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Contemporary Frames

Ceci n’est pas le territoire: Transcending the Visual and Literary Frame

Ceci n’est pas le territoire : Transcender le cadre visuel et littéraire
Dane Coult


Cet article explore le concept du cadre et sa pertinence pour comprendre les œuvres littéraires et artistiques qui présentent des dispositifs traditionnellement associés à la métafiction mais qui, paradoxalement, évitent les modes purement autoréférentiels. En mettant en évidence leurs cadres esthétiques, ces œuvres invitent le public à s’engager dans un échange artistique qui abolit la distance critique souvent associée à l’art conceptuel en faveur d’une expérience plus immersive avec l’œuvre, l’artiste ou la réalité au-delà du cadre. Un nouveau terme dérivé de la recherche en cours sur la théorie du cadre, la « transcendance du cadre », offre une catégorisation plus satisfaisante de ces œuvres qui, historiquement, ont été incorporées dans le domaine du « méta-art ». En examinant l’œuvre de David Foster Wallace et certaines œuvres en arts visuels précédemment qualifiées de « métapainting », l'article cherche à démontrer que cette nouvelle catégorisation résout les problèmes critiques qui se posent lorsque l’art attire simultanément l’attention sur son cadre et sur l’authenticité de l’expérience.

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1Most often associated with his epic-length novel, Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace (1962-2008) is perhaps best known in academic circles for his problematization of irony and self-referentiality as they had come to be deployed in late postmodern cultural production. Following the commercial success of his second novel, scholars such as Marshal Boswell, Adam Kelly, and Lee Konstantinou began analyzing Infinite Jest in light of Wallace’s literary project as outlined by the author himself in his own essays and interviews regarding the state of contemporary culture. In particular, they took note of Wallace’s essay E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction” in which he calls for a “literary rebellion” against the contemporary tendency toward cynicism through wide-spread ironic expression and metafictional devices while favoring sincere attempts at emotional connection with the audience (Wallace 1993, 192-193). While Infinite Jest delves deeply into contemporary issues such as addiction, the pervasive use of technology, and our disconcerting need for constant entertainment, more importantly it explores a world in which feelings of alienation have become ubiquitous due to our inability to form meaningful connections with others.

2Such inability, Wallace seems to suggest in his essay, is due in part to the postmodern inclination for what Jean-François Lyotard called “incredulity toward metanarratives” (Lyotard 1984, xxiv) and subsequent deconstruction of received notions that had hitherto provided stability for the Western social order. Postmodernism expressed, for example, a certain cynicism regarding the existence of stable referents in linguistic systems, agency, or even the existence of shared reality while drawing attention to a growing distrust in the idea of Nation and the long-term viability of capitalism. The postmodern cultural forms of Wallace’s youth therefore tend to be characterized by a distrust and ironizing of such metanarratives and a skepticism of language’s ability to represent anything beyond itself – often manifested via metafictional devices and a tendency to subvert the illusion generated by the framing of literary narrative. But as the starting point for this essay, Jim Jarmusch’s latest work, a zombie-comedy-horror film titled The Dead Don’t Die (2019), will provide an illustration of the kinds of frame-breaking metafiction at work in the earlier postmodern artistic forms which influenced Wallace’s aesthetic choices and which formed the basis for his “literary rebellion”. This starting point will also allow us to contrast conventional metafictional devices at work in Jarmusch’s film – and in postmodern cultural production more generally – from the same devices used by Wallace but with a significantly different effect on the reader.

3Obsessively aware of its cultural debt, the film is rife with references to Postmodernism. Not least of which is its setting in the fictional middle-American town called Centerville where the film opens with the news that an oil company’s fracking operation has caused the Earth to drift off its usual axis; literally de-centering the small town and leaving it exposed to the kinds of subversion that such de-centering usually entails. The once clear binary division between night and day becomes suddenly blurred due to the town’s unstable position relative to the sun and, most importantly given the film’s genre, formerly dead and buried residents find themselves once again walking the Earth. The film’s undead have an insatiable hunger for human flesh and whatever it was that served as their object of desire in life. There is for example the late town alcoholic who groans “Chardonnay” in the prototypical zombie manner while a group of flannel-clad men, arms outstretched and hobbling forward, are inexplicably drawn to the local sporting-goods store. Jarmusch’s monsters thus satisfy two visions of the popular understanding of the zombie: that of the clichéd classic horror film and that evoked in more colloquial contexts to describe a person lacking agency or the capacity to critically examine their own actions or consumeristic desires.

