An Infinite in Absence

Infinite Jest is incredibly well titled. There is an endless stream of extracts that put reading the text on pause because you recoil in laughter. To try to describe certain passages to someone who has never read Infinite Jest is like calling an emergency operator to inform them how your day has gone, with the same urgency and intensity as if you were being chased by a serial killer. There is an immediacy to every page, where each line fulfils your mind with dread, even though you’re laughing and reminiscing with two brothers talking on the phone, one clipping his toenails while the other shares his seduction tactics. Infinite Jest is able to scour the limits of reality, reveal a cast of characters you believe in despite your reasoning telling you otherwise all while slowly displaying the intricacies of its plot, subtly buried in hundreds of footnotes. After reading Has Modernism failed? by  Suzi Gablik, a particular passage jumped up and revealed, once again, an intricate buildup, a plot that followed through the currents of Modernism and Postmodernism and eventually flourished in New Sincerity. The character of many names: Himself, The Sad Stork, The Mad Stork, James Orin Incandenza made movies, was a filmographer obsessed with the avant-garde. One of his most powerful pieces, and one of the book’s most striking passages for me, never existed, since it was a movie whose audience became the movie. In writing about this piece I believe that David Foster Wallace has encapsulated the most important element of these three movements (M, PM and NS), which is to say, the ability to show the audience what is missing, what is absent. This essay will explore this piece and see how Himself can be seen as a stand-in for the most revolting and engrossing aspects of Modernism, Postmodernism and New Sincerity. This article will be looking into how Infinite Jest, these three artistic movements and The Mad Stork are able to fill in the blank spaces of knowledge and art by revealing the absence of previous and current artistic movements.

As each artistic movement progresses in a relatively linear fashion, the best way to dissect each would be from the oldest to the most recent. Though I have labeled Himself as an artist obsessed with the avant-garde, the two views I have sought out regarding Modernism have both made it very clear that to look at Modernism is not to simply look at the purely avant-garde. To begin with Modernism, it would be much more useful to look at its predecessor, and from this analysis, we will be able to see the bedrock of Postmodernism. The Victorian Era was heavily constrained by the opposition between the animalistic savagery of nature, which one should avoid, versus the refinement of high society and the nobility of the human spirit which one should seek out. In his essay Towards a Definition of American Modernism Singal points out that “This moral dichotomy fostered a tendency to view the world in polar opposites.” (3) Though many facets of life were able to be encompassed in this binary, those in the margins of society couldn’t possibly adhere to the strict standards of Victorian Society. The artists in that era began focusing their attention on everyone, on those forgotten, on those absent in many art pieces with a “desire to heighten, savor and share all varieties of experience.” (11)

What began as an endeavour to express the plurality of humanity, to showcase the entirety of society through connecting with and expressing the desires and downfalls of “all varieties of experience” (11) shifted towards an expression of pure individuality. This shift, in my view, was neither complete nor radical. Going from being socially aware and wishing to voice the words of all, to only looking inwards and wishing to express nothing but one’s own passions and follies, encapsulates the two most perceivable absences in Victorian Art. As discussed, the Victorian Era adhered to strict codes whereas Modernism brought forth an incredible amount of artistic freedom, used to both bolster those on the margins as well as the artists previously restricted by an endless amount of rules and regulations. The latter has enabled what Peter Fuller famously said about the artists of Modernism: “They have every freedom except the one that matters: the freedom to act socially.” James Orin Incandenza’s genre of Found Drama is a stunning parallel to these two definitions of Modernism. The genre creates an entire body of work that will never be seen and yet can potentially involve anyone. As his son explains: “What Found Drama was…  like Leith or Duquette got out a metro Boston phone book and tore a White Pages page out at random and thumbtacked it to the wall and then The Stork would throw a dart at it from across the room. At the page. And the name it hit becomes the subject of the Found Drama. And whatever happens to the protagonist with the name you hit with the dart for like the next hour and a half is the Drama.” (Appendix 3/4) Here the self-contained universe of The Mad Stork relies entirely on the existence of a phone book, the person who they pick could be alive or dead, still living in Boston or have moved out, but the fact that their name exists in the phone book means that, for the Mad Stork, so too does the movie about that person.

