Document Type


Publication Date

Fall 2018

Department 1

Interdisciplinary Studies


David Foster Wallace famously characterized his first novel, The Broom of the System, as ‘a conversation between [Ludwig] Wittgenstein and [Jacques] Derrida.’ This comes as little surprise, given the ubiquity of the question of language in the works of these two thinkers, and given the novel’s constant reflections on the relation between language and world. Broom’s protagonist, Lenore Beadsmen – in search of her eponymous great-grandmother – is preoccupied with the dread that ‘all that really exists of [her] life is what can be said about it,’ that is to say, that reality is entirely coextensive with language. If, as Wittgenstein says, ‘The limits of my language mean the limits of my world,’ and, ‘I am my world,’ then it stands to reason that ‘the limits of my language mean the limits of myself.’ This is the fearful hypothesis that drives The Broom of the System.

Much of the scholarship surrounding the novel has interpreted Wallace’s remark as an assertion that the novel constitutes a debate between Wittgenstein and Derrida, and has, more often than not, assumed that Wittgenstein ‘wins’ that debate for Wallace. In his groundbreaking work, Understanding David Foster Wallace, Marshall Boswell writes that for Wallace, ‘the job of the post-Barth [i.e., John Barth, with whom Boswell lumps Derrida] novelist is to ‘… overturn the related insistence that texts are “closed systems” that produce their own meaning through endless self-reference.’ The ‘self-conscious meta-fictional novel,’ he writes, ‘in David Foster Wallace’s hands, becomes an open system of communication—an elaborate and entertaining game—between author and reader,’ and Boswell credits Wittgenstein as the inspiration for this thought of the open system. Alternatively, some scholars have left Derrida out of the discussion entirely. Despite the oft-cited quotation from Lipsky’s book, it remains the case, as Bradley Fest has noted, that Derrida’s ‘influence on Wallace’s work still remains largely unexplored.’

There are a number of likely explanations for this privileging of Wittgenstein. The most obvious is the fact that Wallace himself addresses Wittgenstein far more frequently and directly than he does Derrida. Wallace famously wrote a review of David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress, which includes a fair amount of broader commentary on Wittgenstein’s project. While Derrida’s name does not appear in The Broom of the System, Wittgenstein’s name is mentioned multiple times, as the ‘mad crackpot genius’ who had been the inspiration for Gramma Lenore’s philosophy, which is the source of Lenore’s aforementioned dread. Wittgenstein was the author of the Philosophical Investigations and of an apparently esoteric green book without which Gramma Lenore never left her home at the Shaker Heights nursing facility. Indeed Wittgenstein, represented by the ever-elusive Gramma Lenore herself, wafts like a specter through the entirety of the novel. However, any simple valorization of Wittgenstein in the thinking of Wallace risks overlooking what Wallace characterizes as the ‘horror’ that Wittgenstein leaves us with. In the famous interview with Larry McCaffery, Wallace cites Wittgenstein as ‘the real architect of the postmodern trap,’ the worry, indoctrinated into Lenore by her great-grandmother, that ‘a life is words and nothing else,’ that there is no ‘extra-linguistic anything.’ The dread that burdens Lenore also burdens Wallace, and it is this dread for which Wallace seeks a solution in his writing, both in The Broom of the System and beyond. As Wallace says to McCaffery, ‘If the world is itself a linguistic construct, there’s nothing “outside” language for language to have to picture or refer to. This … leads right to the postmodern, poststructural dilemma of having to deny yourself an existence independent of language.’ If the novel is indeed a ‘conversation between Wittgenstein and Derrida,’ and if it is Wittgenstein, and not Derrida, whose thinking points toward the ‘postmodern trap,’ then perhaps we should consider that Derrida may have been a source of hope for Wallace.

In this essay, I therefore invite Derrida into this conversation, arguing that, contrary to popular intuitions, Derrida might just be the thinker who points the way in Wallace’s system beyond the ‘postmodern trap.’ As noted, Wallace grapples with the ‘horror’ of language with no ‘outside’. We can think of this ‘anxiety of the outside’ in two ways: (1) that my language belongs only to me, and so if there is no outside of language, there is no outside of myself – the problem of solipsism from the early Wittgenstein, about which Wallace worried extensively; (2) that the world itself is nothing more than language, and hence there is no outside of language that would constitute myself, nothing more to me than the language that is used to describe me – I am not truly a self at all. As Lenore’s significant other – Rick Vigorous – says of Lenore, ‘she simply felt … as if she had no real existence…’ It is Derrida – the silent interlocutor in the book – and not Wittgenstein, who disrupts this double bind, with his famous ‘non-concept’ known as différance, the differential play of force at the heart of all language (and life). Différance points toward an essential exteriority at the heart of the self, thereby avoiding the solipsistic danger of the self-enclosed world. Moreover, différance also points toward an essential outside to language, according to Derrida, and in so doing, it points toward dimensions of human life – intensity, desire, affect, force – that elude the grasp of language, precisely because they too are part of the differential play. Before addressing these characteristics of différance, I shall first discuss Wallace’s anxiety of the outside through the ‘double bind’ he sees in Wittgenstein.




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