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“The Rare White at the Window”: A Reappraisal of Mark Costello and David Foster Wallace's Signifying Rappers

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  30 January 2014


Stay Fly, and Shit …

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David Foster Wallace, letter to Bonnie Nadell (5 July 1989)
This article evaluates David Foster Wallace and Mark Costello's Signifying Rappers in terms of its contribution to both early hip-hop and whiteness studies, as well as positioning the text in relation to Wallace's career. First, the article traces many of Wallace's subsequent thematic concerns and literary techniques back to this early text, locating the origin of some of his most characteristic stylistic devices within Signifying Rappers. Ultimately, this retrospective reading shows that far from being a mere curiosity piece in Wallace's corpus, radically disconnected from anything he published either before or after, a close interrogation of Signifying Rappers enriches our understanding of Wallace's work, revealing an oblique vision of Wallace striving to articulate a personal artistic agenda in response to the postmodern literary tradition. The essay proceeds to address Wallace and Costello's uncanny presaging of many of the preoccupations of institutional hip-hop and whiteness studies, offering an extended interpretation of the text in light of these disciplines. This analysis also explores representations of race within Wallace's work more generally, as well as addressing the underlying reasons behind the obscure status of Signifying Rappers within these two related fields.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press and British Association for American Studies 2014 

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1 Costello, Mark and Wallace, David Foster, Signifying Rappers: Rap and Race in the Urban Present (New York: The Ecco Press, 1990), 54, 50, 7Google Scholar. Unless otherwise noted, all future references are from this edition and are given parenthetically in the text.

2 Also revealing is the fact that the “Also by David Foster Wallace” list in Both Flesh and Not, though it catalogs every other Wallace publication, neglects to include Signifying Rappers.

3 Historically, even artistic collaborations from canonical authors, such as Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner's The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today (1873), W. H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood's The Dog beneath the Skin, or Where Is Francis? (1935), and Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs's And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks (2008), have received surprisingly few academic enquiries, pointing to a profound unease with literary collusion.

4 Stone, Marjorie and Thompson, Judith, “Contexts and Heterotexts: A Theoretical and Historical Introduction,” in Stone and Thompson, eds., Literary Couplings: Writing Couples, Collaborators, and the Construction of Authorship (Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 2006), 3–40, 19Google Scholar.

5 Wallace, David Foster, “Greatly Exaggerated,” in Wallace, , A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again: Essays and Arguments (New York: Little, Brown and Co., 1997), 138–46, 139Google Scholar.

6 Dave Eggers, Foreword, in Wallace, David Foster, Infinite Jest, 10th anniversary edn (New York: Back Bay Books, 2006), xiGoogle Scholar.

7 See Jacobs, Timothy, “American Touchstone: The Idea of Order in Gerard Manley Hopkins and David Foster Wallace,” Comparative Literature Studies, 38, 3 (2001), 215–30CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Jacobs, , “The Brothers Incandenza: Translating Ideology in Fyodor Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov and David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest,” Texas Studies in Literature and Language, 49, 3 (2007), 265–92CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Boswell, Marshall, Understanding David Foster Wallace (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2003)Google Scholar.

8 Furthering this relegation is Costello's admission, in the new preface to the 2013 edition, that he had self-consciously impersonated Wallace's style, writing some of his arguments “in Dave's mode – internalized discourse, the drama of the head,” along with the publisher's reverse-alphabetical listing of Wallace's name ahead of Costello's, on the covers of both the American and the British imprints of the reissue. Costello and Wallace, Signifying Rappers (New York: Back Bay Books, 2013), xvi.

9 Lipsky, David, Although of Course You End up Becoming Yourself (New York: Broadway Books, 2010), 213Google Scholar.

10 David Foster Wallace, “Presley as Paradigm: DEAD ELVIS: A Chronicle of a Cultural Obsession, by Greil Marcus,” Los Angeles Times, 24 Nov. 1991, available at; Caleb Crain, “Approaching Infinity,” Boston Globe, 26 Oct. 2003. Wallace did occasionally use musical metaphors to great effect, as in his memorable claim, in 2004's “Federer as Religious Experience,” that the Swiss master's playing style – in its combination of finesse and raw strength – was “Mozart and Metallica at the same time.” Wallace, David Foster, “Federer Both Flesh and Not,” in Wallace, , Both Flesh and Not: Essays (Little, Brown and Co., 2013), 536Google Scholar. Furthermore, some of the material from Signifying Rappers found its way into 1996's Infinite Jest: at one point the narrator uses the term “sound-carpet” (61) to refer to ambient tennis noise, while the faux-ebonics sections of the novel, set in part in the Brighton Projects, share numerous features with Wallace's descriptions of poor, black urban culture.