In her text Has Modernism Failed? Gablik showcases this freedom and shift towards artists expressing their work as a self contained universe in an incredibly similar manner to the genre of Found Drama. Gablik’s view that “the artist’s creative activity, in which he values violently anti-social works intended to defy the ruling ideology” (43) falls in line with how Found Drama came into being through The Sad Stork’s desire for revenge. Revenge against academics who had continuously criticised his works for lacking in plot. If artists are the makers then the critics are the vanguards of what is worth making. Without the Victorian standards, the critics and academics within Modernism have become the new “ruling ideology” (43), at least in Incandenza’s view. The precursor to Found Drama, his movie titled The Joke, is “violently anti-social” (43) both for being a movie where he films the audience “with less and less expectant and more and more blank and then puzzled and then eventually pissed-off facial expressions” (Appendix 1). The movie’s subtitle is also “You Are Strongly Advised NOT To Shell Out Money to See This Film” (Appendix 1) which clearly excludes people from being a part of the experience though the entire experience is the audience. The fact that this movie is titled The Joke ultimately demonstrates that none of this should be taken seriously despite the legions of academics who write ceaselessly about its artistic merits. David Foster Wallace has created a character that reflects the Modernist duality of being engrossed with one’s audience and the repulsion of the audience as they see themselves excluded from the artist’s inner workings. The Victorian restrictions have crumbled, walls turn to dust and all climb over with ease but the new ruling class’ rejection, the artists rejecting these academics and whatever the new elites review, have all become meaningless, becomes The Joke.

One work that is reviewed in Has Modernism Failed? resembles Incandenza’s movies and genre. The artist Yves Klein had a windowless gallery emptied of all of its furniture and then painted from wall to wall in white. After finishing the setup, Klein invited viewers to visit his latest piece “Le Vide” (the emptiness) and as the room started to fill up, the piece was finally complete, as the piece was the visitors filling in the emptiness. From this piece, we can start to see a movement in art from being about the Modernist ideals of all inclusivity to the Postmodern one of “Exhaustion/Silence” (Hassan, 6). Similarly to how the previous shift looked at in this essay was neither complete nor radical but rather an evolution that retained many elements and ideas of its previous iteration so too does Postmodernism build on the later elements of Modernism.  Though Himself’s work can aptly fit within the confines of Modernism, the definitions of Postmodernism serve to explore other facets of Found Drama that remain invisible in a purely Modernist interpretation. To begin with, though the self contained universe of the artist in Modernism can be seen through the genre of Found Drama, the final line of Incandenza’s son’s explanation puts such a simple one to one comparison into question. According to the explication “he [Himself] especially liked the idea that the star of the show might have already moved away or recently died and there was no way to know.” (Appendix 6) Two main questions arise from this line. If the universe of the artist is self contained then why would the artist wish to have the subject be completely absent? Another question being why would the artist wish to have a complete lack of certainty within their own work? 

In his text Toward a Concept of Postmodernism Hassan gives a definition of Postmodernism that demonstrates a new absence left unexplored by Modernism that also serves to answer the questions left from a Modernist interpretation of Found Drama:

But the fact in most developed societies remains: as an artistic, philosophical, and social phenomenon, postmodernism veers to-ward open, playful, optative, provisional (open in time as well as in structure or space), disjunctive, or indeterminate forms, a discourse of ironies and fragments, a “white ideology” of absences and fractures, a desire of diffractions, an invocation of complex, articulate silences. (7)

The universe being composed of atoms, and atoms being 99 percent empty space, it is no wonder that the self contained universes of the Modern artist would exhaust its matter and turn to the emptiness and silence that occupies an overwhelming amount of its space. The paradox of displaying the emptiness inside and having others embrace the “articulate silences” of Postmodernism take form in the movies of Found Drama. The Sad Stork creates an entire genre that exists on the non-existence of its movies, on the empty words of academics who praise things they have never seen. The artist himself must obey the absence, must hope for the subject to have been robbed of their moment of importance, for the artist to be robbed of their ability to know anything about their subject. Earlier I referenced the work of Yves Klein, whose white room existed as art only when the subjects filled the room. With the work of Found Drama, the entire piece requires no audience and thus becomes the ““White Ideology”” (Hassan, 7) of wanting Klein’s room empty, empty and white. 

