Travis W. Stern
Dr. Robert L. McLaughlin
"I Am in Here": Fragmentation and the Individual in
David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest
"It will be someone blue-collar and unlicensed, though, inevitably – a nurse with quick-bit nails, a hospital security guy, a tired Cuban orderly who addresses me as jou – who will, looking down in the middle of some kind of bustled task, catch what he sees as my eye and ask So yo then man what’s your story? (Infinite Jest 17).
First published in 1996, much of David Foster Wallace’s novel Infinite Jest occurs thirteen years in the future in the year 2009 by the Gregorian calendar, and in the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment according to the novel’s own Subsidized Time. This new system of time was conceived of and introduced by the head of the newly formed Organization of North American Nations, who also is the President of the United States, as a means of generating national income to compensate for the loss of the better part of four states. The act of selling an abstract, but seemingly fixed point of reference around which people orient themselves is one that begins to show the arbitrary state in which the characters of the novel exist. While in both 1996 and the Year of the Depends Adult Undergarment people continually search their lives and the world around them for meaning, the world that the novel’s characters inhabit is one in which few life-defining elements are stable, leaving them unable to search for meaning from a stationary base.
In their quest for meaning, the characters use any available means to assist them. They define themselves through communal inclusion or exclusion, their deeds, actions, family and other relationships. Through these ways they are able to construct an identity for themselves, but not necessarily one that links appearance and reality. Whether the disjunction between the two is intentional or not, the fragmented nature of the society they live in mirrors their own fractious identities. The way the world has been constructed around them affects their lives and the role they play within the system as they undermine, maintain, or are manipulated by it.
The system, as established by the United States and imposed upon other countries through the Organization of North American Nations, depends on and supposedly promotes the individual as the basis of economy, government and other things social. Yet, instead of promoting individuality as a method to discovering meaning, the system directs the individual toward joining a group as a means to define themselves. Groups of individuals are proven through the system of government to have more power than a single person, since decisions are made based on the choices of a majority of the populace. This push toward grouping is on both a conscious and an unconscious level. Consciously groups vie for membership through revelation of their beliefs or goals. Religions, social and political organizations seek those of like mindset to help swell their rosters of individuals and give themselves more power as a collection. Unconsciously people have already been grouped in many ways without any personal choice. Politically all U.S. citizens are grouped by location with the political boundaries of the states and can be further sub-grouped through more local measures. On a more intimate level, individuals are bound together through familial relationships. Through these groupings people can find individuality through similarity to others. As the motto on U.S. currency – E Pluribus Unum – asserts the individuality of the piece, made just as important is the conclusion that it is part of a greater whole: not merely one, but one of many.
In order for groupings to be effective though, the group cannot just depend on the similarity of its members. There must also be something else which is dissimilar to the group that can be set up as opposition. This allows the group to set its individuality against a background of "others" that are dissimilar to those in the group. Without an "other" the group’s similar trait is not unique and distinctive as a means of separation. There must be those that are excluded so that there is a feeling of inclusion and belonging among the group.
Cultural theorist Edward Said writes about the Western world’s construction of the Orient as an "other" in his book Orientalism. Through the past and continuing through the present, works concerning the Orient written by Western authors have assumed both a cultural and intellectual superiority over the people who are their subject. Examining "style, figure of speech, setting, narrative devices, historical and social circumstances," Said presents that " the representation is always governed by some version of the truism that if the Orient could represent itself, it would; since it cannot, the representation does the job, for the West, and faute de meiux, for the Orient" (21). Whether the representation is based in truth or not, the representation itself becomes the most important thing to the dominant force. It can be presented any way the dominant force sees fit since, to the force, it is based upon the notion of truth and, to that effect, any discrepancies apparent in the representation would be contested by the dominant force. However, the need for the representation itself is proof to the dominant force that the force being dominated is unable to present itself in an appealing manner to its’ dominator.
Said writes that Orientalism "is not mere political subject matter or field that is reflected passively by culture, scholarship, or institutions . . . nor is it representative and expressive of some nefarious "Western" imperialist plot to hold down the "Oriental" world" (12). To limit the ideas to one view or the other is to minimalize the impact and cultural effect that this form of cultural domination has on both societies. Said continues on explaining the relevance of his course of study beyond the scope of East/West relations:
It is rather a distribution of geopolitical awareness into aesthetic, scholarly, economic, sociological, historical, and philological texts; it is an elaboration not only of a basic geographical distinction (the world is made up of two unequal halves, Orient and Occident) but also of a whole series of "interests" which, by such means as scholarly discovery, philological reconstruction, psychological analysis, landscape and sociological description, it not only creates but also maintains; it is, rather than expresses, a certain will or intention to understand, in some cases to control, manipulate, even to incorporate, what is manifestly different (or alternative and novel) world; it is, above all, a discourse that is by no means in direct, corresponding relationship with political power in the raw, but rather is produced and exists in an uneven exchange with various kinds of power, shaped to a degree by the exchange with power political (as with a colonial or imperial establishment), power intellectual (as with reigning sciences like comparative linguistics or anatomy, or any of the modern policy sciences), power cultural (as with orthodoxies and canons of taste, texts, values), power moral (as with ideas about what "we" do and what "they" cannot do or understand as "we" do). Indeed, my real argument is that Orientalism is – and does not simply represent – a considerable dimension of modern political-intellectual culture, and as such has less to do with the Orient than it does with "our" world. (12).
Said’s ideas have a more widespread impact than just on dealings with the Orient. It is a study that can be applied to any dominator / dominated relationship.
The utilization of this school of thought upon a culture by an oppressive force is both deliberate and precise. As Said states earlier in the introduction about the title and subject of his book, " Orientalism can be discussed as the corporate institution for dealing with the Orient – dealing with it by making statements about it, authorizing views of it, describing it, by teaching it, settling it, ruling over it; in short, Orientalism is a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient" (3). These three issues – domination, restructuring, and superior authority – are exhibited in the world of Infinite Jest through the "corporate institution" of the United States Government. As the obsessive – compulsive, former famous crooner Johnny Gentle and his Clean United States Party begin to take the reigns of power in the U.S. Government, a plan emerges that shows the U.S. applying a cultural dominance over its neighbor to the north, Canada.
The "Othering" of Canada
"It is a long story to the side of this story, but my part of the Swiss nation is in my time of no legs invaded and despoiled by stronger and evil hated and neighboring nations, who claim as in the Anschluss of Hitler that they are friends and are not invading the Swiss but conferring on us gifts of alliance" (IJ 776-7).
Re-told through Mario Incandenza’s puppet show version of his father’s own film The ONANtiad, Gentle’s rise to power comes on the basis of wide-spread angry-voter reaction and through the utter ineptitude of the United States’ primary political choices the Republicans and the Democrats. With a political platform focusing on, "One: waste. Two: no new enhancements. Three: find somebody outside the borders of our community selves to blame," (IJ 441), Gentle is faced with what his advisors refer to as the "Triple Bind." The electorate is unwilling to lose federally funded programs, yet are just as unwilling to stand for any means of revenue enhancements through taxes, all the while the financial communities, Federal Reserve Board, and multitudes of trading partners demand a balanced national budget. This financial predicament results from his proposed solution to the main element of his election campaign; a solution which also finds an "other" to fulfill his final campaign promise. ONAN’s Territorial Reconfiguration shows the U.S.’s ability and extent to which they dominate, restructure, and maintain authority over Canada.
