Volume 4, No.
1 - September 2009
The Don DeLillo Society
The Don DeLillo Society exists for the benefit of readers and scholars of Don DeLillo throughout the world. The Society welcomes new members. If you are interested in joining, please log onto http://www.k-state.edu/english/nelp/delillo/about.html#join for more information.
Recent DeLillo News
Publication of DeLillo’s fifteenth novel was announced in June. Point Omega promises to be a short, moving novel about a young filmmaker who visits the desert home of a secret war advisor in the hopes of making a documentary. The situation is complicated by the arrival of the older man’s daughter, and the narrative takes a dark turn. The novel will be published by Scribner on February 2, 2010.
Don DeLillo Society member, Mark Sample, exposed a literary hoax on his blog involving White Noise’s very own renegade cultural critic, Murray Jay Siskind. Sample discovered a review of David Foster Wallace’s short story collection, Oblivion, in the journal Modernism/Modernity, purportedly written by one Jay Murray Siskind, Department of Popular Culture, Blacksmith College. The story was later picked up by The Chronicle of Higher Education. We look forward to seeing more of Siskind’s work in print in the future.
Rumors abounded in July that David Cronenberg is planning to adapt and direct an adaptation of Cosmopolis.
— Anne Longmuir
Recent DeLillo Scholarship: Conference Presentations
- "Don DeLillo and Play"
- Sponsored by the Don DeLillo Society
- American Literature Association Conference
- Boston, MA (May 21-24, 2009).
Every year the Don DeLillo Society sponsors at least one panel at the annual conference of the American Literature Association. The first session convened by the DDS this year in Boston focused on "Don DeLillo and Play," seeking to understand how DeLillo reaffirms or challenges classic notions of play, such as those put forth by the anthropologists Johan Huizinga and Roger Caillois. The first participant on the panel, Elise Martucci, was called away at the last moment, but her paper -- "How Children Adapt to Available Surfaces: The Importance of Child’s Play in Underworld" -- was read in her absence by the panel's moderator, Mark Eaton. Growing out of a chapter from her book on DeLillo, The Environmental Unconscious in the Fiction of Don DeLillo (Routledge, 2007), Martucci's paper explored the subtle role of children's games on the streets of the Bronx. In the next paper, “A Set of Game-Playing Moods: Sexual Play in Don DeLillo’s Players,” Stephen Hock questioned the applicability of traditional notions of play to DeLillo's 1977 novel. Hock proposed instead the we adopt a more Freudian conception of play in order to understand the anal and phallic imagery that dominates the sexual lives of Lyle and Pammy Wynant. The final paper, “Misery, Paranoia, Bitterness, Defeat: Mediation and Indeterminacy in Don DeLillo’s 'Total Loss Weekend,'" was presented by Mark Sample. Sample connected this short story from 1973 to DeLillo's later engagements with gambling, 2007's Falling Man, arguing that in both cases the ritualized contingency of gambling masks a massively mediated interface with reality . The three presentations were followed by a lively discussion that indicated that there is much more work to be done regarding DeLillo's nuanced representations of sports, games, and play.
— Mark Sample
“Don DeLillo and Religion” Roundtable
Sponsored by the Don DeLillo Society
American Literature Association Conference
Boston, MA (May 21-24, 2009)
Some 25-30 people attended the roundtable in spite of the 8:00 AM time slot. Mark Sample (George Washington University) did an able job of moderating the roundtable by introducing speakers and keeping everyone on track for what turned out to be an excellent discussion at the end. The papers were all superb, and the session cohered around the topic better than most conference panels do. John McClure (Rutgers) led off with a short presentation on DeLillo’s interest in Eastern religions and mysticism, arguing that several popular religious books of the 1960s and ‘70s are relevant to DeLillo’s fictional representations of religious beliefs and practices. Matthew Mutter (Ph.D. Yale; postdoctoral fellow, University of Virginia) discussed the limits of mysticism in DeLillo’s recent work, while Christopher Pizzino (University of Georgia) analyzed fundamentalism, theodicy, and the secular in Falling Man. Mark Eaton (Azusa Pacific University) talked about fundamentalism as a challenge to pluralism, as well as the interdependence of religion and secularism in DeLillo’s work. Finally, Amy Hungerford (Yale) considered DeLillo’s turn from a kind of sacramental language in The Names and Underworld towards a new understanding of religious practice in terms of the body in Falling Man. Questions and comments during the discussion period were quite lively, suggesting the need for further research and scholarship on religion and spirituality in Don DeLillo’s fiction.
