Material Encoding and Libidinal Exchange:
The Capital Culture Underneath Don DeLillo's Underworld
Abstract: Whereas much critical attention has focused
upon how Don DeLillo's novels offer a sustained critique of the
postmodern condition within American culture, this essay uses DeLillo's
most recent novel,Underworld, as a lens to explore how American
postmodernity has manifested itself as a limbo where certainty and
value have drifted free from the "real." The essay traces
how the fracturing of the real has historical precedent in American
Puritan ideology, and how the postmodern rendition of Puritanism
in twentieth century is characterized best as empty materialism
and displaced spiritual desire that departs from the Puritan stance
of material wealth as the sign of divine calling. Drawing upon DeLillo's
critique, I argue that the "real" and the spiritual in
American culture have been erased by the pervasive force of despiritualized
The American landscape of Don DeLillo's Underworld
is a veritable limbo, an in-between realm where the objects, ideas,
and words that delineate the world have no bearing upon the "real."
Furthermore, the vacuous sound bites and images propagated by the
media, technology, and popular culture blur the boundaries between
image and reality, creating an endless stream of conflicting perspectives
and, concomitantly, ambiguities. Whereas the possibility of there
being a "Reality" is called into question throughout all
of DeLillo's novels, Underworld focuses upon "the sense of
irrevocable loss and incurable fault" (Taylor 515) of the postmodern
condition, which has caused certainty and value to drift free from
the circumference of the "real." While all facets of human
existence are deeply impacted by this crisis in value, the two realms
in Underworld most affected are materiality and spirituality. In
essence, the novel presents a spiritually and philosophically bankrupt
society blindly grasping for fulfillment via rampant consumerism
and empty materialism. As DeLillo remarked during an interview,
I see contemporary violence as a kind of sardonic
response to the promise of consumer fulfillment in America . . .
. I see this desperation against the backdrop of brightly colored
packages and products and consumer happiness and every promise that
American life makes day by day and minute by minute everywhere we
go. (DeCurtis 57-58)
Ultimately, the loop of unfulfilled desire and relentless
consumerism is the inescapable trap of America's postmodern condition
whereby material objects are perceived as the only means to mediate
the loss of value and counter the dissipation of the real. But the
novel argues that such responses only further contribute to the
rupturing of the real and the emptying of its latent value.
I. From Real to Simulacrum: The Pitch of Garbage
Underworld presents the emptiness of materialism
and the loss of value via a surprising but distinctively American
object, a baseball. The narrative as a whole is woven together through
the ideational motif of the homerun baseball hit by Bobby Thomson
in the 1951 playoff game between the Dodgers and the Giants. The
baseball, as it passes through the hands of various owners, sutures
the seemingly disparate narratives together and presents a tapestry
of interconnected figures and events which, as is repeated throughout
Underworld, demonstrates the degree to which "Everything is
connected" [emphasis mine]. As the novel follows the fifty-year
trajectory of the ball, it illuminates the slow effacement of reality
in American culture. Consequently, the ball, as a recurring presence,
offers a window onto DeLillo's assessment of materialism and the
condition of contemporary American culture, whereby the loss of
value has manifest as the proliferation of material objects and
the subsequent emptying of the real.
Within the historical sweep of Underworld, which
opens at the 1951 ball-game, jumps to the early 1990s, flows backwards
in time to the 1950s, and culminates in the mid-1990s, the slow
deterioration of value is revealed through the shift in connotations
of the ball itself. During the 1951 game, the baseball is described
as a sacred relic loaded with cultural significance: "[T]his
five ounce sphere of cork, rubber, yarn, horsehide and spiral stitching,
a souvenir baseball, a priceless thing somehow, a thing that seems
to recapitulate the whole history of the game everytime it is thrown
or hit or touched" (26) [emphasis mine]. Within such a romanticized
(and fetishized) economy, the baseball is a relic that invokes a
sacred past. Yet the novel suggests that the baseball cannot transcend
its materiality and how its promise "to recapitulate the whole
history" cannot be fulfilled. The schism between the real and
any representational image of that real is emphasized by the baseball's
inability to transcend history. It is part of an indelible past
that is impossible to recapture:
All the fragments of the afternoon collect around
his airborne form. Shouts, bat-cracks, full bladders and stray yawns,
the sand-grain manyness of things that can't be counted.
