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Addiction and the Societies of Control: David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest

Addiction and the Societies of Control: David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest

Jan Harris

Draft of paper delivered at the 'Addiction and Consumption' Conference, University of Lancaster, May 2002


In The Logic of Sense Gilles Deleuze offers his clinical definition of the work of art, observing that artists:


    "… are themselves astonishing diagnosticians or symptomatologists. There is always a great deal of art involved in the grouping of  symptoms... Clinicians who are able to renew a symptomatological picture produce a work of art; conversely, artists are clinicians... they are clinicians of civilisation...and it seems moreover, [this] evaluation of symptoms might only be achieved through a novel"   

      (Deleuze 1991:237, emphasis in original)

In this light the novel serves a diagnostic function, identifying the composition of forces, the relations of 'labour, life and language' that characterise a given epoch, offering an aetiology of the 'ills' that size  individuals and cultures alike. This paper will argue that David Foster Wallace's novel Infinite Jest (Wallace, 1997, hereafter IJ-all citations refer to the revised 1997 edition) offers a 'clinical' exploration of the condition of addiction in 21st century Western culture. Set in the final years of the first decade of the 21st century (written in the mid-90's), Infinite Jest at some 1000 pages is 'postmodern' satire in the tradition of Thomas Pynchon and John Barth. It consists of two parallel plots, one concerning the residents of Enfield Tennis Academy and the other concerning those of the Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House. The novel revolves around the apparent opposition that exists between the wealthy, disciplined and self-fashioning inhabitants of the ETA and the fallen, dissolute and enslaved inhabitants of Enfield House-an opposition that becomes increasingly untenable as its narrative unfolds. 'The Disease' (as the residents of Ennet House term their addictions) it becomes clear, is not to be confined simply to those who have fallen foul of a range of substances but is rather a hypostatisation of a deeper logic operating in culture of consumption- a logic characterised by multiple rarefied regimes of self-control (exhibited in indulgence and abstention alike) which subdivide subjectivity. However, before turning to Wallace's text, it would be apposite to make a few introductory remarks about the history of addiction as it is understood within the context of this paper. 

A Brief History of Addiction

It could be argued that the inaugural addiction is that of opium. Addiction as a concept arises in relationship to opium and opiates even today remain the substances of enslavement par excellence. Consequently opium reveals the complex interrelationship of factors implicated in the emergence of addiction as pathology. During the first half of the 19th century opium use though widespread, was not perceived as the site of addiction. Opium use, where chronic, was regarded at best a bad habit and at worse an immoral state, and it was not until the closing decades of the century that the addict as a species began to emerge. Precisely at a time when opium use was in decline, its use eclipsed by the emergence of isolated or semi-synthetic opiates, such as morphine and heroin, and new technologies of delivery, in particular the hypodermic syringe, which allowed the administration of precisely measured doses to immediate effect (Burridge & Edwards,1989:150). Although undoubtedly significant, such innovations are not sufficient to explain the emergence of the addict as clinical entity. While it is true that the syringe accelerated the onset of dependence it did not create or augment the addictive proprieties of opiates, as William Burroughs put it: ' The needle is not important. Whether you sniff smoke it eat it or shove it up your ass the result is the same: addiction'  (Burroughs, 1964:7)

 Faced with such contradictions several medical historians ( Burridge & Edwards, 1989, Harding 1988) have sought to explain this transition in Foucauldian terms, whereby the 'discovery' of addiction as a pathology is seen as commensurate with the consolidation of the jurdico-medical disciplines, disciplines that are themselves to be understood in terms of a genealogy of power/knowledge relations.

    In an article entitled 'Epidemics of the Will' (Sedgwick 1992: 582-595), Eve Sedgwick argues that under this taxonomic reinscription the opium user ceased to exist as 'the subject of her own perceptual manipulations' becoming instead 'the proper object of compulsory institutional disciplines which...presumed to know her better than she could know herself'. Opium use which had hitherto been an act amongst acts became instead a question of identity. The disciplines in granting addiction the status of a clinical illness, and the addict a fixed identity,  disempowered the individual whose toxicomania was collection of symptoms the cause and cure of which was the province of medicine

    This, as Sedgwick notes, was by no means the end of the story and in the first two thirds of the 20th century addictive properties were ascribed to an increasingly wider range of drugs. However, the closing decades of the 20th century witnessed an explosion in 'addiction-attribution', one that gathered not only every form of substance abuse but also potentially every form of human behaviour under the sign of addiction. A situation in which as one Wallace's 388 footnotes has it:

    ', reading, politics, gum-chewing, crossword puzzles, solitaire, romantic intrigue, charity work, political activism, N.R.A. membership, music, art, cleaning,  plastic surgery...the loyalty of a fine dog, religious zeal [and] the development of hard line schools of 12-step thought...' (I.J.: 996 n.70)

can all be seen as sites of potential addiction attribution.

