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The Leap of Faith: New Sincerity as Compositional Discipline

Updated: Sep 18, 2021

[The following is a work in progress. I figured I'd it let it run wild in the world for a bit. Please feel free to comment]

In the wake of his 2008 suicide, David Foster Wallace’s work has been canonized at the core of the New Sincerity discipline. Although his work has much in common with other New Sincerity writers, Wallace’s New Sincerity is strikingly unique. In this paper I consider Wallace’s short story Octet. By adopting a Heideggerian lens I attempt to identify what it is about Wallace’s writing that enables his uncanny, almost creepy, ability to connect with his readers. I then transmute these methods from the literary to the musical domain, laying out an updated application of New Sincerity to composition which models the performer-composer relationship after Wallace’s unique author-reader connection.

In much of his work, Wallace was seeking an alternative to the well worn tropes of postmodernist fiction: meta-reference, irreverence, cynicism, and especially irony. Irony has the ability to illuminates gaps between what is said-to-be and what is, and was used effectively in postmodernist literature to expose hypocrisy. However, Wallace warns that irony has become an agent of “great despair and stasis" as it is primarily a negative force; a “ground-clearing” putting forth nothing to fill the void formed in the wake of exposure (Wallace 1998 49-67). It is useful only as a diagnostic device, but provides no cure (Ibid.). Irony has become problematically ubiquitous in U.S. culture due to television and advertising’s absorption of the once effective technique. Seeing that the average American watches six hours of television per day, irony has become a cultural norm (ibid.).

The reason why our pervasive cultural irony is at once so powerful and so unsatisfying is that an ironist is impossible to pin down. All U.S. irony is based on an implicit “I don’t really mean what I’m saying.” So what does irony as a cultural norm mean to say? That it’s impossible to mean what you say?…Most likely, I think, today’s irony ends up saying: “How totally banal of you to ask what I really mean.”…And herein lies the oppressiveness of institutionalized irony: the ability to interdict the question without attending to the subject is, when exercised, tyranny. (Ibid. 67-8)

In a Heideggerian sense, irony is a force of unconcealment as it has the power to dredge truths from our unreflective perception of reality. It allows us to confront our current relationships, what we ascribe value to, and the “intricate and fragile nature [of] the world” (Wheeler; Hodge). Now that television, a cornerstone of modern U.S. culture, has absorbed irony, thus insulating itself from its ridicule while simultaneously normalizing it on a massive scale, irony’s revelatory power has been mitigated. What once facilitated unconcealment has itself become concealed. Because irony is a highly practical tool which protects us from being excessively gullible or taken advantage of by self-serving interests or predatory advertising, “it disappears into usefulness” (Heidegger, as cited in Hodge). As long as irony functions without a hitch, it evades conscious reflection.

Wallace believes that irony-as-cultural-norm manifests within intersubjective relations, especially the author/reader relationship.We have become hyper self-aware, obsessively considering how we come across to others. We feel paranoid that others are “impossible to pin down,” constructing protective, flattering external images of themselves, and engaging in purely self-serving, transactional communication. Those who seek genuine human communication, sincerely inquiring into what one really stands for, are ridiculed; guilty of the crime of naïveté (Ibid. 63). Foolish for thinking one would relinquish irony’s protective veil (its ability to “interdict the question”) and open themselves to ridicule by expressing their true values, emotions, interest in others, or vulnerabilities (allowing the subject to be attended to). Wallace, driven by his “desperation to ‘connect’ with his reader in a genuine way” (Smith 290), despite the difficulties posed by irony’s metastasis, forges a new breed of fiction which has become known as New Sincerity fiction.

To get at the core of New Sincerity, Adam Kelly evokes Derrida’s notion of the gift. The gift, on one hand, is a conditional, calculated exchange (e.g., the giver may seek something in return) and on the other unconditional and incalculable (Kelly 2010 139). A gift is always, to varying degrees, “contaminated by our selfish intentions or by the constraints of economic exchange” (Hägglund 37). Thus the ideal of a “true” gift is impossible, as ”a gift must be contaminated in order to be a gift” (Ibid.). Contamination is not something to be avoided, it should be accepted as a necessary condition for existence. The same contamination can be seen within the “inescapable condition of writing [and communicating] in a neoliberal age” (Kelly 2017 24). The ideal of true sincerity, a total “congruence of avowal and actual feeling” (Trilling 3) unmotivated by self-preservation or gain, is fanciful.

