The twentieth-anniversary rereading and discussion of the greatest novel ever written, David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, has just ended. The discussion continues, and this is part of it. Many thousands of fans worldwide including me are, mostly but not completely metaphorically, slumping back against their headboards, sighing out their satisfaction, and savoring the rich experience. Again.
With all its verbal fireworks, mosaic plot, and grittily realistic descriptions of addiction and sports, readers can easily forget that, as in many other great novels, Infinite Jest contains sci-fi touches that prove essential to the plot and to the overall satiric commentary. Parts 1 and 2 in this series addressed, respectively, videophony and giant feral hamsters and infants. In both, I briefly mentioned “Subsidized Time,” but it really deserves its own separate consideration here.
Subsidized Time is one of those ideas about which two responses cry aloud to be spoken: 1) How did no one think of this before? It’s so obviously the next step! and 2) Now that someone has said it out loud, how long before it’s implemented? In short, Subsidized Time is this: rather than referring to years numerically, in Wallace’s imagined near future (right around now, by the way), Americans call years by names assigned to the highest corporate bidder. Thus, as in the fan-made illustration above: “Year of the Perdue Wonderchicken, “Year of the Whisper-Quiet Maytag Dishmaster,” “Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment” (my personal favorite name, edging out “Year of the Tucks Medicated Pad,” and the year in which the truly “present” action of the novel occurs). One year’s name dramatically points up a glaring built-in problem with the scheme: What if the highest corporate bidder has a long and/or ridiculous name? Well, too bad—the winning bid is the winning bid, and we all have to live with it (as with embarrassing year names, there being many possibilities worse than “Tucks”). Hence, the “Year of the Yushityu 2007 Mimetic-Resolution-Cartridge-View-Motherboard-Easy-To-Install Upgrade For Infernatron/InterLace TP Systems For Home, Office Or Mobile.” The grammatically sketchy name drives Militant Grammarians Association president Dr. Avril Incandenza bats. And yes, since you’re wondering, “Yushityu” is a joke name, the subject of a satiric footnote along with “Sosumi.” Subsidized Time is the best literary running gag ever, and it’s one of the first things I relish describing to people who haven’t read the book yet to convince them. With basically no explication needed, only description, it speaks satiric volumes about our crass consumer-driven culture. I personally suspect it’s no coincidence that major professional sports/entertainment stadiums began selling naming rights to corporations very soon after IJ’s publication. “American Airlines Arena,” “Year of the Trial-Size Dove Bar…” how did it take so long for this to happen?
The story of how Subsidized Time came to be ought to be true whether or not things actually turned out this way. To put it another way, Wallace’s fabricated sequence of events feels truer than true, bears the stamp of How Things Really Are, regardless of the ultimate factual accuracy of every specific detail. From our point of view in 2016 we can compare Wallace’s predictions with what really happened—but what really happened is in an important sense beside the point. This is the power of science fiction elements in an otherwise realistic text: to communicate Big Truths, deeper observations, that sometimes deviate from real-world eventualities. See, for example, 1984 or Slaughterhouse-Five: Orwell’s two-way telescreens and memory holes, and the unstuckness-in-time of Vonnegut’s character Billy Pilgrim, make these novels in an important sense truer than mere facts. They communicate vital insight into human nature and behavior—through fiction. Given Wallace’s dark sense of humor, it seems all the more appropriate that we learn most of Subsidized Time’s story “accidentally,” almost as background details, through a history-of-broadcast-television essay Hal writes for a class and a goofy Popsicle-stick-puppet show created and filmed by Mario.
These are the stages in Subsidized Time’s creation process.
1) Cable television explodes. Whereas airwave-broadcast television supported four stations (i.e. choices) in each market, now cable, quickly becoming ubiquitous, offers hundreds. Chuckling at the very specific focus of certain new specialty channels, Wallace imagines a “View-Out-the-Simulated-Window-of-Various-Lavish-Homes-in-Exotic-Locales Channel” and a “Yuletide-Fireplace Channel.”
2) Cable television emphasizes this advantage:
Mounting an aggressive hearts-and-minds campaign that derided the “passivity” of hundreds of millions of viewers forced to choose nightly between only four statistically pussified Network broadcasters, then extolled the “empoweringly American choice” of 500-plus esoteric cable options, the American Council of Disseminators of Cable was attacking the Four right at the ideological root, the psychic matrix where viewers had been conditioned (conditioned, rather deliciously, by the Big Four Networks and their advertisers themselves, Hal notes) to associate the Freedom to Choose and the Right to Be Entertained with all that was U.S. and true.
The advertising slogan that goes straight to American viewers’ hearts is “Don’t Sit Still for Anything Less” [than the maximum number of channel choices].
