“MD: I reflexively (and intensely!) dislike the idea that the personal essay is all about psychology instead of intellect, and that we proceed on the plank of sincerity and that the way you know I’m sincere, what ratifies my confessional credentials in your eyes, is that I “lose” it, or at least engage in the Iowa-Workshop equivalent of psychodrama — a rhetorical simulacrum of primal screaming, if not the real thing. [This] reminds me of one of the great hard-boiled lines, I think it’s in the Maltese Falcon, when at one point Sam Spade’s girlfriend chides him for always being too glib and he says, “What do you want me to do, learn to stutter?” That’s my response to this periodic historical return of the fascism of sincerity. Why must emotional honesty, or the anatomization of the self, or the interrogation of his own mind by the skeptical inquirer, be enacted at a formal level by rhetorical devices handed down from the Transcendentalists or the Beats or DFW or whoever is your chosen standard-bearer for sincerity and authenticity?”
I favourited a tweet plugging this interview because I saw the words ‘authenticity’ and ‘DFW’ pop up on my timeline. I’ve never heard of Mark Dery before and the interview only fleetingly stays on the subject of authenticity - the quote above is the conclusion of that topic- but there’s a lot of other interesting stuff in it, too.
Though he doesn’t really unpack it much, the idea that the attempted turn back towards sincerity and authenticity is somehow ‘unthinking, perhaps even reactionary’ is very appealing to me.
Sidenote: the LA Review of Books site is probably the best literary site out there. Screw New York.
BUT in most/the best/the only worthwhile kind of ‘personal’ essay the ‘sincerity’/’psychology’ is tacked on as another device to engage with whatever the essay is about. The above criticism works for Franzen’s essays - I feel x and so this proves y by way of personal experience z - but surely it’s all about the execution rather than the admission of self-awareness in a text demonstrating a wooly refusal to engage in anything more complex than ‘I feel x hence x must be fact’?
Yeah, definitely. The problem Dery has with sincerity and authenticity is as much about the rhetorical devices that writers like DFW use - a kind of meta-on-meta-on-meta unpacking, a ‘breakdown of stye accompanying the breakdown of ego’ - than it’s against having essays that show the author’s working outs and uncertainties.
Really enjoyed reading this. I won’t respond to each point individually - I don’t disagree with anything you’ve said - but I think it’s worth thinking about this from a few different perspectives:
1. Wallace has an awkward place in the canon. The postmodernists that he draws so much from - Pynchon, Gaddis, Delillo, possibly Nabokov - are intensely self-aware, and this is what defines them as postmodernists. Of course Wallace is self-aware to the same extent, possibly even more self-aware, but he goes further towards explanation than the writers I’ve mentioned above. Pynchon or Delillo will joke, at the expense of themselves, of fiction at large, of the bizarreness of the 20th Century; Wallace will do the same, but his jokes seem to stem from a larger sense that there is something beyond this endless irony. Think of Wallace’s lecture on Kafka: the funny stuff in Kafka is also intensely serious and sad (faceless bureaucrats literally not having faces, Gregor Samsa literally turning into a bug as a physical expression of a restricted emotional life). There’s the joke Hal tells Mario in Infinite Jest:
“Mario, what do you get when you cross an insomniac, an unwilling agnostic and a dyslexic?”
“You get somebody who stays up all night torturing himself mentally over the question of whether or not there’s a dog.”
This is a joke, a pretty good one IMHO, but in the context of the novel, where characters all look for something that might be unattainable, there’s a seriousness that transcends a Pynchon song or a Delillo joke about advertising. I’m aware I’m waffling a wee bit but I think the jokes work in a similar way to the notion of sincerity: Wallace moves beyond irony in the way he argues writers should in TV & US Fiction. The endless self-awareness is channelled into honesty.
2. What Dery criticises in this sincerity, at least as a rhetorical style, is completely accurate, but I would argue that if you’re reading Wallace right then it doesn’t apply so completely. We’re aware that Wallace is trying to be pally, to familiarise his readers with an endearing human persona rather than a novelist or critic who revels in abrasive, knotted prose. This becomes problematic if you don’t read Wallace with the same limitless self-awareness that he applies.
