A Supposedly Fun Blog

July 20, 2009

Looking for Lemniscates: Filmography Edition

Filed under: Uncategorized — Julian Sanchez @ 4:46 pm

Reading_the_meniscusBearing in mind the danger of finding whatever you go in looking for in a book this large and dense, I notice that James O. Incandenza’s filmography (note 24) lists his production company as having gone through several name changes. The last, Poor Yorick Productions, is obviously linked to the line from Hamlet that gives us the titular Infinite Jest. The first, however is Meniscus Productions. As you may recall from high school chemistry, the “meniscus” is the curved surface of a liquid in a container—which can be either concave or convex. Note the connection here to the massive toxic zone the United States is trying to dump on Canada—an act of “experialism”—which is (oddly) referred to as the Great Concavity or the Great Convexity, depending on which side of the border one is on. Or at least, oddly at first blush: A line that appears convex described from one side will indeed be concave on the other. (A later film, Incandenza’s documentary about this region, is itself released under multiple different titles.) Perhaps more relevant in the context of filmmaking, a meniscus is a type of lens, convex on one side, concave on the other—as opposed to the more familiar ellipsoid, biconvex lens. Incandenza’s first production under this imprint utilizes “four convex mirrors,” also potentially suggesting a lemniscate shape. There’s even a connection to tennis, though more tenuous: The meniscus is also the medical name for knee cartilage often torn by athletes. The films under this imprint themselves reference optics or lenses in many cases.

I’d be less quick to ascribe significance to this if not for the whole Great Concavity/Great Convexity business, which suggests that DFW is intentionally repeating this pattern. A lemniscate, of course, is a figure that alternates between concavity and convexity. Somewhat to my surprise, the two terms—”lemniscate” and “meniscus”—despite the superficial similarity, appear to be derived from different roots: “meniscus” from the diminiutive for the Greek mene for “moon,” and “lemniscate” from Greek (with a detour through Latin) lemniskos for “ribbon.”

It occurs to me, incidentally, that DFW may have in mind here not a lemniscate but a Möbius strip—maybe one of our more mathematically schooled readers can give me the skinny here, but intuitively, since that figure has only one “side,” and therefore no real “interior” or “exterior,” it would be impossible to strictly define it as either concave or convex.  The key here being “intuitively”—it’s been a long time since I did any serious math, and quick Googling doesn’t reveal an answer. Yet another of Incandenza’s films is titled Möbius Strips, a work of “pornography parody.” The plot supposedly concerns a “theoretical physicist…who can only achieve mathematical insight during coitus,” and it’s described as a possible homage to Bob Fosse’s All that Jazz, a semi-autobiographical film about a musical director whose self-destructive addictions are inextricably linked with his creative process, ending in an elaborately staged musical-dance number reflecting the director’s own life. The film, like the Möbius strip, blurs the distinction between “inside” and “outside”—the musical within the director’s story ends up being the frame for that story.

The second production company is Heliotrope Films. In addition to being a shade of pink, a heliotrope is a plant that exhibits heliotropism, which is to say, it moves to track the sun in its path across the sky. If its position is measured at regular intervals, the path the sun traces across the sky over the course of a year is (of course) a lemniscate. Two of the Heliotrope Films productions are infomercials or educational documentaries for Sunstrand Power & Light, involving “Annular Fusion” and “Annular Amplified Light.” As far as I can tell, DFW made up these terms, but “annular” means “ring-shaped.” So “annular fusion,” perhaps, can be read as “the fusion of ring-shapes”? One more under the Heliotrope imprint is titled The Machine in the Ghost: Annular Holography for  Fun and Prophet. A hologram is a sort of fractal itself, in that the image of the whole is contained (at lower resolution) in each part of the hologram. Also note the spelling of “prophet.” Philosopher Gilbert Ryle coined the phrase “ghost in the machine” to describe Cartesian dualism—the idea of an ethereal/immaterial soul or mind embedded, somehow, in a mechanistic physical body and brain. But perhaps a mechanistic, even mathematical structure underlying a work of creative art or literature might be dubbed the “machine in the ghost”? And what sort of structure? Apparently an annular (ring-shaped) hologram (self-similar or fractal structure) which is both entertaining and “prophetic” in the sense of prefiguring what is to come, which is almost necessarily the case if the microstructure mirrors the macropattern.

black-widow Finally, there’s Latrodectus Mactans Productions. Latrodectus Mactans is the scientific name for the Black Widow spider. Conceivably this is a hint at his wife’s involvement in his supposed suicide: An early dialogue between Hal and Mario suggests that Avril does not seem outwardly all that broken up by his death—seems, indeed, somewhat relieved by it. Though given that spousal infidelity is a recurring theme in the films, it may simply be an indirect, more metaphorical sort of  accusation. Alternatively, though, there’s the spider’s characteristic dorsal marking, which looks rather lemniscate-ish, though I suppose you could argue it’s typically more of a bow-tie.

