Infinite Summer

Formed in the summer of 2009 to read David Foster Wallace's masterwork "Infinite Jest".
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 Post subject: The "Four Projects" of IJ
PostPosted: Sat Aug 08, 2009 11:58 pm 
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I just finished the book a few hours ago and have been reeling wildly since. My first thought was to pop over here to see what folks have had to say after reaching the end, which turned out to be a good choice. Over in the thread "Have you finished yet? Because I have and I need to chat!", mitchcalderwood points us to Chris Hager's thesis on IJ, which reportedly comments the importance of the metaphors of the parabola and the tide, of which assertions DFW reportedly said "'IJ's supposed to have four little projects going at one time, and you totally nailed one and part of a second'" (Here I'm quoting mitchcalderwood quoting him (Wallace)).

So, naturally I got to wondering about these alleged "four little projects." In a book as big and all-embracing as IJ, it's hard to think of anything as little, so I sensed little promise in following that lead. What seemed more helpful in tracking down the referent of the "four little projects" statement was concentrating on the word "projects." What if, I thought, with the word "projects" Wallace is referring to motifs or groups of like images or metaphors. In light of the blessing he bestowed on Hager's analysis -- which focuses on two metaphors -- this makes some sort of sense.

After thinking about it a bit and positing what I thought might be the four simultaneous "projects" or motif/metaphor/image groups in IJ, I noticed a pattern that, if even just the tiniest bit true, is mind-blowing in what it reveals about Wallace's all-out awesomeness.

Here goes: The four major motif groups are 1) Consumption/Waste (under which umbrella falls lots of ONAN-related stuff, Hal's roomful's of meat, perhaps all the references to GLAD bags, drug use etc.); 2) Parabolas (lenses, mirrors, tennis lobs, punting, Orin's tumblers, convexity/concavity, AA's 'bottom'); 3) Annular Systems (Annulation, incest, genetics, addiction, one-day-at-a-time, tide, double-triple-quadruple agenting, the choice/freedom double bind even?; 4) Limits and Infinity (Schtitt and the boundaries of the court making the game possible, the - uh - tittle, the Show, mental illness, calculus references all over).

Now, here's the part that really boggled me: the Consumption/Waste idea is a 1:1 correspondence (something in yields something out), what mathematicians call a linear function. The Parabola idea connects, pretty obviously, with parabolas -- now we're looking at x raised to the power of two. Annular Systems are modeled by circles which are given in analytic geometry by equations with both x^2 and y^2. Limits and Infinity, of course, become necessary in order to find the area of shapes under curves like parabolas and three-dimensional projections of circles.

You're probably all sensing how loaded this theory seems to be with connections to DFW's undergraduate work in math, and certainly even the novel itself contains explicit references to math (hello Peemster). Moreover, some evidence -- like DFW's response to Hager's thesis above, or his discussion of "dividing as-if by zero" from the famous Review of Contemporary Fiction interview -- might also point to Wallace's affinity for concepts likes these. I just wonder if an organization this incredibly organic is really at work, or whether I just cooked up something in the excitement of completing this gorgeous, heartbreaking, hilarious, wonderful book that I've imagined wholesale to fit the bill.

Thoughts?


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 Post subject: Re: The "Four Projects" of IJ
PostPosted: Mon Aug 10, 2009 7:44 am 
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I think these 4 themes are definitely present. Another big one, to me, that may or may not fit under these umbrellas is the critique of post-modern high art and DFW's feelings re: endless diagnoses of the problems of modern condition, mainly through irony as destructive. This theme emerges clearly about 3/4 of the way through when he talks about that emptiness you find when you achieve everything you sought out to but it doesn't fulfill you, and in Madame P's program content and certainly in Mario, who is the antihesis of the problem, in that he's a deeply feeling human and loathes irony. And the fact that the entertainment was (I think) JOI's trying to reach out to Hal, break through and communicate to him, but coming from an emotional cripple it ended up being high art that actually can kill people.


