The Great American Hack: David Foster Wallace and Aaron Swartz

I just finished Infinite Jest. Like anyone who's spent months reading a 1,008-page book, particularly this one, I'm at a loss. It's sprawling, and by this point, all the important details from the novel's opening pages are teetering on the foggy edges of my memory. I want to throw it across the room—out of desperation, or passionate love, or both. Instead I pick it up and begin it all over again, this time humbled. A student. But I'm lonely—everyone else I know read this book ten years ago—so I take to Google. "What happens in Infinite Jest???" I type. One of the first resources I find points me to a blog called Raw Thought.

I'm relieved. The blog entry is called "The End of Infinite Jest Explained." "This whole thing is one gigantic spoiler," it begins, warning, "only read it if you’ve already tried to figure it out for yourself first." I check myself, consider my situation for a while, then dive in, only to slap my forehead repeatedly as the author draws several niggling details into an elegant theory of the novel's oblique ending, which David Foster Wallace himself said can only be "projected by the reader somewhere beyond the right frame," meaning that it's implied, at best. It isn't until after I've thoroughly admired this spoiler artist's analysis that I realize who he is. Or was, rather.

From beyond the grave, it was Aaron Swartz who was walking me through Infinite Jest.

In this private denouement, I'm immediately struck by the resonances between this monumental, insane novel and the man who hipped me to its subtext. It's a melancholy connection, and not just for the obvious reason that David Foster Wallace and Aaron Swartz were both brilliant men who took their own lives after helping make other people's lives better and more interesting. As it turns out, Swartz was one of the Internet's pre-eminent Foster Wallace heads. A Reddit thread calls Swartz "the author of one of the most compelling theories about Infinite Jest's end." At Swartz's funeral last month. essayist Tom Chiarella paid tribute by reading a passage from Foster Wallace's iconic Kenyon commencement speech. 

For those of you who've never cracked its spine, the plot of Infinite Jest revolves around a fatally compelling film, "the Entertainment." Subjected to the Entertainment without warning, viewers go limp, losing interest in anything other than repeated-on-loop viewings of the film itself, eventually starving to death in puddles of their own waste. Created by an artist in order to communicate with his pathologically repressed son, the Entertainment becomes the subject of a protracted, violent political struggle, a Continental Emergency-style conflict between government forces representing the United States and Canada. Shadowy entities--spies, assassins, sinister-toothed agencies with terrorist tactics--wrest to obtain a master copy, planning nefarious uses for its dissemination.

A page from Foster Wallace's dictionary; Aaron Swartz's laptop 

Aaron Swartz didn't hold a master copy of a fatally-entertaining film, but he was sitting on a similarly-contested motherlode: those millions of JSTOR articles he downloaded through MIT's network. And although he wasn't hounded by Infinite Jest's Quebécois-seperatist wheelchair assassins, his life was derailed by a government that sought to exploit his white-hat idealist effort for its own political ends. Even with a weapon as potent as The Entertainment, someone like Swartz, or any of the hapless characters caught in Infinite Jest's narrative crosshairs, is powerless against a single-minded bureaucracy that seeks to beat down by law.

In Infinite Jest, it's clear that the Entertainment, if propagated, would destabilize the entire North American continent--it's only a matter of time--not simply because of the nature of the film, but because entertainment (lowercase-e) is a highly corporatized, state-subsidized, insidiously controlled industry, particularly unreceptive to the visions and desires of individuals. Swartz sought to destabilize this nation, too, but in a more literal sense. "Information is power," he wrote in a 2008 manifesto. "But like all power, there are those who want to keep it for themselves." By breaking down electronic paywalls separating potentially vital information from folks without access--prohibited by cost, mostly, or excluded from the rarefied circles of academic institutions--he and his colleagues on the copyleft aimed to shift the balance of power, which, like a shadow, always trails knowledge. 

David Foster Wallace, in the Kenyon commencement speech read at Swartz's memorial, explained what he felt was the real benefit of education. It's that the hackneyed liberal arts cliché of "learning how to think" is actually a profound truth: how and what one chooses to think, he said, is an everyday choice, one which can transform the crushing banalities and injustices of day-in, day-out reality into "something sacred, on fire, lit by the same force that lit the stars." The secret is learning to exercise control over our default assumptions, to fight always, in "myriad, unsexy ways," against the sense of self-certainty that can calcify your mind, can kill you years before you die.

Depression makes this quotidian struggle harder. “Everything gets colored by the sadness,” Swartz wrote in 2007. When things get worse, “you feel as if streaks of pain are running through your head, you thrash your body, you search for some escape but find none. And this is one of the more moderate forms.” Undoubtedly he identified with the horrifying psychic depression that Kate Gompert feels in Infinite Jest, itself a fictional avatar for its author's lifelong battle with “the Great White Shark of pain,”“a nausea of the cells and soul.” In a short story from his college days, Foster Wallace articulated his own unshakable darkness: “some people say it’s like having always before you and under you a huge black whole without a bottom, a black, black hole, maybe with vague teeth in it, and then your being part of the hole.”

 

He dedicated himself to this same perpetual fight against the status-quo, a fight for the freedom of the human mind, which he believed could soar to greatness if given open access to information.

It's no wonder that Aaron Swartz admired the mind and work of David Foster Wallace: he dedicated himself to this same perpetual fight against the status-quo, a fight for the freedom of the human mind, which he believed could soar to greatness if given open access to information. Like Wallace, who also wasn't afraid to stick his neck into the thick of politics and culture wars, this fight was the singular work of his life, and it undid him. Relentlessly hounded to revoke control over material that might enlighten, educate, or even Entertain people against the will of the state, Swartz, like his hero, hanged himself--out of desperation, or passionate love, or both.

Both deaths, each in their own way, immediately catalyzed waves of hand-wringing: memorials, conspiracy theories, frank discussions of depression, and think-piecey articles (this one included) attempting to sort out their legacy. The desire to understand a death as surprising and unnecessary as a suicide is natural; the tendency to project how a life might have otherwise unraveled--what it'd look like beyond the right frame, if you will--is inescapable. In Swartz's case, these twin impulses have resulted in a near-universal condemnation of his treatment by prosecutors. And while there are important, absolutely imperative political issues to be considered in the wake of Aaron Swartz's suicide, the wake is also terribly messy. Like Foster Wallace, Swartz was a human, dictated by his own neurochemical stew and the untold tragedies of his individual existence. 

We can no more understand the deaths of Foster Wallace and Swartz than we can ever truly know what happens after the end of Infinite Jest. And that's fine. It's what makes the novel great, actually. Because lives and deaths are ambiguous things, fractured and ennobled and crystalized by the interpretations of many others, and sometimes the work we leave behind--be it a giant cache or a giant book--poses as many questions as answers.

Follow Claire at @theuniverse

Connections

Aaron Swartz's Tragic Battle with Copyright

One Man's Two-Year Quest to Meticulously Map 'Infinite Jest'

The Internet Can't Hate David Foster Wallace Because He Is the Internet

Swartz photo by Sage Ross / Flickr; Foster Wallace by Suzy Allman for The New York Times

 

Topics: infinite jest, Aaron Swartz, david foster wallace, hacking, reading, literature, books

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