13 min read

This World to That Which Is to Come

This World to That Which Is to Come

John Rawls wrote, “Many of our most serious conflicts are conflicts within ourselves. Those who suppose their judgements are always consistent are unreflective or dogmatic.” so, too, is the case when coming to an agreement of constraints on the rules of our society when they come into open conflict with the reality of the material world our metaphysical proposition is meant to instantiate, either as reflection or microcosm. This is depicted in David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest in the form of a game played by the students of the Enfield Tennis Academy, the Eschaton.

The balls are stand-ins for nuclear megatonnage, the groups of geopolitical influence (AMNAT, REDCHI, etc.), and the conditions of strategic value, and material circumstance (climatology, relative importance to adjacent spheres of influence, the value of a strike, etc.) are determined quasi-cybernetically, and like all good cyberneticists, the conflict in optimization is often human at its core:

Another reason why each year's master statistician has to be a special combination of tech-wonk and compulsive is that the baroque apparatus of each Eschaton has to be worked out in advance and then sold to a kind of immature and easily bored community of world leaders. A quorum of the day's Combatants has to endorse a particular simulated World Situation as Lord's stayed up well past several bedtimes to develop it: Land-Sea-Air force-distributions; ethnic, sociologic, economic, and even religious demographics for each Combatant, plus broadly sketched psych-profiles of all relevant heads of state; prevailing weather in all the map's quadrants; etc. Then everybody playing that day is assigned to a Combatant's team, and 324 they all sit down over purified water and unfatted chips to hash out between Combatants stuff like mutual-defense alliances, humane-war pacts, facilities for inter-Combatant communication, DEFCON-gradients, city-trading, and so on. Since each Combatant's team knows only their own Situation-profile and total available megatonnage- and since even out in the four-court theater the stockpiled warheads are hidden from view inside the identical white plastic cast-off industrial-solvent buckets all academies and serious players use for drill-balls - there can be a lot of poker-facing about responseresolve, willingness to go SACPOP, nonnegotiable interests, EM-pulseimmunity, distribution of strategic forces, and commitment to geopolitical ideals. You should have seen Michael Pemulis just about eat the whole world alive during pre-Eschaton summits, back when he played. His teams won most games before the first lob landed.

The students of the Tennis Academy, arguably the experts in the mechanics of the gameplay, but essentially needing to cooperate to agree upon the actual state of the world, they are, both, defining the superstructure but in so playing, embodying it, all the biases of the former in full effect. Per Rawls, “The natural distribution is neither just nor unjust; nor is it unjust that persons are born into society at some particular position. These are simply natural facts. What is just and unjust is the way that institutions deal with these facts.”– this latter point is the question being contended with; is the students' conception of the material reality inside the simulated world, again on intending to reflect real world mechanics, served by their institution judiciously or not? This is what is wrestled with by Wallace in the depiction of the match; by all accounts, this process is both cooperative and scientific, but does that make it just or reflective of the true nature of the world (debatably the central premise of the novel as a whole, in the way institutions of one kind or another address things like sickness, social and spiritual, and modes of consumption and its effect on the self as a part of a holistic system's upkeep). Essentially, the individual biases of the participants, the representational biases of the statistician who is the game's master, representing institutions can impede the cooperative system, making it systemically significant, rather than the reverse, and the outcome, as we see socially, is hyperindividualization, and inside a microcosm like the Eschaton, as the narrative bears out, this hyperdilates into cataclysm in a way the underlying material world has not yet fulfilled. This bears out in whether or not the variety set of real world conditions informing the values of conditions inside the simulation at the time it begins (for example, climatological conditions that would influence the value--the damage done- by a strike in one location is hotly debated because while conditions at present have diverged between the material and representative, they've already agreed upon the variety set that will be worked on in the game), and situations where Otis Lord, the master, must rule on matters of metaphysical fact within:

