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, every one 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 slyly, 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):


Postmodernity does strange things to time. We feel, for instance, that we live in a world in which everything is speeded up: it’s hard to keep up with the pace of innovation, the ever-new updating of technology, the merry-go-round of fashion, the wildfire rapidity of the media, the voraciousness of the TV and blog-driven news cycle, the instantaneousness of email and the Internet, and so on.

And yet while some things speed up, others slow down. Above all, the literal transport of people and commodities is getting slower rather than faster. In the air, the mid-twentieth century vision of supersonic passenger travel is long tarnished and dusty: Concorde never became a going concern and was retired with nothing to replace it; most contemporary jets are flown at less than their top speeds, so as to conserve fuel. The same goes on the seas: as The Observer recently observed, modern cargo shipping is now geared towards “super-slow steaming,” and trading vessels take longer to cross the oceans than did nineteenth-century sailing clippers. Meanwhile, on land, the density of traffic in contemporary cities means that road traffic has actually slowed as cars have replaced horses as the primary means of transportation: in London, for example, the average off-peak vehicle speed dropped from 12 to 10mph over the course of the twentieth century.

Cosmopolis cover

Cosmopolis takes such paradoxes of speed and time and would run with them if only it could. Unfortunately, however, its tale is set in a stretch limo that takes all day to cross midtown Manhattan from East to West. So it crawls, instead, albeit very luxuriously, stuck in traffic. But there is plenty to distract us within. For this is a limo that is fully equipped with plasma screen TVs, a microwave oven, a toilet, marble floors, cork-lined walls to keep out the ambient noise, even a map of the solar system on the underside of the roof. It may be a slow ride, but there are plenty of distractions along the way. Indeed, if there is a cosmopolis here, it is not New York, however much the crosstown journey manages to take in a presidential motorcade, a rapper funeral, an anti-capitalist riot, and myriad other encounters in between. It is, rather, the wired automobile as a node for the receipt and transmission of information: some of its screens show the currency markets in real time; others display the news from across oceans and continents; still others are closed-circuit TVs that repeat (in fact, anticipate) what’s happening in the car itself.

It’s possible that the cosmopolis may become smaller still: at one point the limousine’s owner, a twenty-something plutocrat by the name of Eric Packer, uses his wristwatch to hack into various financial systems and wipe out someone else’s multi-million dollar wealth. This same watch has a camera that is “a device so microscopically refined it was almost pure information. It was almost pure metaphysics” (204). At the novel’s end, it is on the watch screen that Packer sees or foresees his own death. It’s perhaps a sign of the novel’s (or the author’s) slight datedness that this digital aleph is a watch rather than a smartphone. In any case, the idea remains the same: space and time can become so concentrated in one point that perhaps it doesn’t matter how slowly we travel in physical space. Or equally, thanks to this instant availability of information, there’s no longer anywhere to run in any case: the car can stand in for the office; there are ever-fewer in-between spaces where we might be out of range of the call of capital.

We might say that the limousine incarnates a smooth space of capital flows that is folded within a rather stickier space of midtown traffic jams and public disturbances, even if (as the novel suggests) these can be effects of the system itself: a turbulence that is innate to the market.

But still the body and its cloying materiality intrudes: the point of the whole lugubrious journey is that Eric is a billionaire in search of a haircut. En route, he also has regular meals as well as a prostate examination and at least three sexual encounters. Some of these diversions can be more or less easily accommodated within the vehicle’s sedate progress along 47th Street: the doctor who examines Eric’s prostate is picked up from the sidewalk and does his business in the car while his patient talks to one of his financial advisors. More generally, Eric’s security detail, under the command of a terse man named Torval “whose head seemed removable for maintenance” (11), are trained to cover his every move and report on the latest warnings from a higher-level “complex” that studies possible threats and dangers to the slow-moving voyage.

Gradually his protection unravels, and Eric finds himself reduced to a naked body on a West Side street–though still as yet in the service of the image, for the occasion is a film shoot for which he has become an impromptu extra. The story doesn’t end there, however, and in a derelict building even as he dreams about “the master thrust of cyber-capital” and its promise “to extend the human experience toward infinity as a medium for corporate growth and investment,” Eric finds that “his pain interfered with his immortality” (207). His pain is “too vital to be bypassed and not susceptible, he didn’t think, to computer emulation” (207).

Moreover, the past also intrudes. Packer’s paid theorist has told him that “the past is disappearing. We used to know the past but not the future. This is changing” (86). And yet it turns out that Eric’s slow march westward is towards the past, not the future. He has been heading towards one particular barbershop, bypassing many others that are more conveniently located, for reasons of nostalgia and familiarity. Despite all his obsession with change and his constant impatience at the fact that even language cannot keep up with the pace of technology, he chooses to return to the barber who has always cut his hair, and who cut his father’s hair before him. He is drawn to the repetition and to the patina of age: “This is what he wanted from Anthony. The same words. The oil company calendar on the wall. The mirror that needed silvering” (161).

