David Foster Wallace, Slavoj Žižek, and Scatological Ideology

I came across this clip of Slavoj Žižek discussing the different types of toilets that one finds across Europe the other day, and his riff immediately reminded me of David Foster Wallace’s novella The Suffering Channel (or “The Suffering Channel,” if you prefer to think of it as a long short story). Here’s a version of the riff in English, which seems to approach a stand-up comedy routine at times—

“You go to the toilet and you sit on ideology,” says Žižek, arguing that “Disgust . . . is not necessarily, immediately characterized by its object” — disgust is when you confront something from your inside on your outside (Žižek is likely working in part from Julia Kristeva’s theory of the abject here). His inventory and analysis of the differences between French, English, and German toilets immediately recalled this passage from The Suffering Channel

She had also at some point spent a trimester at Cambridge, and still spoke with a slight British accent, and asked generally now whether anyone else who traveled abroad much had noticed that in German toilets  the hole into which the poop is supposed to disappear when you flush is positioned way in front, so that the poop just sort of lies there in full view and there’s almost no way you can avoid looking at it when you get up and turn around to flush. Which she observed was so almost stereotypically German, almost as if you were supposed to study and analyze your poop and make sure it passed muster before you flushed it down

Of course, pretty much every page of The Suffering Channel concerns the scatological: it is literally about a man who shits out art. Wallace seems to be exploring the ways in which we are unable to reconcile what is inside us — that is, what makes us us — with its final form. For Kristeva, the ultimate abject is the corpse. Žižek, less mordant perhaps, seems to be signalling (in the short clip anyway) the relatively straightforward idea that ideology is always operating, always a force conditioning our identity.

Near the end of the clip (around 5:25 or so), Žižek brings up the example of saliva, pointing out that we are constantly swallowing it, producing it and absorbing it back into ourselves, yet to fill a glass with it and then try to drink it would be revolting, horrific. Compare this with another passage from The Suffering Channel

‘Your own saliva,’ said Laurel Manderley. ‘You’re swallowing it all the time. Is it disgusting to you? No. But now imagine gradually filling up a juice glass or something with your own saliva, and then drinking it all down.’

‘That really is disgusting,’ the editorial intern admitted.

‘But why? When it’s in your mouth it’s not gross, but the minute it’s outside of your mouth and you consider putting it back in, it becomes gross.’

‘Are you suggesting it’s somehow the same thing with poo?’

‘I don’t know. I don’t think so. I think with poo, it’s more like as long as it’s inside us we don’t think about it. In a way, poo only becomes poo when it’s excreted. Until then, it’s more like a part of you, like your inner organs.’

‘It’s maybe the same way we don’t think about our organs, our livers and intestines. They’re inside all of us —‘

‘They are us. Who can live without intestines?’

‘But we still don’t want to see them. If we see them, they’re automatically disgusting.’

Wallce lards his novella with example after example of this kind, of the ways in which abject encounters with the borders of self — shit, saliva, menstrual blood, farts — confer identity through a kind of ritual shame. I doubt that Wallace is following, overtly anyway, any post-Lacanian figures in The Suffering Channel, and the concordance of examples used by Wallace and Žižek is probably ultimately not that remarkable. What I do find worth remarking upon, I suppose, are the ways in which Wallace and Žižek were/are so adept at discussing those areas of humanity we’re often happy to overlook.

Time, Space, Distortion: Falling Towards A 9/11 Literature

The_Falling_Man

In his essay In the Ruins of the Future,” published in December of 2001, Don DeLillo wrote this about the 9/11 attacks: “The writer wants to understand what this day has done to us. Is it too soon?” His question was both profound and at the same time, paradoxically utterly banal, purely rhetorical–of course it was too soon to measure the affects of the 9/11 attacks. But could the distance of time somehow sharpen or enrich perspective? DeLillo continues: “We seem pressed for time, all of us. Time is scarcer now. There is a sense of compression, plans made hurriedly, time forced and distorted.”

In retrospect–what with the Bush administration’s ludicrous invasion of Iraq and the power-grab of the Patriot Act–DeLillo’s notation of “plans made hurriedly” seems downright scary. Still, when I think back to those early days after the attacks, I remember that feeling of overwhelming shock, the paralyzing inertia that had to be overcome. DeLillo wanted–needed–to grapple with this spectacular destruction immediately. David Foster Wallace responded with similar immediacy; the caveat that prefaces his moving essay The View from Mrs. Thompson’s states that the piece was “Written very fast and in what probably qualifies as shock.” The same caveat would also apply neatly to Art Spiegelman’s big, brilliant, messy attempt at cataloging his impressions immediately post-9/11, In the Shadow of No Towers.

