Andrew W. Mellon Undergraduate Fellow in the Humanities
2010—2011 Forum on Virtuality
‘Virtually Unlimited’: The Elusiveness of Reality in Infinite Jest
In his novel Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace depicts post-millennial America as the home of an endless number of virtualities, each of them threatening to become a life-consuming addiction. The most insidious of these is a virtual-reality film that is literally fatally entertaining, but the novel shows how nearly anything can become an addictive alternative to reality. Wallace examines our notion of the real with respect to mathematics in his pop-technical book about infinity, Everything and More. His humanistic meditation on infinity explores the intersection of the literary with the mathematical. He posits a distinction between “mathematically real” and “really real”—mathematics becomes the ultimate virtuality. The virtual, then, is not just the digital world that has emerged through recent technology; it is everything in thought and experience that supplants reality in our lives. The question Wallace asks is just what is that elusive displaced reality?