It's all falling indelibly into the past. (60)
The baseball only gestures towards a past that,
in effect, was never rendered or captured because of the implicit
"manyness" of the moment. Subsequently, the baseball is
not a means of possessing the history but rather a surrogate for
the real—a real that began dissolving instantaneously with
the dialectic slippage of the present into the past. The baseball
represents the attempt to inscribe value and meaning onto a historically
fluid world, and given the inability to penetrate to the real and
presence the moment, the ball can only be a marker within the ebb
and flow of time. As such, the ball loses its one-to-one contingency
with its "real" history.
Once the ball no longer can presence the "basic
reality" of 1950s America, it becomes a simulacrum, which "bears
no relation to any reality whatever: it is its own pure simulacrum"
(Baudrillard 11). The ball is a signifier without a signified and
therefore, within the novel, an apt illustration of the dissolution
of the real into a surface of materiality. As Nick Shay, the main
character of Underworld and current owner of the baseball, explains,
the baseball has become an object devoid of any value beyond its
assigned cost. Despite the fact that Shay has purchased the ball
for $34,500 (thereby undermining its "priceless" character),
he is unaware of any other intrinsic value. When asked why he bought
it, Shay replies,
It's all about losing . . . . It's about the mystery
of bad luck, the mystery of loss. I don't know. I keep saying I
don't know and I don't. But it's the only thing in my life that
I absolutely had to own. (97)
The ball embodies the irretrievable loss by presencing
its own inaccessible and undisclosed "priceless" value.
The need to own something that has no discernable value provides
an invaluable perspective into the schism between the human and
the real. The inability of the baseball to signify is a trope for
the larger social condition seething below the surface of materialism
and consumerism. Klara Sax, an artist in the novel who, perhaps,
most accurately mirrors DeLillo's own critical stance, offers an
astute assessment of American culture:
Many things that were anchored in the balance of
power and the balance of terror seem to be undone, unstuck. Things
have no limits now. Money has not limits. I don't understand money
anymore. Money is undone. Violence is undone, violence is easier
now, it's uprooted, out of control, it has not measure anymore,
it has no level of values. (76)
The contiguous relationship of object and its "reality"
has been ruptured, and value as a measurable sum has slipped from
the grasp of the human. The dis-ease between material objects and
the real is the fundamental characteristic of American culture.
Eugene Goodheart succinctly observes in his reading of DeLillo's
What the supermarket gives us is not real food but
its representation. The food is chemically composed, canned, packaged,
advertised: we consume it all. The supermarket (a trope for all
sites of consumption) is filled with an abundance of items, but
the main staple of that world is not the tangible item, the real
thing, but what stimulates and sustains it in an endless deferment.
The consumer fluctuates between image and the real,
signifier and signified, in an unending loop that perpetuates itself
along the displaced chain of fetishized objects, which are utterly
incapable of fulfilling the "promise" of satisfaction.
Goodheart interprets this relentless circle as "meditations
[that] serve as a revelation of and a sort of defense against a
killer boredom to which our consuming society vainly tries to provide
an antidote" (121). While this self-perpetuating cycle is certainly
the manifestation of boredom, it is also an ennui that springs from
a lack of being in the world. That is, the individual floats in
a sea of packaged goods, but without an anchor in the "real,"
those goods merely generate a ceaseless field of despair, desperation,
and unfulfilled desire. The consumer, in effect, cannot discern
why he or she must own something, and, subsequently, the inherent
emptiness of object is confirmed.
