ONANism: Infinite Jest and the Potential Political Value of Masturbation
I’m writing about David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest this week, since it’s what I’m reading right now (and will probably be reading for the next several months) and what’s most readily available. Infinite Jest is like one-thousand pages, making the first three or four hundred, proportionally speaking, an introductory throat-clearing. And so we’re aware of the strange geopolitical configuration within which the novel’s action takes place for many hours of reading time before learning the political origins of the Organization of North American Nations.
Reading Infinite Jest at times feels like an elaborate exercise in hearing someone out, as DFW’s style sends us careening through a relentless series of dependent clauses and footnotes. Structurally, too, the absence of chapter divisions (the author often separates narrative episodes with nothing more than an exaggerated paragraph break) gives the novel a ranting quality. In the foreword of my edition of the book, Dave Eggars likens reading DFW to “being in a room with a very talkative and brilliant uncle or cousin”; and it’s satisfying enough inhabiting DFW’s world—letting him talk and seeing where he goes with it. After all, moving forward, from page to page, given the near futility of re-locating already-read passages without chapter mileposts, is our most convenient option while reading Infinite Jest.
And yet hunting for confounding earlier passages after reading the parts of the novel providing focused description of the context underwriting characters, state institutions, and private companies, is essential for making sense of them. The early scenes between Rémy Marathe and Hugh Steeply are dramatic occasions for retroactive sense-making: seemingly abstract philosophical dialogues before the revelation of how O.N.A.N. formed (on like page 450), post-revelation they become the thematic linchpins of the novel.
Here’s the setup: It turns out O.N.A.N. was originally a ruse to cede the northeastern United States to Canada, evacuate its territory (the U.S. NE), and use as a vast waste (displacement) land. Hence American “experialism.” Marathe is an agent with Les Assassins des Fauteuils Rollents (“wheelchair assassins”), a Québecois separatist-nationalist group violently opposed to the geopolitical collective. But he works as a triple agent (betraying the AFR by pretending to be their double agent), cooperating with Steeply, of the United States “Office of Unspecified Services,” in exchange for his sick wife’s medical treatment—although it’s unclear at this point whether or not he is really a quadruple agent. The U.S.O.U.S. is looking for an absurdly lethal “film-cartridge” the A.F.R. has been suspected of unleashing on the American public. A symbol which condenses and hyperbolizes Infinite Jest’s representations of the ubiquity of entertainment in our lives, the film-cartridge’s video overstimulates its viewers’ pleasure centers to such a degree that it reduces them to a drooling vegetative state upon watching.
Though ostensibly helping the U.S.O.U.S., Marathe’s Canadian prejudice cannot be dissembled away. He believes the video merely exploits the American consumer’s solipsistic pursuit of gratification, and would not present a problem if the American consumer were capable—or perhaps simply conscious—of choosing his attachments. He tells Steeply,
You U.S.A.’s do not seem to believe you may each choose what to die for. Love of a woman, the sexual, it bends back in on the self, makes you narrow, maybe crazy. Choose with care. Love of your nation, your country and people, it enlarges the heart. Something bigger than the self.
His own surrender to the “love of a woman” notwithstanding, Marathe’s stated philosophy challenges the entire system of global capitalism of which O.N.A.N. forms a part. Two years after legislation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (in 1994, Infinite Jest being published in 1996), Wallace uses him to articulate—if not exemplify—an anti-free-floating-circulation-of-capital-and-commodities-at-the-expense-of-national-sovereignty position. Steeply, in response, points to the unconscious nature of desire, its unchosenness: “But you assume it’s always choice, conscious, decision. This isn’t just a little naïve, Rémy? What if there is no choice about what to love? What if the temple comes to Mohammed?” That desire is largely unconscious rings true, but the suggestion that it is random, epiphanic, and independent of anything as earthly as political economy does not—which suggestion is belied by the U.S.O.U.S.’s intervention in the marketplace that has produced a demand—a desire—for the lethal entertainment.
The irony that if Steeply and the U.S. government succeed in destroying the film-cartridge in question they will have undermined their consumer’s sacred freedom to choose to acquire it, is not lost on Marathe, as he asks, “All other of our you say free choices follow from this: what is our temple. What is the temple, thus, for U.S.A.’s? What is it, when you fear that you must protect them from themselves?” The temple for the U.S.O.U.S., at least, more closely resembles a statistician’s office (“statistics,” etymologically, as the science of the state), a place where means and ends are tirelessly calculated. Such calculation addresses the apparent contradiction between the state’s reification of the market and its attempts to obstruct consumer behavior: the state must act in the interest of “public health/safety,” and a product which, immobilizing once-active consumers, threatens to destroy the very advanced consumer capitalist system which produced it, must itself be destroyed. This model of governance may reflect Foucault’s observation that government, once constituted as the power to “take life and let live,” is now the power to “ ‘make’ live and ‘let’ die,” where life is measured in buying potential.
Final thought: since other of Infinite Jest’s fictional organizations are named to create meaningful acronyms (e.g., the “Union of the Hideously and Improbably Deformed,” which encourages its members to veil themselves = “U.H.I.D.”), it’s probably not coincidence that the Organization of North American Nations’s O.N.A.N. is also the name of Judah’s son who, in Genesis 38, lets his “seed” spill to the ground rather than impregnate his dead brother’s wife and extend a lineage not his own. “Onanism” is today another word for coitus interruptus or masturbation; and from the standpoint that O.N.A.N. enhances its peoples’ pursuit of self-indulgence and gratification by dissolving barriers to trade, the organization is appropriately named. But the acronym also suggests something else. Infinite Jest is too complex a book for its thesis to boil down to “consumption, entertainment, and capitalism are bad.” Perhaps onanism serves as a possible model for protesting the purposeful circulation of people, capital, and merchandise it seems to fuel—in the biblical Onan’s meaningless act, his refusal to participate in a given system’s determination of family, wealth, prestige.
Submitted by the editor.