A Prospectus for the rest of us

The question I want to explore is can the sincere use of language be a source of absolution against the evolved forms of spectacle in Infinite Jest? Spectacle’s genealogy can be traced back to the advent of the alphabet and Wallace creates the fictional terminus of this progression in “the entertainment.” Because spectacle is like anything else and is subject to the Darwinist property that to survive an entity must be capable of change, there is perhaps little humanity can do to stall its amplification but there can still be ways to manipulate the space dominated by spectacle. This evolution is marked by the hegemony of spectacle and its absorption of irony. Irony was initially a source of liberation but its institutionalization has made it reflexive instead of a part of conscious rebellion. What I think Wallace proposes through the protagonists and the structure of the novel is that there needs to be an initial alienation from the immersion in addictive behavior in order to gain an ability to determine how an individual can choose a language to embrace with sincerity. The novel does not propose this with any didactic ism as the end of the novel is foreboding in that even with sincere treatment of language to substantiate a more authentic self the individual and his chosen language is ultimately subject to the greater context of the hegemony of spectacle.

Much of the criticism on the novel deals with post modern self-hood, irony, and language but typically the criticism will only deal specifically with one aspect while discussing the other two tangentially. I feel that these are mutually responsible for providing the novel with its source of conflict or as some have said, it’s “macguffin,” but “the entertainment” is not merely an emetic to deliver plot but the concrete manifestation of what is already plaguing the multitude of characters in speciously unique ways. This is what, I believe, Wallace is using to show the potential end of the spectacle’s growth from language to entertainment. The advent of the alphabet helped create the abstract thought necessary to become aware of the “self” and this evolved to a source of pure entertainment in the novel to ease the rigors of having a self. But technology is always of a neutral charge. Despite the change initiated by technological advancement humans are left with the residue of past experience and Wallace looks to the embracing of things like community and sincerity, specifically regarding language, as a potential source of absolution.

Bibliographical Essay

I want to discuss the novel on three levels and then show how those feed each other in their own continuum. The first level is what it is that constitutes an authentic self in relation to the expanding technology. Victor Turner discusses this in his book From Ritual to Theatre: The Human Seriousness of Play by examining the ways social drama and stage drama feed each other subliminally and then is reproduced overtly. Turner’s analysis stems from the work of Richard Schechner in his book Between Theater & Anthropology. Shechner delivers cross cultural examinations of how the rituals of communities manifest into works on the stage. Wallace disrupts the text and forces the alienation necessary to force the reader to be aware of the text as a performance. The novel looks at Americans of varying culture and class and then represents the different ways addiction is performed. He is able to accomplish this by disrupting the traditional narrative format associated with strict literary realism. Roland Barthes’ S/Z: An Essay discusses the illusion of verisimilitude in the “classic text” and these works merely perpetuate the discourse of signs and symbols without ever questioning the validity of this cultural propagation into a “replication of bodies.” By subverting the “naturalness” (Barthes) of the discourse the novel takes on a performative texture that draws attention to itself as text and takes the risk of alienating the reader. But this alienation is integral to the work as it forces the reader to perform and become complicit in the formation of the narrative. Frank Louis Cioffi looks at the novel through a performative lens in his criticism, “ An Anguish Become Thing’: Narrative as Performance in David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest.” Cioffi’s view is that the novel forces the reader to confront the horror of the abject by stripping the reader of the comforts of typical narrative.

The technological sources that change human behavior is the second area I will discuss. I want to illustrate that the portents surrounding technological evolution began with Plato in the “Phaedo” and this has evolved into the same foreboding surrounding “the entertainment” in the novel. The film cartridge at the center of the plot is a form of spectacle and it this spectacle the Wallace posits could be the terminus of language and essentially the final closing off of the self to community. Walter Ong’s book Orality and Literacy and its examination of how language altered human behavior as human’s “interiorized” language which led to the notions of abstract self-hood. To discuss the existence of spectacle in the post modern world I will look at it through Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle, Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation, and Marshal McLuhan’s The Gutenberg Galaxy. Debord discusses spectacle in an almost apocalyptic sense and is an amplified version of the “Phaedo.”

Baudrillard’s looks at the “simulacrum” as “the copy without an original” and this is pertinent to the discussion of “the entertainment,” and it’s ability to close off the self to all else. What is interesting about the ability of this film cartridge in the novel is that is capable of this no matter the individual that views it which alludes to N. Katherine Hayle’s assertion of the “autonomous self” as merely illusory in her article, “The Illusion of Autonomy and the Fact of Recursivity: Virtual Ecologies, Entertainment, and Infinite Jest.” Her treatment of how ecologies are essentially uninterested in people as individual’s but do in fact depend on the “illusion of self” as a means to adapt and expand correlates with McLuhan’s assertion that the content in a given medium is not as important as the medium itself.

The power of “ecology” or spectacle is essentially the power of hegemony in general. Wallace’s essay “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction,” comments on the power of the medium to institutionalize even irony on a mass level which consequently helps amplify the hold of hegemony. Iannis Goertlandt in his article, “ Put the Book Down and Slowly Walk Away’: Irony and David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest,” discusses Wallace’s issue with irony has landed and how this has become a problem regarding where to go with the newly adjusted discourse. Mary K. Holland’s article, “The Art’s Heart’s Purpose’: Braving the Narcissistic Loop of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest,” proposes that Wallace’s attempt to confront the issue with irony was ultimately a failure. I disagree with this conclusion as what Holland’s perceives as failure is merely a question Wallace is leaving unanswered because he just may not have one. This is precisely the point of a text meant to disrupt the discourse and its audience as to simply offer something as neat as an answer is futile as this answer will ultimately find the same fate as irony.

The final manner is to look at how the character’s can potentially cope with the difficulties of an evolving hegemonic force and a dissolving sense of self. In the novel, Don Gately is able to approach self- validation by submission to the sincere use of language of Alcoholics Anonymous. The clearly defined parameters are created by an absence of irony and the ability for Gately to manipulate the space between the limits of the language is made manageable. This is equivalent to Hal Incandenza’s ability to manipulate the space of a tennis court as the limits are clearly defined and within them there can be an absence of self that allows for successful performance. Turner discusses this also in terms of “flow,” or in other words the ability of an individual to move from an encumbered self to a person absent of self in moments of nirvana. This is articulated in one of the endnotes of the novel where Hal is on the phone with his brother Orin and complains that his “zone” of clipping toenails into a waste basket is plagued by the need to speak, or perform as “Hal” on the phone with his brother. To be a “Hal” is to be encumbered with the doubts the self carries. I want to show how to gain an absence of an encumbering self is accessible through sincere language. For this I will use Ludwig Wittgenstein’s The Tractacus Logico-Philosophicus and J.L. Austin’s How to do Things with Words. Wittgenstein’s treatment of how language’s messiness limits ability to represent communication to its greatest potential along with Austin’s idea of the speech-act and how sincere use of the language allows a statement to become performative as opposed to simply constative. The ultimate problem the novel leaves unsolved is what happens when the sincerely embraced language is subject to greater context of language as a whole. For this I will use Jacques Derrida’s opposition to the notion of the speech-act in Limited, Inc. Derrida questions Austin’s distinction between sincerely used and insincerely used as language is ultimately closed and only able to refer to itself. Austin actually proposes similar arguments in his own work but never concedes that there can be a distinction made. Derrida’s argument works with Turner’s and Schechner’s assertions that human behavior is always, at least on some level, performative. The title of the novel is from Hamlet and referential in itself. The irony of the title is sadly unavoidable as being that there is no such thing as infinity; the jest ends with the death of all of those that witness the cartridge. And this possibility is a hypothesis for how the self will finally close.

Annotated Bibliography

Austin, J.L. How to Do Things with Words. United States. Oxford University Press, 2009. Print.

Austin’s discussion of language and the need for it to be used seriously in order for it sustain meaning as a performative applies to Don Gately’s embracing of the language of Alcoholics Anonymous. Despite questioning the changes the language of the program has created in his life Gately continues to simply restore the behavior the language demands and he finds that just in performing the rituals that there can be a form of salvation even if he may not entirely believe in a tangible source of spirituality. Austin’s open criticism of his own assertions is evident as Alcoholics Anonymous, like any other system, is not closed and its rules are subject to the larger tyrannies of circumstance and hegemony. This tension becomes evident in Gately’s refusal any painkillers while recovering from serious injury in the hospital. These drugs are endorsed by doctors and even the other members of the program and Gately’s strict adherence to the accepted language is vulnerable to external forces.

Barthes, Roland. S/Z: An Essay. Trans. Richard Miller. United States: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, Inc., 1974. Print.

In treating the classic text as simple a perpetuating force of the “discourse” Barthes exemplifies the messiness of reading and how being unaware of the plurality of text in its representation of verisimilitude is the very source of the “emetic” as Barthes calls it. The naturalness of language is its greatest lie. The discourse mimics the recursive nature of addiction as it presents a tension or “knot” that is merely solved. Wallace addresses this by fracturing the text and denying the reader of any clear denouement. By presenting information in “windows” (Barthes) Wallace creates a performative piece of fiction that requires a lot work from the reader as opposed to allowing the discourse to perform the rote activities that it necessitates.

Baudrillard, Jean. Simulacra and Simulation. Trans. Sheila Faria Glaser. Ann Arbor, Michigan. The University of Michigan Press. 1994. Print.

Baudrillard’s discussion of the simulacra as “a copy without an original” discusses spectacle as ultimately hollow and responsible for hollowing out the authenticity of self with the “replication of bodies” as Barthes would put it. This is pertinent to the discussion of the novel’s “entertainment” and how that will finally homogenize the self by rendering dissolving the individual as merely a part of mass consumption.

Cioffi, Frank Louis. “‘An Anguish Become Thing’: Narrative as Performance in David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest.” Narrative 8.2 (2000): 161-81. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 14 Nov. 2010.

Cioffi deals specifically with the novel as a performance work and he discusses the use of end notes and fractured narrative through the lens of performance. He also treats as a piece of horror. This is effective as the novel is dealing with addiction and the crux of addiction is its ability to defend against the abject parts of the self. By making the reader complicit the novel forces you to address the abject without the comforts of a typical narrative. Cioffi also comments on the fact that novel is extremely entertaining at times and becomes a source of a kind of readerly “fix” to keep the attention of repeatedly alienated audience.

Debord, Guy. Society of the Spectacle. Detroit, Michigan. Black and Red, 1983. Print.

Debord treats spectacle as the source of the capitalist trap in the apocalyptic tone prevalent to the hazardous hypothesis proffered by the novel. He discusses from it as a self-evolving entity that constantly reconstitutes itself to maintain its power. This is useful in discussing how hegemony absorbed irony through television.

Derrida, Jacques. Limited, Inc. United States. Northwestern University Press, 1988. Print.

This is Derrida’s response to the idea of the speech-act and he questions the ability of language as something that can ever really transcend pretend into the realm of the serious. As it is iterable it inevitably is a reproduction which makes it on some level always performative. So the question is how can one perform sincerely? And if you can’t then there can never be something as simple as a “speech-act.” As this pertains to the novel, the notion of language taken seriously still subjects even the most noble of attempts to the entropy of language as its own system distinct from the user. This is illustrated in Gately’s time in the hospital as well as Hal’s solipsistic descent. Hal absorbs so many potential ways to perform that he eventually becomes overwhelmed and unable to affect an operative social persona.

Goerlandt, Iannis. “‘Put the Book Down and Slowly Walk Away’: Irony and David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest.” Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction 47.3 (2006): 309-28. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 14 Nov. 2010.