Except for the SOUTHAF flurry and INDPAK boner, 1/18's game proceeds with much probity and cold deliberation, with even more pauses and hushed, chin-stroking conferences today than tend to be the norm. The only harried-looking person on the 1300-m.2 map is Otis P. Lord, who has to keep legging it from one continent to another, pushing a rolling double-shelf stainless steel food cart purloined from St. John of God Hospital with a blinking Yushityu portable on one shelf and a 256-capacity diskette case about two-thirds full on the other, the shelves' sides hung with clattering clipboards, Lord having to dramatize manually the effortless dictates of real logic and necessity, verifying that command decisions are allowable functions of situation and capacity (he'd shrugged his shoulders in a neutral Whatever at SOUTHAF and INDPAK), locating necessary data for subterranean premiers and dictators and airsick presidents, removing vaporized articles of clothing from sites of devastating hits and just woppsing them up or folding them over at the sites of near-hits and fizzle yields, triangulating EM-pulse estimates from confirmed hits to authorize or deny communication-capacity, it's a nerve-racking job, he's more or less having to play God, tallying kill-ratios and radiation-levels and parameters of fallout, strontium-90 and iodine levels and the likelihood of conflagrations v. firestorms in MAMAs with different Mean-Value skyscraper-heights and combustible-capital indices.

The rulings being made metaphysically over representation of material significant variety for the purposes of ongoing calculation of totals (as I said, this seems to appear cybernetic– variety engineering being central to the calculation as representative of material reality, while ruling on matters as an individual representing an institution or holistic geopolitical system):

Pemulis turns back to the pavilion and seems to be looking at Hal in some kind of appeal: ']aysus!' 'Except is the territory the real world, quote unquote, though!' Axford calls across to Pemulis, who's pacing like the fence is between him and some sort of prey. Axford knows quite well Pemulis can be fucked with when he's like this: when he's hot he always cools down and becomes contrite. Struck tries to yell out a Kertwang on Pemulis but can't get the megaphone he makes of his hands to fit over the mouth. 'The real world's what the map here stands for!' Lord lifts his head from the Yushityu and cries over at Axhandle, trying to please Pemulis. 'Kind of looks like real-world-type snow from here, M.P.,' Axford calls out. His forehead's still maroon from the coughing fit. Troeltsch is trying to describe the distinction between the symbolic map of the gear-littered courts and the global strategic theater it stands for using all and only sportsbroadcast cliches. Hal looks from Axhandle to Pemulis to Lord. Struck finally falls out of his chair with a clunk but his legs are still somehow entangled in the legs of the chair. It starts to snow harder, and dark stars of melt begin to multiply and then merge all over the courts. Otis Lord is trying to type and wipe his nose on his sleeve at the same time. J. Gopnik and K. McKenna are running around well outside their assigned quadrants with their tongues outstretched. 'Real-world snow isn't a factor if it's falling on the fucking map!' Ann Kittenplan's crew-cutted head now protrudes from the kind of rugby-serum AMNAT's and SOVWAR's heads of state form around Lord's computational food cart. 'For Christ's sake leave us alone!' she shrieks at Pemulis. Troeltsch is going 'Oh, my' into his headset. 0. Lord is struggling with the cart's protective umbrella, his head's beanie's little white propeller rotating in a rising wind. A light dusting of snow is starting to appear in the players' hair. 'It's only real-world snow if it's already in the scenario!' Pemulis keeps directing everything at Penn, who hasn't said a word since his original suggestion and is busy sort of casually kicking the Karachi-shirt over into the Arabian Sea, clearly hoping the original detonation will get forgotten about in all the metatheoretical fuss.

and with the representation being influenced by hyperindividualism's motivations as a representation of an institutional one, the scenario begins to collapse, meltdown ensues, personal resentments bear out geopolitically:

