Sunday, November 18, 2012

A Radical Literalist Reading of D.F.W.'s "Good Ol' Neon"

Towards the end of “E Unibus Pluram” David Foster Wallace writes, “The next real literary “rebels” in this country might well emerge as some weird bunch of anti-rebels, born oglers who dare somehow to back away from ironic watching, who have the childish gall actually to endorse and instantiate single-entendre principles” (81).  He is making a case for people who actually and literally mean what they say; he wants artists and creators who, “treat of plain old untrendy human troubles and emotions in U.S. life with reverence and conviction” (81).  There is some difficulty in this in that it will be tough for those who have been inculcated, indoctrinated, and inundated with postmodern irony.  How will we know sincerity when we see it?

As I have said before, I think that the term ‘radical literalism’ describes Wallace’s project nicely, but I haven’t really gotten into what a radical literalist reading of a piece of work might look like.  So, with that, let’s start with D.F.W. himself:

Wallace wrote a story entitled “Good Ol’ Neon” that might shed some light on what single-entendre literature (or radical literalist literature) might look like, or at least one version of it.  This is a story of a man who is going to commit suicide, but, more than that, it is about the thoughts that might flow through one’s head in the moments just before death.  It takes Wallace about forty dense pages to flesh these last moments out, which suggests that in order to truly understand just a few seconds in a person’s head, it might take forty pages of dense writing or more.  Writing for the single entendre is tough work.  “Good Ol’ Neon” is also a narrative that takes place in the first person.  This first person narrative is highly self-conscious, not in the meta-narrative fashion of the postmodern, but in a way that expresses concern for transparency.  We can see this in a passage where the narrator is discussing the act of constructing his suicide note for his sister,
Even as I wrote the note to Fern, for instance, expressing sentiments and regrets that were real, a part of me was noticing what a fine and sincere note it was, and anticipated the effect on Fern of this or that heartfelt phrase, while yet another part was observing the whole scene of a man in a dress shirt and no tie sitting at his breakfast nook writing a heartfelt note on his last afternoon alive, the blondwood table’s surface trembling with sunlight and the man’s hand steady and face both haunted by regret and ennobled by resolve, this part of me sort of hovering above and just to the left of myself, evaluating the scene, and thinking what a fine and genuine-seeming performance in a drama it would make if only we all had not already been subject to countless scenes just like it in dramas ever since we first saw a movie or read a book, which somehow entailed that real scenes like the one of my suicide note were now compelling and genuine only to their participants…(175-6)
This excerpt represents only about half of the sentence.  The narrator is in a spiral of sincerity, of trying to represent something honestly and without irony or double meanings.  He wants to express his pain in a way that doesn’t pander to sentimentality, while at the same time acknowledging his awareness of how insincere honest sincerity might come across. 

This narrative is complicated even more when the narrator steps outside of it in the form of a footnote.  The footnote is a bit discursive and at the end of it is written the words “The End”.  But the story continues, or at least the words continue.  Here Wallace is exposing the falsity of endings, or at least the contrived nature of them.  The story continues (or if not the story, then the writing) to introduce a new character, that of David Foster Wallace, who “blinks in the midst of idly scanning class photos from his 1980 Aurora West J.S. yearbook” (180). But the original narrator remains in control of the narrative.  The narrator lets the readers in on the fact that Wallace is staring at a photo of a classmate who was killed in a car crash, which is how the narrator commits suicide, and is trying to imagine what must have been going through his mind.  Again we can see the story working hard to operate emotionally honest.  Wallace goes through pains, twists himself in pretzels, to work in a way that exists outside of irony.  The story is honestly concerned with empathy, with trying to feel something in a real way.

