Patron saint of the essay, Montaigne, looking on.

I have a confession: The political essay doesn’t exist … and yet, here we are. So, what are we going to talk about? Have you read Infinite Jest? Me neither. Please don’t panic. This is not an essay on white-male-American fiction; I admit, it may share some similarities with an essay on white-male-American non-fiction. Feel free to click away at any time. Still here? Let me explain myself: I want to get down some thoughts on that aforementioned-non-existent-sub-genre which, I repeat, DOES NOT EXIST. I want to pay some attention to DFW’s “puzzlingly obsessive” essay “Up, Simba” from 2000 in relation to something he started to call around the same time, the “service essay.”1 I want to try and work through a mindboggling contradiction DuPlessis articulates about the essay: how can a form be both “relaxed, casual, humane” AND “angry, resistant, unrelaxed”?2 Can the essay sustain its own idleness when the subject is not flowers, or rivers, or toads, but the stuff of taxes and racism and war and freedom and who-exactly-you-want-running-the-most-powerful-nation-on Earth? When selecting The Best American Essays in 2007, Wallace felt the need to defend his editorial choices: had Bush not been re-elected in 2004, he may have had the capacity for “more memoirs or descriptive pieces on ferns and geese,” but in the “current emergency […] such essays simply didn’t seem as valuable […] as pieces like, say Mark Danner’s ‘Iraq: The War of the Imagination’ or Elaine Scarry’s ‘Rules of Engagement.’”3 I want to know whether the idleness of the essay can survive when it looks politics squarely in the face. These are my wants. We don’t have time to discuss my needs.

If the essay, as Kathryn Murphy writes, “needs a ‘definite subject’ and doesn’t want to think about it,” we have in the “service essay” a form whose subject it WANTS to talk about.4 It is actually pretty obvious what DFW wants from “Up, Simba”; he wants Young People to vote, he wants us to “stay awake” (234)—he wants us to fight for an “open society, consent of the governed, enumerated powers, Federalist 10, pluralism, due process, transparency … the whole democratic royal.”5 Can an essayistic commitment to idleness and digression survive alongside an explicit politics, even one as middle-of-the-road as Wallace’s “American-style liberalism”?6 It seems to me that the prepositionality of a form which forces itself to confront political discourse is not only on or of or towards or concerning or tending to, but inside.7 Inside—like the political insider who becomes part of the action; inside like the prisoner who, fearing for their own life, takes another’s; inside like the way you say “He was inside me. I was inside him.” A kind of inside, in other words, that is compromising. We are all, as George Orwell’s first essay collection put it, Inside the Whale.8

The first rule of being inside is pretending to be outside. DFW was certainly aware that any kind of political argument to Young People reading Rolling Stone in 2000 required a voice that rejected anything with the semblance of being on politics. He adopts a no-bullshit, straight talking, I-am-not-a-Political-Journalist style, to appeal to his readers in the same way he identifies John McCain’s “I-don’t-give-a-shit-if-you-elect-me” gambit as becoming “an incredibly attractive and saleable and electable quality” (228). He frames his own perspective as that of the outsider who has accidentally stumbled upon the inside (and maybe even gotten behind it). His “only journalistic coup” of the week was to “bumble into hanging around” with the “camera and sound guys,” who, it turns out, “have neither the raging egos of journalists nor the political self-interest of the McCain2000 staff to muddy their perspective,” and are “more astute and sensible political analysts than anybody you’ll read or see on TV” (204). In one comical moment, Wallace equates himself with the teenage boy-journalist from a free Detroit paper, both of whom have found themselves so insignificant to the wider media operation that they have started scribbling down the analysis of the techies just as “furiously” as the 12-Monkeys—Wallace’s nickname for the 12 mainstream media suits on the campaign—were, when listening to Mike Murphy’s spin on the latest events (205). Wallace gets at his actual subject (John McCain) by inverting the viewer/viewed relation; the real insight lies with those sitting behind the camera—the true insiders. The title Wallace gives to the essay as collected in Consider the Lobster, and Other Essays, “Up, Simba,” is a reference to the “fake-deep bwana voice” one of the techs puts on every time he lifts the $40,000 camera to his shoulder (208). The title acts as a signal for the lifting of Wallace’s own metaphorical camera, a means to turn the subject of the essay on to the camera itself.9

And, crucially, this camera’s range is always limited.10 There is a constant and unending stream of information which requires—or demands—our attention. McCain’s campaign, writes Wallace, is best conceived “in terms of boxes, boxes inside other boxes, etc.” (174). To name a few: there is the “national voting audience,” which is the “great huge outer box”; there is the “inner layers of national and local press”; there is the media bus (Wallace christens it Bullshit-1) which he and the other “pencils” are confined to, and is also “a box in motion” (174). These are followed by the “insulating boxes of McCain’s staff […] who plan and stage events and spin stuff” (174). And, at the centre of it all is John McCain, the “campaign’s narrator and narrative at once […] who is in fact the campaign’s Chinese boxes’ central and inscrutable core box” (174). Wallace repeatedly returns to the “dark and box-sized cell” in a Vietnamese prison, where McCain was tortured to within an inch of his life and, when offered early release, refused to “violate a Code” (233). There were “no techs’ cameras in that box, no aides or consultants […] nothing to sell”—nobody was looking (233). But all these boxes have two things in common: they are themselves inside and made up of, other boxes. We are inside a culture with a “volume of info and spin and rhetoric and context” that proves impossible to absorb.11 That central box which contains the “real John McCain” is now “locked. Impenetrable,” there is only an inscrutable core (234). The box, like the camera, sets a defined limit on what can be looked at. What we are left with is a continual process of deciding which boxes to pay attention to.