However we must not forget that this entire genre of Found Drama, apart from being an amazing representation of Postmodernist and Modernist ideology, is a joke on academics who take the time to review things that do not exist. Here I am as well, writing extensively about the silence, the almost completely empty universe of an imagined character who made movies that no one will ever see because they only exist as words in a book. David Foster Wallace creates a character that we can laugh with as he pulls the rug under snobby art-film goers and self obsessed academics whilst also providing an incredible basis for understanding the pitfalls of Modernism and Postmodernism. What is most absent from these two movements, and is highlighted in New Sincerity, seems to me revealed from the moment you pick up the book. The fact is, everyone takes themselves too seriously once the Victorians are no longer the ones forcing guidelines for serious art to exist. David Foster Wallace, and by proxy New Sincerity, demonstrates that Modernism and Postmodernism have not been able to jest, to laugh at themselves. Where each has contemplated the immensity of an artist’s universe neither has been able to see it as ever-expanding, so Wallace has provided us with what is missing, the infinite in absence.

Works Cited

Singal, Daniel Joseph. “Towards a Definition of American Modernism.” American Quarterly, vol. 39, no. 1, 1987, pp. 7–26. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/2712627. Accessed 22 Dec. 2020.

Wallace, David Foster. “Infinite Jest”. Boston :Little, Brown and Company, 1996.

Gablik, Suzi. “Has Modernism Failed?”, 1984. Print.

Hassan, Iban. “Toward a Concept of Postmodernism”. The Postmodern Turn. 1987.

Appendix

In order to give a clearer and easier understanding of what I’m referencing from Infinite Jest, I have added the complete extracts that I have quoted in lieu of page numbers (also, I could not find these extracts in my copy of Infinite Jest because I forgot where they were hidden within the 1000+ page novel and simply copy pasted these extracts from a hyper condensed pdf). 