The body is not yet as far in the future as it wants to be, Delillo suggests. And yet it is precisely this temporal lag, this sluggardness, that provides comfort. It’s only in the barber’s chair, seeing himself in the mirror (rather than in the various CCTV screens that have surrounded him all day), that Eric finally “remember[s] who he was” (165). Here he can speak, confide in people and trust them: “It felt right to expose the matter in this particular place, where elapsed time hangs in the air, suffusing solid objects and men’s faces. This is where he felt safe” (166).

Eric is wrong, of course. He is not safe in the past, which catches up with him in the form of a vengeful former employee that he himself has long forgotten (if he ever really knew him). But even Eric’s sticky, all too corporeal end is a matter of putting things right. In the end, Cosmopolis is a paean to memory, and to the stickiness of both things and the language used to describe them.

But in a pitiless analysis of its language and style, James Wood excoriates this novel, and not without reason. He’s right, for instance, to say that what he calls the story’s “nineteenth-century heart” is never fully animated. In the end, we don’t really care for or about Eric Packer and his fate. What stays with the reader is the surreal, postmodern shell, rather than the turn to humanism that Delillo wants us to take alongside his unfortunate but unlikeable protagonist. So be it. Some novels crawl along and never quite reach their destination, getting stuck along the way.

Still, Wood goes too far when he argues that “Cosmopolis, so eager to tell us about our age, to bring back the news, delivers a kind of information, and delivers it in such a way that finally it threatens the existence of the novel form.” This book, and others like it that present us with what we might term a science fiction of the now (a vision of the future set firmly in the present day), supplement rather than compete with cultural theory or criticism. The attempt may not finally come off, but for all his techno-dystopianism what Delillo is offering is something along the lines of the plasma screens that line Eric Packer’s limousine: a version of what is to come that is almost infinitesimally but (precisely for that reason) uncannily ahead of what we actually have to live through in our own lives and bodies. This is what science fiction does, and it can only do so as fiction (rather than as futurology), with the freedom to speculate and to invent, if also therefore to fail.


Last night I finally got around to seeing the Brian Jungen show here, just a few days before it closes. Jungen’s a local boy made good, but I had worried somewhat that I wouldn’t like the exhibition, thinking him perhaps just a one-trick pony. And indeed he is. But what a trick.

And the “Prototype for New Understanding” series, all 23 of which were in the show, is justly renowned. Here, Jungen takes Nike Air Jordans, cutting them up and reshaping them to resemble indigenous masks. From a distance, they could very easily be taken for “authentic” native art. From close up, the doubletake.

Jungen has added human hair to some of these pieces, in order to enhance the illusion. And some are more complex than others. But I liked best the simplest, the ones that were still recognizeable as a basketball boot, albeit topologically transformed, soles cut away, other incisions made, and reshaped. For what you realize is just how odd these shoes actually are. The decor, the little gnarls and buttons, the swoosh, the stitching. They are of course in their own way totems of contemporary consumer culture.

Prototype for New Understanding
Or as Cuahtémoc Medina puts it in his interesting catalogue essay:

Implicit in [Jungen’s] Prototypes is a crucial sociological observations: shoes (and particularly designer trainers) are the contemporary consumer’s mask, a tool for the Western ritual of impersonation [. . .]. That shoes are a shamanic tool of sort can be easily attested by advertisements, which usually portray them as quasi-magically transforming their user, fusing the phantasm of the sport’s idol with the consumer. (34)

More here.


Toni NegriThe Brock conference “Metastasizing Capital” left much to think about. I didn’t catch everything, in part because I also took the time to do some sight-seeing. But of what I saw, there were plenty of good papers, even among those I disagreed with.

In the end, though, no doubt the point of the thing was to hear from Toni Negri (and Judith Revel), and to engage in some dialogue with them. Kudos to Brock, by the way, for being as far as I know the first place in North America to host Negri.

But as we’ve started to discuss in comments to my previous post, the reception of what Negri actually had to say was far from completely favourable.

He pointed to some important issues–not least, the problem of evil, that haunts any philosophy of affirmation. Other tidbits included he denial that the disturbances in the banlieus had anything to do with the logic of (post)coloniality (huh?!), and Revel’s aside suggesting that we have to distinguish between “good” and “bad” multitudes.

But Negri’s over-riding theme, taken up also by Revel, was the “rupture” between what he here framed as modernity and postmodernity. And the more he discussed this rupture, the less convinced I became.