… sincerity has the same structure as the gift: it can always be taken for manipulation, and this risk is fundamental—it cannot be reduced by appeal to intention, or morality, or context—because true sincerity, if there is ever such a thing, must take place in the aporia between the conditional and the unconditional. Or in Wallace’s terms, sincerity must involve ‘intent’ but cannot involve ‘motive’. This is a fraught distinction, and even the writer him- or herself will never know whether they have attained true sincerity, and the reader will never know either. And yet true sincerity happens, is in fact made possible by the impossibility of its certain identification (Kelly 2010 140).

If New Sincerity fiction is sincere about anything, it's the impossibility of truly sincere communication, and the mundane struggles we subject ourselves to despite this impossibility. The struggle New Sincerity foregrounds reveals two things: (1) that humans feel distanced from one another (which Wallace claims irony and language are in part responsible for) and will nonetheless futilely persist in the face of contamination towards sincere communication, and (2) that we persist in this struggle because we view distance and contamination as a problem, an affront to the ideal of purity, things to be solved rather than experienced. The struggle is seemingly towards mastery of intersubjective communication (the technologies of language, irony, etc.) rather than actual sincerity. It foregrounds our banishment “into the kind of revealing which is an ordering. Where this ordering holds sway, it drives out every other possibility of revealing” (Heidegger 1977 27).

New Sincerity art places the observer in a complex environment which resists representation and control. Any “motive” to control finds no purchase. There is only “intent,” the intent to persist. It brings a “felt encounter with alterity” (Wallace, as cited in Kelly 2010) to the observer, providing access to all possibilities of revealing “without fully pre-empting what the future may hold” (Kelly). It recasts contamination, chaos, distance, anxiety, strangeness, struggle, inability, and unknowingness not as problems, but as beautiful, necessary conditions of experience. These moments distance the observer from their utilitarian, unreflective relationships with the world, allow them to experience different, theretofore unfathomable, possibilities and, if desired, choose to actively transform their relationships. As we will soon see, this distancing causes one to experience Heideggerian anxiety.

Wallace’s short story Octet best embodies his unique style of New Sincerity. Octet begins with a series of “Pop Quizzes” each presenting a complex, ethically fraught situation to which the reader is prompted to “evaluate” (Wallace 145) or answer specific questions such as “Is [the character] a good mother?” (135). When “Pop Quiz 9” is reached, Wallace tells the reader that they are “unfortunately, a fiction writer…attempting a cycle of very short belletristic pieces” (145). The “fiction writer” that Wallace asks the reader to identify with happens to be engaging in the same task as Wallace himself. This task being “interrogating” whether the readers of the work feel some “weird ambient sameness in different kinds of human relationships, some nameless but inescapable ‘price’ that all human beings are faced with having to pay at some point if they ever want truly ‘to be with’ another person instead of just using that person somehow” (155).

Wallace’s writing in Octet is notoriously Byzantine. It is characterized by tortured, winding sentences, footnotes expressing authorial hesitations (“That might not be the right word — too pedantic”), footnotes within footnotes, obsessive repetition, and ideas which have been seemingly abandoned. Much of the material comes off as excessive: the abandoned corpses of the author’s previous failed attempts (detritus normally edited out) remain, the author is obsessively aware of this excess’ presence, and the same points are manically repeated again and again. This excess is purposeful. It amplifies the “urgency” of the writer (as if there was no time to edit the story) and communicates the noble, tortuous, and ultimately futile struggle towards true sincerity.

The complexity of the writing is not merely an exercise in aesthetics. It is a means to an end, with this end being a crucial communicative purpose. Complexity arrises from the “fiction writer” becoming cognizant of, reflecting upon, and attempting to break through limitations: the impossibility of true sincerity, his personal relationship to and use of irony informed by the culture into which he is “thrown,” and his inability to forge a genuine human connection within a culture, and medium, steeped in irony. In spite of this impossibility, he persists, remains steadfast, and retains his urgency.

