‘Don’t forget the real business of war is buying and selling’ – Thomas Pynchon
The end of the Cold War and subsequent spread of transnational capitalism – globalisation – massively disrupted the longstanding and relatively stable ideological balance that had entrenched itself across the globe during the 20th century; the Western Bloc was capitalist, the Eastern Bloc was communist, and that these two economic ideologies held each other in a delicate balance through the threat of Mutually Assured Destruction. The end of this balance ushered in a period of ‘unstable conditions’ during the 1990s, wherein the emergence of globalised late capitalism forced US citizens to, as Fisher and Jameson describe, ‘subordinate [them]selves to a reality that is infinitely plastic’, where ‘space and psyches alike can be processed and remade at will’. US citizens were required to forget an entire set of global ideological relations upon which the US national identity had become founded so that late capitalism could prosper in the newly available territories of ex-Soviet states. As DeLillo described in his 2001 essay ‘In the Ruins of the Future’: the 1990s saw ‘the dramatic climb of the Dow and the speed of the internet [that] summoned us all to live permanently in the future’, because ‘there is no memory there, and this is where markets are uncontrolled and investment potential has no limit’ – to live ‘in the future’ entails a deliberate and permanent disremembering of the past, and all the ideological frameworks that this ‘fictionalised consensus’ entailed.
This essay will rework the traditional trauma-reading of Don DeLillo’s Underworld that describes a ‘synecdochic’ connection between Nick Shay’s personal trauma and the United States’ own inability to confront the trauma that the beginning of the Cold War, the birth of the threat of nuclear apocalypse, inflicted upon the nation. I will, in part, attempt to reverse the narratological methodology deployed by trauma-critics in regards to the “national” (as opposed to Nick’s “personal”) trauma, and suggest that the end of the Cold War, rather than the beginning, was the moment of national traumatisation, as it led to the proliferation of globalised capitalism, which massively disrupted the fragile but deeply entrenched ideological balance between East and West described above. I will then undertake a close analysis of DeLillo’s presentation of globalised capitalism in the novel in an attempt to provide evidence for this reformed reading, before exploring the novel’s ending, and whether it marks a complete submission to future-oriented cyber-capital, or provides a nostalgic opportunity to restructure a world that had been made structureless by the ending of the Cold War.
Paula Salván’s reading of the novel centres upon the concept of ‘traumatic reverberation’ wherein the text ‘renders the psychological mechanism that makes a traumatic event ever present through compulsive repetition, though simultaneously inaccessible in a direct way’, and that this ‘inaccessibility’ constitutes, according to Peter Boxall, ‘the gravitational absences around which the novel turns’. By this reading, Underworld is structured around Nick’s difficulties to resolve his past traumas – his accidental murder of a young man – and depicts only episodic echoes of this trauma. As the trauma occurs long before the events of the novel and because, though Nick gets closer to the actual event as the novel continues, one can never ‘directly’ access a traumatic memory, it is never described in full and exists outside of the novel.However, it is the claim that ‘this reversed structure also points towards a historical event’ that occurs before the start of the novel and is echoed through the ‘Shot Heard Round the World’ / Marvin plot, with which I take issue. Salván believes that the ‘synecdochic’ connection between Nick’s plot and the nation suggests that it is Hiroshima, ‘the original detonation of a nuclear bomb’ and the successful invention of the weapons upon which Mutually Assured Destruction would later be founded, ‘that is left out of the narration’, and the source of the US’ trauma. Alternatively, I suggest that on the ‘national’ level this ‘reversed’ structure does not necessarily apply. As Salván rightly acknowledges, although key events of the Cold War period ‘constitute the historical skeleton of the narrative’ they are, ‘from a narrative point of view, never fully grasped or realised’, they are not ‘explicitly told’. Therefore, rather than the novel being structured around a national trauma that happens at the Cold War’s origin and in perfect parallel to Nick’s personal trauma, is it not equally possible that the moment of trauma could be any one of the omitted Cold War events which the novel’s timeline encapsulates but does not explicitly describe? Could the moment of national trauma occur at the very end of the Cold War, as opposed to the very beginning?