Within Underworld that despair, desperation, and
unsatiated desire manifests as garbage—the remnants of some
consumer's latent but now emptied site of desire. In effect, garbage
is the empty husk of value: as the garbage deteriorates and rots
or as its materials are recycled into future desirable but equally
vacuous items, the products reveal their detachment from and inherent
lack of value. "Marian [Nick Shay's wife] and I saw products
as garbage," Shay comments, "even when they sat gleaming
on store shelves, yet unbought" (121). The products, despite
their "newness," cannot transcend their truth as garbage.
Instead of the assertion of the "real," the promise of
consumer happiness contributes to the proliferation of garbage,
which, as the novel emphasizes, results in the "highest mountain
on the Atlantic Coast between Boston and Miami," Fresh Kills
landfill on Staten Island. The garbage is integral to the American
landscape and conscious, which Brian Glassic, a waste broker in
Underworld, stresses when he
looked at all that soaring garbage and knew for
the first time what his job was all about. Not engineering or transportation
or source reduction. He dealt in human behavior, people's habits
and impulses, their uncontrollable needs and innocent wishes, maybe
their passions, certainly their excesses and indulges . . . (184)
Garbage is the cultural condition as well as the
manifestation of the "material" American dream. The novel,
though, refutes the positive ethnographic spin placed upon garbage
and the role of the waste manager with the line "the wind carried
the stink from the mountain of wrack" (185), which reinforces
the implicit decay and falsity of such an anthropological stance
that valorizes a material culture.
Within such an economy devoid of permanent value,
all objects are subject to instant transformation from "goods"
to garbage, including the "priceless" baseball. The interchangeability
of relic and trash of the baseball is emphasized when Chuckie Wainwright,
the fourth "owner" of the ball, remarks that he regrets
that he lost "the baseball his dad had given him as a trust,
a peace offering, a form of desperate love and a spiritual hand-me-down"
(611). The ball is "recycled," a "hand-me-down."
The lack of value is highlighted by the fact that either Chuckie's
"wife had snatched [the ball] when they split. Or he'd accidentally
dumped [it] with the household trash" (611). More importantly,
though, the baseball is not merely a "hand-me-down" but
a "spiritual" hand-me-down. In the transference from father
to son, the ball has become merely a material object that has lost
whatever "spirit" with which it had been imbued: trust,
love, and peace. As this essay will demonstrate later, "peace"
is a word loaded with great significance within DeLillo's critique
of American culture.
Such spiritual emptiness parallels the economics
of consumerism and the malaise of an American culture displaced
between the "real" and the signs that attempt to articulate
the real. Underworld further amplifies the parallels between spiritual
and consumer desire through Nick Shay, a CEO for the same waste
brokerage as Brian Glassic, and the current owner of the baseball.
Shay describes his role within society: "We were waste handlers,
waste traders, cosmologists of waste . . . . Waste is a religious
thing" (88). If waste is religious, then these "waste
handlers" are the postmodern inception of priests and shamans.
As the logic of garbage dictates, these people are priests of nothingness,
and twentieth-century American culture, therefore, has replaced
the "divine" and the real with a surrogate idol created
out of garbage. As in any libidinal economy, the displacement of
desire and the fetishization of surrogates only exacerbate primal
emptiness and lack that such a substitute attempts to remedy.
II. Todo y Nada: From City on the Hill to Spiritual
The merging of consumerism and religion has precedent
in American history. The "founding" of America by the
Pilgrims, the group of Puritans fleeing religious persecution in
Great Britain, is the originating source of the blending of materialism,
capitalism, and spirituality. In this regard, the postmodern American
landscape is a direct extension of America's Puritan heritage, and
within DeLillo's view, America is the postmodern bastard of Puritanism.
DeLillo's first novel, Americana (1971), alludes to this cultural
inheritance when a character remarks that television came over on
the Mayflower with the Pilgrims. In his analysis of White Noise
, Frank Lentricchia offers a variation on this phrase from Americana,
but instead of television, Lentricchia traces postmodernity to the
Mayflower ("Tales of the Electronic Tribe" 113). In Lentricchia's
reading, postmodernity as a coherent set of communal values has
its origins in Puritan ideology. In order to demonstrate the genealogical
trace of the inception and transformation of Puritan ideology into
its contemporary image, it is necessary to offer a brief sketch
of Puritanism and its basic principles of divine will, the election
of the "saved," and the forms through which one's "calling"
Max Weber in his classic The Protestant Ethic and
the Spirit of Capitalism defines the basic spirit of Puritanism
as the "absolute obedience to God's will, with absolute acceptance
as things as they were" (85). The American Pilgrims adhered
to their "calling" from God and their belief in divine
providence despite the fact that God is an invisible force that
the individual is not capable of fully discerning. That is, the
can only hold to these fragments of eternal truth.
Everything else, including the meaning of our individual destiny,
is hidden in dark mystery which it would be both impossible to pierce
and presumptuous to question. (Weber 103)
These "fragments" shore the individual
against the bleakness of the situation and, operating like a synecdoche,
gesture towards an unattainable whole.
Inscribed within the impenetrable "dark mystery"
of divine presence is individual destiny, but the Puritans, turning
toward divinely inscribed fragments portent with meaning, looked
towards their own lives for the signs of providence and the mark
of their election. The individual's success in the fulfillment of
his/her social responsibilities as predetermined by providence and
as the manifestation of divine will, was actualized as personal
wealth. Material success was a fragmentary revelation of divine
success. Consequently, the Puritans placed immense importance upon
labor, which they translated as "worldly duty," and encoded
economic success and the accoutrements of such success with divinity.
These material fragments signified the presence of a hidden God,
and provided a glimpse into the divine order that remained distinct
from human logos but which imbued the universe with meaning.
The Puritans sidestepped the infinite loop of consumer
desire and the lack of "transcendence" by imbuing material
goods with the metonymic propensity to signify the divine and by
encoding the acquirement of wealth as an act of devotion and faith.
The anchor to the "real" remained intact by an established
logical chain. "For if that God, whose hand the Puritan sees
in all the occurrences of life, shows one of His [sic] elect a chance
for profit, he must do it with a purpose" (Weber 162). Profit
and all that comes with it unveils a predestined divine will that
is the "sign." Puritan ideology circumnavigates the trap
of consumer desire by acknowledging two synchronous systems of signification—one
divine, which is the primary cause of all things and which partially
reveals its order to the elect, and the other human, who are wholly
subject to divine order. Despite the Puritan propensity for accumulating
wealth and desiring capital—and Sacvan Bercovitch correctly
identifies the Puritans as proto-capitalists—the "spirit"
of Puritan capitalism was located within a divine logos that anchored
materiality to faith. Consequently, the impetus of the Protestant
work ethic and capitalism is predicated upon the a priori assumption
of a divine order/origin. But behind the (otherwise impenetrable)
sheen of causality, the hand of God slowly reveals his "elect"
and by doing so offers a view of his order—the divine "science"
(Sign/signature) behind all causation. The surface (material and
economic success) connotes a depth of meaning (divine presence cum
"election") that is mediated by an unwavering faith and
To return to Underworld, reading the materiality
of postmodern America against the historical backdrop of Puritan
ideology and faith illuminates some fascinating aspects of DeLillo's
critique of material culture. Moreover, Underworld is not devoid
of faithful and devoted people including Father Paulus, a Jesuit
Priest, and Sister Edgar. But in the third part of the novel, "The
Cloud of Unknowing," which is set in the late 1970s, Nick Shay,
the shaman of garbage, offers an interesting perspective of the
cultural transformation from religious devotion to material faith.
His shift from spiritual devotee to postmodern priest amplifies
the dynamic where the "real" and divinity have been placed
under erasure and the secret of divinity has been transformed from
Puritan calling into the postmodern secret of garbage.
