Reading Beyond Irony: Exploring the Post-secular “End” of Postmodernism in David Foster Wallace
David Foster Wallace’s self-described attempt to move past the “ends” of postmodernism has made for much scholarly fodder, but the criticism that has resulted focuses on Wallace’s supposed attempts to eschew irony while neglecting what else is at stake in thinking past these “ends.” Looking at various texts across his oeuvre, I think about Wallace’s way “past” postmodern irony through his engagement with what has come to be variously known as the “postsecular.” Putting some of his work in conversation with postsecular thought and criticism, then, I aim to provide a new context for thinking about the nature of Wallace’s relationship to religion as well as to late postmodernism. My work builds on that of critics like John McClure, who have challenged the established secular theoretical frameworks for postmodernism, and argue that such post-secular interventions provide paradigmatic examples of the relationship between postmodernism and post-secularism, where the latter, as an evolution or perhaps a mutation of the former, signals postmodernism’s lateness—or at least its decline as a culturalhistorical dominant. I also follow other Wallace critics in noting his spiritual and religious preoccupations, building on some of the great work that has already been done to explore his religious and post-secular leanings. Noting similarities between the post-secular perspective, which admits that the role of religion in the postmodern (and beyond) must be reconsidered, and a key function of irony, which is to create an ambiguous space of reflection and complexity, I show that irony in Wallace’s work is a strategy not necessarily to undermine in order to ridicule the spiritual or religious ideas his characters represent in these texts; but rather, because irony is not only a dissembling tool but also a way of destabilizing meaning in the text, it serves to create a constructive tension which opens up a tenuous middle position that ironists and post-secularists always inhabit.