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Wallace’s postmodern context

Sketch of Wallace's life and thought
Wallace lecturing
© MGS

The other essential piece of context for understanding Wallace is postmodernism. Postmodernism means many things but there are two main aspects of it to grasp to understand Wallace.

First, Wallace was a self-consciously American author, writing in the American tradition. In the fifties and sixties in America, literature emerged that made substantial use of pastiche, irony, collage, non-linear narrative, and non-functional form, such as self-reference and meta-fiction. A good example of the latter (though not from the American canon) is Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller, which begins, ‘You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveller.’ These postmodern authors, as they were called – John Barth, William Burroughs, William Gaddis, Thomas Pynchon – used these formal innovations both to attack constraints on form and subject matter, and to criticise US society. Wallace regarded their innovations and irony as important and valuable, but he rejected many of the ways their legacy was taken up by his own generation. He described his views in an interview with Larry McCaffrey.

This is a double-edged sword, our bequest from the early postmodernists and the post-structuralist critics. One the one hand, there’s sort of an embarrassment of riches for young writers now. Most of the old cinctures and constraints that used to exist—censorship of content is a blatant example—have been driven off the field. Writers today can do more or less whatever we want. But on the other hand, since everybody can do pretty much whatever they want, without boundaries to define them or constraints to struggle against, you get this continual avant-garde rush forward without anyone bothering to speculate on the destination, the “goal” of the forward rush. The modernists and early postmodernists—all the way from Mallarmé to Coover, I guess—broke most of the rules for us, but we tend to forget what they were forced to remember: the rule-breaking has got to be for the “sake” of something. When rule-breaking, the mere “form” of renegade avant-gardism, becomes an end in itself, you end up with bad language poetry and American Psycho’s nipple-shocks and Alice Cooper eating shit on stage. Shock stops being a by-product of progress and becomes an end in itself. And it’s bullshit.

As Wallace was to write later, metafiction is often simply self-reference, a game spinning in a void without any traction on real life. This is just what he wanted to move beyond. There’s almost a solipsism to this kind of writing or, perhaps better, it loses the emotional connection between writer and reader and the texts become clever puzzles, almost showing off, rather than genuine communication between the two, which was one of the main goals of writing for Wallace.

Another meaning of postmodernism that is important for Wallace’s fiction is post-structuralist theory, especially the deconstructionism of Derrida. Derrida argued that the meaning of terms cannot be pinned down forever, so that language is not completely stable. This relates to the ‘death of the author.’ Derrida and other post-structuralists attacked the ‘Intentionalist Fallacy,’ that the meaning of the text is what the author intends it to be. ‘It doesn’t matter what the writer means…it matters only what the text says.’ (Wallace, ‘Greatly Exaggerated’ in A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.) For Wallace, the meaning of a text is generated in a relationship between the author and reader.

Wallace was haunted by Wittgenstein’s idea that everything is language, that nothing can enter our reality except through language, such that their limits are coequal. This loses any sense of reality to which language must be accountable, leaving us isolated from one another, unable to communicate truly, which Wallace found deeply troubling. The Broom of the System, his first novel, began life as an undergraduate thesis putting Wittgenstein and Derrida in conversation. Wallace concluded that there are aspects of reality we cannot fully capture in language.

Wallace described Broom as a ‘dialogue between ‘Hegel and Wittgenstein on one hand and Heidegger and a contemporary French thinker-duo named Paul DeMan and Jacques Derrida on the other, said debate having its root in an essential self-other distinction that is perceived by both camps as less ontological/metaphysical than essentially (for Hegel and Witt) historical and cultural or (for Heidegger and DeMan and Derrida) linguistic, literary, aesthetic, and fundamentally super or metacultural.’ (cited in D T Max, Every Love Story is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace, 69). Whilst the full philosophical details at this stage are not important, what is important is Wallace is a self-consciously philosophical writer, using and in conversation with philosophy in his fiction and essays and this course will examine some of these ideas.

© MGS
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David Foster Wallace: Literature and Philosophy

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