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Saturday, July 25, 2009

Anyone who has been in graduate school as long as I have recognizes a reference to maps and territories immediately:

If we were able to take as the finest allegory of simulation the Borges tale where the cartographers of the Empire draw up a map so detailed that it ends up exactly covering the territory (but where, with the decline of the Empire this map becomes frayed and finally ruined, a few shreds still discernible in the deserts - the metaphysical beauty of this ruined abstraction, bearing witness to an imperial pride and rotting like a carcass, returning to the substance of the soil, rather as an aging double ends up being confused with the real thing), this fable would then have come full circle for us, and now has nothing but the discrete charm of second-order simulacra.

Abstraction today is no longer that of the map, the double, the mirror or the concept. Simulation is no longer that of a territory, a referential being or a substance. It is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal. The territory no longer precedes the map, nor survives it. Henceforth, it is the map that precedes the territory - precession of simulacra - it is the map that engenders the territory and if we were to revive the fable today, it would be the territory whose shreds are slowly rotting across the map. It is the real, and not the map, whose vestiges subsist here and there, in the deserts which are no longer those of the Empire, but our own. The desert of the real itself.
What destroys the Interdependence Day Y.D.A.U. game of Eschaton—which I must admit is another personal favorite sequence in the novel—is exactly this Baudrillardian sense of (Pemulis's words) "map-not-territory equivocationary horseshit" (337), i.e., the postmodern inability to distinguish between maps and territories that is, in the end, the inability to locate "territory" at all. For Pemulis this kind of cognitive breakdown threatens our ability to think at all:
Pemulis howls that Lord is in his vacillation appeasing Ingersoll in Ingersoll's effort to fatally fuck with the very breath and bread of Eschaton. Players themselves can't be valid targets. Players aren't inside the goddamn game. Payers are part of the apparatus of the game. They're part of the map. It's snowing on the players but not on the territory. They're part of the map, not the clusterfucking territory. You can only launch against the territory. Not against the map. It's like the one ground-rule boundary that keeps Eschaton from degenerating into chaos. Eschaton gentlemen is about logic and axiom and mathematical probity and discipline and verity and order. You do not get points for hitting anybody real. Only the gear that maps what's real...

...and Pemulis shouts across that it's so totally beside the point it doesn't matter, that the reason players aren't explicitly exempted in the ESCHAX.DIR is that their exemption is what makes Eschaton and its axioms fucking possible in the first place. ... Pemulis says because otherwise use your heads otherwise nonstrategic emotions would get aroused and Combatants would be whacking balls at each other's physical persons all the time and Eschaton wouldn't even be possible in its icily elegant game-theoretical form. He's stopped jumping up and down, at least, Troeltsch observes. Players' exemption from strikes goes without saying, Pemulis says; it's like preaxiomatic. Pemulis tells Lord to consider what he's doing very carefully, because from where Pemulis is standing Lord looks to be willing to very possibly compromise Eschaton's map for all time. (338)
It's not hard to see Pemulis's impotent, rage-filled anxiety over the fate of Eschaton's objective purity as, in miniature, the reaction of traditional Enlightenment rationality to its challenge from an increasingly hegemonic postmodernity that is characterized by cognitive decentering, indeterminacy, irrationality, and labyrinthine self-referentiality. Pemulis is not the first to shout that we must build floodwalls against certain lines of speculation and deny the possibility of alternate subjectivities for fear of total cognitive chaos (whether said chaos is named postmodernism, social constructivism, cultural relativism, theory, or something else entirely)—to claim, in other words, that only a sufficiently abstractive and "objective" faux universality, the terms of which have always been agreed upon in advance, properly counts as Thought in the first place.

Two further thoughts emerge: first, that this anxiety about maps and territories is clearly a central problem for the reader of Infinite Jest as well, who, I think, must struggle to stay afloat in a narrative whose irony is confusingly unstable, with satire that is constantly threatening to devolve into parody and even to mere gag. 390 pages in, I find that I am still trying to get a firm grip on what is "real" and what is "not real" in this text, that is, what is best understood through a conventionally realist interpretive lens and what is better described as hyperbolic and hyperreal in the style that James Wood famously named hysterical realism.

And second, that the opposition between maps and territories laid out in the Eschaton section is central to one of the more memorable turns of phrase that DFW uses throughout IJ: the endless variations on "eliminate his own map for good" as a euphemism for suicide. That we ourselves are maps, not territories suggests, on the one hand, a idealist vision of the universe in which objective reality takes a backseat to our subjective understanding of it and on the other a psychoanalytic framing of consciousness itself as essentially false and illusionary—the latter take driven home at the end of the section by Hal's need to feel his own face to see if he is wincing (342). What do we do if consciousness itself is a simulacrum without a referent, and all self-reflection therefore a kind of hopeless mise en abyme?

Stop me if you've heard this one before.