Is Infinite Jest Nihilism in Sincerity’s Clothing?

I have just finished reading David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, and hereby begin my first public foray into some light literary and cultural criticism. I expect that this is fairly commonplace – that anyone who has read the book is driven to process it in some shape or form. I want here to talk about Infinite Jest in a way that isn’t so much about the details of the plot since the contents make nearly zero sense to those who have not read the book (this is very intentional, as I will explain presently), and there are already many very good and interesting theories out there about the the plot and its ending. Michael Moats’ blog post is particularly good at collecting various websites that deal with the plot, and evaluating their theories. Do not read them if you have not read the book because it is really important that you do not rob your future reader-self of the experience of going through Infinite Jest for the first time.

I am here more interested in the larger question of what Wallace is attempting to do and whether or not he succeeds, particularly pertaining to the relation between content of the book and its form. This relates to larger questions about the role of literature in our present Western entertainment-culture. Part of what I hope this will do is make Wallace look intriguing enough so those who have not yet read him will want to.

Wallace (1962 – 2008) has explicitly articulated some ideas about what he believes fiction is supposed to be about. His essay E Unibus Pluram: Television and US Fiction argues for a new kind of fiction that is not the sort of ironic self-parody influenced by television-culture, but

The next real literary “rebels” in this country might well emerge as some weird bunch of “anti-rebels,” born oglers who dare to back away from ironic watching, who have the childish gall actually to endorse single-entendre values. Who treat old untrendy human troubles and emotions in U.S. life with reverence and conviction. Who eschew self-consciousness and fatigue. These anti-rebels would be outdated, of course, before they even started. Too sincere. Clearly repressed. Backward, quaint, naive, anachronistic. Maybe that’ll be the point, why they’ll be the next real rebels. Real rebels, as far as I can see, risk things. Risk disapproval.

These ideas have spawned a movement called “New Sincerity,” which has had an impact on philosophy and the fine arts, arguably including in Wallace’s own book Infinite Jest. This manifests in details like the fact that a certain character is saved from his depression by a very un-romantic kind of love for his disabled wife. Arguably the only other character who is not addicted, depressed, or otherwise messed-up is a disabled, naive, but absolutely trusting boy, attentive to the people around him.

Despite all of this, however, I am left with the question of whether or not Wallace in fact succeeds on a larger scale. Arguably the main plotline of the book turns around a lethal “entertainment” called Infinite Jest that traps its viewers into never wanting to do anything else but watch it over and over again. The book Infinite Jest parodies the “entertainment” Infinite Jest in its form, namely by engrossing readers so deeply into its abstruse plotlines that they are pulled away from everyday reality. As soon as the reader has finished the book he or she is very strongly compelled to go back to the beginning in order to figure out the ending. What did the plot really mean? What are the details buried in the text that can help make sense of the ending? The following makes an interesting argument about the way in which the book manages to evoke this impulse to start again at the beginning:

It’s not because the book is so fun. It’s because of the explosive carnage of the final sections. The destruction of beloved characters forces a frantic search for textual clues that signal a rebirth in their future, or at least create some meaning amidst their fall. I didn’t want to reread IJ because I loved the book, but because I wanted a way out of what the book was telling me. And so I could flip back to page one and begin again. And when I didn’t find the answer, do it again. And again. What does this sound like?

This commenter goes on to point out that from what we know of the entertainment, the same logic applies. It’s not actually that Infinite Jest is so entertaining, but its implications are so horrific that viewers are compelled to search for information that would make it right again, information that was never provided. It’s more like being stuck inside a nightmare.

So, in the end, isn’t the book as a whole simply a depressing trap that makes readers stuck and lonely, cut off from real life? Is this actually nihilism? An addictive, eternal return of the same without any hope? I think the answer to that question lies largely in whether or not the passages and characters of hope are enough for the reader. The book poses the question of what it is that we require of life. Are the small glimmers of hope in certain passages of sincerity enough for us or will we continually seek some larger foundational meaning that will keep us spinning on the hamster wheel?

