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Random Factoids 2: Turdnagels, Ghosts and Autism

RANDOM FACTOIDS /2: Turdnagels, Ghosts and Autism - Paris 2014

-Ariane Mak

Here’s a (way too) small selection of some interesting or funny things which were said during the Paris conference, during presentations or in their margins.

Ghostwriters in the machine

David Hering explored motifs of possession and the “narrating ghost” from The Broom of the System to Oblivion. He showed that these leitmotivs were associated with a concern over the authenticity of the speaking voice and anxieties of influence, symbolised by possession and counter-possession. 

The theme of “ownership” is central to The Broom of the System and becomes a leitmotiv of ontological anxiety in “Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way” [GWCH]. And while Infinite Jest is the novel where the motif first appears in earnest with Jim’s wraith, an initial draft of the text also included the first occurrence of the author’s metapresence. Indeed, in the conversationalist scene, which was among the first written by Wallace, “Hal” was initially named “David”. “The Soul is Not A Smithy” [Oblivion: Stories] then presented a “dramatizing of linguistic possession” before multiple sites of possession appeared in “Good Old Neon” [Oblivion: Stories] (which weaves motifs of ghost, ghostwriter and metapresence).    

David Hering’s analysis of The Pale King was particularly stimulating. His study of the archives at the Harry Ransom Center revealed the importance of the phantom motif in the initial narrative structure for The Pale King. He examined one of the first versions of the novel demonstrating that it was to be narrated by a ghost. In this initial draft, IRS agent Shane Drinion is also a porn actor nicknamed “Sir John Feelgood” whose face is systematically digitally replaced by that of any viewer. David Hering suggested that this draft might have become “Good Old Neon” [Oblivion: Stories] and showed that at one point the novel was supposed to be narrated by both a ghost and a ghostwriter, “before these elements evolved into the more familiar metafictional structure that is present in the published text.”

What is a Turdnagel?

Listening to Lee Konstantinou’s paper we discovered (at last!) what a Turdnagel was and, more importantly, why this was actually a key question.

“Turdnagel” was the name of one of Wallace’s dogs, one of his email handles too.
But, above all, we know “turdnagels” as a special class of IRS employees in The Pale King. They basically extract and put data in computer systems and, as Lee Konstantinou stressed, are known for being very tight-knit and exclusives:

“I had come to a paragraph in the book [How to make people like you: An Instant Recipe for Career Success] that explicitly recommended loud laughter at someone in a group’s joke as being more or less an automatic way to signal or invite inclusion in that group […]. The turdnagels, though, never turned their heads or even acknowledged my laughter, which was definitely loud enough to be audible even against the background noise.” The Pale King.

Where does the term come from? Lee Konstantinou traced the first occurrence to Don DeLillo who uses it in Players as an obscure piece of slang. 

But drawing on The Pale King notebooks at the Harry Ransom Center, Lee’s presentation showed that Wallace actually connected the expression with American philosopher Thomas Nagel.

His work is concerned with “the human capacity to view the world in a detached way, and argues that analytic philosophy has become too prone to objectification”. In his famous 1974 essay “What is it like to be a bat?” Nagel examines “the subjective character of experience”. To put it very simply, we can’t really imagine “what it is like to be a bat” because we are rooted in our own perspective and our own perception. 

Thomas Nagel

The presentation showed that Nagel’s philosophical work resonated deeply with some of the central themes in the “John Feelgood drafts” of The Pale King mentioned earlier: abstracting yourself from your own desire, the irreducibility of subjectivity, the risk of solipsism and transformation of person into persona. What is a turdnagel then? What we become when we ignore subjectivity and are in perpetual war with our ghost.

By tracing Nagel’s influence on DFW's work, the presentation challenged the paradigm according to which Wallace’s interest in philosophy had mostly been an early preoccupation, dating from the time he was an undergraduate at Amherst College, and progressively superseded by his commitment to humanistic concerns. Lee Konstantinou demonstrated that DFW was still vigorously engaging with philosophy when he wrote The Pale King, although maybe in a subtler way than in The Broom of the System (which, according to Wallace himself, wore its philosophical references on its sleeve).

