Don DeLillo, “White Noise”

1985

DeLillo’s zeitgeisty “breakout” novel tells the story of Jack Gladney, a professor of Hitler studies (a department he invented) who can’t speak German. He works at The-College-on-the-Hill (perhaps a “city on the hill” reference to the Bible/Kennedy/Reagan) and is married for the fifth time to his fourth wife, Babette. They have a baby, Wilder, and a number of other children, including the prescient Steffie and the morose Heinrich. Both Babette and Jack are obsessed with death and with discussing who will die first. The bland 1980s and its “white noise” in the form of technology and advertising are recurrent subjects in the novel. (I would love to teach this with a John Hughes movie, like Sixteen Candles, and think about how trends, products, and cliches work in each).

When the “Airborne Toxic Event” arrives, Jack is exposed and later learns from testing that he has somehow been affected. The acronym is ironic, as the cloud is dispersed when microbes are released to eat it. SIMUVAC’s priority is to pretend the real event is simulated: “there is no substitute for a planned simulation” (a reality reversal like the most photographed barn bit. The barn’s aura is increased, rather than decreased, with each photograph in a “collective perception” that is different than Benjamin’s original theory: “we can’t get outside the aura” 13). Jack discovers Babette has slept with a man to get Dylarama, a drug to cure people of the fear of death. It is not working for her, but for a time Jack becomes obsessed with procuring some for himself. Jack and Murray talk, and Murray theorizes that “the more people you kill, the more power you gain over your own death… a secret precision at work in the most savage and indiscriminate killings” 291. Jack’s final confrontation with Willie Mink, the scientist who makes Dylar, is a sort of parody of the Marlow/Kurtz communication or the Humbert/Quilty conflict. It also seems to follow on the failed glory of Taxi Driver and the imagined horrors of American Psycho, both of which focus on sex and youth as well. The novel ends with Wilder miraculously surviving as he rides his tricycle across the freeway. Jack decides to stay away from the doctor and the “binary secrets” the information age seems to offer 326.

Zora Neale Hurston, “Their Eyes Were Watching God”

1937

Ellison, Wright, and Alain Locke disliked this novel, but it has become a classic at least in part because of its unique deployment of free indirect discourse in the story Janie tells Pheoby of her life in three parts. Janie famously moves “from object to subject” in the process, and the last line of the novel is “She called her sould to come and see” 193. Barbara Johnson claims it solves some narrative issues of Jakobson’s conflict between metaphor (universalizing totality) and metonymy (the repetition and renaming of the particular). I don’t have any recent notes on this novel, so I’m going to publish some information from Wikipedia…

Wikipedia summary:

The main character, an African-American woman in her early forties named Janie Crawford, tells the story of her life and journey via an extended flashback to her best friend, Pheoby, so that Pheoby can tell Janie’s story to the nosy community on her behalf. Her life has three major periods corresponding to her marriages to three very different men.

Nanny, Janie’s grandmother, was a slave who became pregnant by her owner and gave birth to a daughter, Leafy. Though Nanny tries to create a good life for her daughter, Leafy is raped by her school teacher and becomes pregnant with Janie. Shortly after Janie’s birth, Leafy begins to drink and stay out at night. Eventually she runs away, leaving Janie with Nanny. Nanny transfers all the hopes she had for Leafy to Janie. When Janie is sixteen, Nanny sees her kissing a neighborhood boy, Johnny Taylor, and fears that Janie will become a “mule” to some man. Nanny arranges for Janie to marry Logan Killicks, an older man and farmer who is looking for a wife to keep his home and help on the farm. Although Janie is not interested in marriage at that time, her grandmother wants her to have the kinds of things she never had the chance to have, and by marrying Logan Killicks Janie’s grandmother thinks it will give her the opportunity to make this possible. Janie has the idea that marriage must involve love, forged in a pivotal early scene where she sees bees pollinating a pear tree, and believes that marriage is the human equivalent to this natural process [think Beloved and the turtles!]. Logan Killicks, however, wants a domestic helper rather than a lover or partner and feels Janie does not do enough around the farm and she is ungrateful. Janie runs off with the glib Jody (Joe) Starks, who takes her to Eatonville.

Starks arrives in Eatonville to find the residents devoid of ambition, so he arranges to buy more land from the neighboring landowner, hires some local residents to build a general store for him to own and run, and the people of the town appoint him mayor. Janie soon realizes that Joe wants her as a trophy wife. He wants the image of his perfect wife to reinforce his powerful position in town, as he asks her to run the store but forbids her from participating in the substantial social life that occurs on the store’s front porch.

After Starks passes away, Janie finds herself financially independent and beset with suitors, some of whom are men of some means or have prestigious occupations, all of whom she turns down. She meets a young drifter and gambler named Vergible Woods who goes by the name of Tea Cake. She falls in love with Tea Cake after he plays the guitar for her. She sells the store and the two head to Jacksonville and get married, only to move to the Everglades egion (“the muck”) where they find work planting and harvesting beans. While their relationship has its ups and downs, including mutual bouts of jealousy, Janie realizes she now has the marriage with love that she had wanted.

The area is hit by the great hurricane. Tea Cake is bitten by a rabid dog while saving Janie from drowning. He contracts the disease himself. He ultimately tries to shoot Janie with his pistol, but she shoots him with a rifle in self-defense. She is charged with murder. At the trial, Tea Cake’s black, male friends show up to oppose her, while a group of local white women arrive to support her [think bell hooks!]. The all-white jury acquits Janie, and she gives Tea Cake a lavish funeral. Tea Cake’s friends forgive her, and they want her to remain in the Everglades. However, she decides to return to Eatonville. As she expected, the residents are gossiping about her.

  • In Maria J. Johnson’s article “‘The World in a Jug and the Stopper in [Her] Hand’: Their Eyes Were Watching God as Blues Performance”, she states that Hurston’s novel takes a similar structure and aesthetic to blues culture [if jazz is masculine?]. Johnson also shows how the contrast of Hurston’s images, such as the pleasure and pain dynamic of the bee, can be seen in songs by singers like Bessie Smith.
  • The article, “The Cognitive Construction of the Self in Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God” by Patrick S. Bernard highlights the connection between the construction of self and cognition in Hurston’s novel. According to Bernard, cognition is the inner essence of an individual that embodies the idea of “thinking, seeing, speaking, and knowing,” but is often determined by one’s exterior environment. Janie, the protagonist, uses her cognitive skills in order to find her identity and throughout the novel develops her cognition further. While Janie is living in a sexist society she continues to rise above her opposition specifically that of her three husbands. Bernard demonstrates this,

In a conversation with Jody, Janie defends ‘womenfolk,’ disagreeing with the sexist claim that God made men “different” because they turn “out so smart” (70). When she states that men “don’t know half as much as you think you do,” Jody interrupts her saying, ‘you getting too moufy Janie … Go fetch me de checker-board and de checkers’ (70-71) so that he and the other men could play (Bernard 9).

The comment from Jody, Janie’s second husband, attempts to suppress her voice and manipulate her thoughts. Rather than acting submissive to Jody, Janie for a brief moment contends with Jody by telling him how men misunderstand women. Jody fears that Janie’s thinking will lead to her gaining more knowledge and naturally to speaking her mind, eventually leading to Janie achieving the power of knowledge to recognize and change the mistreatment and unfairness she has been receiving. Bernard proposes the idea that Jody’s relationship with Janie represents society’s assumption that women are of limited cognition. This assumption positions women in subservient roles that limit their ways of thinking, speaking, and seeing.
In addition to bringing up Janie’s relationship with Jody, Bernard emphasizes how her relationships with her other husbands influenced her cognition. He points out the fact that Logan Killicks, Janie’s first husband, mistreated her by severing any beginning form of self construction by treating her as an infant [think Friedan and de Beauvoir!]. Bernard also brings forth the idea that Janie’s construction of selfhood blossoms when Tea Cake, her third husband, allows her to participate in experiences unimaginable to her. While Logan Killicks gives her no opportunity of expressing herself, Jody overpowers her expressive voice; Tea Cake allows her construction of self to mature.link between self construction and cognition. Bernard’s main point therefore is that self-construction is influenced by cognition, that is, knowing, thinking, seeing and speaking are important to the construction of self in Zora Neale Hurston’s novel.
  • In “The Hierarchy Itself: Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God and the Sacrifice of Narrative Authority”, Ryan Simmons argues that Hurston made a statement against models of authority that supplant an oppressive system with other oppressive systems and offered an alternative. By models of authority, Simmons means the narrative voice of the author and Janie’s narrative voice. Hurston represented the different ideologies of Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois through the characters of Logan Killicks and Joe (“Jody”) Starks. Like Washington, Logan models the path of “gradual progress” that wouldn’t threaten the white-dominated sphere of power and Hurston presents his practices as a tradeoff between liberty and modest prosperity. Joe models the path advocated by Du Bois, which is one of assertion of dignity and less compromise. But the issue shown by Joe’s eventual isolation from the community dialogue he helped establish and Janie’s overpowering of him through a usurpation of authority, Hurston shows that the weakness with Joe’s approach is that it mirrors that of white suppression. Instead, Hurston introduces a third way of achieving self-autonomy through Tea Cake. He represents an independence from reliance on communal validation, and instead serves as a mirror for Janie to discover her narrative power. In relation to the author’s narrative power, Tea Cake is the epitome of a good reader, one that is receptive to the transformative message of the text. Language is the understanding and sharpening of one’s identity while communication comes second. In Hurston’s innovative narrative, she is attempting to fulfill the “ideal narrative”, which is one that nurtures and changes both the reader and the author. [think of Banjo, dialectic, Adorno]

