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Home News by Category Conferences Some Afterthoughts on the Antwerp Wallace Conference

Some Afterthoughts on the Antwerp Wallace Conference

Updated below.
I asked Toon Staes if he'd like to write something for The Howling Fantods about the David Foster Wallace conference he organised that was just recently held in Antwerp, Work in Process: Reading David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King. He agreed, and wrote way more than I expected. Thanks, Toon!
Update 11/10/11: Conference photos are up. 
The following is best read along with the conference programme and abstracts for context.
Over to Toon...


Some afterthoughts on “Work in Process: Reading David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King.”

Organizer here. I am aware that I might not be the most reliable narrator when it comes to writing a summary of the recent conference on The Pale King, but the Howling Fantods! has been so instrumental in spreading the word on our two-day event—and I think this is something that just about every speaker will acknowledge—that when Nick contacted me for a reaction I felt that the least I owed him was a synopsis. So here goes.

The academic year in Belgium doesn’t start until the final week of September—meaning this week, only three days after the conference—so you can imagine the chaos and noise caused by the hundreds of partying students and disoriented newcomers on campus right now. Yet the distinct feeling I had when entering our university building on Monday, through the sliding doors that before the weekend led to the conference venue, was one of surprise at how quiet these hallways could get. Maybe that’s because of the vibrant Wallace-related discussions that carried on during the lunch and coffee breaks on Thursday and Friday, or maybe it’s just the hectic spell that comes with organizing a conference, but I can’t seem to shake the feeling of anxiety and all-around enthusiasm that I now associate with this place. It’s been a great conference, and I really don’t think we could have hoped for two better days than the ones we’ve had: fourteen excellent speakers, including two great keynotes, a warm and friendly atmosphere, and some very lively Q&A’s to boot.

[Continued after the break

And this, of course, is where the bias comes in: I can’t think of a single paper that didn’t add to my hunger for studying Wallace. One of the papers that I personally anticipated the most, for instance, was Adam Kelly’s comparison between various dialogue scenes in Wallace’s novels. Adam suggested that while the conversations in Broom are mostly monologic, Infinite Jest and The Pale King are steeped in the discourse of political philosophy—a discourse in which the characters’ psychological profiles are less important than the ideas developed between them. Since The Pale King is set in the 1980s, Adam convincingly argued that one concern of Wallace’s unfinished novel is the historical character of recent American political discourse. Adam’s focus on the dialogues in all three novels set the stage for Jan Hammerquist’s analysis of voice in Wallace’s writings, which he linked to the “Author here” sections in The Pale King. Jan’s impressive familiarity with the complete Wallace oeuvre led him to a series of wide-ranging quotes that juxtaposed the informal “Dave” of The Pale King with the distinct authorial voice in Wallace’s nonfiction—and to the many authorial intrusions throughout Wallace’s fiction. These voices show similarities with Wallace’s own words in the edited interview book by David Lipsky, which remind us of the fact that Wallace continually sought to establish a level of intimacy between the text and the reader.

Before giving his presentation, Ryan Blanck, a high-school teacher from California who started reading Wallace a few years ago, repeatedly said he felt overwhelmed by the prospect of talking at an academic conference. Everyone can get nervous on stage, but Ryan looked particularly calm, and the relaxed pace of his presentation fit quite well with its topics of concentration, meaningfulness and freedom in Wallace’s writings—from “Forever Overhead” to “This is Water,” from “Big Red Son” to The Pale King. While Ryan took on a wide variety of stories and essays, Charles Nixon extended his ethical approach by considering The Pale King alongside Levinas and late Derrida. Especially the link between the “phenomenological writing” apparent in section 6—in which events are not externally described as much as reflected through Lane Dean’s internal experience—and Levinas’ conception of the relation between I and the other made this a very impressive paper. But Charles also made great use of the material he found in the Harry Ransom Center archives, and the connections he made between The Pale King and “Mister Squishy” and Wallace’s own hostile response to Leon Stecyk—who seems to figure most prominently in the archive material—put The Pale King in a completely new perspective.

Both Mark Peter West and Clare Hayes-Brady had very different and wholly original approaches to the novel. Mark focused on the representation of time in  The Pale King by zooming in on Wallace’s use of the word “abide” in the Gately sections of Infinite Jest. While Gately abided virtuously by dividing each moment into separate endurable moments, in the IRS setting of The Pale King we find the ideals of concentration and civil commitment stretched to breaking point. Clare compared the novel’s title to Keats’s poem “La Belle Dame Sans Merci”, which not only led to insightful readings of the sections on Claude Sylvanshine and the conversation between Meredith Rand and Shane Drinion, it also gave rise to an interesting discussion on Wallace’s books as novels of ideas or novels of characters. This discussion continued in the first panel on the second day of the conference, in which Brittany Lang and Allard den Dulk both analyzed the philosophical impetus of The Pale King. Brittany drew on Bakhtin to suggest that the dialogic imperative of the novel goes beyond the relations between the different characters, it also accounts for the effort the reader has to make when confronted with the text. Allard, who works for the University of Amsterdam’s philosophy department, mainly referred to Kierkegaard’s critique of the aesthetical view on life to show how The Pale King counteracts what Allard referred to as “the postmodern celebration of the fragmented, selfless entity.”

