Two's a crowd: Mao II, Coke II, and the politics of terrorism in Don DeLillo.
In his 1991 novel Mao II, Don DeLillo stages a battle between the notion of an individual Western identity and that of a "mass-produced" foreign consciousness, a contest producing equal amounts of xenophobia and paranoia. For most of the novel's characters, an alienating mass identity is emblematized by images of non-Western languages and religious and political leaders such as Mao. But for the novel's author, the seemingly foreign "cult of Mao" turns out to represent a product of American consumer culture--that is, an American appropriation of mass terrorism and the commerce of mechanical reproduction (or a Warhol aesthetic and what it signifies). For DeLillo's characters, xenophobia accompanies such an appropriation as an expression of anxiety over "mass identity" and mass production (displaced onto and emblematized by mass weddings); group identities of consumer culture; photographs that displace the "original" object; and hybridized or multicultural texts and languages. The American notion of terrorism, at least at the point DeLillo was writing, is then born from an acute fear of collective identity based in a long Western literary tradition of fetishizing the individual.
DeLillo sets up an opposition between the Western writer/individual and the Eastern/mass terrorist only to collapse it, for example in recontextualizing the alleged "invasion" of global/third-world English into the United States, and in tracing the myriad ways in which an ideology of American individualism is itself surreptitiously predicated on the practices of "foreign" mass production. The anachronistic white writer's individual words are cast against foreign, hybridized "mass" languages of advertising, politics, and terrorism. Throughout Mao II, DeLillo dramatizes the speciousness of the dichotomy between the domestic and the foreign, both of which turn out to be products of the same Western imagination. More dramatically, the foreign terrorist emerges as the alter ego of the American writer. In this process, the figure of Mao comes to designate not a foreign or alternative social or economic system, but the very mechanics of capitalist production in DeLillo's America. In this sense, one never sees Mao, but only Mao II, a Mao effect.
The appearance of a second Mao or Mao II in the text, Warhol's mass-produced dissemination of the Mao image, is paralleled by the appearance of the product Coke II--to some extent a parodic version of the ill-fated New Coke--staging an ironic contest between which two equally Western symbols will colonize the world. In this series of transpositions, DeLillo dramatizes what Anthony Giddens describes as the surprise of postmodernism, that "scarcely anyone today seems to identify post-modernity with what it was once widely accepted to mean--the replacement of capitalism by socialism"(46). Instead, postmodernity perversely heralds the apparent 'replacement' (but actual supplementation) of capitalism by the capitalist symbols of socialism. With archly postmodern irony, DeLillo uses the appropriated, primary symbol of Marxism to critique capitalist xenophobia and its appropriation of other sign systems to its own uses. The children of Marx and Coca Cola grow up to inherit one another, and discover their actual fraternity.
In this essay I explore the frustrating complexity of xenophobia in DeLillo's texts: where it is generated, whom DeLillo's critique is aimed at, and how we determine what is genuinely foreign. To what extent does the author identify with the views of his white protagonist Bill Gray--is that figure for DeLillo a victim of foreign ideologies or his own xenophobia? An unresolved tension between the implied author's and characters' world-view makes the answer to these questions difficult to determine. I conclude that DeLillo dramatizes and duplicates a version of xenophobia whose premises he finds ultimately self-deluding but still alluring: while DeLillo ultimately destabilizes the site of what is foreign, he continues to reify an anxiety that the image poses a foreign threat to American individuality. Throughout, as may already be apparent, my focus will be less on actual terrorist figures in the novel (Abu Rashid and George Haddad) than on the threat their non-whiteness and mass cultural forms--perceived as a non-differentiated, uniformly alien "'Maoism"--represents to a xenophobic mindset that invites homegrown displays of terrorism.
To contextualize DeLillo's configurations of white male individuality, it is useful to consider a brief history of ideas about mass identity in America, filtered through the discourse of transcendental pantheism that defines the individual white male through his merger with a mass body of nature. DeLillo's writer belongs to a lineage of isolated white male individualists who oppose, yet also depend on, the mass in American literature. As Karen's father observes early in the novel, "'crowd' is not the right word. He doesn't know what to call them" (5). The original crowd in America is really the mass, from white male to white whale.
