The Management of Insignificance: David Foster Wallace and the Reconciliation of Selfhood
Life seems to contain two distinct surfaces. The first is the world we experience, thrust upon us through our senses, the phenomenology of being a human organism, like a walking, magnetic rod around which sensations whirl and blur, as a swarm of gnats, creating a fluid, crowded, personal appearance of the given world. Jorge Luis Borges writes:
“Centuries of centuries and only in the present do things happen; countless men in the air, on the face of the earth and the sea, and all that really is happening is happening to me…” (The Garden of Forking Paths)
This notion of life postulates not, with Wittgenstein, that the world is all that is the case, but that life is all that occurs. Nothing can be known to occur that does not cross our senses, our consciousness, in some form or another. This invariable primacy of consciousness as the medium upon which each individual experiences life led Buddha to sit under The Bodhi Tree, and Schopenhauer to say, “the most essential thing for a [hu]man is the constitution of this consciousness.”
Second is the daunting remainder of all else which transpires beyond the sliver of reality gleaned by our faculties. All that has come before us, all that occurs outside our purview, and all that will outlive us. Our nascent lives begin and end in a world where life was well underway before we arrived, and will likely persist long after we’ve departed, all the while undisturbed by our presence, as if we are, in fact, but single, insignificant gnats amidst a swarm that wouldn’t be bothered by our absence.
These two surfaces, life as personal experience and life as the totality of things are like two nested timelines, long and short, refusing reconciliation into any manageable chronology. The concomitant friction of such stark contrast, our small lives and the big world, plagued the mind of David Foster Wallace:
“The conflict between the subjective centrality of our own lives versus our awareness of its objective insignificance…this was the single great informing conflict of the American psyche. The management of insignificance.” (The Suffering Channel)
In a harrowing sense, Wallace’s life, and eventual suicide, exists as a reminder of what can occur if we shirk examining these prison walls raised by the perhaps faulty dichotomy between ourselves and the larger world around us. The collision of these two surfaces, subjective centrality and objective insignificance, are among the great wars of the human psyche, and we may do well to pull this conflict out into the open, to encounter it as something that occurs.
Much to my discomfort, ‘I’ am not one large, continuous self that subsumes life’s multiple surfaces. A consequence of life’s multiple surfaces is that we, too, exist doubled. There is the I, the center of gravity inside each of our heads, who peers from our eyeballs and hears with our ears, the continuum of subjective experience. But this ‘I’ is not available to others, it is infuriatingly private; our bodies are solitary confinement cells for this self. Then there is the I who exists in the minds of others; the social perceptions of me. The outside view. So, as social beings existing in complex, intersubjective webs, we’re schizophrenic by default. No one wrangled this better than Borges, in Borges and I.
David Foster Wallace’s problem of insignificance, what he thought the American psyche struggled to manage, was perhaps an incongruence between these two selves, which is no less than a clash between life’s two surfaces. Feelings of insignificance can be thought to arise when the unspeakable essence, the defining minutia and nuances our subjective selves know so well are not fully born into the self viewed from outside. If this is the case, we live in an anxious state of constant misrepresentation. We can, with Borges, meet the ‘I’ who lives outside ourselves and feel wronged, “There’s been a mistake! That is not me!” we may think upon the meeting.
Emerson, too, viewed this desire to inculcate our objective selves with the subjective one as a central project on the human to-do list:
“The ideas in every man’s mind make him what he is…His whole life is spent in efforts to create outside of him a state of things conformed to his inward thought.” (English Literature, Lecture)
If insignificance occurs when we detect the mismatch, a mangled representation of our subjectivity in the objective view of ourselves, then the management of insignificance culminates in the dissolution of fragmentary, frictional selves into one; a continuous ‘I’ that projects from the deepest currents of subjectivity to the outermost facts of objectivity without impediment.
But if the only solution to insignificance is transcendence, I shudder at our odds. For those of us who haven’t cultivated a mind (or no-mind) capable of stable ecstatic experience, the transcendental reconciliation between self and other, inside and outside, the management of this conflict looms large.
