Michael Bierut | Essays

David Foster Wallace, Branding Theorist, 1962-2008

Of all the ideas crammed into David Foster Wallace's sprawling 1996 novel Infinite Jest, there was one that reviewers never failed to mention. In the future, Wallace predicted, the Organization of North American Nations, representing the merged countries of Canada, the United States, and Mexico, would sell off the naming rights to each calendar year to whatever corporation had the highest bid. 223 pages into his 1,079-page opus, he lays out the "Chronology of Organization of North American Nations' Revenue-Enhancing Subsidized Time (TM), by Year" as follows:  
(1) Year of the Whopper 
(2) Year of the Tucks Medicated Pad 
(3) Year of the Trial-Sized Dove Bar 
(4) Year of the Perdue Wonderchicken 
(5) Year of the Whisper-Quiet Maytag Dishmaster 
(6) Year of the Yushityu 2007 Mimetic-Resolution-Cartridge-View-Motherboard-Easy-To-Install-Upgrade For Internatron/InterLace TP Systems For Home, Office, Or Mobile (sic
(7) Year of Dairy Products from the American Heartland 
(8) Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment 
(9) Year of Glad
According to some chronologies, we're now in the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment, when the novel was set. And Friday, in his home in California, David Foster Wallace committed suicide.

There must have been marketing executives out there who read Wallace's visions not as a dystopian horror show but as a collection of brilliant revenue-generating ideas. (Certainly the Year of the D.A.U. was on my mind last year when, tongue-in-cheek, some of my colleagues and I proposed to sell off the naming rights to Christmas as part of a hypothetical assignment for Studio 360.) 
Infinite Jest is named for a movie that that is so entertaining that people who see it don't want to do anything but watch it over and over for the rest of their lives. It is the ultimate consumer product. An obsession with consumerism, branding, and commercialization pervade the book, and indeed are a leitmotif in much of Wallace's fiction and nonfiction. Designers have much to learn from him. His legendary essay on cruise ships, "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again," is not only scary and funny, but one of the best pieces on the mechanics of experience design ever written. As a media analyst, he was relentless and dispassionate: read "Host," his piece on right-wing radio personality John Ziegler which avoids predictable ad hominem judgments and instead focuses on the mechanics of the process.
It would be tempting to see his Wallace's body of work as a damning critique of the moral bankruptcy of capitalist culture. But I'd maintain you can't come up with something like "The Year of the Whisper-Quiet Maytag Dishmaster" unless you have some kind of empathy for the people who devise — and respond to — such things. Wallace turned the language of Powerpoint into poetry, and created a way of seeing depth in a shallow world.
"The problem is now," he told Charlie Rose in 1997, "that a lot of the schticks of postmodernism — irony, cynicism, irreverence — are now part of whatever it is that's enervating the culture itself." Perhaps David Foster Wallace, in the end, lost his personal fight to overcome that enervation. What he left behind made that struggle worthwhile.

Posted in: Arts + Culture, Business, Media, Obituaries

Comments [29]

Very very very sad. Rather than repost what I said earlier today, my post at Surfstation on DFW here.
Tom Dolan

not sad at all. this kind of writing is worthless.
Clarence Patterson

Regarding Clarence's post, and at the risk of winding up having responded to some troll: I noticed a lot of the comments at the LAT site on Wallace's obit made similar snide comments about Wallace's writing and expressed the same callous *ssholery about his suicide.

Apparently I missed the memo that let us all know that the lives if people who make work you don't appreciate are meaningless, and their deaths are trivial, even something to be celebrated.

Maybe you should go all the way, Clarence: you could kill the people who make work you don't like yourself, and spare yourself the trouble of having to sneer at their deaths on someone else's schedule.
Maurice Meilleur

I feel sorry for Clarence, and hope he learns what it is to be kind and respectful some day.

I've been reading a lot of heartfelt words about Wallace since yesterday, and am glad that people know and care about Infinite Jest. This act is unfortunate.

