David Foster Wallace and the Ethical Challenge of Posthumanism

By Kaiser, Wilson | Mosaic (Winnipeg), September 2014 | Go to article overview

David Foster Wallace and the Ethical Challenge of Posthumanism


Kaiser, Wilson, Mosaic (Winnipeg)


David Foster Wallace's fiction and prose express a strong ethical commitment that does not correspond to normative categories of behaviour or normate bodies. Rather than abandon the problem of ethics, however, Wallace adopts an ethics of affinity, which explores the complex interplay of his characters' private experiences.

There is a quickly emerging critical consensus that David Foster Wallace's writing evinces a strong ethical commitment. (1) Frequently cited essays by Wallace such as "Consider the Lobster" and "This is Water" seem to confirm the claim that he is concerned with what appear to be traditional ethical problems: our relation to animals, the pain of others, and right action in a chaotic world. At the same time, while criticizing authors such as John Updike and Philip Roth for their "narcissistic" obsessions, Wallace uses his own writing to foreground an ethical challenge that does not sit easily within the parameters of postmodernism ("Certainly" 51). In both fiction and prose, this "morally passionate, passionately moral" writing has become the hallmark of Wallace's style, signaling his development beyond the limits of a postmodern irony that seems to reject earnest ethical concerns ("Joseph" 274).

It would thus seem straightforward to claim that Wallace emphasizes the ethical dimension of literature, and seeks to develop this aspect in his own writing. And yet Wallace's ethical claims are anything but straightforward. In "Consider the Lobster," for example, he is most interested in the lobster's complex and diffuse neural network, which makes it both deeply sensitive to its environment and difficult to locate as a singular entity. The ethical concerns in this essay shift from the traditional problems of right action, such as whether or not one ought to eat another creature, to how we locate something as an entity and, as a result, how we register our responsibility toward experiential networks that are not necessarily anthropomorphic. A similar movement away from what we can call a standard humanist ethics is in evidence in much of Wallace's work. Dismissing anthropocentric registers for gauging behaviour, Wallace relocates his discussion of ethics in a broader, fluctuating field of neural and social networks.

The defamiliarizing force of Wallace's non-anthropocentric ethics stands in marked contrast to the standard range of ethical approaches that have characterized philosophies ranging from deontology (ethics conceived as duty or obligation, such as Kantian imperatives of right action) to what Zygmunt Bauman calls "postmodern ethics." As Bauman points out, today we live in a "post-deontic epoch" that refuses the universal categories essential to generalizations about right action (2). Wallace's writing certainly expresses a post-deontic perspective, but it is far from clear that he is therefore committed to a postmodern ethics. For Bauman, postmodernism "tears off the mask of illusions" that maintains our false sense of absolute right and wrong. In this narrative, postmodernism functions as a new form of enlightenment that allows us to gain a distanced critical perspective described by Bauman as a heightened condition of "personal autonomy" in which our "answerability to the Other" becomes central (11). As I will argue, Wallace's literary worlds, for all their commitment to an ethics, do not assume personal autonomy or an irresoluble answerability to an Other. To Bauman's claim that "moral responsibility is precisely the act of self-constitution" (14), Wallace's writing juxtaposes an "ethological" perspective, that is, a perspective in which self-constitution is not founded in an obligation toward an abstract, groundless Other, but instead is situated in a concrete engagement with a specific milieu that contains a multiplicity of human and non-human actors.

Wallace's ethics consists of affinities within a network of possibilities rather than sweeping claims about self and other. …

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