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Acedia and David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King1

Zuzanna Ladyga


The article makes the case for David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King as a literary intervention into the American ethos of productivity, which offers a critique of this ethos by exploiting the trope of acedia, or boredom. Wallace’s novel employs acedia as the mode of its subjectivity and its main theme, thus creating a unique, recursive aesthetics, which is resistant to “productive” interpretations. Following Wallace’s own vocabulary, I call this aesthetics “the aesthetics of the feedback glare.” As a result of its recursive dynamics, the novel creates a series of micro-events. They can be classified as what Lauren Berlant calls “self-interruptions”: the events that guard the heterotopic territory of the subject’s (as well as the author’s) agency against interpellative calls of the book industry for self-exploitation and productivity.

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  • 1 The article originally appeared in my The Labour of Laziness in Twentieth-Century American Literatu (...)

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(Boltansky and Chiapello 155)

  • 2 For an analysis of boredom in Melville’s works in this issue, see Arturo Corujo, “A Jacket Not Wort (...)

1In the fourth century A.D., Alexandrian monk Evagrius Ponticus developed the idea of acedia, laziness born out of boredom, which, he worried, slowed down his hermit fellows in meditation and prayer. He imagined it was incurred upon the monks by Deamon Meridianus, the “noonday demon,” who attacks and “besieges” the soul, “makes the sun appear sluggish and immobile,” and “causes the monk continually to look at the window,” abandon productive work, and lose all care about the world around (Wenzel 5). Evagrius’s vivid imagination thus laid foundations for the development of the modern Christian idea of the sin of sloth. But what even Evagrius could not have predicted was that acedia and Deamon Meridianius would become American literature’s favorite metaphors for dissent against the American obsessively productive culture. The most notable acediac dissent is performed by the pallid scrivener Bartleby, the eponymous character from Herman Melville’s 1853 short story in his famous “I would prefer not to.”2 But if there is any contemporary American writer who carries Bartleby’s torch and comes close to staging an equally powerful resistance to the norm of productivity, it is David Foster Wallace. Many of Wallace’s works—like those of other representatives of the second generation of postmodernists such as Jonathan Franzen and Dave Eggers—feature the theme of dissent to biopower, to the capitalist exploitation of privacy and intrusion into the most intimate sectors of individual lives. However, it is in his last, posthumously published novel The Pale King that Wallace makes the theme absolutely central and attacks the biopolitical norm of productivity via the figure of boredom.

2David Foster Wallace’s entire career was haunted by the injunction to be productive since, after his 1996 epic Infinite Jest, he was earmarked for success and forced into the role of the voice of his generation. As critics often point out, Wallace wanted to write, but at the same time, he desired nothing more than to “get away from it all” and create outside of the publishing industry. In his essays, Wallace would often seek the “trope of escape,” but his literary experiments would then “unsettle” him greatly (Roiland 29). Neither the old-fashioned Melvillesque formats of getting away nor the more contemporary modes of disengaging the consciousness worked for Wallace. Or at least, they were not the kind of escape-tropes he was looking for. In the opinion of Wallace’s critics, this profound dissatisfaction with postmodern aesthetics was the main cause of Wallace’s creative block at the time when he was working on his “next big thing” after Infinite Jest. Diagnosing the block, Samuel Cohen suggests that at “the root of Wallace’s difficulties in writing... was the problem of not knowing what fiction was supposed to be and do, the lack of base clause of conviction about what he wrote for.... He had not resolved to his own satisfaction the problem of how to write after Gaddis, Pynchon, and DeLillo” (71). But the problem seems to me to be of a different caliber. Wallace did recognize that there was a certain “supposed to be and do” about his own career in the literary world and that as the voice of his generation and a McArthur genius-fellow, he was expected to deliver. He also knew what fiction at his time was supposed to be and do, that is, to obey the rule of the publishing market and participate in “the fashions... [that] tyrannize us,” which are “so easy to criticize but are so incredibly powerful and authentic-seeming when we’re inside them” (Wallace, The Last Interview 170). Working to outsmart those fashions, he was therefore dedicated to creating his own acediac aesthetics of escape.

3Of some help in the direction of finding this aesthetics might have been the advice of an older writer to whom Wallace owed so much, Thomas Pynchon. In his 1993 New York Times piece “Nearer my Couch to Thee,” Pynchon was simply saying, “take it easy”:

4In his classical discussion of the subject in the Summa Theologica Aquinas termed Sloth, or acedia, one of the seven capital sins. He said he was using ‘capital’ to mean ‘primary’... [yet] the word also meant “deserving of capital punishment’....
But come on, isn’t that kind of extreme, death for something as lightweight as Sloth? Sitting there on some medieval death row, going, ‘So, look, no offense, but what’d they pop you for anyway?’
‘Ah, usual story, they came around at the wrong time of day, I end up taking out half of some sheriff’s unit with my two-cubit crossbow, firing three-quarter-inch bolts on auto feed. Anger, I guess…. How about you?’
‘Um, well… it wasn’t anger….’
‘Ha! Another one of these Sloth cases, right?’
‘… fact, it wasn’t even me.’
‘Never is, slugger—say, look, it’s almost time for lunch. You wouldn’t happen to be a writer, by any chance?’

5Writers of course are considered the mavens of Sloth. They are approached all the time on the subject, not only for free advice but also to speak at Sloth Symposia, head up Sloth Task Forces, testify as expert witnesses at Sloth Hearings. The stereotype arises in part from our conspicuous presence in jobs where pay is by the word, and deadlines are tight and final—we are presumed to know from piecework and the convertibility of time and money. In addition, there is all the glamorous folklore surrounding writer’s block, an affliction known sometimes to resolve itself dramatically and without warning, much like constipation, and (hence?) finding wide sympathy among readers. Writer’s block, however, is a trip to the theme park of your choice alongside the mortal sin that produces it.... [It can lead to] guilt and depression... [or] to rushing after various things without rhyme or reason.... It is of course precisely in such episodes of mental traveling that writers are known to do good work.