    Sedgwick argues that this extension of addiction to almost the entirety of human behaviour imperils or evacuates the concept of addiction itself, in that addiction comes no longer to reside in an addictive supplement but rather 'only in the structure of a will that is always somehow insufficiently free, a choice whose volition is insufficiently pure', in short it is 'will itself that has come to appear addictive' (Sedgwick, op cit: 584) . Furthermore, the activities in which will appears insufficiently pure are precisely those areas that capitalism presents as the triumph of the self and its sacrosanct power of choice (workholism, shopholism, relationship addiction etc.). A convergence that suggests an intimate relation between 'the problematics of addiction and those of the consumer phase of international capitalism' (ibid:587). 

Modulation and the Societies of Control

What lies behind this passage of addiction from a physiological condition to a perpetual crisis in the subject?  One possible explanation is to be found in Deleuze's short but significant article Postscript on the Societies of Control (Deleuze, 1992). In Postcript Deleuze argues that the regimes of power identified by Foucault are in their twilight-it is for this reason that we witness everywhere the crisis of those institutions associated with the disciplinary regimes (family, school, army and even the state)- these disciplinary societies are, Deleuze suggests, to be succeeded by the societies of control (and given the present context its worth noting that Deleuze cites Burroughs as the source of this term). In contrast to the self-enclosed, regimented spaces of the disciplinary societies which operated through successive 'striations' or discrete enclosures such that 'one was always starting again (from school to the barracks, from the barracks to the factory)' the societies of control are characterised by a 'variable geometry'. Within this variable geometry boundaries become permeable, consequently societies of control announce themselves as a general 'crisis' of all 'interiors' and, in contrast to the disciplinary regimes, in the societies of control 'one is never finished with anything', instead we encounter only 'limitless postponements'. Deleuze highlights the differing dynamics of these regimes through the distinction between 'molds' and 'modulation':

     'Enclosures are molds, distinct castings, but controls are a modulation, like a self-deforming cast that will continuously change from one moment to the other, or like a sieve whose mesh will transmute from point to point.'

    Modulation describes a form of power that is no longer exerted through the medium of a given institution and its practices, but that exceeds and escapes the boundaries of institutions, and that thus puts boundaries themselves into question. Modulation is marked by constant variation, and the subjectivity that characterises control is 'undulatory, in orbit, in a continuous network' [1]. Indeed to the extent that control operates immanently, contra discipline's (apparent) transcendence, subjectivity itself is the locus of its modus operandi. Control is in the words of Negri and Hardt 'the self discipling of subjects, the incessant whisperings of disciplinary logics within subjectivities themselves' (Negri and Hardt 2000:330).

    However, it should be stressed that neither molding and modulation or discipline and control are to be opposed. Here we are dealing with a difference of degree rather than a difference of kind, thus ‘modulating is molding in a variable and continuous manner' while molding can be understood as 'modulating in a constant and finite manner' (Deleuze, 1979). Similarly control does not spell the end of discipline and the institutions associated with it, rather it consists in raising to the highest power those modulatory operations implicit in the discrete 'castings' of the disciplinary regime. This results in a general 'metastability' of institutions such that 'caceral discipline, school discipline, factory discipline, and so forth, interweave in a hybrid production of subjectivity' (Negri and Hardt: 300).

    If we accept Sedgwick and Burridge & Edwards's thesis that the medical 'discovery' of addiction as a pathology was a product of discipline then the extension or evacuation of the concept in the latter half of the 20th century might be seen as corresponding to the passage from discipline to control. However it should be stressed the concept of addiction did not simply pass from a coherent pathological model to an increasingly problematic articulation of the individual's (in)ability to choose. Rather from the outset we observe in the formulation of addiction as a concept an inherent instability, which comes to increasingly plague definitions of addiction. For example Edward Levinstein, whose 1877 Morbid Cravings for Morphia was one of the first texts to delineate the condition of narcotic dependence, and who sought to establish morphia addiction as clinical condition nonthless implemented a ' treatment programme underscored [by] a perception not...of a pathological disease which was located in the internal organs of the body, but instead of a debilitated will', in which 'failure to affect a cure the final analysis an individual responsibility' (Harding, 1988:58.). Thus in a relationship analogous to that between discipline and control, the evolution of the concept of addiction does not involve a radical break but rather the exploration or exploitation of ambiguities inherent in its historical formulation. 

Addiction in Infinite Jest

That Infinite Jest should be added to the canon of 20th century literary studies of addiction-- a rich lineage which includes texts as varied as Patrick Hamilton's Hangover Square, Lowry's Under the Volcano, Burroughs' The Naked Lunch, and more recently Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting- is an uncontentious proposition. This paper's thesis will go further arguing that David Foster Wallace has, through his analysis of addiction as a cultural condition, contributed (to what Deleuze terms) the investigation of the 'ultra rapid forms of free-floating control'. The theme of addiction can be seen to operate in three separate spheres in Infinite Jest, that of addiction as traditionally understood i.e. chemical dependence, that of sport, and that of telematic consumption [2]. Consequently we will now examine each of these turn, arguing that they exhibit a threefold homology that testifies to an overarching logic; that of control or 'modulation'.

