Call it Something I Ate:

language-games, addiction, and dialogic possibility in David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest







Chapter I - Wherein epistemological and methodological limits are placed by Wittgenstein, elements of the text are examined, and Bakhtin is introduced in separate discussion.



Chapter II - Wherein the Dialogue begins in earnest; Wittgenstein positions his philosophy of language-games in relation to the text; Bakhtin situates heteroglossia, polyphonia and the dialogic in relation to Wittgenstein's thought; and a multifaceted hermeneutic framework is accepted by all parties.



Chapter III - In which the relationship between addiction and language in Infinite Jest is discussed and the functioning of Alcoholics Anonymous within the text is explored in detail.



Chapter IV - The discussion turns in this chapter, from substance addiction to other forms of ideological cages within the novel; we focus on competitive tennis and Hal Incandenza's solipsism and relationship with his father, the filmmaker James Incandenza. We discuss as well, the compelling entertainment of the film Infinite Jest.



Chapter V - In concluding, we turn to another set of imagined dialogues - between the author of the novel and his characters, and between the novel itself and the film within it that shares its name. We speculate briefly on what the "joke" of Infinite Jest might be.



Notes and Errata 62




David Foster Wallace's 1996 work, Infinite Jest, has been characterized by most of the critics who have been ambitious enough to review it in all of its 1079 pages of glory as 'very long, frequently brilliant, frequently confusing, and lacking closure.' Sven Birkerts, author of The Gutenberg Elegies, called it "the next step in fiction," and its publication quickly catapulted Wallace into the ranks of the contemporary literary elite, enough so that his work has been included in the Norton Anthology of Postmodern American Fiction and excerpts of Infinite Jest have been published in Harper's Magazine, The Paris Review, and The New Yorker, among other places. My project is to provide an exegesis of Infinite Jest using the linguistic philosophies of Wittgenstein and Bakhtin as a critical framework. Through engaging these two thinkers in an hermeneutic dialogue with the text, I hope to better understand the dialogues within the text and between text and reader. Our dialogue will bring to light the way the characters' experience and self-definition is mediated through the substances they ingest, literally and metaphorically, and how addiction functions so seductively and deceptively in the text.

"I'd tell you all you want and more, if the sounds I made could be what you hear," says 18 year old Hal Incandenza in the opening section of David Foster Wallace's weighty novel(9)(footnote 1). Hal, a competitive junior tennis player, is interviewing at the University of Arizona for a scholarship and admission ticket on the basis of his impressive athletic ability, but in the few pages that follow, Hal cannot communicate with his interviewers. "My eyes are closed; the room is silent. 'I cannot make myself understood, now.' I am speaking slowly and distinctly. 'Call it something I ate.' "(10).

'My application's not bought,' I am telling them, calling into the darkness of the red cave that opens out before closed eyes. 'I am not just a boy who plays tennis. I have an intricate history. Experiences and feelings. I'm complex.'

'I read,' I say. 'I study and read. I bet I've read everything you've read. Don't think I haven't. I consume libraries. I wear out spines and ROM-drives.... My instincts concerning syntax and mechanics are better than your own, I can tell, with due respect." ...

I open my eyes. 'Please don't think I don't care.'

I look out. Directed my way is horror. I rise from the chair. I see jowls sagging, eyebrows high on trembling foreheads, cheeks bright-white. The chair recedes below me.

'Sweet mother of Christ,' the Director says. ...

'What in God's name are those ...,' one Dean cries shrilly, '... those sounds?' ...

'I am not what you see and hear.'

Distant sirens. A crude half-nelson. Forms at the door. A young hispanic woman holds her palm against her mouth, looking.

'I'm not,' I say.




The source of Hal's impairment is one of the key questions the book leaves open. There are several others. The first chapter occurs almost exactly one year after the rest of the book, in the Year of Glad (In Wallace's future America, the years themselves are subsidized by major corporations. Most of Infinite Jest takes place in the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment or Y.D.A.U.). In the twelve months the book passes over in its annular course, Quebecois separatists could have disseminated a movie produced by Hal's father before his suicide that was so terribly entertaining that it turned anyone who watched it into a zombie; Hal, and two other characters, Don Gately and John "No Relation" Wayne, could have somehow stopped the plot; Hal could have seen the movie and lost his ability to communicate; or Hal could have been dosed with the incredibly powerful psychedelic DMZ, which has been rumored to cause disorders similar to that which we see in Hal. All of these possibilities are available to us, and Wallace only hints at what might really have happened. His characters are not always trustworthy; his narrator is self-conscious and chatty but at the same time slips into the perspective of each of several protagonists like a skin.

Infinite Jest is constructed like a chaotic symphony - as we progress, we hear the strains of leitmotifs , familiar and suggestive, being echoed by instruments of different timbres, whirling around each other. Instead of movements of different speed and flavor, IJ constitutes a grand circle, of which we see only half during the 981 pages of text and close to 100 pages of footnotes. Like Pynchon's parabolic Gravity's Rainbow, we are treated to only an arc, a semicircle, but Infinite Jest doesn't contain just one arc, it contains the arcs of all of its characters, which possibly intersect during the temporal void that the book leaves out, from December Y.D.A.U. to November in the Year of Glad (Footnote 2). At the beginning and end of the book, the story moves most quickly, shifting rapidly between characters and locations and times, sections of narrative and sections of commentary on the future of America, technology and advertising that are both humorous and a form of white noise - an inundation with information and choice that Wallace is exposing us to in an attempt to mimic the constant barrage of information that surrounds us now. As readers, we must note this but also dig through it to reach more fertile ground.

Wallace's vision of the future may be punctuated by humor, but it is essentially tragic. Infinite Jest is a profoundly sad book, a study of addiction, the pyrrhic-at-best search for spirituality and a palliative for existential loneliness that invariably is a drug. It explores the void in every one of us that must be filled by a substance and then filled again and again. This void is something we cannot know - to know it or to make peace with it is to die. There are many simultaneous projects in Infinite Jest, and the construction and exploration of void is one of them that this thesis will explore.

Infinite Jest is a book of near-truths. There is a wild-eyed outrageousness to some of the more clever inventions - corporations subsidizing years and the Great Convexity/Concavity (Footnote 3) - but besides these playfulnesses and implausibilities, Wallace gives us a frighteningly real portrayals of characters. They come to life and they speak to us. They cry out to us. The novel is confusing at times, and sometimes too self-conscious and clever, giving the reader a sense of the writer's prodigious talent but detracting from the dialogue within the text. This is forgivable. What is important is that when you delve beyond the superficial confusions and peripatetic meandering of the text, voices emerge - richer than Dostoevsky's idea-heroes, more compelling than DeLillo's or Barthelme's or Pynchon's observers and fumblers. Infinite Jest is not just a commentary on our society, it is a container of voices and themes that play out in the novel's contrived setting. To bring the voices to light, we must first reconcile ourselves with the structural components of the novel. And to understand to interplay between voices, we need to adopt a framework that allows us to capture the essence of the dialogue.

To these two ends, I have looked to Wittgenstein and Bakhtin and their philosophies of language and discourse. They were contemporaries who never knew of each other, just as they never knew of the work of Ferdinand de Saussure who wrote his own (and the most famous) study of language. I set Wittgenstein and Bakhtin not in opposition, but in dialogue with each other and with my own reading of Infinite Jest. Wittgenstein was an eccentric and often contradictory figure, more often co-opted as a patron saint by artists than by philosophers (Footnote 4). His nearly mystical approach to method went against a 2000-year-old tradition of metaphysical inquiry but has a poetic beauty and simplicity to it that I wanted to engage hermeneutically to address Infinite Jest's dizzying structure without sacrificing its integrity. Wittgenstein's method cracks the text's hardest nut and exposes the linguistic meat upon which I wanted to feast, along with my philosopher friend.

I was relying on Wittgenstein's philosophy of language-games to bring the separate voices of the characters into focus. I realized that this was not enough. What I came to understand was that language-games were indeed involved and could certainly be used, but the sublimity of the text is contained not within those individual languages but within the dialogue between them. And as the great dialogician, Bakhtin joined our table too. In reading the text together, Wittgenstein and I had forgotten that this thesis was occurring at our dialogical intersection, and Bakhtin not only made us aware of that, but joined in our conversation. This thesis is, then, a hermeneutic enterprise on the part of four people - Wallace, Wittgenstein, Bakhtin, and myself. Our hope is that we each improve each other; Wittgenstein and Bakhtin gain new life through new application, Wallace gains a new lucidity, and I take away some of the wisdom and brilliance of all three. We concern ourselves first with the structure of the text as a whole and then move in to look at the dialogue in the text - between characters, between Wallace and his characters, and between the reader and the characters. In a very challenging and lengthy text, we sensed connections and underlying themes of communication which we try to piece together into a coherent set of relationships and ideological negotiations. The hermeneutic dialogue and the intratextual dialogues parallel each other but intersect as well, and they must, if we are to gain anything from reading.







Nearly every character in Infinite Jest is addicted to something. The residents of Ennet House, a rehabilitation center for recovering addicts, run the gamut of substance addiction - from pure alcoholism to prescription narcotics; from heroin or cocaine to marijuana and beyond . They are shown at their weakest points, their lives collapsed. They are derelicts, and their only hope for salvation is to enter the quasi-religious ranks of Alcoholics Anonymous or their splinter groups. But AA is itself a form of addiction - blind and inescapable repetition. The teenagers of Enfield Tennis Academy (ETA), just up the hill from Ennet House, are addicts in a different sense. Apart from flirting with pharmaceuticals, of which many of them are guilty, they have committed themselves to the pursuit of excellence in a competitive sport, and this repetition - morning drills for hours, afternoon challenge matches, weight training, and even squeezing tennis balls in their hands every waking hour to strengthen their wrists - all of this takes over their lives and consciousness in a way that is powerfully and profoundly compelling.

At the heart of each one of those pursuits, though, is a void and emptiness. The competitive tennis, the alcohol or Demorol or pot, and the construction of a fatally entertaining film, the book's namesake, are all insulation against existential loneliness and spiritual hollowness. The boys of ETA are force-fed the ideology of competition before they have the self-consciousness to understand how lonely such a pursuit can be. The drugs often start innocently enough, but function as a way out, an escape from a pain which the drug itself, in its absence, lays bare for the user. James Incandenza's lethal film, the last work he completed before his suicide, was a result of his loneliness and progressive sense of despair and alienation from his family and son. It was also designed to provoke his son into communicating with him.

These addictive activities, save for the only proposed cure - Alcoholics Anonymous and its philosophy of clichés and perseverance - are in a dialogical relationship with a void that is both internal and external. The substance protects one from their internal fears and pains, but besides a need for constant propitiation, the substance also forms an external barrier. The addiction, often referred to in the text as The Cage, locks one away from other people. The addicts in Infinite Jest seem unable to connect meaningfully with other people and find themselves buried in their own involution.

The novel's entire structure is woven around an immense temporal gap where all possibilities exist and all of the protagonists' myriad paths must finally cross, but this point of convergence is never reached, and the events which occur within it can never be figured out because of the ambiguities Wallace sets in place. Thus the novel lacks a formal unity - there is ultimately no closure. And the two main characters, Don Gately and Hal Incandenza, meet each other only in a fleeting hallucination. Like all characters in Infinite Jest, they are separated by language. To bridge this temporal gap we turn first to the eccentric and iconoclastic Ludwig Wittgenstein.

Wallace was trained as a philosopher at Amherst and in his first novel, The Broom of the System, claimed Wittgenstein as the patron saint of his most elusive character. Wittgenstein, who taught at Cambridge in the 1930's and 40's, challenged the very foundations of metaphysics as an analytic branch of philosophy. We shall see how Wittgenstein, one of Wallace's earliest and most enduring influences, manifests himself in the interaction between characters in Infinite Jest.

Wittgenstein, in Philosophical Investigations, rejects a philosophical system based on semiotics and in, effect, on the Saussurean idea of the arbitrary relationship between signifier and signified. Wallace's ingenious use of Wittgenstein is a rejection, in a manner of speaking, of the cynicism of postmodernism's world of simulacra and structures lacking inherent meaning. The attempt to relate signifier to signified in a meaningful way, Wittgenstein says, is counterproductive. He says that one can only understand the meaning of words through their actual usage, and that words are like tools - useful only in what they allow one to do with them. Every character trying desperately to interface and to connect is foiled by the fact that each character has his or her own language, with its own idiom and its own lexicon. The same words have different usages for different characters and thus different meanings. And what determines the contents of a character's lexicon? The substance - the drug, the propaganda, the media, the consumed. Each character is involved in the linguistic prison of his or her substance, and not only do these individual languages circumscribe meaningful interaction between characters - they are responsible for the slippery ambiguities that have frustrated reviewers, as the natures of putative events referred to by characters are only meaningful relative to the language that describes them.

The idea that the novel can be comprised of many individual languages is not a new one. Mikhail Bakhtin, the famous Russian critic, developed in his The Dialogic Imagination and Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics a theory of the novel based upon the concepts of "polyphonia" and "heteroglossia." He argued that formal unity was a characteristic of epic, another genre, and that the novel eschewed this unity in favor of a confluence of many different languages - the individual tongues of each character. Each character's language informs and interacts with every other's. Infinite Jest is a polyphonic novel par excellence, but not in the way that Bakhtin originally formulated the concept. The relationship between individual languages is something that Wallace seems acutely aware of and sets up for us in both wild and subtle ways - Quebecois French versus English, silence versus speech, Hal's animal noises versus his internal language, etc.

Both theoretical figures, Bakhtin and Wittgenstein, are considered to be somewhat unconventional and difficult to peg down, but both can be seen as inherently post-structuralist thinkers in that they are structuralists at heart who are in disagreement with the fundamental axioms of Saussurean theory. Wittgenstein is often compared to Derrida in this respect. Their primary disagreement with Saussure (and this is an implicit disagreement on the part of Wittgenstein, who most likely never read Saussure) is in the nature of the distinction between langue and parole. Meaning, they would both say in reference to Saussure, cannot be separated from the context in which it is used. Langue is dead and hollow, and only parole, in all its heteroglot glory, can be used to convey meaning. The written word of the novel is parole because it contains the contextual information of speech. It is language-in-use. We can use both Bakhtin's 'polyphonia' and Wittgenstein's 'language-games as forms of life' to better understand the way in which Wallace constructs his fictional world and the relationships between characters within it. Whether individual languages serve to interact or alienate, we must look at each character's words and thoughts as well as the narrator's as instances of language-in-use, and we must, like Wittgenstein and Bakhtin, accept a concomitant lack of formal unity in order to make sense of Infinite Jest and not let its ingenuity frustrate us as readers.





