Taking Out the Trash: Don DeLillo’s Underworld, Liquid Modernity, and the End of Garbage
David H. Evans
garbage has to be the poem of our time because garbage is spiritual, believable enough to get our attention, getting in the way, piling up, stinking, turning brooks brownish and creamy white: what else deflects us from the errors of our illusionary ways, not a temptation to trashlessness, that is too far off, and, anyway unimaginable, unrealistic ... A. R. Ammons, Garbage, §2. 1–8 Garbage. Materials that have been discarded or allowed to escape (as byproducts of an industrial process) as useless. . . It is the willful act of discarding a thing that makes it garbage. Most garbage is worn out, used up, broken, rejected or otherwise worthless, but new and nearly new items also enter the waste stream.1 The human tendency to regard little things as important has produced very many great things.2 DON DELILLO’S MAGNUM OPUS, Underworld, has been honoured by an impressive series of prestigious awards, but perhaps the most surprising was the 2000 William Dean Howells Medal, given to ‘the most distinguished work
Steve Coffel, Encyclopedia of Garbage (New York 1996) p. 96. Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, The Waste Books, trans. R. J. Hollingdale (New York 2000) p. 115.
doi:10.1093/camqtly/bfl008 © The Author, 2006. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of The Cambridge Quarterly. All rights reserved. For permissions please email: email@example.com
THE CAMBRIDGE QUARTERLY
of American fiction published during the previous five years’. Surprising not, certainly, because the novel was undeserving of such recognition; on the contrary, Underworld ’s ambitious attempt to render the mental rhymes and social rhythms of American life at the end of the twentieth century is fully the equal of Howells’s effort to depict the mind and mores of his own fin de siècle. The sense of dissonance arises from something else – the implied association of the most energetic American champion of literary realism with an author who has come to be seen as the pre-eminent analyst of the age of the spectacle, the poet laureate of the simulacrum, of the depthless image floating above a social vacuum – and from the pairing of a writer whose works are suffused by a vaguely paranoid mood of unlocatable menace, with a novelist who famously fixed his gaze on the ‘more smiling aspects of life’. It is a coupling that can easily seem like a critical shotgun wedding, if not a literary bad joke. Yet this association is, I would contend, far more appropriate than it first appears. In many ways Underworld is less an example of artistic postmodernism than an assault on its premises and implications.3 In spite of its disjunctions and ellipses, its historiographical play and narrative anfractuosities, the novel’s ultimate dedication is to a restoration of access to the real. In this sense, it represents the culmination of a movement in DeLillo’s oeuvre away from a style whose deadpan ironies and post-nostalgic cool made his works seem to many the latest word in the discrediting of realist novel, with its naive faith in representation and its pious humanism. With conscious contrariness, Underworld takes up once again the task of that novel, rejecting the appeals of postmodern scepticism and paranoid systems theory in favour of an aesthetic that resembles the practice of the character Jesse Detwiler, picking assiduously through piles of garbage in the hope of finding traces of what makes us who we are. The comparison is not arbitrary, for one of the things that inspires the immense effort of the novel is a conviction that the fate of garbage is closely connected to the fate of realism, and to the fate of whatever remains to us of reality as well. No doubt the most obvious way in which Underworld signals its engagement with the nineteenth-century novel is by its stupendous ambition, its heroic attempt to provide a kaleidoscopic portrait of the history of American culture in the latter half of the twentieth century, from the dark and conflicted days of the Cold War to the sunlit and streamlined era of American political and economic supremacy in the globalised 1990s. Its reach is deliberately epic, beginning with a semi-mythical, indeed ‘homer-ic’, agon between Giants and Dodgers – an updated Gigantomachia – and ending
DeLillo himself has remarked that he doesn’t ‘see Underworld as postmodern. Maybe it’s the last modernist gasp.’ Richard Williams, ‘Everything Under the Bomb’, Guardian, 10 Jan. 1998.
TAKING OUT THE TRASH
with an allusion to the pacific culmination of the pre-eminent epic of the twentieth century, The Waste Land.4 At the same time, that synoptic vision is complemented by a meticulous respect for the insistently in/significant trivia of ordinary life over a half-century – laundry tickets, Jell-O chicken mousse, lollipop condoms, Kelvinators, home movies, baseballs, UFO monthlies, ‘blood-stained garments in Ziploc bags’, ‘the slabbed butter melting on the crumbled bun’. By itself, this historical aspiration represents something of a revision of DeLillo’s earlier novels, whose enabling presupposition might be said to have been Fredric Jameson’s thesis that the defining element of the contemporary condition is a waning of the sense of historicity.5 Under such circumstances, the concept of history is factitious almost by definition, the quaint residue of a bygone episteme; in a culture constituted entirely by images, the past is only another ephemeral programme on the televisual screen of the moment. Underworld, however, undertakes to offer more: in effect, the history of the apparent end of history. What makes DeLillo’s history as puzzling as it is dazzling, however, is that it is offered not in terms of a coherent chronological narrative, but as a seemingly arbitrary array of cultural moments and disconnected episodes, a discoordinated series of, as the subtitle of one section of the novel puts it, ‘selected fragments public and private’ scooped from different decades.6 While critics have often attempted to provide some meaningful pattern that justifies the novel’s apparently haphazard divagations, the experience of the
4 For other evidence of epic associations in Underworld, see Tom LeClair, ‘An Underhistory of Mid-Century America’, Atlantic Monthly, 280/4 (Oct. 1997) pp. 113–16; Paul Gleason, ‘Don DeLillo, T. S. Eliot, and the Redemption of America’s Atomic Waste Land’, in Joseph Dewey, Steven G. Kellman, and Irving Malin (eds.), Underwords: Perspectives on Don DeLillo’s Underworld (Newark, Del. 2002) pp. 130–43; and Ira Nadel, ‘The Baltimore Catechism; or Comedy in Underworld’, in Dewey, Kellman, and Malin (eds.), Underwords, pp. 176–98. While it is natural to think of the novel in terms of the epic, the question of genre may be less clear-cut than it seems. Given that the narrative is unified less by the actions of a single character than by the fate of a physical object, the Thomson homerun baseball, as it passes through the possession of a large range of individuals, a case might be made for considering Underworld a steroidal variation on a largely forgotten 18th-century form, the ‘itnarrative’ or ‘novel of circulation’, which offered a satire of contemporary society by way of the adventures of, for example, a guinea, a slipper, or an ostrich feather. See Toby A. Olshin, ‘Form and Theme in Novels about Non-Human Characters: A Neglected Sub-Genre’, Genre, 2/1 (1969) pp. 41–53, and Jonathan Lamb, ‘Modern Metamorphoses and Disgraceful Tales’, in Bill Brown (ed.), Things (Chicago 2004) pp. 193–26. 5 Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Durham, NC 1991) p. 6. 6 Don DeLillo, Underworld (New York: Scribner, 1997) p. 499. Subsequent citations are to this edition; page references are given parenthetically in the text.
The initiating gesture of heavy modernity is one of enclosure and exclusion: if maximal efficiency is to be achieved.
. huge factories. it is difficult to say what it all adds up to. and ‘rooted’ phase. repetitiveness and predictability’. 57. ‘one of the most powerful motives behind the urge to melt them was the wish to discover or invent solids of – for a change – lasting solidity. ‘immobile’. perhaps the most relevant theoretical frame is offered by a less frequently cited thinker. The result was an economic landscape populated by giants – monstrous machines.8 regulated above all by the concept of solidity. then..7 If this is a history. everything which cannot be converted into a functioning part of the system must not be simply ignored but. even the divergent interests of management and labour are secondary to their interdependence in a shared project of maximised production. monopolistic corporations – all dedicated to realizing the efficiency to be derived from coordination and integration. . modernity was initiated by the desire to melt all that is solid into air. The American Mystery: American Literature from Emerson to DeLillo (Cambridge 2000) p. 8 Zygmunt Bauman. the fragments do not collect around anything’. For Bauman. Since ‘everything [in the world of heavy modernity] serves a purpose’. Although criticism has typically invoked the usual suspects of postmodern theory. who argues that latter part of the twentieth century is best understood in terms of a shift from ‘heavy modernity’ to ‘light’ or ‘liquid’ modernity. there is ‘no room for
Tony Tanner. Zygmunt Bauman. to underwrite an analysis of DeLillo’s social anatomy.. p. ‘included out’.10 all in the service of maximal productivity and goal-oriented projects. especially Baudrillard and Jameson. . according to Marx. If. or what order can be found in this seemingly overwhelming disorder. 9 Ibid.9 Early theorists of economic modernisation strove for an orderly system characterised by ‘monotony. One might also describe the era of heavy modernity in terms of its organisation of space. p. the heavy phase of modernity is its ‘bulky’. one might say.106
THE CAMBRIDGE QUARTERLY
reader is more likely to resemble Tony Tanner’s exasperated response: ‘I just did not see the point of DeLillo’s randomizings . or what the plot of that history may be. 3. 10 Ibid. regularity. 55. 208. From this perspective. Liquid Modernity (Cambridge 2000) p. and the various capitalist and socialist ideologies whose apparent opposition once appeared to be the fundamental faultlines of the twentieth century turn out in fact to have been superficial distractions. their differences far less important than their common acquiescence in an ethic of rationalised utilitarianism. and solidity which one could trust and rely upon and which would make the world predictable and therefore manageable’.
