David Foster Wallace’s Something To Do With Paying Attention

Matthew McKeever
21 min readMay 1, 2022

I saw that there was a new book by DFW, to use the excessively chummy but concise abbreviation I’ll hereafter gravitate towards, last week. Having formerly been a big fan, I bought it without really looking much, only to learn it was in fact an excerpt from his posthumously published Pale King. In fact, I only in fact learned that having finished the book and read the editorial introduction since — despite having read PK at least twice I evidently recalled little of it. Despite that, the book has a lot of interest for the reader of today, and that’s what I want to talk about.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. DFW was for many the voice of roughly speaking the previous generation. His 1996 Infinite Jest, a sprawling work about addiction, has a sort of cultural meaning attached to it no other works of (post-)postmodernist works do. There used to be, for example, a blog with photos of people reading it on public transportation, an inherently tricky thing as the book is over 1k pages, and has obligatory end-notes requiring one to keep track of two page locations at one time which runs up against the limits imposed by humans’ chirality. He’s also famous for casually using words like ‘chirality’, that is for being sort of a show off or pretentious, and his work is seen as that weirdest of types: bro-y literary fiction, the sort of thing that, if you go home with someone and they have it on their shelves, you maybe leave.

DFW died by suicide and much of his work is about mental illness. His biography (at least the version I’ve read) is more or less relentlessly bleak, with suicide attempts, in-patient stays in psychiatric hospitals, and horrible side-effects of pre-SSRI anti-depressants. In addition, he was bad to some of the women in his life, ranging from the merely gross (in a letter to Jonathan Franzen he talks about his life’s mission being to stick his dick in as many women as possible; that’s a paraphrase) to the criminal (he stalked and was physically violent to a woman, Mary Karr, he was fixated on.) His name comes with a lot of red flags, and it’s reasonable to think, in a world short of time, that disqualifies him from our attention.

Maybe — I don’t have anything good to say about that. What I think is true is that he has things to teach us about contemporary life, and propose to discuss them here. If you think his dickbaggery is a reason to ignore him, fair enough.

So: more on the ‘voice of roughly speaking the previous generation’. While the idea that anyone can do that is guff, simply because generations are multifarious things, I think DFW has a real contender for being someone with an above-average capacity to see and describe deep features of reality better than most of us. A central contention of this post is that in the book under question, despite writing well before web 2, Wallace traces dialectics that arise online and offline today, such as the — supposed — tension between enlightenment ideals and social justice, or the corner of the internet centered around the ‘rationality community’ and its offshoot ‘post-rat’, and even, to lurch even more into the ridiculous, to the shape rotator vs wordcel paradigm (on which, if you don’t know what that is, congrats, but if you read to the end you will.)

Before doing that, though, a bit more about his credentials for being an important voice. A plot of Infinite Jest revolves around a sort of quasi-internet hosting Content so addictive one can’t take one’s eyes off it (so, Twitter). More important (imo) is his work on the notions of irony, postmodernism, and sincerity, that show up across his writings from early non-fiction such as his seminal E Unibus Pluram all the way to the work in the title and his writings on tennis. (I’ve written a lot about that here; the piece is old and I don’t recall if it holds up.)

There are a few interrelated theses here, including that i) the culture he lived in was typified by a distanced ironic attitude that showed up in everything from high fiction to TV; (ib) that attitude was supported by the commercial imperative of much of what we interact with (in ‘A Supposedly Fun Thing’; and the discussion of advertising in EUP)) and ii) that representational fact, about TV and books, has a sort of spiritual or moral twin: by consuming ironic media, one tends to come to occupy a distanced cynical perspective on reality itself; iii) and that perspective is Bad.

