Author Archives | Jan

What Would Wallace Write? (if he were an ethnographer)

Jan-H. Passoth

Jan-H. Passoth

Nicholas J. Rowland

Nicholas J. Rowland

Editor’s Note: Jan-Hendrik Passoth ( @janpassoth) is a Post Doc at the Technische Universität Berlin interested in Sociological Theory and Science and Technology Studies. His fellow writer, Nicholas J. Rowland, is an associate professor of Sociology at Pennsylvania State University, as well as a visiting scholar at Technische Universität Berlin. Both work on the sociology of infrastructures, about which they blog at installing (social) order, exploring the sociotechnical nerves of contemporary society.

In this other piece of our “ethnography and fiction” edition, these two researchers give an interesting follow-up to the contribution by Anne Galloway by focusing on a well-known fiction writer: David Foster-Wallace. They compare his work with ethnographic field report and use that as a starting point for a discussion about the importance of reflexivity.


Comparing David Foster Wallace and an average ethnographic field report seems unfair at first. And, it does not get better if you try that second time or a third time, and at any point after that. The writing of a genius wordsmith and the report of a serious scholar; how could they be comparable in any meaningful way? But because this series of blog-posts is exactly about fiction and ethnography, we will try to answer our own question, nevertheless, and, if we are lucky, harvest a few insights from creative writing to improve our academic writing. Not being literary experts, but scholars – and free time readers of David Foster Wallace´s works – we are neither willing nor able to deliver an exegesis on Wallace’s work or hazard any reconstruction of his style, inter-textual analysis, and surely we won’t – we cannot – document all the pop-cultural linkages Wallace employed in his work. But there is something that we can offer; when we read his dense, immersive prose, we cannot help but thinking that it sounds like ethnography … really, really good ethnography.

Post-Irony and Reportage

Easting Lobsters

“Lobsters” by Jan-H. Passoth (CC-BY-NC)

The germ of an approach to writing-up qualitative results, which lives-on in Wallace’s works, is actually quite funny … and Wallace was dead-serious about that … about being funny. Take the plain and bold reportage of  Consider the Lobster: When Wallace adds footnote 6 – the one he is sure will not survive magazine-editing – to the disgusting description of the main eating tent and admits that: “To be a mass tourist, for me, is to become a pure late-date American: alien, ignorant, greedy for something you cannot ever have, disappointed in a way you can never admit. It is to spoil, by way of sheer ontology, the very unspoiledness you are there to experience“, we are given an example of what a post-ironic reportage could be. This is not funny, it is not clever and not highbrow ironic. Despite the talk of late date modernity, ontology and a Lacan-like desire, this is dead serious. It is filled with details and disgust, detailed coverage blended with a firm attitude. Some folks are calling Wallace’s tone-turned-technique for writing a ‘post-ironic’ writing style. The term post-ironic is not new, it is not without its critiques, and, from what we can tell, lives mainly in film and literature (and explicitly not the social sciences). For example, in The Comedy, comedian and anti-humorist Tim Heidecker, both in form and content, portrays an individual living a post-ironic life,

… a man with unlimited options. An aging hipster in Brooklyn, he spends his days in aimless recreation with like-minded friends … in games of comic irreverence and mock sincerity. As Swanson grows restless of the safety a sheltered life offers him, he tests the limits of acceptable behavior, pushing the envelope in every way he can. (

Serious humor can also be found Werner Herzog’s film Bad Lieutenant or nearly anything from Wes Anderson. Wallace is something of a poster boy for post-ironic prose, because his stories are hilarious, but, at the same time and with the same words, dead serious. Or, in the case of The Pale King, the unfinished and posthumously published last big work, the other way round: incredibly dry and serious, but awfully touching and even funny in a playfully, Kafka-esque fashion.


