Once again, our reading for the week touches on and expands the variety of themes we have identified as central to Infinite Jest (and basically to DFW’s writing as a whole). The theme I’m concentrating on here is the one about the relations of varying realities and worldsâ€”the idea that not only games but life has rules.
In this section, Marathe and Steeply continue their conversation on freedom as it relates to the Entertainment, and Steeply speaks up a lot more. He clarifies that the problem is not that Les Assassins des Fauteuils Rollents are employing a very insidious weapon against the American population (that type of act is, after all, not out of the question when it comes to U.S.-international history). The problem is that they seem not to have a motive. They are doing it just to hurt America. With past aggressors, actions were understandable: “It’s like there’s a context for the whole game, then, with them. We know where we stand differs from where they stand. There’s a sort of playing field of context. . . . Rules of play. Rules of engagement” (421). When it comes to the AFR, there are no rules. They have broken those bounds that Steeply and most others cannot see around. What they have done, really, is completely abstract the idea of an enemy that Americans can define: an enemy wants to hurt, yes, but there is a goal in mind. That enemy is an Other who is its own Self, and we can understand the desire to harm for the sake of Self. When harm is caused without intention, without Self-gratification in some way, it is utterly puzzling. Because that Other is not doing it for its own Self, is that Other even an Other? It does not define itself as a Self, which paradoxically seems to be a prerequisite for being called an Other (viz. a Self that is separate from the POV’s Self). So, then, who is this enemy that has no purpose but hurt? If it is not Other . . . What else is there? (Is the abstraction beginning to hurt your brain yet?)
Of course, before we can talk about breaking rules and boundaries of reality, we have to recognize that these things exist. In elucidation of this point, one of the biker AA members tells Don Gately a little joke: “This wise old whiskery fish swims up to three young fish and goes, â€˜Morning boys, how’s the water?’ and swims away; and the three young fish watch him swim away and look at each other and go, â€˜What the fuck is water?’ and swim away” (445). In the shallow argument against this, we could say, Look, the fish know they are surrounded by something and just haven’t named it water, like if someone called “air” something else, of course we wouldn’t know what they meant; that doesn’t mean we don’t recognize that air exists. But in a less shallow way, we have to admit, we don’t really know what “air” means either. We are told in science classes that air is made up of a bunch of molecules (a variety mainly including nitrogen) bouncing around with a lot of energy. But we can’t really see this. We can’t really see anything. Air is right in front of our noses, like the water is right in front of the fish (their eyes, since they don’t have noses (which seems like a better way to put that expression anyway, right?)) and yet we can’t see it. Philosophically, there are probably a lot of things that are right there, so obvious, and yet we don’t recognize their existence. This is probably why, leading into things like AA, we have the ubiquitous “admitting the problem is the first step toward recovery.” It is impossible to change anything unless one first realizes a change ought to be made. For the AA members, the reason they first stepped through the doors is because they finally recognized the reality that had been there for a while. They admitted the fact of addiction (which, to any observer, probably would have been obvious), something very big and encompassing that was for quite a while, unseen and unnamed, like the fish’s water.
To tie these two accounts together, one might say that humans need to see boundaries to live. These boundaries may be of different realities, or they may be the places that divide Self and Other, but they are necessary for our existence. It isn’t always easy to see them, but when they are disrupted, we feel very distressed.