In contrast, the trio of 9/11 stories at the heart of Chris Adrian’s short story collection, A Better Angel, all employ distance and distortion–both temporal and spatial–as a means to address the disaster (or inability to address the disaster) of the attacks on the World Trade Center. Adrian’s 9/11 tales (and his works in general, really), ask how one can grieve or attest to death on such a massive, spectacular scale. In his vision, the victims of the 9/11 attacks forever haunt his protagonists, literally possessing them, demons that can’t let go, leaving the living to grieve over and over again. In “The Changeling,” for example, the grief of the attacks is literally measured in blood, as a father repeatedly maims himself as the only means to assuage the terror and confusion of his possessed son. Adrian sets one of the collection’s most intriguing tales, “The Vision of Peter Damien,” in nineteenth-century rural Ohio. This temporal distortion veers into metaphysical territory as the titular Damien, along with other children in his village, become sick, haunted by the victims of 9/11. Adrian’s strange milieu creates a bizarre cognitive dissonance for his readers, a response that DeLillo also articulated in his 2007 novel Falling Man.

DeLillo initiates the novel as a sort of creation story: “It was not a street anymore but a world, a time and space of falling ash and near night.” The demarcation of this new world recapitulates DeLillo’s initial concern with time and space, but his novel seems ultimately to suggest an inertia, a meaninglessness, or at least the hollow ambiguity of any artistic response. This stands, of course, in sharp contrast to his sense of urgency in his earlier essay. Like the performance artist in the novel who is repeatedly sighted hanging suspended from a harness, there’s a sad anonymity in the background of Falling Man: the artist hangs as static witness to disaster, but looking for comfort, or even perhaps meaning, in the gesture is impossible.

David Foster Wallace’s short story “The Suffering Channel,” (from his 2004 collection Oblivion) is in many ways a far more satisfying jab at 9/11, although, to be fair, the majority of the story’s events take place in July of 2001. The story (or novella, really; it’s 90 pages) centers around a magazine headquartered in the World Trade Center that plans to run an article–on September 10th, 2001–about a man who literally shits out pieces of art. Wallace’s critique of American culture (shit as art, commerce as style, advertising as language) is devastating against the context of the looming disaster that his characters are so oblivious too. As the novella reaches its close (culminating in the shit artist producing an original work for a live audience), we learn more about “The Suffering Channel,” a cable channel devoted to broadcasting only images of human beings suffering intense and horrible pain. Wallace seems to suggest that The Suffering Channel’s audience watches for mere schadenfreude or morbid fascination, that modern American culture so disconnects people that genuine suffering cannot be witnessed with empathy, but only as a form of spectacular, disengaged entertainment. And yet even as Wallace critiques American culture, the specter of the 9/11 attacks ironically inform his story. With our awful knowledge of what will happen the day after the shit artist article is published, we are able to see the ridiculous and ephemeral nature of the characaters’ various concerns. At the same time, Wallace’s tale reveals that empathy for suffering is possible, but also that it comes at a tremendous price.

To contrast the journalistic immediacy of pieces like “In the Ruins of the Future” and “The View from Mrs. Thompson’s” with their respective writers attempts to measure 9/11 in literary fiction is perhaps a bit unfair. Still, Wallace’s and DeLillo’s essays–at least in my opinion–transmit something of the ineffable, visceral quality of that terrible day, as well as the strange ways we sought comfort through human connection. In contrast, the distance and distortion of their literary efforts lose something. I apologize–I don’t have a word for this “something” that the essays have that the novel and novella lack (purposely, I believe). It’s not clarity, but perhaps it’s a clarity of distortion that the essays convey, the duress, or to return to Wallace’s own notation, the pieces were of course “Written very fast and in what probably qualifies as shock.” It’s that shock, I suppose, that I’m trying to name, to say that it’s still there, accessible in those early responses (I realize now I’ve unfairly neglected Spiegelman’s book, which is a great example of immediacy). And to relive that shock is important, because, as Wallace reveals in both of his pieces, the cathartic power of shared tragedy makes us human, allows us to really live, and to be thankful that we do live.

Looking over this piece, I realize that it’s overly long and really says nothing, or at least nothing much about 9/11, or literature, or whatever. But I don’t want to be negative. I highly encourage you to read (or re-read) The View from Mrs. Thompson’sand In the Ruins of the Future.” And I’ll leave it at that.