Gerry Canavan

the smartest kid on earth

Posts Tagged ‘Infinite Summer

“Practical Uses for INFINITE JEST”

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So here’s what I found slipped under my office door this morning, as a kind of warning for the fall, or perhaps even as a threat…

22ThesesonDFW_Page_122ThesesonDFW_Page_2

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February 23, 2016 at 4:52 pm

Infinite Map

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Kottke and MetaFilter have your character map of Infinite Jest. I really wish the people behind Infinite Summer had been able to keep the momentum going, rather than vanishing into the night; splitting up into multiple groups all reading different books killed what was great about IS, and now the “online book group” thing seems to be over entirely.

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October 8, 2010 at 6:23 pm

Friday Night!

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* This year’s answers to Infinite Summer are here: Insurgent Summer on the one hand and Ulysses Summer on the other. If I weren’t traveling then I’d do at least one.

Rachel Maddow has been doing very good work on location at the oil spill. There’s more at her site.

* Will oil from Deepwater Horizon hit North Carolina beaches? Check back this July.

* Controversy at the Spelling Bee!

* And the World Cup reminds us why you should never take your eyes off the North Koreans, not even for a second.

Another Massive Wednesday Linkdump

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* Three-part interview at Hero Complex with Neill Blomkamp.

GB: There can be an interesting freedom in the restrictions, too, even though that sounds contradictory. If you look at “Jaws” and “Alien,” the limitations on the visual effects led to ingenuity and better films. And there are many films today that go wild with visual effects and it leads to entirely forgettable films.

NB: It’s so true. From a pure audience perspective, it may yield a more interesting result. Think of “Alien,” if they made it now you would probably get “Alien vs. Predator.”

Via MeFi, which also links to another Blomkamp short, Tempbot.

* Noah Sheldon photographs the degradation of Biosphere 2. Also via MeFi. More photos at BLDGBLOG.

* China Miéville is blogging a rejectamentalist manifesto.

* “The End of the Detroit Dream.”

* Infinite Summer 2 is coming: 2666 Spring.

* Democrats would gain 10 Senate seats by eliminating the filibuster.

* The Big Bang Theory vs. The Male Gaze.

* New Yorker fiction by the numbers.

The first thing we always look at is if the New Yorker is bringing new writers into the mix or sticking with its old standbys. Just 10 writers account for 82 (or 23%) of the 358 stories to appear over the last seven years. Just 18 writers account for 124 (or 35%) of the stories. The New Yorker is sometimes criticized for featuring the same writers again and again, but it appears to be getting better on this front. The 18 “standbys” noted above and listed below accounted for only 7 of the 49 stories published in 2009 (or 14%). On the flip side of this argument, 15 writers appeared in the New Yorker for the first time in 2009 (at least since 2003).

* Monkeys recognize bad grammar. But they still can’t spell.

* Andrew Sullivan has your charts of the day.

It looks as though traditional economists have a strong optimism bias, which I try to balance with my fervent belief that the economy will catastrophically collapse on any given day.

* io9 considers the inevitable Lost reboot.

* I’m starting the new year with the sinking feeling that important opportunities are slipping from the nation’s grasp. Our collective consciousness tends to obsess indiscriminately over one or two issues — the would-be bomber on the flight into Detroit, the Tiger Woods saga — while enormous problems that should be engaged get short shrift.

….This is a society in deep, deep trouble and the fixes currently in the works are in no way adequate to the enormous challenges we’re facing.

* All about Yemen.

So Yemen’s population has tripled since 1975 and will double again by 2035. Meanwhile, state revenue will decline to zero by 2017 and the capital city of Sanaa will run out of water by 2015 — partly because 40% of Sanaa’s water is pumped illegally in the outskirts to irrigate the qat crop.

* Goal of the week: Dempsey!

Infinite Jest #10: On Endings

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This post ditches the official spoiler-line and talks about the ending of Infinite Jest. If it’s important to you not to read such a post, please do not read this post.

