Demand and the Appearance of Freedom: The Role of Corporate Media in David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest
A televisual culture substantially different from the contemporary one (circa 1990) David Foster Wallace outlines in “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction” subtends the narrative of his 1996 novel Infinite Jest. Considering the awareness Wallace evinces in “E Unibus Pluram” of the influence of corporate media on a televisual culture, we must account for the manner in which the evolution of corporate media and its production and distribution technologies impacts the televisual culture Wallace creates in Infinite Jest (the majority of which occurs in the Year of the Depends Adult Undergarment, or 2008 according to unsubsidized calendars). A televisual culture is a culture in which people establish their identities as a direct response to pervasive entertainment and advertising media (including but not limited to internet portals, television networks, cable companies, film studios, radio stations, and book and magazine publishers). Any reconfiguration of those media outlets would also reconfigure the televisual culture constituted as a series of responses to the content distributed by those media outlets. In Infinite Jest, Wallace depicts the detrimental effects of technology-based media reconfigurations on a televisual culture when those reconfigurations are undertaken solely to satisfy market dictates.
Marshall McLuhan’s axiom “the medium is the message” speaks to the problem the reconfiguration of media outlets poses to televisual cultures dependent on media stability. A televisual culture only exists inasmuch as individuals generate similar responses to the content distributed by the media outlets. As technological innovation reconfigures those media outlets, new distribution mechanisms subtly alter the content distributed over them, because, as McLuhan observes in Understanding Media, “in such matters” as the interpretation of a given media fare, “people [retain] some sense of the whole pattern, of form and function as a unity” (13). Individual viewers unconsciously relate to a broadcast – a program and its advertisements – as a “total field” because the media outlet’s distribution mechanism, the medium itself, unifies the broadcast into a “total effect” (13, 26). In his introduction to Understanding Media, Lewis Lapham illustrates how individual viewers interpret broadcasts as unified “total fields”: “the sequence of scenes on CBS or CNN teaches the late-twentieth century American catechism: first, at the top of the news, the admonitory row of body bags being loaded into ambulances in Brooklyn or South Miami; second, the inferno of tenement fires and burning warehouses … The text of the day’s lesson having been thus established, the camera makes its happy return to the always smiling anchorwomen, and so – with her gracious permission – to the previews of heaven sponsored by Delta Airlines, Calvin Klein, and State Farms Insurance companies” (xvi). Because individual viewers respond to broadcasts as “total fields,” the “total effect” of a broadcast cannot be defined through an analysis of the program or the advertisements alone, but only by examining their interdependence on and interaction with the medium responsible for their reception as a “total field.” The configuration of the constituent parts of this “total field” – the medium, the program, and the advertisement – determines how individuals will respond to a given broadcast, and from the standpoint of the corporations responsible for the broadcast, the ability to predict and manipulate these individualized responses is crucial to their financial success. When possible, corporations inculcate their own interpretive methodologies in the televisual culture, thereby enabling them to accurately anticipate the responses of the individuals comprising it. In Infinite Jest, the inability of the corporate media outlets (initially, the Big Four television networks) to anticipate the “total effect” of their broadcasts creates a series of cascading crises that result in an unstable macro-political climate that threatens to destroy the United States. The following account of the rise of InterLace TelEntertainment clarifies the specific role corporate media performs in the novel’s eschatological drama, paying particular attention to its determinative role in the construction of a “citizen” in a televisual culture and the detrimental effects of this construction on the constitution of a modern democracy.
