Reading David Foster Wallace in the Riots

David Foster Wallace, Consider the Lobster and Other Essays (Abacus, 2005)

David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest (Abacus, 1997)

These are dark times. And stupid ones. Multiple wars (some sanctioned, some not), terrorism and counter-terrorism, a global recession, the erosion (or neglect) of tertiary education,[1] climate change (and climate change protests), widespread mistrust throughout both national and international politics, and the electorate’s (and internationally, the electorates’) seemingly instinctive distrust of those very politicians who are so busy mistrusting one another, all buzz indiscriminately in the ensuing (and not blameless) media frenzies. And while the media buzzes, election turnouts in the UK have steadily declined,[2] with young people, specifically those in the 18-21 age group, the least likely to vote.[3] News item after news item is streamed directly into the comfort of homes while it becomes increasingly hard to tell the  difference between political elections and Big Brother evictions. And although there are no doubt (perhaps numerous) individual exceptions to such trends, for there will always be those with particular political commitments (or axes to grind), it is also for the most part the apparently silent sections of society that are so noisily, and at times even violently, protesting against the status quo.

The riots of last summer were the worst, and for many commentators the most inexplicable, example of widespread civic disobedience in at least a generation. What began as a peaceful protest in Tottenham following the death of Mark Duggan, descended into chaos, vandalism, looting and ultimately resulted in five deaths.[4] The riots were attributed to a range of factors, chief among them being lack of role models and social exclusion. In the House of Commons, Theresa May suggested that the riots were symptomatic of a ‘wider malaise’ and insisted that everyone, ‘no matter what their background or circumstances, has the freedom to choose between right and wrong’.[5] Tony Blair argued in The Observer that the riots were not caused by a broken society, but instead by a group of young, alienated, disaffected individuals, outside the social mainstream but living in a culture at odds with ‘canons of proper behaviour’. He then argued that such groups can be found in ‘virtually all’ developed nations.[6] Aside from the ex-Prime Minister’s obvious vested (political and personal) interest in denying the brokenness of Britain, it’s worth considering what exactly ‘cannons of proper behaviour’ might be, and also why so many allegedly ‘developed’ nations contain groups of such disaffected, alienated young people.

The truth is that it suits politicians to see these riots as disconnected from the rest of society, just as it suits them to deem the rioters to be outside ‘the social mainstream’ (whatever that is). In emphasising the disconnection they avoid asking, never mind answering, some pretty big questions that point to the heart of government, policy making and the very fabric of society. Like what kinds of role models should young people have? What should they aspire to? What does social exclusion mean if not being denied the means to acquire the things that society values? And what does our society value anyway? Amidst the tumult of protest and counter-protest, disorder, racism,[7] and general calamity, one American writer unflinchingly engages with these questions.[8] Reading David Foster Wallace in the context of the riots may seem like settling down to read a good book while Rome burns, but then reading good books mightn’t be the most foolish course of action in such a situation, and to my mind Foster Wallace has some important and mindful things to say in (and of) such a context.

Foster Wallace’s beguiling, perplexing, taxing but enormously rewarding novel, Infinite Jest (1996), is full of tennis players, drug addicts and wheel-chair bound, Québécois terrorists. However, at its heart is an enquiry into the nature of entertainment and the lengths we are willing to go to in order to experience pleasure. Towards the end of the novel, and just as he is about to succumb to drug addiction and mental breakdown, Hal Incandenza admits:

“It now lately sometimes seemed like a kind of black miracle to me that people could actually care deeply about a subject or pursuit, and could go on caring this way for years on end. Could dedicate their entire lives to it. It seemed admirable and at the same time pathetic. We are all dying to give our lives away to something, maybe. God or Satan, politics or grammar, topology or philately – the object seemed incidental to this will to give oneself away, utterly. To games or needles, to some other person. Something pathetic about it. A flight-from in the form of a plunging-into. Flight from exactly what? These rooms blandly filled with excrement and meat? To what purpose?”[9]

To what purpose? To what purpose should young people jump through the countless (and increasing) educational hoops designed by successive governments to skew statistics in the hope of (re-)election? To what purpose should young people avoid the needles and the ASBOS and the gun crime and plunge headlong into careers and tax and long term mortgages? And what should they do if the latter possibilities are closed to them?