D.F.W. and Radical Literalism

David Foster Wallace’s essay, “E Unibus Pluram” is written in reaction to and Wallace’s position with postmodernism, and, more specifically, postmodern irony.  He says of irony that it is much like a “Third World rebel” coup in that, “Third World rebels are great at exposing and overthrowing corrupt hypocritical regimes, but they seem noticeably less great at the mundane, non-negative task of then establishing a superior governing alternative” (67).  Irony is great at deconstruction, but it doesn’t insert anything of positive value, nothing additive, in place of what it deposes, debunks, takes apart, or ridicules.  He goes on to say, “Make no mistake: irony tyrannizes us” (67).  He is saying that we cannot escape irony.  If this is indeed the case that would mean that everything has two meanings, the literal and the ironic, which is the equal opposite of the literal.  One can see how this might be depressing after a while.
As I have mentioned more than once in this blog, I believe that it is possible to read David Foster Wallace’s essay “E Unibus Pluram” as a manifesto, and since it is the job of a manifesto to work as a preface, it might be prudent to suggest a couple of ideas or thoughts on what to call this next iteration or mode of thinking that “E Unibus Pluram” is prefacing. 

It might be best to look at another essay from Wallace: “Some Remarks on Kafka’s Funniness from Which Probably Not Enough Has BeenRemoved”.  Wallace talks about Franz Kafka’s story “A Little Fable”.  The reason that this might be useful when thinking of what to call the next iteration is that Wallace’s remarks on Kafka offer a possible moniker.  Wallace also seems to align Kafka with the ethos/pathos presented in “E Unibus Pluram”, that is to say that he considers Kafka as embracing a brand of honesty that concurs with the “E Pluribus Unum” manifesto.

Wallace briefly talks about how he works with Kafka and his (Wallace’s) students: “You can ask [students] to imagine [Kafka’s] stories as all about a kind of door.” Then going on to say that readers of Kafka must imagine themselves as “approaching” that door and pounding on it for admittance, that we (the universal or figurative readers) are desperate to get the door to open, although we don’t know what lies beyond the door.  He then says that when the door finally opens that it “opens outward – we’ve been inside what we wanted all along” (64 - 65).  Wallace seems to think that Kafka’s stories speak in a very real way to our experience as humans.  Not a mediated version of our experience, not a mirror of who we, as humans, think we want to be, but to what is inside of us in reality.  Wallace reinforces this, saying that Kafka’s stories have “an ambivalence that becomes the multivalent Both/And logic of the, quote, “unconscious,” which I personally think is just a fancy word for soul” (64).  Wallace sees Kafka as being concerned with the “soul”, and it seems that what he, Wallace, is worried about this as well, and it is this concern that motivates “E Unibus Pluram”.

Wallace goes on to say that Kafka was “heroically sane” (64).  This might be a good, specific place to start when postulating a moniker for the next iteration because it is this sort of sanity, or call to the actual and factual that Wallace seems to embrace, claiming, “that Kafka’s funniness depends on some kind of radical literalization of truths we tend to treat as metaphorical” (64).  It is this “radical literalization” that I think works best to describe what it is that Wallace is really after.  Radical literalism is another way to suggest that one must mean what one says, that one must be brave enough to “endorse and instantiate single-entendre principles” (ibid). This term works because it fits with the pathos/ethos of “E Unibus Pluram”.  Wallace is after a way to describe and think about the next iteration of contemporary thought and that it should deal with honest literalities.[1] 

To literalize thoughts and feelings is important to Wallace.  He is not making a call to revisit or reinstitute realism, he is asking that we view as real those things that live within us, the intangible sides of ourselves, our thoughts, feelings, and ideas.  In fact, the case could be made that radical literalism opens up the door for some very symbolic uses of language.  Wallace says, “some of our most profound collective intuitions seem to be expressible only as figures of speech, that that’s why we call these figures of speech expressions” (64).  The thinking here seeming to be that our language, or the way all humans use language, is steeped in the proverbial, the metaphoric, and the symbolic; Wallace says of this, “I might invite students to consider what is really being expressed when we refer to someone as creepy or gross or say that he is forced to take shit as part of his job” (64).  If we begin to really examine what the words we use actually mean that there might be a shift in the way we think about and treat each other.  If another aspect of the manifesto is that it tries to “convince and convert” then it seems as if “E Unibus Pluram” is a rather noble manifesto, one that encourages us to treat our thoughts, ideas, and emotions as if they were literal, which then means that we can honestly examine freely our inner selves, which heretofore has been seen as wishy-washy, pedantic, and worse.  In an interview with Charlie Rose, Wallace sums this up nicely.  When asked, “What can literature do that other things can’t?” Wallace responds, “Good art can make you feel not alone.[2]

[1] As I was reading away, I found that LeClair references and interview with Wallace where he proposes “radical realism” as an alternative to “image fiction” (25).  This was a bit of a surprise to me since I am postulating that “radical literalism” should be the next iteration.  Oh well, I guess that I am not as ingenious and original as I thought.  But even if Wallace was nominating “radical realism”, I will still stick with “radical literalism” (Wallace still having coined that as well) because it feels more original and less attached to another mode or genre, besides, I can’t really afford to start over.

