What Happened?

[Crossposted to to Infinite Test.]

Michael Joyce

Infinite Jest was published in 1996, but is set in what was then the near future and is now the recent past. The chronology is complicated by the fact that in the novel years are no longer referred to by numerals (1996, 1997, or whatever) but by product names as time itself is now “subsidized” by corporations that presumably pay good money for the privilege. Hence we have the “Year of the Whopper,” the “Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment,” and so on. This shift to a new mode of reckoning time (or at least, naming it) accentuates a general sense of uncanniness that, I think, pervades Wallace’s text. There is much here that is recognizable, familiar; but there is also the impression that everything is just slightly out of joint and that something, possibly something traumatic, must have happened to make it so.

It is not just time that is out of joint; it is space, too. Again, something has happened: some kind of new international organization, the Organization of North American Nations (happily abbreviated to ONAN), has emerged, and at the same time national borders seem to have been renegotiated: territory (Maine? Vermont? Parts of New York State?) has been given to Canada; and yet in some way Canada has also been assimilated to the USA. Hence the various more or less violent organizations, mostly but not entirely from Québec, “whose opposition to interdependence/reconfiguration is designated by RCMP and USOUS as terrorist/extortionist in character” (144). Here, the RCMP is presumably still the Royal Canadian Mounted Police; but the USOUS is an unfamiliar acronym, part of this new, uncanny world that is so like and unlike our own.

The third element in the novel that is slightly (but significantly) misaligned is technology. In the world of the novel it seems that telephones have been replaced by consoles of some sort (there is a chapter devoted to the rise and fall of video telephony [144-151]), and that broadcast television has disappeared altogether. In place of TV, audiovisual entertainment is provided via a system of cartridges dominated by a small number of suppliers: “InterLace, Tatsuoka, Yushituyu, SyberVision” (110), but above all InterLace. The Internet exists–we even get a copy of an email detailing a somewhat bizarre insurance claim–but this is not exactly a wired, or even wireless, world. A long chapter is devoted to the decidedly old-school pleasures of late-night shows on a local (indeed, hyper-local) college radio station.

Of course, there is always something slightly uncanny about any novel, any work of art, which is inevitably both like and unlike, both part of and distant from our own everyday lives. But here there is also a touch of science fiction, even a touch of post-apocalyptic narrative. But only a touch: it wasn’t quite an apocalypse; life continues in many ways much the same. And the answer to the question as to what exactly happened may not be so very important. Something was bound to happen anyhow. In “actual fact” what happened was the world wide web and 9/11, whose effects are perhaps not all that different from the aftermath of whatever the trauma is that haunts Infinite Jest: a vague sense of paranoia, surveillance, and underlying violence; the rampant commodification of everyday life.

In the midst of all this, we are presented with a paper about the modern, postmodern, and post-postmodern hero, written by the character who is probably the closest thing this book has to a hero of its own: Hal Incandenza, tennis player and lexical prodigy. Written “in the year of the Perdue WonderChicken” and “four years after the demise of broadcast television” (140), the essay puts forward Chief Steve McGarrett of “Hawaii Five-0” and Captain Frank Furillo of “Hill Street Blues” as epitomes of modern and postmodern heroism respectively. McGarrett presents us with ”the hero in action” as we watch him “stalk and strut, homing in on the truth. Homing in is the essence of what the classic hero of modern action does” (141). By contrast, Frank Furillo is “a hero of reaction [. . .] his heroism is bureaucratic, with a genius for navigating cluttered fields.” Furillo is “a virtuoso of triage and compromise and administration” (141). But Incandenza then suggests that we are now waiting for a new kind of (post-postmodern) hero, “the hero of non-action, the catatonic hero, the one beyond calm, divorced from all stimulus, carried here and there across sets by burly extras whose blood sings with retrograde amines” (142).

Is Hal himself a “hero of non-action”? It is not yet clear: he and the other boys in the tennis academy seem to be striving, perfecting their game for a place in the “Show.” And yet all that effort is less about action itself than about perfecting the habits of the forehand and backhand, ensuring that playing tennis becomes almost robotic, to produce a kind of catatonia in motion: “over and over, each forehand melting into the next, a loop, it’s hypnotizing, it’s supposed to be” (110). As Pierre Bourdieu used to say, when watching good tennis players it’s not always clear whether they control the ball or the ball controls them: through constant practice and repetition, habits of play and performance are instilled to become almost instinctual. This is the aim of the Enfield Tennis Academy that Hal’s father founded and his mother and uncle run. And perhaps for a good tennis player, as for the post-postmodern hero, the question of “what happened?” becomes unimportant or irrelevant. Something happened–it always does–but true heroism consists in insulating oneself from such events, which are mere distraction.


