Snorkeling with David Foster Wallace

David Foster Wallace  spent much of his life trying to pinpoint the purpose of fiction, the role of the writer, and the sometimes tumultuous dynamic between self and artist, three searches that proved so vital to his existence yet so futile that he, also utterly debilitated by profound depression, ultimately hanged himself on his back patio at the age of forty-six. To a certain extent, I can empathize with his dilemma. As a graduate student pursuing a career as a technical writer, I am often asked, “What’s a technical writer?” And as embarrassing as it may seem, I find myself fumbling responses. What exactly is a technical writer anyway? Still, in my defense, I am not alone: few, if any, seem to have a handle on this.

In my particular search for meaning, I–unlike Wallace, who would have relished the opportunity to wrap his Harvard-by-way-of-Amherst tongue around Wittgenstein and company–will refrain from delving into philosophy and theory. And in a conscious effort to spare myself linguistic vertigo, I shall also avoid the kinds of semantic somersaults set in motion by others who have offered such circuitous, tail-firmly-in-teeth definitions as “writing about technology” or “writing technically.” The most effectively practical definition, I find, might be “writing to accommodate technology to the user,” which happens to be an angle Wallace would have appreciated. After all, in a way, he envisioned his fiction doing just that. (Not to mention the warm embrace he would have had for the term user, as he perceived every member of his audience as an addict of some sort.)

In fact, I argue that Infinite Jest,   Wallace’s magnum opus, may be viewed as one of the earliest technological documents, a digital dinosaur or trilobyte, if you will. Rather than the internet, the primary source of entertainment and information for Wallace’s era was the television, his “snorkel to the universe.” The novel essentially centers around the struggle to find meaning in oneself in (and in relation to) a world saturated by media and literally inundated by information, a site where ideologies are imprinted via waves (complete with rabbit ears). In this sense, Wallace’s prescient work becomes increasingly relevant, for we are comparatively even more saturated (perhaps overly so) by media and information today. And by looking at Infinite Jest (or iJest, if I may coin a phrase) as a piece of technical writing, we can glean some semblance of a definition for the nebulous field, or at least a template of sorts for style, structure, and purpose.

Stylistically speaking, most experts agree that technical writing should be concise. Well, weighing in at a formidable 1,079 pages and wielding encyclopedic-savant range, iJest does little in that regard to advance my argument. Another stylistic element common to the TechComm consensus, however, is explicitness (“to convey one meaning and only one meaning”), and Wallace readily falls in line here. At least in theory, for iJest, Wallace set out with “single-entendre” principles in mind, positing that such an unambiguous approach is imperative if one wishes to “effect any kind of emotional communication with people.” Having recently fallen out of love with postmodernism, namely Pynchon’s satire and Barth’s metafiction, Wallace believed he owed his readers unequivocal truths, and in his mind, he definitively delivered.

One of Wallace’s structural trademarks happened to be punctuating his works with copious endnotes. iJest, for example, boasts almost a hundred pages solely devoted to them. While it may be accurate that the agenda here was to avoid his editor’s recommended (user-friendly) cuts, a clever technique allowing this information hoarder to zip his many asides into a much smaller font tucked neatly away at the less conspicuous end of the tome, these endnotes, in a sense, engender a nearly digital appeal. Are they not, by their nature, simple forerunners for hyperlinks? For more information on this topic, click here. And sprinkled throughout, furthermore, are images, even complex mathematical formulae and graphs. Does this not constitute multimedia? Cyberjunkies might assert this is the equivalent of playing Pong, but I don’t think it’s too great a stretch to envision Wallace, short a youtube clip and/or a Facebook like, running literary BlackOps Live back in the mid-90s, oversized (of course) headphones huddled around his token white bandana. In short, he was well ahead of his time. He may as well have arrived at readings in a tricked-out DeLorean.

And finally, the intended purpose of iJest brings us back to the most functionally acceptable definition of technical communication: “writing to accommodate technology to the user.” Wallace, having himself overdosed on television, knew all too well the reader/user’s addiction to media and information, but more importantly, he felt he could convey (through iJest)  the ramifications of this particular societal dependency. This is what to make of your addiction, dear user. A lifetime fan of the whole recovery process–indeed, he seemed to walk through life twelve steps at a time–he deemed it his duty to play sponsor and thereby raise awareness, to facilitate a degree of reconciliation with our dependency on technology, and to have us hold ourselves accountable for our addiction. For the most part, he did that. The problem is, he failed to provide a cure, any tablet or gelcap of redemption. His Help page ultimately turned up blank. But perhaps that was due to his inability to find any relief for himself.

Hi, my name is Cody, and I have an iPhone. 

–Cody Roy

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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1 Response to “Snorkeling with David Foster Wallace”


  1. 1 Ali Connor October 19, 2012 at 5:56 pm

    Very insightful spin on iJest (love that, btw). Huge DFW fan here and completely agree with your idea that Infinite Jest was ahead of its time.
    We ARE all users of some sort, aren’t we?


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