Infinite Summer

Formed in the summer of 2009 to read David Foster Wallace's masterwork "Infinite Jest".
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The Inficratic Oath: first, post no spoilers. Limit your I.J. discussion to only those events that take place on or before the page 981 (100%).

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 Post subject: History Catches Up with James Elders -- er, Olds
PostPosted: Tue Aug 04, 2009 5:00 pm 

Joined: Sat Jul 04, 2009 7:38 pm
Posts: 18
Location: Ottawa, Ontario
Marathe and Steeply have a curious exchange on the neuro-psychology of pleasure on pp.470-474. This section, though brief, is interesting for a number of different reasons, the most obvious of which is the presentation of a possible scientific basis for the Entertainment. Steeply tells Marathe at p.471,

The Canadians found that if they rigged an auto-stimulation lever, the rat would press the lever to stimulate his p-terminal over and over, thousands of times an hour, over and over, ignoring food and female rats in heat, completely fixated on the lever's stimulation, day and night, stopping only when the rat finally died of dehydration or simple fatigue.

As bizarre or improbable as this may sound to some readers, most of what Steeply is saying is actually based on solid scientific ground. The scientist whose work Steeply is referring to is Dr. James Olds (1922-1976), who, along with Peter Milner, was responsible for locating the pleasure centre of the brain -- Steeply's p-terminal -- within the nucleus accumbens. Michael Shermer does a good job summarizing this research:

Michael Shermer in "The Mind of the Market" at p.113 wrote:
In 1954, James Olds and Peter Milner accidentally implanted an electrode into the NAcc [nucleus accumbens] of a rat and discovered that it became very energized, so they purposely set up an apparatus such that whenever a rat pressed a bar it generated a small electrical stimulation to the area. The rats pressed the bar until they collapsed, even to the point of forgoing food and water. [...] The effect has since been found in all mammals tested, including humans -- people who have undergone brain surgery and had their nucleus accumbens stimulated equated the feeling with an orgasm.

Steeply's description of Olds’ research, then, turns out to be entirely factual and un-exaggerated. Indeed, his suggestion that people would trample each other to be hooked up to electrodes and stimulated isn’t far from the truth. Another scientist, Dr. Robert Heath (1915-1999), built upon Olds’ research using (willing) human test patients, finding that in:

Norman Doidge in "The Brain that Changes Itself" at p.113 wrote:
[...] experiments on humans -- an electrode was implanted into the septal region of the limbic system and turned on -- these patients experienced a euphoria so powerful that when the researchers tried to end the experiment, one patient pleaded with them not to.

Now, here’s where it gets really interesting, for there are a few anomalies in the Marathe/Steeply narrative as it is set up by DFW. The first is that Steeply is apparently at a loss when trying to recall James Olds’ name, although he seems able to recall his research in great detail. Similarly, he gets the dates of both Olds’ and Heath’s research wrong: Olds was working in the 1950s and Heath in the 1960s in particular, and yet Steeply places them both (although the latter is never named) in the non-self-assured “late I think B.S. '70s" (p.470). Of course DFW would have known that this was false, for there is little doubt that he would have been keenly aware of Olds’ and Heath’s work. But moreover, given the centrality of the scientists’ work to the notion of the Entertainment that is being developed in the novel, DFW must have known that we would know this as well. (And perhaps knew that we would have to know that he would have known that we would know that he knew!) So then the question: why the unconvincing deception?

The only real answer I can come up with is that DFW wants to use the annoying uncertainty in which the whole exchange is cast to spur us on to a treasure hunt in order to set the record straight; but, peculiarly, this requires the use of outside sources. However, any readers who might have done so will almost certainly have come across two most interesting facts (to which I will get in a moment) and I'm not yet entirely sure how they fit into the development of the novel. Steeply says, in a somewhat unusual moment of factual self-assurance, that "I even remember" (p.471) where the research took place, identifying Olds as "a leading Canadian neurologist" (p.470) and locating him at the Brandon Psychiatric Centre in rural Manitoba. His remarks serve to distance his American compatriots from the apparent compulsive pleasure-seeking behaviour of Canadians, especially in light of the volunteers who were said to be trampling each other in pursuit of immediate and indefinite pleasure. Marathe seems content to accept this -- although, given that he coughs unconvincingly into his hand immediately after Steeply's assertion, apparently knows it to be false -- and implicitly uses Steeply's claims later in the conversation to distinguish Quebeckers as superior in their ability to resist immediate pleasure, as compared to (other) Canadians and, especially, Americans, arguing that "Us, our nation is the Quebec nation" (p.474) i.e. not Canada.

All of this would be truly convenient for both of their positions -- except for two slight details of which both Marathe and Steeply are apparently either not aware (less likely), or actively avoiding (more likely). Olds was in fact an American citizen who, moreover, made his career-making discovery of the so-called p-terminal not at a research hospital in Brandon, Manitoba, but at the publicly-funded McGill University in Montreal, Quebec.

Revelations like this make me wonder just how deep the rabbit hole of Infinite Jest really goes...


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Started: 26 June 2009 | Finished: 25 July 2009

 Post subject: Re: History Catches Up with James Elders -- er, Olds
PostPosted: Wed Aug 05, 2009 6:23 am 

Joined: Wed Jul 01, 2009 7:36 am
Posts: 41
Location: Oakland, CA
That's fabulous! Thanks so much for this. It was not something I was intending on looking up. It rang vague bells from a psych.class or book, and I distinctly noted the poorly hidden cough. Sometimes I figure stuff like this will be resolved later in the novel, but of course by the time I get there, would I have remembered? (No.) Would it have been resolved with all the info you've just provided? (Can't say for sure, but probably not.) Brilliant and curious. Never trust Steeply or Marathe to tell the truth, at least, not yet. But, but, .... on some issues, they're all we've got!


 Post subject: Re: History Catches Up with James Elders -- er, Olds
PostPosted: Thu Aug 06, 2009 3:18 pm 

Joined: Tue Jun 16, 2009 9:25 am
Posts: 89
Location: Brooklyn
Interesting... I like this... So what is the ultimate point, if there is one? Is it that people in Quebec aren't exempt from making self-centered, pleasure-centric decisions, or that it took an American to go in to Canada and essentially dump our value system on them, the same way we do with our waste? Or something I'm missing?

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