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 Post subject: Re: The "Four Projects" of IJ
PostPosted: Mon Aug 10, 2009 9:59 pm 
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I like your ideas for the four projects, I think that the motif of the tides can be contained within the annular systems project as the unit circle is the foundation for the trigonometry which models the behavior of the tides.

The connection I made between the theme of the parabola and the theme of the tides is that they were both defined or controlled by something “outside the system.” The parabola is defined by the focus and directrix (a point and a line, neither of which are on the parabola curve itself) and the tides are driven by the moon. Even by enfolding the idea of the tide into a larger category of the annulus, this connection still holds because the circle is defined by its center, a point that is not on the circle itself.

So, what does this have to do with materialism and spirituality?

Well, much of the text is intensely materialistic - not in the sense of being greedy, but in the Enlightenment, scientific sense of being concerned with the properties of physical matter. Wallace’s mastery of many areas of scientific, materialistic knowledge are evident throughout the book, but what about religion?

I’ve just started my third reading, but I don’t recall a lot of organized religion being discussed in the book. The closest thing I can see to organized religion in IJ is the 12-step program’s “higher power.”

In Stephen Burn’s book on IJ, he raises the possibility that IJ may “basically be a religious book. Although this might seem unlikely, it is clear that, on one level, the novel is about belief,” and “the spiritual hollowness of a life without belief...” (pg. 60)

Burn also quotes an introductory essay in which Wallace discusses religion :

To me, religion is incredibly fascinating as a general abstract object of thought—it might be the most interesting thing there is. But when it gets to the point of trying to communicate specific or persuasive stuff about religion, I find I always get frustrated and bored. I think this is because the stuff that' s truly interesting about religion is inarticulable.**

**(Which of course paradoxically is a big part of what makes it so interesting, so it
all gets really tangled.)


So, the whole idea of the parabola and annulus are that they are defined and controlled by things that are not a part of themselves, and Wallace may be hinting that the thing that controls and defines our world may be something that is not of our world.

Gerry Canavan wrote last month in his Infinite Summer #3 post about Godel’s incompleteness theorem and its connection to the type of annular thinking that can be a part of an addiction.
(http://gerrycanavan.blogspot.com/2009/0 ... smart.html)

This type of circular paradox occurs in language as well as mathematics, in trying to use language to describe something ineffable, like a feeling, or certain aspects of religion, or a psychedelic experience.

The annular thinking/circular paradox in the case of addiction is a result of a hypermaterialist viewpoint. Here again hypermaterialist in the sense of a disavowal that there exists anything beyond our understanding.

Annular thinking involves an individual mentally traveling around the outside of a circle looking for its center.

That’s where faith, belief and spirituality come in. Sometimes the only way to find something is to stop looking for it.


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 Post subject: Re: The "Four Projects" of IJ
PostPosted: Tue Aug 11, 2009 1:30 am 
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Chris Hager's essay in question now resides in the IJ theses section at The Howling Fantods:

http://www.thehowlingfantods.com/dfw/ij-theses.html

When I posted this for Chris at the Fantods it was already a couple of years old. He wrote it in 1996, and in 2006 he contacted me and asked me to take down his intro, but leave the thesis intact.

The quote from David Foster Wallace was:

"IJ's supposed to have four little projects going at one time, and you totally nailed one and part of a second."

And barone.brian, I think you are on to something pretty important here.

In fact, the 4th motif/group you mention is supported by the essay Greg Carlisle (author of Elegant Complexity) recently had published in the DFW tribute section of the Sonora Review double issue (55/56).

Greg's essay, 'Wallace's Inifinite Fiction' considers the role of mathematical limits in the narrative structure of Infinite Jest and examines a number of scenes where the complexity seems to behave like a mathematical limit and never gets resolved (as it approaches infinity). It is pretty awesome and worth getting your hands on.

Nick

http://www.thehowlingfantods.com/dfw


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 Post subject: Re: The "Four Projects" of IJ
PostPosted: Tue Aug 11, 2009 6:32 am 
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I have just read and commented about this at the wallace-l (BarbaraWarrenMS). I will share my comments here, too.

