Entertainment is a powerful element of Infinite Jest’s America. The novel takes a suspicious, if not entirely condemnatory attitude toward entertainment. In the world of the novel, entertainment is an often dangerous force, a phenomenon to which people are compulsively drawn and which can even be used as a weapon. This is particularly true of the most significant example of entertainment in the novel, which is simply known as “the Entertainment.” James Incandenza’s invention takes entertainment to its logical, horrifying conclusion—watching it is an experience so engrossing that viewers lose all interest in their basic needs and eventually die. Yet while the novel suggests that entertainment (and the Entertainment in particular) can have a seriously negative effect, it does not imply that entertainment should be shunned altogether. Rather, it encourages readers to take a more critical attitude toward entertainment in order to decrease the control it has over society.
Forms of entertainment are everywhere in the novel, and in the world of Infinite Jest entertainment seems to be taken more seriously than it is in everyday reality outside of the novel’s pages. At Enfield Tennis Academy, for example, there is a whole Entertainment department. Classes taught in the department include Introduction to Entertainment Studies and History of Entertainment I & II.
Of course, the notion of Entertainment Studies as an academic discipline is not far from reality; after all, the disciplines of Film, Television, and Media Studies do really exist in academia. (Indeed, the field of Film Studies appears in the novel; Joelle Van Dyne, for example, is a dropout from M.I.T.’s Film Studies doctoral program.) However, the fact that the department at E.T.A. is specifically called Entertainment (rather than Media or even Popular Culture) is important. While film, television, and media are usually studied from perspectives such as craft, form, genre, or cultural impact, Entertainment as an academic discipline suggests that the focus is on entertainment itself—on the qualities of absorption, distraction, and pleasure usually associated with entertainment.
The most important example of entertainment in the novel is Infinite Jest, a film made by James Incandenza. Incandenza is an expert in optics, which is part of what allows him to create a film that is so unbelievably absorbing to the viewer. The film is also referred to as the Entertainment and the samizdat, and these alternative names give clues to the role it serves in the novel. “The Entertainment” indicates that the film is the pinnacle of entertainment, an entertainment to end all others. This is in a sense literally true, given that the film makes viewers die and can thus be used as a weapon of mass murder.
Samizdat, meanwhile, is a word that was used in the Soviet Union to describe the production of banned or dissident documents that were distributed by hand in order to avoid government censorship. It literally means “self-publishing,” and the use of this term to describe the film Infinite Jest shows how James Incandenza’s film has the potential to be used as a form of resistance or even a weapon against the government. Indeed, this is the hope of A.F.R., the Québécois separatist group that aims to secure the master copy of Infinite Jest and use it as a terrorist weapon.
The names “the Entertainment” and “the samizdat” thus both demonstrate the film’s remarkable dangerous potential. Yet the fact that the film’s actual title is Infinite Jest of course links it to the novel itself. Both the film Infinite Jest and the novel Infinite Jest are forms of entertainment, though they have very different effects on those who consume them. While the film makes viewers resemble a “drug-addicted newborn,” readers must work hard to keep track of the novel’s numerous intersecting plots and dozens of characters as well as to simply plough through its over 1,000 pages. The novel’s complex, idiosyncratic use of language and its many endnotes are even more ways in which the reader is forced to critically and actively work at reading it rather than passively consume it. At the same time, it’s suggested that James made the Entertainment in the first place in an attempt to communicate with his son Hal, and similarly Infinite Jest itself is both a complex “entertainment” and Wallace’s attempt to actually connect to the reader.
Returning to the way that the film Infinite Jest impacts its viewership, the phrase “drug-addicted newborn” points to the important relationship between entertainment and drugs in the novel. Both entertainment and drugs create a pleasurable distraction that can function as a suspension from reality (of course, this is particularly true of the Entertainment). Both entertainment and drugs can make people passive and vulnerable to manipulation and control. In order to resist this phenomenon, it is essential to maintain a critical distance from entertainment. Unlike drugs, it is not necessary (or possible) to eschew entertainment altogether; however, it is important not to let entertainment distract from reality. In this sense, having a critical relationship to entertainment is linked to sobriety because both involve confronting the fullness of reality.
Entertainment Quotes in Infinite Jest
“I'm ten for Pete's sake. I think maybe your appointment calendar's squares got juggled. I'm the potentially gifted ten-year-old tennis and lexical prodigy whose mom's a continental mover and shaker in the prescriptive grammar academic world and whose dad's a towering figure in optical and avant-garde film circles and single-handedly founded the Enfield Tennis Academy but drinks Wild Turkey at like 5:00 a.m. and pitches over sideways during dawn drills, on the courts, some days, and some days presents with delusions about people's mouths moving but nothing coming out. I'm not even up to J yet, in the condensed O.E.D., much less Québec or malevolent Lurias.
A more than averagely devout follower of the North American sufism promulgated in his childhood by Pir Valayat, the medical attaché partakes of neither kif nor distilled spirits, and must unwind without chemical aid… The medical attaché sits and watches and eats and watches, unwinding by visible degrees, until the angles of his body in the chair and his head on his neck indicate that he has passed into sleep, at which point his special electronic recliner can be made automatically to recline to full horizontal, and luxuriant silk-analog bedding emerges flowingly from long slots in the appliance's sides.
“To be envied, admired, is not a feeling. Nor is fame a feeling. There are feelings associated with fame, but few of them are any more enjoyable than the feelings associated with envy of fame”…
“So I'm stuck in the cage from either side. Fame or tortured envy of fame. There's no way out.”
I couldn't even stand to be in the same room, see him like that. Begging for just even a few seconds - a trailer, a snatch of soundtrack, anything. His eyes wobbling around like some drug-addicted newborn.
Was amateurish the right word? More like the work of a brilliant optician and technician who was an amateur at any kind of real communication. Technically gorgeous, the work, with lighting and angles planned out to the frame. But oddly hollow, empty, no sense of dramatic towardness - no narrative movement toward a real story; no emotional movement toward an audience.