Almost a week ago, shortly after Vancouver’s hockey riot, a number of presumably young people, in many cases very likely still drunk or high on adrenalin, stumbled to their computer keyboards and updated their Facebook statuses. Keen to boast, no doubt also to exaggerate (and in some cases to invent) their contributions to the evening’s antics, they celebrated the disturbance and their part in it. With dodgy syntax and an even shakier grasp of spelling, they gloried in the violence.

If you live in Vancouver, there is every chance that you know their names and what they said. Their updates have been plastered on the numerous “name and shame” social media vigilante sites. One of them has even had his status update set to music, in a song that denounces him as a “fucking moron.” They have been forced to remove their Facebook pages, recant or apologize, and even go into hiding as a tide of righteous vengeance sweeps the Lower Mainland.

At around the same time, perhaps a little earlier, a rather larger number of presumably somewhat older people, who in many cases had enjoyed a beer or glass of wine or two in front of the TV and high on adrenalin, also went to their computers or grabbed their laptops and updated their Facebook statuses. Keen to broadcast their views on the scenes of disorder, looting, and overturned cars in downtown Vancouver, they cheered on the police’s part in the disturbances. Often invoking the hockey chants that had resonated throughout our team’s playoff run (“Go Canucks Go!!!”) they called for still more violence, if need be unaccountable to any authority, to be rained down on the troublemakers.

(Fortunately, the Vancouver Police Department didn’t hear or listen to these calls, and beyond the use of tear gas and pepper spray generally refrained from physical violence against the crowd.)

Whether you live in Vancouver or not, there is little chance that you remember this second group of people’s names and what they said. Their updates received their share of “likes” at the time, but are quickly fading into history. Nobody calls these upstanding citizens morons. None of them has had to remove their Facebook pages, recant or apologize, let alone go into hiding. It seems that there’s no problem glorying in violence so long as you pick the right team, and join the tide of righteous vengeance rather than going against the flow.


Last night in Vancouver a small group of young men, watched and urged on by a large crowd, indulged in a frenzy of violence. And then afterwards there was a riot.

Hockey has a very ambivalent–and increasingly anguished–relationship to violence. This is a sport in which fights are permitted if not condoned, and which is only now debating whether or not to outlaw “hits” (that is, shoulder charges at speed) to the head of opposing players. This is a sport in which roughing up the opposition is an integral part of the play and major injuries are common: the league’s best player has been out for most of the year with a concussion. In the season’s penultimate game, one of the Vancouver Canucks had his back broken when he was rammed into the boards that line the ice long after the play had moved on; the player who hit him didn’t even get a penalty. Every such incident provokes prolonged discussion of the finer points of the game’s ever more complex rules governing which types of violence are acceptable (and when), and which are not. There is no real thought, however, of eliminating the violence altogether, as it is acknowledged that it is a large part of the game’s popular appeal.

This Stanley Cup finals series between Vancouver and Boston was particularly nasty, with a lot of bad blood between the two sets of players. Boston were the more physical team, and tried to impose their style of play on Vancouver, who were drawn into replying in kind. There were big, violent hits on both sides, as well as endless hacks, slashes, and punches. Much of this went unpunished thanks to some rather inconsistent refereeing.

And then there was a riot. But by contrast with the discussion prompted by the on-ice fighting, the commentary on the post-game violence has been singularly un-nuanced. The people downtown have been uniformly condemned as “idiots.” One Facebook status update I saw urged on the Vancouver Police Department and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police: “Go VPD Go!!! Go RCMP Go!!!” Another was scarier still in its unabashed call for an authoritarian crackdown: “How about a total media blackout and we let the police REALLY do what should be done?” Who are the thugs here? Who are the ones calling for more force, more violence?