Said points out that the ideas behind Orientalism are an "elaboration not only of a basic geographical distinction" (12), but that this geographical distinction does exist, noting, " the world is made up of unequal halves, Orient and Occident" (12). This means of physical separation pre-exists the application of a dominating culture, but it’s mere presence both allows and enhances the dominating faction’s claim that the other culture is different and therefore able to be represented through whatever means deemed necessary. Yet, the physical space between an oppressive and an oppressed culture need not be as wide as the distance between England and its colonies in Africa and Asia. The same effect can be achieved between two nations whose only separation is a politically, rather than geographically, determined border. As Gentle, in puppet form, says during his inauguration, "Dammit, there just must be some people besides each other of us to blame. To unite in opposition to. And he promises to eat light and sleep very little until he finds them – in the Ukraine, or the Teutons, or the wacko Latins. Or – pausing with that one arm up and head down in the climactic Vegas way – closer to right below our nose" (IJ 384). To find that other, Gentle looks no further than across the northern border.
Even before the Organization of North American Nations is put into place, Gentle names both the Presidente of Mexico and the Prime Minister of Canada to honorary positions on his cabinet as "secretaries" of their respective countries. The narrator notes: "as if the neighbors had already become sort of post-millennial American protectorates" (IJ 384). The U.S. goes further in its claim of its neighbors as protected property as Gentle explains in order to calm him Canadian counterpart’s questions about remaining strategic missiles located in Manitoba, "I’ve got more long shiny trailer-rigs full of large men with very short haircuts and white suits than you can shake a maple leaf at heading for your silos right this very" (IJ 386). This "invasion force" of Gentle’s, which is in effect a highly-trained sanitation crew, is the first wave in the plan for Territorial Reconfiguration and the "othering" of Canada, since Gentle’s workers are moving the missiles just south of the border to be used later as a forceful bargaining chip in the bid for interdependence. Gentle and the U.S. are able to show their domination over Canada through the statesmanly way Gentle sends his cleaning agents into their land under the guise of friendship.
After Gentle is able to coerce the Canadians into joining ONAN, he is now able to hold a more formal political authority over them. Whereas previously the heads of state of Mexico and Canada held honorary positions as "secretaries" in Gentle’s cabinet—a position obviously subordinate to Gentle’s post—under the ONAN agreement, the two heads are relegated to being co-vice chairs under the direction of the Chair of ONAN, Johnny Gentle. With the political approval, whether forcefully manipulated or not, of both nations, Gentle now holds a political power unmatched continentally. Similar to Said’s reference of a power political consisting of "a colonial or imperial establishment" (12), Gentle has established a U.S. imperial presence in the other nations through his power and control of ONAN. With the political and physical power behind him, Gentle is free to do as he pleases.
The final aspect of Said’s model of Western control of the Orient is a restructuring. While this has already happened on a political level with the formation of ONAN, it also happens physically as the borders are re-drawn to suit the dominant faction’s—the United States—needs. In this case, the close proximity of the nation being dominated and the nation of domination allows for a physical restructuring not possible with a domination occurring over a distance, such as the aforementioned English colonies. The United States is able to directly impact both Canada and its own border under Gentle’s plan to "give it away" in Territorial Reconfiguration. The "it" being referred to is the better part of four U.S. states that contain all the waste and toxic refuse pledged by Gentle’s campaign to be cleaned up and disposed. Canada, uneager to accept contaminated land as a gift, especially since it is a large country to begin with, is powerless to refuse the territory due to the power wielded by Gentle and the U.S. Imperial by nature, but experial by consequence, the restructuring of Canada’s politically determined landmass impacts the internal politics of a nation already under the control of another.
Already seeking separation from Canada, the province of Quebec must now confront the unofficial adjoinment of more land—contaminated land at that—under the pretense that it belongs to Canada. As Hal Incandenza explains to his brother Orin, "So that so what if Ottawa didn’t formally subjoin the Concavity to any particular province . . . Because the map speaks for itself. Bits of western New Brunswick and a smidgen of Ontario aside, the Concavity—the physical fact and the fallout of the Concavity—it’s Quebec’s problem" (IJ 1017). The restructuring of the nation’s border by the U.S. sets into motion a change in aim of the Quebec separatists, choosing to focus their efforts to anti-ONAN campaigns on behalf of all Canadians, in the hope the Canadian government will set Quebec free and rid themselves of the troublemakers. While the rift shows a nation unable to control its citizens, the danger now posed by the Quebecers in the Canadian name becomes a legitimate threat to U.S. interests and its populace.
Through the domination, authority, and restructuring of Canada, the United States has been able to show that its neighbor to the north is physically different than itself. Said’s statement of a corporate institution’s dealing with the subordinate culture includes the ideas that the dominating force authorizes views of the culture, describes it, settles it, and rules over it. The U.S. has been able to authorize the views of Canada and rule over it simultaneously though the construction of a US-led ONAN. They have also described Canadian territory by affixing an unwanted landmass to its border, and then is able to settle the land not with humans, but with indescribable waste and unbelievable flora and fauna, leaving the territory uninhabitable. However, the assertion that the culture is physically different from the U.S. does not necessarily construct the culture as "other". Returning to Said’s statement of a Western corporate institution’s dealings, he also includes making statements about the culture, and teaching the views established about it by the dominant culture. It is through these means that the "othering" of Canada becomes personal.
Said’s account of Orientalism shows that the dominant power is able to represent the other culture and all aspects associated with it to both cultures. It has been argued through time by linguists and theorists alike that the way in which humans represent the world around us is through language. Using a section of Ferdinand de Saussure’s book Course in General Linguistics, as reprinted in Modern Literary Theory: A Reader, as a guide for the way language becomes representative for the surrounding world, Gentle’s plan of finding and maintaining an "other" has apparently been accepted and utilized by the American people.
In creating an "other" through representation, it is already assumed that the "other" is inferior by the fact of its "need," in the view of the dominant force, to be represented. The "other" is unable to present itself to the satisfaction of the force and so their attempt must be transformed into a presentation that is seen as more fitting; obviously one approved and constructed by the dominant force. Yet, the mere assumption of inferiority does not go far enough to be able to sell the idea of an "other" to the general populace. The idea must be molded into a more appetizing form, one that is readily accessible, but is not obvious as such. Saussure writes about the relation of the signifier and the signified, "The arbitrary nature of the sign explains in turn why the social fact alone can create a linguistic system" (MLT 10). Along with "the social fact" is what can be, or has been, constructed as social fact, such as the relative inferiority of another culture. Saussure continues on, "The community is necessary if values that owe their existence solely to usage and general acceptance are to be set up; by himself the individual is incapable of fixing a single value" (MLT 10). The idea behind the word(s) must be generally accepted by a community to have any meaning, and for that meaning to convey a sense of inferiority, the presentation of the idea must be in a demeaning manner.
A difference – reinforcing maintenance of "otherness" is seen in how both cultures have been able to linguistically construct the addition/subtraction of tainted land to/from their political border. Neglecting to use "the officially spun term for making Canada take U.S. terrain" – known as Territorial Reconfiguration – the people of both nations have coined their own phrases to describe how ONAN has re-drawn the North American map. As described in footnote 177, the two terms, " Great Concavity and Great Convexité are more like U.S./Canadian street argot that got adopted and genericized by the media" (IJ 1032). These two contrasting terms have been accepted generally throughout both cultures as a reflection of what has become the physical and social fact of the region.
