After twenty years, David Foster Wallace’s grand overture on humans and addiction, Infinite Jest, has only become more powerful. Since its publication, the world has moved past the events and years of the novel’s shaky mid-2000s dystopian world. But the most addictive force in Infinite Jest is a seemingly innocuous videotape referred to simply as “the entertainment.” Television holds the strongest allure and danger to Wallace’s many characters. It was an adversarial and endlessly interesting fixture in American life for Wallace, one that he wrote on at length in his essay “E Unibus Pluram.” “Television, from the surface on down, is about desire,” he writes. “Fictionally speaking, desire is the sugar in human food.”
At the core of Infinite Jest is a story about addiction and the different ways that people find themselves hooked. Wallace’s key argument is that to be human and alive is to be addicted to something, and the real power comes in choosing to what you might find yourself beholden. In his famous 2005 commencement address at Kenyon College, Wallace warned college graduates that, “There is no such thing as not worshiping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.” In Infinite Jest, Wallace’s addicts are largely centered around Boston, on a hilltop near Brighton that separates an elite tennis academy run by a family shaken by a suicide and a halfway house filled with a picaresque crew of recovering drug and alcohol addicts. What brings them all together is that mysterious videotape, “the entertainment,” a piece of media at once so literally captivating that it causes certain death. The viewer cannot look away and will forgo the entirety of Maslow’s hierarchy for the sake of watching.
The worship is more multifaceted than just television and narcotics. The young boys at Enfield Tennis Academy worship the perfection of their tennis games and the rising of their rank, a task replete with ritual, superstition, and devotion. Yet some of the boys also use tennis to avoid family angst, failure, or personal faults, and in that way too the uncanny need to play tennis begins to resemble other addictions in the novel. The halfway house residents are addicted to cannabinoids and alcohol and cocaine and opioids and murdering small animals. The most dedicated of them, such as the halfway house staff member and partial-protagonist, Don Gately, have exchanged the worship of painkillers for the worship of A.A. itself.
Television, much like “the entertainment,” is its own form of worship. It’s the desire to be seen, the desire to be a voyeur. It’s the desire to be approved of and to feel communal. Yet our concept of television has rapidly changed since 1990s, when television was still considered the “boob tube,” a uniformly low art that was acknowledged as an aesthetic horror driven by shows like Cheers or The Price is Right. No one would confuse them for art. Now, we have entered — or passed through — television’s Golden Age, and the duplicity and seduction of the media have become hidden behind good storytelling, compelling acting, and excellent cinematography. The Sopranos, The Wire, Breaking Bad, Arrested Development, Game of Thrones, Mad Men, and more have changed TV from a knuckle-dragging affair into something sophisticated and worthwhile.
Many of the shows that have marked the Golden Age of television first aired around 2000, right at the start of the current opioid epidemic — a spooky correlation, if not a scientific one. Since 1999, opioid overdoses in the United States have quadrupled as a result of increased prescriptions, heavy marketing from big pharmaceutical firms, and a cultural familiarity and acceptance with seemingly casual drug use. In the new century, our nationwide desire to be tuned out, euphoric, and entertained seems to go beyond both medium and function. While many of those who find themselves worshiping television are unaware of the effects of something like “the entertainment,” perhaps no character is more aware of his addiction than Don Gately, an addict recovering from his own enthrallment to Demerol and Talwin, who would find himself at home in the America of today.
Fall 2015 brought a sobering study: Death rates for middle-aged white Americans had started to increase, bucking other demographical and historical trends. The cause behind this grand uptick in fatalities was largely attributed to drug and alcohol abuse, which has become brutal and rife in America’s small, postindustrial towns and regions like New England and the Midwest. Heroin and its potent synthetic successor Fentanyl seem destined to find people, particularly those whose circumstances leave them unable to realize traditional markers of personal success in America. To be rural and “working class” is to live in an economy and culture that is increasingly focused on technically skilled and urbanized workers. To be left behind by your country, as one might feel in rural New Hampshire, is to open the door to something sinister but palliative: opioids. Opioids activate the reward centers of our brains. They give pleasure and a sense of wellbeing. They provide momentary fulfillment and satisfaction with one’s life. Tolerance to prescriptions leads to cheaper, easier-to-get opioids, namely heroin and synthetic versions thereof. The how of these addictions is relatively simple, with doctors trained to relieve pain and large pharmaceutical companies pushing their products heavily to their masses, but the why feels more elusive.
Infinite Jest is set roughly in the mid 2000s, right into the thick of a prescription drug epidemic. Despite it being a novel inherently farcical and dystopian, Wallace’s troupe of addicts have only become more commonplace. It’s no mistake that in Infinite Jest two agents from rival governments, in fear and admiration of the power of the entertainment, discuss the seminal experiment of Rat Park: a foundational 1970s study of drug addiction that showed that rats when given a rich, fulfilling environment tended to avoid readily-available, opiate-laced water, but when faced with a stark and denuded cage, the rats found themselves hopelessly hooked on the same opiates. The denuded cage for a person can take a variety of forms: economic stagnation, faltering relationships, lack of enrichment or challenge in one’s life.
The question for Wallace then is what exactly does it mean far a person to be in that cage? Early on in the novel, one character struggles with an infestation of cockroaches before coming up with a rather brutal solution:
The yellow tile floor of the bathroom is sometimes a little obstacle course of glasses with huge roaches dying inside, stoically, just sitting there, the glasses gradually steaming up with roach-dioxide. The whole thing makes Orin sick. Now he figures the hotter the show’s water, the less chance any small armored vehicle is going to feel like coming out of the drain while he’s in there.
This is perhaps the most heartbreaking image of addiction, not just of being imprisoned and slowly dying, but also being unconscionably trapped behind an invisible force field. It’s to not realize that you are dying only that it is happening slowly, and to know yourself as the most disgusting, and hated of creatures.
While narcotics might present the most desperate and fanatical way to dismiss the denuded cage, there’s a more salubrious method among American households. As Wallace argues in “E Unibus Pluram,” television offers a perfect release. Instead of testing the parameters of one’s crappy cage, TV offers escape: perfect families, perfect bodies, perfect jobs, and challenges that are deemed perfectly manageable by the implicit promise that the characters — and thereby the show — will triumph through to the next season. Now, in this Golden Age, the families are more real, the plot lines more complex: we feel smart, sophisticated, involved. If early TV was the heroin, now we have the Fentanyl. While watching Breaking Bad you “get” that Walter White is an antihero. In The Wire, you “get” the comparisons between drug dealers and the police as factions of equal merit. These things are like delicious breadcrumbs of self-confidence, completing little puzzles for our neurological reward centers. Make no mistake that each of these crumbs was laid down by an intentional hand, drawing us further and further in. Now, in this Golden Age, TV has snuggled up close to the critics that once derided it as stupid and trivial. TV as art makes Wallace’s original statement in “E Unibus Pluram” ring just as true:
Television culture has somehow evolved to a point where it seems invulnerable to any such transfiguring assault. TV, in other words, has become able to capture and neutralize any attempt to change or even protest the attitudes of passive unease and cynicism TV requires of Audience in or to be psychologically viable at doses of several hours per day.
Could one imagine that the new season of House of Cards, inspired third-hand by Richard III, could be considered low-quality in The New York Times or any other critical venue that once trashed television as cheap and vapid?
From the easy access of cheap, reliable, and deeply enthralling television, comes the very Wallacean term: “binge-watch.” The concept of consuming television in large swaths as if it were another narcotic like alcohol or cocaine or Oxycontin has a self-imposed irony to it. In Infinite Jest, one of the characters has an eerily prescient and predictive moment that anticipates the addictive, binge-watching nature of online video streaming:
What if — according to InterLace — what if a viewer could more or less 100% choose what’s on at any given time? Choose and rent, over PC and modem and fiber-optic line, from tens of thousands of second-run films, documentaries, the occasional sport, old beloved non-‘Happy Days’ programs, wholly new programs, cultural stuff, and c., all prepared by the time-tested, newly lean Big Four’s mammoth vaults and production facilities and packaged and disseminated by InterLace TelEnt
If I call the six hours I spent watching the old seasons of Parks And Recreation “binge-watching,” then I am doubly insulated by, first, acknowledging upfront the gluttony of it, and, second, by the irony of calling it a binge in the first place. If I jokingly pretend I’m binging on television, then it’s ironic because watching television is better than knocking back a case of beer, right? Yet television, like narcotics, has a certain intentionality behind it, as Wallace lays bare in “E Unibus Pluram”: “Because of the economies of nationally broadcast, advertiser-subsidizer entertainment, television’s one goal — never denied by anybody in or around TV since RCA first authorized field test in 1936 — is to ensure as much watching as possible.” Wallace’s conclusion is as true as ever, but due to the allure of the Internet as the new “low” art, filled by Youtube, Reddit, viral videos, and vociferous memes dominating the sort of repetitive desire that an American Gladiators marathon used to hold, TV had to change its tactics. Ultimately, the new strategy for capturing their viewers, to convince them of their true desire to watch more and more, was a sea change towards quality entertainment, turning TVs strongest critics into its greatest allies. After all, it is hard to feel poorly about spending a Saturday watching an entire season of The Wire, when its creator, David Simon, won a McArthur “genius” Grant
As a novel, Infinite Jest is intended as a loop. Once you finish the last page, the story pushes you to return to page one in order to put all the clues together and understand what you’ve read, over and over again. The final “joke” of Infinite Jest is that the book is intended to be almost as endless and mirthful as the addictions it depicts. To miss the desperate worshipping hidden beneath the strange, erudite, belly-deep joy of Infinite Jest is to fall prey to its pleasure. The ease of access to satisfaction in the Digital Age, from smart phone to Oxycontin, is perhaps even easier and more gratuitous than Wallace envisioned twenty years ago. The desire for distraction and appeasement has rushed up to meet this pleasure in all its forms, in these new ways to worship that shield the reality of disenfranchisement or pain. To have looked into the abyss of addiction, as Wallace does in Infinite Jest, is to see all of life’s worst parts washed away by a torrent of pleasure. But what if the pleasure took too strong a hold? What if, in the end, you could not look away?