Wittgenstein, the Austrian-born philosopher (1889-1951), prepared only two works for publication during his lifetime; the first appeared in 1921 and the second in 1953. They are wildly incongruous, and part of Wittgenstein's legacy is his refuatation of his earlier, well-lauded work and the methodology behind it. That first book, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, like the later Philosophical Investigations, concerns itself with logic and language. At the heart of it is the claim that the fundamental unit of language was the proposition, a statement which posited a relationship between two named objects. Using meticulous logic, he demonstrated that these propositions were perfectly corresponding pictures of reality. The limits of reality were the limits of language. What is important, though, was that Wittgenstein, in the Tractatus, makes the claim that there exists, in reality, things which cannot be described through language, thus allowing for a metaphysical realm beyond the scope of human capacities for thought and understanding. Towards the end of the Tractatus, Wittgenstein attempts to transcend the boundaries of his own logic, saying first that we can point out the metaphysical by analyzing our propositions and seeing which "signs" (Footnote 5) within them have no real meaning; then, we must understand those meaningless signs as things we cannot deal with using language:


6.53 The correct method in philosophy would really be the following: to say nothing except what can be said, i/e/ propositions of natural science - i.e. something that has nothing to do with philosophy - and then, whenever someone else wanted to say something metaphysical, to demonstrate to him that he had failed to give a meaning o certain signs in his propositions...

6.54 My propositions serve as elucidations in the following way: anyone who understands me eventually recognizes them as nonsensical, when he has used them - as steps - to climb up beyond them. (He must, so to speak, throw away the ladder after he has climbed up it.)

He must transcend these propositions, and then he will see the world aright.

7 What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.(Footnote 6)


So Wittgenstein claims that his own statements about metaphysics are nonsensical because they do not correspond to the natural, describable world. His analysis ends with an exhortation to silence about all things that cannot be pictured simply using descriptive language. The end of the Tractatus is beautiful and poetic, but it seems contradictory. Wittgenstein admitted in the preface to the Investigations that in the years that followed the first book's publication, he noted many errors that he wished he could correct (PI v-vi). He had come to rethink that age-old problem of metaphysical philosophy - describing the indescribable. He was unsatisfied by his own call to silence. He no longer accepted language as a picture of reality, nor his claim that his own words were pure nonsense.

Wittgenstein's words were nonsensical because they were meant to describe the form and order of language and the world, and Wittgenstein's argument was that language was the world, and that language was built of propositions which could not accurately describe the way the world worked. This is to say that the way the world works is evident in the language itself, but not described by it. Thus, the language of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus is a metalanguage used to describe real language, and it is useful in delineating the way that language works, but is not really describing things that exist. In Wittgenstein's interesting formulation, it is meaningless. Formulations of both ethics and values are also meaningless, as they are evident through language, but not described by it. We cannot state our ethical ideals or our values - we can only act and speak according to them. Ethics do not exist in speech, only in action. Ethics, values, and the nature of the world - these are all things about which Wittgenstein must remain silent, having already attempted to expose their workings through a nonsensical metalanguage.

In his later years, then, what did Wittgenstein discover that allowed him to reconcile himself with metaphysics? Nothing; he never did. In a brilliant gesture, he scrapped his methodology instead. He decided that not only he, but all philosophers who were looking for the answers to such profound questions as or "what is the essence of man" or "what is real" or "what is death" had been barking up the wrong tree for millenia.

Meaning, Wittgenstein would say in the Investigations, only existed within language. What language could not describe, could not mean for the person speaking that language. And what constitutes the great break from the logic of the Tractatus, is the idea that one can only understand the meaning of the word through examining its use in ordinary language. "Essence is expressed by grammar... Grammar tells us what kind of object anything is (theology as grammar)" (PI 371,373), Wittgenstein tells us. The Investigations are set up as a series of numbered comments and expositions ranging from a sentence to pages in length and scope. He eschews the meticulous structure of the Tractatus just as he eschews its reliance on analytical logic. His later book is more dependent upon analogy and demonstration. It contains dialogue with an interlocutor that often expresses more traditional philosophical views.

Why? Because Wittgenstein is challenging analytic method. In the lecture notes from 1933-4 that would provide the first explosition of the thinking that would produce the Philosophical Investigations, he says:


Philosophers constantly see the method of science before their eyes, and are irresistibly tempted to ask and to answer questions in the way science does. This tendency is the real source of metaphysics and leads philosophers into complete darkness. I want to say here that it can never be our jon to reduce anything top anything, or to explain anything. Philosophy really is 'purely descriptive'. (Footnote 7)


The fault of conventional philosophical method is that it is bent on penetration of phenomena and the erection of a theory to explain them. By looking at what is there before our eyes, namely the way we use concepts in our everyday language, we will expose these chimeras that have overtaken our imagination and obscured the truth.

Wittgenstein rails against examining the links between signifier and signified and attempting to draw conclusions from it, but this philosophy, which in a way lies tangent to the destructive circle of structuralist and post-structuralist thought, is never taken to undermine meaning. In the high-priest of postmodernism's, Jean Baudrillard's, endless precession of simulacra, the whole concept of meaning is thrown to the winds. In Baudrillard's estimation, the image would have four successive stages in which it proceeds from reflecting reality to masking reality, to masking an absence of its correlate in reality, to having no relation to reality whatsoever (Footnote 8). This whole sequence of events presents the future of the meaning of language and imagery - "the radical negation of the sign as value," and "the sign as reversion and death sentence of every reference.(Footnote 9)"

Wittgenstein prefigures a retaliation to this philosophy of hollowness. Look to language as we use it, he says. Our tendency to break down language "prevent[s] us in all sorts of ways from seeing that nothing out of the ordinary is involved" (PI 94). When one looks at signification and meaning from the perspective of ordinary language, from language-in-use, and resists the temptation to construct theoretical chimeras, one will find that "everything lies open to view[;] there is nothing to explain" (PI 126). The later Wittgenstein has often been compared to poststructuralist Jacques Derrida (Footnote 10). For Derrida, one of the chief characteristics of the sign is "iterability," meaning the sign's ability to be repeated over and over in different contexts. It implies both stability - through different variations in tone, form, and syntagm, it retains a basic sense of meaning or reference - and difference - the sign must be flexible and alter its meaning in different contexts in order to be useful (Footnote 11). Wittgenstein and Derrida thus both have a deep interest in context and individual usage as opposed to the formal limits of language. For Wittgenstein, language can only be understood through usage, through the individual speech-act and its grammar; for Derrida, the sign is always changing its meaning dependent upon the individual instance of its use. By positing that both difference and identity are part of the essence of the sign, Derrida maybe lends more credibility to Wittgenstein's parallel claim that language can only be understood and should only be examined through its individual usage, whether this be a single utterence or a series of utterences in a consistent grammatical context - a languge-game.

Derrida was a key thinker in the development of some of the central tenets of postmodernism - decentering of meaning; the collapse of unified narratives of history and identity; the implications of the play between signifiers. His philosophy of deconstruction is often co-opted by postmodern writers and taken to justify an attitude that meaning and history and the unity of identity or even of language have been brutally undermined. Implicitly or explicitly, he has been an influence on the great postmodern American fiction writers: John Barth, Donald Barthelme, Robert Coover, Don DeLillo, and many others. 20th Century literary fiction has never been any stranger to experimentation, from Joyce's Finnegan's Wake to Kathy Acker's Great Expectations. These experimentations open themselves up to some forms of criticism than others. The work of Abish, of Acker, of Barthelme and Coover maybe particularly good fodder for Baudrillard's focus on the jeopardy of meaning in a world of floating signifiers - here are narratives that are undermined from inside by the ambiguities of words and the toying with pre-existing works of literature or well-known historical events.

David Foster Wallace's texts are also considered postmodernist (at least by his reviewers), and also considered to be rife with interesting ambiguities and subversions. Yet maybe Wittgenstein may inform his texts more than Baudrillard. Two aspects of Wittgenstein's philosophy conern us here: first, his view towards language, in which similarities with both Derrida and Bakhtin exist; and secondly, his methodological approach to philosophy, which can be adapted or co-opted for textual criticism. For a moment, we will concentrate on the latter aspect and look at Infinite Jest with an appreciation of Wittgenstein's critique of metaphysics.

Infinite Jest leaves both our characters and the reader hanging at the end. The body of the text ends with a group of wheelchair-bound Canadian terrorists about to descend upon Enfield Tennis Academy. Our first protagonist, Hal Incandenza, may or may not have been dosed with a powerful designer drug and he is in grave danger. Our second protagonist, Don Gately, a recovering addict who works as a live-in counselor at Ennet House, is in the hospital in critical condition, fading in and out of consciousness, all the while not only having dreams of traumas past but being visited by the ghost of Hal's father, James Incandenza, the filmmaker who created the fatal entertainment. The race is on to find a master copy of the film, which the Canadian terrorists plan to broadcast across the U.S.

These issues seem completely unresolved. The last few pages constitute Gately's reliving the repercussions of a friend of his pulling a fast one on their empoyer and getting caught. Gately's friend, binging on Dilaudid, is held down and given Naloxone, an opiate antagonist, by the thugs hired to catch him. This sends him into immediate withdrawal symptoms - true and horrible pain. Gately is held back and forced to watch but his captors, instead of sobering him up, give him a large amount of "Sunshine," a very potent narcotic. Possibly potent enough even to kill him. The last words - "and when he came back to, he was flat on his back on the beach in the freezing sand, and it was raining out of a low sky, and the tide was way out" (981).

Forced to take a powerful drug, more intense than the Demerol to which he was addicted, Gately watches the torture of his friend, Fackelmann, without affect, unable to feel, unable to even stand. When he wakes up, it is in a sad place, a locale separated from other people, a place detached from nature, where every image is of depression and withdrawal. The warm beach is cold and painful. Though it rains on him, the water is far away, receding. Maybe this is the death-void, a place of no affect. But just as likely is that it is something else entirely, a picture of the consequences of addiction. It is a communicational void that is worse than a death which is described elsewhere in Infinite Jest as leading to a sort of glossolalia - "Lucien finds his gut and throat again and newly whole, and is free... sounding a bell-clear and nearly maternal alarmed call-to-arms in all the world's well-known tongues" (488-9). As we shall see below, for many characters death is a freedom from pain or from communicational solipsism caused by the restraints of lanaguage; in the "cosmology" of the film,Infinite Jest, the fatal entertainment (Footnote 12), Death is portrayed as the mother of new life. The person who kills you in the present life becomes your mother in the next, and apologizes profusely for having ended your previous life.(Footnote 13)

In the last scene, Gately is losing consciousness as Fackelmann's eyelids are being sewn open, a la A Clockwork Orange. 'Vidi well,' Wallace is telling us, as everyone in the room starts shooting heroin. Someone brings a TP viewer (futurized TV) over towards Fackelmann whose eyes are bulging out of his sockets. Gately's drug was "obscenely pleasant" (981). All of this leaves us with a taste of addiction at its most horrible. Fackelmann, who stole from his boss to finance his drug habit, will die painfully, watching other slump down in junk comas. Gately is traumatically incapacitated, and the painlessness of it all is probably the most disturbing aspect. Possibly the whole book is reflected in this last section - as readers we enjoy the text. It is obscenely pleasant. But when we wake up from it, when we finish, we feel the tragedy that it encapsulates. And throughout, we are observers, not participators, like Don Gately. We will return to this idea below.

We know nothing of anyone's fate except for Hal who in the book's first scene is communicationally incapacitated but again playing top notch tennis. We can speculate on what has happened. One would think that Gately and Hal, who dream of each other but who never meet during the course of the text, finally cross paths. Hal, if he was indeed dosed with DM, either by John Wayne, who is working for the AFR, the Canadian terrorists, or by Pemulis, his friend who was just expelled from ETA, might have ended up in the hospital right next to Gately. Hal, a year after the majority of the book ends, says - "At the only other emergency room I have ever been in, almost exactly one year back, the psychiatric stretcher was wheeled in and then parked beside the waiting-room chairs" (16). And Gately, at that time, would be in the hospital, wallowing in pain from a gunshot to the shoulder sustained while rescuing a truly unworthy resident of Ennet House from danger. But why would they have met if Hal was taken to the psychiatric ward? And why would James Incandenza's ghost visit Gately, who has no apparrent connection at all to the family except for having made the acquaintance of Joelle Van Dyne, who was the star actress in Incandenza's lethal film?

On page 16, Hal says:


I think of John N.R. Wayne, who would have won this year's Whataburger, standing watch in a mask as Donald Gately and I dig up my father's head.


and at the end of the book, on page 934, Gately experiences the following:


He dreams he's with a very sad kid and they're in a graveyard digging some dead guy's head up and it's really important, like Continental-Emergency important, and Gately's the best digger but he's wicked hungry, like irresistibly hungry, and he's eating with both hands out of huge economy-size bags of corporate snakcs so he can't really dig, while it gets later and later and the sad kif is trying to scream at Gately that the important thing was buried in the guy's head and to divert the Continental Emergency to start digging the guy's head up before it's too late, but the kid moves his mouth but nothing comes out, and Joelle van D. appears with wings and no underwear and asks if they knew him, the dead guy with the head, and Gately starts talking about knowing hum even though deep down he feels panic because he's got no idea who they're talking about, while the sad kid holds something terrible up by the hair and makes the face of somebody shouting in panic: Too Late.


Maybe this is a collossal foreshadowing of what happens in the temporal void that the book frames. Gately's account excludes Wayne, and Hal's excludes Joelle in angel garb. In Gately's dream, Hal is unable to speak, and his ability to communicate is a central issue that we will address. But how can we resolve what happens? We don't have enough textual evidence to deduce a year's worth of happenings. In fact, we don't have any evidence that is not dreamlike or thoroughly ambiguous. We will never know whether that hallucinatory dig ever took place, and whether there really was a master copy of the film there that had been taken by someone else, presumably the AFR, the wheelchair assassins (Footnote 14). It is also possible that Hal has watched the deadly film, which in fact stars Don Gately, and the connection between Hal and Gately is one that is only a reminiscence of the film. And it may be that the whole book is really a transcript of the film, in a metafictional twist, and it is designed to bring us back to the beginning, over and over again. We may use conjecture, and we can try to deduce, but we will perpetually be frustrated because there is only possibility and the language is purposefully waffling.

It is very hard to come to grips with such an ending. Wittgenstein offers us an explanation of our frustration: we are seeking out chimeras. We are trying to analyze and penetrate instead of describe. The goal of philosophy, and literary theory is if anything the philosophy of the 20th century, should not be to break down the text into its component parts and look for meaning, but to describe the usage of language. Meaning is right in front of us, and it is our natural error of methodology to seek formal unity where there need not be any at all.

Wallace, with his metaphor of annulation, the self-consuming ring that constitutes the temporal scope of the book as well as the mechanism of fusion that powers its fictional world, offers us a carrot on a string to grab at and follow, but in the end, the circle is not completed - it leaves an emptiness, and we must accept that emptiness for what it is. It is a void bereft of language and hence, a void that is beyond our conceptualization. What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence. We can describe the possibilities, but within the gap framed by the book lies a set of characters and situations in a superposition of states which we cannot collapse.