Prior to the passage of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, the mainstream press responded to the conflation of corporate media and televisual culture with syndicated, sound-bite length invectives against whoever dared to display such anti-corporate bias/paranoia publicly. By the Year of the Depends Adult Undergarment, it’s a fact of life. Efforts to conceal the determinative connection between corporate media and televisual culture were well underway when Wallace wrote “E Unibus Pluram” in 1990. They were redoubled after the passage of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, “the core premise [of which] was to eliminate restrictions on firms moving into other communication areas – for example, phone companies moving into cable television and vice versa, or long distance phone companies moving into local service and vice versa – and then to eliminate as many regulations as possible on these firms’ behavior” (McChesney 74). Efforts to conceal this connection increased following the passage of the 1996 Telecommunications Act because the massive corporate conglomeration precipitated by deregulation created a media market even more oligopolistically structured than its predecessor, one in which the content and distribution of information was determined by one of eight transnational corporations: Time Warner, Disney, Viacom, Seagram, News Corporation (Rupert Murdoch), Sony, General Electric, and AT&T-TCI. The fewer the number of distinct media outlets, the less individualized members of a televisual culture responding to those outlets can be. Making matters worse, the interdependent structure of their oligopoly ensures the cultivation of homogeneity, because oligopolistic competition creates difference through advertising, not product diversification. Corporations participating in an oligopolistic market only launch advertising campaigns that impinge on one another’s interests if these campaigns can be orchestrated in such a way that the underlying assumptions of a given set of interdependent market relations remain unchallenged. Robert McChesney gives an excellent example of this logic in Rich Media, Poor Democracy, claiming that “it does not make sense for Coca-Cola … to spend a fortune merely trashing Pepsi … because it only matters to Coke ultimately if people buy Coke, and not that they not buy Pepsi” (263). Neither corporation wants to legitimize the third, unstated option, that it might be better not to drink carbonated beverages at all, because doing so would undermine the market sector Coca-Cola and Pepsi have so effectively cornered. The infamous “Pepsi challenge,” in which blindfolded contestants were asked whether they preferred carbonated beverage A or B, was not an attempt to claim Pepsi’s supremacy over Coke so much as a means of establishing the two soft drink giants as the only two legitimate market options in the cola wars. The same logic holds for the media oligopolies.
Understanding the workings of oligopolistic logic is of crucial importance in any debate on the influence of corporate media on televisual culture (and televisual culture on subject formation) after the passage of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, because media corporations active in markets that function according to its dictates are the determinative agents in the process of individuation in a televisual culture. In the case of the cola wars, this logic works by limiting the participants in the Pepsi challenge to those corporations that have already established themselves in the soft drink sector. By limiting the number of viable options, these corporations circumscribe the realm of possible choices, consequently limiting the individual consumer’s ability to make an individualized decision. Therefore, when Wallace documents the role televisual culture performs in constituting individuals as corporate subjects, he implicitly indicts corporate media outlets for producing a certain kind of subject, one progressively more uncritical in its responses to an increasingly sophisticated corporate-controlled televisual culture. In this respect, Wallace’s recapitulation of Mark Crispin Miller’s analysis of a different Pepsi advertisement that blurs the line between ironic distance and this uncritical response is telling:
[A] special Pepsi sound-van pulls up to a packed sweltering beach and the impish young guy in the van activates a lavish PA system and opens up a Pepsi and pours it into a cup next to the microphone. And the dense glittered sound of much carbonation goes out over the beach’s heat-wrinkled air, and heads turn vanward as if pulled with strings as his gulp and refreshed-sounding spirants and gasps are broadcast. And the final shot reveals that the sound-van is also a concession truck, and the whole beach’s pretty population has now collapsed to a clamoring mass around the truck, everybody hopping up and down and pleading to be served first, as the camera’s view retreats to an overhead crowd-shot and the slogan is flatly intoned: ‘Pepsi: the Choice of a New Generation’ … But need one point out … that the final slogan here is tongue-in-cheek? There’s about as much ‘choice’ at work in this commercial as there was in Pavlov’s bell-kennel … As Miller argues, it’s not really choice that the commercial is selling Joe Briefcase on, ‘but the total negation of choices. Indeed, the product itself is finally incidental to the pitch. The ad does not so much as extol Pepsi per se as recommend it by implying that a lot of other people have been fooled into buying it’… The commercial invites Joe to ‘see through’ the manipulation the beach’s horde is rabidly buying. The commercial invites a complicity between its own witty irony and veteran viewer Joe’s cynical, nobody’s fool appreciation of that irony … It congratulates Joe Briefcase, in other words, on transcending the very crowd that defines him” (60-1).
