Infinite Jest is set in a near-future alternate world that resembles contemporary reality in many ways, but is also an exaggerated, surreal, and extreme version of this reality. This is particularly true in the case of corporations and the dystopian power they wield in the novel. While many science fiction novels contain portrayals of corporate dystopias, Infinite Jest stands out for the fact that the corporate dystopia it depicts is so close to the reality readers actually inhabit. The novel uses this alternate world to show that contemporary North American reality is a corporate dystopia, even if it does not exactly resemble the world of the novel.
One of the most immediate and humorous ways in which Wallace explores the idea of reality as a corporate dystopia is through the corporate sponsorship of years, known as “North American Nations’ Revenue-Enhancing Subsidized Time™.” Rather than being labelled numerically and consecutively, years are given the names of brands and products, such as “Year of the Whopper,” “Year of the Trial-Size Dove Bar,” and “Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment.” This surreal and comic take on corporate sponsorship may seem absurd. Yet in the contemporary world, corporate sponsorship is everywhere: sports games, academic scholarships, art exhibitions, and scientific research all receive corporate sponsorships all the time. The fact that “subsidized time” seems extreme is therefore rather arbitrary. Yet it is also clear that something like time itself should absolutely not be corporately sponsored. Time is universal and abstract, something completely beyond human control. The fact that corporations have “branded” time like a product shows how seriously dystopian the world of the novel has become, and implicitly casts corporate sponsorship in general as suspicious and hubristic—inevitably a means to commodify and profit from all human activity or to lay claim to concepts that preclude ownership.
The practice of corporate naming also emerges in a more abstract way through the novel’s use of acronyms. Acronyms, which are very common in business and finance, are everywhere in Infinite Jest, with some more surreal and extreme than others. The North American mega-nation comprising Mexico, the United States, and Canada is known as O.N.A.N., which stands for the Organization of North American Nations. In a sense, this acronym makes North America seem less like a country and more like a business conglomerate (and indeed, O.N.A.N. itself behaves in a ruthlessly corporate manner, for example through its “gift” of the heavily polluted “Great Concavity” to Canada). This kind of abdication of responsibility is typical of large corporations, which use their power in order to force other entities to absorb the consequences of their own environmental destruction.
Even stranger uses of acronyms include Orin’s nickname for his ex-girlfriend, Joelle Van Dyne, who is also known as Madame Psychosis and whom Orin calls P.G.O.A.T., standing for “Prettiest Girl of All Time.” In this instance, the acronym P.G.O.A.T. makes Joelle seem more like a trademarked brand or product than a real, human person. The name seems more like an advertisement for Joelle than a nickname, thus further objectifying her.
Another way in which Infinite Jest portrays reality as a corporate dystopia is through its exploration of technology. The novel was published in 1996, although Wallace began writing it a decade earlier. As such, it was written at a time when the internet and other communication and media technologies were developing rapidly but were far from the state in which they exist today. Throughout the novel, Wallace depicts a natural resistance to consumer technology which, from the perspective of the present, can seem rather outdated.
Describing the rise and fall of a video-call technology called “videophony,” the narrator explains that the initial success and ultimate failure of videophony contains a “revealing lesson […] in the beyond-short term viability-curve of advances in consumer technology.” The advance from audio to video calling at first seemed thrilling and wonderful but had “unforeseen disadvantages for the consumer.” This eventually led people to workarounds that essentially involved returning to old-fashioned voice calling.
Such “consumer-recidivism” suggests that the world of Infinite Jest may not be quite the corporate dystopia that it initially seems. However, it equally indicates that twenty-first century reality is already a corporate dystopia. Resistance to advances in consumer technology has dwindled significantly in the first two decades of the twenty-first century. Indeed, what Wallace calls “videophony” is now a common and widely-embraced feature of the modern world. In this sense, the alternate world of Infinite Jest strongly indicates that readers’ own reality is a corporate dystopia. The novel suggests it is important that we are aware of this, although it doesn’t portray any real avenues of dissent from this grim reality.
Reality as Corporate Dystopia ThemeTracker
Reality as Corporate Dystopia Quotes in Infinite Jest
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.