4Indeed, the question of agency in the world of late-stage capitalism is the film’s central concern. This is made explicit in the final scene as Tom Waits provides a final voiceover while the film’s two leads ultimately meet their demise as they try to fight off a growing horde of the undead; “I guess all them ghost-people plumb lost their goddamn souls. Must’ve traded ‘em away or sold ‘em for gold or what not. New trucks, kitchen appliances, new trousers, Nintendo Gameboys, shit like that. Just hungry for more stuff.” (Jarmusch, 2019) Meanwhile, the film’s most explicit treatment of the question of agency is also its most distinct metafictional feature. As Sheriff Cliff (Bill Murray) and Deputy Ronnie (Adam Driver) sit in their police cruiser surrounded by zombies, the latter repeats for the umpteenth time his feeling that things will not end well for the duo, thereby leading to the following exchange:

Cliff: You have been saying that it’s all going to end badly, from the very beginning. Over and over. So, what made you so fucking sure of that? How did you know everything in advance?
Ronnie: Okay, I know because I’ve read the script.
Cliff: You read the script? The whole script? All of it?
Ronnie: Yeah, Jim gave me the whole script.
Cliff: He only gave me our scenes. I never saw a complete script. After all I’ve done for that guy, and it’s a lot you don’t even know about. What a dick. (Jarmusch, 2019)

5Beyond its function of providing comedic relief, the conversation between Cliff and Ronnie reveals the film for what it is: a scripted narrative fabricated by its auteur. The scene draws attention to its own artificiality – its status as framed media – with the intention of demonstrating a fatalistic parallel between the characters in a movie, doomed by their scripted actions, and a society driven and controlled by consumerism. Much like its postmodern literary predecessors, The Dead Don’t Die highlights its artifice while gesturing toward its artificer as he makes a statement regarding the illusion of agency and the constructed-ness of ‘reality’.

6I begin with a classic example of metafiction so as to differentiate it from another effect – what I shall refer to in this essay as “frame transcendence” – that exists in the arts and which seems to resist the conventional understanding of the meta- prefix as a self-referential, frame-breaking revealer of artificiality. Cultural artifacts designated as “meta” necessarily impose critical distance between object and audience as the latter is preempted from affect-driven engagement in favor of formal analysis, skepticism of agency – as in Jarmuschs film – or, in its most extreme form, solipsistic reflections on the ontological status of a world beyond our mental representations of it. Instead, works which transcend their frame do so to establish an artistic exchange; thus making more intimate the link between a cultural artifact, its creator, or the higher-order reality in which it exists, with the person absorbed in the task of understanding that artifact. The purpose of this essay, then, is to point out how recent academic work on frames may provide a more satisfactory understanding of select works in the visual arts, hitherto labeled as “metapainting”, while attempting to untangle the paradox of David Foster Wallace who criticizes self-referentiality as an epistemological and aesthetic dead-end while simultaneously employing features associated with metafiction in his own work.

The solipsism of “meta”

7In her 1984 monograph, Metafiction: the Theory and Practice of Self-Conscious Fiction, Patricia Waugh identified “two poles of metafiction” which oppose one another both in terms of function and philosophical implication. The first, she says “finally accepts a substantial real world whose significance is not entirely composed of relationships within language” while the other “suggests there can never be an escape from the prison-house of language and either delights or despairs in this” (Waugh 1993, 53). As a text reveals its own artificiality, it either reminds the reader that she is engaged with fiction thus drawing attention to the reality of her immediate surroundings or conversely, invites her to consider that her own experience – which, according to the postmodernists, is constructed and defined by language – is not unlike that of the characters of her novel.