Even though Wallace was seeking an alternative to postmodernist fiction, he makes frequent use of irony and meta-reference within Octet. He communicates an awareness that the very use of these techniques endanger genuine connection and may make the writing seem “lame and tired and facile” or undermine “the queer urgency” of what is to be interrogated in the reader (Wallace 152). These self-aware moments forge a strange quasi-unity between Wallace and the reader (now embodying the isomorphic “fiction writer”). A bothness [1] where one party does not subsume or exclude the other. Both parties become discursively engaged while their distinct boundaries are maintained. Let us return to the previously quoted authorial hesitation (this time with more context): “That might not be the right word — too pedantic; you might want to use the word transmit or evoke or even limn (palpate’s been overused already…)” (Wallace 155). Wallace’s use of “you” further cements the reader in the role of the “fiction writer.” Wallace communicates a suggestion (e.g., “you might” or “you may or may not”) gesturing towards a future moment where the reader/“fiction writer” will be empowered to perform the “to” of Wallace’s “you might want to.” The boundaries between Wallace and the reader/“fiction writer” are blurred. It becomes unclear to whom “you” is referring because the reader/“fiction writer” shares the author’s neurosis and takes on the role of a collaborator or participant rather than a passive observer. Is Wallace referring to a future version of himself? Or is he inviting the reader/“fiction writer” to respond, and in effect edit, the work through a future decision?

In this way, Wallace desires contamination. He invokes “a reader who can acknowledge and even co-produce the gift of writing” (Kelly 2017 25). Wallace’s hyper self-awareness and anticipation of the reader’s hesitancies to his interrogation, makes him internalize the reader, thus contaminating the “pure autonomy” traditionally enjoyed by authors (Ibid.). The reader represents a “future beyond what the writer can anticipate, and thus [offers] the only possible relief from solipsistic self-consciousness [i.e., the protective veil of irony and performative self-awareness] and neoliberal autonomy” (Ibid.).

It may well be that all [this project] will do is make you [Wallace & reader/“fiction writer” bothness] look like a self-consciously intent schmuck, or like just another manipulative pseudopomo bullshit artist who’s trying to salvage a fiasco by dropping back to the meta-dimension and commenting on the fiasco itself. Even under the most charitable interpretation, it’s going to look desperate. Possibly pathetic. At any rate it’s not going to make you look wise or secure or accomplished or any of the things readers usually want to pretend they believe the literary artist who wrote what they’re reading is when they sit down to escape the insoluble flux of themselves and enter a world of prearranged meaning. Rather it’s going to make you look fundamentally lost and confused and frightened and unsure about whether to trust even your most fundamental intuitions about urgency and sameness and whether other people deep inside experience things in anyway like the same way you do…more like a reader, in other words, down here quivering in the mud of the trench with the rest of us, instead of a writer, whom we imagine to be clean and dry and radiant of command presence and unwavering conviction as he coordinates the whole campaign from back at some gleaming abstract Olympian HQ. So decide. (Wallace 159).

At the end of Octet, Wallace’s use of irony results in a recursive loop. If, as a reader, we agree with Wallace’s assertion that irony is endemic, poses a threat to sincere communication, and causes us to be hyper self-aware, while simultaneously being aware of his transparent hyper awareness of how he will come off to us, and use of irony in the text, is it even possible for Wallace to be sincere? The undecidability causes the practical functions of irony to malfunction thrusting our relationship to irony into the foreground. The abruptness of Wallace’s appeal to the reader (“So decide”) severs the bothness and the reader finds that the onus is on them: has Wallace “paid the price?”

This is the “ground clearing” of irony. A void has opened. Two important things occur here. First, the individual (“the insoluble flux” of oneself) becomes distinct from the Other (“a world of prearranged meaning.”) As will be taken up later, this relationship is crucial to Heidegger’s conception of identity and authenticity (“mine-self” and “they-self.”) Second, this individualization causes anxious self-awareness as one becomes “fundamentally lost.” It is this anxiety which defines the nature of Wallace’s struggle up until this point. His struggle is concerned with alleviating anxiety by effecting control over language in order to communicate his sincerity.

