From The Desk Of OK Go’s Damian Kulash: David Foster Wallace’s “Authority And American Usage”

OKGoThis past winter was an eventful time for OK Go, between the release of third album Of The Blue Colour Of The Sky, disputes with EMI over its YouTube videos and an eventual split with the label and the creation of Paradacute Records. But even after all the dust settled, the music is still stuck in our heads—because OK Go definitely still has it. Of The Blue Colour Of The Sky brings us little nuggets of unbridled optimism set to catchy pop beats with Damian Kulash’s funky falsetto soaring overhead—and, in typical OK Go fashion, some of the most awesome videos ever made. OK Go is taking time between dates on its worldwide tour supporting the LP in order to guest edit all week. Read our Q&A with Kulash.


Kulash: You know that moment in a pinball game that is the whole reason for playing in the first place, when the ball goes into an impossible sequence of hitting all the targets and whipping around all the ramps and slamming into all the little corners that seem designed to be unreachable? David Foster Wallace’s “Authority And American Usage” is sort of the intellectual equivalent. It could be called “DFW Explains Everything in Only 62 Pages.” He strings together insights into the nature of good citizenship, the power of dogma, the balance between tradition and egalitarianism, the rat’s nest of identity politics and their effect on pedagogy, developmental psychology, the fatal flaws in the tactics of the U.S. left, modern relativism, why legal and academic writing are so offensive and how language and writing fundamentally work. And for good measure, he also gives you some amusing bits of his personal history and lays out a thoroughly compelling stance on abortion.

Most incredibly, the piece is ostensibly a review of a nerdy reference book, a grammar and language usage guide, and this whole slew of revelations tumbles from his chronicling of an ongoing battle in the geeky world of lexicographers, which is his virtuosic and sort of perverse way of underscoring the point I found most resonant: Writing is always about the writer, as well as whatever they’re trying to say. “Every sentence balances at lease two different communicative functions—one the transmission of raw info, the other the transmission of certain stuff about the speaker,” he says, and while skewering the awful writing of academic heavyweights like Frederic Jameson, speaks of “language as a vector of meaning and language as a vector of the writer’s own resume.” Bad writing, he explains, is when these two data streams are out of balance. Either the writer’s attempts to convince you of something about himself obscure or obliterate the raw info (We got it, Jameson, you’re smart. But what the fuck are you trying to say?) or the writer tries to remove himself entirely, producing tortured contortions like legalese. I’d add that great writing—really spectacular writing—happens when the two streams are not only in balance, but crazily supersaturated because the person writing is a goddamn genius. DFW is so rhetorically deft that you can’t tell if he’s voicing ideas you already had but don’t have the agility to articulate or if he’s actually convincing you of his own ideas so persuasively they feel like your own. You get to feeling like you know him, and it seems you’ve learned something important, though it’s hard to tell if that something is about him, yourself or the world in general. All of this in a book review.

A shorter version of this essay was published in Harper’s under the title “Tense Present: Democracy, English And Wars Over Usage,” but it’s worth getting the collection Consider The Lobster for the full thing, especially since many of the finest moments come in footnotes or toward the ends of winding paths that the magazine editors clipped short. Plus, the book has eight other essays, at least six of which are similarly wonderful. His coverage of the porn industry’s annual awards convention also manages to reveal a lot of universal truths and had me actually chortling in public places, too.

Video after the jump.

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