- Managing Information and Materiality in Infinite Jest and Running the Numbers
The second decade of the twenty-first century, as so many have already announced, carries us deeper into a state of information saturation. Call it “information overload” or “infotopia,” following Cass Sunstein (Infotopia: How Many Minds Produce Knowledge ).1 “Infowhelm” or the attendant pathology of “information fatigue,” first defined by the Oxford English Dictionary in 2009 as “[a]pathy, indifference, or mental exhaustion arising from exposure to too much information” (“Information fatigue”). For contemporary artists, information is both theme and raw material. The abundance of data available about everything from the meal an acquaintance had last night to faraway drought conditions is a boon to some artists, while to others, it is an encumbrance. For artists with social and environmental agendas, information poses concerns about the ethics and politics of the representational strategies they use to manage it. Should a cultural work reproduce the sensations of information saturation? Should it instead depict the singular and specific as an antidote to the aggregate? Should it detail the material conditions behind the data?
No one cultural form shoulders the full burden of disseminating information to media consumers today. In movies and maps, verse and visualizations, artists experiment with the aesthetics of information management as an end in itself and as a spur to social, political, and environmental critique. With their varying media commitments, David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest (1996) and Chris Jordan’s series of information visualizations, Running the Numbers (2006–) exemplify efforts to give form to the infowhelm. Moving between page [End Page 742] and screen, this essay establishes that representational strategies such as focalization and framing encode ethical relations to materialities. Wallace’s and Jordan’s works participate in the current frenzy to collect and marshal information in all domains of life, but they resist a cultural tendency today to supplant materialities with information packets and to flatten the multidimensionality of datasets. Using representational strategies that hold diverse forms of data in tension, Jordan and Wallace activate information as a conduit to social and environmental realities. They draw coordinates between humans, information, and nonhuman matter to assert human technological and cognitive mastery, as in Running the Numbers, or to display but undercut such command, as in Infinite Jest.
Their strategies for drawing these coordinates fall under the broader analytical category of description. The descriptive function as a locus for information management commands a high premium at a time when data overload meets environmental and social exigencies such as ecosystemic degradation due to hyper-consumerism.2 Description is a unit of aesthetic composition and analysis that productively focuses interpretation of works such as Wallace’s and Jordan’s which entertain the material ethics of socioenvironmental endangerment. Both artists detail waste to gain ingress into this ethics. As unwanted stuff, trash asserts its materiality until it leaves our sights and is either forgotten or converted into a piece of data for municipal accounting. While Patricia Yaeger is correct in identifying the appeal of waste for contemporary artists who are reclaiming its value, Infinite Jest and Running the Numbers demonstrate that this reclamation is fraught. The “detritus aesthetic,” as Yaeger terms it, is certainly in evidence on the shelves of bookstores and on gallery walls, but cultural producers and critics are not content to revel in filth and instead use it to parse the thorny ethics of contemporary consumer life (327). Wallace and Jordan treat trash as packets of information in a climate where information risks becoming so much garbage. Their cultural experiments express the anxieties of overload, but rather than capitulate to those anxieties, they aestheticize the excesses of data and junk alike to open thought on interchanges between the human and nonhuman.
Crossing the registers of information and trash, these artists also upgrade questions that environmental writers and critics have traditionally asked about how to close the seam between textuality and materiality. Ecocriticism first consolidated around the genre of nature writing and made the distance between words and earth one of its preoccupations. For Lawrence Buell, the “meta-question of how to construe the relation between the world of a text and the world of...