Many nineteenth-century writers, particularly those anticipating the values of the cold war canon, situate white male American identity as either a conspiracy or contest between the individual and the crowd or mass. (1) In "What Causes Democratic Nations to Incline Towards Pantheism," in Democracy in America, Tocqueville defines the allegedly self-reliant American in terms of his surprising desire to merge with the state, a merger that is paralleled by transcendental fusions with nature or the OverSoul in writers such as Emerson and Melville:
If there is a philosophical system which teaches that all things material and immaterial ... are to he considered only as the several parts of an immense Being, who alone remains eternal amidst the continual change and ceaseless transformation of all that constitutes him ... such a system, though it destroy the individuality of man, or rather because it destroys that individuality, will have secret charms for men living in democracies.... (II.31-32)
One of a long line of Catholic anti-pantheist tract writers, the New York based Reverend Morgan Dix echoes Tocqueville in his 1864 Lectures on the Pantheistic Idea o fan Impersonal Deity: "imagine, if you can, this indescribable, this immense condition, or mass, or state (or by whatever name you wish to call it) and you have before you the only eternal being. Let us apply to it, for the sake of convenience, the term God" (22). (2)
In this transcendental American pantheism, white men merge with the mass of (an often racialized) god/nature to transcend the constraints of Jacksonian individuality, inordinate self-reliance, and social atomization. To merge with that mass body of nature, as Ishmael repeatedly does at sea, or Emerson in the woods, leaves the transcendentalist in a mystic reverie, one portending the transcendence DeLillo's Karen achieves in attaining her vision of mass identity. As Americans come to perceive their individualities as parts of an immense impersonal Being, or of the technological state, both of which ceaselessly transform them, a pantheistic merger with the mass is both a cure to the isolation of white male individuality and a pernicious threat to its autonomy. In a society where "men are broken up" into inequalities, people will have a great desire to merge their individualities into the immense mass of the government, the All of nature, or some unified god: after Lauren Berlant, we might call this a national fantasy of anatomy (Tocqueville II.23). (3)
In mid-nineteenth century America, the tension between self-reliance and fraternal merger with the mass or All is often embodied in transcendental pantheism. For many of these transcendental writers, individuation, the basis of American self-representation, also becomes a form of fragmentation from the mass or whole. For Emerson, for example, "As soon as there is departure from this universal feeling, we are made to feel it painfully" ("The Heart" 284). Emerson's repressed rhetoric of a dialectic between a dispossessive merger and painful individuation startlingly erupts in 1860 in his desire to draw and quarter the masses, to break and divide this inchoate unity into parts:
Leave this hypocritical prating about the masses. Masses are rude, lame, unmade, pernicious.... I wish not to concede anything to them, but to tame, drill, divide, and break them up, and draw individuals out of them.... Masses! the calamity is the masses. I do not wish any mass at all....("Considerations by the Way," W, VI, 249)
Melville often expressed his doubts about such transcendental inconsistency and universal identity in his letters to Hawthorne: "It seems an inconsistency to assert unconditional democracy in all things, and yet confess a dislike to all mankind--in the mass. But not so ..." (Davis and Gilman 127). In Moby Dick, Ishmael overtakes his creator to conclude, "But from the same point, take mankind in mass, and for the most part, they seem a mob of unnecessary duplicates, both contemporary and hereditary" (441, emphasis mine). As Melville's Pierre learns, however, individuation in America is a manifestation not of Pan but of pain. To live as an individual male is to be painfully violated, to suffer withdrawal from the reverie of unity with the mass or All, and compulsively to reenact this fragmentation of human bodies. Throughout his work, Emerson believes that individuation is painful, but that social connection--being part of a mass or crowd--truncates men as well; rarely does he put it more simply than in "Prudence": "society is officered by men of parts, as they are properly called, and not by divine men" (W, II.231).
From Melville's fantasy of merger with the All of nature through DeLillo's postmodern vision of a monolithic consumer culture, the conception of national or mass identity remains unstable and double-edged. The violence we have seen in Emerson and Melville is often remapped, these days all too conveniently, onto the foreign mass and the foreign terrorist. If DeLillo resurrects aspects of this dialectic, his characters no longer bear even the hope of transcendence, only the oscillation between merger with the mass and the severance of extreme white individuation.
Before Mao II, DeLillo had focused on white male individuality in relation to foreign languages and identities. Like Mao II, DeLillo's White Noise is about the subject position of white America, and perhaps a re-sounding of the white silence of Moby Dick. (Many white noise machines, in fact, produce frequencies that sound like indecipherable murmurs, serving as kinds of verbal Rorschachs, the aural equivalent of the white whale's exclusively visual signs. White Noise is filled with hints that its opaque foreign languages are in part fantasies of white "consciousness," the foreign noise whiteness itself makes.) In this context, Mao II becomes White Noise II, a recoloration of that book's politics: as Bill's name states, he is not even white anymore, but gray.
White Noise prefaces the cultural dynamics of Mao II, where the individualist white novelist is implicitly supplanted not just by the foreign terrorist, but by the multicultural writer. In White Noise, DeLillo's middle-class white characters frequently assert that "these kind of things"--toxic events, what they see as third world disasters--don't happen in middle America. Yet their middle America, in their eyes, is under siege, and even at the holy site of the mall, "people spoke English, Hindi, Vietnamese, related tongues" (82). In Mao II, the "thousand of Arabic words weaving between the letters and Roman numerals of the Coke II logo" relocate the contest between these "overlapping" languages, but also their necessary hybridity in the postmodern marketplace (230). Language and identity, symbols of commerce and ideology, become indeterminate not in remote spaces, but in the most familiar locations. Jack Gladney--whom DeLillo with blunt irony casts as a professor of Hitler Studies who cannot speak German, and who never engages the ethnic genocides of the holocaust--similarly obsesses over what he sees as foreign incursions to his white masculinity: "What kind of name is Orest? I studied his features. He might have been Hispanic, Middle Eastern, Central Asian, a dark skinned eastern European, a light skinned black.... It was getting hard to know what you could say to people" (208). The foreign is consistently couched in such lists in DeLillo's work: litanies of countries, languages, and products. Against "the vast loneliness and dissatisfaction of [American] consumers who have lost their group identity" (50), the apparently reliable, stable mass identities of foreign nations, and the impenetrable codes of foreign languages, simultaneously become sites of envy, resentment, and blame. Jealous of "foreigners" who retain an "original," non-mediated sense of group identity--and stripped of what Robert Bellah similarly designates as a national sense of transcendent communal identity--some Americans terrorize the Other by imagining that the Other is terrorizing them.
As part of his response to post-cold war identity politics, DeLillo champions the notion of the individualist white writer even while dismantling the assumptions of that icon, situating him as part of a mass cult of individuality. Once we reach Mao II, what is portrayed as a white mass American consciousness in crisis comes to rest on the sagging shoulders of the writer Bill Gray, who lives as if he were a terrorist. Gray fears that history and writing, all representation, are becoming the domain of the mass Other and not the individual American writer. As hart of a consistent strategy of displacement, DeLillo omits any sustained reference to late twentieth-century "white" terrorism, for example of white American militias or the IRA. This glaring omission, which reinforces the validity of Bill's fears, may serve to stage a wholly contrived and limited contest between a false image of the "foreign" and a contaminated idea of American identity. (The other notable unvoiced doubles of the novel's Mao squared are the Mau Mau, the Kenyan "terrorists" who violently opposed colonial whites: DeLillo of course chooses to emphasize certain oppositions, here between archetypal East and West, and dissemble others.) DeLillo focuses his xenophobia, for example, on foreign mass weddings rather than any "others" or groups more routinely demonized at home (even Mormon multiple weddings could be viewed as a more appropriate domestic symbol of DeLillo's mass identity, but they are never invoked). Yet despite the ways such exclusions continue to delineate and justify white/ individualist anxieties before the invasion of foreign consciousness, the novel reveals this "mass consciousness" as a reification of the ideology of American individualism. Through these strategies of omission and displacement, DeLillo powerfully, yet still only obliquely, intimates that America is itself a truly foreign element, and has also practiced its own version of terrorism, in the rest of the world.
How does DeLillo propose that American individualism depends on "mass identity" or mass production? Throughout the novel, DeLillo obsessively delineates the way simple "technical" duplication--especially reproductions of advertisements, photographs and other media-allies itself with an ethos of mass-produced identity. What is stereotypically foreign--hypostatized in Maoist dogma, terrorist causes and Islamic fundamentalism (4)--merges individual into mass identity, sometimes under the guise of a slogan or logo. Two always becomes a foreign crowd, a mass, opposed to the individual American, and everything of which there is more than one or that occurs more than once is foreign: in the book's resonant final line, its last depiction of Beirut, we witness "the dead city photographed one more time" (240). Anything photographed rather than inscribed--i.e, anything tainted by a Warholian version of mechanical reproduction--already exists in duplicate. It has joined the impersonal mass, is no longer individual, and is therefore already terrorized and even dead.
From Bill's perspective, the aura of the mass-produced or replicated object replaces the soul of the unique original. In Bill's particular and peculiar redefinition, aura--a projected image detached from a missing original, that is infinitely replicable but finally unattainable--is itself foreign; and it parasitically feeds off (a putatively Western, somehow "individual") fully-present nature. Such an inflected notion of aura projects a cultural xenophobia about the decay of Western culture caused by the infiltrations of foreign languages and innovations--finally by anything that purports to threaten the imagined autonomy of the individual humanist voice. Under that projection, Bill implicitly correlates mass production with mass consciousness as if they were coterminous. But in the process of duplication, what is stereotypically American--the mass-produced Ford car, the universally replicated Coca Cola bottle, and the impersonal collective logo of the credit card--becomes indistinguishable from the "Maoist" dogma it seems to oppose.
Through such juxtapositions, DeLillo's text destabilizes cause and effect in the relationship between the domestic and the foreign: is Western mass production, which allegedly emblematizes individualism, combating or fomenting "Asian" and Eastern mass production? Moreover, could this Asian mass production primarily be a fantasy of the West? How is Western logo translated into, or returned to us as, foreign logos? DeLillo suggests that in the image of Mao II, in all it represents in his text, the West is creating its own East. That Mao turns out to be a front for Western ideologies is consistent with DeLillo's long-running obsession with conspiracy, disguise, and cultural projection; after all, James Axton in The Names, searching for himself in foreign languages and cultures, doesn't recognize the "foreign" in himself, or even allow himself to acknowledge that he works for the CIA.
In Mao II, the individualist white Western writer and the cult of Mao/ terrorism/mass production are continually contrasted with one another. We are told that
The cult of Mao was the cult of the book ... a summoning of crowds where everyone dressed alike and thought alike.... Isn't there beauty and power in the repetition of certain words and phrases? ... They became a hook-waving crowd. Mao said, 'Our god is none other than the masses of the Chinese people.' And this is what you fear, that history is passing into the hands of the crowd. (162)
The once individualized text has been supplanted by amass media--emblematized by the book-waving crowd--that is oddly and somewhat inconsistently equated with film, photography, and group identity. With insufficient explanation, DeLillo suggests that the book has become exclusively a product of the mass media, and can no longer even be used to critique that media without itself being implicated. Collective book and individual author become incommensurate-East and West and never the twain shall meet. Bill, the great white hope, has gone into a Pynchonesque media hibernation and refused to publish anything further, because to do so would obviate him, replace the individual producer with a collective book or mass commodity. The alienating relationship between book and author, which induces the writer's creative impotence, finally becomes a metaphor for the relationship between East and West and the postcolonial condition, or rather for paranoia about the ends of the postcolonial "process."
