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Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

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The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

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Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Infinigon Jest

Posted by Adam Roberts on 09/23/08 at 02:37 AM

For obvious reasons I’ve been thinking about David Foster Wallace and his big book.

When I first encountered Wallace’s novel I was going through a phase of thinking that it was competence that was killing the novel as a mode of art. Thousands of new novels are published every year, and almost all of them are written and finished with a professional competence that would have amazed Henry Fielding. It’s a glut. Few of these novels make a lasting impression. Wallace’s novel seemed to me then, and still to an extent seems to me now, one way of breaking this logjam: it is sprawly and uneven on a massive scale, and its weird mixture of technical brilliance and technical incompetence (what I take to be deliberate, artistic technical incompetence) makes it like no other novel. As if in a world that had previously been flooded only with expertly achieved photorealist art, and (I suppose) neatly clear-line comic art ... as if in such a world people were suddenly and for the first time shown a De Kooning.

That is, in itself, a cool thing. Also, it’s science fiction, which is also cool.  More its form bears an organic, if gnarly, relationship to its theme, which is (it’s nothing new to suggest this about Infinite Jest, I suppose) addiction. Its characters are addicts: addicted (for instance) to drugs or drink, or to the shallow satisfactions of consumer culture, to sport, or to modes of OCD behaviour, or to sex (‘Orin Incandenza like many children of raging alcoholics and OCD-sufferers had internal addictive-sexuality issues’, 289).

Reviewers on the back cover of my paperback copy make this point (‘reading the book is a sort of addiction’ The Spectator; ‘A remarkable satire on American entertainment and addiction … the book’s mixture of maniacal inventiveness and comic brio gradually becomes an addiction itself’ Anthony Quinn, Daily Telegraph) But this isn’t quite right, I think. The point is not that the reader becomes addicted to this novel, although of course she may (and therefore the novel must be exhilarating junk, which Infinite Jest kind-of is). The point is that the novel becomes addicted to itself. It is the self-regard, the narcissism of addiction that is Wallace’s real theme, not the trappings of addiction themselves. Some of the novel’s best moments embroider this theme—the detailed account of the Boston AA meeting during which it starts to dawn on the reader that the participants are effectively addicted to the process of beating their addiction (‘people who cockily decide they don’t wish to abide by the basic suggestions are constantly going back Out There and then wobbling back in with their faces around their knees and confessing from the podium that they didn’t take the suggestions and have paid full price’ 357); or the way Steeply’s father becomes addicted to watching the TV comedy show M*A*S*H (‘Broadcast television. The program in question was called “M*A*S*H”. The title was an acronym, not a command … the fucking thing ran forever, it seemed’, 639); or the way Joelle starts with a drug addiction but swaps it for an addiction to cleaning after her face is, um, mashed (‘Joelle used to like to get really high and then clean. Now she was finding she just liked to clean … she was using Kleenex and stale water from a glass by Kate Gompert’s bed’ 736).

Then there’s sentimentality, something else to which it’s too easy to have an addictive relationship. Some deprecate his occasional sentimentality, some have a more ambiguous relationship to it. Some of it is not so much sentimentalism as genuine sensibility (in the eighteenth-century sense). Weirdly offkilter touching stuff. Listening to Linda McCartney singing:

The portrable CD player started in with poor old Linda McCartney as C held Gately and the asst. pharmacist tied him off with an M.D.’s rubber strap. Gately stood there slightly hunched. Fackelmann was making sounds like a long-submerged man coming up for air. C. told Gately to fasten his seatbelt. Urine had turned part of the apt.’s luxury-hardwood floor’s finish soft and white, like soap-scum. The CD playing was one C’d played all the fucking time in the car when Gately had been with him in a car: somebody had taken an old disk of McCartney and the Wings—as in the historical Beatles’s McCartney—taken and run it through a Kurzweil remixer and removed every track on the songs except the tracks of poor old Mrs. Linda McCartney singing backup and playing tambourine. When the fags called the grass ‘Bob’ it was confusing because they also called C ‘Bob’. Poor old Mrs. Linda McCartney just fucking could not sing, and having her shaky off-key little voice flushed from the cover of the whole slick multitrack corporate sound and pumped up to solo was to Gately unspeakably depressing—her voice sounding so lost, trying to hide and bury itself inside the pro backups’ voices; Gately imagined Mrs. Linda McCartney—in his Staff room’s wall’s picture a kind of craggy-faced blonde—imagined her standing there lost in the sea of her husband’s pro noise, feeling low esteem and whispering off key, not knowing quite when to shake her tambourine: C’s depressing CD was past cruel, it was somehow sadistic seeming, like drilling a peephole in the wall of a handicapped bathroom. [978]