Irony is a dilemma for Wallace as it is a major tool in his major literary influences but has lost its meaning in its saturated use. Goerlandt examines this use and looks to Infinite Jest as perhaps offering a new version of irony. Its incessant questioning of irony in (ironically enough) incredibly ironic prose is the source of the question as to where to go with the newly adjusted discourse. The articles involvement with how irony’s iterability reinforces Derrida’s idea that language is always somewhat performative. Goerlandt’s addressing of the notion of power the ironist claims to hold over those immersed in what is being viewed is pertinent in that this power is now defunct as irony is merely part of the growing discourse.

Hayles, N. Katherine. “The Illusion of Autonomy and the Fact of Recursivity: Virtual Ecologies, Entertainment, and Infinite Jest.” New Literary History: A Journal of Theory and Interpretation 30.3 (1999): 675-97. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 14 Nov. 2010.

Hayles connects Infinite Jest with simulated communities or “ecologies” to dissolve the notion of autonomy. By dismissing the idea of an independent self Hayles limits the individual as merely a component of a larger whole. If this is the case the only thing for the individual to do so as not to be left behind by a steadily advancing amplification, which Hayles discusses in the context of a swelling right triangle, the individual must find the means to perform and restore the appropriate behaviors. I want to show that this is done with a choice of language and establishing a sense of concrete rules to operate under or as concrete as one can get.

Holland, Mary K. “‘The Art’s Heart’s Purpose’: Braving the Narcissistic Loop of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest.” Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction 47.3 (2006): 218-42. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 14 Nov. 2010.

This article also deals with Wallace’s fight with irony and how he ultimately fails. As I begin my argument I also believe that the choice of language to operate is inevitably vulnerable to the impositions of external forces.

McLuhan, Marshall. The Gutenberg Galaxy. Canada. University of Toronto Press. 1962. Print.

McLuhan’s examination of culture as a result of literacy and print supplements the Ong text. He is more combative than Ong and asserts that the medium’s technology offers for communication have supplanted the message it was designed to carry. He finds the content to be arbitrary and that advancement of something like television would have retained its cultural impact regardless of the images it carried. He later summarized this with the pithy “the medium is massage.” As “the entertainment” in the novel is the end of this progression, McLuhan’s exploration of the culture that could theoretically provide the opportunity for this kind of advancement is essential to understanding the novel.

Ong, Walter. Orality and Literacy (New Accents). New York: Routledge. 2002. Print.

Technology’s impact on humanity begins with the advent of the alphabet according to Ong and this is only the beginning as each technological advance changes the way we communicate and ultimately how humans absorb these evolutions and change accordingly to continue to remain a viable part of the world. Wallace’s idea of “the entertainment” is only the newest form of what began with the alphabet and the impact of this in the novel terminal.

Plato. Complete Works. Ed. John M. Cooper. United States: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 1997. 49-101. Print.

Plato’s worries mirror Wallace’s in that the advent of new technology is dramatically changing the way humans will forever function. His alarm at rhetoric, which is a byproduct of the alphabet, is the same as Wallace’s alarm regarding “the entertainment” and how the new medium is affecting human behavior.

Schechner, Richard. Between Theater & Anthropology. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. University of Pennsylvania Press, 1985. Print.

Schechner has a particularly helpful diagram which appropriately enough is the same as the sign for infinity. He discusses how things are feeding each other in an endless continuum and how this results in behavior that is unconsciously performative. As this regards to the novel it becomes imperative for the “reader” to become conscious of this unconscious performance so as to disassociate and then examine the available options. By examining the limits represented in the different languages of different systems an individual can potentially manage the disorder of a world with infinite forms of information.

Turner, Victor. From Ritual to Theatre: The Human Seriousness of Play. Village Station, New York. PAJ Publications, 1982. Print.

Turner’s work is closely related to Schechner’s but his book deals specifically how ritual seeps into the performance of the everyday. In analyzing the benefits of 12 step programs the correlation between ritual and the everyday is integral. Gately’s ability to transfer the ritual of his community to the everyday is what makes the everyday manageable and this is Hal’s failing as he is unable to take what makes him so prodigious as a tennis player into external communities.

Wallace, David Foster. A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. New York, NY. Back Bay Books/ Little, Brown and Company, 1998. Print.

