“Freedom to Choose and the Right to Be Entertained” (Infinite Jest, pp.407-464)

I’m almost 13,000 words into commentary on our #InfiniteWinter journey. I know this because I’ve been keeping all of my posts together in a Google doc. I imagine it’s to justify the thing. Not that it needs justification. It has been, at times – the times when I’m in tune with every word on the page and not mind-wandering to anywherebutthepage – an invigorating read. Perhaps even revelatory. It has also been, at times – the times when, if I were inclined to drooling, I’d be a slobbering mess of a puddle – an infuriating read. I suppose such a vacillating emotional journey is what makes it “all worth it in the end,” which sounds like the type of Hallmark cliche bullshit that would’ve driven DFW bats. And so it makes sense that that’s a possible takeaway. He’s sadistically (or sincerely?) sucking us into his WTF attitude toward cliched reality and leaving us simultaneously comforted and violated. Like really, we just went through all that work just to realize that life can be reduced to a greeting card? Sisyphus had it easy with the boulder.

The early part of this section is DFW predicting the Right Now version of consumerism. We are absolutely tied to “the Freedom to Choose and the Right to Be Entertained” (412). We are, as Neil Postman warned in 1985 (piggy-backing on plenty of writers and thinkers before him), Amusing Ourselves to Death. He closes his book with a reference to Brave New World that is even more apt today than it was in his time (my birth year):

…what afflicted the people in Brave New World was not that they were laughing instead of thinking, but that they did not know what they were laughing about and why they had stopped thinking.

Welcome to the U.S.of mother-fuckin A., baby! We are the country of infinite jest. That is our inalienable right, to be endlessly entertained and amused, driven to the insane point of not knowing and then eventually not caring why we’re laughing just so long as we’re laughing because at this point if we stopped laughing we’d have quite the reckoning to face, and if America’s proven anything in its brief history, it’s that we don’t do well with internal reckoning. We’re too damn busy consuming and exercising our right to be entertained. And if that kills us, so be it! That’s our goddamn right too! Go ahead and hate, World. You just wish you could be so tragically self-annihilating.

We are a country of children who have no idea what delayed gratification is. A song comes on the radio that you don’t like? Change the channel! Wait, why are you listening to the fucking radio, you cave man? Hit up Spotify, make sure it’s premium, or get sucked into the vortex of advertisement, and let your Freedom to Choose ring loudly for all to hear! No Spotify? Pandora! Pandora One! Customize your playlists! Declare your likes! Everywhere you look is your new, all yours Declaration of Independence! This land is your land, and only your land, so take what you want while you’re here. That’s not only your right, it’s your duty, baby! All with the swipe of a thumb or a finger. You choose which digit allows you to navigate realms of existence unfathomable to your ancestors, who had to like work and shit to know or understand anything. Not you, enlightened one. Google it! (Poor Jeeves, out there in the aether somewhere waiting to be asked something. Anything!) And there it shall be, the Universe on its knees to worship your holiness. The Universe is here for your Pleasure, sir. Salute Her!

Netflix and Chill is not mere adolescent sexual promiscuity. It is the epitome of American identity and dignity. It is the optimal representation of our right to be entertained and sexually gratified at the same damn time.

Feeling empty? Why? That’s not your Right. Perhaps you haven’t sampled enough of the options out there. The buffet menu of Entertainment ready for you wherever you are. I’m sorry, did you just have the thought to create something? Un-American, you swine! Sit down, grab some food, and get lost in the realities we create for you. That’s it. Relax. Let it wash over you. This is water now.

“What if a viewer could more or less 100% choose what’s on at any given time?” (416) What if? What if? Ha! We are the nation that makes “if” obsolete! You are the God of Entertainment!

But why would we do this to ourselves? Why are we our very own brand of Joker? Asking ourselves relentlessly, “why so serious?” when really, what a relief it would be to feel serious. To feel anything but this numbed longing for just one more, perhaps one final dopamine release. One more, one final Entertainment. What is the teleology of our name brand ideology?

It’s no different than it ever was: “maximize pleasure, minimize displeasure: result: what is good. This is the U.S.A. of you” (423). All this great country has done is taken our evolutionary inheritance, our biological right and pumped it with steroids. If pleasure is what is rightfully ours, then why not make it so Pleasure is what we get? Pain? No need for that anymore. The best part? You don’t even have to leave your home to claim this divine right!

The United States: a community of sacred individuals which reveres the sacredness of the individual choice. The individual’s right to pursue his own vision of the best ratio of pleasure to pain: utterly sacrosanct. (424)

God bless America indeed! Pay no mind to the Marathe/Steeply talk where silly doubts of state of nature and such nonsense arise to cloud you from your birthright. There is no tragedy of the commons here. We are “freely enlightened to self” (429).

But who teaches us this…I suppose that’s fair. Where do we learn what it means to live. Is the point to be entertained? If it’s just a big child’s game, then yes, right? Maximize personal happiness, yes? Are there limits? What if our Entertainment is killing us? Are we choosing? Surely we must choose in the first place, yes? But from whom did we learn how to make that first choice, and to make it so? To make the enlightened decision to will ourselves to an amused death?

I knew a man once who said death smiles at us all. All a man can do is smile back.

Ah, that’s a comfort. Coming from the great Maximus (Russell Crowe) talking about his beloved father figure, Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris). In such entertainment I found enlightenment. And so it shall be. We find ourselves in stories. We lose ourselves in stories. Perhaps it makes no difference. In the end, it’s all shit. The first thing you create? Shit. You’re celebrated for it. And then suddenly it smells, and you’re demonized. You go do that business in private. You clean up after yourself, the mess you’ve made. All your creations are shit, and they should all be met with due shame. But entertainment? You didn’t make it. You’re just there to enjoy it. A dutiful citizen. A diligent human being. Making a living so that you can make this your living. Living only to die by pleasure. Working for leisure, a leisure that becomes your right to freely choose how to spend it. Invest wisely. Spend your time as you will. Except that it’s not your time. No time is yours if you’re stuck in this cycle. Work hard to play hard? That play is no longer yours. That work was never yours. Who are you then, if your work and play, your two fundamental human activities, aren’t yours? When you and your time became subsidized, bought out by corporate interests who took your identity from and for you before you ever made a single conscious choice? You were branded from birth, and you had no say in the matter. Who are you then, dear viewer? Sacred consumer? You’re watching the story of your life as it was written by other people. When do you get a say? When will you start authoring your own experience? Or are you too busy being entertained to entertain the idea that you might just save yourself from this self-destruction, that you might just choose to opt out?

Maybe you should just go Clipperton on the damn thing.

Maybe you want to be a Crocodile.

Maybe you want to be Gentle or Tine.

Maybe a Higher Power, whichever one you choose, will save you, even though you don’t believe in it, even though it is working somehow, the faith. Maybe you’re the Gately type. Don’t worry about not feeling it, man.

What the fuck is water (445)? You think I know? “It starts to turn out that the vapider the AA cliche, the sharper the canines of the real truth it covers” (446).

Shall you dare disturb the universe, dear Prufrock? Shall you surrender to your god-forsaken parents’ ways and those generations upon generations of failed human experiments who couldn’t beat our most paramount inheritance? Shall you run Pukers because “it’s good for you” or some such wisdom?

I grow old … I grow old …

I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.

 

Shall I part my hair behind?   Do I dare to eat a peach?

I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.

I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.

 

I do not think that they will sing to me.

 

I have seen them riding seaward on the waves

Combing the white hair of the waves blown back

When the wind blows the water white and black.

We have lingered in the chambers of the sea

By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown

Till human voices wake us, and we drown.

“Stay inside” (459). The water is coming to drown us all. What shall you do before the Flood?

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