The first film under this imprint is literally concerned with poisonous spiders; several others involve some sort of femme fatale: a female “figure of death,” a pair of “lethal mythologic females” (who duel with mirrors that transfix the audience by literally turning them to stone), a “lethally beautiful woman,” a girl delinquent on a “rampage of recidivist revenge.” The stuff under the Poor Yorick imprint is much more overtly heavy on autobiographical films, though this previous theme continues with an “ecstatic encounter with Death” (again played by a woman), a “beautiful cadaver,” yet another (female) “figure of death” in a work based on a play about a female assassin… in fact, just looking quickly, the first “deadly female” we encounter under the Latrodectus Imprint is described in precisely the same language—”figure of death”—as the final instance of the archetype under the Poor Yorick imprint.  An intriguing incongruity I don’t know how to read yet: An elaborate farce called Dial C for Concupiscence is described as a parodic “tribute to Bresson’s Les Anges du Peché” [sic: should be Péché]. But in fact, the plot of the Bresson film resembles not at all the summary of Dial C, while it is actually incredibly close to the “rampage of recidivist revenge” film described earlier, Blood Sister: One Tough Nun. A weirdly precise misattribution I’m inclined to think must have some significance, but I don’t see what just yet.

I note also that the films themselves—many of them hilariously on point send-ups of art film, not a few of which sound more interesting than anything I saw on my last round through the Hirschhorn—frequently play on the idea of some kind of strange loop between art and viewer. Cage III involves two sets of viewer/performers, each transfixed by the bizarre transformations the other goes through in order that each may observe the other. One of these is described as so “grotesquely compelling” that the viewer becomes nothing but an enormous eyeball—an obvious nod to the hypnotic power of the Infinite Jest cartridge itself. There’s also the film adaptation of Peter Weiss’ play Marat/Sade which takes the famous play-within-a-play and transforms it into a play-within-a-play-within-a-film-within-a-film. Another art piece project a distorted image of the audience on the screen, where the “antinarrative” consists of “the theater audience watching itself watch itself get the obvious ‘joke’ and become increasingly self conscious and uncomfortable and hostile.” Several other films appear to depict scenes from the book involving James and Hal. The filmography itself is littered with superscript 1s, though it’s unclear where they point. Not to any sub-footnote (those are indicated by letters)—possibly back up one level of hierarchy, to the first endnote of the series within which the filmography is contained? Somewhere else?

This seems to be emerging as a broader issue within the book: Where, in a hierarchy or tangle of nested and overlapping stories, is the reader?   Is the narrator inside or outside the story? Or, if it is structured like a Möbius strip, does the question rest on a false premise?

Postscript: In the interest, again, of setting myself up for future embarrassment: In line with the thematic and structural patterns of recursive loops and illusory boundaries between art and observer, I’m going to make a prediction. This is, of course, a real book titled Infinite Jest about a fictional, preternaturally transfixing entertainment film called Infinite Jest. If I’m anywhere near correct about what DFW is doing, it is almost structurally obligatory that the film at some point be revealed to contain a book also called Infinite Jest, though it may be obliquely referenced rather than directly named. If this pans out, I’ll take it as  a sign that I’m on to something; if it’s not, I’ll probably have to reconsider. But at this point I’d frankly be surprised if it doesn’t turn up at some point.

Post-postscript: Is it excessively macabre if, from a certain point of view, it seems like DFW’s own suicide was also structurally obligatory? You write a book called Infinite Jest about the mentally-ill creator of a work of fiction called Infinite Jest who kills himself, with the consistent theme throughout being the blurring or erasure of the boundaries between nested hierarchies of self-similar fiction. How else do you close the loop?

19 Comments »

  1. [...] exhume (or imagine?) a few more in the filmography of James O. [...]

    Pingback by Infinite Lemniscates — July 20, 2009 @ 5:20 pm | Reply

  2. Good stuff. I wish I was re-reading IJ now — it would be a treat to follow along with your posts.

    Comment by Elton — July 20, 2009 @ 5:22 pm | Reply

  3. This is brilliant stuff — the concave/convex meniscus angle is great. I dig the post-postscript too — particularly since Wallace apparently left behind some sort of potentially magnum opus-y thing that’s apparently Unfinished and Unreleased (at least till next year — The Pale King).

    Comment by infinitedetox — July 20, 2009 @ 11:39 pm | Reply

    • I love the Concavity/Convexity work you did here, too. Wow! Digging into the production companies was a great idea. And all of it very well explained, so thank you.