While attending a waste management seminar in Mojave
Springs, California, Nick Shay discovers that a group of married
swingers also are using the conference center. Shay describes them
as forty couples "who were here to trade sexual partners and
talk about their feelings" (278). The pairing of waste and
sex amplifies how consumer desire and sexual desire mirror one another,
but it also introduces a third desire into this nexus—the
spiritual—when Nick and one of the swingers, Donna, have a
conversation about God as an erotic prelude to sex. During their
dialogue Nick discusses the significance of the book by an anonymous
British mystic, The Cloud of Unknowing, written during the 14th
century and in the time of the Black Death. Shay offers his interpretation
of the book:
And I read this book and began to think of God as
a secret, a long unlighted tunnel, on and on. This was my wretched
attempt to understand our blankness in the face of God's enormity.
This is what I respected about God. He keeps his secret. And I tried
to approach God through his secret, his unknowability. (295)
The book fuels Shay's desire to approach the unknowable
secret. Despite the argument from the original author, who asserts
that "Yes, let him think what he will; he will always find
that a cloud of unknowing is between him and God" (The Cloud
of Unknowing 144), Shay attempts to find a word—a mantra—that
can "edge closer to God's unknowable self" (296). Ultimately,
he decides upon a phrase from St. John of the Cross, which becomes
his "naked edge, my edging into darkness, into the secret of
God. And I repeated it, repeated it, repeated it. Todo y nada"
(297). Shay's phrase is intended as a prayer that will, in the words
of St. John of the Cross, "ris[e] beyond all science"
(59). But when Donna interprets the phrase "todo y nada"
as the best sex, the subject is re-situated within the economics
of desire (material/sexual/spiritual).
Shay informs Donna that this phrase was an extension
of the "priestly part of my life" (295). When he later
disavows the phrase (and the devoted "priestly" life that
goes with it) for the material surrogate of the baseball, he demonstrates
that his need is not to "rise above science" but rather
to reduce his devotion and the divine "secret" to a material
form. Shay succumbs to the force of postmodernity where devotion
has mutated into a structure that simulates spirit, but is, ultimately,
empty: all the signs that attempt to mediate the real and presence
the divine lack substance since they are wholly man-made images
incapable of eliding their own self-referentiality. Shay's transformation
into a waste guru and empty consumer parallels the larger cultural
shift from the spiritual to the material. Desperate for substance
and feeling the presence of such spiritual nullity, American culture
spends its time searching for transcendence among the garbage including
the signs, billboards, and the products that are destined to become
tomorrow's waste. The exchange of spiritual desire for a materiality
devoid of spirit is central to DeLillo's critique of American society,
and the "miracle" that occurs at the close of the novel
demonstrates how spirituality as well as the real are displaced
and erased within consumer capitalism.
III. Anti-Thaumatology: From Miracle to Space Available
Seven pages from the close of the novel, a homeless
twelve-year old girl named Esmeralda Lopez is raped and murdered
in the Bronx by a deranged man. Soon after her murder, stories begin
to circulate that Esmeralda's image can be seen in a billboard under
a highway. DeLillo's description of the scene foregrounds the lush
tones of the billboard. Because the passage is extremely provocative
and highlights the interwoven layering of consumerism and religion,
it is quoted at length:
They follow the crowd's stoked gaze. They stand
and look. The billboard is unevenly lighted, dim in spots, several
bulbs blown and unreplaced, but the central elements are clear,
a vast cascade of orange juice pouring diagonally from top right
into a goblet that is handheld at lower left—the perfectly
formed hand of a female caucasian of the middle suburbs. Distant
willows and a vaguish lake view set the social locus. But it is
the juice that commands the eye, thick and pulpy with a ruddled
flush that matches the madder moon. And the first detailed drops
splashing at the bottom of the goblet with a scatter of spindrift,
each fleck embellished with the finicky rigor of some precisionist
painting. What a lavishment of effort and technique, no refinement
spared—the equivalent, [Sister] Edgar thinks, of medieval
church architecture. And the six-ounce cans of Minute Maid arrayed
across the bottom of the board, a hundred identical cans so familiar
in design and color and typeface that they have personality, the
convivial cuteness of little orange-and-black people. (820)
DeLillo tips his hand in a number of substantial
ways in this passage. By locating the scene of the advertisement
in the white middle suburbs, the locus mirrors the "economic
trappings" of middle-class desire that Nick Shay represents.
