American environments: Technology and subjectivity in the novels of Don DeLillo

Date of Completion

January 2009


Literature, Modern|Literature, American




More than any other major American author, Don DeLillo has examined the manner in which contemporary American consciousness has been shaped by the historically unique incursion into daily life of information, military, and consumer technologies. In DeLillo's fictions, technological apparatuses are not merely set-pieces in the character's lives functioning to designate a period, nor merely tools to move the plot along, they are sites of mystery and magic; they are whirlpools of space-time and convex mirrors of identity. Television sets, filmic images, telephones, computers, and nuclear bombs are not merely objects in the world for DeLillo's characters. DeLillo presents them as psychological phenomena which shape the possibilities for action, influence the nature of perception, and incorporate themselves into the fabric of memory and identity. DeLillo is a post-McLuhan Virginia Woolf; a phenomenologist of the contemporary techno-scape and an ecologist of our new kind of natural habitat. ^ The critical commentary on DeLillo has been characterized by a yawning schism between critics such as DeLillo's most celebrated exegete Frank Lentriccia who describe him as the definitive postmodernist and those such as Harold Bloom who identify DeLillo as a champion of romantic humanism. The possibility of such a double-reading results in part from the existential permeability DeLillo discovers in the interaction between his human characters and their technological environment. Novelistic reflections on the being of technology typically tend to find their metaphors in the narrative tropes of science fiction, as in Vonnegut, Pynchon, or the cyberpunk authors. DeLillo manipulates the genre of social realism in order to reveal the science fiction of everyday life. DeLillo's characters are cyborgs manqué, devotees of a technological transcendence that is tantalizingly immanent in the glistening precision of consumer technologies. Their transcendental aspirations find expression through the material forms of the technologies they fetishize, but these material forms simultaneously capture and limit the nature of the kind of transcendence they can proffer. DeLillo's characters cradle religious, psychological, and existential motivations, but their projects of self-realization tend to succumb to the inertness of the material shapes they take and to the claustrophobic paranoia of a closed history of things which connect only to other things. ^ In the words of a character in Underworld, "Technology makes reality come true" (177). Technology appears to DeLillo's characters as a kind of hypostasized human dream, which in turn, or recursively, influences the kind of dreams they have, and so the ones they realize in technological form. The result is not a dystopian technocracy like that depicted by the modernists or the romantics. DeLillo's characters are not victimized by technology as in A Clockwork Orange, 1984, or "The Terminator." Rather, they exist in collusion with technology in an ontological quest either for self-definition (as in Americana or Cosmopolis) or for self-deception (as in White Noise and Underworld ), and most characteristically in an existential cross-breed of both. Through a close reading of four DeLillo novels, I examine the variety of modes in which DeLillo's fictions illustrate the technologically mediated confluence of his human subjects and the field of cultural objects in which they discover themselves. ^