With the abrupt appeal to the reader, Wallace has seemingly reached a breaking point. Rather than continuing to view the contamination of sincerity as something to be overcome through mastery, he chooses to embrace it as an essential part of true sincerity, thus opening himself to an undetermined future which remains both chance and threat. As true sincerity resists positive description, neither the reader nor Wallace will be certain whether true sincerity has been attained. Even within his own work, Wallace is only able to describe a character’s voice as sincere through the negative: the voice is “not bored or laconic or ironic or tongue-in-cheek. It’s reflective but not judgmental” (Wallace 1996 189). Strangely, despite this resistance to representation, true sincerity can certainly be experienced. In fact, it’s occurrence is “made possible by the impossibility of its certain identification” (Kelly 2010 140). “The endpoint of the infinite jest of consciousness [i.e., evaluating the sincerity of an author in an era flooded with self-promotion, advertising, irony, etc.] can only be the reader’s choice whether or not to [take a leap of blind faith and] place trust [in the author]” (Kelly 2010 143).

It is crucial to note that this vulnerability and leap of faith exist on both sides of the author/reader relationship. Wallace relinquishes the protection of the authorial veil and his intentions to solve the problem of contamination and opens himself to the reader’s judgement. The reader can decide to relinquish the protection of the ironic veil (i.e., the cynical belief that everyone is impossible to pin down and solely motivated by self-interest), take a leap of faith, and place their trust in the author and risk being taken advantage of. Taking this leap of faith and ascribing sincerity to someone or something despite the impossibility of certainty is the “nameless but inescapable ‘price’ that all human beings are faced with having to pay at some point if they ever want truly ‘to be with’ another person instead of just using that person somehow.”

Now I wish to change gears and discuss how this the tenets of Wallaceian New Sincerity (complexity, undecidability, persisting-in-the-face-of, and bothness), further processed through a Heideggerian lens, can inform music composition, performance, and the relationships between composers, performers, and the audience. [2].

In order to perform, the performer calls upon a collection of learned physical actions to produce a desired sound. Let us consider the human voice. The voice is a physiological system defined by discrete parameters such as, intensity of airflow through the glottis, tension of the vocal folds, torso tension, and nasality. The identity of a particular vocal sound is the result of a specific selection of said parameters activated within specific values and ratios relative to one another (Edgerton). If a certain style of vocalization attracts sufficient interest amongst a group, the techniques (i.e., physical movements) facilitating the vocalization can be identified, codified, and taught to others. In effect, the style is assigned cultural value, becoming a performance and pedagogical paradigm. Through repeated practice and entrenchment within a specific paradigm, the physical techniques become muscle memory and operate outside the realm of conscious reflection (i.e., they “[disappear] into usefulness.”)

If we evoke Heidegger’s definition of technology as “a means and a human activity” (Heidegger 1977 4), habitualized performance techniques appear to function as technological tools. The current “style” of one’s culture designates which tools are useful to learn and share (Dreyfus). These technologies provide many useful functions (“means”): a performer may use them to make money, to express them-self, to participate in religious ceremonies, to achieve the power status associated with being a master of one’s craft, to teach, to cultivate adulation, or compete with other performers.

The performer’s physical and perceptual limitations also reside beneath conscious reflection. Consider choreographer William Forsythe’s Towards the Diagnostic Gaze. It instructs the participant to pick up a feather duster and hold it completely still (i.e., the feathers must not move.) It becomes painfully obvious that the simple task of pure uncontaminated stillness is something we are not capable of. The unconscious micro movements controlling our posture and balance spring into consciousness and we become aware of a normally unreflective aspect of our daily reality, as well as a personal limitation. On the perceptual/cognitive side, we all have unique limitations. For instance, there is a certain amount of information density we can handle before we become overloaded, there is a maximum speed which can achieve before we can no longer extrapolate meaning, there is a maximum speed of speech before we become intelligible to others, and there are optical or audio illusions, such as 2015’s color ambiguous dress, where we can see one version (black and blue) but cannot experience the other version first hand (white and gold).

In a music based on Wallaceian New Sincerity, the role of the composition is to create a performance situation which negates the practical function of learned performance procedures and agitates physical and perceptual limitations thrusting them forward for reflection thus invoking anxiety (used here in a Heideggerian sense). Just as in Octet, complexity, as a means to an end, can be used in service of this. There can be notational complexity: scores featuring ambiguous graphics with little to no traditional markings, the use of different forms of notations within a single score, changing the meaning of a specific marking within the work, using a multi-media score (paper, video, sound, objects, animation) [e.g., ...and try to become the Light? ], only allowing the performer to come into contact with the performance material during the performance, a notation inviting the performer to engage in a process of self-reflection and to make decisions based on their experiential state [e.g., i say 'me' guided by a blind instinct and ...small dull smears of meditative panic ], a notation asking the performer to translate something from one medium to another (e.g., instrumental sounds into vocal sounds), a score which changes its location in space throughout the performance, or a notation which uses a perceptual or physical process as its main durational unit [e.g., One faces or the final movement of ...and try to become the Light? ]. As well as physical complexity: writing material occupying an extreme range of the performer or instrument’s abilities, subjecting mundane tasks (e.g., the act of holding a feather duster) to extreme environments (e.g., holding the feather duster still) [e.g., TASK ], parametrizing the performer into discrete areas (e.g., airflow through the glottis, tension of the vocal folds, torso tension, pitch, etc.) and placing them in varying states of opposition or agreement [e.g., ...most of Us... or ...empty spun-sugar shibboleth... ], or have the performer attempt to do something physically impossible or unlikely (e.g., playing a Steve Vai tune on the guitar using only their teeth or read aloud the the first 50 pages of the Oxford English Dictionary in 5 minutes.)

This complexity denatures the practical use of the performer’s habitualized performance techniques. The performer becomes untethered from these techniques which operate as part of the “they-self,” a background of shared practices which facilitate intelligible relations with others. Just as “we take pleasure and enjoy ourselves as they take pleasure; we read, see, and judge about literature and art as they see and judge” (Heidegger 1962 164), our “they-self” is rooted in the actions and values of the Other and utilizes performance techniques as they do. When these techniques become denatured, the performer can no longer make sense of the world “in terms of the things themselves” (Heidegger 1962 195). They are pulled out of their unreflective immersion in the “they-self” and face the possibility of a world without their Being in it. One is exposed to the threat posed by the “‘nothing’ of the possible impossibility of [their] existence” (Heidegger 1962 310) triggering a state of anxiety.

There is a sense that part of oneself can exist outside of the world-immersed “they-self;” one thus confronts them-self as an individual, separate from, but still connected to, the “they-self.” If we take an individual’s identity to be the “systems of relationships jointly created by physical, perceptual and cognitive processes,” (Hodge) and realize that this anxiety has been caused by the severance of one’s normal system of processes, than one’s identity, in this moment, is fluid. Interestingly, despite the performer being unable to reliably call upon their habitualized techniques, and their standing outside of the world, they remain unreflective of their relationship to these techniques while participating in performance. The immediacy and superabundance of stimulation and demanding physical actions confronted in performance demands rapid, unreflective decisions which need to be made without the habitualized techniques normally called upon to facilitate such decisions.

The amorphous flux of physical, perceptual and cognitive processes attempt to compensate for the absence of these technologies, fleetingly coagulating into strange, inorganic formations before collapsing once more into the undefined. One’s identity becomes “a fluid and kinetic process that is continually changing, transforming, becoming different from itself” (Hodge). It is as if the performer is rapidly shape-shifting, assuming unexperienced identities, seeing things from different vantage points and will decide which skin to crawl into when the dust settles. They are not seeking nor are they instructed to seek a specific identity or sonic result. Any motivation to effect order upon the chaos will not find purchase. The performer is overwhelmed and lacks motive to shape the sound in a certain way. They are acting only with the intent to persist-in-the-face-of; when one is running for their life they do not consider how their hair looks while doing so.