3) With so very much advertising time to fill—all those channels with all those ad slots—the price for TV time drops down super-low. Even small regional businesses can now afford to run national cable ads. The ads produced under these conditions, particularly those for Boston-regional Nunhagen Aspirin and then No-Coat tongue scrapers, are so awful as to send traumatized viewers scrambling madly for remote channel-changers.
4) Repelled viewers stay away. Viewership plummets. The Big Four close up shop almost overnight.
5) Taking advantage of the overall situation, and exploiting the highly effective “Don’t Sit Still for Anything Less” indoctrination, the “Teleputer” or “TP” is developed and spreads rapidly. A company called InterLace quickly achieves an effective monopoly on a nationwide system of “spontaneous dissemination” programs (what we call “streaming”) and cartridges (essentially physical DVDs). I can’t help but wonder aloud here whether Wallace’s estate might deserve a big cut of Netflix, which materialized not many years after IJ’s publication.
TP-viewing, as opposed to TV-viewing, is completely on-demand. Customers conditioned to demand the on-demand model are further encouraged to do so in aggressive marketing:
The cable kabal’s promise of “empowerment,” the campaign argued, was still just the invitation to choose which of 504 visual spoon-feedings you’d sit there and open wide for. And so but what if, their campaign’s appeal basically ran, what if, instead of sitting still for choosing the least of 504 infantile evils, the vox- and digitus-populi could choose to make its home entertainment literally and essentially adult? I.e. what if—according to InterLace—what if a viewer could more or less 100% choose what’s on at any given time? . . . What if the viewer could become her/his own programming director; what if s/he could define the very entertainment-happiness it was her/his right to pursue?
6) Home entertainment moves completely from television to TP. InterLace mints money.
7) Viney and Veals, pretty much the sole surviving advertising/PR firm still existing after the paid-advertising meltdown, takes as its client former Las Vegas crooner-turned-politician Johnny Gentle.
8) Improbably, with Viney and Veals’ marketing help, Gentle is elected President of the newly-formed Organization of North American Nations (yes, ONAN), which conglomerates the former USA, Mexico, and Canada.
9) Desperate for funds that are no longer forthcoming from network broadcasting and advertising, nor from the newly-laid-waste northeastern corner of the former USA, Gentle racks his brain for national moneymaking schemes.
10) Gentle combines two everyday experiences, watching a football game and eating at a Chinese restaurant. He “heard punts, burped redhots, smelled beer-foam and recoiled from public urinals at the Ken-L-Ration-Magnavox-Kemper-Insurance-Forsythia Bowl.” He encourages his PR firm and top advisors to “have a gander at these restaurant exhibits of the Sino-epithetic calendrical scheme” (e.g., the Year of the Monkey, etc.). Putting the two together, the ridiculous auctioned bowl name and the restaurant’s placemats: Voila! Johnny Gentle creates Subsidized Time.
The cast of Infinite Jest.
Subsidized Time echoes, or harmonizes with, Wallace’s exploration of the Heideggerian concept of the subjective experience of time. Two widely different characters in two sections of the book dramatize this idea at length. First, Poor Tony Krause, hiding in the men’s room of the Armenian Foundation Library in central Boston, experiences all the horrors that time can inflict upon the withdrawing heroin addict:
Time began to take on new aspects for him, now, as Withdrawal progressed. Time began to pass with sharp edges. Its passage in the dark or dimlit stall was like time was being carried by a procession of ants, a gleaming red martial column of those militaristic red Southern-U.S. ants that build hideous tall boiling hills; and each vile gleaming ant wanted a miniscule little portion of Poor Tony’s flesh in compensation as it helped bear time slowly forward down the corridor of true Withdrawal. . . . Time spread him and entered him roughly and had its way and left him again in the form of endless gushing liquid shit that he could not flush enough to keep up with.
Don Gately, drifting in and out of consciousness in a hospital’s ICU at the end of the novel, experiences his purposely unmedicated excruciating pain as even worse than his own, earlier, Poor-Tony-like Withdrawal in a jail cell:
Feeling the edge of every second that went by. Taking it a second at a time. Drawing the time in around him real tight. Withdrawing. Any one second: he remembered: the thought of feeling like he’d be feeling this second for 60 more of those seconds—he couldn’t deal. He could not fucking deal. He had to build a wall around each second just to take it. . . . He could do the dextral pain the same way: Abiding. No single instant of it was unendurable. Here was a second right here: he endured it. What was undealable-with was the thought of all the instants all lined up and stretching ahead, glittering.
Subsidized Time in Infinite Jest is a fantastic mockery of the USA’s vulgar commercialism that also, somehow, provides entrée into Wallace’s most profound meditations on time, entertainment, and choice.