Although Wallace and his “Joe Briefcase” are aware of this irony, their presumed transcendently ironic perspective does not mitigate the effect of this association with the advertising agency’s perspective on the individual’s ability to generate individualized responses to the commercial. In this example, corporate advertising still abets the formation of an individualized subject (albeit through the appropriation of postmodern irony) by preempting the subject’s critical intuitions, thereby preventing them from forming an individualized response to the commercial. The composite effect of thousands of hours of having their critical intuitions preemptively replaced with a corporate agenda results in an “individualized” subject that is little more than a corporate construct, a fact even the dimmest of Wallace’s Joe Briefcases must be aware of at some level. The society-wide internalization of corporate agendas results in the creation of a homogenous consumer culture, one in which certain decisions (“I will drink cola”) become givens, replaced by other, more profitable ones (“Will I drink Coke or Pepsi?”). This entire process, from corporate conglomeration to the transformation of the individual into a corporate subject, demonstrates the detrimental effects of a profit-driven corporate media culture on the televisual culture it spawns. A corporate media culture will necessarily attempt to limit Joe Briefcase’s ability to make informed choices by limiting the number of products and services it informs him about to those with the greatest profit potential. If the same corporations oligopolistically control all of the major media outlets, and if those media outlets determine the objects consumers will demand by limiting access to information about alternatives, then individual choice is problematic at best and conceptually obsolete at worst.
In the years since Wallace wrote “E Unibus Pluram,” the content of commercials indicates that advertising firms believe the average American consumer has awoken to the overdetermined nature of their ability to “choose.” Advertising firms have responded to this problem by employing a self-consciously unironic post-postmodern irony that extols authenticity as the highest of virtues. (Of course, this self-consciously unironic post-postmodern ironic turn is itself ironic, albeit melodramatically and unironically so, by virtue of its self-consciousness.) Thomas Franks identifies this shift in “Blasters of Deceit,” averring that the advertising industry “cause[s] our tubes to abound with visions of reprehensible fakeness, of the manipulative manufacture of images, and, conversely, of products that stand outside the evil adman’s repertoire of deceit” (19). This technique allows the individual consumer to identify with the self-consciously unironic corporate agenda, and “choose” whether s/he wants to participate in its furtherance, thus creating a self-consciously ironic nostalgia for “authentic” products. The viewer knows the pitch depends on his awareness of the inauthenticity of the advertisement’s presentation of the product, but because s/he knows s/he is supposed to know this, the association with the corporate perspective and the internalization of the corporate agenda continues to plague the televisual culture even after the demise of postmodern irony as an advertising tool. As this cursory examination of the appropriation of postmodern and post-postmodern irony by the contemporary corporate media culture demonstrates, no corporate media culture can stomach the existence of critical faculties it cannot control. If it cannot overdetermine responses to its broadcasts, it cannot accurately predict the purchasing habits of the individuals inhabiting its televisual culture. But as the televisual culture becomes increasingly aware of the manipulations perpetrated by corporate media, it becomes more profitable to re-empower the individual, or, more specifically, to empower an easily manipulated apparition of the empowered individual. Corporate media must, as footnote 164 indicates, appeal to “the American ideology committed to the appearance of freedom,” a concept that is “almost unanalyzably compelling” (1031, emphasis in the original).
