Infinite Jest is set among a number of prominent institutions, which—rather than simply existing in the background—play a prominent and powerful role in the lives of the characters and the narrative as a whole. These institutions include Enfield Tennis Academy (E.T.A.), the Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T.). In a more abstract sense, Les Assassins des Fauteuils Rollents (A.F.R.), the Organization of North American Nations (O.N.A.N.), and Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) are also important “institutions” in the novel, although they lack the physical structure of the former three. Throughout the novel, the characters struggle against the demand to submit to and be controlled by the institutions of which they are members. The novel ultimately takes a profoundly ambivalent attitude toward institutional control, suggesting that while submitting to the control of institutions is sometimes necessary, it is never harmless.
E.T.A. and Ennet House are twinned institutions in the novel. They are next to each other, have similar names, and both require extreme forms of submission from their members. The proximity of their buildings means that the characters at each residence often interact, which makes the parallels between the institutions all the more prominent. At E.T.A., students are required to follow an intense training regime that can have the effect of making them play in a robotic manner: “There’s surprisingly little thought. Coaches tell serious players what to do so often it gets automatic.” Being a highly skilled tennis player means dismissing or suppressing one’s own thoughts in order to behave in an almost mechanical way.
Similarly, Ennet House and Alcoholics Anonymous require complete submission from members in order to prove their commitment to sobriety. Behind this is the idea that addicts’ minds are controlled by their Substance of choice, and thus in order to counteract this control, extreme submission to another form of control is necessary. Some characters in the novel find that this is the only way to effectively resist the temptation of substance abuse and remain sober. Again, this encourages a kind of robotic behaviour: “When people with AA time strongly advise you to keep coming you nod robotically and keep coming.” Although such total submission may be unappealing, for many addicts the only other choice is allowing their addiction to consume them to the point of death. This leads to the paradoxical maxim regarding submission to AA ideology: “It’s all optional; do it or die.”
Despite the high stakes of refusing to submit to the institutional control of sobriety programs, many characters still rebel against this control. A section of the novel that takes the form of transcripts of conversations between the Executive Director of Ennet House Patricia Montesian and various patients explores the resistance and rebellion that occurs among Ennet House residents. One resident protests, “So what is this? You’re ordering me to pray? Because I allegedly have a disease? I dismantle my life and career and enter nine months of low-income treatment for a disease, and I’m prescribed prayer?” Another exclaims: “I’m on a month’s Full-House Restriction for using freaking mouthwash? Newsflash: news bulletin: mouthwash is for spitting out! It's like 2% proof!” Even while the residents at Ennet House may desperately desire to overcome their addictions, they still resist the overbearing forms of submission demanded by the institution.
Other institutions in the novel—namely A.F.R.—are formed around rebellion against a larger institution (in A.F.R.’s case, O.N.A.N.). A.F.R. is “pretty much Québec’s most dreaded and rapacious anti-O.N.A.N. terrorist cell.” Its members hope to secure the master copy of the Entertainment and mass-distribute it across the U.S. as an act of terrorism. Yet despite being united by the goal of rebellion, A.F.R. demands its own forms of extreme submission from its members. The most obvious and horrifying example of this is that A.F.R. members are required to lie on train tracks in order to injure their legs and end up as wheelchair users (the name of the organization means “Wheelchair Assassins” in French).
The symbiotic relationship between institutional control and rebellion exposed by A.F.R. is particularly explored through A.F.R. member Rémy Marathe. The narrator notes that “A.F.R. believed Marathe functioned as a triple agent.” In reality, however, Marathe is a quadruple agent who is also betraying A.F.R. itself. Marathe’s role in the novel suggests that one (rather extreme) way of dealing with the demand for submission to institutional control is to perform this control to multiple institutions, which inherently means secretly rebelling against them. At the same time, Marathe is a rather exceptional case. For most characters in the novel, submission to institutional control is difficult to escape, even in the context of simultaneous rebellion against institutions.
Institutional Control vs. Rebellion ThemeTracker
Institutional Control vs. Rebellion Quotes in Infinite Jest
I believe I appear neutral, maybe even pleasant, though I've been coached to err on the side of neutrality and not attempt what would feel to me like a pleasant expression or smile.
“I'm not a machine. I feel and believe. I have opinions. Some of them are interesting. I could, if you'd let me, talk and talk. Let's talk about anything. I believe the influence of Kierkegaard on Camus is underestimated. I believe Dennis Gabor may very well have been the Antichrist. I believe Hobbes is just Rousseau in a dark mirror. I believe, with Hegel, that transcendence is absorption. I could interface you guys right under the table,” I say.
“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.
Hal likes to get high in secret, but a bigger secret is that he's as attached to the secrecy as he is to getting high.
Recreational drugs are more or less traditional at any U.S. secondary school, maybe because of the unprecedented tensions: post-latency and puberty and angst and impending adulthood, etc. To help manage the intrapsychic storms, etc… But so some E.T.A.s - not just Hal Incandenza by any means - are involved with recreational substances, is the point. Like who isn't, at some life-stage, in the U.S.A. and Interdependent regions, in these troubled times, for the most part.
It's no accident they say you Eat, Sleep, Breathe tennis here. These are autonomical. Accretive means accumulating, through sheer mindless repeated motions. The machine-language of the muscles. Until you can do it without thinking about it, play.
So what is this? You're ordering me to pray? Because I allegedly have a disease? I dismantle my life and career and enter nine months of low-income treatment for a disease, and I'm prescribed prayer?
That a little-mentioned paradox of Substance addiction is: that once you are sufficiently enslaved by a Substance to need to quit the Substance in order to save your life, the enslaving Substance has become so deeply important to you that you will all but lose your mind when it is taken away from you. Or that sometime after your Substance of choice has just been taken away from you in order to save your life, as you hunker down for required a.m. and p.m. prayers, you will find yourself beginning to pray to be allowed literally to lose your mind, to be able to wrap your mind in an old newspaper or something and leave it in an alley to shift for itself, without you.
It’s all optional; do it or die.
Listen to any sort of sub-16 exchange you hear in the bathroom or food line: 'Hey there, how are you?'' Number eight this week, is how I am. They all still worship the carrot. With the possible exception of the tormented LaMont Chu, they all still subscribe to the delusive idea that the continent's second-ranked fourteen-year-old feels exactly twice as worthwhile as the continent's #4.
LIFE IS LIKE TENNIS
THOSE WHO SERVE
BEST USUALLY WIN