— Mark Eaton
Recent DeLillo Scholarship: A Future for DeLillo in Law and Literature Studies?
Recently there’s been a small flowering of scholarship on DeLillo in the area of law and literature studies. Law Professor, Adam Thurschwell, has been the first scholar, to my knowledge, to ignite this inquiry into DeLillo’s relation to the law. His work has a superficial resemblance to that burgeoning group of legal scholars who have established themselves in the area of postmodernism and law. This group’s work usually flies under the name of Critical Legal Studies (CLS). Many among this group apply Derridean ideas to law in an effort to demonstrate what they see as the ultimate indeterminacy of legal rules and, as a consequence, the judge’s inevitable invention of the law on a case-by-case basis. More radical CLS scholars see the problem as twofold: either the judge applies fixed rules that have little purchase on the ungovernable singularity of the individual case; or the judge, theoretically, has no rule to apply and simply forces his own interpretation on the case at hand, and, in doing so, tailors a rule to fit the case. Because of what they read as a crisis of indeterminacy in law, many in the CLS movement are consciously political and look to ethical theories for guidance to legal reasoning. While Thurschwell—from what I’ve read—has never explicitly identified himself with CLS, he has written in publications heavily populated by CLS advocates. And in two recent articles, one on DeLillo and the other on Derrida, he appeals to Levinas’s ethics as a potential guide to the politics that steer legal decision making. Essentially, he reads a Levinasian “otherness” at the core of both DeLillo and Derrida.
Because Thurschwell’s reading of Derrida resembles his reading of DeLillo, a brief examination of his article on Derrida will provide a more thorough understanding of his perspective on DeLillo, especially insofar as it relates to jurisprudence. In his article on Derrida, Thurschwell charts the course of Derrida’s work from Of Grammatology through to his later work, like Specters of Marx and The Gift of Death. He pays particular attention to the ethico-political turn in Derrida’s work around the time his essay, “Force of Law: The ‘Mystical Foundation of Authority,’” made its appearance. The work is characterized by a “hiatus” that interrupts the Derridean theorizing and facilitates the reception of an ethical imperative in Derrida’s work. Whence comes this ethical demand, asks Thurschwell, and why is it necessary? Eluding an unequivocal answer, Derrida reads Pascal’s enigmatic line: “It is just that what is just be followed; it is necessary that what is strongest be followed… It is necessary to put justice and force together” (Thurschwell 157-58). Derrida remains indecisive as to whether “it is necessary” to do so in the name of justice or whether it is simply a necessarily fated fact of reality. Ultimately the question, as parsed by Thurschwell, is whether “to ontologize the ethical or not to ontologize the ethical” (Thurschwell 152). And as you may have guessed, this question too remains undecided. All that can be said is that Derrida maintains a certain hospitality, in his thought, to this ethical “arrivant.” And the ethical for Derrida, as Thurschwell notes, informs Derrida’s later political affirmations. Thurschwell, however, reads this ethical undecidability as tragic insofar as Derrida’s ethico-political direction cannot be ascribed to any ethical system. And, as this is the case, the success or failure of Derrida’s ethics cannot be critically evaluated. It is akin to Derrida’s paradoxical “religion without religion” whereby Derrida’s thought takes a religious path without recourse to any specified religious system, or with reference to some phantom system, the source of which is left unvoiced, each reference extinguished as it is conceived in his writing. Thurschwell reads a strong Levinasian bent in Derrida’s later ethics, especially this particular kind of ethics which is located in unconditional hospitality for the “other”; the other being those beings other than oneself—for Derrida, something of a mystery.
