“Then” What Do We Do?
If not for his tragic suicide back in 2008, today would have been the fifty-first birthday of award-winning writer David Foster Wallace. By nearly any account, Wallace was the greatest talent of his generation. In addition to his sparkling fiction, which included sprawling, encyclopedic novels such as Infinite Jest and beautifully crystalline short short stories such as “Good Old Neon,” he was also arguably the greatest American essayist since Mark Twain. His essays managed to balance his effusive humor, sharp political insight, and spellbinding prose style so well that upon receiving his legendary “cruise ship essay,” Harper’s editor Colin Harrison remarked that “it was very clear to us that we had pure cocaine on our hands” (1). But what is perhaps most surprising about Wallace is that his wit and brilliance seems to come through almost equally well in more-or-less unscripted environments, including interviews, television appearances, and even this now infamous English 102 syllabus. Perhaps Wallace was so great in interviews, partially because he was interminably convinced that he was so awful at them. His own probing sense of postmodern irony and meta-critique drove him to a sort of solipsistic humility which made him so compelling to listen to (2). One of my favorite Wallace quotations comes from a 1993 interview with Larry McCaffery from The Review of Contemporary Fiction. When asked about “the dilemma facing avant-garde wannabes today,” Wallace provided the following brilliant assessment of his entire generation of postmoderns.
Irony and cynicism were just what the U.S. hypocrisy of the fifties and sixties called for. That’s what made the early postmodernists great artists…Sarcasm, parody, absurdism and irony are great ways to strip off stuff’s mask and show the unpleasant reality behind it. The problem is that once the rules of art are debunked, and once the unpleasant realities the irony diagnoses are revealed and diagnosed, “then” what do we do? Irony’s useful for debunking illusions, but most of the illusion-debunking in the U.S. has now been done and redone. Once everybody knows that equality of opportunity is bunk and Mike Brady’s bunk and Just Say No is bunk, now what do we do?…Few artists dare to try to talk about ways of working toward redeeming what’s wrong, because they’ll look sentimental and naive to all the weary ironists. Irony’s gone from liberating to enslaving (3).
Wallace’s almost visionary diagnosis, the crux marked in bold above, is all the more brilliant and insightful for the fact that it was made almost 20 years ago. In a way that mirrors Jacques Derrida’s turn to “undeconstructibility” during the same time period (1989-1993), Wallace aches to see beyond the postmodern critique to something that might come after, but he is so thoroughly bound by his postmodern sensibilities that he finds this difficult if not impossible. In a 1996 conversation with Rolling Stone‘s David Lipsky, he seems to say something similar, but this time with much more resolve.
My guess is that what it will be is, it’s going to be the function of some people who are heroes. Who evince a real time of passion that going to look very banal and very retrograde…in the particular climate of our generation and MTV and Letterman, they’re going to look absurd. They’re going to look like, what do you call it? Pollyannas. Or, um, you know, suffragettes on soapboxes. They’re going gonna come off bombastic and pretentious and self-righteous and smug and…[But] at a certain point, we’re going to look for something. And the question for me is, what? (4).
In each of these quotations, Wallace evinces a deep concern about what comes after the postmodern critique, and in each case he posits a sort of new “naïveté.” After the critique and irony is settled, there are hard questions to be asked. But, of course, Wallace is unwilling to participate in this naïve speculation because he knows that any answer he could provide would be instantly susceptible to the type of critique it is attempting to displace. This is the sort of vacillation that characterizes so much of the best writing that Wallace does, piously indignant social commentary coupled with ennui-filled meta-critique. In 2010, cultural theorists Timotheus Vermeulen and Robin van den Akker coined the term “metamodernism” to describe this increasingly common position in contemporary arts and literature (5). They define “metamodernism” as a constant repositioning between positions and mindsets that are evocative of the modern and of the postmodern but are ultimately suggestive of another sensibility that is neither of them. If postmodernity signaled the death of meta-narratives, metamodernity longs for another meta-narrative, while acknowledging that this narrative probably doesn’t exist, and even if it does exist, is already inherently problematic.