[2] I have no idea how to cite this.  I found the video on Youtube, and I suppose I will just provide the URL or something.  I think that my citation system is way off anyways due to these footnoted asides, which are Chicago I think, while the rest of the essay is MLA.  Oh well, I’ve done what I can.

D.F.W. and Hegemony

To get a better idea of David Foster Wallace’s concerns in “E Unibus Pluram”, I took the text of the piece and input it into a word cloud.  It is really telling:

Created by Leon Erickson with Wordle

We can see that he was concerned with television (obviously), fiction, images, watching, irony, and people – this last being maybe Wallace’s most popular topic; Wallace, in my opinion, was always most concerned with people and the human condition, which is why I think he was so interested in television’s sway on society, he was worried about what it was doing to us all, which is why it might be worth taking a look at Wallace in conjunction with Dick Hebdige’s ideas in “Subculture: The Meaning of Style” concerning hegemony in that there seems to be a direct link between Wallace’s concerns about television and hegemonic control.

Dick Hebdige says, “Subcultures represent ‘noise’: interference in the orderly sequence which leads from real events and phenomena to their representation in the media” (2481).  For Wallace, this “noise” could be said to be postmodern irony, and what he is worried about is how it has made the transition from a “real event and phenomena” to its sublimation and representation in the media.  That is to say that postmodern irony operated originally as a subculture, and “interfered” with the “orderly sequence”, and that at one point it was “real”.  The problem now, for Wallace, is its “representation”.  Maybe “representation” isn’t the right way to think of Wallace’s gripe though, because he seems to be more upset by the fact that it (“it” being postmodern irony of course) has been bodily lifted and set in place as the new norm. Subcultures create what Hebdige describes as “temporary blockage in the system” (2481), but it seems that postmodern irony as a subculture is no longer a blockage, but an integral part of the mediated system and if “E Unibus Pluram” is a manifesto, and manifestos work against previous or old ways of thinking, it is this that Wallace’s manifesto is working against.  He sees postmodernism, and its direct connection to irony, as having been not only corrupted, but co-opted and no longer a subculture at all.

The reason subcultures are thought to be disturbing is that they contest the way people ascribe identity to themselves.  Hebdige describes the disturbance in people’s perceived versions of themselves as “profoundly disorienting” (2481).  That is why subcultures, such as the punk movement, disconcert so many people – they call into question the consensus or media-controlled representational view of the human experience.  Irony is a potent weapon in the fight against these sorts of dominant discourses as, according to Wallace, it has a negative and deconstructive element, what he calls a “deadpan sneer” (49), and also irony is deeply involved with language and discourse in that irony deals with speech directly.  Irony is the act of using words in a way to convey a meaning that is opposite to that which the words mean in a literal sense[1]. 

This is important – that irony is the use of words – because as Hebdige says, “Notions concerning the sanctity of language are intimately bound up with ideas of social order” (2481).  He seems to be saying that a challenge to language, or communication, is an attack on social order.  Postmodern irony has a special ability to attack communication directly, which, at first was, if not a good thing, then at least an effective thing.  Wallace says as much, “Irony in postwar art and culture started out the same way youthful rebellion did.  It was difficult and painful, and productive” (66). But Wallace goes on to complicate this notion, saying that postmodern irony’s initial institution was, “frankly idealistic”.  He also says that postmodern irony served as a “grim diagnosis of a long-denied disease” (66) – the Wallacian idea of “disease” seeming to be a representation of America through pop-culture and media as equitable and balanced and without a fringe element.  Wallace finishes up this thought by intimating that early postmodern irony “assumed that etiology and diagnosis pointed toward a cure, that a revelation of imprisonment led to freedom” (67).  Wallace acknowledges that irony was a capable tool in the early combat of American hegemony, but that it served its purpose and, more than that, it has been co-opted by the very hegemony it once worked against.