I decided to read through to the end of Infinite Jest this morning, which means (1) this is post is off the spoiler-line and consequently deals with the text as a whole and (2) this may or may not be my last Infinite Summer post. In light of (2) I’d like to say that it’s been truly great, and while I’m not able to participate in the Gravity’s Rainbow followup due to my pending exams I hope to pick up again with whatever Book #3 turns out to be.

I think it’s natural to end Infinite Jest in the spirit of of anticlimax nicely captured by Infinite Detox:

…as a reader, who’s poured 1,000 pages of emotional investment into this novel and its characters, this rings hollow and false. Frankly, I’m pissed off.

…Here’s the irony: One of Wallace’s big projects in Infinite Jest was to champion the notion of sincerity, right? Of forging connections and telling the truth and dropping the anhedonic mask and opening yourself up to the emotional gooiness that may result. From an intellectual standpoint, Wallace is very much pro-sincerity. And definitely ambivalent about “hip irony”, if not downright hostile toward it. Wallace can talk the talk about sincerity and directness and forging connections, but it’s like when it comes to the point of enacting that sincerity, dramatizing it and building it into the very fabric of Infinite Jest, he can’t (or doesn’t want to) bring himself to do it.

This tension between sincerity and irony—the impossible yearning for an open, unmediated authenticity of the sort we’re smart enough to know can never be achieved—is productive of the melancholic tone that has characterized most of my reading of Infinite Jest this summer. In some essential, baseline sense I think it’s what the book is All About.™ So IJ is most assuredly not a failure, exactly, so much as a very pointed and frustrating framing of a particularly intractable problem—which is to say IJ is a (mostly) successful book on the subject of universal human failure. We are left at the end of Infinite Jest with a story that hasn’t even happened yet, much less capable of directing us towards some personal epiphany—but if we’ve been reading carefully all along we should have known it could never be otherwise. (See, for example, the conversation between Remy Marathe and Kate Gompert from 774-782, in which Marathe’s story repeatedly resists the narrative closures an increasingly desperate Gompert is desperate to assign to it. How this book would end has always been right in front of our faces.)

Now, you can allow yourself to be seduced by the teasing but doomed impulse towards closure, the fantasy that answers to all the mysteries exist somewhere inside the book. Wallace himself even points to this in an interview:

(DFW) There is an ending as far as I’m concerned. Certain kind of parallel lines are supposed to start converging in such a way that an “end” can be projected by the reader somewhere beyond the right frame. If no such convergence or projection occured to you, then the book’s failed for you.

(Wallace is, I think, being coy here. Of course there’s hints about what happens after pg. 981, but they are completely incomplete and even contradictory, as he well knows, and in any event beside the point.)

Over the years Wallace fans has struggled admirably to puzzle out these supposedly converging lines with varying levels of success, and that work goes on in the Infinite Summer forums as we speak. For what it’s worth: I think the DMZ/mushrooms theory makes a lot of sense, and definitely explains some of Hal’s strange behavior in the middle of the novel, but I remain committed to the partial-viewing-of-the-Entertainment hypothesis, the heroic partial overcoming of which in evidence during the “Year of Glad” chapter I think better matches DFW’s existential themes. I think they must have really dug up Himself’s head, even if that seems to introduce precognitive dreams into the world of the novel alongside “wraiths,” and I suspect a microwave-destroyed copy of the master was inside. There is no anti-Entertainment. I don’t think the Entertainment ends the world, a la Dollhouse‘s “Epitaph One”; what it does is both less and more apocalyptic than that. Whether or not John Wayne was a spy he was “on Hal’s side” by the grave and whatever came later, and I guess he probably died somewhere along the way, somehow. I don’t know if I think Hal gets better. I think things get worse for Pemulis. I think O.N.A.N. dissolves.