This collection of essays includes Wallace’s examination of television and how the technology has helped to institutionalize irony as well as proffer the examples of accepted versions of the self in the essay “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction.” By showing how technology absorbed the rebellion of irony by creating a discourse where the accepted codes of the discourse now also exhibited a self-awareness the article (written 6 years before the publication of Infinite Jest) forms the dilemma governing the characters of the novel. The characters are unable to reconcile the performative self with the private self as they seem to be the same thing. To be able to read this as the issue can give the individual a chance at choosing an identity that offers the greatest chance at operating the chaos.

Wallace, David Foster. Infinite Jest. New York, NY. Little Brown. 1996. Print.

This is the source text that will be examined for its hypothesis of the literate self could presumably close.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. United States: Seven    Treasures Publications, 2009. Print.

The problems of language and how it creates its own confusion are directly confronted by Wittgenstein as he proposes a manner in which the language can be produced to a logic that is capable of clearer communication. Gately finds this in AA and Hal finds this in tennis but this is not capable of any ultimate absolution as it is subject to a greater context as Derrida would argue.

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3 Responses to “A Prospectus for the rest of us”

  1.    David Richter Says:

    I found a lot of this mystifying

    The question I want to explore is can the sincere use of language be a source of absolution against the evolved forms of spectacle in Infinite Jest? My problem is not knowing what to make of this first sentence. By “evolved forms of spectacle” do you mean the film created by James Incandenza within the novel? Do you mean other forms of spectacle Wallace may be satirizing, e.g. television, as a producer of addictive catatonia?

    Spectacle’s genealogy can be traced back to the advent of the alphabet and Wallace creates the fictional terminus of this progression in “the entertainment.” Because spectacle is like anything else and is subject to the Darwinist property that to survive an entity must be capable of change, there is perhaps little humanity can do to stall its amplification but there can still be ways to manipulate the space dominated by spectacle. Wait, you’re going too fast. Darwin never said that species have to change to survive; he said that populations survive by adaptation. And when did Darwin say anything about entities in general? And why can’t humanity do something about its technologies? Having created them, can’t people alter them, even possibly “stall its amplification” whatever that means?

    This evolution is marked by the hegemony of spectacle and its absorption of irony. Irony was initially a source of liberation but its institutionalization has made it reflexive instead of a part of conscious rebellion. This makes me think the topic is really mass media, particularly television.

    What I think Wallace proposes through the protagonists and the structure of the novel is that there needs to be an initial alienation from the immersion in addictive behavior in order to gain an ability to determine how an individual can choose a language to embrace with sincerity. You’ve lost me. What does addictive behavior have to do with choosing a language?

    The novel does not propose this with any didactic ism as the end of the novel is foreboding in that even with sincere treatment of language to substantiate a more authentic self the individual and his chosen language is ultimately subject to the greater context of the hegemony of spectacle.

    Much of the criticism on the novel deals with post modern self-hood, irony, and language but typically the criticism will only deal specifically with one aspect while discussing the other two tangentially. Which one?

    I feel that these are mutually responsible for providing the novel with its source of conflict or as some have said, it’s “macguffin,” but “the entertainment” is not merely an emetic to deliver plot but the concrete manifestation of what is already plaguing the multitude of characters in speciously unique ways. Emetic? Lost me again

    This is what, I believe, Wallace is using to show the potential end of the spectacle’s growth from language to entertainment. The advent of the alphabet helped create the abstract thought necessary to become aware of the “self” and this evolved to a source of pure entertainment in the novel to ease the rigors of having a self. Sorry, again too fast for me. Abstract thought requires a language, but why does it require an alphabet? Languages (e.g. Chinese) get along fine without one.

    But technology is always of a neutral charge. Meaning?

    Despite the change initiated by technological advancement humans are left with the residue of past experience and Wallace looks to the embracing of things like community and sincerity, specifically regarding language, as a potential source of absolution. I don’t get what “the residue of past experience” can be except something fixed in language, writing or some substitute like photography, but why does this become a “source of absolution”? Who is being absolved of what sin?

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