6I quote from Pynchon at such length not only because his tone counterbalances Wallace’s excruciations about his inability to let go of the block, but also because it suggests a way out of the pressure to identify with the ideology of productivity-as-engagement that dominates the literary sphere. While acknowledging the commercial constraints of creative endeavors, Pynchon’s passage sends an encouragement that “good” works of literature (by which Pynchon by default means works of literature that pocket counter-systemic resistance) come from none other than a writer’s acediac disposition. Acedia may lead one to the crisis of self-invention in that it may feel like writer’s block, the term capturing the Romantic fantasy that inspiration should come from without the self, but this is precisely the experience that may also make the writer discover that he owns the keys to the “theme park” of his “choice.”

7That Wallace might have taken this advice to heart is visible in his 2004 short-story collection Oblivion, whose title already declares a Pynchonesque/Nietzschean approach to the engaged modes of living and writing. The closing story in the collection, “The Suffering Channel,” attacks writer’s block through a juxtaposition of two artist-figures: a prolific soft-news journalist Skip Atwater, who reports on controversial topics in a column of the Style magazine, and a secretive rural artist from Illinois named Brint Moltke, who possesses an unusual gift to produce bowel movements that are replicas of the world’s famous sculptures. One character is a tireless “consummate pro,” who invests himself in his job; the other is a freak, who feels tormented by his talent. Moltke would like to remain anonymous but is nevertheless sought out by the entertainment industry because suffering and self-torment sell best. In a sense, Skip Atwater and Brint Moltke represent two conflicting sides of Wallace’s artistic persona. Skip, who travels to interview Brint in his home and later supervises the television broadcast of the bowel-action sculpture in the process, represents the writer who has succumbed to the drills of the publishing market without protest. Brint, on the other hand, is like Pynchon’s blocked writer, whose resolved affliction would make the world overjoyed with the input of the intimately private into his artistic act. The conflict between the two is, nevertheless, resolved at the end of the story, which features an event that interrupts the exploitation of privacy for the benefit of the entertainment industry. During the live broadcast of Brint’s action art, as artist’s block (or, to use Pynchon’s simile: “constipation”) is supposed to resolve into a replica of the Hellenic sculpture of Nike, the winged Victory of Samothrace, the technicians of the Suffering Channel (the entertainment TV channel designed to air real footages of painful experiences 24/7) face a last-minute problem:

There’s also some eleventh hour complication involving the ground camera and the problem of keeping the commode’s special monitor out of its upward shot, since video capture of a camera’s own monitor causes what is known in the industry as feedback glare—the artist in such a case would see, not his own emergent Victory, but a searing and amorphous light. (Wallace, Oblivion 329)

8The interruption of the camera is thus as haphazard as it is decisive: the feedback glare may be the cause of the show’s failure to deliver entertainment. Figuratively, this glare, however, is much more than fierce light. For “glare,” is defined in OED as “to look fiercely or fixedly,” “to shine dazzlingly or disagreeably,” and “to express hate and defiance by a look.” The word also refers to “oppressive public attention” (“Glare”). Thus, the unexpected obstinacy of the equipment symbolically represents a sentiment of disagreement and defiance towards the oppressiveness of the attention to the private aspect of artistic production, a sentiment Wallace often identified as his own (Lipsky 82). The freak artist from “The Suffering Channel” cannot stand up to his humiliation on TV, but the technical instrumentarium relieves him from his task through a glitch in its wiring. Read allegorically, the last lines of the story thus deliver a model for an intervention into the contemporary modes of writing, a model that could interrupt the contemporary exploitation by the media of the traditionally postmodern paradigm of the writer as an “action artist,” now pressured to invest his entire private self in the artistic act. In other words, what the ending of “The Suffering Channel” suggests is that for fiction to counteract the exploitation of artistic agency, it is necessary to engage in a poetics of the feedback glare and to use the instruments of fiction to produce a blank, “amorphous” reflection of the artist—a late postmodern version of what Jean-François Lyotard famously called the loss of the referent—which cannot in any way be appropriated by the affective technologies of engagement.

9This is of course easier said than done. The strategy of using language to produce a blank, amorphous reflection indeed seems to be the right solution to the problem of what a writer can do to dissent from the demands of the contemporary publishing world, its ritual of book promotion tours, interviews, and media appearances, without abandoning the job altogether. But given Wallace’s literary silence in the Oblivion period, when he was already working on The Pale King, the strategy was not easy to develop. Critics and readers awaited his “next big thing” impatiently, yet with Wallace being a “five-draft man,” the result was slow to come (cf. Wallace, The Last Interview 115–28). The effort was eventually interrupted by his suicidal death in 2008. But as the 2011 posthumous publication of an edited manuscript of his unfinished novel The Pale King proved, it was not an effort that has ever been abandoned.

10And, one may add at this point, it was a particularly worthwhile effort considering how much of a celebrity Wallace was in the academic circles and among his audiences—and also how much of a popular icon he became after his suicide. Although the Wallace industry, like the Bartleby industry, had always thrived, Wallace’s untimely death helped it expand to enormous proportions. In the first decade of the twenty-first century, online reading communities were bursting at the seams with ordinary readers’ comments and reactions. Literary studies were witnessing an outpour of interpretations of Wallace’s works. The Wallace Archive at the Harry Ransom Center in Austin, Texas has become a peregrination point. In the context of all this, the posthumous publication of The Pale King in 2011 may be viewed as a delayed performative intervention by means of a complete, perfected aesthetics of the feedback glare.

  • 3 For an existential reading of Wallace’s work, see Allard den Dulk’s Existentialist Engagement in Wa (...)