Despite the horribly academic valence of the term itself, I think “metamodernism” actually manages to capture something important about the work of someone like Wallace and potentially something about the broader millennial generational consciousness (6). The solution to the roadblock that postmodernism presents simply cannot be a retreat to the simpler fundamentalisms of the past, but neither can it be the endless spinning-out of pure, devastating critique. I believe we are already seeing this sort of metamodern attitude in mainstream pop culture. Take, for instance, the title track off Helplessness Blues by Seattle-based indie rockers, Fleet Foxes. The song begins with the following stanza:
I was raised up believing I was somehow unique
Like a snowflake distinct among snowflakes, unique in each way you can see
And now after some thinking, I’d say I’d rather be
A functioning cog in some great machinery serving something beyond me
This first stanza establishes the tone for the remainder of the song, which centers on the protagonists dissatisfaction with the uncertainty of the postmodern condition. In the song’s second half, the protagonist continually repeats the line, “If I had an orchard, I’d work till I’m sore,” which seems to be an almost anthemic tribute to the Pollyannish naïveté that Wallace advocates. This hipster, back-to-the-land sentiment is every bit as “pretentious and self-righteous and smug” as Wallace predicted, but the song ends with an unexpected turn.
If I had an orchard, I’d work till I’m sore
Someday I’ll be like the man on the screen
This final couplet of the song reveals that the protagonist was motivated by his unhealthy relationship to popular culture (idolizing the “man on the screen”), and instantly deflates the naïve posture of the song. By critically dismantling this newly fashioned meta-narrative––which was only adopted in the first place out of frustration with the constant critical dismantling of meta-narratives––the audience is taken through the dialectical metamodern move. We earnestly want the simple “back-to-the-land” sentiment to be true, and in the moment, we believe it could be. But in light of the final lyric, we realize all the ways that this is already problematic.
This metamodern impulse can be seen throughout popular culture in a host of different media, from the all-too-serious meta-satire of The Daily Show to the deconstructive love stories of Michel Gondry and Wes Anderson. And, I would like to suggest, it is precisely these heartfelt and critical works which have driven forward a host of social, political, and aesthetic conversations which might otherwise have stalled. Take for instance, Stephen Colbert’s brilliant coverage of the 2012 Super PAC debacle. In this situation, a straightforwardly naïve or earnest viewpoint would have simply been dismissed as ideological, but Colbert’s unstable metamodern critique was able to unmask the true villainy of the Super PAC system. In the end, perhaps David Foster Wallace’s strength as a social commentator is part and parcel of his strength as an interviewee (and indeed as a writer). While Wallace was waiting for someone with purer intentions, someone unencumbered by the cynical baggage of postmodernity, I think he was one of the ones we were waiting for. And as we learned in the story of Moses, Wallace’s unwillingness to accept his mantle might be precisely what makes him worthy of it.
(1) Since his death, Harper’s has made all of Wallace’s contributions to the magazine available for free on their website, and these are a great introduction to his broader corpus.
(2) Many of the best interviews with Wallace have recently been collected in Conversations with David Foster Wallace. Edited by Stephen J. Burn. (Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 2012).
(3) David Foster Wallace, in interview with Larry McCaffery, in “A Conversation with David Foster Wallace,” The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 13 (Summer 1993): 147.
(4) David Foster Wallace, in interview with David Lipsky, in Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace. (New York: Broadway Books, 2010): 161.
(5) Timotheus Vermeulen and Robin van den Akker. “Notes on Metamodernism”, Journal of Aesthetics and Culture, Vol. 2 (2010)
(6) Vermeulen and van den Akker’s use of “meta-” is intended to evoke Plato’s concept of “metaxy” which refers to movement between opposite poles, rather than the more common use of “meta-” to refer to an elevated or ontologically prior level of thought.
Joshua Busman is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in musicology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He holds a BM in music theory and composition from Middle Tennessee State University as well as an MA in musicology from UNC. His current research deals with music in religious communities (specifically in evangelicalism), music and politics in the twentieth century, musical postmodernism, and critical theory. Alongside his academic interests, Joshua works with Durham CAN, a multi-racial, multi-faith, grassroots political organization in Durham County. When he isn’t reading or writing, Joshua enjoys hanging out with his wonderful wife and hound dog at their home in the Bull City.