The Subject and the Self in Don DeLillo’s Zero K

“But am I who I was”

                                                              – “Does it matter?

Don DeLillo’s novel Zero K follows the protagonist, Jeffrey, to the deserts of Central Asia in an underground facility called the Convergence that promises to relive humankind from the problems of mortality. After a conversation with his estranged father and billionaire Ross Lockhart, Jeff learns that this is going to be achieved by cryogenically freezing bodies in pods in an attempt to “reduce death to a cultural artifact” (DeLillo) so that the individual may achieve a “pure self” – unmediated by historical processes and entrenched conceptual categories.

At the heart of the Convergence, however, lies a sort of ideological violence.  The readers realise at the same time as the narrator does, that “the dead do not sign up before hand and then die […] They come here to die.” (DeLillo, 96) The escape from mortality then, is necessarily only available through its antithesis. However, death followed by the promise of a more advanced sense of self is not simply a ‘choice’ to “fill in the blanks on the application form” (DeLillo, 76), as the ‘Stenmark’ twins –the brains behind the operation-want the audience to believe. It is pregnant instead, with a politics of control that strips individuals of any agency and leads them to emerge as subjects.

The Convergence claims to deliver the promise of organised religion, “life ahead, beyond the last breath” (DeLillo, 64) without the overt acts of “submission, obedience and worship,” (DeLillo, 65) but it operates through the same structures of authority and power and exerts ideological control through ‘belief’ the way any ideological apparatus does. The audience is free only in so far as they have the illusion of a choice, but they are already saturated by anthropocentric fears and desires that the Stenmarks tap into and that allow the Convergence to exist in the first place. There is no empirical evidence throughout the novel to convince those entering the pods that they will ever come out of it ‘alive’ yet they enter them, funnily enough, to be “born into a deeper and truer reality [where the] senses (thus empirically measurable phenomena) will have to take precedence” (DeLillo, 46). But it is not after the Stenmarks market immortality that the audience chooses to believe it and becomes interpolated subjects – They chose to believe it, precisely because they already are subjects. Belief in the absence empirical proof is the necessary precondition of ideological violence to be able operate upon individuals and collectives. Much like

 “the Christian believer who does not believe in Christ because he has been convinced by theological arguments but is susceptible to theological arguments because he is already illuminated by the grace of belief” (Zizek).

This is precisely why Stenmarks (largely) succeed in their operation –they present the idea of a ‘post-ideological’ society that is convincing enough because of its inherent lack, its impossibility and thus its infallible success. For “in a universe in which all are looking for the true face beneath the mask, the best way to lead them astray is to wear the mask of truth itself.” (Zizek)

Ideology also operates through surveillance and the excess of simulacra on the screens. There would be something overtly perverse and almost redundant if the images were of past instances of destruction around the world. Instead they show what could happen to those who do not choose to enter the pods. Merely the threat of a future characterized by a lack of control is strong enough to enable visual representation to motivate desired choices. Jeffery wonders at different points in the novel if there are hidden cameras in the facility that monitor the way bodies function. The policing of the body reaches its logical extreme in the pods with the human body “enters a machinery of power that explores it, breaks it down and rearranges it […]and produces subjected and participated bodies” (Foucault).

Bodies atomised

The Convergence not only sells the idea of immortality through ideological violence but, I would argue, it is also inherently capitalist in nature – operating through alienation and objectification. It is not death but the pods that systematically decentralize socially formed identities resulting in a vague form of stream of consciousness that cannot establish its sense of self because recognition by the other is a necessary precondition for man to constitute himself. The bodies are not just separated and atomized but the re-affirmation of Cartesian dualities is so strong that the ‘consciousness’ cannot be certain of the existence of its own body as an ‘other’ against which it could metaphysically justify its existence. These dualities are further established when Jeffery learns that in certain instances the brains are separated from the body to be “colonised by nanobots” (DeLillo, 71). Moreover, any semblance of the self that might emerge out of the pods is completely at the mercy of the Convergence, so much so, that the narrator wonders if what they are looking towards is a “controlled future, men and woman being subordinated, willingly or not, to some form of centralized command” (DeLillo).

Woman inside a pod

Throughout novel the narrator feels the need to assert his presence and defend himself. This is most obvious when he is in his room saying the name of everything he sees out loud. But “language is constituted by difference” (Derrida), something that DeLillo forces the readers to confront when the narrator recalling his childhood explains how every word in the dictionary only deferred him to the other – then there exists no inherent meaning in signifiers, it is completely symbolic. Interestingly, one of the aims of the Convergence is to access “a language that will help [humankind] express what [it] can’t express now” (DeLillo, 72) and combat its “structural redundancy”. Once inside the pod however, Artis’s ‘consciousness’ struggles to come to an understanding of the self through language, through words, as she tries to ‘see the words’. However the Convergence threatens both Jeffery and her with a radical erasure of identity. It functions as the site of the collapse of the universal boundaries of spatiality and temporality- while Jeff finds himself spatially isolated and experiences temporal blurs, Artis’s body inside the pod, exist ‘outside history’ (DeLillo). The spatial-temporal imbalance no longer allows the self to constitute itself through language because the familiar reference points that construct symbolic order are no longer available. Identity loses itself in the perpetuating gap between the signifier and the signified and the self is no longer complicit in its existence. The question then, that I suppose DeLillo wants his reads to ask is that is whether it is possible to have a ‘pure self’ without knowing what it means to exist.