Before continuing to analyze the role of this “American ideology” in Infinite Jest, a more comprehensive knowledge of the novel’s macro-political climate is necessary. The majority of Infinite Jest occurs in what would be 2008 were it not for the subsidization of calendar years, but which is known in the novel as the Year of the Depends Adult Undergarment. The chief narratives revolve around Hal Incandenza and Don Gately. Hal is a lexical and tennis prodigy whose father, James Orin Incandenza, was also a tennis prodigy, as well as the founder of the Enfield Tennis Academy and the auteur responsible for the lethally entertaining film Infinite Jest, the dissemination of which augurs the end of civil society. Gately, a former burglar and drug addict, works at the Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House [sic], located at the bottom of the hill the Enfield Tennis Academy sits atop. Hal and Gately’s narratives only intersect in the text itself in a series of unexplained, and quite possibly unexplainable, dream/hallucination sequences. The macro-political crisis created by the conglomeration of corporate media, the monopolization of technological innovations, and James O. Incandenza’s lethally entertaining film connects their narratives on a societal level. The following cursory examination of the events that precipitated this crisis will help clarify the trajectory of this argument. An ad campaign created by Viney and Veals advertising for NoCoat tongue scrapers causes the demise of the Big Four networks and a preoccupation with hygiene among the general population. P. Tom Veals (of Viney and Veals) then orchestrates the political campaign of the hygienically obsessive-compulsive former Vegas singer Johnny Gentle, who runs on the Clean U.S. Party (C.U.S.P.) platform, exploiting the hygiene-consciousness Veals’ NoCoat ads created earlier. After reaching office, Gentle (possibly under the malevolent influence of one Rodney Tine, Sr.) transforms much of New England into a nuclear waste dump and forces Canada, one of the U.S.’s “interdependent” partners in the Organization of North America Nations (O.N.A.N.), to annex the dump, thereby ridding the U.S. of the toxic waste. (To pay for the relocation of the American citizens living in this annexed land, Veals encourages Gentle to sell the rights to name the year to different corporate sponsors, hence, the Year of the Depends Adult Undergarment.) Because the annexed land is situated immediately next to the insurgent Canadian province of Quebec, many Quebecois nationalists begin to suffer from radiation exposure, and some of them, most notably Remy Marathe and the Wheelchair Assassins, plan to vent their frustration on the U.S. by disseminating the lethally entertaining film Infinite Jest over the InterLace TelEntertainment networks. (I should note that the actual motivations for this action are far more complex and conspiratorial in the novel, but for the purposes of this short summation, these motivations will suffice.) Thus, the responsibility for the crisis falls squarely on the shoulders of P. Tom Veals and his efforts in responding to the needs of the media conglomerates, one of which is the need to remain profitable, effected through the creation of the “appearance of freedom.”
In Infinite Jest, the media conglomerates appeal to this American ideology by “[m]ounting 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” by “extol[ing] the ‘empoweringly American choice’ of 500-plus esoteric cable options … [and] attacking the Four [Networks: NBC, ABC, CBS, and Fox] right at the ideological root, the psychic matrix where viewers had been conditioned … by the Big Four Networks and their advertisers … to associate the Freedom to Choose and the Right to Be Entertained with all that was U.S. and true” (412). The American Council of Disseminators of Cable, which hired Viney and Veals’ advertising firm to manage this campaign, never wanted to empower individuals to choose, but Viney and Veals’ campaign appealed to the “Freedom to Choose,” which the corporate media obviously wants associated with “the Right to Be Entertained.” However, A.C.D.C.’s definition of “empowerment” is as limited as the choices it wants individual consumers to make. Five hundred options appear reasonably bountiful, but it suffers from the same programming limitations as the networks, only to a lesser degree. Viney and Veals’ campaign weakens the Big Four without destroying them, presumably so the members of the A.C.D.C. can swoop in and purchase the networks’ back catalogs and production facilities, meaning that the empoweringly high number of choices offered by the cable systems would be comprised entirely of the same unempoweringly low number of choices offered by the Big Four. Individuals would be no more empowered by cable than by the networks, but Viney and Veals’ campaign convincingly claimed otherwise. Viney and Veals effectively created the “appearance of freedom,” the “Freedom to Choose.” However much this assault on the Big Four hastened their demise, it failed to land the coup de grace.