This raises the question of how much we want to see the structure of Infinite Jest as a representation of the shape of reality as a whole. In particular this raises the question of fracture. In an interview with Charlie Rose, Wallace talks about the importance of fracture. This is the function of his use of footnotes. The author’s responsibility is to fracture the text is in the way that is most honest to the author’s experience of reality. Why does Wallace speak like this? Why is fracture important? It seems to me that this emphasis on fracture is itself a way of conceptualizing reality that is at least in part influenced by an entertainment-saturated society, particularly evident in media’s increased complicity with the internet. Television has always been fragmented by advertising, and episodes are by nature fragments of some larger world (it’s interesting that Wallace talks specifically about television, rather than film. However, the entertainment cartridges of Infinite Jest seem a lot more like films, which suggests to me that Wallace has not quite himself grasped the significance of fracture as an addictive component of entertainment). However, this has reached new heights with the internet in that we are now able to move rapidly between articles and short video clips and status updates and tweets etc. Two examples that have struck me recently are the phenomenon of “vines,” 7-second video clips, and the Youtube series H+ in which episodes are about 2-5 minutes in length. I am not saying anything new here, but what I think is interesting is that Wallace’s fractured narrative very much reflects this trend. And if this is the case, then his fiction is arguably still a self-conscious parody influenced by television-culture.

So what does this mean? Do we dismiss Infinite Jest as nihilist? As not really giving us anything new but a repetition of the same old patterns of darkness and stupidity? Again, I don’t think that this necessarily follows. What I hope my questions lead to in the end is a greater self-awareness on the part of the reader in interacting with Infinite Jest. In the end, the text does not represent reality by itself but reality as the way in which reader interacts with the text. The ball is put in our court – how are we going to respond to a sometimes absurd and heartbreaking reality? This is particularly evident in the above commentator’s assertion that what the reader is left with in the end is characters who fall apart and so he or she goes looking for the meaning of this, or some inkling that they will be okay again somewhere beyond the future of the book. But this is entirely a matter of interpretation. Several of the main characters that supposedly experience “destruction”  all end up trapped inside themselves and are unable to communicate with the outside world. That is a very lonely place to be. However, this is also the point at which these characters undergo something of perhaps a salvation, if that’s not too strong a word. One learns to become a real person, another learns how to deal with pain in a way that is real, healthy, non-escapist by learning to abide in the moment. There are even several references to this character asking for help from a higher power. Moreover, there are ways hinted at that these characters come together. So, there are several ways in which the absolute loneliness is actually not devoid of a kind of contact and a kind of communication. They are precisely united in their solitude (194).

Now, if I interpret this as destruction my response to the book is going to be very different than if I interpret this as salvation. As I mentioned at the beginning, the details of the plot are very idiosyncratic and difficult to talk about with those who haven’t read the book such that one becomes almost trapped inside it, which is no doubt why readers like me are then almost driven out into public to escape the kind of loneliness that this generates and seek some sort of conversation. However, this illustrates precisely the dual way of interpreting the form of Infinite Jest. The lonely, circular structure can be seen as trapping and threatening like the “entertainment,” but it can also be read as doing the necessary work of separating us from the frenzy around us such that we are able to find the kind of meaning and connection that comes from doing something difficult and lonely. If that’s what I want to get out if this then I am, arguably, currently undercutting that possibility by broadcasting these thoughts. But I’m a work in progress, so I  welcome conversation nonetheless.

‘What can I say?’: Reflections on (Un)Permitted Speech and Justice

When is speech justified? This question is admittedly vague. To be more precise, as of late I feel as though I have had to ask myself many times, “Is the particular desire I have to speak in this instance and in this particular way justified’? Perhaps this is a question that we face every day in our innumerable interactions with family, friends, lovers, strangers, acquaintances, and the list goes on. How will my speech be received? How will my speech shape, not only the future of discourse, but the many inter-relations that constitute my own and others’ existence? Will my speech take on a form that will lead to just relations or will it create or further entrench relations of violence. If the latter be the case, I may be surprised to discover to what extent my speech has never really been ‘my’ speech at all, but speech already defined and delimited by a demonic “technological methodism” (Stringfellow) of a cultural-linguistic variety.