From Wittgenstein's method, we now turn to the second aspect of his philosophy, that of the individuality of language. The comparisons between Wittgenstein and Derrida often focus on individual instances of language as a meeting ground for the two great minds. The former locates the totality of our conception of our world in our individual words and grammars, and the latter focuses sharply on the constantly changing words themselves and their possibilities for meaning. In order to work with Infinite Jest in depth, it is valuable to make an altogether different partnering of minds and theories - Wittgenstein and Bakhtin. For Derrida's thought will not take us into the realm of characters and their languages, only into the individual words and their iterations. Bakhtin's formulation of the novel as a location for dialogue between differing ideologies will prove useful as a transducer of Wittgenstein's thought into a form more appropriate for addressing a written text.

Mikhail Bakhtin, the Russian critic, was influential in advancing a theory of the novel. With roots in Russian formalism and early structuralism, he categorized genres according to their linguistic, discursive, and formal attributes. But he was also a brilliant champion of decentering influences on literature. In Rabelais and His World(Footnote 15), he gave us the concept of "carnival," an essentially antinomian laughter on the part of the renaissance peasants. It was an ambivalent state of being that went beyond a socially-sanctioned holiday and wildly embraced both life and death. And in The Dialogic Imagination and Problems of Dostoesky's Poetics (Footnote 16), he advanced a theory of the polyphonic and heteroglot novel.

Bakhtin was opposed to what he called monologism in the novel, which put it in the same category as the tragedy, comedy and epic forms. In these genres, there was an inherent lack of freedom and equiality, for all attempts at recognizing the existence of other consciousnesses outside that of the author were stifled. That is to say that in the monologic novel, the characters have no autonomy but are merely puppets of the author, scurrying through the preconceived plot according to the author's whims. Reality contains, and our language encompasses, more than one complete value system, more than one complete language, and more than one author. To limit a novel's language to the creative impulses of merely one person (the author) is to do a diservice to the capabilities of language. We can compare it to a totalitarian system of government - all individual voices (the characters) are subordinated to the hegemony of a single ideology and consciousness (the author).

Writing in Russia in the 1920's, it seems appropriate that the form of novelistic government Bakhtin places on a pedestal is communism. As a preferred alternative to the monologic novel (which reached a pinnacle in Tolstoy), Bakhtin offers us the polyphonic, the multi-voiced. In this development, the authorial consciousness no longer dictates to the characters, but they exist together as a multiplicity of separate consciousnesses, autonomous and interacting. The novel is the site of the interaction of several subjects, as opposed to several objects of the authorial consciousness, and the plot is the result of that dialogue. Bakhtin stresses that the hero's word is just as important as the author's, and that, irrespective of the fact that the author can impose his will upon the characters, he does not because of the respect and autonomy granted them.

Bakhtin (and Dostoevsky as his prime example) champions the cause of the character in the novel. It is easy to leave Bakhtin at this quasi-Marxist level, but one of themes that motivates him and informs his idea of polyphonia is the dialogic nature of language. While polyphonia is the focus of Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics, his later essays focus increasingly on language, which will lead us back to Wittgenstein and eventually, to Infinite Jest.

Bakhtin sees the world as an inherently social world, and sees within this social world an incredible complexity and variance of both ideologies and languages. A polyphonic novel attempts to represent the natural state of our social world by acknowledging that their exist voices and viewpoints beyond our own and beyond that of the author. Each character, then, represents his or her own ideology and engages in dialogue - with the author, with other characters, and even in an internal, soliloquistic sense. The plot is the result of the interplay between autonomous characters who, in Bakhtin's formulation, truly determine their own fate in the novel. And not only that, but the characters are not static, they have a profound openendedness. Their actions cannot be predicted. Each moment in the novel is a moment in the present, where the plot is not unfolding but being created.

Bakhtin describes novels developing out of monologic genres:


They become more free and flexible, their language renews itself by incorporating extraliterary heteroglossia and the "novelistic" layers of literary langage, they become dialogized, permeated with laughter, irony, humor, elements of self-parody and finally - this is the most important thing - the novel inserts into these other genres an indeterminacy, a certain semantic openendedness, a living contact with unfinished, still-evolving contermporary reality. (Footnote 17)


The novel speaks with a new freedom of form. It operates in "the new zone opened by the novel for structuring literary images, namely, the zone of maximal contact with the present (With contemporary reality) in all its openendedness." (Footnote 18) Characters in the polyphonic novel, as personalities and humanistic entities, are unfinalizable, and their actions may surprise the reader. Bakhtin seems to be railing against the monologic novel as a predictable novel. Were the characters in a monologic novel more human, they would be unpredictible and unfinalizable, and this would, supposedly, frustrate the monolgic author who controls and reins in his or her characters. We can, in fact, see the frustrating ambiguities of Infinite Jest in a similar light. As readers, we are used to closure and to having characters we can predict. Even though we can say that in the polyphonic novel characters typically express a certain ideology which governs their actions and dialogical relations, there is an element of intangibility wherein the characters exist in a realm of possibility. In reading the novel, nothing is decided until we turn the page, and even then we cannot know all of thoughts of the characters - they function independently even of the author.

We are not allowed to know whether or not Joelle van Dyne is pathologically beautiful or hideous under her veil because it is her prerogative not to let us know. Hal's solipsism keeps us at arm's length as well as his mother. And Wallace himself, as author, exerts his own conscious influence, giving us even more ambiguities as narrator and auteur. Through their dialogic relations, we get a sense of the characters, but not enough to piece together all the mysteries of the text. And this is an idea that Wallace will seize on. His common denominator for both actors and audience is a lack of connection, a void of time, space, and spirit. They cannot know each other, just as we cannot know them. They vie for power and mastery - the Quebecois and the Americans in their struggle to obtain the deadly filmic weapon - just as the reader vies for mastery of the text's ambiguities.

The characters are inherently alone, reaching out but rarely connecting; much of this is due to the nature of addiction. Dialogue, for Bakhtin, happens between characters, but also between the characters and the social matrix which constitutes the setting of the novel. This social matrix, just like the entire realm of linguistic communication in the real world, contains the potentiality of all languages, all ideas, and the sum total of all our consciousnesses. The novel then is a selective and artistic representation of the social matrix. In the words of Bakhtin scholar Michael Gardiner, the novel " constitutes a privileged vantage-point whence to grasp the 'great dialogue' of the age." (Footnote 19) As we bring our thoughts back to Wittgenstein, we will see how a dialogue between him and Bakhtin might serve to elucidate the curious interactions between characters in Infinite Jest and highlight what might be the 'great dialogues; of our age as expressed implicitly in Wallace's text: addiction and redemption; silence and speech; dialogue and figurancy.









We can already see that Wittgenstein and Bakhtin share an insistence on the irreducibility of language to its abstract and formal core. In Wittgenstein's methodology, we must describe language as it occurs in everyday use because to analyze it formally is to seek for something that does not exist, a chimera. Bakhtin's autonomous characters are likewise manifestations of language-in-use, creating themselves as they go, living in a world not of any formal language, but of continually evolving dialogue. As we take a more focused look at Wittgenstein and Bakhtin, we will find them to have mutually supporting conceptions of the relationship between language and existence which will form a basis for further critique of Infinite Jest.

Early on in the Investigations, Wittgenstein introduces the concept of language-games. To illustrate how languages can utilize the same words but ascribe different meanings to them and frustrate attempts to define the word relative to both, Wittgenstein gives us a series of very limited languages that are only used in one particular setting. One of these languages, the most basic, is only used at a construction site. A builder calls down to another construction worker one of four words which constitute the entirety of their language - "block," "pillar," "slab," or "beam." As the builder calls the word, the worker fetches whichever object was named and brings it to the builder (PI 2). This circumscribed language and its increasingly more complex cousins are referred to as "language-games" to connote that they each have specific rules and vocabularies. Though they may share the same signifiers per se, those signifiers may function differently in different language-games according to the rules of each game. Following the first construction site, Wittgenstein offers a more complex language-game where there are more commands than just those four. In this second construction site language-game, one can form what we would think of as simple sentences. The question then arises does the builder mean "bring me a beam," when he says, "beam"? Wittgenstein says no. The meaning of the words can only be understood in the language-game in which they were used. Thus "beam" may translate to "bring me a beam" in another language, but in that first language-game, it is only defined in relation to the three other possibilities.

Wittgenstein uses many similar language-games to explain and apply his methodology. His primitive languages give way to more complex forms. He always insists, though, that if a concept cannot be expressed in a language, then it does not exist in that language. There is no space for the unnamable and indescribable. There is no metaphysics. Why? Because language encapsulates all that can be known and understood. Wittgenstein tells us, "to imagine a language means to imagine a form of life" (PI 19). In the previous example of a language-game, we can use the word "Slab" in contrast to the other three demands because our language-game allows for the possiblity of those other three commands. A language includes the possibility all logical combinations of all its elements according to an implicit set of grammatical rules which are specific to that language-game. This set of combinations is the boundary of understanding and conception. If the language does not permit the expression of a thought because there is no word, no grammar for it, then we cannot, as participators in that language-game, conceive of that thought.

Wittgenstein declared that within language-games were contained forms of life. A mode of existence, the gross sum of all our possibilities for both conception and interaction, is determined by the extent of our language. This is to say that the builder whose sole language-game consists of those four words, "block," "slab," "beam," and "pillar," cannot conceive of responding to any request except by bringing the other builder the object named. That limit of the language-game is the limit of the person. But persons that simple do not exist. Wittgenstein uses these language-games to prove philosophical points about the possibility of metaphysics, but they may be useful to us in other applications.

People in the real world interact in many ways, and we use different vocabularies and different grammars in different contexts. It is hard to realistically break down our communication into more basic language-games - our existence is too varied, the heteroglossia of our social world so intense as to be indivisible into discrete elements. In the novel, however, with a limited cast of characters and a finite and manageable set of interactions, it becomes possible in theory to look at the set of interactions between characters as discrete languages-games. Characters are forms of life limited to the words they use and those used to describe them within a text. Within the text, those characters' actions cannot be conceived of beyond the words given them.

Bakhtin's linguistic philosophy operates on somewhat similar principles. His language is not unitary in any way but heteroglot, a complex and intertwined multiplicity of dialects and social sub-languages. "Language" is subject to profound centrifugal forces - It is pulled apart from all angles, by all of its constituent speakers. As he notes in "Discourse and the Novel,"


at any given moment ... a language is stratified not only into dialects in the strict sense of the word (i.e., dielcts that are set off according to formal linguistic [especially phonetic] markers), but is ... stratified as well into languages that are socio-ideological: languages belonging to professions, to genres, languages peculiar to particular generations, etc." (Footnote 20)


In a sense, the several languages within a text are part of the same language for Bakhtin, but only in as much as they are all formalized in the same way when analyzed by linguists. The polyphonia present in the works of Dostoevsky (Footnote 21) can be seen as a multiplicity of language-games in the Wittgensteinian sense that all incorporate a nearly identical syntax and lexicon.

What is critical is that Bakhtin recognizes that language-games constitute forms of life:


The language used by charaters in the novel, how they speak, is verbally and semantically autonomous; each character's speech possesses itsown belief system, since each is the speech of another in another's language." (Footnote 22)


Bakhtin also realizes that the speech of a character must be represented within the novel if we are to understand that character's ideology. For, at the heart of each language is an ideology. Languages are separated from each other - there exists heteroglossia - because each language is inseparable from a world-view, a methodology, a set of filters for interpreting sense-data. A language-game, because it encapsulates a form of life and all that it can conceive of and deal with, encapsulates an ideology. Wittgenstein's "grammar" is Bakhtin's "discourse":


The activity of a character ina novel is always ideologically demarcated: he lives and acts in a n ideological world of his own ( and not in the unitary world of the epic), he has his own perception of the world that is incarnated in his action and in his discourse.

But is it impossible to reveal, through a character's acts and through these acts alone, his ideolgical position and the ideological world at its heart, without representing his discourse?

It cannot be done, because it is impossible to represent an alien ideological world adequately without first permitting it to sound, without having first revealed the special discourse peculiar to it. (Footnote 23)


In understanding Wittgenstein and Bakhtin in relation to each other, and in order to apply this to the world of Infinite Jest, we must consider how each philosopher constructs the relationship between language-games. Wittgenstein posits language-games which are unrelated to other language-games. Since each emcompasses a way of life, they are inherently incompatible - one can conceive of and make reference to other people and their language-games through one's own language-game, but Wittgenstein never addresses the issue of language-compatibility in the Investigations. What seems logical, though, considering Wittgenstein's general tack, is that he would consider a language-game like a set of rules, and if some of the same rules applied in both language-games, then the aspects of the two forms of life associated with those grammatical rules could be compatible with each other. Their ideologies could intersect on some issues, so to speak.

What is important to note, though, is that Wittgenstein makes it very clear in the Investigations that while language encapsulates all that a person can know and conceive of, it is inherently social. What is called Wittgenstein's 'private-language argument' can be described like this - say our language-game does not include a word or grammar for the feeling of pain. If we feel pain and say to ourselves, "I'm going to correlate this feeling with a word, which I will call 'pain' and that will be valid within my language-game," can we do this? No. First of all, the act of 'creating' a word presupposes a grammatical use for it, and thus we cannot have created it. Secondly, if we ignore this and attempt to associate a sensation with a word, we have no criteria for deciding whether or not that word is correct. If we were allowed to privately define sensations, then every word we would associate with a feeling would necessarily be right to us, even if we associated the same word incorrectly with two separate internal phenomena. What we have to understand is that a private language has no criteria for correctness - meaning occurs through shared language and communication. Once one attempts to communicate a thought in words, then it comes to have meaning.

This argument, contained in sections 241 to approximately 275 of the Investigations, has been lauded as Wittgenstein's great contribution to the philosophy of mind (Footnote 24). Whether it holds up logically is still somewhat under debate due to its author's characteristic pithiness and disdain for typical analytic method, but it certifies for us that Wittgenstein saw language-games as social and communicational, not as potentially exclusive solipsisms.

Bakhtin's views regarding the nature of individual languages are unclear. His translator, Caryl Emerson, sees in Bakhtin a religious fervor when he writes about dialogue. She tells us:


From the beginning, we are "polyglot," already in the process of mastering a variety of social dialects derived from parents, clan, class, religion, country. We grow in consciousness by taking in more voices as "authoritatively persuasive" and then by learning which to accept as "internally persuasive." Finally we achieve, if we are lucky, a kind of individuality.... Polyphony, the miracle of our "dialogical" lives together, is this both a fact of life and, in its higher reaches, a value to be pursued endlessly (Footnote 25).