Conceptions of Significance
There are, of course, competing, equally plausible geographies of insignificance. The hypothesis about congruence between inner & outer plays favorably to the poetic sensibility, but perhaps less so to a secular, materialist one. A different theory of significance may be that it’s a measure of value, whether to a cause, society, nation, or family. Insignificance, then, arises from sloth; its management lies in the contributions one makes to some larger entity.
The fulcrum of this theory is that significance is not inherent, nor is it an illusory construct. It’s a scale of contribution; it’s to be earned.
But if significance is conceptualized as something to be earned, we necessarily live under the burden of insignificance until, if, we make a redeeming contribution. Is this so different from the concept of original sin? Through no fault of our own, the Christian doctrine condemns us to be born with sin, guilt; many carry this psychic plague until they die. Similarly, if significance is earned through contribution to a collective, we’re born in insignificance through no fault of our own, and many will carry the burden until death.
This is an unattractive story, though it contains a possible loophole. An Indian sage, Ramana Maharshi (1879 — 1950), speaks to the modern industrial condition of feeling compelled to earn significance through outer, objectively measurable contribution. He flips the notion on its head. His teaching is expressed through a disciple (Maharshi did very little writing himself, his students are the main sources of Maharshi’s written teachings):
“[There is] the fallacy, almost Universal in the West and increasingly common in the modern East, that it is possible to help mankind only by outer activity. He [a disciple] had been told that by helping oneself one helps the world; this dictum which the laissez-faire school falsely supposed to be true economically is in fact true spiritually, since spiritually the wealth of one does not detract from that of others but increases it. Just as he had seen Sri Bhagavan [Maharshi] at his very first meeting as a ‘motionless corpse from which God is radiating terrifically,’ so everyone, according to his capacity, is a broadcasting station of invisible influences. Insofar as anyone is in a state of harmony and free from egoism he is involuntarily emitting harmony, whether he is outwardly active or not; and insofar as his own nature is turbulent and his ego strong he is emitting disharmony even though he may outwardly be performing service.”
(Arthur Osborne, Ramana Maharshi and the Path of Self-Knowledge)
The point isn’t to convert to Maharshi’s teaching, but to demonstrate that ‘significance’ does not carry a settled meaning. It’s a word so commonly used that I rarely question what it means. But the anesthetic effect of familiarity must be abandoned, and the notion of significance — what remains worthy of attention? What is important? — inspected. We have to know what we’re managing (though Maharshi himself would likely ask: who is it that inspects?).
One Taste: Life as Möbius Strip
There’s an additional wrinkle to consider. The ‘outside view’ is not one held exclusively by other people. We, too, can view ourselves from the outside. I know both of my-selves: the one who exists with the continuum of private subjectivity, as well as the one visible to the outside world.
This raises a sort of problem with the ‘two selves’ hypothesis. Namely, if there is an ‘I’ who can observe my subjectivity as if standing outside of it, and there is an ‘I’, perhaps the same, who can view myself objectively (although from within), and we accept the sentiment that an eye cannot see itself, then there must be a third player in the game. An ‘I’ apart from the stream of subjectivity, an ‘I’ apart from the outside view of me, who perhaps underlies both surfaces of selfhood.
Perhaps this subsurface witness is the center around which both, or all, iterations of self revolve. Though perhaps encroaching upon the aforementioned transcendental reconciliation between self and other — non-duality — this suggestion is not mystical. It’s a physiological observation that this third viewer exists.
What does threaten a departure into mysticism is my next thought. When viewed from this third, underlying vantage point, the awareness common to all states, perhaps life turns out to be a möbius strip; a single surface, after all. Like the Buddhist notion of One Taste, or tat tvam asi of the Chandogya Upanishad — “that art thou” — all things transpire and reconcile upon an ultimately single canvas — a single surface. Call it consciousness, the ground of creation, God, whatever you like.
Trying to manage this is like a dog chasing its tail; self-imposed absurdity. Nevertheless, I suspect writing about it all is my way of managing, of inquiring into significance, trying to shoo the gnats & distractions away and glimpse a clearer view of what’s going on here. Maybe it lessens the dog’s burden if, while in frantic rotation, it’s conscious of its absurdity.