The use or preference of one term over the other belies one’s political beliefs and ideology. The argument overheard by Joelle at Molly Notkin’s party between the Canadian prosthetic film-scholar, Alain, and an unnamed, but presumably American adversary is not merely one of semantics, but is also politically charged. Instead of openly disagreeing with Alain’s theory on the coloration of the Charles River, the assumed American focuses on Alain’s word choice of "convexity" over "concavity" as the centerpiece of the argument. Although both terms describe the same region of land, the meanings of the two differ. The use of "concavity" as a reference to the concave portion of the U.S. map is an emphasis on territory that is no longer American, and so being, is also no longer of American concern. From the role as the dominant force, the American term "concavity" serves to represent the newly Canadian region not only for the Americans, but primarily for the Canadians since they, as a dominated force, cannot represent themselves fully. The word, whose only relation as a signifier is in what the physical fact of the signified has done to the dominant force’s map, assumes a superiority from its use by the oppressing power. "Convexity," meanwhile, finds its meaning in that the physical reality of the region is the new bulge in the Canadian map, as unwanted and unwelcome now as when first attached. The unwillingness of Alain to accept the other term shows both an allegiance to the Canadian community and ideology, as well as a willingness to be seen as an "other" to this group of Boston residents.
However, this stand-off (or at least, what we as readers are permitted to hear of it through Joelle’s ears) comes to an end in much the same way the actual transference of land occurred, as the assumed American blurts out the threatening, "Damn your eyes!" (IJ 234). Whether Alain accepts the American’s term the same way his country accepted the land under the threat of violence, we know not. While in this instance the assumed American’s threat alone does not necessarily demean Alain, its role has already been established as a tool of insult through the assumed American’s first line of dialogue. As he "politely" corrects Alain’s word usage, he places himself in a position of superiority as an "instructor" or "teacher" to Alain’s obviously subordinate role as "learner" or "student." Perhaps to another character this subtle repositioning of roles would be inconsequential, but for a film-scholar academically employed at M.I.T. to be placed in a subservient position during a social situation, in which he was attempting to "profess" his thoughts on the new New England environment, it becomes a very demeaning situation. Increasingly so when the "lesson" being "taught" to him concerns his nationality and ideology, and is witnessed by an audience of American film-scholars and students.
Although the incident at the party was predominately the degradation of a particular individual, there also exists several means in the novel by which the Canadian people as a whole are presented in an inferior manner. These instances are not limited to a particular area or segmented population of the U.S. due to the means by which they are disseminated. Edward Said, in speaking of how Orientalism is still prevalent today, writes, "One aspect of the electronic, postmodern world is that there has been a reinforcement of the stereotypes by which the Orient is viewed. Television, the films, and all the media’s resources have forced information into more and more standardized roles" (Said 26). The force-fed information through these media outlets becomes concrete in the minds of the public and consciously or subconsciously becomes a part of their ideology. While we have seen language of the street affect the practices of the media – as witnessed in the above statement concerning the Great Concavity / Convexity as street language which was adopted and used by the media – the practice can also act cyclically as street terms that have become used by the media are once again turned into the language of the street, but for a more diverse population.
One such term is the word "Canuck," or its shorter form "Nuck," as an epithet for a Canadian, in particular a French Canadian. While this sometimes offensive term has existed for a while and is primarily seen as non-malicious, especially through its use as the nickname of the Vancouver National Hockey League franchise, in Infinite Jest the term is now additionally backed with strong anti-Canadian feelings and resentment, and has become a tool to define and reinforce Canadians as "other". One of the first instances of its use occurs in a newspaper headline from Mario’s I-Day film describing Canada’s official entry into ONAN. "CANADA ‘NUCK’LES UNDER – Tabloidish NY Daily’s 24 – point Superheader" (IJ 392). From the word’s usage in a "media resource" such as a newspaper – albeit a tabloid – it becomes available to a more widespread portion of the population and its inference to Canada a subservient body to the U.S.’s will provides an additional meaning to the slur.
The narrator reveals an example of how the term exists and works in the minds of Americans as Gately first realizes who the men are chasing after Lenz. Described by Gately as "foriegnish," with "non-U.S. beards," these "unAmerican" pursuers seem to be less of a threat until the first moment "it emerges on Gately it’s Nucks, the trio Lenz has managed to outrage is Nucks" (IJ 610), both Gately and the narrator use the term "Nucks" to refer to these three men throughout the remainder of the section. These nameless, although important story-wise, Canadians are described solely through their sequence of confrontation and relative danger posed, though always referred to as "Nucks." While it may be a term comfortable and commonplace for Gately to use, it is the narrator’s repeated use of the term that is significant. During Gately’s previous encounter with a Canadian – the Quebecois P.I.T. DuPlessis – the narrator does not refer to him as a "Nuck," but rather as a Quebecer, or as a Canadian. The labeling of these three Canadian men as "Nucks" remaining otherwise nameless, while maintaining a more respectful means of describing a Canadian character with a name, serves the purpose that the epithet desires – to "other" people through dehumanizing them.
Through their dehumanizing nature, these terms "Canuck," "Nuck," and, later Bruce Green’s "QueNuckers," provide the foundation through which the Canadian people are set up as inferior and perhaps even laughable. At ETA where fewer than 10 Canadian players reside, jokes are made on a consistent basis about both Canada and its inhabitants. While many of the jokes are old and tired, they have now been modified to fit the world of the novel – i.e. Kyle Coyle’s "what do Canadian girls put behind their ears to attract boys?" joke on pages 633-5 – by inserting Canadian descriptors into the formula where needed. The jokes, despite their age, are told so that the listener may laugh at the Canadian people as a whole, but does not specifically include the ones at ETA. Yet, by laughing at the whole, the Canadian ETA students are included regardless. Usually separate from their American counterparts at all mass-student gatherings, the Canadian players do not hear the jokes being told, except for John Wayne. Wayne, who is seen as more of a biological tennis-machine than man, is dehumanized enough in the minds of the students that his status as a Canadian does not be of any concern, and, due to his considerable skill, he is not laughable at all.
However, the humor of these jokes becomes lessened as the tone becomes more dark. One of the students, McKenna, asks if the world would notice the difference that 22 generations of Montreal children are born microcephalic as result of a fusion bomb and he is regarded as a "wiseacre" (IJ 329). It is with this same regard that Canadians usually play a significant role in each match’s Triggering Situation. Explained in footnote 126, "It being well-nigh impossible to keep the present from infecting even a playful and childlike Historical Consciousness, Canadians often end up playing picayune but villainous roles in Eschatonic TRIGSITs" (IJ 1025). No longer merely just the butt of the joke, the Canadians are constructed as instigators in the students’ games about the end of time. Separate, laughable and villainous they have come to represent the "other" that the Clean U.S. Party sought out to create and blame.
By using the media and the language of the street, the U.S. has been able to make statements about Canadian culture that sets them apart in a linguistic sense from the Americans. Carefully constructing the language to represent the world the way they see fit, the U.S. brings the proposal of "otherness" away from a focus on the physical and into the personal. Rather than two nations set forth in opposition, the struggle becomes waged on a closer-knit feeling community level. Using the community to establish and to teach of the differences, through the media and oral sources, the opposition can be viewed as subhuman, without merit and malleable. So that in order to feel as more of a member of the community, one must further themselves away from the other, and by being belittled through jokes and epithets their community is demeaned and the U.S. assumes a superiority on political, physical, and cultural levels. A domination that is both deliberate and complete.