In the novel's apparent politics, then, the individualist novelist is always Western, the mass terrorist stereotypically Eastern. Yet as Bill says to Brita while being photographed--copied, prepared to be dead--
There's a curious knot that binds novelists and terrorists. In the West we become famous effigies as our books lose the power to shape and influence.... Years ago I used to think it was possible for a novelist to alter the inner life of the culture. Now bomb-makers and gunmen have that territory. They make raids on human consciousness. What writers used to do before they were all incorporated. (41) (5)
That is, what writers did before they were merged or in-corporated into a mass (foreign) body. The last unincorporated novelist, Bill the lone writer is thus a kind of Western bulwark against the mass identity of the East; yet in the novel's deep-structure politics, that mass identity is itself a product of the West, even of Western or transnational corporations. To connote any and all "incorporation"--any form of mass, somatic fusion, from participating in mass weddings to joining the mass identities of terrorist groups or cults, to becoming a "publisher" of or contributor to this new post-individual culture-as Eastern already alerts us to a cultural projection. As Bill later resumes, "What terrorists gain, novelists lose. The degree to which they influence mass consciousness is the extent of our decline as shapers of sensibility and thought. The danger they represent equals our own failure to be dangerous"(157, emphasis mine). Even the ideology of American individualism reflects a mass culture unable to accept its own reliance on conformity, violence and mass consciousness. The Eastern terrorist becomes an incarnation of the Western nation's political unconscious.
DeLillo replays the dialectic between the isolated, detached white individual and the merged, racialized mass, but inchoately projects the latter onto the foreign rather than situating it as an aspect of America's own divided cultural dynamic. In a variety of registers, DeLillo displaces his subjects, the domestic onto the foreign, the social onto the somatic and mechanical. The carefully and consistently deployed rhetoric of DeLillo's Maoist/cultist "book-waving crowd" determines what we might call the "cultural physics" of group behavior in Mao II's postmodern world: the wave denotes merger with a larger mass. In the novel's opening scene, thousands of strangers are being married in a sports arena, achieving a mass identity with one another and through obedience to a religious or cult leader. Against this backdrop, a character searching for his missing daughter is asked, "what will you do when you find her? Wave good-bye?"(5). Harbinger of a new kind of oceanic being, this "domestic wave" repeatedly breaks upon the crowd in mass wedding: "one continuous wave ... an undifferentiated mass"(240). These waves are not random appearances in DeLillo's work: in The Names, a novel that begins DeLillo's exploration of the relationship between terrorism, language and American conceptions of the foreign, Axton remarks that "the Aryans were light-skinned. Light-skinned people filter down. Dark people came sweeping out. The Mongols. The Bactrians. They came in waves. Wave after wave" (260). (6) In the troubling progression of DeLillo's novels, then, that wave has finally crashed upon American shores. Many of DeLillo's characters imagine these waves as harbingers of racialized physics and foreign bodies, expressed in a somatology of the mass.
But the mass wedding/wave more accurately represents a translation of Warhol's (rather than Walter Benjamin's) emblematic process of American mechanical reproduction: (7) "a few simple formulas copied and memorized and passed on. And here is the drama of mechanical routine played out with living figures ... the way love and sex are multiplied out, the numbers and shaped crowd" (7). In other words, the mass Asian wedding represents another dramatization of Warhol's silk screen of Mao, another stage of what we might call mass reproduction. (8) This mechanical routine of living figures denotes a post-Woolfian, postmodern staging of the wave, but it is as much the endemic wave of American sports crowds and mass culture as of a foreign mass. By so perversely beginning his text with a mass Asian wedding in Yankee Stadium--overdetermined site of American identity and consciousness-but ending it with a single wedding in Beirut, DeLillo suggests that our sense of what is "foreign" and American, what Mao and what Coke, what terrorist and what consumerist, is backwards; and that even the writer's purportedly liberal vision is caught within the system he purportedly assails.
In addition to the cultural physics of waves, DeLillo's text develops a rhetoric of chains-linked systems of language, physics and bodies. These mass waves and chains initiate a sequence of duplications: eventually in Mao II, as Karen, the American cult child, laments, passing through the "nationwide chain of baby-proof hotels," "the same room repeats itself in a cross-country chain and he's going to make me stop at every one" (71, 81). At the beginning of the novel, after "Fifteen minutes in a bare room [Karen and her husband Rodge] are chain-linked for life" through mass-marriage; we subsequently wind up with images of Andy Warhol, schematically juxtaposed between Madison Avenue and the main square of Beijing, "reprocessed through painted chains of being" (5, 135). DeLillo isn't merely presenting a literalized chain of associations here, but embodying the way we construct chains of identity: the narrator tells us that Reverend Moon "lives in [his disciples] like chains of matter that determine who they are" (6). The physics of waves and chains reflect and determine the politics of identity: these reiterated images of mechanical reproduction promise not egalitarian bliss but constriction, conformity, repetition and homogenization. The new "writer"--the Mao or Moon replacing Bill-is a foreign fundamentalist or terrorist who mass reproduces himself like Coca Cola bottles or little red books, in waves, chains and copies: if we take out or invert the label of the foreign, we begin to get DeLillo's underlying message.