But the impulse to make this sort of over-interpretive effort is itself a kind of misreading of the novel, which is, we must recognize, explicitly anticonfluential along the theories of Himself’s own films. The displeasure of this sort of text is laid out unmistakably for us within the novel itself:

It was only after Himself’s death that critics and theorists started to treat this question as potentially important. A woman at U. Cal-Irvine had earned tenure with an essay arguing that the reason-versus-no-reason debate about what was unentertaining in Himself’s work illuminated the central conundra of millennial après-garde film, most of which, in the teleputer age of home-only entertainment, involved the question why so much aesthetically ambitious film was so boring and why so much shitty reductive commercial entertainment was so much fun. (947)

The book—which, centered as it is around a mind-consuming MacGuffin called “the Entertainment” that destroys your ability to think, and therefore live, refuses to entertain us—is an object lesson in the fact that literature is about something other, and we can hope more, than mere pleasure. Infinite Jest is extremely fun at times and incredibly tedious at others—but in its mammoth scale, sprawling scope, and discontinuous presentation it could only ever leave us with a kind of unfulfilled, anti-entertained sense of disappointment at its end. To see the missing Year of Glad or to know X, Y, and Z about it would not change that inevitable anticlimax; in all likelihood it would only bring the discomforting divide between literature and Entertainment into even sharper relief while in the process sacrificing the calculated denial of easy pleasure that is at the core of the novel’s claims to aesthetic worth. To try to close a narrative like this one is a readerly impulse that is almost impossible to avoid—it was, I’ll admit, essentially the first thing I embarked on when I put down the book—but we should only attempt to do so with the understanding that we can’t, and knowing that if we were better readers of Wallace we wouldn’t even try. The ending was never and could never have been what Infinite Jest is about; that’s why it comes first.

Thursday!

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Thursday!

* I’ll be posting this year as a HASTAC Scholar at the Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Advanced Collaboatory. My first post is about status update activism of the sort that is all over your Facebook newsfeed today.

* Speaking of health care, Olympia Snowe now runs your health care.

* LRB makes an impressively desperate bid for my attention with Fredric Jameson’s review of Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood alongside reviews of Inglourious Basterds and Inherent Vice.

* Madoff-mania: The SEC—which he claims he was shortlisted to chair (!)— now admits it badly mishandled multiple investigations of his company. Still more here.

* Kevin Carey nicely notes the difficulty inherent to blogging about a book you’re two-thirds through with. Another post or two on Infinite Jest soon. The total collapse of blogging at A Supposedly Fun Blog is one of the great disappointments of Infinite Summer, I think.

* Hiding adjuncts so the U.S. News rankings can’t find them. Meanwhile, this year’s Washington Monthly undergraduate rankings leave Duke out of the Top 25.

* So you’ve invented a board game. (via)

* 68 Sci-Fi Sites to See in the U.S.

* And Gawker declares the Michael Cera backlash has officially begun.

Infinite Summer #9: A Brief Comment on the Narcissism of Grad Students and My Own Arrested Adolescence

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The salience of this particular moment fades a bit as we get further and further from Friday’s spoiler-line, but I feel compelled to comment briefly on the conversation between Marathe and Steeply that begins on page 638. How can I, or anyone who has chosen a life in academia, read this week’s material without feeling interpolated by it? How could any academic, would-be or otherwise, avoid asking him- or herself more than once just what it is that separates us from Steeply’s M*A*S*H-obsessed father beyond the razor-thin veneer of professional legitimacy? It’s my job, allegedly, to develop intricate and sometimes bizarre readings of pop-culture artifacts, which means it’s perfectly okay for me to (still) spend all my time reading science-fiction novels and watching science-fiction movies just like I did when I was twelve. Heck, I wouldn’t be doing my work if I didn’t! And if I can just trick somebody into paying me to do it I’ll never have to stop.

Herman Blume:What’s the secret, Max?
Max Fischer: The secret?
Herman Blume: Yeah, you seem to have it pretty figured out.
Max Fischer: The secret, I don’t know… I guess you’ve just gotta find something you love to do and then do it for the rest of your life. For me, it’s going to Rushmore.

Intellectually, of course, I’ve always been able to recognize the tragic irony of this exchange—Rushmore, you’ll remember, doesn’t offer a post-graduate year—but I wonder sometimes whether deep down I’ve ever really come to terms with it.

