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.