If you read The View From Mrs. Thompson’s, Wallace’s piece on 9/11, you’re lulled into this strange sense of sympathy. Wallace invites you along to share his sense of melancholy, and writes with a great realist sensibility. But the conclusion is uncomfortable: perhaps if our generation, ie. the generation that the reader and the writer are a part of together, could have been a little more small-c-conservative then we wouldn’t be such targets. The first time I read it it had worked: I felt as if I should agree with Wallace. We’re pals, right? But if you apply the relentless criticism that Wallace applies, it’s easy to praise the essay for giving a sense of that day but insert yourself as subject and call bullshit on the conclusion Wallace reaches.
This works for all writing, it’s what we should always be doing as critics, so I guess I’m saying that sincerity as rhetorical device is useful as long as you maintain a critical sense. That n+1 piece about Twitter accidentally nails it, I think - it separates the appearance of sincerity as a style from sincerity as objective/honest emotional truth. Wallace’s bloggy style can be seen as a style for the Internet age in the way that Eliot’s shattered verse might work for the post-WW1 world. This might be a bit too simplistic: there is far more going on here and I’m not denying that Wallace posing as your guide/teacher through ‘difficult’ material, the essay on deconstruction for example, might be problematic. But I think to do Wallace justice we have to assert his own values of reading and self-awareness back upon him: how does it make you think/feel? What implications might this have?
I’ve sat down to write a reply to this about half-a-dozen times now, and I think all I can really say is that’s it’s right to say DFW’s relationship with postmodernism and irony is complicated, which makes his place as the standard-bearer of this kind of New Sincerity all the more baffling.
So much of his non-fiction seems so navel-gazingly preoccupied with the truth and authenticity, but reading Infinite Jest you get a completely different sense of him. Strip out Hal and Don and you’ve got something far more fantastical, ironic and detached than any Delillo I’ve read. The eschaton game. O.N.A.N. Subsidized Time etc. I’m aware that his earlier work is more sealed and Calvino-style meta-fictional so there’s a progression, but Infinite Jest isn’t quite a turning back or pushing through irony and postmodernism - if anything it’s a doubling down; as you said pointed out it’s a kind of self-awareness piled on self-awareness, which - re: your 2nd point - is in his style as well as the worlds he creates, and that gets misinterpreted as an un-mediated anti-style. Which I think can just be irritating. A kind of rhetorical maximalism similar to what Simon Reynolds talks about with music might be representative of ‘The Internet’, but, at his worst, DFW and his less-insighful ilk can just be noise.
So there’s my sense of bewilderment that David Foster Wallace is regarded as he is. And then there’s my distrust of the lazy linking between irony and postmodernism. That Suzanne Moore Guardian article that went around a few weeks ago is pretty indicative of that kind of reactionary attitude I shirk away from. Simply turning back towards sincerity just reads like a wilful ignorance of how we ended up with irony and postmodernism - postmodernism as the cultural logic of late capitalism etc etc. That doesn’t stop irony being a thing that’s often used to just say how awful some of the stuff we live with is and nothing more: blank irony, plain ol’ sarcasm etc - that’s the kind of irony DFW talks about in TV & US Fiction - but I think that knowingness and detachment is a vital thing to have to perhaps highlight the impotence of art to be truthful, ethical and nourishing.
Gonna drop into note mode now as I’m taking off into pseudy territory that’s only peripherally related to a discussion on style sincerity/irony. I’m not really sure of how watertight this stuff is and I’m less sure how to articulate it so… (I say this with a genuine reluctance, and not just as a aw-shucks find of pre-empting).
I’m now conflating postmodernism and irony to better defend the latter, but DFW’s fondness of David Lynch seems pretty instructive in regards to his attitude towards postmodernism, pastiche, irony, parody, reflexivity etc.
First off: there’s a sense of authenticity and sincerity which, to my mind, ends up with the banality of something like ‘be who you are’ - which is just pointless and a kind of dangerous way of thinking. It has a kind of essentialism to it that’s analogous to this idea at the heart of the New Sincerity that, if we just ask for what we want, and drop our cynicism, we might just get it when our experience is exactly counter to that.
