“To be seen or not seen”: Art and Artifice in Don DeLillo’s ‘Zero K’

At 79 years old at the time of writing, it seems fitting that death looms large for Don DeLillo in his most recent novel, Zero K. Fitting also is DeLillo’s pseudo-scientific subject matter in an era driven by high-techological consumerism and the concomitant concerns regarding the potentially insidious role technology may play in our future.

“All plots move deathward” (221) DeLillo wrote in LibraZero K, however, “reverse[s] the text” (128), beginning with death as its subject and never leaving it. In Zero K death is not thematically revealed through plot, but takes center stage from the outset as DeLillo gets his teeth into the great existential debate of cryogenic freezing, whereby wealthy patrons can come to a scientific facility called Convergence to “Rewrite the sad grim grieving playscript of death in the usual manner” (76).

Critical responses thus far have tended to see Zero K in biographical terms as a repository for an ageing DeLillo’s own time-end meditations, or as prophecy of our society’s movement towards so-called “faith-based technology”(9). While there is certainly much ground to cover on both of these subjects, I would suggest that the novel’s central question has less to do with death or the sciences, and a great deal more to do with the position of art itself in the postmodern world – a question, perhaps, all the more intensely pondered by man acutely aware of the reality that his art will outlive him.

As a facility, Convergence lies somewhere between a laboratory, a chapel, and an avant-garde art installation, described as “a model of shape and form, a wilderness of vision, all lines and angles and jutted wings” (229). DeLillo’s protagonist, Jeffrey, leads us through a series of bare, sterile rooms and endless halls with pastel doors that appear to open on to nowhere. Jeffrey is keenly aware of the artifice of the whole spectacle, remarking on the “museum quality” (122) of the carefully constructed walled garden and asking the man he meets if he thinks the garden “suggests a kind of mockery” (123).

Indeed, this sense of fabrication and imitation is embodied by the very characters themselves: Ross and Jeffrey Lockhart carry a borrowed name whimsically chosen, while Ross’ wife – the archaeologist who leaves behind a life of uncovering the past for a presumed future – is saddled with the most obviously loaded first name, ‘Artis’. DeLillo’s choice of title also reveals much about his conception of the novel as a cultural artifact, “Zero K” being in itself a stylisation based on a scientific phenomena which is not even part of the cryogenic process: “The term, then, was pure drama” (143).

In all the novel’s self-aware artifice, DeLillo is engaging with postmodern theories of art and images, such as that of Signs and Simulacra in which Jean Baudrillard argues that we live in a state of hyperreality and can no longer distinguish reality from simulation.

“Simulation is no longer a referential being or a substance. It is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreality.” (Baudrillard I)

The notion of hyperreality is explored in the novel through the screens in the Convergence hallways, projecting a torrent of images of catastrophe. The introduction of these images to the story raises powerful questions of how violent images become embedded into our culture to the point of desensitization. Vietnam Monk

Jeffrey, although frequently overwhelmed by what he perceives to be his “role” to “watch whatever they put in front of [him]” (139), recognizes that these images are exactly that: “computer generated, none of it real” (152). Artis, too, is aware of this and it is precisely to escape this indefinite “referral of signifier to signified” (Derrida 25) that she turns to Convergence.

“We’re seeing only imitations. The rest is our intervention, our way of constructing what is actual, if there is any such thing, philosophically, that we can call actual.” (45)

The Convergence promises that its subjects will be reborn into a “deeper and truer reality”, with a new language based on “objective truth” (130).  In this way, DeLillo’s conception of Convergence presents an imagined escape from the intellectual cul-de-sac of postmodernism and its trappings of self-referentiality. Yet Artis’ soliloquy following her ‘death’ points up the utter fallacy of the Utopian notion of objective truth altogether: in her disembodied state the language her consciousness calls up is divorced from any meaning and exists only as words in the ether, “open prose of a third-person voice that is also her voice” (272).

In Zero K DeLillo comes to largely ignore the many debates initially posed by his science-fiction premise. Instead, he sets out to question the very nature of art itself, setting it up against science and death only to reclaim it as a means of representing and organizing reality. As DeLillo himself stated, “art is one of the consolation prizes we receive for having lived in a difficult and sometimes chaotic world” (qtd DeCurits 74). There is no beauty to be found in death, no art, and it is with this assurance that the novel comes to a close – with the rejection of “heaven’s light” (274) and the abundantly alive cries of a young boy.

Citations

Baudrillad, Jean. Signs and Simulacra. Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 1994.

DeCurtis, Anthony. “An Outsider in this Society: An Interview with Don DeLillo”. Conversations With Don DeLillo. Ed. Thomas DePietro. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1995.

DeLillo, Don. Zero K. London: Picador, 2016.

DeLillo, Don. Libra. London: Penguin, 1989.

Derrida, Jacques. Of Grammatology. Trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. John Hopkins University Press: Baltimore, 1976.

