‘Something real American’: David Foster Wallace and authenticity
It has become something of a truism to contend that David Foster Wallace was concerned with irony; both its challenge to ethical conviction and the ability of the author to enact sincere communication in the millennial United States. However, this privileging of sincerity within Wallace Studies has resulted in neglect being shown to the first half of Polonius’ famous dialectic – ‘to thine own self be true’ – precluding analysis of Wallace that focuses on his relationship with authenticity. Similarly, critics have often sought to argue for Wallace’s panhuman universalism, to the detriment of the overtly nationalistic strain in his writing. This thesis aims to address these underrepresented areas within Wallace scholarship, arguing that his writing is fundamentally engaged with a debate over what it means to be ‘real American’. The phrase is taken from a 1996 interview with Salon.com’s Laura Miller, during which Wallace averred that his intention when writing Infinite Jest was to capture ‘something real American, about what it’s like to live in America around the millenium’ (Conversations with David Foster Wallace 59). This comment is central to an understanding of Wallace’s oeuvre, as it introduces his historical specificity and his pragmatic desire to explore ‘what it’s like to live’, whilst also alluding to his constant negotiation with epistemological and ontological questions over the ‘real’, all framed within an expressly nationalistic paradigm. The word ‘real’ is used in this sense both as an adverb to connote something that is authentically or intrinsically ‘American’, whilst it also serves as an intensifier – to denote something that is very American – implying a hierarchy of things that can be more ‘American’ than others. With regards to his immediate historical context, this entrenches Wallace firmly within the Culture Wars of the 1990s, and yet it also gestures further back in history, situating him within a fundamentally American literary tradition: the American Jeremiad. Wallace’s challenge was to attempt to engage with ideas of the real and the really American, despite the challenges to authenticity (and indeed the idea of a nation) that resulted from the permeation of myriad contemporary discourses into the national psyche, including advertising jargon, postmodern/poststructural ‘theory’, the language of psychotherapy, the discourse of political correctness, and the partisan rhetoric of politicians. The first two chapters will focus on Wallace's engagement with ostensible challenges to the 'authentic' subject, and the difficulty of authentically representing the self. Chapter one will focus on 'Octet' and Wallace's uneasy place within the so-called 'New Sincerity' paradigm, highlighting Wallace’s attempt to counter the discourse of ‘postmodern irony’ with an ‘other-directed’ sincerity, and yet exposing his conservative project of self-preservation. Chapter two will examine Wallace's often fraught relationship with psychotherapy; in particular the way that psychotherapeutic discourse has infiltrated American culture, precluding the singularity and authentic representation of individual experience. Chapter three will continue this exploration of the widespread adoption of specialist discourses, although this time focusing on the abstractions of postmodern/poststructural theory, and Wallace’s attempt to find ‘real American’ replacement cultural symbols that could be applied to both individuals and the nation as a collective. Chapter four will be concerned with Wallace's search for an efficacious philosophical model that is suitably 'American'; whilst also capable of incorporating the singularity of individual experience within a national collectivity. Finally, chapter five will focus on Wallace's more explicit engagement with politics, tracing the development of his political ideas. In doing so a picture of Wallace will emerge that highlights some of his contradictions; contradictions that he himself was aware of and drew attention to, as well as contradictions that run to the very heart of 'the idea of America'.