A fragment about Cyberpunk and Infinite Jest

Cyberpunk thus made the vibrant imaginary of a human-technology continuum spectacularly visible in the late 1980s and early 1990s, birthing an entire subgenre of science fiction about the human subject in technology.[1] The sense in which cyberpunk attempted to articulate “technological modes of being in the world”[2] highlights that the genre primarily developed an affective aesthetic. The characters in these texts constantly feel new technologies. Vivid images of the way such feelings are experienced and navigated define texts like Gibson’s Neuromancer, the first instance of digital textuality – text attempting to describe the conditions and experience of digital technology – as a robust phenomenon in print. The next perhaps unexpected way-point for digital textuality, however, comes in the form of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest in 1996. While Wallace’s novel doesn’t necessarily directly address the lived reality of digital computer technology in the 1990s, the technological conditions and media ecology of a near-future dystopian North America influence the plot and overall atmosphere.  Detailed descriptions of digital screen technologies litter what has been valorised by the academy as an important literary accomplishment comparable to Ulysses in scale, imagination and literary merit.[3] Such status is premised on the usual hollow categories of literary value. Yet the novel can be read as borrowing devices from the cyberpunk genre to furnish its plot and to frame the existential crises of its main character, Hal. Most notably, the fatal cartridge which if watched will incapacitate the viewer, The Entertainment, is commensurate to the Snow Crash virus in Neil Stephenson’s novel of the same name. The Entertainment is the ultimate destructive technology, which works by a viral mechanism to destroy the thinking subject. With it, the postmodern subject suffers the blackly comic ‘death’ it dreadfully anticipates, which is to become an object of technology, to lose the final vestiges of “humanity” which is persistently ironized in postmodern literature. In Snow Crash, the same death of the thinking subject is granted a political resonance, given that it is hackers, counter-cultural figures, who are targeted. In cyberpunk, such death might be understood as a gruesome and thrilling event required of a detective-sci-fi plot, whereby biological and technological life is thought together. When such death happens in Infinite Jest, it is understood as cunning satire on the evils of watching too much television. One reason this difference in reading exists is because of the different ways technology is able to be thought in what is labelled a cyberpunk novel and what is labelled a serious literary novel.

Wallace’s novel encodes an inability to think technology outside of its role in the death of this modern, autonomous, self-aware subject. For Wallace, such subjects are extremely capable in their understanding of postmodern irony. Technology simply obstructs the perpetual and vain struggle to articulate what it means to “be a fucking human being,” to use Wallace’s terms, but must also be accepted as an inescapable condition of the life in the late twentieth-century, else one might be accused of a naïve romanticism. In Infinite Jest, those people in society who still use the very latest technologies are said to be only those “utterly lacking in self-awareness.” This long and serious literary novel takes the central idea of cyberpunk, which wanted to think about technological modes of being in the world,  and address how technology might make a subject feel, and makes it a “serious” endeavour. It does this by limiting the aesthetic possibility of technological modes of being to concerns with whether technology helps one to think. It replaces the possibility of feeling technology with the limiting strategy of thinking it. With this, Infinite Jest reaffirms contemporary personal technology’s status as pathological to the modern subject (Cf. Hal at end of the novel). It is a literary reformation of the cyberpunk aesthetic, one which evacuates it of the spectacular imaginary and reaffirms the human/technology divide through ironic humour and recursive interiority. This is exemplified in the most recognisably cyborg character in the novel, Mario, whose disability is both played for humour and fetishized. Whereas with a figure such as Donna Haraway, the increased female competency in performing with and through personal technologies is the condition for emancipatory ethical and political pleasures, Infinite Jest locates the possibility for ethical valency in the interiority of the thinking male subject, one who is predisposed to mental dissection and recursive critical thought, and for whom the technological reflects not a Luddite threat of automation but the constant horror of their ever-possible object status. Mario’s variety of prosthetics are only positive in the sense that they ameliorate his object status, rather than because they blur the line between subject and machine. The irony that the technological is the very reason which allows the subject to think difference and/or exteriority, is one which is unthinkable in the novel. This is because it is an irony which threatens the position of the Wallacian dis-technological subject; it makes new technological forms the condition for the emergence of genuine sociality.


[2] Scott Bukatman

[3] Reference for this…

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