Language is constantly in the process of becoming for Bakhtin. We are made up of multiple langauges, each of which contain an ideology, and we make ourselves up as the summation of those ideologies. And the extent to which our way of life and our expression reflects a particular ideology is proportional to how much we use the individual language that contains the ideology in question. Thus the development of language is a development of new ideologies from the intersections and revaluations of languages within each of us - a dialectical process. This is confusing because it seems like Bakhtin is locating ideology both in the individual and in the language itself. Bakhtin seems to support both a multiplicity of languages within the author and a monoglossia for the character. He writes:


A plurality of independent and unmerged voices and consciousnesses, a genuine polyphony of fully valid voices is in fact the chief characteristic of Dostoevsky's novels. What unfolds in his works is not a multitude of characters and fates in a singles objective world, illuminated by a single authorial consciousness; rather a plurality of consciousnesses, with equal rights and each with its own world, combine but are not merged in the unity of the event (Footnote 26).


Bakhtin is not concerned with defining language through communication. Private languages are quite fine for him, for the novel permits the language of soliloquy which Bakhtin does not interpret in terms of its relationship to a reader. A character has his or her own consciousness and autonomy in Dostoevsky's novels. This is expressed through language. We are never quite made to understand whether a character himself participates in multiple languages or whether the author participates in multiple languages and lends each one to his characters, letting them be emobdied by that one language and its concomitant ideology. Somewhat confusingly, Bakhtin's "author" means both author and narrator in this case. Though Bakhtin asserts characters' autonomies relative to the authorial presence in Dostoevsky, he also makes a claim that the novel is the site of ideological clash, and that purpose of the characters each having his or her own language is to provide an embodiment for that clash.


"Life is good." "Life is not good." ... Between these two judgements there exists a specific logical relationship: one is the negation of the other. But between them there are not and connot be any dialogic relationships; they do not argue with one another in any way... Both these judgements must be embodied, if a dialogic relationship is to arise between them and toward them. (Footnote 27)


The polyphonic novel is the site of dialogue between ideologies that can arise within the author - the author can conceive of both the thesis and antithesis given above, but these possibilities annihilate each other within the unified consciousness of the author. If they are given separate voices, as they are in the polyphonic novel, then they may interact and explore each other. They can be given voice and representation. In this way, dialogic relationships are beyond the scope of formal linguistic study and placed in the realm of what Bakhtin refers to as "discourse." (Footnote 28)

To come back to the question of the location of ideology, the discourse in the novel happens between two "voices" but not necessarily between two languages. Dostoevsky's novels are thus "polyphonic" or many-voiced. The world of language in which we live, though is a world of many different languages, one of "heteroglossia." The polyphonic novel is a representation of a heteroglot world in that each autonomous voice in the novel utilizes a specific mix of languages, each emobdying an ideology, which sum up to the net ideology of the character. The Wittgensteinian study of language-in-use is similar to the study of discourse. Wittgenstein would, no doubt, have criticized Bakhtin's claim that the consciousness of the characters could be separated from that of the author.

Here we reach the problem with Bakhtin's linkage between authorial consciousness and narrator. Wittgenstein would say that the language-game of the author includes that of the narrator as well as that of each and every character given voice in the novel. The author can and has conceived of every word used by the characters and narrators. There can be an invocation of the Intentional Fallacy here. The words used by the characters may be placed into our own similar language-games and be subject to slightly dissimilar grammatical rules, thus generating different meanings. When we read another's words, we get a different meaning from that which they intended, and we cannot use our experience of a text to deduce the author's intended meaning. Wittgenstein might say in response to that interlocution: the language-game of the author is not a language-game per se. There exists a language-game with at least two constituents, those being the author and the reader. This is the language-game to which we must pay attention. We can conduct a grammatical analysis of the communicative language of the text in as much as it generates meaning for the reader.

In any case, though the authorial, or let us say the productive, language-game includes everything said by every character, we can also look at the individual speeches of the characters and grammatically observe smaller and more circumscribed language-games. We can shed light on each character's form of life by examining the language-games in which they communicate with other characters. Just as each character's "voice" in the Bakhtinian sense is the sum of the ideologically loaded elements of heteroglossia which they use, the Wittgensteinian character is defined by the language-games they have at their disposal. The two philosophers illuminate the text dialogically.

In the printed text, characters live through the words they are given. Language-games do not just relate to forms of life in the novel - they are identical. As our hermeneutic dialogue now focuses in on Infinite Jest with an eye for the individual language-games that make up the characters and the relationships between them, we will bring to light some of the underlying, elemental themes in the work - the nature of addiction, the loneliness and fear that the characters are struggling with, the characters' seeming need to give up their individuality to their addictive pursuits, and lastly, the relationship between our author and his characters.









In Infinite Jest, the adoption of new linguistic element - a new language-game - signifies the adoption of a new way of thinking or existing. Maybe one's consciousness is expanded; or maybe it is restricted by the new linguistic enterprise. We sometimes see characters struggling with or rejecting new concepts, as in the case of Joelle van Dyne and Geoffrey Day, two very intellectual drug addicts who initially reject Alcoholics Anonymous beliefs by rejecting its language-game. Alcoholics Anonymous is both an organization and a philosophy; it has a corporeal presence in the novel, but its most salient feature is its belief system, its ideology, which forms a language that can permeate and affect the voices of the characters. Don Gately, the closest Wallace comes to giving us a hero, is a disciple of just that ideology.


"One day at a time."

"I'm here but for the grace of God."

"Ask for Help."

"Keep Coming."

"Denial ain't just a river in Egypt."

Sobriety is "The Gift."

Addiction is "The Disease."

"The truth will set you free, but not until it's done with you." (Footnote 29)


These are some of the phrases to which the practitioners of Alcoholics Anonymous' 12-step program cling. To what desired end? Attempting to overcome addiction; stopping the perpetual recourse to abusive and dangerous and self-destructive behavior; overcoming the pull of the addict's way of life, with its own distinct language-game.

In the second section of Infinite Jest, beginning on page 17, Ken Erdedy, a marijuana addict who periodically binges for days on end, severing all ties to the world to be alone with his drug in a world of involuted thinking. His language is one of panicky inaction, paralysis of the body accompanied by a mind running in abstract but unconstructive circles of unfulfilled possibility. Though Wallace does not use the word this early on in the text, we can easily see Erdedy locked in the Cage of addiction. It is a symbol and theme that will recur many times. Erdedy is watching himself think, making abstract commentary on his own abstractions. In the scene, he is waiting for a woman who he does not like, but who has promised to deliver a large amount of pot to him.


Reading while waiting for marijuana was out of the question. He considered masturbating but did not. He didn't reject the idea so much as not react to it and watch as it floated away. He thought very broadly of desires and ideas being watched but not acted upon, he thought of impulses being starved of expression and drying out and floating dryly away, and felt on some level that this had something to do with hum and his circumstances and what, if this grueling final debauch he'd committed himself to didn't somehow resolve the problem, would surely have to be called his problem, but he could not even begin to try to see how the image of desiccated impulses floating dryly related to either him or the insect ... because at this precise time his telephone and his intercom to the front door's buzzer both sounded at the same time .. and he moved first toward the telephone console, then over toward his intercom module, then convulsively back toward the sounding phone, and then tried somehow to move toward both at once, finally, so that he stood splaylegged, arms wildly out as if something's been flung, splayed, entombed between the two sounds, without a thought in his head. (26-7)


We know that he is in denial. This "final debauch" is one of many others. But it is his inability to function that we see, despite how active his mind seems. We leave Erdedy incapacitated by his substance, even though he is not stoned yet, even though he tells us that his drug is no longer pleasurable to him but a necessity (22).

We see Hal Incandenza's marijuana addiction in similar terms. During the whole Eschaton debacle, we watch him watch himself watching, stoned on the sidelines - "Hal finds himself riveted at something about the degenerating game that seems so terribly abstract and fraught with implications and consequences that even thinking about how to articulate it seems so complexly stressful that being almost incapacitated with absorbtion is almost the only way out of the complex stress" (340). As Otis Lord's head flies through a computer monitor and teenagers are beating each other bloody around him, he is paralyzed by his own thinking.

He secretely gets high on what is referred to throughout the book as "Bob Hope," the local slang (according to Wallace) for high-resin pot. Bob Hope is a clever invention because of its linguistic versatility. As the depressed and addicted Kate Gompert (another eventual resident of Ennet House, along with Erdedy, Joelle van Dyne, and Geoffrey Day) tells her attending psych resident at the hospital where she's been admitted following a suicide attempt, "The dealers down where I buy it some of them make you call it Bob Hope when you call, in case anybody's accessed the line. You're supposed to ask is Bob in town. And if they have some they say, 'Hope springs eternal,' usually" (75). Late in the book when Hal decides to quit smoking pot, he and his compatriot and dealer Mike Pemulis call this enterprise, "Abandoning all Hope" (796).

To abandon the substance is to abandon hope. It is not just a clever play on words. The drug serves a critical purpose. It covers up the darkness. Within the book's characters, there exists a spiritual void, not just a dissatisfaction, but an awareness of evil and death and powerlessness and hurt. It is the void that Hal describes in a dream as a twelve-year-old (61-3). It is possibly the horror that prompted James Incandenza to commit suicide, the depression that made Joelle van Dyne attempt to explode her heart with freebased cocaine. The substance is a palliative, but the absence of the substance is what allows the darkness to take root. People begin their addictions recreationally, but then the addicts realize that their substance is a protectant. The drug, in taking hold, makes this ultimate desolation apparrent, and by the time it has done that, the addict must keep consuming the drug to stave off the approach of the darkness. We see it clearly in Kate Gompert:


'And so,' she said, 'but then I quit. And a couple of weeks after I've smoked a lot and finally stopped and quit and gone back to really living, after a couple of weeks this feeling always starts creeping in, just creeping in a little at the edges at first, like first thing in the morning when I get up, or waiting for the T to go home, after work, for uspper. And I try to deny it, the feeling, ignore it, because I fear it more than anything.' (77)


'My head,throat, butt. In my stomach. It's all over everywhere. I don't know what I could call it. It's like I can't get enough outside it to call it anything. It's like horror more than sadness. It's more like horror. (73)


They all try to quit, but the Spider, as it is also called in the book by the addicts (Footnote 30), crawls back in. The world of the addict has its own form of life. We see the working of the minds of Hal, Kate, Joelle, Gately, and Randy Lenz, among others. In them, we see a similar involution, or a similar obsessiveness, or a similar denial, or a similar fearful and horrified recognition of the Spider, the darkness, the bottomless pit over which each addict is hanging, supported only by their substance. Despite their lack of connection - they come from different walks of life, different socio-economic classes, from across racial and ethnic and other boundaries - they are united in their flight from that desolation, and those who cannot share their language of addiction cannot understand them.

As Kate Gompert's history is taken by the psych resident, we see how much she tries to communicate her feelings to him, but he is deaf to them. His world doesn't include a conception of what it feels like to be an addict. The Spider, the Cage, the primal horror is not within his grasp, so he ignores it. He "approaches any psych patient under his care with a professional manner somewhere between bland and deep, a distant but sincere concern that's divided evenly between the patient's subjective discomfort and the hard facts of the case" (68).


Kate Gompert stared at a point over the man's left shoulder. 'I wasn't trying to hurt myself. I was trying to kill myself. There's a difference.'

The doctor asked whether she could try to explain what she felt the difference was between those two things.


The doctor's small nods were designed to appear not as responses but as invitations to continue, what Dretske called Monumentizers.


He preferred handwritten notes to a laptop because he felt M.D.s who typed into their laps during clinical interviews gave a cold impression.


The doctor was summarizing her choice of treatment-option, as was he right, on her chart. He had extremely good penmanship for a doctor. He put her get me out of this in quotation marks. He was adding his own post-assessment question, Then what?, when Kate Gompert began weeping for real. (68-78)


The doctor and his patient are separated by the incomprehensible vastness of language. Their intersection only occurs between the most trivial aspects of their speech - common nouns, common verbs. While they may have definitions at hand for every word the other used, what the reader sees is that there was no real communication, no empathy, no understanding between them. The doctor cannot conceive of a pain that is also fear and also horror. The doctor knows psychopathology only through what he reads in textbooks. His scientific training, with its accompanying formality and predictability, kills his ability to understand how Kate feels.

The voice of the resident and the voice of Kate are participate in a different set of language-games. Though they use the same formal language, there is no dialogue. The ideologies they express are lost on each other. The dialogic principle that Bakhtin privileges falls apart here because the language-game of addiction and the language-game of treatment are profoundly incompatible. In Wallace's fictional world, polyphonia does not necessitate dialogue. In Kate Gompert we hear one voice crying out for help and not being heard by another character in the same room.

Kate, in the above scene, demands electroconvulsive therapy for her intractible depression due to withdrawal. She tried every antidepressant on the market, but the only thing that worked for her was shock treatment (Footnote 31), and even that only worked temporarily. The only treatment for addiction or for the fear and horror that the absence of the substance lays out in plain view in Infinite Jest, is Alcoholics Anonymous.

If you spend time in a halfway house, says the narrator in the section of text beginning on page you will find that:


addiction is either a disease or a mental illness or a spiritual condition (as in 'poor of spirit') or an O.C.D.-like disorder or an affective or character disorder, and that over 75% of the veteran Boston AAs who want to convince you that it is a disease will make you sit down and watch them write DISEASE on a piece of paper and then divide and hyphenate the word so that it becomes DIS-EASE, then will stare at you as if expecting you to undergo some kind of blinding epiphanic realization, when really (as G. Day points tirelessly out to his counselors) changing DISEASE to DIS-EASE reduces a definition and explanation down to a simple description of a feeling, and rather a whiny insipid one at that. (203)


This passage is one of few where the narrator, though he is usually chatty and self-conscious, takes on a real presence. It may represent Wallace's own initial cynicism before he came to really understand the reason that AA works (Footnote 32). The difference in tone is subtle but unquestionable between this passage and the rest of the book in as much as Wallace's narrator talks about AA. From this discrepancy we arrive at the idea that there are at least two states of existence vis a vis the Alcoholics Anonymous language-game. At first, there is a rebellion against it and an attempt to undermine it by exposing it as a cliché-ridden set of useless platitudes that accomplishes nothing but blind and idiotic servitude. This first attitude portrays the resistor of AA as self-assertive, actualized, perceptive, and autonomous when really he or she is the slave to the substance. The second mode is one of acceptence understanding of the platitudes, often accompanied by a bewilderment at the way the AA system seems to work. This second mode is the result of a newly learned language-game's alteration of the powers and capacities of the character. In between the first and second modes is a dialogic moment wherein competing ideologies meet and synthesize new voices.

The above passage shows us Geoffrey Day, an ex-professor ravaged by alcoholism, fighting a linguistic battle against AA's tenets. Why? Because AA tries to foist on the addict who comes in for help a new language-game.


