafkaesque airline service, and, yes, shoddy journalism. The result has been a widening rhetorical gap between what the powerful say — which is to say, feel-good things — and what the rest of us feel.
Today’s most interesting broadcasters have moved to fill that rhetorical gap in order to reclaim credibility, dumping the paternal Cronkite tones for worldviews a little more in line with their viewers’ perception of reality. Fox News taps into the deep well of perceived persecution and aggrievement felt by many small-town conservatives over the disrupted traditions and shifting power structures in their lives; Jon Stewart, meanwhile, channels liberals’ disbelief and smug amusement at the abundant absurdities of life in the United States — most of which they’ll tolerate, but all of which could have been avoided if conservatives would just calm down about everything and maybe also listen to the scientists. (Liberals never quite seems to be as upset as conservatives; perhaps we can blame moral relativism for their doubts on what, exactly, to be upset about.) Stewart embodies the kind of evasiveness Newton attributes to Wallace: an unwillingness to be pinned down (by not calling himself a journalist) and an easygoing, non-confrontational critical style.
On the print side, Stewart’s ironic news style shares DNA with Gawker’s, which, like Wallace’s work, plays better to liberal audiences: All three use mockery (both gentle and not) and self-consciousness as a trying-to-be-cool-with-it manner of interpreting and confronting an oft flawed world — a manner that would not be deployed by, say, the more self-serious New Yorker or New York Times, which still feel obliged to write with the Voice of God. We might as well call this new dialect Standard Gawker English, because Gawker provides a prime case study in how a news organization carefully uses postured syntax and tone to peel away readers from its stodgier, more Newton-voiced competition. The gossip news site’s headlines are like a miniature style guide for the ironic hyperbole and contrived casualness typical of the new, “slackerized” tone of authority: Rich Guys Can’t Stop Throwing Zillion-Dollar Birthday Parties as America Crumbles. Mystery Orange Goo Identified as Ominous Thing. Michele Bachmann’s Hand-Written Kibbutz Letter Is Kind of Sweet.
These affectations belong to one of the most audience-conscious publications in existence — with a real-time, page-view leaderboard mounted on a wall in the newsroom — because they’re affectations that work. Despite having microsize content and making minimal contributions to the public well-being, the analytics show that “we” love Gawker and keep coming back for more. Gawker’s writers are not shy about expressing opinions, but Newton’s exhortation to express them “straightforwardly, honestly, passionately, without regard to whether people will like you afterward” wouldn’t fly, because honest and passionate opinion eventually gets honestly, passionately exhausting, and the audience would drift away — unless we swap out Gawker for Fox News, which the die-hards keep watching.
In the end, the uses of rhetoric move like political campaigns, with liberal cuteness and conservative anger taking opposing sides of the same coin. A clear editorial viewpoint consolidates the base; a persuasive tone seduces the undecided and the apathetic. Giving up tone is like giving up the center, and with it, any chance for consensus. That Newton’s ideal argumentative style parallels Fox News’s unapologetic conservative strain seems inadvertent; that she lacks Wallace’s liberal urge for appeasing self-criticism, less so. Perhaps she’d prefer the bridges to burn from both ends.
Maybe this new era of shifting media posture is the product of increased competition. David Foster Wallace understood this less as a market competition than as a cognitive one: How do you get readers to stay with you when they have TV, the radio, the internet, which can be so much more immediately gratifying? Answer: You adopt a persona, one that charms. You entertain. You make people laugh, because they like to laugh. For a guy who used words like onanistic in a country where nerds get picked on and who wrote literature while academics debated the death of the novel, Wallace understood the stakes. His adrenalized Gen-X self-consciousness presaged what any Millennial with a Twitter account now commonly knows: You are always performing, competing for follows, your performance measured in retweets. If no one hears you speak, are you really saying anything?
It’s in this sense that Newton’s concept of audience anticonsciousness largely runs against where the media — and we as private citizens — have been headed. I’m a journalist, so I read her criticism of blogs as a criticism of what journalism has been sliding toward — increased blogging and journalist branding in an effort to add transparency, to humanize the work, and to bring it down to earth. But it’s hard to know if these are the sort of blogs Newton is criticizing; in her otherwise provocative critique, she fails to be more specific about who the sinners are, identifying them only as “some blogs — personal blogs, academic blogs, blogs associated with some of our most esteemed periodicals” that lack Wallace’s mental acuity. In doing this, she’s committed the same sin of vagueness she condemns as being part-and-parcel with cuteness. Maybe this isn’t a big deal. But it’s also hard to evaluate the real-world damage she says has been caused by the “likes” and “sort ofs” without naming a few names, and this is, shall we say, kind of a bummer.
Newton’s criticism obscures the fact that she and Wallace have more in common on intellectual honesty and integrity and straightforwardness than her essay lets on. Wallace hated the politics of political correctness. He openly pined for an era when he could write with less irony and more earnestness. And despite his masterful use and understanding of rhetoric, Wallace held strong views on the eventual emptiness of rhetoric without substance. As he once told Rolling Stone,
We’re all — especially those of us who are educated and have read a lot and have watched TV critically — in a very self-conscious and sort of worldly and sophisticated time, but also a time when we seem terribly afraid of other people’s reactions to us and very desperate to control how people interpret us. Everyone is extremely conscious of manipulating how they come off in the media; they want to structure what they say so that the reader or audience will interpret it in the way that is most favorable to them. What’s interesting to me is that this isn’t all that new. This was the project of the Sophists in Athens, and this is what Socrates and Plato thought was so completely evil. The Sophists had this idea: Forget this idea of what’s true or not — what you want to do is rhetoric; you want to be able to persuade the audience and have the audience think you’re smart and cool. And Socrates and Plato, basically their whole idea is, “Bullshit. There is such a thing as truth, and it’s not all just how to say what you say so that you get a good job or get laid, or whatever it is people think they want.”
Newton’s ultimate appeal for argumentative fearlessness is an appeal against cuteness of word and mind: “Where the craving for admiration and approval predominates, intellectual rigor cannot thrive, if it survives at all.” Cuteness of mind should certainly be avoided, but a greater focus on motive, rather than style, seems right. It’s less important how people say something and more about why they say it and what they hope to get from saying it. You don’t have to use the wordbullshit to call it when you see it, just as long as you call it. That’s the important part. Although eventually you’ll need people to listen and maybe even believe you about the bullshit, just in case you ever, you know, want them to kinda do something sorta about it.