As Theresa May made emphatically clear to the House of Commons, there are no excuses for acts of criminal destruction. And yet having acknowledged this point, mightn’t we also begin to see the riots as more than simply the impulsive actions of the worst of society? Couldn’t they also be an unconscious or inarticulate expression of some wider frustration, anger or fear? Our own governments have repeatedly demonstrated the futility of peaceful protest on local, national and international issues: in their willingness to go to war in the face of widespread opposition; in their insistence on increasing the costs of education despite widespread opposition; in their determination to allow the opening of Tesco outlets on roads filled with independent retailers and despite the widespread opposition of local residents.[10] Then there is the heavy-handed responses dealt out by the establishment when faced with increasingly extreme protests. Individuals that feel like they are not being heard are liable to shout more loudly and at the same time those in power grow ever more reluctant to listen.

Owen Holland’s recent rustication from the University of Cambridge is a case in point. The reason for Holland’s prosecution and subsequent (disproportionate) punishment was that in protesting against the presence of David Willetts, Minister of State for Universities and Science, he was deemed to be ‘recklessly or intentionally impeding free speech within the Precincts of the University’.[11] Yet this begs the question as to how ‘free’ speech can be if neither party is actually interested in listening to the other. Foster Wallace argues that the ‘really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day’.[12] Surely one of the question we should ask ourselves in the wake of Holland’s ‘trial’ is just how attentive and aware, disciplined and caring, the speech of either party was, or was intended to be. To what extent has Holland or Willetts (or the university for that matter) shown themselves to be willing to listen to and accommodate alternative viewpoints? Why did this particular disagreement reach the stage where one felt that he was not being listened to, and the other was prevented from speaking at all?

Whatever the rationale behind Holland’s punishment (and information was depressingly hard to find until TCS obtained and published a leaked copy of the report), to the majority of students and very many members of staff it was a reactive and over-protective attempt to squash further protests. Or in the words of the leaked report itself, the sentence was intended to ‘play a part in deterring others who might be tempted to act in a similar way’.[13] And this in turn manages pretty stupidly to incite greater anger, mistrust and willingness to protest. Whether Holland was right or wrong in either the form or the content of his protest, the University’s reaction has only exacerbated the problem. At the same time, Holland’s actions are hardly themselves to be applauded. His poem was no attack on free speech, it was an attack on manners. And what’s more, it was an attack on poetry. For Holland couldn’t really have expected his poem to be listened to, to be measured and considered, weighed and turned over for nuance. Holland was speaking but his speech, amplified by the voices of the students around him, was more of a yell than a statement, a shout that signals its own desperate frustration but that is nevertheless as far away from poetry and conversation, from intelligently engaging with the presences of other people, as a teenager screaming at his or her parents is a mature response to being asked to tidy their bedroom.

It may seem a bit of a stretch to link Holland’s protest with the riots, but I’m suggesting that while the motivations might be different, they are similar kinds of expression, similar noises, and born from similar frustrations. And it might also be argued that at times teenage screaming does communicate, and that it communicates something pretty important. But Holland’s poem, like Trenton Oldfield’s swim across the Thames mid-Boat Race, would have been much better, and much less superficial, had it demonstrated a willingness to think and discuss, to articulate concerns rather than scream heads off. As with all such attention-grabbing gimmicks, they may have prompted a conversation but they failed to contribute anything of substance to the conversation.  And that these individuals were forced (or felt forced) to resort to such extremes is probably the most worrying part of all. Society has stopped bothering to listen to itself, and that means the bits that are trying to speak just shout louder. Or break things. And in turn, stop listening themselves.

And what’s worse is that we’re all responsible, from the most politically committed electioneer to the non-voter. In his essay “Up! Simba!”, which was written on (and on) John McCain’s 2000 presidential campaign, Foster Wallace writes:

“If you are bored and disgusted by politics and don’t bother to vote, you are in effect voting for the entrenched Establishments of the two major parties, who please rest assured are not dumb, and who are keenly aware that it is in their interests to keep you disgusted and bored and cynical and to give you every possible reason to stay at home doing one-hitters and watching MTV on primary day. By all means stay home if you want, but don’t bullshit yourself that you’re not voting. In reality, there is no such thing as not voting: you either vote by voting, or you vote by staying home and tacitly doubling the value of some Diehard’s vote.[14]

In Infinite Jest, Foster Wallace reminds us that the purpose of advertising is to ‘create an anxiety relievable by purchase’.[15] Are the production values of the party political broadcasts so different from Coke or Nike ads? Are the politicians anything more (or better or worse) than cunning salesmen? We live in a society that increasingly rewards politicians who promise everything and deliver nothing, who prey on the failings of their rivals while banking on the electorate to continue voting as they expect, or to continue not voting (as they expect). We get the politicians we deserve, highly attuned to what we want (and what they want us to want), and at all times trying their best to create the impression that they are fulfilling those desires. And we elect them. We all do.

