David Foster Wallace asks the question in his novel Infinite Jest—a Shakespearean title that doubles as the name of a movie within the sprawling tale.1 Inside the story, the movie Infinite Jest captivates hearts and eyes in ways that no other entertainment can compete. The deadly film serves as the McGuffin for the whole novel, a plot trigger for the other subthemes.
The US government feverishly investigates the addictive movie and its effects. With his body strapped to a chair and electrodes stuck to his temple, a lab mouse of a man watches the movie, narrating to researchers with clipboards what he sees in the opening scene—“before the subject’s mental and spiritual energies abruptly decline to a point where even near-lethal voltages through the electrodes couldn’t divert his attention from the Entertainment.” After they see the film, and then want nothing more than to watch it repeatedly, the “victims” are consigned to psychiatric wards. “The persons’ lives’ meanings had collapsed to such a narrow focus that no other activity or connection could hold their attention. Possessed of roughly the mental/spiritual energies of a moth.”2
If a movie was this good—lethally entertaining—would you watch it?
Entertainment to Death
In a 1996 interview, Wallace called it “a kind of parodic exaggeration of people’s relationship to entertainment now. But I don’t think it’s all that different,” he said. Wallace was sounding an alarm. In the novel, US and Canadian relations are strained to the point that certain Canadian elements attempt to broadcast the movie into the US as cinematic subterfuge—an attempt to get America to “choke itself to death on candy.”3
In the novel, Wallace managed to use one seductive film as a metaphor for America’s entire entertainment industry. The US government faces the daunting challenge of warning people not to watch the film without amplifying the spectacle and exciting the masses to rush out to see the film immediately. Spoiler: it’s not possible.
“I think a lot of the huggermugger in the book comes down to the fact that the government can’t really do a whole lot,” Wallace said. “Our decisions about how we relate to fun and entertainment and sports are very personal, so private that they’re sort of between us and our hearts,” he said. “In fact, there’s a fair amount of high comedy at the government, going around ringing its hands trying to figure out what to do. These decisions are going to have to be made inside us as individuals about what we’re going to give ourselves away to and what we aren’t.”4
One of the driving questions of the novel is rather blunt: Do US citizens “have the wherewithal to keep from entertaining themselves to death?” Video entertainment is going to “get better and better,” he said, “and it’s not clear to me that we, as a culture, are teaching ourselves or our children what we’re going to say yes and no to.”5 These decisions cannot get legislated. They require personal resolve.
The greatest problem with TV is not that TV is innately evil, but that TV is endlessly good at giving us exactly what we want whenever we want it.
“I think somehow, we as a culture are afraid to teach ourselves that pleasure is dangerous,” Wallace said, “and that some kinds of pleasure are better than others, and that part of being a human being means deciding how much active participation we want to have in our own lives.”6
Wallace called himself a teleholic. He lamented the lack of self-control necessary to ingest video entertainment in small doses. He also came to believe TV was intended to be binged. So he ditched his own TV. “I don’t have a TV because if I have a TV I will watch it all the time.”7 “I don’t own a TV, but that is not TV’s fault,” he reiterated. “After an hour, I’m not even enjoying watching it because I’m feeling guilty at how non-productive I’m being. Except the feeling guilty then makes me anxious, which I want to soothe by distracting myself, so I watch TV even more. And it just gets depressing. My own relationship to TV depresses me.”8
Some of us will have to trash our TVs, but all of us must cultivate self-awareness with our media, because Wallace makes a profound (if simple) point when he says, “Most of the problems in my life have to do with my confusing what I want and what I need.”9
I don’t think that Wallace was a Christian, but he peered into profound spiritual tensions in the media age. Feeding on sinful media will annul your holy affections. Yes. But pampering yourself with a glut of morally neutral media also pillages your affectional zeal. Each of us must learn to preserve higher pleasures by revolting against lesser indulgences.10 Our shows and movies and games lure us to give ourselves away to the screen, a video addiction Wallace called “a distorted religious impulse,” a giving of the self that must be reserved for God alone, an idolatrous giving away of the soul to a media that will never love us back.11
Which means that the greatest problem with video gaming is not that gaming is innately evil, but that it’s addictively good. Gaming taps our social competitiveness, our love of narrative, and our interest in problem-solving. As gaming franchises grow, digital dreamscapes are becoming holistically immersive. The greatest problem with TV is not that TV is innately evil, but that TV is endlessly good at giving us exactly what we want whenever we want it. Our on-demand platforms continue to bulge with options.
Reevaluate Relationship to Fun
We live in an age when the digital crafters of our visual culture have reached staggering heights of skill, power, and influence. They’ve never been better. And they’re getting better. Our image makers conjure fantasies within us—not an evil thing in itself, but certainly an addictive power more appealing than ordinary life. My daily life will never compete with the tele-visual magicians of Electronic Arts, Nintendo, Hollywood, and HBO. And as our digital spectacles become more complex and textured, they make greater demands on our time and claim more of our lives.
Even when our bodies are anesthetized and we “veg out” in a dream-like coma before a screen, we are being depleted. Something is being taken from us. Wallace made a profound discovery when he suggested that our entertainment sucks away our spiritual energy. Overconsuming on amusement drains our soul’s vigor. Just as my time is a zero-sum game, so is my “spiritual energy”—my affections and my bandwidth for awe.
“I think the next fifteen or twenty years are going to be a very scary and very exciting time,” said Wallace, “when we have to reevaluate our relationship to fun and pleasure and entertainment, because it’s going to get so good, and so high pressure, that we’re going to have to forge some kind of attitude toward it that lets us live.”12
1. David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest (New York: Back Bay Books, 2006). I’m not commending this large novel to general readers. It does contain several brilliant insights into human nature, but the work is long and tedious and intricate, featuring a plot structure fabricated by a math-competent novelist and inspired by Wacław Sierpiński’s gasket (a fractal triangle!), sure to frustrate many on first read.
2. Ibid., 548–49.
3. Kunal Jasty, “A Lost 1996 Interview with David Foster Wallace,” medium.com, December 21, 2014.
4. Tony Reinke, “David Foster Wallace on Entertainment Culture,” tonyreinke.com, March 5, 2018.
7. ZDFinfo, German public television station, interview with David Foster Wallace, November 2003.
8. Reinke, “David Foster Wallace on Entertainment Culture.”
9. ZDFinfo, German public television station, interview with David Foster Wallace.
10. A seemingly incongruous rivalry well captured in Neil Postman’s rhetorical question: “Who is prepared to take arms against a sea of amusements?” Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (New York: Penguin, 2005), 156.
11. David Lipsky and David Foster Wallace, Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace (New York: Broadway Books, 2010), 82.
12. Reinke, “David Foster Wallace on Entertainment Culture.”
Our screens project images to us that are more attractive than our real lives, and that’s all by design. Lured in, we escape into our screens, get hooked, and find it difficult to escape.
In the rare moments when we catch broad attention from our social media presence—whether through our images or tweets or memes—we become the star.
The supreme spectacle of the cross brings a cosmic collision with the spectacles of this world. And we’re in the middle.