Signifying Nothing


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Jaroslav Kušnír, The University of Prešov, Slovakia: Politics (Ideology), Ethics, Aesthetics, and David Foster Wallace’s Short Story Signifying Nothing, 1999.
It seems that the most recent development in literary theory and criticism shows two basic approaches to a literary text. One of them emphasizes political, ideological and social aspects of its object of study, that is of a literary text. According to Richard Levin,

“ ‘ideology’ refers to a consciously held set of beliefs or creed, usually in the social or political realm. In this sense ideological approach to Shakespeare would be one that is deliberately constructed from such a creed in order to serve it, and the two most important examples today are Marxist and feminist criticism” (Levin 1996: 138).

The ideological, political and sociological position of a feminist approach can be clearly seen from C. Weedon’s words:

Feminism is a politics. It is a politics directing at changing existing power relations between women and men in society” (Weedon 1987:1).

Some years later, a very similar position can be found in Catherine Belsey’s and J. Moore’s feminist anthology entitled typically The Feminist Reader: Essays in Gender and the Politics of Literary Criticism:

The feminist reader is enlisted in the process of changing the gender relations which prevail in our society, and she regards the practise of reading as one of the sites in the struggle for change” (Belsey and Moore 1989:1).

Thus especially Marxist, some feminist (Gilbert and Gubar), post-colonial, gay and lesbian, and cultural studies critics dealing with categories such as class, gender, race, sex, and ethnicity see a literary text primarily as social, historical, political rather than artistic or aesthetic product which is a result of author’s or society’s politics and ideology. In other words, the literary text seems to be understood as a direct representation of external, experential reality, social conditions, author’s social background and ideology and is understood as equal to any other, non-literary, non-artistic texts. Such an approach marginalizes aesthetic aspects of the literary texts, the uniqueness and originality of authorial narrative and style, and it foregrounds ideology and politics rather than aesthetics of representation. This approach applies and deals with non-literary categories and is often reminiscent of a sociological rather than literary theoretical study.

Other tendencies, loosely understood as post-structuralist, can be labelled as philosophizing or rhetoric, and they are interested, on the other hand, in the role and function of language in the formation/creation of meaning, in the working of the linguistic representation of reality, and in the relationship between the subject and object of representation. Since this approach often deals with a certain philosophical position or with working of some philosophical categories, it often becomes a discourse about itself and about philosophy rather than about literature and about the uniqueness of author’s depiction of reality or some problems. Both approaches to a literary text tend to suppress the importance of artistic and aesthetic vitality of authors, and the literary text becomes only a tool to prove either ideological, political, social or philosophic positions of the interpreters or theories rather than the artistic and aesthetic value and meaning of these texts. Both types of criticism characterized above represent certain extremes and often neglect the importance of the literary text. Language creating a literary is neither a transperent channel to reality nor an artificial chain of signifiers but rather, as Charles Newman argues in his seminal study The Postmodern Aura,

[…]a phenomenon which is neither autonomous nor coextensive with our lives. And literature, thus, is a gift— not the property of a class or even an individual prophet— a present, which, like all exemplary endowments, creates its own terms of acceptance” (Newman 1985:97).

Thus neither language creating reality in a literary work, nor its philosophy and social status should be studied separately but rather in their mutual interaction and context. Since the reality in a literary work is primarily constructed through the specific, artistic language, this language and its connection to the social reality should be the primary focus of critics’ interest. As Charles Newman continues in the same work,

“Fiction does not render the world but makes its own world. Fiction is not history because history itself cannot be understood in itself as a language, as history does not consist of signs. Further, history is not intelligible without an extra-historical essence as a matter of principle. Therefore, fiction presumes an epistemologically privileged position as a matter of course. It operates as a distinct and whole addition to reality; in this sense, fiction always challenges conventional reality” (Newman 1985: 62-63).

Both these tendencies in literary criticism, in the past decades, have gradually displaced a literary text from the center of attention and deal either with the social reality or with a metadiscourse (literary theory which is about itself, or with a philosophy of a discourse) rather than with the literary text. As it was said above, these approaches take a literary text only as an instrument to be taken to prove some sociological, political, ideological or philosophical positions and theories rather than its literary, artistic or aesthetic quality and meaning. Jonathan Culler has confirmed the existence of some of these tendencies arguing that

literary theory in the 1980s and 1990s has not focused on the difference between literary and non-literary works. What theorists have done is to reflect on literature as a historical and ideological category, on the social and political functions that something called ‘literature’ has been thought to perform” (Culler 1997: 36).

