Laura Frost on David Foster Wallace and Modernism's Afterlife in the Age of Prosthetic Pleasure
The following is an excerpt from “Modernism’s Afterlife in the Age of Prosthetic Pleasure,” the final chapter in Laura Frost’s The Problem with Pleasure: Modernism and Its Discontents. In the chapter Laura Frost looks at “David Foster Wallace’s novel Infinite Jest, as it demonstrates how, despite postmodernism’s divergence from many of modernism’s premises, the conception of pleasure as a problem remains strong into our century.” For more on the book, you can also read an interview with Laura Frost
“For Wallace, as for many modernists, the difference between serious and commercial art turned on the distinction between an experience that is learned and earned, and a kind of ‘fun’ that comes all too easily.”—Laura Frost
One of the major themes of Infinite Jest is addiction and pleasure disorders. A prominent narrative strand that cuts across the novel’s many plots, and whose importance is indicated by its titular role, is a mysterious film by one James Orin Incandeza, Jr. called Infinite Jest. Known as “the Entertainment” or “the samizdat,” the film is “a recorded pleasure so entertaining and diverting it is lethal” (321). Once people start viewing it, it is so mesmerizing that they obsessively watch until they die. A group of radical Quebeçois separatists want to use Infinite Jest as a terrorist weapon against Americans, who, one character remarks, “would die for this chance to be fed this death of pleasure with spoons, in their warm homes, alone, unmoving” (318).
What makes “the lethal cartridge” so compelling? The brief and possibly fallacious descriptions of the film—for no one who sees it is supposed to survive that viewing—sketch a scenario in which an extraordinarily beautiful woman appears as “some kind of maternal instantiation of the archetypal figure of Death, sitting naked, corporeally gorgeous, ravishing, hugely pregnant . . . explaining in very simple childlike language to whomever the film’s camera represents that Death is always female, and that the female is always maternal” (788). Shot from the perspective of a child in a crib, the film shows the woman bending over the infant and uttering apologies: “I’m so sorry. I’m so very sorry. I am so, so sorry” (939). The “ultimate pleasure” here is intimately connected to the maternal body and to infantile regression, drawing not only from psychoanalytic discourse but also from the centuries-old association of the female body with pleasurable passivity and also anxiety. The samizdat calls to mind T. S. Eliot’s assertion that mass culture appeals to a “desire to return to the womb.”8
Infinite Jest alludes to other pleasure technologies, such as Reich’s orgone accumulator, the Excessive Machine in Roger Vadim’s Barbarella (1968), and David Cronenberg’s Videodrome (1983). Wallace explicitly connects the Entertainment to the historical discourse and science of pleasure. At one point, some of the characters in Infinite Jest discuss the discovery in the 1970s, by a neuroscientist named Olders, that “firing certain electrodes in certain parts of the lobes gave the brain intense feelings of pleasure” (470). These areas are called “p-terminals” (pleasure-terminals). Building on the data, Canadian scientists implanted electrodes in a rat’s brain and “found that if they rigged an auto-stimulation lever, the rat would press the lever to stimulate his p-terminal over and over, thousands of times an hour, over and over, ignoring food and female rats in heat, completely fixated on the lever’s stimulation, day and night, stopping only when the rat finally died of dehydration or simple fatigue” (471). The artificial stimulation of the p-terminal overrides opportunities for real carnal pleasure (“food and female rats in heat”). Wallace adds a twist to this fictionalized version of James Olds and Peter Milner’s famous rat experiments in the 1950s: when word gets out about the studies, people start lining up to volunteer for pleasure implants. “We would choose dying for this, the total pleasure of a passive goat” (474).
