When they were introduced, he made a witticism, hoping to be liked. She laughed extremely hard, hoping to be liked. Then each drove home alone, staring straight ahead, with the very same twist to their faces.
The man who'd introduced them didn't much like either of them, though he acted as if he did, anxious as he was to preserve good relations at all times. One never knew, after all, now did one now did one now did one.
So, everyone's least favorite David Foster Wallace piece, and the one short enough that probably even douchebag philosophy and/or linguistics majors have managed to read it. Yes, I'm talking to you, you god damn bastards, taking all your parents hard-earned money to learn the difference between a priori and a posteriori.
Ahem. Sorry about that. Anyway.
The initial and obvious reading of the text is that it is a standard critique of postindustrial society, as the title implies. That is, everyone is shallow and vacuous and wears masks, hoping to come across as things they are not.
I submit that this is a simplistic, irrelevant, and perhaps even outright incorrect reading of the text.
Looking at David Foster Wallace’s oeuvre, he takes long dives into the possibilities and problems posed by solipsism, irony, and existentialism. These motifs were not questioned in the very Hegelian Industrial Age, where man begat machines that had purposes, where men (and children, whoops!) worked together towards some greater teleological future.
Man’s purpose seemed clear at that time, the breakneck pace of technological progress perpetually sustainable. They were to build a perfect, ordered, efficient society. Hegelian idealism and Utilitarianism spread through the Western world like herpes at Penn State.
This was the Industrial Age – one of idealism, and the pursuit thereof.
In that era language was not regarded as anything but a tool of humanity to further its goals, to connect one another in ways and in degrees that no other species had been able to do. Language had its purpose, its designated role.
David Foster Wallace understands, as do sociologists and economists, that we have moved on and become a postindustrial society. What does postindustrial mean? Wikipedia provides the answer:
If a nation becomes "post-industrial" it passes through, or dodges, a phase of society predominated by a manufacturing-based economy and moves on to a structure of society based on the provision of information, innovation, finance, and services.
As the term has been used, a few common themes (not limited to those below) have begun to emerge.
The economy undergoes a transition from the production of goods to the provision of services.
Knowledge becomes a valued form of capital (e.g., the knowledge produced through the Human Genome Project).
Producing ideas is the main way to grow the economy.
Through processes of globalization and automation, the value and importance to the economy of blue-collar, unionized work, including manual labor (e.g., assembly-line work) decline, and those of professional workers (e.g. scientists, creative-industry professionals, and IT professionals) grow in value and prevalence.
Behavioral and information sciences and technologies are developed and implemented. (e.g. behavioral economics, information architecture, cybernetics, Game theory and Information theory.)
Our postindustrial society is a service-based economy, a society where information and knowledge and intangible human qualities are held as valuable. Our behavior is schematized, studied, deconstructed.
Within this new paradigm, we are our own tools.
How does this affect us as humans? One might imagine that individuals are empowered, given agency to maximize their own tools.
But it is perhaps this commoditization of humanity that dehumanizes us, depowers us as individuals. Our tools, perhaps, now control us.
Language is no longer a vehicle to further some common cause, nor used to truly connect with one another. Indeed, it is impossible in a very real sense to feel as united as German idealism once held was inevitable. There is no synthesis on the horizon, no messenger from the Kingdom arriving at the last moment.
Our usage of language, David Foster Wallace is saying, has trapped us. This is a more extreme version, perhaps, of Wittgenstein’s notion of private language. Wallace’s “Postindustrial Life” shows the extent that he believes we are now trapped in our own heads – all social cues, discussions, and so forth are essentially meaningless. We jealously guard our intelligence, our emotion, our tools, incapable in a service-based economy of distributing them for free. We hold irony as the holiest of social values for the gifted ironist is never held accountable to his or her own admissions, never charged, never pinned down.
In Philosophical Investigations
, Wittgenstein posits the famous claim that words in themselves don’t have meaning, and that meaning is derived completely from use. “Meaning as use”, as David Foster Wallace wrote in his first novel (and shrine to Wittgenstein) The Broom of the System
. But how can this now be reconciled with irony? How can this be reconciled with the masks that the actors in “Postindustrial Life” wear? How can this be reconciled with a world that values the presentation of false appearance more so than the truth?
Language, with the advent of irony and the skyrocketing worth of intangible human capital, is no longer a social tool. Social situations are isolated constructs wherein we can never gain any insight into others, wherein that nothing we say is meaningful. This is perhaps a sort of neo-solipsism – the frightening concept that there may be other people in the world, but we are fundamentally cut off from them in any significant sense, that our private language can no longer translate into a public one, that social usage of language is now either so deliberately altered, individualized, or flat out abused for individual gain that there cannot be a common denominator for understanding between individuals; if there is, it is between two heavily altered personas that are nothing more than linguistic constructs.
The initial reaction that these are characters who are shallow and vacuous, wearing masks hoping to come across as people they are not, is one that ignores the characters’ free will, or lack thereof. In today’s world, these people don't feel that they have[/]i agency, that they have any other choice but to wear these masks, to become these linguistic constructs.
One never knows, after all, now does one.