This essay very clearly relates many of the ideas in Infinite Jest; of course, in Wallace tradition, the essay is long as hell, but it gives a better understanding of what he’s trying to say about entertainment in Infinite Jest. His great concern is the absorption of irony into television. Irony, he argues, has been the tiring and prevailing mode of criticism for the past few decades. (The essay was published in ’93). Television, always seeking to reflect the culture of the viewers in order to better entertain the viewer, has adopted irony for use in shows and commercials.
There are a lot of connections you can draw between this and Infinite Jest. Around page 57 of the PDF on Courseweb, Wallace theorizes on the negatives presented by choices. “The advent of consumer cable, often with packages of over 40 channels, threatens networks and local affiliates alike.” By giving us greater choice in TV, an ability to skip over advertisements or change channels at ease, the advertisements must be “as appealing as the programs.” We can see the relation to the section beginning around page 411 in Infinite Jest, where grotesque and horrifying commercials begin to take over networks. They do not become appealing, but appalling, and sell tongue scrapers and liposuctions with great success.
Wallace is concerned for his “Joe Briefcase” example personality in his essay: the man who watches six hours of television a day, who gradually loses connection with the world, as entertainment draws him closer to a perfectly happy reality that much better suits him than the real world. This conflict is brought up again around page 75 of the essay: “the more direct, vivid, and real the experience seems…the more direct, vivid, and real the fantasy and dependence are.” These bring to my mind the recent advancements in virtual reality, namely Oculus Rift; an early form of a new generation of escapism, in my mind. But back to the essay, the Entertainment in Infinite Jest seems to be the apex of directness, vividness, and real-ness. An unreality so well-made, it fools all viewers into that unreality, believing there is no disconnection between them and the Entertainment, no screen blocking any legitimate experience in that unreality. Of course, since I haven’t yet finished Infinite Jest, I might not be entirely on mark, but this is a major concern of the essay.
The idea for future entertainment Wallace has in his book relates to this essay as well, or better to the essay referenced in this essay. George Gilder’s “Telecomputer” that will enable fiber-optic connection to everyone on earth and give us unprecedented and uncountable choice in our viewing decisions is pretty much copied and pasted into Infinite Jest, missing a few letters. He even uses the same phrase: “Enter media futurologist George Gilder” (page 70) / “Enter one Noreen Lace-Forché” (page 415), not exactly the inventor of the teleputer, but of InterLace, the enabler of infinite choices in entertainment. This bothered me a little, the same exact phrasing, since the entire section on advertisements and InterLace in Infinite Jest is supposed to be from an essay written by Hal, which has brought him and Wallace a little uncomfortably close to each other for my mind, but also further confirmed my idea of Hal as the narrator of this piece. Anyway, the entire Telecomputer/InterLace idea conjures in my mind visions of Netflix, the unlimited broadcasting-capable website that dominates the free time of most college kids I know.
E Unibus Pluram was a concrete foundation for Infinite Jest, and gave Wallace an opportunity to communicate his ideas in narrative rather than in essay (though most of the ideas were transferred in an essay inside the narrative), or rather in a fiction of history. I’d recommend checking it out, if you’ve got several hours of free time and would rather read long academic essays than finish the season of Parks and Rec on your Netflix favorites list.