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Friday, July 10, 2009

(This one turned out a little longer than expected.)

There have been two references so far in Infinite Jest to "the M.I.T. language riots of B.S. 1997," a reference so slight it hardly seems worth the trouble of tracking down. The first we find in James O. Incandenza's massive filmography on pg. 987n24, linked from pg. 64:

Union of Theoretical Grammarians in Cambridge. B.S. Meniscus Films, Ltd. Documentary cast; 35 mm.;26 minutes; color; silent with heavy use of computerized distortion in facial close-ups. Documentary and closed-caption interviews with participants in the public Steven Pinker-Avril M. Incandenza debate on the political implications of prescriptive grammar during the infamous Militant Grammarians of Massachusetts convention credited with helping incite the M.I.T. language riots of B.S. 1997.
Forty footnotes later, on 996n60, we get this about "the near-new M.I.T. student union" (184):
Replacing the old neo-Georgian J. A. Stratton Student Center, right off Mass. Ave. and gutted with C4 during the so-called M.I.T. Language Riots of twelve years past.
Glossing over the difference in capitalization, taken together these two footnotes place the "present" of the novel as exactly now: 2009.

We don't know much about what has happened in the intervening decade, and as was discussed in the comments to the last post I don't think Infinite Jest is productively read as predictive fiction. (Instead it should be understood as always twenty minutes into the future.) We get, for instance, a quiet reference to the Kemp administration on pg. 177, a moderately reasonable prognostication for DFW to make in 1996 (though Jack Kemp was widely considered a failure as Dole's running mate at the time)—but it's paired with a no-chance-in-hell Limbaugh administration that is clearly satiric. (Both references are somewhat suspect, in any event, as they originate in-dialogue from a character at the Ennet House who euphemistically admits they have "some trouble recalling certain intervals" during these periods. So maybe it's a joke within a joke.) We know Vermont has become the Great Concavity—where feral hamsters rule unchecked!—and that videophones have come and gone, and that broadcast television has ended in favor of TPs, apparently some sort of on-demand service not unlike Netflix.

But we don't know much, because these sorts of predictions just aren't the point.

So enough of that—back to the M.I.T. language riots. This is an allusion to Don DeLillo's Ratner's Star (1976), a novel which shares some affinities with Infinite Jest, including a boy-genius plotline, multivocal narrative, deep suspicion about the reliability of both personal subjectivity and bureaucratic institutions, and intense theoretical interest in the inner workings of language. The riots are covered in their entirely on pages 31-33 of Ratner's Star in a short bit of dialogue from J. Graham Hummer, "widely known as the instigator of the MIT language riots":
"Tell us about the MIT business," Mimsy said. "I've never heard the details."

"There are no details."

"Did people really throw stones at each other and overturn cars and the like? I mean was there actual killing in the streets?"

"I was simply trying to assert that what there is in common between a particular fact and the sentence that asserts this fact can itself be put into a sentence."

"And this led to rioting?"
This weird, obscure moment, which could be slotted into Infinite Jest itself without a tremendous amount of revision, introduces the problem of cognitive reflexivity that structures a lot of both Ratner's Star and IJ. It centers around what is in essence, the Gödel paradox, the problematic fact that statements-about-statements are themselves statements, that there is no self-consistent exterior vantage point from which we can look objectively at our own subjective experiences of the world—that as soon as we attempt to think or speak about the way we think and speak we become hopelessly lost in paradox, in indecidability, and in confusing and shadowy incompleteness. And I hope it isn't too much of a stretch to assert that this is exactly the problem we face when we confront addict subjectivity:
That most Substance-addiction people are also addicted to thinking, meaning they have a compulsive and unhealthy relationship with their own thinking. That the cute Boston AA term for addictive-type thinking is Analysis-Paralysis.

...That 99% of compulsive thinkers' thinking is about themselves; that 99% of this self-directed thinking consists of imagining and then getting ready for things that are going to happen to them; and then, weirdly, that if they stop to think about it, that 100% of the things they spend 99% of their time and energy imagining and trying to prepare for all the contingencies and consequence of are never good. That this connects interestingly with the early-sobriety urge to pray for the literal loss of one's mind. In short that 99% of the head's thinking activity consists of trying to scare the everliving shit out of oneself... (203-204)
The strange compulsion towards endlessly looping cognitive reflexivity—thinking about thinking about thinking about thinking...—leads in the end to that terrible desire that is central to addiction, the desire for one's consciousness to be obliterated altogether:
...a little-mentioned paradox of Substance addiction is: that once you are sufficiently enslaved by a Sustance to need to quit the substance in order to save your life, the enslaving Substance has become so deeply important to you that you will all but lose your mind when it is taken away from you. Or that sometime after your Substance has just been taken away from you in order to save your life, as you hunker down for required A.M. and P.M. prayers, you will find yourself beginning to pray to be allowed literally to lose your mind, to be able to wrap your mind in an old newspaper or something and leave it in an alley to shift for itself, without you. (201)
This is, that is, the desire for suicide that haunts so much of Infinite Jest, that in the wake of 9/13/08 threatens to consume the book altogether. Reading The Bell Jar is like this; knowing that Sylvia Plath committed suicide a month after its publication destroys our ability to believe its assertions of an apparently happy ending for its Sylvia-stand-in, Esther. Knowing what happened to DFW—what he did to himself—deeply unsettles our ability to believe "[t]hat no single, individual moment is in and of itself unendurable" (204), which seems now, in retrospect, less like truth, and more like the prayer of a person who hopes they might someday believe it.