The era of liquid modernity is characterised by a fundamental transformation. p. i. It is no accident that the only room left for the unemployed Bartleby is finally ‘the Tombs’. or unregulated. whatever cannot be converted into useful form is progressively squeezed out. and not without reason. extending from Karl Marx to Michel Foucault.e. it resides in the moment of transition from a past to a new state.’12 The resultant modernist utopia is a space which is ‘centrally organized. however. until it can literally no longer find a place within the prevailing order.. The unhampered mobility of capital and the instantaneity of electronic communications conspire to produce an economy whose motto might be Emerson’s dictum that ‘Power ceases in the moment of repose. speed. it defined itself against those parts which were not organised. and individuals who themselves offer resistance to the process of production by the exercise of a personal preference ‘not to’ are relegated to the position of the unemployable. it paradoxically circumscribed and maintained a space for it by the very rigour of that exclusion. ‘The logic of power and the logic of control were both grounded in the strict separation of the “inside” from the “outside” and a vigilant defense of the boundary between the two. and flexibility become the crucial elements of success.TAKING OUT THE TRASH
whatever may lack use’. for it can be argued that. and hysterically concerned with impenetrable boundaries’.. and solidity cease to be the measures of economic rationalisation. At the same time. unutilised.
. 115. even reversal. Like Bartleby in Melville’s prescient fable of the age of heavy modernity. Ibid. to focus solely on the success of the process of economic integration is to oversimplify the situation.’ In a global market
11 12 13
Ibid. Size. at the same time as heavy modernity sought incessantly to exclude the individual and the particular. quoted ibid. rigidly bounded. immobility. p. and which remained obdurately purposeless and unproductive. the useless. But it is in those parts that the individual and particular – whatever resists conversion into a useful element in a larger process – finds the possibility of survival. of regarding the regime of heavy modernity as a profoundly dehumanising and repressive development. 133. The consequence is a rigorous maintenance of the division between inside – that which has been brought under the regime of measured and instrumental control – and outside – the space of all that remains unassimilated. lightness. of the principles of the preceding order. Those aspects of the idiosyncratically particular that interfere with the smooth functioning of the machinery of production must be excised.13 There is a long and familiar tradition. Even as heavy modernity aspired to extend its organisation into every corner of the world. As Bauman argues. Kenneth Jowett.
and archetypes. p.108
THE CAMBRIDGE QUARTERLY
increasingly defined less by the production of physical goods than by the exchange of symbolic services and instruments of credit – a world become. on the other. The Weightless World: Strategies for Managing the Digital Economy (Oxford 1997).’17 In terms of space. who rule. it converts a community of diverse and dissimilar individuals into a constantly circulating mass of interchangeable consumers. ‘weightless’14 – what counts is the rapidity with which participants can reconfigure and recycle assets. two aspects of the new order have particular importance: the fate of the object and the reorganisation of space. and mutate into new forms. Body Shops. it is the most elusive.’15 For present purposes. The thingness of things is boiled off. Rifkin does not hesitate to describe this transition in quasi-metaphysical terms. leaving behind an infinitely convertible abstraction. it transforms the urban jumble of distinctive shops and businesses into the unvarying series of Gaps. images. 15 Ibid. their specific particularity disappears. are dematerializing. 120. the commodities that had once seemed both the substance and purpose of economic activity. of concepts and fictions. which for so long were a measure of wealth in the industrial world. those most free to move without notice. On the one hand. its capacity for taking in and rendering homogeneous the heterogeneous. In “liquid” modernity.16 To the extent that material objects are wholly defined by their capacity for exchange. ‘The new era’. physical products. 54. become less and less important. p. Jeremy Rifkin has described this development in terms of a process of dematerialisation.
Diana Coyle. the emergence of liquid modernity undermines the rigid opposition of inside and outside and revises the principle of exclusion that had dominated the preceding economic order. One of the more paradoxical implications of the process of liquefaction is that material objects. facile escape and hopeless chase. but of passing: ‘“Fluid” modernity is the epoch of disengagement. 16 ‘The fact is. as ‘physical capital and property’ are replaced by intangible assets.
. in Diane Coyle’s phrase.’ Jeremy Rifkin.. 17 Ibid. One of the features that makes the shopping mall perhaps the exemplary space of the era of liquid modernity is what Bauman calls its ‘phagic’ quality. endlessly and unconsciously repeating each other’s trajectories. as a step across the boundary that separates actual beings from their purely intellectual representations. ascendancy is no longer a matter of having.. 30. and Starbucks that line its climatecontrolled streets. argues Rifkin. The Age of Access: How the Shift from Ownership to Access is Transforming Modern Life (London 2000) p. ‘is more immaterial and cerebral. of ideas. elusiveness. It is a world of platonic forms. and political. Economic. the conjectural endpoint of a signifying chain that stretches over the horizon. as they are converted into pure representations.
p. But garbage belongs to the age of heavy modernity. which cannot serve as a means to desired effects – it is simply in the way. 45).TAKING OUT THE TRASH
Instead of policing the boundary between inside and outside. Another way to put this would be to say that what disappears is garbage – what is left after all the utility has been abstracted from an object. but by converting and reintroducing it into the cycle of production. as DeLillo describes it at one point. this very stubbornly resistant quality is what makes garbage the last preserve of individuality. 31. everyone. with its emphasis on open areas and reconfigurable dividers. and to pull everything. and that has reaped previously inconceivable economic gains as a consequence. B. even Bartleby need no longer be left out. possession of private space and the ability to exclude others – hallmarks of the ownership mentality – are anathema to the corporate mission. To put it another way. garbage is that which maintains the most intimate and personal relation to the private self – our garbage is what remains after our participation in the cycle of production and consumption. liquid modernity continually breaches it. the unemployable. Liquid modernity reacts to garbage not by excluding it. the idiosyncratic with the interchangeable. 8. constantly striving to convert private space into a common market. Adorno. garbage is the material equivalent of what Adorno would describe as the non-identical. In a very real sense. The maximised efficiency of heavy modernism has no use for garbage. what cannot or can no longer serve a productive purpose. The final triumph of late capitalism is to turn the merely useless into raw material for future output.
. individuality. especially to the minute fraction of the population that has been well situated to exploit conditions of maximal instability. it is the loss of precisely what was excluded by the old order of heavy modernity – the particular. as another example of the way in which increasingly ‘private space gives over to social space’: ‘In the new office setting.’18 In such a liquid. all that whose essence is ‘nonconceptuality. one’s garbage is the thing which is most one’s own – it is the end in a world defined by means. Rifkin points suggestively to contemporary office design. trans. and reproduction.19 At the same time. Paradoxically. a meaningful role in the process of production – it simply is what it is. the embodiment of a ‘shadow identity’ (p. and everyplace into the orbit of commerce. and to transform the resistantly non-identical into a convertible
Ibid. what falls out of that cycle and marks the crossing of the particular with the general. But it also results in a serious loss. mobile environment. or at worst a source of congestion in the system. the singular. the unique with the repeatable. In a curious way. This new order has seemed exhilarating and emancipatory to some.. Negative Dialectics. Theodor W. Garbage is what resists conversion or translation. It is. and particularity’. E. Ashton (New York 1973) p. consumption.
while John Duvall suggests that landfills ‘figure spiritually wasted lives’. 45 (1999) p. Late Marxism: Adorno. many of the most thoughtful readings of the novel have focused on the motif of waste. It is impossible to approach DeLillo’s landfill of a book without at some point having to deal with the overpowering odour of garbage that permeates the literal. proposing that the novel’s material refuse corresponds to the unresolved elements of Nick’s past that he must eventually come to terms with. and to good effect. But I would suggest that these interpretations. so Nick tries to contain his memories within carefully guarded boundaries that nevertheless permit traces of his internal poisons to leach from his psychic subterranean and taint his life’.110
THE CAMBRIDGE QUARTERLY
commodity. comes to an end.20 Garbage. and a good number of the most memorable scenes involve a confrontation with the physical fact. to leave nothing outside the circuit of production and exchange than by the sudden conversion of corporate executives to a vision of natural harmony. of subversion and the aesthetic. Mark Osteen has argued that ‘Just as his company works to package and restrict hazardous waste. Modern Fiction Studies. waste is the ‘unwanted baggage’ that ‘sullies our ability to conform to an acceptable prototype’. but which. ‘late capitalism [had] all but succeeded in eliminating’. the left over and left out. but the urge to recycle is driven more by the impulse to make everything useful. 22 Mark Osteen. 998. 5. in so far as critics have almost always located the significance of garbage in Underworld in its capacity to represent something else. and compel it to enter the system of utility. of trash. metaphorical. John Duvall. In this sense. for example. The modern corporation likes to boast of its raised ecological consciousness. or the Persistence of the Dialectic (London 1990) p. Don DeLillo’s Underworld: A Reader’s Guide (New York 2002) p. and Disorder’. ‘“Refuse Heaped Many Stories High”: DeLillo.21 Several critics have submitted a loosely Freudian reading. and thematic levels of the novel: Nick Shay is of course employed by a waste management firm. Dirt. 21 Ruth Helyer. 24. at the turn of the twentieth century. According to Ruth Helyer. The fate of garbage thus parallels that ‘of nature and the Unconscious. Not surprisingly. 226. American Magic and Dread: Don DeLillo’s Dialogue with Culture (Philadelphia 2000) p. resistant to practical use – that once survived within the invisible interstices of the economy. of individual and collective praxis alike’ – heterogeneous spaces. go subtly off track.22
Fredric Jameson. necessary as they are. or a meditation on the cultural implications. The principles of enlightened environmentalism and the natural tendencies of business in the liquid era come together in a common effort to transform garbage. in short.