- I'm thinking about the mischief of DFW using "little" in this context.
- The Four Noble Truths http://www.thebigview.com/buddhism/fourtruths.html


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 Post subject: Re: The "Four Projects" of IJ
PostPosted: Tue Aug 11, 2009 9:58 am 
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Nick at The Howling Fantods told me about this thread. My apologies for barging into a community to which I don’t really belong (reading Infinite Jest is not how I’m spending my summer, alas), but I thought folks here might appreciate whatever little bit of light I can shed on the “four projects.” Over the years since Nick posted my college thesis, I’ve gotten smatterings of mail about it, and probably 40% of the time, folks want to know what the four projects are. (I asked Nick to remove the short intro. in which I quoted Wallace on the “four projects,” by the way, because I had written that intro. in a glib tone that I didn’t want to encourage in my students, who were discovering The Howling Fantods, and my thesis, in increasing numbers.) Anyway, for the record, yes, Wallace wrote, in response to my thesis, “IJ’s supposed to have four little projects going at one time, and you totally nailed one and part of a second.” This was in a letter dated 25 May 1996. Truth be told, I don’t know what the four projects are. I don’t even know for sure what are the 1.5 projects I supposedly nailed. But based on a bunch of stuff--my general reading of Wallace’s work, my correspondence with him while I was working on that thesis (in 1995-96), certain vague intuitions--I can say this:

I think that barone.brian’s interpretation of “project” doesn’t quite comport with how Wallace used the word (although the waste/parabola/annulation/infinity sequence definitely is on to something, and I’ll come back to it if I can). Wallace worked and thought, I’m quite convinced, more in terms of effects than motifs. That is, he cared about what fiction can do, what it can make happen, as opposed to what it can be. (In an interview somewhere, Wallace speaks scornfully of authorial “stunt-pilotry,” and he was indeed wary of showing what fiction can do just because you can--and, of course, he could pull off things most others can’t--but I think he had special wariness of stunt pilotry because he knew that he was always trying to make his planes do surprising things, and he was nervous [as he was about a ton of things] that sometimes he’d pull a stunt just ‘cause it was cool, not because it got him or his readers anywhere.) Take the parabolas. He actually really resisted the particulars of my thesis’s argument--e.g., he pointed out that my claim that the narrative structure itself is a parabola, with Lucien Antitoi’s soaring death as the apex, is entirely unsupportable because the original manuscript was way longer and got pared way down by his editor, and whatever turned out to be the mid-point of the printed book was just an accident of typesetting. And that’s absolutely right. What he liked--the “project” that I think he was saying my thesis had successfully described--had to do with what I was saying the parabola was for: for showing something without touching it, for focusing light, warmth, readers’ attention on something that, if you tried to represent it in language, you would inevitably taint and distort.

In short, I think one of the four projects is the one Wallace first outlined for himself in the TV and U.S. Fiction essay & “Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way”: how to follow in the aesthetic steps of the modernist and postmodernist projects but not lose fiction’s deepest purpose of representing and trying to explain human experience. Somewhere in my thesis I quote a passage in which Kate Gompert is making little tents out of raffle tickets at an AA meeting; that sort of thing is what Wallace expressed gratification that I’d paid attention to.

I think a second project is in some ways almost the same but purer (the sort of word I’m supposed to put scare quotes around, as Wallace would explain in a dilatory footnote)--not about literary history but just about looking at the world, and writing fiction about it, in a way that shows respect and restraint (cf. the Kenyon commencement address). Wallace’s favorite thing about my thesis was its discussion (and defense) of the ending, which was the subject of one of his greatest editorial battles (the editor was unhappy about the novel’s “lack of resolution”). Wallace’s account of how he won that battle (and he didn’t win many, apparently) is rather funny, and I’ll try to write about it at some point; but for now, it may be helpful to know that he said this: “So your essay -- which has a slightly different take on the function of silence and restraint than I did, but is very, very close [. . .] made me feel good, real good. I hope readers other than you can see what the end’s at least trying to do (whether it succeeds is, I’ve accepted, not for me to judge).”

