Don DeLillo and systems thinking

In a 1997 interview, Don DeLillo said,

What is the role of high technology in creating the way we think and feel? The paranoia of Libra flows from unknowable plots being worked out in hidden corners. In Underworld it comes from the huge overarching presence of highly complex and interconnected technological systems. There’s a feeling I have that people become more pliable, that people lose a measure of conviction as technology becomes more powerful and more sophisticated. I think it’s interesting and curious that the Heaven’s Gate group was computer proficient. . . . The worship of technology ends in the paranoid spaces of the computer net.

Conversations with Don DeLillo. Edited by Thomas DePietro (2005)

A computer-proficient person can very quickly find information to support any theory or delusion.

In novels like Underworld (1997), Mao II (1991), White Noise (1984), and others, DeLillo explores the need people seem to have to believe that someone is in charge. But under conditions of functional differentiation, no one is really in charge. Global society has become far too complex for traditional notions of leadership and control. We have to get used to living in a world without leaders.

Here are a couple of interesting quotes from White Noise:

A woman with an armband handed out masks at the door, gauzy white surgical masks that covered the nose and mouth (p. 150).

In the following, Babette Gladney is speaking to her family.

“Every day on the news there’s another toxic spill. Cancerous solvents from storage tanks, arsenic from smokestacks, radioactive water from power plants. How serious can it be if it happens all the time? Isn’t the definition of a serious event based on the fact that it’s not an everyday occurrence?” (p. 166)

The above is funny because it reflects the way many people actually think. The general tone of the book is that no one is in charge, but we have ways of convincing ourselves that someone is in charge. The surgical mask is supposed to make people feel safe, just like the security theater in which we participate at airports.

DeLillo also explores narrativization, or the creation of plots with actions, actors, purposes, etc. But DeLillo undercuts traditional narrative patterns, creating a kind of jazz sensibility— point, counterpoint, with no clear end point in sight. Burke’s pentad is useful here; the idea is that people create stories with acts, agents, agencies, scenes, and purposes. This is how we observe reality, or reduce the complexity of raw perception. We find the creation of stories with clear actors, purposes, etc., irresistible. This is also why conspiracy theories are so appealing. In a conspiracy there are clear actors with purposes; it’s not just random events. There are people in charge, and this tends to reduce anxiety.

Here is a passage from White Noise in which Murray, a visiting lecturer who teaches a course in cinematic car crashes, is talking to Jack Gladney, the narrator and professor of Hitler Studies.

“We start our lives in chaos, in babble. As we surge up into the world. we try to devise a shape, a plan. There is dignity in this. Your whole life is a plot, a scheme, a diagram. It is a failed scheme but that’s not the point. To plot is to affirm life, to seek shape and control. Even after death, most particularly after death, the search continues. Burial rites are an attempt to complete the scheme, in ritual. Picture a state funeral, Jack. It is all precision, detail, order, design. The nation holds its breath.The efforts of a huge and powerful government are brought to bear on a ceremony that will shed the last trace of chaos. If all goes well, if they bring it off, some natural law of perfection is obeyed. The nation is delivered from anxiety, the deceased life is redeemed, life itself is strengthened, reaffirmed.”

“Are you sure.” I said

“To plot, to take aim at something , to shape time and space. This is how we advance the art of human consciousness.”

page 278

Chaos is randomness or a condition unpredictability, the condition where one event in no more likely than another event; there is a lack of structure. But ritual offers structure, and in this novel secular rituals, like shopping and watching TV, replace religious rituals. The novel begin with the annual ritual of the convoy of station wagons arriving on the college campus each fall. Jack says he hasn’t missed this event in 21 years, like missing an Easter church service in 21 years.

As an academic satire, White Noise shows how, through specialization, anyone can become an authority on anything–e.g., cinematic car crashes, Hitler Studies. Jack Gladney observes that these days everyone is a either a teacher or a student. You can see this now with YouTube, where we can go to learn how to boil water or anything else.

This novel, like several of DeLillo’s novels, can be a frustrating read because the reader is looking for a clear narrative–a sustained story with a clear actor or protagonist engaged in some project or pursuing some goal and facing conflicts along the way–but the characters in this novel just drift from scene to scene. This is the jazz sensibility; it is also why the novel has been called postmodern.

Things like the toxic cloud, or The Airborne Toxic Event, and the TV and radio often seem to be characters on the same level as the human beings. Voices from the TV and radio enter the narrative along with “living” voices. In a conventional novel, the interruptions or obstacles presented by nonhuman elements are ignored.

TV and radio voices are placed on the same level as other voices because mediated reality is as real as unmediated reality. Actually, there is no unmediated reality. Thus “the most photographed barn in America” is famous just because it has been photographed. People travel long distances to see the “real” barn. The simulacrum exists on the same ontological level as the original. This is known as hyperreality. From the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

Hyperreality is closely related to the concept of the simulacrum: a copy or image without reference to an original. In postmodernism, hyperreality is the result of the technological mediation of experience, where what passes for reality is a network of images and signs without an external referent, such that what is represented is representation itself. In Symbolic Exchange and Death (1976), Jean Baudrillard uses Lacan’s concepts of the symbolic, the imaginary, and the real to develop this concept while attacking orthodoxies of the political Left, beginning with the assumed reality of power, production, desire, society, and political legitimacy. Baudrillard argues that all of these realities have become simulations, that is, signs without any referent, because the real and the imaginary have been absorbed into the symbolic.

Baudrillard presents hyperreality as the terminal stage of simulation, where a sign or image has no relation to any reality whatsoever, but is “its own pure simulacrum” (Baudrillard 1981, 6). The real, he says, has become an operational effect of symbolic processes, just as images are technologically generated and coded before we actually perceive them. This means technological mediation has usurped the productive role of the Kantian subject, the locus of an original synthesis of concepts and intuitions, as well as the Marxian worker, the producer of capital though labor, and the Freudian unconscious, the mechanism of repression and desire. “From now on,” says Baudrillard, “signs are exchanged against each other rather than against the real” (Baudrillard 1976, 7), so production now means signs producing other signs. The system of symbolic exchange is therefore no longer real but “hyperreal.” Where the real is “that of which it is possible to provide an equivalent reproduction,” the hyperreal, says Baudrillard, is “that which is always already reproduced” (Baudrillard 1976, 73). The hyperreal is a system of simulation simulating itself.


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