From Celluloid to Satellite: The Evolution of the Cinematographic Apparatus in David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest



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In the near-future corporate dystopia of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, mass media isn’t just “bad for you”; it’s apocalyptic, a material threat to subjectivity, signification, communication, and community-building. This unimaginable threat comes in an ironically mundane package, an unlabeled cartridge known as the Entertainment, which is rumored to be so compelling that it kills anyone who watches it. The mismatch between the object and the threat it represents draws readers’ attention away from the content of the Entertainment–which is only partially revealed 846 pages into the novel–and towards the strange cinematographic apparatus that produced it. This project examines ekphrastic descriptions of film-watching in Infinite Jest in order to track the evolution of media technology from the apparatus described by Jean-Louis Baudry in his 1968 essay “The Ideological Effects of the Basic Cinematographic Apparatus” to the Entertainment. Baudry argues that the cinematographic apparatus has two main ideological effects: 1) to give the impression that the film accurately represents reality without transforming it by repressing the work of signification and 2) to position the spectator as “the transcendental self [which] unites the discontinuous fragments of phenomena, of lived experiences, into unifying meaning”. It does this by “reconstruct[ing] the situation necessary to the release of the ‘mirror stage’”, the moment in a young child’s life at the emergence of language and the Oedipal triad (6-18 months) when it begins to identify with its own image in the mirror leading to a split ego forever longing to be whole. While the affective response described by Baudry is tantalizingly close to the descriptions of the Subjects of the Entertainment in Infinite Jest, the cinematographic apparatus that produced the latter is notably different: it was filmed using a wobbly unclear lens, has an unknown distributor, is displayed on a private teleputer rather than projected in a public theater, and somehow incorporates holography. In this presentation, I will argue that David Foster Wallace uses the strange cinematographic apparatus of the Entertainment to critique Baudry’s theory and the Lacanian model of desire and subjectivity that inspired it.



Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace, Postmodernism