In ecclesial settings, I have found this conundrum to be particularly powerful. There have been many instances in which, in ecclesial settings, it is so obvious to me that the form that speech is ‘allowed’ to take is demonic in what it excludes a priori. Voices that would contribute real discourse towards recognition of minorities in ecclesial settings, outsiders that have been held at bay by “Orthodoxy” and “Ecclesial Unity,” are all prevented from speech that can realistically be received or recognized. I speak as one who is not an outsider, one who is privileged, one who has consistently struggled to create holes in the boundaries of the speech-form of ecclesial contexts so as to allow those boundaries to be more porous. At times I wonder if poking holes is enough. Poking holes seems to some already to be evidence of ‘wild speech,’ untamed by discipline. I propose, however, that ‘boundaried’ speech is more illustrative of an untamed tongue than speech that transgresses the demonic boundaries set by human will and desire. I believe this to be because ‘boundaried’ speech is precisely untamed in its hypocrisy — praising boundaries while transgressing the just relations that are given in the transgressing of demonic boundaries.

James 3:8-9 – No one can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people, who have been made in God’s likeness.

I still do not know ‘what I can say’ in the many settings I am in. I can only try to poke more holes to allow un-permitted speech to become permitted so as to make partners in discourse aware of the “question mark” (Barth) that stands against all our speech. Perhaps ‘just speech’ in this world is only recognizable under the sign of this question mark.

 

 

 

Subverting the Epistemelogical Rape of Hans Urs von Balthasar’s Theory of Knowledge

For better or worse, I don’t often read theological texts through the lens of gender, but Hans Urs von Balthasar handed me his epistemology on a gendered platter, and the result is rather disturbing. His book Theo-Logic begins by describing the nature of knowledge as the relationship between subject and object. In this context he states that the inquiry into the nature of subject and object independently

…resembles an investigation of the masculine and feminine that attends mainly to the functions and inclinations that predispose them for their union. The union itself is a new, third thing in which the purpose of these inclinations is truly unveiled for the first time. The subject is ready to receive the object in itself, but what will issue from this reception cannot be calculated in advance. In the same way, the object is ready to reveal itself in the space that the subject has placed at its disposal, but it is impossible to guess or gauge from the object alone how it will unfold in this space (61).

Balthasar continues to refer to subject and object in this way throughout the section. The relationship between subject and object is such that “objects of this world need the subject’s space in order to be themselves” (63). Nevertheless, the ontological truth of the object is complete in itself. The object needs the subject only so that it can fully manifest and reveal itself (65). In contrast, the subject is an indeterminate space, without content, or character, or identity. The subject is dependent on the object for knowledge,  and the truth of knowledge consists in the subject’s conforming itself to the ontological truth of the object. Balthasar describes the subject as Sleeping Beauty, which only awakens from its slumber once the other enters its space. The subject is structured such that its role “consists most properly in making itself available, in an attitude of service, for the completion of the object” (67).

Balthasar describes this relationship as a union or consummation. If we interpret this description according to Balthasar’s own explicit comparison above, then the inclinations of each side of this union are analogous to patriarchal masculine and feminine sexual roles in that the nature of the union is based on the qualities of object as active, determined, and self-possessing, and subject as dependent, servile, passive, space. Unsurprisingly, this leads to an element of violence in Balthasar’s epistemology:

“…things enter the subject’s space without prior invitation. …Its doors have always already been beaten down, and and it itself has always already been dragged out into the work of giving form to the world. Without having been notified or asked, it was thrown into the enterprise of knowledge. It has always already been commandeered for the formation of the world, and its apparatus is already at work before it becomes aware of its operation. Things, then, have always already decided the subject’s fate. …Knowledge is, in the very act of its origination, service, because it begins when the subject, without being consulted, is conscripted into the world’s labor force and attains judgment only at the end” (68).

Balthasar admits this violent nature when he says that “The world’s initial onrush can appear almost as brutal as a violation” (71).  He goes on to say that the reward for the subject is “rich beyond the subject’s wildest hopes” (69) and that “it awakens in the knower a yearning for more” (40, italics original). The violation is therefore justified on two fronts, both of them similar to the justifications used in cases of rape. First, this violation is necessary for the subject, who, even though it does not know that this is what’s good for it, is in fact helped by the violation, or is even brought pleasure through it – a common ingredient in rape fantasies. Second, it is also justified on the basis of the fact that it is necessary for the object in validating itself. Balthasar says that “insofar as knowledge is obectification, it is an acknowledgment and certification, a ratification and an unappealable declaration, that the object actually exists. If the object were ever tempted to doubt that it is a real entity having existence and meaning, it need only look to the subject’s act of affirmation in order to win back its confidence” (77). Balthasar therefore here engages in the same excuses in legitimating the object’s rape of the subject that men give to legitimate their rape of women, namely that their worth and confidence as men is dependent upon the availability of a woman to them, and the man/object is therefore entitled to the space of the woman.subject.

