(click to enlarge panoramas)
David Foster Wallace never attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, but this famed research university facing the River Charles in Cambridge enjoys a much more prominent role in Infinite Jest than Harvard U., where he did (briefly) enroll. Yet there is arguably a biographical aspect to its placement in the novel.
As the split title of this entry is meant to suggest, there are actually two student unions in the story. If you’re one of the miserable “readers” who skipped the endnotes, then you missed the part about how the Stratton Center at 77 Massachusetts Ave. (pictured first above) was “gutted with C4 during the so-called M.I.T. Language Riots” of 1997, and replaced with a new student union at the corner of Ames and Memorial Drive (a real intersection, though it is occupied by another building still, pictured second).
The new M.I.T. Student Union is not just “one enormous cerebral cortex of reinforced concrete and polymer compounds”—in fact it is a “great hollow brain-frame” whose “soft latex-polymer roof is cerebrally domed,” pink and gray, and characterized by “bulbous convolutions.” Below this, “vitreally inflated balloon-eyes” hang by “twined blue cords from the second floor’s optic chiasmae to flank the wheelchair-accessible front ramp.” The effect is apparently sustained “down to the good old oblongata just outside the rubberized meatus at ground zero.” It is the work of the fictional architect V.F. Rickey, whose noted works include the Enfield Tennis Academy’s “cardioid” hilltop complex. If E.T.A. got the heart, and M.I.T. the brain, this Frank L. Baum riff could perhaps be extended (if very awkwardly, and only because there is no third Rickey building described) to Don Gately, who clearly got the nerve.
The fictional riots, most likely instigated by the “infamous” Militant Grammarians of Massachusetts, is said to have followed a heated on-campus debate between the real cognitive scientist Steven Pinker (formerly and now again a Harvard man, but an M.I.T. professor at the time this was written*) and Avril Mondragan Incandenza, a former M.I.T. instructor and fierce proponent prescriptive English usage. In the novel’s present day, she is the headmistress of E.T.A. and mother to some of the novel’s central characters. Her late husband, James Incandenza, was an M.I.T. graduate and once-Defense-backed optical physics whiz.
In her linguistic stridency, Avril bears a passing resemblance to the author’s own mother. Sally Foster Wallace, author of the very DFW-sounding Practically Painless English, is an ardent defender of linguistic prescription herself, though one can hardly picture Mrs. Wallace leading a group of rogue academics—the aforementioned Militant Grammarians—in harassing supermarket managers who dare to erect signs featuring “10 ITEMS OR LESS instead of OR FEWER.”
Other characters from the novel tie in closely with M.I.T. and its student union, most importantly the veiled Joelle van Dyne, who (minor spoiler) hosts a late-night radio show from deep in the recesses of its cranial cavity, introduced as “Sixty Minutes More Or Less With Madame Psychosis” on the school’s fictional WYYY-109—“Largest Whole Prime On The FM Band.”
The twin panoramas I present above are the real Stratton Student Center, which mercifully exists today and survived whatever linguistic violence may have befallen it in the past, and the Walker Memorial at the corner of Ames and Memorial Drive, which in fact houses numerous student offices—including the school’s real WMBR radio station. It doesn’t look much like a brain to me, and nor was it ever intended to. This is one campus that probably doesn’t need any cerebral amplification.
*This post initially neglected to mention that Pinker worked at M.I.T. between stints at Harvard. Infinite Boston regrets the error.