Again, any comparison between Wallace and qualitative research reports seems so unfair. David Foster Wallace was maybe the only author ever who was able to make the world of taxes fascinating; sorry record-keeping buffs, even Garfinkel, no matter how hard he wrote about the workplace during the 1940s and 1950s, simply cannot hold a candle to The Pale King. So, despite the unfairness of the comparison, there is still something to learn from Wallace about what our ethnographic accounts could be like. And our answer “What would Wallace write?”, of course, cannot be about mimicking Wallace’s writing style; that would be a dead-end for everyone but Wallace, and, after all, even Garfinkel, the master of ethnomethods, probably couldn’t match Wallace verb-for-verb, so we’re toast. It also cannot be about – and on this we are insistent – the ability to reach a wider audience; our reports in this endeavor called qualitative social science research cannot hinge on opening-up our audience or transforming how we target our work … if only because who knows what it would mean for tenure committees deciding on our fates in the academy. Of course, and above all, our research reports cannot be altered by delving into the fine art of crossing the boundary between fiction and serious scholarship; to wit, fictional ethnography would not constitute scholarship in the social sciences, would it? It worked for Daniel Defoe, but Robinson Crusoe was pretend; the reason to read ethnography, in contrast, is precisely because Mitch Duneier’s characters in Sidewalk were for sure real people. Instead of any of those sterile distractions, the only route forward involves considering – deeply – a concept at the heart of ethnography, qualitative methods, and “being” human, and that is reflexivity.


“IRS” by Alyson Hurt on flickr (CC-BY-NC)

Although most of David Foster Wallace texts are plainly reflexive endeavors, the one that stands out most is The Pale King – the unfinished piece about ways into and experiences working for the American Internal Revenue Service (IRS). Wallace wrote it, some say, for more than a decade. The piece stands as a good example of how much research must be done to produce such a text, which, we imagine, is quite similar to the sort of research necessary to produce a dense ethnographic report. From what is know about his work process, the book took years to mature. In the process, Wallace dug deep into the dry prose of IRS reports, the broader U.S. tax system, novels on the IRS, and, from what we hear, he even took accounting classes. For information rich reports to contain even a shred of serious humor or post-ironic wit, we need to understand how reflexivity figures into what ethnomeths-mogrels call ‘an accountable state of affairs’ – and reflexivity is a tool that David Foster Wallace was a true master of … an uncrowned king. Conceptualizing our ethnographic projects as preparatory work to produce a novel instead of a research report is tempting … quite tempting. But writing a novel, while it might seem more freeing and a more direct route to a different kind of truth, is not a practical solution for many of us in academia hired to work in social science departments. And, writing a novel seems likely awfully hard work. But we don’t have to. Wallace’s novel – and not just because of the so called “Author´s foreword” about 70 pages after the first word opened a fascinating, hidden-in-plain-sight world of taxes – is an incredible example of how to engage in reflexivity after all the lame turmoil of post-modern, meta-reflexive, self-positioning and the uber-lame deadlocks they have provided us with along the way. Wallace’s reflexivity, as we shall see, worked because it was self-exemplary.



“footnotes” produced by Nicholas J. Rowland and Jan-H. Passoth (CC-BY-NC)