Of course, the “service essay” is also a box, and its virtue lies in its awareness of that fact. To describe the overwhelming volume of information confronting the writer of nonfiction, Wallace used the term “Total Noise”: a “seething static of every particular thing and experience, and one’s total freedom of infinite choice about what to choose to attend to and represent and connect, and how, and why, & c.”12  The tsunami of information that demands our attention, means any attempt to be informed today is “to feel stupid nearly all the time, and to need help.”13 After one particular incident on the campaign trail—a sincere, emotionally charged moment handled expertly by McCain, before being used for calculated political benefit—Wallace is left alone, with no techies or journalists to help him “figure out what to be cynical about and what not to and which of the many disturbing questions the whole Incident provokes are paranoid or irrelevant versus which ones might be humanly and/or journalistically valid” (222). Of course, help from someone else would be just another box. Wallace wants an essay which makes conscious and considered choices about which boxes to attend to, to arrange “an immense quantity of fact, opinion, confirmation, testimony, and on-site experience.”14 But in this process of developing a kind of “ethic of attention,” another ethic comes into view.15 In coming face-to-face with the Total Noise, the “service essay” is forced into “epistemic humility and, as a consequence, an ethic of doubt.”16 It is a form that requires “the intelligence to discern one’s own error or stupidity” AND “the humility to address it, absorb it, and move on and out therefrom, bravely, toward the next revealed error.”17 To know itself as box. By trying to pay proper attention to the world, we realise the limits of our own attention. It is a form of truth that is always preliminary, always being worked out rather than found, and brings Wallace’s nonfiction into affinity with the “trial-driven nature of the essay.”18 The “service essay” teaches us how to select, how to choose, how to attend to one frequency in the milieu of Total Noise.

By trying to both attend to and doubt the makeup of our political realities in media res, Wallace mocks “conventional argumentative strategies,” turning it into a “performance, not a flaw.”19 He enacts something like what Nikolas Kompridis has called “world-disclosure.”20 It is a method of argumentation not reducible to either deductive or inductive reasoning, and instead develops a type of “indirect argument that does not already have an intelligible position in inferential/logical space.”21 Given the nature of the boxes metaphor Wallace turns to, we might even call it world(s) disclosure, the reveal of worlds within worlds within worlds. Stay with me. To stage an argument outside of an “intelligible position” requires a displacement of “existing inferential relations.”22 And Wallace displaces existing inferential relation—primarily the question of whether McCain is “truly for real”—by shifting our framework of understanding (234). The answer to the question of McCain’s realness, Wallace concludes, “depends less on what is in his heart than on what might be in yours” (234). The subject becomes not him but us—Wallace’s parting shot is to turn the camera on us in the act of coming to political judgement. If politics is about using reason and judgement to determine action, we do this, firstly, “on the basis of reality as we apprehend it, via the boxes we choose to attend to.”23 The “Capital-T Truth is that ‘you get to decide how you’re going to try to see it’—The world comes into view only in refraction.”24

What then, are we left with in the wake of “Up, Simba”? It seems that there can be no stopping; To become static would be to eschew attention. There is no One Way to attend to the Total Noise—there can be only selection, and judgement, and thus, failure. And again. And again & c. Any attempt to get-to-the-bottom of John McCain is, quite literally, a “profile […] one side, exterior, split and diffracted by so many lenses there’s way more than one man to see” (234). If you’ll indulge me in a moment of polemical flourish: it is the conviction that the process of attention is both necessary AND inherently limiting that undergirds Wallace’s idea of the “service essay.” It asserts the political and ethical necessity of deep, experienced, boring, attention, but understands that this very commitment necessitates a constant shifting of attention—its purview is always moving from the attended to the unattended, and back. It appears to me that such an essay is propelled forward by a centrifugal force—the essay is, if anything, always-already moving away from itself.25

