On White Male Toxicity and Academic Complicity: A Run In With The David Foster Wallace Society

RND/ To consider a brief run-in with the ‘International’ David Foster Wallace Society – a summary of rhetorical internet micro-aggressions.

In which your initial message to the DFWS was in part prompted after receiving seven literary submission rejections in a row. (It’s not that you don’t really care about the suffering of others at the hands of toxic white male culture – but you are jealous of and angry about all the privileged literary attention such assholes get over everyone else):

Message to the David Foster Wallace Society

Subsequent email exchanges as follows. Note how this horrible little clique deliberately fail to critically engage with what’s being discussed – like it’s all about their hurt little fweelings, their innocence and nothing else. Man the covered wagons, whiteboys and girls, we’re under attack again! Talk about a total lack of awareness of institutional (white, male) privilege.

White fragility, the part of white supremacy that goes nuclear when anyone even says the word ‘white’, creates even more emotional labour when we need to explain to white people why they aren’t the real victims here. Because white privilege makes race a frictionless experience for white people, whenever minimal friction is generated through a conversation about whiteness, they perceive it as an attack, most often personally.
– Benjamin Doxtdator, White Supremacy Runs on Denying the Existence of White Privilege

Dear Mr. Bucher (I presume)

> I’m not sure if you are expecting a sincere reply to this

Merely because the question was initially rhetorical, doesn’t mean it wasn’t serious.

> but we are a scholarly organization affiliated with the American Literature Association

Oh well, that’s All White then..

> and have published critical work on gender and Wallace

You mean, https://www.dfwsociety.org/2017/08/08/scholarly-pieces-by-women-on-dfw/

I wonder if these distinctly academic titles directly address women’s suffering at the hands of DWF, his general toxic bro-lit masculinity – and what the moral consequences are for innately privileged societies like yours.

> So no, obviously we don’t think the Society should be cancelled.

Obviously, indeed. Sir, such a reply is telling, as it does not appear to address anything in the link originally sent. Here’s another DWF Society may also ignore:


Sincerely, Robert What

Dear Mr. Short

Thank you for your reply.

> We attempted to have ourselves cancelled back in 2018 when the article you cite was first published (HOT take, beeteedubs), but due to changes in our vendors’ Terms of Service (most recently due to COVID-19), we were unable to secure refunds for our Society expenditures. Alas, we exist still!

That it seems the Society makes light of DFW’s abuse and toxicity is no joke.

> Rest assured though, every last one of our board members is engaged in nonstop, public self-flagellation for our sins.

Such a response seems to indicate the degree to which DFW Society does not truly feel in any way morally responsible for the toxicity of its deified literary hero.

> I’d love to elaborate, but I already owe myself another 40 lashes for taking time out of my flogging schedule to respond to this email.

Perhaps if one were to spent more time thinking critically, it would leave less time for self abuse in public?

> 1. How does one “rhetorically wander”?

One doesn’t. If it wasn’t entirely obvious, I’m straight up telling you David Foster Wallace was a considerable douchebag – and that your Society simply needs to listen.

> 2. Have you ever read anything Wallace wrote?

If you have, my condolences; like many, I once cherry-flicked through Infinite Circle Jerk for an hour or so, looking for any good bits – but had to stop due to almost dying from terminal, hipster-induced boredom.

> 3. You are aware the man is dead, yes?

So the dead get a free pass? What about those he left behind, still dealing with the trauma he caused? DFW’s toxic legacy lives on though rabid fans, complicit through ignoring his disgusting misogyny – and probably their own. ‘Death Of The Author’ indeed.

> What would you propose our punishment be?

It’s already happening; the DFW Society appears to be suffering under the delusion that nothing white male bandanna wearing saviors do in real life have any baring on academic literary analysis. They are wrong.

> What would, at the end of the day, finally satisfy?

That privileged societies like yours take the suffering of women seriously? In fact, I want to hear from any of DFW Society’s female members about this matter.

> (At the risk of spoiling the joke) Sarcastically, El Presidente

No the joke’s on you, Friendo.

Sincerely, Robert What

> Pee Ess, I am considering bringing a motion before the Board to acquire your “2020 sky bat” (as opposed to, say, a “2020 earth bat” or “2020 water bat”) piece, but I foresee its $178,248.00 USD price tag being cost prohibitive at the current exchange rates. Is your fee negotiable? Much Appreciated, —RS

(Obviously a piss take. -Rob ;-/

> First of all: it’s Dr. Short.

