David Foster Wallace and the Politics of Existential Loneliness

The David Foster Wallace movie “The End of the Tour” is generally pretty good. The acting was superb and I like the way the dialogue and the relationship between DFW and the Rolling Stone magazine journalist played out. I read Infinite Jest in my early 20’s and funny enough the film noted several times that the prime audience for the book was, not surprisingly, white men in their early 20’s. About ten minutes into the movie, Wallace, played by Jason Segel says (to paraphrase):

“My writing speaks to a super privileged, mostly white, over-educated generation of people who found themselves really lonely in America.”

There is a basic point I want to make here. It’s just simply irritating: why is Wallace’s experience in this cocoon of privileged American social life taken to be emblematic of an entire generation? Of course it isn’t, but the politics (or lack thereof) behind this assumption that Wallace’s aesthetic and writing speaks to a generation is really irritating. You may be thinking: why does Wallace have to be political? He doesn’t have to be, but he is. From his tombs, Infinite Jest, to the Pale King, to many of his essays, Wallace actually has a very political project in his fiction. But first let me say a positive word about the experience of reading Infinite Jest itself.

The cerebral rush of Infinite Jest is, in a certain sense, one gigantic attempt to weave together the radically plural strands of American social life into a huge dysfunctional tapestry. The book achieves this feat and its politics is just that: a primer on how one enters into the (infinite) space of late capitalist American civic democracy, full of strange sub-cultures and collective idiosyncrasies. It’s like Whitman’s leaves of grass in prose form, but wildly overgrown from way too much water Gatorade and sunlight.

The highlights of the book occur in the bizarre tours you are taken through, from an alcoholics anonymous community structured like a religious cult, to a highly insulated teenage competitive tennis group and into the minds of dozens of sub-characters that are all in different ways fighting off this common existential loneliness that hovers over American life.

In the Pale King, this problem of social fragmentation is posed as the central problem of civic participation in postmodern America. So the commentary that Wallace seems to make is that solipsism is what creates a culture of massive distraction and atomization of social life. Wallace presents us with a politics to address this social fragmentation that is in fact conservative and he poses the solution to social fragmentation as a problem of attention and individual choice.

Wallace wants the reader (citizen) to find contentment with bureaucratic conformism and status quo adaptation and then search for minor individual liberation hidden in civic participation in the mundanities of American life.

What is the problem here? It’s not so much where his politics ends up, as much as it is that his original audience (the white educated upper class reader) no longer really exists as a social totality that is hegemonic. If it does exist, the fact that subsequent generations since Wallace (he himself is a Gen X’er) have really experienced a great deal more social and political precarity in their lives. Thus, loneliness and boredom with American life is no longer the primary existential predicament of contemporary American life. The seismic social and economic changes mean that a writer such as Wallace, highly self-conscious and directly identified with this upper class, probably wouldn’t resonate as much today as he could in the 90’s. Nor could such a writer be seen as the voice of a generation.

What I want to suggest is that any writer in our present time would have a hard time aligning their politics with this imaginary class of over-educated suburbanite white bourgeoisie as Wallace did. Wallace’s audience is too fragmented today, and the last thing it (we) need is a false universalization of its existential loneliness as being somehow definitive of American life writ large.

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