Totality and Exhaustion

September 2, 2011 § 6 Comments

A few notes on two writers for whom the all-encompassing totality of the capitalist system is aligned with the exhaustion of culture, and how that problem is to be dealt with: Don DeLillo and Fredric Jameson.

Cosmopolis isn’t among Don DeLillo’s best for the same reason that it is the most useful for comprehending his work as a whole: it condenses all/most of the ‘standard’ DeLillo concerns into a slim précis that can be read (as I did) over the course of a plane ride. Eric Packer, its currency trading protagonist, is the kind of vapid, amoral übermensch in love with abstraction capitalist society encourages, a postmodernist par excellence. He is stalked by an assassin  as confused about his identity as was Lee Harvey Oswald in the earlier Libra. The chief difference between he and Packer is not ideological (the character’s anticapitalism is pretty swiftly revealed to be a hypocritical front), rather that it actually occurs to him to be troubled by his own vagueness. To reach the same point of personal reflection, Packer has to embark on an ironized voyage of self-discovery (he’s ostensibly out to get a haircut) which leads to the loss of his fortune as well as a great deal of emotional and physical pain and suffering. Self-dissolution figures as the only possible ‘solution’ to the problems of intense abstraction and meaninglessness, after his belief in an underlying order to the digital world of high finance he inhabits is proven false: he miscalculates the rise of the yen. Kinski, his ‘theorist,’ a Baudrillard parody and chief representative of this initial conviction, claims the anticapitalist rioters they encounter are merely effects of the market. Packer agrees with her until the spectacle of one such protester setting himself on fire: “What did this change? Everything, he thought. Kinski had been wrong. The market was not total. It could not claim this man or assimilate his act. Not such starkness and horror.” In DeLillo, suffering and impending death take on quasi-religious significance, delivering a shock that has the potential to shift the protagonist out of abstract capitalist consciousness toward awareness of self, a kind of negative enlightenment:

“But his pain interfered with his immortality. It was crucial to his distinctiveness, too vital to be bypassed and not susceptible, he didn’t think, to computer emulation. The things that made him who he was could hardly be identified much less converted to data, the things that lived and milled in his body, everywhere, random, riotous, billions of trillions, in the neurons and peptides, the throbbing temple vein, in the veer of his libidinous intellect. So much come and gone, this is who he was, the lost taste of milk licked from his mother’s breast, the stuff he sneezes when he sneezes, this is him, and how a person becomes the reflection he sses in a dusty window when he walks by. He’d come to know himself, untranslatably, through his pain.”

It’s entirely the point that these details are so non-specific, such conventional markers of humanity. As evidence for his singular, irreducible reality, they could be anything; he simply has to recognize them as such, against those who might (for confused ideological reasons, the result of a weak self) wish to negate his being: assassins, terrorists, rioters, etc., and against the “cybercapitalist” technoculture that treats all selves as interchangeable bits of data. Defying them all is the self of the novel, the self shorn of all qualities, just the proprietary, organizing center for stories.

DeLillo is one of a long line of secular mystics in American literature. He uses fiction to give history’s contingent and meaningless events a mythic structure, a sense of totality that is not reducible to knowledge. The clunkiness of Cosmopolis‘s narrative movement (it’s closer to an outline than a novel, making it the perfect choice of DeLillo’s novels for the film adaptation it is about to receive) exposes the limitations of the overall approach. Is catastrophe, however vicarious and mediated by technology and irony, really the only serious response to existential dissatisfactions, are those dissatisfactions so universal as to deserve elevating over more immediate antagonisms, and is the attempt to do so in the name of the contemplative subject of the Angl0-European novel dissociable from whiteness, maleness, detachment, elitism? But depicting with such force the hysterical core of ‘late capitalist’ white male consciousness in terminal decline is one of DeLillo’s triumphs as a novelist, and maybe it’s too much to ask that he do something else.

I like to think of him as The Novel’s answer to Fredric Jameson (I’m referring to the novel more as a cultural institution than a type of text, supposed to be preserving or defending the legitimacy of something or other), though without providing the pedagogy and “cognitive mapping” that Jameson ultimately asks for. Jameson is interested in totality as an existential bond between knowledge, emotion, and action, and for him narrative can by and large no longer provide this. His theme, like Adorno’s, is the failure of culture to be what it’s supposed to have been at various points over the last 200 years: the sole remaining hope for achieved totality after the failures of religion, nationalism, (positive) ideology. Because “our imaginations are hostages to our own mode of production,” then “at best Utopia can serve the negative purpose of making us more aware of our mental and ideological imprisonment…and that therefore the best Utopias are those that fail the most comprehensively” (xii, Archaeologies of the Future). This is a valorization of criticism over its objects, of consciousness of failure over the failed attempt. Theory is necessary to excavate the submerged ‘utopian’ kernel in cultural product, and so theory takes the place of the novel. But today cultural criticism at all levels of sophistication is just as passé as any other cultural product. In the wake of thousands of scholarly articles and millions of blog posts about TV shows and their relationship to capitalism, one can detect a nostalgia for the period of so-called high theory, the sense that Baudrillard’s simulacra is a more exciting, more vital, more interesting vision of reality than anything possible today. The fashionably jaded don’t long for a period of greater authenticity — we don’t believe in it, assuming anyone ever did — but times when the lies were, or at least felt more interesting (maybe you had to be there). Here Jameson and DeLillo run into basically the same problems. It’s not about fiction vs. theory – they’re just another dialectical pair. The important split they both take for granted is between thought and action – that one can be meaningfully judged independently of the other, that one can compensate for the failure of the other. Recognizing this, one starts to understand the desperation of the desire for closure, the extraction of a closed world, however doomed and miserable, from ceaseless outward movement, any inevitable remainder to be referred to from afar as a sign of exhaustion. The world claimed by totality can only be comprehended, never known. Grasp of the whole presupposes a certain divine ignorance.