Image Citations

Browne, Malcolm. “The Burning Monk”. Rare Historical Photos. 2nd April 2017 http://rarehistoricalphotos.com/the-burning-monk-1963/

7 thoughts on ““To be seen or not seen”: Art and Artifice in Don DeLillo’s ‘Zero K’

  1. Hi Caitriona,

    Really loved your blog. It covers some really thought provoking ideas!

    I found interesting the possibility that the novel could work as a:

    “prophecy of our society’s movement towards so-called, ‘faith-based technology’ (9).”

    Do you feel there are any interesting instances in the novel that give rise to this idea of faith? If so, do they seem critical of faith and its ideal of an afterlife? Or are they more critical about the technology-based version of afterlife?

    Looking forward to your response,
    Zara

    1. Hi Zara,

      Thank you for your comment, and for giving me the opportunity to talk about one of my favourite concepts in the book!

      You rightly bring up the notion of the afterlife in relation to human death and religious faith, however I would like to take a broader definition of ‘afterlife’ to refer to the lives of art and literature once their creator has passed on. Ross touches on such ideas in Chapter 10 of the novel’s first half:

      “People getting older become more fond of objects. I think this is true. particular things. A leather-bound book, a piece of furniture, a photograph, a painting, the frame that holds the painting. These things make the past seem permanent. A baseball signed by a famous player, long dead” (150).

      In my blog post I quoted a statement made by DeLillo in Libra: “All plots move deathward” (221). In Zero K, however, DeLillo complicates this: because of the work of the Convergence, the plot doesn’t have to end in death, it can exist in a kind of suspended life. The first person we see be cryogenically frozen in the Convergence is called ‘Artis’ – one letter away from being ‘Artist’ and, in Latin, genitive of ‘ars’, meaning ‘art’ (http://latin-dictionary.net/search/latin/artis).

      The bodies frozen in the Convergence are presented as if pieces of art on display in a museum. Upon visiting the Zero K facility, Jeffrey remarks upon a group of cryogenically frozen bodies as a kind of “Tableau vivant” (140) and states that he “wanted to see beauty in these stilled figures” (146). I believe, then, that DeLillo uses the physical afterlife promised by the Convergence to explore the afterlife of literature: the Convergence is presented as a striving for a kind of idealised form of art that is immortal, immutable, as Jeffrey states: “This was transcendence, the promise of a lyric intensity outside the measure of normal experience” (47-8).

      It is, however, the beauty of this “normal experience” that I believe DeLillo comes to endorse in Zero K. The “immortal language” that Artis speaks in her cryogenically suspended state is hollow and meaningless because literature cannot be eternal, immutable, capable of evading human appropriation, unless it is divorced from all human context – unless it becomes something totally antithetical to literature.

      Death and the steady march of time, then, is presented not as something to be overcome through quasi-religious promises of eternity, but the very essence of human experience – what ultimately makes life, and art, beautiful.

      DeLillo urges us to “Know the moment” (200), which is exactly what Jeffrey comes to do in the novel’s close. In the final chapter of the book, Jeffrey is on a bus travelling “west to east” (273), symbolically moving towards God, when he witnesses a stunning solar display. He is more fascinated however, by the cries of a young boy.

      At this moment, Jeffrey thinks of his father telling him “that everybody wants to own the end of the world” (274), the same sentiment with which the novel opened. But Jeffrey doesn’t want to own the end of the world, and nor does DeLillo.

      Perhaps DeLillo’s literature does have some timeless themes, but it is susceptible to the same misinterpretations and misappropriations that all literature is. Zero K, then, serves as a rejection of an idealised conception of the afterlife — whether actual or metaphorical— and an endorsement of life itself, in all its peculiarities.

      I hope this answers your question (and wasn’t terribly tangential!). Do let me know if you have any further thoughts.

      Caitriona

  2. Hi Catriona,

    Likewise, I really loved the blog.

    You noted that, “The introduction of these images to the story raises powerful questions of how violent images become embedded into our culture to the point of desensitization” and it is this notion of desensitization that I wanted to query. Do you think that the goal of The Convergence, the need for the everlasting human, is a response to this desensitization, not only of violent images, but of art itself? You raised issues of postmodern interpretations of art for art’s sake, and it got me wondering whether the forever human is a direct result of waning, moment-to-moment artistic expression and how fleeting it can be.

    Looking forward to your response!

    -Paul

    1. Hi Paul,

      Thanks for your comment!

      In short, yes, I do think the Convergence is presented as a possible escape from the everyday radical play of simulations. However, I think DeLillo evokes this notion only to criticise it.

      Becoming part of the Convergence is presented as an attempt to overcome ephemerality. It is a vision of the future in which “death will become unacceptable” (66). I won’t get into the uncertainty inherent in the scientific process itself (what if there is a monumental natural disaster? Or the Convergence runs out of funding? Or the revival process simply doesn’t work?), but it is worth considering that the process involved in creating the forever human is far from infallible.

