A Really Fun Thing I’d Love to Do Again – Day 4

Friday, September 23, 2011

For the second time during this adventure I was jolted awake at too late an hour.  The combination of jetlag, pure exhaustion, and a tiny Benadryl tablet resulted in approximately ten hours of much-needed, very deep sleep.  Some unknown noise in the hallway startled me awake and set my heart to racing.  My heart rate then doubled its already quickened pace when I saw that it was 9:15am.  The morning’s first speaker was set to take to the podium in about fifteen minutes.  I shot off a quick email to Toon to let him know I was running late, took a very quick shower, grabbed a piece of bread from the breakfast buffet on my way out of the hotel lobby, and walked as quickly as I could to the University.

Unfortunately I missed the first presenter entirely[1] and walked into the lecture hall through the back door partway through Allard den Dulk’s presentation.  The themes he touched on – mostly centered around choosing what to pay attention to – were similar to the ones I presented, but he approached them from a more philosophical angle.  Allard’s adding Kierkegaard to the equation gave me a lot more to think about in terms of my own thesis, as well as gave me more food for thought for my Wallace-and-religion ideas.  Adam Kelly and I talked about these ideas during the lunch break.  He said that in pursuing this train of thought, I absolutely need to read Kierkegaard.

After lunch, Emily Hagg spoke on the topic of self-hood and politics, making connections between §19 and the Chris Fogle story.[2]  Emily made an interesting connection between the self and politics in observing that Fogles misses his politics class when he stumbles into the accounting class that would change his life forever.  Equally interesting was her connection between Meredith Rand’s story to Shane Drinion and the civics discussion in §19.  Just as Meredith’s soon-to-be husband’s health deteriorates as she becomes more self-aware and self-absorbed,[3] so does our political health deteriorate as we citizens become more self-absorbed.

This session’s second speaker, Tore Rye Andersen, spoke on Wallace’s writing as a whole, and his essay, “E Unibus Plurum” and TPK in particular, as a response to postmodern literature.  Tore argued that Wallace committed a form of patricide as he broke away from the stylings of his postmodern predecessors to focus on literary sincerity rather than postmoderism’s trademark irony.

The second panel of the afternoon was of particular interest to me as both Conley Wouters and Matt Barillo spoke on the use of information and technology in both Infinite Jest and The Pale King.  Conley made and intriguing point regarding the defining of one’s self in relation to information and technology.  Our humanity, Conley argued, comes in part from our ability to ask questions.  In this sense, Lane Dean, Jr. loses part of his humanity when he loses that ability in his job as an IRS wiggler.

Matt referenced heavily the writings of philosopher Mark Poster who argues that technology is stealing our humanity.  He applied Poster’s arguments to IJ and TPK to show how digital media is removing the self from our sense of identity, and that the more digital the communication and information, the less attention we give it.  Probably the best example of this from TPK is the “split identity” of the “author” David Wallace.  The HR computer system can’t reconcile two employees with the same names, so it merges their identities, causing the mix-up when David Wallace the “author” arrives at the Peoria Processing Center.

I sought out Matt during the break to discuss his ideas further with him with my back-burner Engaging the Media project in mind.  The ideas he presented about the digitized identity were particularly fascinating and would have to be explored further when I get back to rewriting my book.  We talked about how the digital age and rapidly advancing technology are having a huge impact on the current generation of teens and kids who have never known a world without digital media, and therefore define relationships and even their own identities in very different terms from older generations who came to digital media later in life.  The break time seemed all too short as I wanted to continue to pick his brain and learn more about Mark Poster’s ideas, but it was time to go back into the lecture hall for the final keynote address.

Dr. Marshall Boswell, arguably one of the top experts in Wallace studies, took to the podium, promising that despite having everyone take and present his material, he would have something new to contribute to the discussion.  His reading of the text had been a purely historical and political one, arguing that Wallace wrote the book in large part to show us the long-term consequences of the Reagan-era tax cuts and economic policies.  Equally important to this political and economic criticism was Wallace’s criticism of our society’s apathy to our civic responsibility, drawing our attention once again to the discussion of civics in §19.  The apathy and boredom that plague the wigglers in the text also plague us in our attitudes toward politics and civic duty.  Additionally, his paper was peppered with anecdotal examples pointing to the seemingly prophetic nature of Wallace’s final novel.  As he was writing the paper, his news feed was filled with story after story that seemed to jump right off the pages of TPK.  The civics discussion has just as much relevance today as it did in the mid-80s during which the story is set.

Marshall’s presentation concluded an incredible conference.  Being the conference virgin I was going into it, I had nothing to compare it to, but others kept saying that this was by far the best Wallace conference to date.  It was great to see the interconnectedness amongst all our papers and ideas.  And the on-going conversations during the coffee breaks and in the cafes after the conclusion of each day’s proceedings were great.  Everything about the conference proved to be so much more than I could have ever hoped.

