Posts Tagged ‘the illusion of plot’
The longer one plays, the less urgent these stories become. Each mission giver waits to solicit help with their dire circumstances until you arrive in town and engage them in conversation. Nothing advances without your participation, and the more of these operations you take part in the less critical they begin to seem. Which is not to say that infiltrating a party of aristocratic elves to prove your worth to a society of ancient dragon warriors is without meaning, but rather that as dozens of these conspiratorial ambles pile on one another, they leave you with the impression that the fate of the world doesn’t actually depend on your actions. This thought is beautifully amplified in the moments following the ending of the last story mission to vanquish the legendary dragon Alduin, when the game drops you back onto a snowy mountaintop where you can continue foraging for mushrooms, conspiring with the Thieves Guild, or return to Wizard school as if nothing had happened.
Mike Thomsen on world-reduction in video games, including (and especially) their strange sexlessness. As Umberto Eco showed way back in “The Myth of Superman,” you see this sort of endless, eternal present in superhero comics as well, which are similarly organized around narrative strategies designed to disguise the fact that nothing ever actually happens.
Cheeky faux criticism making the rounds: “Firefly and Mad Men are the same show.”
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 bout 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.
* Parsippany, NJ, is looking to put up red light cameras that know you only came to a rolling stop before turning right on red. Dystopia is now.
* Via Boing Boing, Crooked Timber has a pretty good piece up about the vacuity of the commonplace rhetoric that “managers of corporations have a fiduciary duty to maximize corporate profits.” It turns out, of course, that this duty actually refers to nothing in particular and can be used to justify any action.
So we’re left with “maximise the present value of future profits”, or maximise the intrinsic value of the company, which is already a bit of a problem because our maximand is now an intrinsically unobservable quantity, which reasonable people can differ wildly in their subjective assessment of. But even if we grant a massive epistemological free lunch and pretend that managers have a set of reliable conditional forecasts of the consequences of different courses of action, we’re still surprisingly far from a workable decision rule.
The reason is that all the paradoxes of choice theory which arise at the individual level are still there when you try to impose a maximisation rule for corporate decisions. For example, it can’t possibly be the case that we want an interpretation of “maximise the value of the shareholders’ equity” to mean that corporate managers have a fiduciary duty to play the (Defect) strategy in a business situation analogous to a Prisoner’s Dilemma game. Or for that matter to be two-boxers in a business situation analogous to Newcomb’s Problem (such situations are incredibly common, as the kind of deals you are offered are very definitely related to people’s assessment of whether you’re the kind of guy who grabs every nickel he sees). Economists can ignore these problems and paradoxes in choice theory with a shrug of the shoulders, a mutter of “oh ordinary people, will you never learn” and a few quid for the Experimental Economics lab. But fiduciary duties are important things, so if we’re going to make our maximisation criterion into a fiduciary duty, then we have to interpret it in a way which allows for strategic behaviour.
* And the Pinocchio Theory has a similarly good post on capitalism, consumerism, and waste.
We are forced, as Karatani says, to buy back as consumers the very goods that we initially created as producers, and that were taken away from us. This “alienation” is the reason why my subjective jouissance as a consumer has nothing to do with my objectified toil as a producer. I do not consume in the same way that I produce. Even the money that I spend wastefully and gleefully, as a consumer, on (as Deleuze and Guattari say) “an imposed range of products (’which I have a right to, which are my due, so they’re mine’)” seems utterly disconnected from the money that I earn painfully in wages or salary — despite the fact that it is, of course, exactly the “same” money. It is only, and precisely, in such a climate of disconnection that “acts of consumption” can be exalted as our only possible “expressions of freedom.” Or, as Graeber puts it, “rather than one class of people being able to imagine themselves as absolutely `free’ because others are absolutely unfree,” as was the case under slavery, in consumer capitalism “we have the same individuals moving back and forth between these two positions over the course of the week and working day.”
* And, via Neilalien, an in-depth investigation of why Star Trek: The Next Generation should actually be understood as a creative failure, in two parts. This sums it up pretty much exactly—like all huge nerds of a particular age I remember the show rather fondly, but it’s no accident that it’s been fifteen years since I watched an episode. And the point about “alternate universe” episodes is especially well-taken:
“Best of Both Worlds” has only one real rival for the title of “best TNG episode”: “All Good Things”. It’s one of the best — if not, hell, the best series finale I’ve ever seen. It summed up, in two hours, everything that was good about the show, as well as putting much of the preceding seven years to shame in terms of showcasing interesting, well-written, dynamic and downright awesome sci-fi writing. It deals with alternate realities — TNG was always good when it dealt with alternate realities, probably because they could get away with the illusion of consequence in alternate realities where things could actually “happen”, at least sort-of. Most importantly, watching “All Good Things”, the viewer can fool themselves into thinking that there really was an alternate-universe TNG where all that cool character development and sharp writing came together every week, and not just a handful of times over the course of 178 freakin’ episodes. But of course, since it was the last episode, they probably thought they could get away with actually changing things up a bit. A shame, that.
I liked “Parallels” and “The Inner Light”, two more alternate-reality episodes that actually seemed to cut to the heart of the respective spotlight characters — Worf, in a rare non-Klingon-centric starring role, and Picard himself. Again, though, in order to find something interesting to say about the characters, the writers had to go out of their way to concoct Rube Goldberg plot machines that would allow for emotional arcs without messing with the precious status quo. If you start looking, you can find a lot of episodes that go to the same well: there’s always something to trigger or mitigate unusual behavior, something to excuse the characters from acting like real people as soon as they put on those damn Starfleet unitards.
Even now you see Heroes doing the same sort of thing with their repetitive “Bad Future” arcs, which give the illusion of plot rather than plot itself.