Academic journal article English Studies in Canada

"On the Porousness of Certain Borders": Attending to Objects in David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest

Academic journal article English Studies in Canada

"On the Porousness of Certain Borders": Attending to Objects in David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest

Article excerpt

Roughly halfway through David Foster Wallace's mammoth and labyrinthine 1996 novel Infinite Jest, the character Don Gately--a recovering drug addict and live-in employee of a halfway house in Boston, Massachusetts--encounters a biker named Bob Death at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. In an exchange between the two, Bob tells Gately a joke whose punchline becomes crucial in ferreting out the novel's thematic crux and indeed the ethical perspective of its author. Having asked Gately whether he has "by any chance ... heard the one about the fish" (445), Bob Death recites a joke that was later reused by the novel's author in a commencement speech delivered at Kenyon College in 2005 (collected posthumously in a 2009 volume titled This Is Water): "This wise old whiskery fish swims up to three young fish and goes, 'Morning, boys, how's the water' and swims away; and the three young fish watch him swim away and look at each other and go, 'What the fuck is water?'" (445). The immediate point of the joke, as Wallace explains in his speech, "is merely that the most obvious, ubiquitous, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about" (Water 8), and to repeat the mantra of "this is water" is to remind oneself to be "conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience" (54). And in turn, to choose to pay attention, for Wallace, to be aware of one's surroundings and conscious of one's place in the world, is to make possible an experience of life that is "not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that lit the stars--compassion, love, the subsurface unity of all things" (93).

That Wallace chose to emphasize in this speech the "unity of all things" is, I think, a telling detail. For although he contended elsewhere that writing is "about what it is to be a fucking human being" (McCaffery 131), his criticism and his fiction grapple extensively with developments in technology, media, and science that collectively give the lie to what N. Katherine Hayles has described as the "comfortable liberal assumptions about the sovereignty of the human subject" (Giles 329). As Paul Giles has pointed out, Wallace's conception of what it is to be human is therefore intimately tied up with an awareness of a world of uncertain epistemological status--of cyborgs and machines, of the "categorical distinctions between human and nonhuman ... becoming ever less self-evident" (328). And although Wallace's persistent search for human truth marks him in Giles's eyes as a kind of "sentimental posthumanist ... for whom the legacies of human spirit still carry a cathectic charge" (341), Wallace's work returns regularly to certain values: those of paying attention (to ourselves, to each other, to our surroundings), of exteriority in the face of an urge to retreat into solipsism, of shattering illusions of autonomy, of a desire to bridge the gap between self and other, of an understanding that (as Hayles suggests) "everything is connected with everything else" (693), of a conception of the self as what Elizabeth Freudenthal calls a "dynamic object ... in relationship to other people and objects" (204).

Nowhere are these values more evident than in the 1,079-page Infinite Jest, a novel intensely preoccupied with objects--drugs, technologies, maps, tennis rackets and balls, giant monsters formed from the remains of aborted fetuses, mysteriously moving beds, video cartridges of a film so entertaining that it is lethal to its viewers, and even (metatextually) the book itself--and how humans simultaneously shape and are shaped by those objects, making sense of themselves, each other, and their world through those objects. The centrality of objects to the networks of activity in Infinite Jest, as we will see, in fact, may even point to "objects" here being the wrong word--for these objects, in their circulation, their multifaceted connections, and their apparent agency, take on what we might characterize as a kind of "thingness" (in its various critical conceptions) that we will address momentarily. …

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