Interestingly, Thurschwell’s reading of Derrida prefigures his take on DeLillo. Thurschwell fits Levinas’s concern for the other at the heart of the work of DeLillo’s artists, Lauren Hartke of The Body Artist and Bill Gray of Mao II. Hartke is demonstrative of that kind of hospitality, which Thurschwell describes in Derrida’s later work. In Hartke’s mourning of her dead husband, she wishes to “open up” and “stretch out time” in order to channel the spirit of her dead husband, the potential arrivant for whom she waits. Like Hartke, Gray seeks, in language, to be delivered to the place of the hostage he will never meet. He does so principally via his writing, which exemplifies the receptiveness of the literary imagination to the place of the other. Thurschwell cites the most memorable passage of Mao II in stating his case: the one where Gray begins “letting the words lead him into that basement room” (Thurschwell 294). While Gray dies before meeting the hostage, and the hostage is shuffled off to another location, presumably left for dead along the way, Gray’s literary act memorializes the plight of the hostage and thereby, Thurschwell suggests, reanimates the silenced other in a living language. Both die but the literature lives on. For Thurschwell, this is a political act, a pact between the dead. Thurschwell contrasts Hartke and Gray with Eric Packer of Cosmopolis and the terrorists of Mao II. Packer, a currency trader “cybercapitalist,” seeks to accelerate time in the interest of predicting the dynamics of the global market. Essentially, Packer strives to write a history of the future. A character like Packer might easily be pared with an “end of history” thinker like Fukuyama who Thurschwell mentions, in his article on Derrida, as one of the targets of Derrida’s critique. At the other extreme are the Mao II terrorist figures, both the religious fundamentalists and the Maoist group. In the interest of brevity I will not go into much detail on the terrorist figures, but, to oversimplify, the terrorist wishes to stop the future and conserve the past, at least as far as the religious fundamentalist is concerned. Using DeLillo’s essay “In the Ruins of the Future” as something of a literary manifesto for DeLillo, Thurschwell contends, “it would seem that art, for DeLillo, is political just insofar as it contests late capitalism by attempting to represent—perhaps we should say, memorialize—the continuing vitality of lived experience” (Thurschwell, 289). Thurschwell sees literature as the political “counternarrative” of which DeLillo speaks in his 2001 essay. For Thurschwell, among literature’s greatest abilities is its power to form bonds between strangers and thus create communities. The crux of this power lies in the artist’s concern for the other.
As interesting as Thurschwell’s spirited reading of DeLillo is, the possibility of ascribing a politics to DeLillo in any meaningful sense is still debatable. The late American pragmatist, Richard Rorty would most likely dismiss Thurschwell’s claim. In contribution to a series of essays, entitled Deconstruction and Pragmatism, Rorty writes, “I am unable to connect Levinas’s pathos of the infinite with ethics or politics. I see ethics and politics—real politics as opposed to cultural politics—as a matter of reaching accommodation between competing interests, and as something to be deliberated about in banal, familiar terms—terms which do not need philosophical dissection and do not have philosophical presuppositions” (Rorty, 17). For Rorty there are public and private contexts, which need not contest one another but, instead, may complement each other. And, contrary to the skepticism he expresses in the above passage, he admires literature, in general, and, specifically, Derrida’s contribution to philosophy. He calls Derrida a private “world disclosing ironist,” which essentially means, a philosopher who thinks reality all while remaining mindful of the contingency of his ideas and, indeed, himself in the grand scheme of things. Rorty might suggest that what so many literary critics and philosophers miss about Derrida is the full implication of Derrida’s irony, something that is not so much “subversive” of systems and institutions but, more so, functions as a self-check on Derrida’s own ideas—something like a small-print disclaimer that reads, “my private revolutions are in no way intended as directives for public political revolutions.” In this sense, Rorty finds in Derrida much more wisdom than many thinkers, bent on the idea of political “subversion,” wish to admit. I find Rorty’s view persuasive.
One might also think of DeLillo as a world disclosing ironist. It is true that DeLillo has frequently denied any significant political dimension to his work. One example comes from a 1988 interview in which he says, “I certainly don’t try consciously to make political statements or to include political material… What I write is what I am. Aside from the fact that it must naturally flow into one’s books, I certainly don’t have any political program. Not only for my books, but for my life or for the life of my country” (Connolly 38). As DeLillo admits, he may well have his own political biases that are just a part of who we are, but what’s key here is that DeLillo seems to lack the political drive that many would like to read into his work. While Thurschwell reads DeLillo’s “counternarrative” as something that contests terrorism and cybercapitalism, it could also be read as simply a filling in of the individual’s private experience in a world where these two forces are extremely apparent. DeLillo’s work need not be given a political utility. It’s worth noting that, in his 2001 article, DeLillo considers part of the “counternarrative” to be “before politics” (Thurschwell 281).