Only after Viney and Veals evinced a devastating disregard for the “total effect” of a broadcast would that occur. “V&V, like most U.S. ad agencies, greedily buttered its bread on every conceivable side when it could, and started taking advantage of the plummeting Big Four advertising rates to launch effective Network-ad campaigns for products and services that wouldn’t previously had have been able to afford national image proliferation” (412). They attempted to salvage the Big Four’s ratings by creating a series of commercials that forsook postmodern and post-postmodern irony, deciding instead to return to the old-fashioned, unironic hard sell. As an advertising tool, postmodern and post-postmodern irony focus on the necessity of belonging to a target audience (albeit one composed entirely of “individuals”) more than the product’s role in maintaining or supplementing some imaginary baseline contentment level. Viney and Veals ads for Nunhagen Aspirin, LipoVac Unltd., and NoCoat Inc. employed the tried-and-true technique of creating demand by inducing feelings of sheer, abject horror that “shook viewers to the existential core” (414). For example, the ad for Fond du Lac’s NoCoat tongue scraper was “[s]tylistically reminiscent of those murderous mouthwash, deodorant, and dandruff-shampoo scenarios that had an antihero’s chance encounter with a gorgeous desire-object ending in repulsion and shame because of an easily correctable hygiene deficiency” (413). The degree to which Viney and Veals depicted this “easily correctable hygiene deficiency” differentiated these ads from their stylistic predecessors, as the narrator notes: “the NoCoats’ spots chilling emotional force could be located in the exaggerated hideousness of the near-geologic layer of gray-white material coating the tongue of the otherwise handsome pedestrian who accepts a gorgeous meter maid’s coquettish invitation to have a bit of a lick of [an] ice cream cone” (414). Instead of appealing to the viewer’s misguided belief in their individuality, the NoCoat ads directly did “what all ads are supposed to do: create an anxiety relievable by purchase” (414). The profits for NoCoat Inc. skyrocketed, because the ads tapped into the anxiety of an already hygiene-conscious culture by expanding the definition of cleanliness to include the tongue’s coating. An individual could “freely” choose not to use a NoCoat tongue scraper, but only at the cost of being considered unhygienic. But the effectiveness of these spots backfired on the networks, because they neglected to consider their “total effect” on the viewer.
The degree of hideousness involved in inducing hygiene-based anxiety in the NoCoat ad was so great that viewers refused to watch the commercials (even though they purchased the tongue scrapers), causing the ratings of the broadcasts during which they aired to plummet. By neglecting to consider the effect of the NoCoat ads on the “total effect” of the broadcast, Viney and Veals’ ads damaged the structural integrity of whatever media fare they were packaged with. The contrast between the ads and the programs could not be reconciled or reconstituted into a single message. Viewers could choose to watch the programs and ignore the commercials, but most chose to avoid the networks altogether, because of the disgust engendered by the NoCoat spots. Without viewers, the networks began to rely solely on increasing the advertising fees they charged NoCoat et al, until finally the ratings became too low to justify increasing the advertising fees, and the networks went under. At this point, Noreen Lace-Forche, along with the remaining executives and production facilities of the Big Four teamed with P. Tom Veals (whose partner, Tobin Viney, committed suicide when the Big Four went down) to form InterLace TelEntertainment, a multi-platform, truly interactive technology that could be delivered through phone or coaxial cable lines. For the population, this meant near-universal access to the entertainment medium, thereby evading one of the problems plaguing the cable companies. InterLace TelEntertainment orchestrated an ad campaign attacking the passivity of cable television watching, claiming that “[t]he cable kabal’s promise of ‘empowerment’ … was still just an invitation to choose which of the 504 visual spoon-feedings [the viewer would] sit there and open wide for,” whereas InterLace technology allowed the viewer to “become her/his own programming director [and] define the very entertainment-happiness it was her/his right to pursue” (416, 414). According to this campaign, organized, like A.C.D.C.’s, by P. Tom Veals, cable impinges the viewer’s right to pursue happiness (as guaranteed by the Declaration of Independence) by not allowing them to define the substance that will bring them “entertainment-happiness.” Veals conflates the two “rights,” eliding the distinction between the political and the televisual spheres, and in doing so adversely effects the individual’s awareness of themselves as citizens. Individuals begin to believe they have a positive claim right to be entertained, despite the fact that they lack positive claim rights to healthcare, housing, food, etc. The ramifications of cable’s demise on the ability of the individual to establish their identity in response to media culture are devastating. With the rise of InterLace TelEntertainment as the sole distributor of media broadcasts, the televisual culture constructed as a response to those broadcasts necessarily becomes increasingly homogeneous. Individuals could choose to watch any programming, but if the Big Four’s news departments merged into a single entity, then the information individuals could gather from it would be severely limited. However, in one respect, InterLace TelEntertainment did appear to have a positive impact on society.
As envisioned by InterLace, individual choice included the choice to never view a program-interrupting commercial again. Content producers concentrated on creating more pleasing (commercial-free) programs, because profits came directly from downloading revenues and “[t]he more pleasing a cartridge was, the more orders there were for it from viewers” (417). Viewers could purchase a program whenever they wanted and download it onto an InterLace cartridge; because computers (or “teleputers,” as the new hybrid device would come to be called) were powerful enough to edit out commercials, eventually the cartridge producers decided not to include them, the logic being that more people would pay to download an entertainment program that did not have commercials.