  • 1 Remedios Varo, “Bordando el manto Terrestre” (“Embroidering the Earth's Mantle”), Oil on Masonite, (...)

8One such character, Oedipa Maas, the protagonist of Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, leans more toward despair as she weepingly contemplates the real-life painting by surrealist artist Remedios Varo titled in English, Embroidering the Earths Mantle (1961).1 Pynchon’s novel describes the painting as featuring:

[…] a number of frail girls with heart-shaped faces, huge eyes, spun-gold hair, prisoners in the top room of a circular tower, embroidering a kind of tapestry which spilled out the slit windows and into a void, seeking hopelessly to fill the void: for all the other buildings and creatures, all the waves, ships and forests of the earth were contained in this tapestry, and the tapestry was the world. (Pynchon 1979, 13)

9From Oedipa’s tearful reaction, we surmise that she somehow identifies with the “frail girls” locked away in a strange tower from which the world below is sewn together with nothing but needle and thread and the power of imagination. Varo’s real-life triptych can be understood as an example of metapainting as the viewer comes to recognize the parallel between artistic creation on canvas with the young women’s act of embroidered Creation and, by extension, individual mental representation. The philosophical implication, seemingly clear to Oedipa and presumably the source of her visible distress, is that one’s own experience of reality is nothing more than a personal construction, stitched together from sensorial approximations and made coherent through cognitive processes. Her suspicion that reality is merely a mental construction is later echoed in the fourth chapter as she scribbles into her notebook the phrase “Shall I project a world?” (Pynchon 1979, 56). Brian McHale refers to such scenes as “disconcerting indications […] that Oedipa fears her own dangerous capacity for solipsism, her tendency to believe that the external world has been fabricated by her own mind” (McHale 2004, 23).

10Discovering herself to be the executor of a wealthy former lover’s will, Oedipa spends much of the novel attempting to connect a series of coincidences by trying to interpret the various symbols and messages she finds on the street as she questions whether or not she might be living out a personal delusion. In turn, the reader comes to see herself engaged in a similar task as she interprets the words on the page and tries to make sense of the novel’s plot. Ultimately, both the reader and Oedipa are only sure of the existence of the reality created by their own mental projections making the mind a sort of prison-house resembling Varo’s tower and making the world itself, in a sense, unreal.

  • 2 See also Wallace’s interview on “The Charlie Rose Show”.

11Despite Waughs yin-and-yang understanding of metafiction, this “second pole” of metafiction came to be the dominant function of self-referentiality in postmodernism in its project of subverting so-called “metanarratives” and expressing skepticism regarding the existence of objective truth or reality. In this respect, metafiction became a tool for deconstruction much in the same way that writers since the 18th century had been using irony as a tool for deconstructing political authority. Just as the satirists rarely proposed sincere solutions to the problems they identified, metafiction – as it came to be used by the postmodernists and later appropriated by mainstream cultural media – rarely, if ever, served the positivist role of its supposed “first pole” function. For this reason, later writers such as David Foster Wallace would take aim at the popularization of what he called “formal stunt-pilotry” which relied on the “schticks of postmodernism”, accusing them of being among the causes for the generalized cynicism and melancholy present in the American Zeitgeist of the 1990s (McCaffery 1993, 130).2 Such criticisms contributed to an artistic movement away from the kinds of cynical modes at work in the cultural production of the time and toward a re-valorization of formerly clichéd ideas such as morality, love, or community. Adam Kelly, in his article “David Foster Wallace and the New Sincerity in American Fiction,” used the term “New Sincerity” to describe art that forgoes cynicism and excessive formal play in favor of single-entendre expression while foregrounding Wallace as purveyor of such expression. Kelly points out the necessity of such a term by building on Lionel Trilling’s definition of sincerity as “a congruence of avowal and actual feeling” (Kelly 2010 quoting Trilling, 132) while attempting to account for Wallace’s sometimes obsessively self-conscious writing.

  • 3 Marshal Boswell, for instance, provides a convincing argument that the eponymous film in Infinite J (...)