Julia Kristeva, “Desire in Language”

1980

In this text, Kristeva outlines the process of abjection, by which the child exits the feminine (semiotic, pre-Mirror) stage of language tied to the mother and rejects her, entering the masculine (symbolic, post-Mirror) stage of language involved in independence and the social. Unlike Lacan, Kristeva believes that the subject continues to oscillate between the two realms, especially women, who continue to identify with the mother and the semiotic realm.

1: THE ETHICS OF LINGUISTICS

“As soon as linguistics was established as a science (through Saussure, for all intents and purposes) its field of study was thus hemmed in (suture)’ the problem of truth in linguistic discourse became dissociated from any notion of the speaking subject” 24.

For Kristeva, a better model “would deflect linguistics toward a consideration of language as articulation of a heterogenous process, with the speaking subject leaving its imprint on the dialectic between the articulation and its process” 24-5.

2: THE BOUNDED TEXT

“Rather than a discourse, contemporary semiotics takes as its object several semiotic practices which it considers as translinguistic; that is, they operate through and across language, while remaining irreducible to its categories as they are presently assigned… in the space of a given text, several utterances, taken from other texts, intersect and neutralize one another” 37 [Bakhtin].

“The novel, seen as a text, is a semiotic practice in which the synthesized patterns of several utterances can be read. For me, the utterance specific to the novel is not a minimal sequence… It is an operation, a motion that links, and even more so, constitutes what might be called the arguments of the operation, which, in the study of a written text, are either words or word sequences (sentences, paragraphs) as sememes… Novelistic utterances, as they pertain to this suprasegmental level, are linked up within the totality of novelistic production… The ideologeme of the novel is precisely this intertextual function defined according to the [extra novelistic textual set] and having value within [the novelistic textual set]” 37.

“The modality of novelistic enunciation is inferential: it is a process within which the subject of the novelistic utterance affirms a sequence, as conclusion of the inference, based on other sequences (referential – hence narrative, or textual – hence citational), which are the premises of the inference, and, as such, considered to be true. The novelistic inference is exhausted through the naming process of the two premises… The function of the author/actor’s enunciation therefore consists in binding his discourse to his readings, his speech act to that of others” 45.

“The novelistic utterance conceives of the opposition of terms as a nonalternating and absolute opposition between two groupings that are competitive but never solidary… instead of an infinity complementary to bipartition… it introduces the figure of dissimulation, of ambivalence, of the double” 47. [vs multiplicity/ rhizome/ faceting]

“The novel’s nondisjunctive function is manifested, at the level of the concatenation of its constituent utterances, as an agreement of deviations” the two originally opposed arguments (forming the thematic loops life-death, good-evil, beginning-end, etc.) are connected and mediated by a series of utterances whose relation to the originally posited opposition is neither explicit nor logically necessary” 51-2.

“Writing is revealed… as a function that ossifies, petrifies, and blocks… an artificial limit, an arbitrary law, a subjective finitude… the entire history of the novel: the devalorization of writing, its categorization as pejorative, paralyzing, and deadly. This phenomenon is on a par with its other aspect: valorization of the oeuvre, the Author, and the literary artifact (discourse)… What opens it is speech” 59.

3: WORD, DIALOGUE, & NOVEL

Kristeva begins with Bakhtin,

“one of the first to replace the static hewing out of texts with a model where literary structure does not simply exist but is generated in relation to another structure. What allows a dynamic dimension to structuralism is his conception of the ‘literary word’ as an intersection of textual surfaces rather than a point (fixed meaning), as a dialogue among several writings: that of the writer, the addressee (or the character), and the contemporary or earlier cultural context” 65.

In Bakhtin’s ‘carnivalesque,’ “the poetic word, polyvalent and multi-determined, adheres to a logic exceeding that of codified discourse and fully comes into being in the margins of recognized culture”: “Diachrony is transformed into synchrony, and in light of this transformation, linear history appears as abstraction” 65.

“The minimal unit of poetic language is at least double, not in the sense of the signifier/signified dyad, but rather, in terms of one and other… each ‘unit’… acts as a multi-determined peak” 69. [Irigaray on the vagina]

“The novel incorporating carnivalesque structure is called polyphonic. Bakhtin’s examples include Rabelais, Swift, and Dostoievski. We might also add the ‘modern’ novel of the 20th century – Joyce, Proust, Kafka – while specifying that the modern polyphonic novel, although analogous in its status, where monologism is concerned, to dialogical novels of the past, is clearly marked off from them… the problem of intertextuality (intertextual dialogue) appears as such” 71.

“Bakhtin’s term dialogism as a semic complex thus implies the double, language, and another logic… the logic of distance and relationship between the different units of a sentence or narrative structure, indicating a becoming – in opposition to the level of continuity and substance, both of which obey the logic of being and are thus monological” 71.

“According to Bakhtin, there are three categories of words within the narrative… the direct word, referring back to its object… denotative… the object-oriented word… the direct discourse of characters… oriented towards its object and is itself the object of the writer’s orientation… ambivalent [word]… the result of a joining of two sign systems… repetition… takes what is imitated (repeated) seriously, claiming and appropriating it without relativizing it… The novel is the only genre in which ambivalent words appear; that is the specific characteristic of its structure” 73.

7: THE NOVEL AS POLYLOGUE

“For a woman, generally speaking, the loss of identity in jouissance demands of her that she experience the phallus that she simply is; but this phallus must immediately be established somewhere; in narcissism, for instance, in children… narrowminded mastery, or in fetishism of one’s ‘work’… Otherwise, we have an underwater, undermaternal dive: oral regression, spasmodic but unspeakable and savage violence, and a denial of effective negativity” 164.

“The problem is to control this resurgence of phallic presence; to abolish it at first, to pierce through the paternal wall of the superego and afterwards, to reemerge still uneasy, split apart, asymmetrical, overwhelmed with a desire to know, but a desire to know more and differently than what is encoded-spoken-written” 165. [rich, moore, bishop, faceting]

“A text that exists only if it can find a reader who matches its rhythm – its sentential, biolgical, corporeal, and trans-familial rhythm, infinitely marked out within historical time… the explosion that surrounds us, moves through us, refashions us and that sooner or later we shall have to hear” 208.

Walter Benjamin, “The Arcades Project”

1940

A massive, incomplete work also called Paris – Capital of the Nineteenth Century, which Benjamin worked on from 1927 until his death in 1940. I’d like to think of this text as the closest possible example we might hold up to Deleuze & Guattari’s model of the rhizome. It has many nodes and is made up of a number of points joined by innumerable, non-directive lines of connection. There is no linear order or structure to it, and the leaps the reader must make across facets and across sections are part of the interest of the work. Benjamin moves between historical facts, contemporary observations, quotations, references, interpretations, philosophical treatises, and so on. In “Fashion,” a typical juxtaposition:

“In fetishism, sex does away with the boundaries separating the organic world from the inorganic. Clothing and jewelry are its allies… Hair is a frontier region lying between the two kingdoms of sexus…

A caricaturist – circa 1867 – represents the frame of a hoop skirt as a cage in which a girl imprisons hens and a parrot…

Fashion consists only in extremes. Inasmuch as it seeks the extremes by nature, there remains for it nothing more, when it has abandoned some particular form, than to give itself to the opposite form. 70 Jahre deutsche Mode (1925), p. 51. Its uttermost extremes: frivolity and death.”