. recycling is a key element of the contemporary economy. From these considerations of the course of the history of modernity I want to turn to Underworld.
42 (2001). 1965). They thus replicate the processes of liquid modernity.24 The social and cultural conditions that led to the emergence of modernism have been described in many different ways.. 567.. but one development that has perhaps not received the attention that it deserves is the new attitude towards waste that began to take shape in the second half of the nineteenth century. ‘Recycling Authority: Don DeLillo’s Waste Management. Instead. p. vol. 3 (Oxford. as with the Aptness of the Description to excite the Image’. if the Image be represented to our Minds by suitable Expressions . refusing to allow anything to be useless. its simple non-identity. the solution has been found in emphasising the form as the redemption and sublimation of the content. To define the function of garbage in Underworld more precisely. our relationship to garbage is best characterised as a kind of ‘stewardship’. it is useful to set it in the larger context of what we might call a brief history of garbage in modern literature. but rather by the very force of their hermeneutic ingenuity. generally in sight and available as a resource for patching. which seems to represent a serious challenge to both common sense and traditional philosophies of the aesthetic. For what all these interpretations share is an unwillingness to let garbage be garbage. Nick’s obsession with trash is the primary metaphor of DeLillo’s novelistic activity – ‘reusing. 385. to abide in its obdurate particularity. garbage was a part of normal daily life. Typically. Art theory has long been engaged with the paradox of the depiction of the disgusting.TAKING OUT THE TRASH
Still others offer a more purely formal interpretation: for Jesse Kavadlo. succeeded in finding a place even for excrement within neoclassical norms of art by arguing that ‘the Description of a Dunghill is pleasing to the Imagination. they recycle the material reality of trash. Donald F. reappropriating. 24 The Spectator ed. and ultimately redeeming language’.23 These various readings display an insight and critical virtuosity that seems invoked by the text’s own complexity. converting it into a useful abstraction or meaningful symbol. Thus Joseph Addison. Prior to that period. as Susan Strasser’s history of refuse demonstrates. and constant bricolage. so that the latter becomes effectively invisible to a mind properly focused on the felicities of expression. we are not so much delighted with the Image that is contained in the Description. recycling. vol. Garbage began to be seen as ‘unsanitary’ in the latter half
Jesse Kavadlo. and in doing so sacrifice its stubbornly senseless singularity.’ Critique. and if they miss something crucial about the novel they do so not because of any lack of critical acuity. for example.
. p. Bond. repairing. Such attitudes gradually died out as garbage underwent a social redefinition that associated it with poverty and disease.
we may say that in the late nineteenth century the ‘garbage problem’ was created as much as it was ‘discovered’27 as part of the generalised process of exclusion of the useless that is characteristic of heavy modernity. Ou s’élançait en pétillant. TX 1981) p. ‘sanitation’ from 1849. All this fell and rose like a wave Or darted forward bubbling One would have said that the body. which trickled like a thick liquid Along these living rags. Lived by multiplying itself. Melosi. for example. morality. enflé d’un souffle vague. he is. 21. as Louis Cazamian
The first citation for ‘sanitary’ in the OED dates from 1842. [Flies buzzed on the putrid stomach. Vivait en se multipliant. but also with civilisation. and an orderly way of life’. and particularity.] (ll. 121. by the first decade of the twentieth century. ‘unsanitary’ from 1871. 26 Susan Strasser. Reform and the Environment. From which emerged black battalions Of larvae. nonconformity. On the one hand.112
THE CAMBRIDGE QUARTERLY
of the century. 1880– 1980 (College Station. Tout cela descendait.
. D’où sortaient de noirs bataillons De larves. qui coulaient comme un épais liquide Le long de ces vivants haillons. 27 Martin V. ‘sanitation was equated not only with the struggle against disease per se. Thus waste in modern literature begins to become thematically significant. indeed to become the artistic topic par excellence. Waste and Want: A Social History of Trash (New York 1999) p. In a sense then. 17–24) Baudelaire’s morbidly detailed blazon of this ‘carcasse superbe’ is more than a supercilious dandy’s spoof. Consider. and thus something to be excluded and removed from sight by an increasingly professional ‘sanitation service’. swollen with a vague breath. Baudelaire’s famous poem ‘Une Charogne’: Les mouches bourdonnaient sur ce ventre putride. On eût dit que le corps. montait comme une vague.26 that service in time became less like a branch of public works and more like the front line in an endless battle to hold back the relentless pressure of degeneration. But the new status of garbage as that which is left out of the economic and social system also makes it particularly significant to an emerging aesthetic based on alienation. To the extent that. Garbage in the Cities: Refuse.
like the Hanged Man missing from Madame Sosostris’s deck. the mocking imitations generated by this ‘fantastic farm where ashes grow like wheat into ridges and hills and grotesque gardens.TAKING OUT THE TRASH
remarks à propos of Les Fleurs du mal as a whole. of men who move dimly and already crumbling through the powdery air’ represents only the sterile reality that lies behind the dazzling spectacle mounted by a superficial society. on the other hand.
. one might venture the generalisation that the role of refuse becomes more symbolic than aesthetic. 27. Scott Fitzgerald. cardboard boxes. which aligns it thematically with the missing spiritual dimension of modern life. so that even Christ seems present in the poem only as a kind of garbage. Only from the foul can truly beautiful flowers emerge. The most deliberate American version of the waste land. In a novel constructed of simulations and shams. ‘waste’ here has primarily mythical and spiritual connotations. and the ecological devastation of Eliot’s landscape is the sign of a crisis of moral sterility. the successful rendering of ‘ordure’. especially when Eliot is directing us to Ezekiel and Ecclesiastes. 342. all that there is neither place nor words for. where ashes take the forms of houses and chimneys and rising smoke and finally. With Anglo-American modernists. the refused refuse. What compelled Eliot’s imagination about garbage.118: 22). The central work here. The Great Gatsby (New York 1995) p. At the same time. the repeated invocations of the Christ/stone metaphor all deriving their power from the verse in Psalm 118 that literally equates Christ with refuse: ‘The stone which the builders refused is become the head stone of the corner’ (Ps. perhaps. and a poet so rooted in the life of the city would have been well aware of the more practical crisis created by overproduction and the subsequent problem of mounting trash. it is only that which is defined as refuse. and this resolve fastens naturally on aspects of life ignored by conventional art’. Fitzgerald’s valley of ashes in The Great Gatsby. ‘determined to show things as they are. A History of French Literature (Oxford 1955) p. sandwich papers. | Silk handkerchiefs. cigarette ends’ of ‘The Fire Sermon’ we are in the world of real trash.28 At the same time.29
Louis Cazamian. Early appearances of refuse in ‘The Burial of the Dead’ in the form of ‘stony rubbish’ and ‘a heap of broken images’ may seem purely allegorical. and poetically with Eliot’s own technique of elision and repression. and the biggest piece of literary garbage of the twentieth century. was its condition of exclusion. but by the time we come across the ‘empty bottles. does away with this ambivalence. But it is useful to remember that waste also means something much more material and actual. declared to be useless. with a transcendent effort. is of course Eliot’s The Waste Land. that really holds the promise of any true value. becomes a triumphant vindication of art’s indifference to subject matter in a way that an exquisite poem about an exquisite thing never could. In the standard reading. It is what is left out in modern life. F.
(ll. Could it after all Be merely oneself.30 the yeasty matrix of literature. More problematic is the dump of Wallace Stevens’s ‘Man on a Dump’: The dump is full Of images. concludes with a turn to the trash of the everyday as the ultimate origin of all artistic inspiration: Those masterful images because complete Grew in pure mind. Old iron. the wrapper on the can of pears.114
THE CAMBRIDGE QUARTERLY
For other modernists. that raving slut Who keeps the till. Yeats’s private store of poetic recyclables becomes for Joyce a universal and transpersonal ‘Dirtdump’. rather than the shadowy sign of a possible salvation. and a broken can.
James Joyce. Old kettles. it becomes the source of a purely literary transcendence. Finnegans Wake (New York 1976) p. lard pail. So the sun. Yeats’s ‘The Circus Animals’ Desertion’ for example. The cat in the paper-bag. I must lie down where all the ladders start In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart. old rags. but out of what began? A mound of refuse or the sweepings of a street. That’s what one wants to get near. for tea. 615. And so the moon. the promise of garbage is more circumscribed. the corset. Days pass like papers from a press. the box From Esthonia: the tiger chest. ········ One sits and beats an old tin can. old bottles. and the janitor’s poems Of every day. as superior as the ear To a crow’s voice? Did the nightingale torture the ear. Pack the heart and scratch the mind? And does the ear Solace itself in peevish birds? Is it peace. Now that my ladder’s gone. and symbolising the endless ricorso of consumption-excretion-and-reconsumption that unites the word and the world. One beats and beats for that which one believes. on the other hand. both come.
