Last try kinda

Embracing Sincerity in the Homogenized World of the Electronic Age

The question I want to explore is this: what is the capacity of the main protagonists in David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, Hal Incandenza and Don Gately, to embrace and communicate sincerity in an environment where irony has been institutionalized as the result of the homogenizing effects of spectacle? For the purposes of this paper, spectacle will be synonymous with television and the novel’s figurative depiction of television in the form of video cartridges. I want to investigate how spectacle is the byproduct of the typographic culture and how the homogenizing capabilities of spectacle oppose many of the values that are consequent of typography and the primacy of individualism. To supplement this I want to address whether language as derived from the phonetic alphabet is inevitably an ironic mode of communication or if sincerity can be deduced. As for why this issue is specific to communication done through the alphabet as opposed to something like the characters of Chinese writing is that the alphabet is a democratizing script capable of massive dissemination which was homogenized with the advent of typography. Chinese writing disassociated from the alphabet is highly specialized and arduous to learn which undermines its ability to be widely learned, maintaining hierarchies predicated on literacy that the phonetic alphabet undermines. This democratization has found its return in the electronic age through the ability to transcend hierarchies and tribalize literate individuals. But in order to return humanity from the principles incipient with typography there must be some level of homogenization in order to incorporate diversified populaces.

Wallace gives this homogenization tangible form with “the entertainment” as this video cartridge unifies individuals with euphoric pleasure. This is relevant to the irony that pervades the text as irony is a hindrance to genuine representation of the self through language as irony has been interiorized by the characters of the novel, relegating sincerity to the abject. My contention is that irony’s subjugation of sincerity is intrinsic with the recursive behavior that plagues most of the characters in the novel, including both Hal and Gately. It is the displacement of sincerity through irony that is complicit with the addictions used by a multitude of characters to deny or numb horrifying or discomfiting truths. What “the entertainment” homogenizes is simply the dissemination of pleasure and not the individual as the characters have already sacrificed their autonomy to addiction. The projected future of the novel is that of complete absorption of technology that shares characteristics with that of non-literate or oracular culture but is muddled with the residual effects of typography. To reconcile the difficulty in integrating such paradoxical modes of existence, direct appeal to the individual through pleasure is necessitated and in effect unites individuals by closing off selves and eradicating any need to communicate. The novel explores ways of gaining consciousness to avoid complete absorption of technology associated with spectacle through the serious use of language in both Alcoholics Anonymous and the Schtitt’s (the tennis coach at E.T.A) approach to tennis. It is through these communities that Gately and Hal find ability to avert the pervading irony and recursive consumption afflicting them both. I hope to illustrate how language bred from the phonetic alphabet and typography is ultimately built for irony and incapable of communicating sincerity in any pure form. I also will show how that unconscious absorption of language and technology perpetuates addictive behavior by making an individual susceptible to solipsism.

Bibliographical Essay

Much of the criticism on the text concerns itself with the irony so prevalent in the novel but does not approach it from the point of view as the byproduct of language as a technological invention. I want discuss how language after typography is finding its return to aspects of oracular culture and creating a tension between the contradicting values of typography and secondary orality. And then I want to discuss how this manifests itself in the novel as an obstacle to embracing sincerity as well as being a hindrance to communication in general.

Regarding the perspective of language as technology I would like to incorporate Walter Ong’s Orality and Literacy as well as Marshall McCluhan’s The Gutenberg Galaxy. Ong’s work is important as it explicates the effects of language on consciousness and provides valuable observations regarding the differences between oral and literate cultures. McCluhan’s work is an extensive genealogy of language from the phonetic alphabet through typography and ending in the electronic age. He draws comparisons between the shifts in values that occurred during the transformation of culture from manuscript to typographic. The anxiety experienced during this change as a result of changing ingrained cultural values mirrors the juncture being experienced in the novel as characters are being extracted from typographic culture to the tribalizing impact of the electronic age. It is also vital to note that the apprehension expressed by McCluhan in experiencing new technology unconsciously shares the sentiment expressed in Plato’s “Phaedrus.” These works help elucidate the danger of interiorizing new technology without awareness of the associated implications and it is exemplified by Hal in the novel. The narrative begins at the chronological end with Hal being trapped in a solipsistic state and incapable of communication. This solipsistic state is attributed to “something he ate” (Wallace 10) and throughout the novel Hal is represented as a mirror that absorbs and this absorption takes its tragic toll in relegating Hal to the solipsistic state that confines him.