'The Disease'

Addiction permeates Infinite Jest and there is no character in its cast of thousands untouched by its depredations. Wallace's concern is not any particular dependence but the condition of dependence in general: the underlying isomorphism that unites all addicts no matter what their substance of choice. As we told in a section that recounts the experience of AA. meeting:

'...if you sit up front and listen hard, all the speakers' stories of decline and fall and surrender are basically alike, and like you own: fun with the Substance, then gradually less fun because of like blackouts you suddenly come out of on the highway going 145 kph with companions you do not know, [or] nights you awake from in unfamiliar bedding next to somebody who doesn't even resemble any known kind of animal...' (IJ: 345)

    In his exploration of these isomorphisms Wallace stresses the fact that addiction is not so much a loss of will or violation but an excess of will, an excessive desire for control that paradoxically leads one into ever increasing powerlessness and  the novel explores the 'baroque self regulations' that are part and parcel of the addict's life: 'e.g. not before 0900h, not on a worknight, only when the moon is waxing, only in the company of Swedes' (IJ:346). In this account addiction emerges not so much as the abandonment of routine in favour of endless, unconstrained consumption but as its apotheosis- 'addicts tend to operate on an extremely rigid physical schedule of need and satisfaction' (IJ:57). This reading of addiction as will, routine and regulation is reflected in the novel's assertion that the addictive mentality is not characterised by the absence of analysis or reflection, rather it is a product of an overdependence on these faculties. The addict is not mindless, she has not 'blown' her mind but rather dwells too much within it: 'Substance-addicted people are also addicted to thinking... they have a compulsive and unhealthy relationship with their own thinking' (JJ:203), they are victims of what the novel terms 'Analysis-Paralysis'.

An allied paradox is found in the practices of AA and the apparent double binds of its twelve-step program. In Infinite Jest the profoundly transformative effects of this institution are embodied in the character of Don Gatley-an ex-criminal and addict whose life has been turned round by a combination of residential treatment and AA meetings. Through the figure of Gately, Wallace is able to articulate both the apparently contrary thinking that underpins twelve step programs and the miraculous fact that this logic works. Certainly there is no shortage of voices in the text willing to decry AA, for instance Geoffrey Day-an alcoholic academic who 'taught something horseshit sounding like social historicity or historical sociality' and who, upon admission for treatment, hubristically declares that he 'manned the helm' of a 'scholarly journal'. Day articulates the chagrin of those who find themselves in the position of seeking redemption in the form of AA:

" So then at forty-six years of age I came here to live by cliché turn my life over to the care of clichés. One day at a time. Easy does it. First things first...Now I live by the dictates of macramé samplers ordered from the back page ad of an old Reader's Digest' (IJ:270-71)

These clichés are strategies for what Sedgwick terms the 'micromanagement of absolutes' and AA is characterised by the invocation of apparently contradictory absolutes. In this respect it productively adopts and exploits the inherent instability of the concept of 'addiction', pragmatically utilizing its contradictions to arrive at an effective programme for attaining sobriety.  Thus on one level addiction is labelled as a 'disease' over which one has no power and recognition of powerlessness constitutes the first step toward recovery. As addiction is, according to the AA, first and foremost a disease of the will:

    '...your personal will is the web your Disease sits in and spins...The will you call your own ceased to be yours as of who knows how many substance drenched years ago. Its now shot through with the spidered fibrosis of your Disease' (IJ:357)

In place of this distempered will the higher power is instituted, and it is this that grants release from 'the cage' of addiction - a metaphor for dependence used throughout the book. Yet this acknowledgement of powerlessness serves as the precondition for the redoubled expression of personal will, that will that allows one to abide in sobriety from moment to moment, via a process of 'temporal fragmentation'- in which each instant is approached in and of itself- released from the constrains of past action or future intention-'one day at a time'. However personal willingness to abide in this fashion can only be undertaken within the context of one's higher power since it is this that allows one to approach each moment as a unique instance of choice.

    ' When I was drunk I wanted to get sober and when I was sober I wanted to get drunk' (IJ: 346); such was the paradox of dependence, and AA offers a way of dwelling in paradox. Yet in the novel there's an inescapable sense that AA- in spite of its efficacy-consists in 'the exchange of one will obliterating habit for another'. For the substance of addiction the higher power is substituted: a new but equally exacting master, though as the novel rightly concedes:

    'Some substance dependent persons...have been so broken by the time they first Come In that they don't care about stuff like substitution and banality, they'll give their left nut to trade their original dependence in for robotic  platitudes and pep-rally cheer' (IJ:707)

    Is it then the case that AA constitutes a new cage? Does it produce by similar means diametrically opposed results. Derrida in the interview ' The Rhetoric of Drugs'  addresses this paradox, which he argues is inseparable from the aporetic status of the pharmakon that must 'always be apprehended as both antidote and poison'. The drug addict, Derrida observes 'may at once seek repression and a release from repression...[and] to this end the addict uses a 'technique', a technical supplement which ...he interprets as being 'natural'... ' (Derrida, 1995 235). The escape from the cage of dependence does not constitute a return to nature, to an obscured but nonetheless inviolate self that predates the fall into substance abuse, and in this respect the sober self comes to appear as artificial and 'supplementary' as the addicted self [3].

