vendredi 7 février 2014

Dull & Arcane.

Non attributed poster, La Muerte de un Burocrata, 1966.

Fact: The birth of the New IRS led to one of the great and terrible discoveries in modern democracy, which is that if sensitive issues of governance can be made sufficiently dull and arcane, there will be no need for officials to hide or dissemble, because no one not directly involved will pay enough attention to cause trouble. No one will pay attention because no one will be interested, because, more or less a priori, of these issues' monumental dullness. Whether this PR discovery is to be regretted for its corrosive effect on the democratic ideal or celebrated for its enhancement of government efficiency depends, it seems, on which side one takes in the deeper debate over ideals vs. efficacy referenced on p. 82, resulting in yet another involuted loop that I won't tax your patience by trying to trace out or make hay of.

To me, at least in retrospect, (1) the really interesting question is why dullness proves to be such a powerful impediment to attention. Why we recoil from the dull. Maybe it's because dullness is intrinsically painful; maybe that's where phrases like 'deadly dull' or 'excruciatingly dull' come from. But there might be more to it. Maybe dullness is associated with psychic pain because something that is dull or opaque fails to provide enough stimulation to distract people form some other, deeper type of pain that is always there, if only in an ambient low-level way, and which most of us (2) spend nearly all our time and energy trying to distract ourselves from feeling, or at least from feeling directly or with our full attention. Admittedly, the whole thing's pretty confusing, and hard to talk about abstractly... but surely something must lie behind not just Muzak in dull or tedious places anymore but now also actual TV in waiting rooms, supermarkets' checkouts, airports' gates, SUVs' backseats. Walkmen, iPods, BlackBerries, cell phones that attach to your head. This terror of silence with nothing diverting to do. I can't think anyone really believes that today's 'information society' is just about information. Everyone knows (3) it's about something else, way down.

The memoir-relevant point here is that I learned, in my time with the Service, something about dullness, information, and irrelevant complexity. About negotiating boredom as one would a terrain, its levels and forests and endless wastes. Learned about it extensively, exquisitely, in my interrupted year. And now ever since that time have noticed, at work and in recreation and time with friends and even the intimacies of family life, that living people do not speak much of the dull. Of those parts of life that are and must be dull. Why this silence? Maybe it's because the subject is, in and of itself, dull... only then we're again right back where we started, which is tedious and irksome. There may, though, I opine, be more to it... as in vastly more, right here before us all, hidden by virtue of its size.

David Foster Wallace, The Pale King, Penguin Books, 2012, p.86-87


1. (which is, after all, memoirs' specialty)
2. (whether or not we're consciously aware of it)
3. (again, whether consciously or not)

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