Infinite Jest Reading Log

The Book

infinite jestPeople my age and younger might not be familiar with David Foster Wallace’s seminal work, Infinite Jest, as it was first published in 1996 when we were all quite young. I hadn’t even heard of David Foster Wallace until 2009 when a good friend began reading IJ. Although I was interested, another two years went by before I gave any of his works a chance.

I dove into the Pale King, which is another of DFW’s sizable novels, and is sometimes credited as being the opposite side of the same coin that includes Infinite Jest as the Pale King’s more notable counterpart.

Published three years after DFW’s death, and still largely unfinished, the Pale King acts an appropriate foil to Infinite Jest. TPK’s central theme is arguably that of a world of never-ending, mind-numbing boredom, whereas IJ is broadly about America’s relationship to an overabundance of entertainment and endless distraction.

With the 20th anniversary of the book’s release looming on the horizon, I thought now would be a good time to finally take the 1000-page plunge.

How does one describe the Entertainment?

The story is set in the near future and takes place in the Organization of North American Nations (ONAN), which so far appears to be a mega-nation of sorts that includes the US and Canada (and maybe Mexico and more?).

Although ONAN exists in the near future, it’s not a science fictiony kind of future. The futurism affords DFW the freedom needed to make keen observations about trends in the present (whenever that happens to be), without the reader feeling overwhelmed. In other words, even 20 years after publication, IJ is just far off enough to be whimsical while remaining completely recognizable.

The world of IJ is one of subsidized time, meaning the naming rights of each year are sold off to the highest bidder. Chapters jump back and forth through time, but the majority of the main storyline takes place in the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment (YDAU). One exciting part of reading Infinite Jest right now is that after a bit of sleuthing and dot-connecting, it becomes apparent that the dates of YDAU align with the year 2015. As a reader, you feel like you’re experiencing the book in quite a special moment.

I’m still discovering and understanding the plot, which is only just beginning to emerge in any coherent form. Most novels are written linearly, with a beginning, middle and end. The plot of these novels follows the common format of Exposition, Rising Action (conflict, conflict, conflict), Climax, Falling Action, Resolution. Not so with IJ.

The timeline of events within Infinite Jest more closely resembles an enormous yarn ball, all knotted up with each chapter zooming into a section of that yarn ball and unraveling it just enough to begin looking comprehensible before stringing the reader along to a completely different but somehow connected part of the story on the other side of that yarn ball.

Much of the yarn has to do with the Incandenza family, who live at an elite youth tennis academy near Boston, which they founded and operate to this day. The family’s patriarch, James O. Incandenza (who is a filmmaker as well as a tennis-enthusiast) creates a film so enchantingly entertaining that anyone who consumes it loses all desire to do anything else in life aside from continue watching it. Hilarity and chaos ensue.

Incandenza’s film is sometimes simply referred to as the Entertainment, though it’s proper and fitting title is Infinite Jest.

The Genius, David Foster Wallace Himself

I’ve watched and listened to a handful of interviews with David Foster Wallace, and when they’re combined with reading his work, one thing is abundantly clear: DFW was a genius.

I mean, really. You read his work and listen to him speak in these interviews, and you can tell. It’s like he sees the world in such a unique and precise way, that when he describes it everything is so obvious. It’s painfully apparent how frustrated he is by others, how it’s clear that if the world could see at even 10% of what he sees at 110%, then! Well, then we’d all be geniuses.

I know that authors are always compared to the characters they create, but without spoiling it, I’ll just say that the parallels between DFW and James O. Incandenza are striking indeed.

Advice So Far

Read this book! I’m just about 1/3 of the way through Infinite Jest, but I think I’m in love. I’ve never enjoyed a work of fiction in quite this way or to quite this degree. Every page is as challenging as it is rewarding.

My goal is to finish by the end of December, by which time I fully expect to have a much-loved (bent, torn, stained) 1,079-page paperback trophy to add to my bookshelf: a well-deserved and hard-earned sign of the numerous hours I spent this winter in the land of ONAN.

