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“We should keep in mind that vulgar has many dictionary definitions and that only a couple of these have to do w/ lewdness or bad taste. At root, vulgar just means popular on a mass scale. It is the semantic opposite of pretentious or snobby. It is humility with a combo-over. It is Nielsen ratings and Barnum’s axiom and the real bottom line. It is big, big business.”

– David Foster Wallace, “Big Red Son”

“An ad that pretends to be art is like somebody who smiles warmly at you only because he wants something from you. This is dishonest, but what’s sinister is the cumulative effect that such dishonesty has on us: since it offers a perfect facsimile or simulacrum of goodwilll without goodwill’s real spirit, it messes with our heads and eventually starts upping our defenses even in cases of genuine smiles and real art and true goodwill. It makes us feel confused and lonely and impotent and angry and scared. It causes despair.

[Footnote] This is related to the phenomenon of the Professional Smile, a national pandemic in the service industry… You know this smile – the strenuous contraction of circumoral fascia w/incomplete azygomatic involvement – the smile that doesn’t quite reach the smiler’s eyes and that signifies nothing more than a calculated attempt to advance the smiler’s own interests by pretneding to like the smilee. Why do employers and supervisors force professional service people to broadcast the Professional Smile? Am I the only consumer in whom high doses of such a smile produce despair? Am I the only person who’s sure that the growing number of cases in wihch totally average-looking people suddenly open up with automatic weapons in shopping malls and insurance offices and medical complexes and McDonaldses is somehow causally related to the fact that these venues are well-known dissemination-loci of the Professional Smile?

Who do they think is fooled by the Professional Smile?

And yet the Professional Smile’s absence now also causes despir… What a fucking mess.”

– David Foster Wallace, “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again”

“A theory: Megalopolitan East-Coasters’ summer vacationsare literally getaways, flights-from – from crowds, noise, heat, dirt, the neural wear of too many stimuli. Thus ecstatic escapes to mountains, glassy lakes, cabins, hikes in silent woods. Getting Away From it All. Most East-Coasters see more than enough stimulating people and sights M-F, thank you; they stand in enough lines, buy enough stuff, elbow enough crowds, see enough spectacles. The East-Coast existential treat is thus some escape from confines an stimuli – silence, rustic vistas that hold still, a turning inward: Away. not so in the rural Midwest. Here you’re pretty much Away all the time. The land here is big. Pool-table flat. Horizons in every direction. Thus the vacation-impulse in rural IL is manifested as a flight-toward. Thus the urge physically to commune, melt, become part of a crowd. To see something besides land and corn and satellite TV and your wife’s face. Crowds out here a a kind of adult nightlight. Hence the sacredness out here of Spectacle, Public Event.”

– David Foster Wallace, “Getting Away from Already Pretty Much Being Away from it All”

“I suspect that part of the self-conscious-community thing here has to do with space. Rural Midwesterners live surrounded by unpopulated land, marooned in a space whose emptiness tarts to become both physical and spiritual. You’re alienated from the very space around you, in a way, because out here the land’s less an environment than a commodity. The land’s basically a factory. You live in the same facotry you work in. You spend an enormous amount of time with the land, but you’re still alienated from it in some way. It’s probably hard to feel any sort of Romantic spiritual connection to nature when you have to make your living from it.”

– David Foster Wallace, “Getting Away from Already Pretty Much Being Away from it All”

“The surface of Stand-Out ads still presents a relatively unalloyed Buy This Thing, but the deep message of television w/r/t these ads looks to be that Joe Briefcase’s ontological status as just one in a reactive watching mass is at some basic level shaky, contingent, and that true actualization of self would ultimately consist in Joe’s becoming one of the images that are the objects of this great herd-like watching. That is, television’s real pitch in these commercials is that it’s better to be inside the TV than to be outside, watching.”

David Foster Wallace, “E Unibus Pluram”

“One of the things that makes the people on television fit to stand the Megagaze is that they are, by ordinary human standards, extremely pretty. I suspect that this, like most television conventions is set up with no motive more sinister than to appeal to the largest possible Audience – pretty people tend to be more appealing to look at than non-pretty people.

