In a famous interview with Larry McCaffery, David Foster Wallace emphasizes that he wants his fiction to represent “what it’s like to be a fucking human being” in millennial America. In my dissertation I examine his efforts to do so. I contend that his fascination with philosophy and logical processes drives all of his work, and that he has been able to fashion sane and sensible suggestions for thinking through an existence that grows ever more complex and confusing. He began his work in the context of the postmodern recursive irony that was his heritage, but he unfailingly condemned it, even though he recognized the validity of the contemporary philosophy on which it is built.
He understands that we cannot guarantee stabilized meaning in language because of its capacity for both infinite expansion and infinite regression, but in his fiction he works to call a halt to this dizzying vortex, because he believes that the consequences of failing to do so in both postmodern theory and literature has helped to produce a cultural backlash of ennui and misery in America. He thinks that both postmodernity as a cultural condition and literary postmodernism in America have direct roots in what he calls “televisual culture,” which has changed America from a nation of “do-ers and be-ers” to “an atomized mass of self-conscious watchers and appearers” (“E Unibus Pluram” 34).
In this dissertation I am going to trace the focus of national diagnosis and therapy in Wallace’s work, right from his first published work to his last, and to describe the changes in his thinking as they are reflected in the nature of his narrative consciousness. I believe that he moved from emphasizing social critiques, in the roman à clef tradition, to an intense focus on individual worlds of consciousness, analyzing the aberrant thinking that results from the much-inflated perceptions of desire and need driven by unrestrained commercialism in millennial American culture.
Like Ludwig Wittgenstein, whose work Wallace deeply admired, he comes to the conclusion that we must not only examine our language use and carefully monitor it for sense, but also that we must understand personal motivation for individual utterances. We do not know whether Wallace ever read the later works of Wittgenstein; Wallace’s archives contain none of these works, but he arrives at the same conclusion as his predecessor: individual need and desire must be considered when we are trying to understand how language meaning functions. Wallace represents this conclusion in fiction that contains dizzying levels of second-guessing conscious thought, as well as characters who have found ways to stop this process and are then able to retain their sanity. Curiously, Wallace’s final position becomes intensely individualistic, for someone who wants to better his society. This approach is social, but grass-roots and strictly personal, built on one-to-one communication and intense personal effort to focus outward.