12Indeed, as Wallace became a figure of New Sincerity in his criticisms of the appropriation and widespread use of postmodern features in mainstream media, he was paradoxically using irony and self-referentiality in his own work. Obviously, for those subscribing to William Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley’s Intentional Fallacy or Roland Barthes’ “The death of the author,” such a paradox simply doesn’t exist since any comments an author makes or plans she might have for her work are irrelevant to its reception. However, writers such as Wallace represent a different breed of authors who had been educated during the height of literary Theory and who refined their writing skills in graduate-level creative writing courses. Through sometimes obscure references,3 Theory becomes an element essential to the interpretation of their work and through a combination of their own academic essays or high-brow interviews, they eloquently expose their literary objectives. In his 2009 book, The Program Era, Mark McGurl refers to this new breed as “‘theory-head’ fiction writer academics” whose work is informed by the deconstructive devices traditionally reserved for the analysis of literature rather than its production (McGurl 2009, 342). As a result, these writers are fully-aware of the implications of their aesthetic choices and often help direct readers in their interpretations. Critics in turn shift a great deal of the interpretive weight toward the authors themselves as they consider how specific modes or devices might fit within that author’s literary paradigm. Therefore, when David Foster Wallace incorporates into his fiction elements associated with metafiction while at the same time criticizing their use, the resulting tension practically begs for critical response.

13Consequently, the bulk of scholarly work4 carried out on Wallace addresses what has been called “the essay-interview nexus”5 and its relationship to his fiction – focusing most notably on his paradoxical use of metafiction. To account for such complexity, critics analyze Wallace’s use of metafiction through the lens of New Sincerity (Kelly, 2010) or Post Irony (Konstantinou, 2012) prompting McGurl to refer to such analyses as attempts “to stabilize a dangerously positive feedback loop by routing it through a stupefying jargon of authenticity and sincerity” (McGurl 2014, 33). Though McGurl is perhaps a little too quick in dismissing such work, he nevertheless identifies what is a real problem in Wallace studies: that is, the proliferation of highly-complex resolutions to the tension created by the author’s simultaneous criticism and use of irony and metafiction. Yet such complexity and confusion could be altogether avoided by re-examining Wallace’s work – and perhaps “first-pole” meta- art more generally – from the perspective of frame theory; an interdisciplinary approach with its origins in sociology and linguistics but which has garnered recent attention in the visual and literary arts.

Transcending the frame

  • 6 See Wolf 2006 pp. 296-300 or Frow 1982 pp. 25-27 for further explanation of traditional visual and (...)

14In short, frame theory seeks to understand how contextual or cognitive “frames” direct interpretation of everyday events and experience. Discussions regarding the specific elements which direct and enable these interpretations began in earnest with Erving Goffman’s 1974 monograph, Frame Analysis: An Essay on the Organization of Experience. Since Goffman’s initial study, a number of publications have expanded frame analysis to the literary and visual arts. In 1982, John Frow published a landmark article titled “The Literary Frame,” which described the features and characteristics of literary framing devices. More recently, Werner Wolf led and published an intermedial study of frames in 2006 under the title Framing Borders in Literature and Other Media. These scholars agree that in essence, frames provide the physical, environmental, or cognitive basis necessary for understanding an event, an utterance, or a discursive object such as a text or other works of art. Traditional frames in the visual arts are physical objects subservient to the image they border which help to separate the realm of representation from that of reality. They may be ornamental or of plain composition provided they satisfy their principal functions of enhancing, defining, and contextualizing the visual space. Similarly, a work of literature can be said to have its own set of devices that help to frame its representational content. The most salient examples include paratextual features such as the cover and binding of the text, inscribed with the title and name of the author, as well as any other liminal material such as publisher information, prefaces, forwards, or addenda such as author notes or biography. Additionally, the work’s associated genre or the simple understanding that it belongs to the novel tradition helps to contextualize the content and to establish expectations regarding literary conventions thus implicitly directing the reader toward specific reading or interpretive strategies.6 In the words of John Frow, who wrote one of the earliest articles about framing in literature, the literary frame acts as “an enclosure of the internal fictional space and as an exclusion of the space of reality against which the work is set” (Frow 1982, 26-27) but it also informs the reader on how to interpret that fictional space. Additionally, he notes that the literary frame serves as a means of transition between the reader’s everyday reality and the fictive world stating that traditional framing devices create a distance between the authorial voice and that of the narrator which “reinforces the difference between the realm of the narration and the realm of the narrated and eases the reader into the fictive world” (Frow 1982, 26-27).