I use ‘spiritual’ and ‘moral’ and ‘Bad’ intentionally, because arguably the core of his work has these evaluative features. He presents a spiritual view of the world, one that both describes and prescribes. It describes: from his entertaining and occasionally horrifying discussions, in his fiction and non-fiction alike, we get a view of certain type of person, an alienated cynical person, whose lives seldom go well. And it prescribes: his work shines with Humans Done Right: it contains moral exemplars, people capable of getting past the trap of ironic distance and of committing themselves to their world. Roger Federer is one; the successfully sober, but otherwise disgusting and unsavoury, members of AA are others; and — a focus of the Pale King and the focus of this book — tax agents, or more generally bureaucrats, or, yet more generally, to quote what was a pull quote when TPK was published, people who know that:

‘Enduring tedium over real time in a confined space is what real courage is. Such endurance is, as it happens, the distillate of what is, today, in this world that neither I nor you have made, heroism. Heroism’ (105)

I think that Humans Done Right is a key concern of many today, and his focus on the topic makes him worthy of our attention.

But what unifies Federer, recovering addicts, and bureaucrats? Well, it’s something to do with paying attention. Wallace was undoubtedly very smart (one sign of which is his very readable pop book on infinity, which presents material that you would find in roughly a second calculus class and a second logic class (or a hardcore first version of either of these) and does so in a way that people can understand); he was also an addict and mentally ill, and his work seems to suggest a connection. The central value of his work is that, as a paradigm rationalist, he followed rationalism into the absurdities it leads one if not tempered by feeling, or effort, or some other break.

The clearest example is in the discussion of addiction in Infinite Jest, probably. Presenting the journey of the recovering addict, he shows us them bashing their head against the fact that AA seems to work, yet there is no intelligible reason why it works. AA asks you to pray even if you don’t believe in God, and, in face of the most sophisticated argument for evil for atheism will … ask you to pray if you don’t believe in God. It asks you to come to meetings, and in the demand for an explanation as to why coming to meetings will save you from what’s killing you will … ask you to come to meetings. AA, for Wallace, makes no sense, and must merely be done. But: it works. Italics his, and that the italics are his is perhaps his work summarised in typography.

Ditto, a bit more complicatedly, communication. The internet, like TV before it, is a locus of irony. The ironic attitude towards something is always a sort of double vision. You do something, or say something. But you also watch yourself do or say something or comment on your doing or saying. Moreover, your doings and sayings are inauthentic. If you say, to use Umberto Eco’s famous example, that you love someone, you have to face up to the fact that the vehicle for your feeling is also the vehicle of the shittiest pop songs you can imagine who have highjacked the word:

I think of the postmodern attitude as that of a man who loves a very cultivated woman and knows that he cannot say to her “I love you madly”, because he knows that she knows (and that she knows he knows) that these words have already been written by Barbara Cartland. Still there is a solution. He can say “As Barbara Cartland would put it, I love you madly”. At this point, having avoided false innocence, having said clearly it is no longer possible to talk innocently, he will nevertheless say what he wanted to say to the woman: that he loves her in an age of lost innocence.

And ditto literally everything: for the ironist, literally every word or deed is a repetition or something previously done ignominiously, and the ironist nods to that history in everything they do (I’ve written about this a lot here and in my book; see maybe this for some of it; I pseudo-apologize for all the self-promotion).

We need to break free from irony, Wallace says. If we’re not ironic, we need to be sincere. Irony deadens and is fundamentally weak:

What passes for hip cynical transcendence of sentiment is really some kind of fear of being really human, since to be really human is probably to be unavoidably sentimental and naive and goo prone and generally pathetic (E Unibus Pluram)

And sincerity goes against every ironic bone in our body (exactly like sobriety goes against every bone in the addict’s body). But we have to do it anyway, to try and force our double vision single, to get rid of the self-referentiality even at the cost of uncoolness, to

dare somehow to back away from ironic watching, who have the childish gall actually to endorse and instantiate single-entendre principles. Who treat of plain old untrendy human troubles and emotions in U.S. life with reverence and conviction. Who eschew self-consciousness and hip fatigue. These antirebels would be outdated, of course, before they even started. Dead on the page. Too sincere. Clearly repressed. Backward, quaint, naive, anachronistic. Maybe that’ll be the point. Maybe that’s why they’ll be the next real rebels. Real rebels, as far as I can see, risk disapproval. The old postmodern insurgents risked the gasp and squeal: shock, disgust, outrage, censorship, accusations of socialism, anarchism, nihilism. Today’s risks are different. The new rebels might be artists willing to risk the yawn, the rolled eyes, the cool smile, the nudged ribs, the parody of gifted ironists, the “Oh how banal.” To risk accusations of sentimentality, melodrama. Of overcredulity. Of softness. (same ref)

Ditto tennis, more obviously, where it’s literally impossible to react to a ball going as fast as it does and the human becomes something both flesh and not, an animated purposeful being with a body under control but under a control that goes beyond what the mind can consciously do. And finally, ditto office work. You need to just sit down and do the thing that needs to be done, and banish doubt or boredom or displeasure.

