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Some considerations on ‘Consider the Lobster’

Some analysis of Wallace's 'Consider the Lobster'.

Wallace begins the article by seeming to follow the genre of a journalistic review for a culinary magazine, lulling the reader in before introducing his ethical question. He gives us factual details of the event and its history. He starts describing what a lobster is in physiological and scientific detail, using humour and varied registers to keep the reader with him. He begins to weave in more overt criticism of the event and then hits us with the real purpose of the article: the ethical consideration:

“So then here is a question that’s all but unavoidable at the World’s Largest Lobster Cooker, and may arise in kitchens across the U.S: Is it all right to boil a sentient creature alive just for our gustatory pleasure?”

He presents the question as one that he has no agency over, one that just seems to naturally arise, thereby making it seem like he has no control over it.

There then follow emotive and personal appeals along with direct attacks, but these are softened again, this time with self-reflexive questioning. The essay shifts to being an ethical or philosophical essay, but Foster Wallace digresses from the main argument using anecdotes, factual titbits, footnotes, to soften it.

The essay ends with his affirmation that he does not wish to come across as “shrill or preachy” (the register here encouraging the reader to align with him) but that he is instead “confused”. In this way, the essay ends with a confirmation of its ethical purpose: one of posing a question, exploring it, and encouraging the reader to reflect on it, without providing a definite answer.

Let’s look at a few specific moments in the essay to see Wallace’s techniques at work in more detail.

‘The enormous, pungent, and extremely well-marketed Maine Lobster Festival is held every late July in the state’s midcoast region, meaning the western side of Penobscot Bay, the nerve stem of Main’s lobster industry.’

Wallace begins by apparently conforming to the journalistic conventions of travel literature for a commissioned piece in a food magazine. The Festival’s date and place are foregrounded in the first sentence to give the reader the essential theme of the piece, so they can decide whether to read it. But already Wallace is starting to poke fun at the festival, with ‘pungent’ and ‘extremely well-marketed’, the latter indicating a certain cynicism about the commercial enterprise. The phrase ‘nerve stem’ rather than ‘nerve centre’ is a nod to where he’s going.

The third paragraph begins, ‘For practical purposes, everyone knows what a lobster is. As usual, though, there’s much more to know than most of us care about – it’s all a matter of what your interests are.’

He begins by drawing us in, with a friendly tone, to a universally held knowledge, which he is about to deconstruct in the next sentence. This method of identifying with us only to wrongfoot us, is one Wallace makes time and again (see ‘This is Water’). The next sentence sets up a section offering an in-depth scientific, taxonomical, historical and etymological description of the lobster. This is done quickly enough not to bore the reader, but still provides the sense of encyclopaedic knowledge, which, however, Wallace then undermines by changing register mid-paragraph to say, ‘All this is right there in the encyclopedia.’ And ending the section ‘The point is that lobsters are basically giant sea insects.’ What later becomes apparent is the phrase ‘than most of us care about’ is a common turn of phrase deliberately chosen for both meanings of ‘care’.

A distinctive of Wallace’s style was the use of footnotes and endnotes as integral to the work rather than academic niceties that can be skimmed over. What may seem at first like a pedantic distinction in endnote 18 between preferences and interests is actually a fundamental reflection on the importance of words for moral purposes. Whereas a postmodernist may highlight the slipperiness of language to destabilise meaning, here the purpose is to improve moral precision. ‘“Preference” is maybe roughly synonymous with “interests,” but it is a better term for our purposes because it’s less abstractly philosophical – “preference” sems more personal, and it’s the whole idea of a living creature’s personal experience that’s at issue.’

Wallace uses direct quotations on page 4 to create a parallel between folk understanding and the use of scientific jargon for ideological ends. Wallace’s taxi driver, Dick, says, “There’s a part of the brain in people and animals that lets us feel pain, and lobsters’ brains don’t have this part.” Followed by:

‘Besides the fact that it’s incorrect in about 11 different ways, the main reason Dick’s statement is interesting is that its thesis is more or less echoed by the Festival’s own pronouncement on lobsters and pain…“The nervous system of a lobster is very simple, and is in fact most similar to the nervous system of the grasshopper. It is decentralized with no brain. There is no cerebral cortex, which in humans is the area of the brain that gives the experience of pain.”’

Here’s an example of Wallace attacking the reader’s views and then immediately softening the blow by directing the challenge at himself. ‘…the whole animal-cruelty-and-eating issue is not just complex, it’s also uncomfortable. It is, at any rate, uncomfortable for me, and for just about everyone I know who enjoys a variety of foods and yet does not want to see herself as cruel or unfeeling. As far as I can tell, my own main way of dealing with this conflict has been to avoid thinking about the whole unpleasant thing.’

Around halfway down page 5 and into page 6, Wallace makes the reader confront lobster biology and behaviour as relevant to their capacity to feel pain. This confrontation with the lobster, our inability to look away or fail to notice, forces the reader to ‘consider the lobster’ in a way that makes his moral questions harder to dodge, though he still continues to show his own reluctance to face the questions and his hope that he can somehow morally get away with eating lobsters (‘I for one can detect a marked upswing in mood as I contemplate this latter possibility’ [that lobsters feel no pain]).

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David Foster Wallace: Literature and Philosophy

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