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"What Am I, a Machine?": Humans, Information, and Matters of Record in David Foster Wallace's The Pale King

From: Studies in the Novel
Volume 44, Numbers 4, Winter 2012
pp. 447-463 | 10.1353/sdn.2012.0040

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A Measure of Disorder

In his book-length study of David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest, Stephen Burn notes that the beginning of the novel "sets up a tension between an excess of information and unexplainable selfhood that is elaborated throughout the rest of the book" (40). Focusing on Hal Incandenza, the more linguistically voracious of the novel's two protagonists, Burn writes, "no matter how expansive your vocabulary, or how careful your description, a list of words is not enough to make a self" (40). For Burn, much of Infinite Jest's circular narrative unwinds so that its characters—particularly Hal, but also, for instance, Kate Gompert, whom Burn points out is at least once referred to as a "data cleric"—have multiple opportunities to locate and try to retain authentic selves in the face of a flood of external input, whether drugs, entertainment, or other easily obsessed-over stimulation.

This article proceeds from Burn's convincing contention that many of Infinite Jest's most commonly discussed themes all derive from the timeless question of Hamlet's opening line: "Who's there?" (40). My reading of The Pale King assumes that the unfinished, posthumous novel builds on thematic concerns established in Infinite Jest. Beyond Hal Incandenza's scarily urgent quest to prove that he "is in here"—that he is more than a body surrounded by heads—Infinite Jest's characters constantly and necessarily struggle to identify the most fundamental signs of their own interior selfhood, of proof that they exist, even as they embark on external challenges such as beating addiction in a halfway house or making it to the Show, the prevailing entertainment-infused euphemism for professional tennis among Enfield Tennis Academy's young athletic prodigies.

The Pale King, overtly concerned with the meaning and consequences of all-pervasive boredom, asks many of the same questions concerning the self and the subject, and it does so, I will argue, in a different ontological arena than the one in which Infinite Jest is set. The Pale King's characters constantly struggle to locate themselves in the face of an excess of material that they can be sure is not the self, which, in the late twentieth century, often takes the shape of data, information, entertainment, or some cross-section thereof. At first glance, the avalanche of data that greets new IRS examiners like Lane Dean seems to be nothing but "numbers that connected to nothing he'd ever see or care about" (379). However, in keeping with the way Infinite Jest persistently positions information in an antagonistic relationship to both humans and subjects, many of the details that The Pale King's data clerics handle turn out to be a barometer of the self or lack thereof. As the Compliance Training Officer proclaims to a room full of agents, "[i]nformation per se is really just a measure of disorder" (342).

Claude Sylvanshine, an agent whose head "pops up" at this aphoristic definition of information, had, "at age eight...data on his father's liver enzymes and rate of cortical atrophy, but he didn't know what these data meant" (341). Information in The Pale King does not merely threaten to obscure humanity, as it did in Infinite Jest. It also actively and in some cases aggressively works to replace humanity, as in the unusually explicit case of Sylvanshine's father, who, through his bodily disorder, becomes an unintelligible pile of data, or the IRS agents, who "are all," a supervisor tells them, "if you think about it, data processors" (340). I rely on the work of Wallace scholar Paul Giles and his reading of N. Katherine Hayles's influential How We Became Posthuman in my attempt to show that The Pale King's characters possess an ambivalence in the face of these information avalanches that is at times healthy and at other times consuming. Though it varies from character to character, it seems that the existential dread and uncertainty that is often the primary consequence of these information onslaughts becomes the most threatening obstacle Wallace's agents face. Given Wallace's track record for thoroughly exploring paralyzing self-consciousness and its attendant despair, this may not come...



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