Tag Archives: delillo

“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/

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

<https://www.google.co.uk/url?sa=i&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=images&cd=&cad=rja&uact=8&ved=0ahUKEwj0ou3_t4rTAhVCthQKHV2oDacQjRwIBw&url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.pinterest.com%2Ftrenus%2Fcyberpunk-pod%2F&bvm=bv.151426398,d.ZGg&psig=AFQjCNE_iAXnWdsDR3_i8_AU-2bJJxhdsw&ust=149138278258267>

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>

 

Blank Spaces: America Reimagined

In this Talking Point, Sarah McCreedy considers blank spaces and shifting territories in post-9/11 American fiction.

Michael Rothberg demanded a change in the post-9/11 novel.  He acknowledged that ‘an intellectually and politically mature literature must leave national-domestic space behind for riskier “foreign” encounters.’ (157). Writers on the module* so far including Cormac McCarthy, Don DeLillo, George Saunders and Maureen McHugh have met this demand unconventionally. Their ‘riskier foreign encounters’ are constructed by  blank spaces, worlds never encountered before, in which America can be reimagined and redefined. Such environments provide a safe distance in which to critique America. Behind the comfortable laughter we experience reading stories like Saunders’ Jon, is the frightening realisation that America is currently only a few miles away from these turbulent realms.

In The Road, McCarthy’s blank world is composed by its complete namelessness, and its breakdown of language. The boy asks his father, ‘Where’s the neighborhood?’ (100), and should we not be asking in the digital age, where is our neighbourhood? Are we becoming McHugh’s ‘sightless’ (7) zombies whose communities are reduced to virtual ones? Saunders’  Jon observes, ‘Maybe we can come to be normal,’ (60). However, even in his moments of supposed authenticity, ironically, Jon bandwagon advertises his own philosophy, ‘isn’t that how it is with our heads, when we are in them it always makes sense, but then later, when you look back, we sometimes are like, I am acting like a total dumbass!’ (47). Is this humorous? Or is it a prediction of the future for Americans? Or have we already reached this point?

In DeLillo’s Point Omega, Jim notes how Elster is situated, ‘somewhere south of nowhere in the Sonoran Desert or maybe it was the Mojave Desert or another desert altogether.’ (25). Are we truly in America in this novella? The landscape is of course intentional, the anonymity of Jessie’s ‘killer/kidnapper’ ambiguous, and the unsolved nature of the case reminiscent of the fact that war in the Middle East is ongoing. In addition, in McHugh’s ‘The Naturalist’, Cahill imitates an Islamic terrorist, becoming that individual, sacrificial force, driven by ‘suicidal craziness’ (11), fighting against those ‘Zombie businessmen’, (12), or, American capitalism. America subconsciously rejects this simulation of Islamic terrorism in its own territory and thus Cahill is rescued and reappropriated back into American ‘civilised’ society.

In these blank spaces, these ‘riskier foreign countries’, masquerades in the form  of, for example, missing person cases or  zombie breakout narratives can be decoded to reveal much more important social and political commentaries, which magnify the cracks in contemporary America. Trauma is remembered in these dream-like environments, these distorted images of America. In these texts, America is outside America, and inside America, all at the same time.

*MA Module: Literature in Crisis: American Writing in the 21st Century

 

Bibliography

DeLillo, Don. Point Omega. London: Picador, 2010.

McCarthy, Cormac. The Road.  London: Picador, 2006.

McHugh, Maureen F. “The Naturalist.” After the Apocalypse.  East Hampton, MA: Small Beer Press, 2011. 1-29.

Rothberg, Michael. “A Failure of the Imagination: Diagnosing the Post-9/11 Novel: A Response to Richard Gray.” American Literary History. Vol. 21, No.1. (Spring 2009), 152-58.

Saunders, George.  “Jon.” In Persuasion Nation. Riverhead Books, 2006.  23-61.

[Image by Alanthebox (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons]