Don DeLillo

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Twentieth-Century Literature Conference
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Don DeLillo and Postmodern Media Culture

Section H: Saturday, February 26, 2000, 10:45 a.m.-12:15 p.m.

Program arranged by the Don DeLillo Society.

Moderator: Joseph Conte

Panelists: Glen Scott Allen | William Robert | Jeffrey Karnicky | Anthony Miller

          The newly formed Don DeLillo Society will present a panel on "Don DeLillo and Postmodern Media Culture" at the Twentieth-Century Literature Conference 2000. The selected papers are particularly concerned to interrogate the interaction of postmodern media culture and terrorism in DeLillo's work. Panelists will address the manner in which terrorists are represented in DeLillo's novels, but in a broader sense, inquire into the forms in which terror arises in a media-saturated, technologically "advanced" epoch. What motives are shared by media culture and the exigencies of terrorism? In what ways are the media and the terrorists complicit with one another? Discussion of these topics extend to questions of the technology of the self, the televisual culture of unlimited reproduction and transmission, and the "underworld" that has always been the site of terror in western culture.

          Panelists have been advised to limit their remarks to fifteen minutes duration, in order to accommodate the 90-minute total length for panels.


Senseless Acts of Violence: Don DeLillo and the Mad Text of Terror

Glen Scott Allen

Towson University

          Typically when we speak of terrorism we're referring to violence committed by a minority in demonstration of its status as victim: of political repression or geographic isolation or "cultural ghettoization." Thus terrorism is by definition an act meant to call attention to itself; like postmodern fiction, it is inherently self-conscious. And in order to disseminate its self-conscious image as victim, it must have recourse to the media. When DeLillo's character William Gray suggests that terrorists have usurped the role in the public conscious that novelists once held, he is referring (on at least one level) to the fact that terrorist acts must be circulated to attain identity, and that such acts compete for the public's limited attention span with other circulating "texts."

          As might be expected, much of the debate within the scholarship of terrorism does in fact center on whether or not mass media coverage encourages terrorist acts, or is largely irrelevant to them. Two recent articles in the journal Terrorism are good examples of the extremes in this debate. This paper will examine these articles for what they tell us about the problems with "interpreting" the language of terrorist acts.

          Terrorism has also played an important part in nearly every novel Don DeLillo has written to date. Terrorism in DeLillo seems integrally linked with writing in that both are engendered by that cardinal symptom of the postmodern condition, alienation. In DeLillo's work, the ubiquitousness of terrorist events and their consequent anxieties aides and abets the construction of a postmodern subject who chooses almost randomly between a career of writing or one of weaponry. However, despite the provocative implications of this line of inquiry, anyone who pursues it will quickly discover just how little criticism or even speculative discourse is available on specific interrelationships between terrorism and literature.

          A recent treatment of the interconnections between terrorism and literature can be found in Walter Laqueur's comprehensive The Age of Terrorism. Laqueur, too, begins by noting the surprising absence of works in this area: "Literature as a source for the study of terrorism is still virtually terra incognita." Laqueur suggests that one of the reasons for this might be found in how little practical and personal experience most writers have with terrorists: "Liam O'Flaherty is more revealing than Henry James ... [as] O'Flaherty served with the IRA, whereas the author of The Princess Casamassima derived his vision of the assassin Hyacinth Robinson 'out of the London pavement.'"

          This paper examines the ways in which DeLillo's representation of terrorists and their acts of "senseless" violence reveals similarities between their "mad speech" and the alienating effects of postmodern language. Though Laquer's criticism might be applied to DeLillo's depiction of terrorists, it seems finally more based on criteria of verisimilitude than ideological analysis. DeLillo's novels can be read as extremely insightful and suggestive explorations of just why postmodern America is both so compelled and repelled by acts of terrorist violence.


