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The Radiance of Dailiness: Don Delillo and the Everyday Book

The Radiance of Dailiness: Don Delillo and the Everyday Book

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Published by Mark Sample

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Published by: Mark Sample on Dec 15, 2009
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The Radiance of Dailiness: Don DeLillo and the Everyday 
is about DonDeLillo and things—real world, physical, everyday things. My projectapproaches DeLillo as a cultural archeologist who uses ordinary objectsin his novels to understand life in contemporary America. Examiningthe way common, household things—a Coca-Cola bottle, a pair of shoes, kitchen trash—circulate through DeLillo’s fourteen novels, Iargue that DeLillo imagines that everyday life is populated by things asmuch as by people. Moreover, DeLillo reveals that the objects wemight otherwise take to be mundane and apolitical are in fact deeplyconnected to larger social and historical forces.
The Radiance of Dailiness: Don DeLillo and the Everyday 
addresses asignificant gap in DeLillo scholarship, which is that critics haveconsistently overlooked DeLillo’s preoccupation with everyday things. Throughout his thirty-five year career, DeLillo has returned time andtime again in his novels to the theme of the ordinary, the everyday,what DeLillo once called in an interview the “radiance of dailiness.”DeLillo scholars in particular and American Literature scholars moregenerally have glossed over this fixation of DeLillo’s, most commonlyascribing the recurring thematic presence of things in his novels toDeLillo’s broader critique of American consumer culture.However, what the current scholarship has not recognized is thatDeLillo exhibits an engineer’s interest in the pure physicality of thetrinkets and objects of our daily lives. I distinguish between
in this project, which in its crudest form is the differencebetween how things are used and how they are made, marketed,bought, and sold. Much of my focus in
The Radiance of Dailiness
centers on the way DeLillo imagines things are actually used—ormisused as the case may be. DeLillo explores how physical objects areendowed with unique affordances, a term from the recent work of Sellen and Harper that refers to the activities and habits that the1
physical properties of an object allow. These affordances shapeDeLillo’s characters, and in some cases, entire plot trajectories, whichsuggests that for DeLillo the bric-a-brac in our houses, apartments,offices, and stores is not merely background clutter—white noise, so tospeak—but is in fact ecological, a formative and transformative aspectof our physical environment.Even as I demonstrate DeLillo’s interest in the thing-in-itself, I explorehow he gives life to the inanimate by reading into and through thehistory of things. I argue in
The Radiance of Dailiness
that DeLillo isdisinterested in a typical Marxist critique of the commodity and isinvested in actually reversing the terms of commodity fetishism.Instead of veiling social relations, hiding the material reality of theirproduction, things in DeLillo’s novels invite speculation about theirorigin and design. DeLillo is deeply concerned with what theanthropologist Igor Kopytoff calls “the cultural biography of things,”the very real, material conditions of an object, how it is given meaningand situated and resituated within culture. For DeLillo, delving into thecultural biography of an object is a means to illuminate the past andperhaps more importantly, reveal what remains hidden in the present.Examining DeLillo’s treatment of objects as material forms and thecultural work these objects perform as they are used, mishandled, lost,or forgotten, I am necessarily guided by several theoreticalapproaches. Bill Brown’s “Thing Theory” and his recent effort in
 ASense of Things: The Object Matter of American Literature
(Chicago,2003) to think through physical objects represented in 19
centuryAmerican literature is an important predecessor to my study, dealingwith many of the same issues but in an earlier milieu. Theanthropologist Daniel Miller’s ethnographic work on material culturestudies (
Material Cultures: Why Some Things Matter,
Chicago, 1998)likewise provides an important framework for considering the social lifeof objects, and Miller’s work is especially relevant when we considerthat DeLillo himself is an ethnographer of sorts.As important as these contemporary scholars are, their work isunvaryingly indebted to one of the first theorists of modern everydaylife, the German critic Walter Benjamin, whose wide-ranging essaysfrom the 1920s and 1930s serve as the initial impulse for my study of DeLillo. Benjamin’s insistence on delving into the mystery of everydaythings, whether it’s a telephone in his childhood home in the early1900s or the meaning of a wooden toy to a child, motivates the spiritof my work. Benjamin cultivates a mindfulness of the ordinary, seeinganew what has gone unnoticed simply because of its familiarity. SurelyBenjamin would agree with Father Paulus’s counsel to Nick Shay in2
(1997) that “everyday things represent the mostoverlooked forms of knowledge.” Benjamin taps into these forms of overlooked knowledge, often by examining what he calls a “dialecticalimage,” a startling juxtaposition of two opposing elements, boundtogether in a way that disrupts a typical understanding of either of theelements. DeLillo too, I argue, exposes everyday life through dialecticalimages—say, a Molotov cocktail in a Coca-Cola bottle—and indeed, thisis DeLillo’s primary strategy for exploring, to quote from Father Paulusagain, “the depth and reach of the commonplace.”
The Radiance of Dailiness: DeLillo and the Everyday 
makes asubstantial contribution to the field of contemporary American literarystudies. Most significantly, I reframe Don DeLillo, often consideredalongside Thomas Pynchon as one of the principal postmodernistnovelists of our age, as a realist writer, firmly grounded in the modernmaterial world. I insist that DeLillo, even at his most surreal or stylized,is a writer of realist fiction. This reformulation of DeLillo counters thetrend in DeLillo studies, which has been dominated in recent years bypoststructuralist readings that focus on the philosophical ormetaphysical side of DeLillo. While these influential studies—such asDavid Cowart’s
Don DeLillo: The Physics of Language
(University of Georgia, 2002) or Joseph Dewey’s
Grief and Nothing: A Reading of DonDeLillo
(University of South Carolina, 2006)—have expanded ourunderstanding of DeLillo in important ways, they concentrate on theinstitutional or cosmological indeterminacies which haunt DeLillo’sfiction, leaving DeLillo’s emphasis on materiality unaccounted for.
I do not present my study of DeLillo as an exhaustive chronologicalreading of his oeuvre, the format of most books in the field. Rather, Ihave structured
The Radiance of Dailiness
thematically, with eachchapter devoted to a specific category of everyday objects. This designallows for a fluid discussion of key objects across DeLillo’s fourteennovels, allowing me to make my own startling—and revealing— juxtapositions of DeLillo’s work.
Introduction – “In the Commonplace I Find UnexpectedThemes and Intensities”
I open with a discussion of the recent trend in popular culture totake us “behind the scenes” of everyday life. Whether it is theso-called “CSI shot,” now common in many television shows andmovies, that tunnels a camera through the human body, or thepopularity of what the critic Bruce Robbins calls commodity3

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