    In Gravity's Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon (possibly Wallace's single greatest influence) makes an related observation:

    ' We seem up against a dilemma built into Nature, much like the Heisenberg situation. There is nearly complete parallelism between analgesia and addiction. The more pain it takes away, the more we desire it. It appears that we can't have  one property without the other, any more than a particle physicist can specify position without suffering an uncertainty as to the particle's velocity' (Pynchon, 1973 :348 emphasis added ) [4]

This Heisenbergian inability to have one property without the other, this impossibility of escape from the logic of the pharmakon, might lead to one to conclude that there is little to choose between poison and cure. That the difference between addiction and sobriety is nothing more than a difference between negative and positive feedback, and that both partake in a sort of dehumanised system of cybernetic self-regulation; one leading to the preservation of the organism, the other assuring its destruction-both equally rote. Thus Sedgwick speaks of the AA's 'higher power' as a kind of heuristic fiction, ever 'receding but structurally necessary' (ibid;587), a functionality echoed in the comments of AA member to Gatley:

    'He told Gately to just imagine he’s holding a box of Betty Crocker Cake Mix, which represents Boston AA. The box had directions on the side any eight-year-old could read... It didn’t matter one fuckola whether Gately like believed a cake would result, or whether he understood the like fucking baking-chemistry of how a cake would result: if you just followed the motherfucking directions... a cake would result.' (IJ:469)

Although this equivalence between addiction and sobriety appears persuasive, there are nonetheless crucial existential differences between the manner in which the addict and the AA penitent negotiate their problematic subjectivity. The addict's response is to seek a solution-intoxication-for the problematic moment in which they find themselves, and it is this spurious solution that is their problem. By contrast the temporal fragmentation practised by AA constitutes not so much a solution but the interminable extension of the problem, it is the 'limitless postponement' of the solution. Recovery, like analysis, is interminable - one is never done with it. Indeed there is no surer way to insure the return of the Disease than to believe oneself finally cured. Instead the solution offered by AA is a means of dwelling in a problematic field without searching for a solution; the moment of choice is what needs to be preserved, for freedom lies in the moment of choice rather than in any choice itself. The heroics of this problematic dwelling are vividly personified in Gatley's attempt to recover in hospital after being shot in an altercation outside of Ennet House, when agonisingly wounded he attempts to endure without the solace of pain reliving medication, whose misuse has been his downfall:

    "...feeling the edge of every second that went by...he had to build a wall around each second just to take it. living in the present between's a gift, the Now, it's AA real gift: it's no accident they call it the Present...He hadn't quite got this before now, it wasn't just a matter of riding out the cravings for the Substance: everything unendurable was in the head, was the head not Abiding in the Present' (IJ: 860-61)


In the same interview Derrida observes that sport is:

    ' the anti-drug itself, the antidote for drugs, the pharmakon of the pharmakon, it is the very thing that should be kept safe from drugs, far from any possible contamination. Thus, and nothing could be easier to foresee, we have here the zone closest, most analogous and most exposed to the evil it excludes'

    (Derrida, op cit:249)

This coincidentia oppositorum between the world of sport and drugs is reflected in the physical proximity between the institutions that emblematise these two spheres-Ennet House being located at the bottom of a large hill at whose crest is placed the Enfield Tennis Academy. The instability of this dichotomy is demonstrated by the widespread use of drugs amongst the students of the ETA, as one section of the novel puts it:

    'Since the place's inception, there's always been a certain percentage of the high-calibre adolescent players who ...[tend] to rely on personal chemistry to manage ETA's special demmands-dexidrine or low volt methedrine before matches and benzodiazapenes to come back down after …[with] beer and bongs in some discrete academy corner to short circuit the up-and-down cycle' (IJ:53)

However such substance abuse is not the real subject of the parallel between addiction and sport that Wallace  explores. His concern is with the cultivation of self, both mental and physical, that professional sport demands. Sport, as Derrida notes, is the cultivation of the natural, of the body's natural abilities and 'when one seeks to extend these natural powers it is altogether 'natural'...that one should think of artificially natural methods to go beyond man'(Derrida, op cit: 249). It is this supplemantarity that is the key theme of the novel's portrayal of sport, a supplemantarity that in cultivating nature threatens the natural itself. Physically, this reflected in the ascetic fashioning of a body fit for competition, a fashioning that partakes of the same logic of control and regulation that is to be found in both addiction and sobriety. Thus there are numerous references to the 'hypertrophied arms’ of the academy’s students, tumescent from practice and there is a sense that the students are at once prosthetically extended, and reduced, by their devotion to tennis: 'for the last year his arms been an extension of his mind and the stick an extension of his arm' [5].