The performer is incredibly vulnerable in this moment. They have shed the protective veil of learned performance habits and opened themselves to the possibility of failure and ridicule. From the audience’s perspective, they appear engrossed in a task, a form of combat which is demanding much from them. Their bodies contort, limbs wildly flail, voices suddenly crackle, an out of place sound breaks through, strings break, balance and breath are lost, and weight surprisingly shifts. Similarly to Octet, there is a sense of excess. Musical ideas are started and abruptly abandoned, unrelated materials are juxtaposed, and actions are neurotically repeated. The performer is confronting something beyond their finite boundaries, but cannot define it positively. It it can only be defined negatively: through their failure to bring it forth. When the performer persists in the face of what cannot be achieved with an air of sublime wonder rather than determined classification, a humility and vulnerability becomes palpable as “previously unknown or hidden energies seem to be released from the body. It becomes its own message and at the same time is exposed as the most profound stranger of the self” (Lehmann 163).

The performer-audience relationship is defined by this struggle. In observing others perform, humans have a “innate kinesthetic link to the agency, intentionality, and effort of [the performer’s] actions, as well as to the physical and perceptual capacities of [the performer’s] bodies” (Vass-Rhee 149). There is a kinesthetic empathy between observer and performer, where the observer projects themselves into the performer’s observed experience. Vass-Rhee provides the example of a spectator watching a ballet dancer. The spectator sees the performer using virtuosic levels of flexibility and balance, wearing constricting shoes, and frequently standing on their toes. Spectators of ballet often comment that these techniques must surely be “a great [source] of pain” for the dancer (Ibid.). Such comments suggest the spectator has projected themselves into the performer’s body and, because they are not themselves trained dancers, (observing the intensity of the movements from an undisciplined perspective), have arrived at the conclusion that if they were dancing, they would experience pain and therefore the dancer must be in pain.

This is a bothness. The performer and observer are simultaneously two and one. In a sense, the observer sees them-self as part of a unity with the performer in which there is a shared conception of what is painful. Whether or not this projection represents the reality of the performer is unimportant, and in fact can never be known. The observer can never know what the performer feels and the performer can never communicate exactly what they feel. Regardless of the distance and uncertainty, there is a powerful moment of co-occupation and empathy between the spectator and performer (a leap of faith).

In addition to this bothness between performer and spectator, there exists a bothness between performer and composer. In deciding when and where to use a specific type of notation or performance technique, the composer internalizes and anticipates the reaction (i.e., what information is likely to be prioritized) of the performer(s). The internalization here is not motivated by absolute control or prediction. By internalizing their response, the composer kinesthetically empathizes with the performer’s future struggle. The composition is guided by the composer’s projection of themselves in a possible future state of the performer.

Crucially, the performer’s relationships to the spectator(s) and composer are rooted in a leap of faith. Despite their awareness of the looming public display of vulnerability in which they cannot predict what they will do, what sounds they will make, or what they will uncover about themselves, they decide to participate in performance. They take a leap of faith, placing their trust in the composer and audience. Trusting that the composer and audience will not “compare” them to an ideal (against which they can be judged as a failure) but rather “identify” with their persistence-in-the-face-of certain failure. This is perhaps best communicated through Wallace’s depictions of an AA meeting in Infinite Jest:

The…counselors suggest that they [new comers to AA] sit right up at the front of the hall where they can see the pores in the speaker’s nose and try to Identify instead of Compare. Again, Identify means empathize. Identifying, unless you’ve got a stake in Comparing, isn’t very hard to do, here. Because if you sit up front and listen hard, all the speakers’ stories of decline and fall and surrender are basically alike, and like your own (345).

It is only when the performance has finished that the performer can enter into a reflective confrontation with their experienced physical and mental limitations, held values, and relationships to performative techniques. The most immediate reflections are those concerned with limitations: “Why is this hard for me?,” “Why can’t I play this faster?,” “Why do I keep returning to a particular pattern?,” “Why can’t I process all of the information in the score?,” “Why can’t I keep absolutely still?,” “Why can’t I perform this action and remain silent?”

