David Foster Wallace on What’s Wrong with Postmodernism: A Video Essay

“We live in a night­mare that David Fos­ter Wal­lace had in 1994,” said a tweet that put me in stitch­es last sum­mer, but I have a sense that we’ve only sunk deep­er into that hyper­ver­bal, media-obsessed, and deeply fear­ful nov­el­ist’s bad dreams since then. “The Amer­i­can writer in the mid­dle of the 20th cen­tu­ry has his hands full in try­ing to under­stand, and then describe, and then make cred­i­ble much of the Amer­i­can real­i­ty,” Philip Roth argued 55 years ago. “The actu­al­i­ty is con­tin­u­al­ly out­do­ing our tal­ents.” Now, at the begin­ning of the 21st, that actu­al­i­ty out­does not just what the com­par­a­tive­ly tra­di­tion­al Roth could come up with, but even any­thing imag­in­able by Wal­lace’s heirs in the form-break­ing, extrem­i­ty-ori­ent­ed realm of “post­mod­ernism.”

But did Wal­lace con­sid­er him­self post­mod­ernist? Asked by Char­lie Rose in a 1997 inter­view what “post­mod­ernism means in lit­er­a­ture,” he at first replied only that it means “after mod­ernism.” But soon he got into the broad­er cul­tur­al cri­tique for which he’s now remem­bered: “Post­mod­ernism has, to a large extent, run its course,” despite hav­ing made the con­sid­er­able inno­va­tion of pre­sent­ing “the first text that was high­ly self-con­scious, self-con­scious of itself as text, self-con­scious of the writer as per­sona, self-con­scious about the effects that nar­ra­tive had on read­ers and the fact that the read­ers prob­a­bly knew that.” Decades lat­er, Wal­lace saw that “a lot of the schticks of post-mod­ernism — irony, cyn­i­cism, irrev­er­ence — are now part of what­ev­er it is that’s ener­vat­ing in the cul­ture itself.”

“The Prob­lem with Irony,” Will Schoder’s video essay above, draws on Wal­lace’s inter­view with Rose and much oth­er tele­vi­su­al mate­r­i­al besides. That focus may seem slight­ly quaint in the inter­net age, but Wal­lace, a self-con­fessed tele­vi­sion addict who wrote a thou­sand-page nov­el about a video­tape so enter­tain­ing that it kills, looked into the screen and saw a real and pow­er­ful threat. “Irony, pok­er-faced silence, and fear of ridicule are dis­tinc­tive of those fea­tures of con­tem­po­rary U.S. cul­ture (of which cut­ting-edge fic­tion is a part) that enjoy any sig­nif­i­cant rela­tion to the tele­vi­sion whose weird pret­ty hand has my gen­er­a­tion by the throat,” he wrote in the 1993 essay “E Unibus Plu­ram,” blam­ing those qual­i­ties for “a great despair and sta­sis in U.S. cul­ture.”

Even as “a cer­tain sub­genre of pop-con­scious post­mod­ern fic­tion, writ­ten most­ly by young Amer­i­cans, has late­ly arisen and made a real attempt to trans­fig­ure a world of and for appear­ance, mass appeal, and tele­vi­sion [ … ] tele­vi­su­al cul­ture has some­how evolved to a point where it seems invul­ner­a­ble to any such trans­fig­ur­ing assault.” But as that cul­ture moved on from the likes of David Let­ter­man (to Wal­lace’s mind, “the iron­ic eight­ies’ true Angel of Death”) and Sein­feld to those of Jon Stew­art and Com­mu­ni­ty, Schold­er argues, its atti­tudes de-ironized some­what: “The best shows of our age aren’t find­ing humor in the gaps that have devel­oped between peo­ple. They find humor in the absurd and awk­ward attempts by peo­ple try­ing to bridge those gaps. They want to show us that humans can have real con­nec­tions and sin­cer­i­ty for each oth­er.”

And yet human­i­ty’s pas­siv­i­ty remains wor­ri­some. “Today, the aver­age week­ly screen time for an Amer­i­can adult – brace your­self; this is not a typo – is 74 hours (and still going up),” writes Andrew Post­man, son of media the­o­rist and Amus­ing Our­selves to Death author Neil Post­man, in a Guardian piece just last week. “We watch when we want, not when any­one tells us, and usu­al­ly alone, and often while doing sev­er­al oth­er things. The sound­bite has been replaced by viral­i­ty, meme, hot take, tweet.” Post­man includes Wal­lace with his father in the group of observers who “warned of what was com­ing”: a time when few can be shocked by, among oth­er cur­rent phe­nom­e­na, “the rise of a real­i­ty TV star, a man giv­en to loud, inflam­ma­to­ry state­ments, many of which are spec­tac­u­lar­ly untrue but vir­tu­al­ly all of which make for what used to be called ‘good tele­vi­sion.’ ” Stay tuned, if you must.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