    Most significant of all is the repetitive routine, the endless drills aimed at perfecting the game:

    ' ... its repetition. First, last and always…its repetitive movements and motions for their own sakes, over and over until…they sink and soak into the hardware, the CPS, the machine language…it's no accident that they say you eat, sleep and breath tennis here. These are autonomical.' (IJ:110)

Tennis like addiction is inseparable from a culture of repetition and reproduction, to again quote Derrida both as modern phenomena cannot be separated from the crossing of a 'quantitve threshold' whereby individuals  'have access to the possibility of repeating the act, ... in private or in public and through the zone where this distinction loses all pertinence or rigour' (Derrida, op cit: 233). This repetitive prosthescity is exemplified in the digital recording of daily drills which are studied in a process of cybernetic self modification, likewise the watching of looped sequences of tennis masters 'You're supposed to pretend its you on the bell-clear screen with the fluid and egoless strokes. You're supposed to disappear into the loop and then carry that disappearance out with you, to play' ( IJ: 111).

    The ultimate aim of the ETA's induction is entry into the world of professional tennis or 'The Show' as its known to staff and students. Like the pharamakon 'The Show' is both poison and cure, cure to the degree that it justifies the myriad sacrifices and interminable repetition necessary to perform upon that stage. Poison, in that awareness of the 'show', its pressures and rewards, precludes the development of the level of play that would grant access. Consider the example of LaMont Chu an 11-year-old player whose desire for the show has become an obsession, Chu seeks the council of Lyle-the academy's resident guru-who informs him that his desire for representation and fame is without closure:

   'Do not believe the photographs. Fame is not an exit from any cage'

   'So I'm stuck in the cage from either side. Fame or tortured envy of fame. There's no way out'.

The Show is no conclusion; to remain in it one must continue producing the hypertrophied self that has brought acclamation: 'you must keep winning to keep the existence of love and endorsements and the shiny magazines wanting your profile' (IJ:677)

    The possibility of an escape from this cage is found in the figure of Coach Schitt- a German former pro who observes Wallace's future America with a mixture of contempt and puzzlement reminiscent of the Frankfurt School in exile. For Schitt, America and in particular the hothouse prodigies of the ETA are lost in appetency. Schitt relates how at the Gymnasium Kaiserslautern (whose motto significantly was 'WE ARE WHAT WE WALK BETWEEN'):

    'we live inside tennis courts for months, to learn to live inside...never cross the lines. Never the leave the courts...a bucket for hygienic needs...very lucky days when they bring us meals.' (IJ:460)

The purpose of such privations is the realisation that the game is not a matter of winning and losing but of dwelling inside the bounded but infinite possibilities of the court, since according to Schitt:

    'the true opponent, the enfolding boundary, is the player himself. Always and only   the self out there, on court, to be met, fought...the competing boy on the net's other side: he is not the foe, he is.. the excuse or occasion for meeting the self.' (IJ:84).

The purpose of this occasion is the construction of a world within a world, a world unaffected by the expectations of the crowd, the skill of the opponent, or the ambient conditions of the court. A world that can only be accessed, like the heroics of sobriety, by a dwelling in the present, as Schitt puts it to a group of players griping about the cold of dawn drills 'Move...Occur. Be here. Not in bed or shower or over baconschteam, in the mind. Be here in total. Is nothing else' (460-61).

The Entertainment  

In his Postscript Deleuze observes that:


   'Types of machine are easily matched with each type of society...the recent disciplinary societies equipped themselves with machines of energy...the societies of control operate with machines of a [new] type, computers',

while Derrida has noted that the problematic of drugs cannot be separated from a 'technological mutation' or 'technological supplementarity' (Derrida op. cit.: 235/244). While technology does not cause addiction, it could be argued that addiction flourishes or becomes properly symptomatic in a field of general technological reproducibility (consider in this light the relationship between the emergence of addiction and the syringe). Modern telematic technologies fully realise this condition of technological supplementarity and do so in manner that induces 'a problematic instability of the boundary between public and private' (Derrida, ibid:250), or what Deleuze terms a general crisis of the interior.

    That Wallace's concurs with such a vision is revealed towards the novel's conclusion when we encounter the following paragraph in which Hal Incandenza, one of the ETA most promising players, begins under the strain of cannabis withdrawal (sic) to apprehend the reality of his life at the academy, noting that it was :

    " as if all this had been done and said so many times before it made you feel it was recorded, that they all existed  basically as Fourier Transforms of postures and little routines , locked down and stored and call-uppable for rebroadcast at specific times." (IJ:966)

In this moment of insight the Apollonian practice of professional tennis and its 'machine language' is merged with another field of technical repetition-that of the mass media. A parallel observation is made by Don Gatley when he notes that:

    '...a drug addict's second most meaningful relationship is always with his domestic entertainment unit, TV/VCR or HDTP. A drug addict's maybe the only human species whose own personal vision has a Vertical Hold' (IJ: 834) 

    This intermingling of the personal and the collective, this penetration of telematics into the psychic life is a constant theme in the text and Infinite Jest is set against the backdrop of a massively reconfigured mediascape in which computing and television have converged into one uber medium the 'Interlace Dissemination System' and the novel abounds with references to T.P.'s or 'teleputers' -televisions equipped with hard drives and to 'cartridges'- the storage medium of this ubiquitous system. The intricate history Wallace creates for this medium, complete with failed products and formats, underscores the paradoxically relation of freedom and enslavement that is one of  the novel's theme. Moreover, Wallace's media history displays a logic that recalls Lacan's mirror stage, in that there is constant attempt to attain a perfect yet ever retreating image of 'spectacular' freedom. Thus video telephony enjoys a brief vogue, before being undermined by the self consciousness of citizens who have to appear before their caller and who as a consequence suffer from VPD or 'video-physiognomic dysphoria'- a profound dissatisfaction with their own mediated appearance. This results in the emergence of digital avatars assembled from the most flattering elements of the caller's electronic traces, and in a more inexpensive solution of a 2D rubber mask kept by the console and donned when making a call. A similar logic is displayed in the emergence of the IDS, where traditional broadcast TV is undermined by an advertising campaign by a cable kabal that aimed at exposing the passivity of broadcast TV and offering as an alternative 'the truly empowering US style choice' of multiple viewing opportunities, this cable kabal is in turn undermined by further campaign (both conducted by the same agency) claiming that cable merely offered '504 visual spoon feedings you'd sit and open wide for' and offering instead the Interlace System in which any entertainment option can be chosen and downloaded by the viewer- a truly empowering choice whose result is, of course, a 'market of eyes and sofas' a mass ensnared in the freedom of the spectacle.

    The locus of the portrayal of the IDS in the novel is that of the 'Entertainment' a cartridge so compelling that it renders those who encounter it unable to do anything but watch, willing to forgo all basic human functions in order to receive their spectorial fix. In this regard the entertainment might be read as a realisation of the 'negative behavioural involution' that Virlio believes is the ineluctable consequence of a fully mediatised environment; namely 'a pathological fixedness: the coming of seated man or, worse still, couched man' which involves ' a progressive loss of relations with the external environment... a form of coma... [ that ] leads to the 'vegetative state' of home inertia' (Virilio, 2000: 68-70)

    Something of the allure of the entertainment can be grasped from a discussion in the book on its somewhat brutal technological precursor- the direct electrostimulation of the brain:

    '[the] earliest subjects were rats...they rigged an auto-stimulation lever, the rat would press the lever to stimulate his p - terminal over and over...ignoring food and female rats in heat, completely fixated on the lever's stimulation.. stopping only when the rat finally died...' (IJ: 471)

The 'entertainment' consists in a perfection of this technology, its refinement into a form of 'aesthetic pharmaceutical' [6], whose properties, described as the 'neurological distillate of orgasm...religious enlightenment [and] ecstatic drugs' (473), are such that it represents a massive threat to social stability and one of the novel's subplots revolves around the attempts of a terrorist group to obtain the master copy of the Entertainment. Their intention being to distribute the cartridge throughout America and effectively bring the nation to its knees (or screens). Various theories are posited in an attempt to account for the entertainment's siren charms, for instance it is suggested that at a neurological level it literally replicates the effects of certain addictive drugs, that it is  'an optical dopamine-cue' (233), another theory is that the entertainment employs some sort of cutting edge media technology 'a really sophisticated piece of holography' whose verisimilitude is terminal: a literally killer app. Ironically, given the present debate, one reading of the entertainment- offered by a M.I.T. 'cartridge' scholar brought in for questioning by the authorities attempting to prevent its distribution- is that it is a kind of Deleuzian 'dream object' :

    '... there was little question in ... Dr Notkin's mind that the entire perfect-entertainment-as-Liebestod myth surrounding the purportedly lethal final cartridge was nothing more than a classic illustration of the antinomically schizoid function of post-industrial capitalist mechanism, whose logic presented commodity as the escape from-anxieties-of-mortality-which-escape-is-itself-psychologically- fatal, as detailed in perspicuous detail in M. Gilles Deleuze's posthumous Incest and the Life of Death in Capitalist Entertainment'  (IJ:792)

    The terrorists who aim to promulgate the entertainment claim that it is a device that extends the nation's 'self destructing logic to its final conclusion'. That rather than being terrorists they are making available the ultimate embodiment of choice-a fatal perfect entertainment.  Thus the entertainment short circuits the logic of displaced desire or endless postponement that has driven Wallace's media history. Here satisfaction is truly met, here the gap is closed and as a result the entire social system is fundamentally threatened

    The results of viewing the entertainment are significant in that they are characterised by a certain interjacence, thus one victim of the entertainment- a federal operative accidentally exposed to the cartridge during its investigation- is described as 'if stuck in some way...fixed.Held.Trapped. As in trapped in some sort of middle. Between two things. Pulled apart in different directions' (647).



