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David Foster Wallace’s Technical Jargon: Letting Style Be Style

September 12, 2011

I recently read David Foster Wallace’s short story collection Oblivion. I love what I’ve read of Wallace’s novels and nonfiction work, but this is my first encounter with his short stories.

Oblivion helped crystalize for me a feeling I’ve always had about Wallace’s use of technical and otherwise esoteric jargon. It’s obvious to anyone who’s read any of Wallace’s work that he uses a lot of jargon in his prose, even in fiction and nontechnical essays. His motivations for doing so are less clear. In this post I intend to develop a theory of how and why Wallace uses technical language. To help me do so, I will play off of some quotes from this review of Oblivion by James Wood. Wood’s review sets out a interpretation of Wallace’s style that is interesting and well-stated, but (in my opinion) wrong. My central purpose here isn’t to attack Wood, although I disagree with him. Rather, I bring Wood in because his interpretation helped me figure out what my own views were, if only by providing me with something to contrast them with.

To begin, here’s a crucial bit from Wood’s review:

[Colson] Whitehead aims to do something Wallace usually achieves with greater suppleness: he wants to borrow the precision that a word like “deviant” or “sonant” possesses in its colder official — that is, scientific or theoretical or statistical — discourse, and then assault that precision within the new, looser, warmer context of literature. This is deconstruction, essentially. (Anyone puzzled about where theory went after it died in the academy — or, more precisely, where the language of theory went — need look no further than contemporary American fiction, whose leading writers represent the first generation to have studied literary theory and cultural studies at college.)

The first sentence above is an excellent description of one of the most noticeable features of Wallace’s style. The following two sentences provide an interpretation of this feature that is, I think, entirely wrong. Wood’s idea — sustained throughout the review — is that, by using technical terms outside of their strictly defined, “official” meaning, Wallace is trying to undermine and parody (to “assault” and “deconstruct”) official meanings. That is, Wood thinks Wallace uses this sort of language for purely negative reasons, as a way of making fun of aspirations to precision, objectivity and expertise — or just as a way of making fun of how this sort of language sounds. Thus, the apparent “sloppiness” of Wallace’s usage (with its “assault” on precision) is — as a jargon-inclined Wallace narrator might put it — a feature, not a bug:

[Wallace] wants his prose to register all the many decompositions that language has already undergone in ordinary American discourse — where “ordinary” means the sloppy illiteracies of e-mail, the facilities of the Net, the neologistic outlandishness of middle-management speak, the knowing carelessness of journalism. He wants his prose to be manically absorptive, endlessly soaking up the foul linguistic run-off of contemporary fluidity.

What I want to say here is that I think we get Wallace wrong if we view his interest in technical language as the result of any more basic tendency — such as a satirical bent — rather than as a basic, irreducible stylistic interest. That is, I think Wallace uses technical language and various sorts of jargon simply because he is interested in these types of speech, and in the possibilities they might create for interesting literary effects. This interpretation makes sense of the fact that Wallace always uses technical terms and jargon, even when his intent does not appear to be either satirical or mimetic. Wood acknowledges this, saying that Wallace “always sounds like himself, even when he is ventriloquizing someone else,” but Wood views it as a defect in Wallace’s mimetic “ventriloquism,” which he takes to be the point of Wallace’s writing. Thus, on Wood’s account, Wallace does not really have a “style” per se. His characters are just meant to sound the way that a certain sort of modern human sounds, which is why all the jargon is there, and why it is used in such a sloppy manner (because Wallace’s characters are the sort of people who talk that way). Thus, the persistent, invariant features of Wallace’s style — which can sometimes sound implausible coming from this or that particular character — are taken to be nothing more than imperfections in the attempt at “ventriloquism.”

This is simply a refusal to let Wallace have a style of his own. It seems that Wood cannot imagine that writing as weird, and often superficially ugly, as Wallace’s could be enjoyed for its own sake rather than as parody. But in fact many people, including me, do enjoy that writing for its own sake. And the feature that Wood calls “deconstruction” (i.e., using technical terms outside of their official meanings) is one of the things I enjoy about Wallace’s style — not because it undermines or satirizes technical language, but because it commandeers the sensory feel and atmosphere of technical language for the task of literary description.