In the last decades, ethics and the ethical criticism have become another important tendency in the development of thinking on literature. Although ethics has been closely connected to literature, the representation of ethics in a literary work can never be the main criterion of its aesthetic, literary or artistic value otherwise, like socially, ideologically or politically oriented criticism, it would degrade a literary work only to a mere sociological doccument. Oscar Wilde once noted that

There is no such thing as a moral or immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written[...]No artist has ethical sympathies. An ethical sympathy in an artist is an unpardonable mannerism of style[...]No artist is even morbid. The artist can express everything”(Wilde 1993: 1628).

Also Ludwig Wittgestein argues that

“It is clear that ethics cannot be put into words. Ethics is transcendental.(Ethics and aesthetics are one and the same) (Wittgestein in Stengel 2004: 609).

Both Wilde and Wittgestein point out the inseparability of ethics (morality) and aesthetics. In Wilde’s understanding, the literary representation of immorality does not make a literary work immoral or artistically invaluable and immoral themes or characters cannot be understood as the criterion for the judgement of its artistic and aesthetic value. And Wittgestein empasizes the immanence of ethics within a literary work associating it with the whole process of reading understood as itself being ethical in its nature.

In his article A Metaethics of Reading, Ronald Shusterman develops these Wittgestein’s ideas and suggests four theses confirming a certain immanence of ethics not only in literary works but in the whole process of reading. He claims that

there are four major theses one can defend with respect to the ethical or metaethical dimension that can be attributed to literature(or perhaps to the arts in general)”(Shusterman 2003: 29).

In his view, these are

1. The ethical potency of fiction can be found in the represented content. It is what the work explicitly endorses and teaches that moulds us morally.

2. […] In fiction, a special attention to language produces an ethical experience.

3. It is the literary form, and more specifically the form of the dialogic novel which is in itself always already ethical, independently of any content or specific type of language.

4. The specific ethical potency of fiction is to be found, in the final analysis, neither in the content, the language, nor the form, but in literary practise itself, in the pragmatic dimension of our interaction with literary works of art” (Shusterman 2003: 29).

  Although especially the first point is quite contradictory and Shusterman does not entirely identify with it further in his article1, we can mostly agree with other points for several reasons. It is especially because all the other points emphasize the idea which can be labelled as creative thinking supporting plurality of both views of interpreters (readers, critics) and meanings stemming from it. Such a plurality evolving from one’s understanding of a plurality of meanings and from a possible discussion on them (the more ambiguous, indefinite, the more creative, that is moral) can further support the idea of tolerance (to other views, author’s representation of social reality) expressed through different views of other interpreters on the work of art which thus becomes ethical itself. This plurality of meanings is expressed through author’s mastery of the use of artistic language. As Oscar Wilde argues,

Thought and language are to the artist instruments of an art”(Wilde 1993:1628).

The plurality of meanings is secured through the artistic and stylistic mastery of the author and it expresses the language’s undermining potential which can subvert any idea, meaning, and position including the ethical one. In his article Literature and Ethics, Michael Eskin argues that literature is ethical because of

its discursive-transformational ‘capaciousness’, that is[...]its ability to absorb and transform virtually any kind of discourse, including the discourse of ethics” (Eskin 2004: 575).

It seems that it is especially modernist and postmodernist art which emphasize the language as artistic medium as well as its role in the creation of “artistic” reality. And especially postmodern and contemporary literature2, mostly through the use of metafiction in Patricia Waugh’s understanding3, focuses the reader’s attention to the working of language, its status, its role and function in the creation of reality and thus involving a reader into the process of the construction of meaning and, in this way, to critical thinking stimulating tolerance and respect for other views.

David Foster Wallace is a contemporary author who has used not only Modernist and Post-Modernist narrative techniques but also who, through the use of meta-metafictional narratives and irony 4 has pointed out a commercialization of (iconic) postmodern authors of earlier generation (John Barth, Thomas Pynchon, William Gaddis, Donald Barthelme, Robert Coover and others). Many of his works such as Infinite Jest or The Westward Course Expansion Takes it Away are much more complex and linguistically manneristic than the works of his postmodern predecessors. In his short story Signifying Nothing he seems to explicitly deal with morality. Despite the fact that a reminiscence of a young boy on a pedophiliac behaviour of his father in his childhood stands in the centre of attention in this short story, Wallace does not deal only with the boy’s frustrating experience from his childhood, but further deals with the role of a time distance (past and present) and language in the construction/creation of the past reality and the reliability of narration. The story narrated from a now 19 years old boy starts in the following way:

It was a couple of years ago, and I was 19, and getting ready to move out of my folks’ house, and get out on my own, and one day as I was getting ready, I suddenly get this memory of my father waggling his dick in my face one time when I was a little kid[...]Part of the total weirdness of the incident of my father waggling his dick at me down there was that, the whole time, he did not say anything” (Wallace 1999: 63).

