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DFW @ ACLA 2017

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Jeff Clapp

on 9 July 2017

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Transcript of DFW @ ACLA 2017


The Pale King's Other People
The Official World
"A modern world comes to itself by staging its own conditions [and] consists of both itself and its self-description."
The Pale King:
the 'civic' versus the 'corporate';
the humans versus the computers;
thus "the New IRS"
Memoir in
The Pale King
a "fact psychic"
unconsciously counts words

and who is "called to account"
levitates when concentrating
I need [the legal protection of the book’s disclaimer] in order to inform you that what follows is, in reality, not fiction at all but more like a memoir than any kind of made up story. This might appear to set up an irksome paradox. The book’s legal disclaimer defines everything that follows it as fiction, including this Foreword, but now here in this Foreword I’m saying that the whole thing is really nonfiction; so if you believe one you can’t believe the other, & c., & c. Please know that I find these sorts of cute, self-referential paradoxes irksome, too . . . That’s why I’m making it a point to break protocol and address you here directly, as my real self; that’s why all the specific identifying data about me as a real person got laid out at the start of this Foreward. (67)
see also Melley,
The Covert Sphere
Generous theories of surveillance allow:
-that the system knows everything
-that it knows everything instantly
-and that it knows everything in advance
see: Dillon,
Biopolitics of Security
see: Amoore,
Politics of Possibility
see: Rouvroy on "algorithmic governance"
a critique of television
a critique of surveillance
The Novel as a Source of Knowledge
There is another examiner, one David Foster Wallace. This is obnoxious.

Because Wallace had long been on record as understanding the metafictional impulse in U.S. fiction as a dead-end, a central critical question is why he opened
The Pale King
to this set of strategies.
The character David Wallace has a damaged complexion and is identified--persistently in the manuscripts and obliquely in the published version--with the Young Man Carbuncular of T.S. Eliot's
The Waste Land

The importance of this for a reading of
The Pale King
depends not so much on identifying Eliot's sad clerk with the DFW figure, but by bearing in mind that the point of the clerk's tryst is to display the mournful omniscience of Tiresias.
The work of Eliot in particular comprises the first sustained examination of the moral and intellectual consequences of a surveillant temporality (63).

"The novel . . . is precisely the genre that emerges from the perceived failure of empiricism. If the close observation of other people, or indeed their candid testimony about their lives, actually revealed the truth about them, then the growing 18c reading public might well have remained content with memoirs, reportage, and other key genres of the time."

(Rosen and Santesso 86)
1) Early on Wallace considered that the text might be governed by a "totally omniscienct point of view" on a "tornado of characters.."

2) The drama of discovering our "sources of information" about these people becomes part of the novel's shallow narrative movement.

3) At the same time, the sources of this information are (sometimes rigorously or pedantically) identified.
An Irksome Paradox
Reading 1
a critique of neoliberalism

"What ultimately emerges is a nuanced exploration of truth and an affirmation of fiction as a way to recover the essential human amid a culture devoted increasingly to automation and data."

Boswell 2014
Reading 2
an abject complicity

"If one believes that a more permanent and pervasive improvement of our spirits can come only as the result of a thoroughgoing transformation of the social order, this should mark a limit to one’s sympathy with Wallace’s existentialism of institutions."

McGurl 2014
The Pale King
From Tax Revolt to Intra-Agency drama
The manuscripts of the book are held at the University of Texas at Austin. They show a clear evolution of the book away from a much more generic, and much more satirical, text.

The key move here is arguably to remove the notion of surveillance from the explicit scene.
From Surveillance to Organization
The very first drafts of the book are about IRS "agents" surveilling suspected tax dodgers.

Later drafts replace the focus on "agents" with a focus on "examiners," and the focus on surveillance technology and detection, with the experience of long days at the Tingle Table.
Many manuscripts suggest the development of a plot arc about a large-scale revolt against the IRS.

In these drafts the IRS is figured as a dangerous nemesis. None of this survives editing; the IRS is a workplace.
If it is true that the novel emerged in the context of a failure of empiricism to give access to other minds, that failure is now widely-- even if generously--being understood to be overcome.

Given this anticipated closure of the official world's project of self-description, we can frame Wallace's anxiety about knowledge, and his turn to memoir, as components of a return to the genres from which the novel emerged.

No longer an imaginative supplement to a necessarily partial knowledge, Wallace's "memoir" instead frames itself as a component of the official world's comprehensive description of itself.
Surveillance and Memoir
The Pale King

The Watchman in Pieces
The Long Thing: Not a Novel
Surveillance Studies
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