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11 Feb 2022

Wallace // The Pale King

I am maybe the only person in the world who had been putting off reading David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King who immediately motivated to begin reading it when he learned tax accounting and the IRS played central roles in the book.

Here are some of my favorite bits…


All of chapter 19, on civics and duty:

‘There’s something very interesting about civics and selfishness, and we get to ride the crest of it. Here in the US, we expect government and law to be our conscience. Our superego, you could say. It has something to do with liberal individualism, and something to do with capitalism, but I don’t understand much of the theoretical aspect—what I see is what I live in. Americans are in a way crazy. We infantilize ourselves. We don’t think of ourselves as citizens—parts of something larger to which we have profound responsibilities. We think of ourselves as citizens when it comes to our rights and privileges, but not our responsibilities. We abdicate our civic responsibilities to the government and expect the government, in effect, to legislate morality. I’m talking mostly about economics and business, because that’s my area.’

‘What do we do to stop the decline?’

‘I have no idea what we do. As citizens we cede more and more of our autonomy, but if we the government take away the citizens’ freedom to cede their autonomy we’re now taking away their autonomy. It’s a paradox. Citizens are constitutionally empowered to choose to default and leave the decisions to corporations and to a government we expect to control them. Corporations are getting better and better at seducing us into thinking the way they think—of profits as the telos and responsibility as something to be enshrined in symbol and evaded in reality. Cleverness as opposed to wisdom. Wanting and having instead of thinking and making. We cannot stop it. I suspect what’ll happen is that there will be some sort of disaster—depression, hyperinflation—and then it’ll be showtime: We’ll either wake up and retake our freedom or we’ll fall apart utterly. Like Rome—conqueror of its own people.’

‘I can see taxpayers not wanting to part with money. It’s a natural human thing. I didn’t like getting audited either. But shit, you’ve got basic facts to counterbalance that—we voted these guys in, we choose to live here, we want good roads and a good army to protect us. So you ante up.’

‘That’s a little simplistic.’

‘It seems like, suppose you’re in a lifeboat with other people and there’s only so much food, and you have to share it. You’ve only got so much and it’s got to go around, and everybody’s really hungry. Of course you want all the food; you’re starving. But so is everybody else. If you ate all the food you couldn’t live with yourself afterward.’

‘The others’d kill you, too.’

‘But the point is psychological. Of course you want it all, of course you want to keep every dime you make. But you don’t, you ante up, because it’s how things have to be for the whole lifeboat. You sort of have a duty to the others in the boat. A duty to yourself not to be the sort of person who waits till everybody is asleep and then eats all the food.’

‘You’re talking like a civics class.’

‘Which you never had, I’m betting. What are you, twenty-eight? Did your school have civics when you were a boy? Do you even know what civics is?’

‘It was a cold war thing they started in the schools. The Bill of Rights, the Constitution, the Pledge of Alliance, the importance of voting.’

‘Civics is the branch of political science that quote concerns itself with citizenship and the rights and duties of US citizens.’

‘Duty’s kind of a harsh word. I’m not saying it’s their duty to pay their taxes. I’m just saying it doesn’t make any sense not to. Plus we catch you.’

‘I don’t think this will be the conversation you want to have, but if you really want my opinion I’ll tell you.’

‘Fire away.’

‘I think it’s no accident that civics isn’t taught anymore or that a young man like yourself bridles at the word duty.’

‘We’ve gotten soft, you’re saying.’

‘I’m saying that the sixties—which God love them did a lot for raising people’s consciousness in a whole lot of areas, such as race and feminism—’

‘Not to mention Vietnam.’

‘No, mention it, because here was a whole generation where most of them now for the first time questioned authority and said that their individual moral beliefs about the war outweighed their duty to go fight if their duly elected representatives told them to.’

‘In other words that their highest actual duty was to themselves.’

‘Well, but to themselves as what?’

‘This all seems pretty simplistic, you guys. It’s not like everybody that was protesting was doing it out of duty. It became fashionable to protest the war.’

‘Neither the ultimate-duty-is-to-self element nor the fashionable element is irrelevant.’

‘You’re saying that protesting Vietnam led to tax cheating?’

‘No, he’s saying it led to the sort of selfishness that has us all trying to eat all the boat’s food.’

‘No, but I think whatever led to it becoming actually fashionable to protest a war opened the door to what’s going to bring us down as a country. The end of the democratic experiment.’

‘Did I tell you he was a conservative?’

‘But that’s just a put-down. There are all kinds of conservatives depending on what it is they want to conserve.’

‘The sixties were America’s starting to decline into decadence and selfish individualism—the Me generation.’

‘There was more decadence in the twenties than there was in the sixties, though.’