The story thus seems to be about a boy’s attempt to reconcile with the family, especially with his father, after one year of separation from it, by having invited the family to his little sister favourite restaurant to celebrate her birthday. The end of a story suggests a certain reconcilliation and final understanding between the boy, his father and the family:

The waiter put my plate in front of me, and I pretended to look down and make a face, and we all laughed. It was good” (Wallace 1999: 68).

This seeming happy ending indicating that this short story is about the process of growing feeling of frustration of unpleasant and deviant experience and of the continuos process of mental regeneration through forgiving includes several “disruptive” elements. These elements partly undermine but also develop the other, possibly allegorical meaning associated with the depiction of the connection between the language and represented reality. The boy’s reconstruction of unpleasant memories seems to be clear and reliable since he claims that

The memory comes up out of nowhere, but it is so detailed and solid-seeming, I know it is totally true. I suddenly know it really happened, and was not a dream...”(Wallace 1999: 63).

A close and even naturalistic reconstruction of the incidents of father’s molestation of a child both in the room and in the van later is, however, undermined by the narrator’s unreliability and doubt. Wallace graphically emphasizes (through the use of italics), in the later part of the story, the words such as look, imagine, believe and accuse (65):

...not only did he never in his life waggle his dick at me for no reason when I was a little kid but just the fact that I could even fucking imagine that he ever waggled his dick at me, and then like, believe it, and then come into his own presence in this rental van and, like, accuse him” (65).

The narrator’s emphasis on the words such as believe emphasizes boy’s attempt to convince a reader about the truthfulness of the narrated events supported by the word accuse further, but they seem to be an expression of boy’s imagination and will rather than fact. This doubt is further supported by the word imagine evoking an emphasis on the role of a language in the construction of reality. A doubt about the reliability of the narrated events is further expressed through the boy’s comments becoming a metafictional metacommentary on the process of creation of reality through language. The narrator, a boy comments on that that

I still knew that the memory of my father waggling his dick at me in the rec room was real, but, little by little, I started to realize, just because I remembered the incident, that did not mean, necessarily, my father did”(66).

Boy’s intensive and disgusting memories are juxtaposed to father’s indifference and silence about the incident as well as to his entire ignorance of the whole incident. Thus a sexually deviant and graphic act, intensified by boy’s attempt to find a rational justification for it through his elloquent contemplation, is juxtaposed to father’s silence, indifference extented to irrationality of this incident. So while the boy tries to understand this act logically, there is no sexual, emotional, rational or psychological justification for this act from his father’s side. It seems to simply have occured, there is no touch, explanation, sexual climax, violence, there is just a simple act happenning. The boy seems to be more frustrated by the irrationality and absurdity of the incident than by the incident itself. The title itself alludes to it by the statement about signifying nothing evoking the lack of motivation and a clash, a meeting of two different principles and understandings of reality culminating with the meeting of a boy with his family (including his father) at the restaurant suggesting not only a reconcilliation between a boy and his family, but especially a meeting of two different ways of looking at reality, two approaches and principles to its understanding. On the one hand, there is a boy’s approach representing a rational and possibly mimetic understanding of reality, that is a certain belief in the language and its potential to convincingly and logically depict reality. On the other one, father’s approach and attitudes are irrational, undefinable, and unmotivated which undermine the belief in all rationality and the ability of language to represent reality truthfully, convincingly and objectively. So the final scene and a meeting of a boy expecting father’s explanation with a family “signifies nothing”, and a boy does not learn about his father’s motivation for the past incident. Despite this, however, the family party at the restaurant does not end with misunderstanding but with reconcilliation even after another unexpected moment of father’s vulgar elloquence without justification at the restaurant. This act of understanding among the members of the family becomes rather an event suggesting boy’s changed approach to reality and language by his denial to continue in his search for motivation and meaning of his father’s another unexpected and unmotivated act. In addition to this, by his lack of motivation and deviant or vulgar (in the restaurant) behavior father undermines a traditional symbolic role and function of a father representing rationality and authority. Boy’s attitude thus becomes an act of understanding of the working of a language and the process of the construction of reality which is not direct, reliable, mimetic and logical. This meaning of the final scene and the whole story is thus built up on the allegorical principle as understood by Craig Owens. In his view,

In allegorical structure, then, one text is read through another, however fragmentary, intermittent, or chaotic their relationship may be[...]Allegorical imagery is appropriated imagery; the allegorist does not invent images but confiscates them.[...]He does not restore an original meaning that may have been lost or obscured[...]Rather, he adds another meaning to the image[...]the allegorical meaning supplants and antecedent one;it is a supplement” (Owens 1992: 54).