Essential Elements of Strong Communities

Communities are complex systems of human people. They can be organized around any number of characteristics: geography, age, religion, creed, level of education, occupation, common interest, and more. I like one of the definitions I found in the Dictionary app on my Mac: “a feeling of fellowship with others, as a result of sharing common attitudes, interests, and goals.” It’s not perfect, but it’s a starting point.

I’ve been a member of many different communities so far in my life, and I’ve even been lucky enough to work professionally with the aim of strengthening and enriching some of these communities for the benefit of their members. In my experience doing so, I’ve recognized a number of elements common to strong communities. Below is a brief exploration of three essential elements that have been on my mind recently.

I’m sure these ideas could be expanded even further, and I might not have them quite right as they’re articulated here, so please let me know in the comments if you have anything to add!

1) Shared Values > Shared Identity

A value is a type of belief that includes an attitude about the world.

This may go without saying, but values are different from identities. However, because of community dynamics, the two often go hand in hand. For simplicity’s sake, many communities are named for identity markers, but upon closer inspection, it’s clear that values are what give the community its shape.

For example, we may reference the LGBT community, implying that LGBT identity is the organizing characteristic of the community. I don’t think that’s quite right. There are many straight allies who feel very much a part of the LGBT community, and there are also queer-identified folks who see themselves as outsiders from the mainstream LGBT community. This means that shared identity is a sufficient condition for group membership, but it’s not a necessary condition.

2) Norms: customs of community

Communities may have explicitly stated guidelines (e.g. No hate speech) but they also have norms that are just as important. Norms are not laws, they’re not even as strict as “rules.” Think about driving. Sure, we have plenty of traffic laws on the books. “Rules of the road,” they’re sometimes called. But we also have norms. They’re not codified in law, but they’re just as important for preventing chaos on the road. Many of them are based in values of politeness and mutual respect.

Norms include customs, traditions, etiquette, and interpersonal conduct. They determine how we treat one another and what we expect from each other.

Norms change and evolve over time, just like values. The difference is that while a value is a kind of belief, a norm is a pattern of behavior. It’s something we do.

One example of a norm within the LGBT community is to ask for PGP, or preferred gender pronouns. This norm carries with it the shared value of the community that gender can be self-determined or self-defined, that a person’s gender might not fit neatly within the gender binary, and that all of us should show respect for the preferred gender pronouns of our community members. It also implies that we shouldn’t make assumptions about a person’s gender just by looking at them. Our values are manifest through norms.

Do you expect visitors to take off their shoes when they enter your home? That’s a norm. Do you have an expectation or pattern of behavior related to attribution in sharing content on social media? That’s a norm.

Developing norms contribute to the formation and maintenance of a community’s culture. The health of a community’s culture is a direct result of the degree to which that community’s norms are fine tuned to benefit the members of the community in an optimal way.

3) Language: a common tongue

This doesn’t necessarily refer to a shared written or spoken natural language, though there certainly are communities based on those. Icelandic, for example, is spoken by just over 300,000 people worldwide. This may be a sufficient condition for the recognition of a community based solely on its members speaking Icelandic.

But let’s explore an example to illustrate how the common tongue of a community is separate from that community’s spoken language. The phrase “Tap that” will mean something entirely different within the community of Magic: the Gathering players than the craft brewing community. Further, the same phrase may carry a third meaning among executives involved in petroleum extraction, and a fourth among teenage boys. The phrase is in English, but depending on the context of the community in question, a different meaning is conveyed.

In the context of community, language is specialized and nuanced, and includes dialects with unique lexicons specific to those communities.

Are you fluent in the language of Twitter? If so, words like “retweet,” “@reply,” and “DMs” mean something to you. You may even remember a time when “retweet” wasn’t a feature, but instead referred to a specific syntax employed when sharing the tweets of another user. All this is part of a shared tongue unknown to those outside the community.

If the phrases “contributing to core,” “bikeshedding,” “ovo- lacto-,” ‘for the animals,” or “what’s your twenty?” mean anything to you, it says something about the communities you are a part of.

Shared values, healthy norms, and a common tongue with which to communicate.

I’m sure there are additional elements that when amplified can contribute to the strength of communities. Another I’ve been thinking a lot about are the tools we use, and the ways in which members of a community bond over the creation of and use of their tools. Can you think of any other essential elements of strong communities?