That’s all by way of a long preface. The topic I’m interested in writing about now is proximally the book in the title and more generally the question as to whether Wallace still has a voice that speaks to us.

It’s easy to think that the answer is no. How do we live today and what do we care about? Surely, one might think, an attempt to limn the Zeitgeist of today would need to talk about the internet, and perhaps to even more recent developments like AI and big data. It would need to talk about social justice; climate change; the 2008 crash; the fact that one of the two main US parties, thus one of the most powerful entities in the world, seems to have deep links with insurrectionary conspiracy theorists.

None of these are Wallace-ian themes. As far as I can tell, he doesn’t have even a smallest social or political insight. That’s not the sort of writer he is, which is, to repeat, spiritual or moral — invididualistic, perhaps as only someone who came of age in the 80s can be. Nevertheless, I think we can view Wallace as speaking prophetically to certain features of contemporary reality, ones that while they aren’t as important as those mentioned above nevertheless occupy the time of at least some of us, and perhaps even of some powerful people. Those features — inevitably — are features of Internet Bullshit, to which we’ll need to descend. Before making that argument, though, let’s take a look at the book in the title.

Doing taxes before the computer, public domain, image credit

Shape Rotators Vs Theorycels in 70s Chicago

“I remember overhearing my father saying that there were only two kinds of people in the world — namely, people who actually understood the technical realities of how the real world worked (via, his obvious point was, math and science), and people who didn’t — and overhearing my mother being very upset and depressed at what she saw as my father’s rigidity and small-mindedness, and her responding that the two basic human types were actually the people so rigid and intolerant that they believed there were only two basic human types, on one side, versus people who believed that there were all different types and varieties of people with their own unique gifts and destinies and paths through life that they had to find, on the other, and so forth.” (STDWPA)

As mentioned, it’s an excerpt from the Pale King. If you’ve followed the work of DFW’s estate, you know to be a bit wary of the post-humous publications. String Theory is almost entirely just a collection of pieces findable elsewhere; Both Flesh and Not feels kind of like a cash-in, although it’s possible the titular essay and the review of Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress make it worth the price of admission.

But STDWPA is, I think, worth publishing. Despite owning TPK I’m not sad I bought it. As the editor’s intro says, it’s a complete story and a representative of his mature style, one in which verbal pyrotechnics and cleverness is downplayed in place of a certain restraint and view to simple story-telling. And it’s a good story, which I’ll briefly summarize.

It’s set in the late 70s. The main character is the child of a separated couple consisting of a straight-laced conservative dad and a sort of sad 60s throwback mom, who is in a lesbian relationship and makes and smokes her own pot and owns a feminist bookstore before becoming mentally unwell after the (at the time already divorced) dad dies in violent and somewhat comedic circumstances that are paradigmatically Wallace-like. (It’s seldom pointed out, I think, but ultra-violence is one of the stranger recurring themes in Wallace’s books; armchair psychologising I tend to think it’s an important think for understanding the man behind the words.)

This parental arrangement sets up the conflict in which the self-styled “nihilist” protagonist finds himself. We find him drafting along in humanities courses, smoking pop and drinking and doing stimulants, as a ‘wastoid’, and to the disappointment of his dad. A fair few pages are devoted to the protagonist’s sometimes stimulant-induced ‘doubling’. We’re told the stimulant in question