Well excuse me, Doc.

> Second, if you’d had even a cursory look at what we do, you’d see that your concerns are being addressed and that our board is far from homogeneous.

More White People: The David Foster Wallace Society

Oh, one can certainly see that. The diversity is breathtaking. As for ‘my concerns’, what are those exactly? Oh, wait – you already seem to know:

> I know that in your own mind, you think you’re doing something courageous. Awareness-raising.

No, initially in fact I was merely pissed about receiving several literary rejections in a row – specifically, about how rich privileged white males seem to get the lion’s share of literary ‘free market’ attention; I then decided to sarcastically vent a little by sending your nice Society a note about toxic white males.

> Maybe even posting these little exchanges in some social setting I couldn’t give a shit less about to show how right you are and how wrong we are.

Easy there, Tiger. That your spurs are jingling and jangling quite so hard, could well be interpreted as an indication of the precise degree such messages touch a raw nerve in societies like yours. Question is, Doc, is what you ‘give a shit about’ – David Foster Wallace – really worth anyone’s time and attention?

> But what you’re actually doing is trolling a group of well-meaning, thoughtful, considerate people who are actively wrestling with all the years-old shit about Wallace you somehow think you’re bringing to our attention.

Is it merely trolling, if others get to see the types of political processes at work under the surface of an otherwise seemingly well meaning, thoughtful and considerate (/literary) society? One wonders what ‘active wrestling’ takes place in such Societies, which too often seem little more than rhetorical ideological devices for pandering to the myth of (the essential purity of toxic male) literary deities – who should perhaps be resigned to the historical dustbin.

> I wrote my doctoral dissertation on Wallace after the Karr revelations. After the Max bio.

What do you want, another medal for contributions to dead white Western male culture? What does ‘writing a doctoral dissertation prove’, exactly? That everything’s dandy in literary paradise? That there’s nothing more to say or do about white hipster assholes like David Fucking Foster Wallace – that anyone who complains or is pissed off about such Bros, should simply shut up and let The Academics get back to the ‘real work’ of continuing to tell everyone else how great their literary heroes are, ‘despite minor flaws’?

How exactly does a dissertation protect woman outside academic ivory towers from white male bro-lit toxicity? These are questions such Societies and Institutions cannot answer adequately, because it would mean questioning their very existence.

> Our board is made up of university professors.

Yeah? And my mighty internal kung fu fist of iron is made up of five fingers. So what? You see, such empty, argumentum ab auctoritate statements do little to prove that such literary societies aren’t themselves as privileged and toxic as the people they purport to study dispassionately, subjectively and critically.

> Think it through before you go running your mouth to people who study something for a living.

I’ma tremblin’ in my boots, Doc. Congratulations; you just summarized everything toxic about academia. And how exactly is one message highlighting what everyone already knows about the hideousness of David Foster Wallace running one’s mouth? (What are ‘yall white-ivory tower academics so afraid of?)

> Do me a favor: Save this exchange like a time capsule. When you turn 30, come back and read it. Brace yourself for the blood that rushes to your face. -RS

Oh, the embarrassment of reaching out rhetorically to the mighty International David Foster Wallace Society – a society of (let’s get this straight) well-meaning, thoughtful and considerate academics and university professors, who (with their qualifications and doctoral theses) politely warn strangers not to run their mouths!

I’m really not impressed, Doc.

Sincerely, Robert What

> Mr. What

> You wanted to hear from a “female” (we prefer to be called women, but that’s another issue) member of the society.

My apologies.

> I’m Dr. Short’s current VP, if you couldn’t tell from my email, so I’ll chime in.

Cool and the gang.

> Every writer ever is problematic in some way.

That’s information content zero. (Why, someone from your Society wrote to me today with a problematic warning.)

> Find me one without a shady past, and I’ll find out one with something to hide.

How the hell exactly is trying to push a woman out of a moving car (as DFW did) merely ‘shady’ – and not outright psychotic?

> That said. I’m not sure you’re clear on what a literary society does.

What I’m not sure about, is that literary societies are clear about the degree to which they should, in and via everything they say and do, actively protect vulnerable people from toxic white male culture; because scribbling a bunch of dry, ‘merely academic’ papers and sitting around comparing notes on “The Greatness Of Teh Mighty White Man” just isn’t cutting it.

> Members of the International David Foster Wallace society are not fans.

Obviously not. But such a statement doesn’t automatically immunize an academic society from the possibility of (essentially) uncritical attitudes towards their chosen subject. Who really cares if one is ‘critical’ about (for example) literary sentence structure, when the very existence of an institution is itself a measure of cultural toxicity and white privilege?