11If read like an ordinary piece of fiction, The Pale King is an existential reflection upon the tragically boring mundaneness of everyday life, dramatized through life stories of the tax officers employed by the Internal Revenue Service.3 It has therefore been qualified by critics as part autobiography, part experiment in narrative plotlessness, part ideological commentary about capitalism and the commercial status of literature, provoking reflection upon such presumably settled issues as “the death of the author,” the mimetic limits of self-writing, and the paradoxes of the literary market. That the novel was unfinished did not trouble the critics that much. Marshall Boswell, Wallace’s most influential critic, considers The Pale King in his “Introduction: David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King” to have a special role in Wallace’s canon because it only confirms his aesthetics of non-closure (369). According to Boswell, The Pale King is not more “unfinished” than Wallace’s entire oeuvre, and it is exemplary of his notorious preoccupation with the suspension of conclusions and plots leading nowhere, to the point that notions such as climax and denouement lose all meaning (368). In this classically metafictional interpretation, special emphasis is placed on the subversive role of authorial intrusions. Using an all too familiar line of deconstructive reasoning, Boswell argues that chapters like “Author’s Foreword” or “Author Here” are glaringly autobiographic in the way that the life narrative of an IRS officer named David F. Wallace allegorically alludes to Wallace’s own career as a writer, while at the same time undercutting this allusion and legitimating it, only so as to undermine it again. From Vladimir Nabokov’s Pnin to John Barth’s Lost in the Funhouse and back, American postmodern literature knows countless examples of this technique, thus Wallace’s authorial intrusions are yet another proof of his canonical greatness. In other words, Boswell recognizes Wallace’s dissensual strategy—the strategy of the blank amorphous glare as I call it—yet he is inclined to count it as part of a coherent image of Wallace, the canonically postmodern aesthete.

  • 4 In 2005, Wallace delivered a commencement address at Kenyon College entitled “This is Water,” which (...)

12Another critic, Henry Veggian, takes Boswell’s analysis a step further, proceeding from the premises of the no-nonsense historicist branch of the Wallace industry, which situates The Pale King first and foremost within the context of its archive. By archive, Veggian does not mean biographical trivia such as Wallace’s notes, references to the books he read at the time of writing the novel, and so on. What he means instead is the context of the publishing market and the processes of institutionalized commodification of aesthetic labor. A case in point for Veggian is that The Pale King begins with a note from Wallace’s lifelong editor Michael Pietsch, who advertises the novel as a postmodern commodity with Wallace’s name as its trademark. Indeed, given Pietsch’s list of corrections made for the sake of narrative comprehensibility, it is difficult to disagree with Veggian’s critical diagnosis. The marketing strategy for The Pale King was after all not, for example, “the successor of Finnegans Wake” but something along the lines of: “the last words of wisdom from the author of the Kenyon commencement speech.”4

13Pietsch’s “Editor’s Note” declares that he has edited the manuscript “only lightly,” making “cuts for sense and pace,” correcting “unintentional distractions and confusions so as to allow the reader to focus on the enormous issues David intended to raise and to make the story and characters as comprehensible as possible” (ix). By no means can one call such interventions “light” for comprehensibility is not necessarily a value within the frame of postmodern aesthetics. What is even more interesting than the changes themselves is the main marketing point: Pietsch promises in his “Note” that The Pale King allows the readers “to look once more inside that extraordinary mind” of David Wallace (vii). In that sense, The Pale King is a complete product if not entirely a complete or finished novel by Wallace’s standards (Veggian 101). The role of the “Editor’s Note” as part of The Pale King alters the classical meaning of metafiction because meta-textuality becomes also a form of meta-valuation (Veggian 102). This, however, is less of a problem than an opportunity in the sense that the tension between The Pale King as a published commodity and The Pale King as an unfinished narrative helps to calibrate our interpretations of Wallace’s text and its self-reflexive strategies to the issue of the relation between writers’ self-ownership and publishing institutions. While Veggian’s critique stays on the theoretical level vis-à-vis the outcome of those strategies, with statements such as: “The Pale King passes through the production and valuation of its own literary commodity form in such a way that illuminates the production and valuation of literary commodity forms in general” (101), I would like to move beyond theory to the level of stylistic analysis of how this self-commentary is dramatized in the novel.

  • 5 Apart from Ralph Clare’s 2014 “The Politics of Boredom and the Boredom of Politics in David Foster (...)

14Part and parcel of Wallace’s stylistic strategy, which I have referred to above as the aesthetics of the blank, amorphous glare is his version of laziness: the theme of acediac disengagement, or as some (including Wallace himself) have called it boredom. According to Wallace’s note attached to his unfinished manuscript, quoted by Michael Pietsch in “Notes and Asides” at the end of the Little and Brown edition of The Pale King, the themes of boredom and tedium are explicitly intended as the novel’s “broad arc.” The note states, “paying attention, boredom, ADD, machines vs. people at performing mindless jobs” (545). While Wallace’s note finds frequent gloss references in criticism of his last novel, the themes of boredom and disengagement have only begun to be examined extensively.5 This is perhaps because at the first glance the novel depicting “massively, spectacularly dull” lives of some officers of the IRS Regional Examination Center in Peoria, Illinois (Wallace, The Pale King 83) lends itself all too easily to be read as a modernized version of Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener” slashed with Moby Dick. But despite those associations, The Pale King does not repeat Melville’s critique without variance. In Wallace’s novel, the parrhēsiac (i.e. speaking truth to power) “formula” for non-will, if we want to use Deleuze’s famous term for “I’d prefer not to,” is uniquely its own (73).

