What the Next Generation of Leaders can Learn from Infinite Jest
***I originally published this over on the Fountain of Chris Wordpress blog. While I didn't end up with enough material to make Fountain Notes for Infinite Jest, I'm sure some of you will be interested the social commentary points from David Foster Wallace's behemoth.***
The problem with long books is they develop a reputation of being...long. War and Peace? Long. Les Miserables? Long. Infinite Jest? Long. Being me, I didn't spend 28 hours listening to a book just for entertainment (The file is 56 hours, but I listen at 2x). David Foster Wallace created a satirical future from the perspective of someone writing in the mid-90s (Here is the wiki page). While we have safely passed the time period he envisioned, there remain some lessons that can benefit us all.
In my book list, I classify Infinite Jest as social commentary. While it may center around a tennis academy and a halfway house, the fictional world is filled with wheel chair-bound assassins, a toxic waste dead zone covering three states, a united superstate comprised of the U.S., Mexico, and Canada, corporately-sponsored years, and a form of entertainment that is so pleasurable that it paralyzes its viewers. What can we use from Wallace's magnum opus on the quest to unite people?
My favorite quote from the book is hidden in a lengthy inner monologue by the main protagonist, “You become way less concerned with what other people think of you, when you realize how seldom they do.” Life often mimics those high school dances where each person is thinking about what other people are thinking about him or her, leaving no one to actually think about anyone except himself or herself. This situation does not necessarily advocate a “don't care what anyone else thinks” philosophy, but will hopefully free those of us constrained in some way by worries about a judgmental social circle.
Hal Incandenza continues his monologue, eventually noting, “That everybody is identical in their deep down secret belief that they are different from everyone else.” As someone who looks for common denominators and unifying factors, this excites me. We are identical in that we think we are different. It doesn't even matter if we each truly are different as long as there exists some thought that we are. I am no philosopher, but it seems possible there simultaneously exist forces driving each of us to want to be the same and to want to be different from those around us. One force can manifest to a greater extent than the other, but the other is always present. Here is one of the great advantages of protecting an individual's right to life, liberty, and property. Yes, we can unify, but it will be as individuals. Each individual acting in his own best interest improves the condition of the whole, as long as there are no violations of life, liberty, or property within the group. There is no artificial imposition to be the same.
By no coincidence, later in the book, a cross-dressing agent for the Office of Unspecified Services (think CIA) explains to a wheel chair-bound, French-Canadian secessionist, “That each American seeking to pursue his maximum good, results together in maximizing everyone's good.” They proceed to discuss the merits and contradictions of individual maximum pleasure versus the maximum pleasure for all Americans. The quote alone does not make it true, or even suggest the author agrees, just that a government agent thinks of it as the national philosophy. “The United States, a community of sacred individuals, which reveres the sacredness of individual choice.” Using a single-serving cup of Canadian pea soup in an example, the two eventually touch on a necessary caveat: If desires compete, one individual may not tread on the rights of another in order to satisfy his pursuit of maximum good. This is the basis for the rule of law.
David Foster Wallace is fatalistic, but it stems from a complete disregard for influential factors coming before and after chance events. His narrator declares, “An individual person [has] a basic powerlessness over the really meaningful events in his life. That is, almost nothing important that ever happens to you happens because you engineer it.” The example given is the best NFL punter in the Infinite Jest world started playing football in college, after while walking dejected from a tryout, having never kicked a ball in his life, the team's punter had a freak injury, and the ball landed at his feet, so he kicked a perfect, booming spiral back. Even if this had happened in real life, all the events following that chance event WERE engineered by him. He went to practices, he played in games, and he kept away from career-ending mistakes. Positive and negative chance events are a part of life, but our responses to those events are far more influential than the events themselves. This is such an important concept, because self-determination is a cornerstone of both healthy social order and healthy economies.
Speaking to this supposed powerlessness, later on, a recovering drug addict who has switched addictions from substance abuse to killing street animals, agrees with a line he reads, “The more basically powerless an individual feels, the more the likelihood for the propensity for violent acting out.” If true, this makes self-determination a near must for peaceful societies. Imagine a world full of fatalistic individuals, with “no control” over what happens, violently acting out because they “can't control” it and nothing they do “matters”. I far prefer the option where people feel empowered, and this certainly applies to the political system.
In keeping with the Captain Planet era it was written in, Wallace's future had a Clean U.S. Party (CUSP) raise a former entertainer and environmentalist to the presidency as a discontented populous finally grew tired of Republican and Democratic political ideologies, and extremists from both sides joined to support the third party. With the lack of a clear external enemy, the country then withdrew from intercontinental affairs, favoring nationalism and isolationism, while also strong-arming Mexico and Canada into a unified superstate (the Organization of North American Nations). It is hard to talk about globalization without incurring a knee-jerk negative response, but the truth is the more interconnected the world becomes, the better for all of us. If one thinks of global history over the past 200 years, adding isolated economies into the world economy helped every party involved (e.g. Japan in the 1860s, or more recently with China adopting capitalism). Conversely, promoting nationalism and withdrawal from the world economy led to wars. Capitalism, classical liberalism, and their free market ideology all aim toward peace, because economic cooperation and rule of law are the most effective means to prosperity.
The Kantian Triangle