Ultimately, Mao II-presumably Eastern-and Coke II-presumably Western-emblematize the same function in DeLillo's text, forms of identity-stealing advertising and photography that dissemble one another: "Now there are signs for a new soft drink, Coke II, signs slapped on cement-block walls, and [Brita] has the crazy idea that these advertising placards herald the presence of the Maoist group" (230). The idea is less crazy than transparent; "because there is a certain physical resemblance" between the Coke II signs and the "posters of the Cultural Revolution in China," one sign must augur the Other. As Margaret Scanlan suggests, "the intense red of advertisements for Coke II contributes to the fantasy that they are promoting a new Maoist group" (245). Coke II is able perfectly to declaim the presence of Mao II, for in DeLillo's inverted world, capitalism happily uses the image of Mao to make its historical and cultural inroads. (9)
In this text, aesthetic and communicative processes, especially those involving visual media, are subjected to the same sequence of duplication: "Put it this way.... Nature has given way to aura.... Here I am in your lens. Already I see myself differently. Twice over or once removed" (44). Art halves the artist-observer (coded as individual), but doubles the subject-observed (coded as the mass). For Gray, double-consciousness in any form, including that created by the mechanical repetitions of Western art and commerce, connotes mass identity and death. When Bill the writer of ostensibly individual words finally allows himself to be photographed, he enters that world of mass-reproduced images, an act the novel orchestrates unequivocally as suicide. Brita's photographic catalogue of writers then functions like a gallery of an almost extinct species-one that it helps eliminate. With the exception of terrorists, only the dead or dying are photographed and doubled, as Brita reveals in having "the dead city photographed one more time" (240). (This is a line the book effectively asks us to iterate "one more time": to photograph is always already to repeat or duplicate.) The arc of this novel is also that of Brita's switch from collecting/photographing moribund writers to "collecting/photographing" thriving terrorists-a group explicitly born to the mass production not of words but images.
For DeLillo, to be part of any such in-crowd is only to increase one's duality under a false guise of universality: "The boys who work near [the terrorist] Abu Rashid have no face or speech. Their features are identical" (234). They have merged their individuality into this generic Eastern mass identity; what DeLillo seems to fear is the postmodern American, multinational future. (10) In this guise, even Bill's answering machine "makes everything a message," either a palimpsest or a II where all iteration is reiteration, no original exists, and aura is transferred from the living "original" to the inanimate copy or second voicing (92). Everything in this text, from photo to answering machine to Coca Cola to Mao, is rendered a secondary, hence mass, hence foreign, source of anxiety. Anything that can echo, duplicate, or join you to the mass becomes a racially foreign body. And everything that makes "features identical," including American projections about the foreign, is at some point coded as both a form of terrorism and a mass attack on the (paranoid) individual.
As Thomas Carmichael reminds us, DeLillo began Mao II in response to two photos, one of J. D. Salinger being surprised by photographers, and one of a mass wedding led by Reverend Moon. In fact, DeLillo explicitly moves the site of this second photograph from its original location in Seoul to The Bronx, as if to reassert the proper cultural location for a mass wedding. As DeLillo remarks, the photos connote "the arch individualist and the mass mind, from the mind of the terrorist to the mind of the mass organization. In both cases, it's the death of the individual that has to be accomplished before their aims can be realized." (11) DeLillo here seems to be reifying more than critiquing this opposition. DeLillo's text then pits the demise of the arch, self-contained white Western recluse against the rise of the terrorist foreign mass, but it does so by duplicating original material: in other words, DeLillo makes his own "Mao II" by displacing or mirroring the original sites of these photographs. As Carmichael notes, the Salinger photo never appears in DeLillo's book, but photos of the Moon wedding, a soccer riot in Sheffield, and of the Middle East-soldiers standing in front of a poster of Ayatollah Khomeini, and children presumably crouching in Beirut-introduce each narrative section. Crucially, despite Bill's "suicidal" choice, the individual writer remains by self-definition unphotographable: only images of the mass can be replicated here. In following this dictum, DeLillo endorses as much as he ironizes the sanctity of individual "presence" and a belief in the destructive force of foreign mass duplication; at the very least, his text, like many meta-narratives, replicates the device it critiques.
By the end of Mao II, mass American society is situated as relentlessly foreign. How far then is DeLillo recapitulating the xenophobic ideas about the mass his characters ostensibly espouse, but which also skew their lives? To what extent is Bill's death caused by an actual "foreign mass," and to what extent by his own paranoid projections about that mass? As Scanlan astutely objects,
DeLillo seems so intent on reproducing the forces that homogenize the world that he gives up the possibility of reproducing its heterogeneity. If Karen conflates the Ayatollah and Man with her Korean masters, so does the novel, in its own rigorously synchronic portrayal of the Christian cult, Chinese communism and Islamic fundamentalism. (246)
That synchronicity, or perhaps even homology, most radically also extends to American individualism--an idea that might not be well-received in America after 9/11, which understandably polarized our sense of opposition between US and them even farther.
At first glance, foreigners of any sort in Mao II merge into a Non-Western mass, an undifferentiated non-white sameness. But it doesn't hold up that way. The real "sameness" turns out to underpin the American and its projected mass other. Karen, whom Bill claims "comes from the future," typifies the new hybrid American; far more than the foreign, the mass or the terrorist, Karen supplants Bill the writer with her corrupt language, ignorance of history, and desperate need for mass identity. Morphing into her putative linguistic and cultural cognates of Korean and the Koran, Karen in fact moves from being a disciple of Sun Myung Moon to an empathizer at the death of the Ayatollah Khomeini; watching "the crowd [that] had no edge or limit" mourn his demise, Karen "felt she was among them" (188-89). In both contexts, Karen claims "We will all be a single family soon" (193). Her totalizing vision, focused through these racially coded foreign leaders, appears to contrast with that of the individualist white writer who also sleeps with her, perhaps as his first act along the path to suicide, his first capitulation to merging with the foreign mass. In Karen's case, the seemingly American again turns out to be a cover for the genuinely foreign. But while DeLillo destabilizes the line between the categories, a certain xenophobia remains, as Karen's comprehension of the foreign resonates with Bill's (85). The real distinction is that what Bill demonizes and flees, Karen pursues, embraces, and marries. These two characters best map the opposing geographies of cultural and racial identity in DeLillo's text. But they leave the reader still asking, is the family that is "all one family" that of a quintessentially "foreign" sports arena wedding, or is it instead/also the family of the quintessentially American Pittsburgh Pirates/ Sister Sledge sports arena theme song?