It is the goal of the all this degradation of another society to give the American people not only an enemy to consider, but to establish a unity amongst themselves. For such a large country and a diverse populace, maintenance of a national unity is a feat not easily accomplished. Even as Gentle’s Clean U.S. Party diminishes the total land mass of the political borders and establishes a new feeling of community in an effort to make the continent and country smaller, there remains a sense of fractiousness within the U.S. Still seeking a solid meaning to their lives, they look further.
Although already part of the American community, both politically and physically, individuals seek smaller, more exclusive groups to help define what and who they are, or more importantly, what and who they are not. While these groups may not need to construct an "other" with the same fervor of the Clean U.S. Party, there usually does exist some opposition or a group with a conflicting stance on whatever it is a particular group uses as its central binding component. Even in the instances where no obvious or apparent "other" exists to pose an opposition, the mere existence of others that do not hold the same hierarchy of values and central similarity is enough to provide a background against which a group can be formed. All groups are unified in that they all hold the same basic tenet that "we are what others are not." However, a split occurs in this unity in regards to how a group deals with its opposition. Through an examination of how a group views its opposition, we are able to better understand how an individual in this world is able to construct a meaning for their lives.
Interpersonal "Othering" – Volitional Grouping in the U.S.
"What if in fact there were ever only like two really distinct people walking around back there in history’s mist? That all difference descends from this difference? The whole and the partial. The damaged and the intact. The deformed and the paralyzingly beautiful. The insane and the attendant. The hidden and the blindingly open. The performer and the audience. No Zen-type One, always rather Two, one upside-down in a convex lens" (IJ 220)
As much as Americans have been grouped together on a relatively unconscious level – mentioned previously with political groupings and familial groupings – there still exists an urge for one to have an active role in defining themselves; an urge that can be quenched by consciously choosing which groups belong with. While an opposition to the group is necessary for a sense of inclusion and belonging, there need not necessarily be a feeling of animosity toward their counterparts. A simple reality that there is a difference between them is sufficient. For these groups, social difference and linguistic separation do not need to establish the "other" as inherently inferior; they merely need be "other than us."
An example of a freely-chosen group using a non-deprecatory approach to its "other" is the United States Office of Unspecified Services. Despite being a group involved with devious and confrontational activities, the members of the O.U.S. are able to help define themselves against the people they "serve" not only through their actions, but primarily through impartial linguistic measures. Hugh (a.k.a. "Helen") Steeply, an agent of O.U.S., calls the entertainment-stricken Medical attaché a "civilian-type individual" (IJ 90). Using the term as reference to someone who is not in the military, Steeply’s use of it establishes the attaché as a person other than a member of his group. He is an "other," but there is no allusion to whether or not he is regarded as inferior. The distinction between the two sets one up as the "protector" and the other as the "protected" without judgement of the other’s worth.
It is with this same word "civilian" that another group is able to define themselves as opposed to another without degrading the "other’s" worth. Used several times throughout the novel by persons that abuse substances, the term does not contain so much of a military meaning as it does contrast those who are and behave civil, with those who do not. In the section explaining what someone would learn if they spent time in a facility such as Ennet House, the narrator refers to "nonaddicted adult civilians" with more of sense of respect than degradation (IJ 201). Contrasting themselves in this way, the users proclaim their "uncivilized" abuse of drugs as the point of opposition, yet do not belittle the "civilians" for their conflicting attitude. While this may be seen as the addicts belittling themselves to establish the difference, they do not seek any form of elimination of the "other," choosing to exist together.
Whereas the previous two groups have used their defining linguistic devices from a basis of their physical and social place, the Union of the Hideously and Improbably Deformed have sought out a physical separation based on how they had been linguistically separated by others. UHID calls out to a vast range of people thought to be abnormal. In Madame Psychosis’ radio program, she reads the names of various afflictions or ailments that have come to define these people as a lesser "other" to regular society (IJ 185 – 192). By getting these outcasts to "don the veil" and "openly hide," UHID members re-enter society on their own terms, and define themselves physically with the veil. Based on how they had come to be known, and seeking equality rather than superiority, they have taken control of their "otherness" and with the assistance of privacy the veil provides, have come together to be seen as a regular part of society. No longer isolated, rather they are linguistically bound together as UHID.
However, groups that do not seek to demean their "other" do not necessarily have to be as reticent as those mentioned above. Some other groups seek to establish a symbiotic relationship with their "other," and depend on the interaction itself as much as what they are interacting with to define themselves. In this relationship, one group will be prevalent for a matter of time, then it will move to a more subservient position while the second takes precedence until the cycle begins again. It was this ever-changing relationship that James Incandenza explored through several of his movies. Using the performer / audience relationship as a focus, JOI’s film The Medusa v. The Odalisque showed an audience raptly watching a battle between the titular, mythic creatures. Showing the audience turn individually to ruby or stone until no one is left to applaud, the film ends with the "performers" still fighting for an inanimate audience. Without an audience to perform to, the symbiosis is broken and the relationship falls apart as there can no longer be a "performance" without an audience, and thus, no "performers" either. However, by result of the manner in which it was filmed, the audience in the film is the primary performer to those watching the film, and similarly, upon the live audience’s unwillingness to see the film any longer, its viewing ceased. Yet, the film shows how one group exists for the benefit of another. The performers provide the performance and receive the attention, while the audience is supplied with a performance and provides the attention – and hopefully applause. The relationship is centered not around one group or the other, but around the combination and interaction of the two. This combination of which JOI’s film, The Joke, takes to a new level by defining the same group as both audience and performer, the only separation occurring as one "group" is the other "group" filmicly projected onto the screen. Again having the film end as the audience is no more, this film establishes a more firm duality of groups that The Medusa v. The Odalisque alluded to with its multiple audiences. Defined through their own existence as another group, the audience / performer plays both roles until they finally abandon the theater.
JOI’s films are an extreme example of how the groups can be defined in this symbiotic relationship. While it is possible for one group to dually function as both roles in the relationship simultaneously, it is more common for two separate groups to exchange roles in the symbiosis. An example of this occurs during ETA’s exhibition fundraiser as the audience for the day’s matches watches the final few conclude, "the guys in white jackets with trays start appearing in Comm.-Ad., and the gala starts, and then it’s the guests who become the participants and performers" (IJ 964). Previously playing the audience’s role, the spectators transform to the spectated while reciprocally the ETA performers transform into the spectators. Therefore, while each group does play dual roles, it is done in much the same way a singular symbiotic relationship occurs: the groups play their assigned roles simultaneously, but then segue into their new roles as the environment dictates.
There is yet another strata of cohabitation among American volitionally chosen groups; one in which the interaction is more confrontational than the others, yet still not as malicious and deliberate as the U.S.’s "othering" of Canada. Based primarily in regards to competition, the groups herein highlight small differences to define themselves against a multitude of similarities. The best example of competition comes in the form of competitive sports, especially tennis, that are used throughout the novel. In these competitions, one group tries to establish themselves as better than the other, but not the point of elimination as, just as with any grouping, without the "other" there can be no boundary for definition. It is the goal of these groups to be "better" than their opponents, thus achieving a separation based upon social and communal values. In these "us" vs. "them" competitions, the rules - as decided upon through communal agreement - establish which group is the winner, and which groups are not. This hierarchy of winners is the means of separation most sought after and telling. Being the "winner" places the group beyond the realm of the others with privileges being bestowed upon the victor. Singled out through a communally agreed process, this group holds a mild amount of superiority over their opponents until a new winner is established.