Poor old Linda McCartney. And in this novel, in our various ways, we’re all her. Even the compulsive stylistic play, here, doesn’t detract: the ‘CD’ and ‘C’d’; the facetiousness of abbreviating the word ‘assistant’ to ‘asst.’ and ‘appartment’ to ‘apt.’ in this, one of the least abbreviated novels ever published; the overuse of apostrophes: “Beatles’s”, “backups’”, “his Staff room’s wall’s picture”. There’s a core reason (to do with our not-very-good-ness) why addiction, and the compulsion to avoid oneself, is so widespread. This CD is the last artwork to which Infinite Jest makes reference. Not counting, of course, of course, the footnotes.


Comments

Adam, that‘s interesting, I’d never thought of Infinite Jest as being “unfinished” or “uncommercial.” I’d started with Wallace’s first two books, his first novel, The Broom of the System, and his short-story collection, Girl With Curious Hair, and they seemed fairly professional to me—apprentice work, maybe, but apprentice work from someone with a solid professional training.  How is “Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way” any less professional than, for example, “Lost in the Funhouse”?  Infinite Jest is surely written by someone who knows the professional ropes.

I agree that Infinite Jest is “about”—against—addiction (and also that sentimentality (or something like it) is offered as the proper antidote).  But, if the novel is an anti-addiction tract—and the novel is also a substance that is addictive—then, given that the novel is only partially sentimental, what is the novel?  Maybe a way to get the reader really absorbed in something, that will then trigger in her the realization that she ought to stop reading novels entirely and get out there and do something.  It would mesh with Hal’s father’s attempt to get him truly absorbed in something outside himself (assuming Gately really has access to the thoughts of the late James Incandenza, and is not merely hallucinating something relevant to himself alone, in the vocabulary and conceptual scheme of a different character, but I don’t want to get bogged down in analysis).

And if we all suffer from “not-very-goodness,” then is “addiction” used as a metaphor (or in an allegorical sense, or whatever is the correct lit-crit term) for original sin?  I’ve been reluctant to consider a recommendation of Infinite Jest to non-Christians who are not already fairly familiar with the Western literary tradition, because I wonder if it’s impossible to take the novel seriously (in a non lit-crit kind of way) without eventually trying to understand “this unnamed thing” that eventually turns out to be ununderstandable without an immersion in Christian theology and liturgical practice.  I absolutely don’t think Wallace was trying to write a Christian tract, so it would be a interesting question what turned in the novel in what is apparently this direction.

By on 09/23/08 at 12:50 PM | Permanent link to this comment

On p. 980 there’s a reference to A Clockwork Orange.

By Jonathan Goodwin on 09/23/08 at 02:42 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Bianca: I’m not sure I’d say either unfinished, or uncommercial.  If anything IJ is rather over-finished.  But one of Wallace’s strategies in finishing his book is to write it and structure it in a way that breaks conventional understandings (even, and this is the especially clever thing, conventional Modernist understandings) of how a novel is written and structured.  My point, to repeat myself, is that it is an annoying novel. Reading through the long stretch of infuriated one-star amazon reviews makes its plain that many many readers have been annoyed; although the more surprising thing is that so many of these readers, having become annoyed and angry with the novel, nevertheless read it all the way through to the end.  Interesting, that.  But it is a novel that sets out to annoy, and it annoys so brilliantly, and so compellingly, that to call it annoying really isn’t a negative criticism.  To put it another way: I do think it is a self-indulgent novel, but I don’t think that saying so is to belittle it.  It’s kind of its genius: so where Jonathan G repudiates the charge of Wallacian self-indulgence on his blog, I’d reserve the right to disagree provided only that we understand ‘self-indulgent’ not in an imprecise, throwaway mudslingy sense. This book is about the distortions of human character, about (amongst other things) the tyranny of selfhood, and about what people indulgence under the gravitational tug of their ego.  That, rather than the religious angle, is what seems to me to be going on.

Jonathan: it would be otiose to say you know the novel better than I.  And if I say ‘don’t get me started on Burgess’ I would actually be saying, ‘go on, prompt me to wank on about Burgess.’ I’ve been re-reading a whole bunch of Burgess over the last few months, and he’s a much much better writer than I remember.  That said, his gloomy-Catholic angle on human nature is not the same thing as Wallace’s gloomy take.  They have a different understanding of what’s involved in free will, I think.