it did make me much more self-aware. If I was in a room… I was now not only in the room, but I was aware that I was in the room. In fact, I remember I would often think, or say to myself, quietly but very clearly, ‘I am in this room.’ It’s difficult to explain this. At the time, I called it ‘doubling,’ but I’m still not entirely sure what I meant by this, nor why it seemed so profound and cool to not only be in a room but be totally aware that I was in the room, seated in a certain easy chair in a certain position listening to a certain specific track of an album whose cover was a certain specific combination of colors and designs — being in a state of heightened enough awareness to be able to consciously say to myself, ‘I am in this room right now. The shadow of the foot is rotating on the east wall. The shadow is not recognizable as a foot because of the deformation of the angle of the light of the sun’s position behind the sign. I am seated upright in a dark-green easy chair [etc]’. Stated so openly, this amount of detail might seem tedious, but it wasn’t. What it felt like was a sort of emergence, however briefly, from the fuzziness and drift of my life in that period. As though I was a machine that suddenly realized it was a human being and didn’t have to just go through the motions it was programmed to perform over and over. It also had to do with paying attention.

It’s unclear what to make of this. The reading I’m tempted to go for is that the drug enabled a certain way of looking at the world, a certain type of attention missing from his sober wastoid life, such that once he has the epiphany I’m about to mention he becomes able to focus that attention on work.

This wastoid behaviour is changed by an epiphany. Entering the wrong class by mistake, he catches the final lecture in an accounting course, which ends with a long exhortation or hortation about the value of careful attentive processing of data. We see that in the quote above about enduring tedium, but also when the lecturer tells us:

the less conventionally heroic or exciting or adverting or even interesting or engaging a labor appears to be, the greater its potential as an arena for actual heroism, and therefore as a denomination of joy unequaled by any you men can yet imagine…

This closely parallels something Wallace says in Infinite Jest, according to which the truth is “not just un- but anti- interesting”. Truth isn’t interesting; heroism isn’t exciting.

The character thereafter succeeds in ‘putting away childish things’, gets on the track to a career in the IRS, and even buys some button-down shirts. That’s it, mostly. In a sense it’s a very straightforward Bildungsroman with a surprising moral lesson: grow up, become like one’s conversative father.

This, in the world of the book, is heroism. I don’t know to what extent it was intentional, but the use of ‘nihilist’ in the context of this sort of youthful decision point is reminiscent in parts of Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons, which itself is concerned with clashes of generations and with the reason vs not-reason dichotomy (I wrote about that extensively here).

Although it can seem as if the hero is the STEM person who does their sums rightly, and the liberal wishwashiness of the mother is a weakness, I’m tempted to say that nevertheless the STEM hero’s heroism lies not in their being smart but rather in their capacity to withstand boredom. Moreover, we see in the book, to good comic effect, the consequences of being overrational. Wallace’s relation to rationality is in the book is ambiguous, and that’s what I want to focus on.

But before that, my title. If you’re au fait with internet bullshit you’ll know a recent way of categorizing people has come on the scene: between wordcels and shape rotators (see here). This is roughly the distinction between STEMy types and humanities people, and a parlour game is classifying people or activities (Pynchon, crypto) as one or the other. Wallace is a paradigm both, I think, and his work plays out the tensions between the two worldviews.

The Irrationality of Rationality

The book is peripherally about tax. I’m tempted to say, despite his aforementioned lack of moral or political thinking, tax is nevertheless a perfect Wallace theme. And the reason it is is because it shows us both the genuine usefulness of rationality as a tool of understanding the world, and its weakness.

Perhaps it’s just me, but economics is comforting, and I tentatively suggest that this is Wallace’s attitude. I get a certain feeling when I’m in the grocery store or the second-hand bookshop: a feeling of control. Microeconomic theory assumes that humans maximise utility, which is to say they maximise expected utility: how much enjoyment they anticipate getting out of something divided (to speak a bit roughly) but how likely they are to succeed in getting that something if they try. Game theory throws in other actors, and the math gets more complicated, but there’s still the possibility that once we do our sums we can run an economy and avert nuclear war. Behavioural economics, life experience, and various sorts of market deformations in general make very familiar how often we diverge from that formula, but for certain, simple economic transactions it appears to be true.