This is the crux of the “E Unibus Pluram” manifesto: postmodern irony has not only run its course, it is now working against subculture, or at least has been adopted by mass media – television in particular – in order to “fool” or lull people into a submissive and ever-watchful populace.

Another Hebdigian connection to Wallace’s manifesto suggests that there is a certain irony at work in the sublimation of subcultures.  Hebdige says, “Style in particular provokes a double response”, much like irony’s double meaning –  (and by that I mean its literal meaning and its intended meaning, which is the opposite of its literal meaning) – the double response Hebdige mentions is this: “it is alternately celebrated (in fashion pages) and ridiculed or reviled (in those articles which define subcultures as social problems)” (2483).  So what happens is that subcultures are simultaneously revered and reviled.  They are celebrated for their fashion while at the same time heaped with derision for their apparent lack of intellectual value.  Maybe this is why postmodern irony has been absorbed.  It has the ability to do just what Hebdige locates as hegemony’s goal, to absorb, deconstruct, and re-represent that which its lens is focused on.   Hebdige describes this hegemonic move as “the simultaneous diffusion and defusion of the subcultural style” (2483), going on to say, “those young people who choose to inhabit a spectacular youth culture are simultaneously returned…to the place where common sense would have them fit” (2484).  They are “returned” in that they are labeled in a way that situates them once again in society.  Instead of a teen “punk-rocker” there is the “kid just playing dress up”.  This is what Hebdige refers to as “recuperation” (2484). 

Hebdige gives two rules for the process of “recuperation”:
(1)  The conversion of subcultural signs (dress, music, etc.) into mass produced objects (i.e. the commodity form);
(2)  The ‘labeling’ and re-definition of deviant behavior by dominant groups – the police, the media, the judiciary, (i.e. the ideological form) (2484).

It is of note that Hebdige talks about the “ideological form” since it is this that the “E Unibus Pluram” (as manifesto) is dealing with in a way.  Wallace talks about postmodern irony as having not only been converted, but as having become the new order of ideological form.  Wallace deals with television in particular in “E Unibus”, but he uses television as a representative example of society at large.  He does this by labeling American society as a “culture-of-watch[ers]”, and then goes on to draw connections to television and various forms of artistic expression that influence culture, saying, “the most interesting intercourse is between television and American literature” (41).  So, in a culture-of-watchers, television is king and that this king rules artistic expression, even literature.  Television (the king) informs us (Americans) of who we are – one of television’s goals, according to Wallace, being to act as a “mirror” (53) – and therefore it becomes the driver for how we, as humans, make sense of the world.  Wallace mentions television as being an “institutionalizing of irony” (much like what Hebdige says happens of all subcultures) which then leads to “narcissism, nihilism, stasis, loneliness” (73).  This is what “E Unibus Pluram” is railing against, an end to the double meaning and passive aggressive nature of irony.  It is a manifesto for honesty and sincerity.

[1] Here I wrote down from my own head a definition of irony then checked the O.E.D. then changed a couple of things to make sure that I was in alignment.  I don’t really think that I am paraphrasing or anything, so I didn’t cite this, but I figured I would add this footnote to cover my bases.

D.F.W. and Irony

Iannis Goerlandt in his essay “Put the Book Down and Slowly Walk Away: Irony and David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest” says, “Wallace is constantly concerned with irony” and goes on to say that irony is “a major theme of [Wallace’s] essays and interviews” (309).  This is undoubtedly true. Wallace uses the word “irony” over fifty times throughout “E Unibus Pluram”.  This is important in that Wallace associates irony with postmodernism, and we can see this in the “E Unibus Pluram” as well, he uses the term “postmodern” over fifty times and often in conjunction with the word “irony”[1]. 

