Friday, April 22, 2011
Concentrated Deskwork by David Foster Wallace
At one point Ms. Neti-Neti herself apparently got confused or distracted, and opened the wrong door, and in the wedge of light before she could push the heavy door closed again I caught a glimpse of a long room filled with IRS examiners in long rows and columns of strange-looking tables or desks, each of which (desks) had a raised array of trays or baskets clamped to its top, with flexible-necked desk lamps clamped at angles to these fanned-out trays, so that each of the IRS examiners worked in a small circle of light at what appeared to be the bottom of a one-sided hole. [These were Tingle tables, an Examinations convention with which I became all too familiar – although no one I ever talked to knew the origin of “Tingle”, as whether it was eponymous, or sardonic or what.]
Row after row, stretching to a kind of vanishing point near the room’s rear wall, in which there was incised another door. The most striking thing about it was the quiet. There were at least 150 men and/or women in that room, all intently occupied and busy, and yet the room was so silent that you could hear an imperfection in the door’s hinge as Ms. Neti-Neti pushed it closed against the force of its pneumatic strut. This silence I remember best of all, because it was both sensuous and incongruous: For obvious reasons, we tend to associate total quiet with emptiness, not with large groups of people. The whole thing lasted only a moment… [but] I reverberated from the sight of all those intent, totally silent examiners for quite a while.
Here is probably an apt place for some exposition on my background re: silence and concentrated desk work. In hindsight, I know that there was something about the silent, motionless intensity with which everyone in that opened door’s instant was studying the tax-related documents before them that frightened and disturbed me. The scene was such that you just knew that if you were to open the door for another brief instant ten, twenty, or forty minutes later, it would look and sound just the same. I had never seen anything like it. Or rather I had, in a way, for of course television and books often portray concentrated study or deskwork just this way, at least by implication. As in e.g. “Irving knuckled down and spent the entire morning plowing through the paperwork on his desk’; ‘Only when she had finished the report did the executive glance at her watch and see that it was nearly midnight. She had been completely absorbed in her task, and was only now aware that she had worked through supper, and was famished. Gracious, wherever did the time go? She though to herself.’ Or even just as in ‘He spent the day reading.’
In real life, of course, concentrated deskwork doesn’t go this way. I had spent massive amounts of time in libraries; I knew quite well how deskwork really was. Especially if the task at hand was dry or repetitive, or dense, or if it involved reading something that had no direct relevance to your own life and priorities, or was work that you were doing only because you had to –like for a grade, or part of as freelance assignment for pay from some lout who was off skiing.
The way hard deskwork really goes is in jagged little fits and starts , brief intervals of concentration alternated with frequent trips to the men's room, the drinking fountain, the vending machine, constant visits to the pencil sharpener, phone calls you suddenly feel are imperative to make, rapt intervals of seeing what kinds of shapes you can bend a paperclip into, & c. This is because sitting still and concentrating on just one task for an extended lengthy of time is, as a practical matter, impossible.
If you said, ‘I spent the whole night in the library, working on some client’s sociology paper,’ you really meant that you’d spent between two or three hours working on it and the rest of the time fidgeting and sharpening and organizing pencils and doing skin- checks in the men’s room mirror and wandering around the stacks opening volumes at random and reading about, say, Durkheim’s theories of suicide
There was none of this diffraction in the split-second view of the room, though. One sensed that these were people who did not fidget, who did not read a page of, say, dull taxpayer explanation about the deduction of some item and then realize that they’d actually been thinking about the apple in their lunchbag and whether or not to maybe eat the apple right here and now until they realized that their eyes had passed over all the words (or, given the venue here, perhaps columns of figures) on the page without actually having read them at all – with read here meaning internalized, comprehended, or whatever we mean by really reading vs. simply having one’s eyes pass over symbols in a certain order. Seeing this was kind of traumatic.
I’d always felt frustrated and embarrassed about how much reading and writing time I actually wasted, about how much I sort of blinked in and out while trying to absorb or convey large amounts of information. To put it bluntly, I had felt ashamed about how easily I got bored when trying to concentrate.
As a child, I think I’d understood the word concentrate literally and viewed my problems with sustained concentration as evidence that I was an unusually dilute or disorganized form of human being , and had laid much of the blame for this on my family, who tended to need a lot of loud noise and distraction going on at all times and undertook almost every kind of activity with every available radio, stereo, and television set on, such that I’d taken to wearing special high-filter customized earplugs at home from the age of fourteen on.
It took me all the way up to the age of finally getting away from Philo and entering a highly selective college to understand that the problem with stillness and concentration was more or less universal and not some unique shortcoming that was going to prevent me from every really rising above my preterite background and achieving something. Seeing the enormous lengths that those elite, well-educated undergrads from all over the nation went to to avoid, delay, or mitigate concentrated work was an eye-opening experience for me. In fact, the school’s social structure was set up to prize and esteem students who could pass their classes and assemble a good transcript without ever working hard. People who skated by, doing the absolute minimum required for institutional/parental approval, were regarded as cool, while people who actually applied themselves to their assignments and to the work of their own education and achievement were relegated to the status of ‘grinds’ or ‘tool’, the lowest caste in the college’s merciless social hierarchy .
The upshot, though, was that up until entering college, where everyone often lived and did homework together in plain mutual view, I’d had no opportunity to realize that fidgeting, distraction, and frequent contrived breaks were more or less universal traits. In high school, for example, homework is literally that – it’s done at home, in private, with earplugs and KEEP OUT signs and a chair jammed up underneath the knob. Same with reading, working on journal entries, tabulating one’s accounts from a paper route, &c. You’re with your peers only in social or recreational settings, including classes, which at my own public high school were academic jokes. In Philo, educating yourself was something you had to do in spite of school, not because of it – which is basically why so many of my high school peers are still here in Philo even now, selling one another insurance, drinking supermarket liquor, watching television, awaiting the formality of their first cardiac…
…It was either Acquistipace or Ed Shackleford, whose ex-wife taught high school, who observed that what was then starting to be codified as ‘test anxiety’ may well really have been an anxiety about timed tests, meaning exams or standardized tests, where there is no way to do the endless fidgeting and self-distraction that is part of 99.9 percent of real people’s concentrated deskwork. I cannot honestly say whose observation it was; it was part of a larger discussion among younger examiners and television and the theory that America had some vested economic interest in keeping people over-stimulated and unused to silence and single-point concentration. For the sake of convenience, let’s assume it was Shackleford. His observation was the real object of crippling anxiety in ‘test anxiety’ might well be a fear of the tests’ associated stillness, quiet, and lack of time for distraction. Without distraction, or even the possibility of distraction, certain types of people feel dread – and it’s this dread, not so much as the test itself, that people feel anxious about.