15One of the first and direct references to boredom in The Pale King is made in the chapter entitled “Author’s Foreword,” where the “author” states, “It is impossible to overstate the importance of boredom” because, just as the IRS has discovered, the more “dull, arcane and mind-numbingly complex” its procedures are, the more the agency is “insulated against public protest and political opposition” (83). Boredom is thus depicted as a protective shield, which works in two ways. If the IRS is here the epitome of the publishing institutions, then from their standpoint, boredom is a tactic that shields their work from the attacks of the opposition. On the part of the employees (i.e. writers), the implication goes, however, the shield of boredom may also offer protection from the system’s incursions into private lives and feelings, and thus be a form of self-interruptive dissent. As the narrator recalls his time spent training at the Peoria Center (Wallace himself did indeed take academic courses in accounting and interviewed IRS employees in Peoria in preparation for the novel; Max), he confesses to having learned “something about dullness, information, and irrelevant complexity. About negotiating boredom as one would a terrain, its levels and forests, and endless wastes. Learned about it extensively, exquisitely” (85). In other words, the lesson is that boredom is indeed the key to some deeper sensibility that we are trying to distract ourselves from. Why do we recoil it? Wallace’s narrator answers:

Maybe because dullness is intrinsically painful; maybe that’s where phrases like ‘deadly dull’ or ‘excruciatingly dull’ come from. But there might be more to it. Maybe dullness is associated with psychic pain because something that’s dull or opaque fails to provide enough stimulation to distract people from some other, deeper type of pain that is always there, if only in an ambient low-level way, and which most of us spend nearly all our time and energy trying to distract ourselves from feeling, or at least from feeling directly or with our full attention.... [L]iving people do not speak much of the dull. Of those parts of life that are and must be dull.... There may, though, I opine, be more to it… as in vastly more, right here before us all, hidden by virtue of its size. (85)

16In what seems to be the echo of Bartleby’s famous response to the lawyer: “do you not see the reason for yourself?” (Melville 96), Wallace’s IRS officer is certain that exploring the abysses of dullness is the key to understanding some essential truth about humanity. The deeper sort of pain that is always there, if only in an ambient sort of way, is an almost exact paraphrase of Heidegger’s definition of fundamental or profound boredom, a state in which we feel that something weighs on us and holds us in limbo (99–101). That something is not people or things or time but something more, “as in vastly more”: the sheer fact of being. As one of Wallace’s characters will say later in the novel, existentialist philosophy might indeed be the only place to go to articulate this feeling because of how “vast” its secret terrain turns out to be if you experience it in a boring job. But there is a difference with Heidegger too. The author of Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics distinguishes between ordinary boredom, where the weight of time and things can be dispersed by procrastination, and profound boredom, which is experienced even amidst distractions (112–14), whereas in Wallace’s fictional universe, those two experiential phenomena are merged into one and presented as two sides of the same coin. The dull, the arcane, the mind-numbing elements of the IRS officer’s work all weigh on the narrator in their irrelevant complexity to the point where their exoteric weight is not felt anymore and what remains is the burden of life itself.

17The sentiment of acedia is not limited to the narrator but dispersed among all characters and episodic plots, which the editor of The Pale King so eagerly wished to cohere, but which nevertheless circulate in the novel and disappear without closure, “rhyme or reason” (to recall Pynchon’s quote from Aquinas). Wallace has been cited on planning this particular structure of a “series of setups for things to happen but nothing ever happens” (Pietsch viii), which usually has been understood as plotlessness, but it seems that a lot more is at stake.

18In chapter 22, the narrator’s Bildung narrative, the latter submits to his readers’ attention: “I’m not sure I even know what to say.... From what I understand, I’m supposed to explain how I arrived at this career. Where I came from, so to speak, and what the Service means to me” (154). The indeterminacy transpiring from these opening words is not a matter of a formula, as in the case of Melville’s Bartleby, but of an abysmal indifference, suspension of all engagement: “I was like a piece of paper on the street in the wind.... My essential response to everything was ‘Whatever’” (154). To affect theorists such as Lauren Berlant, this sentence may read as exemplary of the contemporary structures of unfeeling, of underperformative, interpassive affect we employ to communicate our ambivalence about social interactions (194, 198). But despite appearances, Wallace’s character does not entirely fit Berlant’s diagnosis, for although his confession recalls countless instances of indolent drifting, he browses his memories for ruptures to autopilot mode.

19In chapter 20 of The Pale King, he begins by tracing the genealogy of the (un)feeling, which he developed as a child during “wet, dissented Sunday afternoons,” his sense of boredom growing with every small game, “toys and developmental projects” his mother tried to distract him with (253–54). Boredom, for him, was clearly a burden, something horrible, which evoked the sense of anxiety without a “proper object,” as if it was its object itself. “I’d look out the window,” the narrator recalls, “and see the glass instead of anything past it,” because the sensation was so autotelic (254). Whatever distractions came into the picture—his parents’ divorce, the death of his father, terrifying attacks of profuse sweating, his discontinuous education, and finally, countless addictions—they always brought him, he claims, to this tedious “awareness of awareness of awareness” (188). As he recalls in a fashion reminding of Heidegger’s description of “ordinary boredom” at a railway station, life felt “[l]ike taking the train,” “spac[ing] out and rid[ing] along” with all fun and games, with the gnawing sense of weight “at the outer periphery of your vision,” which you “can’t see when you try to look directly at it,” but it is always there (185).

20There was, however, a moment when the sensation feels more urgent. The narrator recalls one particular day spent in front of the TV show As the World Turns, whose interpellative “You’re watching As the World Turns” put him “slumped there like something without any bones,” face to face with limbo (223; emphasis in the original). It was not simply a feeling of “whatever” for that too was a distraction strategy, “something he chose” as opposed to the striking sensation that was not of his choice:

At the time, I was aware only of the concrete impact of the announcer’s statement, and the dawning realization that all of the directionless drifting and laziness and being a ‘wastoid’ which so many of us in that era pretended to have raised to a nihilistic art form, and believed was cool and funny (I too had thought it was cool, or at least I believed so—there had seemed to be something almost romantic about flagrant waste and drifting, which Jimmy Carter was ridiculed for calling ‘malaise’ and telling the nation to snap out of it) was, in reality, not funny, not one bit funny, but rather frightening, in fact, or sad, or something else—something I could not name because it has no name. I knew, sitting there, that I might be a real nihilist, that it wasn’t always just a hip pose. That I drifted and quit because nothing meant anything, no one choice was really better. That I was, in a way, too free, or that this kind of freedom wasn’t actually real—I was free to choose ‘whatever’ because it didn’t really matter. But that this, too, was because of something I chose—I had somehow chosen to have nothing matter. It all felt much less abstract than it sounds to try to explain it. All this was happening while I was just sitting there, spinning the ball. The point was that, through making this choice, I didn’t matter, either. I didn’t stand for anything. If I wanted to matter—even just to myself—I would have to be less free, by deciding to choose in some kind of definite way. Even if it was nothing more than an act of will. (223–24; emphasis added)

21The directionless drifting and laziness that so fundamentally define his life and narrative style bring him to the brink of a consciousness of something that, as he says, is not simply frightening or sad, but something he cannot name “because it has no name” (223). It evades the regime of signification and floats on its horizon as a supplement to the symbolic order, but it is a nonabstract, tangible feeling of a painful realization that whatever connection to freedom the narrator’s inert existence has so far maintained, it was not real freedom.

22This turning point has no status of a revelation. The narrator dispels any doubt as to whether it could be interpreted in parallel to Benjamin Franklin’s awakening in the project of moral perfection, for his realization is not of the type as “for instance, ‘I am going to think about life and my place in it and what’s truly important to me, so that I can start forming concrete, focused goals for my adult career’ (190). In his understanding, the conversion model may have worked for his college roommate’s girlfriend in flowery cowboy boots, who once told him how she was awakened by the voice of the preacher as if spoken directly to her, but it does not explain his experience, which was not transcendental, at least in the ordinary sense of the world. In short, the narrator’s epiphany is born in the tactile experience, as if within the lump weight of his disengaged body watching himself in limbo.

23That the epiphanic discovery is more tactile than spiritual is confirmed on the level of the plot, for his testimony in chapter 22 soon moves to a description of a life-changing class in Advanced Tax he took by accident and a speech given there by a strange Jesuit-looking instructor. The first thing recalled by the narrator is the unusual appearance of the teacher, whose “expression had the same burnt, hollow concentration of photos of military veterans who’d been in some kind of real war, meaning combat” (218). The instructor looks “amorphous,” “slender, and pale,” “like someone in an archaic photo or daguerreotype” (217). The way he gazes around is such that he seems to be looking at everyone and no one at the same time, making the narrator feel “singled out, spindled on those eyes in a way I neither liked nor didn’t”:

He stood very still—noticeably stiller than most people stand when they stand still.... What he seemed to be was ‘indifferent’—not in a meaningless, drifting, nihilistic way, but rather in a secure, self-confident way.... The whites of his eyes were extremely white.... His complexion... was that of someone who had rarely been out in the sun.... [H]e cast no shadow on any side. (226; emphasis added)

24The unmistakably Bartlebyesque appearance of the tax instructor, brought into the reality of the classroom straight from some daguerreotype, awes the narrator with the aura of powerful aloofness. The pallid gaze communicates nothing but in a reflective sort of way singles the narrator out (while being reflected in the glasses of others), inducing an “electric coolness” in his head (218) and a sensation “as though he and I were at opposite ends of some kind of tube or pipe” (230). The scene seems like a dramatized performance of the inner mechanism of the feedback glare: as readers of this interocular exchange between characters, we are also let into the textual machine caught up in the loop of recursive references, and we witness the narrator getting into the mode of tactile attunement with the authority of the pale instructor, prior to any communication. It is only after attention to exoteric details of the situation is induced haptically that the instructor puts it into words:

I wish to inform you that the accounting profession to which you aspire is, in fact, heroic.... Enduring tedium over real time in a confined space is what real courage is.... The truth is that the heroism of your childhood entertainments was not true valor. It was theater.... [It was] all designed to appear heroic, to excite and gratify an audience.... Gentlemen, welcome to the world of reality—there is no audience. No one to applaud, to admire. No one to see you.... No one is interested.... True heroism is minutes, hours, weeks, year upon year of the quiet, precise, judicious exercise of probity and care.... True heroism is a priori incompatible with audience or applause or even the bare notice of the common run of man. (229–30)

25The speech goes on for a long time, but its point is clear from the onset, namely, that the electrifying power of the instructor’s indifferent presence comes from his recognition of the profound meaning of life as experienced under the weight of its most banal exoteric manifestations. Those exoteric things are not just piles of documents but also “repetition, tedium, monotony, ephemeracy, inconsequence, abstraction, disorder, boredom, angst, ennui” because just as pencils or boots’ laces “they are real” (231). The instruction communicated in this passage is caught up in a peculiar affective recursion: boredom leads to heroic recognition of the essence of existence inasmuch as it is also “true hero’s enemy,” that is it stands in the way of this recognition. It is an eye-opening experience to which one should attune oneself as well as stay “immune” (438).

26If there is any moment in The Pale King where the trope of the blank amorphous glare inaugurated in “The Suffering Channel” is staged, it is certainly at this point where acedia takes on at once the haptic, the affective, and the philosophical sense, in other words, when it is a bodily sensation of being poised but inert, of feeling attuned but disconnected, and thinking about the essence of existence while retaining Stoical neutrality towards that essence. The acediac disposition (of the narrator and of the characters) starts working as the motor force of Wallace’s feedback glare writing technique. The blank amorphous interocular embrace between the narrator and the instructor is also the blank amorphous glare of the exchange between the writer and his audience.