Caught between contraries, trapped in the middle, such is the power of modulation and modulation as a figure of power operates via the middle. For the disciplinary regimes the interstices were a source of danger-the breeding ground of opposition and resistance- but in the societies of control they are the locus of power and modulation works by always placing itself in the between ('undulatory, in orbit, in a continuous network') and it is the continual redeployment of this 'between' that characterises the operations of control. Addiction, sport, and  telematics all exhibit this 'between' in Infinite Jest, all are characterised by instabilities, negotiations and unstable compromises and Infinite Jest in tracing the threefold homology this paper has outlined conspires to produce a global image of a power that operates in this fashion. It is a power characterised by its immanence, thus there are no hierarchical relationships between these spheres, instead they all exist upon a single 'plane', the problematics of the individual psyche and those of the social field are one and the same [7].

    It would appear then that the novel, in spite of its abundant humour, proffers a truly nightmarish vision. A vision of a culture lost in appentency, of a culture that fosters choice as a means of control. Is Infinite Jest then a prescription for pessimism; is its clinical judgement terminal? One of the characters involved in the production of the 'entertainment' poses the question as to whether the lethal cartridge was 'a cage or really a door' and it is this ambiguity that is the site both of power and resistance. An ambiguity that Heidegger, whose language finds its echo in the rhetoric of Wallace's Teutonic tennis coach [8], captured perfectly:

    ' Being has already cast itself upon us and has cast itself away from us...This appears to be a "contradiction." Only we do not want to snatch what is disclosed there [and put it into] a formal scheme...this way, everything becomes merely weakened in its essence and becomes essence-less under the appearance of a "paradoxical" formulation. As opposed to this, we must attempt to experience [the fact] that we-placed between two limits-are transferred into a unique abode from which there is no exit. Yet since we find ourselves transferred into this situation of no exit, we will notice perhaps even this uttermost situation without exit might arise from being itself...'

    ( Heidegger in Zimmerman, 1990:220 emphasis in original)

Here we are presented with two modes of approaching 'the between'. The first is that of the apparent contradiction of a 'formal scheme': i.e. the contradiction of the addict who reels between desire and its satisfaction which results in redoubled desire; of the tennis prodigy whose finds himself trapped in the between of fame or the burning envy of fame, or that of cartridge viewer trapped between the freedom to consume and the bondage that is consumption. These are the permissible paradoxes of modulation, but as both Heidegger and Wallace suggest there is that other paradox, that other 'between' that does not form an opposition but instead attempts 'to experience the fact that we are placed between two limits'. For in the procedure of temporal fragmentation practised by AA, in the creation of a world within a world advocated by Coach Schitt, Infinite Jest perhaps offers the possibility for a means of dwelling in modulation. These potential methods for reclaiming subjectivity are as mobile, subtle and immanent as the power they elude, 'we are what we walk between' and it is through the cultivation of this other 'between' that we may escape the serpentine logics of control [9]. This involves not an escape from the cage, but a conversion of the cage into a door-the caged bird must learn to sing.


Virginia Berridge & Griffith Edwards 1999, Opium and the people: Opiate Use in Nineteenth-Century England, London, Free Association.

William Burroughs (1964) , The Naked Lunch, London , Corgi Books.

Gilles Deleuze (1991), The Logic of Sense , trans. Mark Lester with Charles Stivale, New York, Columbia University Press.

Gilles Deleuze (1992), Postscript on the Societies of Control, OCTOBER 59, 3-7, available online at

Gilles Deleuze (1979) Metal, metallurgy, music, Husserl, Simondon’ (unpublished seminar), trans. Timothy S. Murphy  available at:

Jacques Derrida (1995) , 'The Rhetoric of Drugs' in  Points... Interviews 1974-1994, Stanford, California, Stanford University Press , pgs. 228-254.

Geoffrey Harding (1995) , Opiate addiction, morality and medicine, London, Macmillan Press.

Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt (2000) , Empire, Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press.

Eve Sedgwick (1992), ‘Epidemics of the Will’ in Incorporations, New York,

Zone Books, pgs.582-595.

Paul Virilio (2000), Polar Inertia, trans. Patrick Camiller, London, Sage Publications.

David Foster Wallace (1997), Infinite Jest, London, Abacus Books.

David Foster Wallace (1998) , A supposedly fun thing I'll never do again: Essays and Arguments, London , Abacus Books.

Michael E. Zimmerman (1990), Heidegger's Confrontation with Modernity: Technology, Politics, Art, Bloomington and Indianapolis, Indiana University Press


1. On molding and modulation, see Deleuze and Guattari (1989) , A Thousand Plateaus, trans. Brian Massumi, London, Athlone Press, pgs. 410-11, also Deleuze (1993), The Fold: Liebinz and the Baroque, trans. Tom Conley, London, Athlone Press, pg.19.

