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Postmodernism is an intellectual movement that emerged in the late 20th century as a response to modernism and a post-WWII disillusionment with centralized power and absolute morals. Often shortened to "pomo," postmodernism is defined by the OED as "a style and concept in the arts characterized by distrust of theories and ideologies and by the drawing of attention to conventions." The term is linked to Michel Foucault's term poststructuralism.
In literature, trademarks of postmodernism are self-reflexivity, meta-commentary, technoculture, hyperreality, historiographic metafiction, temporal fragmentation, black humor, and irony. Notable postmodern authors include Kurt Vonnegut, John Barth, Donald Barthelme, Robert Coover, Samuel Beckett, William Gaddis, Don DeLillo, Thomas Pynchon.
Postmodernist thought was preceded by late 19th and early 20th century authors such as Søren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche--the founder of existentialism--who argued against objectivity emphasized skepticism, especially concerning social morals and societal norms.
Jean-François Lyotard described post-modernism as much more than a literary movement--a condition of the present state of culture, social structure, and self.
David Foster Wallace and Postmodernism
Because of Wallace's stylistic similarities to authors such as Pynchon and Gaddis, critics have often lumped him into the postmodern movement. Wallace, however, has tried to separate himself from postmodernism, even though he has been heavily influenced by many of the movement's authors. For this reason Wallace is sometimes labeled a post-postmodernist.
In his essay "E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction" from A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again Wallace argues that the postmodernists debunked the hypocrisy that was prevalent in their times, which was good; however, one result of this debunking was that they reached a dead end, fiction-wise. Wallace points out that "the rebellious irony in the best postmodern fiction wasn't just credible as art; it seemed downright socially useful in its capacity for what counterculture critics called 'a critical negation that would make it self-evident to everyone that the world is not as it seems.'" Although postmodern irony exploded hypocrisy, it "serve[d] an almost exclusively negative function" (67). It could not "replace the hypocrisy it debunk[ed]." This was a big problem for Wallace, who believed that purpose of good fiction in today's "dark world" was to "illuminate the possibilities of being alive and human." Irony is useless when it comes to accomplishing this.
In his interview with Larry McCaffery, Wallace used this analogy for the postmodern dilemma:
For me, the last few years of the post modern era have seemed a bit like the way you feel when you're in high school and your parents go on a trip, and you throw a party. You get all your friends over and throw this wild disgusting fabulous party. For a while it's great, free and freeing, parental authority gone and overthrown, a cat's-away-let's-play Dionysian revel. But then the time passes and the party gets louder and louder, and you run out of drugs, and nobody's got any money for more drugs And things get broken and spilled, and there’s a cigarette burn on the couch, and you’re the host and it’s your house to, and you gradually start wishing your parents would come back and restore some fucking order in your house. It’s not a perfect analogy, but the sense I get of my generation of writers and intellectuals or whatever is that it’s 3:00 A.M. and the couch has several burn-holes and somebody’s thrown up in the umbrella stand and we’re wishing the revel would end. The postmodern founders’ patricidal work was great, but patricide produces orphans, and no amount of revelry can make up for the fact that writers my age have been literary orphans throughout our formative years. We’re kind of wishing some parents would come back.. And of course we’re uneasy about the fact that we wish they’d come back—I mean what’s wrong with us? Are we total pussies? Is there something about authority and limits we actually need? And then the uneasiest feeling of all, as we start gradually to realize that parents in fact aren’t ever coming back—which mean’s we’re going to have to be the parents.
In Le Conversazioni, Wallace characterizes his relationship to postmodernism:
Many of the writers I admire are interested in using postmodern technique, postmodern aesthetic, but using that to discuss or represent very old or traditional human verities that have to do with spirituality, and emotion, and community, and ideas that the avant-garde would consider very old fashioned; so there’s a kind of melding. Using post modern formal techniques for very traditional ends...that’s the group I want to belong to.
It seems that Wallace fits in to this category, Boswell explains in his Understanding David Foster Wallace. Boswell argues that Wallace uses post-modern techniques against themselves--ironizing irony, self-reflecting on self-reflexivity--in order to clear the way for the communication of sincerity and human emotion.