David Foster Wallace on Entertainment Culture

I recently listened through several hours of old radio interviews with the late novelist David Foster Wallace, specifically of him talking about his epic novel, Infinite Jest, his layered response to American entertainment culture.

If a movie was so good it ruins you, would you watch it?

This is the central question DFW raises in his novel, not only what to do with lewd media, but what to do when media becomes so good and captivating that we lose all interest in our own lives?

Of those interviews, I was most impressed with one 11-minute chat he had in 1996 with Judith Strasser on her show, “To the Best of Our Knowledge” (Wisconsin Public Radio). Unable to find a transcript, I made one as part of my research. It should be online, and now is.

Full audio (download):

Lightly edited transcript:

DFW: The calendar’s been subsidized, so that dates appear with corporate names on them. The contemporary year that the action takes place in is called The Year of The Depend Adult Undergarment. Entertainment technology has progressed to the point where pretty much anything you want is available on a sort of, they’re called cartridges, like digital VCR things, and the U.S. is in a state of tension with, well let’s see, NATO has collapsed, and there’s a North American Alliance, but the U.S. and Canada are having heavy duty friction, partly due to the fact that the U.S. has toxified and then given away some of its terrain to Canada. People are essentially connected, I guess, in all the sorts of ways that the great champions of the Internet and information highway are so excited about now. The action is only about 10 or 15 years in the future, really.

Strasser: The people are really addicted to entertainment, aren’t they?

DFW: They are in the book. I think, perhaps, in a starker way in the book. I mean, the book is centered around a kind of movie that’s actually fatally good, but it doesn’t seem to me that it’s … I mean, it’s probably a kind of parodic exaggeration of people’s relationship to entertainment now, but I don’t think it’s all that different.

Strasser: Into this world that you’ve created comes Infinite Jest, the movie, and you’ve talked about Infinite Jest being fatal. What do you mean? What is Infinite Jest?

DFW: I think the standard agenda of any piece of entertainment is to be as entertaining as possible. The problem with the movie Infinite Jest is that it’s lethally entertaining, meaning watching it is so much more fun than doing anything else. Once somebody’s watched it once, they’re pretty much have the spiritual energies of a moth and want to do nothing more than watch it again and again and again until they die of, probably dehydration. Part of the plot of the book is that certain Canadian elements have gotten a hold of parts of this movie and want to broadcast it to the US. The question is whether U.S. citizens have the wherewithal to keep from entertaining themselves to death or not.

Strasser: It sounds outlandish when you talk about it, but then I think about people who really enjoy something, particularly something that’s very, very funny and they say, “Oh, that just kills me. That slays me.”

DFW: Something that’s interesting to me is a lot of really ecstatic pleasure are linked interestingly sort of with death … The book is meant to seem kind of surreal and outlandish at first and then, in sort of a creepy way, to seem not all that implausible. It would seem to me, I mean, at some point in the next 10 or 15 years we’re going to have virtual reality pornography, which I would just invite you to think about, given the level of people whose lives are ruined just by addiction to sort of video peepshow stores now, I mean, what it’s going to be like and what sort of resources we’re going to have to cultivate in ourselves and in our citizenry to keep from sort of dying on couches. I mean, maybe that sounds silly, but the stuff’s going to get better and better and better and better and it’s not clear to me that we, as a culture, are teaching ourselves or our children what we’re going to say “yes” and “no” to.

Strasser: Do people understand the movie as something dangerous?

DFW: Well, part of the book concerns the U.S. government’s attempt to mount a sort of sufficiently scary PR campaign to keep people from watching it, but not a campaign so scary that it will make people rush out and want to see it for the same reasons that high school students now rush out to procure the latest, newest, horrible drug that’s supposed to be so ecstatic it blows your brains out.

Strasser: Or why the V-chip may backfire.

DFW: Yeah, I think the V-chip career is going to be very interesting. My prediction is the egg timer’s running on it right now. I think it’s got maybe a year.

Strasser: The government itself is walking this tightrope trying to say don’t watch it, but it’s not so bad that you have to watch it.

DFW: I think a lot of this sort of huggermugger in the book comes down to the fact that the government can’t really do a whole lot. That our decisions about how we relate to fun and entertainment and sports and pretty much anything, are very personal, private that they’re sort of between us and our heart. There’s a fair amount of high comedy at the government, going around ringing its hands trying to figure out what to do. In fact, I think what’s going to happen, I don’t think it’s all that hard to see. What’s going to happen is that these are decisions that are going to have to be made inside us as individuals about what we’re going to give ourselves away to and what we aren’t.

Strasser: Although, the pressures on us are absolutely incredible. I was thinking in the world that we have today, you can’t have just TV news, you have to have entertaining TV news. You can’t have a documentary of plain old information. You have to have infotainment.

