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Marc Schuster

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Marc Schuster ...

    EnterText 5.1

    MARC SCHUSTER

    Escaping the Third Person Singular:

    Art and Semiotics in Don DeLillo’s Americana

In a 1991 interview titled “I Don‟t Belong to the Club, to the Seraglio,” Jean Baudrillard

    describes the period in which he studied under Roland Barthes as the point in his intellectual

    1development at which “everything changed.” Drawing heavily on Ferdinand de Saussure‟s

    study of the linguistic sign, Barthes‟ exploration of consumer and media culture gave Baudrillard

    the impetus to study as functionaries of the system of language such “life signs within society” as

    2myths, ideologies, fashion and the media. As Mike Gane notes in Baudrillard: Critical and Fatal Theory, Barthes‟ reading of Saussure not only provided the general methodological

    guidelines Baudrillard would use throughout his career, but also provided him with the

    semiological background needed to examine the ways in which all objects interact to form a

    3system that functions much like language. This so-called “system of objects,” he argues, is

    regulated by the same logic of value that regulates signification. This logic, he maintains, is

    dehumanising in that it renders all elements of the systemincluding what might otherwise be considered the human subjectobjects: by grounding all meaning in the abstract realm of value

    rather than in the “real” world, consumer ideology envelops us within an artificial system in

    which we can only regard ourselves as commodities. However, he argues, the very knowledge

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    EnterText 5.1 “that the Object is nothing and that behind it stands the tangled void of human relations” offers

    hope that “violent irruptions and sudden disintegrations” will inevitably and unexpectedly arise

    4to destroy consumer ideology.

    The “violent irruptions and sudden disintegrations” Baudrillard describes must not only consist of subversive acts against the bourgeois power structures that victimise labour, but also,

    and more importantly, a complete rethinking of communication and exchange in such a way that

    allows for the reemergence of ambivalence, a term Baudrillard uses to denote the incessant

    5potential for the “destruction of the illusion of value.” Cultivating ambivalence, however,

    presents a number of complications, not the least of which is how one might go about doing so.

    Douglas Kellner notes in Jean Baudrillard: From Marxism to Postmodernism and Beyond that Baudrillard presents neither a theory of the subject as an agent of social change nor a theory of

    6class or group revolt. As a result, Baudrillard‟s call for ambivalence has little bite beyond the realm of theory. Moreover, the contrast Baudrillard draws between the “real” world and the

    abstract realm of value raises the issue of whether moving beyond value is a viable proposition.

    Baudrillard‟s dichotomy suggests that the “real” world exists outside language or, at the very

    least, can be reached via a mode of language that is not grounded in value. Whether such a mode

    of language can exist is certainly debatable, as are the practicality and practicability of

    abandoning value. Nonetheless, if Baudrillard‟s assessment of consumerism (i.e. that it renders us objects) is even marginally correct, these issues must be examined, a task rendered less

    daunting and perhaps more rewarding in the light of Barthes‟ work in the field of semiology and

    Don DeLillo‟s first novel, Americana.

    Like such post-Marxist critics as Walter Benjamin and T. H. Adorno, Baudrillard

    describes a world in which advances in communications technology have robbed the cultural

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    landscape of a human presence. As a result of such technological advances, Baudrillard argues,

    we live in a state of hyperreality, or one in which models always precede reality. Such is the state

    of the developed world in DeLillo‟s novels as well, and this, Duvall notes, is where the projects

    of DeLillo and Baudrillard intersect:

    If DeLillo‟s work represents the theme of individual freedom, it is because he is

    willing to explore so thoroughly the way individual subjectivity is constrained and

    produced by the contemporary media, the electronic image, and by shopping, or

    as the French theorist Jean Baudrillard might put it, our social labor as consumers.

    DeLillo has captured in his fiction crystallizing examples of what Baudrillard 7identifies as the hyperreal and simulacrum.