Bibliography

DeLillo, Don. Zero K. Picador 2016

Derrida, Jacques. Writing and Difference. Routledge Classics 2001.

Foucault, Michele. ‘Disciple and Punish’. The Foucault Reader. Edited by Paul Rabinow. 1991.

Hawkes, David. Ideology. Routledge. 1996.

Zizek, Slavoj. The sublime object of Ideology. Verso, 1989.

Photo Credit

Image 1

Bodies Frozen in Pods

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Image 2

Eleventh Hour- They Freeze Only Heads, by

<https://www.google.co.uk/url?sa=i&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=images&cd=&cad=rja&uact=8&ved=0ahUKEwjft8-wtIrTAhWL7xQKHQVuA_IQjRwIBw&url=http%3A%2F%2Fblogs.discovermagazine.com%2Fsciencenotfiction%2F2008%2F11%2F14%2Feleventh-hour-they-only-freeze-the-heads%2F&psig=AFQjCNEtQW7DJpxI6gxFH5yT8Dlk6cFuMg&ust=1491381382802529>

 

6 thoughts on “The Subject and the Self in Don DeLillo’s Zero K

  1. Hi Devika,

    Really enjoyed the blog. Your comments above got me thinking about the nature of art and language within the novel, more precisely the limits and stresses of the power of language to converge with death. Would you say that the inherent artistry of The Convergence and its depictions of its life-beyond-death mandate contradict one another? What I mean to say is that given the importance of media and images within the Convergence’s ideological matrix, and the apparent importance it places on the artisanal nature of their project, is there an underlying inability for art to access beyond life, as conveyed through Artis’ confrontation with her death and afterlife and the destruction of her selfhood? If so, does that mean the entirety of The Convergence’s endeavour and its dreams of a ‘pure self’ act out the destruction of art and language?

    -Paul

  2. Hi Devika,

    Really great blog! I found particularly interesting the part about the Stenmarks ability to play on their patient’s fears and desires:

    “The audience is free only in so far as they have the illusion of a choice, but they are already saturated by anthropocentric fears and desires that the Stenmarks tap into and that allow the Convergence to exist in the first place.”

    I was wondering how do you think the Stenmark’s use of art in their facility plays into this? Is it constructed in such a way that it taps into fears even moreso? Or does the art provide a positive environment that encourages patients to consider being frozen cryogenically?

    I was also wondering how do you think Don DeDillo engages with art? Is he making a critique of art, or is he suggesting its power to affect the viewer?

    Zara

  3. Hi Paul!

    Thanks for your question!

    I will answer it in two parts, if that is okay.

    In response to whether, “there is an underlying inability for art to access beyond life, as conveyed through Artis’s confrontation with her death and afterlife and the destruction of her selfhood” I would say that perhaps when analysing this text, one should make a distinction between art and language. There is certainly an inability for language to access the ‘beyond life’ as I have mentioned in the post. Principally because it is constituted by an inherent lack- a gap between the signifier and signified. However, the art within the Convergence- for instance, the images on the screen that function as the ideological project – does access the beyond life in so far as it motivates the very endeavor of attempting to create a ‘life after pod’. This emerges as a kind of ideological access in itself. (I hope I make sense?)

    While Artis is unable to access language when she is in the pod and is alienated from her-self because the self in the ‘symbolic order’, is constituted principally through language, she nonetheless, remains immersed in art- she is the content that inhabits the form, becoming art herself. In the novel there is a deliberate attempt to preserve language, and to achieve a kind of perfect language that blurs the gap between the signifier and the signified…this is not the case with art. There is a hope/assumption on that its very ontological nature (its endurance) will allow it to continue into the beyond life. Art that functioning through ideology then, accesses the ‘after life’ and I think that is precisely because DeLillo creates a very distinctly postmodern society in which another alternative- life separated from art- is unimaginable.

    Your question, “Would you say that the inherent artistry of The Convergence and its depictions of its life-beyond-death mandate contradict one another?” lends itself very well to raise questions about the ideas of ‘form’ and ‘content’, which I am aware, challenge my previous argument about the endurance and reliability of art. Art does spill into the beyond life in so far as it sustains it ideologically and functionally i.e. the screens and the pods sustaining the bodies. However, the very form of the Convergence- the long empty corridors, the rooms that open to nowhere, are reminiscent of the lack in language- they theoretically function signifiers that, in leading nowhere, betray their eternal ‘difference’ and thus the probable failure of its content. Then, the alienating nature of form, its artifice (that Jeffery is very conscious of in the novel) might point to the deceit or the gap in the content so that the Convergence emerges as the mere imitation of a desired life with no grounding in reality. Perhaps then, the attempt to attain immortality is also futile and already lost- consequently highlighting the impossibility of the entire operation. The ‘inherent artistry’ of the form Convergence then does question its ideological project and sustains the probable impossibility of the ‘life-beyond-death mandate’.

