The nihilism of the nth degree

The problem that postmodernists sought to solve by turns with recursive metafiction and minimalism was that of the mediated narrative consciousness. Pre-modernist texts are primarily premodern in the sense that they try to provide empirical insights about the real world by presenting that world in fiction. Writers of this kind of fiction tended to believe their insights were objectively true, and didn’t really have much of a sense of the limitations of what they could be legitimately insightful about. Modernists and postmodernists recognized that the real world cannot be presented in writing, only represented, and that representation is intrinsically mediated, theirs by linguistic medium and authorial consciousness. The minimalist attempt to resolve the issue is the most obvious workaround, but it rests on the same assumption of a describable world, and considers the mediated narrative consciousness to be a quality of style and not of language itself. The minimalists seek to minimize the narrative consciousness, and thus supposedly its mediation of their presentation of the world, by the reduction of its stylistic manifestations: sub-surface description, authorial judgement on characters etc… They wanted to create uninterpreted pictures of the world then give them to the reader for him/her to draw his/her own conclusions. The Meta-fictionists sought to solve the problem of mediated narrative consciousness by the application of a solipsistic Tractatus era Wittgensteinian understanding of language. If a linguistic consciousness both can’t be done away with and can only even hope to understand itself, than the only subject a mediated narrative consciousness’ can actually hope to be truthful about is its mediation of narrative, writing.

In Octet, Wallace takes the whole project a step further. In a way, it’s meta-metafiction. He first of all recognizes that any answer to the metafictional question of “what is writing” or “what’s the relationship of the reader to the author” will necessarily itself be mediated. The ongoing debate over the intentional fallacy and death of the author are evidence enough for metafictional inquiries non-objectivity. He sees traditional metafiction as the masking of this second order mediation in the same way the postmodern minimalist style can be seen as the masking of mediation in a single-order story.  

Pop quiz 9 is, on the surface, completely direct metafiction, it takes place entirely beyond the fourth wall, it deals directly with the specific question of whether a piece of metafiction can inspire that sense of urgent honesty a reader so often gets from single-order fiction (is the metafictional parable univocal with the straight parables). Its direct form, indeed, more resembles an ordinary belletristic parable on a metafictional subject than a piece of metafiction. Wallace chooses this style in order to highlight the mediated quality of the metafictional subject matter.  

He recognizes that in the post-postmodern US, the audience is always in on the joke, and is very quick to recognize the mediated quality of any single-order story. We evaluate movies for their content, to be sure, but we also evaluate them at least as much if not more on the efficacy of their mediation, the academy awards, except for best picture, all reward not greatness in content but in mediation, and we lay-viewers evaluate movies based on the same model. Thus by presenting his metafictional query in the form of a single-order narrative, he highlights for the marginally savvy post-postmodern reader the mediated quality of that metafictional inquiry.

Once you take for granted the mediated quality of metafiction itself, once you start writing and thinking meta-metafictionally, there are only two real directions you can go from there. 1: that all communication is mediated unto the nth degree, and all you can do is keep writing meta-meta-meta-metcetera fiction to expose that mediation; or 2: that mediation doesn’t necessarily invalidate message, but that it is dishonest to pretend your message is unmediated. The 1st option is basically solipsistic, if not nihilistic, and I think Wallace sees it as about the most terrible conclusion you can come to. The second option though is itself pretty scary, because it requires you to try to communicate something real and sets you up either for success or failure in that endeavor. Your success and failure are both twofold: you can fail either, 1. because you yourself are an ineffective communicator in a world where communication is possible, or 2. because you chose the wrong option in the first place and tried to communicate when communication itself is impossible; if you succeed though, you both 1. have said something, and 2. said that something can be said. Pop-quiz: Did he succeed?

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