After a couple of weeks on retreat – no phones, no email, no work, no speaking – I’ve returned and finally managed to finish the book proposal for The Language of Self. Was harder to write than the actual thesis. Thanks to Jake for help and perseverance.
The proposed monograph is a revision of my PhD thesis, entitled, ‘[T]he language of self’: Strategies of Subjectivity in the Novels of Don DeLillo. Exploring DeLillo’s portrayal of subjectivity, the work theorises that his characters form a particular conception of self, conditioned by the tension between connection and isolation. Such an articulation is shown to be both shaped by, and in turn formed through, an interaction with larger, social constructions of agency. In order to explore this phenomenon from both an individual and social perspective, the monograph undertakes detailed close readings of DeLillo’s texts, informed by nuanced theoretical analysis, stressing the symbiotic interaction of social and individual context. Through such an analysis, the work seeks to contribute to the burgeoning area of DeLillo studies, and to the fields of literary theory and criticism.
In regards to DeLillo studies, the monograph’s central contribution is to critique and redress the fixation in much of the existing scholarship as to whether DeLillo’s writing conforms to paradigms of modernist or postmodernist writing. Instead, it focuses upon the evolving constructions of subjectivity in DeLillo’s texts which have stimulated such discussion – and which has too often been to the detriment of an understanding of the particularity of DeLillo’s conception of subjectivity. Through the monograph’s construction of a phenomenological critical matrix, the text also contributes more generally to the fields of literary theory and criticism, providing a theoretical method by which to interrogate the interaction of personal and social context in the work of other writers. As such, the text will be of interest to academics across literary and philosophical studies, and though its primary audience will be scholars and postgraduates, the detailed close readings undertaken will also be of use for upper-level undergraduates who study DeLillo’s texts across a wide range of university courses.
Unlike the majority of work addressing DeLillo’s oeuvre, this monograph does not offer a series of largely separate, sequential readings of his novels. Instead, The Language of Self is ordered thematically, emphasising the shared mechanisms and strategies of subjectivity which are present throughout DeLillo’s fiction and which are often overlooked. This methodology informs the book’s structure which is divided into two sections, the first conceptualising the language of self, and the second exploring its role in shaping social context.
Entitled ‘Dasein’, the monograph’s first section comprises two chapters and utilizes a critical matrix derived, primarily, from engaging with the thought of Martin Heidegger. By using such a Heideggerian critical matrix, I highlight the manner in which DeLillo’s characters experience a simultaneous pull and repulsion towards the other. The first chapter explores this phenomenon through detailed close readings of Americana (1971), Running Dog (1978), Mao II (1991) and Underworld (1997), examining the desire for a subjectivity formed primarily through isolation, ostensibly the product of individual agency. The second chapter offers an alternative reading of these same novels, conceptualising the opposing fascia of the language of Self, namely the desire for a subjectivity formed principally through connection and the embracing of alterity.
The second section of the monograph, entitled ‘das Man’, comprises six paired chapters and builds upon the foundation of the first section, proposing that any individual enunciation of self inevitably interacts with other forms of language. The first set of these paired chapters explores the binaries of logos and image in DeLillo’s fiction through detailed close readings of Americana, Endzone (1972), Players (1977), The Names (1982), White Noise (1985), Underworld, The Body Artist (2001) and Falling Man (2007). Informed by an analysis of the linguistic and visual theories of Wittgenstein, Benjamin, Heidegger and Baudrillard, such readings enable the monograph to explore the impact of denotation and image on the possibilities of individual subjectivity. This allows an interrogation of the manner in which such a binary shapes and informs the construction of a wider, cultural enunciation of self, termed by DeLillo as Middle American in nature. Through such nuanced analysis, the interdependence of individual and collective forms of subjectivity can be successfully demonstrated and theorised.
Capital and waste constitutes the second binary addressed in ‘das Man’, and to explore these phenomena, the fifth and sixth chapters offer detailed close readings of Underworld and Cosmopolis (2003). The fifth chapter focus upon the impact of commodification on the formation of a Middle American enunciation of self, highlighting its shaping influence upon the possibilities of individual subjectivity. Utilising Baudrillard’s theories of hyperreality and the simulacrum, the chapter examines the transition in DeLillo’s fiction from local, predominantly ethnic forms of consumption and subjectivity, towards the mass-marketed American dream of Middle America, and, finally, to the dominance of trans-national capital and globalisation. Through a close reading of Underworld, and the application of Edelman’s Lacanian criticism of heteronormativity, the sixth chapter analyses how the very transition which facilitated Middle American dominance also encouraged forms of sexuality that embrace the hyperreal and the simulacral. Such analysis shows how this transgressive sexuality destabilised the conservative values which underpinned Middle American hegemony, and allowed its collective investment in a shared body of commodities, values and desires.
The final binary, that of power and terror, explores the connection between Middle America, the Military-industrial-complex, and domestic and foreign terrorism. Through such an analysis, the seventh and eighth chapters show how DeLillo portrays society as formed of an interconnected series of enunciations of self, on both an individual and collective level, which are simultaneously created and shaped by personal strategies of subjectivity. Through a close reading of Underworld‘s depiction of J. Edgar Hoover, and drawing upon the theoretical perspectives of Baudrillard and Foucault, the seventh chapter examines how such a transgressive individual is utilised to maintain and reinforce hegemonic subjectivity. The eighth chapter explores the opposing fascia of this binary through close readings of Underworld, Libra (1988), and Falling Man. Such analysis demonstrates how, as power becomes increasingly hegemonic, those who deviate to an unacceptable degree from prevailing cultural enunciations of self – and whose deviance is not utilised within hegemonic structures of power – are faced with the choice of either suppressing their articulations of self, or undertaking violently transgressive acts of resistance. This phenomenon is explored in DeLillo’s portrayal of a serial killer in Underworld, and his frequent depictions of terrorism throughout his novels. The Language of Self is thus able to offer a reading of DeLillo’s depictions of violence and transgression, showing how they argue for the impossibility of victory in the war on terror, since it is the very attempt for such control on a societal level which generates the violent opposition it strives to overcome.
The monograph concludes by summarising the readings undertaken, arguing that the book forms both a foundation and a resource for future DeLillo criticism. Participating in the ongoing dialogue that constitutes DeLillo studies, The Language of Self shifts the discourse from discussions of modernism and postmodernism towards more nuanced and complex interrogations of the formation of subjectivity in DeLillo’s novels.