PS: I don’t claim to know everything about the communities of which I’m a part, but I’ve done my best to articulate my understanding of our various shared values and norms. I recognize I might not have described everything just right, but I hope readers will be charitable in their interpretations of what I’m trying to get at with the examples I’ve chosen. By all means, let me know your thoughts in the comments.

Is Veganism a Toxic Culture?

Today as I was scrolling through my reader I came across this video and post from Tobias Leenaert at the Vegan Strategist. It’s one of the best talks I’ve seen in the past few months on the topic of Veganism, especially as I’ve been trying to formulate and organize my thoughts on the next stage of my personal Veganism, which I now call Secular Veganism.

Source: Anti-vegan: the lasagne

Tobias makes several great points throughout the talk, but here are the ones that really struck me:

  • practice slow opinion
  • what goes into your mouth is less important than what comes out
  • anger does not make you a better activist
  • “winning an argument but losing a customer”
  • guilt doesn’t help convert people to veganism
  • take your thinking further than the accepted logic of the movement

I also loved the portion about whether we want a vegan club or a Vegan world. For me, the question relates back to what I wrote about a few days ago, with regard to whether you identify or qualify. Is Veganism a club that you can be accepted into/kicked out of based on ticking off items one-by-one from a litmus test-like check list, or does it have the potential to become something larger?

The AR movement has been around long enough now that you’d think we would have developed a more robust discourse for self-reflection and critique, but I rarely see it. In my experience, we have a lot of sacred cows at the core of Vegan ideology and attempts at critical thought quickly devolve into vegan-blaming.

We (Vegans) need to consider whether or not we have become a toxic culture, and what that means for the movement and for the animals.

How much of a fundamentalist are you?

  • If a Catholic uses a condom, are they a Catholic?
  • If a Jew eats a cheeseburger, are they a Jew?
  • If a Vegan drinks a glass of milk, are they a Vegan?

Personally, I’m more concerned with how one identifies than whether or not they qualify. This is a complex world, and sooner or later anyone with convictions can be made to look like a hypocrite, a liar, or a fraud.

I think Neal Stephenson wrote it best in The Diamond Age:

For, you see, even if there is no right and wrong, you can find grounds to criticise another person by contrasting what he has espoused with what he has actually done. In this case, you are not making any judgment whatsoever as to the correctness of his views or the morality of his behaviour–you are merely pointing out that he has said one thing and done another.

That we occasionally violate our own stated moral code does not imply that we are insincere in espousing that code.

In Search of Meaning: Viktor Frankl and Logotherapy

Mans Search for Meaning
Man’s Search for Meaning

Last week I read Viktor Frankl’s 1946 autobiographical and philosophical work, “Man’s Search for Meaning.” At only 165 pages, it’s a relatively short book full of profoundly deep insights. Frankl’s objective is to answer the question “How was everyday life in a concentration camp reflected in the mind of the average prisoner?” He achieves this first by recounting his experiences as a prisoner in four different camps during WWII, then by providing an overview of the psychotherapeutic approach he developed during that time, called logotherapy.

Part I, “Experiences in a Concentration Camp,” is expectantly rich with examples of the unimaginable cruelty humans are capable of inflicting upon one another. What I didn’t expect were the numerous beautiful accounts of the great dignity and courage humans are capable of living with, even under conditions of extreme duress and ever-present threats to their mortality. The book is masterfully balanced in exploring both the terror of the camp, and the stalwart strength of the prisoners. In one particularly poignant scene in which Frankl longs to be reunited with his wife, he exclaims, “Set me like a seal upon thy heart, love is as strong as death.”

It’s this balance of exploration that gives way to one of the great insights found in the book. Numerous examples are provided throughout, reminding us that so often when examining the fallout of WWII, we focus primarily on the evils humans brought upon one another (and there were many). But in our haste to shed light on the darkness of the Holocaust, we sometimes fail to recognize the sea of flickering lights on the horizon, each a shining example of human survival, resistance, and resilience. In Frankl’s words, “After all, man is that being who invented the gas chambers of Auschwitz; however, he is also that being who entered those gas chambers upright, with the Lord’s Prayer or the Shema Yisrael on his lips.”

