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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