Brain Pickings

3 Ways to Visualize the David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest

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What dotted lines have to do with telenovelas, pop culture reverence and analog GPS.

David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, a favorite book of many, is the kind of genre-bender that will thwart your mind with its convoluted narrative, plethora of allusions and cultural references, and multilateral connections between the characters. Navigating its maze of relationships and 400 footnotes could drive even the most seasoned literary disentanglers up the reading room wall.

So today, we look at three visual efforts to deconstruct the iconic novel.

INFINITE JEST CHARACTER FLOWCHART

To illuminate the essential points of the novel’s plot, German designer Jonny set out to flowchart the novel’s most essential characters, revealing an amusingly complex ecosystem that’s part Shakespearean play, part Mexican telenovela.

GEOLOCATION PHOTO TOUR

If the characters aren’t enough of a brilliant mess for you, David Foster Wallace adds another layer of confusion with a slew of locations that would send any GPS spinning. One brave Infinite Jest reader decided to take a tour of Boston, photographing all the locations mentioned in the book, then plotting them on a map.

INFINITE JEST CHARACTER DIAGRAM

From designer Sam Potts comes another visualization of the relationships between the characters, this time in the form of a diagram.

It’s really, really hard to know where exactly to delimit the Great Concavity. Where the novel is vague, a map must be specific, even when it is being demapped. I did the best that makes sense to me.” ~ Sam Potts

Since family is an important theme in the novel, a dotted line represents additional metadata showing a family connection.

The reverence in the designer’s tone as he explicitly points out that the diagram is no substitute for actually reading the novel bespeaks the height of the pedestal Infinite Jest has erected for itself in pop culture:

The best I can hope for in terms of this diagram’s relationship to Infinite Jest is that it’s a) as accurate as I could make it and b) a reminder of the seemingly endless details and pleasures to be found in Wallace’s masterpiece.” ~ Sam Potts

The poster is available as a free downloadable PDF and sold as a 36″ x 24″ print on 80# Lynx Opaque paper for a well-justified $20.

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Dust Serenade: Interactive MIT Installation Honors Sound Science Pioneer

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In the latter part of the 1800s, German physicist August Kundt devised an ingenious experiment that allowed him to measure the speed of sound in different gases by visualizing its longitudinal waves through fine lycopodium dust — an idea inspired by another German physicist, Ernst Chladni, who in the late 1700s famously visualized sound in solid materials in his seminal sand figures. (Because, as we’ve learned, all creativity builds on what came before.)

This year, a duo of MIT students, Dietmar Offenhuber and Orkan Telhan, and Austrian sound artist Markus Decker teamed up to reenact Kundt’s acoustic experiment in Dust Serenade — an interactive installation consisting of tubes filled with scraps of words and letters — “cut-up theory,” a play on the empirical bravery that made Kandt revolutionary in an era of theoretical inquiry — which turn into figures of dust as sound waves touch them. Viewers can manipulate the frequency of the sound by swiveling a rod to create different sound harmonies, which in turn reconfigure the text in different ways.

‘Dust Serenade’ intends to remind us the materiality of sound. We invite visitors to rethink about the tension between their theoretical knowledge and the sensory experience.”

The project was funded by MIT’s Council for the Arts and the Austrian Federal Ministry for Education, Arts and Culture. It is currently on exhibition at the rather wonderful MIT Museum until December 24 — do stop by if you get a chance.

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Atlas of the Transatlantic Slave Trade

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Slavery is one of humanity’s gnarliest, most shameful scars. So uncomfortable is the subject that we rarely glide past the mandatory history class checklists. But understanding the complex mechanisms and historical contexts of slavery is key to grappling with everything from contemporary race dynamics to modern-day slavery like human trafficking and labor exploitation. Atlas of the Transatlantic Slave Trade offers a fascinating record of the mass abduction and abuse of an estimated 12.5 million Africans traded with just about every country bordering the Atlantic between 1501 and 1867.

Overview of the slave trade out of Africa, 1500-1900

Volume and direction of the transatlantic slave trade from all African to all American regions

The book, authored by leading historians David Eltis and David Richardson, features nearly 200 original maps from Emory University’s Voyages: The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, an online portal covering a range of unsuspected factors that played a role in the development of the slave trade ranging from the topography of coastal areas to the migration of sugar cultivation.

Migration of sugar cultivation from Asia into the Atlantic

Atlas of the Transatlantic Slave Trade has been called the Rosetta Stone of slave historiography. But, more than that, it’s a compelling example of something we believe will be of growing importance in the coming years — the cultural value of database-driven storytelling, an increasingly fertile intersection of science and the humanities.

In 2010, we spent more than 4,500 hours bringing you Brain Pickings. If you found any joy and inspiration here this year, please consider supporting us with a modest donation — it lets us know we’re doing something right and helps pay the bills.





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How Music Works

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What Stanley Kubrick has to do with Medieval harmonies and universal lullabies.

Music. It’s hard to imagine life without it. How flat would a world be where films have no scores, birthdays no ‘Happy Birthday,’ Christmas no carols, gym workouts no playlists? Music is so ubiquitous and affects us so deeply, so powerfully. But how much do we really know about it? How well do we understand its emotional hold on our brains? How Music Works, a fascinating program from BBC4 (the same folks who brought us The End of God?: A Horizon Guide to Science and Religion), explores just that.

Composer Howard Goodall takes us on a journey into music’s underbelly, examining the four basic elements that make it work: Melody, rhythm, harmony and bass.

Melody is music’s most powerful tool when it comes to touching our emotions. Our mothers sing lullabies to us when we’re infants and tests have shown that we can even, as babies, recognize tunes that we heard in he womb.”

Every music system in the world shares these five notes in common. Indeed, they’re so fundamental to every note composed or performed anywhere on the planet that it seems, like our instinct for language, that they were pre-installed in us when we were born. These five notes a human genetic inheritance, like the fingers on our hands.”

Catch the four remaining parts of Melody here: 2, 3, 4, 5.

Rhythm is the part of music that interacts most immediately and spontaneously with our bodies. Without it, music would be pleasant enough, but it would be brain food. With rhythm, though, music becomes hypnotic and sensuous.”

The rest of Rhythm here: 2, 3, 4, 5.

Unlike rhythm and melody, harmony wasn’t part of music from the beginning. It’s an upstart. It came into life gradually during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. But what an upstart!”

Harmony continues here: 2, 4, 5. (Alas, Part 3 has been gobbled up by copyright claims — even though the series is not available on DVD or in any purchasable format. Such is the disposition of copyright Nazis — far from merely ensuring that creators are compensated for their work, they’d rather let a cultural artifact rot in obscurity than reach is wide-eyed audience. UPDATE: Here’s part 3 — thanks, AJ.)

One of [the] most distinguishing features [of the opening theme from Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey] — and one that’s been imitated by thousands of science fiction, thriller and horror movie scores — is the long-held bass note that begins it. It’s awesome: Bottom C. It’s big, it’s deep and it’s powerful. And it came to stand in our minds for a sense of menace, or wonder, or infinity. Just this one note. But there are loads of examples of bass lines that give a piece of music its style and its shape.”

The rest of Bass can be found here: 2, 3, 4, 5.

For an even more fascinating look at the DNA of music, we highly recommend Goodall’s Big Bangs, which explores the history of five epic discoveries — notation, equal temperament, opera, the piano and recorded sound — that forever changed the course of Western music.

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Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.