Because of the way human beings relate to narrative, we tend to identify with those characters we find appealing. We try to see ourselves in them. The same ID-relation, however, also means that we try to see them in ourselves. When everybody we seek to identify with for six hours a day is pretty, it naturally becomes more important to us to be pretty, to be viewed as pretty. Because prettiness becomes a priority for us, the pretty people on TV become all the more attractive, a cycle which is obviously great for TV. But it’s less great for us civilians, who tend to own mirrors, and who also tend not to be anywhere near as pretty as the TV-images we want to identify with.

Not only does this cause some angst personally, but he angst increases because, nationally, everybody else is absorbing six-hour doses and identifying with pretty people and valuing prettiness more, too. This very personal anxiety about our prettiness has become a national phenomenon with national consequences. The boom in diet aids, health and fitness clubs, neighborhod tanning parlors, cosmetic surgery, anorexia, bulimia, steroid-use among boys, girls throwing acid at each other because one girl’s hair looks more like Farah Fawcett’s than another… are these supposed to be unrelated to the apotheosis of prettiness in a televisual culture?”

David Foster Wallace, “E Unibus Pluram”

“[It is ironic] That products presented as helping you express individuality can afford to be advertised on television only because they sell to enormous numbers of people.”

– David Foster Wallace, “E Unibus Pluram”

“…lonely people are usually lonely not because of hideous deformity or odor or obnoxiousness… Lonely people tend, rather, to be lonely because they decline to bear the psychic costs of being around other humans. They are allergic to people. People affect them too strongly.”

David Foster Wallace, “E Unibus Pluram”

“To feel as if you belong is one of the great triumphs of human existence… But… our sense of slight woundedness around not belonging is actually one of our core competencies; that though the crow is just itself and the stone is just itself and the mountain is just itself, and the cloud, and the sky is just itself — we are the one part of creation that knows what it’s like to live in exile, and that the ability to turn your face towards home is one of the great human endeavors and the great human stories.”

David Whyte

“People pay to see others believe in themselves… Someone who works hard at his or her job is not going to become a ‘hero,’ but may make just enough money to be able to afford to be liberated temporarily through entertainment. A performer, however, as the hero, will be paid for being sexually uncontrolled, but will still be at the mercy of the clubs and the way the media shapes identity.”

Kim Gordon, “I’m Really Scared When I Kill In My Dreams”

“The myth of New York seems to be sustained by the fact that so many people who live there are from somewhere else. They come to the city and immediately dedicate themselves to making it the city of their imagination.”

– Eula Biss, Notes From No Man’s Land, “Goodbye to All That”

“Most scientists agree that a person’s race is self-identified, and the US census now categorizes people only as they self identify. But our racial categories are so closely policed by the culture at large that it would be much more accurate to say that we are collectively identified. Whenever we range outside the racial identity that has been collectively assigned to us, we are very quickly reminded where we belong.”

– Eula Biss, Notes From No Man’s Land, “Relations”

“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse, and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”

Desmond Tutu

“If you’re truly talented, then your work becomes your way of doing good in the world; if you’re not, it’s a self-indulgence, even an embarrassment…

“I didn’t wish I’d written his book. What I envied were what his talent and success had bestowed on him, a sense of the rightness of what he was doing. I wanted what women always want: permission. But he’d had that before this book was even written. It was arguably what enabled him to write the book in the first place.

“I was raised to admire a life of service, and to this day I do admire it. When I see someone bend to the task of helping another I think she is doing the work of all, the human job. But someone else’s good deed never stabs my heart the way a good book does. I admire it, but I do not envy it. Whatever else it has done, my envy of the man has helped me see the difference between what I was raised to want, what I wish I could want, and what I do want.”

– Kathryn Chetkovich, “Envy

“The reason to have a home is to keep certain people in and everyone else out.”

– Jenny Offill, Dept of Speculation

“It is all dead money now. The coffers of wealth accumulated by the capture and sale of slaves had turned into rubbish. Cowrie shells were demonetized and eventually outlawed altogether by colonial governments, which had divided and conquered Africa in the guise of emancipating it. The mortal anguish of the slaves had become apparent belatedly to European nations and this nascent abolitionist zeal provided the rationale for the conquest of Africa. In the nineteenth century, the same nations responsible for the shipment of millions of captives declared themselves the antagonists of slavery. Soon after colonial governments abolished Africa’s internal slave trade, the currency of the slave trade,at least what Africans had accumulated, was destroyed too. No similar effort to erase the past and start anew was enacted in the West. The pounds and francs and marks that replaced cowrie shells were blood money too.”