By Adam Roberts on 09/24/08 at 03:23 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam,
Do you mean that the novel is consciously structured the way Ulysses is, for example?  I haven’t been able to persuade myself that’s so, but I haven’t tried all that hard either.  I could be convinced that the novel is better read as involving self-indulgence than some religious concept, but I’d like to see this explained in a book that was reasonably accessible to a general audience—and explained in enough detail to make clear, for example, what “self” and “self-indulgence” mean, and how they are based on a non-religious worldview.  Otherwise, what’s the point of making the distinction?

Especially given the unambiguous references to religion throughout the novel.  We are told reliably that Gately’s addiction cure was effected by his pretending to pray, and that by pretending to pray, Gately developed a sincere belief in God (sorry, I don’t have page numbers), which presumably helped him overcome the deficits in his upbringing, and thus to stay off drugs.  We are presented with what a “fan” of my former Internet acquaintance called a “hands off” attitude towards Alcoholics Anonymous and especially its “suggestion” of belief in a Higher Power, and I think there’s reason to believe Wallace delved into AA’s origins in the Oxford Movement in some detail.  On the other side, we are shown the upper-class boys at the Boston-suburban academic institution ETA, who are trained in self-transcendance through professionalism by (I think) a Heideggerian, and who apparently cannot prevent themselves from taking illicit substances—unlike, again, the working-class people down the hill who have compulsory daily meetings and who help one another to be good.  Are these red herrings, contributing to the sense that the novel is annoying?  More likely, they are data points to be considered in the balance with other data of equal weight (something I don’t find especially annoying though others might).  But it seems tough to deny that’s the language the novel uses.  What would you say if your students all insisted the novel must be read as an expression of a particular religious faith (not even yours), using these data points as support for their argument?

Arguably, any novel is self-indulgent (except maybe the defunct proletarian social novel).  I don’t know how to get around that.  Maybe IJ does go too far.  I don’t know the answer to that either.  I wish we were going to have more from Wallace that would go a little farther down the road towards making himself understood.

By on 09/24/08 at 05:59 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Well religion is clearly a big part of the novel, but I’m tempted to say: that’s because the novel is all about America, and religion is a big part of America.  But I don’t think we can say that it’s a novel more concerned with Christianity (say) than its other myriad topics.  You could argue, for instance, that tennis is more-or-less a religion in the novel.

By Adam Roberts on 09/25/08 at 04:19 AM | Permanent link to this comment

The film is the specific reference.

I started a paper on IJ several years ago that I never finished that tried to address the contrast between the detailed psychological realism and absurdist near-future speculation. I think the wheelchair assassins, great concavity, and sponsored years, for example, don’t have the same type of existence within the novel’s fictive world as do the main characters.

I’m also an admirer of great subtlety in fictional technique and tend to over-read for it. I may suggest, for example, that Dowell cut Ashburnham’s throat. So, cum grano salis, etc.

By Jonathan Goodwin on 09/26/08 at 12:41 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"I think the wheelchair assassins, great concavity, and sponsored years, for example, don’t have the same type of existence within the novel’s fictive world as do the main characters.

Whereas one of the things that excited me about it was precisely that it is science fiction.  Psychological verisimilitude is ten-a-penny; ONAN and The Year of Dairy Products from the American Heartland more distinctive.  It’s also one of the reasons I rate Gravity’s Rainbow and Against the Day above all other Pynchon: because they’re SF.  I’m biased, I accept that.

By Adam Roberts on 09/26/08 at 01:38 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Actually, now that I think of it, my last comment was quite in agreement with Jonathan G’s previous: I too feel that these two aspects of the novel don’t have the same kind of existence.  It’s just that where he (I take it) rates A over B, I rate B over A.

By Adam Roberts on 09/26/08 at 01:40 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I don’t rate them differently. That wasn’t the point. “Absurdist” was a descriptive, not evaluative, term.

By Jonathan Goodwin on 09/26/08 at 04:25 PM | Permanent link to this comment

OK.

By Adam Roberts on 09/26/08 at 04:52 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Jonathan,
I was toying with something like the same idea a while ago: that everything after “So yo man what’s your story?” is an answer to the question.  So the spies, in particular, have only a metaphorical existence.  The basic idea was that what really happened was so difficult to express directly that the only way to say it was to use all these other methods.  I now doubt the idea would work in the way I was thinking at the time.

I’m surprised, also, that an English professor would admit to over-reading.  Isn’t it supposed to be very bad?

Adam,
Not really the kind of science fiction I really think of as SF for the most part, but maybe more typical of the British variety, about which I know very little.

By on 09/26/08 at 05:42 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’d say that our entire profession is built on over-reading, so perhaps that’s why admitting to it might not be au fait; I wouldn’t know.

I don’t share your doubts. I think your original idea is very close to what I had in mind then, and I don’t see why it doesn’t work as a reading now. What changed your mind?

