Tag Archives: identity

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

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The “Colourblind” Conundrum: ‘Post-race’ and black identity in Paul Beatty’s The Sellout

Paul Beatty’s The Sellout implores us to remove our “racial blinders” and “see the gap between reality and rhetoric” (Beatty: 2015, 22, 93). It is not so much an invite but a much-needed demand for us to understand the concept of black identity, and to what extent this is impacted by social systems. Beatty’s background in psychology permeates the novel, observable not only in the characters, notably Bonbon and Foy Cheshire, who are seen to exhibit Cross’s “Negro-to-Black Conversion Experience”, but also in the texts form which serves as a racial case-study on a (to excuse the highly-contested and deeply problematic phrase) ‘post-race’ America. Foy and Bonbon oscillate between Cross’s “5 stages of blackness” in the hope of becoming a “self-actualised” black identity, and their journey of self-actualisation urges us to explore two different avenues of understanding identity formation as a historical process. History is continually challenged in the text, as Bonbon condemns “the problem with this generation: they don’t know their fucking history” (Beatty: 2015, 246), detailing;

“the problem with history [is] we like to think it’s a book – that we can turn the page and move the fuck on. But history isn’t the paper it’s printed on. It’s memory, and memory is time, emotions, and song. History is the things that stay with you” (Beatty: 2015, 115).

Beatty thus presents two differing modes of historical recognition: Foy’s desire to re-write history, and Bonbon’s wish to re-establish it. To further this notion, both men embody culturally historic American archetypes: Foy’s mansion on the hill alongside an influx of automobile imagery surrounding his presence (Beatty: 2015, 93, 105, 196, 247-8) illustrates freedom, culture, and the “American Dream”, while Bonbon’s cowboy-like presence, galloping through Dickens with Hominy as companion conjure up images of the Lone Ranger and Tonto. Ultimately, both fail to achieve self-actualisation, as evidenced in Foy’s bankruptcy and eventual breakdown and Bonbon’s unresolved ‘closure’ at the end of the novel, due to their entrapment within the socioeconomic and geopolitical borders of Dickens. If Beatty is challenging the degree to which “blackness defines identity” (Beatty: 2016, ‘HARDtalk’), it becomes quite clear that extrinsic social forces and structural divisions also play a major role.

It is this ‘mutability’ of history which Beatty truly criticises in his ‘post-racial’ commentary. Turning the page of a four-hundred-year-old book does not eradicate century-old systematic oppression and institutionalised racism. If anything, it exacerbates it. In The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander asserts America’s unwillingness to discuss race “because we are ashamed of our racial history”, recognising;

“the popular narrative that emphasises the death of slavery and Jim Crow and celebrates the nation’s “triumph” over race with the election of Barack Obama, is dangerously misguided” (Alexandra, 12-13).

This has been furthered by the concept of “colourblindness”, an ideology which denotes that “race is no longer a major detriment to minority advancement” (Bonilla-Silva, 63). This perspective claims that “racial equality is now the norm”, while simultaneously discounting real and ongoing ways in which “institutional racism continues to disadvantage racial minorities” (Gallagher, 40). As a result, the colourblind narrative has “blinded” Americans to societal race realities, which in itself “creates and maintains racial hierarchy much like earlier systems” (Alexander, 12).

Obama’s election to office helped consolidate this belief, thus fulfilling the apparent notion that “race is no longer a barrier to American progress and achievement” (Louis, 114). Beatty has voiced his own criticisms regarding Obama, stating he’s “not a huge fan”, condemning his “equivocational” response to police shootings, and criticising the belief that if “someone is of a certain race they owe that demographic something specifically”, adding that those who should know better can be the “most insensitive” (Beatty: 2016, ‘HARDtalk’). Moreover, while Obama’s presidency may have seemed like a turning point for racial progress in America, during his time in office he has spoken about race less than any other president since 1961 (Bonilla-Silva, 64) (cited in Coates 2012). Further, blacks have actually become worse off economically under the Obama Administration, as black men were more than twice as likely to be unemployed (14.3%) compared to the national average (7.9%), and with regards to poverty, rates had increased to 15.1% (a 52-year high), with 27.6% of blacks and 25.3% of Latinos poor compared to 12.8% of whites; in short, whites possessed 20 times the wealth of blacks and 18 times that of Latinos (Bonilla-Silva, 63). Despite this, having a black man in charge gave the impression of a monumental change (Bonilla-Silva, 64), one which, under colourblind ideology, is critical to maintaining the racial caste system, “’proving’ that race is no longer relevant […] as long as some readily identifiable African-American is doing well, the system is largely immunised from racial critique” (Alexander, 248).