I’m not sure if it’s all just old-rubbish with a new lick of paint on it. But I think the product of what DFW’s sermonises about - and ends up practising in his double-down postmodernism with sincere intents - is well exampled in a handful of meta-fictional-ish films made in the last decade that break the frame and use the startergies of postmodernism but somehow -perhaps just through plain obscurantism and vagueness if I’m being cynical - to break out of the neat regress that usually marks films about films/ films about art and become films that are all about the shifting terrain between reality and art/ sincerity and artifice. They are sincere about the impossibility of sincerity, perhaps???
I’m thinking: Mulholland Drive, Inland Empire, Black Swan, Synecdoche, The Lives of Others…
Superficially, the works of Potter and Lynch which have most in common with each other are Twin Peaks and The Singing Detective; both are explorations of the detective genre by televisual auteurs; both display their authors’ signature obsessions with popular culture; both examine the interplay between sexuality, memory and identity – but the most Potteresque of Lynch’s films is actually his masterpiece and most recent feature, Mulholland Dr. In cross-fertilizing the soap, detective and Horror genres (amongst others), Twin Peaks contaminated realism with strains of the marvellous. Yet its concerns were epistemological (‘Is this real or not?’) rather than ontological (‘What is reality?’ ‘What is the reality of this?’) Mulholland Dr, meanwhile, like The Singing Detective, is reflexively engaged with its own fictionality.
The ‘standard’ interpretation of Mulholland Dr claims that its first two-thirds are the fantasy/ dream of failed two-bit actress Diane Selwyn, whose actual life is allegedly depicted, in all its quotidian squalor, in the final section of the film. This would underscore MD’s striking similarities to The Singing Detective, whose complexly-interacting narrative lines are weaved from the fantasies and memories of the convalescent pulp author, Philip E Marlow (Michael Gambon). Yet such a reading is ultimately unsatisfactory. AsTimothy Takemoto argues, (you have to scroll down to his piece, ‘Double Dreams in Hollywood’) to see the second part of Mulholland Dr as real is inherently conservative in its assumption that there is an unambiguous reality to which we can ‘return’.
Following Zizek, Takemoto suggests that what MD presents is not an exposed ‘reality’ but a ‘grey fog’ of competing, incommensurable realities, from which desire and will are never extricable. (An homologous case is Kubrick’s near-contemporaneous Eyes Wide Shut, which is standardly interpreted as entirely the dream of the protagonist, Tom Cruise’s Bill. What this reading of Eyes Wide Shut has in common with the dominant readings of Mulholland Dr is a confidence in the possibility of parsing reality from desire, a distinction which both films disturb, as the very title of Kubrick’s film indicates).
Lyotard famously defines postmodernity as an ‘incredulity towards meta-narratives’ If the standard interpretation of MD were valid, then, far from being incredulous towards meta-narratives, it would be presenting a meta-narrative (an empirical realism focalized through a psychological interiority).
In his earlier Libidinal Economy, Lyotard opposes ‘the representational cube’ to the Moebian strip: a single-sided figure, with no inside or outside.
In tracing the endless surface of this moebian strip, both Lynch and Potter exemplify a libidinal postmodernism diametrically opposed to self-conscious, auto-referencing ‘PoMo’. Whereas PoMo mourns the absence of a stable transcendent plane, a meta-space ‘above’ the fiction, typically identified with a self-present, self-conscious subject (God/ the author…), Lynch and Potter’s fiction explores the Escheresque flatness of a plane of immanence. Far from being metafictions, then, Potter’s and Lynch deny the possibility of any meta level.
Mulholland Drive is twinned/is a tribute to Sunset Boulveard on a lot of levels. And even if you haven’t seen it, you’ll know it from at least one of the two lines…
So, you have a washed-up actress playing a washed-up, deluded actress who still thinks she’s famous, thinks she’s living her life as she lived it in her movies. Mr. DeMille is actually a director, and is played my Mr. Demille. It’s a Hollywood film about hollywood films. blah bah. This is Pychion, Delillo, Calvino, Brecht etc. It’s shouting out: ‘You’re watching a film! You’re watching a film! You’re watching a film!’ and yeah, you are watching a film. It’s fake. We’re real. The actress is crazy (but is being portrayed by an actress who is only pretending, remember), and we’re sane, and we’re not pretending.
