Maybe I’m trying to brag about it, or maybe this is some form of punishment wanted to ladle myself with, but I am in the middle of a slow, deep read of Infinite Jest. The initial goal was to “reclaim my brain,” but the dividends are paying out. I’ve read this book three times before, but this time it’s like an entirely new story is unfolding.
This time, and maybe because I’m taking this so damn slowly, might be the most satisfying read yet. This week I came across the conversation between the Canadian assassin and the American agent. At this point in the novel, the reader is becoming increasingly aware of a cassette tape that entertains its viewer to death – if they start watching, they are so entranced they ultimately lose all mobility and starve to death. It’s cute.
The rhetoric between these two odd characters (oddities of which I have no time or space to go into here) culminates to an observation about the average American TV watcher (who, in the novel, watches the equivalent of tapes on a headset):
“Entertainment so fine it will kill the viewer….”Your freedom is freedom-from; no one tells your precious individual USA selves what they must do. It is this meaning only, this freedom from constraint and forced duress….How is there freedom to chose if one does not learn how to choose?”
David Foster Wallace was fascinated by TV and TV culture. He claimed to have not owned one (I’d think he likely owned one, was sucked in so hard by it that he didn’t write for weeks, and was forced to leave it on the street corner with a battered “Free” sign taped to the top of it lest he lose his livelihood) but he still wrote a ton about them. In the months proceeding the release of Infinite Jest, he published E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction in the Review of Contemporary Fiction (you can read a copy here). In the essay he posits that we are all alone, together, in our collective voyeurism that television affords us (keep in mind, this was television circa the early 90s).
“[W]atching people who don’t know you’re there as they go about the mundane but erotically charged little business of private life,” Foster lays the appeal of the voyeur, but “television does not afford true espial because television is performance, spectacle, by which definition requires viewership.” While TV watchers are idle – emotionless on the outside but feeling within (we hope) – it is the fiction writers who are the true creeps, the real voyeurs.
A different dissection for another day, I suppose.
“Entertainment so fine it will kill the viewer” seems fitting in the year 2024, where no one is bored and nothing surprises anymore. If Foster avoided TV, lord only knows what he would have done in the age of YouTube and TikTok.1 This calls back to Amusing Ourselves To Death by Neil Postman. Published in 1985, this treatise to the rise of cable news compares the modern oppression of the American mind to Huxley’s Brave New World – where the citizens medicate themselves into a blissful state that makes it easy to rob them of their human rights.
Postman says: “form excludes the content” and that the way our news is presented – through the talking heads, teleprompted, scripted, distilled version with commercials, theme music, and graphics reduces the news to entertainment. “Television is altering the meaning of ‘being informed’ by creating a species of information that might properly be called disinformation – misplaced, irrelevant, fragmented or superficial information that creates the illusion of knowing something, but in fact leads one away from knowing.”
1985 – nearly 40 years ago – Postman saw our modern age coming. The age when our ability to chose, our freedom to make a choice, is worthless because do we know what to do with that kind of power? We can choose, but we don’t have the discipline to choose the right thing – and we never will so long as we cannot view things with objectivity.
The viewers of Entertainment can’t look away and their bodies rot while they watch TV. Why read a book when you can scroll through Instagram? Why read the history of the news report when the headline gives you just enough to keep up at social hour? Why have a salad when you can get the same (if not more!) calories from this heavenly cookie?
In his 2005 alumni address to the graduating class of Kenyon College – a speech since canonized as “This is Water,” Foster brings back this question of choice:
Twenty years after my own graduation, I have come gradually to understand that the liberal arts cliché about teaching you how to think is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed. Think of the old cliché about “the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master.-David Foster Wallace – This Is Water
This idea is nothing new and ever more relevant in our age of digital detoxes and celebrities who are famous for being famous. We know what we want, we have made that choice, and the only chance for improvement is a gritty dedication to your discipline.
“Only in the printed word could complicated truths be rationally conveyed,” claimed Postman. The printed word is limited, it has to end, it has to make the kind of conclusion that can stand on its own, at the bottom of the page, where no one dares scroll.
- That he took his own life just one year after the introduction of the first iPhone could be seen as prophetic. But, as cynical as I am, I’ll not detract from the serious consequences of untreated depression. ↩︎