Read through a Puritan lens, the woman pictured is clearly among
the "elect": in fact, she is placed in a veritable Eden
of suburbia. Such religious implications are accentuated further
by the equating of the painterly technique of the advertisement
with medieval churches. Yet whereas the Cathedral is the "house
of God" intended for worship of the divine, the billboard presents
the suburban middle class home as the site of worship of material
objects and status, replacing faith with the potential to be consumers.
Clearly the scene is loaded with irony when this simulated suburban
setting is the site of the religious "miracle" of Esmeralda's
The headlights [of the train] sweep the billboard
and [Edgar] hears a sound from the crowd, a gasp that shoots into
sobs and moans and the cry of some unnamable painful elation. A
blurted sort of whoop, the holler of unstoppered belief. Because
when the train lights hit the dimmest part of the billboard a face
appears above the misty lake and it belongs to the murdered girl.
A dozen women clutch their heads, they whoop and sob, a spirit,
a godsbreath passing through the crowd.
The certainty proposed in the passage—namely,
that the image "belongs to the murdered girl" and the
"spirit, a godsbreath" that sweeps through the crowd—is
undercut by an ambiguity, the mystery of the moment, that is presented
through the subject positioning of Sister Edgar: "Sister is
in body shock. She has seen it but so fleetingly, too fast to absorb—she
wants the girl to reappear" (821). The fleeting image lacks
the pervasive iconic stature of the static billboard, and Sister
Edgar's desire, momentarily met, returns in a barrage of questions
that reduce the spiritual appearance to the language of the billboard's
representation and readability: Did you see her? Did it look like
her? As Baudrillard remarks, "All content is neutralized by
a continual procedure of directed interrogation, of verdicts and
ultimations to decode" (115). To quell her uncertainty, Sister
Edgar waits for the next train when the image again appears. She
then waits for the next three trains, where the image appears again
and again and again.
Like Shay's repetition of "todo y nada"
intended to "edge in" to God, all those in the crowd are
transfixed by the billboard and "replay" its "image"
as a way of fixing a "divine" presence. Yet the urge to
repeat the image reduces the miracle to the iconic language of the
media, thereby negating its divine primacy. The novel reinforces
this process when the image becomes "super-real," a film
clip, shot by helicopter news crew and television trucks, that is
repeated over and over on the news (823-824). As Baudrillard argues
in the chapter "The Divine Irreference of Images" from
Simulations, "To dissimulate is to feign not to have what one
has. To simulate is to feign to have what one hasn't. One implies
a presence, the other an absence" (5). The desire to replicate
and redo the "divine" moment suggests the primal unanswerability
of the question, a fundamental doubt that places certainty into
a state of suspended ambiguity. The replication of the experience
and the image gestures to an originary emptiness where the divine
that is supposedly presenced is, in fact, erased by the very evidence
that purports to reveal it. As Baudrillard asks,
But what if God himself [sic] can be simulated,
that is to say, reduced to the signs which attest to his existence.
