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.

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