It's not hard to assume that Clarence has likely never even read DFW, but rather is simply condemning "writing like this," from Michael's description. More the pity. When I was younger I thought that the creative world was populated with liberal thinking and art appreciators. It was a sad realization to learn that, despite its populations many gifts, it's as full (if not more) with the bitter, the jealous, and the small-minded as any sector.
Tom Dolan

I regret not being familiar with his work prior to now.
Ricky Irvine

I think its obvious replying to Clarence only encourages that kind of comment to be repeated. I hope after this line we no long continue to acknowledge it.

Thank you to Michael Beirut for bringing up David Foster Wallace. Maybe some of the uninformed (like myself) will look him up soon.

Lesser known but equally brilliant, hilarious and devastating is his short story called "Mr. Squishy" (from his collection "Oblivion") about the strange goings on of a focus group convened by an ad agency.

Here's a summary:
Hal Siegel

I was never a fan of Wallace's longer fiction, but his short-form pieces and especially his essays were fantastic.

The two that stand out in my memory most strongly are the above-mentioned "A Supposedly Fun Thing ..." (best in the unedited version that was published in the eponymous collection of essays) and the piece he wrote for Harper's in 2001, "Tense Present", on prescriptive and descriptive grammar and usage.
Maurice Meilleur

Thanks, Michael. Postmodern. Postmortem. Posttoasties.

Clarence may or may not be wrong, but give him the benefit of the doubt. Not everyone loves your kind of trendy writing. I picked up Infinite Jest and put it back down.
Lourdes Kim

Although I haven't read all of his work, now I'm finding these interviews I never saw or heard, and it breaks my heart that he was not only a genius but an incredible human -- and to me, so incredibly relevant.

From an interview with Terry Gross: He was talking about how to speak straightforwardly without being branded as cliche, and seemed to be expressing an exhaustion with "hip, slick, dark" work: "If the greatest sin in the past was obscenity or shock, the greatest sin now is appearing naive or old-fashioned, so that somebody can give you a sort of a very cool arched smile, and devastate you with one extraordinarily crafted line, that puts kind of a hole in your pretentious balloon." I find this kind of thinking so relevant, so honest, so important, and perfectly applicable to the world of design discourse, and this very blog.

I feel an incredible kinship with him as if we could have been brothers. I am sad he is gone.
Nick Sternberg

I'm sure most people who picked up Infinite Jest put it back down. It was not a work of art aimed at "most people," just as most people hated Picasso, most people hated Pollock, most people hate ____________ (insert whatever semi-challenging artist/writer/playwright/musician of your choosing here). DFW was adamant about not "writing down" for the masses, and, in uncharacteristic moments of optimism, would discuss his confidence that a certain segment of readers actually wanted deeply intelligent, formally challenging, game-changing books. He worked the edges and worked them very hard, admittedly over-worked at times, but therein lies some of the deep joy of his uber-detail. It could be over the top -- intentionally -- but getting up that ladder to the top was the thrill.

As someone who's recommended his work to countless friends, I'm keenly aware, even among the intelligent and well-educated, that his work is often not well received. It can be nasty, deeply dark, mean, and brutal. Humor is a personal thing, and if you could find the humor then I'd well imagine the effort required easily too great. Personally, I found him brilliantly, scathingly, unforgivingly funny. Part of what's so sad is his suicide will now overload his work with the darkness, and rob it of its laughter.

Anyone who knows his work well would never presume that most people, even the audience here, would enjoy it. But what type of person takes the time to respond to the news of the passing of such a bold creative voice by saying "not sad at all" ? That a type of response I'm supposed to give some benefit of the doubt to? My sentiment is it's just that type of ugly callousness that pushes the too-aware over the edge.
Tom Dolan

Yeah, Clarence, come and cleanse me from the face of the planet, too, while you're at it.

Or, at the very least, explain something: If the (brilliant, innovative, relentlessly aware) writing that DFW created is worthless ... then what writing is, in your estimation, worthful? Hmmm?