Then the whole system becomes weightless, it is no longer anything
but a gigantic simulacrum—not unreal, but a simulacrum, never
again exchanging for what is real, but exchanging in itself, in
an uninterrupted circuit without reference or circumference. (10-11)
One of the nuns accompanying Sister Edgar remarks
upon this "uninterrupted circuit" in regards to the billboard
itself: "It's just the undersheet . . . A technical flaw that
causes the image underneath, the image from the papered-over ad
to show through the current ad" (822). The purported miracle
is in fact the palimpsest of simulated goods that has become the
shared character and language of culture as a whole: "all these
[products] were on the billboards . . . systematically linked in
some self-referring relationship that had a kind of neurotic tightness,
an inescapability" (183). The network is wholly self-contained
and inescapable and, therefore, offers no possibility for anything
that resides outside of its closed logic: the divine, the real,
the mysterious, within such limitations, are erased.
Nevertheless, the crowd, desperate for some confirmation
of the divine, mistakenly perceives the system that imbues the image
with meaning—consumerism and capitalism—as the divine
image itself: "Women holding babies up to the sign, to the
flowing juice, let it bathe them in baptismal balsam and oil"
(821). The desire is clearly misdirected. But even as Henry David
Thoreau warned nineteenth-century American society of the implicit
dangers of superficial cultural consciousness, the propensity to
remain on the surface has remained an American characteristic. Thoreau
I perceive that we inhabitants of New England live
this mean life that we do because our vision does not penetrate
the surface of things. We think that what is which appears to be
[italics in original]. (177)
Clearly the surface in Underworld has taken over
entirely, and even when the "depths" are plumbed, all
that remains are multiple layers of surface like the papered over
billboard advertisements. In fact, there is no depth outside of
the exchange of surface goods. The novel poignantly demonstrates
the lack of depth when two nights after the sighting,
the sign is blank. What a hole it makes in space.
People come and don't know what to say or think, where to look or
what to believe. The sign is a white sheet with two lonely words,
Space Available, followed by a phone number in tasteful type. (824)
The economics of the image is complete when its
foundation, the layers of selling the space and products, is unveiled.
When confronted with the emptiness of the space—an echo of
the absence of God from The Cloud of Unknowing as well as Puritan
rhetoric—the people are confused, and their belief is shaken
because the familiar system of commodified exchange has been usurped
by a primal, unreadable sign.
"The billboards," the novel insists,
"were generating reality" (183). Once the sign is "erased,"
the "real" is erased as well, which leaves in its place
an abyss of perennial doubt:
And what do you remember, finally, when everyone
has gone home and the streets are empty of devotion and hope, swept
by river wind? Is the memory thin and bitter and does it shame you
with its fundamental untruth—all nuance and wishful silhouette?
Or does the power of transcendence linger, the sense of an event
that violates natural forces, something holy that throbs on the
hot horizon, the vision you crave because you need a sign to stand
against your doubt? (824)
The passage offers an either/or: either the experience
was "untrue," a sham, and a projection of hopeless desire;
or it was a holy, divine sign. The passage certainly does not discount
the latter, and DeLillo himself remarks that there is always "
a sense of something extraordinary hovering just beyond our touch
and just behind our vision" (DeCurtis 63). Nevertheless, because
of the "signs" and markers that delineate postmodern culture,
the people of Underworld are entirely removed from the possibility
of transcendence and mystery.
The simultaneous desire for and displacement of
the divine (which causes its erasure) marks the departure of contemporary
America from Puritanism. Moreover, Underworld posits that most Americans
are incapable of remaining within the "holy," the "mysterious."
Klara Sax, a character in Underworld, accurately describes this
condition by remarking that much of the America experience has been
relegated "to the status of shit. You can't name it. It's too
big or evil or outside your experience. It's also shit because it's
garbage, it's waste material" (77). The critique of the novel
is leveled against a culture that reduces divinity to a human logos
of signs and products, which, materialize as the constant proliferation
of garbage—cardboard surrogates of divinity that are a pretense
of belief and the assertion of doubt.
The crisis of faith is not restricted to only the
masses in Underworld. The "pretense" of faith has penetrated
into religious institutions as well. As Sister Hermann Marie, a
nun in White Noise, explains, faith, even among the nuns, is simulated,
and instead of serving as an act of worship, that pretense of faith
has a prescribed social function.