The post-game violence was just about as predictable as the violence during the game itself. The last time the Vancouver Canucks had been in this situation–in 1994, when they had likewise lost a Game Seven of the Stanley Cup finals–also led to destruction and looting. This West Coast city is pretty laid back about most things, but when it comes to hockey apparently we like to riot. There had been much talk in the media and elsewhere about the possibility of a repetition of the events of 1994. Indeed, the riot had been talked up almost as much as the game itself. In the interval, however, the success of the Winter Olympics last year seemed to suggest that Vancouver could now deal with large and exuberant crowds in the downtown core. In the event, however, none of the lessons of the Olympics were learned. In fact, overshadowed by folk memories of 1994, it almost seemed as though the police wanted a riot; as far as I could see, at least, they were doing their best to provoke one.

I watched the game with some friends in an inner city suburb, the West End. As it happens, they live very close to what had been the epicenter of the 1994 disturbances. But as I went out, half an hour or so after the hockey had finished, there was no sign of any trouble. Some people were milling around, but the streets were pretty empty. No doubt many had gone home early, both disappointed in the score and worried about the much-hyped prospect of violence. Though there had reportedly been up to 100,000 people downtown to watch the game, very soon afterwards there were far fewer people out and about. The crowd was certainly nothing like the size it was after the Olympic gold medal hockey game last year, when at times it was impossible to move down some of the city’s main thoroughfares because of the sheer numbers of bodies blocking the way.

I made my way further downtown: things were quiet and calm everywhere until a block or so away from what might be the heart of the city, the intersection of Georgia and Granville, where a fairly raucous crowd was gathered outside the Vancouver outlet of that Canadian icon, the Hudson Bay department store. Even here, however, the streets were never too busy to traverse. I could easily have kept on walking; at no point were pedestrians at risk. Around me were a wide and representative selection of the city’s inhabitants: young couples; women dressed to the nines with high heels accessorizing their fitted Canucks jerseys; businessmen in suits; old as well as young; many South and East Asians, reflecting Vancouver’s racial mix. Apart from the very old and the very young, it was a pretty representative cross-section of the community. Perhaps surprisingly, there was not much obvious public drunkenness. There was a sense of expectation and some anxiety, a recognition that circumstances might change, but in general people were relaxed: at a loose end, hanging around, waiting to see what might happen. An occasional cheer would go up, and there was some commotion right next to the plate-glass windows of the Bay, but in general at this stage it was quite safe to be out and about.

There were no police to be seen. This was quite different from the Olympics, when the police had been everywhere, interacting with the fans. My understanding had been that here, too, the strategy was to be “part of the crowd.” But, if it had ever been implemented, by this point that strategy had clearly been abandoned.

The first indication I got of a police presence was when people started running past where I was standing on the corner of Georgia and Granville, coming from the direction of the stadium, and I caught the whiff of tear gas. The panic soon stopped and the crowd stabilized again, but it seemed that if they were doing anything the police were merely provoking these blind flurries from somewhere on the Eastern perimeter. Meanwhile, across the street at the Bay, there were periodic attempts to smash the window. But this was a slow, episodic process–it appeared that there were security guards within the building who managed mostly to keep would-be looters at a distance. At almost any point, this crowd could probably have been dispersed. The number of people actively looking for trouble was very small indeed; the rest were merely at a loose end, uncertain which direction to go.

After another rush, another distant volley of tear gas, and so another panic, it looked as though someone wanted us to move. I wandered a few blocks south, up Granville Street, where I finally caught my first sight of the police: a small group of officers standing at the intersection of Granville and Smithe, who seemed at as much of a loss as to what to do as the crowd. Further up Granville, however, were more clouds of tear gas, prompting people to move back towards Georgia. We were now being gassed from two sides. If there was any particular direction that the police wanted us to move, it wasn’t too obvious–and the small group I saw made no effort to tell us what to do. There seemed to be little if any coordination.

Meanwhile, someone set fire to a rubbish bin on Granville. As there was nobody to stop it or put it out, the fire burned merrily away. People took pictures. In fact, just about everyone had a camera out most of the time; later, I even saw someone holding up an iPad to get a record of events in front of a police line. I drifted back down the street. Shortly, another bin was alight, in front of London Drugs. Across the way, after an agonizingly long time, people at the front of the crowd by the Bay had finally managed to get in to the store and were raiding the perfumery department. A detachment of cops, I suddenly noticed, were hunkered down in the SkyTrain station opposite, making no moves to come out and deal with the disturbances. They had apparently decided to give up these few blocks of the downtown core, and let the store’s private security guards take the brunt of any violence. Meanwhile, the tear gassing was surely provoking more bad feeling, and whenever the police helicopter, hovering up above, shone its searchlight in our direction people turned around and gave it the finger. In short, rather than preventing the trouble it felt rather that the police were provoking it.