Despite the fact that independent commercials disappeared from broadcasts, advertising still existed in the form of product placement. For this reason, the higher ranked players at the Enfield Tennis Academy (like Hal Incandenza) were sought after from the time they arrived: the potential financial windfall for Wilson and Dunlop in terms of advertising outweigh the losses incurred by distributing gear gratis. Commercials were integrated into the programs themselves, as opposed to the viewer having to integrate them into the “total field” of the broadcast. Integrated commercials pose a serious problem for individuals: if they are integrated into sitcoms and hour-long dramas in the form of product placement, the individual can at least identify with a given target audience (“I want to look like Joey from Friends”). However, if they are integrated into news sources in the form of “objectively” reported “stories,” the individual cannot identify the conflicts of interest, and understands the news story to be a news story, worthy of more consideration than a commercial. This severely limits the citizenry’s ability to become informed about the economic and political arenas, because the same corporation that distributes these “stories” (InterLace) also places high-ranking executives (P. Tom Veals) in high-level cabinet-like positions.
InterLace’s technological innovation allowed it to corner the market, then aggressively maintain control of that market. But because the welfare of the market, not the citizenry (which was unable to become informed as to the changes occurring around it) drove these innovations, their effect on the citizenry was not considered during or after their implementation. Benjamin Barber discusses corporate short/blind-sightedness as regards the effect of technological innovation on a televisual culture in an essay entitled “Three Scenarios for the Future of Technology and Strong Democracy.” The scenario Barber identifies that is similar to the one Wallace depicts in Infinite Jest is the “the Pangloss Scenario.” Advocated by pop-futurologists whose “view of the future is always relentlessly upbeat and ahistorical [and who are] mindlessly naïve about power and corruption as conditioners of all human politics,” the Pangloss Scenario involves the implementation of new technologies without “either having consciously to plan to utilize technology to improve our lives, or having to worry about the insidious consequences of such usage [and] can rely on market forces to realize the perfect technological society. The invisible hand governs this scenario, carrying with it the presumption that market incentives such as profitability and consumer interest will take technology in socially useful directions without planning of any kind.” The social consequences of technological innovation in Infinite Jest are, beyond question, negative. Because InterLace TelEntertainment controls all the distribution networks, they control, albeit passively, the programs that are viewed. Even if any kind of program can be produced, only a certain number of them can ever be seen. How viewers gain access to the nearly infinite number of programs available for download becomes the central issue. Presumably, indexes of available programs exist, but who or what generates those indexes? Just as portals limit access to the nearly infinite number of sites on the world wide web by selectively choosing what sites will be directly linked from them, indexes of available entertainment would limit the ability of individual viewers to access media programs. Savvy viewers could find subversive information (just as savvy internet users can), but the majority of viewers would find the large number of programs listed in these indexes overwhelming enough, and choose exclusively from these indexes. And it goes without saying that the creators of these indexes are not working with value-neutral criteria.
The novel’s chief examples of the political problems non-value-neutral and oligopolistically controlled corporate media outlets pose for the televisual societies they engender are the presidencies of Rush Limbaugh and Johnny Gentle. Although the administration is only mentioned in an aside, some assumptions about the role of media networks in the political arena prior to the rise of InterLace TelEntertainment can be made based on the successful presidential campaign of Rush Limbaugh. Limbaugh concentrated on traditional media (radio and publishing) to create an audience. Presumably, Limbaugh’s audience’s demand for someone like Limbaugh in the White House resulted from Limbaugh’s constantly claiming the need for someone like Limbaugh in the White House on his radio program. The role of talk radio in Infinite Jest cannot be underestimated, because the Joelle Van Dyne, known on-air as Madame Psychosis, was also the performer in James Orin Incandenza’s lethally entertaining Infinite Jest, and the subject of intense interest as the novel closes because of her involvement with the film. The importance of the medium of radio as a technology in the novel points to the incredible significance the teleputer must have had on the political atmosphere. In Understanding Media, McLuhan distinguishes between “hot” and “cool” media: “A hot medium is one that extends … in ‘high definition.’ High definition is the state of being well filled with data [whereas in] a cool medium of low definition … little [information] is given and much has to be filled in by the listener” (22-3). Even though McLuhan specifically identifies radio as being a hot medium, the terms “hot” and “cool” are relative, and when compared to the teleputer, radio is a cool medium, because “[a]ny hot medium allows of less participation than a cool one” (23). As outlined above, with the advent of the teleputer, InterLace TelEntertainment created an incredibly participatory – i.e. cool – medium. At least, this is the scenario InterLace and Veals want its millions of clients to believe. In fact, as I demonstrated above, the essential mandate of the InterLace empire is the creation the “appearance of freedom,” not actual choice. Veals’ campaigns appear to “give the customer what they want,” when in fact Veals created an anxiety that could be relieved by purchasing a product or a politician. Teleputing, as a medium, is not “cool,” nowhere near as “cool” as radio, which in the waning years of the 20th century was still participatory enough to motivate a majority of the population to elect Limbaugh into office.