0. P. Lord attempts to rule that Ingersoll is no longer on the four courts of Eschaton's earth-map and so isn't even theoretically a valid target-area. It doesn't matter. Several kids close in on Ingersoll, triangulating their bombardment, T. Peterson on point. Ingersoll is hit several times, once right near the eye. Jim Troeltsch is up and running to the fence wanting to stop the thing, but Pemulis catches him by his headset's cord and tells him to let them all lie in their own bed. Hal, now leaning forward, steeple-fingered, finds himself just about paralyzed with absorption. Trevor Axford, fist to his chin, asks Hal if he's ever just simply fucking hated somebody without having any idea why. Hal finds himself riveted at something about the degenerating game that seems so terribly abstract and fraught with implications and consequences that even thinking about how to articulate it seems so complexly stressful that being almost incapacitated with absorption is almost the only way out of the complex stress. Now INDPAK's Penn and AMNAT's McKenna, who have long-standing personal bones to pick with Ann Kittenplan, peel off and gather ordnance and execute a pincer movement on Ann Kittenplan. She is hit twice from behind at close range. Ingersoll has long since gone down and is still getting hit. Lord is ruling at the top of his lungs that there's no way AMNAT can launch against itself when he gets tagged right on the breastbone by an errant warhead. Clutching his chest with one hand, with the other he flicks the red beanie's propeller, never before flicked, whose fli,cked spin heralds a worst-case-& -utterly-decontrolled-Armageddon-type situation. Timmy Peterson takes a ball in the groin and goes down like a sack of refined flour. Everybody's scooping up spent warheads and totally unrealistically refiring them. The fences shudder and sing as balls rain against them. Ingersoll now 340 resembles some sort of animal that's been run over in the road. Troeltsch, who's looking for the first time at the idling sedan by West House's dumpsters and asking if anybody knew anybody who drove a Nunhagen-Aspirinadverting Ford, is the only upperclass spectator who doesn't seem utterly silently engrossed. Ann Kittenplan has dropped her racquet and is charging McKenna. She takes two contact-bursts in the breast-area before she gets to him and lays McKenna out with an impressive left cross. LaMont Chu tackles Todd Possalthwaite from behind. Struck looks to have wet his pants in his sleep. J. J. Penn slips on a grounded warhead near Fiji and goes spectacularly down. The snowfall makes everything gauzy and terribly clear at the same time, eliminating all visual background so that the map's action seems stark and surreal. Nobody's using tennis balls now anymore. Josh Gopnik punches LaMont Chu in the stomach, and LaMont Chu yells that he's been punched in the stomach. Ann Kittenplan has Kieran McKenna in a headlock and is punching him repeatedly on the top of the skull. Otis P. Lord lets down the beach umbrella and starts pushing his crazy-wheeled food cart at a diskette-rattling clip toward 12's open south gate, still flicking furiously at the red beanie's propeller. Struck's hair is steadily accreting nutskins. Pemulis is under cover but still standing, his legs well apart and his arms folded. The figure in the green Ford still hasn't moved once. Troeltsch says he for his own part wouldn't be just sitting and lying there if any of the Little Buddies under his personal charge were out there getting potentially injured, and Hal reflects that he does feel a certain sort of intense anxiety, but can't sort through the almost infinite-seeming implications of what Troeltsch is saying fast enough to determine whether the anxiety is over something about what he's seeing or something in the connection between what Troeltsch is saying and the degree to which he's absorbed in what's going on out inside the fence, which is a degenerative chaos so complex in its disorder that it's hard to tell whether it seems choreographed or simply chaotically disordered. LaMont Chu is throwing up into the Indian Ocean. Todd Possalthwaite has his hands to his face and is shrieking something about his 'doze.' It is now, beyond any argument or equivocation, snowing. The sky is off-white. Lord and his cart are now literally making tracks for the edge of the map. Evan Ingersoll hasn't moved in several minutes. Penn lies in a whitening service box with one leg bent beneath him at an impossible angle. Someone way off behind them has been blowing an athletic whistle. Ann Kittenplan begins to chase REDCHI's General Secretary south across the Asian subcontinent at top speed. Pemulis is telling Hal he hates to say he told them so. Hal cau see Axford leaning way forward sheltering something tiny from the wind as he flicks at it with a spent lighter. It occurs to him this is the third anniversary of Axhandle losing a right finger and half his right thumb. Fierce little J. Gopnik is flailing at the air and telling whoever wants it to come on, come on. Otis P. Lord and his cart sail clattering 341 across Indochina toward the southern gate. Hal is suddenly aware that Troeltsch and Pemulis are wincing but is not himself wincing and isn't sure why they are wincing and is looking out into the fray trying to determine whether he should be wincing when REDCHI's General Secretary, calling loudly for his mother and in full flight as he looks over his shoulder at Ann Kittenplan's contorted face, barrels directly into Lord's speeding food cart. There's a noise like the historical sum of all cafeteria accidents everywhere. 3.6-MB diskettes take flight like mad bats across what uncovered would be the baseline of Court 12. Different-colored beanies spill from the rolling solander box, whose lock's hasp is broken and protrudes like a tongue as it rolls. The TP's monitor and modem and Yushityu chassis, with most of Eschaton's nervous system on its hard drive, assume a parabolic southwest vector. The heavy equipment's altitude is impressive. An odd silent still moment hangs, the TP aloft. Pemulis bellows, his hands to his cheeks. Otis P. Lord hurdles the bent forms of food cart and General Secretary and sprints low over the court's map's snow, trying to save hardware that's now at the top of its rainbow's arc. It's clear Lord won't make it. It's a slow-motion moment. The snowfall's more than heavy enough now, Hal thinks, to excuse Lord's not seeing LaMont Chu directly before him, on his hands and knees, throwing up. Lord impacts Chu's arched form at about knee-level and is spectacularly airborne. The idling Ford reveals a sudden face at the driver's-side window. Axford is holding the lighter's chassis up to his ear and shaking it. Ann Kittenplan is ramming REDCHI's leader's face repeatedly into the mesh of the south fence. Lord's flight's parabola is less spectacular on the y-axis than the TP's has been. The Yushityu's hard-drive chassis makes an indescribable sound as it hits the earth and its brightly circuited guts come out. The color monitor lands on its back with its screen blinking ERROR at the white sky. Hal and everyone else can project Lord's flight's own terminus an instant before impact. For a brief moment that Hal will later regard as completely and uncomfortably bizarre, Hal feels at his own face to see whether he is wincing. The distant whistle patweets. Lord does indeed go headfirst down through the monitor's screen, and stays there, his sneakers in the air and his warm-up pants sagging upward to reveal black socks. There'd been a bad sound of glass. Penn flails on his back. Possalthwaite, Ingersoll, and McKenna bleed. The second shift's 1600h. siren down at Sunstrand Power & Light is creepily muffled by the no-sound of falling snow.