    I hope I answered your question?

    Devika

  4. Hi Zara,

    Thank you for your question!

    DeLillo’s engagement with art, I think, is one of acknowledgement. He recognizes its enduring nature and as you write ‘the power to affect the viewer’. However, I think what convinces that audience is not so much the facility (you could see my response to Paul’s question where I have explained the relationship between its form and content). It is in fact is the rhetoric of the Stenmarks. This is mostly because the audience is already willing to be convinced by its possibility- it is seductive enough. This is interesting because the very language that convinces them, reveals its imperfections once individuals are inside the pod.

    I wouldn’t say that anything in the Convergence provides a positive environment (except it perhaps functions as a space that enables an almost forced confrontation between estranged father and son and allows Jeffery to ponder over certain existential questions). It does however offer a lot of ideological conditioning, but then one can argue that that might be the best kind of ‘positive environment’ the audience can hope for, in so far as it does not allow them to break out of certain comfortable entrenched moralities and breaking out of any kind of ideological matrix that makes one complicit can be a painful experience. The Stenmarks’ use of art -the images on the screen function as ideological simulacra feeding the fears of destruction and death that permeate the unconscious of every individual – leads the audience to perpetuate the desire for immortality and believe in its possibility. However, I would argue that the art in the ideological apparatus of the facility functions through fear and unquestioning belief rather than a sort of comfortable, positive faith in the project.

    I hope this helps?

    Devika

  5. Hi Devika,

    I really liked your blog post – you’ve picked up on a lot of things I found interesting in DeLillo’s novel and this has definitely enhanced my own reading of the text.

    Your use of the term ‘ideological violence’ to refer to the text seems particularly appropriate, as the Convergence appears to be a sort of quasi-religious institute that has none of the objectivity we would expect of a science laboratory.

    I found the following section of your blog very interesting:

    “The Convergence claims to deliver the promise of organised religion, “life ahead, beyond the last breath” (DeLillo, 64) without the overt acts of “submission, obedience and worship,” (DeLillo, 65) but it operates through the same structures of authority and power and exerts ideological control through ‘belief’ the way any ideological apparatus does.”

    You also include a highly provocative quote from Zizek, who states that “in a universe in which all are looking for the true face beneath the mask, the best way to lead them astray is to wear the mask of truth itself.” (Zizek)

    Science is typically considered to be a value-free practice of detached objectivity, a pragmatic intellectual discipline necessary for the advancement of the human race; however, in Zero K DeLillo parodies this notion, pointing up the ideological forces and capitalist interests at work in the Covergence. The antithesis of science is typically considered to be art, however in DeLillo’s novel the two merge, blurring the distinction between the objective and subjective.

    I would be interested to hear your thoughts on DeLillo’s treatment of these competing forces of objective and subjective truth. To DeLillo, is truth always a mask? Is a ‘post-ideological’ society possible?

    Caitriona

    1. Hi Caitriona,

      Thank you for your comment, it definitely is thought provoking.

      If I may, I would disagree with that idea that you present, “Science is typically considered to be a value-free practice of detached objectivity, a pragmatic intellectual discipline necessary for the advancement of the human race”. I would argue that science inherently fetishizes an idea of a ‘telos’, a necessarily forward progression that is expected to advance in the direction of a certain goal (even if it may be for the benefit of the human race). DeLillo explains this through the concept of the pod and the idea of a ‘life after pod’. Capitalism too is predicated upon this understanding as it operates with an expectation of a certain goal, that is usually material (which is ontologically, empirically conformed) to its operation. Science does the same and hence might further, not necessarily be “value free” (pun intended) because it is inundated with a certain entrenched morality – an unmediated preference of empiricism, a reluctance to accept that which might potentially transcend or not fall within the visible or logically explainable coordinates of empirical determinism. Its nature is capitalistic, in so far as materiality and teleology are inherent to it even before it is consumed by a capitalistic monopoly of the neo-liberal society, as it is in DeLillo’s text. Science appears objective, because it validates itself through empiricism, but this itself can be understood as a subjective preference, albeit one it cannot escape from because its nature and existence is predicated upon it. What might then appear as his parody of the notion of an objective truth, is in fact an acute observation that lays bare the antithesis that paradoxically aids its construction.

      A post ideological society is essentially predicated on the idea that there is no antithesis for the universal-metanarratives (in this case concentrated in the disciplines of science and art operating through a capitalistic endeavour), no internal constituent that could contradict their functioning and hence reveal how ideology operates. This a logical fallacy, because as I have explained, the idea of an ‘objective’ truth in itself is problematic in the first place. In contemporary society, science and art often function as an antithesis of each other. Even if they do merge, as they do in the novel, their natures function as a internal symptom that destabilises the other’s claim to an unmediated, ideology-free reality.

      I hope this helps!

      Devika

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