To enhance the inclusion – or exclusion – of individuals, these sporting groups help to distinguish themselves through physical means by wearing uniforms or other similarly colored trappings. As Hal narrates in Mario’s film Tennis and the Feral Prodigy, "Here is how you don the red and gray ETA sweats," referring to ETA’s identifying colors (IJ 173). Viewed alone, this color combination means very little, but when another tennis player, such as John Wayne’s opponent from Port Washington Tennis Academy, wears "his light-blue flare collared shirt with WILSON and P.W.T.A. on the sleeves," a difference is established and maintained through their clothing (IJ 262). Marking themselves as part of one group or the other, the players of different academies declare themselves as members of a smaller group within the ONANTA juniors’ competition.
These American freely chosen groups are able to provide an identity to those within that those outside cannot attain. Whether the group’s attitude to its "other" is reticent, symbiotic, competitive or something else, it is still the most important aspect that there exists an "other" to provide boundary and definition, and with which to be interacted. Claiming the "other" as merely being that, and not attempting elimination or degradation, these groups can help to construct a more meaningful sense of the world. As people are grouped together increasingly, sub-groups form to provide distinctions between relatively minute differences to allow for variations. As the grouping occurs both consciously and unconsciously, an individual may exist in many groups simultaneously, all providing different associations and references, and each one constructing the world differently.
While the groups exist to assist an individual in finding meaning for his/her life, they also serve to fragment a larger sense of the society and culture into smaller pieces. It is within this atmosphere of grouping that the sense of individuality, and indeed the individual, becomes lost. The individual, through its existence in a multitude of groups, becomes fractured, just as the society does. Therefore, as groups divide into sub-groups to maintain a more distinct set of similarities amongst its members, the surrounding world of "others" increases. However, the trend toward grouping must meet an eventual end as it reaches the level of individual, which by definition is inherently dissimilar from all else. The inherent difference that is the individual is a problem for a society that seeks, and, to an extent, requires similarity to give meaning.
Isolation of the Individual
"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" (IJ 978).
Those who choose to express their individuality and seek identity without an overt attempt at conscious grouping are forced to isolate themselves. The isolation can come through both physical and linguistic means, yet does not have to be initiated, or even desired by the individual. What the isolation does achieve is a separation from groups, society, and other individuals; at least, that is what it is supposed to achieve. The act of isolation, however, unless kept to a limited point, can lead to destruction of the individual, and will ultimately lead to difficulties in connecting, or re-connecting to a group based society.
Throughout Infinite Jest, many individuals attempt an isolation from society as a means of establishing their own individual identity. While many fail to achieve a lasting, beneficial isolation, there is one character that is able to successfully isolate herself – albeit, only in limited doses. Although Joelle van Dyne claims membership and identity through UHID, she also has another identity that manifests itself currently only through isolation. As Madame Psychosis on M.I.T.’s WYYY radio station, she uses almost a complete physical isolation from the world around her. Located deep within the recesses of the M.I.T. student union, M. Psychosis broadcasts alone, enclosed in a booth and "hidden from all view by a jointed triptych screen of cream chiffon that glows red and green in the lights of the phone bank and cueing panel’s dials and frames her silhouette" (IJ 183). Unseen only heard by her devoted listeners she exists only as a voice over radio waves, virtually intangible. Beginning and ending with the five minutes of dead air, "Sixty Minutes More Or Less With Madame Psychosis On YYY-109, The Largest Whole Prime On The FM Band" is an isolation that, while meaningful, cannot last. While isolated, she is free to critique even her own grouping choices, such as reading the UHID pamphlet over the airwaves. Yet, as the lights on the panels are turned off and WYYY goes into its nightly sign-off, complete with formulaic proofs for the station’s kilowattage specs, Joelle’s existence in isolation ends, as does the essences of M. Psychosis.
While Joelle’s quest of isolation seems to be willingly, ETA’s head trainer Barry Loach approached isolation reluctantly. Challenged by his spiritually ill brother to "drop out" of society until he was merely the recipient of some form of human warmth and kindness, Barry’s isolation was unwanted as he attempted to prove his brother wrong. The resistance shown by members of Boston society to connect – i.e. physical contact and acceptance, and not merely monetary pittance – to Barry shows the reluctance of society to accept those who do not fit into groups. Yet, just as Barry was about to "join" a group by "disappearing forever into the fringes and dregs of metro Boston street life and spending his whole adult life homeless and louse ridden and stemming in the Boston Common," his isolation was ended with a simple handshake from Mario Incandenza, who was fourteen and utterly unknowledgeable about societal rejection (IJ 970). Loach’s isolation, although not brought on by a desire for individuality, was an attempt to find meaning and establish an identity not for him, but for his brother. The experience itself shows the difficulty that an individual in physical isolation has in surviving in a group-based society, whether the isolation was volitional or not.
The most telling example of how isolation can lead to destruction is witnessed in the "dark legend of Eric Clipperton and the Clipperton Brigade" (IJ 407). Listed and regarded as an independent on the USTA tour (though the assumption over the listing proves later to be wrong), Clipperton’s climb to victory by psychic default at tournaments throughout the nation separates him in every way possible from the junior tennis players with whom he "competed." Not regarded as "real," neither Clipperton nor his victories were legitimized through official USTA – existing pre-ONAN – rankings, until ONAN came into existence, and the ONANTA superceded the USTA. Effectively isolated from his surroundings, Clipperton has carved out an independent identity that is very much his own, and, although without "official" meaning, maintains a significant meaning to those people he encounters. Due to an ONANTA official’s error as the first run of the North American Junior Tennis magazine came out, Clipperton appears ranked #1 with an impressive string of now officially-sanctioned victories to his credit, thereby legitimizing not only his wins, but Clipperton himself. No longer in isolation, the suddenly accepted Clipperton loses the very thing that gave him his identity. Just before placing his tournament-deciding Glock 17 in his right hand, and "eliminating his map," Clipperton pulls out of his coat "an elaborately altered copy of NAJT’s biweekly ranking report" (IJ 432). How the issue was altered remains unknown, but assuming it was his own doing, it can also be assumed that his own name is absent from the rankings in an attempt to remove himself from existence, since its appearance and his subsequent legitimized acceptance lead to his downfall. Clipperton is destroyed, just as he emotionally destroyed his opponents. Isolated by his own choice and actions, and a virtual "no one" officially, the meaning he sought was based outside group boundaries. When placed within, the isolation and the individual were lost.