> We do not look at the person himself as a deity or anything close to it.

And yet, by not having released an official statement front and center, bearing witness to the fact of DFW’s privileged white male toxicity, showing full support for victims and speaking out directly against such awful behavior, such a society continues to be complicit with the horrible prevailing attitudes DFW symbolizes.

> We do not focus on Wallace as a person.

Why the hell not? (He certainly focused all his awfulness on other people around him!) See, this is precisely the problem with Academics and Academia. Unless one speaks in their officially sanctioned Academic language, one’s voice doesn’t count. It’s a convenient tautology of play-nicely-how myths (in other words a private circle jerk.)

> As scholars and academics, that’s usually not the point of studying any person’s work. Sure, knowing someone’s biography or listening to/reading/viewing interviews may help in interpretation of the literature, but it is by no means the whole story.

Such convenient political compartmentalization regarding any DWF based cognitive dissonance seems ideological par for the (academic) course. As for ‘telling the whole story’, I’m sure you don’t mean the actual, as-lived daily context of suffering at the hands of assholes like David Foster Wallace. That would certainly help with one’s ‘interpretation’ of his particular merits as a human being.

> Since you’re fond of links, I invite you to go to the society website main page and look at the “Mission Statement”. In case you don’t want to click that, Here it is: “The International David Foster Wallace Society was founded to promote and sustain the long-term scholarly and independent study of David Foster Wallace’s writing. To these ends, the Society welcomes diverse, peer-reviewed scholarship and seeks to expand the critical boundaries of Wallace studies. We recognize and champion the visual, the alternative, and the literary: the presence of minds at work. The Society showcases a variety of projects—at conferences, on panels, in our print publication, The Journal of David Foster Wallace Studies, and through other non-traditional modes of scholarly expression.”

Actually it was the first thing I read before sending my initial message. And this post is my non-traditional mode of non-scholarly expression. How you liking it so far?

> So basically, we read; we study, we encourage others to read and study; we write; we published; we encourage others to write and published. Never has the IDFWS claimed Wallace to be without fault, nor have we dismissed his problematic past.

One doesn’t have to ‘claim’ such writers to be without fault, nor to dismiss a ‘problematic’ past (and why would anyone anyway) for a Society to still act as a complicit mouthpiece for toxic white male culture. One simply has to continue to exist as an Institution – continue to convince oneself one is already doing everything needed to protect others and prevent further abuse. If the problem is (/in) the very foundation of the institution itself, continually drawing attention to all the ‘good eggs’ constantly working within it is extremely misleading.

> In fact at DFW18, an academic conference which, again, focuses on the work, not the writer, the keynote speaker spoke on “reading our problematic faves.”

BFD. ‘Problematic Faves’ sounds like a album by Neutral Milk Hotel. Where however do such polite, white keynotes meet the real world – where such ugly, consequence free abuse continues to fester unchallenged? Be honest, who but real Stans would even decide to go to such conferences anyhow – if not already convinced by a writer’s ‘essential OK-ness’? (Note: writers like DWF are not essentially OK.)

> Since most of the articles you’ve pointed us to are from 2018, you’ll understand the timeliness of such a talk.

I’ve no doubt all those who suffer under white male culture are cheering for the DFW Society’s blistering, timely critiques.

> To respond to one of your points made to Dr Short, the DFW Society is not responsible for any of the actions that Wallace made during his lifetime; the society did not form until after his death, and no person is responsible for the actions of another. To repeat one of Dr Short’s points to you: “But what you’re actually doing is trolling a group of well-meaning, thoughtful, considerate people who are actively wrestling with all the years-old shit about Wallace you somehow think you’re bringing to our attention.”

“No person is responsible for the actions of another” is probably one of the more dubious, non-philosophical statements it’s possible to make. Try harder.

> You’re not saying anything new; you’re just saying it in a particularly self-righteous way and in a way that makes me believe that you think you’re doing something revolutionary.

Jesus, it was only a quick rhetorical message – I wasn’t wearing a Ernesto Guevara costume at the time, FFS. You want to talk a little revolution? I say dismantle societies like yours.

> Every scholar (most of whom are also college/university instructors) has a decision to make w/r/t continuing to study/teach a person after they find out about the issues in that person’s life/past.