Whether or not entirely in accord with DeLillo's intention, the foreign mass language of the novel is finally our own. When Karen wanders through New York's lower East Side, she spies the apparently foreign litany, "Sony, Mita, Kirin, Magno, Midori" (148). At the beginning of the novel, Scott and Brita had witnessed a similar sequence: "the signs were for Mita, Midori, Kirin, Magno, Suntory-words that were part of some synthetic mass language, the esperanto of jet-lag" (23). (12) This intratextual narrative bleeding, this overlap of consciousness, suggests that we need to locate the foreign, the synthetic mass, at the level of language (and perhaps in the "Karen/Kirin" that remains the pivotal, unchanged middle term of the sequence?). Brita may conclude that "our only language is Beirut" (239), but has Beirut taken over our language or the reverse? We must remember that in White Noise the mantra had been "Master Card, Visa, American Express" (100). The pattern of that Western consumer culture still presides here, producing and structuring the Other in its own synthetic image. Mao II continues to speak to and update White Noise: Midori succeeds the "Master Card," but the West supplants the East. The best analogy for this process is one of a capitalist, rather than transcendental, merger. Chemical Bank, for example, takes over (or overtakes) Chase Bank, but keeps "the colonized" name as its company "brand." In this skewed form of what Richard Slotkin terms regeneration through violence, the loser keeps the logo; under the sign of one company, one "unincorporated" family, we wind up with a process of infiltration and cultural camouflage. In DeLillo's false drama, the code of the ersatz individual creates and takes over its own construction of the false collective, but keeps the logo of Mao II. Bill would warrant that his death represents the triumph of East over West, but it may actually represent the West's incorporation of the East, its policies furthered under the false sign of Mao. With the exaggerated and opportunistic assertion that it is being besieged, the West--its language and culture--finds renewed justification to colonize, especially in its putative war against terrorism. Like Axton, Bill never realizes for whose side he really works.
Some of the novel's jarring inconsistency in representing the foreign may simply expose the characters' limitations, especially Karen's: focused through its characters' questionable perspectives, the narrative does give us some straightforward descriptions of xenophobia, for example of "a police minicab [that] came by like some Bombay cartoon" (150). Because we never get a reliable narrator's alternate perspective, the text seems to have no center, no clear agenda, and this absence may be the text's strongest message. The novel's ambiguity is mirrored in the tenuousness of this image: is the taxi a real representation of the foreign, or is the representation itself the cartoon? We are told, soon after, that "[Karen] used to think siblings were strictly white and middle-class due to something in the nature of the word" (179). After such an assertion, one questions the reliability of Karen's perspective on any issue, but most of all on languages and signs; Karen may have begun to realize that her white middle-class assumptions about identity are not universally applicable, but she has hardly come to an understanding of the foreign. What she desperately desires is that "the world could be a single family"--even if everyone has to marry everyone else-but she cannot understand the differences between American and foreign families when she cannot see their similarities or decipher signs in general. As Scanlan suggests, Karen, thinking "'God all minute every day' ... speaks the new global English" (239). But where is the emphasis in this double or hybrid-on the global, or the English? Karen, not Omar, represents DeLillo's notion of a truly alien consciousness. There she is: mass America. She survives, leaving a trail of dead writers in her wave. And if the writer is dead, no one exists to replace him, and all authorial voices, including the implied author's, are left suspect. Mao II finally unwrites its own politics.
The most useful gloss on DeLillo's inchoate project may come from a recent collection by Slavoj Zizek, Welcome to the Desert of the Real: Five Essays on September 11 and Related Dates. Zizek notes that George W. Bush
himself had to concede that the most probable perpetrators of the anthrax attacks [after September 11] were not Muslim terrorists but America's own extreme Right Christian fundamentalists-again, does not the fact that acts first attributed to an external enemy may turn out to he acts perpetrated by the very heart of l'Amerique profonde provide an unexpected confirmation of the thesis that the true clash is the clash within each civilization? (44)
In other words, the clash between individual and mass is at least partly generated within American historical contexts, but then projected as a clash between civilizations. More straightforwardly than DeLillo, Zizek claims that Western capitalists and Muslim fundamentalists are themselves twinned,
are not really opposed; that they belong to the same fabric. In short, the position to adopt is to accept the necessity of the fight against terrorism, but to redefine and expand its terms so that it will also include (some) American and other Western powers' acts: the choice between Bush and Bin Laden is not our choice: they are both 'Them' against Us. The fact that global capitalism is a totality means that it is the dialectical unity of itself and its other, of the forces which resist it on 'fundamentalist' ideological grounds. (50-51)
Zizek suggests that the "global capital liberalism" that DeLillo dismantles becomes "itself a mode of fundamentalism," as emblematized by the widely-disseminated caricatures of Bush as Muslim cleric, part of the "Talibush," etc. (Zizek 52). (13) Or as Curtis White succinctly puts it, "Al Qaeda is utterly deterritorialized.... What makes this situation doubly ironic is the fact that the United States and its primary trading partners [through globalization] ... are also engaged in making nation states irrelevant and antique. Terrorism's deterritorialization is a negative reflection of our own economic and political tendencies" (19). In this sense, global capitalism obfuscates its dependence on its self-generated antagonists--i.e, that Muslim fundamentalists "are already 'modernists,'" as Rashid might agree (Zizek 52). In DeLillo's world, the fundamentalists on both sides of global capitalism perform the dialectic between Coke I and Mao II.