The primary method of isolation Clipperton found was through physical means, yet it was when he became "officially" linguistically accepted through the ONANTA rankings that his isolation broke down. It is through forms of linguistic separation that an individual can isolate themselves, and at the same time remain connected. Much of the linguistic separation comes through the process of labeling. By making a linguistic label to accentuate distinction – i.e. names, rankings – the label not only describes what it stands for, in many cases it comes to represent the thing more fully than the thing itself. To use the rankings that Clipperton could not fathom as an example, the numbers, which are supposed to provide a basis of reference, become the primary source of identification for many of the ETAs. The narrator points out on page 693 that "younger athletes … can’t help gauging their whole worth by their place in an ordinal ranking. … Listen to any sort of sub–16 exchange in the bathroom or the food line: ‘Hey there, how are you?’ ‘Number eight this week is how I am.’ … They all still subscribe to the delusive idea that the continent’s second-ranked fourteen-year-old feels exactly twice as worthwhile as the continent’s # 4." Isolated linguistically by both their rank and what their rank means to them, they still remain connected because the rankings themselves only derive meaning through the sense of group. This is why Clipperton’s unexpected # 1 ranking had such a devastating effect on a person that tried to exist solely in a physically individual vacuum. Also, it is only through this limited linguistic isolation that a group-based society can account for an individual: because the isolation is a derivative of the group.
In this light, there is an isolation achievable through rejecting the group derived isolation of labeling. With this rejection comes a very limited ability for the person to connect with society. However, for the founder of Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House (sic), known only as the Guy Who Didn’t Even Use His First Name, this limited connectivity with society was what he sought. By rejecting to use the group-based label of his name, the GWDEUHFN also rejected the society itself. Through this rejection, the GWDEUHFN established an identity that existed outside of the societal bounds. Unwilling to re-connect to a society in which he was overly dependant on substances, the Guy’s subsequent inability to connect was only mourned as he died without notoriety in the Year of the Yushityu 2007. With his value of the AA tradition of anonymity taken to the utmost extent, and reconstructing his identity outside of the linguistic social barriers, he found a freeing isolation.
Perhaps the most touching example of an individual being isolated linguistically is the mute Antitoi brother, Lucien. Unable to even express feelings of love for his mother, Lucien is effectively restricted from engaging in any form of societal interaction with anyone. He is able, however, to find some form of connection in a world beyond society. The narrator describes that "he has that rare spinal appreciation for beauty in the ordinary that nature seems to bestow on those who have no native words for what they see" (IJ 482). Unwillingly isolated from societal groups, Lucien’s lack of linguistic ability ultimately becomes his end as he does not understand, nor give the proper response to the questions posed to him by the AFR attack leader. It is only for brief moments immediately after his death that Lucien finds connection: "As he finally sheds his body’s suit, Lucien finds his gut and throat again and newly whole, clean and unimpeded, and is free, catapulted home over fans and the Convexity’s glass palisades at desperate speeds, soaring north, sounding a bell-clear and nearly maternal alarmed call-to-arms in all the world’s well-known tongues" (IJ 488 – 9). This brief afterlife Lucien experiences – the only one occurring in the novel – shows his desire to connect to the world around him in spite of his limitations. Until his death, Lucien did not exist in society because of his linguistic inabilities, and after his death, does not exist in society at all.
Those characters in the novel that are isolated from all else are ultimately obliterated by the surrounding world. Those who seek isolated separation, be it physical or linguistic, come to exist in a realm outside society, unless they are able to limit the isolation they can attain. The group-based society serves as its own base of foundation and an individual who is not linked to that base can become, and usually does become, lost. While the rebellion against grouping as a means of establishing identity on an individual basis may seem like an idea inherently American, it is the organization of American society that prevents, or, at least to some extent, hinders this opportunity. The individual, even in attempts to undermine this controlling organization, is only capable of maintaining its pre-established order.
The result of a society fragmented into so many parts is a similar fragmentation occurring in the individual. Given little or no place in society, the individual becomes split as s/he forms identity around the groups that orient and organize everyday life. With attempts at isolation proving fruitless or, worse yet, destructive, the individual must look elsewhere to find meaning. The only avenue remaining is within the individual itself.
Intrapersonal "Othering" – Identity within the Self
"So most of the ETA upperclassmen have these vivid shoe-and-shirt tans that give them the classic look of bodies hastily assembled from different bodies’ parts, especially when you throw in the heavily muscled legs and usually shallow chests and the two arms of different sizes" (IJ 100).
"Do not underestimate objects! Lyle says he finds it impossible to overstress this: do not underestimate objects" (IJ 394).
In seeking meaning within the individual, the process is similar to how it has been attempted in society, by finding an "other" to provide a background for identity. However, as the Oxford English Dictionary asserts as the first and second definitions for the term "individual:" "One in substance or essence; indivisible. That cannot be separated; inseparable" (OED 1352). The quest for the "other" within the individual is, by definition, impossible since there can be no form of separation or division. But, as the world of the novel around them is fractious, so are the lives of the individuals themselves. They have been broken down – split apart and split again – until they have become a mass of pieces combined to form the person. With nothing on the outside to define them, they claim the internal divisions as their own and choose to identify themselves in those regards. By first objectifying the parts of their bodies not seen as part of the whole, and then using those parts around which to construct an identity.
As the individual searches for meaning within the self, the search begins by seeking out those attributes that have helped to establish in individual as different from everyone else. It is from this base of difference that separations within the person can be found. These separations are such due to the relative incongruity of the parts in question to the individual as a whole. Whether physically external or abstractly internal, these parts seem to stand out both to the individual and the surrounding world. In Mario’s film Tennis and the Feral Prodigy, Hal explains the sights seen at the Academy dining hall: "See the Academy dining hall where tennis balls sit beside every plate. Squeeze the ball rhythmically month after year until you feel it no more than your heart squeezing blood and your right forearm is three times the size of your left and your arm looks from across the court like a gorilla’s arm or a stevedore’s arm pasted on the body of a child" (IJ 173). While the arm may seem pasted on, both to the observer and the individual, to the point that it does not feel as the individual’s own, it is in fact the individual’s and it must be treated as both belonging to, and not belonging to, the individual. These parts seem to acquire an identity of their own, and it is a decision on the part of the individual to accept and adhere to this new identity.
Essential to the individual’s newfound identity as established by their separate parts is some form of objectification of said parts. Through this objectification, the part becomes independent and seemingly no longer "owned" by the individual. Throughout the novel this objectification occurs as characters refer to separate body parts, with "the leg," "the mole," "the ankle," and "the temper" being a select few. Each of the parts mentioned are linguistically introduced with the term "the," rather than a more possessive term such as "my." This linguistic difference comes as a result of the individual’s identity being formed around the part. The individual is no longer the owner of the part; rather, they are now the one that is owned.
However much this identity may mean to the individual, its acceptance and/or understanding to society and others may be misinterpreted. As the identity comes from within, it is often difficult to see the way in which the individual is constructed. Such is the case with the actor Marlon Brando, at least the way JOI’s father, James Sr., saw it. Explaining his wife’s fascination with the actor to their son, he says, "She never … never sees that Marlon Brando felt himself as a body so keenly he’d no need for manner. She never sees that in his quote careless way he actually really touched whatever he touched as if it were part of him. Of his own body. The world he only seemed to manhandle was for him sentient, feeling. And no one … and she never understood that" (IJ 158). Brando’s identification of himself as a body is an intrapersonal association. Misconstrued by JOI’s mother as a person in constant conflict wit the world around him, and thus constantly attempting a physical domination over objects, she sees him as a person in search of an "other," and not the body by which he has come to identify himself. Seen as James Sr. views it – along the same lines as Brando himself – the objectification of the body allows an interaction with the world that is quite artistic. However, the world with which he interacts is made only of objects, since through this objectification of the body, it is what he has defined himself as.