. old bones. 33–40) In Finnegans Wake. embodied in the middenheap outside HCE’s pub which is the source and endpoint of Shem’s letter-litter. The bouquets come here in the papers.
in a memorable passage. (ll. stones and chains of dew. Pynchon’s rubbish seems to have a particular purpose. Litz. one finds On the dump? Is it to sit among mattresses of the dead. a poetry of the irreducible minimum’. 345. Mason & Dixon (New York 1997) p. and what had simply (perhaps tragically ) been lost: clipped
It is hard not to hear. in the obsessive invocations of ‘dew’ in the middle of the poem (‘how many men have copied dew | For buttons. for example. pots. shoes.. | The cat in the paper-bag. 3–9.33 In all its incarnations. dew dresses. ‘Lowlands’. ‘the very Rubbish-Tip for subjunctive hopes. 35–48) The excremental implications of this poetic dump are all too relevant here. has become has become no more than so much doo-doo. 32 A. where. and offers little of the promise of inexhaustible fertility of Joyce’s rubbish heap. is described as. and there was no way of telling what things had been truly refused .. and grass and murmur aptest eve: Is it to hear the blatter of grackles and say Invisible priest. is it to eject. with its vague aspirations and equivocal promises. the corset’ – rejecting. for all that yet may be true’. to pull The day to pieces and cry stanza my stone? Where was it one first heard of the truth? The the.
. Introspective Voyager: The Poetic Development of Wallace Stevens (New York 1972) p. to Mason & Dixon. the yet unexplored continent of America itself. at this late hour. or even the rhetorical reassurance of Yeats’s magnificent rhythms. how many women have covered themselves | With dew. The final stanza seems to want to return to definite articles – ‘the wrapper on the can of pears. 33 Thomas Pynchon. Bottles. from the early story. 262. in whose writings the concept of waste forms a kind of subterranean network linking his diverse narratives. in which a character escapes from his dreary domestic existence into a maze of tunnels beneath a garbage dump. Any attempt to identify a literary interpretation of garbage that could be described as distinctively postmodern would have to begin with Thomas Pynchon. Walton Litz puts it. ‘the evasions of the nightingale in favor of the grackle. in The Crying of Lot 49 finds in the used cars he cleans out before selling: when the cars were swept out you had to look at the actual residue of these lives.TAKING OUT THE TRASH
Is it a philosopher’s honeymoon.32 but it finally leaves us with precisely that. as A. to stand in for that which has been left out of history like the residue that Mucho Maas. Walton Litz. heads | Of the floweriest flowers dewed with the dewiest dew’) an insistent complaint that poetry. the infinite ambiguity of an open-ended definite article: ‘The the’.31 but Stevens’s pile of cultural crap seems only to obscure the view.
. body wastes .. Such rubbish represents all the waste material. for whom not even God’s commodious plan has a place. flyers advertising specials long past. 34 In his fascination with trash.116
THE CAMBRIDGE QUARTERLY
coupons promising savings of 5 or 10¢. flip-top rings. Pynchon offers not simply an ekphrasis of excrement.. White Noise (New York 1985) pp. crushed roaches. help-wanted ads. oleaginous and viscid
Thomas Pynchon. as in so many other regards. like a salad of despair. but the ghostly traces of a grand narrative. the excluded middle. sterile pads smeared with pus and bacon fat. strands of frayed dental floss. all the bits and pieces coated uniformly. this vivid depiction of the product of a trash compactor in White Noise: An oozing cube of semi-mangled cans.. a jeremiad whose returning burden is the recurrent failure of the world’s last best hope to realise the promise that should have been its destiny. and plunging into the material immediacy. the Preterite. it would be easy to represent DeLillo as simply a follower of Pynchon. juices and heavy sludges seeped through layers of pressed vegetable matter . Was this the dark underside of consumer consciousness? I came across a horrible clotted mass of hair. clothes hangers.35 The similarity of these passages is entirely superficial.. a woman or car you coveted. the quintessential American story. Don DeLillo. The full stench hit me with shocking force . rejecting Pynchon’s allegorical temptation. example. which is discarded to realise any design – the unsaved remnant. The bottles were broken. 5. I unfolded the bag cuffs. fragments of ballpoint refills. Product colors were undiminished in brightness and intensity. Yellow Pages torn from the phone book. 258–9. remnants of old clothes useful now only to wipe the screen between you and your unattained desires – all point to a history of missed opportunities and unfulfilled hopes. a movie. The Crying of Lot 49 (New York 1999) p. trading stamps. DeLillo chooses a different route. a cop who might pull you over just for the drill. ear swabs. the concrete and sensuous.
. But his treatment of waste is distinctively different. in a gray dressing of ash. I found a banana skin with a tampon inside. animal bones and other refuse. rags of old underwear or dresses that already were period costumes. butts. for wiping your own breath off the inside of a windshield with so you could see whatever it was. human and other. pink flyers advertising specials at the markets. Compare. tooth-shy combs. soap. the cartons flat.. dust. condensed exhaust. Lost coupons ‘promising savings’. toothpicks still displaying bits of impaled food. Fats. released the latch and lifted out the bag. Pynchon’s garbage reminds us that all his works tell one story.
and the middle waves a form of fan commonality.37 That deadlock is finally broken by something wholly unpredicted and unexpected. 32). 60). p. 212. with shocking force. p. It is coming down from all points. the epic game between two powerful teams. 27) lucky strike. Thomson’s hit is a miracle. absolutely deadlocked . as it does the narrator. There is no accounting for such a thing. ‘tied in a knot. the ‘fats.
. The celebrated opening section. bat-cracks. the inexplicable intrusion of ‘the mystery of bad luck’. seems an apt image of the world in its ‘bulky’ or ‘immobile’ age. which belongs. and each determined to squeeze out what it cannot control and use. the ‘horrible clotted mass’ of bodily excretions and waste products. If the early paper waves were slightly hostile and mocking.TAKING OUT THE TRASH
substance of garbage itself – the ‘oozing cube’. Some have attempted to find a meaning in this. an ‘unrepeatably’ (p. The description of compacted trash in White Noise is something of a bravura stylistic turn. he tomahawks an inside pitch he had no business chasing in the first place. territorial expanse and megatonnage. as Nick will later describe it (p. a shower of what DeLillo calls ‘happy garbage’: the paper keeps falling. with its multiperspectival account of the legendary 1951 homerun with which Bobby Thomson secured the pennant for the Giants over the Dodgers. DeLillo insists that we pay attention to the resistant and repulsive thing itself. 97). 57.. stalemated’ (Underworld.
36 Tom LeClair suggests that this passage comes close to being a model for the novel’s own form. a selfness. The Cold War in fact can be seen as the natural political outgrowth of that stage – a global confrontation of immense fixed ‘blocs’. then this last demonstration has a softness. leaving little time or appetite for hermeneutical speculations.36 but interpretative subtlety seems beside the point – this garbage hits us. each measuring its success in terms of size and weight. But if this is. Sometimes a banana skin with a tampon inside is simply a banana skin with a tampon inside. in Underworld garbage moves to the centre of the novel’s thematic and literary concerns. it also needs to be read as a metaphor for the final stage of heavy modernity. and which is answered by the crowd with its own eruption of countless particulars.. Whatever else it may represent. an allegory of Cold War anxieties. juices and heavy sludges’. and subtends the entire length of the work. the singular event of Thomson’s homerun. 37 Bauman. instead of recycling and reprocessing it into an intellectually palatable form more useful for our critical aspirations. like ‘shouts. in some sense. Liquid Modernity. has been admired for its skilful counterpointing of the on-field struggle and international military tensions. full bladders and stray yawns’ to ‘the sand-grain manyness of things that can’t be counted’ (p. or lack thereof In the Loop: Don DeLillo and the Systems Novel (Urbana 1987) p.
a thing that carries a shadow identity – rolls of toilet paper unbolting lyrically in streamers. it is as real as any ‘objective’ conditions that sociological analysis unearths.’ Don DeLillo.38 By the beginning of the next section. Nick and his friends can only reminisce about the celebrated homerun as they sit in the Stadium Club in Dodger Stadium. 60–3. 25). ‘the thing that happens in the sun’ (p.html>. But I cannot agree that that community is thereby exploded as mere myth.. is beautifully isolated in time – not subject to the debasing process of frantic repetition that exhausts a contemporary event before it has rounded into coherence: ‘Thomson and Hodges are unconsumed. passes as quickly as it erupts. unendably.com/library/books/090797article3. 7 Sept. But the shakier and fuzzier the picture. pp. and reminds abruptly of the social tensions and inequalities in 1950s America. soul-moaning like some lost battalion’ (p. who did the rapturous radio account of the game’s final moments. The moment. in the form of pocket litter. they are throwing rumpled dollar bills. to be sure. the fans’ intimate wish to be connected to the event.