In the end, most of DeLillo's depictions of Mao and the mass remain a Western fantasy or translation. Is the individual white male writer, from Salinger to Pynchon to Bill Gray, a vampire who will not be daguerreotyped, or is the mass photo his true reflection? In both cases, DeLillo spends an entire novel asking, though never fully answering, what's the difference? In the wake of that indeterminacy, and of the recent escalation in terrorist violence around the world, DeLillo's novel may come across as anachronistic or dated. But DeLillo's attempt to contextualize the ways American society incorporates structural elements of terrorism into its economic and cultural systems is timelier than ever, for we have, for understandable reasons, grown wary of analyzing our complicity in creating or focusing our enemies, and have, in demonizing a dangerous and nebulous other, lost some ability to situate ourselves. As DeLillo might argue, the war against terrorism, more than anything we anticipated, calls for a solidarity that manifests itself in a dangerous form of mass identity.
My thanks to Leah Price, Kathryn Hume, Jacqueline Foertsch Carol Bernstein and James Martin for their comments on earlier versions of this article.
(1) do not invoke these writers to reify a white male canon; writers who are not in this subject position, however, typically ere not trying to transcend white male individuality and hence tend not to project the same anxieties regarding individual white identity and the mass. Though sometimes claiming to be universal, these white writers often formulate a limited and local perspective that by no means should be taken to "represent" America.
(2) Ironically, many anti-Catholic writers also associated Catholicism (and sometimes, like Frederick Douglass, the Irish Mob) with an alien, foreign mass: e.g., Thomas Melville Jr. wrote to Chief Justice of Massachusetts Lemuel Shaw in 1843 that his bid for justice of the peace had been dashed by "the overwhelming force, of the whole Catholic alien vote, which can be brought to bear in a mass in all our elections..." (Parker 352).
(3) Postmodern white male writers frequently return to this representation of mass consciousness. For example, as Dwight Eddins writes, Mocha Maas in the Crying of Lot 49 reduces the multiplicity of all voices, and his multiple identities, to one voice, and thus to a single, enormous mass (104). In David Foster Wallace's massive Infinite Jest, Orin the football player experiences in his stadium a precis of DeLillo's mass: "30,000 voices, souls, voicing approval as One Soul ... so total they ceased to be numerically distinct and melded into a sort of single coital moan, one big vowel, the sound of the womb, the roar gathering, tidal, amniotic, the voice of what might as well be God" (295).
Wallace also describes upwards of 60 million North Americans in
a mass choreography somewhat similar to those compulsory A.M. tai chi slow-too exercise assemblies in post-Mao China ... [leading to] [t]he fellowship and anonymous communion of being part of a watching crowd, a mass of eyes ... all out in the world and pointed the same way ... crowds brought together now so quickly ... a kind of inversion of watching something melt, the crowds collect and are held tight by an almost seemingly nucleic force.... (620-21)
Wallace seems to have had Mao II even more directly in mind when Don Gately dreams of a "can of un-American tonic," a "foreign coke," a wraith holding "a can of coke, with good old Coke's distinctive interwoven red and white French curls on it but alien unfamiliar Oriental-type writing on it instead of the good old words Coca-Cola and Coke. The unfamiliar script on the Coke can is maybe the whole dream's worst moment" (834, 836, 832).
(4) DeLillo's systematic linking of Islam with Asia as an index of an equally alien and uniform Eastern mindset, was, at the time written, part of what Edward Said would term American Orientalism. Said claims Americans had a limited interest in Asia until after Worm War II, especially as developed through philological study. DeLillo then weds an earlier European Orientalism--in which one "tr[ies] first to master the esoteric languages of the Orient"--with postmodern xenophobia (Said 290).
(5) As Mark Feeney comments, "that last sentence has an ironic cast. DeLillo himself is very much unincorporated. He doesn't teach, he doesn't tour" (491). (This isolation altered somewhat with the publication of Underworld; as a sports announcer in that novel claims, "When you deal with crowds, nothing's predictable" . The crowd in Underworld generates a "territorial roar, the claim of the ego that separates the crowd from other entities[;]... this is the crowd made over, the crowd renewed" .)
Without becoming intentionalist, one should note that DeLillo makes frequent comments connecting his own unicorporated persona to Bill's: "I used to say to friends, 'I want to change my name to Bill Gray and disappear.' I've been saying it for ten years" ("Dangerous" 38). In his article "The Power of History," DeLillo contends that in Underworld he wanted to use language to "unincorporate these [trademarked or too familiar] words, subvert their official status" (63). As part of that unincorporation, though, DeLillo continues to assert that the novelist is in some ways a Melvillean isolato "Novelists don't feel like team members" (60). Novels then become a kind of mass entertainment that lures the writer into the crowd: though dealing primarily with history rather than mass identity in this article, DeLillo also remarks that, "At its root level, fiction is a kind o f religions fanaticism" (62). DeLillo is also aware of the peradoxes of his configuration of Mao 11: the book is partly modeled on the predicament of Salman Rushdie, hardly an American individualist writer, so the pretext of using Bill Gray as an alleged Western bulwark against the mass terror of the East is so thoroughly ironized and displaced as to collapse on itself.