While it is not an objectification of bodily parts that ETA’s Head Coach and Athletic Director Gerhardt Schtitt teaches, it does concern divisions within the individual. It is Schtitt’s tennis philosophy that in order to exist, or "occur" on the court it is not the separate pieces of body performing, but all performing together under the direction of the mind. The mind – body separation allows for two selves within an individual. Schtitt, in lecturing his students, says, "Fire at your will. Use a head. You are not arms. Arm in the real tennis is like wheels of vehicle. Not engine. Legs: not either. Where is where you apply for citizenship in second world Mr. consciousness of ankle Incandenza, our revenant?" To which, Hal replies, "The human head, sir, if I got your thrust. Where I’m going to occur as a player. The game’s two heads’ one world. One world, sir" (IJ 461). Not relying on the arm or the legs as both an object – i.e. tennis "weapons" – and an identity while on the court, allows for a separation within the individual where the body, not parts, is objectified. The separation comes as a detachment of the mind from the body provides an on court identity – one that is sufficiently detached from the world around them.
Yet, there is a danger in that this on-court detachment may be extended beyond the chalk lines painted on the grass, clay, or asphalt. Instead of a mind in control of a body, the body seems to dictate how the mind functions. Relying on physical prowess to construct the identity for the mind, the individual is more a biological machine than man. This is the situation of the expatriate John Wayne, the top athlete at ETA and follower of Gerhardt Schtitt’s tennis philosophy. Whereas a sizable percentage of students at ETA believe Schtitt is "bats" and they prefer to use Assistant Coach deLint’s statistics as a measuring board for themselves, top echelon players are privy to Schtitt’s lectures and ruminations, whether they use them or not. Wayne, who as a top player has achieved success, and most believe will continue to experience it as he reaches "the Show," is being heavily coached by Schtitt, whose philosophy is more Canadian than American, since his relocation to the American tennis academy. The narrator theorizes that "it’s possible that the only jr. tennis players who can win their way to the top and stay there without going bats are the ones who are already bats, or else who seem to be just grim machines à la John Wayne" (IJ 438 - 9). Seemingly never tired or in pain, the John Wayne machine is often referred to as such throughout the novel – i.e. "John Wayne is jogging his head around … stretching out the neck hardware" (IJ 460). This separation, as it is taken to the extreme, disengages more than mind from body, also disengaging the self from the whole. The association with a machine is a denial of the self, the actuality of humanness, and the body. The best explanation of Wayne, on-court and off-, is given by ETA student Ted Schacht: "His play, like his manner in general, seems to Schacht to be less alive than undead" (IJ 263).
Forced to look inside themselves for meaning, the individual finds a landscape as fractured and bleak as the world they turned away from. Objectification of the body and / or its parts results in an identity connected only to objects, or one that transforms the objectified part into owner of the individual. Even when professed as a viable option, the focus on separating the mind from the body will detach the individual from the world around him or her, or will create an identity so detached that the purpose for finding life meaning becomes denied in the process. The identities found available within the self suffer the same inadequacies that all others have faced – the inability to provide a stable base, and link the reality of the world with how it is perceived.
Even as the powers that be seek unification through opposition, the individual remains controlled by the system – unknowingly participating in an internal struggle that mirrors the world around them. Their lives, as tenuous as the units of time by which their lives are directed, are just as available for consumption as the years are. Digested by the system, they emerge as a pile of remnants seeking an intimate unity they have lacked, and was seemingly promised to them by birthright. It is with this understanding of the world of Infinite Jest and how meaning and identity are attempted through both individual and group efforts, that we can see how one character is able to deal with the world around him.
"My full name is Harold James Incandenza, and I am 183.6 cm. tall in stocking feet" (IJ 898).
Providing much of our access as readers to the world of the novel, Harold "Hal" Incandenza is a character integral to the story. Presented as close to sanity as possible in events and surroundings regarded at best as "eccentric," Hal is one of the two main characters, along with Don Gately, that establish a normality that gives realistic grounds in the minds of the readers. Usually unbuffered through non-character-specific narration, the words presented are Hal’s thoughts and feelings that are lain bare for viewing. Like the other characters, Hal has searched the fragmented plane of his world in search of an identity for himself, and, also like the others, has returned virtually empty-handed.
As the system of order rewards and encourages grouping, Hal seeks identity through his connection to others. Founded by his late father, and currently administered by his mother and uncle, Enfield Tennis Academy holds two possible groups for Hal’s association – one familial, and one volitionally fraternal. However, it is his physical fact of being the product of an American and Canadian coupling that begins the societal fragmentation of his persona. Taught by surrounding U.S. culture and custom to consider Canadians an "other," Hal is an entity torn between two nations. Disjoined through political measures from his family, Hal is further separated by his appearance: "Hal is the only extant Incandenza who looks in any way ethnic. … Himself had looked ethnic, but he isn’t extant. … His parents’ pregnancies must have been all-out chromosomatic war: Hal’s eldest brother Orin had got the Moms’s Anglo-Nordo-Canadian phenotype, the deep-socketed lighter-blue eyes, the faultless posture and incredible flexibility … the rounder and more protrusive zygomatics. Hal’s next-oldest brother Mario doesn’t seem to resemble much of anyone they know" (IJ 101). Physically distinguished from them, Hal seems to keep an emotional distance from them as well – one that bogs down his quick mind: "Except for Mario … it’s almost like some ponderous creaky machine has to get up and running for Hal to even think about members of his immediate family as standing in relation to himself" (IJ 516). As the familial connections show a person somewhat segregated, Hal’s place among ETA students is equally separate. Academically without an equal, and athletically surpassed only by John Wayne, Hal has privileges and rewards beyond the normal student, but keeps a place of friendship among students "though friendship is a non-negotiable currency" (IJ 155). Popular and in no way shunned, the groups – familial or volitional – still do not seem to provide Hal with an acceptable identity.
Attempting meaning from an individual standpoint, Hal has been able to find his limitations and use them to enhance himself. Ailing from an injury suffered to his ankle from a "wrong-foot" or "contre-pied" shot, "it’s Hal, since the explosion, who’s known as the real ETA master of placement and opponent-yanking-around and the old contre-pied" (IJ 1032). Yet, despite his prowess athletically, Hal does not base his worth on ONANTA rankings, and, unlike those who are ranking-dependant, "when asked how he’s doing with it all, Hal says Fine and thanks you for asking" (IJ 155). Even as the search turns inward, Hal’s composition of body parts – including "the ankle" – is not segmented nor meaningfully objectified. His serve, as is his body in general, is "unexceptional and fluid" (IJ 658), and his game is complete, as his strengths balance – thus, no need for an identity based on the objectification of one of his body’s "tennis weapons." His body belongs to him, and yet, he remains human, not a biological tennis-machine like John Wayne.
Unable to find identity through his place in the world or in himself, Hal has turned to the use of recreational substances to ease the strain of fragmentation that his life, and so many others, has become. Believed by Hal to be merely an assistant in his search for life meaning, it is not until it is removed from his life that he realized "Bob Hope had somehow become not just the high-point of the day but its actual meaning" (IJ 853). Not only in pursuit of an identity, but now being stripped of his meaning-giving substance, Hal’s life is meaningless. Deep in depression, not only by unfound meaning, but more intensely by its abrupt absence, Hal experiences the "kind of spiritual torpor in which one loses the ability to feel pleasure or attachment to things formerly important" (IJ 692). This form of "death in life," or anhedonia, that Hal finds himself in is described succinctly by Paul Anthony Heaven’s climactic final lecture in JOI’s film Good-Looking Men in Small Clever Rooms That Utilize Every Centimeter of Available Space with Mind-Boggling Efficiency: "We thus become, in the absence of death as a teleologic end, ourselves desiccated, deprived of some essential fluid, aridly cerebral, abstract, conceptual, little more than hallucinations of God" (IJ 911). Hal is empty, more so now than ever, and like the rest of the individuals in society, yearns to be filled.