DFW: Well, I think the pressures aren’t just on us, but I think they’re on the TV networks, which are businesses in which have found out that entertaining news is vastly more profitable. The reason for that is that we, as an audience of individuals, seem to be voting with our wallets for the entertaining news and that the changes that are going to need to come, I think, are going to need to come in terms of our own individual taste rather than any sort of laws passed on the networks about violence or news content or anything like that. It just, I guess my point is, right now and I think the next 15 or 20 years are going to be a very scary and sort of very exciting time when we have to sort of reevaluate our relationship to fun and pleasure and entertainment because it’s going to get so good, and so high pressure, that we’re going to have to forge some kind of attitude toward it that lets us live.

Strasser: How did we get to this point? I mean, if you roll back the clock 50 years, certainly entertainment wasn’t one of our gods back then.

DFW: I think you can roll the clock back really thousands of years when you have arguments in Plato about what kinds of pleasures are more worthwhile than others. I mean, I know that in certain moods, when I’m tired or when I’m in some sort of pain, I want kind of infantile pleasures. I want to sit and receive pleasure without having to give anything or do anything.

Strasser: Oh, you just had me flashing on the amount of time I spend on Tetris on the computer.

DFW: Yeah, which the thing about it is that this stuff seems to me to be a little bit like candy. I mean, candy’s all right, a couple pieces of candy a day. When it becomes your diet, you get sick really fast. Part of our problem seems to be I think that, first of all, that the candy’s getting better and better and better and second of all, that I think somehow, we as a culture have stopped or are afraid to teach ourselves that pleasure it dangerous and that some kinds of pleasure are better than others and that part of being a human being means deciding how much of active participation we want to have in our own lives. I’m not trying to make it sound like I’m anti-TV or anti-entertainment. I just think that’s a really sort of exciting opportunity to decide whether our relationship to the world is going to fundamentally passive and infantile or one that’s sort of active and hard and takes more work.

Strasser: What I’m wondering is whether there’s anything in our culture, which encourages us to make the kinds of distinctions between pleasures, for example, that you’re saying we have to make?

DFW: Well, sure there is. The first leading cause of death among teenagers is suicide. Drug addiction, sexual addiction, gambling addiction in this country is epidemic. The divorce rate is sky high. People in this country are lost and wandering around and looking to give themselves away to something that will maybe love them back as much as they love it. I mean, I think there’s plenty of incentive to reevaluate our relationship to the world and what we view as pleasure. The question I think is sort of an individual one is that what level of pain do we need to reach before we begin to be willing to undertake the work of that reevaluation.

Strasser: The 12-step programs aside, which your language in actually a lot of the book sort of reflects, it seems to be the Christian Right that is dealing with this question more than any other part of society.

DFW: Well, the Christian Right, I think, is a very scary and logical part of this. The Christian Right basically wants to take away the power of people’s choices to make their own decisions and want to make those choices for them. It seems to me that … I mean, I’m not a member of any 12-step program, but the reason why these programs interest me is because they seem to involve people who’ve sort of bottomed out on the great American way of life who are having now to sort of redefine and remake some kind of force that they’re going to give themselves away to. The Christian Right seems to me, I mean, the scariest thing about our relationship to pleasure and entertainment is that as we get more and more “decadent” and more and more unhappy, I think at a certain point, we are going to be desperate enough to have other people just tell us what to do that the form of fascism that I think goes under the name, the Christian Right, is going to look viable to a lot of people. I think it’s pretty scary.

Strasser: What does all of this reflection on entertainment and emphasis in the book … not in the book, but, I mean, in the world, our world, on entertainment and the connection of entertainment and commercialism, mean for you as a writer?

DFW: Boy, I don’t know. I mean, I can remember having arguments with my teachers all the way back in college because they regarded references to pop culture or references to our relationship to pop culture as kind of mannered in part of some sort of school. I don’t know how old your listeners are. I was born in 1962 and I grew up with television the same way I grew up with trees and parks and books. I mean, I sort of consider myself to be a realist and a lot of what I think seems very strange or kind of avant-gardish in the book is mostly just an attempt to be mimetic about how kind of the world feels against our nerve endings right now.

Strasser: Are you out to entertain with the book?

DFW: Well, this is one of the razor edges I felt like I was walking when doing it. This is a very long and fairly difficult book that I also wanted not to be a standard kind of avant-garde book, most of which right now I admire as a writer, but just aren’t very much fun to read. I wanted it to be both long and difficult, but also to be fun enough so the reader wouldn’t throw it at the wall on page a hundred. I realize that sets up certain ironies since the book itself is about entertainment.