By Jonathan Goodwin on 09/26/08 at 11:54 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Jonathan,
If an interpretation ought to use the same theoretical vocabulary that the author would use, I now think Wallace would not agree with my reasons for thinking to interpret the novel that way.  Maybe we would not expect most authors to have a theory of interpretation, but I tend to think Wallace did have such a theory, and that in places it shows through clearly in the text.  The more familiar I became with what appear to have been his beliefs (about writing, metaphysics, and so on), the more I realized I strongly disagreed with those beliefs.  I really don’t believe Wallace thought of the novel as “Hal’s occasionally metaphorical answer to the question of what happened him,” in anything very close to what I myself would mean by that description.

By on 09/27/08 at 01:16 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I would like to hear more about why you think this. The answer to your first postulate is almost certainly “no,” though. What criticism, outside of some particularly purist esoteric efforts, could meet that criterion?

Have you read “Adult World?”

By Jonathan Goodwin on 09/28/08 at 12:29 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I read “Adult World” when it was published in Esquire.  I haven’t looked into whether the book version is different.  How do you think that story is relevant to this question?

Regarding your question, my initial idea was that explaining some things in conventional terms might be so complicated that it would be essentially impossible.  It might be necessary to say things that were not exactly “true,” in order to convey the truth.

I now think the spies, as agents of rival governments discussing their rival philosophies, have a real existence in the novel, not just as metaphors.  The men at the top of the mountain (in a borrowing from Pynchon) overshadow the city below (literally, with their silhouettes, and throughout nearly the entire length of the book)—in the same way the city, in The Broom of the System, takes the form of a gigantic Jayne Mansfield—and in the same way the polity forms the body of the sovereign in the classic illustration to Hobbes’ Leviathan.  These persons appear to have some relation to the formal aspects of the society, not to an individual: they‘re not two tendencies within Hal‘s mind, for example.  And I don’t think Hal, or any other character, even potentially has the ability to describe things in precisely that way.  This is a concrete situation that illustrates something true about the world in the novel.  It’s an attempt at cultural criticism, extrapolating the near future of North America from its present and philosophizing about this.

I initially wanted to assume some distance between the (largely silent) authorial voice in the novel and some of the first-person accounts included in it.  But Wallace tells us this is an impermissible way to read: In AA meetings, each participant has a chance to stand at the front of the room and tell his or her story, and everyone else in the room is supposed to listen quietly and believe.  Similarly, Hal’s impending (but not depicted) “breakthrough” is signaled by his uncharacteristic decision to motionlessly absorb his father’s films without attempting to analyze them.  In accordance with this theory, the realistic sections of the novel, taken as self-contained texts, lack any “authorial” comment, as do the stories published subsequently.

There doesn’t seem to be any need for invented metaphors to express what basically concrete ways of writing can’t encompass.

By on 09/28/08 at 08:51 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The schematic at the end, which I don’t know if was published in the magazine version, would seem to be one of the best examples of his theory of interpretation as regards his own writing.

I do agree it is an attempt at cultural criticism, but I think it is an admixture of the precocious Hal’s and the wraithly, omniscient spirit of his father. Even Wallace’s famous obsession with prescriptivist grammar wouldn’t justify the MIT language riots, for example. The child of a militant grammarian and aliented avant (après)-garde filmmaker might well imagine such a meaningful absurdity, however, as well as inventing a highly improbable french-canadian successionist story to rationalize and embroider the all-too-mundane (uniforms and all) encounter between his mother and John Wayne.

This interpretation is both difficult to avoid and impossible to justify completely, which I think is part of the book’s method. The entire typescript, which has been described by Steven Moore, I think, would be very helpful to have, as I think the book was edited down too much.

By Jonathan Goodwin on 09/29/08 at 03:31 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m not sure what happened to my comment.  Maybe I used a forbidden word, or maybe it was just too boring to put up, or maybe I zoned out and clicked the wrong button.  My feelings about Wallace aren’t too dissimilar from Joseph’s, apparently: I was captivated by Infinite Jest, but my feelings about it were changed by a combination of: reading it again, parts of it several times; discussing it with others; reading writing about Wallace; reading other literature, including some that was supposed to be similar to his; reading what he published later, nonfiction as well as short stories.  I didn’t much like the direction he went in after Infinite Jest—I can only speculate as to why he went that way—I don’t even know whether he was already pointing that way before he finished the novel—much less how any perceived problems with his work might have contributed to his death.  The sum total, though, is that I can’t summon up much energy either to defend my interpretation of the novel or to elaborate an objective analysis, much less to re-read “Adult World.”

By on 10/01/08 at 12:56 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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