“the advent of High-Definition Masking” (Infinite Jest pp.138-151)

Our boy DFW apparently interpreted postmodernism as “do whatever the fuck you want because life is an everything-and-nothing-paradoxical mess, and if others can’t follow your communication, well that’s just how it really is, life, so whatever; welcome to the grand cosmic joke that is existence and the cruel false bridge that is language.” Such an interpretation might allow us to rationalize the structural and stylistic quirks (aka “fuck you’s”) scattered throughout this trail of tears of a novel. Then again, perhaps the attempt at rationalization is part of the joke that DFW is telling. The punch-line is that we’re Sisyphean meaning-making machines. The boulder only grows as we try to make more sense of things. Better either to forget the boulder, or to let it grow and merrily be on our way with it…over and over and over again.

So what to say about Hal’s heroes of action vs reaction essay? A humble nod from the reader at the peremptory likes of “we, as a North American audience, have favored the more Stoic, corporate hero of reactive probity ever since, some might be led to argue ‘trapped’ in the reactive moral ambiguity of ‘post-‘ and ‘post-post’-modern culture.” Do we indeed await “the hero of non-action, the catatonic hero, the one beyond calm, divorced from stimulus, carried here and there across sets by burly extras whose blood sings with retrograde amines” (142)? Is there a meaningful difference between spiritual enlightenment and physical paralysis? If the end is the same, utter detachment from everything – your feelings included, and perhaps even most especially – then who cares about the means? Why not LSD or the infinite variety of drugs to which DFW insistently draws our attention? They pull us out of this evolutionary disease called consciousness as much as any religious practice, and if the point is escaping the head and just being a body, then let’s just get to it already. Fuck mindfulness. The point is mindlessness. Or the point is the paradoxical both/and. But, like, why?

“PUTTING HIS HEAD IN A MICROWAVE OVEN” isn’t a bad way to go. It’s a way to go. Let’s just observe it without judgment or attachment, shall we? Or be numb to it, which is also without judgment or attachment. What’s the difference? Let others do the heavy lifting. Lick their sweat. And so again, we are summoned back to Lyle as THE enlightened being of the novel.

AND BUT SO WHY THE shifts in and out of font size and grammar conventions? Defiance of the language/life Nazis? Cause yeah, man, fuck them. Let’s experiment with this shit and see what happens. Life’s a trip, so let’s get on with the ride, man.

Well but there are lucid moments in here, the novel (and maybe life?). Not lucid in the sense that the grand scheme of things is any clearer, because that’s probably not a real thing anyway. Lucid in the sense that the moment is clear, and so like maybe that’s enough. Maybe that’s it. Ask yourself, what in this moment is lacking? And if you enter the moment. Like REALLY enter the moment. This moment. The one right here. The one passing you by as you move on to the next word I’m spilling out for you, desperate as you are to get to the next word already so things start to make sense and life gains a purpose. That very moment, where you’re torn between regret about the past and anxiety about the future, if you just stepped completely into it and surrendered your big dumb warden of an Ego to it, you’d discover – but you wouldn’t know it – that NOTHING IS LACKING. That this moment is PERFECT. Because it’s all you have, man. It’s all you’ve ever had. It’s all you’ll EVER have. Isn’t that enough? Why isn’t it enough? Look at you go, drawn away again from the moment. Seduced by some shit that you’ll never get. But guess what you ALWAYS get as long as you get it. THIS MOMENT. Get it?

As I was saying – no, you were saying? – wait, who’s the speaker here?

The lucid thing. Oh, right. That whole deal with THE ABRUPT CONSUMER RETREAT (145) from videophone to good ole aural phone that covers pp.144-151? Brilliant. And probably prophetic. DFW published IJ in 1996. On the cusp of 2016, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a similar retreat from all our videophonic technology. I’ll highlight a few bits from this section, but really, do yourself the pleasure of reading the entire thing again and try not feeling touched by its truth:

Good old traditional audio-only phone conversations allowed you to presume that the person on the other end was paying complete attention to you while also permitting you not to have to pay anything even close to complete attention to her.

…you were somehow never haunted by the suspicion that the person on the other end’s attention might be similarly divided.

It was an illusion and the illusion was aural and aurally supported…Regarded with the objectivity of hindsight, the illusion appears arational, almost literally fantastical: it would be like being able both to lie and to trust other people at the same time. (145-146)

Oh, but it goes on. Focusing on what videophone technology does to you:

…suddenly realizing your whole infantile fantasy of commanding your partner’s attention while you yourself got to fugue-doodle and make little genital-adjustments was deluded and insupportable and that you were actually commanding not one bit more attention than you were paying, here. The whole attention business was monstrously stressful, video callers found. (147)

That’s right. You ARE NOT the center of the universe. Your I-It delusional orientation betrays you when you are pulled out of yourself by the gaze of the Other, and videophoning brings us face to face (almost) with that reality. It’s a virtual gateway into the frightening surreality of the Real. And faced, so to speak, with this Void, what might we do? Well, we might experience what experts will eventually call “Video-Physiognomic Dysphoria (or VPD),” which would bring on “the advent of High-Definition Masking” (147). As if we didn’t perform or wear masks in the first place, all the time. Ah, the delicious irony. Wherein we would then engage in “Optimistically Misrepresentational Masking (or OMM)” (talk about a crude corruption of Om!).

And there’s our trap. The pitiless masks offered by the Ego. The goal is to stop wearing masks altogether, I imagine. To let go of these damned personalities that imprison us in our Selves. Who am I? Stop trying to answer the question. The answers, molded by your social realities, are your enemies. You think they bring you closer to who you really are, but they make it so you only get farther and farther away from your essence, which is that you are…what exactly? The nothing/everything paradox again?

What an infinite jest, indeed.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *