Democracy, David Foster Wallace, and Me

Below is the (modified) text of the paper I just gave at the Political Geography Pre-Conference before the annual meeting of the Association of American Geographers.  It is drawn from my recent book (out any day now (sigh, Wiley is dropping the ball)).  It  is the first time I have talked publicly about Wallace in my work.


Democracy and the Literary Machine, or, David Foster Wallace and Me


In the last couple of years I have been writing about democracy. What I was doing, in retrospect, was trying to engage with a range of different writers-and-thinkers and to draw out the democratic flows in their work, and then to stream those flows together into my “own,” augmented, democratic flow.

I thought that the writers I should be engaging with, the writers that were appropriate to such a project, were political theorists: people like Lefebvre, Deleuze & Guattari, Hardt & Negri, Rancière, Laclau & Mouffe….I didn’t imagine that literary of fiction writers should be a part of group of writers-and-thinkers I was engaging with.

But I was reading David Foster Wallace as I was writing, and he insisted on being included.

And so I was forced to begin thinking about how literature and fiction can play a role in political thought.

Deleuze and Guattari argue that:

reading a text is never a scholarly exercise in search of what is signified, still less a highly textual exercise in search of a signifier. Rather it is a productive use of the literary machine, a montage of desiring-machines, a schizoid exercise that extracts from the text its revolutionary force (Anti-Oedipus, p. 106).

I began to think, increasingly, that the “literary machine” is just anything that has been written and is being read. As I was reading and writing, it became clear that it was all making its way into my thinking: political theory, literature…and blogs, and journalism in magazines you’ve never heard of, and Twitter, and Facebook…I was discovering this revolutionary force in all of them.

One thing D&G don’t have quite right, though: it is not so much that you have to extract that force from the text, or at least it wasn’t for me, and especially with Wallace. It is more that this force presents itself to you. The desiring-machines in these texts “continue to make a hellish racket.” They insist. They stream their flows into your flow without you planning for it to happen. It is accidental, aleatory, emergent, what Badiou calls an event.

So this isn’t so much a rigorous exploration of method for the use of literature in political theory. It is more a story about how I actually did it. But maybe in presenting an account of how I actually used literature, I am making an argument for a particular way to approach it. Maybe my experience could be an example for others to follow. I guess that will depend on what you think of it.

So let me tell you about David and me.


As I said, I was writing about democracy. I understand democracy to mean this: a life in which we manage our affairs for ourselves, together. Directly manage our affairs, not manage them indirectly through intermediaries like the liberal-democratic state or unions or parties or banks. These entities are oligarchies, not democracies.  They are systems in which a few are set aside to rule the rest.  Democracy means something more, it means what Spinoza called “absolute democracy,” where everyone rules everyone, or, as I said, everyone manages their collective affairs together.

That idea may seem a bit too radical. Everyone managing everything together. Exhausting.  That’s why I came to believe that we need to think of democracy with Lefebvre (in State, Space, World especially). We should think of it not as an end state we expect to reach, not as a stable society called democracy.  Instead we should think of it as a movement toward a horizon, as a perpetual struggle, as a lifelong project of becoming-democratic.

So…a lifelong struggle. OK. But this conception of immediately raised the question of activity, of activation, of a necessary co-project to become active, awake, alive. And so the question of how we can do this, of how can we become active, came to pose itself as a central question for my way of thinking about democracy.

I needed help, and Lefebvre offered little.  His analysis of people becoming active leaves much to be desired.

Deleuze and Guattari (in Anti-Oedipus) were of some use here because they offer a negative insight: they say that we have within ourselves the desire to be inactive, to be ruled, to become oligarchic, the desire to let somebody else do it, the desire to be passive rather than active…this is what Foucault, in the introduction to Anti-Oedipus, calls “the fascism in us all.”

Rancière was useful too, because he makes an opposite point: he insists that when we encounter people who appear passive, we should learn to see the activity that is actually there. He talks in particular about spectators, about those watching the spectacle. He says they are not merely passive recipients of stimuli, rather they are people who are actively processing what they are seeing, and they are engaging with each other to make sense of it.

And so I learned that in thinking about becoming active, we should be attentive to both these insights: we want to be ruled and we want to actively rule ourselves.

Wallace, at last

Someone who combines both these insights relentlessly across both his fiction and non-fiction is David Foster Wallace. His work, and in particular Infinite Jest, is obsessed with the question of how we can become active and manage our own affairs for ourselves.  In the book he explores this question in the context of two different scenarios: “the entertainment” and drug addiction. “The entertainment” is a film that is so stimulating to the pleasure centers of the brain that people are literally unable to turn their eyes away. They die of starvation or dehydration, or if they are cared for they live in a catatonic state. Drug addiction is more mundane, but no less a struggle for survival. In both cases, failure to become active and take control of one’s own affairs will result in death.