The relation between Wallace and postmodernism has always been a difficult topic, not in the least because Wallace’s literary essays have partly determined the critical reception of his own work, and Tore Rye Andersen did a truly convincing job debunking some of the myths surrounding this discussion. While Tore’s suggestion that “E Unibus Pluram” could be a more influential document than Infinite Jest might be somewhat controversial, the continuities he established between The Pale King, Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 and Vineland, and Nabokov’s Lolita are most certainly there. This was not to suggest that Wallace fell victim to meaningless postmodern irony himself, but rather that Wallace’s “real enemies”—and the list can probably be expanded to Robert Coover and early Barth—are less zany, self-reflexive and solipsistic than Wallace made them out to be. Emily J. Hogg’s presentation, however, did lay bare one crucial difference: Wallace’s novels are not overtly political, but many of his writings zoom in on our own subjective experience of the vast political machine. Referring to numerous other texts in the process, Emily focused on the representation of the IRS and its compliance branch in The Pale King to exemplify how politics affect the individual. Doing so, she has placed a valuable aside to Wallace’s own claim that his work is not politically inspired.

In the conference’s final panel, Conley Wouters and Matthew Balliro considered the overabundance of information in Wallace’s novel—both in terms of form and content. Conley compared the encyclopedic scope of Infinite Jest to the general plot of The Pale King. In his reading of the sections involving Claude Sylvanshine and the Spackman initiative, Conley interestingly linked the historical evolution of data storage outlined in Wallace’s novel to N. Katherine Hayles’ theory of posthumanism. Doing so, he asked the question if information technology excludes the possibility of empathetic human connection. Matthew picked up this question in his paper by referring to Mark Poster’s The Mode of Information, in which Poster argued that electronic communication has changed what it means to be an individual. Looking back on The Pale King, Matthew argued that the novel’s many riffs on IRS procedures and administrative snafu’s reflect on the individual as a digitized subject, an entity composed of a string of numbers. Of course it was not a coincidence that both papers were grouped together, but the way they explored the theme of information in Wallace’s fiction made this a really interesting panel for readers of encyclopedic fiction.

Fourteen speakers on two days left plenty of time for discussions, and these were lively to say the least. This became especially apparent during the conference’s two keynotes. Of course we might expect excellent papers from Stephen J. Burn and Marshall Boswell, two well-established scholars—especially in the field of Wallace studies. The quality of their presentations, however, surpassed their reputations. Stephen opened the conference with a bird’s-eye view of the novel, investigating Wallace’s skills as a narrative architect alongside Michael Pietsch’s remarkable feat of assembling The Pale King. From thereon he closed in on the novel’s opening chapter, which set the stage for his discussion of a number of patterns that emerge throughout the novel. By mapping some of these patterns, Stephen first elucidated the novel’s genealogy in order to understand Wallace’s larger conception of the book, and then suggested that one of the unifying principles in The Pale King is Wallace’s career-long fascination with the workings of the mind. Marshall Boswell took a wholly different, yet equally impressive approach. Starting from a discussion of Reaganomics and the political/financial climate at the time in which The Pale King is set, Marshall zoomed in on the close ties between the novel and a number of hot topics in contemporary debates on citizenship, taxes, and supply-side economics—including the Republican caucus, recent claims by Michelle Bachman and Rick Perry, and President Obama’s proposal of the Buffett tax. One interesting discovery lied in the similarities between the fictional Spackman initiative, and the historical Laffer curve—both meant to increase tax revenues without raising taxation. The link with The Pale King is apparent in the confusing 23rd footnote of section 9 of the novel, in which the narrator Dave Wallace writes that the “conservative” officials who saw tax and its administration as an arena of social justice are actually “classically liberal.” As one oft-quoted phrase during the conference went: there are all sorts of conservatives, depending on what it is they want to conserve.

Of course these quick summaries don’t do justice to the incredible amount of brilliant work that went into the papers presented at Work in Process, and so I would like to thank once more all those who were present for making this such an inspiring event. This conference was not only a great opportunity to discuss something that is still fresh, with a bunch of likeminded colleagues, while the field is still open. We also have to acknowledge that The Pale King in fact still is a work in process: it’s not exactly raw material, but it’s not a finished product either. The Pale King was a work in process in quite a literal sense for Michael Pietsch, who did a fantastic job in editing this remarkable novel. But it’s also a work in process for us as readers of The Pale King, who try to fashion an integrated storyworld out of the many different and often incomplete plotlines in this book, and for us as David Foster Wallace scholars, who still have to fathom how The Pale King fits in the Wallace bibliography—let alone start with a critical analysis of the novel. I would argue that in these two days we had the opportunity to form some kind of blueprint, at least for ourselves, of what this critical analysis might eventually look like.

Last Updated on Wednesday, 12 October 2011 02:03  

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