A man of vision, JOI could see the beginning of this "death in life" in his son well before Hal was forced to give up marijuana. Returning to the world a wraith, he tells an incapacitated Don Gately that before his death he saw his son becoming essentially the living undead right before his very eyes. He called the thing he could see Hal becoming a "figurant," as a reference to the "concessions to realism, always relegated to the back- and foreground; and always having utterly silent conversations: their faces would animate and mouths move realistically, but without sound … fractional actors, human scenery" (IJ 834). Hal has essentially become an observer of life, participating to a point, but effectively non-existent. The lack of meaning within produces no meaning or worthwhile substance as Hal tries to interact with his world. He talks, but there is nothing to say.
This idea is not a new one to Hal either. As a seventh grader in Mr. Ogilve’s "Introduction to Entertainment Studies" class, Hal explored the realms of action and reaction. Using Chief Steve McGarrett of the 1970’s show "Hawaii five-O," and Captain Frank Furillo of the 1980’s television drama "Hill Street Blues," Hal writes, "we await, I predict, the hero of non-action, the catatonic hero, the one beyond calm, divorced from all stimulus" (IJ 142). Hal’s non-action hero is a figurant in the spotlight: they are the center of attention, but are still unable to present sound, or even animation as they remain oblivious to the world around them. This is the state Hal now inhabits. Stimuli elicit no response, and, according to his father, no sound escapes his lips.
As readers, we become aware of Hal’s relegation to a figurant state as the novel wears down. Already informed through JOI and Gately’s dream-conversations of Hal’s lifelessness, the form of the novel shifts into a new mode of narration for our final encounter with Hal. Previously through the novel, the narration for sections involving Hal are either from an unknown, omniscient narrator, or is either first-person from Hal’s perspective, or relayed through a Hal-bound, third-person narrator. Yet, on page 964 as the ETA players are in the locker room preparing for their matches with the supposed Quebecois jr. tennis team, it is an unknown and unidentified student narrating the passage. Hal, not even the focus of the final section in which he appears, is reduced to a small portion of the passage, wherein his dialogue is not presented directly, but is reported through this student’s perspective (IJ 966). At this point in the novel, we as readers are allowed to realize for ourselves what has been reported to us: Hal is a figurant. He exists on the periphery.
It is to find a solution to this problem that JOI produces his final, and most "entertaining," film. Although we never receive a direct glimpse of Infinite Jest, we know from the OUS interview of Joelle, as Madame Psychosis, was involved in two scenes. One scene involving a recognition of someone she knew as they both traveled in a glass revolving door, was shot with an actor that she did not know. The second scene is the one that seems to be referred to more often throughout the rest of the novel. It involves Joelle, sans veil, standing over a baby crib, repeatedly apologizing to the camera in the crib, which is equipped with an ocular wobble. Officially treated as unfinished and unreleased, Infinite Jest is assumed by Hal to be one of "his last several projects he’d been so desperate to make something that ordinary U.S. audiences might find entertaining and diverting and conducive to self-forgetting that he had had professionals and amateurs emoting wildly all over the place" (IJ 944). The result was an entertainment that indeed caused "self-forgetting." The captivating image seems to be one that no one can deny or reject.
Despite the political and military utilizations possible, and desired, for the entertainment, JOI’s purpose in making the film was simple and non-combative. He confesses the intent behind Infinite Jest was to be able to converse with his figurant son. His goal was "something the boy would love enough to induce him to open his mouth and come out – even if it was only to ask for more. … Make something so bloody compelling it would reverse thrust on a young self’s fall into the womb of solipsism, anhedonia, death in life. A magically entertaining toy to dangle at the infant still somewhere alive in the boy, to make his eyes light and toothless mouth open unconsciously, to laugh. To bring him ‘out of himself,’ as they say. The womb could be used in both ways. A way to say I AM SO VERY, VERY SORRY and have it heard" (IJ 839). The goal, to recreate life where it had been extinguished or non-existent, was JOI’s final endeavor in his last 90 days on Earth. Never released because he found it "too perfect," JOI went to his grave agonized that he was forced to watch his son walk around in his.
The paralysis effect the entertainment seems to have on people is the result of drawing from deep inside the individual and showing them the life meaning from within they had not wanted to see, or had been denying as a concession to society. A "hip-ness" that society valued over real feeling. As she explains to Mario the different kinds of sadness, Avril gets to the very heart of what lies in the center of all the novel’s characters: "There are, apparently, persons who are deeply afraid of their own emotions, particularly the painful ones. Grief, regret, sadness. Sadness especially, perhaps. Delores describes these persons as afraid of obliteration, emotional engulfment. As if something truly and thoroughly felt would have no end or bottom. Would become infinite and engulf them" (IJ 765). This is the unending appeal of Infinite Jest. It is a thing so truly felt, the mere desire for more becomes continuous and overcomes the person so completely that they are lost in their need for connection and belonging.
While Infinite Jest is able to bring out the emotions that give meaning to the characters lives, it also effectively ends their life as well. Yet, all is not lost in the quest for meaning. JOI’s film was a personal attempt to do individually for his son what AA could not do for him. It is based around the AA directives "Come On In," "Surrender Your Will," and "Keep Coming." However, a distinct difference in the two sources of meaning comes from how they work: Infinite Jest works individually, and, although the act of watching it may snowball into many people, is only able to work in that way. AA, on the other hand, depends on the Community and the Group – both capitalized to show their relative importance to AA. Within the group-based society individualit6y is a dead-end that only becomes realized once the individual is able to strip away the "hip anhedonia" that is only an affect of the individual, rather than effecting them as the real anhedonia would. With the glaze of hip malaise, the individual cannot Identify and thus, no Identity is possible. For its essence, as Hal says, "I am in here," it is the same as Gately’s introduction of himself at a Commitment. The only difference being meaning is communal; relational, and unless the individual, such as Hal, accepts his powerlessness as derived from world wide fragmentation, blame, and isolation he will not re-connect. Until that happens, every cry of "I am in here" will be greeted as if he had just begun to sing "Everything’s Comin’ Up Roses."
"Individual." The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary on Historical Principles.
4th ed. 1993.
Said, Edward W. Orientalism. New York: Vintage, 1979.
Saussure, Ferdinand de. Course in General Linguistics. Trans. W. Baskin. London:
Fontana/Collins, 1974. Rpt. in Modern Literary Theory: A Reader. Eds.
Phillip Rice and Patricia Waugh. 3rd ed. London: Arnold, 1996. 8 – 15.
Wallace, David Foster. Infinite Jest. Boston: Little, Brown, 1996.
Other Works Consulted
Infinite Jest: A Scene by Scene Guide. <http://virtual.park.uga.edu/~koneill/IJ.htm>
Infinite Jest Index. <http://www.ironhorse.com/~thamer/dfw/>
Steve’s Infinite Jest Utilities Page. <http://members.aol.com/russillosm/ij.html>