15Artistic expression, however, is rarely content to abide by such established convention. Visual and literary frames are often subject to processes of subversion or defamiliarization which highlight the boundary between representation and reality and which, if we follow Frow’s logic, may collapse the distance between author and narrator – or object and audience more generally. Such frame breaking was hitherto labeled as meta- but the following examples seem to suggest that the effect enhances engagement more than it undermines illusion. In one such example from the visual arts, Rembrandt’s 1641 painting The Girl in the Picture Frame features a portrait of a young woman looking straight ahead, seemingly locking eyes with the viewer.7

16Though her gaze is indeed captivating, it is not long before the viewer notices that the subject appears to be reaching beyond her own aesthetic space as she rests her hands on the painted likeness of a picture frame. While scholars such as Victor Stoichita – in his book The Self-Aware Image, 2015might argue that in drawing attention to the visual frame Rembrandt uncovers the materiality of the visual artifact, it might also be argued that the trompe l’oeil effect enhances the sense of realism that allows the image to interrogate and interact with the viewer. In this case, the illusion of the young woman reaching beyond the frame both highlights the quality of the illusion itself – and admittedly the artificiality of the representation as a result – but more importantly it allows the subject to engage the viewer as she appears to be returning his gaze. The effect is therefore not entirely self-referential since it initiates a visual exchange with the viewer thus making the prefix “meta” a somewhat insufficient description. Such effects could be more accurately be referred to as “frame transcendence” – a term invented for the purposes of this essay which acknowledges the artifacts highlighting of the aesthetic frame while accounting for its ability to engage with the viewer/reader or to insist upon the existence of higher-order reality beyond the aesthetic space.

  • 8 See Bartlett 2016, 384 and Boswell 2020, 70.

17Similarly, Wallace engages the reader in what Christopher Bartlett called a “literary conversation” and what Marshall Boswell referred to as an “intimate interaction,”8 by transgressing aesthetic space. Published in 1999, his short story “Octet” is comprised of nine “Pop Quizzes”, each containing a fictional scenario and a series of direct interrogations of the reader either in the form of questions or imperatives. Lee Konstantinou, in his essay No Bull: David Foster Wallace and Postironic Belief”, points to these interrogations as an example of Wallace problematizing metafiction while self-consciously attempting to speak directly to the reader. Konstantinou makes specific reference to the story’s second footnote, associated with the ninth Pop Quiz, to highlight Wallace’s feelings on traditional metafiction and to demonstrate how the author’s own breaking of the fourth wall does indeed differ from earlier forms:

Though it all gets a little complicated, because part of what you want these little Pop Quizzes to do is to break the textual fourth wall and kind of address (or ‘interrogate’) the reader directly, which desire is somehow related to the old ‘meta’-device desire to puncture some sort of fourth wall of realist pretense, although it seems like the latter is less a puncturing of any sort of real wall and more a puncturing of the veil of impersonality or effacement around the writer himself, i.e. with the now-tired S.O.P. ‘meta’-stuff it’s more the dramatist himself coming onstage from the wings and reminding you that what’s going on is artificial and that the artificer is him (the dramatist) and but that he’s at least respectful enough of you as reader/audience to be honest about the fact that he’s back there pulling the strings, an ‘honesty’ which personally you’ve always had the feeling is actually a highly rhetorical sham-honesty that’s designed to get you to like him and approve of him […]. (Wallace 1999, 124-25)

  • 9 An example can be seen in a series of commercials for Heineken from 2016 featuring Neal Patrick Har (...)