. and realises. The game they watch is between the new Giants
As John Duvall points out. this interracial struggle brings an end to the ideal transracial community that prevailed for the space of the game. 91). (p. and no sooner does the baseball leave the field than it becomes the object of a property struggle between a middle-aged white man and a black teenager. For the fans. the more it lays a claim to permanence. Russ Hodges. and watching what we are surely intended to see as the antithesis of ‘real baseball’. ‘set apart from the field. the possibility of such a community of individuals is no more than an implausible memory. New York Times Magazine. 45) The word that jumps out from this passage is ‘selfness’. pages from memo pads and pocket calendars. snapshots torn to pieces. which moves us into the 1990s. glassed in at press level’.118
THE CAMBRIDGE QUARTERLY
laundry tickets. insulated and cocooned. In any event. as though the particularity of garbage. crushed cigarette packs and sticky wrap from ice cream sandwiches.. hearing only ‘muffled sounds from the crowd . <http:// www. 1997. And the voice of the announcer. ruffled paper swaddles for cupcakes. [which] remained at an eerie distance. ‘personal waste’. 11). were the last refuge of individuality. the residue of love affairs and college friendships. DeLillo’s remarks on the homerun elsewhere suggest that his attitude is less sceptical than that of his critics: ‘Newsreel footage of Bobby Thomson’s home run resembles something of World War I vintage. it is happy garbage now. players and fans. personal waste. the Whitmanian promise of the novel’s opening line: ‘He speaks in your voice’ (p. if only for the miraculous space of an instant. envelopes swiped from the office. expressed in a gesture that momentarily creates an ideal community of selfrecognition involving all members. ‘The Power of History’. they are tearing up letters they’ve been carrying around for years pressed into their wallets. and for the moment that it lasts.nytimes.
For we are now well into the era of liquid modernity. shipped west to a more lucrative and predictable market. p. the conversation shifts to the legendary homerun ball. the renounced name the father who disappeared in his childhood. says John Kao in Jamming: The Art and Discipline of Business Creativity. He is a member of the contemporary hyperfluid executive class who. ‘You maintain a conscious distance between yourself and your job. it becomes a singular non-identical object. the synecdoche of the singular event it commemorates. above all. Liquid Modernity. by its exit from the field of play. His position keeps him at several removes from contact with anything solid or material: he is. Nick’s friend Brian Glassic says. be on the move’. or some thing. play.. As they watch the game. wandering the postmodern wasteland of suburban Arizona. 153 Quoted in Rifkin. a ‘self-replicating stretch’ of ‘squat box structures’ ringed by the shimmering heat of the empty desert (p. a worthless object’ (p. ‘love to create. according to Jacques Attali. 804). as one ball interchangeable with others. And. it’s something that’s preserved and unique’ (p.40 ‘I noticed how people played at being executives while actually holding executive positions’.. ‘management is a performing art’. 99). which in a real sense is the counterpart of the other items put into the air by Thomson’s swing. It is this quality of uniqueness that links the legendary ball with what one character describes as ‘other kinds of waste’. like Nick himself. 103). p. ‘a sort of executive emeritus’ who goes ‘to the office now and then but mostly travel[s] and speak[s]’ lecturing at ‘colleges and research facilities’ (p.. Nick reflects at one point. The Thomson homer. There’s a self-conscious space. Yet something. The trajectory of the ball converges with that of ‘other kinds of waste’ most significantly in the character of Nick himself. remains. no place for garbage. Nick Shay is a kind of updated Nick Adams. becomes simultaneously useless and intensely valuable..
. in which there is no space for the individual. who have been packaged like a commodity and. Shay is as wounded and divided as his eponymous precursor – already split at birth between Anglo and Italian. a sense of games and half-made selves’ (Underworld. 86). a sense of formal play that is a sort of arrested panic . 163. Shay and Costanza. it is a piece of ‘melancholy junk from yesteryear .
Quoted in Bauman. he says. As it ceases to serve a purpose in the closed circuit of the baseball game. where ‘history did not run loose’ (p. 98).39 and for whom. ‘continues to live because it happened decades ago when things were not replayed and worn out and run down and used up before midnight of the first day . The Age of Access. From one point of view Nick is the perfect representative of the age of liquid modernity. the singular. p.TAKING OUT THE TRASH
and Dodgers. or the unpredictable.. The ball. 85)..
easily disposed of? Can the package be recycled and come back as a tawny envelope that is difficult to lick closed? . He is a compulsive recycler: ‘At home we separated our waste into glass and cans and paper products. Kellman. or even wilfully perverse. proposes that ‘the social philosophy to which the novel points [is] an ecological ideal in which recycled waste represents a form of grace’ (American Magic and Dread. we asked’ (pp.
. What kind of garbage will that make? Safe. among other things it can refer to the endless spinning of videotape that DeLillo suggests. for example. garbage is only a moment in an endless process of transformation and circulation. Then we did clear glass versus colored glass. at both professional and personal levels. ‘transforming and absorbing junk’ (p. ‘We rinsed out old bottles and put them in their proper bins. For Nick. Osteen. however. 216). compressed and baled.. Nick’s company does not just sequester garbage. Then we did paper versus aluminum’. We faithfully removed the crinkly paper from our cereal boxes’. clean. of course. wire-bound and smartly stacked and ready to be marketed’ (p. 809). and ultimately failing to do so. it seems counterintuitive. We said. transformed in the end to square-edged units. several have been tempted to apply metaphors based on responsible ecological practice to the novel’s own themes and strategies. it makes it disappear. Critics have sometimes described Nick as trying to ‘contain’ waste. as Nick’s hyperbolic description of his colleagues as ‘Church Fathers of waste’ (p.. is the nature of his business – waste management. 121). Nick is equally obsessed with eliminating waste at personal level. 102) suggests. Underwords.g. while for David Cowart. p. ‘Tuesdays only we did plastic.120
THE CAMBRIDGE QUARTERLY
As important as Nick’s professional function.. p. by turning it into something useful. Waste management has as its task the reintegration of garbage back into the productive-consumptive system. in the essay ‘The Power
See e. sorted.41 but there is something crucially incorrect in describing his project this way. magico-religious. American Magic and Dread. 59). and although students of DeLillo hardly need to be reminded of the difference between a text and the world.). 102). and watches ‘the assembly lines of garbage. and Malin (eds. such a claim would seem to run against the grain of commonplace notions of enlightened environmentalism.42 But recycling is an ambiguous term. From one point of view. minus caps and lids’. neat. Mark Osteen. At the very least. products again. converting or transubstantiating it in process that is almost. 89. near the end of the novel Nick visits one of his company’s recycling operations. ‘Marian and I saw products as garbage even when they sat gleaming on store shelves.. yet unbought . to read Underworld as in some way ‘against’ recycling. 120. in Dewey. ‘The recycling theme of Underworld subsumes a vision of art that lends itself to conclusions about the entire DeLillo oeuvre’ (‘Shall These Bones Live’. 119. How does it measure up as waste.
‘The Power of History’. falling on the tall machines with a numinous glow . it tends to transform you. ‘“Refuse Heaped Many Stories High”’. It is compelling. to make you a passive variation of the armed robber in his warped act of consumption. the designer outlet – because this is the means it has devised to disremember the past ‘Or you’re staring at the inside of a convenience store on a humdrum night in July. Several of the novel’s various artist figures.TAKING OUT THE TRASH
of History’. the chunky product blocks. it is numbing. The kids love the machines. firing virtuoso bursts from automatic weapons. 44 ‘[Klara Sax’s] recycling extends even to some hundreds of decommissioned B52s. pristine. 59). ‘Shall These Bones Live’. 809–10). jammed to capacity but gas keeps rising from the great earthen berm. 1000. American Magic and Dread. and the tape is played and replayed. and produces a wavering across the land and sky that deepens the aura of sacred work . newsprint for newsprint.. lit up by a gassy glow of pseudo-religious luminosity: Brightness streams from skylights down to the floor of the shed. the theme park. it is real. and then another tape replaces it. Then you see a shuffling man with a handgun enter the frame. it is live. it is taped. The landfill across the road is closed now. This is a surveillance video with a digital display that marks off the tenths of seconds.’ DeLillo. It is bare. 216. and taking the baled and bound units out into the world again. in particular Klara Sax and Sabato Rodia. a car chase through a startled suburb. And if you view the tape often enough..
. p. and we all feel better when we leave. methane. tin for tin. See also Helyer. and the culture continues its drive to imitate itself endlessly – the rerun. The commonplace homicide that ensues is transformed in the image-act of your own witness. the experience is less a glimpse into the grimy and fetid foundation of consumer society than a magnificent spectacle. p. a rock concert of refuse. the balers and hoppers and long conveyors. published contemporaneously with Underworld. bringing in the unsorted slop. and the parents look out the windows through the methane mist and the planes come out of the mountains and align for their approach and the trucks are arrayed in two columns outside the shed.44 but a careful reading makes clear
43 ‘You’re watching a video-tape of hooded men emerging from a bank and they move with a certain choreographed flair. who are usually seen as surrogates of DeLillo himself. It is another set of images for you to want and need and get sick of and need nonetheless. it is digitally microtimed and therefore filled with incessant information. exhausting all the reality stored in its magnetic pores.43 When Nick takes his granddaughter Sunny to the recycling plant near the end of the novel... and you wonder if they are repeating a scene from a recent movie. is one of the ways in which our collective sense of the reality of reality has been eroded. and it separates you from the reality that beats ever more softly in the diminishing world outside the tape. have sometimes been described as recyclers. p. and Osteen. (pp. the gut squalor of our lives. the sequel.’ (Cowart. the one that disappeared overnight when the weekend gross was flat.