27In the oft-quoted “Author Here” chapter of The Pale King, the “author” explains that the ambition of his story is not to “pretend that the mind works any other way than it literally does” as well as not to “inflict” on the reader “a regurgitation of every last sensation and passing though I happen to recall” (259). “I am about art here,” he insists (259). If taken at face value, this insistence may be read as an invitation to extend the above interpretation to the metafictional level, where the feedback glare technique is read as Wallace’s way out of the postmodern paradigm of the action-artist. If Wallace is “about art” in The Pale King, he is less interested in commercial success than in creating that which Berlant calls a momentary heterotopia of sovereignty (Cruel Optimism 49). As long as the language of The Pale King produces the effect of the blank amorphous glare, it also secures the heterotopic space for the writer to retain freedom of control over his writing self against the usurpatory modes of the publishing world. The blank amorphous mode of communication between the character of the narrator and his instructor represents the glitch in the machine, which turns the writer-audience exchange into a commercial feast. Moreover, even when “I’m about art here” is taken as utterly ironic, the feedback glare strategy still operates to shield the freedom of self-ownership. In other words, through his recursion strategy anchored in the trope of acedia, Wallace in The Pale King manages to remain a self-owned agency that effectively blocks this transfer at a critical point. His feedback glare strategy is as close as one gets to what Giorgio Agamben calls the conservation of one’s power by not putting it into an act that one nevertheless performs (483, 485). Or, to say it differently, of putting into the performance the capacity to not perform. From this perspective, the logic of the feedback glare underlies the teleological structure of Wallace’s novel. First, it controls the most private sphere of the characters’ lives such as sleep, for example. The narrator recalls dreaming about rows of “blank” emotionless faces, performing “endless small tasks” with “placid hopelessness,” and although the dream “seemed to take hours,” the clock’s hands upon his awakening do not seem to have moved (253).

28Furthermore, the feedback glare mechanism controls the characters’ memories. One clerk’s memory of his first sexual encounter is only a memory of the girl’s stare of “blank terminal sadness,” which leads him to develop a habit of staring in a Bartlebyesque fashion into (rather than out of) a window (50–51). Another memory in the novel, stored as an anonymous testimony no. 943756788, is about “the stare” that the speaker remembers as originally her father’s stare, which has been internalized yet she cannot identify with it:

in a stare, you are not really looking at this thing you are seeming to stare at, you are not really noticing it—however neither are you thinking of something else. You in truth are not doing anything, mentally, but you are doing it fixedly, with what appears to be intent concentration. And now I too do this. I find myself doing it. It’s not unpleasant, but it is strange. Something goes out of you—you can feel your face merely hanging loose, with no muscles or expression. It frightens my children, I know. As if your face, like your attention, belongs to someone else. (116–17)

29Just like no. 943756788 has acquired her impenetrable gaze to the point of it becoming her second nature, so does the character named Toni Ware, whose traumatic memory of an abusive stepfather features a scene where lying in bed next to her sleeping mother, she locks eyes with the man who’s about to rape her, and yet manages to appear looking “so dead” that he would leave her alone. As a result, Toni develops a habit that paves her way into the narrative: “This is what had started the story; David Wallace or someone else remarked that Toni Ware was creepy because, even though she wasn’t shy or evasive and maintained eye contact, she seemed to be staring at your eyes rather than into them,” like “a fish in a tank,” which is aware of the onlooker’s gaze (441; emphasis in the original). The blank stare is “unsettling because it [isn’t] anything like the way a human being seems aware of you when he meets your gaze” (441).

30Finally, the feedback glare logic permeates other characters’ occasional outbursts of creativity. No. 917229047 brags about an idea for a theater play, which would be “totally real, true to life” and “unperformable.” The setting would be “bare and minimalistic,” and on the stage, there would just be a wiggler by a desk with a clock behind him. All he would do would be to turn pages in his pad and take notes. The play would be so long everybody in the audience would leave and only then “the real action of the play [could] start” (106). What is interesting about the idea of no. 917229047 is not so much its meta-textual status vis-à-vis the larger narrative frame of which it partakes—The Pale King is, of course, the long boring thing, with protagonists turning pages and scribbling notes in their pads—but its reliance on the idea of “unperformability.” An unperformable play that would nevertheless be performed when the audience left out of boredom represents an imaginary terrain of the Author’s sovereignty and privacy. But the unperformable play is not just a metaphor. In chapter 25, all characters of the novel literally stage its scenario: “Chris Fogle turns a page. Howard Cardwell turns a page. Ken Wax turns a page. Matt Redgate turns a page. ‘Groovy’ Bruce Channing attaches a form to file. Ann Williams turns a page” (310). The mantra goes on for several pages of The Pale King, as the characters turn pages and perform various gestures to ease their bodily tension or pain. From time to time, an epiphanic statement such as “[d]evils are actually angels” is inserted. Yet, all those pages are to be turned and blankly stared at by the reader, regardless of scattered invitations to philosophical or theological meditation (312).

31One particularly intense moment of the feedback glare technique that deserves to be mentioned in this discussion as it shifts the emphasis from “staring” to the more haptic modes of experience is featured in chapter 33. Here, one of the characters, Service officer Lane A. Dean Jr., experiences what we might term an attack of acedia. Filing protocols in a windowless office room, Lane Dean goes crazy with the mundane task of filing IRS forms. Though he has completed fewer than anyone else in the office, he longs for a break. Looking at the clock “despite all best prior intentions,” Lane drifts off towards all sorts of demonic fantasies followed by the dejection of spirit:

In four minutes it would be another hour, and half hour after that was the fifteen minute break. Lane Dean imagined himself running around on the break waving his arms and shouting gibberish and holding ten cigarettes at once in his mouth like a panpipe. Year after year, a face the same color as your desk. Lord Jesus. Coffee wasn’t allowed because of spills on the files. . . . He knew what he’d really do the break was sit facing the wall clock in the lounge and despite prayers and effort sit counting the seconds tick off until he had to come back again and do this again. And again and again and again. (379)

32As his mind wanders off to a bizarre vision of a circus strongman tearing a phonebook in half, Lane Dean summons “all his will,” bears down, and resumes work, only to begin thinking of suicide, “imagining different high places to jump off of,” killing himself with Jell-O, stopping his heart by holding his breath (379–80). As the narrator notes at this point, Lane Dean “felt in a position to say he knew now that hell had nothing to do with fires or frozen troops” (379) but rather with being held in limbo by time which does not seem to pass. Lane Dean is bored beyond recognition as well as stifled by the discomfort of his body that is nailed to the chair.

