Tag Archives: postmodernism

“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/

Postmodernism and the Absolute

In this Talking Point, Rebecca Dillon considers two extremes of capitalist absolutism and wonders whether they represent end points of an America-centric global narrative, or points on a cyclical timeline.

Jean Baudrillard has taught us that postmodernism and Las Vegas go hand in hand.  Yet the bleak postmodern setting of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road seems the complete opposite of Vegas.  McCarthy’s road is drenched in darkness and rain; Las Vegas is the city of lights in the desert.  However, they both present ideas of postmodern absolutism and map America through these ideas.

The settings of both The Road and Las Vegas present ideas of absolutism and truth; they differ only in what that absolute force is.  In The Road, nature and the earth are the final absolute in the novel’s dystopian environment, 

he saw for a brief moment the absolute truth of the world.  The cold relentless circling of the intestate earth … The crushing black vacuum of the universe.  And somewhere two hunted animals trembling like ground foxes in their cover (McCarthy 138). 

Here McCarthy presents the overwhelming power of an earth that lives on, despite no longer sustaining life.  After the fall of American civilisation, the earth continues to circle in its yearly procession without ceasing, not thriving and not declining.  This creates an absolute force as the earth lives, despite the disconnection that exists between it and man.  

The American natural landscape featured so heavily in The Road is mapped onto the back of this earth, “Once there were brook trout in the streams in the mountains … On their backs were vermiculate patterns that were maps of the world in its becoming” (306-307).  It exists without relation to any other entity and maps its meaning within itself.  The last truth in the destroyed American setting of The Road is the earth and its continual and everlasting existence separated from the lives of the creatures that happen to cling to its surface. 

Contrary to this, in Las Vegas, nature takes a back seat and capital becomes the absolute force that exists and thrives in the American landscape.  In fact nature suffers at the hands of capital and those that work within it,

But Las Vegas haughtily disdains to live within its means.  Instead, it is aggressively turning its profligacy into environmental terrorism against its neighbours.  ‘Give us your water or we will die,’ developers demand of politicians grown fat on campaign contributions from the gaming industry (Davis 88).

The absolutism of capital in Las Vegas is totalitarian.  The gaming industry that thrives in the city provides the means through which developers and politicians can demand that water be given to them. 

Not only is the allocation of a life-sustaining element such as water controlled by capital, but so is the provision of open space within Las Vegas’s urban sprawl,

Las Vegas, meanwhile, has virtually no commons at all … This park shortage may mean little to the tourist jet-skiing across Lake Mead, or lounging by the pool at the Mirage. But it defines an impoverished quality of life for thousands of low-wage service workers who live in the stucco tenements that line the side streets of the Strip (95).

The continued demands from corporations to build more hotels and more casinos means that land is not set aside for actual residents of the city.  This creates the notion that the ultimate power of capital within Las Vegas fences in its own residents, reducing them to a cattle-like work force that graze on left overs in strip malls.  The lack of green space within the city also continues the city’s environmental warfare against its landscape, ensuring that the city becomes the absolute and final mirage allowed to exist within the dry desert beyond.

Between them, The Road and Las Vegas present two ideas of postmodern absolutism and their effects of both the present and future American landscape.  The question that remains is, will the capital-driven environmental terrorism of Las Vegas absolutism eventually lead to the dystopian absolutism of the earth in The Road?  Is America’s doom mapped out already?

 

References

Davis, Mike. Dead Cities and Other Tales. New York New Press, 2002

McCarthy, Cormac. The Road.  London: Picador, 2010