I think a third project is the obvious one: to show how much entertainment and addiction have in common.

I had no clue at the time about anything beyond that, but in the <year since Sept 12, 2008, I have of course thought many more thoughts about Wallace, and the D.T. Max New Yorker article + excerpt from the unfinished IRS novel--particularly the intimations of what Wallace thought was important about boredom--have helped me get a very loose grip on what maybe was project #4, and I think mitchcalderwood’s comments above are quite apposite (except I would use the word spirituality rather than religion, for whatever that’s worth), as is thisiswater’s link. More than that, I still don’t think I know. And, I could be way off base on all counts, too.

Oh, and about barone.brian’s four motifs, and math in general: in my exchanges with Wallace, he consistently talked about his work in terms that disavowed any will to create complexity in fiction or any inclination or intention to construct fictions on philosophically or theoretically conceived scaffoldings. (Back before Infinite Jest, I wrote something about Girl With Curious Hair, which Wallace also read, and his summary comment about that was: “I have next to no fucking idea about a lot of the heavy semiohermeneupostspatial ammo you’re bringing to bear on my poor little fabrications.” I was talking in lit. theory, not math, but still. . .) For that reason, when I read and think about Wallace’s work (in the maturer days that have ensued since I was an undergrad writing a thesis, that is), even though I continue to think the parabolic arcs are damn cool, I generally try to use the kinds of old-fashioned terms and modes of thought Wallace spoke up for in places like the Dostoevsky essay. But with that said, I think it’s important to say, too, that Wallace sometimes was disingenuous about these matters, sometimes was trying to be the earnest, good-hearted author who just wants to tell stories and has no math up his sleeve. (A little later in the letter I just quoted, Wallace wrote the following one-line paragraph: “That may be a bit disingenuous.”) Math, logic, philosophy were the grid that powered his brain, and so no matter how he explained to himself the “projects” he was working on, I’m entirely convinced that certain kinds of formal complexity informed how he undertook those projects. And so it wouldn’t at all surprise me if Wallace relied on something like barone.brian’s four-part sequence to organize his own work, maybe without even thinking much about it (the way others of us might use fancy-schmancy structural conceits like “beginning-middle-end”).

Chris


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 Post subject: Re: The "Four Projects" of IJ
PostPosted: Tue Aug 11, 2009 12:48 pm 
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First off, what an incredible, thoughtful, passionate, awesome community the folks who love and study Infinite Jest and the rest of Wallace's work is. This legion of people who work so hard to think so honestly about the work of an author who cared so much about getting down to the core of what it is to be human do just that so well -- both in their interaction with the work and with one another.

Anyway, before I respond to the really fascinating things that have been brought up in this thread, I thought I'd just clarify what I was getting at in my original post for anyone who's having trouble cutting through that pretty serious jumble (even though all the respondents so far seem to have keyed in exactly on my thinking -- you're all very kind, very intelligent souls). Briefly and better put, it struck me that the vast majority (all?) of Infinite Jest's motifs can be organized into four groups: 1) Things that are Linear (this is a much better way of denoting what I was getting at with the 'waste/consumption' of my original post) 2) Things that are Parabolic 3) Things that are Annular and 4) Things that are Modeled by Limits and Infinity. Moreover, these four groups form a -- to borrow Prof. (yes? you mention having students...) Hager's term -- sequence based roughly on the nature of the algebraic equations that yield graphs corresponding to each.

Now, I have to admit that I, too, am not very comfortable really with the notion that these four groups of motifs are actually the 'four projects.' It feels a bit too superficial/look-at-how-clever-I-am for a writer and a book as human and -- yes-- spiritual as Wallace and IJ. Although, as has been pointed out, it's always hard to tell how genuine the authorial claim of simple motives and aw-shuckness is, or whether complexity is just an excuse to be able to plead simple genuineness which is itself motivated by authentic simplicity, and on and on until we're looking at something positively, well, annular. Which is why it's probably a bit silly to get too invested in questions of Authorial Intent (,The Fallacy of) in the first place. In any case, my point is that I certainly agree with you all who detect much, much, much more important and moving things going on in Infinite Jest.