‘You know what I think? I think the Constitution and Federalist Papers of this country were an incredible moral and imaginative achievement. For really the first time in a modern nation, those in power set up a system where the citizens’ power over their own government was to be a matter of substance and not mere symbolism. It was utterly priceless, and it will go down in history with Athens and the Magna Carta. The fact that it was a utopia which for two hundred years actually worked makes it beyond priceless—it’s literally a miracle. And—and now I’m speaking of Jefferson, Madison, Adams, Franklin, the real church Fathers—what raised the American experiment beyond great imagination and made it very nearly work was not just these men’s intelligence but their profound moral enlightenment—their sense of civics. The fact is that they cared more about the nation and the citizens than about themselves. They could have just set America up as an oligarchy where powerful eastern industrialists and southern landowners controlled all the power and ruled with an iron hand in a glove of liberal rhetoric. Need I say Robespierre, or the Bolsheviks, or the Ayatollah? These Founding Fathers were geniuses of civic virtue. They were heroes. Most of their effort went into restraining the power of government.’

‘Checks and balances.’

‘Power to the People.’

‘They knew the tendency of power to corrupt—’

‘Jefferson supposedly boinking his own slaves and having whole litters of mulatto children.’

‘They believed that centralizing power in its dispersal among a concerned, educated, civic-minded electorate would ensure against America devolving into one more instance of nobles and peasants, rulers and serfs.’

‘An educated landowning white male electorate, we should keep in mind.’

‘And this is one of the paradoxes of the twentieth century with its apex in the sixties. Is it good to make things fairer and to allow the whole citizenry to vote? Yes, plainly so, in theory. And yet it’s very easy to judge ancestors through the lens of the present instead of trying to see the world as they might have seen it. The Founding Fathers’ enfranchisement of only wealthy landed educated males was designed to place power in the hands of the people most like themselves—’

‘Doesn’t sound all that new or experimental to me, Mr. Glendenning.’

‘They believed in rationality—they believed that persons of privilege, literacy, education, and moral sophistication would be able to emulate them, to make judicious and self-disciplined decisions for the good of the nation and not just to advance their own interests.’

‘It’s certainly an imaginative and ingenious rationalization of racism and male chauvinism, that’s for sure.’

‘They were heroes, and like all true heroes they were modest and didn’t regard themselves as all that exceptional. They assumed their descendants would be like them—rational, honorable, civic-minded. Men with at least as much concern for the common good as for personal advantage.’

‘How did we get from the sixties to this?’

‘And instead we get the dickless or crooked leaders we’ve got today.’

‘We elect what we deserve.’

‘But it’s something very odd. That they could have been so prescient and farsighted about erecting checks against the accumulation of power in any one branch of government, their healthy fear of government, and yet their naive belief in the civic virtue of the common people.’

‘Our leaders, our government is us, all of us, so if they’re venal and weak it’s because we are.’

‘I hate it when you synopsize what I’m trying to say and get it wrong, but I don’t quite know what to say. Because it’s stronger than that. I don’t think the problem is our leaders. I voted for Ford and I’ll likely vote for Bush or maybe Reagan and I’ll feel solid about my vote. But we see it here, with TPs. We’re the government, its worst face—the rapacious creditor, the stern parent.’

‘They hate us.’

‘They hate the government—we’re just the most convenient incarnation of what they hate. There’s something very curious, though, about the hatred. The government is the people, leaving aside various complications, but we split it off and pretend it’s not us; we pretend it’s some threatening Other bent on taking our freedoms, taking our money and redistributing it, legislating our morality in drugs, driving, abortion, the environment—Big Brother, the Establishment—’

‘The Man.’

‘With the curious thing being that we hate it for appearing to usurp the very civic functions we’ve ceded to it.’

‘Inverting the Founding Fathers’ device of ceding political power to the people instead of the government.’

‘Consent of the governed.’

‘But it’s gone farther than that, and the sixties idea of personal freedom and appetite and moral license has something to do with it, though I’m damned if I can quite figure it out. Only that something queer is going on in terms of civics and selfishness in this country, and we here in the Service get to see it in some of its most extreme manifestations. We now, as citizens and businessmen and consumers and what-all, we expect government and law to function as our conscience.’

‘Isn’t that what laws are for?’

‘You mean our superego? In loco parentis?’

‘It has something to do with liberal individualism, and something to do with the Constitution’s overestimate of individual character, and it has something to do with consumer capitalism—’

‘That’s pretty vague.’

‘It is vague. I’m not a political scientist. But it’s not vague in its consequences; the concrete reality of its consequences is what our jobs are about.’

‘But the Service has been around since long before the decadent sixties.’

‘Let him finish.’

‘I think Americans in 1980 are crazy. Have gone crazy. Regressed somehow.’

‘The quote lack of discipline and respect for authority of the decadent seventies.’

‘If you don’t shut up I’m going to put you up on the roof of the elevator and you can stay there.’

