'Infinite Jest' Has Infinite Relevance
In 1996, a mighty novel was written. In 2007, we are living it
Email Article  Print Article Carlos Arturo Serrano Gomez (carturo222)    
Television without ads. The freedom to choose and watch whatever show we wish. An all-pervasive network from where such content can be obtained at will. Physical storage media that allow viewers to save copies of their favorite productions and share them with each other. Aggressive omnipresence of advertisers in response. We are already familiar with this panorama. It has become our common way of dealing with media in this open-source, participatory, user-generated 21st century. We wouldn't believe someone had figured it out a decade ago.

David Foster Wallace is one of those rare jugglers of language who can feel at ease writing about lobster fairs (PDF), professional tennis, or the politics of dictionary composition, all in a knowledgeable, compelling way. In 1996 he was already renowned for his essays on media culture and his criticism of our inordinate fondness for fun and pleasure. Then, after three years of research into the subject of addiction, he published a gigantic masterpiece, as big in quality and scope as in word count, both hilarious and gloomy, and as lethally appealing as its main plot device: “Infinite Jest.”

Before Hideo Nakata condemned all of us to die within seven days of watching his "Ringu", “Infinite Jest” explored the motif of harmful sensation in the guise of a videotape "cartridge", as they are called in the novel's futuristic world, that so gratifies its watchers that they get trapped by its irresistible charm, all will subdued except the overpowering desire to view it time after time, with no thought for nourishment or rest, frantically amusing themselves to death.

In a way, every character in this novel struggles with some sort of dependence. This can be seen as a general statement about us. We are, after all, exposed to growing varieties of addictive material, especially in the new fields of entertainment. We are drawn from our ordinary lives to engage in time-consuming activities that do not contribute to our functioning in the everyday world. MMORPGs and Second Life are prime examples. Either this one life is not enough of a burden anymore, or it has become so unbearable that we desperately shun it.

This social side of the web has made every one of us all the more important and all the more faceless at the same time. Partly for this reason, Time magazine's 2006 Person of the Year was you. But don't get deceived. It's not you, my editor, or you, the reader of OhmyNews International, or any literal, breathing you. It's rather the generic, impersonal you that is used to address nobody in particular in several English idioms like, you know, "you know." A redefinition of identity as a result of further anonymity may well be expected. This unnamed you has blurred the distinctions between the prefixes commonly attached to its synonym "one" (every-, no-, some-, any-). It may be asked with a certain fear whose space MySpace will turn out to be.

Of course, “Infinite Jest” was written before the Web 2.0. Actually, the Web 1.0 wasn't even fully developed in 1996. That's why an examination of its argument reveals an incredible anticipation. Nightmarish at first sight, the 21st century it presents serves as a series of warnings about our trends.

In the new sponsored calendar, it's the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment. A massive landfill encompasses half the East Coast of the Organization of North American Nations. Separatist terrorism sweeps the continent, and a germophobic singer is President. Among all these nonsensical events, several interesting changes have taken place. Television is "disseminated" on a more-or-less on-demand basis, rather than being merely broadcasted to an expectant audience. InterLace has displaced all cable providers by letting people select the content they want to see while skipping the commercials. This freedom, however, is exposed as illusory when an irresistible video starts to be used as a weapon, because it's so good you have no choice but to watch it.

The worrisome underside to this landscape -- which by no means exhausts the story this book tells -- has to do with the continual strife of the United States to be known in the world as the herald and incarnation of a specific set of values. American leaders have spoken at length about freedom and the blessings accompanying it -- justice, peace, and respect for individual rights. “Infinite Jest” ponders the meaning of freedom, and makes the claim that its American rendition (freedom from) comes short of what true freedom should entail (freedom to). I don't need to enumerate the factors that currently undermine U.S. credibility. But the world has known the American ideals mainly through American-made entertainment. Consideration of current events moves one to ask what America means in this century, and how it can aspire to say it.

Not that channels are dwindling. This novel prophesied -as it came to happen- that advertisements would grow in presence, boldness and potential for annoyance, while spectators would become increasingly more skilled at dodging them. Mimicking a hunter-and-prey evolutionary arms race, we have developed a number of techniques, from zapping to spam filters, that give us little comfort from the uninvited information we're being constantly bombarded with in every conceivable presentation. There is a grave disjointedness when so much money and effort are used in trying to tell us what we obviously don't want to hear.

What we do want, however, isn't doing us much good either. Information overload is becoming a new kind of addiction. We fill ourselves with unmanageable amounts of news, details and factoids we can't even begin to sort in order of usefulness. The problem is, as a species we have relied on knowledge as our survival strategy, yet we are approaching the point in history when one lifetime will not suffice for a person to learn everything he will need in order to make sense of his world. We are already overstuffed. Quite tellingly, in one episode Bart Simpson watches the news by pointing to his head with a pistol-shaped telepathic TV set. Our dependence on information is bordering on the pathological. That which has allowed us to thrive may be our doom in the end.

“Infinite Jest” described precisely that shift from passive to active consumption of media content (although it is debatable whether such a thing as "active consumption" is possible). Users of tools like YouTube and TiVo, to name but a few, have contributed to Wallace's dystopia gradually becoming reality. Watchers, listeners and readers have started to cross the line and become producers -- bloggers, podcasters, citizen reporters. The fictional InterLace has been replicated through DVD burners, P2P networks, and RSS feeds. Moreover, internet streaming and podcasting have a striking resemblance to its "dissemination" scheme. Still, it's unclear whether we, the consumers of content, have really turned the tables, or it's just that we are too much infatuated with our tiny spotlight.

When Hamlet mourned his dear poor Yorick, he exalted him as "a man of infinite jest." In Wallace's book, the name refers to a failed filmmaker's posthumous work. In both cases, dead men leave a legacy that is best remembered by how amusing it was. In the case of "Infinite Jest" being the ultimate movie, I find it interesting that jest should be the author's main subject of concern when it came to devising an absolutely attractive piece of entertainment. Jest, meaning amusement, meaning fun. This may be the novel's main point: mass communications have had every potential to make us think. Instead, they have focused on making us laugh. This has affected our relationship with suffering, as exemplified in the blatant marketing of human misfortune inherent to reality shows and the follow-up of such prominent cases as Lady Di, Michael Jackson and Britney Spears.

Critics of communism argued that collective ownership of the means of production would destroy entrepreneurship and make individual talent irrelevant among masses of homogeneous mediocrity. Now at least the means of media production have been, in effect, collectivized. Aside from the issues of quality and basic good taste, it is worthwhile to ask whether the wave of interest in open production will be able to survive its own initial success. Readers of “Infinite Jest” may find some answers unnerving.

David Foster Wallace could not be reached for comments. According to his publicist, he is not doing interviews at the moment.

2007/11/09 오전 7:33
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