McCluhan’s book is also instructive in illustrating the homogenizing power consequent of the electronic age and its ability to tribalize. This perspective along with Wallace’s essay, “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction” explain the novel’s antagonistic approach to irony and its pervasive existence in American culture. Television as the initiator of McCluhan’s concept of the global village is able to dictate the ways people interact if audiences remain in a state of unconscious consumption. Hal has more trouble embracing spirituality or the methods of 12 step programs than Gately which may be a result of Hal’s prodigious lexical gifts. The ability to absorb language with such facility makes it more difficult to experience the world without irony to things like God or the sincerity required by a 12 step program.  Gately approaches the language of Alcoholics Anonymous with the sincerity the program demands and finds that it works despite moments of reservation. But even his attempts meet futility in the plot and this is why Mary K. Holland’s article, “The Art’s Heart’s Purpose’: Braving the Narcissistic Loop of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, concludes that Wallace’s contention with irony is a failure as the characters are unable to escape their fates through sincerity just as the novel is unable to avoid using irony to such extremes. My disagreement with this conclusion is based in the fact that Wallace never completes the narrative with a clear denouement and resolution; he requires the reader to become an active participant to fill in the blanks left by clues in the novel’s main text as well as the notes and errata that complement it. This demand on the reader is to instigate an elevation of consciousness to the irony that ensnares the character and at times even the reader as many of the passages provide great entertainment value and can distract from the work the narrative ultimately demands.

To understand why the fracturing of narrative and inclusion of end notes is part of the reading experience I will discuss this as it relates to Roland Barthes’ S/Z: An Essay, as this book delineates how the “classic text” is delivered through the “naturalness” of language and chronology and how this mode of narrative helps perpetuate the imposition of code much like television is perpetuating homogenization of communication. It is the “naturalness” that gives the classic text its hypnotic capacity and Wallace’s disruption of the typical delivery of plot is designed to demand the reader examine the text as text. Wallace’s novel is replete with irony as well as an action oriented plot that at times creates moments of great tension only to disappoint the reader by delaying resolution by changing point of view or forcing the reader to look to the end notes that depict sub-plots and information not essential to the main narrative. This requirement of the reader to perform along with the text is astutely described in Frank Louis Cioffi’s article, “An Anguish Become Thing’: Narrative as Performance in David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest.” Cioff’s treatment of the novel from the perspective of performance that requires reciprocating energy from the reader as a means to raise consciousness of irony’s situating the more horrific parts of the novel to unconscious consumption coincides with my assessment that irony accomplishes the same for sincerity.

In order to illustrate how Hal and Gately experience difficulty in experiencing and communicating sincerity I want to look first at language’s ability to construct a version of reality and then the viability of that construction to maintain sincerity through language. Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus looks at language as essentially a “net” to throw on reality. Everything outside the parameters set by language is to “be passed over in silence” as Wittgenstein concludes the work. The language that constructs the realities for many of the characters to exist in is susceptible to ratiocination that gives life to the substances each character abuses. Gately’s sacrifice to a language not his own but that of the Alcoholics Anonymous requires a sacrifice of the will connected to possession of language. By submitting to the reality created by rules governing the 12 step program Gately finds an ability to sustain sobriety. It is also indicative of the power of interiorized language and technology has in creating the recursive loops experienced by individuals. By disassociating from the rhetoric of the interior and replacing it with that of a community more closely associated with oral culture there is potential to shedding the enclosure of addiction. Hal is unable to relinquish his possession of language and continues to consume and interiorize language until mired in solipsism. N. Katherine Hayles’ article, “The Illusion of Autonomy and the Fact of Recursivity: Virtual Ecologies, Entertainment, and Infinite Jest” posits that the idea of an autonomous self is illusory and that belief in autonomy is a large part of recursive behavior. Gately’s sacrifice to the orally inclined culture is juxtaposed with Hal’s absorption of the secondary orality of the electronic age. I use secondary orality in the manner that Ong uses it, as it indicates an orality that stems from typographic culture and not pure like the oracular culture that existed before the advent of the phonetic alphabet. The reason Gately achieves greater success than Hal is his submission of self reverts to culture devoid of the interiorization of language while Hal’s loss of self is imposed by interiorization. Ultimately, Gately’s attempts fail as his sincere embracing of a language external to his notions of self is subject to the impacts of typography. This is not what I believe to be Wallace’s depiction of a hopeless situation but rather a reinforcement of the idea that interiorizing language and technology has durable impacts on human behavior.