‘It may sound reactionary, I know. But we can all feel it. We’ve changed the way we think of ourselves as citizens. We don’t think of ourselves as citizens in the old sense of being small parts of something larger and infinitely more important to which we have serious responsibilities. We do still think of ourselves as citizens in the sense of being beneficiaries—we’re actually conscious of our rights as American citizens and the nation’s responsibilities to us and ensuring we get our share of the American pie. We think of ourselves now as eaters of the pie instead of makers of the pie. So who makes the pie?’

‘Ask not what your country can do for you…’

‘Corporations make the pie. They make it and we eat it.’

‘It’s probably part of my naïveté that I don’t want to put the issue in political terms when it’s probably irreducibly political. Something has happened where we’ve decided on a personal level that it’s all right to abdicate our individual responsibility to the common good and let government worry about the common good while we all go about our individual self-interested business and struggle to gratify our various appetites.’

‘You can blame some of it on corporations and advertising surely.’

‘I don’t think of corporations as citizens, though. Corporations are machines for producing profit; that’s what they’re ingeniously designed to do. It’s ridiculous to ascribe civic obligations or moral responsibilities to corporations.’

‘But the whole dark genius of corporations is that they allow for individual reward without individual obligation. The workers’ obligations are to the executives, and the executives’ obligations are to the CEO, and the CEO’s obligation is to the Board of Directors, and the Board’s obligation is to the stockholders, who are also the same customers the corporation will screw over at the very earliest opportunity in the name of profit, which profits are distributed as dividends to the very stockholders-slash-customers they’ve been fucking over in their own name. It’s like a fugue of evaded responsibility.’

‘You’re leaving out Labor Unions advocating for labor and mutual funds and the SEC’s effects on share-price over basis.’

‘You are a complete genius of irrelevancy, X. This isn’t a seminar. DeWitt’s trying to get at the heart of something here.’

‘Corporations aren’t citizens or neighbors or parents. They can’t vote or serve in combat. They don’t learn the Pledge of Allegiance. They don’t have souls. They’re revenue machines. I don’t have any problem with that. I think it’s absurd to lay moral or civic obligations on them. Their only obligations are strategic, and while they can get very complex, at root they’re not civic entities. With corporations, I have no problem with government enforcement of statutes and regulatory policy serving a conscience function. What my problem is is the way it seems that we as individual citizens have adopted a corporate attitude. That our ultimate obligation is to ourselves. That unless it’s illegal or there are direct practical consequences for ourselves, any activity is OK.’

‘I’m regretting this conversation more and more. It—you like movies?’

‘You bet.’

‘Are you kidding?’

‘Nothing like cozying up on a rainy evening with a Betamax and a good film.’

‘Suppose it was determined that the increasing violence of US films correlated with a rise in violent-crime statistics. I mean, suppose the statistics weren’t merely suggestive but actually demonstrated conclusively that the increasing number of graphically violent films like Clockwork Orange or The Godfather or The Exorcist had a causal correlation with the real-world rates of mayhem.’

‘Let’s not forget The Wild Bunch. Plus Clockwork Orange is British.’

‘Shut up.’

‘Define violent, though. Can’t it mean vastly different things to different people?’

‘I’ll throw you off this elevator, X, I swear to God I will.’

‘What would we expect the Hollywood corporations that make the movies to do? Would we really expect them to care about their films’ effect on violence in the culture? We might posture and send nasty letters. But the corporations, underneath all the PR bullshit, reply that they’re in business to make money for their stockholders, and that they’d give one fart in a stiff wind about what some statistics say about their products only if the government forced them to regulate the violence.’

‘Which would run into some First-Amendment trouble, big-time.’

‘I don’t think Hollywood studios are owned by stockholders; I think the vast bulk of them are owned by parent companies.’

‘Or if what? If ordinary moviegoing people stopped going in droves to see ultraviolent movies. The movie people can say they’re only doing what corporations were designed to do—meet a demand and make as much money as is legally possible.’

‘This whole conversation is dull.’

‘Sometimes what’s important is dull. Sometimes it’s work. Sometimes the important things aren’t works of art for your entertainment, X.’

‘My point is this. And I’m sorry, X, because if I knew more about what I was talking about I could make the point faster, but I’m not used to talking about it and have never been much able even to put it into words in any sort of order—the whole thing is usually more a tornado in my head as I’m driving in in the morning thinking about what’s on the docket for the day. My only point on the movies is this: Would these statistics cause much of a decline in the crowds that go to see these ultraviolent movies in such droves? They wouldn’t. And that’s the craziness; that’s what I mean. What would we do? We’d bitch at the water cooler about these damn soulless corporations who don’t give a shit about the state of the nation but only care about making a buck. A few of them might write the Journal Star’s op-ed page or even their Congressman. There ought to be a law. Regulate it, we’d say. But come Saturday night, they’d still go see whatever damn violent movie they and the Mrs. want to see.’

