Death is Not the End: David Foster Wallace, James Murphy, and the New Sincerity

David Foster Wallace
© Gary Hannabarger/Corbis

Perhaps the most unfair criticism of David Foster Wallace is that he was a postmodern smartass more concerned with metafictional pyrotechnics than storytelling. But anyone who makes that complaint almost certainly hasn’t read any of Wallace’s work, at least not his seminal 1993 essay “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction” [PDF]. For here is where Wallace voices his strongest criticism of postmodern American fiction and its main weapon, patricidal irony. By killing off their literary forebears and sneering constantly at the hokey sincerity of the mid-20th-century Establishment, Wallace argues, ironists in all art forms were in serious danger of leaving us without any communicative tools to replace the outmoded forms they’d destroyed:

Irony, entertaining as it is, serves an almost exclusively negative function. It’s critical and destructive, a ground-clearing. Surely this is the way our postmodern fathers saw it. But irony’s singularly unuseful when it comes to constructing anything it debunks. …The reason why our pervasive cultural irony is at once so powerful and unsatisfying is that an ironist is impossible to pin down. All U.S. irony is based on an implicit “I don’t really mean what I’m saying.” … Anyone with the heretical gall to ask an ironist what he actually stands for ends up looking like an hysteric or a prig. (“E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction”)

And so those of us unfashionable enough to point out that the emperor has no clothes—or simply to look for a way to mean what we say and say what we mean, and to ask the same of others—are cowed into not taking any stance at all, for fear we’ll be exposed as the ones with no clothes, or simply irrelevant—the last thing anybody wants to be. But the more we worry about how others perceive us, the less we do anything worth perceiving at all.

Artists like Wallace and Murphy are crucial because they can save us from this spiral of second-guessing and self-doubt. These artists, who are more concerned with being up-front and unguarded than being cool, represent the current antidote to all this ironic hollowness. Musically, I think maybe Sufjan Stevens is one of these artists, despite the high-concept nature of his work. Or the Hold Steady, who got indie kids to soil themselves over classic-rock anthems about blue-collar Catholic-school kids. Or Animal Collective, who made a high-art album about being dads. Even if you don’t like these artists’ music, you can maybe see how wearing their feelings on their sleeves is a priority for them. At least, they haven’t become critical darlings and popular with fans by rolling up those sleeves.

So if Wallace was the leader of postmodern fiction’s new sincerity movement, I submit that Murphy is Wallace’s musical heir, benefiting from the same audience Wallace cultivated, and directly inspired by his non-ironic approach. Both Wallace and Murphy worked within the formal constraints of the very genres they were trying to transcend: Murphy used the sleek superficiality of dance music to explore some profound emotional experiences, while Wallace used the grammar and trickery of metafiction to expose the pitfalls of the avant-garde and ironic. Murphy’s arch delivery on tracks like “Losing My Edge” and “North American Scum” was balanced by an unabashed forthrightness on “Someone Great” and “I Can Change.” Just as Wallace used the tropes of postmodern metafiction to reveal some timeless and unpostmodern realities about the human condition in Infinite Jest, Murphy used the musical lingua franca of the world’s sexiest, most fashionable party people to confess to some horribly square but true and inevitable realities about growing older and maneuvering through life once the party stops.

Maybe you’re sick of hearing about Murphy and Wallace, and maybe their work isn’t your cup of tea. But I urge you to find some artist who is, and who’s made a commitment to dropping the act and saying what he or she means. Of creating art that we love for its unhiply positive presence, rather than for sneeringly subjugating some uncool thing while refusing to fill the void it leaves. Because we live in times where that kind of commitment seems even rarer than it was nearly twenty years ago when Wallace first diagnosed it—a time when a mean quip on the internet or an animated GIF just might have more immediate currency than a carefully written short story or a ballad’s narrative, but less staying power. Not that the former don’t have their place—but the latter must be there to satisfy our hunger for meaning when the quip or GIF’s charm wears off and you slam your laptop shut, exhausted. The band is breaking up and the author is dead, but I hardly need to point out that the artifacts of sincerity they left behind are immortal. So here I am, blasting “Dance Yrself Clean” at high volume with the spring chill coming through the windows and the dreaded The Pale King in front of me, daring me to give a shit. TC mark

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  • http://twitter.com/anewholiday Max Shipley

    Dude I just wrote a paper on this same subject and was so surprised to see this, way to go!

    • http://thedependentclause.com The Dependent Clause

      Awesome! I'd love to read that paper if you're willing.