Our pretense is a dedication. Someone must appear
to believe. Our lives are no less serious than if we professed real
faith, real belief. As belief shrinks from the world, people find
it more necessary than ever that someone believe. Wild-eyed men
in caves. Nuns in black. Monks who do not speak. We are left to
believe. Fools, children. Those who have abandoned belief must still
believe in us. They are sure that they are right not to believe
but they know belief must not fade completely. Hell is when no one
believes. There must always be believers. Fools, idiots, those who
hear voices, those who speak in tongues. We are your lunatics. We
surrender our lives to make your nonbelief possible. You are sure
that you are right but you don't want everyone to think as you do.
There is no truth without fools. We are your fools, your madwomen,
rising at dawn to pray, light candles, asking statues for good health,
long life. (319)
Without the simulation of faith, value will entirely
evaporate and hell will become real. The hell alluded to in White
Noise has manifest in Underworld not as the disappearance of faith,
but a faith absorbed by materiality that results in a desert of
garbage, loneliness, isolation, and emptiness. As Donna, the swinger
in Underworld, emphasizes, "There's too much loneliness in
America[.] Too many secrets" (298).
In this light, Jean Baudrillard's assessment in
America that American culture is without hope—in his words,
it is "no desire: the desert" (123)—coincides with
DeLillo's. Baudrillard's equating American culture with the mirages
and the seemingly limitless horizons of the desert is accurate,
yet his claim that there is no desire clearly erroneous. In fact,
as DeLillo demonstrates, in America there is only desire—albeit
misdirected—but a real yearning for substance and the grasping
for "ordinary life behind the thing." Underworld confirms
the character of the desert while refuting the absence of desire
in the very closing of the novel with its emphasis upon one word
that permeates American consciousness:
A word appears in the lunar milk of the data stream.
You see it on your monitor . . . A single seraphic word. You can
examine the word with a click, tracing its origins, development,
earliest known use, its passage between languages, and you can summon
the word in Sanskrit, Greek, Latin and Arabic, in a thousand languages
and dialects living and dead, and locate literary citations, and
follow the word through the tunneled underworld of its ancestral
Like consumer desire, the chain of "meanings"
of the word can be traced without arriving at its "essence,"
a mystery. The "signs" are merely a trail of substitutes.
Nevertheless, the word "spreads a longing through the raw sprawl
of the city and out across the dreaming bournes and orchards to
the solitary hills" (827). The unrealized and longed for word
is "peace." Given the logic of Underworld, peace, like
the spirit of the baseball, was lost somewhere in the inheritance
and recycling of goods.
DeLillo's America is a land without peace not merely
because desire in a capitalist culture cannot be quenched, but because
that desire is misdirected towards substitutes incapable of yielding
substance. The desire for the simulacrum of the "good life,"
so carefully rendered in the Minute Maid billboard, erases the possibility
of "peace" and eradicates the spiritual connoted by the
Latin word for peace, "pax." The wasteland of simulacrums
places the "real" out of reach and imposes an impenetrable
boundary between the human and the divine. As John McClure notes,
DeLillo's novels depict "the emptiness of a world without God"
(113). Yet it is an empty world because it is built upon simulacrums
of divinity and not because God is dead as in Nietzsche's famous
proclamation. The emptiness is in fact man-made and the inescapable
purgatory of self-referentiality and surface is self-imposed. In
his depiction of the early American Puritans, Max Weber referred
to the Pilgrims as "specialists without spirit, sensualists
without heart; this nullity imagines that it has attained a level
of civilization never before achieved" (182). This nullity,
though, would acquire is greatest depth in DeLillo's postmodern
America where a prosperous material culture would no longer be the
calling of the elect but the mark of a hell-on-earth, an underworld
built upon the garbage of despirited Puritan capitalism.
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