      As Infinite Detox and any others reading my site know, however, I don’t much like the idea that Wallace’s suicide should be seen as connected in a real or metaphorical way to IJ. Camus wrote thoughtfully about suicide, though ultimately against it. Is that why he died in a car crash instead of by his own hand? Is his death therefore “absurd”? Yes, but to the extent that the rest of our deaths (and probably lives, too) are no less absurd.

      Thought another way: When folks read IJ in the Year, say, 2019 (aka the Year of the Minute Maid Mini-Juice Box, or Y.M.M.M.-J.B.), and DFW’s suicide is 11 years history, will readers be so acute to his suicide and its implications from within IJ? I doubt it, and thus the current fixation probably has more to do with us than it does with him.

      Comment by infinitetasks — July 21, 2009 @ 3:28 am | Reply

      • Well, on the one hand — I hope this goes without saying — I don’t really mean my final postscript to be taken seriously as a suggestion that DFW killed himself as a coda to his novel because it was artistically appropriate. I don’t mean to either trivialize or romanticize the sort of mental anguish the guy was clearly living with; to the extent that I seemed to do either, that final remark was probably in poor taste.

        On the other hand, it’s obviously not just a wacky coincidence that a man who struggled with depression for years before finally taking his own life wrote a book in which suicide, addiction, and mental illness are central themes convincingly portrayed — and where one of the suicides is a not-very-subtle author surrogate in many respects. I don’t know about you, but one of the first scenes where I felt like the clever pomo wordsmith backed off a bit to give us a glimpse of something raw and personal was the one with Kate Gompert and the psych resident. It’s the first one that’s actually sort of viscerally uncomfortable to read, for me. Actually, it’s the second: The first is Wardine’s, but for the opposite reason: because it feels so strikingly *inauthentic*. That said, the text stands on its own, and whatever utility it may have as a means of psychoanalyzing its author is probably the least interesting thing about it.

        Comment by Julian Sanchez — July 21, 2009 @ 3:45 pm

      • “I don’t know about you, but one of the first scenes where I felt like the clever pomo wordsmith backed off a bit to give us a glimpse of something raw and personal was the one with Kate Gompert and the psych resident. It’s the first one that’s actually sort of viscerally uncomfortable to read, for me.”

        I think this is right, and then also the sections on tennis, largely third person referential to Hal’s parts of the story, talking about The Zone and the way that it feels to be in it. It’s most exemplified in Hal’s grandfather’s conversation with Himself about his own final jr. match. DFW’s explorations of how it really feels to play something really excellently, whats necessary to acheive that level, how his connection to this sport was almost spiritual, how he viewed true players as almost Zen masters (see his seperate writings about why it’s so disappointing to read autobiographies of true sports stars), is also interestingly close to the DFW bone.

        In fact, the way he writes about sport and ‘being in the body’ says quite a bit about the way that DFW experienced joy and clarity and concentration in a lot of the same ways that Kate Gombert’s experiences speak to DFW’s experience of depression and suicidal thoughts.

        Comment by Isaac — July 31, 2009 @ 7:20 pm

  4. Thought another way: When folks read IJ in the Year, say, 2019 (aka the Year of the Minute Maid Mini-Juice Box, or Y.M.M.M.-J.B.), and DFW’s suicide is 11 years history, will readers be so acute to his suicide and its implications from within IJ?

    I honestly think the answer is “yes,” because the novel is so intimately concerned with the mental processes of many characters who are brought to the brink of suicide, some of whom actually cross over. Look at the difference between, say, the way we approach Hemingway and Sylvia Plath’s respective suicides of 40 odd years ago: Plath’s is much more a part of how we link to the author’s work, because her work is self-consciously explorative of the kinds of states of mind that lead to suicide in a way that Hemingway’s isn’t.

    Comment by Criminally Bulgur — July 21, 2009 @ 3:23 pm | Reply

  5. Regarding the oddity of one country calling it The Convexity and the other The Concavity.

    Here’s my theory: the US calls it the Concavity because a great big hole was created where much of (Old) New England once was. Canadians/Quebecois call it the Convexity because that hole has apparently been filled in to the point of overflowing with consumer waste. So while the hole in the ground is concave, the pile of waste is definitely now convex.

    Comment by genevieveyorke — July 21, 2009 @ 3:59 pm | Reply

    • As a literal/in-story explanation, that sounds plausible. At the metaphorical level, DFW has chosen to establish these two distinct perspectives, using these particular terms, for a reason. Obviously, sometimes the in-story narrative rationale is all you need to explain an authorial choice, but I think this is one of those cases where “why are the characters doing that” and “why did the author do that?” have different answers.

      Comment by Julian Sanchez — July 21, 2009 @ 4:42 pm | Reply

  6. This is the kind of reading I wish more people were confident enough to do, just looking around within text and looking for meanings and mechanisms that they wouldn’t ordinarily find on the surface, without worrying too much about what’s “really there”. It isn’t the case and has never been the case that interpreting literature is a matter of anything goes. But anything that can be justified by the text goes, and there’s always room for more interpretations; nothing gets crowded out. I really dig this.