Autism and Posthuman Empathy

Ralph Clare picked up on the numerous Wallacian characters who could be situated at one point or another on the autism spectrum.

The autistic Lunt of “Little Expressionless Animals” [also GWCH], the seemingly cold doctor Kate Gompert meets in Infinite Jest and Mario come to mind.

Some characters point specifically towards Asperger syndrome: J.O.I.; Hal and his ability to consume tons of data, even if it is DMZ-induced [But is it? - Nick}; Sylvanshine, the “fact psychic” who can’t control the flow of data that surges onto his mind. [And one might add Avril Incandenza as obsessive behaviours have long been considered traits of autism.]

Even Wallace himself seems to have displayed some traits of Asperger syndrome. He apparently joked about it, saying that he was “semi-autistic”.

Ralph Clare connected this with Wallace’s posthuman paradigm which he defined in these terms: “Paul Giles has argued that David Foster Wallace is a “sentimental posthumanist” whose work admits to the fact that media, technology, and global networks have irreversibly fractured and complicated one-time notions of human identity, while nonetheless still exploring human affectivity, emotion, and longing as they persist within such techno-environments.”

These characters’ relation to data as well as their difficulties with human connection address the posthuman paradigm. But some of The Pale King characters seem to point towards a novel conception of the posthuman for Wallace, one that suggests a more radical mode of empathetic behaviour. Mario is deeply empathetic; Fogle possesses a secret sequence of numbers which gives him the power of total concentration; Drinion is depicted as a great listener despite his computer-like way of thinking.
All these suggest a new understanding of the autistic traits as potential qualities to better negotiate “what it is to be a fucking human being”. 

Still more "random factoids" to come!

-Ariane Mak


Cover Suggestions for Critical Insights: David Foster Wallace

Philip Coleman is editing a new volume of essays about David Foster Wallace for the Critical Insights series and he's after cover ideas. See below for information about the contents and the great field of writers lined up for this collection (cross-posted from Wallace-l with Philip's permission). If you can help out email him at philipcoleman[at], over to Philip:

Hi everyone,

I'm editing a new volume of essays on DFW for the Critical Insights series published by Salem Press/Grayhouse Publishing. The book will be out next Spring, and I'm happy to share the final table of contents here (see below). I'll provide more details, with titles of essays, in a few weeks.

For now, though, I was wondering if I could get the help of the Wallace-l community in choosing a cover image for the book. Ideally I'd like a previously unpublished photograph (high res) of Wallace, which could be used without cost, but other suggestions will also be considered. Time is tight, but if anyone has any suggestions, including personal art/photography, feel free to send them to me directly at philipcoleman[at]



Critical Insights: David Foster Wallace
Table of Contents
About this volume (up to 2,000 words)  Philip Coleman

Career, Life, and Influence
On David Foster Wallace (5,000 words)  Philip Coleman
Biography of David Foster Wallace (2,000 words)  Philip Coleman

Critical Contexts
Critical Reception  Adam Kelly
Cultural and Historical Context  Kiki Benzon
Critical Lens  Clare Hayes-Brady
Compare/Contrast  Mark Sheridan

Critical Readings
1.    Aisling O’Gara on The Broom of the System
2.    Steven Gronert Ellerhoff on Girl With Curious Hair
3.    David Hering on Infinite Jest
4.    Alex Resar on Infinite Jest
5.    David Coughlan on Brief Interviews with Hideous Men
6.    Charles Nixon on Oblivion
7.    Ron Callan on A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again
8.    Ira Nadel on later non-fiction
9.    Tim Groenland on The Pale King
10.   Jorge Araya on The Pale King and race
11.   Áine Mahon on DFW and philosophy
12.   Aengus Woods on Everything & More and infinity

Chronology of David Foster Wallace’s Life  Philip Coleman
Works by David Foster Wallace  Philip Coleman
Bibliography  Adam Kelly

Last Updated on Monday, 22 September 2014 22:16

Random Factoids 1 - Zen Buddhism and Pynchon

RANDOM FACTOIDS /1 : Zen Buddhism and Pynchon

Roger Federer, 12 Sept. 2014, Geneva. REUTERS/Denis Balihouse.

-Ariane Mak

Here’s a (way too) small selection of some interesting or funny things which were said during the Paris conference, during presentations or in their margins.

