David Foster Wallace: Fighting a Culture of “Me”

Culture — By on July 13, 2010 at 12:04 pm

Unless you’re a devoted fan of NPR or The New Yorker, it’s unlikely that you’ve heard of the late David Foster Wallace. Unbeknownst to many, David Foster Wallace, or “DFW,” as he is sometimes called, was one of the most influential and insightful writers of our age.

Deeply aware of the social illnesses that pervade western society, Wallace aptly articulated our psychological and sociological norms, paying particular attention to the onslaught of media that now encompasses our collective way of life. It is not merely the quality of media for which Wallace articulated concern, though this is part and parcel to his main worry. Wallace was largely disturbed by our generation’s incapacity to endure silence, boredom and self-restraint. To have freedom, he argued in his Kenyon College Commencement Speech, a person must be disciplined:

“Learning how to think” really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed. Think of the old cliché about “the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master.” This, like many clichés, so lame and unexciting on the surface, actually expresses a great and terrible truth.

Contrary to modern cultural standards, Wallace articulated a profoundly old truth; arguably, a “natural law” that beckons to the very heart of human existence.

Being an adult requires self-sacrifice, not merely in order so that we may receive future gain, but also so that we might not lose ourselves in the culturally sanctioned decree that we have a right to get what we want, how and when we want it. It is a culture of self that determines personal happiness to be the highest virtue. Wallace adds: “[T]he world of men and money and power hums along quite nicely on the fuel of fear and contempt and frustration and craving and the worship of self.” But freedom,involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day.”

Our own Dustin Steeve articulated a similar concern about on-demand technology’s effect on human development and character. We must ask ourselves: how much are we losing by allowing information to flood our every waking minute?

Television and internet were a customary part of my daily routine when I was growing up. Rarely did I wait to be stimulated by entertainment, or forced to put strenuous effort into anything outside of an average school day. Somehow I made it through college in spite of this, and now as I encounter adulthood, I recognize just how difficult it is to choose to confront discipline and boredom for future gain, rejecting the pleasure and ease of immediate gratification.

My experience is in large part a symptom of my generation. The uniqueness of our situation lies in our culture’s devotion to convenience and demands for entertainment. Wallace noted this when he said that while our culture, as times past, is committed to narrative art, “television,” the most prevalent form of narrative today, is of the lowest sort.

It’s a narrative art that strives not to change or enlighten or broaden or reorient—not necessarily even to “entertain”—but merely and always to engage, to appeal to. Its one end—openly acknowledged—is to ensure continued watching.…Television’s greatest appeal is that it is engaging without being at all demanding.

There are many hard working people my age, and yet, the choice to endure hardship has become increasingly “a choice” and less a requirement of which all responsible adults are expected to take part. Our reclaiming of discipline and self-sacrifice as a standard part of adulthood will be essential if we hope to retain our freedom from our “hard-wired default setting” of self-centeredness.

*For those who aren’t familiar with David Foster Wallace, I’d like to briefly acknowledge the fact that his death was openly identified as a suicide. Regardless of the motivations or rationale that accompanied Wallace’s act, the truth of his words remain the same. No matter who participates as the mouth piece for this truth, self-sacrifice and endurance is an objective good. Having said this, we should also admire Wallace for his ability to discern and display what is good; especially as a voice within a society so disposed to keeping truth buried in self-mire. ‘


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  • Melissa M Gutierrez

    So glad to see DFW on EO! Thank you!

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  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=68604083 Jennifer Diane Gaertner

    Thank you, Melissa! So glad to know of other DFW admirers!

  • Ivanbruntmyer

    Great post.

    It is interesting what power self-discipline has.

    Eric Bruntmyer
    Twitter: @ericbruntmyer
    Blog: http://www.3qfl.com
    Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/?ref=home#!/profile.php

  • matthewmilliner

    Thanks for this thoughtful post Jennifer. Mark Hemingway had some interesting thoughts on DFW after the suicide: “If he hated solipsism, that hatred might well have been a result of hating the thing he feared the most – that he would give in to his own demons. Which, in the end, is exactly what he did.”

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=68604083 Jennifer Diane Gaertner

    Matthew, I couldn't agree more with Mark Hemingway. Thank you for sharing. I will be looking more into his thoughts on this.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=68604083 Jennifer Diane Gaertner

    Eric, thank you very much for the compliment!