‘It’s like they expect the government to be the parent that takes away the dangerous toy, and until it does they’ll go right on playing with it. A toy dangerous to others.’

‘They don’t think of themselves as responsible.’

‘I think what’s changed somehow is they don’t think of themselves as personally responsible. They don’t think of it like that their personal, individual going and buying a ticket for The Exorcist is what adds to the demand that keeps the corporate machines coming out with more and more violent movies to satisfy the demand.’

‘They expect the government to do something about it.’

‘Or corporations to grow souls.’

‘That example makes it a lot easier to see your point, Mr. Glendenning,’ I said.

‘I’m not sure The Exorcist is the best example. The Exorcist isn’t all that violent so much as sick. Now The Godfather— that’s violent.’

‘Never did see The Exorcist, because Mrs. G. said she’d rather have all her fingers and toes cut off with dull scissors than sit through a piece of trash like that. But from what I heard and read it was damn violent.’

‘I think the syndrome is more the not-voting one, the I’m-so-small-and-the-mass-of-everyone-else-is-so-big-what-possible-difference-does-what-I-do-make, so they stay home and watch Charlie’s Angels instead of going to vote.’

‘And then they bitch and moan about their elected leaders.’

‘So maybe it’s not a sense of the individual citizen not being responsible so much as they’re so tiny and the government and rest of the country is so big they’ve got no chance of having any kind of real impact, so they just have to look out for themselves as best they can.’

‘Not to mention how big corporations are; like how is one guy not having a Godfather ticket going to influence Paramount Pictures one way or the other? Which is all still bullshit; it’s a way to rationalize not being responsible for your tiny part of which way the country goes.’

‘All this is part of it, I think. And it’s hard to peg just what the difference is. And I’m wary about doing the old-fart move of saying people aren’t civic-minded like they were in the good old days and the country’s going to shit. But it seems like citizens—whether on taxes or littering, you name it—did feel like they were part of Everything, that the huge Everybody Else that determined policy and taste and the common good was in fact made up of a whole lot of individuals just like them, that they were in fact part of Everything, and that they had to hold up their end and pull their weight and assume what they did made some difference the same way Everybody Else did, if the country was going to stay a nice place to live.’

‘Citizens feel alienated now. It’s like me-against-everyone-else.’

‘Alienated’s one of those big sixties words.’

‘But how did this alienated small selfish make-no-difference thing result from the sixties, since if the sixties showed anything good it showed that like-minded citizens can think for themselves and not just swallow what the Establishment says and they can band together and march and agitate for change and there can be real change; we pull out of ’Nam, we get Welfare and the Civil Rights Act and women’s lib.’

‘Because corporations got in the game and turned all the genuine principles and aspirations and ideology into a set of fashions and attitudes—they made Rebellion a fashion pose instead of a real impetus.’

‘It’s awful easy to vilify corporations, X.’

‘Doesn’t the term corporation itself come from body, like “made into a body”? These were artificial people being created. What was it, the Fourteenth Amendment that gave corporations all the rights and responsibilities of citizens?’

‘No, the Fourteenth Amendment was part of Reconstruction and was intended to give full citizenship to freed slaves, and it was some corporation’s sharpy counsel that persuaded the Court that corporations fit the Fourteenth’s criteria.’

‘We’re talking C corps here, right?’

‘Because it’s true—it’s not even clear now when you say corporation whether we’re talking about Cs or Ss, LLCs, corporate associations, plus you’ve got closely-helds and public, plus those sham corporations that are really just limited partnerships loaded up with non-recourse debt to generate paper losses, which are basically just parasites on the tax system.’

‘Plus C corps contribute by double taxation, so it’s hard to say they’re nothing but a negative in the revenue sphere.’

‘I’m giving you a look of complete scorn and derision, X; what do you imagine it is we do here?’

‘Not to mention fiduciary instruments that function almost identically to corporations. Plus franchise-spreads, flowthrough trusts, NFP foundations established as corporate instruments.’

‘None of this matters. And I’m not even really talking about what we do here except in the sense that it puts us in a position to see civic attitudes close up, since there’s nothing more concrete than a tax payment, which after all is your money, whereas the obligations and projected returns on the payments are abstract, at the abstract level the whole nation and its government and the commonweal, so attitudes about paying taxes seem like one of the places where a man’s civic sense gets revealed in the starkest sorts of terms.’

‘Wasn’t it the Thirteenth Amendment that blacks and corporations exploited?’

‘Let me throw him off, Mr. G., I’m pleading with you.’

