Mark McGurl’s essay the Institution of Nothing is about the way in which Wallace deals with the idea of the Infinite and the Zero that form the abyss, or the void as McGurl refers to it. The existential investigation that is a part of every examined life is the focus of the novel in a variety of ways, but importantly for McGurl is Wallace’s interaction with the institution as a means of repelling the vast, insanity inducing infinite that certain types of existential investigations will ultimately bring you too. He sees in Infinite Jest a roadmap for navigating the terror of infinity and the nothingness of zero by choosing to shelter in the communal institutions, be it higher education, A.A. or any of the other institutions that Wallace examines in the novel. McGurl then proceeds to describe both Wallace as an artist and Wallace as a product of the institutions that raised him, and Wallace’s embracing of the institution as a means of stemming the tide of infinity, both in the novel and his life.
McGurl spends a decent amount of time examining the Pale King, both on its own and in conversation with Jest, which can be a bit confusing since I haven’t read the Pale King, but the gist of what McGurl says about it is that it is, in the posthumous, editorially compiled (he harps on the point that this is not a finished work by Wallace, but rather compiled by his editor after his suicide, so maybe its not really what he meant to say, but with what we have its what we can say, so he’s going to go with it and just say this is what Wallace is saying because why not, it ties the two books together nicely and works for his argument, and who’s to say he’s wrong about it) version is an ode to institutions, and that Jest in so many ways can be read as the same thing. The Pale King seems to center around the IRS headquarters, which is in Illinois, which because of the open and seemingly infinite expanse of land surrounding the IRS, mirrors in the characters and the reader a sense of the panic, and need to come in from the outside, and be comforted by the structure of community, here, the community of nation as exemplified by the monetary connection we have to one another, but in other places in his work, different institutions serving the same function. McGurl’s main point is this, “the “institution” in Wallace is first and foremost a communal antidote to atomism, a laboriously iterated wall against the nihilism attendant to solitude. The “antirebels” who commit to the function and furtherance of these institutions are to be admired, not reviled”(McGurl p. 38).
The article is interesting and well developed and definitely helped to inform my onion about how Wallace views institutions. While it is clear that he admires Wallace as a writer and all that, there is also a very strong warning that is reiterated throughout that it would be a mistake to not critically engage and actually criticize Wallace where he falls short. He spends about half the essay taking Wallace to task about the places he fails, and if the last discussion in class captured your interest, he makes a strident indictment of the choice that Wallace made of writing from and for an educated, white, male viewpoint. Up until reading this, I had honestly just kind of been in awe of Wallace. It was refreshing to have someone point out the flaws in the novel. The places that the book fails to achieve its potential. It feels like a bit of reality seeped back into my perception of both the writer and the work after reading McGurl.
If you’re looking for a place to do some research for a paper, this essay has a pretty good break down of institutions, A.A., the fractal and mathematics angle, Wallace as product of his environment, as well as some good critiques of where Wallace may have missed the mark.
Also, I hadn’t made this connection and McGurl barely touches on it, but Hal. Like HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Right over my head.