The Map and the Territory

[Crossposted to Infinite Test.]

Eschaton court

Infinite Jest is very much concerned with games, both “real” games, such as tennis, and others: literary games, for instance, or any of the other myriad “games people play.” And part of the game is that real games can stand in for others, that what appears to be merely a game can turn out to be quite “real” or serious, and that it is never quite clear where the game (or the gaming) ends and where something else, if indeed there is anything else, begins. How seriously then should we take these games? Does the book, for example, imply a critique of the hothouse atmosphere of the tennis academy in which hitting a yellow ball back and forth across a three-foot-high net is subject to such close scrutiny and psychic investment? Or is the game a metaphor for broader realities, perhaps even the vehicle through which what really counts looms larger, more intensely than it does elsewhere?

There is perhaps no better example of this conundrum than the game of Eschaton, whose very name, with its invocation of Armageddon and Endtimes, suggests something very serious indeed. Yet it is also a trivialization of world-historical affairs, a reduction of thermonuclear annihilation to a mere matter of lobbing a few tennis balls around. Until, that is, it turns “serious”… or until we see that it is a game that is taken entirely too seriously. It is hard to decide, and hard to judge how invested we, too, should be in the game’s outcome. Perhaps, in fact, it is nothing more than a distraction: it is after all introduced in terms of its “complete disassociation from the realities of the present” (322). And perhaps, David Foster Wallace seems to be saying, the same goes for the book (even literature as a whole), too: we can never quite know if it is no more than a jest, or if it is absolutely in earnest, perhaps a question of life and death.

Eschaton uses the infrastructure and paraphernalia of tennis, but these are radically repurposed in its gameplay. Across three tennis courts its players are arrayed to correspond to the topography of the Cold War world: there is AMNAT (presumably the USA and NATO) and SOVWAR (the former Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact), as well as REDCHI (Red China), IRLIBSYR (Iran, Libya, Syria), SOUTHAF (South Africa), etc. Each is provided with tennis balls in proportion to their presumed nuclear capability, each of which represents a five-megaton warhead. Players then use tennis rackets to lob these balls/warheads towards their opponents’ territory, on which are to be found pieces of gear (t-shirts, towels, armbands) to indicate various strategic targets: population centers, industrial plants, military installations, and so on. In charge of the whole thing is game-master Otis P. Lord, who trundles a computer on an ungainly old stainless-steel food cart with a dodgy left-front wheel (and an old beach umbrella attached to protect against the elements), with which he computes projected casualties and consequences of each strike, taking into accounts things such as local geography, climactic conditions, the number of sub-code skyscrapers and the like. Essentially, this is RISK for the late twentieth century, played out on an outsized live-action court, making use of its clientele’s rather specialized (tennis) skills, with an added dose of more or less spurious statistical calculation. Its Cold War scenario is, as the narrator comments, also for its twelve-year-old players a “weird kind of nostalgia for stuff you never even knew” (322).

Suddenly, however, things get “real.” Representatives of the major superpowers confer in a space reserved for Sierra Leone as an argument erupts as to the relevance (in terms of “blast area and fire area and pulse-intensity”) of the snow that has started to fall on the court: from the sidelines, the game’s godfather, Michael Pemulis, is shouting out in a rage that “It’s snowing on the goddamn map, not the territory, you dick!” (333). In a move that will decisively up-end this distinction, the player charged with lowly IRLIBSYR’s tiny allocation of warheads decides to fire a shot directly at Ann Ingersoll, SOVWAR’s “Air Marshall,” hitting her smack in the back of the head. Chaos then ensues: Otis Lord declares “Utter Global Crisis,” from the sidelines Pemulis is practically apoplectic (“Players aren’t inside the goddamn game. Players are part of the apparatus of the game. They’re part of the map. [. . .] You do not get points for hitting anybody real” [338]), while everyone else starts pelting balls at each other willy-nilly. The cart-borne computer is overturned in the melée, and Lord, trying to escape the fray, is swept off his feet and ends up with his head plunging through the monitor’s screen.

Meanwhile, off-stage and barely noticed by anyone, is a mint-green Ford sedan idling by the dumpsters.

What, in Infinite Jest is map, and what is territory? What is apparatus, and what is content? The very length of Foster Wallace’s book seems to bespeak an ambition to construct a map that, as in Jorge Luis Borges’s very brief story “Of Exactitude in Science,” may ultimately replace the territory. And it is this same fable that Baudrillard picks up on to describe the postmodern condition:

Henceforth, it is the map that precedes the territory–precession of simulacra–it is the map that engenders the territory and if we were to revive the fable today, it would be the territory whose shreds are slowly rotting across the map. It is the real, and not the map, whose vestiges subsist here and there, in the deserts which are no longer those of the Empire, but our own. The desert of the real itself. (“Simulacra and Simulations”)

Reading Infinite Jest, it is tempting to ignore the apparatus, or perhaps to allow oneself to get swallowed up in it, so overwhelming and labyrinthine are its multiple plots and extended cast of characters. There are no doubt many layers of allusion and emplotment that the average reader–that any reader–has to ignore if they want to be immersed in the fictional universe of tennis academies and halfway houses, games real and imagined. And yet immersion means accepting the substitution of map for territory: it means an investment in the literary games that Wallace is playing; it means taking them seriously. For this is a book that, more than many others, demands investment as well as stamina and patience. Yet the book may here, more or less slying, be suggesting that by taking the book with the seriousness required to read it (or keep on reading it) in the first place, we are missing what really matters, which is always on the sidelines, at the edge of our vision. The dumpster, the desert of the real.

And here, an extraordinary music video, whose visuals are inspired by the game of Eschaton (minus its apocalyptic ending):

8 thoughts on “The Map and the Territory

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