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The Good Word — Samizdat

July 2, 2009

Samizdat first crops up on page 91 of Infinite Jest: “… the auteur we both know was responsible for the Entertainment in the first place. The samizdat.” The speaker here is Special Agent Steeply, which is particularly interesting given the word’s origins. From the OED:


[Russ., abbrev. of samoizdatel’stvo self-publishing house, f. samo- self + izdatel’stvo publishing house.] The clandestine or illegal copying and distribution of literature (orig. and chiefly in the U.S.S.R.); an “underground press”; a text or texts produced by this.

The word arises out of an atmosphere of government censorship and suppression. In Infinite Jest, it refers to the lethally-engrossing entertainment that the U.S. government, personified primarily by Agent Steeply, is trying to keep from the public. The word conjures up an image of a clandestine network of entertainment-seekers and -dealers analogous to the U.S.’s robust underground market in lethally-entertaining drugs and Substances.

I think the word itself fits nicely into Wallace’s arguments laid out in the Schtitto-Marathian critique: the U.S. is so addicted to self-gratification that it is plausible to imagine an entertainment to entertaining that it literally must be outlawed to protect the public from its own selfish desires. Is this really the case though? Is such an entertainment plausible? What does it say about that most cherished of American democratic virtues, personal freedom?

Also, note that one of the roots of “samizdat” is the Russian word for “self.” As in Himself? The contraband media published by Himself? Nice little bit of wordplay, there.

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