which he has managed to locate and purchase. It is a side that is most clearly revealed by his intense relation to his most prize possession: the legendary Thomson homerun ball itself. As he sits. But if Nick’s occupation as a recycler makes him a facilitator of the endless circulatory system that is the modern economy. bunged up. veneered with dirt and turf and generational sweat – it was old. What ties art and garbage is a common resistance to utility. 131) What makes this passage especially interesting is that it succeeds by its failure. weather-spattered and charactered as a seafront house. the work is created by interrupting the cycle of consumption-reprocessing-and-reconsumption. 70). The resistance of the packed material makes you want to press harder. in her conversation with Nick. (p. Instead. The ball was a deep sepia. It is the ball’s non-identical objecthood. to transform it into a ‘squareedged unit’. there is clearly a side to him which is deeply unsatisfied with this reduction of the object to the status of moment. Rodia’s towers are constructed of objects taken out of circulation and fixed permanently in a functionless concrete structure. There’s an equilibrium. a blowup of the convoluted ridges on the pad of your thumb. veins stretching with the effort. Underworld suggests that the making of art is the ultimate act of irresponsibility. Klara. an agreeable animal tension between the hard leather object and the sort of clawed hand.. their disassembly and reprocessing for other purposes: ‘we are not going to let these great machines expire in a field or get sold as scrap . his reflections give rise to passage extraordinary in its assiduous specificity: You squeeze a baseball. the ball slips in a looping slurve beneath Nick’s
THE CAMBRIDGE QUARTERLY
that this is exactly what they are not.. it was still wearing a small green bruise where it had struck a pillar according to the history that came with it – flaked paint from a bolted column in the left-field stands embedded in the surface of the ball. late in the night. Likewise. In both cases. You kind of juice it or milk it. is emphatic that one of the prime motivations of her desert project is to prevent the recycling of the decommissioned warplanes. in this sense. We are saving them from the cutter’s torch’ (p. What fascinates Nick about the ball is its resistance to his attempts to conceptualise and package it. cloth contours like road bumps under the knuckle joints – how the whorled cotton can be seen as a magnified thumbprint. And the feel of raised seams across the fingertips. contemplating the ball. And it was smudged green near the Spalding trademark. its irreducible thingness that seems to speak to Nick in a way nothing else does. it was bashed and tobacco-juiced and stained by natural processes and by the lives behind it.
. of their fate’.TAKING OUT THE TRASH
attempts to fix it in words: it is a fruit or a breast.
.47 For Nick.. or a seafront house. pp. a road. and intuit that waste is the most authentic expression of the self. Nick is not the only character to suspect that there is a profound association between garbage and what DeLillo elsewhere calls the ‘idiosyncratic self’.
Klara also makes the connection between garbage and resistance to semiotic classification: ‘They didn’t even know what to call the early bomb. crumpled photographs. they plan to eat it .46 For Benjamin... 46 Walter Benjamin.48 Both J. 76–7). Get poets to write poems about it. the baseball is ‘the only thing in my life that I absolutely had to own’ (p. he is saying to the status of shit. Get lefty sociologists to analyse the garbage item by item. but the thing itself slips out from the most supple linguistic fingers. He meant something that eludes naming is automatically relegated. it’s waste material’ (Underworld.45 In the end.” Clyde said. it resists classification. More or less have sex with it. ‘The Power of History’. 67. Get hippies to rub it on their naked bodies. bloodstains and every known subclass of scribbled Sicilian’ (p. Rent halls in major cities. And expel it. he is left with only the sheer unspeakable and useless materiality of the ball. 558). food stains.. . The FBI collects the garbage of organised crime figures it is investigating ‘for analysis by forensic experts on gambling. as DeLillo’s comparison of the ‘whorled cotton’ of the ball’s stitching to a thumbprint intimates. You can’t name it. a thumbprint. 97). The thing or the gadget or something. the garbage guerrillas plan to publicise the true nature of the FBI by raiding the secretive Hoover’s discards: ‘“Confidential source says they intend to take your garbage on tour. . . 60. their usefulness – but studies and loves them as the scene. fragmented paper. a ‘relationship to objects which does not emphasise their functional utilitarian value – that is. p. Edgar Hoover and the ‘garbage guerrillas’ see trash as a privileged route into the secret hiding places of personality. 48 DeLillo.. which involves. And finally in the last city on the tour. In turn. It is merde. handwriting. you ‘kind of’ juice it with a ‘sort of’ clawed hand. Like all garbage. the ‘agreeable animal tension between the hard leather object and the sort of clawed hand’ is connected intimately to identity. Illuminations (New York 1969) p. that relationship is necessarily one of ‘ownership’ – indeed he will go so far as to assert that ‘the phenomenon of collecting loses its meaning as it loses its personal owner’. he argues. 47 Ibid. His response to that materiality is perhaps best understood by way of Walter Benjamin’s celebrated analysis of the psychology of collecting. The ownership of the unique. It’s also shit because it’s garbage. the stage. And Oppenheimer said.
now dissolved into a web of roles and relationships. in 1978. however. and contentious currents
The career of the character Jesse Detwiler offers a kind of allegory of the transition from heavy to liquid modernity in miniature. highlights what he identifies as the most significant socioeconomic development of the latter half of the twentieth century. ‘in which one swims in ever-shifting. and Society in DeLillo’s Underworld’. In the 1960s he was one of the garbage guerrillas who found in society’s refuse a place to deploy a counter-cultural message. The Age of Access.html> 51 Benjamin in fact anticipated this development some seventy years ago. one in which the very ownership of material objects is rapidly disappearing. <http://darkwing. temporary ‘nodes embedded in networks of shared interests’. Don’t hide your waste facilities. .124
THE CAMBRIDGE QUARTERLY
“Publicly.. 52 Rifkin. especially since some have argued that this linkage is one of the objects of DeLillo’s critique in Underworld. he has been ‘remade.” For both G-man and subversive.. Eventually the only scenery left. exult in the ‘caress of linked grids that give you a sense of order and command .51 It is a shift which has been uncritically celebrated by apostles of the new age. 286–7). retooled’. Only I don’t think you should be isolating these sites. Self. the shift from ownership to access. suspecting ‘time was running out’ already for the individual collector..edu/~ucurrent/uc7/7-pin. and the concomitant replacement of a self defined in terms of personal property. a jet-setting ‘industry maverick’ and cultural theorist who is preaches the doctrine and reaps the rewards of an economic system that leaves nothing outside: ‘I’ll tell you what I see here. pp. 12.. who. by one constituted by its connection to a network of resources and facilities. Let people see it and respect it.’49 This affirmation of the linkage of identity and ownership may seem surprising. Make and architecture of waste.. our garbage is ourselves. are still dominated by the notions of heavy modernity – what Underworld is registering is the transition to a new economic and cultural dispensation. The scenery of the future.50 Such interpretations. Bring garbage into the open. like Nick in one particularly postmodern moment. ‘The Inner Workings: Technoscience.52 In such a relational.uoregon. Jeremy Rifkin’s term for what I have been calling the era of liquid modernity. as Kenneth Gergen calls it. Design glorious buildings to recycle waste and invite people to bring it with them to the press rams and conveyors’ (Underworld. by the time we meet him... Undercurrents 7 (1999). ‘multiphrenal condition’.
. . our own. in the form of ‘a waste hustler. recycled as it were. to the things that slip through the world otherwise unperceived’ (p. 67.. But it comes at a significant cost – that of the authentic individual self. fax machines and photocopiers and all the oceanic logic stored in your computer [which] connects you . 50 For example: ‘The dependency of identity on ownership ironically poses a profound threat to one’s freedom and individuality’ Jennifer Pincott. and properties. concatenating. looking for book deals and documentary films’. Sims. p.. 89). p. Illuminations.. the warbling banks of phones . the Age of Access.
54 At the same time. Modern Fiction Studies. for example. Underworld’s revised version of paranoia . the fundamental organising principle of his world-view. 829–30.55 while for Tony
Quoted in ibid. asserts that Underworld ‘proves.. in Dewey. the ubiquitous hints of dark forces and unfathomable conspiracies have been for many readers the most problematic aspect of the text: a number of reviewers reacted to the book like people trapped on a transatlantic flight between Lyndon Larouche and Gore Vidal. and this pregnant and portable apothegm has no doubt become the novel’s best-known phrase. and convergences. in fact it describes the major theme and organizational principle of Underworld’ (American Magic and Dread. offering endlessly proliferating narrative intersections above and beyond the call of necessity. Peter Knight concludes that ‘taken together [these connections] amount to an extended demonstration of the hypothesis – at times even the faith – that everything is connected.TAKING OUT THE TRASH
of being’.). an identity that cannot be connected is simply garbage. once and for all.’ Peter Knight. or even sense. ‘Everything is connected’. 181. James Wood. as though the novel proposed to be some sort of postmodern Orlando Furioso. the incompatibility of paranoid history with great fiction’. Likewise.e. It is.
