Stratospheric Abstraction in the World’s Largest Booklet

March 21, 2010 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Everything and More, by David Foster Wallace.

(Re)reading next: Moby-Dick, by Herman Melville, accompanied by The Trying-Out of Moby-Dick, by Howard P. Vincent.

I just barely passed my AP calculus exam; I was seriously unsure about whether I’d done well enough until getting that blessed “3” in the mail one day in the summer after graduation.  College credit in hand, I happily forgot just about everything I’d “learned” in cramming for the exam.  This is a common experience, I suspect, at least for those expecting to go into the humanities in college.

Part of my disconnect with calc — my reason for scraping by just exactly as much as I could without trying to get much at all out of the class — was that I either wasn’t paying attention at the beginning of class or was never given an explanation about what, exactly, I was learning: what were all these crazy new theorems and formulas for, exactly?  What did the symbols, procedures, and functions signify?  AP calc was so compressed and results-based that there wasn’t necessarily time for these kinds of background explanations.  But I never even “got” what limits were, or why they were important, or what even differentiated calc from algebra, trig, etc.  It all just seemed kind of pointlessly complicated and wickedly disconnected from any level of empirical reality (which is more or less diametrically wrong, but that is how it seemed).

Which is to say, in DFW’s phrase, it seemed “stratospherically abstract,” divorced from human experience or even (my) comprehension.  So does much of Everything and More, to be honest, and at times I’m scraping by with the same bare modicum of understanding I did in AP calc if I’m scraping by at all.  But at least DFW has given me some sense of what calc is for — understanding and manipulating continuities like motion and time — and what limits and functions and derivatives are about, at a basic level.  All of this is somewhat tangential or at least secondary to the book’s main point, the history of infinity as a mathematical concept of central importance.  But I’m grateful for it.  DFW clearly had a really gifted and engaging teacher of calc, a Robert Goris, whose techniques for teaching many different concepts in calc are referenced quite often in the text.

I would never have considered reading this book if it weren’t for DFW-completist reasons.  And I honestly don’t care much whether I understand calc, advanced math, and/or mathematical infinities.  That ship’s long since sailed.  What I cared about was DFW’s approach to the material, which was obviously very important to him, and about how or whether he would adapt the  idiosyncratic style and voice of his fiction and creative nonfiction to what he presents as a “piece of pop technical writing” in his “Small but Necessary Foreword.”  (I’m not sure it’s all that “pop,” to be honest, even so far as writing about mathematical history goes; we get all of five pages of “Soft-News Interpolation,” padded by two photos, on the biography of its ostensible subject, Georg Cantor.  DFW’s titling of this section as “soft news,” and rather arbitrary placement at the “Last Place to Do It Without Disrupting the Juggernaut-Like Momentum of the Pre-Cantor Mathematical Context,” seems to me to suggest that even this tiny amount of non-technical discussion might have been forced on him by his editor.)

Some of the DFW quirks are here: the footnotes, of course, and the tendency to use abbreviations, acronyms, and symbols to save space within the text.  Actually, one of this text’s illuminations on DFW’s style is that these quirks in his literary works are reflections of his mathematical/philosophical academic background: these techniques are par for the course in those academic disciplines, and he found them efficient and natural ways to deal with his dense literary material, as well.  While I’d registered before the general academic/technical register of these techniques, their precedence in his own academic history had never occurred to me before.

Rhetoric is always a paramount concern in DFW’s work, with self-awareness in the text of the arguments and appeals that are being made, the techniques that are being employed, and the intended relationship between the author and the audience.  Everything and More is also rhetorical, though it is more subdued and consistent in its voice and its stance toward the reader than most of his other work, and much less self-conscious.  In fact, he discusses his rhetorical stance in the aforementioned “Small but Necessary Foreword,” like so:

The aim is to discuss these [mathematical] achievements in such a way that they’re vivid and comprehensible to readers who do not have pro-grade technical backgrounds and expertise.  To make the math beautiful — or at least get the reader to see how someone might find it so.  Which of course all sounds very nice, except there’s a hitch: just how technical can the presentation get without either losing the reader or burying her in endless little definitions and explanatory asides?  Plus… how can the discussion be pitched so that it’s accessible to the neophyte without being dull or annoying to somebody who’s had a lot of college math?

And then, in the first of the book’s footnotes:

Your author here is someone with a medium-strong amateur interest in math and formal systems.  He is also someone who disliked and did poorly in every math course he ever took, save one, which wasn’t even in college, but which was taught by one of those rare specialists who can make the abstract alive and urgent, and who actually talks to you when he’s lecturing, and of whom anything that’s good about this booklet is a pale and well-meant imitation.

This last seems to be an obvious allusion to the aforementioned Robert Goris.  So maybe it’s obvious that by and large, DFW is operating here as a teacher, rather than as an everyman or tour guide or friend or even expert.  He sprinkles the text with less formal sentences and phrases, and occasional restatements and reminders and examples and metaphors, just like a good teacher would.  He is more concerned with getting through the material than in his other works, where he’s more focused on maintaining an entertainment-informational-emotional balance.  In other words, though he never says it, it seems to me that DFW is simply enthusiastic about the content of the work, and believes it will shine if he gets out of the way as much as possible and presents the text.  He wants to help you understand the concepts he’s talking about.

Those quotes above also include one of the book’s more obvious rhetorical strategies, consistently employing the word “booklet” to refer to the text in hand.  This term is ridiculous in reference to a 300-plus-page hardbound book.  This is a booklet like Infinite Jest is a beach read.  DFW knows this.  I think he uses “booklet” to try to make the work seem less intimidating to the lay reader.  Or he was deluded or misguided by the publisher about the format or intended length of the work.

Do DFW’s rhetorical strategies succeed for his stated purpose?  Marginally, at best, I think.  DFW’s writing here was well received by critics as a promising step in his career (as I recall), and I suspect that’s because he’s subdued his style and concentrated on clarifying his dizzyingly abstract subject.  Critics are often lazy, and dumb.  DFW is trying not to make you work at understanding him here, in order not to pile rhetorical difficulty onto his subject’s difficulty.  This is rather different than what he’s trying to do in his literary registers, where he’s frequently emphasizing that we all need to work a little harder at understanding texts and people and the fiercely concrete complexity of life.

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