The upshot for us? We must recognize that reflexivity is a beloved and feared cornerstone of our ethnographic writing, as well as all other genres of producing reports based on qualitative methods, and, in a very special way, the only way to producing research on research. This is especially valuable for us because we need reflexivity to conduct research about research in Science & Technology Studies. But now, after years of trying to make our reports more and more reflexive – after Writing Culture and Ashmore´s wonderful, but ridiculous dissertation – we have the feeling that while we cannot stop being reflexive, because all accounts are automatically reflexive or they could not be communicated in the first place, there is no way to be more or less reflexive. Reflexivity, to cite Mike Lynch, is not an “academic virtue and a source of privileged knowledge” (Lynch 2000), but a practical and intransigent part of each and every human practice. Let’s return to Wallace for instruction on this matter; he writes: “Author here. […] David Wallace, age 40, SS No. 947-04-2012, addressing you from my Form 8829-deducible home office […] to inform you of the following: All of this is true. This book is really true” … and he means it. His comment is not a clever, ironic move toward self-positioning in the text and he is also not simply playing with fiction-truth in a fiction about truth. Wallace’s excerpt above is an exercise in what Latour (1988) called “infra-reflexivity”. As Latour long-ago instructed, Wallace found a way to let the book show marks of its own production; he offered the lived world and wrote it. Whether or not each detail in the story is true, in a scientific sense, simply does not matter. Whether or not the David Wallace in that passage is the David Foster Wallace that wrote The Pale King, simply does not matter. What does matter is that Wallace found a way to communicate to us how it is possible that anyone is able to provide such a clear and detailed account on the dullness and boredom that he experienced and which subsequently tries to capture for the reader. Though it is fiction, some of it must be true. No doubt, the account in the book is pretend – of that there can be no debate – however, there must have been years of research that went into the book, and, in principle, not all of can be made up – of that we are certain – it is totally implausible, if not impossible, that this fiction is fiction. We remember the secret pleasure we felt when not only browsing, but seriously digging through the masses and masses of footnoted footnotes that already made “Infinite Jest” so remarkable. We remember the James O. Incandenza filmography in footnote 24 and how it created the same kind of joy: the joy of reading not a good piece or fiction, but great piece of (ok, made up) research. We learn so many different things, we are even forced to remember so many details about sponsored years, tennis, special effects and films, spies and substance abuse. And what strikes us most is the fact that we enjoy it. We are not threatened away by rich descriptions, lists, cross-references and footnotes. We embrace them.

What Wallace offers us is an exceptionally rare and, thus, profoundly valuable example of infra-reflexivity. To appreciate infra-reflexivity, one must acknowledge the ‘sterile distraction’ (Booth 2000, 1) and ‘suicidal’ move (Adkins 2002, 337; Latour 1988, 169) that is meta-reflexivity, which is best defined as:

[a]n exercise in introspection [which] is usually concerned with improving the adequacy of the connection between analysis … and the objects [under analysis] … Far from raising any fundamental problem, this kind of reflexivity sustains and enhances the Scientific axiom of the research effort (Woolgar 1988, 22).

Self-referential looping and claims for methodological superiority, these forms of lame meta-reflexivity are not what Wallace has to teach us. In contrast, if, as Latour (1988, 170) writes:

meta-reflexivity is marked by an inflation of methods, infra-reflexivity is characterized by their deflation. Instead of piling on layer upon layer of self consciousness, why not have just one layer, the story, and obtain the necessary amount of reflexivity from somewhere else? … [and] just offer the lived world and write.

In this context, reflexivity refers to “any text that takes into account its own production,” but it is utterly unremarkable to be reflexive, and, on this point, Latour (1988, 168) and Lynch (2000, 34) appear to find common ground. What we don’t need is more self-referential looping in our texts; instead, we need texts that self-exemplifying. Thus, in true infra-reflexive form, we have learned that no number of additions, subtractions, self-referential looping, or any other reflexive gymnastics will make a paper more, less, definitively, or woefully reflexive. However, we did detect a wrinkle in Latour’s insistence that accounts be self-exemplary. As we read Wallace, the reflexivity comes through his prose without being the target of his prose or an explicit part of his narrative strategy; he is reflexive without telling us that he was being reflexive. He doesn’t wink. He being clever but does not insist on being clever. The openness of his reflexivity, which we consider self-exemplifying, is up to the reader. And we think Wallace might very well agree with Latour on this final point. Latour (1988, 171) writes, “my own text is in your hands and lives or dies through what you will do with it,” a comment he makes, without irony, in his writing about his writing. So, what might Wallace teach us that Garfinkel didn’t (or couldn’t)? We guess Wallace wouldn’t teach us anything; he’s shown us, and he did. He showed us what Latour (1988, 170) dared we should aspire to:

Instead of piling on layer upon layer of self consciousness, why not have just one layer, the story, and obtain the necessary amount of reflexivity from somewhere else? … [and] just offer the lived world and write.

The only difference between Latour and Wallace is that Wallace did it, and so should we when writing-up our qualitative results.

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