11 Max, D. T., Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace (New York: Viking, 2012), 122Google Scholar.

12 In the Lipsky interview, Wallace stated that during this period, he and Costello were “obsessed with listening to … serious black political rap.” Lipsky, 213, Wallace's emphasis.

13 Several early reviewers objected to the intellectualizing quality of the book, such as venerated music critic Robert Christgau, whose review refers, with palpable condescension, to Wallace as “a philosophy grad student and writer of highbrow pomo ‘fictions’.” Robert Christgau, “But Seriously, Folks,” Village Voice (1990), available at

14 In a 1997 interview with Michael Silverblatt (Bookworm, KCRW, California, 15 May 1997), Wallace pointed out his frustration at authors who insert parenthetical commas around the word “like” – i.e. “since, like, around Homer” – which (for Wallace) did not do justice to the pause-less way it functions in actual speech.

15 A telling influence on such aspects of Wallace's literary project is surely the seminal pop critic Lester Bangs, to whom Signifying Rappers is dedicated, and whose posthumous collection Psychotic Reactions and the Carburetor Dung (1988) Wallace and Costello describe as “a book about rap that never mentions rap” (136).

16 Anne Marie Donahue, “Exhibitionism in Private,” Boston Phoenix, 21–28 March 1996.

17 David Foster Wallace, correspondence with Joel Lovell (1998), Harry Ransom Centre Archives, available at Wallace's inclusion of a hand drawn skull-and-crossbones glyph at the bottom of the letter, along with an ominously violent claim – “I will find a way to harm you or cause you suffering if you fuck with the mechanics of this piece” – testify to a strong, personal investment in this particular technique. Further adding to the sense of violent retribution is a footnote to this quotation, in which Wallace acknowledges that although it “may take years for the opportunity to arise,” he is “very patient,” adding, “Think of me as a spider with a phenomenal emotional memory.”

18 Derrida, Jacques, Of Grammatology (Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 1972), 22Google Scholar.

19 Wallace, “Greatly Exaggerated,” 140.

20 Brandon Soderberg, “David Foster Wallace Once Wrote a Very Strange Rap Book,” Spin Online, 18 Sept. 2012, available at

21 Berry, Venise T., review of Signifying Rappers, Notes, second series, 48, 4 (1992), 1305–6, 1305CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

22 Boswell, Marshall, Understanding David Foster Wallace (Columbia: The University of South Carolina Press, 2003), 7Google Scholar.

23 Burn, Stephen, whose book Jonathan Franzen at the End of Postmodernism (New York: Routledge, 2008)Google Scholar positions Wallace, Franzen, and Richard Powers as “post-postmodernists,” notes (at 17) that Wallace also used the term “post-postmodernism” in “E Unibus Pluram,” Girl with Curious Hair, and Infinite Jest.

24 Beyond his concerns with literary fiction, Wallace also worries at length about contemporary American poetry's “insular[ity],” claiming that poetry “has today become so inbred and (against its professed wishes) inaccessible that it just doesn't get to share its creative products with more than a couple thousand fanatical, sandal-shod readers, doesn't get to move or inform more than a fraction of that readership (most of the moved being poets themselves)” (100). Such statements, likewise, clearly reflect Wallace's misgivings about experimental fiction's closed, self-segregated status, a status that his own fiction would attempt to address.

25 Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah, “When the Lights Shut Off: Kendrick Lamar and the Decline of the Black Blues Narrative,” Los Angeles Review of Books, 31 Jan. 2013, available at

26 Incidentally, though Wallace spoke at the New York Society for Ethical Culture with Tricia Rose, Felipe Luciano, and Greg Tate, on a panel titled “No Jokin’: Rap, Rappers, and the Literary Arts” on 16 May 1991, Black Noise includes only one brief mention of Signifying Rappers.

27 Both essays appear in Murray Forman and Mark Anthony Neal, eds., That's the Joint: The Hip-Hop Studies Reader 2nd edn (New York: Routledge, 2011), 134–52 and 564–78. Russell A. Potter, Spectacular Vernaculars: Hip-Hop and the Politics of Postmodernism (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995).

28 Bakari Kitwana, Why White Kids Love Hip Hop: Wiggas, Wankstas, Wannabes (New York: Basic Civitas Books, 2005); Jeffries, Thug Life: Race, Gender and the Meaning of Hip Hop (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2011); and Jason Tanz, Other People's Property: A Shadow History of Hip Hop in White America (New York: Bloomsbury, 2007). Tanz does mention Wallace – in reference to the “doddering writing professors” (191) of Wallace's “E Unibus Plurum,” an essay published three years after Signifying Rappers – yet does not acknowledge Wallace's earlier work on rap and whiteness that so resonates with his own study.