So then at forty-six years of age I came here to lean to live by clichés,' is what Day says to Charlotte Treat... 'To turn my will and life over to the care of clichés. One day at a time. Easy does it. First things first. Courage is fear that has said its prayers. Ask for help. Thy will not mine be done. It works if you work it. Grow or go. Keep coming back.'


Charlotte Treat looks over to Gately for some sort of help or Staff enforcement of dogma. The poor bitch is clueless. All of them are clueless, still. Gately reminds hmself that he too is probably mostly still clueless, still, even after all these hundreds of days [sober].


'I used to think in long compound sentences with subordinate clauses and even the odd polysyllable. Now I find I needn't. Now I live by the dictates of macramé samples ordered from the back-page ad of an old Reader's Digest or Saturday Evening Post.'


You just have to Ask For Help and like Turn It Over, the loss and pain, to Keep Coming, show up, play, Ask For Help. Gately rubs his eye. Simple advice like this does seem like a lot of clichés... Yes, and if Geoffrey Day keeps on steering by the way things seem to him then he's a dead man for sure. Gately's already watched dozens come through here and leave early and go back Out There and then go to jail or die. If Day ever gets lucky and breaks down, finally, and comes to the front office at night to scream that he can't take it anymore and clutch at Gately's pantcuff and blubber and beg for help at any cost, Gately'll get to tell Day the thing is that the clichéd directives are a lot more deep and hard to actually do. To try and live by instead of just say. (270-3).


The rules and directives of AA, which are repeated over and over at meetings, spoken between friends and mentors and mentees in the program, and woven into the daily fabric of the lives of the Ennet House residents over which Gately, himself a recovering (never "recovered" in AA - One Day at a Time) addict, presides, may not have inherent meaning for the newly initiated. Like the words exchanged between Kate Gompert and her attending physician, they are famliar words with meanings beyond each other's intellectual, emotional, and spiritual grasp. Gately is instructed every day by AA to get down on his knees and pray. Gately does this without fail. Whether or not he believes in God, he pray to him/her/it. Gately has seen the darkness, known the Spider, and has dwelt within the Cage. Though he doesn't know the word, he has felt abjection. He has been on the brink of pain, horror and despair, come in on his hands and knees, asking for help. Asking For Help. He was given clichés. And following them blindly has worked.

Geoffrey Day is clinging onto the language-game that has bred and fed his addiction. He uses his intellectual prowess to debunk the AA directives which represent a spiritual commitment, a faith. Gately is a priest of the faith, baptized in sobriety, and passes his day in constant prayer to resist the temptation of the substance. It is very hard for Wallace's addicts to accept a language of faith as a palliative, not only against the draw of the substance, but against the feeling of the darkness and horror. It seems the characters can only be brought into the faith if they are truly despairing - then they begin by Asking For Help.

When this happens, their lives have come to the point where there exists no more possibility for them except a further decline. Their marriages and relationships have collapsed. They've lost their jobs, their children, their sense of themselves. They lose the ability to conceive of meaningful relationships. Their language becomes the language of the substance. Their life becomes a flight from the Cage. But when they are dangling over the abyss, they can abandon the terror through the adoption of a new language-game, a language of faith. It takes time to develop meaning. It has a social root - we learn the language through ostensive definition as Wittgenstein would say - by pointing. The Boston AA's give names to their faith and resolve to conquer the substance and illustrate their own battles with their substance and the way it ruined their lives through speaking engagements called "Commitments "(343).

To learn a new grammatical or lexical element is to expand one's consciousness, and AA introduces the new words, what Geoffrey Day refers to as clichés, into the addict's vocabulary slowly. The first lesson - Keep Coming Back. First, abide by the rule in the sense in which you know it, the general form of the English language in which all the characters, to some extent or another, participate. Then, as one progresses, the words, along with the other clichés of Alcoholics Anonymous, take on a new meaning, one that takes into account the struggle of the addict, the difficulty of the task, and the possibility for redemption. If one is fighting the tenets of AA on the grand and formalized linguistic turf of the whole English language, as Geoffrey Day and Joelle van Dyne do (Footnote 33), then one has not internalized them - the language-game remains unlearned.

One would think that it is within this battle - Geoffrey Day vs. Alcoholics Anonymous - that the dialogic transformation occurs, but it cannot be. There is dialogue between Day and Gately and between Day and other characters who have learned the AA language-game, but this is a nontransformative ideology. It is there for the viewing of the reader, to see the lines that are drawn between competing ideologies. The true transformation corresponding to the learning of the new language-game is something that happens internally with social pressure from outside. Wittgenstein shows us with his Private Language Argument that social verification is needed for new words or linguistic elements to be assimilated. But it is not through arguments of principle that any of the Ennet Housers will embrace the ideology of AA. In Infinite Jest, there is no individual moment of epiphanic or violent realization, merely a slow repetition that effects a seepage-in of the new language-game.

Within the Alcoholics Anonymous language-game, there is a call to pray to God. This poses some problems for many of the characters, most of whom seem to be either actively atheistic or just irreligious. In the beginning stages of Asking for Help, it is not important to believe in God. You can define God however you like, as long as you pray for the strength and patience to stay sober. As Wallace's uncharacteristically judgemental narrator says, "AA and NA and CA's 'God' does not apparently require that you believc in Him/Her/It before He/She/It will help you" (201). This is the first part of treatment. Belief only comes once the language-game has been accepted and internalized - then God comes to have a meaning. This is the eventual goal. Maybe Gately reaches it, maybe not.(Footnote 34)

But there is a fear that the addiction to substances is merely supplanted by a fealty to AA which does not cure any malady but merely subverts your will to the tenets of the faith. Gately says:


how can you pray to a 'God' you believe only morons believe in, still? - but the old huys say it doesn't yet matter what you believe or don't believe, Just Do It they say, and like a shock trained organism without any kind of independent human will you do exactly like you're told ... things seem to get progressively better, inside, for a while, then worse, then better ... and you figure you'd better Hang In in this Boston AA where older guys who seem to be less damaged - or at least less flummoxed by their damage - will tell you in simple imperative clauses exactly what to do ... and now they've got you, and you're free. (350-1)


Alcoholics Anonymous' philosophy is one of abandoning faith in yourself because it has only gotten you in trouble before. In place of faith in yourself, you learn faith in the system of recovery, its language and clichés spoken by its elder practitioners. It is a subversion of will. Part of the seductive quality of drug addiction is that it masquerades as free will. The realization must be made by the addict that such free will is illusory.

Alcoholics Anonymous is the road to a new form of life, one of faith and commitment, one of constantly fighting against a darkness that inevitably takes hold as soon as your guard is let down. Patience, gratitude, vigilance, piety, humility - this is what the language-game of AA includes and is defined by. In a culture devoid of religion, dominated by simulacra (Footnote 35), and populated, in Wallace's narrative estimation, by people seeking escape and relief from an existential loneliness and abject horror through whatever substances they can muster, from heroin and alcohol to mindnumbing dedication to political interests to competitive ideology in the sports arena or to entertainment itself - in this cultural milieu, Alcoholics Anonymous is the one great faith. It addresses the darkness, the loneliness, and the addiction through its powerful reliance of the soul to learn a new language-game with tools to fight the monstrosities of Wallace's vision of the future.

The characters in Infinite Jest, though, believe in what they know. Their available language-games are their ideologies, and part of the nature of addiction is that it is a self-perpetuating game. Its language fosters communication with other addicts and discourages interaction with non-addicts. The addict gives him- or herself up to the addiction, allowing the pursuit of the addiction to become the dominant functioning ideology. The Cage and the Spider and the Darkness do not exist outside the addiction - they are all part of the addiction language-game - they are concepts of both binding and choice. Though being inside the Cage is bad - the addict is aware of the addiction - the addict does not have in his or her grammar "un-Caged." The addict cannot conceive of him- or herself outside of the Cage and so the term serves as a binding. The Darkness is the concept posited by the language-game as the alternative to the Substance. The addict can, exercising his or her free will, choose between another fix or a darkness and horror worse than death. Alcoholics Anonymous is about faith because its language slowly infiltrates the addict's Darkness and replaces it with other possibilities. If one gives up the substance, AA tells the addict, the alternative is not worse than death as long as you believe, as long as you Keep Coming.









Wallace's Alcoholics Anonymous operates as both addiction and salvation. The language of recovery subverts the power of the language of addiction by creating a dialogue with an Other that is defined outside the self. The Other of addiction is the Substance, while that of AA is that loose conception of God to whom you give yourself. In this way, AA 's philosophy is strikingly, even hauntingly, like a Substance. They both must be repeated and repeated and clung to, whether or not they are pleasurable (and Wallace points out that the addict soon gets to the stage where the Substance is no longer pleasurable but simply necessary), in order to prevent the approach of that darkness and void of depression. The advantage of AA is that it mitigates the damage that the Substance brings about.

In the language of Alcoholics Anonymous, the 12th and final step in the program is "Giving It Away" or speaking about your addiction and how it "kicked your personal ass" and made you Come In at other AA meetings. Says Wallace, "the term's derived from an epigrammatic description of recovery in Boston AA: 'You give it up to get it back to give it away.' Sobriety in Boston is regarded as less a gift than a sort of cosmic loan" (344). But Giving It Away is not just spreading the philosophy - it is the relinquishment of the self to the pursuit. Characters in Wallace's language-games of addiction or recovery are inculcated into new language-games by repetition. To follow the implicit instructions given to you over and over, whether it be praying to God or administering the Substance which calls you back incessently, is the first step in the entrapment.

A question that Wallace brings up perpetually, in the dialogue between American intelligence agent Hugh Steeply and Quebecois wheelchair assassin Remy Marathe as well as in many other discursive venues, is why Americans profess to have such incredible freedom, independence, and choice, when the reality shows us that we all return to the same seductive substances time after time. Freedom to choose, for Marathe, is the freedom to be self-serving, to seek out pleasure, to put one's own needs above all others, which is what invariably happens. Marathe's Quebecois philosophy is to abandon the superficial needs of the self in order to serve a higher cause - nationality. The Entertainment is the subject of the many conversations between the two intelligence officers. The Quebecois plan is to obtain the film and then distribute it across North America with the assumption that in the US, where the pursuit of pleasure is the chief goal, everyone will be unable to resist the temptation to watch it and die for the chance to experience the ultimate entertainment (Footnote 36). In Canada, of course, the selfless Quebecois will escape unscathed, having devoted themselves to country and cause above self-pleasure.

Late in the book Marathe winds up in drunken conversation with Kate Gompert. He speaks disparagingly about the American desire for subverting the self to an inescapable passion, a love or desire that renders one incapable of resisting the object of that desire - the Substance. It is part of that American consciousness to choose a pursuit whose ultimate pleasure is taking away choice - one simply must return to the Substance. He calls it "giving yourself away" (781). This is a different sense of giving than that of AA. Instead of giving the gift of sobriety or the gift of linguistic rescue, Marathe is speaking about relinquishing the self and replacing the will with the inevitability of the addict's craving for more.

The addiction is the choosing of an option that eventually makes the addict unable to choose anything else to which to devote himself. All pursuits that the characters in Infinite Jest claim as their own lead to this obsessiveness and inescapability, represented by the ultimately dangerous film Infinite Jest. Again we have an illusion of free will - the addict who can choose will invariably choose the Substance because the alternative is horrifying. Marathe, though, makes a more general point - Americans insist on free will in order that they may choose to become addicted because it eliminates real choice while maintaining that illusion of free will. Americans set themselves up for the possibility of facing that dark and horrible fear by allowing themselves to adopt a language-game that allows its existence. In the Canadian language-game, no such darkness exists. Even Marathe, who has double-crossed his native Quebec out of love for his deformed wife, chooses only between a selfish cause and a nationalistic cause.

Some language-games are constructed without the concept of choice at all; free will is not an issue. The Enfield Tennis Academy provides an environment where its participants grow up without having considered choices. The Darkness does not exist for them because they are addicts sheltered from the language-game of addiction. In the novel, we see the students of E.T.A. fiercely at work at their morning drills and their afternoon matches, acutely conscious of their rankings and their bodies, acutely oblivious to the implications of their quotidian lives immersed in thoughts of tennis and competition, hoping that they will one day reach The Show, which is what the professional circuit is called. These teenagers are not the little faunlets and nymphets we would expect. They are built to be robots - John 'N.R.' Wayne, the Quebecois tennis prodigy, ranked above Hal, is "all business. His face on court is blankly rigid ... He tends to look straight ahead at all times. His play, like his manner in general, seems to Schacht less alive than undead" (262-3). Hal's name, of course, echoes that of the self-serving but chilling HAL 9000 computer of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Hal narrates a film whose script he apparrently wrote, directed by his deformed and damaged brother Mario, called Tennis and the Feral Prodigy which encapsulates the sense of endless repetition and the sense of competitive drive instilled in the young tennis player:


Here is the set of keys a stride's length before you in the court as you serve dead balls to no one. After each serve you must almost fall forward into the court and in one smooth motion bend and scoop up the keys with your left hand. This is how to train yourself to follow through into the court after the serve. You still, years after the man's death [James Incandenza, Hal's father], cannot keep your keys anywhere but on the floor.


Here is how to carry a tennis ball around in your stick-hand, squeezing it over and over for long stretches of time - in class, on the phone, in lab, in front of the TP, a wet ball for the shower... Squeeze the tennis ball rhythmically month after year until you feel it no more than your heart squeezing blood and your right forearm is three times the size of your left.


Talent is sort of a dark gift ... talent is its own expectation: it is there from the start and either lived up to or lost....

Here is how to avoid thinking about any of this by practicing and playing until everything runs on autopilot and talent's unconscious exercise becomes a way to escape yourself, a long waking dream of pure play.

The irony is that this makes you very good, and you start to become regarded as having a prodigious talent to live up to...

Reaching at least the round you're supposed to is known at tournaments as 'justifying your seed.' By repeating this term over and over, perhaps in the same rhythm at which you squeeze a ball, you can reduce it to an empty series of phonemes, just formants and fricatives, trochaically stressed, signifying zip.


See yourself in your opponents. They will bring you to understand the Game. To accept the fact that the Game is about managed fear. That its object is to send from yourself what you hope will not return. (172-6).


The repetition is deadening but it promulgates its own existence. To avoid the mental anguish associated with thinking about ambition or drive or success, you must continue your repetition so that your play and your functioning as an athletic machine remains automatic. To master the game is to retreat from consciousness of the game. As we see, tennis has its vocabulary as well as its unique mode of existence for the players at ETA. Through repetition, the language that is taught is internalized until it acquires a meaning that cannot be understood in the terms of the ordinary language that Hal, the lexical prodigy, has mastered. This is why the phonemes of 'justifying your seed' are empty to Hal - in one language-game 'justifying your seed' has great significance and is used as a stand-in for the concept of satisfying the expectations that you have been weighted down by, and in the formal English language, it has no profound meaning. Reduced to phonemes, the phrase is nothing, but in the context of the competitive tennis language-game, it is vital. Hal's prodigiousness with the English language is a parlor trick, a flash-in-the-pan - for all of his esoteric words and perfect grammar, he has no communicative advantage - his dialogue is limited to his available language-games.