Although, as Joseph Dewey describes, Soviet detonation in 1951 confirmed an American fear that ‘the techno-scientific expertise that had assembled the bomb could never be kept solely in American hands’, this moment could be read as the beginning of a period of great ideological stability, rather than a disruptive, traumatising moment. The 1951 detonation created the conditions upon which Mutually Assured Destruction and the underlying global ideological balance could form and entrench itself. As Ayn Rand details in her 1965 essay ‘What is Capitalism?’, and Jerry Vasarva summarises in ‘The Saturated Self’, a perfect capitalist government ‘may not instrumentalise individual citizens by requiring them, and their economic products, to be used as means to achieving the ends of others. All individuals are ends in themselves’. The resulting function of a capitalist government is ‘a single function: it should exist solely to protect its citizenry from physical force’. Thus, the beginning of the Cold War, rather than being traumatic, actually allowed the US government and its citizenry to adopt the supposedly quintessential dynamic that a capitalist state should strive for and, additionally, could do so whilst making constant comparison to the oppressions enacted by its counterparts in the Eastern Bloc. Therefore, if the US underwent a national trauma, it would be at the end of the Cold War, not its beginning, as the collapse of the USSR meant that this ideological balance upon which US national identity had come to be formed had been disrupted. Moreover, even if capitalism had triumphed, its form and function as an ideology was set to drastically change when disseminated on a global scale, and this would have similarly drastic psychological repercussions on the citizens that had to assimilate themselves to such changes.
Though Salván wisely states that it is not her ‘intention to diagnose a fictional character’ with any kind of illness, she goes on to describe many of Nick’s attributes as being typical of a PTSD sufferer, citing, among other things: ‘nightmares and discontinuous sleep, fits of rage, flashback memories, emotional numbing, dissociation from his own identity, guilt, communication problems, and repetition compulsion’. Though I too am wary to attempt a diagnosis, it is worth highlighting the fact that almost all of these symptoms can be affixed to another kind of mental disorder which may be relevant to a post-war emergence of late capitalism rather than a pre-war trauma: bipolar disorder. If, as Deleuze and Guattari claimed in Capitalism and Schizophrenia, ‘schizophrenia is the condition that marks the outer edges of capitalism’ then Fisher believes that bi-polar is the illness ‘proper to the “interior” of late-capitalism’, referencing the ‘hyped up mania’ of economical bubbles and economic depressions as the ‘depressive come-down’. As well as dealing with the latent mental effects of his historical personal traumas, Nick may also be exhibiting symptoms of life under globalised late capitalism. Fisher highlights that the post-Fordist strain of capitalist ideology is in many ways even more unstable than its predecessor, and thus arguably a source of greater anxiety and trauma than the Fordist system that predominated throughout the 20th century and the Cold War itself. Damjana Mraović-O’Hare continues this line of thought, saying that 1990s Americans are not just economically bipolar, but also temporally ‘schizophrenic, torn between the past and the future and the attempt to find the right historical end’. The ways in which Underworld’s characters interact with and respond to life in the aftermath of the Cold War, while inhabiting a globalised capitalist society, how they seem torn between the militarily threatened but ideologically structured world of the war, and the uncertain, unstructured possibilities of late and cyber capital, will be the focus of the remainder of this essay.
In the opening lines of ‘Das Kapital’, DeLillo claims that ‘capital burns off the nuance in a culture’. ‘Foreign investment, global markets, corporate acquisition [and] transnational media’, cause ‘consumer desire’ to convergence, and subsequently ‘people want the same range of choices’. DeLillo’s choice to directly link the loss of nuance ‘within’ a culture to the ‘global’ and ‘transnational’ characteristics of late capitalism suggests that it is the lessening of difference between cultures, people wanting ‘the same range of choices’, that causes the loss of nuance ‘within’ a culture. Thus, it is the increasing similarity of ideologies espoused by both ex-Western Bloc and ex-Eastern Bloc nations in the aftermath of the Cold War, the rise of globalisation, that can be said to be destroying cultural nuance within the respective territories. It is only by disremembering the previous ideological narratives, the old ‘fictionalised consensus’ that divided East and West, that globalised capitalism can successfully function. When Nick asks Viktor, his new business associate, whether ‘anyone remembers why we were doing all this?’, Viktor cites the ‘contest’ that was the Cold War, where ‘you won, we lost’ (U, p. 793), a period of time that Nick seems to have forgotten or, perhaps more accurately, is trying to forget; Nick cannot ‘reconcile the historical role of the United States with his entrepreneur position in the post-Soviet society’ because, as Varsava notes, ‘in memory lie moral obligations built up over and in time, in both public and private spheres, that are difficult to ignore’. It is only by disremembering the previous state of ideological affairs that Nick can survive in the new ideological terrain, that he can function as a successful agent of globalised capitalism.
The new business arrangement itself is predicated on the disremembering of the Cold War past; it involves the Kazakhstanis ‘selling nuclear explosions for ready cash’, and if Nick and his team ‘supply the most dangerous waste [they] can find’, they ‘will get a broker’s fee’ (U, p. 786). First, the deal takes place in an ex-Soviet state; Nick is ‘crossing to the USSR in both the final apocalypse of the world “as he knows it” and the end of the historical divide’ – those who were once sworn enemies must now be re-remembered as potential business partners, and their once off-limits territory an opportunity for economic expansion. Furthermore, the way in which the men are required to forget their historical conflict over nuclear explosions as the source of potential apocalypse, and now have to repurpose the same technology for financial gain demonstrates another manifestation of globalisation under late-capitalism: ‘the raw impulse to profit, irrespective of collective cost’. Vasarva suggests that ‘globalised commerce permits people to do in their own countries that which could not possibly go undetected and unpunished in their own’. The Kazakhstan business deal demonstrates perfectly how Underworld presents the globalised capitalism as a force that exploits the ideologically unstable conditions that the end of the Cold War engendered and re-writes international ideological standards to suit its own ends. Thus, such deals could happily go unpunished provided they meet the one requirement that late capital demands: they turn a profit.
Furthermore, Nick’s description of the Kazakhstan trip suggests that he is aware of himself as being caught between a deeply entrenched ideological framework of the past which the new economic system of the day demands he leaves behind, and the psychological difficulty this entails. DeLillo emphasises Nick’s sense of ‘displacement and redefinition’ in reference to the ‘brokerage houses, software firms, import companies and foreign banks’ that mark the Kazakhstan cityscape, as well as a ‘professional Lenin lookalike’ he comes across (U, p. 786). What bothers Nick the most, it seems, is that ‘the East is trying to resemble the West’, that he is caught in a transitional, unstable period of history where the previous ideological frameworks upon which identities were built – nations, their economic and governmental structures, and the differences therein – are being collapsed by the new agenda of globalised capitalism, wherein old ideological differences, must be ‘burnt off’ for the sake of greater profit.
Ex-Soviet states are not the only new territories of late capitalism that DeLillo explores in Underworld. Towards the novel’s close, he turns his attention to the newly emerging realm of cyberspace, and how the ideological instability of late capitalism in the post-Cold War era will be affected by its oncoming predominance. In his ‘Ruins of the Future’ essay, DeLillo states that ‘Technology is [America’s] fate, our truth […] the miracle is what we ourselves produce, the systems and networks that change the way we live and think’. In his later novel Cosmopolis, DeLillo’s protagonist Packer, a billionaire asset manager, embraces what John Updike calls an ‘electronic mysticism’ wherein Packer’s use and worship of new technologies ‘confer upon him a sense of personal prestige, even moral redemption’. Packer, a character who is emblematic of a globalised capitalist mindset taken to its extreme logical endpoint, ‘seeks to transcend the present through the pursuit of futurity’, and technology is his ‘means to hegemony’, its possession ‘the purest expression of it’. Many critics agree that if Underworld offers ‘a possibility of revelation or closure, it is associated with technological advancement: the World Wide Web’. Since the birth of cyber-capitalism, the kind which Packer so readily espouses, relies on what Anthony Giddens calls ‘disembedding’ – the ‘lifting out of social relations from local contexts of interaction and their restructuring across infinite spans of space-time’ – a full submission of the self into cyber-capital’s new ideological narratives may seem appealing to the characters of Underworld, as, instead of being required to forget the past, it would, by the very nature of cyber-capital, be taken from them. The final passages of Underworld seem to happily align with Giddens’ claims, with DeLillo writing that ‘there is no space or time out here [in cyberspace], or in here, or wherever she is, there are only connections’ (U, p. 825).