Is this addiction? Does pursuing a academic career studying literature and pop culture—a preoccupation which over the years has diverted me from any number of more financially lucrative pursuits—mark me as the writerly equivalent of a functional alcoholic? Do I even qualify as functional? And it occurs to me now, reading this section against not only my own life and those of my grad student associates but against the life of anyone who has ever been a “fan” of anything—anyone, that is, who can recognize themselves in the way Steeply’s father looked at M*A*S*H—that the danger DFW is highlighting is central to the construction of modern subjectivity. If everything is at least potentially bad for us—even/especially the things that give us pleasure, the things that make life appear to be worth living—just what is it we’re supposed to be doing? Where is the authentic, healthy, free life, if there was ever such a thing to begin with? When even the things we love conspire to destroy us, what is left?

Infinite Math

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Kottke highlights a nice Infinite Summer forum thread about mathematics and Infinite Jest that, in a pleasing recursive loop, eventually links back to this blog.

Also in Infinite Summer news, Ezra Klein makes everybody sad by not really liking the book. I agree with Daryl both that (1) it’s perfectly okay not to like the book and (2) your not liking the book isn’t David Foster Wallace’s fault. I often find myself reminding students that “pleasure” isn’t necessarily what’s most important about literature, or art in general; sometimes reading can and should be hard work.

Written by gerrycanavan

August 11, 2009 at 4:30 pm

Sunday Links 2

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Sunday links 2.

* For all you IJers out there, Infinite Summer has your David Foster Wallace humor minute.

* Hate crime protection for the homeless? Hate crimes are, in general, a very thorny legal issue, but in light of so much violence directed specifically at the homeless it makes sense to see them as a class in need of additional protection.

* Terminator 4 was so good they’re going to make Terminator 5.

* Polling headline of the week: ‘GOP’s Rating with Latinos Falls to Margin of Error.’

* Rachel Maddow on the success of astroturfed right-wing protests since the Brooks Brothers riot in 2000. Via Cyn-C.

* And Eric Holder is still inching towards prosecution of the Bush administration, though in terms of scale and scope the proposed investigation remains far too cautious.

Written by gerrycanavan

August 9, 2009 at 7:21 pm

Friday Night Links

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Friday night in Jersey links.

* My eighth Infinite Summer post this morning on brains, rats, happiness, and the problem of atheism drew some really great comments both from my regular readers and other IJ readers; check them out.

* From @cfoster, participating in that thread: news of Inherent August.

* Topher says Dollhouse season two will live in the shadow of “Epitaph One.”

* When does a Prius have the same environmental impact as a Hummer? The 95 percent of the time it’s parked.

* Incredibly, President George W. Bush told French President Jacques Chirac in early 2003 that Iraq must be invaded to thwart Gog and Magog, the Bible’s satanic agents of the Apocalypse.

Honest. This isn’t a joke. The president of the United States, in a top-secret phone call to a major European ally, asked for French troops to join American soldiers in attacking Iraq as a mission from God. Via Boing Boing.

* And what do Slate readers fear? Their top five apocalypses.

Written by gerrycanavan

August 7, 2009 at 10:53 pm

Infinite Jest #8: Brains, Rats, Happiness, and the Problem of Atheism

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The spoiler line sometimes makes it difficult to write these Infinite Summer posts; the thoughts for this one have been percolating for a few weeks but we were never quite where I wanted to be in the book before discussing them. Like Daryl Houston, a lot of my thoughts on this second reading of Infinite Jest are crystalizing around the Steeply/Marathe discussions of the Entertainment, which now seem to me to be organization points for many of the book’s broader philosophical themes.

One of the major existential problems being confronted in IJ is the tragedy of embodied consciousness. It’s laid out explicitly for us in this week’s section beginning on 470, which discusses the (real-life) experiments surrounding the discovery of the p-terminal in the brain:

‘Older’s earliest subjects were rats, and the results were apparently sobering. The Nu—the Canadians found that if they rigged an auto-stimulation lever, the rat would press the lever to stimulate his p-terminal over and over, thousands of times an hour, over and over, ignoring food and female rats in heat, completely fixated on the lever’s stimulation, day and night, stopping only when the rat finally died of dehydration or simple fatigue.”