    Comment by Freddie — July 21, 2009 @ 10:05 pm | Reply

  7. The filmography itself is littered with superscript 1s, though it’s unclear where they point.

    I think you’ll find they only occur on p. 990. To my eye – and to some others on the Infinite Summer forums – they appear to be some kind of typesetting error.

    Thanks for the connection of Latrodectus Mactans to Avril. She’s an interesting character, partly because we have absolutely no insight into her at all. If I’m not mistaken, she has no direct dialogue in the novel at all. Every word attributed directly to her – from Hal/Orin’s recollections on p10 and 11 to the end of another HmH dinner on 193, at least – is reported by someone else, never quoted directly. She’s a cipher, is Avril.

    Comment by jackd — July 23, 2009 @ 2:24 am | Reply

    • The filmography itself is littered with superscript 1s, though it’s unclear where they point.

      I think you’ll find they only occur on p. 990. To my eye – and to some others on the Infinite Summer forums – they appear to be some kind of typesetting error.

      My previous copy of IJ did not, in my scattered and ruined memory, contain these random superscripts. I cannot verify this, though.

      Comment by Rabble — July 23, 2009 @ 5:31 pm | Reply

  8. concave/convex meniscus angle quite interesting. Particularly given the different narrative voices from within the novel. I’m not quite sure of it’s applicability throughout the rest of the novel (it is my re-read) but I like knowing there are new perspectives and ways to interpret the unpcoming chapters. Nice blog post btw.

    Comment by robgallo — July 23, 2009 @ 9:05 am | Reply

  9. Avril gets some direct dialogue

    Comment by doopty — July 23, 2009 @ 8:20 pm | Reply

  10. Love your thorough (and thought-provoking!) analysis here. I’m sure you’ll find a lot more to dissect as you continue reading… an especially funny description of “Blood Sister: One Tough Nun” appears later. I’d be interested in your thoughts there.

    Comment by cbae — July 26, 2009 @ 12:45 pm | Reply

  11. Jules,

    the old pomo-obsessed troublemaker in me would invite you to publish your collected IJ ramblings as some sort of high-brow encyclopedic guide to the contemporary world. Doesn’t all have to tie together, but your knowledge and will to connect the dots would make it a fun, enlightening romp. a 1000-something page instant classic of cultural history that would make dfw, pynchon, and deleuze smile. you can do it…

    great stuff to see your mind attacking the Jest–keep up the great investigative work! so much fun to look back on this stuff in new ways. it’s such a rich world! as many (most recently Ezra) have observed, it’s a wondrous struggle just to navigate it, even if we never find the Answer. ahhh, the short spaces and great swaths between simple and profound. Distance and meaning collapse, leaving us only with impulses, feelings…

    re/concave/convex, mobius strips, chasing one’s tail, and infusing everything with meaning: looking forward to your take on the book’s ultimate scene, and final image.

    Comment by ivan — July 28, 2009 @ 7:10 pm | Reply

  12. [...] Quebec, leaving them to their independence and their contiguity with the Great Convexity (as it appears from the Canadian vantage), so long as the U.S. is willing to reapportion the Concavity within its own boundaries, and thus [...]

    Pingback by On O.N.A.N.-ite Politics « Infinite Tasks, Infinite Summers, & Philosophy — August 1, 2009 @ 11:31 pm | Reply

  13. In the interest, again, of setting myself up for future embarrassment: In line with the thematic and structural patterns of recursive loops and illusory boundaries between art and observer, I’m going to make a prediction. This is, of course, a real book titled Infinite Jest about a fictional, preternaturally transfixing entertainment film called Infinite Jest. If I’m anywhere near correct about what DFW is doing…

    LOL. You. Have. No. Idea.

    This might be different for y’all, since you’re all in together, but after I finished IJ the first thing I did was go online to find some analysis or reactions to help me deal with the ending. The only useful thing I found was an assertion that there was another layer of meaning to the book, combined with a mysterious reference to a page in the prologue.

    I went to said page…and sure enough, there was a hint…a clue I had skimmed over before I became familiar with all of the characters but which now stood out on the page like a big red mark. I found myself thinking, if I could figure out how this ties in, the ending would make so make sense…and all I have to do iss go back to the beginning AND READ THE BOOK OVER AGAIN. Aaaaaa!

    BTW, Julian, I’ve found your blog linked today on two very disparite sites, and combining those posts referenced with this one, I have to agree with commenter #6: I love the way you pay attention to detail; your insights are well worth reading.

    Comment by scythia — August 17, 2009 @ 10:10 am | Reply

  14. nice site,thanks for sharing.

    Comment by meniscus tear — May 20, 2011 @ 9:08 am | Reply


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