In ALL THINGS SHINING Dreyfus and Kelly discuss DFW’s “This is Water” as an example of his “need to create meaning ex nihilo out of the individual” (ATS, 204). They find that this project involves a pragmatic contradiction as creating meaning ex nihilo (= ex ego) and imposing it on a situation means that anything goes, any meaning is possible but only as forced on things by the autonomous individual’s will. This is an impossible task: it would require the individual to have the inhuman strength of a solitary god, willing and creating meaning without constraints. DFW’s ideal was to become a monster of self-control (ATS, 44), a master of “exercising control over how and what you think” (ATS, 38). So the key words summing up DFW’s form of sensibility, or understanding of being are: individual, will, force, strength, control, imposition, difficult task, choice.
What seems strange to me about this interpretation is that it describes exactly the form of sensibility and possibility of life that Wallace wants to make us clearly and burningly aware of, in THIS IS WATER, so that we can get out of it, and pursue our individuation according to a quite different model. This whole text is brimming with intensity and meaning and openness to the world outside of nihilistic clichés and stereotypes. If you haven’t read it already you should do so at once, it is an ethical text of great force.
“Force” here means « power to provoke a conversion », “capacity to produce a transformation”, and not the compelling power of an individual. Wallace does use those key words (« power », « individual ») or their equivalents all through “This is Water”, but their sense is somewhat different when considered in terms of the alternative non-ego-centered form of sensibility that Wallace is trying to sketch out and get us to adopt. Wallace is not trying to advocate a new stance inside our current form of sensibility, hence his repeated insistence that he is not deploying didactic stories or giving edifying moral advice. That would be an intra-worldly manoeuvre. He situates himself at the meta-level so as to describe our current nihilistic form of sensibility, and also a different form of sensibility (or world, or understanding of being, or possibility of life), one where I am no longer “operating on the automatic, unconscious belief that I am the center of the world”. Wallace calls this “the so-called real world” and wants us to see that living in its terms is a real possibility but that doing so will lead us into a state of death-in-life. This is very far indeed from the “need to create meaning out of the individual’s will” (ATS, 204) that Dreyfus and Kelly find in DFW.
Dreyfus and Kelly, in “All Things Shining”, give several examples of an ethical problem: What is the appropriate response to the surging up of a pulse of physis such as a great moment in a football match, a speech by Martin Luther King, a Hitler rally. They envisage two types of response: let yourself be swept away OR walk away. Determining which response is appropriate in any given situation is the object of a meta-skill that they call meta-poiesis. This meta-skill is their response to the “burden of choice” that assails us in our post-modern secular world:
“it resists nihilism by reappropriating the sacred phenomenon of physis, but cultivates the skill to resist physis in its abhorrent, fanatical form.” (ATS, 212)
Physis is an ambivalent phenomenon leading us into a sacred affirmation of life or into its fanatical negation. We must learn when to “leap in” and when to “walk away”.
Wallace in “This is Water” gives another type of example the mood of rage and frustration that whooshes up in a traffic jam or in an overcrowded supermarket. What is the ethical response that our meta-poiesis can permit in this situation? Wallace is closer to Dreyfus and Kelly than they seem to think as he proposes a sort of paradigm-change, a transformation in our perception. Faced with this whooshing up of negativity, do you give in to your “natural hard-wired default setting”, your certainty that everybody else is just in your way, that only you matter, that everyone else is rude and obnoxious and repulsive? Or can you use your freedom to rework this natural default setting, change your paradigm, cultivate a different form of affectivity, perceive people differently and be affected by them differently? This freedom is the meta-skill to transform our sensibility and to choose new bifurcations along our path of individuation.
Dreyfus and Kelly don’t see the meta-poietic aspect in DFW’s speech. He is not talking about a new improved first-level skill in handling people or navigating traffic jams. He is talking about a meta-skill for resisting being swept away by the whooshing up of negative affects. You can’t just “walk away” from the overcrowded supermarket or the interminable traffic jam. “Walking away” is not always possible nor even desirable, and it is an ambiguous solution at best. DFW proposes a number of what can only be called “spiritual exercises” to allow you to experience the stressful or enervating situation differently. He suggests imagining another explanation for the behaviour of those we find obnoxious or infuriating. He is not advocating some sort of counter-factual ratiocination to alleviate the stress of the supermarket, he doesn’t ask us to imagine that the repulsive lady screaming at her kids is really a giant squid disguised by a “perception-filter” (as in a DR WHO episode), but just that she may have been staying up every night with her husband dying of bone cancer, or something else of the same order of plausibility. The aim is not to impose an arbitrary meaning by sheer force of will. The aim is to make us aware that
1) meanings are already being imposed on the situation, preventing us from seeing it as it is
2) these already existing meannings can be subsumed under a single paradigm, our hard-wired default setting of “fear and anger and frustration and worship of the self”
3) other meanings are possible if we open our selves to the multiple field of gods to be worshipped
4) these other meanings can be subsumed under a different paradigm, one not centered around the ego but based on de-centered attention and caring for others.
DFW wants to free us from our excessive ratiocination, our overintellectualisation, get us out of our hypnotic state of immersion in and servitude to our internal monologue. He wants to get us out of our nihilistic understanding of being where we as autonomous individuals each feel we are the center of the world, and everyone else is a help or a hindrance.
The meta-poiesis that DFW describes subtends a different understanding of being where attention can dissolve the stereotypes of the nihilist versions of reality and open us to the multiple forms of the non-nihilistic sacred: “be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles”. These are the many gods we can worship and that give us meaning and life: “pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive”. So DFW is all for “luring back the gods” to populate “the now egotistical sky”, as Dreyfus & Kelly, citing Melville, describe their project. The vision that he wishes us to convert to is not one of the ego-centred individual imposing his choices by sheer will-power, that is the paradigm he wants to escape from. True, he speaks in terms of « choice », but this is not egoic volition but rather the noetic act (to use Bernard Stiegler’s term) of resisting the programmed response to the situation and and apprehending other ways of perceiving it and acting within it.