WHO CARES. This is the indeterminate title Wallace uses to open “Up, Simba” (160). By removing the question mark the phrase becomes a locale of instability and forces us to hold in tandem two competing meanings: the pervasive image of the nihilistic punk rhetorically asking authority “who cares?” (to mean, of course, “I do not care”); and the possibility of the title as an assertion that someone like John McCain, may be “An anticandidate. Who cares” (160). Wallace collides the two meanings in a later section entitled “WHO EVEN CARES WHO CARES” (186). The meaning we choose, like our views on McCain, has more to do with our own individual “battles between cynicism and idealism,” than it does with anything external (232). If a political or “service essay” is to mean anything, then it could do worse than to hold these two competing impulses in mind: to declare in full-blown rebelliousness “I do not care” AND to assert, more quietly, the possible virtues of paying close attention. It is a collision of the negatory and the positivist. You get to decide which to subscribe to. If out-and-out propaganda simply mobilises literary devices to manipulate and distort the world in service of power and control, the p——l essay uses those subjects in service of self-reflexive and, perhaps, literary ends. Can we even say literary anymore? It leaps up from inside the chaos, making use of the partisan and hostile and unbearable nature of that which is in front of our eyes to bring our sight back, all the more forcefully, on the ineffable depths of that mysterious organ which lies behind them.26 Time to wake up.

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This is part of the cluster The Contemporary Essay. Read the other posts here.

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  1. For more on ‘Up, Simba’ and politics see Andrew Warren, “Wallace and Politics” in The Cambridge Companion to David Foster Wallace, ed. by Ralph Clare (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018), 174. ; For more on the ‘service essay’ see Jeffery Severs, “Wallace’s Nonfiction” in The Cambridge Companion to David Foster Wallace (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018), 111-124 (118). ; A précis on ‘Up, Simba.’ Commissioned by Rolling Stone in 2000, DFW joined the media team following John McCain’s campaign to become the next Republican nominee for President of the United States—his main opposition was George W. Bush, or, as Wallace called him, the Shrub. In 2000, McCain became, for a brief moment, ‘the great populist hope of America.’ He pitched himself as someone who wanted your vote but wouldn’t ‘whore himself to get it, and want[ed] you to vote for him because he won’t.’ Wallace sets out in his essay to try and understand how ‘millennial politics and all its packaging and marketing and strategy […] actually makes us US voters feel, inside, and whether anyone running for anything can even be “real” anymore.’ For the whole point of my essay see David Foster Wallace, ‘Up, Simba’ in Consider the Lobster, and Other Essays (Great Britain: Abacus, 2007), 156-234 (160, 157). Subsequent citations will appear parenthetically in the text.
  2. Rachel Blau DuPlessis, “f-Words: An Essay on the Essay,” American Literature, Vol. 68, No. 1 (March 1996): 15-45 (29).
  3. David Foster Wallace, “DECIDERIZATION 2007—A SPECIAL REPORT” in Both Flesh and Not: Essays (London: Hamish Hamilton, 2012), 299-318 (313).
  4. See Kathryn Murphy’s essay in this cluster, ‘On On’; A non-exhaustive list of possible types of service: Public Service; Military Service (see John McCain); the Service Industry (that employed Wallace); Religious service (as in, ‘I’m going to Sunday Service’);  Room service (just as a treat); In service (as in the bus); Out of service (as in the old bus); Service station (where you stop to have lunch on the motorway); Second Service (that thing in tennis that looks super easy on the TV but is so much harder IRL); To service someone (to give official documents, usually divorce papers; responses may vary).
  5. David Foster Wallace, “Just Asking”, The Atlantic (November 2007) (, Footnote 1.
  6. Warren, “Wallace and Politics”, 175.
  7. Again, see Kathryn Murphy’s essay in this cluster.
  8. George Orwell, Inside the Whale, and Other Essays (London: Victor Gollancz Ltd, 1940); The irony being that, for Orwell, to be inside the whale was to be insulated from politics, to put yards of blubber between you and reality.
  9. See Lola Borman’s piece in this cluster for me on the act of looking through the camera.
  10. The possible problems with a, presumably white, technician repeatedly putting on a voice of East African origin, one assumes for comedic effect, goes unconsidered.
  11. Wallace, “DECIDERIZATION 2007”, 301.
  12. Wallace, “DECIDERIZATION 2007”, 302-303.
  13. Wallace, “DECIDERIZATION 2007”, 317.
  14. Wallace, “DECIDERIZATION 2007”, 315.
  15. Daniel Turnbull, “This is Water and the Ethics of Attention: Wallace, Murdoch and Nussbaum”, in Consider David Foster Wallace, ed. by David Hering (Los Angeles: Sideshow Media Group Press, 2010), 209-217 (209).
  16. Severs, “Wallace’s Nonfiction”, 112.
  17. Wallace, “DECIDERIZATION”, 318.
  18. Severs, “Wallace’s Nonfiction”, 122.
  19. Severs, “Wallace’s Nonfiction”, 121.
  20. Nikolas Kompridis, Critique and Disclosure (Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2006), 121.
  21. Kompridis, Critique, 121.
  22. Kompridis, Critique, 121.
  23. Turnbull, “Ethics of Attention”, 213.
  24. David Foster Wallace, This Is Water (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2009), 94.
  25. Of course, the essay isn’t is, it is isn’t. But if we imagine it isn’t isn‘t, and it is is—this is what its is, is.
  26. In fact, I got about a third of the way through Infinite Jest. Sorry.