2. 'Telematics' as used here refers to the convergence of telecommunications and computing. It has been chosen since it captures the full implications of Wallace's future mediascape.

3. c.f. Derrida, (1995):244: ' In the name of this organic and originary naturalness of the body we declare and wage war on drugs, the war against these artifical, pathogenic and foreign aggressions.... [Here] we find a desire to reconstitute... the "ideal body", " the perfect body ". But ... from the other side of this problem, so to speak... " products" otherwise considered dangerous and unnatural are often considered apt for the liberation of this same " ideal " or " perfect " body...'.

4. Infinite Jest contains a number of allusions to Gravity's Rainbow, most notably in Wallace's invocation of the  Bröckengespenstphänom - a particular trick of the light that allows individuals placed on promontories to cast gargantuan shadows over the landscape famously described in Goethe's Faust, see IJ: 88 and Gravity's Rainbow: 331.

4. Cf. David Foster Wallace's 'Tennis Player Michael Joyce's Professional Artistry as a Paradigm of Certain Stuff about Choice, Freedom, Discipline, Joy, Grotesquerie, and Human Completeness':

'...we prefer not to countenance the kinds of sacrifice the professional-grade athlete has made to get so good at one thing. Oh, we'll pay lip service to these sacrifices-we'll invoke lush clichés about the lonely heroism of Olympic athletes, the pain and analgesia of football, the early rising and hours of practice and the restricted diets, the privations...But the actual facts of the sacrifices repel us when we see them: basketball geniuses who cannot read, sprinters who dope themselves, defensive tacklers who shot up bovine hormones until they collapse or explode...the realities of top-level athletics today require an early and total commitment to one pursuit. An almost ascetic focus. A subsumption of almost all other features of human life to their one chosen talent and pursuit. A consent to live in a world that, like a child's world [and that of the addict?], is very serious and very small.'(Wallace, 1998:237)

5. Might it not be possible to detect in this image of the academy player's arms a sort of inverted image of the track ridden arms of the intravenous user, a structural parallelism reminiscent of the relation between the body of the king and the body of the condemned in Foucault's opening to Discipline and Punish?

6. In an essay on the condition of American television Wallace makes this correlation between spectorial consumption and drug abuse explicit:

' But the analogy between liquor and television is best... watching television can become malignantly addictive... something is malignantly addictive if (1) it causes real problems for the addict, and (2) it offers itself as a relief from the very problem it causes'. Television he notes 'begins to substitute for something nourishing and needed, and the original genuine hunger...subsides into a strange objectless unease'

This equation of television with drug consumption is by no means novel,  see for example Marie Winn (1977) The Plug-In Drug.

7. This single plane can be related to what Deleuze terms a 'diagram' or 'abstract machine', that is the sort a summation of the manner in which power operates within a society, it is 'the map of relations between forces...which proceeds by primary non-localizable relations and at every moment passes through every point' (Deleuze 1988, Foucualt, :36) Consequently the diagram is not a transcendent image of society, instead it is the totality that is produced in every instant, and results from the mutual articulation of multiple social spheres, or what Deleuze calls 'concrete machines' or 'assemblages'. Within control the relation between the abstract and the concrete becomes explicit and the diagram comes to operate as

    ' ... a non-unifying immanent cause that is coextensive with the whole social field:

    the abstract machines is like the cause of the concrete assemblages that execute its

    relations; and these relations take place 'not above' but within the very tissue of   

     the assemblages they produce' (ibid: 37)

What is important within the present context is the way in which this enables us to understand the threefold homology of Infinite Jest. Addiction, sport and the media are not three fields to be related analogically, as if each in its own way incarnated an image of control. Rather they exist in a relationship of reciprocal presupposition, producing each other and the abstract machine of modulation in each instance. This process of co-articulation presents a possible explanation for Infinite Jest's self professed 'anti-confluential' structure.  Devoid of apparent closure, IJ's 'plot' is not linear but consists of repeated pro- and analepses; instead of chapters Wallace's presents the reader with multiple sections or 'plateaus'a of various lengths ' can be seen as an expression of the manner in which modulation operates; that is by a constant and restless rearticulation of its forces.  In this light there emerges an absolute necessary relation between DFW's concerns and style (particularly those aspects of the latter dismissed as indulgent, narcissistic, or incontinent). Indeed it is possible that his true originality resides in this formal fidelity to the anfractous and ultimately toxic forms that modern subjectivity assumes.

8. see  IJ: 233 '- more interesting issue from a Heideggerian perspective is a priori, whether space as a concept is enframed by technology as a concept-'.

9. In the 'Postcript' Deleuze elects the serpent as a sort of heraldic animal for the operations of control:

    ' The old monetary mole is the animal of the space of enclosure, but the serpent is that of the societies of control. We have passed from one animal to the other, from the mole to the serpent, in the system we live under...'


aOr perhaps 'plateaux', see IJ:115

Last Updated on Wednesday, 15 December 2010 08:06  

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