For Wallace, these two concepts are inextricably intertwined. He puts forth as the “thesis” for “E Unibus Pluram” that: “irony, poker-faced silence, and fear of ridicule are distinctive of those features of contemporary U.S. culture” and that “irony and ridicule are entertaining and effective, and that at the same time they are agents of great despair and stasis” (49).  He does say that what he is most concerned with is what he calls a “subgenre” (50) of postmodernism, which he intimates is called a number of things from “post-postmodernism” to “Hyperrealism” to “Image-Fiction”, the latter being the term he seems most comfortable with, or at least settles on.  At any rate, these “sub-genres” are all informed by postmodernism.  He then goes on to talk about “irony’s aura” (54).  It can’t be said for sure whether or not Wallace is directly referencing Walter Benjamin’s idea of “aura” from “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility”, but it is highly likely.  Benjamin describes “aura” as being a work’s “uniqueness” (1056), and that this uniqueness is innate.  Wallace’s position on postmodern irony’s aura is that it “has always set the nobility of individualism against the warmth of communal being” (54).  That is to say that most people want to be individuals while at the same time wanting desperately to feel as if they belong.  He uses television advertising as an example of this. 

As a for instance (not from Wallace): Cee Lo Green singing for a 7-Up commercial, “Be free and express yourself, do what comes naturally”, followed by the catch phrase, “Be yourself, be refreshing”.  Irony’s aura at work here being that 7-Up is suggesting that the lone viewer of the commercial can express individuality by purchasing its product while simultaneously it is marketing directly to the masses.  This becomes problematic in that most contemporary art production, from literature to television, adopts the same sort of postmodern irony.

[1] Searching key words in a PDF version of “E Unibus Pluram” provided these counts.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

David Foster Wallace and Postmodernism

David Foster Wallace’s essay, “E Unibus Pluram” is written in reaction to and position with postmodernism, and, more specifically, postmodern irony.  In it Wallace says of irony that it is much like a “Third World rebel” coup in that, “Third World rebels are great at exposing and overthrowing corrupt hypocritical regimes, but they seem noticeably less great at the mundane, non-negative task of then establishing a superior governing alternative” (67).  Irony is great at deconstruction, but it doesn’t insert anything of positive value, nothing additive, in place of what it deposes, debunks, takes apart, or ridicules.  He goes on to say, “Make no mistake: irony tyrannizes us” (67).  He is saying that we cannot escape irony.  If this is indeed the case, that would mean that everything has two meanings, the literal and the ironic, which is the equal opposite of the literal.  One can see how this might be depressing after a while as we would never have a real idea of what to consider real or authentic.


It’s worth talking about the fact that many scholars try to either align Wallace with postmodernism or, alternatively, try to separate him from postmodernism. Part of this section is to point out that I am joining a conversation already in progress as well as to point out that there is a general consensus that there needs to be something after postmodernism, which then helps to bolster the claim that Wallace’s “E Unibus Pluram” can be seen as a manifesto for this next iteration.

To start with, Wallace scholar Paul Giles says of postmodernism in his essay, “Sentimental Posthumanism: David Foster Wallace” that “Postmodernism, of course, tended ideologically to reverse the premises of this authoritarian distinction between center and margin, valorizing the latter at the expense o the former” (327).  It is Giles’s contention that postmodernism is about the rural, the edges of the city, which aligns nicely with Frederic Jameson’s assertions. Giles goes on to say that Wallace “tends to flatten this distinction entirely” (327), the distinction being between the center and the margin, or high and low culture as it so often tends to play out.  Giles time and again works to separate Wallace from postmodernism, “Many of Wallace’s stories take issue explicitly with the reflexive dimensions of postmodernism” (331). Giles goes on to suggest that Wallace’s work fits much better in the “posthuman” mode of thinking, which I agree with, but only to an extent – “Posthuman” is a box that Giles seems to be forcing Wallace into, much the same way he is often forced into postmodernism, even though some of his parts don’t fit.  So he is forced to rely on works like Infinite Jest and the short story “Good Ol’ Neon”, which fit nicely, while ignoring pieces like “E Unibus Pluram”, which doesn’t.  Also, it is entirely possible to perform a posthuman reading of much of what Wallace wrote (as well as hundreds of other writers and creators), but that does not mean that Wallace was a ‘posthumanist’.  All in all though I am a big fan of this essay and agree that Wallace should be thought of as doing something that is not normally associated with postmodernism, and to lump him in with that mode of thought usually comes out of not knowing what else to do with him.