It was now dark and I thought I’d start making my way home. It was unclear how to do this, though: there was no traffic and so no buses or taxis. I thought I’d walk East, try my luck with the SkyTrain if it was running, and if not I’d try to pick up a taxi in the nearby suburbs of Gastown or Yaletown. Heading down Georgia, though, I ran into a rather more significant police presence: the riot cops were now on the scene, some on horseback, standing in front of (but as far as I could see, otherwise doing nothing about) a rather larger street fire round the corner, on Richards. They charged the crowd a couple of times, pushing us up the street where another cordon of riot police prevented us turning East on Robson. Near the next intersection, there was another fire in an alley. A man ran to it with a fire extinguisher, trying to tackle the blaze. Nobody helped him out.

Meanwhile, the police had drawn back along Richards Street, making their previous charge seem rather pointless. Indeed, their various barricades obeyed no obvious logic, not least because it was easy enough to avoid them by slipping down an alley. The provided a fairly intimidating image, yes, not least because many of the cops had their weapons out. But they surely weren’t making much of an impact on crowd management. One cordon put down their shields and started putting on their gas masks. I decided I’d seen what I wanted to see and had had enough of being tear gassed, so continued with my plan to head towards the Georgia Viaduct. Along the way I asked one of the policemen if the SkyTrain was still operating. He had no idea.

Walking along Georgia, towards the stadium, I came across more smashed windows (a Budget rental car office; a BMO bank) and two burned-out cars. I think these were the two vehicles that were making most of the TV news. I had earlier passed a bar in which people were happily drinking and watching on big-screen TVs the footage of what was supposedly going on outside. Again, however, it was completely safe on the streets: the only points at which I’d felt at all uncomfortable had been when we’d been tear gassed and/or charged by mounted and shield-waving riot cops. I passed the Queen Elizabeth Theatre and headed down Dunsmuir towards the SkyTrain station, which was indeed open, but my way was blocked by yet another cordon of riot police. They said I had to do around: so I went half a block, up an alley, and back again. It’s as though the cops were actively making it difficult to leave downtown, for no obvious reason.

In contrast to their absence on the streets, the police were present in force at the SkyTrain stations, picking off people for questioning if they felt they looked suspicious. Again, this seems to have been their plan: to occupy the periphery and let a rather small section of downtown Vancouver riot, while they lobbed in the odd tear gas canister and observed from the sides and on high. It seems obvious to me that this made things much worse, rather than better: it did nothing to stop the violence, and criminalized the whole crowd, succeeding only in irritating the vast majority of people, who were mere bystanders hanging out because there was little else to do. Frankly, I’m surprised that the disturbances weren’t worse; most of the crowd behaved remarkably well, considering that from almost the outset the forces of law and order had decided to treat them as though they were really, as the media alleged, some kind of mob.

Of course, it’s easier to portray the people on the streets as a mob, and blindly to cheer on the police, than to think about the violence with any kind of nuance or self-reflection. This demonization of the post-game violence is no doubt a safe outlet for the pent-up energy of so many disappointed Canucks fans: they have a target for their frustration, and they can feel so very civilized in expressing their anger. It’s easier to grab this moral high ground, to claim that the so-called rioters do not represent Vancouver, than to stop and consider the ways in which violence is engrained in this sport on whose bandwagon they are hitched, or the conditions that gave rise to the post-game disturbances–and the many ways in which it could have been avoided. But let’s give these concerned citizens some slack. They need their moment of mindless outrage, too.

Republished at the Tyee.


I don’t own a television. This is not out of any particular principle: we had one back in the UK, but just never got around to buying one here in Canada. So I’ve never been in the Canadian media loop, and have never missed it. Plus I have plenty of other ways of distracting and/or entertaining myself, not least watching television shows that just happen to be packaged in convenient DVD packages.

So with the Olympics, and even though I really didn’t see very much of it, I have been watching much more television than usual. And what strikes those of us who are not accustomed to it (or what strikes me perhaps even more particularly given my long exposure to the BBC) is less the programming, which I can get by other means, than the adverts. There are so many of them. And they are often so very odd.

