Jeffrey Severs
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Stages, Socrates, and the performer stripped bare
David Foster Wallace as philosopher-dramatist
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This chapter considers David Foster Wallace’s relationship to issues and images of performance by examining his frequent writing about technologically unmediated live theatre, often moments evocative of the Platonic dialogues, their theatrical elements, and the interplay of Socrates and the Sophists. On the basis of such Wallace scenes and Martin Puchner’s theories of philosophical theatre, the chapter argues that being a philosopher for Wallace is an art frequently, if not always, tied to performances of a certain exacting and humbling kind. The readings are grounded in moments from across Wallace’s oeuvre (though concentrated in Brief Interviews, with some attention paid as well to Infinite Jest and The Pale King) that occupy one or both of two major domains: first, expertly crafted scenes of dialogue that mark a twist on the Platonic dialogues and their dramatic staging of philosophical conflict, particularly when it involves the sophistry Wallace found dominating postmodernity; and second, moments that conjure not just performance but a particularly abject stage performer, showing that Wallace, while seeing no ultimate escape from the artifices of performance, would at crucial moments strategically strip performers down to a state of naked vulnerability. In crucial moments of powerful idea-making where he relies on theatrical metaphors, opposes live stage performance to the kind that TV and film offer, and plays with definitions of the performer to unseat an ensconced idea, Wallace is, this chapter argues, a philosopher-dramatist.

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