"Explain Me to Myself": Displacement and Self-Media(iza)tion

in Underworld and Valparaiso

William Robert

University of California

          The practices Foucault calls technologies of the self serve as hermeneutic tools for deciphering the self in terms of determining, maintaining, and transforming an individual's identity. DeLillo's postmodern American cultural landscapes of Underworld and Valparaiso recast this notion so that technologies of the self become enmeshed with technology itself as a mediating principle. The technology of waste present throughout Underworld -- "seeing garbage everywhere or reading it into a situation" (Underworld 343) -- leads to subjective displacement on temporal, spatial, and economic planes, inverting notions of consumption and production as people and time move forward and backward toward desert and wasteland. Under the rubric of waste the landfill becomes a transposed archive: the receptacle of cultural memory made up of individual histories. Here Derrida helps to show how the archival landfill breaks down distinctions between public and private spheres, between physical and psychological waste -- between self and other. This individual displacement is radicalized in Valparaiso where technology itself becomes the displacing mechanism. For the Majeskis, self-deciphering and self-knowledge are possible only through others so that technologies of the self becomes technologies of others-reading-the-self. Subjectivity is thus completely mediated by technology and the manipulation of it to such an extreme that self-mediation becomes self-mediaization, finally deconstructing the boundaries between public and private, between original and reproduction, between reality and illusion. With this last step reality becomes hyperreality, where things are more real than real as mass technology engulfs the individual and talk shows replace self-understanding: "I see him complete when he's on TV" (Valparaiso 85). Both waste and technology, then, are inverted technologies of the self that disconnect the self from itself, that mediate intimate self-knowledge to the point of displacing subjectivity into a form of otherness that is itself always already mediated.


Wallpaper Mao: Don DeLillo, Andy Warhol and Seriality

Jeffrey Karnicky

Pennsylvania State University

Things born anew display new meanings

I think images are worth repeating and repeating

and repeating. -- Lou Reed, "Images"

          Andy Warhol appears in two of Don DeLillo's novels, Mao II and Underworld. Mao II takes its title from a Warhol silkscreen that also adorns the cover of the novel; in the novel, DeLillo's characters look at Warhol's work in museums, and as discussed below, offer theories as to the work's power. Warhol is much less of a factor in Underworld. He appears only once -- in the chapter describing Truman Capote's "Black and White Ball," "Andy Warhol walked by wearing a mask that was a photograph of his own face" (571) -- but this brief appearance highlights some important connections between Warhol and DeLillo. This image of Warhol's image, doubled in the photograph yet obscured by a mask, recalls any number of similar instances in DeLillo's fiction. From the film of Hitler impersonating Charlie Chaplin's "Great Dictator" in Running Dog, to the discussion of "the most photographed barn in America" in White Noise, DeLillo's novels are interested in the ways that image proliferation, often engendered by filmic, televisual or photographic repetition, affects our conception of the world. While many critics have discussed DeLillo's interest in images and forms of mechanical reproduction, most of these discussions approach DeLillo through the concepts of simulacra and aura as theorized by Jean Baudrillard and/or Walter Benjamin, the theoreticians most closely identified with these concepts.

          Yet little attention has been paid to Andy Warhol. Considered as a philosopher of the image, Warhol's work can provide another entry for discussion of the image's work in DeLillo's fiction. Starting with Warhol -- whose philosophy of images, I will argue, strongly intersects with DeLillo's -- provides a means of looking at the image without the characteristic melancholy that has been noted in Benjamin and Baudrillard, and is virtually absent in both DeLillo and Warhol.


Decoding DeLillo's Decades of Dietrologia: An Underworld Alphabet

Anthony Miller

"Dietrologia. It means the science of what is behind something. A suspicious event. The science of what is behind an event." (Underworld)

"Know the names of things and write them like a child in elemental lists." (Ratner's Star)

          From "America" to "Zapruder," this alphabetical essay charts the broad topos of Don DeLillo's Underworld as a summa of the author's obsessions with postmodern America. As the author writes in Americana: "America, then as now, was a sanitarium for every kind of statistic." DeLillo's novels present the case histories of this sanitarium, exploring those "men in small rooms" and other characters who at once embody and interrogate archetypal national institutions: college athletics (End Zone), rock stardom (Great Jones Street), think-tank mathematics (Ratner's Star), academia (White Noise), conspiratoriana (Libra) and the "vanished" Great American Novelist (Mao II). If, as DeLillo asserts, "lists are a form of cultural hysteria," my essay employs that most elemental of lists-an alphabet-to explicate the cultural-hysterical world his writing imagines and inspires. The 26-section lexicon not only advances a synoptic reading of Underworld within DeLillo's work but also constructs a narrative of a contemporary America understood only through the secret subcultural waste or "latent history" which accretes around accepted historical and cultural events as dietrologia. The essay's categories include "Baseball," "Eisenstein," "Film," "Lenny Bruce (Underworld's Lord of Misrule)," "Memorabilia," "Nostalgia," "Paranoia," "Shot(s) Heard Round The World" and "Underground, The." Although this methodology suggests a potentially fragmentary essay, each letter/category progresses thematically from the previous one. In the interest of time, I would be pleased to present only selected letters.

This panel is sponsored by the Don DeLillo Society.

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