Beatty’s commentary then on ‘post-racial’ America transcends black-white dichotomy to highlight the deeply embedded racial inequalities in all minorities: Black, Hispanic, Native American and Asian alike, operating in and around social systems of oppression, from its location in the courtroom to his father’s fatal police shooting. His reference to “the intersection of Compton and Firestone” (Beatty: 2015, 63) last year alone seen 15 killings, all of which were Latino and black men, and while Bonbon’s father was fictionally gunned down, Beatty unapologetically raises a fundamental issue in current American racial tensions, stating, “just because racism is dead, don’t mean they still don’t shoot n*ggers on sight” (Beatty: 2015, 43).

Source: The Guardian

According to The Guardian, in 2015 there were 1,134 police killings in America, with young black men 9 times more likely to be killed than any other American demographic. This was twice the rate of white, Hispanic, and Native Americans, with 25% of all African-Americans killed unarmed. This alarming statistic highlights “the structures of a racial caste system alive and well in an age of colourblindness” (West, x), and has correspondingly been termed “The New Jim Crow”. Javon Johnson’s gut-wrenching poem below illustrates the stark reality for many African-Americans today as a result of systematic racism.

 

 

By not simply whispering “racism in a post-racial world” (Beatty: 2015, 262), but yelling it in 289 pages, Beatty forces us to confront our everyday racial encounters, to break down our colourblind boundaries, and to show us the true extent of racial injustice in America today.

 

Bibliography

Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. The New Press: New York, 2012.

Beatty, Paul. The Sellout. Oneworld: London, 2015.

Bonilla-Silva, Eduardo. “Getting Over the Obama Hope Hangover: The New Racism in ‘Post-Race’ America”. Theories of Race and Ethnicity: Contemporary Debates and Perspectives. Ed. Karim Murij and John Solomos. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge. 2014. 57-73.

Coates, Ta-Nehisi Coates. “Fear of a Black President”. The Atlantic, September 2012, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2012/09/fear-of-a-black-president/309064/ Accessed 14th February 2017.

Gallagher, Charles A. “Color-Blind Egalitarianism as the New Racial Norm”. Theories of Race and Ethnicity: Contemporary Debates and Perspectives. Ed. Karim Murij and John Solomos. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 2014. 40-56.

“Javon Johnson – “cuz he’s black” (NPS 2013)”. YouTube, uploaded by Button Factory, 20 August 2013, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u9Wf8y_5Yn4

Louis, Brett St. “Can Race be Eradicated? The Post-Racial Problematic”. Theories of Race and Ethnicity: Contemporary Debates and Perspectives. Ed. Karim Murji and John Solomos. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 2014. 114-137.

“HARDTalk Paul Beatty Author”. YouTube, uploaded by LudVan 1 72, 15 December 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ycuW55kI1-o&list=PLhVR8YO4pFh3-IOOtmaSOXzYcslX0Dn4E&index=12

West, Cornel. “Foreword”. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in an Age of Colorblindness. Ed. Michelle Alexander. The New Press: New York, 2012.

“Young Black Men Killed by US Police at Highest Rate in Year of 1,134 Deaths” The Guardian, 31 December 2015, Accessed 14th February 2017.

Image Credits

“Young Black Men Killed by US Police at Highest Rate in Year of 1,134 Deaths” The Guardian, 31 December 2015, Accessed 14th February 2017.