  • http://twitter.com/karinabthatsme Karina Briski

    Yes, as a DFW-devotee and a total stranger to LCD Soundsystem, this piece works in so many ways… It's so *ironic* to me that so many of DFW's followers continue to be or are still becoming keepers of the tract for ironic inoculation in whatever work they're creating. Normally, I'm prone to just call them out on the simple ground of hipster snobbery, but you provide, as did Wallace, an especially provocative assessment of why history and art cannot live in, out of, or even alongside such irony especially as it is being enacted within the realms specified here.
    It will be a scary thing if/when nobody is creating anything they actually believe in. Imagine the shit we'd be in if that becomes the reality.

  • http://jackshoegazer.livejournal.com/ Jack Shoegazer

    This is a really fantastic article. As a creative writing student, it's nice to hear someone touting sincerity. It's hard to hear through the din of postmodern thumb-nosing.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=707272007 Alex Thayer

    yrself*

    also, this was an excellent read.

    • Jakemohan

      Thanks for catching that! And thanks for reading.

  • Mary Pappalardo

    I don't know if I have a more sincere response than just saying, yes. Yes to all of this.

  • Guest666

    hipsters(of the sincerity frontier) deriding hipsters(of the formerly postmodern irony clan) is the new rappers rapping about anonymous haters and foes.

    but this was good…almost like cliff notes on dfw theory.

  • http://profiles.google.com/zotterdas Zane Taylor

    Great article! I desperately hope that these ideas can take root in the current generation of artists. There's been far too much “ground-clearing” going on for far too long.

  • shoehorn

    this article is fucking solid, digital hug for you, sincerely
    also hold steady rule precisely for the reasons described herein
    (but i think you have one extra “irrelevant” in there)

    • http://thedependentclause.com The Dependent Clause

      Thanks for catching the typo! And I'm glad you appreciate the Hold Steady example. I've always found Craig Finn's out-of-fashion squareness and over-the-top emoting very endearing.

  • BROTOM

    Good stuff.

  • http://everyoneisquiteperfect.blogspot.com Ted

    'bewilderment is the new sincerity' — heather christle

  • erzulieloo

    really, really appreciate this article. thank you. great work.

  • champ

    more articles like this please!

  • Ben C C Warren



    An example of contemporary sincerity (ignore the video).

    http://www.icometoshanghai.com

    (the bands website)

  • maha

    http://lesswrong.com/lw/2pv/in

    Is all of this really giving up irony for good, or is it just countersignalling? When irony becomes the norm, sincerity's cool again.

    • http://thedependentclause.com The Dependent Clause

      I don't think we'll ever give up irony for good, and I hope we never do. Irony can be a very powerful tool, and both Wallace and Murphy could employ it very well. But I think their endgame was always profoundly emotional, rather than critical or satirical.

      Of course there's always been irony and there's always been sincerity in response; I've just noticed some trends toward greater sincerity in art. But of course I'm generalizating; there are always going to be exceptions.

  • Tim

    Fuck this hits hard. I'm 200 pages in to Infinite Jest and I'm seeing LCD this saturday. These two artists are the centre of my life right now, so this piece feels far from coincidental.

    It's very sad to see LCD go. When I first was exposed to them I was only able to pick up on the ironic, 'too cool' side. I really didn't like Sound of Silver and found the music incredibly pretentious and hollow (bar NY, I Love You). Once I heard This Is Happening though my whole perspective changed. I went back to Sound of Silver and was able to appreciate just how amazing the music was, and how it had much more heart than I had first assumed. I still believe This Is Happening will be his masterpiece just because of the range and depth of the emotions on it. All I Want, I Can Change, and Pow Pow are about three very different things, but all are equally upfront and naked.

    As for DFW, I can understand the calls of pretentiousness, but I think that's selling him short. He did hide behind his words at time, and his 'metafictional pyrotechnics', but that just endears me more to him. He was insecure as much as any of us, and he braved his fears and overcame them at times, but other times he just couldn't. I very recently read an article about him that I will paraphrase as saying: yes he had a big brain, but his heart was even bigger. If you read his address to Kenyon College, you really can't question that. The man was smart, too smart for his own good as he himself hinted at, but he also cared just as much.

    It's not the first time I've thought about these two as not so distant cousins. Apparent from the physical similarities, the irony and self-deprecation that they struggled with and overcame to produce art that communicated real genuine feelings and beliefs is something to respect. Sure you can dismiss them as posers, but you're selling yourself short as much as them.