But these fake things have a real impact: people aspire to be like movie stars; we’re reared by Hollywood, the internet, The Spectacle! and so to just have that neat frame between reality and art doesn’t really work.
I think it’s more of a tendency ,a ‘…but’ than an entirely new way of using the tools of postmodernism, but it seems like the kind of evolution that DFW hopes for, whilst still retraining the hopelessness and knowing quality of irony, pastiche and parody.
Again, Mark Fisher:
There is of course nothing less mendacious, less dissimmulatory, in cinema’s history of illusion than the scene in Club Silencio. What we are seeing and hearing – the film itself - is a recording and nothing but. On the most banal level, this is the Real which the ‘magic of cinema’ must conceal. Yet the scene haunts for reasons other than this. It challenges the audience (us!) to recognize that our own lives, the roles we perform when we leave the auditorium, are themselves recordings, scripted by forces outside the self whose ‘substance’ turns out to be itself nothing more than a palimpsest of influences.
A footnote from this really, really good A.O Scott article that I think chimes with this/convinces me I’m not mad.
It is therefore at least arguable that we have lately witnessed the emergence of a group of anti-ironic anti-rebels. But is David Foster Wallace among them? Are his harangues against the tyranny of irony meant to be taken in earnest, or are they artfully constructed simulacra of what a sincere anti-ironist might sound like? Or both? If one way to escape from the blind alley of postmodern self-consciousness is simply to turn around and walk in another direction—which is in effect what Purdy advises, and what a great many very interesting writers, without making a big deal about it, simply do—Wallace prefers to forge ahead in hopes of breaking through to the other side, whatever that may be. For all his impatience with the conventions of anti-realism, he advances a standard postmodern view that “the classical Realist form is soothing, familiar and anesthetic; it drops us right into spectation. It doesn’t set up the sort of expectations serious 1990s fiction ought to be setting up in readers.” Wallace, then, is less anti-ironic than (forgive me) meta-ironic. That is, his gambit is to turn irony back on itself, to make his fiction relentlessly conscious of its own self-consciousness, and thus to produce work that will be at once unassailably sophisticated and doggedly down to earth. Janus-faced, he demands to be taken at face value. “Single-entendre principles” is a cleverly tossed off phrase, but Wallace is temperamentally committed to multiplicity—to a quality he has called, with reference to the filmmaker David Lynch, “bothness.” He wants to be at once earnest and ironical, sensitive and cerebral, lisible and scriptible, R&D and R&R, straight man and clown, grifter and mark.
One of the critical commonplaces about Pynchon, Gaddis, et al.—a commonplace to which Wallace clearly subscribes—is that their stylistic and formal inventions were created under pressure of lived experience. What made realism untenable for these writers, according to the conventional wisdom Wallace has absorbed, was reality itself: Pynchon’s involuted, encrypted sentences, Barth’s blatant narrative intrusions, Coover’s self-consuming artifacts—all of these were designed to explode the hypocrisies and jar the complacencies of a monstrously complex society whose deepest workings could not be represented by traditional narrative means. But what these writers passed on to their students and followers was, for the most part, the habit of formal and stylistic invention for its own sake, an empty set of quotation marks, a self-consciousness without selves. In my opinion, a lot of Wallace’s earlier work, including much ofInfinite Jest, slips back toward that abyss—an epistemological black hole as comfortable and familiar as a worn-out couch in a graduate student lounge. And many of the stories inBrief Interviews with Hideous Men, which gathers together the shorter fiction Wallace has written over the past ten years, read like bravura classroom performances—footnotes to his earlier annotations of the experimental tradition.
But a handful, most of them composed since the appearance of Infinite Jest, recover some of the squandered and compromised satirical energies of that tradition by suggesting that meta-metafiction, or post-postmodernism, or whatever you want to call it, is a form of realism after all. The feedback loop of irony and sincerity which animates so much of Wallace’s writing turns out not to be an artifact of literary R&D, but a fact of human nature, or at least a salient aspect of the way we live now: