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Some thoughts on freedom in ‘Infinite Jest’

A few ideas for further reflection about freedom and addiction in 'Infinite Jest'.
A quotation from 'Infinite Jest' about freedom

These questions are about the world of the novel but simultaneously about our own society. Although it is interesting to think about these questions in the context of the novel, for our purposes we can situate these questions within our own societies.

In what ways does political freedom interact with individual freedom?

Steeply thinks of freedom as an innate capacity that everyone possesses in equal measure, and for the nation to endorse values would be for it to impose them on individuals. Freedom is freedom from constraint, freedom to choose one’s own values and course in life. Steeply is a representative of the classical liberal tradition of, for instance, John Stuart Mill. (Later in the book, Steeply even offers a rule utilitarian defence of his liberal version of freedom.)

Marathe, by contrast, believes that freedom is a skill that needs to be taught, by the family but also by the political community, in setting out values for which people live and by which they can make decisions. For Marathe, freedom can require sacrifice and there are at least occasions in which to be free is to have no choice at all, because one’s values and integrity make what one has to do so obvious and natural that alternatives do not occur. (Wallace is here influenced by Iris Murdoch’s The Sovereignty of Good.) Freedom is not simply negative or formless, but only really exists insofar as it is particularised or made concrete in a specific life. Marathe is more Hegelian here: negative freedom (freedom-from) is the most minimal coherent notion of freedom but far from a proper understanding of freedom. The latter includes freedom-to and is dialectically bound up with our duties. Marathe later describes his commitment to his wife – in many ways constraining – as enabling his freedom. (Another analogy would be the creativity enabled by the form of, say, a sonnet.)

In Marathe’s view, an over-emphasis on freedom-from is corrosive of relationships, which depend on some sort of shared freedom-to, some cause or value or ideal, towards which a group can collectively work. For Steeply, Marathe’s vision is either fascist or on the way there, suffocating the individual, not allowing for enough personal freedom, and failing to offer a decent, minimal standard of living (the pursuit of which in the USA Europe from the 1960s onwards became a political goal replacing many of the earlier ideological clashes within politics).

Is the logical end point of entertainment not merely addiction but death?

The film Infinite Jest is a dramatisation or hyperbolic representation of the attempt by TV and film entertainment to keep the viewer watching as long as possible, in order to convey as big an audience as possible to advertisers. Of course, killing one’s audience is a poor business model, so the answer is, ‘no,’ but the film that initiates the early stages of the plot is, as Wallace commented, not simply a McGuffin (that is, a device to set a plot in train but insignificant thereafter). It is instead designed to raise questions about people’s tendency to watch significant amounts of TV (by some estimates, more than the hours worked over a lifetime.) The power of TV to hold attention invites consideration of our ability to control our attention, to choose our focus, and thus, ultimately, our freedom (a theme in ‘This is Water’). The drug addicts in the novel highlight this aspect of contemporary life: unable to control their desires and behaviour, they are excluded from society, yet they often have brutal back stories that at least partially explain (if not exculpate) their condition. The rest of the TV watching public has no such “excuse.”

The back catalogue of Jim Incandenza, the film director who created Infinite Jest, allows Wallace to describe a number of avant garde films as a reflection on the relationship between popular, mass art and high-culture art – a division which Wallace tried to overcome in the novel Infinite Jest. The avant garde films are so abstract or self-involved, they fail as communication, they are too ‘cold’ and focused on how they appear, rather than on the human connection between director and viewer. Whereas entertainment TV serves as source of pseudo-community, Incandenza’s films are, for most, alienating. Where mass TV is the emotional equivalent of sugar, Incandenza’s films require hard work. In many ways, then, Wallace follows the standard dichotomy between kitsch and high art, using Incandenza’s formal innovations to poke fun at postmodern literature’s self-involvement and lack of communication and heart, whilst still serving as a legitimate criticism of the shallowness and ultimately unsatisfying nature of mass televisual entertainment. Wallace described his novel as aiming to require the reader to work through its formal inventiveness whilst being fun enough to keep the reader trying, thereby overcoming the Kitsch vs. Kunst dichotomy.

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David Foster Wallace: Literature and Philosophy

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