The Pale King and the Importance of Paying Attention: PT 2

I possibly had a thought which might link the ideas of paying attention and duty, for which if that makes no sense then read yesterday's post.

So, an e.g.

In The Pale King there is a long section where an IRS employee describes in detail his growing up and being a classically disaffected college student who takes drugs and embraces a sort of affected nihilism that probably is recognisable to all people who have ever been young. The relevant part of this story is that he constantly disappoints his father and also doesn't respect his father's way of life - which is to say conservative and structured and regular and dutiful.

A particular part of the story takes place while the character is staying at his father's house, in between college courses (which he variously fails, or drops out of, or is asked to leave) and his father goes away on a business trip and the character and his friends smoke a lot of weed and watch television and eat junk food and disrespect various wishes of his father re: treatment of furniture + use of kitchen + general cleanliness and the father comes home early and walks through the door and looks around and is obviously disappointed but doesn't say a word and only later on in the character's life does he decode the meaning of his father's face as he (the father) walks in the door and takes in the fact that his son has disrespected all of his wishes.

There are various elements in the 'journey' of the character in this section of the book, but essentially the story is that of the character working out that his father's way of life is not illogical and repressed and ridiculous to the extent that the character thinks it is. This realisation comes about through the character (with the help of recreational amphetamine use) concentrating, thinking directly about, and paying attention to things in the world, out there, beyond his own self, and then using these observations to try and think objectively about the set of assumptions and prejudices that he has mistaken for his own beliefs for such a long time.

And in this section of the book the explicit subject is not only the act of paying attention, but being aware of your own attention, and choosing what to direct it towards. And this perhaps is the thrust of my argument. Wallace, here and elsewhere, is using a post-modern sense of self (a sense of being a fixed consciousness with no direct access to an objective world, along with an acute awareness of how you are seen by other people, whose inner states you cannot confirm the existence of or ever understand, and then the paradoxical sense that you yourself are a construct of your environment - which is the very world you can't really access) to re-appraise the idea of a good, functional society that has supposedly been destroyed by post-modern conceptions of self-hood and individualism.

Wallace seems to be getting at the idea that all this crippling self-awareness that we are lumbered with, which makes us all so cynical about the possibility of, say, altruism, or honesty or even the idea of society itself, is the very thing that keeps the possibility of these things alive. By being truly self-aware and really trying to understand the way things are in the world (not just the limited self-awareness of cynicism and aimless, endless irony), you can reach through and beyond your subjectivity and to the idea of other people's inner states and needs and wants, and the idea of having obligations to those other people, i.e. duty.

For a long time I thought of post-modernism as anti-modernism. A set of ideas that were purely critical and not constructive. More recently I've been trying to understand what a constructive post-modernism might be. Maybe if Wallace had lived longer than he did, we might have seen him map out another way of escaping the impotent cynicism of post-modernism; a constructive use of a deconstructive mode of thought.