§ 6 Responses to Totality and Exhaustion

  • Alex says:

    “Grasp of the whole presupposes a certain divine ignorance.” – I want to say some smart comment about how spot-on this phrase is, but I really don’t have anything smart to say right now. Good essay.

  • gerrycanavan says:

    Yeah, that was pretty good.

  • Lindsey says:

    i think this is really interesting, helpful in many ways, and mostly right (esp. with regards to jameson, and the particular novel — cosmopolis — that you’ve chosen). & what i especially like is your sympathy to *why* and to the kinds of desires they’re responding to. i wonder if you don’t turn yourself into the completion of their triumvirate here, though, in your method of reading delillo’s novels (and reducing his oeuvre to the most minimal plot consistency — as though the skeleton is what he has been all along, not the bodies that change across the skeleton). i think you’re reading delillo here *as* jameson reads him, in fact. and producing his novels *as* a totalizing theory (of totalizing capitalism) — which is a method that takes the narrator as a stand-in for delillo the theorist, which allows him to be another jameson. this seems to go against the specifics of a lot of delillo’s other novels, which by contrast, seem to recognize that what his narrators are describing are specifically white male upper-class problems (or sometimes white female upper-class problems, or ‘the production of lifestyle’ problems, a la _players_). that he consistently tries to deal with that problem, or think through it, doesn’t (to my mind) necessarily universalize it. especially if you take the alternatives he produces (e.g. in _the names_, katherine’s labor, or the community of tap the minor and owen the old man mutually produced through literature and ecstasy, etc.). it’s an old problem, i know, but it just seems to me that part of what’s at stake here is, at least, a question of what or how art works, and how your own reading of it as being “about” fiction v theory erases a whole set of relations of thought and action already implicit in them, and reduces the novels to the ‘thing they mean’ instead of ‘the things they do’ in the very process of thinking. (one could probably extend this critique to the reading of theory as well…but i’m not really tempted to do so in the particular case of jameson.)

    • traxus4420 says:

      thanks. i certainly don’t think delillo’s entire oeuvre is reducible to a coherent message (and jameson’s isn’t either); the sense of imaginative totality is more of an effect and, as you said, an attempt to deal with the problem, common to the novels i’ve read (about half now? concentrated toward the later stuff, the names and later). there’s much more going on in them than what i wrote about. i picked cosmopolis because it’s the book of his that is most easily reducible to what you’re calling ‘the thing they mean’ (inextricable, isn’t it, from what they ‘do’?) — i’d argue it reduces itself to that point, the narrative basically consisting of systematically stripping down its initial premise. that initial premise is packer’s conviction that he has ‘cognitively mapped’ capitalism as a totality; we find that conviction to be instead rooted in what he’s tried to exclude: individual consciousness, the property at the root of all property in the material world or even the world of the market (the value of both is in decline).

      on whiteness and universality, it’s tricky — i think the imaginary universes his characters tend to find themselves in (or create for themselves) — impending apocalypse in white noise, the weird mediterranean of the names, oswald’s antisocial paranoia in libra, etc. — are in a sense too conscious of being rooted in ‘white people problems’ — every phenomena is ingested by the worldview, the impersonal novelistic consciousness. and then of course some things don’t fit and it falls apart; like jameson, delillo is alive to the failures of totalizing theory, totalizing knowledge. but they don’t leave the compound (delillo’s attempt to narrate from the POV of muslim bombers in falling man is probably the worst thing i’ve read from him). i don’t think the universalism in either is “everyone’s like this, everyone has these problems” (though cosmopolis might suggest this) but “this special minority which happens to be on the cusp of things has these problems.” the problem is that the white bougie elite is no longer in a position to know all that much about the world — its knowledge is a cold war relic, like an H-bomb — and so both J and D, being for the most part honest writers, can only invoke totality through its failures. J holds out a certain optimism for achieved totality, or what emerges from the attempts; D does not, but he can’t not write from inside it, even as an acknowledged fantasy, even as he sometimes gestures toward ‘alternatives.’

  • Lindsey says:

    (oops, sorry, to clarify: your reading of their own works as imagining themselves to be about ‘fiction v. theory’ — i know you’ve already dismissed that as being what they’re really about or what’s really at stake.)

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