Zen Buddhism and Tennis

Strangely enough, we learned from Christopher Kocela that Zen Buddhism was one of Wallace’s favourite comparisons when talking about sports.

In “Derivative Sport in Tornado Alley”, Wallace mentions “my Zen-like acceptance of things as they were on court”.  In “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again”, he says that “3P Winston and I have both reached that level of almost Zen-like Ping-Pong mastery where the game kind of plays us”. And what about Coach Schtitt’s advice to see the net and the opponent as “allies in the quest for self transcendence”?

We knew already from reading D.T. Max’s biography that DFW had abruptly left his two-week meditation retreat with Zen Master Thich Nhat Hahn in Plum village, France, supposedly because he was unsatisfied with the food (!).

But Christopher Kocela’s paper brought new light on the relationship between meditation and Wallace’s writing practice. By showing the importance of Buddhist themes on Wallace’s earliest journalism and on IJ, he also challenged the idea that Wallace’s fiction had shifted from a focus on the critique of irony (“E Unibus Pluram”) to a focus on commitment and belief (This is Water).

“The – the – the “P” guy comes into mind”

“I bristle sometimes at getting compared to […] these classic postmodern guys. The - the – the “P” guy comes into mind. I won’t even say his name”, said Wallace in 1997.

How indeed did Thomas Pynchon become the recurring postmodern model to which Wallace was almost systematically compared? According to numerous reviewers, The Broom of the System held many resemblances to The Crying of Lot 49 and Infinite Jest was hailed as a second Gravity’s Rainbow.    

Tore Andersen provided a fascinating answer to this question.
He showed that these Pynchon-comparisons were born from Wallace’s publishers’ presentations of his books to readers and marketing strategies. In other words, they are to be traced to the paratexts (Genette)- blurbs, book descriptions, dust jackets- of Wallace’s work.

Many thanks to Tore Andersen for sharing these pictures with us!

One example was particularly telling: the strong similarities between Michiko Kakutani’s review of the Broom of the System, and Viking’s description of the book.

From its opening pages onward through its enigmatic
ending, ''The Broom of the System'' will remind readers
of ''The Crying of Lot 49'' by Thomas Pynchon.

-Michiko Kakutani’s review of The Broom of the System, The New York Times, Dec 1986.

The inventiveness, reach, and fine disdain for 'reality' of this novel will remind many readers of the works of John Irving, Vladmir Nabokov, John Barth, and especially the Thomas Pynchon of The Crying of Lot 49.

-Viking’s dust jacket of The Broom of the System.


Viking’s description of the Broom of the System

In that sense Tore Andersen contended that the paratext had acted as blinkers.
Indeed Wallace wrote to Franzen that he was actually glad everyone focused on Pynchon because it meant that people wouldn’t see how much the book took from DeLillo. To Tore Andersen, the DeLillo comparisons were in fact delayed by Pynchon’s massive presence in the (editorial) paratext of Wallace’s work.

He concluded with a spot on remark on the fact that since Wallace’s death in 2008, Pynchon had been almost completely absent of the paratext (with no more mention of him on the blurbs and book covers of The Pale King, Both Flesh and Not or This is Water).

To me, Tore’s brilliant paper pertains to a new trend in Wallace studies which favours the analysis of paratext but also “avant texte” (drafts and marginalia) to offer a new oblique reading of DFW’s work.

More “random factoids” to come.

-Ariane Mak

Download Tore Andersen's paper here: t_andersen_talk.docx

Download Tore Andersen's slides here: t_andersen_slides.pptx

Last Updated on Monday, 22 September 2014 22:26

DFW and Music: The Grunge Writer and the Hitherto Criminally Overlooked Importance of Signifying Rappers'

Tony McMahon blogged for The Howling Fantods while at the Infinite Wallace conference, but he was also there to present. Here is his slide show and talk from Day 1. Enjoy! (Title edit - I got the old and new titles mixed up. Sorry, Tony)

David Foster Wallace and Music: The Grunge Writer and the Hitherto Criminally Overlooked Importance of Signifying Rappers'

Tony McMahon (RMIT University, Australia)