‘Here’s something worth throwing out there. It was in the 1830s and ’40s that states started granting charters of incorporation to larger and regulated companies. And it was 1840 or ’41 that de Tocqueville published his book about Americans, and he says somewhere that one thing about democracies and their individualism is that they by their very nature corrode the citizen’s sense of true community, of having real true fellow citizens whose interests and concerns were the same as his. This is a kind of ghastly irony, if you think about it, since a form of government engineered to produce equality makes its citizens so individualistic and self-absorbed they end up as solipsists, navel-gazers.’

‘De Tocqueville is also talking about capitalism and markets, which pretty much go hand in hand with democracy.’

‘I just don’t think this is what I was trying to talk about. It’s easy to blame corporations. DeWitt’s saying if you think the corporations are evil and it’s the government’s job to make them moral, you’re deflecting your own responsibility to civics. You’re making the government your big brother and the corporation the evil bully your big brother’s supposed to keep off you at recess.’

‘De Tocqueville’s thrust is that it’s in the democratic citizen’s nature to be like a leaf that doesn’t believe in the tree it’s part of.’

‘What’s interesting in a depressing way is that tacit hypocrisy—I, the citizen, will keep buying big gas-guzzlers that kill trees and tickets for The Exorcist until the government passes a law, but then when the government does pass a law I’ll bitch about Big Brother and getting the government off our back.’

‘See for instance the cheat-rate and the appeals percentage after audit.’

‘It’s more like I want a law to keep you from gas-guzzling and seeing The Wild Bunch, but not me.’

‘Not in my backyard is the hue and cry.’

‘Lady gets stabbed over off the river, houses up and down the block hear her screaming, nobody even sets foot outside.’

‘Not get involved.’

‘Something’s happened to people.’

‘People saying those damned tobacco companies while they smoke.’

‘It’s not fair to put down any critique of the corporate role in this kind of civic decline as just a simple knee-jerk demonization of corporations, though. The corporate agenda of maximizing profit by creating demand and trying to make demand inelastic can play a catalyst role in this syndrome Mr. Glendenning’s trying to limn without being the devil or bent on world domination or something.’

‘I believe Nichols has another two cents here.’

‘I think he’s trying to say something.’

‘Because I think it goes beyond politics, civics.’

‘I’m listening at least, Stuart.’

‘Not even on a tree but more like leaves on the ground in the wind, blown this way and that way by the wind, and each time a gust blows it the citizen says, “Now I choose to blow this way; this is my decision.”’

‘With the wind being Nichols’s corporate menace.’

‘It’s almost more a matter of metaphysics.’

‘Yee ha.’

‘Hoo doggy.’

‘Say what we’re in now is some transition in the economy and society between the age of industrial democracy and the stage that comes after, where what industrial democracy was about was production and the economy depended on constantly increasing production and the democracy’s big tension was between industry’s needs for policies that abetted production and citizens’ needs to both benefit from all the production and still have their basic rights and interests protected from industry’s simpleminded emphasis on production and profits.’

‘I’m not sure where the metaphysics comes in here, Nichols.’

‘Maybe it’s not metaphysics. Maybe it’s existential. I’m talking about the individual US citizen’s deep fear, the same basic fear that you and I have and that everybody has except nobody ever talks about it except existentialists in convoluted French prose. Or Pascal. Our smallness, our insignificance and mortality, yours and mine, the thing that we all spend all our time not thinking about directly, that we are tiny and at the mercy of large forces and that time is always passing and that every day we’ve lost one more day that will never come back and our childhoods are over and our adolescence and the vigor of youth and soon our adulthood, that everything we see around us all the time is decaying and passing, it’s all passing away, and so are we, so am I, and given how fast the first forty-two years have shot by it’s not going to be long before I too pass away, whoever imagined that there was a more truthful way to put it than “die,” “pass away,” the very sound of it makes me feel the way I feel at dusk on a wintry Sunday—’

‘Anybody got the time? How long we been in here, three hours?’

‘And not only that, but everybody who knows me or even knows I exist will die, and then everybody who knows those people and might even conceivably have even heard of me will die, and so on, and the gravestones and monuments we spend money to have put in to make sure we’re remembered, these’ll last what—a hundred years? two hundred?—and they’ll crumble, and the grass and insects my decomposition will go to feed will die, and their offspring, or if I’m cremated the trees that are nourished by my windblown ash will die or get cut down and decay, and my urn will decay, and before maybe three or four generations it will be like I never existed, not only will I have passed away but it will be like I was never here, and people in 2104 or whatever will no more think of Stuart A. Nichols Jr. than you or I think of John T. Smith, 1790 to 1864, of Livingston, Virginia, or some such. That everything is on fire, slow fire, and we’re all less than a million breaths away from an oblivion more total than we can even bring ourselves to even try to imagine, in fact, probably that’s why the manic US obsession with production, produce, produce, impact the world, contribute, shape things, to help distract us from how little and totally insignificant and temporary we are.’

‘This is supposed to be news to us. News flash: We’re going to die.’