Interestingly, these “why can’t” statements communicate the acknowledgment of ones’s limitations and that said limitations are held as problematic. If one is aware of their conflation of limitations with problems (an expression of the human desire for order, and representation to control complex things) a larger relationship is brought into view. The performer muses: “Why do I take my limitations to be problematic and feel the need to fix them?” The unsettling feeling of inability, failure, limitation, and contamination arise from an intense anxiety again causing the individual to emerge from the “they-self.” The individual seeking to alleviate the perceived problem is actually the individual “fleeing…in the face of itself — of itself as an authentic potentiality,” (Heidegger 1962 186) and attempting to once again immerse itself within the unreflective autopilot of the “they-self.” If one can work to change the “why can’t” statements into “I now can” statements, new habitualized performance technologies, replace the old ones, which (as expected) disappear into the usefulness of the “they-self.” The individual once again feels at home in the world, no longer faced with the possibility of the existence of the world without their Being in it.

Whether or not one views these limitations as problems and seeks to solve them is a decision the individual must make. Anxiety allows one to “compare [oneself, their] Being, with a possibility of [oneself]. Being free for one’s ownmost potentiality for Being, and therewith for the possibility of authenticity and inauthenticity” (Heidegger 1962 191). If the “possibility of oneself” resonates with the “authentic Being-one’s-self” than the individual, detached from the “they-self" can transform their relations with the “they-self” towards the realization of a more authentic self (Heidegger 1962 130). It is important to clarify that an “authentic” relationship is not inherently better than an “inauthentic” relationship. The terms refer to the degree of difference relative to the “they-self.” An authentic identity differs from the “they-self” in more ways than inauthentic identity, will maintains its position to “they-self.”

The performer may decide to alleviate this anxiety by taking the needed steps to turn their inabilities into abilities, expanding their limitations. In doing so, they will gain new perspective of their capabilities and enjoy their sought comfort of immersion in the “they-self.” On the other hand, the performer may accept the fact that they will always be delimited by inabilities. Even if they overcome their current limitations, new limitations will assume their place. They choose to view their limitations not as problems to be solved, or as barriers preventing them from an understanding of something more, but instead as essential aspects of themselves which curiously point towards something beyond themselves. They can experience the sublime with a sense of humility and wonder rather than the need to represent — one’s “negative reaction to otherness [is] laid aside and a new relationship to it [is] disclosed” (Hodge).

This is where Wallace finds himself at the end of Octet. After attempting to construct what he sees as one’s traditional view of the authorial writer, someone “clean and dry and radiant of command presence and unwavering conviction,” there is no where left to turn. Rather than fleeing away from the possibility of realizing his individual self and returning to the “they-self” he invokes the reader with “so decide.” Taking a leap of faith, he opens himself to vulnerability in full view of the Other which turns out to be “the only possible relief from solipsistic self-consciousness.” In responding to this leap of faith which characterizes Wallaceian New Sincerity, the reader, who throughout the story was projecting themselves into Wallace’s position through the isomorphic “fiction writer,” is simultaneously a part of and apart from Wallace; the performer is simultaneously a part of and apart from the audience; the composer is simultaneously a part of and apart from the performer. In full view of uncertainty, one comes to feel what the other feels. The accuracy of this representation is unimportant. A genuine, empathic, sincere attempt to understand the Other has been made. When the curtain is pulled back, we are revealed to be down here, quivering in the mud of the trench, together.


[1] Bothness is a term used by Wallace in his essay “David Lynch Keeps His Head.” He uses it to describe Twin Peaks’ Laura Palmer as both “‘good’ and ‘bad’ and yet also neither.” Wallace believes bothness to be at the core of Lynch’s effectiveness: “…[Laura Palmer’s] muddy bothness [requires of us] an empathetic confrontation with the exact same muddy bothness in ourselves and our intimates…and requires that these features of ourselves and the world not be dreamed away or judged away or massaged away but acknowledged” (Wallace 211).

[2] Even though New Sincerity is already actively used to communicate a type of music, the exact characteristics of this music are loosely defined and wide ranging. It appears that stripped down, lo-fi production, confessional lyrics, and a sense of nostalgia are shared amongst identified New Sincerity artists (e.g., Sufjan Stevens and Connor Oberst).What I seek to do here is specifically apply Wallaceian New Sincerity to a arrive at a way in which the composer can relate to the performer. The resulting aesthetic is a byproduct and unrelated to existing conceptions of New Sincerity music.


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