There are two current adverts that were played throughout the Olympics that I find particularly strange, and particularly disturbing. And at the risk of this blog becoming (almost) all Canada (almost) all of the time, I note that they are both selling, in part, images of Canadian national identity. Or rather, they rely for their success on certain images of Canada that are dear to this country’s inhabitants.

The first of these ads is this one, for Tim Hortons, the Canadian coffee chain. It’s discussed, among other places, on Darren Barefoot’s blog. Frankly I still can’t quite get my head around it, except to say that I think it is truly appalling.

The other ad is this one, for that rather recognizeably US brand, Coca Cola:

I find this extraordinary, too.

The commercial purveys a sense of Canadian identity tied up with sport, specifically hockey, and the rituals and memories that go with that: from playing street hockey to watching a game at school, going out to a bar, or seeing a match live. The Canadianness of this progression, or rather the way in which this is precisely an apprenticeship in Canadianness, is emphasized with images of flags and maple leaves and the consistent presence of red and white highlights. Of course, it is only gradually (and more obviously at a second viewing) that you realize that the most ubiquitous of these red highlights are those associated with Coca Cola: this is an ad about becoming Canadian by growing up with coke as well, if not more than, growing up with hockey. So we are to associate Canadianness equally with coke and with hockey: they form a nexus by which the viewer is to interpret his (or her) progression from child to adult.

But the odd thing is the ad’s punchline: As the camera flies across an ice rink towards the goal, as though the viewer were put in the position of either a speeding player or indeed the puck itself, and as the music reaches a crescendo, with cheering in the background and a cutaway to three women in red raising their index fingers, we see spelled out between us and the goal the text: “Let’s make sure everyone knows whose game their playing.” We then cut to an overhead scoreboard on which we see coming into view… the iconic Coke bottle and the words “Coca Cola” repeated (for good measure) four times.

Again, I find this very strange. The advert works in so far as it takes for granted the fact that any Canadian is going to be able to answer the implicit question: Whose game are they playing? Why, hockey is Canada’s game of course!

(The truth of this assertion, by the way, is as far as I can see very far from certain; in fact, of the NHL’s famous “original six” teams, for instance, only two were from Canada, the other four all being from the US.)

But precisely because the ad’s ideal viewer already knows the answer to this question, they are likely to misrecognize the answer that the ad itself seems to give to that question. For though the ad provides implicit acknowledgment of the contention that hockey is Canada’s game, this is not what it actually says. Rather more explicitly, the answer it appears to provide to the question “Whose game are they playing?” is, well, that it is Coca Cola’s game.

Now, we can perhaps understand this assertion two ways in so far as the ad is suggesting an absolute identification between Canada and Coke. Hockey is Coca Cola’s game because it is Canada’s game, and perhaps even vice versa. The circular identification between viewer, soft drink, and country is now complete: the viewer identifies with Coca Cola through his identification with Canada (and again, perhaps even vice versa). This is what the commercial appears to be trying to achieve. But this is surely a hard sell. For after all, what product is more fully identified with the USA, notionally the country whose claim to hockey is here being denied (though when was the last time that a non-US team won the Stanley Cup, I feel like asking), than Coca Cola? Coke is the quintessential product of American modernity. Why else do they call Americanization also “Coca Colonization”?

The other possible reading is an absolutely post-ideological one: the advert is telling us that hockey belongs to Coca Cola because, well, corporate interests have now fully bought up what is imagined to have once been the kind of communal organic activity that the ad’s narrative initially suggests. Indeed, finally the story that the commercial most explicitly is telling is this: you grow up playing hockey, and thinking it is your sport, that it is a pastime that defines you and your imagined community; but then at some point you come to the realization that it isn’t yours, it’s been bought by corporations such as Coca Cola. They own it now, and don’t you forget it.

Of course, this is a familiar narrative, too, and you wouldn’t have to press a Canadian hard to hear it: they’d talk about “the trade” or about the opening of hockey in Sunbelt markets in the US while it is taken from hockey-mad cities such as Winnipeg. Any Canadian worth their salt can despair at the corporate takeover of their sport, and at the evils of the NHL’s presiding commissioners that have allowed it to happen. (Such complaints, too, make up Canadian national identity.)

What’s strange is to see one of those corporate interests telling this same story, too.