[here I read a passage from The Down-Deep Delight of Democracy]

One of the heroes of the book, Don Gately, is addicted to painkillers. In a pivotal scene, he has been badly injured and is lying in a hospital bed in excruciating pain. But he can’t take any sort of narcotic. He has no choice but to lie there and “abide,” to be in pain. The struggle goes on and on in the book, for pages. Wallace describes Gately’s every thought, and he specifies Gately’s pain in great detail. The reader gets to the point of hoping Gately will give in and take the painkillers. We can’t see why he would put himself through so much suffering, why he struggles so heroically against the substance.

The answer becomes clear in the last scene of the book. In his hospital bed Gately relives in his memory what we presume to be his precipitating event, the experience that got him to seek help. It is the most gruesome of scenes, reminiscent of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet. Gately is getting high with a friend, Fax, in an empty apartment. Fax has stolen hundreds of thousands of dollars from a drug dealer and used it to buy a massive amount of drugs, intending to start his own distribution scheme in another city. But the drug dealer finds out about the theft, and the scheme falls apart. Instead of fleeing, Fax gives in; he goes to the apartment he and Gately are squatting and begins to shoot up. Gately discovers him slumped in a corner of the living room, where he has been for days., Gately joins him in getting high, telling himself he is only keeping his friend company. They stay that way for days, still there in the “little corner, belts around their arms, arms and noses red from scratching, still at it, the ingestion, on a hell of a tear, cooking up and getting off and eating M&M’s when they could find their mouths with their hands, moving like men deep underwater, heads wobbling on strengthless necks, the empty room’s ceiling sky-blue and bulging…” (1996, pp. 934-935).

Gately and Fax continue on, not moving, getting high, hardly able to speak, with the TV on in the background, always on. They begin to wet their pants and just sit there watching the puddles of urine spread, occasionally rolling an M&M in the puddle to watch the dye corrode. At some point Gately tries to stand, but he crashes back down to the floor. Eventually, associates of the drug dealer Fax stole from arrive at the apartment. They are a whole entourage. They don’t merely kill Fax for his betrayal. They begin to have a party, drinking bourbon, everybody with their own personal bottle of Jack Daniels. They force Gately and Fax to drink with them, to join their party. Gately and Fax are so high that they have to be helped to find their mouths with the bottle. At one point the leader of the crew whispers in Gately’s ear that he knows Gately was not involved in the theft. They aren’t going to kill Gately, he says, and so all he needs to do is kick back and watch, to enjoy the party and let Fax face his own music. The leader puts on a CD of Paul McCartney’s band Wings from which all the tracks have been removed except Linda McCartney singing backup and playing tambourine. Everybody else starts shooting up. So that Fax can feel pain, they inject him with a drug to counteract the effect of the pain-killers he has been taking. Then they sew his eyelids open with needle and thread and begin dropping liquid acid into his eyes. While this is happening, they inject Gately with a pharmaceutical-grade painkiller to render him helpless. As Gately slides into unconsciousness, he watches Fax’s face disfigure, his friend’s screams mixed with those of Linda McCartney.

This horrific scene is the very last scene in the book. Wallace has taken us through almost a thousand pages, and we have worked long and hard to come with him. And he rewards us with this. It seems cruel. But even though it is the last thing we read, this isn’t the last thing that happens to the characters. It is a scene from Gately’s memory, something that is helping him to ward off the Substance, to remind himself why he is fighting so hard to remain sober, why he is subjecting himself to so much pain in the hospital. This last scene is therefore incredibly heroic. Gately is struggling courageously to continually renew his determination to stay clean, to not give in to the Substance, to govern himself. Wallace makes clear that Gately must find that courage primarily within himself. He cannot struggle by giving himself up to Alcoholics Anonymous, or to God. To be sure, Gately does draw on the support of others, on his AA sponsors, on Joelle, his developing love interest. But the source of Gately’s strength is not located outside of him, in an entity to which he submits. At the same time of course, his desire for the substance, the source of his addiction, is also within him. His desire to stay alive and to govern himself struggles with his desire to submit, to concede, to be governed.




I think Don Gately teaches us what is involved in the struggle to become active. What it would take. And he teaches us this in our bones, way down deep, in a way we fully feel.

We learn from him that the struggle is vitally important. It is literally life or death.

And we learn from him that the struggle is unimaginably hard.

But we also learn from him, I think, that we are unimaginably strong. That we have an enormous reservoir of potential to become active that we may be only dimly aware of. Gately is a product of Wallace’s imagination, but he is nonetheless an actual presence in the world, a character in our lives, an example we can try to follow as we fight to become active, and as we struggle for democracy.


3 thoughts on “Democracy, David Foster Wallace, and Me

  1. Pingback: Mark Purcell: “Democracy, David Foster Wallace, and Me” | Nicholas Jon Crane

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