Was David Foster Wallace a Post-Post-Modernist?

“It’s a very useful catch-all term because you say it and we all nod soberly as if we know what we are talking about.” —DFW on post-modernism 


Post-modernism, that vague term and interdisciplinary label that often excites undergraduate students and sparks a spirit of contestation against the “establishment”, tend to harbor a disdain for all seriousness—at least according to the late literary giant David Foster Wallace. 

The era of post-modernism, staying in the domain of literature, is considered to have materialized in the tumultuous counter-culture movement of the 1960s. The Zeitgeist of that decade and the subsequent three was often reflected by the authors of the time through playful metafictions, a vindication of wayward youth, and a disorganizing of modernist motifs. The movement is often notorious for thematizing political and historical issues with the hope of eloquently undermining grand narratives of modernist society. To use an idiom, if you reach into the pages of any piece of post-modern literature chances are you will snag a handful of words or concepts ranging from, capitalism, patriarchy, colonialism, or heteronormativity. 

The criticism and critics of these systems, structures, and traditions are often central to these texts (and post-modernism itself) and allude to the “crisis” that the movement saw as imminent. Nevertheless, the standard-bearer of the American post-modern literature tradition is often disputed, authors such as Kurt Vonnegut, Thomas Pynchon, Kathy Acker, and even the critic in question David Foster Wallace’s early work, are considered symptomatically reflexive of the movement and societal consciousness of which they wrote in. 

Still, DFW did acknowledge that post-modernism was the tradition that excited him to write. In a 1997 interview with Charlie Rose and while sporting that now metonymic white bandana, the author admitted that post-modern literature produced the first texts that were “self-conscious of itself, and self-conscious of the writer as a persona”. He went on to say that there was a “certain type of schizophrenia about it”. “It was a real beaker of acid in the face of the culture”. 

However, this excitement of his ran its course just as post-modernism did. DFW thought that those “shticks” of post-modernism: irony, cynicism, and irreverence now seem to be a part of whatever is enervating the culture right now.  

In his essay “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction” DFW gives an analogy of the smoke clearing after the rambunctious post-modern shindig. 

“For me, the last few years of the postmodern era have seemed a bit like the way you feel when you’re in high school and your parents go on a trip, and you throw a party. You get all your friends over and throw this wild disgusting fabulous party. For a while it’s great, free and freeing, parental authority gone and overthrown, a cat’s-away-let’s-play Dionysian revel. But then time passes and the party gets louder and louder, and you run out of drugs, and nobody’s got any money for more drugs, and things get broken and spilled, and there’s a cigarette burn on the couch, and you’re the host and it’s your house too, and you gradually start wishing your parents would come back and restore some […] order in your house.” 

Well if David was correct to break it off with post-modernism, what philosophies and structures, or anti-structures lie underneath his prose and the infamous “footnote” quirk of his syntax? 

If DFW realized that a person is not just a biological manifest but a product of nature and nurture then one cannot simply abandon all social principles and remain in the liminal space between the end of it all and the restart button. What comes next?

DFW’s work is sentimental about post-modernisms and maintains its awareness. However, the influence of this movement which quasi-colored his work is coupled with modern sincerity and emotionalism. Before his death, the author produced a body of work that gave solace to a generation searching for a style of communication and literature that befit its time and perspective, a post-post-modernism. 


Coby Hobbs is an Audere contributor and editor.