Even when DFW's work was almost as self-indulgent as it was sometimes criticized for being, it was still more sheerly entertaining than most things meant to entertain in non-self-indulgent ways. More often, the man's writing was nonpareil in its deep consideration of what it means to be human in this modern world, this mediated environment, this complex life.

His stories were often hella funny, too, albeit in a giggling-in-the-slaughterhouse sort of way.

Lourdes ... yeah, of course you did. You haven't changed a bit since high school ~ still pissed about how Debbie Holtzclaw sprayed that shaving cream into your locker before Homecoming, hey? Yeah, well: You deserved it.

Ricky, you lucky sumbitch, I envy you. Start with Wallace's A Supposedly Fun Thing and you'll be likely be happy to read so much further ...
Wayne Alan Brenner

I second Maurice Meilleur's recommendation of "Tense Present." It doesn't take much imagination to apply his thoughts on grammar to the traditions of typography.
Gunnar Swanson

The first thing I read by DFW was by far the best thing, in my opinion. I tore through Infinite Jest, and was sad to have finished it. I need to pull it out of storage (800 miles away) and read it again. It was a profoundly affecting book, the same way that Wind Up Bird Chronicle or the best Joan Didion stories have a way of embedding themselves into your consciousness. It's not for everyone, but great art (almost) never is.
Richard Winchell

Hi, how I can send PM?

How overwhelming...

Having ravenously eaten as much Wallace as I could find 4-5 years ago when good friends introduced his work to me, it'd felt like he'd disappeared off the map a bit within the last year or so.

I wish today's notice could have been on the release of a new work from him, not the end of his career with such a succinct ellipses at its conclusion...

In celebration of DFW, his writing made you constantly aware of how constantly aware he was himself of EVERYTHING around him. His thinking has been a significant inspiration to me as a designer because of his voracity for culture: high, low, on-the-pedestal, off-the-runway, shoeboxes-over-filled-with-the-stuff, brain-drenching-all-of-it.

And in the maelstrom of all that information, his ability to form interconnections within it all - imagined, implausible, improbable, inspirational, human. Infinite Jest is something I've lifted up at points as a possible model for the idea of how interactive media could function - rambling, hyperconnected, rabbit-trailed, long-tail and all. It's a book you don't so much move through as sprawl through and find gems tucked into its many corners.

Michael's focus on the branded years detail in the book is such a great example of what DFW did best - paint in every unbelievable detail of the background in a scene and then toss his characters into it all to see what happened. You could feel him laughing heartily and equally regretting the fact that he'd probably see these predictive lunacies actually come to pass.

A great poet of social and science fiction - another life I wish had lasted longer just to tell him in person, "Thanks for living loudly enough for us to hear you."

An excerpt I read today from a commencement speech he gave a Kenyon College found at Daring Fireball.

Read the rest here

I think it speaks volumes to not only all of us, but to the character of Clarence above.

"Everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe; the realest, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely think about this sort of natural, basic self-centeredness because it's so socially repulsive. But it's pretty much the same for all of us. It is our default setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth. Think about it: there is no experience you have had that you are not the absolute center of."

I unfortunately am late to the party regarding DFW. Upon reading memories on McSweeneys and such, despite an inherent sadness that looms over his death now, why such frank and honest prose(amid apparent disdain) is not the norm when is beyond me.

Some resources:

Harper's has made available free online it's complete archive of pieces by DFW here.

DFW's piece on Roger Federer in the NYT's PLAY Magazine here.

Tom Dolan

The one that cracked me up the most is Year of the Trial-Size Dove Bar. Why the trial-size one and not the regular one? The trial-size bar isn't the real bar, it's more like an ad itself. Ha! And I don't believe he ever clears up whether it's the soap or the candy, though I could have missed something.
James Murray

Gosh, I was so bummed at the news. I most enjoyed Wallace's "Brief Interviews with Hideous Men."

I haven't read "Infinite Jest" yet, but will now get to it.