Significantly then, P. Tom Veals’ entrance into the political arena occurs after the establishment of InterLace’s technology-based media monopoly. According to the text, when the cable’s fiscal bottom fell out and commercial advertising became obsolete, P. Tom Veals’ agency did not resort to taking on product placement accounts because it performed so well in more marginal media markets. This allowed Veals to consent “to manage PR for the fringe candidacy of a former crooner and schmaltz-mogul who went around swinging a mike and ranting about literally clean streets and creatively refocused blame and rocketing people’s waste into the forgiving chill of infinite space” (418). Veals’ role in the establishment of this monopoly, as demonstrated by the previous analysis, cannot be underestimated, but at the same time, it cannot be associated with any kind of paranoid structure of knowledge. Despite the fact that Viney and Veals’ advertising agency is responsible for the cable companies rise to power and the Big Four’s fall from grace, and that Veals himself is personally responsible for the resurrection of the Big Four under the InterLace aegis and the victorious campaign of Johnny Gentle, Famous Crooner, the narrative does not configure itself around Veals’ individual agency. The conspiratorial narrative that could materialize never does, and if anything, Veals resembles the bureaucratic hero Hal Incandenza identifies, in an essay for submitted in “Introduction to Entertainment Studies,” as someone “with a genius for navigating cluttered fields … a virtuoso of triage and compromise and administration” (141). Veals creates suitable short-term responses to the exigencies of a given situation, but these responses by no means add up to a coherent, long-term strategy. Thus, when the narrative informs the reader that the “[w]hole new millennial era, under Gentle and Lace-Forche” is one of “[t]otal freedom, privacy, [and] choice,” the fact that Veals himself escapes mention is not surprising when one considers that his role is that of a facilitator, not a visionary (620). Through advertising, Veals facilitates the dissemination of other people’s visions. But because of Veals’ role in the creation of this “new millennium,” the narrative’s claim that “[t]otal freedom, privacy, [and] choice” function as its philosophical foundations is questionable, as the following examination of the role of media in the creation of charismatic figures will demonstrate.