That is: technical language has appealing characteristics beyond its utility for neutral and precise description. It has certain definite sensual features, and certain definite ways of interacting with the rest of language (through etymology, contrast between colloquial and technical usages of a given word, etc.) Further: one of the appealing things about technical language, from a “warm” or literary standpoint, is the atmosphere of cold and unbiased precision it confers, which to some extent is retained even when the terms are no longer being used in a strictly “correct” way.

Thus in Wallace’s writing there is always a certain tension. On the one hand we have a compelling interest in the sensual and emotional dimensions of technical (and in some cases bureaucratic) language. On the other hand, in order to explore this territory, Wallace has to use terms in “unofficial,” essentially sloppy ways — for otherwise he would literally be writing a technical manual, an academic paper, or the like, and those modes are too rigidly restrictive to be used as literary forms. So there is always a certain note of either parody or dishonesty in Wallace’s prose, because he is trying to create the crisp, definitive feel of technical writing without abiding by the very standards of rigor through which that feel became associated with technical writing in the first place. This is an unavoidable problem with the sort of thing Wallace is trying to do, and I can understand why one might fault Wallace for the ways he chooses to deal with it (or not to). But it is uninteresting, and simplistic in the extreme, to suppose (as Wood seems to) that because Wallace’s writing always seems a bit dishonest, he must simply be making fun of other people’s dishonesty. The appearance of dishonesty is, rather, an inevitable “occupational hazard” of the sort of thing Wallace is trying to do.

I’ve said that Wallace uses technical language for a variety of purposes, only some of them satirical. Let’s look at some examples. In Oblivion, the story that best exemplifies Wallace in his satirical mode is “Mister Squishy.” Wood describes this story as “written in a hideous pastiche of marketing-speak . . . fundamentally unreadable — deliberately, defiantly so,” which is honestly not that far from the truth. The following is a pretty typical sentence:

Hostess’s lead agency Chiat/Day I.B.’s 1991-2 double-blind Behavior series’ videotapes recorded over 45% of younger consumers actually peeling off Ho Hos’ matte icing in great dry jagged flakes and eating it solo, leaving the low cake itself to sit ossifying on their tables’ Lazy Susans, film clips of which had reportedly been part of R.S.B.’s initial pitch to Mister Squishy’s parent company’s Subsidiary Product Development boys.

This is ugly and ridiculous stuff, to be sure, though there is a certain perverse grandeur to it (“great dry jagged flakes”). The awkward syntax, the boringness of the information being conveyed, the inclusion of decontextualized (and thus meaningless) numerical data, the glib insider’s tone (“Subsidiary Product Development boys”) — all of these are typical of the prose in “Mister Squishy,” and all of them are clearly meant to seem repulsive and parodic.

But “Mister Squishy” is a story with its own specific goals, and these goals are well-served by the writing style. (In other words, Wallace uses the style here because it fits, not because it’s just “his thing.”) The vast majority of the story’s text (which spans 64 pages) is devoted to describing a briefing being given by Terry Schmidt, an employee at a market research firm, to a focus group he is administering. Schmidt is focus-testing a new packaged dessert product called a Felony!, which is branded with a familiar logo character named Mister Squishy. The story spends pages upon pages telling us more than we could possibly want to know about this briefing, Schmidt’s own insider’s perspective on the information he is relating, the details of the focus group methodology used by Schmidt’s firm, the challenges of analyzing focus group data, etc. All of this is made deliberately uninteresting, and aesthetically/sensually repulsive, in order to contrast with certain other elements that occasionally surface, such as Schmidt’s intense dissatisfaction with his job, a mysterious figure (possibly a terrorist) who is slowly scaling a nearly building, and the suggestion that the packaged desserts which are being presented to the focus group have been poisoned. All of these threads have more aesthetic/emotional/narrative “human interest,” at least superficially, than the market research shop-talk that surrounds them, yet that shop-talk is again and again given priority by the narrator, as if it is obviously the part the reader cares about. This strategy has an amusing ironic effect, and it also suggests an interesting non-ironic possibility — that perhaps there really is something preferable about the enveloping dullness of the shop-talk, given that all the other threads of the story are either depressing or frightening. Certainly, at the very least, a job that is so irrelevant to normal human concerns can become a comforting distraction on occasions when attending to normal human concerns would lead one to despair.

