Preferential consideration: David Foster Wallace, Melville and behaviourism

Eve, Martin Paul (2015) Preferential consideration: David Foster Wallace, Melville and behaviourism. In: Supposedly Fun Things: A Colloquium on the Writing of David Foster Wallace, 7 February 2015, Birkbeck.

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Item Type:Conference or Workshop contribution (Paper)
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Abstract

In his 2004 essay on the ethics of boiling lobsters alive, David Foster Wallace [1962-2008] succinctly laid out the conditions by which we judge pain in non-human, sentient beings: “There happen to be two main criteria that most ethicists agree on for determining whether a living creature has the capacity to suffer and so has genuine interests that it may or may not be our moral duty to consider […] One is how much of the neurological hardware required for pain-experience the animal comes equipped with […] The other criterion is whether the animal demonstrates behavior associated with pain” (Wallace, ‘Consider the Lobster’ 248). This stance is, of course, what might be broadly termed a “behaviourist approach”. Rather than adopting philosophies of mind in which it is impossible to know what another is thinking, Wallace here pursues the pragmatic idea that we should base our assumptions on demonstrable, repeatable behaviours of others. The outward manifestion, in other words, is more important than any assumption about internal mental states of other beings. More appositely for the line that will be pursued here, the terms in which this is expressed take a very particular vocabulary: “To my lay mind, the lobster's behavior in the kettle appears to be the expression of a preference; and it may well be that an ability to form preferences is the decisive criterion for real suffering” (Wallace, ‘Consider the Lobster’ 251). Preference has featured throughout all of Wallace's works and this is not surprising given the focus bestowed upon agency and attention in his novels.

Alongside Wallace's school essays on Moby-Dick, now situated at the Harry Ransom Center, however, the stress laid upon the term “preference” in his mature work clearly summons Herman Melville and particularly the seminal literary novella on preference: Bartleby the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street [1853]. In this work, the semi-mute, ambiguous protagonist is appointed as a Wall Street clerk, given no words except to express his notorious preference “not to” work and eventually wastes to death in prison. Most frequently read biographically, or as a polyvalent allegory of capitalism, the intertextual illumination of the term “preference” in light of behaviourist principles brings the opportunity to consider a new angle on this otherwise over-read text.

Keywords:David Foster Wallace, Herman Melville, Consider the Lobster, Bartleby the Scrivener
Subjects:Q Linguistics, Classics and related subjects > Q320 English Literature
Divisions:College of Arts > School of English & Journalism > School of English & Journalism (English)
ID Code:16439
Deposited On:18 Jan 2015 16:08

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