That, in essence, is precisely my point about the weakness inherent in the very existence of the DFW Society. Did it need forming? Absolutely not. Does it need to continue to exist, given how much of a monumental tosser David Foster Wallace turned out to be (and more importantly, just how much of an Icon of / for assholes he lives on as – with spineless academics continuing to essentially champion His Mighty Works?) Do the math..

> I personally stopped teaching Sherman Alexie because doing so would financially support him by having my students purchase his books, and that’s a personal choice that I made.

OK, fine. But people are still purchasing Dear Dead Dave’s violently overrated books – and his estate still benefits. Meanwhile, others are making it ideologically easily for them to do so without genuine critical, political reflection – something which seems inherently impossible within an institution’s ideological boundaries.

> Dr Short mentioned that Wallace is dead, meaning that he no longer benefits financially from such situations, and that he is no longer a threat to anyone. In fact, by all accounts, including D.T. Max’s in the biography, once Wallace married his now widow, he really was not a threat to women anymore.

This seems so wrong-headed, it’s difficult to know where to begin. The entire point about DFW is that he’s a symbol of ultra-privileged, utterly toxic white male culture. And academic literary societies owe a lot more to those who actively suffer under such symbols on a daily basis. ‘Not really a threat to women anymore’ seems polite code speak for ‘we as a society [literary or otherwise] are entirely blameless. Stop complaining.’ These types of political call to apparent and willful Neutrality are telling.

> As a woman (note: not female, but woman. I’d prefer to be identified by my gender and not my genitals), I feel incredible empathy and compassion for Mary Karr.

As a philosopher I prefer to be identified by the truths I help reveal, not by anyone’s genitals. (How does having incredible empathy and compassion for one of David Foster Wallace’s many abuse victims exactly tie in with a critique of literary and academic societies, and their complicity with innately toxic cultural symbols?)

> I have also had communications directly with Mary Karr. Have you? Are you attempting to white knight someone who doesn’t want or need you to do that?

Sorry, but I just couldn’t but help read that as “I also have black friends.” (Like, the equivalent of someone who personally knew DFW, wanting to appear innocent of his abusive nature, proclaiming “I also have female friends!”) As for your subtle Whiteknighting accusation, what I’m simply doing is directly questioning the very existence of insular societies such as yours.

> The reason that the people on the IDFWS society, regardless of gender, have decided to continue studying and encouraging others to study his work is that we find his work valuable. Even if he as a human being was deeply flawed, his work is worth looking at for what is has done for and to the literary landscape.

Interesting, first off you state your gender is all important – and then that the DFW Society doesn’t regard gender at all. The problem with DFW’s ‘work’ is that it’s inherently privileged, as pure as New York snow, and extremely valuable for his publisher. His work is arguably not worth looking at, precisely because he was a deeply flawed and often inhuman being. As an icon, all DFW did for the ‘literary landscape’ was merely to signify that it actively continues to be as dull, homogeneous and deeply toxic for people that aren’t white or male.

> I personally find Ernest Hemingway a morally reprehensible human, and often wonder if the Hemingway Society has to deal with this kind of bullshit (believe it or not, you are not the first self-proclaimed warrior to try to help us see the error of our ways.)

If all of this is merely B.S, then I apologize. However, the overly defensive attitudes of the DFW society seem to indicate the deep sociopolitical paradox and schism in the heart of academia, and associated literary societies. (As for being a self proclaimed warrior – I’d say that was a sight more interesting than being some professionally miserable, self-hating academic caught in a relationship with white bro culture, no?)

> I also really dislike everything about literature (something Dr Short and I disagree on), but I would never demand that someone justify their study of him to me because as a scholar of literature, I understand the importance of what he contributed to literature, albeit begrudgingly.

You hate Literature itself? Well I dislike David Foster Wallace, who I don’t even really count as literary. Finally, common ground!

> If you have any other questions or concerned that you think would be better answered by my particular gender, feel free to follow up. But please hit a spell check before sending off a self-righteous message to a bunch of literature scholars and journal editors. XO, Veep

Yeah? And you might try running a checkeddy-check on pseudo-critical academic privilege. Better to spell something wrong than be wrong (say, champion the symbolic ideology of suspiciously talented, dead white literary jerkoffs. That the International David Foster Wallace Society obviously refuses to engage in any significant way with their own inherent toxicity and complicity, speaks volumes.)

As a direct result of their ideological failure, I can only politely conclude that the D.F.W Society go suck a fart outta my dirty brown ass.

Signed, Robert What


Ascii Portrait Of David Foster Wallace In 8 Point Courier (text in a .zip)


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