Finally, I want to look at the potential for language to be communicated with discernible sincerity. I want to look at this through J.L. Austin’s theory of the speech act in his How to do Things with Words and Jacques Derrida’s assessment of this language philosophy in Limited, Inc. While Austin delineates the necessary components to constituting a convention that gives viability for a speaker to convey an action through language; he does admit that all conventions are liable to infelicity. Despite this he never let’s go of the assertion that sincerity is discernible through speech and this is the point of departure for Derrida as he asserts that sincerity, while not entirely lost, cannot be entirely conveyed with certainty as it contradicts the fundamentals of language that allow language to work. Hal complies with rules set forth by Schtitt and Gately does the same with the conventions as dictated by the 12 steps. Each finds an ability to find peace by acting in accordance with univocal language dictated by each environment. Derrida argues that this is what speech-acts require in order to attain legitimacy. The danger in univocal dictation of meaning is made apparent in “the entertainment” as it dictates the action of each viewer to absorb to the point of catatonia. If sincerity is only possible in the authoritative impositions of a single source than the only possible recourse for reconciling the individual with the global village is through homogenization. Wallace looks to raise awareness of the univocal impositions accomplished through the power of electronic mediums and the propagation of irony by disrupting text and using the plights of Gately and Hal as paradigms for what could potentially transpire if technology is absorbed much the way language after the phonetic alphabet was absorbed.

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, as well as the strategies imposed by Schtitt is subject to the idea of iterability and differance that Derrida argues are the fundamental properties that allow language to exist in the absence of its users. 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 a perpetuating force of the “discourse” Barthes exemplifies the hypnotic ability of language allows for representation of verisimilitude that imposes cultural codes on readers. 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 work from the reader as opposed to allowing the discourse to perform the rote activities common to the classic text.

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 the novel 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 as well as drawing awareness to the ironic tone that delivers, at times, very horrific set pieces.

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 sustain discernible sincerity of the “inward spiritual act” (Austin) that precedes the external form to communicate it. So the question is how can one perform sincerely? 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.

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. This is similar to the existences depicted by Ong and McCluhan as specific to non-literate communities. It supplements my argument in that believe the notion is the effect of interiorized language associated with literacy and that recursive behavior is a direct result of the impact of language following its absorption by humanity.

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 deals with Wallace’s antagonism towards irony and how, she believes, he ultimately fails. I contend that the failure of the characters in the novel is necessary for the raising of consciousness of the reader.

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

McCluhan offers a genealogy of medium beginning with advent of the phonetic alphabet through typography and up to the current state of the electronic age. He avers to the importance of awareness regarding new technology as he believes the culture that remains as a result of typography is not ready for the tribalizing effects consequent of the secondary orality produced through radio and television.

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

Ong offers valuable juxtaposition of non-literate and literate culture and this text is supplemental to McCluhan’s work.

Plato. Complete Works. Ed. John M. Cooper. United States: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 1997. 506-556. Print.

Plato’s worries mirror Wallace’s in that the advent of new technology is dramatically changing the way humans will 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.

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 in the essay “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction.” It is the combination of the power of medium and the unconsciousness of viewers that create the new tone of everyday communication and it is this institutionalization that in part obstructs the ability for the characters of the novel to embrace sincerity.

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

This is the source text.

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

This text helps show how language constructs reality. Reality in a language under the illusion of autonomy is the cause of the recursive behavior addling the characters of the novel and it is the submission of a reality created by the language of a community larger than the self that offers solace to some of the characters, specifically Don Gately.

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2 Responses to “Last try kinda”

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