The Hip Empty Mask (OR) The State of the Union

Enter one of the most famous and oft-cited passages from Infinite Jest, that of the hip millennial entertainment description and its impact on Hal Incandenza’s psycho-spiritual state (694-5). In the context of New Sincerity—something of a trend in U.S. arts and culture since about the mid-90s (which people often put Wallace at the literary center of)—this passage bears some reflection 20 years after its publication.

It’s of some interest that the lively arts of the millennial U.S.A. treat anhedonia and internal emptiness as hip and cool. It’s maybe the vestiges of the Romantic glorification of Weltschmerz, which means world-weariness or hip ennui.

Is this observation a comment on the fictional universe of O.N.A.N.ite America in Jest, the actual America we all know and (to varying extents) love, or both? From what I can gather from Wallace’s wide range of interviews, “both” seems to be the best answer here. So what’s the source of this? Do we want to get academically technical and start citing the Enlightenment, Nietzsche, and Heidegger, or is it easier to call out James Dean, Marlon Brando, and Saved by the Bell? (I opt for the latter).

Maybe it’s the fact that most of the arts here are produced by world-weary and sophisticated older people and then consumed by younger people who not only consume art but study it for clues on how to be cool, hip — and keep in mind that, for kids and younger people, to be hip and cool is the same as to be admired and accepted and included and so Unalone. Forget so-called peer-pressure. It’s more like peer-hunger. No?

Slightly more obscure than Zack Morris, maybe David Lynch is a key player here (who’s mentioned in footnote 24 [J.O.I.’s filmography] and briefly, later on [not a spoiler, I promise]). Films like Lost Highway (for which Wallace was on set and writes about in “David Lynch Keeps His Head” in A Supposedly Fun Thing), might qualify as this kind of older, world-fatigued auteur’s attempt at portraying emotional detachment and ennui, which I think he succeeds gloriously at in that film (and basically all of his other work as well), for better or worse. 20 years later, what’s the state of American entertainment? Does our current literary and pop-cultural landscape still look and feel the way Jest describes it? Or have we moved closer to more honest expressions of the human experience?

We enter a spiritual puberty where we snap to the fact that the great transcendent horror is loneliness, excluded encagement in the self. Once we’ve hit this age, we will now give or take anything, wear any mask, to fit, be part-of, not be Alone, we young. The U.S. arts are our guide to inclusion. A how-to. We are shown how to fashion masks of ennui and jaded irony at a young age where the face is fictile enough to assume the shape of whatever it wears. And then it’s stuck there, the weary cynicism that saves us from gooey sentiment and unsophisticated naïveté. Sentiment equals naïveté on this continent (at least since the Reconfiguration).

For me growing up, I hit this point getting into bands like Nirvana in about 6th grade, and MuchMusic (the lamer Canadian equivalent of MTV), which projected this kind of too-cool-for-school weariness. Getting into skateboarding in middle school, as I mentioned in last week’s post, did me no favors in this department, as hipness was the altar of worship, through fashion brand names, obscure music, and an anti-authoritarian ethos. It’s a wonder I ended up as a teacher myself, given this history.

One of the things sophisticated viewers have always liked about J. O. Incandenza’s The American Century as Seen Through a Brick is its unsubtle thesis that naïveté is the last true terrible sin in the theology of millennial America. And since sin is the sort of thing that can be talked about only figuratively, it’s natural that Himself’s dark little cartridge was mostly about a myth, viz. that queerly persistent U.S. myth that cynicism and naïveté are mutually exclusive.

And is it still true that we don’t talk about sin in concrete terms? Is theology only theoretically possible in the context of entertainment? Has hipness eradicated the viability of spiritual metanarratives, or is this again the Enlightenment, Nietzsche, et al.? Both? In the upcoming episode of The Great Concavity, we talk to scholar Rob Short about this very thing, the notion of the post-secular possibilities of Jest and its message. Is there real redemption, recovery, and affect to be had, or does the novel leave us, like O.N.A.N.’s  cultural landscape, alone and mask-strapped?

Hal, who’s empty but not dumb, theorizes privately that what passes for hip cynical transcendence of sentiment is really some kind of fear of being really human, since to be really human (at least as he conceptualizes it) is probably to be unavoidably sentimental and naive and goo-prone and generally pathetic, is to be in some basic interior way forever infantile, some sort of not-quite-right-looking infant dragging itself anaclitically around the map, with big wet eyes and froggy-soft skin, huge skull, gooey drool.

Is this what Wallace means when he talks about what it means to be human with Larry McCaffery in the 1993 interview and in the essay “E Unibus Pluram”? Is authentic humanity reducible to a puddle of facial fluids signifying emotional meltdown? Or is there a less pathetic way to be fully human? I’ve posed a lot of questions here, to which I’m genuinely interested to hear what you think about all of this.

One of the really American things about Hal, probably, is the way he despises what it is he’s really lonely for: this hideous internal self, incontinent of sentiment and need, that pules and writhes just under the hip empty mask, anhedonia.

I see Jest to this point as a confrontation with humanity’s darkness (i.e. our very own), and conversely, its possible redemption. Stay tuned for what that might look like, however (un)successful it may be.

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5 thoughts on “The Hip Empty Mask (OR) The State of the Union”

  1. I don’t think the cultural landscape has changed all that much. If anything, it’s reached the somewhat exagerated 90s culture that DFW projected into a future that is, well, now. You cannot successfully culturally rebel anymore because, if you do, some one will use your rebellion to sell toothpaste or tongue scrubbers.

    By the way, there’s an essay by Mac Wellman that I can’t imagine DFW would have ever read or cared about but that has some place in this discussion. For your consideration:

    1. Another issue here are the AA scenes in IJ, particularly the sequences at the meetings, where we are specifically told that artifice is frowned upon. If you go to Boston AA, in the book, and intellectualize your experience and make jokes and do all of the things that would, if well executed, get you cheered at a stand up venue, the AA people will dismiss you. They won’t even jeer. The penalty is that they will not react.

      Which all means that our author is warning about the art of what we think of as ourselves. Or… 70s/80s era performance art as much as he’s warning against mass media entertainment. He’s begging us to get over ourselves, but at the same time respecting the artistry of how we entertain ourselves.

      This brings us to The Entertainment. James tried to create a work of art so entertaining that it could draw Hal out of his shell, but in the process, created something so entertaining that it enshelled anyone who would watch it. That seems key. The drug that offers you everything but takes it all.

      1. Yeah, I hear what you mean with all of this. Nice points about the performance elements of the AA scenes, and thanks for that article. I’ll check it out!

  2. Great post, Dave, with even greater links to DFW material I’ve not seen! I am partway through the interview, will finish later (got to go out and drain my pond before the frogs lay eggs in it) and also read E Unibus Pluram. Perhaps the only way to overcome the inevitable developmental “anaclitic depression” that afflicts those giant feral babies — and the rest of humanity — is to work at trying to attempt to develop a shred of the ability to…
    Hear the squeak, and not allow it to consume your life, so that you can have some tiny shreds of love and understanding for yourself and others…

    1. Thanks, David! Glad to provide some new material for you there. Hope the drain hit that pre-egg-laying sweet spot. 🙂

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