– Saidiya Hartman, Lose Your Mother

“Cowrie shells replaced the indigenous curries of Africa… The literal piles and mountains of money must have made it seem as if this plenitude was without end.

However, the money Africans acquired was inconvertible. The shells passed from white hands to black, but back again, ensuring they remained ‘Negro currency.’

War and predation enabled Africa to produce slaves and purchase luxury goods, and permitted Europe to accumulate the capital necessary for economic development. But everyone knew the shells didn’t bear life but instead devoured it. The teeth lining the aperture were clearly for eating. In every place ravaged by the slave trade, stories circulated about the human cost of money: cowrie shells feasted on the bodies of the captives. Money multiplied if fed human food.

Popular lore held that teh best places to harvest cowries were along the coast where slaves had been murdered or drowned. Nets were cast into the sea to dredge for treasure. The corpse of a slave would emerge from the water encased by thousands of shells. The fisherman who retrieved the body of the human-mollusk plucked off the money and returned home a wealthy man. Rich men fished for cowries using the amputated limbs of slaves as bait… Hovering at the edge of the water, guiltless and avaricious, the big men lingered until the money began to sprout and welcomed it as a gift from God.”

– Saidiya Hartman, Lose Your Mother

“Cowrie shells became the currency of West Africa in the era of the Atlantic slave trade. While North Africans had introduced them as early as the eleventh century, they became ubiquitous in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries when Europeans began exchanging them for slaves.

The shells were imported from the Maldives. Women and men waded waist-deep into the sea and detached the shells from stones, wood, and palm leaves, which had been placed in the shallows for easy collection. One person could gather as many as twelve thousand shells in a day. The shells were buried in sand for a few weeks until the mollusks died and the smell of putrefaction vanished. They were then disinterred, washed, dried and strong together for sale.

The English and the Dutch acquired the shells very cheaply and considered them worthless. European traders derisively called the shells ‘Negro money.’ To their eyes, Africans’ esteem of these worthless pieces was yet another instance of fetishism. In the eighteenth century alone, more than twenty-five million pounds of cowries were imported into West Africa. Of the six million plus captives transported to the Americas in the eighteenth century, anywhere from a third to a quarter of them had been exchange for shells. twelve to sixteen pounds of cowries were enough to purchase a strapping young man. That was one pound of cowries for every thirteen pounds of human flesh.”

– Saidiya Hartman, Lose Your Mother

“Most of those sold in the internal trade were women and children… The children born to a slave wife shared the mother’s disinheritance and belonged entirely to the genealogy of the father. Slave women extended the owner’s lineage without enjoying the privileges or protection entitled to wives supported by their families. Nor did families ever forget who was ‘of the house’ (the slaves absorbed and remade in the line of the master) and ‘of the blood’ (royals possessing legal rights of inheritance and succession).

There were no women in the chief’s inner circle whom I might ask about the rewards of being pretty or about the trials of being a wife. The men had appointed themselves the official custodians of history. Besides, the women never had an afternoon to waste ruminating about history. They didn’t have an hour to spare; they were selling goods in the market or laboring in the fields or carrying pails of water or hauling a load of firewood or washing laundry, the very chores that made the labor of slave women so highly prized. When later I asked the women in town about slavery, they joked, ‘The wife is the true slave.’ ”

– Saidiya Hartman, Lose Your Mother

” ‘What about the slaves of Salaga? Are there people in town who are the descendants of slaves?’

The chief visibly stiffened upon hearing my question. ‘It is still difficult for us to speak of slavery. One cannot point a finger and say he or she is a slave. It is prohibited to do so.

The taboo on revealing someone’s origins extended back to the seventeenth century. Ndewura Jakpa forbade people to refer to their own or anyone else’s origins… Everyone who had ever mentioned the law to me had explained that it was intended to protect those of slave origin. In practice it prevented the enslaved from speaking of a life before servitude and it abolished their ancestry. The slave existed in the world, but without either a history or an inheritance.

‘Why shame someone and say he or she is a slave?’ the chief added. I wondered if the chief was shocked that I had been so tactless. ‘Those who were slaves have married and become incorporated into Salaga.’

The Salagawura says one thing, but I hear another: ‘We still know who they are.’ ”

– Saidiya Hartman, Lose Your Mother


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