So that is “Mister Squishy”: a story with its own idiosyncratic goals, and not a paradigm case for Wallace’s style, at least not in any straightforward way. Now let’s look at a much less astringent sample of Wallacean prose. Here is a descriptive passage from “The Suffering Channel,” another story in Oblivion:

She turned slightly to push at her mass of occipital curls, which had tightened shinily in the storm’s moist air. Her voice was a dulcet alto with something almost hypnotic in the timbre. There were tiny random fragments of spindrift rain through the window’s opened crack, and a planar flow of air that felt blessed, and the front seat’s starboard list became more severe, which as he rose so very slowly gave Atwater the sensation that either he was physically enlarging or Mrs. Moltke was diminishing somewhat in relative size, or at any rate that the physical disparity between them was become less marked. It occurred to Atwater that he could not recall when he had eaten last. He could not feel his right leg anymore, and his ear’s outer flange felt nearly aflame.

There are several things I want to note about this passage. First, it makes extensive use of technical or technical-sounding language (“occipital,” “timbre,” “random,” “spindrift,” “planar flow,” “starboard,” “relative size,” “physical disparity,” “outer flange”). Second: whatever is going on here, it is not the mimesis of “Mister Squishy,” which aimed to imitate the ugly and ridiculous way in which people at a marketing research firm might actually talk or write. The two characters in this scene are a midwestern housewife and a reporter for a glossy, fluffy newsmagazine; it’s hard to imagine either of them using a phrase like “planar flow.” Third: whether or not this passage sounds parodic to your ear, to mine it is charming, even pretty. The sentences have an nice mouth-feel and a balanced weight to them, with none of the turgidity we saw in “Mister Squishy.” The third sentence is quite long (as are many of Wallace’s sentences), but the mind is guided from one clause to the next without too much confusion. Here the use of technical language is neither satirical nor imitative, but conventionally and unironically lyrical.

The use of technical language for non-ironic effect achieves its exuberant height in Infinite Jest. The following sentence, from IJ‘s first chapter, may seem like an odd way to illustrate that fact, but bear with me:

And in this new smaller company, the Director of Composition seems abruptly to have actuated, emerged as both the Alpha of the pack here and way more effeminate than he’d seemed at first, standing hip-shot with a hand on his waist, walking with a roll to his shoulders, jingling change as he pulls up his pants as he slides into the chair still warm from C.T.’s bottom, crossing his legs in a way that inclines him well into my personal space, so that I can see multiple eyebrow-tics and capillary webs in the oysters below his eyes and smell fabric-softener and the remains of a breath-mint turned sour.

This sentence is (to me) very funny. The comedy is a bit grotesque and cruel, but I think it works in context — and whether or not it works, the attempted comedic criticism is at the expense of the Director of Composition, not Hal Incandenza (the narrator of this chapter). If the idiosyncratic diction here (“actuated,” “capillary webs”) makes us laugh, we are laughing with it, not at it. In “Mister Squishy,” it was the prose itself that was unpleasant; here, instead, we feel that the prose is ruthlessly limning the unpleasantness of its subject.

Things become more interesting when we consider the scene in which this sentence appears. Hal, a star high school tennis player and linguistic prodigy, is in a college admission interview for the University of Arizona. Some mysterious ailment, unspecified at this point in the book, has made Hal unable to speak: whenever he attempts to talk, what he experiences as speech is experienced by others as a sequence of harrowingly bizarre gestures and “sub-animalistic” noises. He has attempted to plow his way through the interview without speaking, by bringing several staff members from his high school into the room and having them speak for him, but the interviewers have asked the staff members to leave — hence the “new smaller company” mentioned in the quotation above. Thus, there are several poignant tensions lying just under the comedic surface here: Hal’s mockery of the Director’s body language and hygiene reflect a nervous need to retain some sense of dominance or superiority in an essentially frightening and powerless position, and his boisterous, creative use of language reflect the frustration and impotence of a language prodigy (as a child, Hal could recite large swaths of the dictionary) who has been stripped of the ability to communicate his experience in words. In other words, Hal is showing us how idiosyncratic, clever, and quintessentially verbal his utterances would be, if only he could utter at all. (The irony is made especially sharp by the detail that, as it turns out, the Director of Composition himself speaks in an awkward and pretentious manner — Hal is in fact much better at “composition” than he is, though Hal has no way to show it.)