There are certain things about Balthasar’s theology that I rather like – his use of polarity and duality, and even kenosis, for example. So, the question then becomes how such concepts can be preserved from the kind of violent, gendered system in which Balthasar employs them. One device that comes to mind is Julia Kristeva’s khora. This concept is so interesting precisely because it is similar to Balthasar’s subjective space, but in her hands, it subverts the system that he has set up. The khora of course refers to the third element in creation in Plato’s Timaeus – a primordial, indeterminate space-matter in which objects take on their character, and out of which they are birthed. As such, Kristeva associates it with the feminine, the womb. It is a pre-linguistic space of nurturing love and relationship (in distinction to Derrida’s khora, which is more like a desert). Thus, it seems that Kristeva is quite happy to associate this indeterminate space with the feminine. The difference, however, is in its relationship to the linguistic masculine. While it is a space, it is not a space that is available for the purposes of the linguistic. It cannot be captured and cannot be taken advantage of. While the linguistic, to which the khora gave birth, overshadows the khora, the khora is constantly interrupting and frustrating the linguistic (see Kristeva, Revolution in Poetic Language).

Thus, in Balthasar’s system, the feminine is interrupted by the male-object, while for Kristeva it is the feminine space that interrupts the masculine world of objects and their signification. Is this simply an inversion of Balthasar’s violence? I’m inclined to think not. The difference here is that the system is interrupted by a nothing. There is no new object, order, system, or goal that is forced upon the other. This is a pure interruption, a caesura which arrests the madness for a moment. It applies a break to the violence of a system otherwise racing out of control (see for example Walter Benjamin’s essay on violence and his theories on history and the messianic). This is not to say that I would want to draw a strict correlation between the khora and the subject (the point is that the khora is pre-subjective), but this draws attention to the fact that knowledge is more complex than simply the imposition of an object upon a passive subject because there are always pre-subjective forces at work in the subject and in knowledge that disrupt our attempts to neatly delineate subject from object, even as they do not replace this tension with another totalizing (masculine) system.

2014 Summer Reading

The last book on my summer reading list came in this morning and I’m no longer taking recommendations (though I could add them to a fall reading list).  Even this list is already starting to look daunting when I look at my calendar. I need to write reviews or responses on several of these so for the most part they’re in the order in which I’ll read them.  What are you reading this summer, dear readers? Any ambitious goals? Or maybe you’re taking a break and reading only graphic novels and fiction?  Continue reading

On this Good Friday: Reflections from M . Shawn Copeland

On this Good Friday, let us kneel before the broken, crucified body of Jesus. Let us kneel before the disappeared and murdered bodies of thousands of peasants, workers, vowed religious sisters and brothers, ministers and priests in Latin America; the raped and abused bodies of young boys and girls and women who have survived sexual assault by clergy and church workers; the torn bodies of prostitutes forced to trade themselves for survival; the rejected bodies of gays and lesbians; the swollen bodies of children dying in hunger; the scarred and bruised bodies of women, men and children suffering with AIDS; the despised bodies of red and brown and black and yellow women and men. To kneel before these bodies is a first step in grasping our collusion in their suffering and death; it is a first step in grasping the absolute gratuitous love of the crucified Jesus. Let us kneel in love and thanksgiving for the wondrous love of God.

 

Upper Midwest AAR Presentation

If you’re in St. Paul, MN this weekend you can check out the Upper Midwest AAR conference. Today is the last day to register. I’ll be presenting a paper on Saturday at 10:15 in Session 6: Philosophy of Religion/Systematic Theology #3. For your interest, here’s an abstract of my paper.

“Eating from the Sacred Tree: Decolonzing Western Interpretations of Original Sin in Genesis 3″ Continue reading