‘Why do you think people buy insurance?’

‘Let him finish.’

‘Now this is depressing instead of just boring.’

‘The post-production capitalist has something to do with the death of civics. But so does fear of smallness and death and everything being on fire.’

‘I smell Rousseau at the root here, the same way you were talking about de Tocqueville before.’

‘As usual DeWitt’s way ahead of me. It probably does start with Rousseau and the Magna Carta and the French Revolution. This emphasis on man as the individual and on the rights and entitlements of the individual instead of the responsibilities of the individual. But corporations and marketing and PR and the creation of desire and need to feed all the manic production, the way modern advertising and marketing seduce the individual by flattering all the little psychic delusions with which we deflect the horror of personal smallness and transience, enabling the delusion that the individual is the center of the universe, the most important thing—I mean the individual individual, the little guy watching TV or listening to the radio or leafing through a shiny magazine or looking at a billboard or any of the million different daily ways this guy comes into contact with Burson-Marsteller’s or Saachi & Saachi’s big lie, that he is the tree, that his first responsibility is to his own happiness, that everyone else is the great gray abstract mass which his life depends on standing apart from, being an individual, being happy.’

‘Doing your own thing.’

‘That’s your bag.’

‘Shaking off the shackles of authority and conformity, of authoritarian conformity.’

‘I’m going to need to use the head very soon, I’m afraid.’

‘That’s more the sixties than the French Revolution, man, then.’

‘But if I’m getting DeWitt’s thrust, the fulcrum was the moment in the sixties when rebellion against conformity became fashionable, a pose, a way to look cool to the others in your generation you wanted to impress and get accepted by.’

‘Not to mention laid.’

‘Because the minute it became not just an attitude but a fashionable one, that’s when the corporations and their advertisers can step in and start reinforcing it and seducing people with it into buying the things the corporations are producing.’

‘The first time was 7 Up with its Sgt. Pepper psychedelia and kids in sideburns and saying “the Uncola.”’

‘But wait. The sixties rebellion in lots of ways opposed the corporation and the military-industrial complex.’

‘The man in the gray flannel.’

‘What is gray flannel anyway? Has anybody ever seen anybody ever in gray flannel?’

‘The only flannel I’ve got is PJs, man.’

‘Is Mr. Glendenning even awake?’

‘He looks awful pale.’

‘Everybody looks pale in the dark, man.’

‘I mean is there any more total symbol of conformity and marching in lockstep than the corporation? Assembly lines and punching the clock and climbing the ladder to the corner office? You’ve done field audits at Rayburn-Thrapp, Gaines. Those guys can’t wipe their ass without a policy memo.’

‘But we’re not talking about the interior reality of the corporation. We’re talking about the face and voice the corporate advertisers start using in the late sixties to talk the customer into thinking he needs all this stuff. It starts talking about the customer’s psyche being in bondage to conformity and the way to break out of the conformity is not to do certain things but to buy certain things. You make buying a certain brand of clothes or pop or car or necktie into a gesture of the same level of ideological significance as wearing a beard or protesting the war.’

‘Virginia Slims and women’s libbers.’

‘Alka-Seltzer.’

‘I think the I’m-going-to-die connection slipped by me at some point here.’

‘I think Stuart’s tracing the move from the production-model of American democracy to something more like a consumption-model, where corporate production depends on a team approach whereas being a customer is a solo venture. That we’re turning into consuming citizens instead of producing citizens.’

‘Just wait sixteen quarters till ’84. Just wait for the tidal wave of ads and PR that promote this or that corporate product as the way to escape the gray 1984 totalitarianisms of the Orwellian present.’

‘How does buying one kind of typewriter instead of another help subvert government control?’

‘It won’t be government in a couple years, don’t you see?’

‘There won’t be typewriters, either. Everyone’ll have keyboards cabled into some sort of central VAX, and things won’t even have to be on paper anymore.’

‘The paperless office.’

‘Rendering Stu here obsolete.’

‘No, you’re missing the genius of it. It’ll all be played out in the world of images. There’ll be this incredible political consensus that we need to escape the confinement and rigidity of conforming, of the dead fluorescent world of the office and the balance sheet, of having to wear a tie and listen to Muzak, but the corporations will be able to represent consumption-patterns as the way to break out—use this type of calculator, listen to this type of music, wear this type of shoe because everyone else is wearing conformist shoes. It’ll be this era of incredible prosperity and conformity and mass-demographics in which all the symbols and rhetoric will involve revolution and crisis and bold forward-looking individuals who dare to march to their own drummer by allying themselves with brands that invest heavily in the image of rebellion. This mass PR campaign extolling the individual will solidify enormous markets of people whose innate conviction that they are solitary, peerless, non-communal, will be massaged at every turn.’

‘But what role will government play in this 1984 scenario?’