That pleasure resides inside the brain is, of course, the materialist nexus that links the MacGuffin-like search for the Entertainment with DFW’s ruminations on the nature of addiction—both hypertrophic stimulations of the pleasure center that cause abject misery and death.

Scientific materialism sticks a dagger through the heart of humanism, a spike in all our brains. If we are (just) brains, then we are (mere) machines. Highly, indescribably complex machines, sure, but machines. And this can only be understood as a deeply dehumanizing loss for a culture that is so steeped in its own sense of spiritual exceptionalism. It is the ultimate reduction in status. The things that make us feel human—love, music, passion, art—now threaten to recede to nothing after a century of materialist triumph, replaced instead with raw mammalian instinct: a new vision of the human as oversized rat running a maze to pull a lever and get a treat.

Atheism, which is necessarily materialist, necessarily carries with it the bleak and terrible suspicion that you might not even exist in any meaningful sense—a suspicion that, if we are lucky, we don’t find ourselves dwelling on for all that much of the time. It’s this baseline existential dread that fuels our contemporary anxieties about Pavlovian behaviorism, brainwashing, pharmacological happiness, and soulless bodysnatchers—concepts which threaten us with frightening dehumanization only insofar as we admit they have us pegged.

Isn’t happiness-in-a-tube still happiness? Why not chemically synthesize love? Are not the bodysnatched content, better at being us than we are, with none of our squishy excess?

Why not watch the Entertainment?

It’s the sublime terror at the Nothing at the core of our existence that plagues Gately whenever he tries to get his hands around the Higher Power demanded by AA (see 443 [on which, Daryl notes, Gately feels like a rat] and 467). Wallace, in the oft-quoted Kenyon commencement speech, seems to really believe that belief in some sort of Higher Power is necessary for any sense of fulfillment, though he tries to leave the details as open as AA does:

In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of God or spiritual-type thing to worship—be it J. C. or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble Truths or some intangible set of ethical principles—is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things—if they are where you tap meaning in life—then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you. On one level, we all know this stuff already—it’s been codified as myths, proverbs, cliches, bromides, epigrams, parables: the skeleton of every great story. The trick is keeping the truth up-front in daily consciousness. Worship power—you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart—you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. And so on.

For Wallace, the only way out of the trap of embodied consciousness—of being a rat pulling its pleasure lever—is to reassert the existence of transcendent value not as a matter of proven epistemic certainty but as a radical and rational choice against basic human frailty. The speech goes on:

Look, the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful; it is that they are unconscious. They are default-settings. They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing. And the world will not discourage you from operating on your default-settings, because the 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. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom to be lords of our own tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talked about in the great outside world of winning and achieving and displaying. The really important kind of 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. That is real freedom. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default-setting, the “rat race” — the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing.

I know that this stuff probably doesn’t sound fun and breezy or grandly inspirational. What it is, so far as I can see, is the truth with a whole lot of rhetorical bullshit pared away. Obviously, you can think of it whatever you wish. But please don’t dismiss it as some finger-wagging Dr. Laura sermon. None of this is about morality, or religion, or dogma, or big fancy questions of life after death. The capital-T Truth is about life before death. It is about making it to 30, or maybe 50, without wanting to shoot yourself in the head.

Of course the tragedy informing all our readings this summer is that DFW didn’t make it to 50. He died when he was 46. And when we read Infinite Jest I think we must do so with the recognition that we have lost the infinite thing and it is not coming back. I don’t equate this recognition with unconsciousness or automatism—because the sad truth is that even when you set out to worship transcendence you cannot escape the fear that the thing you worship is actually tiny, and a lie, and just inside your head. I don’t think we can just fool ourselves into living as though God had never died; I don’t think we can play pretend. As an atheist in that nihilistic Gately sense—as someone who does not worship and cannot believe, not even as a life-saving performative choice—it seems to me the terrible first step is to face things as they are, in all their unhappy finitude. The miracle of life comes not just despite this, but out of it.