Robert L. McLaughlin adds another wrinkle to the conversation.  To start with he positions postmodernism as, “skepticism toward narrative as a meaning-providing structure” which then operates to make “opaque the process of representation” (59).  The suggestion here seeming to be that postmodernism often avers for form over content.  He then goes on to say that Wallace (among others) “implies a critique of postmodernism” (59), which, of course, I agree with.  McLaughlin ends by referring to Wallace as being part of “post-postmodernism” (66), which might sound like a rather lazy place holder for anything better, but makes sense as he concludes his argument by suggesting that Wallace et. al. are still a part of postmodernism and that their views on the subject were nothing more than a “matter of emphasis” (66).  So, rather than find a way to place Wallace in a new vein, McLaughlin just shoves him back into the postmodern box.  Ultimately this leaves me feeling unsatisfied, probably because I am a huge Wallace fan, which I readily admit to, but also because the term ‘post-postmodernism’ again creates a need to always connect what Wallace does to postmodernism in much the same way postmodernism is always attached to modernism.  The argument becomes recursive, which itself feels postmodern and isn’t that what we’re trying to escape?


Lee Konstantinou is doing some pretty interesting work on Wallace and the next iteration of thinking.  He is working on a Ph.D. dissertation for Stanford which is as of yet unfinished, but worth looking at briefly nonetheless.  He intimates that “Wallace uses metafictional form to cultivate reader belief and to short-circuit what he sees as the irony characteristic of American consumer culture” (1).  Much like this blog, Konstantinou has keyed in on Wallace’s concern with irony and, as a matter of fact, has gone so far as to put forth a name for the next generation of thought, which he says Wallace is the forerunner or progenitor of.  He dubs this next iteration “post-irony” (1).  I like this, but I doubt it will catch on (not that radical literalism will catch on!)  I think the problem lies with having to then prove that there was (or is) a form of literary or philosophical thought called “irony” that in turn spawned a spate of artistic endeavors.  I suppose the case could be made though; in writing this essay I found plenty of work on this from Albert Camus’s essay “Irony” from his book Lyrical and Critical Essays, to Giles Deleuze’s discussion of irony in The Logic of Sense.  The task is Herculean though.

I suppose that personally I don’t really like referring to what Wallace was doing as post-irony in that the label then directly links him with irony and serves to operate much like the term non-fiction, which defines the genre only by what it isn’t, but in this case by what it doesn’t want to be or is leery of.


This blog’s genesis is a school project in which we (the students in the class) were asked to think about the nature of fiction and non-fiction and where the future of each might lie.  The syllabus for the course (English 535: Anthologies, Manifestos & Subversions) reads in part: “Nonfiction is an intriguing literary animal—it has overtaken fiction in popularity, yet remains an undercriticized literary form. There is a paucity of sustained nonfiction criticism after a burst of activity around 1989-90”.  The implication here is that non-fiction is problematic in that it is sold as a literary genre, but is critiqued with few agreed upon literary generic conventions.  The syllabus goes on to say, “Many aesthetic declarations and arguments in nonfiction take place in the form of anthologies, with the tacit declarations of aesthetics implicit in the process of choice, and with the statements made openly in anthology introductions and other textual matter”.  While these ‘tacit declarations’ help to offer a consensus view of the state of the essay and the operations of non-fiction, they don’t do much in the way of codifying a cogent and workable set of generic conventions, even when taken in aggregate.  For instance, why is non-fiction defined by what it isn’t?  If it is not fiction, does that make it truthful, or is the suggestion then that it operates as a form reality and if we can have a ‘form’ of reality, what does that mean?

Photograph by Steve Rhodes under Creative Commons license.  Retrieved from
So, in response to these issues, this blog postulates (mostly for fun) the idea that David Foster Wallace offers a new way in which to view ‘non-fiction’ (the scare quotes here to suggest that I don’t have, nor will I postulate a definition for this term) and indeed many new forms of creation from music to literature to architecture et al.  This blog will explore David Foster Wallace’s essay “E Unibus Pluram” in order to set up what I am calling “Radical Literalism” as a mode of thought pioneered by Wallace.  Following this will be a series of what I hope are fun and enlightening readings of various artistic endeavors through a Wallacian lens.