18For Wallace, the purpose in “puncturing” the fourth wall is not to reveal artificiality but rather to “puncture” the veil hiding the author’s authentic self from the reader. Yet his interrogation of the latter through such wall-puncturing is only related to earlier, less-commercialized forms of metafiction which later gave rise to forms that were inherently manipulative. Here Wallace points out the habit of authors winking at and playfully nudging their audiences to appeal to their skepticism but one might also look to the once widespread use of metafiction in television commercials that dropped narrative pretext to cleverly head off critical response while capitalizing on that same skepticism.9 The author-narrator of “Octet” therefore makes specific mention of “S.O.P. ‘meta’-stuff” in a plea for readers not to read the footnote as conventional metafiction or to see it as another form of manipulation for commercial gain. To that end, it should be noted that Wallace addresses the reader in the second person while placing her in the position of the writer of the “Pop Quizzes.” In so doing, Wallace makes the reader an active participant in the act of breaking the fourth wall as she is invited to empathize with the author’s dilemma of wanting to connect with readers without appearing to have ulterior motives. A straight-forward resolution for this dilemma being perhaps impossible, the metafictional aspect of the footnote goes beyond the level of unilateral performance as it demands an active participation on the part of the audience.

  • 10 Significant scholarly work has been carried out on the endnotes of Infinite Jest, but for the purpo (...)

19Wallace takes this demand to the extreme in his best-known novel, Infinite Jest which, in addition to its already tremendous length, features 96 pages of endnotes containing, at times “useless” information such as pharmacological descriptions of various drugs and at others, minor details or chapter-length sections absolutely essential to the plot.10 The endnotes require the implicated reader – a non-negligible number posting on internet forums report skipping the notes entirely – to continuously step outside the frame of the main narrative as it imposes a more participatory role in the “literary conversation.” Early studies of Wallace’s novel often refer to its liberal use of endnotes, calling them its “most overtly metafictional device” while on the other hand suggesting they “make more intimate the interaction between the book and the reader” (Boswell 2020, 70) or even comparing them “to the listener responding to the speaker, actively engaging in the conversation” (Bartlett 2016, 384). Weighing a little more than a kilogram, the novel does indeed demand the reader to become more active – physically and mentally – in the reading process as she is forced to juggle between two bookmarks while keeping track of a narrative fractured by its multiple plot jumps and by the endnotes themselves. This “non-trivial effort” demanded of the reader places the novel squarely within the realm of the ergodic which Espen Aarseth, who coined the term, says raises “the stakes of interpretation to those of intervention” and which “can result in either intimacy or failure” (Aarseth 1997, 4). During his interview with Larry McCaffery, Wallace referred to another work – his novella Little Expressionless Animals – which similarly interrupted its own narrative linearity explaining that he intended for the effect to serve a number of functions, most notably

[…] to prohibit the reader from forgetting that she’s receiving heavily mediated data, that this process is a relationship between the writer’s consciousness and her own, and that in order for it to be anything like a real full human relationship, she’s going to have to put in her share of the linguistic work. (McCaffery 1993, 138)

20The endnotes of Infinite Jest highlight the literary frame as the reader passes from one frame to another thus highlighting its status as cultural artifact. More importantly however, they impose the kind of connection between text and reader typically made impossible in traditional iterations of metafiction by requiring the same kind of give-and-take required during human interactions. In forcing his readers to transcend the frame, Wallace in essence rewrites the meta- S.O.P.

21Such back-and-forth frame breaking can likewise be seen in the visual arts where once again the term “metapainting” as used by Victor Stoichita in his book The Self-Aware Image seems to fall short by privileging a work’s ability to reveal its artificiality rather than its ability to engage the viewer. Around the year 1610, the Greek artist El Greco created a landscape painting featuring a panoramic view of the Spanish city of Toledo with the Virgin Mary suspended just above.11 What is most notable about El Greco’s View and Plan of Toledo (c. 1610) is its near-surrealist style despite its late-Renaissance provenance as well as its inclusion of a young man holding a map of the same city next to its painted likeness.