I walked out of the lecture hall with ideas for new research and a renewed passion to continue my reading and writing of Wallace.  The conference also left me with a desire to continue in this world of academia.  Since my master’s program was all online, it lacked – and I didn’t realize it until now – the wonderfully stimulating conversation that I had found during these past two days.  There is no substitute for conversation about great literature over coffee or drinks.  Although I don’t think I’ll ever have the chance to go back to school for a Ph.D.,[4] I felt so at home amongst this group of academic scholars.[5]

Shortly after Toon’s closing remarks, several of the participants had to rush off to catch planes and trains to get back home,[6] but the rest of us decided to make our way back over to the old town area to continue our conversations over drinks at one of the cafes.  We enjoyed several hours of wonderful fellowship over a couple rounds of beers.[7]  Particularly memorable was Marshall’s story of his correspondence with Wallace to ask some questions as he wrote his book, Understanding David Foster Wallace.  He received a handwritten letter from Wallace in response to his inquiry with very thoughtful answers to his questions.[8]  He said he never met Wallace in person, but was very grateful for the time and thought that Wallace put into the letter.

The conversation turned to teaching stories as we all recounted run-ins with difficult[9] students.  It seemed that each of us – whether it was my experiences in the high school classroom, or Marshall’s experiences in creative writing classes, or Brittany’s experiences as an RA in the dorm – has had a moment in which we’ve wanted to tell a student, “You are being a f***ing idiot.”[10]

After several hours and several more rounds of drinks, we all decided we were very hungry and that it would be wise to put food into our stomachs before having any more alcohol, so we wandered over to a little Greek restaurant a few blocks away.  We ordered several platters of food to share amongst the group, and then waited… and waited… and waited for it to arrive.  The food was delicious, but 90+ minutes was an awful long time to wait for it.[11]  But we had no problem filling the time with wonderful conversation.  We talked politics and literature, and somehow the conversation always made its way back to Wallace.

After devouring the food set before us and settling the tab, it was time to say good-bye.  It was now nearly 11pm; the others were off to enjoy another round of drinks, but I thought it would be best to get back to my hotel.  Despite my sleeping in that morning, I was still exhausted and jetlagged.  I got directions back to the main street that runs through the middle of town – along with directions on avoiding the Red Light District a few blocks over – and made may way back to my room.

[1] My utmost apologies, Brittany.  I look forward to reading and / or listening to your paper when either the print edition or the audio version become available.

[2] A recurring theme was developing as almost every speaker thus far had relied heavily on these two passages in the analysis of the text presented in their papers.  In fact, Marshall Boswell commented several times throughout the first day and a half that the disadvantage of presenting last was that he was going to end up giving a very short presentation because most of his ideas had already been presented.

[3] This self-absorption is actually a good thing in Meredith’s case in that she begins to care about herself and her own well-being, which brings the emotional healing she needs.

[4] Frankly, it just wouldn’t be practical for me.  There is no way I could sell my soul to a university for four or five years and support my family on the meager grad student / T.A. stipend the university gives you.  I would, however, love to go back for an MFA in creative writing.  I’ve looked into some programs which sound very promising; there’s just the minor detail of about $15,000.

[5] And the burgeoning field of Wallace studies seems to be attracting really cool scholars.  These aren’t the stuffy academic types in tweed jackets smoking antique pipes as they chortle about the social ironies of Victorian literature.  This group – many of them hailing from the most prestigious universities in the world – was very down-to-earth and just fun to hang out with.  My kind of people, as my wife said when I first stumbled upon the Wallace-l community.

[6] At this point I was a bit jealous as these individuals spoke of trips of two, maybe three hours as I looked several days ahead to my nearly twenty-four hours of travel that awaited me.

[7] I kept to only one round, which I nursed over an hour or more.  It was one stinkin’ good beer, I must say.  But once again, the fear of some interaction with my migraine meds prevented me from having any more.

[8] Marshall’s story was the first like this that I have heard from those who corresponded with Wallace.  I remember another story told to me once in which Wallace wrote a thank-you letter in response to a thank-you letter he received for a speaking engagement at a local cultural center.

[9] Stupid is probably a better word for it.  But in case some of those students actually read this blog, I’ll go with difficult.

[10] For the sake of full disclosure, in telling one of my favorite stupid-student stories, I must confess I did repeat the “You’re being a f***ing idiot” line that several others had used before me.  But I was planning on visiting the cathedral in the center of town the next day, so I could offer a pray of repentance then.

[11] Maybe the slow service was the reason we were the only people in the restaurant that night.


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