With all that said, there’s much to admire in Thurschwell’s recent work. Witnessing the movement of a literary imagination within the framework of legal ideas makes his work a pleasure to read. I will be eager to see where he goes next in advancing the field of law and literature.
Thurschwell, Adam. “Specters and Scholars: Derrida and the Tragedy of Political Thought.” Derrida and Legal Philosophy. Eds. Peter Goodrich, Florian
Hoffman, Michel Rosenfeld, and Cornelia Vismann. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008. 152-154.
Thurschwell, Adam. “Writing and Terror: Don DeLillo on the Task of Literature after 9/11.” Law and Literature 19 (2007): 277-302.
Rorty, Richard. “Remarks on Deconstruction and Pragmatism.” Deconstruction and Pragmatism. Ed. Chantal Mouffe. New York, NY: Routledge, 1996. 13-18.
Connolly, Kevin. “An Interview with Don DeLillo.” Conversations with Don DeLillo. Ed. Peter DePietro. Mississippi: University of Mississippi, 2005. 25-39.
Ingram, David. Law: Key Concepts in Philosophy. New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2006.
— Hunter Wakefield
DeLillo in the Classroom: Teaching White Noise in Freshman Composition
As I reflect on teaching White Noise in my freshman composition class, I mostly think of the analysis the novel receives by my students on the final exam. One student’s thesis reads, “The media subconsciously regulates what they [The Gladney’s] define as real.” Another reads, “The last chapter… speaks of youthful hope and optimism in regaining order and life under a toxic inspired sunset.” Though there are those thesis statements that drive less thoughtful essays, most students pick up on the themes in some capacity and tend to really understand how this book relates to their own lives. It doesn’t start this way. Invariably, since 2005, students initially and hopefully believe they are reading a book that was made into the 2005 movie White Noise. To help move my freshman English students from some typical groans about reading an unfamiliar work of literature not based on a movie to analyzing how a variety of the novel’s themes interact with each other and reflect meaningful contemporary issues, I use a teaching approach that inspires curiosity and challenges how and what they think about the way in which we live our own daily lives.
Originally, I was concerned that an author like Don DeLillo might not translate very well to students at Golden West College, a mid-sized community college in Huntington Beach, CA. with a diverse student population (15% Hispanic, 33% Asian, 2% African American and 45% White). Though easily DeLillo’s most accessible novel I wondered whether White Noise might still prove too daunting and thus off-putting for typical 100-level students who, very much unlike College-on-the-Hill’s seasoned students, are often first generation college students who sometimes reveal to me that they’ve never even read an entire book! These thoughts in mind, I set out to use White Noise not only as an introduction to complex literature, but also as a simple book that speaks to our own too often unexamined individual and collective experiences in a consumer-based, technology-driven, media-saturated culture.
Before I make any introductory comments to my students about White Noise I have them read the first seven chapters. The next class students work on mostly subjective discussion questions asking them what they think of the novel and individual characters thus far. At this point students tend to remark that the narrative seems to randomly jump around, that Jack seems like a good guy who has a strong relationship with his wife and children, and that Murray is kind of weird and maybe a pervert. Couched within these general observations are more specific insights about Jack’s position as chairman of the Hitler studies department and how his specialty perhaps relates to a few other areas of the novel: the opening scene, Jack’s J.A.K. costume, Murray’s comments about the barn, and the novel’s most pressing question: “Who will die first?”
Because the novel’s first seven chapters are sans conflict/s, my students are naturally stumped when, to close our discussion, I ask them, “What are the problems in the book so far?” Typically, students humorously conjecture that Murray is trying to “make a move” on Babette and/or Heinrich might be dangerous as a kind of teenage social outcast. Without any real answers to this simple question, students are now challenged to identify anything that might seem problematic within the characters’ lives for the next class reading, Chapters 8-13, where the novel begins surfacing the Gladney’s troubles, from Jack’s revelation to the reader to open Chapter 8 that he cannot speak German to his growing death fears to the possibility that Babette may be taking an unknown drug for unknown reasons.