Part II, “Logotherapy in a Nutshell,” is Frankl’s condensed treatise and explanation of his unique approach to treating psychological neurosis. As he explains, “Logotherapy regards its assignment as that of assisting the patient to find meaning in his life.” Drawing from his own lived experiences over the course of WWII to develop his thesis, Frankl’s approach in practice is as much applied Philosophy as it is psychotherapy, for “it does not restrict its activity to instinctual facts within the individual’s unconscious but also cares for existential realities, such as the potential meaning of his existence to be fulfilled as well as his will to meaning.”

Logotherapy turns the cliche notion of asking “What is the meaning of life?” on its head. It is our task, Frankl claims, to instead find meaning in answering for ourselves the questions that life asks of us. And where does one find meaning? According to Frankl’s thesis, there are three possibilities: in work (doing something significant), in love (caring for another person), or in courage during difficult times.

Viktor Frankl, 1949.
Viktor Frankl, 1949.

Frankl’s belief was that neurosis isn’t necessarily pathological, but in many cases is caused by “existential frustration,” which is a kind of distress stemming from an inability to actualize one’s will to meaning. In other words, when one’s effort to find meaning in work, love, or suffering is stymied, existential angst develops, often presenting in the form of neurosis.

One example Frankl gives to illuminate his point is that of “Sunday neurosis:” a type of “depression which afflicts people who become aware of the lack of content in their lives when the rush of the busy week is over and the void within themselves becomes manifest.” It is this existential vacuum (a state of excessive cognitive boredom) where the existential frustration takes hold of an individual and side-tracks their will to meaning. Discontent emerges, and any effort at achieving meaningful existence is usurped by lesser forces: the will to power, the will to money, or the will to pleasure. But all is not lost, for Frankl reminds us that “one of the main features of human existence is the capacity to rise above such conditions, to grow beyond them.”

For one trapped in this severe state of internal self-desolation, there is but one remedy: what Frankl refers to as the “self-transcendence of human existence.” A process which is much more easily described than done, self-transcendence differs from self-actualization in that it is a side-effect of right action, rather than an attainable end in itself. In other words, self-transcendence, like happiness and success, is something that must ensue, rather than be pursued.

Self-transcendence can ensue as the result of a number of different actions. From changing one’s perspective in order to transform a personal tragedy into a triumph, to changing one’s self internally when it’s no longer an option to change a situation itself, and even to show one’s courage in suffering through the outward expression of angst in the form of tears, self-transcendence is Frankl’s solution to life’s inherent meaninglessness. It is the key to his “tragic optimism,” which proclaims through the words of Nietzsche that even in the worst conditions, “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.”

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My Tour of the Tents: a look inside Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s Tent City Jail

Last month, July 16 – 18, I was lucky enough to attend the annual Netroots Nation conference, which this year was held here in Phoenix. This is the final piece in a four-part recap of my #NN15 experience. The previous three pieces are available here:

I want to send a huge THANK YOU to my friend Hannah Simpson for sharing the photos from our Tent City tour with me to include in this post. Check out Hannah’s recent Op-ed from Why This Trans Woman Doesn’t Want to Ban Drag, But Say ‘Thank You.’

Estrella Jail, Maricopa County, Arizona
Estrella Jail, Maricopa County, Arizona

Tent City sits directly behind another detention facility, the Estrella Jail. It’s not at all a long drive from downtown Phoenix, and Hannah and I arrive right on time. The building itself resembles an elementary school on the outside, but with the notable addition of razor wire adorning the top of the perimeter walls, serving as crown molding for a facility designed to keep people in at all cost.

Not knowing quite what to expect, we enter through the main doors of Estrella to check in as instructed in the confirmation email from a few days earlier. The place is deserted. We wait for a moment at the front desk, until an office attendant behind the glass notices we’re there. We’re told no one knew we were coming. We produce the email confirming our scheduled tour, take our seats in the waiting room, and wonder if we’ll be able to see the jail after all.
Estrella Jail Waiting Room
Estrella Jail Waiting Room

Nearly 45 minutes later, a guard appears to collect us and off we go. We follow him out the door and around the east side of Estrella, toward the entrance to Tent City. A second guard appears, ready to join us for the remainder of the tour.

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