Philip Sayer’s “Representing Entertainment(s) in Infinite Jest”

Sayers begins his essay by comparing Roland Barthes’ description of cinema from his essay “Upon Leaving the Movie Theater” to Wallace’s descriptions of The Entertainment. Sayers cites that both texts “[compare] the movie-going experience to hypnosis, and [describe] the spectator as glued by the nose to the screen, ‘riveted to the representation’ (Barthes 3) … concerned with the question of how to ‘loosen the glue’s grip’ (Barthes 3), and both present film as conducive of sleep.” (346-47). He then goes on to note how Barthes also examines how a human’s experience with cinema is similar to the Jacques Lacan developmental stage known as “stade du miroir”, the stage when an infant begins to recognize themselves in a mirror from 6-18 months. He explains that this view of cinema appealing to the inner infant is obviously linked to Wallace’s descriptions of The Entertainment, which itself is so appealing to the inner infant that it forces humanity to irrevocably regress.

From here, Sayer goes on to write about Wallace’s issues with representing an entertainment so enthralling it is deadly, yet not making Infinite Jest a book about the evils of mass media. Beyond this, Wallace was also concerned with making the novel itself an entertaining art form, noting a quote from a radio interview with Wallace.


The really hard and really scary thing was trying to make it fun enough so somebody would want to [read it twice], and also— and how to have it be fun without have it be reductive or pandering or get co-opted by the very principles of commercialism and, you know, “like me, like me, like me” that…the book is partly about (qtd. in Silverblatt, n.p.) (349). 

He then concludes that the difference between Wallace’s definition of an entertaining art form and just plain mass entertainment is that an entertaining art form’s underlining message to the viewer is “You are smart”, while mass media’s message to the viewer is “You’re dumb” (349).

Sayer spends the second half of his essay exploring how exactly Wallace conveys what The Entertainment is and what it would look like in Infinite Jest. He specifically explores Wallace’s use of ekphrasis, or the use of verbal representation to convey something visual. He finds the descriptions of JOI’s films particularly interesting, because they seem so indescribable. An art film is neither a movie nor an art object, and thusly there is really no easy way to capture exactly what it is through language. This is why Wallace can only describe what happens in analogy and comparison, and why the pages long descriptions of Incandenza’s films are so drastically different from the one sentence descriptions found in the filmography.

An especially interesting portion of the essay for me was the discussion of ekphrasis and the idea of medium specificity. As an artist working in our contemporary period, I can tell you firsthand that the idea of medium specificity is being taught as being very dated. This method is associated with the Abstract Expressionist movement of the 1940s-1960s, most famously explored by artists like Rothko, Kooning, and Pollock, and its point was to explore the qualities that were exclusive to that medium. For instance, if you were working in paint, your work was to be non-representational and instead explore techniques such as the way paint moves, dries, or blends. The art world has passed Modernism and even Post-Modernism and now exists in a weird conglomeration of ideas that we now call the Contemporary. Scholars agree that if this era were to have an “-ism” name associated with the movement, it would be “Pluralism”. Pluralism is the idea of combining various mediums to construct one final art piece, which cannot really be pinned down as one specific, definite art form.

James O Incandenza’s film work in the novel most definitely, in my opinion, falls into the Contemporary idea of Pluralism. His work seems to be a blend of film[i], performance art, sculpture, sound, and drama. For the most part JOI’s films don’t seem to be in any way conventional movies, and I find this aspect of the novel to be especially close to predicting our modern society.

Sayer also discusses Wallace’s usage of ekphrasis to describe to the reader exactly what The Entertainment is, since there is really no way at all we could truly experience it, unless we were to watch it and be killed by it. Characters in the novel discuss The Entertainment “via analogy and comparison: with sleep, candy, infancy, literature and ideology” (351-52) because there is simply no way to describe the experience firsthand. I find Wallace’s use of ekphrasis quite masterful, because from what I have seen we all pretty much have a universal gist of what The Entertainment is, yet we have never really seen it or have read the thoughts of a character who is seeing it firsthand[ii]. As both and artist and a writer, I have spent a large portion of my academic career trying to blend my two interests into one in the form of artist’s books. With my work I try to solve this problem of the inability to tell a complete using only verbal or visual means by working with both. I find Infinite Jest, while obviously very verbal, to be also complexly visual, in the many ways Wallace uses to physically add to his story.[iii]


[i] in the sense not that it is just a film, but the actual art of using different techniques to achieve a desired effect

[ii] We have objectively seen people viewing The Entertainment, we have it from the view of JOI who filmed it, we have it from Joelle who acted in it, and we have Don Gately’s warped dream of it, yet (as of the reading for 2/17) we have no specific firsthand view of the final, edited entertainment.

[iii] The mass of the book, the formatting, the text sizes, the footnotes, intentional misspellings, the use of different fonts (thinking particularly of 981), etc.

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