‘Just as DeWitt said—the government will be the parent, with all the ambivalent love-hate-need-defy charges that surround the parent-figure in the mind of the adolescent, which in this case I’m respectfully disagreeing with DeWitt in the sense that I don’t think the American nation today is infantile so much as adolescent—that is, ambivalent in its twin desire for both authoritarian structure and the end of parental hegemony.’

‘We’ll be the cops they call when the party gets out of hand.’

‘You can see where it’s going. The extraordinary political apathy that followed Watergate and Vietnam and the institutionalization of grass-roots rebellion among minorities will only deepen. Politics is about consensus, and the advertising legacy of the sixties is that consensus is repression. Voting’ll be unhip: Americans now vote with their wallets. Government’s only cultural role will be as the tyrannical parent we both hate and need. Look for us to elect someone who can cast himself as a Rebel, maybe even a cowboy, but who deep down we’ll know is a bureaucratic creature who’ll operate inside the government mechanism instead of naively bang his head against it the way we’ve watched poor Jimmy do for four years.’

‘Carter represents the last gasp of true New Frontier sixties idealism, then. His obvious decency and his political impotence have been conjoined in the voter’s psyche.’

‘Look for a candidate who can do to the electorate what corporations are learning to do, so Government—or, better, Big Government, Big Brother, Intrusive Government—becomes the image against which this candidate defines himself. Though paradoxically for this persona, to have weight the candidate’ll also have to be a creature of government, an Insider, with a flinty-eyed entourage of bureaucrats and implementers who we’ll be able to see can actually run the machine. Plus of course a massive campaign budget courtesy of guess who.’

‘We’re now very very very far afield from what I started out trying to describe as my thinking about taxpayers’ relation to government.’

‘This describes Reagan even better than Bush.’

‘The Reagan symbolism’s just too bold. This is just my opinion. Of course the marvelous thing for the Service about a possible Reagan presidency is that he’s already anti-tax on the record. Flat-out, no hedging. No rise in the tax rates—in fact in New Hampshire he went on record as wanting to lower marginal rates.’

‘This is good for the Service? Another politician trying to score points by trashing the tax system?’

‘My own view: I see a Bush-Reagan ticket. Reagan for symbolism, the Cowboy, Bush the quiet insider, doing the unsexy work of actual management.’

‘Not to mention his hike-defense-spending rhetoric. How are you going to lower marginal rates and increase defense spending?’

‘Even a child could see the contradiction in that.’

‘Stuart’s saying it’s good for the Service because lowering marginal rates but increasing spending can happen only if collection of tax is made more efficient.’

‘Meaning the reins are off. Meaning the Service’s quotas go up.’

‘But also meaning a quiet reduction in the constraints on our auditing and collection mechanisms. Reagan’ll set us up as the black-hatted rapacious Big Brother he secretly needs. We—the stitch-mouthed accountants in dull suits and thick specs, punching the keys on our adding machines—become the Government: the authority everyone gets to hate. Meanwhile Reagan triples the Service budget and makes technology and efficiency serious objectives. It’ll be the best era the Service has had since ’45.’

‘But meanwhile increasing taxpayers’ hatred of the Service.’

‘Which paradoxically, a Reagan would need. The Service’s more aggressive treatment of TPs, especially if it’s high-profile, would seem to keep in the electorate’s mind a fresh and eminently disposable image of Big Government that the Rebel Outsider President could continue to define himself against and decry as just the sort of government intrusion into the private lives and wallets of hardworking Americans he ran for the office to fight against.’

‘You’re saying the next president will be able to continue to define himself as an Outsider and Renegade when he’s actually in the White House?’

‘You’re still underestimating the taxpayers’ need for the lie, for the surface rhetoric they can keep telling themselves while deep down they can rest assured that Daddy’s in control and everyone’s still safe. The way adolescents make a big deal of rebelling against parental authority while they borrow the keys to Daddy’s car and use Daddy’s credit card to fill it with gas. The new leader won’t lie to the people; he’ll do what corporate pioneers have discovered works far better: He’ll adopt the persona and rhetoric that let the people lie to themselves.’

‘Let’s get back to how a Bush or Reagan would triple the Service budget for a second? Is this good for us on a District level? What are the implications for a Peoria or a Creve Coeur?’

