This is the latest entry in Words, Words, Words the ongoing liveblog of David Foster Wallace’s “Infinite Jest.”
January 4, 2012, pgs 621-638/1045-1046. People like to watch; that much is clear. But the “spect-ops” of crowds gathering around mundane public events are part of DFW’s speculative future that don’t quite compute. I think I understand the point he’s making here, that the logical residual effect of so much private freedom and choice of entertainments — the “floating no-space world of personal spectation” — has created a void. People are entertained but lonely, avoiding all inconvenience but also all interaction. One theory is that, like Orin, they miss the times when “familiarity was inflicted,” so they gather around duck pond drainings* and street vendors for an entertainment they didn’t actively choose to passively watch. The scenario is reversed: by seeing something spontaneous and being part of a crowd, they are passively choosing to actively watch. It’s like a relic, a charming reminder of “simpler” times. A phoneless cord. Wallace didn’t predict the saturation of reality television in what people will choose to watch (the Real World had run three or four seasons when IJ was published, but was still in its culturally significant interactions-of-people-from-an-increasingly-diverse-and-pluralistic-society-microcosm phase before descending into its awful-interactions-between-people-with-various-social-diseases-and-mental-imbalances phase), so maybe this is an illustration of what is at the core of reality TV: a yearning for some sort of “real” unscripted and uncontrolled entertainment. In a sense, this does foresee YouTube videos that gather crowds of millions to watch a normal person do something mildly interesting. Whatever the theory — and I’m sure there are many from the McLuhanites out there — the spect-ops in the book are only that: a theory. We don’t really see them actually happening anywhere else in the book. Most notably, no one seems to notice a speeding wheel chair piloted by a legless rider with a fleur-de-lis mask on flipping over a shopping cart and scooping up a skinny and shirtless MIT student and carrying him directly into the open door of an idling van.
The page-spanning paragraph on 626 is only one sentence.
Okay, well, the match between Stice and Hal is arguably a spect-op. But a crowd gathering to watch a developing upset of the social order in the form of competitive sports is hardly a swell of people watching a duck pond getting drained. This domestic scene at ETA provides news of strange events taking place around the campus. Along with the tripod in the woods, a ball machine appeared in the girls’ locker room, a lawnmower in the kitchen, and squeegees were stuck on the wall of the cafeteria with no evidence of any attachment mechanism. Troeltsch somehow knows that Stice’s bed moves mysteriously in the night. Also, there is a “mysterious and continuing fall of acoustic ceiling-tiles from their places in the subdorms’ drop ceilings.” Hal is uneasy and drinking six cranberry juices, which many of us recognize as the regimen for flushing out before a urinalysis. At the same time, Pemulis seems eerily calm for someone who should by all reasoning be at serious risk of getting the boot from ETA.
*I want to believe there is a reference to “The Catcher in the Rye” happening here, but am so far unable to come up with any compelling evidence.