      I think DeLillo parodies the notion of setting up art as something concrete and immutable against the fragility of the human being. Art is not a fixed entity, but a system of unstable referrals of signifier to signified, an inconsistent process. No work of art is the thing in itself, it is bound up in the semiotics of the thing.

      If the creation of the forever human is an attempt to escape this system of referral and to produce a more objective form of reality, it is a particularly bad one in that the human body must essentially die and become an artifact itself, a still life, an inert piece of matter for us to speculate over.

      Caitriona

  3. Hi Caitriona!

    Loved reading your blog! It made me consider many ideas that I hadn’t really looked into much in my post!

    You wrote the “the novel’s central question has […] to do with the position of art in the postmodern world”, one that is “pondered by man acutely aware of the reality that his art will outlive him.” Do you think this awareness elevates art to the position of becoming the only tangible reference point that seems to be able to escape temporality, thus making it what a contemporary models itself after? Quoting Baudrillard you wrote, “we live in a state of hyperreality and can no longer distinguish reality from simulation” which I thought was extremely interesting. Does this allow us to wonder whether in a post modern world, life begins to imitate art? Is there a way to break out of such conditioning and, should one want to?

    I would like to know what you think.

    -Devika

    1. Hi Devika,

      You’ve put forward some really thought-provoking questions here.

      To answer your question regarding the contemporary as a mode of writing that can escape temporality, I think that in Zero K DeLillo recognises the potential of art to outlive its creator, but I believe he is rather cynical of the fetishisation of this immortality.

      To elaborate, I would like to discuss the positions of the three main male characters in the novel regarding temporality.

      Firstly, we have Ross Lockhart, whose declaration opens the novel: “Everybody wants to own the end of the world” (3). Ross, like Artis, decides to give up the present moment for the promised future of the Convergence, much to the dismay of his son. The Convergence is a project which seeks to exert human mastery over time, to “adjust[..] the future, moving it into our immediate timeframe” (66), to essentially “own the end of the world”.

      Ross is not “interested in history or technology or hailing a cab” (168). He is essentially the antithesis of the contemporary, so out of touch with the present moment that he wants to escape it completely.

      Then we have Stak, Emma’s adoptive Ukrainian son. If Ross is trying to escape the present moment, Stak is running directly towards it to participate in the rebellion. He is, as Nietzsche said, “consumed by the fever of history” (60) such that he cannot step back from the present moment to observe it.

      Finally, we have the novel’s protagonist, Jeffrey, whom I believe DeLillo articulates his own viewpoint through. Jeffrey is acutely aware of the desynchronisation of time in the Convergence and, upon leaving, he relishes in the ordered nature of the world. Yet, he still maintains a detached viewpoint from which he can comment on the world. He does not perfectly align himself with the present, but he isn’t totally out of joint: “I was outside the subject, almost always, whatever the subject was” (57).

      Although he seems to embody the contemporary, Jeffrey is also rather dubious of art’s claims to transcendence. He struggles through intense European novels, whose meanings have been obfuscated over time. In one particularly strange episode during a bizarre presentation by the Stenmark twins, Jeffrey performs a series of ape-like squat jumps, as if he is compelled to reconnect with his body when overwhelmed by abstraction; he urges us to “Know the moment” (200).

      Overall then, I believe DeLillo is very aware that his art will long outlive him, but is ambivalent about making immortality his aim.

      Regarding the idea of life imitating art, this notion is addressed in the novel through the bodies in the Convergence, who are frequently likened to pieces of art in a gallery – the “idealized human, encased” (258).

      Yet, there’s an irony in this: in order for life to imitate art, it has to all but die. Life gives up its qualities of liveliness, becomes a still-life.

      I believe DeLillo does present an escape from this in embracing the very physicality of life, in Jeffrey’s relishing of the young boy’s “prelinguistic grunts” and “cries of wonder” (274) at the novel’s close.

      There’s definitely a lot further ground to cover on both the points you have raised, however I hope I have teased out some ideas to illuminate future readings of the novel. Do let me know if you have any further thoughts!

      Caitriona

      Reference: Friedrich Nietzsche, “On The Uses and Abuses of History to Life,” in Untimely Medications, trans, R. J. Hollingdale. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 6o.

  4. Hi Caitriona,

    Wonderful blog! I actually have a question that spawns from these two portions of your text:

    “I would suggest that the novel’s central question has less to do with death or the sciences, and a great deal more to do with the position of art itself in the postmodern world”
    and
    “Instead, he sets out to question the very nature of art itself, setting it up against science and death only to reclaim it as a means of representing and organizing reality.”

    As I read the novel and especially now that I’ve distanced myself from it a little and have given it more thought, I wonder if DeLillo is pitting art against death in the novel. Death is just so pervasive in the novel; would it be possible to argue that DeLillo sees (as he definitely uses) death as art?

    Thank you,
    Kayla

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