Hal dreams of tennis matches on frighteningly convoluted courts against a theoretical opponent that he can never see. The dream is recurring. He fought the dream by starting to smoke marijuana (67-8). Maybe the opponent he could not see was himself. The narrator later says:


You compete with your own limits to transcend the self in imagination and execution. Disappear inside the game: break through limits: transcend: improve: win. Which is why tennis is an essentially tragic enterprise, to improve and grow as a serious junior, with ambitions. You seek to vanquish and transcend the limited self whose limits make the game possible in the first place. It is tragic and sad and chaotic and lovely. All life is the same, as citizens of the human State: the animating limits are within, to be killed and mourned, over and over again. (84)


We see, as with addiction, a recursive desire to continue - a battle that can never be won because it is a battle against the limitations of the self. The actual desire to win is a Cage that entraps the competitive tennis players at ETA such as LaMont Chu, a younger player who aspires to reach the level of fame attained by tennis pro Michael Chang (388-9). The only option - relinquish the self and the desires of the self. Live the life of a robot, every movement automated and precise because of endless repetitions. It works because a denial of the self is a denial of the existential pain that selfhood can bring. LaMont Chu struggles with the competitive nature of the language-game. Ranking and performance are both crucial in the world of junior tennis, but the modus operandi of E.T.A. is to focus on repetition in order to hone the self to competitive perfection. The competitive tennis language-game of Tennis and the Feral Prodigy locates the competition internally and thus denies the outside world and the vicious realities of professional sports (among these the fact that very, very few of the kids at E.T.A. will enter the pro circuit and achieve any degree of fame).

Like addiction, competitive tennis brings about a battle with darkness, with depression, and with the limitations of the self, but only outside of the language-game ostensibly taught at E.T.A. Hal Incandenza is another case of an E.T.A. student whose capacities for understanding are not limited to that one language-game. Hal, very late in the book, demonstrates his evolved self-consciousness, one that releases him from the role of tennis automaton but which makes him susceptible to profound loneliness. Having learned the language-game of the addict as well as the junior tennis star, he sees parallels between the two pursuits. Maybe Hal comes to the greatest understanding of his own predicament, both as marijuana addict and competitive tennis addict (Footnote 37), in the wake of his first marijuana-withdrawal panic attack.


We are all dying to give our lives away to something, maybe. God or Satan, politics or grammar, topology or philately - the object seemed incidental to this will to give oneself away, utterly. To games or needles, to some other person. Something pathetic about it. A flight-from in the form of a plunging-into. Flight from exactly what? These rooms blandly filled with excrement and meat? To what purpose? This was why they started us here so young: to give ourselves away before the age when the questions why and to what grow real beaks and claws. It was kind in a way. (900)


Hal, like the other teenagers at ETA, like the various addicts encountered through the course of the novel, gives himself to a pursuit because making an independent choice represents a more profound fear of failure and loss than he can deal with. To abandon choice and to make one's will subject to the insatiable demands of the addiction is a far easier choice to make, one that provides for the future. There is a comfort in it, especially for those who are afraid of themselves. Hal is afraid of himself - he is afraid of his loneliness and the existential Darkness of which the addictive language-game has begun to make him aware.

This awareness, Hal's awareness of his Cage (as both addict and tennis player and hollow linguistic pedant), happened only recently. James Incandenza's ultimately compelling movie was his last attempt to construct something entertaining enough to draw Hal out of his solipsistic world of pursuit, "even if it was only to ask for more" (839). Infinite Jest may be deadly, but its intent was to be a communicative device. It was meant, in a sense, to broaden Hal's mind, to make him aware of a sense of choice in his life. This is both a bless and a curse. James Incandenza was an alcoholic and lived a life of perpetual struggle to escape his Cage of addiction and to deal with the Darkness laid bare to him by the language-game of addiction. The ultimate goal of his Entertainment was to communicate this struggle and pain to his son, to compel him to action; the ultimate effect of the film was an addiction far more inescapable than Hal's harmless solipsism. The final effect was, instead of making Hal self-aware, to relegate the viewer to a tragic incommunicative compulsion - the epitome of addiction.

The only scenes of the movie about which we know involve Joelle van Dyne, with whom Hal's older brother Orin had once fallen in love. Orin pursues women as his personal addiction. Why? Because he once felt a true connection with Joelle van Dyne, the Prettiest Girl of All Time whose beauty alone was addictive and compelling. His conquests he calls "Subjects" as if they are his experiments, attempts to produce a love that constitutes a true communication, but they are really only objects, as Hal points out. As the narrator tells us


This is why, maybe, one Subject is never enough, why hand after hand must descend to pull him back from the endless fall. For were there for him just one, now, special and only, the One would be not her or she but what was between them, the obliterating trinity of You and I into We. Orin felt that once and has never recovered, and will never again. (566-7)


This occurrence of real communication and transcendence of the self could have been Joelle, but could have also been with his mother Avril Incandenza at birth. Or the "obliterating trinity" could have had, as its predecessor, a converse, the act of birthing in which We split into You and I. This is in keeping with the film Infinite Jest, part of whose script is an intense series of plangent apologies from a figure that is both Mother and Death. The figure apologizes because, in the cosmology of the film, the person that kills you is your mother in the next life and she is apologizing for a death neither of you really remember (Footnote 38).

The film seems to recreate the moment of death and birth, the transition that reconstitutes the only communicative phase in the life of the characters in the novel. It's draw is profound in that the possibility for understanding and communication is realized and the characters that have pursued from the very beginning an abandonment or denial of self, a giving away as a protection against terrible loneliness and spiritual solitude - these characters realize a moment of ecstatic transcendence of the self. This transcendence is an essentially tragic endeavor we are told in relation to competitive tennis, but that is because the self is directed inward, antagonistically - A battle against the self. What isn't realized is that the self can be transcended only through achieving a unity with another person. Instead of working toward this, most of the novel's characters merely feed their heads and bodies. They give themselves away to their pursuit. The profundity of the unity experienced through the movie, the moment of enwombment in the transition between death and life, is so beautiful that it is even more compelling than the utter separation that characterizes the Caged life of the addict. It is ironic that the net effect seems identical for viewer and addict.






The Wraith of Jim Incandenza, who visits Don Gately in his hospital bed, claims that his final filmic work was an attempt to bring his estranged son, Hal, out of a communicative paralysis:

His last resort: entertainment. Make something so bloody compelling it would reverse thrust on a young self's fall into the womb of solipsism, anhedonia, death in life. A magically entertaining toy to dangle at the infant still somewhere alive in the boy, to make its eyes light and toothless mouth open unconsciousnly, to laugh. To bring him 'out of himself,' as they say. The womb could be used both ways. A way to say I AM SO VERY, VERY SORRY and have it heard. A life-long dream. The scholars and Foundations and disseminators never saw that his most serious wish was: to entertain. (839)


What exactly is the fall of which James Incandenza is speaking? He shows us Hal's solipsism as an inability to feel pleasure, a depression. In a Bakhtinian formulation, we see it more as a lack of dialogue.

This last film, as we shall see, was a grand departure from the auteur's previous films. He was a physicist and optician by trade, and he became a filmmaker in the first place because of his interest in lenses. His desire to make a true entertainment came from his desire to save Hal from withdrawal and foster communication with him. Incandenza tells Gately that the word for the characters in films and television shows who have no lines, no personality, no existence and no purpose but to flesh out the scene and make it seem real - like in the sitcom Cheers!, the "nameless patrons always at tables, filling out the bar's crowd, concessions to realism, always relegated to back- and foreground; and always having utterly silent conversations" (834) - is figurant. He says that he felt himself becoming a figurant, and that his son, "the one most marvelous and frightening to him" (837), was becoming a figurant too. They were relegated to absolute silence, their mouths moving, but no sound coming out. The film Infinite Jest's holography and special lenses were an attempt by Incandenza to take the figurant Hal and make him the subject and participator in the film, to take him from the silent realm of the periphery and bring him to the world of expression.

We inevitably return to the first scene of the novel, not only because the rest of the novel seems to perpetually relate back to it, but because it occurs after the remainder of the novel chronologically - the framing of the novel's annulated structure of recursivity. As we have seen, Hal cannot communicate - he thinks thoughts but what comes out are animal noises. In a conversation with his father before he died, where James disguises himself to try to bring his son out of his shell, is claiming that he is speaking while his father seems not to hear or understand him. What James is looking for is not necessarily speech, but emotion or communication. He wants dialogue - a sharing or competing of ideas, an interaction between two character-voices. He also wants a recognition of those fears, of that Cage, which Hal is too young to know. When James Incandenza commits suicide, Hal is in his early teens and still a product of the tennis language-game, lacking self-consciousness. Hal is involuted. Obsessed with a few bookish intellectual pursuits, such as memorizing the Oxford English Dictionary, having an academic interest in Justinian erotica, and even the competitive drive of tennis is emotionally rarefied. James tells his son that he "requires only daily evidence that you speak. That you recognize the occasional vista beyond your .. nose's fleshy tip" (31). The emphasis on speech links back to James' fear of his own and his son's becoming a figurant. As Bakhtin acknowledges, for a character to have an autonomy, the character must have an unfettered voice in the novel. The figurant is a character who is silent, who has no voice and cannot engage in dialogue - the figurant is static, hollow, lacking agency is his or her affairs. James does not seem to be able to pierce that barrier with his son. The conversation ends with Hal unresponsive to his father's pleas for feeling.


'Praying for just one conversation, amateur or no, that does not end in terror? That does not end like all the others: you staring, me swallowing?'




'Son?' (31)


In a novel characterized by polyphonia, there is an intensity of silence, an absence of language, which is just another marker of the depressive void that underlies the addiction language-game. Hal speaks, no doubt. We hear his thoughts expressed to other characters. He is, in fact, the only character that speaks in the first person without having first passed through the linguistic filter of the narrator. What this allows us to see is that he is still learning how to feel and how to communicate. When his father commits suicide, he is counciled by a "grief-therapist" who will not accept the fact that Hal does not seem to feel anything about the horrific incident - it was Hal who found his father's microwaved head exploded in the kitchen. Like a rational and intellectual boy, he goes to the library, reads books on grief counciling, and returns to the therapist with a new strategy - anger towards the therapist himself for not validating his lack of feelings. This seems to work, but it is typical for Hal. Hal called it "delivering the goods" (257), typically performative. The language-game of competitive tennis, centered on completion and performance, has no concept of gried, and the death of James does not seem to pierce Hal's wall. Hal uses his words to claim that he has an inner complexity and has feelings, but this is because he is trying to affirm something he doesn't necessarily believe. He feels as if he should have feelings. Maybe his father's own withdrawal into alcoholism, or his mother's affairs, or his early introduction to competitive tennis, has deadened him. During the Eschaton melee, Hal "feels at his own face to see if he is wincing" (342). He doesn't understand emotion except in an abstract sense. It is this silence that James Incandenza's movie was an attempt to break. It is a silence of entrapment. Hal cannot conceive of true emotion, and thus he has no expression for it. Just like when Geoffrey Day and Joelle van Dyne use conventional words to attack the linguistic singularity that is the recovery program of Alcoholics Anonymous, Hal's words are like a silence to his heartbroken father because the words do not apply to meaningful dialogue between them. Like Kate Gompert and the psychiatric resident, words are exchanged but the language-games are so incompatible as to preclude dialogue. The silence is not literal but a figuration of Hal's heart that has not yet developed a beat of its own - the language-game of tennis is concerned only with the I, only with the relationship between the self and its potential. The Other is the self; this is the solipsism which denys Hal's dialogic voice. His one act of agency, the only great illustration that he may have entered a world of dialogue, is to show up one evening on the steps of Ennet House, Asking for Help.










As mentioned above, Infinite Jest is a tragic book with an ending that merely leads us back to the beginning again with more questions. Why does this book exist? What is its agenda? When we look at Wallace's essay, "E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction" from 1997's A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, which was first published in 1993 while he was writing Infinite Jest, we have some clues:

I want to persuade you that irony, poker-faced silence, and fear of ridicule are distinctive of those features of contemporary U.S. culture (of which cutting-edge fiction is a part) that enjoy any significant relation to the television whose weird pretty hand has my generation by the throat. I'm going to argue that irony and ridicule are agents of a great despair and stasis in U.S. culture, and that for aspiring fiction writers they pose especially terrible problems (Footnote 39).


The most frightening prospect, for the well-conditioned viewer, becomes leaving oneself open to to others' ridicule by betraying passé expressions of value, emotion, or vulnerability. Other people become judges; the crime is naîveté. The well-trained viewer becomes even more allergic to people. Lonelier (Footnote 40).


The old postmodern insurgents risked the gasp and squeal: shock, disgust, outrage, censorship... Today's risks are different. The new rebels might be artists willing to risk the yawn, the rolled eyes, the cool smile, the nudged ribs, the parody of gifted ironists, the "Oh how banal." To risk accusations of sentimentality, melodrama. Of overcredulity. Of softness.... (Footnote 41)


This tenderness that Wallace speaks of is not readily apparrent in his first novel, The Broom of the System. In his first collection of short stories, Girl With Curious Hair, their are brief glimmers of feeling, like the story "Little Expressionless Animals," amidst a sea of hip, cynical, and ironic postmodern fictions such as the bizarre title story, the historical rewrite "Lyndon" (Footnote 42), and the final novella, "Westward the Course of Empire Makes Its Way," a seventy-page-long response to John Barth's "Lost in the Funhouse."

Indeed, considering Wallace's earlier work - bright, clever, and very PoMo - his exhortations in "E Unibus Pluram" seem somewhat hypocritical. Maybe that is where Infinite Jest comes along, as a counterpoint to and ideological progression from that earlier work. Indeed, just like Wallace's style and focus change, so changes the outlook of one James O. Incandenza, auteur and filmmaker throughout the course of his filmmaking career. A comparison between the two will not only lead to a theory of the book's recursivity, but will raise a final, important point about the nature of dialogue.

James Incandenza was, like Wallace, a junior tennis prodigy (Footnote 43), and was also an intellectual who made a name for himself before he turned to the creation of entertainments. Both had been lauded for their technical proficiency; Wallace as a constructor of witty, postmodernist, historical fictions and a clever manipulator of language; Incandenza as a a master optician whose well-crafted and innovative lenses were his prime contribution to the art. As Joelle van Dyne, Jim's star actress, says to Steeply, "Lenses were Jim's forte... He paid more attention to the lense and lights than to the camera... Lenses Jim said were what he had to bring to the whole enterprise. Of filmmaking. Of himself" (939).