33As it turns out, Lane’s suicidal fantasies and stupor are only a gentle prelude to the real bout of Daemon Meridianus—the Evagrian name being in this case more than just a metaphor. At one point, “half asleep and dreaming,” Lane registers an awkward figure of a “big older fellow with a seamed face and picket teeth” who does not “cast a shadow.” The man speaks to Lane about boredom:

But now that you’re getting a taste, consider it, the word. You know the one.... Word appears suddenly in 1766. No known etymology. The Earl of March uses it in a letter describing a French peer in the realm.... The French of course had malaise and ennui. See Pascal’s fourth Pensée, which Lane Dean heard as pantsy. . . . But nothing in English prior March, Earl of. This means a good five hundred years of no word for it you see, yes? (383)

  • 6 In his analysis of the connection between the evil eye and the affect of shame in Affect, Imagery, (...)

34As the shadowless man’s lecture continues on accidia, Deamom Meridianus, Donne’s lethargie, otiositas, tristitia, Winchilsea’s black jaundice, and Quaker Green’s spleen-fog, Lane Dean, who still cannot believe that this is real “as in like who is this fellow,” begins to think he is dealing with “the phantom” (383). In corporate terminology, as the narrator explains earlier, the name “phantom” is reserved for individuals whose role is to silently monitor and motivate the employees by their sheer presence the work in an office. Phantoms are part and parcel of the phenomenon of the evil eye, which had been introduced in American corporate environments in the 1950s as an efficient (because culturally universal) strategy of motivating work among employees.6 To this day, the corporate role of the phantom has been to motivate by staring and sending occasional evil looks to further exert pressure.

35In Lane Dean’s eyes, the phantom appears just as real as he is also ephemeral and imaginary: “Lane Dean had heard of the phantom, but never seen it. The phantom of the hallucination of repetitive concentration held for too long a time” (383). Lane, it so seems, is not sure whether the situation is happening inside or outside of his mind. Thinking he might have lost his mind, he considers praying (385). However, the phantom’s presence is absolutely real to the other workers as well: “Now for the first time the fellow at the Tingle to the right turned briefly to give the man a look and turned just as fast back around when the man made his hands into claws and held them out at the other wiggler like a demon or someone possessed” (385). So even though the man may be an office monitor, hired to give an evil eye to everyone who appears unproductive or distracted, Lane Dean cannot distinguish him from his own projections because whenever he looks at the clock, he discovers that “no time had passed at all, again” (385). Boredom congeals into Dean’s gestures, for the narrative passage that follows his last glance at the clock is followed by a half-page-long paragraph of tax calculation formulas: “IRM §781 (d) AMT Formula for Corporations: (1) Taxable income before NOL deduction, plus or minus (2) All AMT adjustments excepting ACE adjustment, plus (3) Tax preferences, yields (4)” and so on (386). It is now the reader’s turn to see the phantom.

36Throughout the episode of the uncanny visitation, Lane stays notably motionless and stiff, his discomfort being both psychological and physical. Bodily tension is not only Lane’s problem. Nearly all characters in The Pale King suffer chronically from health issues, whose extensive list is delivered at the beginning of the novel in the form of a note of a memorandum from the Human Resources Management and Support Office of Employees Assistance. The list features forty-two somatic and psychosomatic disorders, including chronic or temporary “paraplegia” (motor dysfunction of lower limbs), “sciatica” (migrating pain), “paralysis agitans,” “paresis” (muscular weakness), “spasmodic dyskinesia,” “dihedral lordosis,” “spasmodic torticollis” (abnormal head positioning), “cyclothymia,” “facial and digital ticcing,” “Krendler’s syndrome” (auto-cannibalism), and many others (87–88). While some characters exhibit more symptoms than others, there is no one in The Pale King who does not suffer from some form of a work-related disorder, without necessarily recognizing them as such. The unpopular Leonard Stecyk, who as a boy had the ambition to be able to see his own back and is now able to perform the most bizarre sorts of contortions, continues to train his body (and mind) in “tolerance for pain” (114). He tries to control his profuse sweating and develops hypomanic, obsessive office rituals that are a form of psychological Krendel’s syndrome as well as the source of his disesteem. Just as Leonard does not consider his ailments as work-related but as extensions of his contortionist hobby, his colleague, the “fact psychic” Claude Sylvanshine also does not properly recognize his problems. He treats the office inurement techniques as part of his private, isometric exercise routine, and mistakes his “peripheral hallucinations,” “dissociative fugues” (amnesia), and “diplopia” for a supernatural, psychic ability. Even Lane Dean, who suffers from hemeralopia (inability to see in bright light), does not relate his illness to work. All in all, therefore, given the consistency with which the bodies of the novel’s characters are exposed to hypertension, both from without and from within, it is clear that the object of The Pale King’s ideological critique is not capitalism in general but its intervention into our biological life. The haptic dimension serves as a poetic means in Wallace’s critique of biopower, the extent of whose intrusion into the intimate sphere of his characters’ lives is laid bare in the disorderly ways their bodies’ muscular, digestive, and neurological systems respond to external and internalized discipline.