However, as previously seen, Underworld’s characters are not necessarily ready to commit unreservedly to any notion of a future, including a cyber-capitalistic one, schizophrenically torn as they are between a threatened but stable past and an uncertain future. Thus, I suggest that the closing passages of Underworld, wherein Sister Edgar transcends into cyberspace upon her death, is not a straightforward assimilation into the ideological narrative of future-oriented cyber-capital. Her ascension provides an opportunity for Sister Edgar to exploit cyberspace’s capacity for infinite connection and to reverse the societal chronology in order to return to a time before the uncertainties of globalised late-capitalism, to the ideologically structured East-West divide that the Cold War created. In the moments before her death, DeLillo writes that ‘Edgar used to care but not today and maybe never again. She feels weak and lost. The great Terror gone […] all terror is local now’ (U, p. 816). Mraović-O’Hare suggests that Sister Edgar exhibits a nostalgia to the Cold War era ‘precisely because the apocalypse provided a seeming feeling of order’. O’Hare does not follow this logic far enough; What Sister Edgar longs for is not the threat of apocalypse itself, but the structured balance of opposing ideological systems, founded upon belief in opposing economic systems, that made Mutually Assured Destruction and the sustained threat of apocalypse possible.
O’Hare claims that Underworld’s final passage ‘points not to peace and coexistence in the postmodern heaven of cyberspace, but to nostalgia for a more structured world’, yet gives no direct textual evidence for such a statement; I will now attempt to refine this statement and provide such evidence. By closing Underworld with the single word sentence ‘Peace’, DeLillo makes an oblique reference to the closing lines of T. S. Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’ (U, p. 827). In doing so, he makes a ‘connection’ between Sister Edgar’s ascension into cyberspace – an exclusively postmodern, and post-Cold War phenomenon – and a poem that is widely regarded to represent one of the peaks of literary Modernism. This allusion, and the repeated notion that ‘everything is connected in the end’, seems to suggest a longing for a return to ‘grand’ or ‘meta’ narratives that critics such as Brian McHale and Francois Lyotard have associated with the Modernist tradition, and which later came to be distrusted by many self-consciously postmodern authors (U, p. 826). According to these critics, writers of the Modern period attempted to transmute a rapidly changing and chaotic world at the turn of the last century into intelligible, progressive narratives to provide some ‘transcendent and universal truth’, through their art.
Capitalism, or more specifically liberal capitalist democracy, was one such narrative created at the birth of the Modern age, and it kept the United States ideologically stable and secure throughout most of the 20th century, including the Cold War. Sister Edgar seems to long for a return to that particular metanarrative, to a time when the ‘Great terror’ was an external pressure that kept her society and her own existence as a US citizen united and stable. The end of the Cold War marked the implosion of that careful ideological balance, and its aftermath saw a period of traumatic instability and change as capitalism triumphed over communism and quickly globalised. However, whereas Sister Edgar’s point of view is entirely nostalgic, I believe DeLillo’s opinion is somewhat more complex. By placing the Eliot allusion in a postmodern context, DeLillo is not prescribing a return to any specific historical metanarrative, but instead believes that a return to the artistic emphasis on creating metanarratives may be necessary if humanity is to survive the ideologically ‘unstable conditions’ from which globalised capitalism was born, and the inevitable transition into the unknown realms of cybercapital and cyberculture.
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