Abstract: David Foster Wallace is rightly considered one of the twentieth and twenty-first century’s most media-immersed of writers. Yet despite his being the co-author of a book on rap, little academic attention has been paid to the potentially rich scholastic area of Wallace and music. It is my contention that Wallace scholarship would benefit immeasurably from exploring more closely the author’s relationship to this media. I begin this process by interrogating Wallace’s problematic status as a ‘grunge’ writer. Greil Marcus’ Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century provides a matrix for an examination of the relationships between avant-garde movements such as Dada, Situationism, punk and grunge, and how these relate to Wallace’s overall project. I also attempt to reinvigorate one of the author’s lesser known and extraordinarily under-theorised texts, Signifying Rappers, and present it as one of the keys to understanding Wallace’s work, as well as his development as a writer famed for the idiosyncratic use of language. In endeavouring to begin this revitalisation, I continue and develop arguments made by Tara Morrissey and Lucas Thompson in their paper ‘“The Rare White at the Window”: A Reappraisal of Mark Costello and David Foster Wallace’s Signifying Rappers’. Finally, I conclude that this potentially fruitful new area of Wallace Studies will not only provide fresh insights into the author’s work, but also have significant ramifications for the study of literature more widely.

Download Tony McMahon's talk here: t_mcmahon_talk.docx

Download Tony McMahon's slides here: t_mcmahon_slides.pptx

Last Updated on Friday, 19 September 2014 08:36

Antrim and Wallace

John Jeremiah Sullivan's piece in the NYT Magazine, Donald Antrim and the Art of Anxiety, includes a very moving story about Wallace supporting Antrim through hard times of his own. It turns out this is the story Antrim told at the 2008 NYC Wallace Memorial:


They told him they wanted him to undergo electroconvulsive therapy. He could take time to think about it. A nurse led him back into the hallway and down to his room.

The news destroyed him. Not because he didn’t believe them, that it was the best thing for him, nor even because he feared the pro­cedure itself (though naturally it terrified him to face it), but because he believed it would mean the end of him as a writer. That his talent would be scattered. His brains scrambled. The mechanism disassembled. Not to write? A living death. What would it even mean to go about your day?

Also he felt that it was, he said, “a confirmation that I would never leave hospitals.”

He sat down on a chair. “Not 20 minutes later,” he said, “a patient called out, ‘Mr. Antrim,­ there’s a phone call for you.’ ” He shuffled down to the phones near the medication dispensary. He picked up.

“Donald,” a voice said, “this is Dave Wallace. I heard you were in bad shape.”


Continue reading...


For more John Jeremiah Sullivan don't miss Too Much Information - his wonderful essay/review about DFW from GQ in 2011.

[Thanks, Matt, for remembering all the connections]

Last Updated on Friday, 19 September 2014 01:47


Sorry about the extended downtime everyone. The host changed php versions automatically which appears to have caused a conflict with one of the installed modules. PHP version rolled back, module fixed, rolled forward and we're up again.

Last Updated on Sunday, 05 October 2014 17:18

DFW 2015: Call for Papers

It really is a golden time for Wallace scholarship! I've still got some more reports, photos, and presentations to post about last weekend's Infinite Wallace 2014 Conference in Paris to come over the next week or so, but until then... how about a call for papers and presentation of original work for The Second Annual David Foster Wallace Conference? Once again being held at Illinois State University, May 28th and 29th, 2015.

The Keynote speaker is Dr. Stephen J. Burn (David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest, Second Edition: A Reader's Guide, Conversations with David Foster Wallace)

For the last four years, Burn has been working with the David Foster Wallace literary estate to produce an edited volume of Wallace’s letters. This volume is not intended to be a biography in letters, but rather a biography of Wallace’s writing: charting his reflections on his own writing; documenting his reading; mapping his changing intellectual investments; and sharing some of the virtuoso linguistic performances he saved for his letters. In this keynote, Burn will discuss the scope of Wallace’s letters, asking how the letters enhance or complicate our understanding of Wallace’s work, and how they help us understand Wallace’s place amongst contemporary American writers.​​

DFW 2015 ISU Website

DFW 2015 Facebook page

Call for Papers and Presentations of Original Work direct .pdf link

Last Updated on Tuesday, 16 September 2014 13:39

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