Saturday Morning Linkdump

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Written by gerrycanavan

August 1, 2009 at 1:46 pm

Someone Else’s Infinite Summer Post

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Also on Infinite Jest, I wanted to highlight this post on sadness at Infinite Zombies, which is really sharp.

Written by gerrycanavan

July 31, 2009 at 4:11 am

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Infinite Summer #7: Is ‘Infinite Jest’ Science Fiction?

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There have been some interesting Infinite Summer posts about whether Infinite Jest “counts” as science fiction—see, for instance, these two at Infinite Tasks and this from Chris Forster)—so I thought it might be interesting to run through some of my standard classroom definitions of science fiction and see how the book shapes up. (My notes on this are older than the Wikipedia page and mostly cribbed from Fred Chappell, but most of these definitions appear there as well.)

To begin with, there are a few classic definitions it clearly doesn’t meet.

…a charming romance intermingled with scientific fact and prophetic vision.
—Hugo Gernsback

Versions of this notion of “scientific prophecy” pop up whenever science fiction is discussed, and Infinite Jest pretty clearly meets neither criteria; its speculations are philosophical, not scientific, and it is surely a satire, not some coherent futurism.

Another take:

Science fiction is a branch of fantasy identifiable by the fact that it eases the “willing suspension of disbelief” on the part of its readers by utilizing an atmosphere of scientific credibility for its imaginative speculations in physical science, space, time, social science, and philosophy.
—Sam Moskowitz

I would defy anyone to claim that their willing suspension of disbelief is not frequently and fatally challenged by the hyperbolic “hysterical realist” elements throughout IJ. “FREAK STATUE OF LIBERTY ACCIDENT KILLS FED ENGINEER: BRAVE MAN ON CRANE CRUSHED BY 5 TON CAST IRON BURGER” (398) is not a sentence calculated to brace a spirit of credulity.

Still another:

Science fiction is anything published as science fiction.
—Norman Spinrad

This is usually the last definition I offer my students in my introductory SF lecture, and the one I usually argue is the most important. SF is, as much as it is anything else, a discrete, recognizable set of consumer practices and preferences—and here, too, Infinite Jest is clearly not science fiction because it isn’t branded as science fiction in the marketplace nor is it consumed as science fiction by “science fiction fans.” IJ pulls in dollars under an entirely different brand, mainstream literary fiction—which is a perfectly cromulent brand, if that’s what you’re into, but it’s not SF.

So, then, 0 for 3. Not a great start. But there are other definitions of science fiction that do cast a strong light on Infinite Jest:

Science fiction is the search for definition of man and his status in the universe which will stand in our advanced but confused state of knowledge (science), and is characteristically cast in the Gothic or post-Gothic mold.
—Brian Aldiss

Here science fiction collapses into a special category of existential literature, in which the SF aspects are merely the engine motivating the text’s more-central philosophical speculations. The science-fictional elements in Infinite Jest, it seems clear to me, are operating almost entirely on this level—each inventive speculation in the novel drives existential speculation about how we might be able to live in ultratechnological modernity in the shadow of the death of God. (Side question: is Infinite Jest “in the Gothic mold”? I’d have to pull out an entirely different set of quotes to discuss that question fully, but in its massive textual sprawl, its strong tendencies towards melodrama and hyperbolic excess, and its palpable atmosphere of both individual and familial tragedy I think we could have the start of a fairly strong case.)

We come now to the two definitions I use most commonly in my writing and teaching, which are (I concede) are completely in conflict with one another. But I think—I hope—it’s a productive tension. First is Darko Suvin, who inspired Fredric Jameson and most of the Utopian school of SF theorists I primarily read:

SF is, then, a literary genre or verbal construct whose necessary and sufficent conditions are the presence and interaction of estrangement and cognition, and whose main formal device is an imaginative framework alternative to the author’s empirical environment. —Darko Suvin

There’s a lot to pull out there, but the key words are “estrangement,” “cognition,” and “imaginative framework alternative.” What Suvin argues in his work is that the defining characteristic of science fiction is the pwower of defamiliarization that allows us to see our own world more clearly (and maybe for the first time), which is accomplished through the sort of intricate, even obsessive world-building confabulations SF is famous for. In particular, Suvin and his successors argue, SF expresses the desire for another kind of life, whether explicitly (as Utopian fiction) or implicitly (the desire for a plausible alterity expressed in negative in most dystopian, anti-Utopian, and apocalyptic fictions).

