When Infinite Jest Is Just TOO Interactive; or, Martin Heidegger’s Vorhandenheit

Last night, when I went to take my tenth anniversary edition of David Foster Wallace’s  (1996) out of my bag, I discovered that time had been moving through it in a disastrous way. I had suspected that my well-read second copy of Wallace’s novel would not make it through our reading of it during the first six weeks of the semester, and I was correct. To put it in President Gentle’s terms, the novel has been “reconfigured”; in more direct terms, it has split almost exactly in half.


As we’ve already brought up Martin Heidegger’s discussion of technology here (“The Question Concerning Technology”), I feel it appropriate to comment on how the bifurcation of my copy of Infinite Jest reminds me of two other crucial Heideggerian concepts: Zuhandenheit (ready-to-hand; handiness) and Vorhandenheit (presence-at-hand), which he famously developed in his major work, Being and Time (1927).

For something that is “ready-to-hand,” according to Heidegger our understanding of that thing, that tool, is akin to the understanding of a carpenter using a hammer:

The less we just stare at the thing called hammer, the more we actively use it, the more original our relation to it becomes and the more undisguisedly it is encountered as what it is, as a useful thing. The act of hammering itself discovers the specific “handiness” of the hammer. . . . No matter how keenly we just look at the “outward appearance” of things constituted in one way or another, we cannot discover handiness. When we just look at things “theoretically,” we lack an understanding of handiness.[2]

When we use a hammer like it is supposed to be used, or rather, for my example, when we read a book as it is supposed to be read,[3] the book “is not grasped theoretically at all.”[4] Further, the book “withdraws, so to speak.”[5] Rather than thinking about the hammer-itself or the book-itself while reading, “everyday association is initially busy with . . . not tools themselves, but the work,” or the reading.[6] The book is just a vehicle for the work, for the reading, and the book-in-itself withdraws. In other words, when we’re using a hammer or reading a book, we don’t really see the hammer or book, we don’t grasp the hammer in its hammerness or the book in its bookness.


But when a hammer or a book break, when they become unusable, then their presence-at-hand can be apprehended, then they can be understood, because “we discover the unusability not by looking and ascertaining properties, but rather by paying attention to the associations in which we use it. When we discover its unusability, the thing becomes conspicuous.”[7] In other (non-Heideggerian) words, we are able to really see the hammer or book as a hammer or book when we can no longer use them as hammers and books. “The more urgently we need what is missing and the more truly it is encountered in its unhandiness, all the more obtrusive does what is at hand become. . . . It reveals itself as something merely objectively present.”[8] For Heidegger, the implications of this are huge: it means that “the being-in-itself of innerworldly beings is ontologically comprehensible only on the basis of the phenomenal world”[9]; it means we can potentially comprehend the world, and begin to formulate the question of the meaning of Being, through encountering objects that are present at hand like a broken hammer or a riven book.


But for my purposes, this is just to say that the bookness of the book only becomes apparent when it is broken; its interactivity, its connection to the world around it, its “objective presence” emerges as something to be thought in its destruction. As the materiality of the literary object is one of our primary concerns this semester, a book being torn asunder, according to Heidegger’s analysis, allows the truth of it as a material object to become apparent. Such an engagement with objects will also apply to our digital texts: when Talan Memmot’s Lexia to Perplexia fails to work on one’s (too new) PC or Mac, a similar phenomenon will be occurring.

(The more immediate effect of all this, however, is that I will now be on my third copy of Infinite Jest.)

[1] I had, on multiple occasions, contemplated having students bet on if or when it would fall apart. . . .

[2] Martin Heidegger, Being and Time: A Translation of “Sein und Zeit”, (1927), trans. Joan Stambaugh (Albany: SUNY Press, 1996), 65. Also, if you are at all interested in how these ideas are being mobilized in contemporary philosophy, see Graham Harman, Tool-Being: Heidegger and the Metaphysics of Objects (Chicago: Open Court, 2002) and his more accessible Towards a Speculative Realism: Essays and Lectures (Winchester, UK: Zero, 2010).

[3] Even a book as big and idiosyncratic as Infinite Jest.

[4] Heidegger, 65.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., 66.

[8] Ibid., 67.

[9] Ibid., 71.


About Bradley J. Fest

Bradley J. Fest lives and teaches in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He has published a number of scholarly essays on contemporary literature and culture, and is the author of a volume of poetry, The Rocking Chair (Blue Sketch, 2015). He blogs regularly at The Hyperarchival Parallax.
This entry was posted in Electronic Literature, General Interest, Infinite Jest, Interactive Literature and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to When Infinite Jest Is Just TOO Interactive; or, Martin Heidegger’s Vorhandenheit

  1. endorphinique says:

    Your copy of 10:04 is different than my copy of 10:04. Whose is better?


  2. Pingback: A Supposedly Fun Book I’ll Probably Never Read Again: Reflecting On Infinite Jest | White Tower Musings

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