Both Incandenza's "Found Drama," a theoretical film concept that was lauded by critics before being exposed as a joke, involves randomly selecting a name from a telephone directory and making that person the subject of the "film" for the next two hours. No cameras or actual filming - that would disturb the natural course of events. It is an arrogant and ironizing stab at the filmic avant-garde which Incandenza belonged to but despised. Joelle again comments:


Pre-Nuptial Agreement of Heaven and Hell [one of Incandenza's films] - mordant, sophisticated, campy, hip, cynical, technically mind-bending; but cold, amateurish, hidden: no risk of empathy with the Job-like protagonist... (740)


She goes on to hint that, even in Incandenza's early work, despite the irony and technicality, there were beautiful hints of real emotion and feeling, an exposure. Joelle's comments could just as easily be applied to her author. We read on page 694


One of the things sophisticated viewers have always liked about J. O. Incandenza's The American Century as Seen Through a Brick is its unsubtle thesis that naiveté is the last true terrible sin in the theology of millenial America. And since sin is the sort of thing that can be talked about only figuratively, it's natureal that Himself's dark little cartridge was mostly about a myth, viz. that queerly persistent U.S. myth that cynicism and naiveté are mutually exclusive. Hal, who's empty but not dumb, theorizes privately that what passes for hip cynical transcendence of sentiment is really some kind of fear of being really human." (694).


Incandenza's "unsubtle thesis" is the same as David Foster Wallace's unsubtle thesis in "E Unibus Pluram." Wallace repeatedly gives us evidence that the fear of the Darkness evinced by so many of the novel's addicts is really a fear of being human - that is, of being a character with agency and free will. The addict's choice is to not-choose.

James Incandenza communicates with Gately as a wraith, escaping his own death to connect Gately to the world of the Incandenzas who live in a separate world only meters apart. Is James Incandenza some sort of avatar for Wallace, an insertion into the novel of a character whose voice is coextensive with the author's? The possibility exists that the book Infinite Jest and the movie Infinite Jest are transcriptions of each other. All the events in one are the other's script and plot.

Though we have speculated that the profound draw of Infinite Jest is the holographic wobble lens that might make the viewer experience his or her death and rebirth, or the incredible beauty of Joelle van Dyne who may or may not be deformed, maybe we have been on the wrong track from the beginning. Perhaps Incandenza's movie is the story of a filmmaker and his family, his tennis academy, the drug-recovery house down the hill, all with a strange political subplot the glues odd parts together. In the film, which centers on the son's solipsism, the nature of entertainment, and the nature of addiction in American consciousness, the filmmaker has committed suicide, and his last work, which is a deadly film entitled Infinite Jest, starts showing up in random places, causing all hell to break loose. And maybe this film leaves open vital questions that may be answered with another viewing, and maybe the film is so entertaining and brilliant and true that the viewer is just compelled to watch it again.

The film begins with an uncommunicative son having a strange seizure where he introduces the image of digging up his dead father's head with the second main character, Don Gately, an image that Gately experiences near the end of the film. The film features copious references to the filmmaker, Wallace/Incandenza but never his actual presence except as a guiding ghost, speaking through the words of his character directly into the character's consciousness.

Is Gately part of the film or part of the novel? Are they separable? The novel could be a transcription of Hal's watching the movie where Gately is a main character and the holography puts Hal in the role of Gately. There is no way of knowing Maybe the coextensivity of the map and territory like in the Eschaton debacle, the coextensivity of Incandenza and Wallace, of Infinite Jest and Infinite Jest, is the infinite jest. Are the scenes of the film which Gately dreams on page 850 the last scenes that Joelle van Dyne acted in when she agreed to work for Incandenza one final time? Why do disconnected events in the text have startling reflections in the Filmography of James O. Incandenza printed in the back of the book (985)? Do all of Incadenza's films oddly mesh with the text, or is the text itself the film? Is this filmography excerpt just another part of the joke:


Cage III - Free Show. ... The figure of Death (Heath) presides over the front entrance of a carnival sideshow whose spectators watch performers undergo unspeakable degradations so grotesquely compelling that the spectators' eyes becomes larger and larger until the spectators themselves are transformed into gigantic eyeballs in chairs, while on the other side of the sideshow tent the figure of Life (Heaven) uses a megaphone to invite fairgoers to an exhibition in which, if the fairgoers consent to undergo unspeakable degradations, they can witness ordinary persons gradually turn into gigantic eyeballs. (988)


We are spectators, turning ourselves into gigantic eyeballs, and the characters in Infinite Jest/Infinite Jest are watching us. A realization of the book is that we, as spectators, are caged like the addicts we read about in the novel. The purpose both the book and the movie is to shock us out of our hip and cynical mode, to desire with sincerety, to relinquish our fear of being human. The book, with its unanswerable questions, and the movie, with its compulsion, invite us to start again from the beginning, to repeat and repeat and repeat - just like AA. Alcoholics Anonymous is the only system that works, and the recursivity of the novel/movie functions similarly - to learn the new language-game of humanity, one must experience it dialogically, over and over, until we begin to assimilate it.

The book compells us to read it again to fill in its temporal gap because that temporal gap becomes a gap in our own understanding - we yearn for completeness, a closure we never would have desired had we not engaged the text in the first place. In this way it functions like an addiction by creating the possibility of void and the paradoxical illusion of choice. We can choose whichever plot threads we want to be woven together in the year-long gap between November Y.D.A.U and November Year of Glad, but we know that there must be only one correct choice, and so we seek out that one correct choice, and that brings us back to the text to discover the one correct choice, the only one that we can really make to keep the novel from falling apart and losing the integrity of its construction.

Yet, when we read it over and over, we are left, again paradoxically, understanding that it is the lack of closure itself that is the point, and that the lack of closure functioned first as a means of making the reader return again and again to the text to solve a puzzle. Once we engage the text again and again though, we begin to assimilate the underlying philosophy. In this context, the addiction in the text is parallel to an addiction to analysis and a need to discover meaning and conquer the text. Wittgenstein and Bakhtin come together to elucidate a solution - Wittgenstein's methodology shows us how the closure we seek can be chimeric, and together they allow us to understand how we can assimilate the language-game of the book, its lack of closure, and its uncollapsible superposition of states.

We have framed the study of the language-games and their operation in the text within a broader context of the novel's structure and possibility. So that the integrity of Wallace's great joke remains unpierced, the question, "what is the relationship between Infinite Jest and Infinite Jest" is posed but not answered, as is the question of what happens within the novel's void. As Wittgenstein tells us, the goal of philosophy is to describe and not to define. The relationship we wonder about is described through questions that the reader is not supposed to answer - the reader should eventually realize that the point of the questions is their unanswerability. Statements about meaning are not meanings themselves; we have only described a few facets of the text, but even had we laid them all out, to seek out the meaning of the text would be to chase after an illusion. It all eventually makes sense. Keep Coming.


Notes and Errata


1. All parenthetical references to page numbers refer to Wallace, David Foster. Infinite Jest. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1996. Any parenthetical reference with the form (PI xxx) refers to the section number of Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Philosophical Investigations. Trans. G.E.M. Anscombe. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1958. This is for simplicity. All other references will be made individually.


2. I am indebted to Chris Hager's1996 undergraduate thesis at Stanford for this analysis, which I mention only to use as a point of departure for my own analysis.


3. In Infinite Jest's future America, the tgovernment had turned all of Northern New England into a giant waste dump for the entire country and then ceded it, forcefully, to Canada. Thus, to U.S. citizens, it is the Great Concavity, and to Canadians, it is the Great Convexity.


4. Perloff, Marjorie. Wittgenstein's Ladder: Poetic Language and the Strangeness of the Ordinary.Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996. pp. 1-25.


5. By which "signs" corresponds to "signifier" in the more familiar Saussurean sense. Wittgenstein is saying that for those signifiers whose signified is an abstract concept like "meaning" or "soul" or "death" for example, we can expose them as signs we cannot deal with in an analytical, logical fashion and should therefore, probably not use them if we have a vested interest in using language in a way that describes the natural world.


6. Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. trans. D.F. Pears and B.F. McGuinness. London: Routledge, 1974. pp. 73-4. These are the last words of the book.


7. Wittgenstein, Ludwig. The Blue and Brown Books. New York: Harper and Row, 1958. p. 18. The Blue Book was the informal name of the lecture notes from 1933-4 at Cambridge. They were dictated to pupils and widely reproduced. The first editions of them had blue paper covers, hence the name.


8. Baudrillard, Jean. "The Precession of Simulacra" in Simulacra and Simulation. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994. p.6.

This famous essay, the reading of which is de rigeur in all contemporary theory classes, begins with a reference to a story by Argentinian surrealist Jorge Luis Borges in which cartographers in the service of an Empire are commissioned to create a map so detailed that it is essentially a perfect replica of the territory it describes, to scale. Baudrillard says of this, that in today's society, the map has achieved perfect coextensivity with the territory, and that the map has even begun to supplant the territory itself, all this with the overarching metaphor signifier-map, signified-territory.

Wallace, no stranger to postmodern theory, but no friend either, takes a wonderful jab at this idea in Infinite Jest. Wallace's point of view, as far as it can be discerned in his essays and interviews (see "E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction" in A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1997.), is that postmodernism is a hip, irreverent, and cynical way of hiding the fact that we are all embarrassed to say that we actually feel things emotionally - that we want to cry at sad movies, etc. Wallace is very much against being hip and cynical to mask vulnerability, which is funny because he knows that he does it himself and goes back and forth between being self-deprecating and self-ironizing and being a firebrand in favor of being emotionally honest. In any case, Mr. Wallace makes a wonderfully funny in-joke for the literary crowd in a scene about a game that the overacheiving ETA tennis teens play called "Eschaton." These excerpts are from pp. 321-342.

Every year at E.T.A., maybe a dozen of the kids between maybe like twelve and fifteen - children in the very earliest stages of puberty and really abstract-capable though, when one's allergy to the confining realities of thepresent is just start to emerge as weird kind of nostalgia for stuff you never even knew - maybe a dozen of these kids, mostly male, get fanatically devoted to a homemade Academy game called Eschaton....

Each of the 400 dead tennis balls in the game's global arsenal represents a 5-megaton thermonuclear warhead. Of the total number of a given day's players, three compose a theoretical Anschluss designated AMNAT, another three SOVWAR, one or two REDCHI, another one or two the wacko but always pesky LIBSYR or more formidable IRLIBSYR, and that the day's remaining players, depending on involved random considerations, can form anything from SOUTHAF to INDPAK to like an independent cell of Nuck insurgents with a 50-click Howitzer and big ideas... Combatants are arrayed in positions corresponding to their location on the planet earth as represnted in The Rand McNally Slightly Rectangular Hanging Map of the World....

In the game, Combatants' 5-megaton warheads can be launched only with hand-held tennis racquets. Hence the requirement of actual physical targeting-skill that separates Eschaton from rotisserie-league holocaust games....

Your standard round of Eschaton moves at about he pace of chess between adepts. For these devotees become, on court, almost parodially adult - staid, sober, humane, and judicious twelve-year-old world leaders, trying their best not to let the awesome weight of their responsibilities ... compromise their resolve to do what they must to preserve their people's way of life...

J.J. Penn of INDPAK all of a sudden gets the idea to start claiming that now that it's snowing the snow totally affects blast area and fire area and pulse-intensity and maybe also has fallout implications, and he says Lord [Otis P. Lord, the game-master] has to now completely redo everybody's damage parameters before anybody can form realistic strategies from here on out.

'It's snowing on the goddamn map, not the territory, you dick!' [Michael Pemulis, 18-year-old inventor of the game] yells at Penn.

'Except is the territory the real world, quote unquote, though!' Axford calls across to Pemulis, who's pacing like the fence is between him and some sort of prey.

'The real world's what the map here stands for!' Lord lifts his head from the Yushityu [game computer] and cries over at Axhandle, trying to please Pemulis.

'Kind of looks like real-world-type snow from here, M.P.,' Axford calls out.

'Real-world snow isn't a factor if it's falling on the fucking map!'

'It's only real-world snow if it's already in the scenario!'

So now Evan Ingersoll rises from his squat now only to bend again and take a warhead out of IRLIBSYR's ordnance-bucket, and Hal seems to be the only one who sees Ingersoll line up the vector very carefully with his slim thumb and take a lavish backswing and fire the ball directly at the little circle of super-Combatant leaders in West Africa. It's not a lob. It flies straight as if shot from a rifle and strikes Ann Kittenplan right in the back of the head with a loud thock....

Ingersoll now makes a show of examining the tiny nails of his left hand and casually suggests that IRLIBSYR has just score a direct 5-megaton contact-burst against SOVWAR's entire launch capacity, names Air Marshall Kittenplan, and that plus also AMNAT's own launch capacity, plus both Combatant's ordnance and heads of state, all lie well within the blast's kill-radius - which by Ingersoll's rough calculations extends from the Ivory Coast to the doubles alley's Senegal. Unless of course that kill-radius is somehow altered by the possible presence of climactic snow, he adds, beaming.

Pemulis howls that ... players themselves can't be valid targets. Players aren't inside the goddamn game. Players are part of the apparatus of the game. They're part of the map.... It's like the one ground-rule boundary that keeps Eschaton from degenerating into chaos. Eschaton gentlemen is about about logic and axium and mathematical probity and discipline and verity and order...


Everybody's scooping up spent warheads and totally unrealistically refiring them... Josh Gopnik punches LaMont Chu in the stomach, and LaMont Chu yells that he's been punched in the stomach. Ann Kittenplan has Kieran McKenna in a headlock and is punching him repeatedly on the top of the skull... Ann Kittenplan begins to chase REDCHI's General Secretary south across the Asian subcontinentat top speed. Pemulis is telling Hal he hates to say he told them so.


The scene finally ends with Otis Lord's head flying through the screen of his computer. So much for Baudrillard's language games. I tend to view this passage as a reflection of Wallace's disenchantment with the initially very seductive tenets of postmodernist philosophy which he later abandoned in favor of more viscerally affecting ideological pastures.


9. Ibid.


10. cf. two well-written and insightful but not very originally-titled books:

Staten, Henry. Wittgenstein and Derrida. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1984.

Garver, Newton and Seung-Chong Lee. Derrida and Wittgenstein.Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1994.


11. Staten, Wittgenstein and Derrida, pp.22-3.


12. Infinite Jest refers to the movie which is relentlessly searched for and alluded to within the book, Infinite Jest. The movie is also referred to in the text as "The Entertainment," the "Samizdat," and James Incandenza's last film. Incandenza's filmography is located in footnote 24 to the main text of Infinite Jest, on pages 985-993. To eliminate confusion, all of the fictional titles of Incandenza's movies will be italicized.