. Kellman. after a lengthy catalogue of some of the novel’s parallels. more public stage in the novel. The novel’s apparent obsession with dietrologia – ‘the science of what is behind something’ (p. the first article of faith of the paranoid. 209. 214). some of the most powerful and comprehensive analyses start from the assumption that the reality of occult linkages and subterranean networks is the novel’s ultimate secret. a truth as legible in the narrative’s own elaborate interconnections as in its more overtly articulated messages. and Malin (eds. p. Osteen’s reading is perhaps the most explicit and extended development of this idea: ‘Although this insight [i. 45 (1999) pp. of course. intersections.. we are repeatedly told. ‘everything connects in the end’] may resemble nothing more than the paranoid fantasies of loony conspiracy theorists.. The mention of ‘connection’ reminds us that the drama of the end of garbage is played out in another. p. 55 James Wood. and paranoia has long been for DeLillo what allegory was for Dante. what Wittgenstein would call the representational form connecting his fictional creations to the universe they reflect. p. Underworld. takes this fixation to a new level. Underwords. See also Robert McMinn’s comment: ‘Underworld [is] about connection more than it is about anything else’ (‘Underworld: Sin and Atonement’. ‘Everything Is Connected: Underworld’s Secret History of Paranoia’. On the one hand. The Broken Estate: Essays on Literature and Belief (New York 1999) p. suggests that what is wrong with the usual forms of conspiracy theory is not that they connect to many factors but that they don’t connect enough. however. 280) – has given rise to starkly divergent responses. The force with which Nick holds on to the baseball is the measure of his obscure sense that he is holding on to the last resort of his idiosyncratic self. 37).
’ (p. global markets. a premise as congenial to postmodern cultural theorists as to obsessed conspiracy-mongers.58 and to validate the prediction of Marvin Lundy. the most far-sighted visionary among DeLillo’s varied crowd of conspiracy theorists. ‘Everything Is Connected’. is to reject a priori the possibility of the disconnected as such.57 The novel does seem to confirm Fredric Jameson’s sardonic observation that paranoia is ‘the poor person’s cognitive mapping in the postmodern age’. The American Mystery. and finally the idiosyncratic self. But the problem with adopting paranoia. Because other forces will come rushing in. Thus paranoid knowingness inevitably becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Ill. p. untouched money and computer-safe sex. To the extent that the novel depicts the emergence of liquid modernity. but paranoia allows of no surprises. the non-identical. p. demanding and challenging’ (Underworld. 355. because it says something about Underworld ’s own complex and divided attitude towards paranoia. when political confrontation has been replaced by economic integration: ‘Foreign Investment. p. p.. Knight.).. even a paranoia that is ‘reconfigured’ as ‘an appropriate response to the to the bewildering complexities of the current world’. ‘Cognitive Mapping’.. in Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg (eds. that ‘when the tension and rivalry [of the Cold War] come to an end.59 is that such a strategy reproduces and internalises. at an intellectual level. 209. the convergence of consumer desire . 825. 1988) p. To begin from the premise that in the contemporary world everything is connected. its totalising intelligence leaves no space available for chance. or at least the museum of outmoded ideas..
. 58 Fredric Jameson. 170) – forces that will be identified in the Epilogue.126
THE CAMBRIDGE QUARTERLY
Tanner the ‘many forms and manifestations of paranoid consciousness’ finally serve only to create a ‘rather wearingly uniform paranoid structure’. The idiosyncratic cannot be predicted. Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture (Urbana. it registers the replacement of political and personal autonomy with a transnational web of interdependence and the disappearance of spaces off the grid. ‘Everything Is Connected’. contingency. the flow of information through transnational media. 785). and to consign to the dustbin of history. Peter Knight is undoubtedly correct to relate the narrative’s ubiquitous intersections to ‘the increasing interconnectedness of social and economic relationships within a global economy’. 59 Knight. corporate acquisitions. the very possibility of the singular. or dumb luck. a mode of knowledge whose
Tanner. the totalised order to which it is reacting. where the disconnected and idiosyncratic survives.56 This sharp division of response is significant. the attenuating influence of money that’s electronic and sex that’s cyberspaced. 823. that’s when your worst nightmares begin .
. Or is it CIA heroin? I can believe this myself. whose logic is exposed in Jesse Detwiler’s exchange with Sims: ‘A ship carrying thousands of barrels of industrial waste. Edgar Hoover. It is Nick.60 Underworld is full of slaves to connection. the hair’ (p. whose success results from his ability ‘to think in systems’ (p. as an adult he will amuse his colleagues by adopting the persona of a mobster (pp. in spite of the fact that his paranoia is personal rather than global in its scope. the rock bands. the passage into world in which nothing is left to chance.TAKING OUT THE TRASH
predestined object is its own presupposition. whose paranoid fixations are the most significant in terms of their motivation and cost. Not people exactly but figures – things and figures and levels of knowledge that he was completely helpless to enter’ (p. 421). 761). 250–1). if you understand what I mean’ (p. who sees in Gorbachev’s birthmark the map of Latvia (p. the promiscuity. His own biography can be seen as a living out of the transition from heavy to liquid modernity. 87. characters who cannot stop making sense. For the one-time chess prodigy. 707) the contemporary world easily takes the form of a vast game. And organized so that it makes more sense in a way. Jesse said. a network of things and people. and the reader who sees only meaningful connections in the novel risks becoming. ‘That everything’s connected’. and in a druggy episode at a bombhead party he in effect takes on the perspective of a bewildered but woozily suspicious pawn: ‘He was surrounded by enemies. 181). ‘that particular life’. Not enemies but connections. ‘Underworld: Sin and Atonement’. who demands. 104). p. As a youth. in which pieces resolve into patterns and figures into forces. Kellman and Malin. 289) It is a hermeneutic circle of endlessly recycled meaning that allows no escape. he is intrigued by the underworld of organised crime. p. from Marvin Lundy. You know why? Because it’s easy to believe. ‘What do we know?’ Sims said . however. the garbage thieves. 37 in Dewey. ‘a slave to connection’. ‘Find the links.. It’s all linked. Knowing what we know’. Matt Shay’s version is perhaps the most subtle and convincing.
. 577). because it seems to offer access to a secret story ‘[under] the surface of ordinary things. as one commentator says with unsuspected irony. to her namesake J. to Sister Edgar. the drugs. But it is the Jesuits who
60 Robert McMinn. and luck has no place. We’d be stupid not to believe it. who ‘[knows] that Bobby Fischer had all the fillings removed from his teeth when he played Boris Spassky in 1972 – it made perfect sense to her – so the KGB could not control him through broadcasts made into the amalgam units packed in his molars’ (pp. The war protestors.
echoing the twin blasts that opened the book. like paranoia.128
THE CAMBRIDGE QUARTERLY
become his real secret society. become tyrannised by the need to make connections. has convinced himself of ‘a drama of men pushing him into a car and speeding him away’ (p. a bookie who lived by luck. 63). His response to the most formative event of his early life. his ‘father was the third person in the room that day’. 88). for the possibility that even a fatal event might not be fated. and reinforcing his tendency to see nothing for itself but only as a part of a larger whole. things end with a bang. That explanation is also all too conventional. 207). like a ‘sturdy Roman wall’ (p. When we first encounter him he is driving a Lexus. but Nick misses the warning in the name. against all evidence (p. disappeared going out for ‘Luckies’. is characteristic: while his mother cannot ‘invent a reliable plot’ (p. but only a result of ‘the mystery of bad luck’. refuses to make space for the accidental. 275) that offers no gaps or spaces by which luck might enter. Yet it is equally possible to see this interpretation as yet another kind of conspiracy theory. What Nick cannot accept about Jimmy Costanza’s inexplicable erasure is that it is an example of ‘the mystery of bad luck. ‘[under] the surface of ordinary things’. 204). 90). provided by a ‘dietrology’ that insists on discovering a sense and a story in the underworld of the unconscious. Nick. ‘a car assembled in a work area that’s completely free of human presence’ (p. his father. the event whose narration brings an end to the novel proper – the shooting of George the Waiter. From the reader’s point of view. Nick remakes himself into a ‘made man’. teaching him ‘to examine things for second meanings and deeper connections’ (p. the lucky. seeing only the ‘target’ on the cigarette package: ‘I call the Lucky Strike logotype a target because I believe they were waiting for my father when he went out to buy a pack of cigarettes . 97). 512). the contingent.. there remain a rare few who do not ‘think in
. this is at once an entirely conventional and highly ambiguous conclusion. the disappearance of his father. however. By now.. Psychoanalysis. It is with this is mind that the decisive incident in Nick’s life must be interpreted. And isn’t there a connection between the name of the brand and the design of concentric circles on the package? This implies they were thinking target all along’ (p. whose very name suggests a reversal and neutralisation of the ‘Luckies’ that once intruded so catastrophically into his life. and we hardly need the help of Nick’s prison therapist to provide us with the predictable key: Nick’s wounds are Oedipal. The scene is almost a parody of a novelistic climax. the mystery of loss’ (p. 765). Not all the characters in Underworld.. and promising with its final revelation of a long deferred secret that will at last explain the motivations of its protagonist.. and Jimmy’s disappearance and George’s murder are ‘in one way or another . connected’ (p. all of Nick’s life has become an effort to insulate himself by means of various containers from the accidental.
