Matthew Baldwin

That’s Entertainment

08.03.09 | 38 Comments

At some point in Infinite Jest, around page 73, I abandoned my highlighter. There was simply too much to absorb on the first read, I decided, and I would save the markup for the second pass.

But last week, on page 389, Old Yeller rode again:

‘You burn to have your photograph in a magazine.’ ‘I’m afraid so.’ … ‘You feel these men with their photographs in magazines care deeply about having their photographs in magazines. Derive immense meaning.’ ‘I do. They must. I would. Else why would I burn like this to feel as they feel?’ ‘The meaning they feel, you mean. From the fame.’ ‘Lyle, don’t they?’ … ‘Perhaps the first time: enjoyment. After that, do you trust me, trust me: they do not feel what you burn for. After the first surge, they care only that their photographs seem awkward or unflattering, or untrue, or that their privacy, this thing you burn to escape, what they call their privacy is being violated. Something changes. After the first photograph has been in a magazine, the famous men do not enjoy their photographs in magazines so much as they fear that their photographs will cease to appear in magazines. They are trapped, just as you are.’ ‘Is this supposed to be good news? This is awful news.’ ‘LaMont, are you willing to listen to a Remark about what is true?’ ‘Okey-dokey.’ ‘The truth will set you free. But not until it is finished with you.’

The conversation between LaMont Chu and Lyle–and the highlighted passage, specifically–was eerily familiar. About a month ago I read an article entitled Creating the Illusion of Accomplishment, in which a video game developer pointed out how easy it is to design titles that are addictive without being especially fun. “There’s a vital question that is rarely asked,” he said. “Does our game make players happy when they play, or just make them sad when they stop? This is a subtle distinction, and irrelevant to sales, but I think it’s very important. Medicine and heroin both sell for a high price, but I would sleep better at night selling one than the other.”

It’s more than just the similar choice of words that caused my spider-sense to tingle, of course. At the heart of Infinite Jest is an entertainment so alluring that people are literally unable to pull themselves away. In the novel it is (presumably) a film, which would have been a natural choice at the time the book was written. After all, the most compelling video game in 199460 was Donkey Kong County which, while fun, is not strap-on-a-dinner-tray-and-crap-your-pants addictive by any stretch.

But by the time Infinite Jest was released, 1996, the video game landscape was already changing. A little company called Blizzard Entertainment released Diablo, a near-perfect distillation of addictive video game elements. Eight years later Blizzard combined Diablo with another hit series and gave us the closest real-life analog to The Entertainment: World of Warcraft.

I am not making the comparison in (um) jest. Tales of people neglecting themselves and their dependence while playing World of Warcraft (WoW) are only a Google search away. And the game is notorious for wreaking havoc on marriages, friendships, employment, bank accounts, and hygiene.61

How did video games come to usurp television as entertainment’s most irresistible siren? Marathe could tell you the answer to that one: choice, or the illusion thereof. Television ladles out its rewards for free: excitement, romance, shock, horror. But you have to work to reap the same benefits from a video game, and that investment of effort (no matter how minor) amplifies the pleasure, because you feel like you’ve “earned it”. It’s a principle harnessed by everything from roulette tables to Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books, but video game designers in particular have figured out how to hijack our innate risk-reward mechanism for their own enrichment. Or as David puts it in the Creating the Illusion of Accomplishment article cited above, “Many games use well-designed rewards to convince players that they’ve accomplished something important, even when they’ve only completed a trivial task.”

And this is one of the central themes of the Marathe / Steeply chapters. Steeply insists that choice is what makes a people free; Marathe counters that choice can be used as a tool to enslave.

There is, of course, an even quicker way of stimulating our pleasure centers: rather than simulate an experience that causes the production of mood-elevating substances, you injest chemical compounds that will stimulate the production directly. But as the members of Tough Shit But You Still Can’t Drink learned at cost, and LeMont Chu learned for free, what at first makes you happy when you have it may eventually just make you sad when you don’t. In fact, to hear Infinite Jest tell it, Lyle’s warning applies to nearly everything: drug use, success, entertainment, videophones. Even a family and the company of the Pretty Girl of All Time isn’t enough to prevent a head / microwave rendezvous.

I am no scholar of Eastern religions (or Western, for that matter), but I get a distinctively Buddhist vibe from Infinite Jest. That “attachment to a permanent self in this world of change is the cause of suffering and the main obstacle to liberation” (Thanks Wikipedia!).That the body and it’s cravings are just the map, and should not be confused with the territory. How else to interpret that only truly happy character in the novel is the one at E.T.A. who will never be in The Show, who doesn’t use drugs (as far as we know), and can’t even be said to at least have his health?

As for the rest, it seems that for every character that is grappling with their desire–be in Chu for success or Erededy for pot–there is another feverishly working to undermine the efforts.

Charles Tavis knows what James Incandenza could not have cared about less: the key to the successful administration of a top-level junior tennis academy lies in cultivating a kind of reverse-Buddhism, a state of Total Worry.

The truth will set our heroes free. But not until C.T., and NoCoat (purveyors of fine LinguaScraper applications), and the Spider are finished with them.