29 Russell, Emily, “Some Assembly Required: The Embodied Politics of Infinite Jest,” Arizona Quarterly, 66, 2 (2010), 147–69, 155CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Fitzpatrick, Kathleen, The Anxiety of Obsolescence: The American Novel in the Age of Television (Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2006), 218Google Scholar.

30 Lipsky, Although of Course You End up Becoming Yourself, 45.

31 Wallace, David Foster, “Authority and American Usage,” in Wallace, , Consider the Lobster and Other Essays (New York: Little, Brown and Co., 2006), 102Google Scholar; Lipsky, 168, 173.

32 Jonathan Franzen, “Perchance to Dream: In the Age of Images, a Reason to Write Novels,” Harper's Magazine, April 1996, 35–54, 51.

33 Toni Morrison's formative whiteness study, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the American Literary Imagination, was published in 1992, although the participation of white scholars in the predominantly African American field of whiteness studies that Morrison's work initiated did not really take off until the latter half of the 1990s.

34 Wallace, “Presley as Paradigm,” 29, original emphasis. Such examples of racial deference contrast uncomfortably with Costello's particularly disturbing attempts to defuse the racial significations of rap music by asserting, somewhat smugly, that “Public Enemy has seized every available source of militant non-whiteness, without realizing that, in 80s speak, when you sleep with a source you sleep with everyone your source has slept with” (87) – a line of reasoning that has the unfortunate effect of belittling the black nationalism of Public Enemy and diminishing the impact of Costello's earlier protestations of reverence and goofy whiteness.

35 Wallace, “Authority and American Usage,” 102.

36 Soderberg, “David Foster Wallace Once Wrote a Very Strange Rap Book.”

37 In Naked Lunch, Burroughs's semi-autobiographical novel, the narrator describes the way in which his Spanish lovers perceive him: “I am forgetting sex and all sharp pleasures of the body – a grey, junk-bound ghost. The Spanish boys call me El Hombre Invisible – the Invisible Man.” Burroughs, William S., Naked Lunch: The Restored Edition (London: HarperCollins, 2003), 56Google Scholar.

38 Dyer, Richard, White: Essays on Race and Culture (London: Routledge, 1997), 10Google Scholar.

39 Countercultural whiteness has, of course, been historically associated with American blackness, particularly prominent examples of which are the jazz-enthusiast, writer-cum-celebrity-outcasts of the Beat Generation. An inheritor of the Beat tradition, Bob Dylan, becomes, in turn, an important figure in Signifying Rappers's “entitlement” tug-of-war; described by Greg Tate in Everything but the Burden: What White People are Taking from Black Culture (New York: Broadway Books, 2003), 10, as one of a handful of “white artists who found ways to express the complexity of American whiteness inside Black musical forms,” Dylan is actually nominated by Costello as rap's precursor, evidence of the alleged “deep whiteness” (90) of hip-hop culture and, it goes without saying, one of the more contentious claims of Signifying Rappers.

40 Quinn, Eithne, Nuthin’ but a “G” Thang: The Commerce and Culture of Gangsta Rap (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005), 85, 106Google Scholar.

41 Potter, , Spectacular VernacularsGoogle Scholar, 84. It is worth noting that Potter's assessment of Signifying Rappers is not, in this respect, particularly fair. Wallace describes the “pretty traditional” personae of rap including a reference to the signifying monkey: “the jeremiad-deliverer of Hard rap is another favorite persona: rapper-as-imp, as wily mariner, merry prankster, the picaresque little hero” (75). Costello, in turn, interjects with a description of Schooly D as “a Reagan-era updating of an ancient West African tale about a trickster-monkey who baits a lion, which Schooly D may have encountered in his Dad's record collection on vocalist Oscar Brown, Jr.'s early 60s scat-classic ‘Signifying Monkey’” (77). Admittedly, their analysis of rap via the trope of the signifying monkey is by no means as in-depth as Potter's. It is, however, a perfectly sound, albeit succinct, illustration of the link between Yoruba-based African American mythology and rap.

42 Ibid., 70, original emphasis.

43 The short story “Oblivion,” from Wallace's 2004 collection of the same name, also touches on racist perspectives via free indirect discourse; at one point, the (ostensibly male) narrator describes how an unwed mother has become “a kind of cautionary tale” to his daughter and her friends, “one of her children being plainly interracial.” Wallace, David Foster, “Oblivion,” in Wallace, , Oblivion: Stories (New York: Little, Brown and Co., 2004), 190–237, 193Google Scholar.

44 Wallace, Infinite Jest, 172.

45 Wallace, “Authority and American Usage,” 110, 109, 116.

46 Ibid., 279.