My blog has moved!

You should be automatically redirected to the new home page in 60 seconds. If not, please visit
and be sure to update your bookmarks. Sorry about the inconvenience.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

On the question of irony—where I left off last time, and where Infinite Zombies' Daryl Houston starts off in his latest post—it's a little difficult for me to know exactly how to read this week's section on the Reaganesque presidency of Johnny Gentle, Famous Crooner. The signposts for reading this section as a satire are all there, not just in Gentle's OCD and Howard-Hughes-style obsession with cleanliness but also in the complete vacuity of C.U.S.P.'s political agenda—but it is difficult to tell whether the narrative's apparent contempt for environmentalist thinking is an aspect of the satire or the motivation for it. Gentle's political party, the Clean U.S. Party—an unlikely political coalition comprised of "ultra-right jingoist hunt-deer-with-automatic-weapons types and far-left macrobiotic Save-the-Ozone, -Rain-Forests, -Whales, -Spotted-Owel-and-High-pH-Waterways ponytailed granola-crunchers" whose first platform was organized around the ingenious plan "Let's Shoot Our Wastes Into Space"—is organized around an anti-ecological version of supposed environmentalism that understands "American renewal" as "an essentially aesthetic affair" (382). This is, then, a fairly pitch-perfect satire of ecology as ideology, the empty apolitics of the sort "we can all agree to" that looks for consumer-friendly solutions to the environmental catastrophe caused by consumerism itself. This is our moment: "a dark time when all landfills got full and all grapes were raisins and sometimes in some places the falling rain clunked instead of splattered" (382).

I can think here of nothing so much as a DFW quote on addiction Daryl highlighted in his own post:

An activity is addictive if one’s relationship to is lies on that downward-sloping continuum between liking it a little too much and really needing it. Many addictions, from exercise to letter-writing, are pretty benign. But something is malignantly addictive if (1) it causes real problesm for the addict, and (2) it offers itself as a relief from the very problem it causes.
Consumerism, I think, clearly qualifies, as Wallace shows throughout this section.

In IJ, it's our malignant addiction to a consumer lifestyle that leads to Gentle's experialist mandate, the outsourcing of environmental costs to Indian reservations and our partner "enemy-allies" (385) in O.N.A.N. It's this malignant addiction that leads us to build wasteful and inefficient fusion reactors even though they have the "generating-massive-amounts-of-high-R-waste part down a lot more pat than the "consuming-the-waste-in-a-nuclear-process-whose-own-waste-was-the-fuel-for-the-first-waste-intensive-phase-of-the-circle-of-reactions part" (1029n150).

In the end it leads even to the forcible gifting of most of New England to Canada as the Great Concavity/Convexity, hollowed out and glass-walled with giant fans blowing our toxic air northward (385). There's a fair critique of NIMBYism here, as well as the perpetually empty promise of near-future technological millennialism that has been so deftly exploited by the partisan right-wing and their corporate allies to preempt all environmentalist reforms over the decades. There's a critique of the politics of Othering, too, the need for "some people beside each other of us to blame" (384) and the national ennui that apparently comes from a post-Soviet, post-Jihad era with no "Foreign Menace" to distract us from the problems of our own making (382). (What, we skipped China?) And there's, yes, a critique of the left-wing, more-eco-than-thou granola set in (among other things) Gentle's addictive obsessive-compulsive cleaniness and C.U.S.P.'s easy consumerist ethos, though frankly this critique seems much more of the strawman variety than most of Wallace's jokes.

But is this scattershot, unstable irony all there is here? A pox on everybody's house? Is there any place for the reader of Infinite Jest to imagine a non-hypocritical, anti-consumerist politics? Do we really have no stable interpretive ground on which to stand? History seems in this novel to have somehow calcified into an inevitable trajectory of decadent disposability, and the only suggested response for the educated observer of these trends seems accordingly to be a bitter, smug withdrawal. I want to see DFW as getting past mere smugness into something more viable, but he doesn't make it easy. The only way out of this trap of hopeless cynicism that I can see so far lies in the unstable irony inherent in the novel's own presentation, its cartoonish and over-the-top hyperbole. Here, it's the fact that all this information is literally being conveyed to us through the well-respected and politically responsible medium of video puppet show, organized around Mario and his father's penchant for the "parodic device of mixing real and fake news-summary cartridges, magazine articles, and historical headers" (391). But I'm not sure irony alone is enough to get us out of smugness—I'm just not sure yet if the novel gives us much hope for escape from the surreal banality of turn-of-the-millennium American life, hope for something after or beyond consumer culture. We've already seen in IJ the transcendental existential threat of the Entertainment, which clogs entirely our ability to want anything besides it. Elsewhere, as with Gately, we see that addictions can in fact be broken, that renewal is difficult but still possible—but where is that hope here?

The use of the phrase "years right around the millennium" in the same footnote I cited above contains, I think, an important ambiguity for all this—from what point in the future, and from what cultural assumptions, are we to understand this book actually being composed? Is it a moment where this sort of perpetual-motion fusion suddenly somehow works—a time in which the miracle works? A moment in which the Entertainment, or something like it, has destroyed the culture entirely? Or, perhaps, a moment that is not "a terrible U.S. time for waste" for other, more politically hopeful reasons—a moment where, beyond belief, we have somehow managed to change?

Can addictions only be beaten when they originate in an individual's excess? When an addiction is communal—when it is ideological and so totally normalized—what is our prescription for hope?