Note to any reader who wants to read the sprawling novel Infinite Jest. It does contain several brilliant insights into human nature, but the work is long and tedious and intricate, a plot structure fabricated by a math-competent novelist and inspired by Wacław Sierpiński’s gasket, a fractal triangle! If you do make the attempt, be forewarned, you’re more likely to be frustrated than rewarded on first read.

An Age Without Scents

“The Song of Quoodle” is a rhyme by a dog (written by G. K. Chesterton). Really it’s a short lament that of all the wonders of the smellable world, we humans miss out. “They haven’t got no noses,” Quoodle opens, “The fallen sons of Eve / Even the smell of roses / Is not what they supposes” (Works 10.2, 477).

Alas, it’s true. The human sense of smell is dull, a sense we don’t cultivate with much attention. In fact, most of our entertainment is detached from the nose. Even our best novelists, the rare few writers who can put words to the human experience, mostly ignore the smells of storytelling.

We haven’t got no noses, and this is especially true in the age of the eye, an observation of philosopher Byung-Chul Han in The Scent of Time: A Philosophical Essay on the Art of Lingering (Polity, 2017). There he compares optics and olfaction as a contrast of two ways of living: atomized time and eschatological time.

It’s one long essay on the sense of smell — a sense of lingering, a sense deeply connected to creation, community, covenant, our past, and our memory (see Gen. 27:27; Lev. 26:31). In comparison, 200 digital images can flash before our eyes in a minute. But smells don’t work the same way. Smells are immune from acceleration. You cannot enjoy 20 consecutive smells in one minute. Aromas cannot be scaled and accelerated like digital images get scaled and accelerated. Thus, in an age of acceleration, images overrun the senses and smells are ignored.

“A scent is slow,” writes Han. “Thus, as a medium, it is not adapted to the age of haste. Scents cannot be presented in as fast a sequence as optical images. In contrast to the latter, they can also not be accelerated. A society dominated by scents would probably not develop any inclinations towards change or acceleration. It would live off its recollections and its memory, off those things that are slow and long-lasting. The age of haste, by contrast, is a ‘cinematographic’ age, one that is to a large extent shaped by the visual. Such an age accelerates the world into a ‘cinematograph film of . . . things’ [Proust]. Time disintegrates into a mere sequence of present moments. The age of haste is an age without scents” (46).

We should all stop and smell the roses, and the stopping is the necessary point by which we can begin to smell. To smell is to linger. We cannot smell until we stop. We cannot smell until we see that some created beauties are immune to acceleration. This is one non-negotiable to enjoying the fragrances of the Creator, wonders more obvious to lesser beasts.

Six Core Convictions on Media and Technology

Occasionally I get asked to outline the basics of my understanding of technology and media and the Christian life — all topics of great interest to me. There’s much more to develop, and many questions remain for me that I have not figured out. But as best as I can put it right now, in a simplified form, put together this morning in a few free minutes, these are the six convictions for me when it comes to media, technology, and the Christian life.

(1) God is the Innovator, the fountain of every innovation and innovator. Steve Jobs was a sub-creator, and any digital device he envisioned manifests God’s glory in new ways to us all. Technology opens new avenue to see God’s brilliance as technology and media serve as a key source in this world to feed our awe and wonder.

(2) Most of our key innovators are non-Christians. The history of innovation in Scripture manifests a rebellious self-sufficiency from Babel to Babel-on. It will be through rebellious Cain’s linage God will introduce the world to metallurgy and music making (Gen. 4:21–22), innovations to later make Noah’s ark (metal tools) and temple worship (instruments). Innovation introduced to creation via fallen man produces technologies God’s people adopt and adapt in serving God and neighbors, vocationally and spiritually.

(3) Every human invention is made possible by existing natural resources and natural laws. Pre-ordained potentiality is the cause of every human innovation. One hundred lighting bolts hitting earth every second for millennia is the first cause of the digital age. Even our most advanced technologies (medicine, atomic energy) are in some way extracted from creation, the manifestation of potentialities God built inside creation.

(4) Having been the product of natural laws and natural resources, technology remains under the curse, expires, breaks, and fades away. But while operational, our best technologies steward creation, cultivate the earth, preserve nature, foster human community, augment (but not replace) human labor and fruitfulness, and fix broken biological processes.

(5) Scripture warns us explicitly against corrosive media (eye lust); and warns us equally in overindulging of non-sinful media (what the Psalmist calls “worthless things”). Even non-sinful media must be resisted through temperance and temporary fasts to give space for the soul to flourish in joy as it lives to God and neighbor.

(6) In a world of technological marvels and captivating media, Christians are left to discern beyond the potential and possible, to embrace the rare tech and media that can edify, a feedback loop of innovation and adoption (or temperance) that cannot be settled simply, cannot often get legislated, and will become increasingly personal and complexified in the near future.

What have I missed?