Which raised questions for me: if this motif group sequence thing is really operative in the novel (which I'm increasingly convinced it is), why? What do these motifs have to do with the more meaningful projects at work? How do the four projects (whether Prof. Hager's or not) correspond to the four motif groups? Is there a one-to-one correspondence?

I'm not close at all to being able to answer any of these questions. In fact, I'm having trouble integrating even some of the most obvious themes (grammar, for one) in to the motif-group framework. Can anyone come to my rescue?


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 Post subject: Re: The "Four Projects" of IJ
PostPosted: Tue Aug 11, 2009 3:03 pm 
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Right now I consider this thread the most important one going on with the Boards. It's an intimidating one to write too. You all seem to have the Standing On The Shoulders Of Giants thing and I'm going to just have to stand down here and shout up a confession of how little math experience I have.

Ok, confessed inadequacy notwithstanding, I think the four- I'll call them Levels- Four Levels of math is a really compelling idea. There's a strange synchronicity in my experiences of reading books. You all probably have Me Too expressions going on; we learn a new thing, it keeps popping up, leads to chains of discovery/reoccurrence. Yesterday, I read Derivative Sport in Tornado Alley, trying to glean meaning from Wallace's strings of mathemagic phrases. The mallet-blunt point (odd juxtaposition) I took from it's verbal content (the words it contained as words, not as sentence components) is that this guy's connection to math is right down in the blood, urine and spit.

I was drawn to that essay in that collection of essays because of David Lynch Keeps his head, another section of A Supposedly Fun Thing... Reading that piece, I collected the Expressionist fragment of Wallace. Lynch, according to him (Wallace), is the ultimate hero of Expressionists because he knows that some things cannot be faced directly with our Communication Systems. Doing so strips them of essence, like the way Wallace comments on Authentic Tourist Attractions being impossible because the tourists' presence strips the attraction of it's authenticity. Lynch is Wallace's man because he (Lynch) doesn't permit his movies linearity or tidy conclusions. He does what is necessary to put his mind's tone of thought on the screen and to leave you feeling like something really genuine just got communicated. He knows how to make the movie feel so that it shows you without telling you- the age old rule of good writing. For this, Wallace claims to be eternally indebted. Wallace also jazzes over Lynch because Lynch convinced him there was a way to be clever that was genuine. Not tricks for tricks but tricks for a valuable purpose.

Why does this come back to the Four Levels? I feel as though this is maybe the unifier of the Four Levels that protects them from the criticisms of Wallace as doing things to show off/stunt pilotry, etc. I think he's using these four projects to demonstrate his hardwiring. With each of the Four Levels, Wallace introduces us to simplified skeletons of our most basic narratives, the cliches our knowledge builds from, the math.

There are things which come and go/have a beginning and an end.
There are moments that are the best to do things, there are moments that are the worst to do things.
There are things that must be dealt with because they will not deal with themselves, they will feed on themselves.
There are things which are beyond us, either too big or too small that we just have to take on faith exist because things can't work without them.

The one that is not mentioned is that we must operate among these rules. This is the world's basic math that we must navigate. There is someone in here, born into rules. We are under a rigid set of skeletons, restricted by them. But they are also the means for our movement. The solid things that allow us to play tennis.

Ok, I'm either embarrassed or glad I put that out there. It just sort of fell out of my head, so hopefully it's cogent. Thanks for letting me take the risk.


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 Post subject: Re: The "Four Projects" of IJ
PostPosted: Wed Aug 12, 2009 5:13 pm 
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Storm,

I'm glad you put your ideas out there. I like your phrase "born into rules." I think it captures something fundamental about our world.

I'm grateful to you and everyone in this thread for helping me to think more deeply about IJ.

mc


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 Post subject: Re: The "Four Projects" of IJ
PostPosted: Fri Aug 14, 2009 4:03 am 
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Thread of the Month nominee!


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