"I don't feel like a Genius": David Foster Wallace, Trickle-Down Aesthetics, and the MacArthur Foundation
- Arizona Quarterly: A Journal of American Literature, Culture, and Theory
- Johns Hopkins University Press
- Volume 73, Number 1, Spring 2017
- pp. 85-111
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Considering the novels and essays of David Foster Wallace alongside the history of the MacArthur Foundation offers a methodology for analyzing the effects of institutional philanthropy on American literature. The receipt of a MacArthur "Genius" grant after the publication of Infinite Jest catalyzed Wallace's thinking about the relationship between the individual artist and the institutions of American modernity. Wallace was ambivalent about institutions, which seemed to enclose and stifle the free play of creativity, yet open up sites of social engagement and world-making. Counter the MacArthur's neoliberal philanthropic ideology of "trickle-down aesthetics," Wallace sought to move beyond both romantic geniusworship and ironic critique by re-imagining the relationship between institutions and individuals. In The Pale King and his essays in the '00s, Wallace depicts a synthesis between individual and collectivity with the pragmatic recognition that, in the conditions of modernity, institutions are vehicles to help individuals overcome isolation and build community.