walking these streets and letting the senses collect what is routinely there’ (p. She is certainly one of the more problematic figures in the novel. 663). and smells of a living city neighbourhood: He was out nearly everyday after school. as Klara is quick to do. 77). the unpredictable and singular elements of ordinary life. and equally obsessed with the menace of dirt and infection – not to mention out of fashion in both her clothing and her politics. rather than to her enlightened companion Sister Gracie. where there is room for free play. faces grained with stone dust. that the novel
. one from whom Klara may have unconsciously learned her own appreciation of ‘the ordinary thing’ (p. Sicilians busting up a sidewalk. 661) But above all his attention is attracted by what happens in those spaces excluded from the business and traffic of the city. day labor. Sister Edgar can easily seem a highly inappropriate candidate for such an important commission. It is easy to dismiss Albert as a figure of pathos.. 676). letting the voices fall and the aromas deploy in ways that varied. One of these is Albert Bronzini. but not too much . A traffic stanchion carried a sign marking the area a play street and blocking the way to cars and delivery trucks’ (p. letting the route produce a medley of sounds and forms and movements. not just metaphorically.TAKING OUT THE TRASH
systems’. rubber bands. things discarded as useless by the larger society: ‘How we used to scavenge. since children’s games in the streets are associated with trash. 672) – whose raw material is reality itself. with all her superstition and pettiness. he can justly claim to be master of an art – ‘This is the only art I’ve mastered . sounds. something ‘pure and unrepeatable’ (p. in particular the play of children: ‘He heard voices and looked down a side street filled with children playing. The other character who keeps alive the prospect of the unique seems a good deal more unlikely: Sister Edgar. These are the spaces of the unconnected and the real. 666). Even in this compact neighborhood there were streets to revisit and mend doing interesting jobs. I don’t even remember what we used it for.. and who remain committed to the unique and idiosyncratic. Cork. An Americanised version of Benjamin’s flâneur. (p.. but in his own way he is as important an artist as the more overt examples in the book – indeed. but materially as well. Yet it is to this benighted individual. We turned junk into games. the endlessly varied sights. 662). Gouging cork out of bottle caps. old before his time. half a skate. old linoleum that we cut up and used in carpet guns’ (p. painters in drip coveralls or men with sledgehammers he might pass the time with. as rigid and suspicious as her FBI namesake. They are also spaces of garbage. ‘the fullness of a moment in the play street’ (p.. tin cans.
61 The experience of Esmeralda’s face is. and for only one subject whom it overwhelms and holds in thrall. but as something that exists only here and now. so the site of Esmeralda’s manifestation quickly becomes a makeshift strip mall. 823). Language and Myth. where ‘[vendors] move along the lines of stalled traffic selling flowers. not as a part of some force which may manifest itself here. and live kittens’ (p. the awestruck fans joined by delirious wonder at the miracle of Bobby Thomson’s homerun. and Esmeralda can only be. has a mundane explanation: the image is simply garbage. fleeting: a ‘minute maid’. 17–18. it is something purely instantaneous. a fleeting. a fragment of a leftover undersheet showing through the surface advertisement. a community that echoes the one with which the novel began. In stark uniqueness and singleness it confronts us. as the sign itself tells us. but one might say that the crowd becomes a single subject. To call this experience religious.. seems wrong. and for different persons.
61 Ernst Cassirer. in one indivisible moment of experience. soft drinks. created by the miracle itself. Cassirer takes the term and concept from Hermann Usener’s Götternamen (1896). a promise ambiguously and ironically embodied in the white sheet that replaces the orange juice ad. Space Available’ (p. Sister Gracie. The moment cannot last. not ‘for only one subject’ but for a crowd. nor do they represent some special aspect of human life.130
THE CAMBRIDGE QUARTERLY
vouchsafes its final manifestation of grace. the experience is real. Just as the exhilaration of the baseball game’s incredible conclusion is followed by a sordid struggle over the possession of the ball. Langer (New York 1946) pp. a community of ‘the awestruck who stand in tidal traffic’ (p. in various places and times. But the promise of a disconnected space created by the will to believe in the possibility of such a gap or ‘hole’ (p. the appearance of the murdered girl Esmeralda in a billboard ad for Minute Maid Orange Juice. of course.
. non-identical object and cannot be abstracted from it. It is not non-material: the meaning inheres in the unique. 824). But for the moment that it lasts. or even spiritual. no recurrent trait or value is retained in them or transformed into a mythico-religious image.. The best way to describe the appearance of Esmeralda is perhaps as an instance of what Ernst Cassirer calls a ‘momentary deity’: These beings do not personify any force of nature. Suzanne K. emerging and vanishing mental content. a miraculous break of the singular and unpredictable into the repetitive rhythms of cause and effect. bearing ‘two lonely words. there and everywhere. 824) in the uniform and connected surface of liquid modernity remains. 823). whose objectification and outward discharge produces the image of the ‘momentary deity’ . naturally. trans.
and the plied lives of the simplest surface. the monk’s candle reflected in the slope of the phone. the thick lived tenor of things. 827) Underworld is itself an attempt to make space available for such everyday things – or more precisely the novel is that space. and the glaze of the wax. the tissued grain of the deskwood alive in light. There is nothing mystical or spiritual in this claim. James goes on to say. ‘offscreen. the novel suddenly addresses the individual reader. according to Henry James. and non-identity. the domestic.. hours marked in Roman numerals. it is the dream of converting ordinary individual things into the connected elements of an integrated and comprehensive system. of the appearance of Esmeralda. is ‘the obliteration of the idea of uniqueness and free choice’ (p.TAKING OUT THE TRASH
To speak.. unwebbed. looking askance at exceptions and perversities and superiorities. But miracles are not exceptions to the ordinary. 502–3. uselessness. and the chipped rim of the mug that holds your yellow pencils. however. (p. and the curl of the braided wick. or of Thomson’s homerun. 827) – an adherence that is as powerful as ‘the love of the common. the apple core going sepia in the lunch tray. the familiar and vulgar elements of life’ that. 507) than with preserving and representing the stubbornly particular. at surprising and incongruous phenomena in general. In the closing paragraphs. the moderate. that the small and vulgar have been terribly neglected . the immediate. the slabbed butter melting on the crumbled bun. or – to put it in terms of the metaphors of Underworld – of eliminating garbage.62
Henry James. and the dense measures of experience in a random glance.. conscious or not. directing his or her gaze to ordinary objects in their simple multiplicity: the things in the room. attended to for itself. was the animating passion of William Dean Howells’s realism.. the argument of things to be seen and eaten. unwebbed’ elements of ordinary life. with ‘the argument of binding touch’ (p. an exception to the reality of ordinary life. Ultimately. to which it holds. it is less concerned with satirising the excesses of an economic and social system whose end. of denying space to the singular. the optimistic. that makes the world immaterial and unreal. in words that start to seem as appropriate to DeLillo as Howells: He thinks scarcely anything too paltry to be interesting. offscreen.
. Essays on Literature (New York 1984) pp. skewed all crazy. like Nick gripping his baseball. the colloquial. in its uniqueness. He adores the real. on the contrary. they are the simply ordinary. and the democratic. as miraculous is misleading in that it suggests that we are dealing with something extraordinary. and the yellow of the yellow pencils .
p. the ordinary and contingent. Father Paulus concludes. but the ultimate thrust of the novel is to direct our gaze away from the freakish and fantastic spectacle that comprises the preferred subject matter of most postmodernist fiction. to be sure. in a parodic catechism. 540) – the cuff. that he ‘name the parts’ (p.
. his own boots. These names are vital to your knowledge. for which it aspires to find the names. but throughout the novel ‘shit’ and ‘garbage’ name the same thing. What I really what to get at is the ordinary thing.
63 Lenny Bruce is referring to ‘shmek’ here. After expressing some dismay about the heaven-dwelling ‘abstract ideas’ and ‘eternal verities’ favoured by Jesuit educational practice. 594)63 — the garbage of a yet human world where ‘trashlessness is unimaginable. ‘Quotidian’ ‘An extraordinary word that suggest the depth and reach of the commonplace’. may preserve what Marvin Lundy calls at one point. 308). the merely real. 77). 542) In spite of the intimations of vast criminal conspiracies and unfathomably interconnected subplots carried by the title. Klara Sachs says. It is a thing you could not invent with banks of computers in a dust-free room’ (p. In part 5 Nick has a brief and enigmatic dialogue with Father Paulus. If they weren’t important. Say it’. it’s waste material. It is this gigantic novel’s still small hope that such things. a priest at Voyageur.132
THE CAMBRIDGE QUARTERLY
In a word. it is into this underworld that Underworld finally seems to want to guide us. Quotidian things. the ordinary life behind the thing. After lamenting Nick’s pitiable ignorance of what is literally under his own feet. There are. he said. the priest shifts abruptly back to earth. in an address that is directed as much to the reader as to his student. the correctional school to which he has been sent after his conviction for shooting George the Waiter. is equally marvellous – and more mysterious to the extent that it lies neglected beneath the mesmerising parade of media-generated effects and virtual images that holds in thrall both consumers and cultural theorists. plenty of ‘surprising and incongruous phenomena’ in Underworld. Another word for those forgotten quotidian things might be garbage—’Which is just another name for ordinary life’ (p. But I’m making a whole big megillah out of this. and demanding. in a declaration that is a statement as much about Underworld as about her own project: ‘It’s also shit because it’s garbage. the quotidian. directing Nick’s attention to the ordinary objects that connect him with the ground. we wouldn’t use such a gorgeous Latinate word. ‘This is the final arcane knowledge’: ‘Everyday things represent the most overlooked knowledge. the power of an ordinary life. the quarter. unrealistic’. the counter. ‘The shock. the welt. Because that’s the heart and soul of what we’re doing here’ (Underworld. (p. For DeLillo. even in a world of spectacular and endlessly recycling images.