    • shoehorn

      this article deserved more comments
      i'm glad you left this long-ass good comment to make up for that tim

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Steven-Fiveoseveniam-Lazaroff/7706828 Steven Fiveoseveniam Lazaroff

    thanks, man. a real defibrillator. thanks.

    i can't read all the comments right now, but it's always seemed to me that these dudes, and others, are nietzsche's heirs. his 'new philosophers.' his gay scientists.

  • http://www.peterwknox.com peterwknox

    This was fantastic. I went to the LCD show on Tuesday night, got my copy of Pale King delivered during the day on Wednesday (Yay Amazon Prime!) and then went to the Wednesday night show and it's seeming like all I've done recently has been yelling LCD or DFW and I'm glad someone put the two together. They share the same space in my head and there is no more noble cause than trying to live better like these two preached and struggled with doing themselves.

    Great essay; thanks.

    • http://thedependentclause.com The Dependent Clause

      Thanks Peter. I know from Tumblr that you're big fan of both DFW and LCD Soundsystem, so I'm flattered that you read and enjoyed the piece.

  • xtos

    I don't know what to make of this article. I understand the comparison seems salient since Murphy mentioned Wallace on a blog post, but roughly (yes roughly i know this wasn't THE punchline of the article) equating LCD soundsystem to DFW doesn't seem right to me.

    Though you've found touching sincerity in the lyrical content of their music the delivery falls IMPOSSIBLY short for me. Some tracks shine but by and large their lyrics get swallowed up in the self-conscious indie mumble falsetto that was pioneered and proliferated sometime in the last decade. I feel that this falls in an unfortunate middle ground in making an honest attempt towards sincerity. Who doesn't know a person who is a jokester or quick to make ironic comments, only to have his voice falter self-consciously or make fun of himself when he actually has something to say?

    This piece speaks to me because I find a lot of parallels between it and an essay I wrote several months ago. I think we are making roughly the same point but I hadn't been exposed to DFW's work at the time and for various other reasons my points weren't very adequately fleshed out. I took a look at The Shape of Punk to Come by Refused and tried to put it in some cultural context and describe it in terms of the music that preceded and succeeded it. The long and short of it is that the album (as evidenced by its title) is an indictment of punk music. I remarked on how easy it was for music reviewers to call the band's lyrics naive or call their political or musical views unrealistic. I won't get into details here but I think the best thing I can say is that the album's exclamation point track, after all the points made in the album, says

    “So where do we go from here? Just about anywhere.”

    Also a quote I found very moving from the conclusion of their documentary discussing the breakup of the band:

    “IF YOU ARE GOING TO GO ON LIVING, DON'T SETTLE FOR LIVING HALF DEAD. FIGHT FOR WHAT YOU WANT AND BE COURAGEOUS AND BE BEAUTIFUL. THAT'S WHAT THIS IS ABOUT AND IT'S FOR YOU IF THAT'S WHAT YOU WANT. BE CREATIVE, BE ALIVE, SHARE EVERY GIFT AND EVERY PASSION YOU HAVE TO OFFER, WE ALL NEED ALL WE CAN GET.”

    • http://thedependentclause.com The Dependent Clause

      I can see your points, and a lot of the parallels I draw between JM and DFW are mere speculation. But the more I thought about their work the more similarities I began to see, and I like the challenge of trying to make analogies between two unlike pieces of art—apples and oranges, as it were.

      I think James Murphy's music is more cerebral and deliberate than most people give him credit for. We're probably too busy dancing to notice this until several listens, which is probably how he'd want it. But his whole ouevre is driven by the notion that we're not getting any younger and we only get a few chances to make our mark and express ourselves—if we get those chances at all.

      Murphy made every musical move very carefully and put his whole heart into it. I saw that same spirit in DFW's writing. The bottom line: Both men cared, deeply—as artists and just as human beings.

      • http://thedependentclause.com The Dependent Clause

        Er, two unlike pieces of art …

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1363230138 Michael Koh

    I saw LCD Soundsysyem open up for Interpol & The Pixies a long time ago. He was god-awful. Still is.

  • PERFECTCIRCLES

    I'm only passingly “into” these artists, but what you're saying obviously extends beyond them. They're the place holders and this article could probably be written in twenty years with Rebecca Black replacing Murphy and the newer version of Stephenie Meyer replacing Wallace.

    In celebration I am going to kill myself outside the final MSG concert.

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