(6) But we are also told in The Names, "No one seems to be alone. This is a place to enter in crowds, seek company and talk. Everyone is talking.... [I hear] one language after another, rich, harsh, mysterious, strong. This is what we bring to the temple, not prayer or chant or slaughtered rams. Our offering is language" (331). A heterogeneous language is here a site of prayer, not Babel. Yet in the same text, Owen Brademas remarks, "masses of people scare me. Religion. People driven by the same powerful emotion" (24). Dennis Foster reads this passage as an assertion that without faith, "the movement of the masses appears as what it is, emotion evoked by patterns devoid of reason. Gibberish" (403).
What is clear is that DeLillo systematically allies the masses with religion, and the individual with (at least the pretense or natularization of) reason. Asking why "the language of destruction [is] so beautiful," Brademas already fears exactly what Karen will desire, god all minute every day: "one mind, one madness. To be part of a unified vision" (116).
(7) I make this claim because DeLillo seems deliberately to misrepresent Benjamin's thesis regarding mechanical reproduction. DeLlllo's aura, unlike Benjamin's, is detachable, a postmodern, free-floating thing in itself. As iconic writer, Bill may desire to possess an original humanist aura, which is why he cannot survive the process of being duplicated. Benjamin's contentions regarding aura and ritual, however, are clearly familiar to DeLillo: in "The Work of Art," Benjamin argues that
Originally the contextual integration of art in tradition found its expression in the cult. We know that the earliest art works originated in the service of a ritual.... It is significant that the existence of the work of art with reference to its aura is never entirely separated from its ritual function. In other words, the unique value of the "authentic' work of art has its basis in ritual.... (223-24)
The loss of 'original' aura in Man I1 is then coterminous with a redefinition of the ritual functions of art. To adapt Benjamin's phrase, DeLillo develops a "negative theology" around the infinitely replicable photographic image, what Benjamin considered the "first truly revolutionary means of production" (224). DeLillo focuses on photography rather than film because still photos double images; if the novelist replaces the storyteller, the terrorist/photographer, not the director, replaces the novelist. For DeLillo, the mass duplications of the capitalist economy and their bizarre invocations of Man will falsify any revolutionary politics. DeLillo's Warholian replications of Man also stand in ironic counterpoint to what Frederic Jameson, via Susan Sontag, notes as the "puritanical suppression of images altogether... [in] Maoist China" (207).
(8) DeLillo's project seems influenced by Elias Canetti's Crowds and Power--his 1960 exploration of the relationship between crowd psychology and religious authoritarianism--from its analysis of Islam as a religion of lament to its characterization of mass formations, paranoia and group identity. Canetti suggests that the closed crowd of the past, tightly controlled by religious authority, has increasingly turned into "an open crowd," one that both exemplifies and transcends the religion it represents, and that "abandon[s] itself freely to its natural urge for growth" (20-22). In this sense, the mass wedding at Yankee Stadium serves as the first stage of a sequence moving from the site of marriage in a "closed" space to the site of the open crowd's "reproduction" at the Ayatollah's funeral. See also John Milton Gabriel Plotz for an assessment of how political crowds challenged the representational power of the text in Britain in the first half of the nineteenth century.
(9) The following figure, used to promote several bands at the 1996 South By Southwest music festival in Austin, Texas, perfectly dramatizes DeLillo's critique of the use of mass-produced images:
With gleeful tastelessness, the designers of this advertisement use this composite, postmodern image of communism to sell "alternative" music, proving that the other Lennon was wrong and you can go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao.
(10) That interdependence is all the more palpable in the wake of September II, which ironically has generated a response of increasing American unilateralism and exceptionalism.
John McClure offers a useful precis of Frederic Jameson's formulation of the postmodern: first addressing the development of modernism, McClure notes that
as Western society became increasingly secularized and rationalized, romance tended increasingly to locate this world [of transcendent mystery] on the great imperial frontiers: Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the American West[;] ... the search for raw materials that preoccupies DeLillo is made necessary by the global elimination of such premodern places.... and by extension, by the overlay of the postmodern on the premodern. (338)
As McClure concludes, however, for DeLillo postmodernism has not ushered in the feared or desired universality of reason, but the creation of spiritual +'resistance" outside the center: while "Capitalism has penetrated everywhere, its globalization has not resulted in global rationalization ... [but] seems instead to have sponsored a profound reversal: the emergence of zones and forces like those that imperial expansion has erased" (340). In this context. DeLillo tracks ghosts in the imperial machines, cultural viruses that are produced by and emerge from our contact with other societies, and come to haunt and infiltrate our language. DeLillo seems both to champion and be terrified by this alterity; these alluring but destabilizing alien zones and forces threaten our society, yet can liberate us from the Western traps we have lain for ourselves.
(11) Quoted in Carmichael 215; originally in "Dangerous Don DeLillo," 34-38, 76-77.
(12) Tellingly, in the book's obsessive representations of foreign mass identity and commerce, Japan is notably absent as a specific reference, yet partly recuperated in this last list. Japan's status as partly Westernized Asian country makes it problematic for DeLillo's representation of both Far and Middle East as Other, suggesting why the novel invokes China instead as an icon of mass production. DeLillo's novel also registers white American anxiety about Asian productivity, the "feared competition from the tireless 'yellow proletariat' in America" (Takaki 300).
(13) In the context of DeLillo's eerily prophetic chain of associations, that Bush the fundamentalist is purportedly waging war on terrorism is made all the more ironic by his fraternization with the "rehabilitated" Reverend Moon. See, for example, Gorenfeld.
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|Publication:||Studies in the Novel|
|Article Type:||Critical Essay|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2004|
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