I look at the cheap, the medium, and the expensive hot sauce. I try to work out how much better the expensive one will be, whether this month will be tight, and so on. The decision of which hot sauce to purchase is taken care of, it’s tempting to say, by expected utility maximisation theory. And that’s comforting: not only do I know what I should do, but I also know what others are likely to do. Knowing that others will do is the most important thing to know in life. If some calculus and graphs can get us that, it would be a thing to celebrate: economics as a study of some human action is comforting because it makes the unpredictable predictable. Wallace agrees:

a fundamental rule of effective tax enforcement is remembering that the average taxpayer is always going to act out of his own monetary self-interest. This is basic economic law. In taxation, the result is that the taxpayer will always do whatever the law allows him to do in order to minimize his taxes. This is simple human nature.

Fundamental …. law….nature. If this were really true, if there were fundamental laws about human nature, what a world we’d live in!

But Wallace immediately realizes that these putative laws can easily careen into absurdity. In the book, they do so with what seems like an innocuous change in tax policy, when progressive sales tax, whereby one pays more for more expensive purchases, kicks in. Once one has that new law running alongside the human nature law, we get the ridiculous:

So, at the store, you suddenly had everyone buying under $5.00 worth of groceries and running out to their car and putting the little bag in the car and running back in and buying another amount under $5.00 and running out to their car, and so on and so forth. Supermarkets’ checkout lines started going all the way to the back of the store. Department stores were just as bad, and I know gas stations were even worse — only a few months after the supply shock of OPEC and fights in gas lines over rationing, now, in Illinois that autumn, fights also broke out at gas stations from drivers being forced to wait as people ahead of them at the pump tried putting $4.99 worth in and running in and paying and running back out and resetting the pump and putting in another $4.99, and so on. It was the exact opposite of mellow, to say the least….

And in a sublime move, either intentionally or unintentionally recalling the Buddha’s words in the Milindipanha arguing for anatta by pointing out that a presented chariot is neither its components nor their mere arrangement:

used-car dealers that were willing to sell you a car as an agglomeration of separate little transactions for front bumper, right rear wheel well, alternator coil, spark plug, and so on, the purchase structured as thousands of different $4.99 transactions.

The point is that Wallace is pulled towards rationality while immediately always realizing its limits and how, when pushed to its limit, it reaches ridiculous measures, such as buying a car in thousands of $4.99 chunks.

(Admittedly, this isn’t only his view. Arguably one finds it in Adorno, for example. The thing which possibly distinguishes Wallace, the gifted maths student, is an utter sympathy for seeing things from the rationalist point of view while remorselessly following reasoning to its dead ends.)

‘Tidy your room’, ‘Facts don’t care about your feelings’, the enlightenment, CRT, rationalists and post-rats

Here’s my tentative but ambitious thesis: much of contemporary life, especially as it pertains to the ‘culture wars’, can be explained in terms of these two attitudes to reason Wallace can be seen to bring into tension. His perspective show that it’s taxonomically difficult to categorize all the belligerents to the war (after all, Peterson and Shapiro are aligned in culture war space but arguably land on different sides of the reason vs not-reason dichotomy). Moreover, and moving from description to prescription, I think Wallace is right about what he says about the limits of reason, and accordingly I think we ought to take positions in the culture war aligned with that insight (second only to never thinking or speaking about culture wars or the many, well, wastoids discussion of which requires interacting with.)

Let’s take the most important but hardest to discuss one first, the supposed threat to the enlightenment values of universal reason caused by social justice projects. It’s hard to talk about for several reasons. For one, the enlightenment people are often bad faith purveyors of nonsense; and the social justice people (whom I ally with more naturally) tend towards wanting to limit the things one can talk about. For two, I think once one gets clear about what exactly standpoint epistemology or intersectionality are one is not left with paradigm-shifting novelties but things that are close to truisms, so that the purported attack on reason by the social justice left is in fact a mirage.

But let’s try. Consider — an inauspicious start — this famously nonsensical quotation from the WaPo:

Critical race theory, Guelzo says, is a subset of critical theory that began with Immanuel Kant in the 1790s. It was a response to — and rejection of — the principles of the Enlightenment and the Age of Reason on which the American republic was founded. Kant believed that “reason was inadequate to give shape to our lives” and so he set about “developing a theory of being critical of reason,” Guelzo says.