Infinite Jest, it seems to me, is pretty deep in the murky swamp that divides this sort of SF from more generic Utopian/dystopian political satire. The trouble for any Suvinian analysis of Infinite Jest, I think, comes in the unstable irony I was going on about earlier in the week; as Infinite Tasks lays out in detail, O.N.A.N.-ite politics is not in any sense a imaginative framework alternative to the present. It’s a series of gags. Wallace’s world-building just isn’t on the level. It’s no coincidence, to take but one example, that a close reading of DFW’s references to the Gentle administration and the start of Subsidized Time c. the year 2000 would seem to place the “Limbaugh administration” around the year of the novel’s composition in the mid-1990s, and therefore somehow impossibly concurrent with the Clinton administration that is also occasionally referenced. Infinite Jest is our cracked self-reflection, not another world.

And finally there’s Delany, who rejects political readings of SF in favor of a definition focused on wordplay, and really on the pleasure of the text itself:

In science fiction, “science”—i.e., sentences displaying verbal emblems of scientific discourses—is used to literalize the meanings of other sentences for use in the construction of the fictional foreground. Such sentences as “His world exploded,” or “She turned on her left side,” as they subsume the proper technological discourse (of economics and cosmology in one; of switching circuitry and prosthetic surgery in the other), leave the banality of the emotionally muzzy metaphor, abandon the triviality of insomniac tossings, and, through the labyrinth of technical possibility, become possible images of the impossible.
—Samuel Delany

This literary-linguistic pleasure, I think, is quite clearly a huge part of the pleasure of IJ for those of us who are enjoying it; the way in which, 400 pages in, we find ourselves now able to parse a sentence like this one:

All this until the erection of O.N.A.N. and the inception, in Clipperton’s eighteenth summer, of Subsidized Time, the advertised Year of the Whopper, when the U.S.T.A. became the O.N.A.N.T.A., and some Mexican systems analyst—who barely spoke English and had never once even fondled a ball and knew from exactly zilch except for crunching raw results-data—this guy stepped in as manager of the O.N.A.N.T.A. computer and ranking center in Forest Lawn NNY, and didn’t know enough not to treat Clipperton’s string of six major junior-tournament championships that spring as sanctioned and real. (431)

There is surely something Delany could recognize in this sentence and the subtle mental acrobatics required to make sense of it; if this isn’t quite science fiction, exactly, it seems to me it’s something very close.

Infinite Summer #6: Environmentalism, Consumerism, Addiction, Johnny Gentle (Famous Crooner), and the Politics of Hope

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On the question of irony—where I left off last time, and where Infinite Zombies’ Daryl Houston starts off in his latest post—it’s a little difficult for me to know exactly how to read this week’s section on the Reaganesque presidency of Johnny Gentle, Famous Crooner. The signposts for reading this section as a satire are all there, not just in Gentle’s OCD and Howard-Hughes-style obsession with cleanliness but also in the complete vacuity of C.U.S.P.’s political agenda—but it is difficult to tell whether the narrative’s apparent contempt for environmentalist thinking is an aspect of the satire or the motivation for it. Gentle’s political party, the Clean U.S. Party—an unlikely political coalition comprised of “ultra-right jingoist hunt-deer-with-automatic-weapons types and far-left macrobiotic Save-the-Ozone, -Rain-Forests, -Whales, -Spotted-Owel-and-High-pH-Waterways ponytailed granola-crunchers” whose first platform was organized around the ingenious plan “Let’s Shoot Our Wastes Into Space”—is organized around an anti-ecological version of supposed environmentalism that understands “American renewal” as “an essentially aesthetic affair” (382). This is, then, a fairly pitch-perfect satire of ecology as ideology, the empty apolitics of the sort “we can all agree to” that looks for consumer-friendly solutions to the environmental catastrophe caused by consumerism itself. This is our moment: “a dark time when all landfills got full and all grapes were raisins and sometimes in some places the falling rain clunked instead of splattered” (382).