The other texts this allegorical principle is built through in this short story are not specific texts, but the entire inventory of texts based on a mimetic, realistic tradition as confronted with other, modernist and postmodernist texts all represented by the figure of a father and his son in this short story. Through the use of this allegorical principle without its original moralizing intent as in traditional allegory, Wallace points out the working of (artistic) language and its role in the construction of reality as well two different approaches to the representation of reality, that is traditional, mimetic, realistic and more experimental, rather postmodernist. Allegory produces the addition to the basic meaning of the story as a story of a frustrated experience of a boy with his father in his childhood and turns out to be also a story on the relationship between the language and reality, art and life, realistic and experimental (postmodernist) representation of reality. The emphasis on the language, its working, and function stimulating critical thinking foregrounds not ethical, political or ideological but aesthetic aspects of this work Wallace’s allegory, however, does not have either a traditional moralizing impact or acquires an ethical dimension because of the thematization of perversity and vulgarity. Ethical dimension of this short story stems from Wallace’s focus on the language and its working which stimulates critical and creative thinking on literature as an ethical act. At the same time, Wallace avoids both direct, explicit and overt politics and ideology not only by his construction, but also by the whole narrative process commented on above.

As can be seen from the above, in this short story Wallace thematizes vulgarity, immorality and obscenity but he further extends its meaning through the allegorical principle pointing out the working of a language and different views on the construction of reality. Boy’s initial frustration from his alledged pedophiliac experience with his father turn out to become his quest for motivation, meaning, and rationality of the act suggesting his belief in the direct representation of reality by language, in the convincingness about a direct representation and reconstruction of experience through language. This quest, however, shows a process of the boy’s intellectual maturation based on the allegorical principle gradually revealing his distrust in the possibility of direct, reliable and objective recuperation of reality resulting in the final scene where he accepts father’s irrational and illogical behaviour and resigns to the possibility of its logical understanding and explanation. This becomes an act of final understanding of the complicated nature of language and its impossibility to directly, truthfully and convincingly give an objective picture of reality.

1 Later in this article, Shusterman argues that “ position will be a defence of the final thesis, though I intend to grant partial validity and utility to every thesis, except perhaps the first” (Shusterman 2003: 29). By thesis Shusterman means the above four points.
2 by contemporary I mean especially the authors emerging in the late 1980’s and 1990’s such as David Foster Wallace, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers, William Vollmann, Richard Powers and others. Some of them are loosely labelled as post-scientific or meta-metafictional. See, for example, Rother, James. “Reading and Riding the Post-Scientific Wave: the Shorter Fiction of David Foster Wallace.” The Review of Contemporary Fiction 13:2 (1993): 216-234.
3 see Waugh, P. Metafiction. London and New York:1984, p. 2.

4 however simplistic it may seem, by meta-metafictional I mean Wallace fiction’s allusions and reference to the works of mostly postmodernist authors which are already metafictional (John Barth, Thomas Pynchon, William Gaddis and others). David Foster Wallace argues that by becoming institutionalized (taught at the universities) postmodern narratives by the authors of earlier generation have lost their earlier undermining potential have become commercialized (included in the anthologies). In Wallace’s view, the postmodern narrative strategies have also become commercialized through these strategies’ use by TV commercials (especially postmodern irony). See Wallace, David Foster. A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again: Essays and Arguments. Boston: Little, Brown, 1997.

Works Cited

Belsey, K., Moore, J. (eds.) The Feminist Reader: Essays in Gender and the Politics of Literary Criticism. Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1989.

Culler, J. The Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1997.

Eskin, M. “On Literature and Ethics.” Poetics Today 25: 4 (Winter 2004). 573-594.

Green, K., LeBihan, J. Critical Theory&Practise: A Coursebook. London and New York: Routledge, 1996.

Jones, P. (ed.). Imagist Poetry. London: Penguin, 1972.

Levin, R.“The Cultural Materialist Attack on Artistic Unity and the Problem of Ideological Criticism.” Harris, W.V. (ed.) Beyond Poststructuralism. The Speculations of Theory and the Experience of Reading. University Park:The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996.137-156.

Newman, Ch. The Postmodern Aura:The Act of Fiction in an Age of Inflation. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1985.

Owen, Craig.“The Allegorical Impulse: Towards a Theory of Postmodernism.”Owens, Craig. Beyond Recognition: Representation, Power, and Culture. Berkeley:University of California Press, 1992. 52-87.

Shusterman, R. “A Metaethics of Reading.”Ranam, 36 (2003). 29-34.

Stengel, K. “Ethics as Style: Wittgestein’s Aesthetic Ethics and Ethical Aesthetics.” Poetics Today 25: 4 (Winter 2004). 609-625.

Waugh, P. Metafiction. London and New York: 1984.

Weedon, C. Feminist Practise and Post-Structuralist Theory. Oxford: Blackwell, 1987.

Wilde, Oscar. “Preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray.” Abrams, M.H. et al (eds.). The Norton Anthology of English Literature, volume II. Sixth Edition. New York, London: Norton, 1627-1628.


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