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Swimming in Linguistic Soup: Wallace, Wittgenstein, Water and Writing

August 4, 2009
What the fuck is water?

"What the fuck is water?"

Daryl of Infinite Zombies fame had a great post last week about the sadness at the heart of Infinite Jest, and how it can be easy to miss this among Wallace’s brilliant, darkly comic writing. This got me wondering about whether this is a bug or a feature of the book — whether Wallace’s writerly pyrotechnics outshone and inadvertently undermined the sadness message, or whether he was in fact doing something deliberate.

I suspect the latter is the case, and I see two plausible explanations for what Wallace is up to. The first, as Daryl argued in a subsequent post, is that “maybe Wallace did kind of bury [the sadness] and submerge us in all of these dark clever things to make us really work to separate the comic from the tragic.” I hemmed and hawed about this when I first read it but now I think it’s a fundamentally valid claim, particularly given comments Wallace made about wanting the reader to be “uneasy” and to “fight through the mediated voice presenting the material to you” in a 1993 interview with the Review of Contemporary Fiction. Infinite Jest‘s weird dynamic in which tragedy (eg a father’s suicide) often comes cloaked in comedy (eg Hal and “something smells delicious!”) is certainly jarring enough to make you stop and say “whoa — what’s really going on here.”

But I also think there’s more to this. The comedy in IJ is so powerful and all-encompassing that I can’t help but see it as more than metafictional “stunt-pilotry” (Wallace’s term) that keeps the reader engaged and on her toes.

Wallace was really into the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein.* In that same exact ’93 interview, Wallace talks about a Wittgensteinian double-bind w/r/t language and the exterior world. He gets into some deep philosophical waters in the interview, which I’m not going to parse out here. Instead I’d like to zoom in on the point where Wallace talks about letting “language become the world–the exterior and everything in it.” In other words, positing the world as “a linguistic construct,” which, if you’ve taken any college-level lit. theory classes, is a notion you’re probably all-too-familiar with.

But following Wittgenstein, Wallace qualifies this claim by saying that “it’s not that language ‘is’ us, but we’re still ‘in’ it, inescapably.” This notion of being inescapably in language is one possible way of reading the “What the fuck is water?” joke — water is language, all around us, completely suffusing everything we think or do, so inescapable that it tends to be overlooked (incidentally, Infinite Tasks dishes up some high-octane thinking on the water joke that’s worth a careful read).

While the “world-as-linguistic-construct” thing has always seemed kind of bullshitty to me, the language-as-water idea (in other words that language doesn’t constitute the world, but it does permeate it, thoroughly) seems a lot more fruitful and grounded in reality. And the thing is, we aren’t just permeated by language — we create language, too. We can add — by speaking, writing, or otherwise communicating with others — to the language that surrounds us. The act of artistic creation (say, writing a monster of a book like IJ) is a major way that we can add to the linguistic soup we swim in.

And so, there’s a way in which the comedic brilliance of Wallace’s writing in Infinite Jest openly defies the real-world sadness he’s writing about. The sadness of the world kind of hangs suspended in Wallace’s brilliant word-soup (alphabet soup?). Wallace isn’t capable of writing sadness out of the world, but he can (and I think IJ does) add a certain color to the way we understand it.

* In fact Wallace’s first novel, The Broom of the System, was essentially a love/hate letter to Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. The Tractatus argues that language is a mimetic representation of the world, but nothing more. And we can’t have direct access to the world, because our understanding of the world will always be mediated through this representational language. As Wallace puts it in that same ’93 interview, “the individual with her language is trapped in here, with the world out there, and never the twain shall meet” [if this quote doesn’t ring roughly 600 Infinite Jest-related bells for you, please re-visit page 1].

2 Comments leave one →
  1. August 6, 2009 1:06 am

    You’re on fire these days!

    Thought you might want to know there’s a Wittgenstein thread over in the IS Forums that is very smart, focusing on Lucien and with important references to his “aphonia” and “landed-fish” gasps (p.488).

    Thanks for the octane nod, but it is a gift that returns to sender. Your explanation here is spot-on, and serves to clear up long-standing confusions between a world made up “of” language versus being “in” it.

  2. infinitedetox permalink*
    August 6, 2009 8:59 am

    Awesome thread — thanks for pointing that out as I probably would have missed it otherwise!

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