13. This is described in a vision that Gately has on pp. 850-1 while in the hospital. While no one in the first 850 pages has been able to figure out what exactly is contained in the film, there have been enough hints for us to know that what Gately experiences is the content of Infnite Jest. For some reason, though, Gately isn't craving more. Gately seems oddly immune to negative or obsessive influences. He has absorbed the AA mentality and is a strong proponent, but he is never prone to the obsessive or involuted thinking that cripples not only Hal but several other characters. Gately's nickname is "BIM" which is an acronym for "Big, Indestructible Moron" (448). His head is often described within the text as being squarish. He is smarter than he thinks, but maybe his combination of AA acceptance and inner strength that is reflected in the dimensions of his body puts him in a unique category. He martyrs or nearly martyrs himself saving the disgusting Randy Lenz (who has a fetish for slaughtering cats and dogs). And he draws the love of Joelle, who was the lead actress in the Entertainment. And James Incandenza visits him as a ghost. It is quite possible that in Wallace's estimation, Gately has transcended the spiritual void which makes one sadly prone to the fatal draw of Infinite Jest. As dim and straightforward as Gately may seem at times, he is a modern-day saint.

In another interpretation, Gately is actually the subject of the film Infinite Jest, as are the other characters, and the novel Infinite Jest is an intensely recursive escapade because its text is actually the equivalent of the screenplay of the film Infinite Jest which only exists within the novel Infinite Jest etc. This is discussed in the final chapter of this thesis, sub.


14. A clever Wallace invention - AFR = Les Assassins des Fauteuils Rollents. "Fauteuil Roulant" is French for "wheelchair."

For some reason, Wallace misspells the word every time and the editors never picked up on it. Additionally, though Wallace picks up brilliantly on strange French idiomatic phrases like "Va chier, putain!' (481), he inserts several French non-sequiturs as well, such as the inscrutible phrase "Notre Rai Pays" as a Quebecois slogan of some sort. My only guess was that he was attempting some variant of "Our King's Country" which would be word-for-word incorrectly translated at "Notre Roi Pays." Some of his pharmacology information in the footnotes is wrong as well, but none of this is unforgivable considering the length and breadth of the novel.


15. Bakhtin, Mikhail. Rabelais and His World. trans. H. Isowolsky. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1968.


16. Bakhtin, Mikhail. Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics ed. and trans. Caryl Emerson. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1984.


Bakhtin, Mikhail. The Dialogic Imagination - Four Essays. trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981.


17. Bakhtin, Mikhail. "Epic and Novel." in The Dialogic Imagination - Four Essays. p.6-7.


18. ibid. p.11.


Infinite Jest takes advantage of this formal freedom. A writer who frequently uses "like" in his omniscient narrator's voice in the same way it is used in casual conversation has a natural sense of the flexibility of language. This usage follows an implicit recognition that our everyday declarative speech favors partial or half-true comparisons. Instead of saying, "Each E.T.A player in the 18-and-Unders has four to six 14-and-Unders kids he's supposed to keep his more experienced wing over, look out for," Wallace writes, "Each E.T.A. player ... has like four to six 14-and-Unders..." (98). This is a random example, but it illustrates a point. The phrase has entered our conversation to show relative truth in comparison. It allows for the possibility of exceptions to the rule. It erodes the power and force of the statement but relieves the speaker of responsibility for the veracity of the statement.

Wallace is not only echoing normal speech patterns in his chatty and conversational narrator, he is lending implicit authority to the claim that there exists always a conditional element in speech. 'If we are looking at a very limited set of criteria, then the statement I have just made is true; otherwise I cannot vouch for its correctness.' This is what the use of "like" and "kind of" and "sort of" and other such grammatical interjections says. It sets up declarations as introductions of metaphors and metonyms. But we are not necessarily talking about linguistic play in the Derridean sense, between a word and its possible meanings. In the Derridean sense, there is an endless chain of signifiers along which meaning is shuffled and cannot be specifically pinned down. In a Wittgensteinian sense, then, the meaning is tied to the word as it is used in the context at hand, and the metaphor is a chimera. The comparison is just another grammatical structure that lends an associative meaning to the word in question. We can take no stock in the metaphor. We can only observe the connection between one word and another using "like" or "sort of." In Wallace's case, we see "like" as a steel girder in the construction of a tower of ambiguity. He aligns himself with Bakhtin in tying himself to an evolving present tense throughout the novel, with its mysteries, openendedness, and possibility.

Wallace's text is full of little humorous linguistic games between characters just as Wallace's narrator is playfully adept at seeming at once both conversational and formal. The students at ETA banter about grammar and syntax. Hal's mother is a high official in "The Militant Grammarians of Massachusetts," an academic protest group. Hal himself is a self-fashioned lexical prodigy who memorizes the Oxford English Dictionary. The narrator's style includes long descriptive passages which catalog prescription and designer drugs as well as interjections to the effect that some of the words that a character supposedly just said were, in fact, not the words the character actually used - as in the footnote to page 358's "Gately had an epiphanic AA-related nocturnal dream he'll be the first to admit was banally trite" : "footnote 140: Don G's North Shore's vulgate signifier for trite/banal is: limp" (1026). And, comically, the Quebecois terrorist Remy Marathe uses such incredible Frenchisms in his English speech that the reader can almost feel the language barrier between him and his interlocutor.

While many of these plays on words and grammars, fun with dialects, and fascinations with jargon and slang serve a comic or ironic purpose, they mask a deeper agenda. For all of Wallace's own lexical prodigiousness, his real goal is to convey a sense of an alienated culture, not a circus of linguistic performances. The narrator sloshes through a confusing world full of individual languages as a translator of sorts. Jargon and slang are footnoted; drugs that are catalogued are defined by trade-name and manufacturer. But the narrator, like the reader, is maybe just trying to make sense of a glut of heterogenous inputs. Considering a multiplicity of characters speaking in a number of dialects and argots, we need tools for understanding individual languages in the text. Once that is established, we come to understand that, lying beneath this world of ostensible cacophony and playfulness, there is a language of addiction, a language of recovery, and a critical emphasis placed on establishing meaningful communication. For those tools, we turn again to Wittgenstein and Bakhtin.



19. Gardiner, Michael. The Dialogics of Critique. London: Routledge, 1992. p.40

20. Bakhtin, Mikhail. "Discourse and the Novel" in The Dialogic Imagination - Four Essays trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981. The quote is pointed out in the introduction, p. xix.


21. The subject of an entire book: Bakhtin, Mikhail. The Problem of Dostoevsky's Poetics. trans. Caryl Emerson. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984.


22. Bakhtin, "Discourse in the Novel." p. 315.


23. Ibid, p.335. Bakhtin is very much a political thinker, and his conception of "ideology" has Marxist undertones at which I do not wish to dig presently. For the time being, I will let "ideology" be synonymous with "world-view" or "form of life" in as much as the latter two terms can be applied to novelistic discourse.


24. McGinn, Marie. Wittgenstein and the Philosophical Investigations. London: Routledge, 1997. p.116.


25. In the introduction to Bakhtin, Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics. p. xxi.


26. Bakhtin, Problems. p.6. Bakhtin's own italics have been removed for clarity.


27. Ibid. p.183.


28. Ibid.


29. These phrases and many others occur in two many places to make page references particularly enlightening.

In AA language, these phrases are always capitalized as if they are proper nouns. This serves as a marker to us that "Ask for Help" and "Keep Coming" are commands that are very much distinct from "ask for help" and "keep coming." The AA phrasesare fraught with implications and meanings that the uncapitalized phrases do not have. The uncapitalized phrases, though made up of the same letters, are part of a different language-game and are treated as such by both the narrator and the characters. As we shall see, it is a mistake to treat the capitalized forms as if they were merely the clichés they represent in uncapitalized language.


30. There is some mixing of analogies that occurs within the text. The substance is the Cage; the addiction is the Cage; the substance is an escape from the Horror or Darkness, the fear of which is the Cage. The Spider is the addiction; the Spider is the horror that creeps in slowly that makes the addict run back to the substance. James Incandenza makes frequent use of the idea of the Cage, and also has made several avant-garde films entitled The Cage. In addition, one of his production companies through which he distributes his films is called "Latrodectus Mactans" which is the Linnaean nomenclature for the Black Widow spider, so we have these motifs repeating over and over again.

The plot of the Cage movies, summarizing in the filmography of James Incandenza, footnote 24 to the main text (985), is very interesting and will be brought to bear in the final chapter when the notion of recursivity in the text is examined again.


31. Which is, incidentally, still the most successful treatment for major depressive disorder, and still in widespread use, though only as a last resort after the arsenal of psychopharmacological treatments has been exhausted. Any of several textbooks on psychopharmacology or psychiatry will tell you this.


32. This is to say that Wallace himself undergoes a slow but epiphanic realization of the nature of the Alcoholics Anonymous language-game and how it functions. I am hesitant, a generation or two after Wimsatt and Beardsley, to link anything derived from a reading of Infinite Jest to my idea of what David Foster Wallace's mindstate may have been when he was writing a particular section. But still, it is my contention that within the text, AA's ideology enters into a dialogic relationship with the addict and slowly insinuates itself through repetition, and Wallace wrote literally hundreds of pages about AA meetings and must have written out and/or muttered these clichés to himself hundreds of times. If the dialogic relationship that Bakhtin describes is not just something that happens in the novel (and Bakhtin would claim that our world is dialogic without a doubt), then I would claim that it affects the author of the novel, and that this textual example seems like a before picture, then a slow transformation occurs, and eventually our big dumb lug Don Gately emerges as a sort of hero-voice for embodying the after picture that Wallace came to understand and identify with.

It is important to remember that this thesis is a hermeneutic intersection of Wittgenstein, Bakhtin, and Wallace in my own mind - they are each voices in conversation with each other and their existence as corporeal entities is not important - what is important is their dialgoue within my mind and within this text.



[Joelle] says that she's finding it especially hard to take when these earnest ravaged folks at the lectern say they're 'Here But For the Grace of God,' ... Joelle cuts off his interjection and says that but that her trouble with it is that 'But forthe grace of God' is a subjunctive, a counterfactual, she says, and can make sense only when introducing a conditional clause, like e.g. 'But For the Grace of God I would have died on Molly Notkin's bathroom floor,' so that an indicative transposition like 'I'm here But For the Grace of God' is, she says, literally senseless, and regardless of whether she hears it or not it's meaningless, and that the foamy enthusiasm with which these folks can say what in fact means nothing at all makes her want to put her head in a Radarange at the thought that Substances have brought her to the sort of pass where this is the sort of language she has to have Blind Faith in. (366)


Joelle has not yet understood that the language-game of faith has its own distinct grammar that allows it to mean for its constituents. It is a slow process, but one in which she does eventually make progress.



34. As Gately explains to the Tough-Shit-But-You-Still-Can't-Drink AA Group in Braintree:


It's supposed to be one of AA's major selling points that you get to choose you own God. You get to make up your own understanding of God or a Higher Power or Whom/Whatever. But Gately, at like ten months clean... opines that at this juncture he's so totally clueless and lost he's thinking hat he'd maybe rather have th e White Flag Crocodiles [old-timer AA's from Gately home AA group] just grab him by the lapels and just tell hum what AA God to have an understanding of, and give him totally blunt and dogmatic orders about how to turn over his Diseased will to whatever this Higher Power is.... He feels about the ritualistic daily Please and Thank You prayers rather like like a hitter that's on a hitting streak and doesn't change his jock or socks or pre-game routine for as long as he's on the streak. ... He says but when he tries to go beyond the very basic rote automatic get-me-through-this-day-please stuff, when he kneels at other times and prays or meditates or tries to achieve a Big-Picture spiritual understanding of a God as he can understand Him, he fels Nothing - not nothing but Nothing, an edgeless blankness that somehow feels worse than the sort of unconsidered atheism he Came In with....

And the same fucking thing happens again. The tough chain-smoking TSBYSCD Group all stands and applauds and the men give two-finger whistles, and people come up at the raffle-break to pump his big hand and even sometimes try and hug on him. (443-4)


35. See, for example, the section beginning on page 144 of Infinite Jest where Wallace describes, in great detail, how the concept of the videophone enjoyed great initial popularity but then was abandoned when people, unimpressed with how their televised faces looked, started buying elaborate video-masks to project an idealized image of themselves to their correspondants. Eventually, the images lose their representational relation to the person using the mask and become free-floating signifiers divorced from their signifieds, in a Baudrillardian sense.


36. A Quebecois terrorist slogan seen on propaganda videos of the AFR - the Assassins des Fauteuils Rollents (sic) - is "Il ne faut plus qu'on pursuive le bonheur" (483).


37. Hal on page 898:


It had begun to occur to me, driving back from Natick on Tuesday, that if it came down to a choice between continuing to play competitive tennis and continuing to be ale to get high, it would be a nearly impossible choice to make


Of course Hal gave up choice long ago to pursue his twin passions. His giving up pot is more a legal and social necessity because of an upcoming drug test.


38. The contents of the movie, the subject of great debate within the novel, can be pieced together with a good degree of consistency from just a few sources. Late in the book, on page 850, the hallucinating and visionary Gately has a dream following encounters with the ghost of James Incandenza and the real Joelle van Dyne (who is the female lead in the movie, playing Death and Mother). This dream, from all accounts, seems to be exactly what watching the movie would have been like.

On page 941, Joelle van Dyne, muscled a little by Hugh Steeply, American secret agent, describes the scenes of Infinite Jest that she was in, which are entirely consistent with what Gately experiences earlier.

On page 230, Joelle overdoses on freebased cocaine while thinking about, among other things, her relationship with James Incandenza. She describes the seemingly nonsensical "mother-death-cosmology and apologies" Jim was creating, using her unveiled (and presumably perfectly beautiful) face.

We find out variously that the movie involved both holography and a special lens that recreated the vision of the neonatal or prenatal eye, such that the intended effect might have been to reproduce the moment of birth to be confronted by a figure that is both Mother and Death who apologizes profusely for having killed you and birthed you. This mother is the unbelievably compelling Joelle, whose paralyzing good looks are described elsewhere.


39. Wallace, 1997. p.49.


40. Ibid. p.63.


41. Ibid. p.81.


42. A piece about former president Lyndon B. Johnson that made its way into the Norton Anthology of Postmodern American Fiction.


43. Wallace's prodigiousness in tennis is shared with James Incandenza, but also with Hal Incandenza, who has as many similarities with the novel's author as does his father. Though we concentrate here on the relationship of filmmaker to author, one can also make just as important and interesting a claim with regards to target-of-film Hal to Wallace, who is engaged in a dialogue with the texts and characters he is creating. Wallace, in writing the novel, is also encouraging his own dialogical growth by assimilating the philosophies put forth by his characters. Indeed, the saint and high priest of Alcoholics Anonymous is Gately, the only one of the three most prominent characters who does not explicitly reek of Wallace (in as much as he expresses himself in his

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