The word “actuated” here is a particularly nice example, a sort of crossing-point between two of Wallace’s stylistic tendencies. As an engineering term, it constitutes just another example of a technical word used in a relatively loose way. In pure descriptive terms, the word is not valuable so much for the literal precision it confers as for the feeling of crispness and exactitude it conveys — “the Director of Composition abruptly springs into motion” would mean roughly the same thing, but would have none of the stylistic verve, none of the charm, of “the Director of Composition seems abruptly to have actuated.” Nor would it have the aura of ruthless descriptive accuracy that is so important here for establishing Hal’s defensive emotional state. And since we would not conventionally expect an engineering term to pop up in this sort of descriptive passage — not in the work of any other author, anyway — it also counts as a strange, colorful usage, one reflecting a creative and jaunty love for language. Thus, in an almost paradoxical way, the “cold” precision of the word in itself and the “warm” colorfulness of the word as a linguistic choice in this context are both simultaneously mobilized for literary effect. And that effect, which is both comedic and sad and which elevates rather than parodies Wallace’s protagonist Hal, is far more complex and interesting than the cold, ugly parody that Wood describes.

One more example. The Pale King, Wallace’s final novel — left unfinished when he died — is about the lives of IRS workers and the intense boredom they experience on the job. I don’t want to dwell on this example for very long, since my point is very simple. Essentially, Wallace’s goal for The Pale King (as established in his writing and interviews about the book, and in the unfinished document that survives him) was to bring to the surface what was merely a subtle undercurrent in “Mister Squishy”: the idea that the bureaucratic dullness, jargon-filled esotericism, and social/interpersonal unsexiness of a job like accountancy can actually be, in some way, ennobling. A feature, not a bug. The only thing I want to say about the style of The Pale King is that it includes numerous passages of arid IRS-speak which are superficially reminiscent of the marketing-speak sections of “Mister Squishy,” except that in The Pale King, the implied authorial attitude towards this sort of material is much more straightforwardly positive. (Yes, it’s boring, tedious, unsexy. But the main theme of the book is that these aren’t necessarily bad qualities.) Just another example of how Wallace’s interest in technical language transcends any particular attitude toward that language, or toward the institutions that use it.

(This makes an awkward ending for the post, and there were a number of other things I had in my mind to talk about. But if I tried to fit all these in here, I’d never be done. So there you have it.)

4 Comments leave one →
  1. September 17, 2011 8:56 pm

    R– From the little Wallace I read (very little– about 10% of Infinite Jest) I agree with your assessment. Wallace may use this as a parody from time to time, but the technical jargon and just the general ungainliness of his prose is a stylistic enterprise. He seems to revel in the off-putting aesthetic both for it’s humorous value and for its versatility in the description of grotesque characters. He also, I think, quite jovially invites the reader to join him in his enjoyment of the aesthetic ugliness. Seneca’s Oedipus Rex shows a similar enjoyment, although he is more interested in the exaggerated description natural filth as a metaphor for profane human action, whereas it seems (in my limited experience) that Wallace primarily uses the language to demonstrate something about the character of humans or human institutions.

    This is also a large part of the reason I found him off-putting. As a reader of fiction and literature, I am a bit of a Victorian woman in that I want to keep my boots and hem away from the mud, so much as possible, and love the adventure of seeing exciting places– so long as I can enjoy them from the safety of my English bed-and-breakfast; I tend to like the same grotesqueness of character eluded to in more beautiful prose, rather than either the stylistic ugliness or, as you eloquently put it, “the prose…ruthlessly limning the unpleasantness of its subject.” Perhaps my reader’s eye join the 21st century; I will give Wallace another try (at some juncture).

    • linebrick permalink*
      September 18, 2011 9:38 pm

      Oh my god Darby David Foster Wallace is just like Seneca and I never knew it until thirty seconds ago.

  2. September 19, 2011 5:09 pm

    I’m sorry, this is almost entirely irrelevant, but I just love the verb “to limn,” and it’s been on my mind recently because of:

    • nostalgebraist permalink*
      September 19, 2011 5:28 pm


      I think “One Life to Limn” may have been where I learned the word in the first place, actually.

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