After my students read Chapters 8-13, I use a PowerPoint presentation to introduce the major themes (death, fear, media, consumerism, technology, and systems) of White Noise and how they reveal aspects of our own culture. Using PowerPoint is especially effective in this regard as its obvious form of technology not only reflects themes within the novel, but also allows for a visual and auditory experience. (I use various sound files to introduce each theme.) As an extension activity students begin to build upon personal connections to the novel as we discuss why we do certain things (shop, watch TV, increasingly rely on technology, etc.) to wrestle with questions about the significance of the characters’ actions.
By Chapter 34, after Vernon has given Jack the gun, student curiosity and opinion peak with thoughtful questions and comments about the Gladney family and their future: Will Jack find and begin taking Dylar? Will Jack try to find Mr. Gray on his own? Will Babette reveal Mr. Gray’s real name and/or his whereabouts? Grappling with these types of questions my students also often respond to the questionable actions of the characters. Some of these opinions do vary according to student gender. Mostly, my male students are harsher on Babette than my female students as they tend to sympathize less with her reasons behind her affair with Willie Mink. Jack comes off as a very sympathetic character to both my male and female students as they find him intelligent, amusing, caring, and deserving of full disclosure from Babette regarding Mr. Gray’s real name. Pondering plot questions, as well as their own opinions about the actions of the characters and how they relate to the major themes, students diligently work their way to the end of the novel via class discussion and small group work.
As much as there is some initial student disappointment about reading White Noise, the-novel-that’s-not-the-movie, I am always happily surprised by the amount of pre-class chat it generates. Interspersed within the usual discussion of what assignments they did/did not finish, tests they aced or failed students engage in real dialogue about what they read recounting scenes (Jack and Heinrich’s rain discussion is a pre-class chat favorite) in vivid detail, almost as if they had watched it at the movies the night before.
— Ryan Sandowicz
A Note from the Editor
I’d like to thank all those who contributed to this edition of the newsletter. I’d also like to encourage all DDS members to consider writing a short contribution for inclusion in future issues of the newsletter. We’re always interested in letters to the editor, comments, reviews of recent scholarship, accounts of teaching teaching DeLillo’s work, interesting finds from the archive, and so on. And with the publication of Point Omega on the horizon, it seems to me that the newsletter would be an excellent venue for early critical responses to DeLillo’s latest novel.
With the February publication of Point Omega in mind, I’d like to I’d request that contributions for the next edition of the newsletter reach me no later that March 15th, 2010. All submissions should be sent to me at email@example.com.
— Anne Longmuir
Mark Eaton is Professor of English at Azusa Pacific University. Mark specializes in American literature, African-American literature, American ethnic literature, postmodernism, and film studies. He is co-editor, with Emily Griesinger, of a volume of essays called The Gift of Story: Narrating Hope in a Postmodern World (Baylor UP, 2006). He has published widely on American literature and culture in scholarly journals, including Christianity and Literature, Modern Fiction Studies, Pedagogy, and Prospects.
Anne Longmuir (DDS Newsletter Editor) is Assistant Professor of English at Kansas State University. She completed a Ph.D. on the fiction of Don DeLillo at the University of Edinburgh in 2003 and has published articles on DeLillo’s work in Critique, Modern Fiction Studies, and Journal of Narrative Theory.
Mark Sample teaches and researches both contemporary American literature and New Media/Digital Culture, and he is always exploring how literary texts interact with, critique, and rework visual and media texts. Professor Sample's most recent publication, in Game Studies, explores the interplay between video games, the War on Terror, and the production of knowledge.
Ryan Sandowicz is an Adjunct English Instructor at Golden West College and West Los Angeles College. He has a Bachelor’s in English Education, a Single Subject Credential in English, and a Master’s in English Literature all from California State University, Long Beach.
Hunter Wakefield is a graduate of the University of Texas, Austin. He is currently a law student at St. Mary’s School of Law where he is pursuing a joint graduate degree in English.