Law in the Internet Society

Autonomy Framed by Infinite Jest: "Children" & "Adults" in Pursuit of Pleasure


"But see that here it can't be a Fascist matter of screaming at the kid or giving him electric shocks each time he overindulges in candy. You can't induce a moral sensibility the same way you'd train a rat. The kid has to learn by his own experience how to learn to balance the short- and long-term pursuit of what he wants . . . He must be freely enlightened to self."

--Infinite Jest, p.429

David Foster Wallace's highly acclaimed novel, Infinite Jest, revolves around the unknown whereabouts of the master-copy of a film so seductive and pleasure-inducing that its viewers invariably lose all interest in anything other than its perpetual viewing (a scenario perhaps not entirely far-fetched). As a kind of psychological weapon of mass destruction, the captivating power of the film exposes a precarious tension between maintaining respect for freedom of "choice" in the Oh-so-American pursuit of happiness, sacrosanct on the one hand, and advocating for appropriate government intervention on the other, i.e., when the choices of an orphan citizenry beg for parental guidance -- when by reason of undue influence or moral turpitude the citizenry is deemed incapable of choosing for itself. Salty snacks for example.

Of course, this calls for an explanation of what terms like "choice," "freedom," and "autonomy" mean, a task which can leave even the fittest and most dexterous of minds exhausted and stretch-torn. Perhaps only in the contexts of outright coercion and total elimination of options is the issue of autonomy vs. unfreedom relatively simple:

"We don't force. It's exactly about not forcing, our history's genus. You [as an American] are entitled to your values of maximum pleasure. So long as you don't fuck with mine." --p.424

But arguably nary a case exists in which choice is not accompanied by at least some level of coercion. In other words, much of human decision-making derives its structure from extraneous, often social, pressures that are specifically designed to coerce. And depending on the magnitude of coercive pressure at play, an individual's capacity for resistance and autonomous choice-analysis will be tested to varying degrees. If individual autonomy, then, can be defined as an inverse function of coercion level, one can also imagine a full range of solutions, or mixtures, of autonomy relative to coercion, given more or less of each. The autonomy question, then, is one of miscibility: at what points does the coercion:autonomy ratio produce immiscible solutions -- point(s) where the coercion level is no longer soluble within a free-flow of autonomy? And given such varying ratios, when is strategic advertising aimed at Pizza-Hut-lovers who are known to become entranced by the comfort of heart-stopping hydrogenated cheese grease akin to dangling the "fatal fruit"? Are we all adults here, or do some temptations reduce us to children in need of government rescue?

"Now you will say how free are we if you dangle fatal fruit before us and we cannot help ourselves from temptation. And we say 'human' to you. We say that one cannot be human without freedom."

"Always with you this freedom! . . . as if it were obvious to all people what it wants to mean this word. But look: it is not so simple as that. Your freedom is the freedom from: no one tells your precious individual U.S.A. selves what they must do . . . . But what about the freedom to? Not just free from. Not all compulsions come from without . . . . How to choose any but a child's greedy choices if there is no loving-filled father to guide, inform, teach the person how to choose? How is there freedom to choose if one does not learn how to choose?" --p. 320

Consumer education and consumer protection, then, converge to define the debate over the pursuit of happiness. And given the implication that both miscibility variables -- autonomy and susceptibility to coercion -- are shaped by education, what then is the appropriate role of government, as adult, in shaping the decision-making process of the greedy child? To what extent should temptations and their advertisement be prohibited or at least mitigated by administrative regulations requiring brutally honest disclosure; to what extent should school curriculum function to indoctrinate/routinize cognitive decision-making algorithms of children from a ripe age; and to what extent can/should those algorithms be shaped to leave room for multiple and equally correct solutions to the same problem of choice (a kind of freedom via relativism)?

"This is the crux of the educational system you [anti-American people] find so appalling. Not to teach what to desire. To teach how to be free. To teach how to make knowledgeable choices about pleasure and delay and the kid's overall down-the-road maximal interests." --p. 429


"Get real. The Entertainment isn't candy or beer . . . You can't compare this kind of insidious enslaving process to your little cases of sugar and soup." --p. 430



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r8 - 27 Jan 2010 - 23:56:20 - JonathanBoyer
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