It would be interesting to compare Benjamin’s salient image of the arcade – a glass and steel wonder with many entrances and exits that you can see into and out of – to Jameson’s ideas about the Westin Bonaventure hotel in Los Angeles. The arcades provide the “dialectical fairytale” image most central to the project, and Benjamin ties them to utopian socialist Charles Fourier. Benjamin performs a dialectical engagement of “then” and “now” as history – understanding history through the lens of his current experience of Paris (I’d like to think about how Pynchon and others do this – not dialectically, but more rhizomically). For Benjamin, capitalist modernity is “a crisis of experience,” and “in classically ‘modern’ terms, the present is defined as a time of crisis and transition, and philosophical experience (truth) is associated with the glimpse within the present, via the past, of a utopian political future that would bring history to an end” (SEP).

A 2010 meditation on the “Flaneur” convolute in conversation with a number of other texts as an example for the readership the text invites:

Barthes sets up a contrast between the Nautilus and the Drunken Boat that encapsulates Benjamin’s relation of the flaneur to the rider of public transport:

–       The Nautilus – an enclosed space that yet has a destination in mind as it moves, Barthes posits it as a snug place, the fantasy of travel.

–       the Nautilus is therefore like public transport, especially modern forms that don’t have you in/just above/ in contact with crowd like a horse-drawn omnibus where you get rained on, but instead SEPARATE you from the street, place you in a crowded, protected, static moment, crushed in a compact space against strangers, but all moving toward a common goal.

–       This is like the bus driver in Gig, who is then also meant to not just drive, but operate, and in fact order, this moving space.

–       On the other hand, in Barthes, you have the Drunken Boat, which is unmanned, wild, and wandering, its very apellative suggesting the kind of intoxication, the dizzying, opiate-like high of the wandering gesture of flanerie.

–       Silliman’s poem, Skies has this element of linguistic flanerie here, wandering the city, looking at crowds of clouds, writing one sentence each day for a year (he said in an interview), the poem is a kind of flanerie in that it takes right and left turns, but has no particular trajectory or destination.

Thrilled at the convolute’s focus on London – as a city that industrialized earlier and grew faster than Paris, and one that was never Haussmannized – perfect both for explorations of flanerie and public transport – nowhere is there a greater number of wandering, tiny streets OR a bigger, more packed public transport system characterized by a stiff and gracious ignorance of others in crowded spaces than in London.

The conflict between organic and schematized motion, between nature and urbanity, is summed up in Pound’s famous “In a Station of the Metro” – “the apparition of these faces in the crowd; petals on a wet, black bough.”

Pound’s look at the urban landscape, as embodied by the metro, works also through ideas of mapping. When you walk through a city, you confront its topography organically; when you travel through it on something like the tube, you not only can’t see where you are, but the schematic map given to you is utterly distortional, because schematic: Tube map now // Original London // Harry Beck 1918-1922 // modern organic map.

This also hits on the ideas of landscape that surface in both Benjamin and Lefebvre, and ties in with the presence of Native Americans in the reading, which is another topic I’m really interested in.

The sort of fresh, virgin, colonial space of Native America is fetishized as both space of noble hunter in the land of plenty and home of the violent savage – thanks James Fenimore Cooper.

This gets linked a lot in the Benjamin to the urban space and its dangers, but this is problematized by the fact that you cannot wander aimlessly in the woods and know you can go home. The delirious high of walking in the city as flaneur IS akin to the rush of the unknown in the wilderness in the sensation of a thrilling LOSS of control.

But o n page 453 of the Benjamin, he says the basis of flanerie is that the “fruits of idleness more precious than fruits of labor” 453 – this is the luxurious assertion of modernity and urbanity. So in claiming that the flaneur is exposed to dangers – it’s true, but to pretend they are totally comparable is romanticizing. The flaneur feels thrilled because he has had to exert effort to lose that control; it is a cultivated rush because he is choosing the concept of adventure, but he knows that he can wander because he can return to a home, whereas the hunter has to walk with the purpose of hunting, of feeding and clothing himself.