30 Free Essays & Sto­ries by David Fos­ter Wal­lace on the Web

David Fos­ter Wal­lace: The Big, Uncut Inter­view (2003)

David Fos­ter Wal­lace Talks About Lit­er­a­ture (and More) in an Inter­net Cha­t­room: Read the 1996 Tran­script

Ani­ma­tions Revive Lost Inter­views with David Fos­ter Wal­lace, Jim Mor­ri­son & Dave Brubeck

David Fos­ter Wal­lace Sub­scribes to the The Believ­er Mag­a­zine with a Lit­tle Humor & Snark (2003)

Noam Chom­sky Calls Post­mod­ern Cri­tiques of Sci­ence Over-Inflat­ed “Poly­syl­lab­ic Tru­isms”

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, the video series The City in Cin­e­ma, the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Ange­les Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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  • Alex says:

    Although it’s not say­ing any­thing I haven’t heard before (I made a sim­i­lar argu­ment about cul­ture in gen­er­al three years ago here: http://www.themontrealreview.com/2009/The-Advent-of-Virtual-Realism.php), I think these kinds of cul­tur­al shifts that the video is observ­ing (from the irony and nihilism of Gen­er­a­tion X to the sin­cer­i­ty and pas­sion of Mil­len­ni­als) are always worth notic­ing, so I enjoyed the video.

    The cre­ator of the video is good in terms of iden­ti­fy­ing some of the prob­lems with irony, but where I dif­fer with his per­spec­tive is in my view that the kind of sin­cer­i­ty you see on t.v. is sim­plis­tic sin­cer­i­ty, which gives dumb peo­ple need­less self-assur­ance. It teach­es them sim­plis­tic morals, and makes them feel like they know what’s right. For many peo­ple who insuf­fi­cient­ly edu­cat­ed to appre­ci­ate the mad­den­ing com­plex­i­ty of our per­son­al and polit­i­cal lives, irony, despite its under­ly­ing nihilism, might actu­al­ly be a safer mes­sage to con­vey, because it tends to make them more pas­sive and dis­em­pow­ered, while the mes­sage of pas­sion and sin­cer­i­ty makes them take up pick­ax­es and go loot, burn, pil­lage and protest in sup­port of dumb caus­es, regard­less of whether they’re dumb Trump sup­port­ers who think they’re stand­ing up for their coun­try or dumb left­ists who think they’re stand­ing up for “oppressed” minori­ties. Sophis­ti­cat­ed sin­cer­i­ty would be the ide­al, of course, but that can’t be man­aged in our cul­ture for now, and cer­tain­ly not on t.v.

  • M says:

    This is ridicu­lous. The premise of post­moder­ni­ty is that there is in fact no sin­gu­lar or uni­ver­sal norm. You can adhear to post­moder­ni­ty and still have human con­nect. It’s all about per­son­al expe­ri­ence. Sein­feld isn’t nihilist by the way. This arti­cle is about moral­i­ty and indeed that is social­ly con­struct­ed. There is noth­ing bleak about post­moder­ni­ty. It’s mere­ly when a per­son who comes in with some sort of “uni­ver­sal truths” nar­ra­tive that we get this absolute rub­bish about how how emp­ty post­mod­ernism is. Post­mod­ernism is about per­son­al expe­ri­ence. That does­n’t mean it’s even close to being nar­cis­sis­tic. Cynism is one of many facets of humour involved. In a time where we wit­ness peo­ple tak­ing absolutes to dead­ly pro­por­tions why is it so wrong to take things with a grain of salt?

  • Don says:

    Sein­feld, a show self-described as being about noth­ing, isn’t nihilis­tic? You have a sim­plis­tic under­stand­ing of post-mod­ernism and I found the video inter­est­ing.

  • J.D. says:

    This is pret­ty dis­ap­point­ing analy­sis. We’re still talk­ing about mass enter­tain­ment, which does more to numb and isoloate us than any­thing else. I agree with the prob­lems of post­mod­ernism as DFW describes it, but I just don’t think this analy­sis ris­es to the chal­lenge. We’re not going to feel more con­nect­ed by watch­ing shit­ty sit­coms with uplift­ing mes­sages. We’re just going to binge-watch them and become more com­pla­cent and with­out feel­ing than we were before. Might as well watch Sein­feld, which is bet­ter com­e­dy. This kind of mor­al­iz­ing is dan­ger­ous and evi­dent of a gen­er­al lack of cre­ativ­i­ty in con­tem­po­rary crit­i­cism.

  • Michael says:

    Thanks so much for say­ing this was my thought all along. The nihilism and cyn­i­cism of Its always sun­ny in Philadel­phia (my fav tv show) always seemed more of an hon­est por­tray­al of Amer­i­ca than the naïve opti­mism of the office or parks and rec or com­mu­ni­ty.

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