Wallace’s depiction of a society of individuals drowning in but not enjoying pleasure offers a culmination to Rhys’s Sasha and other early twentieth-century pleasure seekers. Rhys, Huxley, Eliot, Lawrence, and other authors merely imagine cinema audiences rendered passive and narcotized. Wallace goes further in creating a vehicle of entertainment that literally kills its viewers with pleasure as they neglect everything else and give themselves over to hedonism. The modernist metaphors of intoxication and hypnosis are now a deadly addiction. This is a Freudian version of Plato’s oyster, “merely a body endowed with life,” without the exercise of reason or intellect, and a pure receptor of pleasure. It is also the ultimate regressive fantasy, akin to the sort Huxley found so revolting in Al Jolson’s “Mammy” song, and an abandonment of the intellect….
Infinite Jest is anything but a passive descent into narrative pleasure. It bombards its readers with proliferating plots, detours, obscure lexicon, and tricky constructions. Wallace does not experiment much at the level of the word, like Joyce, or break up the sentence to the same degree that Stein, for example, does. However, Infinite Jest’s intricate narrative structures, including its rabbit hole digressions, have a highly self-conscious and self-mocking tone that demand an alert patience, discipline, and a sense of the text as both work and play. Wallace conceded that his writing expresses “a kind of hostility to the reader . . . sometimes in the form of sentences that are syntactically not incorrect but still a real bitch to read. Or bludgeoning the reader with data. Or devoting a lot of energy to creating expectations and then taking pleasure in disappointing them.”13 The solution to a culture of compromised pleasure, for Wallace, is aesthetic difficulty and even alienation: refusing readers the bliss of the samizdat and offering them instead a demanding cognitive experience. Language, and specifically an antagonistic writerly stance toward readers—bombarding, discomforting, bludgeoning, disappointing—is the antidote to “fun.” Wallace looks to modernist-inaugurated reading effects as a source of cultural resistance and rigor.
From one angle, Infinite Jest looks like a parody of modernist views of pleasure, but from another, it is an elaborate extension of those ideas. For Wallace, as for many modernists, the difference between serious and commercial art turned on the distinction between an experience that is learned and earned, and a kind of “fun” that comes all too easily. And yet, his work everywhere signals a hyperconsciousness about the biases that inform that position and a recognition of the inevitability and intricacy of the audience’s relationship to mass culture. In postmodernism, mass culture is not so much a guilty pleasure as it is the white noise of our time. But for some writers, like Wallace, pleasure itself as a broader category of experience remains suspect, and the role of “serious” art is still thought to be the presentation of aesthetic tension as a bulwark against trite amusement. So even though postmodernism can be irreverent about the kinds of cultural classification modernism espoused, those hierarchies still shape the way some writers understand art.
That said, we are in the midst of a major paradigm shift in pleasure. Wallace’s samizdat is about sixteen years old, and its technology—the “cartridge” that is passed from hand to hand—is already obsolete. Its materiality marks it as antiquated. Instead, we are surrounded by digital technologies that stimulate our “p-terminals” by artificial means. Pharmaceuticals such as SSRIs and Viagra, and recreational drugs such as ecstasy, have perfected chemical hedonism, and the Internet gratifies with unprecedented speed and accuracy. We live in an age of prosthetic pleasure. The modernist nightmare of bliss on demand has been realized, at least for those who can afford it. Modernism’s suspicions about pleasure were always accompanied by an anxiety about new pleasure-producing technologies: indeed, the rhetoric of machine-age sensation runs throughout these chapters. However, in postmodernism, the anxiety about technologized pleasure overtakes the anxiety about somatic pleasure.
In particular, the modernist fear that easy, accessible pleasure (of the cinema, magazines, etc.) would threaten literature and deep thought has taken a new technological form. We are reading more, but our reading practices have changed. We are reading on computer screens, where text and words, choice and manipulation, firsthand and vicarious or virtual experience are colliding in unprecedented ways. The lament for the lost art of reading and the imperiled book is stronger than ever—its rhetoric of distraction, excessive accessibility, and inauthenticity comes right out of the interwar period— but the message feels strained, for much of the time those laments appear online.