So what exactly is the justification for reading books while Rome burns? Well, one of the things Foster Wallace is quick to point out is that literary cleverness can’t be an end in and of itself, that literature has a responsibility to speak to the world as much as to mimic it:

If what’s always distinguished bad writing–flat characters, a narrative world that’s clichéd and not recognizably human, etc.–is also a description of today’s world, then bad writing becomes an ingenious mimesis of a bad world. If readers simply believe the world is stupid and shallow and mean, then [Bret] Ellis can write a mean shallow stupid novel that becomes a mordant deadpan commentary on the badness of everything. Look man, we’d probably most of us agree that these are dark times, and stupid ones, but do we need fiction that does nothing but dramatize how dark and stupid everything is? In dark times, the definition of good art would seem to be art that locates and applies CPR to those elements of what’s human and magical that still live and glow despite the times’ darkness. Really good fiction could have as dark a worldview as it wished, but it’d find a way both to depict this world and to illuminate the possibilities for being alive and human in it.[16]

To what purpose does fiction relate to life and what can it teach us? To what purpose should we pursue happiness? And is happiness the same as fulfilment? Or pleasure? These are some of the questions prompted by Infinite Jest and they’re old questions, at least as old as Socrates. But just because they’re old isn’t to say they’re not worth asking. In fact, they might be the kinds of questions the Cleggs and Camerons and Osbornes, Millibands, Browns and Blairs could do with asking, amidst the hustle and bustle of actual politics, and that we might do well to ask ourselves amidst the hustle and bustle of daily life.

Foster Wallace believed that  ‘Fiction’s about what it is to be a fucking human being’,[17] and perhaps what society is currently taking for granted is the complexity and variety of human beings, the exasperating mysteries implied by Foster Wallace’s adjectival curse. There are plenty of writers who would agree with this kind of thinking, from Primo Levi, to Samuel Beckett, to Dante and Shakespeare (to name a handful of my own favourites). But as Foster Wallace’s writing suggests, attending to such complexity is hard, harder than polarising voters, advertising widely, playing on fears and hoping that the electorate never quite wake up to the reality (and the diminishing choices) before them. And it’s harder too than diving headfirst into the Thames, or obnoxiously reciting (bad) poetry, or climbing cenotaphs. We all have a responsibility to take part, and we all have a range of opinions on what we ought to do, on how things could (and should) be different. But being free to take part, and taking that participation seriously, is difficult because we’re more comfortable plunging in and checking out. Then again, the hardest thing of all might be acknowledging that even in running away we are casting a vote, and as Foster Wallace says, it’s bullshit to believe otherwise.


[1] And arguably secondary education as well. Primary school teachers seem to be a less irate group. Probably because they have their hands full with all the children, paper, paint and pots of glue.

[2] Since 1992. See:


[4] The riots took place between the 6th and 10th of August and one of the most inexplicable aspects of events may well have been the way in which the riots spread from London to other cities.

[5] May (11 August 2011):

[6] Blair (20 August 2011):

[7] It is surely not a coincidence that the riots began with accusations of racism against the police, with the unexplained death of Mark Duggan, and ended with accusations of racism. A couple of days after the riots Scotland Yard found itself in the middle of a racism scandal after three of its officers were accused of committing criminal offences. Incredibly,, the Crown Prosecution Service initially dismissed the charges, claiming that the racist remarks did not cause the man ‘harassment, distress or alarm’. See:

[8] Following Foster Wallace’s suicide on 12th September 2008, there was an immediately large and loud response from the literary world attesting his greatness and attempting to come to terms with his achievements. See:

[9] DFW, Infinite Jest, p.900.

[10] The road I’m thinking of is Mill Road. The ‘No Mill Road Tesco Campaign’ was successful for almost two years and Tesco lost three planning applications.


[11] See

[12] DFW, “This is Water”. Following Foster Wallace’s death, this speech was published in The Guardian:


[14] DFW, “Up! Simba!” in Consider the Lobster and Other Essays (2005), p.207.

[15] DFW, Infinite Jest, p.414.

[16] DFW, Conversations with David Foster Wallace, p.26.

[17] DFW, Conversations with David Foster Wallace, p.26.