22Stoichita argues that the map’s inclusion highlights the representational quality of the city in both its pictorial and cartographic forms but the assessment fails to account for the viewer’s experience passing from one representational frame to the next as she compares map to territory. Much like the endnotes of Infinite Jest, this experience is characterized by a heightened visual engagement – as the viewer’s eye is invited to make several trips between map and city – in addition to the intellectual engagement El Greco’s work elicits as the viewer comes to realize it features neither map nor territory but only the painted likeness of each. In this regard, it might be understood that View and Plan of Toledo gestures less toward its own artificiality as it does toward the real world just beyond its framed aesthetic space.

Ceci n’est pas le territoire

23Three centuries after El Greco painted his panorama of Toledo, the Polish-American linguist Alfred Korzybski made his own statement regarding the relationship between maps and territories in order to insist on the distinction between language and reality – a distinction which would later become blurred by postmodernist thinkers. In his 1933 book, Science and Sanity, Korzybski drew a parallel between maps and language stating that “a map is not the territory it represents” in order to show that “a word is not the object it represents” (Korzybski 2000, 58). The statement would come to be encapsulated by what has since been termed the “Map-Territory Relation” with writers such as Jorge Luis Borges and, of course, David Foster Wallace making direct reference to it in their work. For Wallace, it appears in one of the best-known and most entertaining scenes of Infinite Jest where a number of students at the Enfield Tennis Academy – the school/training facility known for its academic rigor and success in creating future professional athletes – play an extremely complex game of geopolitical strategy they fittingly call “Eschaton.”

24The game takes place across three adjoining tennis courts which are meant to represent a two-dimensional map of the globe while various objects on the court stand in for major cities or military installations. Players incarnating specific countries or military alliances lob tennis balls representing nuclear missiles toward strategic locations on the “map” in order to neutralize the threats posed by other players as they in turn try to avoid being hit. During this particular instance of gameplay, snow begins falling on the courts prompting one player to request that the complex game parameters be modified to reflect the new conditions. Watching the game comfortably from the sidelines is Michael Pemulis who, considered to be the main authority on the rules of the game, finds the request not only absurd but a major affront to the logic of the game. Indeed, such a request suggests the player’s belief that “real-world” snow falling on the courts has implications for the game's territory that they are meant to represent. The relative quiet of the scene is suddenly broken by the “screeching” of Pemulis’s chair as he jumps to his feet to respond to the player’s request. An intense debate ensues regarding the relationship between the tennis court as “map” and the “reality” of the game’s territory. There are, on the one hand, those who blur the line between the reality of the map and that of the territory, and those, like Pemulis, who insist on maintaining a clear diegetic boundary between the two. The debate turns violent as one player targets another with a tennis ball while claiming the strike destroyed her launch capacity (her ability to lob tennis balls) and collection of ordinance (bucket of tennis balls) in an even more violent affront to the boundary between the “reality” of the game and its representations. Pemulis quickly loses his patience as he explains that, “players are part of the apparatus of the game. They’re part of the map. It’s snowing on the players but not on the territory. They’re part of the map, not the cluster-fucking territory” (Wallace 1996, 338). For Pemulis, conflating the map with the territory is tantamount to denying the existence of objective reality and therefore represents a solipsistic threat and a destruction of the “real” on an eschatological scale.

25Yet hiding just behind Pemulis’s melodramatic meltdown and the general humor of the scene is an author very seriously asserting the existence of a medial frame separating representation from reality in order to show that any problems associated with such representation – linguistic or otherwise – should not be understood to extend into the realm of reality as earlier purveyors of metafiction often sought to do. Wallace of course draws attention to the literary frame, and incidentally to the border of his “infinite” jest, but he does so to steer readers away from what he considered to be the philosophical dead-end to which earlier postmodern fiction had led.