Not mentioned in the narrative of Johnny Gentle, Famous Crooner’s campaign (as recounted in Mario Incandenza’s reconceptualization of his father’s film The ONANtiad) is Veals’ role in making it successful. From Hal’s report on the creation of InterLace TelEntertainment (which is interspersed with the viewing of Mario’s film, and is the source of the majority of the information recounted above), one can infer that Veals “consented to manage PR for the fringe candidacy” of Johnny Gentle prior to events depicted in Mario’s film. This is important because Gentle is the “founding standard-bearer of the seminal new ‘Clean U.S. Party,” whose politics extend from his obsessive-compulsive, “paralyzing fear of free-floating contamination” (381-2). For the two decades prior to his candidacy, Gentle had been “known unkindly as the ‘Cleanest Man in Entertainment,’” so the rehabilitation of his image played a central role in the success of his campaign. Viney and Veals’ NoCoat advertising campaign worked by exploiting “vulnerable psyche of an increasingly hygiene-conscious U.S.A.,” and the political campaign Veals orchestrated for Johnny Gentle built on that by exploiting that already exploited hygiene-conscious population even further (414). Since “there was no real Foreign Menace of any real unified potency to hate and fear … the U.S. sort of turned on itself and its own … hideous redolent wastes with a spasm of panicked rage,” propelling Gentle into office (382). Veals created a hyper-awareness of hygienic practices while working for NoCoat, then exploited that same consciousness to win Gentle the presidency, but this tactic would not have worked were it not for Gentle’s charm and charisma. An obvious spoof of Reagan’s ascendancy to the White House, Gentle’s campaign ostensibly mimics the typical rise of the charismatic leader, as defined by Max Weber in Economy and Society, in which a magnetic leader, gifted by grace, irrationally compels a population to follow his lead, regardless of the destination. According to Weber, after the establishment of this irrational seat of power, the authority of the charismatic leader becomes routinized, as the bureaucratic organization it had temporarily replaced reasserts itself so that the routine, everyday needs of the administration can be met. However, Weber’s theory of charismatic authority fails to account for the mechanism that delivers the charismatic leader to the population, corporate media. Access to the corporate media is essential to establishing a charismatic figure’s prominence, and this is perhaps the essential element Veals brings to Gentle’s campaign. He undoubtedly created a social and political environment in which Gentle’s C.U.S.P. platform would work, but more importantly, his direct ties to the InterLace TelEntertainment brass was an indispensable tool in acquiring the air-time necessary to rehabilitate Gentle’s image. Despite the fact that this is never explicitly stated, it can certainly be inferred, given Veals relationship with the Big Four and Lace-Forche.
It is here, in the figure of P. Tom Veals as political adjunct, that the corporate media’s influence on the general population in Infinite Jest becomes most apparent. Through the power of pre-InterLace advertising, Veals created an environment Gentle could exploit for political gain; and through the power of corporate media monopolies, Veals could have exclusive access to the means of disseminating information. As McChesney notes in an article in the Boston Review, “media perform essential political, social, economic, and cultural functions in modern democracies. In such societies, media are the principal source of political information and access to public debate, and the key to an informed, participating, self-governing citizenry. Democracy requires a media system that provides people with a wide range of opinion and analysis and debate on important issues, reflects the diversity of citizens, and promotes public accountability of the powers-that-be and the powers-that-want-to-be. In short, the media in a democracy must foster deliberation and diversity, and ensure accountability.” The logic of McChesney’s argument underpins subsequent macro-political events in the novel. Controlling the media, as Veals does, makes the violent usurping of power unnecessary because, as Howard Zinn states in the introduction to Declarations of Independence, “[i]f those in charge of our society – politicians, corporate executives, and owners of the press and television – can dominate our ideas, they will be secure in their power. They will not need soldiers patrolling the streets. We will control ourselves” (2). Through Veals’ actions, the political situation in Infinite Jest deteriorates into the dystopian nightmare of media critics like Zinn and McChesney. However, the manipulation of the press for specific political ends is, in both the novel and the world we inhabit, a matter of effectively manipulating emerging communication technologies. In Infinite Jest, Veals’ ability to manipulate the development of InterLace TelEntertainment’s technological monopoly to his own (and his clients’) advantage is central to the creation of a docile public, one which, in Zinn’s words, controls itself. The importance of the relationship of democracy and technology (as the former cedes control of the populace over to market forces, and the latter limits its evolution to profitable ventures) to the macro-political environment in the novel cannot be underestimated.
Whether it be their misinformed belief that they are actively choosing their source of political information (when the corporate media system makes whatever “freedom” is involved when choosing between pre-selected options highly suspect) or how they will be entertained, based on either direct manipulation by such figures as Limbaugh or indirect manipulation by advertising a relatively “hot” media as teleputing as being “cool,” the American population in Infinite Jest has been conditioned to delude themselves into thinking they can choose of their own free will. But as the eventual rise to power of Johnny Gentle demonstrates, the effect of corporate media on the cultural/social/political milieu in Infinite Jest is decidedly detrimental to the well-being of the country, bringing it to the brink of destruction. Although other factors are typically listed as being the deciding factors in the eschaton that presumably follows the end of the narrative, I have demonstrated that the central factor in creating the environment in which this eschaton could occur is the corporate media structure and its creators, most notably, P. Tom Veals
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