This point in the novel is crucial to understanding the importance of refuting postmodernist thought about the nature of reality, the goals of materialism; a metaphysical proposition like such a simulation requires an understanding of the self as appropriate in the representation an individual is attempting to make of something material and real and intentional. The result, otherwise, is calamity. The novel has many such scenes, but the Eschaton bearing out as it has is its most directly applied as metafiction.

In one of the other narrative threads in the novel, involving a separatist quadruple agent, Marathe, there is an exchange that, likewise, stresses the importance of agreed upon understanding as utility to cooperative intent:

'Not even cravings so much. Emptier than that. As if he were stuck wondering. As if there was something he'd forgotten.'
'Misplaced. Lost.'  
'As you wish.'

At a sufficient flattening of material circumstance, the distinction between something being lost and misplaced, these terms become synonymous, and it would be a quicker path to resolution to agree upon this synonymity. The notion of a constraint like "stuck" is a fairly typical postmodernist one, but the precarity of applying these constraints is self-evident when you consider the default position of loss as permanent and self-prophesied, rather than simply present condition, existing elsewhere, similar to action occurring off of the Eschaton court, in the metaphysical proposition, it's materially insignificant, but this exchange is happening in the real world, and not the Eschaton, it's existing within the pretense of Marathe posing as something other than what he is, but the notion of loss as non-existent and simply gone is a flattening of material reality that a notion of something simply being misplaced, existing somewhere other than where it might need to be (physically, or identifiably if non-tangible, something like one's motivation) to be useful. Such a conception, an open embrace of the tired irony of postmodernism, only serves the socially and culturally and spiritual corrosion the novel warns about; the novel offers little in the way of a path out of this cycle, but correctly identifies it as the corrosive agent, and that modes of consumption and the perception of immaterial constraints as materially foundational are representative of this.

How this becomes institutionally significant that hyperindividualism comes to drive the average citizen is, as explained by Rawls, in that “Justice is the first virtue of social institutions, as truth is of systems of thought. A theory however elegant and economical must be rejected or revised if it is untrue; likewise laws and institutions no matter how efficient and well-arranged must be reformed or abolished if they are unjust.”– further, he notes, “[E]ach person is to have an equal right to the most extensive basic liberty compatible with a similar liberty for others.” where postmodernist influence on holistic, systemic thought, but particularly for understanding institutions as a concept are only harmful when motivated by individualist-oriented intent results in the former Rawls dictum never happening, and the latter explicitly rejected. The result can only be described as rational destruction of the ability to function productively, progressively in the material realm as a society.