Or consider this (unsourced!) claim from The Economist that “critical race theory informs the claim that the aim of journalism is not “objectivity” but “moral clarity”. (Incidentally, I certainly don’t think The Economist is epistemically bad like the Guelzo guy — I quote it as an example of what relatively reliable sources say.)

One way to parse this is that enlightenment people think reason gets us where we want and the social justice people deny this. If that’s accurate, then arguably the Wallace dichotomy — presented as the warrings of individual late twentieth century psyches — is an apt tool for understanding some of the Discourse today (and the important things online conversations are about, namely racism and sexism and the best way to mitigate them.)

But it’s not so neat. I called Wallace’s book conservative, and it’s hard not to take away a conservative message from it — the father’s worldview wins out as the locus of heroism. What’s interesting (and probably others have made this observation) is that it makes evident that what we might be tempted to call contemporary conservatism contains ideological multitudes. I haven’t read him, but I get the impression that Peterson argues for a sort of anti-rationalism similar to the one Wallace depicts, albeit he does so from a different starting point (Jungian theory rather than higher mathematics). By contrast, a standard bearer for the anti-woke is Shapiro with his claim that facts don’t care about your feelings. It’s arguable Wallace, with his injunctions to sentimentalism and to blind obedience, squarely disagrees with that, but more interestingly makes vivid how Shapiro and Peterson disagree.

Consider next the rationalist movement. I’m not the best person for the analysis of this, but my understanding is as follows: a movement centered around people like Elizer Yudkowsky and Robin Hanson and the Lesswrong blog (with big connections to the effective altruism movement) champion reason in the form of decision and social choice theory, and economics and computer science and utilitarianism. These people are influential: Vitalik Buterin, a founder of Ethereum and surely one of the standout thinkers of our time, for example, is a reply guy to both of these people. Perhaps — again, not sure — these can be seen as presenting the pro-rationalist side of Wallace’s work alive and well (and with a large amount of funding at their disposal in the silicon valley and ivy/oxbridge AI centres). By contrast, there’s another movement called post-rationalism, which, per a tweet I can’t find, is something like the view that the rationalist ideal is attractive, and an admirable aesthetic, but the hard slog of actually living the rationalist life (whether that be tithing in EA, dealing with jealousy as a rational polyamorist, or whatever) is to be avoided. These would be people who’ve followed the Wallace path to become suspicious of reason. If this is right, we see in his work the trajectory of movements that flowered considerably later.

There’s maybe more: ‘trad’ people and religion seem to be undergoing a wave of popularity on social media. Wallace gives us tools to diagnose this otherwise odd seeming phenomenon: these are people who’ve lived through the irony- and reason- suffocated close past and are looking for an escape.

If even some of this is on the right lines, and I think some must be, then Wallace, who died around the time the iPhone was released, saw and spoke to certain cultural divisions well in advance of their occurring, and the novella I read presents aspects of his prescient worldview.

An argument of my book Nineties to Now was that pop culture bifurcated with the advent of the internet. I argue in that book that in tracing cultural continuities between the 90s and now we need to recognize that certain cultural trends played out differently on the internet and on TV. The hypersnarky vicious world of social media is one in which Wallace’s irony wasn’t overcome by the sincerity he sought. By contrast, in literary fiction and TV, there was a move towards more ‘straight’ (if sometimes fantastic) forms of storytelling, in things like the realistic Eliotian novels of Sally Rooney or Game Of Thrones.

If that line is right, then maybe something similar can be said here. In particular, we can see on the internet infighting just surveyed a further working out of the rationality/not-rationality dichotomy so important to Wallace. That’s useful. We’re all waiting, I think, for the first great ‘internet novel’, for a book that can manage to portray what it’s like to live online (some critics say Sally Rooney’s work does that, with its texts and emails, but it doesn’t really (as she happily admits); I don’t think Lockwood’s work really does more than superficially; I haven’t read Oyler). But our discussion suggests something: one can write an internet novel, a novel about goings on on the internet, even if it’s set in a world where the internet is a half-century away, and written by an author who never had social media. Part of that is realizing that novels aren’t distinctively on the internet any more than they are in London or Hong Kong; the internet might be a backdrop, a setting, but doesn’t need to be a theme for a novel of today to accurately depict contemporary life. This prescient book shows that, I reckon.