26This was a dead-end that even earlier surrealist artists sought to avoid in their interrogations of the representational frame. For the Belgian artist René Magritte, conflating representation and reality was indeed a “treacherous” affair as suggested by what is perhaps his best-known painting, “The Treachery of Images” (1929, Broad Contemporary Art Museum, Los Angeles, 60.33 x 81.12 cm). This image is almost enigmatic for its extreme simplicity but when taken at face-value the message is clear: the viewer is in fact not looking at a pipe as suggested by its painted message “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” [this is not a pipe], but rather at a visual representation of a pipe. As such, the viewer’s attention is unavoidably drawn to the artificiality of the aesthetic space within the frame but this is not where artists like Magritte or Wallace leave us. Indeed, where metafiction highlights the problematic nature of representation, it does little to find – or at least attempt to find – resolutions. Konstantinou, in his article, pointed out that metafiction and irony serve similar deconstructive functions; “Metafiction is a form of irony because, like irony, it forces the reader/subject to ceaselessly question all grounds for understanding […]. The result is that metafiction doesn’t undermine this or that belief, but belief as such (Konstantinou 2012, 89-90, emphasis original). In Wallace’s words, irony and metafiction are useful tools in deconstructing tyrannical metanarratives, but they do not propose new systems of understanding the world; they only become “better tyrants” (Wallace 1993, 183). On the other hand, artists such as Magritte or Wallace manage to use devices resembling metafiction but they do so in such a way that it doesn’t lead to the trap of endless self-referentiality. Terms such as ‘New Sincerity’ or ‘Post Irony’ do little to provide a model which explains the mechanics of just how such a trap can be avoided. Yet when we approach “first pole” meta-art from the perspective of the frame, we arrive at a much more satisfactory understanding of what would otherwise be understood in terms of simple self-referentiality. Wallace draws attention to and transcends the literary frame while inviting the reader to do the same in order to renew the relationship between her and the authorial voice while also asserting the existence of reality beyond its representations. By inviting us to transcend the representational frame, artists such as Wallace encourage their audience to continue their efforts to identify with the reality that lies just beyond.

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1 Remedios Varo, “Bordando el manto Terrestre” (“Embroidering the Earth's Mantle”), Oil on Masonite, 100 × 123 cm, Private collection, Chicago. See (all web references valid on 15 October 2023).

2 See also Wallace’s interview on “The Charlie Rose Show”.

3 Marshal Boswell, for instance, provides a convincing argument that the eponymous film in Infinite Jest provides a dramatization of Lacan’s objet petit‘a’ and a speculation on the disastrous effects of obtaining one’s object of desire. Wallace’s familiarity with Lacan lends credibility to the idea that the allusion was indeed intentional. See Boswell 2020, 76.

4 For a complete list of Wallace criticism, see

5 Referring to Wallace’s essay “E Unibus Pluram” and his interview with Larry McCaffery. Both of which outline the author’s literary project and appeared side-by-side in the summer 1993 issue of The Review of Contemporary Fiction.

6 See Wolf 2006 pp. 296-300 or Frow 1982 pp. 25-27 for further explanation of traditional visual and literary frames.


8 See Bartlett 2016, 384 and Boswell 2020, 70.

9 An example can be seen in a series of commercials for Heineken from 2016 featuring Neal Patrick Harris making comments on beer advertising itself and sometimes interacting with the film crew. While the effect ‘pokes-fun’ at advertising, it nevertheless helps the brand to sell their product in a subtly manipulative fashion.

10 Significant scholarly work has been carried out on the endnotes of Infinite Jest, but for the purposes of this essay I have chosen to only refer to the comments by Marshal Boswell and Christopher Bartlett.


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Dane Coult, « Ceci n’est pas le territoire: Transcending the Visual and Literary Frame »Sillages critiques [En ligne], 35 | 2023, mis en ligne le 14 novembre 2023, consulté le 25 février 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Dane Coult

Université de Strasbourg

Originally from Los Angeles, California, Dane Coult received his master’s degree in Anglophone Studies from the University of Strasbourg in 2022 specializing in contemporary American literature. He wrote a Master’s thesis titled “Language, Alienation, and Redemption in David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest” and delivered a talk on the subject of Frame Transcendence in Infinite Jest at the Eucor English Master’s Conference in 2022. He currently works as an English language teaching assistant at the University of Strasbourg.

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