I can think here of nothing so much as a DFW quote on addiction Daryl highlighted in his own post:

An activity is addictive if one’s relationship to is lies on that downward-sloping continuum between liking it a little too much and really needing it. Many addictions, from exercise to letter-writing, are pretty benign. But something is malignantly addictive if (1) it causes real problesm for the addict, and (2) it offers itself as a relief from the very problem it causes.

Consumerism, I think, clearly qualifies, as Wallace shows throughout this section.

In IJ, it’s our malignant addiction to a consumer lifestyle that leads to Gentle’s experialist mandate, the outsourcing of environmental costs to Indian reservations and our partner “enemy-allies” (385) in O.N.A.N. It’s this malignant addiction that leads us to build wasteful and inefficient fusion reactors even though they have the “generating-massive-amounts-of-high-R-waste part down a lot more pat than the “consuming-the-waste-in-a-nuclear-process-whose-own-waste-was-the-fuel-for-the-first-waste-intensive-phase-of-the-circle-of-reactions part” (1029n150).

In the end it leads even to the forcible gifting of most of New England to Canada as the Great Concavity/Convexity, hollowed out and glass-walled with giant fans blowing our toxic air northward (385). There’s a fair critique of NIMBYism here, as well as the perpetually empty promise of near-future technological millennialism that has been so deftly exploited by the partisan right-wing and their corporate allies to preempt all environmentalist reforms over the decades. There’s a critique of the politics of Othering, too, the need for “some people beside each other of us to blame” (384) and the national ennui that apparently comes from a post-Soviet, post-Jihad era with no “Foreign Menace” to distract us from the problems of our own making (382). (What, we skipped China?) And there’s, yes, a critique of the left-wing, more-eco-than-thou granola set in (among other things) Gentle’s addictive obsessive-compulsive cleaniness and C.U.S.P.’s easy consumerist ethos, though frankly this critique seems much more of the strawman variety than most of Wallace’s jokes.

But is this scattershot, unstable irony all there is here? A pox on everybody’s house? Is there any place for the reader of Infinite Jest to imagine a non-hypocritical, anti-consumerist politics? Do we really have no stable interpretive ground on which to stand? History seems in this novel to have somehow calcified into an inevitable trajectory of decadent disposability, and the only suggested response for the educated observer of these trends seems accordingly to be a bitter, smug withdrawal. I want to see DFW as getting past mere smugness into something more viable, but he doesn’t make it easy. The only way out of this trap of hopeless cynicism that I can see so far lies in the unstable irony inherent in the novel’s own presentation, its cartoonish and over-the-top hyperbole. Here, it’s the fact that all this information is literally being conveyed to us through the well-respected and politically responsible medium of video puppet show, organized around Mario and his father’s penchant for the “parodic device of mixing real and fake news-summary cartridges, magazine articles, and historical headers” (391). But I’m not sure irony alone is enough to get us out of smugness—I’m just not sure yet if the novel gives us much hope for escape from the surreal banality of turn-of-the-millennium American life, hope for something after or beyond consumer culture. We’ve already seen in IJ the transcendental existential threat of the Entertainment, which clogs entirely our ability to want anything besides it. Elsewhere, as with Gately, we see that addictions can in fact be broken, that renewal is difficult but still possible—but where is that hope here?

The use of the phrase “years right around the millennium” in the same footnote I cited above contains, I think, an important ambiguity for all this—from what point in the future, and from what cultural assumptions, are we to understand this book actually being composed? Is it a moment where this sort of perpetual-motion fusion suddenly somehow works—a time in which the miracle works? A moment in which the Entertainment, or something like it, has destroyed the culture entirely? Or, perhaps, a moment that is not “a terrible U.S. time for waste” for other, more politically hopeful reasons—a moment where, beyond belief, we have somehow managed to change?

Can addictions only be beaten when they originate in an individual’s excess? When an addiction is communal—when it is ideological and so totally normalized—what is our prescription for hope?