Lee Konstantinou’s “No Bull: David Foster Wallace and Postironic Belief”

This essay comes from The Legacy of David Foster Wallace, edited by Samuel Cohen and Lee Konstantinou. The essay’s broken into three segments, ‘Belief, Irony, Metafiction,’ ‘Beyond the Fourth Wall,’ and ‘Infinite Jest and the Avant-Garde.’ It’s worth pointing out that Konstantinou’s essay, in true Wallacean fashion, is extensively endnoted. I ignored these on my readthrough, but it turns out they’re actually insightful.

Konstantinou begins by describing the backdrop of Wallace’s career. He cites the “new right” and Francis Fukuyama’s “The End of History?” as the teleological conditions floating around in the early 1990s (83). He contextualizes Fukuyama’s argument that the ‘West has won’ and all that remains is economic calculation, technical problems, environmental concerns, and consumer demand, and then arrives at his thesis: “Wallace wanted to discover or invent a viable postironic ethos for U.S. literature and culture at the End of History, that is, for an America in the thrall of full-blown postmodernism” (84-85).

Konstantinou describes postirony and Wallace’s project as “an effort to decouple the academic and cultural association between metafictional form and ironic knowingness and cynicism…. Wallace attempts to persuade his reader to adopt a stance of nonnaive noncynicism by means of metafiction” (91).

This sincerity and belief in postirony is what Konstantinou diagnoses as one of Wallace’s goals: literary communication (85). Konstantinou most directly engages with Infinite Jest by applying this to J.O. Incandenza’s the Entertainment. Thanks to the wraith’s introduction, Konstantinou identifies the Entertainment, and JOI’s sole purpose for creating it, as a medium in which JOI and Hal could converse—that is, communicate literarily.

Drawing on Don Gately, Konstantinou allegorizes Gately’s belief in a “Higher Power” (regardless of whether “It” is understood or truly believed in) as allegorical of Wallace’s readers and belief (86). “Just Do It,” says Infinite Jest, and belief will come. Contrast this postironic belief with Konstantinou’s reading of James Wood’s “hysterical realism” and DeLillo, Pynchon, Rushdie, and Zadie Smith. Konstantinou easily dismisses Wood’s arguments that we can choose not to believe by countering that it’s not an issue of believability, but plausibility (87).

Then Konstantinou tackles his other important term, metafiction, suggesting two possible definitions: it either allegorizes the breakdown of narrative or changes our relationship with language, values, norms, and conventions (89).

The second segment, ‘Beyond the Fourth Wall,’ explicitly uses the ideas Wallace constructed in “E Unibus Pluram” and one of his short stories, “Octet.” This section essentially sets up the base of Konstantinou’s argument—he pulls Wallace’s words of “EUP” and states that the next literary rebel will be the “antirebel,” someone who “risks accusations of credulity,” and that the postironic response to postmodernism is the production of “belief” (93). I would recommend reading this bit if you’ve already read “EUP” or are interested in how Wallace addresses metafiction outside of IJ.

In the final section, Konstantinou approaches IJ directly with its relation to avant-garde art, particularly in regards to the work of JOI and the Entertainment. There’s a recursive point in the novel where JOI say he’s against the work of the avant-garde, but he admittedly fulfills the role of avant-garde artist with his films and the responses they evoke. Konstantinou suggests that Wallace’s vision was that the avant-garde is inextricably linked to the capitalistic marketplace; “all texts are in a dynamic process of feedback with their myriad paratexts, so much so that the distinction between inside and outside quickly blurs” (103).

Sorry to lean so heavily on my source, but I find Konstantinou’s prose impeccable:

For the postironist, irony must be opposed because it is now part of the established symbolic order…. Wallace nonetheless wants not only to imagine a version of postmodern hyperreality, but also to imagine the possibility of an ultimate art, one with the power to literally move its consumers and to break down the fundamental barriers that separate the viewer of art from its author…. Infinite Jest develops these ideas through its description of the form and purpose of the Entertainment. (103)

The last few pages depart from this look at IJ and the Entertainment and turn to Wallace himself. Konstantinou writes about the reaction to DFW’s suicide and allegations that it was a “literary gesture,” but he comes to the understanding that Wallace sensed a clear link between life and literature; perhaps even that DFW’s suicide was a failure of literature (104-105).

Then he concludes with something important: while the postironists seek to undo the work of the ironists, they generally seek the same goal—changing social norms. Yet the ironists concern themselves more with criticizing corporate art and institutions while the postironists like Wallace and Eggers utilize metafiction to emphasize the “belief” the ironists lack.

Konstantinou then concludes with this gem: “Wallace uses fiction in what can often seem like a last desperate effort to make us believe something, to feel anything” (106).

I tend to agree with much of what Konstantinou writes. I find his last point particularly compelling, because based on class discussions so far it seems like almost everyone has been moved in both good and bad ways by DFW’s magnum opus.

I’m hesitant, however, to truly and utterly join his side that DFW does not sit with the postmodernists (the difference between them and the postironists primarily being his “new sincerity”). So much of IJ is laced in postmodernism. Can these two camps be separated, or are they variations on the same framework? Is “postirony” a small faction of a larger network? Or does IJ work as both?

I believe a couple of the other essays addressed DFW and the “new sincerity,” so if someone read one of those, feel free to jump in and point me to your report. Same goes for the person on “E Unibus Pluram,” as I’ll be checking that one out—there’s more to say about that bit, but my summary’s already quite long.


About Steph Roman

2015 University of Pittsburgh grad with majors in nonfiction writing and English literature. Formerly of the Pitt News and PublicSource. I like games and nerd culture in general.
This entry was posted in Infinite Jest, Interactive Literature, Required Posts and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Lee Konstantinou’s “No Bull: David Foster Wallace and Postironic Belief”

  1. charlenejo says:

    If i’m understanding correctly (giant IF, as always) Irony is a recursive structure within capitalist institutions–one that encapsulates us into a system where sincerity is lost (much in the same way that for Baudrillard, reality has recurively evolved into the hyperreal, such that the foundations of the “real” are lost altogether). Wallace believes, according to Konstantinou, that metafiction, and literature generally as a mode of open communication (one wrought with humor, the abject, the political incorrect, and even irony, too), can break this cycle by revealing…our loss of belief? This is where I get a little fuzzy. Wallace wants to break the cycle of feedback, to step outside of the system. (This connects to N. Katherine Hayles argument about technology, too, in that she finds the recursive structure of knowledge production as part of the techno-ecological system that feeds this loss of belief.) But I’m not sure how exactly this process works–how metafiction exactly does this.

    Sort of related: I think it’s safe to say that one of Wallace’s major critiques of post-modern society is our inability to communicate, and think that Gately represents someone who has reformed himself and learned to communicate, to Identify and truly care for other people. He seems ever more so as the novel goes on to be the on to be the one character who isn’t caught by some sort of destructive recursivity. Gatley has learned to believe in himself and others again, even if its the cliches of AA that get him there. I don’t know what that means, but I want to pay more attention to his character because of it.


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