Wednesday, April 13, 2011

NDPR Review of DFW's Fate, Time, and Language

Daniel Speak reviews for Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews David Foster Wallace's Fate, Time, and Language, which is a posthumous edition of DFW's undergraduate thesis in philosophy. Like Speak, I've felt a few reservations about the way that people have, after DFW's death, sought to 

"Reissue! Repackage! Repackage!"

his writings, and an undergraduate thesis surely suggests that somebody was looking to cash in. However, as Speak notes (I've emphasized those concerns, and his reassuring verdict):
Frankly, however, I had my worries that the publication of his undergraduate thesis was a purely opportunistic endeavor under these circumstances. I convinced myself that accepting the invitation might nevertheless have at least two positive results. First, I could use it as a provocation and motivation to tackle Wallace's supposedly mind-bending Infinite Jest (1000+ pages!). Second, an honest and negative assessment of the philosophical merit of the volume, I told myself, might cast some useful light on the opportunism I was afraid was behind its publication. Having confessed my antecedent suspicions, I now publicly repent them. Fate, Time, and Language contains a great deal of first-rate philosophy throughout, and not least in Wallace's extraordinarily professional and ambitious essay --
I've read DFW's book on infinity (Everything and More), and I highly recommend it for somebody who wants to tackle mathematics in a serious but humorously self-reflexive series of discussions on infinity and set theory (it was so much fun that I kind of wish that I blogged during the time that I read it, so that I could write about it.)[1]. It concludes before, as we might say, the "Cohen-event," but there's plenty of Cantor. Speak has convinced me that I should give Fate, Time, and Language a shot.

[1] Maybe I will in the future.


Devin Z. Shaw said...

Bonus points for whoever identifies the lyrics that I've quoted.

Josh Kurdys said...

I am also concerned about the opportunism of this volume. Some of that is motivated by the publication of Wallace's 2005 commencement address for Kenyon College, "This is Water," which really can't be described as anything other than opportunism. I'm still not sure about this essay, but I guess my thought is that if DFW wanted this work published and there was genuine philosophical interest in the work, it would have been published during his lifetime. I'm sure there is a fallacy lurking, but tell me what is wrong with this reasoning anyway.

Devin Z. Shaw said...

I agree that "This is Water" as a book is some blatant opportunism. I have a bit of the same feeling with this, but if it does have some merit it might be worth reading.

From a different angle, while we're talking about posthumous works, consider Foucault: practically everything he's said that's been recorded is being published, and yet still no Volume 4 of the History of Sexuality.

isaddictedtothemusic said...

Devin, your lyric is Morrissey's contribution to the Smiths' song 'Paint A Vulgar Picture', a song that itself brought enough irony to the fore on the issue of repackaging, etc... I'll look for the DFW thesis.

Devin Z. Shaw said...

Yes, the song started playing in my head as I started reading the review.

729 said...

Hi Josh,

I'm Maureen Eckert, one of the co-editors of Fate, Time and Language. I thought I'd address your concern, as I have had to do so a number of times and have been genuinely upset by the amount of suspicions people express about FTL. I have gone on record about how the book came into being:

In the introduction to the book, Steve and I explain the source of inspiration as well. DFW had tried to have it published during his lifetime, but had only sent it to Harvard University Press. Jay Garfield had recommended that DFW publish it (I know this from Jay personally, but this is also reported in David Lipsky's book, Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, page 261.)

When I was at the Amherst College memorial service in 2008, I spoke with Mark Costello and asked him about the thesis. Mark expressed to me that David had wanted to publish it, but never got back around to it. I thought the work contributed to the philosophical literature on fatalism. I had no doubts about its merit. When DFW was alive, there was "always time." This turned out to be false. Shockingly so. Steven Cahn, my dissertation supervisor, who was a student of Taylor's and defended his position in the literature agreed with my assessment. The project seemed to us the right thing to do, and we aimed at the most respectful and philosophically meaningful presentation of the work. System J is beautiful, and I am working through applications of it with respect to other philosophical issues. To me, it is worth thinking about. My philosophy students find it much easier to learn technical points in modal logic and why semantics is worthwhile (like, at all) when they have DFW as their guide. I hope I've addressed your concerns.