While listening to Judith Revel, I grabbed a piece of paper from Nate (who’s already posted some initial reactions to the conference) and came up with the following tables:

Negri today
Continuities and breaks in the rupture between modern and postmodern. (All theses taken from Negri and Revel’s oral presentations at Brock.)
before after
dialectic between labour and capital NO dialectic between labour and capital
exploitation of labour power central to capitalist system exploitation of labour power central to capitalist system
modern subject, defined by rights postmodern, but not postcapitalist, subjectivities: minorities, multitude

Negri beyond Negri
Continuities and breaks in the rupture between modern and postmodern. (All theses taken from Negri’s published work.)
before after
NO dialectic between labour and capital [MBM] NO dialectic between labour and capital
exploitation of labour power central to capitalist system exploitation replaced by pure command [E]
modernity traversed by the multitude, a subject misrecognized as people etc. [I] postmodern, postcapitalist, subject, the multitude, comes into its own
Key: MBM=Marx beyond Marx; E=Empire; I=Insurgencies

Now, I’m as big a fan of rupture as the next person, but there is some incoherence here. Moreover, what’s important is surely the relation between continuity and discontinuity. One of the insights of the workerist and autonomist tradition from which Negri comes (but which, in public at least, he continues rather oddly to underplay) is the notion that it is working class power that’s continuous, continually pressing upon capitalist domination. And that capital in response is forced into a discontinuous series of restructurations, which in turn force a series of class recompositions (elite industrial worker -> mass worker -> socialized worker). Still, the red thread remains working class power.

Ironically, though, in that the force of working class power is against its confinement, as a class, within capitalist relations of production, and in that its aim is autonomy, the working class envisaged by the autonomist tradition is a class not for itself, but against itself.

Should the multitude emerge on its own account, then, that would mean the end of the working class as a class, and also the end of exploitation. In so far as that has taken place, in so far as social productivity now has no need of capitalist structures, i.e. in so far as any putative labour/capital dialectic is broken, all that remains is a command that is cruel and unpredictable precisely because it no longer has its roots in economic exploitation. Corruption is all.

After all, “corruption itself,” Hardt and Negri argue, “is the substance and totality of Empire” (Empire 391). It is “not an aberration of imperial sovereignty but its very essence and modus operandi” (202).

More on this anon, I’m sure…


Having finished reading Gilroy’s book, I’m now about halfway through the review.

For the review, I’m interested in Gilroy’s notion of patriotism, and how it connects with his conception of cosmopolitanism. Because Gilroy would seem to want to hold on to both of these concepts. Strangely, indeed, it is Orwell who is perhaps the key figure in the book, the only one to bridge its two halves, “The Planet” and “Albion.” Orwell, we are told, combines “worldly consciousness” with “parochial attachments to England’s distinctive environment” (76-77). So, it would seem, does Gilroy.

Patriotism in Postcolonial Melancholia is not, then, or not always, the last refuge of a scoundrel. It can be, in Orwell’s own case, “authentically geo-pious” (96); it can also be, now in Ali G’s case, a “daring act of . . . love” (135). Of course, Gilroy’s advocacy of patriotism is far from unequivocal. He’s certainly opposed to the “state-sponsored patriotism and ethnic-absolutism [that] are now dominant” (25). But the fact that, especially towards the end of the book, he often refers to “ultranationalism” as the enemy (as in the “artificially whitened, comprehensively rehomogenized national community to which ultranationalist discourse casually refers” [109]) appears to leave open the possibility of a dignified, modest brand of national adherence.

There’s a tension here, though, between adherence and the “estrangement” that Gilroy also praises, for instance in what he calls Montesquieu’s “carefully cultivated degree of estrangement” (70) or Freud’s “intuitive estrangement” (68), even Eric Auerbach’s “observation on the perfection of the man for whom ‘the whole world is as a foreign land'” (24). This is, again, where Orwell comes to the fore, because there are few who have been as estranged either from their own country or even from the poor with whom he sought solidarity (as even a cursory glance at The Road to Wigan Pier shows) than this Old Etonian turned colonial bureaucrat turned tramp turned anarchist turned writer in the lonely isolation of remote Jura.

Gilroy half acknowledges that such estrangement is the very model of the modernist intellectual. “Distancing can sound like a privilege and has sometimes been associated with the history of elites,” he says, “but I am not convinced that it is inevitably tainted by those association” (67). I’m not convinced that it isn’t, either, but perhaps this could be another way of reading the irony and cynicism that are such denigrated features of our postmodern condition. With the universalization of irony, are we all now able to be “stranger[s] in [our] own country” (135)? Is that indeed what a website such as i am fucking terrified is all about?

Gilroy is no friend of postmodernism–far from it, it is modernism he tells us he wants to reclaim–but there’s a sense in which his ironic, distanced patriotism can only be postmodern in its generalized assumption of modernism’s aesthetic distancing plus its premodern appeal to territory, belonging, and even authenticity.