David Foster Wallace and the Death of Critique

“Good Old Neon” is maybe my favorite of David Foster Wallace’s short stories. It’s certainly the best from the collection Oblivion. The story uses Wallace’s trademark obsessively tangential prose style to present what appears for most of the story to be the first-person explanation of a Chicago advertising worker’s reason for committing suicide: “My whole life I’ve been a fraud. I’m not exaggerating.” The narrator recalls to us various attempts to access some true feeling of happiness, but he’s tormented throughout his life by an awareness that at every level his apparent success and happiness is only appearance, and that whenever he looks past that appearance he cannot find a genuine self capable of enjoying happiness in itself. Everything he ever did in his life, he tells us, he could only do for the purpose of broadcasting a performance of the kind of person other people wanted him to be, but he was never actually that person. Perhaps worst for the narrator, he was also massively good at this performance, and smart, always a step or two ahead of everyone around him, which made it impossible for him to communicate his problem to anyone. Even his final attempt to explain his problem to Dr. G., his analyst, was a failure because he knew before Dr. G. even said anything exactly what the response would be, and he was unable to stop himself at that point from merely performing the part of a patient making progress, manipulating Dr. G. into thinking something about him based appearances that wasn’t actually true. So he decides to commit suicide by loading up on Benadryl and driving his car into the side of an overpass in “the true boonies” south of Chicago’s suburbs.

The twist at the end of the story (Warning: spoilers), which might be surprising the first time you read it even though it’s kind of a characteristic Wallace move, comes when the narrator explains that his narration is taking place partly in the moment of David Wallace “idly scanning class photos from his 1980 Aurora West H.S. yearbook and seeing my photo and trying, through the tiny little keyhole of himself, to imagine what all must have happened to lead up to my death in the fiery single-car accident he’d read about in 1991.” We learn then that the story, according to the narrator, is not actually his own attempt to explain to us his fraudulence, but is in fact David Wallace’s attempt “to somehow reconcile what this luminous guy had seemed like from the outside with whatever on the interior must have driven him to kill himself.” This metafictional trick is what makes the story genuinely moving, but notice that it does so not by allowing the narrator to ever claim to have truly broken through, to have found his true self and at last communicated it directly to us, but instead by repositioning the story as Wallace’s own attempt to imagine someone else’s unimaginable pain. It achieves a genuine moment of empathy, both by revealing itself as Wallace’s own attempt at empathy, and, by revealing Wallace to the reader as a person who’s built this story out of empathetic effort, inviting the reader into a kind of empathetic circuit. We empathize not with the suicidal narrator or with Wallace himself, but with (or through) the attempt to recognize the inner self of another person—even in the face of a somewhat exhaustive proof of the impossibility of precisely that.

What struck me this time reading the story was not so much whether the narrator’s self-diagnosis as a fraud is convincing, or the effectiveness of Wallace’s pathos-ridden affirmation of human connection at the end, but that for most of the story what’s at stake revolves around questions of how to understand something as real (in this case, one’s own self) in the face of a thought process that continuously disassembles what’s presented as real and shows it to be mere appearance. The close of the story, its affirmation, is not really another contradiction of this cycle. It’s a decision, instead, to step outside of it. In a sense, the narrator of “Good Old Neon” is a dramatization of the exhaustion of critique: he is critique taken so far that he can no longer function as a person, an embodiment of the problem Bruno Latour writes about in “Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam?” There, Latour explains that the goal of critique is to show “that there is no sure ground anywhere,” and he worries that this project has been so successful as to make it difficult, from the stance of critique, to effectively argue, for example, that climate change is real, that humans are definitely the cause. Latour’s point is not that critique is wrong (it has in fact been immensely useful), but that it was initially deployed (to bring over his military metaphor) in battles that are no longer the ones we face: critique made it impossible to claim the truth of grand narratives of progress, impossible to claim that the essential nature of some humans limited them to lower states of existence, etc. And we are better off for having claimed those victories. But Latour argues that the battles of the present require different weapons, and he suggests that we step out of the endless cycle of critique in order to move forward (he takes up more directly his idea of moving forward in his “Compositionist Manifesto”).

In “Good Old Neon,” the problem—how to genuinely empathize with another human being—is not one that can be solved with critique. The suicidal narrator has critiqued himself out of existence, denying the sure ground of any true self, and the answer Dr. G. finally gives to the explanation of his problem is, “But if you’re constitutionally false and manipulative and unable to be honest about who you really are, Neal…how is it that you were able to drop the sparring and manipulation and be honest with me a moment ago…about who you really are?” (153). But this is an answer of critique—Dr. G. has neatly undermined the premise of the narrator’s confession. Which doesn’t solve his problem at all. In fact, the narrator is immediately able to counter Dr. G.’s insight with further critique, and he recognizes from this how absolutely trapped within the cycle of critique he is.

Wallace’s solution, stepping outside of critique, actually bears what I think is an important resemblance to Badiou’s project.[1] For Badiou, being or existence is never based on a final reality—there is no sure ground of being. But this is not because there is nothing that’s real, or because reality is ultimately beyond our grasp. Instead (for our purposes), reality relies at every level on a decision about what counts as real. This isn’t a failure to grasp something beyond that decision, because the decision is in fact what it means to be real. “Thought occurs for there to be a cessation—even if it only lasts long enough to indicate that it has not actually been obtained—of the quantitative unmooring of being” (282), so when Wallace has his narrator crash into the bridge abutment and then explain the thought of the story, he’s actually making a gesture fundamental to participation in reality. And he’s not basing it on a claim to have found a surer ground that would be invulnerable to critique. He affirms the attempt to understand the pain of this other person, but not because he wants to claim the certainty of success. He is “fully aware that the cliché that you can’t ever truly know what’s going on inside somebody else is hoary and insipid,” but his affirmation is in his “trying very consciously to prohibit that awareness from mocking the attempt or sending the whole line of thought into the sort of inbent spiral that keeps you from getting anywhere.” What Wallace appears to recognize here in his argument for the value and importance of empathy (and what makes this insight of Wallace’s genuinely useful) is that it’s no use trying to reclaim empathy by reaching back for a pre-critical faith in a genuine self. Instead, empathy can only be effectively deployed if it’s done after critique, with full awareness, and no embarrassment, of its status as a decision.

[1] Although this might just be another example of my having Badiou on the brain still—Being and Event is a looong read.

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