29.8.13

And so my watch begins


I drew the duck blue--or rather, I posted the oath of the nights watch because the Peace Corps vows are substantially less evocative. The real bit of excitement comes and goes with the first line when the US ambassador to China asked us to protect US constitution from its enemies. I don't particularly consider myself an ignorant person in matters of State, but I do admit I had always assumed all founding documents were well guarded and under glass. But hey, that's showbiz for ya—I shook his hand and called him Sir, nonetheless.
My TEFL group. 25 of the 70 sworn in today! 
My friends and colleagues will soon all be on different trains going on to do what we've been trained to do. We finished out our last week for PST in a hotel together away from our host families and indulging in over priced western food and the friendships compulsory to willingly foot that bill.
I love how in my little niche we can go from discussing radical theory right into a dick joke, get roaringly drunk and watch an old movie or just make eye contact and laugh at this friggin otha guy ova heair, ked.  
We had one pretty cool after party where a more sober lot came into our room and discussed books and what we were reading the way some might have gone straight to sports. I was pleased that so many folks in attendance had tasted Infinite Jest for themselves.

Now that I have hit the four hundred page mark of this book's vintage, some of the rust and worship has come apart in my hands exposing criticisms and chrome. Foremost in my appraisal I find that I am disappointed by Wallace's sense of class consciousness. 
Late in his career, he wrote an article for Harperd Magazine in defense of prescriptive grammar, titled, Tense Present. For those of you not familiar with the distinction between prescriptive  and descriptive grammar, the latter accounts for normal use of spoken (in this case) English by all of its speakers. For my own reasons, I will avoid the use of the word dialect as we explore these ideas, but a descriptive interpretation of grammars allows for rules which are grammatically correct because a body of speakers uses them to enforce rules the speakers themselves determined. 
If you read even just the abstract of Wallace's you see he quotes Webster's third edition five basic  edicts in defense descriptive grammar:

"1 — Language changes constantly;
2 — Change is normal;
3 — Spoken language is the language;
4 — Correctness rests upon usage;
5 — All usage is relative."

Over the course of the essay, Wallace tries desperately to poke holes in these concepts but they still hold water for me. He seems self aware enough to recognize that both his privilege and elitism exist but doesn't, in his writing, step away from these yokes.  I want to discuss specifically his use of racial slurs in the first 300 pages of Infinite Jest. 

One of Wallace's spiraling story lines is about a lower-class white male bent in full supplication to his heroin addiction. Wallace gives us a first person/omnipotent perspective into the daily quest for a junk fix. Having lived in Boston for many years, and being apart of the blue collar culture that helps to create the spoken English there, I did not feel the character's language to be authentic. I can see that Wallace researched it and that he took notes. But words like "pissah", when used by his characters or referenced to by the narrator, feel as though they themselves are in need of ironic quotation marks.
Setting aside that bit of class consciousness, we see that the junky considers going to black dealers,  whom he refers to categorically with the N word.
Now I've already said that the character's lines don't feel believable to me but the use of the N word here is artfully done because Boston has had a long tradition of civil unrest and highly segregated ethnic neighborhoods still flourish to this day.

My point really is that as a writer your word choice should matter. I don't want vulgarities or slurs littering my text just to prove you're edgy enough to do it. Nor do I feel words should be off limits. I chose not to use the N word now because I think it would add nothing to your experience as a reader. Abbreviations are common in our language and I don't apologies for not wanting to offend my readers.
As a reader myself, I expect to be able to suspend my disbelief, to forget I'm reading and to watch scenes unfold in my mind--I can believe that a white Bostonian junky would employ racial slurs--that feels real to me.

But later when a named character who is obsessed with tattoos refers in passing to an unnamed character known only to reader by the description of his two tattoos, a swastika and the N word, I fail to see the point.
The swastika establishes his level of racism and his willingness to display it. Merely writing a racial slur in all caps proves nor adds nothing to my experience as reader or your expression as a writer. All I've learned from that sentence is that you're unafraid to do it. What has been added to the discourse by this? That you're above the rules? That people who are hurt by this word should get over it because you are?
 If you've always belonged to a group that racial slurs don't effect the display of such boldness is not only ineffective in promoting the softening of that slur, it's uncultured and ignorant as well. It shows a lack of class consciousness and a willingness to leave unexamined your own privilege and your responsibly to people of this world who do not look or feel as you do. 

One might argue, as some of my friends have, that words themselves are arbitrary. And while that is in essence true, the word for black could as easily be the word white, the meaning that those two words depict is not arbitrary at all. There is history in both those words. Thus one might better say, we have arbitrarily chosen them each to hold in context two discrete concepts that we wanted to differentiate between. So that at least, if words are arbitrary, their meanings are not.

Verdict: I'm going to finish what I started. 
As a writer, he's not to be discounted.
It doesn't sit well with me that he's wasted words.
Nomenclature and popular wisdom have changed since first publishing.
My own elitism drew me to read this book. 

And so off I go to support and defend the constitution of the United States against all enemies domestic and foreign,  bearing true faith and allegiance to the same, taking this obligation freely without mental reservation or purpose of evasion, ready and willing to faithfully discharge my duties in the Peace Corps--because on this very day, I begin to live out a childhood dream. 

Sebastien and I have been married for three years. Our anniversary was August 27th. To celebrate that and passing the Chinese language exam we had New York style pizza with friends in downtown Chengdu. Last year at this time we were in Lisbon, the year before--Budapest. We've lived in a different city for each year of our marriage so far. Together we will board a train to Lanzhou tomorrow where the next phase of our life waits like so many packed boxes. 





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