37What about the ways in which biopower intervenes in the life of a writer? In terms of artistic self-expression, Wallace’s haptic aesthetics in The Pale King appears to be less of a code for communicating dissent and the freedom of self-ownership (as if the latter were an available option and as if body aesthetics was a way to capture contours of individual agency) but more of a manner of laying bare the absence of a such an option. The body cannot be reowned but only used as a glitch-producing shield. The tactile poetics lays bare the extinction of counter-systemic resistance. In The Pale King, the characters’ contortions, isometric exercises, refluxes, and diplopias mediate the way in which capitalist institutionalization of the artistic profession of self-expression re-appropriates the tactile, intimate dimension of an artist’s life as its own. Reading Wallace’s fiction, especially The Pale King, through the prism of his depression, his “contest with himself” (Staiger 90), and his suicide seems to miss this important point. Given that the body is not a marker of intimacy and authenticity but an object of regulation and cultivation, it is notable that the telos of The Pale King is dictated by the theme of examination, which whether taken in medical, educational, or conceptual terms is, as Foucault continuously reminds us, always a form of disciplining.

38The use of haptic references in Wallace’s last novel does not stand in contrast with or in addition to the technique of the blank amorphous glare with its optic underpinning. It is an absolutely integral part of the strategy—the subversive glitch it produces depends as much on the vision-related element of blankness as it does on the body-related element of amorphousness. To produce the subversive glitch in the text while still performing an act of literature, Wallace combines the two phenomena in the trope of acedia, which harmonizes and amplifies the frequency of their pitch. By anchoring his strategy in the trope of acedia, Wallace manages to avoid in The Pale King the fate of an artist who transfers his entire self into the work and thus surrenders to the art market because he effectively blocks this transfer at a critical point. But where is the dissent in the blank amorphous glare?

39The most succinct answer is given by one of The Pale King’s characters. Debating on the topic of consent to the norms and institutions, he remarks that boredom has something to do with “personal freedom and appetite and moral license” though, as he puts it, “I’m damned if I can figure it out” (135). Ironically, the closer all of Wallace’s acediac characters are to figuring it out, the more “damned” and oppressed they become, as though the indolent mode was indeed a way—perhaps the way—to efficiently resist the agency-devouring apparatus of normativity and maintain a minimum of personal freedom. No wonder the indolent mode is also the prime target of this apparatus’s disciplining attacks.

40“Freedom is the faculty to begin an event by oneself,” Kant once remarked (98), and although in the contemporary world “oneself” as a self-sustained agency is arguably no longer a valid category, Wallace’s The Pale King seems in tune with Kant’s idea. Mobilizing the tropological potential of acedia and its modalities, the novel stages the event of freedom from the biopolitical norm over and over again, through serialized sequences of characters’ bodily and mental experiences of stoppage and inactivity. All of them follow the pattern established in the fateful tax class the narrator stumbles into during his slothful campus peregrinations. As the image of the demon-like tax instructor merges with the specter of melancholic Bartleby, the pallid gaze of the biopolitical apparatus represented by the teacher encounters “an eleventh hour complication” as it coalesces with the blank stare of the acediac subject represented by the narrator. The disciplining lesson is thus both learned and unlearned. Both internalized and rejected. For the subject who enunciates himself in The Pale King, the recursive force of the interchange between power and powerlessness, engagement and disengagement, intensity and lethargy—all encapsulated in the trope of acedia as a postmodern version of laziness—creates a series of microevents of self-interruption which guard the heterotopic territory of his artistic sovereignty and grant immunity to the interpellative calls of the book industry.

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Agamben, Giorgio. “The Power of Thought.” Critical Inquiry, vol. 40, no. 2, 2014, pp. 480–91.

Berlant, Lauren. Cruel Optimism. Duke UP, 2011.

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Clare, Ralph. “The Politics of Boredom and the Boredom of Politics in David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King.” Studies in the Novel, vol. 44, no. 4, 2012, pp. 428–46.

Corujo, Arturo. “A Jacket Not Worth Looking At: Shipboard Boredom aboard Herman Melville’s Neversink.” European Journal of American Studies, vol. 17, no. 4, 2022.

Deleuze, Gilles. “Bartleby; or, the Formula.” Essays Critical and Clinical, U of Minnesota P, 1997, pp. 68–90.

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1 The article originally appeared in my The Labour of Laziness in Twentieth-Century American Literature (2019) as part of the discussion of postmodern literary responses to the American cultural regime of productivity.

2 For an analysis of boredom in Melville’s works in this issue, see Arturo Corujo, “A Jacket Not Worth Looking At: Shipboard Boredom aboard Herman Melville’s Neversink.”

3 For an existential reading of Wallace’s work, see Allard den Dulk’s Existentialist Engagement in Wallace, Eggers and Foer (2014).

4 In 2005, Wallace delivered a commencement address at Kenyon College entitled “This is Water,” which was widely publicized on the Internet and contributed to Wallace’s celebrity status.

5 Apart from Ralph Clare’s 2014 “The Politics of Boredom and the Boredom of Politics in David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King” (2012), in-depth analyses of the theme are offered in the recent David Foster Wallace and Religion, edited by Michael McGowan and Martin Brick (2019) and Michael Newman’s “The Long and the Short of It: Boredom after the End of the Great Boredom,” On Boredom: Essays in Art and Writing, edited by Rye Dag Holmboe and Susan Morris (2021).

6 In his analysis of the connection between the evil eye and the affect of shame in Affect, Imagery, Consciousness, Silvan Tomkins quotes “An Associated Press dispatch from Washington, dated August 15, 1957”: “‘He was hired by one employer [said the committee’s lawyer] to come in once or twice every week or so and glare at his employees.’ He said the employer found it was ‘enough to have him come in and look at them to keep them at their work’” (377).

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Electronic reference

Zuzanna Ladyga, Acedia and David Foster Wallace’s The Pale KingEuropean journal of American studies [Online], 17-4 | 2022, Online since 26 December 2022, connection on 28 January 2023. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Zuzanna Ladyga

Zuzanna Ladyga is an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Modern Languages at the University of Warsaw, where she teaches literary theory and postmodern literature. Her teaching and research interests include the interrelation between continental philosophy and American literary theory and the impact of the technological modes of cultural transmission on postmodern mimetic strategies. Her current research concerns the place of technology in postmodernist art manifestos of the twentieth century.

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