One of the greatest days of my life was waking up, extraordinarily hung-over from partying with my sister and her 22-year old friends at Kenyon, stumbling to the rows of chairs where the ceremony was, hoping it'd end quickly, easily, and mercifully, and then seeing this chilled out dude get up on stage and inform everyone that he was sweating before going into the best speech I've ever heard. 30 seconds into it, I sobered up. I didn't want it to end.

Someone already linked to the whole thing, but I will reiterate: read it. I'm not saying "read it and agree with it," I'm just saying "read it."

None of us can really know what Mr. Wallace was trying to do, what he thought, or anything, not for sure we can't. But his commitment to finding the truth, rather than just insisting that he automatically knew it, was admirable. It's similar to the lesson from my first art teacher, Charles Derleth, who challenged us to "learn how to see." Of course, once you seriously pursue that, you realize just how confounding it really is. Unfortunately, in the case of Mr. Wallace, I think it probably drove him to take his own life.

The saddest thing isn't that we lost a really talented, really famous writer--it's that the world lost a guy who by all accounts genuinely cared about other people and tried to connect with them and help them. Whenever the world loses someone like that, it's devastating and tragic.
Brad Gutting

(1) Year of the Whopper...without knowing a damn thing about the author or his work, this is enough for me not to look at that crap. This is not a reflection on the man's being dead but just on the sort of work that is being produced. Of course the pundits will say that he did not stoop down to catering for the masses, blah blah blah, he was an astute critic etc etc, etc, and etc, but shit is just shit even if you coat it with "critical'" gold.

(1) Year of the Whopper...how deep
Peter Martins

Well Peter, yours is not a incomprehensible first reaction. Part of the "deepness" of a lot of art is a complex multi-layering of the sacred and profane, the simple and the complicated, the 'easy' and the impossible. I mentioned Pollock above -- of course most people who aren't familiar with art history, the context of his work, or what he was attempting to do just dismiss it, usually in the same eloquent vocabulary that you've deployed, as "crap," usually then followed by "my 5-year-old could do that."

One might hope to imagine someone at this website has a more appreciative eye for an artist like Pollock, but perhaps not, after all anti-intellectualism is all the rage these days it seems. One might really hope that anyone who's a creative professional (which is what I imagine most of the audience of this site might be) would be open-minded enough not to condemn any work without actually seeing or reading it. Again, perhaps too much to hope for in a Bush era America.

Is it more comfy inside a closed mind? It's getting drafty in here for the open-mined among us.
Tom Dolan


Yours is not an uncommon reaction. Not everyone's going to like Wallace's work, and disliking it doesn't mean you're stupid. It's long, meandering, and frequently irritating. The problem with your argument is that you haven't read enough to level the criticisms with much accuracy or credibility.

Give some of the essays a try. Those tend to be better, in my opinion, than his long fiction.
Brad Gutting

Jason Kottke has a fantastic roundup of online DFW stuff here.

Here's my favorite, a quote from one of his teachers at Amherst on Wallace spent his senior year, when he submitted not one, but two, theses:

Though theses normally take a whole school year to write, DFW had complete drafts of his theses by Christmas, and they were finished by spring break. He spent the last quarter of his senior year reading, commenting on, and generally improving the theses of all his friends and acquaintances. It was a great year for theses at Amherst.

Even I will admit this is not about design, but: how great.
Michael Bierut

Away in Auvers-sur-Oise within hours of this occurrence and having visited Vincent Van Gogh's resting place, once I read this post the events meshed together with woe. All passengers had been advised at Paris' Gare du Nord not to travel unless absolutely necessary on Friday as all alternate ways of getting to England were being swamped. The night before a fire had broken out in the channel tunnel. I made my way to a Philippe Starck designed (with funereal black in keeping with this coincidence) Mama Shelter in Paris to stay put for awhile. And upon arrival back home our local paper was full of horrible train crash details and a few days later
opinion piece.

Gloomy tales

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