On 447, Benjamin says that “There is an effort to master the new experiences of the city within the framework of the old traditional experiences of nature.” But then you also have the guy in Benjamin who addresses the holy architecture of the mountains.

So you have this mutual exchange of fetishization, whereby the wilderness is cathedral for in America and the avenue is a wilderness in Paris, what Lefebvre calls the imago mundi, where “urban space is reflected in the rural space that it possesses and indeed in a sense contains,” for the town “comtemplates itself in the countryside that it has shaped.” 235.

Love the idea that America is always deeply affected, then by the presence of the Indian – Benjamin 440 – “endurance, tenacity, concentration” all come from the tradition of that hunter (“the reader is the hunter in the forest of the text,” writes Benjamin).

You can see this in Gig, in the language of the Traveling Salesman is like the ruthless hunter, the man of the crowd who moves through it with direction and purpose, the game he pursues is unpredictable – thousands of dollars one day, a hundred the next, he is nomadic, in his travels through the countryside, and though Benjamin links the sandwich man is compared to the flaneur, this guy is more like the sandwich man – because they both have a distinct purpose in mind.

We might also look at this language in Silliman. The Native American language comes out in images of clouds as  “herds of wild stratus” and the black smoke signals of structural fires, gunmetal sky, white valleys in which a large cloud is the “mother of the sky,” a matrilineal observation in contrast with what Lefebvre points out is the ordering, imposing, constructive-destructive force of  patriarchal architecture.

So if Trace is the appearance of a nearness, however far removed – that’s what’s being searched for in the wilderness in the city. In America, however it’s Aura – the appearance of a distance, however close the thing – NA memory.

Lefebvre kind of explains this on 229-231 by saying that “In space, what came earlier continues to underpin what follows” so that space, for Lefebvre, is “qualified” by “sediments left behind by history,” this “repose{s} upon specific spatial bases (site, church, temple, fortress, etc.) without which they would have disappeared – and the ultimate root of this is Nature (230-1).

Because the Native Americans were pushed into reservations, otherwise unpopulated territories, and because they left behind, at least in North America, very few actual monuments, it is the natural landscape itself and the NAMES it has been given which manifest these spatial bases, so that America accesses Nature as a root in a special way:

The temples formed by the mountains and the sacred, auratic quality of their fetishized Native American nomenclature preserve the Hudson River ideal of Nature as temple.

So when we name lakes like Sunapee, Winnipesaukee, Minnetonka, place names for the Dakotas, Manhattan, Milwaukee, Michigan, Texas, Wyoming, everyday language takes on a mantric and auratic recitation of the loss, mourning, and survival of that space.

I’m using haunted in the sense Lefebvre uses it – if a cemetery is absolute space of “formal beauty and terrifying content,” “haunted places, places peopled by the living dead,” then surely the cemetery of the American landscape has this quality.

SO then Native Americans DO affect the American consciousness, or ARE maybe reflected in the land, in our values – how we float this notion of a kind of nobility over the map of America to conceal a genocide (Thanksgiving, Sacajaweia, Pocahontas, etc.).  Lends a kind of nobility to the American intrepidity and exploration w/o acknowledging the violation.

Silko and Alexie play with this. As much as maps schematize things, cover topography, erase Native American history, they also kind of can’t help but preserve it, and there are a number of Native American writers, like Leslie Marmon Silko, who are interested in reinscribing their presence on the maps of the Americas, or Sherman Alexie, who want to kind of play with the use/abuse of benevolent or malevolent stereotyping of NAs, or throw the city/ capitalism back onto a lost Native American wilderness to reapprop. it.

Which is all a really long way of getting to these questions: How is the American landscape is a sort of repository for the mythic? How do remaining open, natural spaces though the original inhabitants have been killed or removed, still hold a sacrosanct presence in the auratic and linguistic qualities of that landscape? How much have we “schematized the map” like the London tube map, and how much does the true, organic form of the land still HAVE A VOICE AND SPEAK? And therefore, is American culture’s speaking history fundamentally different from that of a European city?