‘Of course the marvelous double irony of the Reduce Government candidate is that he’s financed by the corporations that are the backs government tends to be the most oppressively on the back of. Corporations, as DeWitt pointed out, whose beady little brains are lit by nothing but net profit and expansion, and who we deep-down expect government to keep in check because we’re not equipped to resist their consumerist seductions by the strength of our own character, and whose appeal to the faux rebel is the modern rhetoric that’s going to get Bush-Reagan elected in the first place, and who are going to benefit enormously from the laissez-faire deregulation Bush-Reagan will enable the electorate to believe will be undertaken in their own populist interests—in other words we’ll have for a president a symbolic Rebel against his own power whose election was underwritten by inhuman soulless profit-machines whose takeover of American civic and spiritual life will convince Americans that rebellion against the soulless inhumanity of corporate life will consist in buying products from corporations that do the best job of representing corporate life as empty and soulless. We’ll have a tyranny of conformist nonconformity presided over by a symbolic outsider whose very election depended on our deep conviction that his persona is utter bullshit. A rule of image, which because it’s so empty makes everyone terrified—they’re small and going to die, after all—’

‘Christ, the death thing again.’

‘—and whose terror of not really ever even existing makes them that much more susceptible to the ontological siren song of the corporate buy-to-stand-out-and-so-exist gestalt.’


On really paying attention:

Obetrolling didn’t make me self-conscious. But it did make me much more self-aware. If I was in a room, and had taken an Obetrol or two with a glass of water and they’d taken effect, I was now not only in the room, but I was aware that I was in the room. In fact, I remember I would often think, or say to myself, quietly but very clearly, ‘I am in this room.’ It’s difficult to explain this. At the time, I called it ‘doubling,’ but I’m still not entirely sure what I meant by this, nor why it seemed so profound and cool to not only be in a room but be totally aware that I was in the room, seated in a certain easy chair in a certain position listening to a certain specific track of an album whose cover was a certain specific combination of colors and designs—being in a state of heightened enough awareness to be able to consciously say to myself, ‘I am in this room right now. The shadow of the foot is rotating on the east wall. The shadow is not recognizable as a foot because of the deformation of the angle of the light of the sun’s position behind the sign. I am seated upright in a dark-green easy chair with a cigarette burn on the right armrest. The cigarette burn is black and imperfectly round. The track I am listening to is “The Big Ship” off of Brian Eno’s Another Green World, whose cover has colorful cutout figures inside a white frame.’ Stated so openly, this amount of detail might seem tedious, but it wasn’t. What it felt like was a sort of emergence, however briefly, from the fuzziness and drift of my life in that period. As though I was a machine that suddenly realized it was a human being and didn’t have to just go through the motions it was programmed to perform over and over. It also had to do with paying attention. It wasn’t like the normal thing with recreational drugs which made colors brighter or music more intense. What became more intense was my awareness of my own part in it, that I could pay real attention to it. It was that I could look at, for instance, a dorm room’s walls of institutional tan or beige and not only see them but be aware that I was seeing them—this was the dorm at UIC—and that I normally lived within these walls and was probably affected in all kinds of subtle ways by their institutional color but was usually unaware of how they made me feel, unaware of what it felt like to look at them, unaware usually of even their color and texture, because I never really looked at anything in a precise, attentive way. It was kind of striking. Their texture was mostly smooth, but if you really focused your attention there were also a lot of the little embedded strings and clots which painters tend to leave when they’re paid by the job and not the hour and thus have motivation to hurry. If you really look at something, you can almost always tell what type of wage structure the person who made it was on. Or of the shadow of the sign and the way that the placement and height of the sun at the time affected the shape of the shadow, which mainly appeared to contract and expand as the real sign rotated across the street, or of the way that turning the little desk lamp next to the chair on and off changed the room’s interplay of light and the different objects in the room’s shadows and even the specific shade of the walls and ceiling and affected everything, and—through the ‘doubling’—also being aware that I was turning the lamp off and on and noticing the changes and being affected by them, and by the fact that I knew I was noticing them. That I was aware of the awareness. It maybe sounds abstract or stoned, but it isn’t. To me, it felt alive. There was something about it I preferred.


What makes truth interesting is relevance. Cf. https://letter.wiki/conversation/209 - John Vervaeke & David Chapman

(Quick aside here. Pace his overall self-indulgence and penchant for hand-wringing, §22’s ‘Irrelevant’ Chris Fogle was actually on the money about one thing. Given the way the human mind works, it does tend to be small, sensuously specific details that get remembered over time—and unlike some so-called memoirists, I refuse to pretend that the mind works any other way than it really does. At the same time, rest assured that I am not Chris Fogle, and that I have no intention of inflicting on you a regurgitation of every last sensation and passing thought I happen to recall. I am about art here, not simple reproduction. What logorrheic colleagues like Fogle failed to understand is that there are vastly different kinds of truth, some of which are incompatible with one another. Example: A 100 percent accurate, comprehensive list of the exact size and shape of every blade of grass in my front lawn is ‘true,’ but it is not a truth that anyone will have any interest in. What renders a truth meaningful, worthwhile, & c. is its relevance, which in turn requires extraordinary discernment and sensitivity to context, questions of value, and overall point—otherwise we might as well all just be computers downloading raw data to one another.)


Re: The Pale King, David Foster Wallace


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