Infinite Summer: Is Infinite Jest a New Media Object?

Right after putting up something thoughts about Infinite Jest and infrastructures1, I got to thinking about whether Infinite Jest is a "new media object."2


1. Brown, James. "Infinite Summer: Infrastructures and/of Uncertainty." 27 Jul 2009, 10:55am CST, Clinamen,

2. In The Language of New Media, Lev Manovich theorizes "new media objects."a For Manovich, such objects can be pieces of art, web pages, video games, or numerous other technological objects. Manovich's project in TLoNM is to theorize the design principles of such objects - the emerging language that we are using to build new media objects. One portion of Manovich's discussion seems to be applicable when it comes to Infinite Jest:

If traditional culturesa provided people with well defined narratives (myths, religion) and little 'stand-alone' information, today we have too much information and too few narratives that can tie it all together. (217)

Manovich draws a distinction between "narrative" and "the database." While our contemporary moment is defined by various databases that lay out seemingly infinite amounts of information, prior historical moments have provided narratives that create "a cause-and-effect trajectory of seemingly unordered items (events)" (225). In these prior historical moments, narratives provided ways of making sense of the world. We still have narratives. But we have a lot more information to make sense of, and (as Manovich says) we are short on narratives. Manovich is careful not to call this a radical break. We have always had and used both databases and narratives. We still have both. But “modern media is the new battlefield for the competition between database and narrative” (234). Think of it as a continuum.

As I see it, Infinite Jest is an embodiment of this tension between narrative and the database, and it shows some leanings toward the database end of that continuum. Wallace provides a great deal of information, and he digs deep to provide background. He often overwhelms the reader with details and information, and this is probably the source of frustration many feel when they encounter IJ. Faced with a database, we are overwhelmed. What we need is an interface for that database - a way of making sense of it. This is basically what a web page is. It is a "way in" to the database. We are still developing ways to make sense of our various databases.

IJ was published in 1996. Wallace, writing on the cusp of a transitional media moment, is in the midst of (and, I would argue, is fully aware of) this shift from the narrative to database. His novel is, in many ways, a database. And this is probably what makes it so jarring to read.c Think of the experience of flipping to the back of the book to read the footnotes. This is just one more reminder that this narrative is not quite the step-by-step process that we are accustomed to. Reading IJ is more like navigating a massive database or being immersed in another world.d

New media objects do not have to be electronic, and Wallace's novel is a perfect example of this. "The Entertainment" is probably the most obvious parallel between Manovich's text and Wallace'se, but it is important to remember that the concept of "new media" is more about the new writing and design practices that are emerging than it is about emerging gadgets or widgets. New media is about technology, but those technologies might very well still involve traditionalf writing tools.

a. Manovich, Lev. The Language of New Media. 1st MIT Press pbk. ed. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2002.

b. Yes. Manovich's use of the term "traditional cultures" is problematic.

c. Incidentally, this is probably as good a time as any to note that reading IJ does not have to be maddening. The process of navigating a database doesn't have to be frustrating. It's only frustrating if you enter the database looking for a narrative. If you stop looking for a "a cause-and-effect trajectory of seemingly unordered items (events)," then you can allow yourself to be immersed in the database (Manovich 225).

d. See Footnote 1.

e. Presumably, "The Entertainment" is killing people. It is, we have to assume, a film made by "Himself" entitled Infinite Jest, and (as far as we know) no one has survived a viewing of it. Stay tuned for a future post about "The Entertainment."

f. Yes. Brown's use of the term "traditional" is problematic.

daily texan

hi jim,

my name is leigh and i'm a writer at the daily texan, the newspaper at ut. i'm writing a story on infinite jest/summer. would it be possible to interview you?



I made a more extended comment to your previous _Infinite Jest_ post on my site. I had a few questions/thoughts about your post here. I wonder if the imbalance Manovich describes is actually between information and narratives or between information and meta-narratives (to use one of Lyotard's key terms). It seems in some ways that any interface implies a sort of narrative, no matter how open-ended that narrative might be. From this perspective, we are not lacking narratives so much as navigating through a vast number of micro-narratives. Perhaps this is just another way of making Manovich's point. Either way, I wonder what Wallace is up to when his work tends toward the database end of the spectrum. Do you think this is more mimetic, an attempt to represent the sort of tendencies that Manovich describes, or is there a coaching of an attitude here? For some in our discipline these days, there seems to be a desire to move away from (or at least recognize) the sort of control and power that narrative involves. Do you think Wallace wants us to recover some sort of larger narrative from all this? Does he want us to be more comfortable with this lack of narrative? Something else?

All good questions: 1) I

All good questions:

1) I think your use of "metanarratives" as opposed to "narratives" is useful. Manovich is drawing on narrative theory when he opposes "narrative" to "information" (he cites Mieke Bal and some others). So, he has a very specific thing in mind when he says narrative - a step-by-step guiding of a viewer/user/reader through some space (virtual, textal, otherwise).

2) It seems to me that Wallace was pushing against the novel genre in general (probably not a huge insight). I'm not entirely sure if IJ is descriptive or prescriptive, but it does (at the very least) offer a new way of presenting narrative. It's more than choose-your-own-adventure or hypertext. For me, it is (and I've used this word a couple of times) immersion.

So, I'm not sure if the novel is reacting against the power of narrative or even against the limiting aspects of a step-by-step narrative. But I love this phrase that you used: coaching of an attitude. (Is that Burke? Maybe a Burke mashup of "dancing of an attitude" and poetry as "equipment for living"?) Yes, I think this is going on. The novel was an invention for a previous time, a previous attention structure, and a previous technological age. What else can be done with new technologies, with a sped up infrastructure? This is what I think IJ is definitely an indication of where the novel can go. Wallace has faith that the novel (or something like it) will stay with us. But it will have to change.