Utter Global Crisis

How’s that for a title?

With all the business of finishing my dissertation, graduation, moving to Louisiana, and the start of school, this poor site has been neglected. Here’s a little post to begin overcoming that inertia.

Yesterday, I received an email from a former I had worked before on an Infinite Jest reading group at Washington, alerting me to The Decemberist’s new video for “Calamity Song,” which was featured on NPR for being inspired by David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. As my colleague, Chris Schaberg, prepares is course on DFW to debut next week, the video is a nice opportunity to reflect on the relationship between literature and pop culture.

Credit: Michael Schur

For me, it pretty much starts with the question whether or not DFW would like the video and I’m not sure. His work always had a love-hate relationship with popular culture; relying on it for source and reference material yet ridiculity it as vapid. In his article on TV, for example, he both admits to enjoying television while identifying it as the opposition.

His well documented complaint against TV is that it usurped postmodernity’s ironic mode to produce viewship that cultivates as sense of belonging through critical self-aware. The result is an audience with a stake in being “in” on television’s wink-wink and deathly afraid of being exposed as sincere. He, thus, makes a call to writers of contemporary fiction to go in search of a way to express single-entendre values. Infinite Jest is the work that came on after the TV essay and has been seen as his attempt to fulfill that request. Even so, it is about as chock-full of irony as it can get. The Eschaton portion in particular, with its thinly-veiled send up of international relations qua children’s game, is ironic through and through.

The Decemberist version, however, is not. At least not in the same way. The flash of the map and the recurring remediated computer screen with its statistics for ‘military-efficiency’ still carry reference, but it never seems like those trajectories are not what I’m supposed to follow.

If you read the NPR story about the video, it is all about how refreshingly unexpected it is to have pop culture reference literary culture.

We all know about Trekkies. Or those Star Wars super-fans who go to Comic Con dressed up like Boba Fett. But what about all those Infinite Jest worshipers out there? Who can they turn to for obscure references to David Foster Wallace’s magnum opus? Well, The Decemberists, of course.

The statement is an expression of DFW’s own objection to TV cool; it demands an audience that’s “in” on the references. Not only does the NPR interview state that explicitly, you can see it in all the little details that make no sense in the context of the video alone. The video, then, operates most fully as a reference to DFW rather despite its reference to contemporary global politics


I think this is why I keep watching this video trying to figure out what’s wrong with it. DFW’s work already carries the baggage of (pseudo)intellectual cool-kid badge of honor. The video cashes in on that cache — to some degree for a band that has by degrees lost that same sort of cred through its own success — and in doing so bolster DFW’s analysis of ironic culture. At the same time, the video’s failure to deploy irony in the same way as DFW’s work despite staging one of its core ironic sequences demonstrates some of the limitation of DFW’s call against literary irony.

5-megatonsFor me, the most compelling part of this section in Infinite Jest is that it is couched in a theoretical discussion of the boundary lines of the game. When Ann Kittenplan is drilled with a tennis ball, it happens in this context and it is the resulting implications for the Eschaton, and by extension, international warfare, that are at stake. None of that is at stake when that poor girl takes one to the head in the video. Though both are using irony its not the same irony and so perhaps that arsenal of 5-megaton tennisballs has not been completely depleted.