  1. The most hated Incandenza film, a variable-length one called The Joke, had only a very brief theatrical release, and then only at the widely scattered last remains of the pre-InterLace public art-film theaters in artsy places like theaters’ marquees and posters and ads for the thing were all required to say something like ‘THE JOKE’: You Are Strongly Advised NOT To Shell Out Money to See This Film, which art-film habitués of course thought was a cleverly ironic anti-ad joke, and so they’d shell out for little paper theater tickets and file in in their sweater vests and tweeds and dirndls and tank up on around with that sort of vacant intensity, and they’d figure the tri-lensed Bolex H32 cameras – one held by a tall stooped old guy and one complexly mounted on the huge head of the oddly forward-listing boy with what looked like a steel spike coming out of his thorax – the big cameras down by the red-lit EXITS on either side of the screen, the patrons figured, were there for like an ad up and what was on the wide public screen was just a wide-angled inoculated shot of this very art-film theater’s audience filing in with espressos and finding seats and sitting down and looking around and getting adjusted and saying knowledgeable little pre-movie things to their thick lensed dates about what the Don’t-Pay-To-See-This ad and Bolex cameras probably signified, artistically, and settling in as the lights dimmed and facing the screen (i.e. now themselves, it turns out) with the coolly excited smiles from the faces of the audience as the audience saw row after row of itself staring back at it with less and less expectant and more and more blank and then puzzled and then eventually pissed-off facial expressions. The Joke’s total running time was just exactly as long as there was even one cross-legged patron left in the theater to watch his own huge projected image gazing back down at him with the special distaste of a disgusted ripped-off-feeling art-film patron, which ended up being more than maybe twenty minutes only when there were critics or film-academics in the seats, who studied themselves studying themselves taking notes with endless fascination and finally left only when the espresso finally impelled them to the loo, at which point Himself and Mario would have to frantically pack up cameras and lens-cases and coaxials and run and totter like hell to catch the next cross-country sowing at each venue. Mario said Lyle had said Incandenza had confessed that he’d loved the fact that The Joke was so publicly static and simple-minded and dumb, and that those rare critics who defended the film by arguing at convolved length that the simple-minded stasis was precisely the film’s aesthetic thesis were dead wrong, as usual. It’s still unclear whether it was the Eyeball-and-Sideshow thing or ‘The Medusa v…’ or The Joke that had metamorphosized into their late father’s later involvement with the hostilely anti-Real genre of ‘Found Drama’, which was probably the historical zenith of self-consciously dumb stasis, but which audiences never actually even got to hate, for a-priori reasons.
  1. After the thing about the Medusa and the Odalisque came out, and The Joke, and the film-establishment theory-queers were holding their noses and saying Incandenza’s still mired in this late-century self-referencing unentertaining formalism and unrealistic abstraction, after a while Himself, The Stork, in his own progressively bats way, decided to get revenge. He planned a lot of it out at McLean Hospital, which’s out in Belmont, which is where Himself had almost his own private reserved room, by then. He made up a genre that he considered the ultimate Neorealism and got some film-journals to run some proc-lamatory edictish things he wrote about it, and he got Duquette at M.I.T and a couple other younger tenure-jockeys who were in on it to start referring and writing little articles in journals and quarterlies about it and talking at art openings and avant-garde theater and film openings, feeding it into the grapevine, hailing some new movement they called Found Drama, this supposedly ultimate Neorealism thing that they all declared was like the future of drama and cinematic art, etc.
  1. What Found Drama was – and you’ve got to keep in mind that Duquette and a Brandeis critic named like Posener who was in on the revenge each got a mammoth grant for this, and The Mad Stork got two smaller ones somewhere, grants, to go cross-country to graduate film programs giving turgid theoretical deadly-serious lectures on this Found Drama, and then they’d come back up home to Boston and The Stork and the couple critics would lay up drunk and invent new Found-Drama theoretical lectures and chortle and laugh till there was evidence it was time for Himself to go back to detox again.
  1. No see there weren’t any real cartridges or pieces of Found Drama. This was the joke. All it was was you and a couple cronies like Leith or Duquette got out a metro Boston phone book and tore a White Pages page out at random and thumbtacked it to the wall and then The Stork would throw a dart at it from across the room. At the page. And the name it hit becomes the subject of the Found Drama. And whatever happens to the protagonist with the name you hit with the dart for like the next hour and a half is the Drama. And when the hour and a half is up, you go out and have drinks with critics who like chortlingly congratulate you on the ultimate in Neorealism.
  1. The joke’s theory was there’s no audience and no director and no stage or set because, The Mad Stork and his cronies argued, in Reality there are none of these things. And the protagonist doesn’t know he’s the protagonist in a Found Drama because in Reality nobody thinks they’re in any sort of Drama.
  1. Absolutely no, no, nothing got recorded or filmed. Reality being camera-free, being the joke I’ll again underline. Nobody even knew what the guy in the phone book had been doing, nobody knew what the Drama had been. Although they liked to speculate when they’d go out after the time was up to have drinks and pretend to review how the Drama went. Himself usually imagined the guy was sitting there watching cartridges, or counting some pattern in his wallpaper, or looking out the window. It wasn’t impossible maybe even the name you hit with the dart was somebody dead in the last year and the phone book hadn’t caught up, and here was this guy who was dead and just a random name in a phone book and the subject of what people for a few months — until Himself couldn’t keep a straight face anymore or had had enough revenge on the critics, because the critics were hailing — not just the critics in on the joke, but actual tenure-jockeys who were getting tenure to assess and dismiss and hail — they were hailing this as the ultimate in avant-garde Neorealism, and saying maybe The Stork deserved reappraisal, for a Drama with no audience and oblivious actors who might have moved away or died. A certain Mad Stork got two grants out of it and later made a lot of enemies because he refused to give them back after the hoax was like unveiled. The whole thing was kind of bats. He spread the grant money for Found Drama around a couple of local improvisation companies. It’s not like he kept the money. It’s not like he needed it. I think he especially liked the idea that the star of the show might have already moved away or recently died and there was no way to know.

1 Comment

  1. Wow Jeremy, well written and analysed. Not sure it’s my thing, but I can see how you dove deep. Bravo.

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