    Where Baudrillard sees hyperreality as a state that can only stifle humanity, however, DeLillo

    recognises the hyperreal landscape as a proving ground for humanity. In other words, his novels explore the ways in which we might retain our humanity even in the dehumanising face of

    hyperreality. If, as Derek Attridge notes in “Literary Form and the Demands of Politics,” the

    “formal singularity” of particular works constitutes both their “effectiveness as literature” as well

    as their importance to the “ethico-political realm,” then DeLillo‟s modelling of ambivalence and ambivalent language in Americana is particularly noteworthy, in that (from Baudrillard‟s perspective, anyway) ambivalence is the key to safeguarding the subject against the objectifying

    8machinations of consumerism.

    Like Duvall, many critics have glossed the affinity between DeLillo and Baudrillard.

    Among the most significant, John Frow‟s “The Last Things Before the Last: Notes on White Noise” uses Baudrillard to examine the ways in which reproduction and representation erode the

    distinction between the general and the particular within postmodern society and thus allow a

    homogeneous banality to pervade the lives of the characters in White Noise. In “Baudrillard, DeLillo‟s White Noise, and the End of Heroic Narrative,” Leonard Wilcox argues that the glut of information endemic to the media landscape depicted in White Noise leads to the dissolution of

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    EnterText 5.1 what he describes as a modernist sense of subjectivity, and that this dissolution calls for a new

    understanding of subjectivity for the postmodern age. In “Lee Harvey Oswald and the

    Postmodern Subject: History and Intertextuality in Don DeLillo‟s Libra, The Names, and Mao II,” Thomas Carmichael argues that the postmodern historical subject as depicted in DeLillo‟s

    novels emerges as an effect of the signs and images that constitute the subject‟s culture and that

    the proliferation of such phenomena results in struggles that are textual in nature: the postmodern

    historical subject alters the course of history by serving as a text that is both informed by and

    transforms previous historical texts. In “Subjects, Objects and the Postmodern Differend in Don

    DeLillo‟s White Noise,” Stephen N. doCarmo uses Baudrillard and other postmodern theorists to

    explore the ways in which White Noise adopts ambiguity as a strategy for subverting the fascistic

    impulses of advanced capitalism. While these essays explain some of the ways in which the

    works of Baudrillard allow for constructive readings of DeLillo, they do not examine

    Baudrillard‟s notion of ambivalence, which this study argues is an essential element of the

    author‟s revolutionary vision in Americana.

    Describing the role of semiology some years after the publication of Baudrillard‟s

    landmark For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign, Barthes argues in The Semiotic Challenge that the study of signs should indeed yield answers to the issues Baudrillard raises.

    Regarding the “ideological commitment” of semiology, Barthes explains that attacking “the

    9petit-bourgeois good conscience” is not enough. Semiology must also interrogate “the symbolic

    and semantic system of our entire culture; it is not enough to change contents, we must above all

    10aim at fissuring the meaning-system itself.” As with Baudrillard, the meaning-system Barthes

    envisions is predicated on value, which he defines as “the redeeming concept which permits

    11saving language‟s permanence and surmounting what we must call fiduciary anxiety. In other

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    EnterText 5.1 words, value amounts to an unspoken agreement or social contract much like that which

    regulates currency: in order for language (like currency) to work, we must agree to regard the

    artificial and arbitrary connection between signs and concepts as if it were natural and purely

    logical.

    To illustrate his point, Barthes examines a pair of lavatory doors at the University of

    Geneva respectively marked Messieurs and Professeurs:

    On the level of pure signification, the inscription has no meaning: are not

    “professors” “gentlemen”? It is on the level of value that the opposition, as

    bizarre as it is ethical, is explained: two paradigms enter into collision, of which

    we read no more than the ruins: messieurs/dames//professeurs/étudiants: in the

    play of language, it is indeed value (and not signification) which possesses the

    apparent, symbolic, and social charge: here that of segregation, pedagogical and 12sexual.

For Baudrillard, such segregation results in commodification; because all elements of the system

    are segregated by their apparent value, they become nothing more than signs of value (i.e. commodities), a theory that is examined throughout much of DeLillo‟s oeuvre as well. In White Noise, for example, narrator Jack Gladney explains that checking his bank balance gives him the

    sense “that something of deep personal value, but not money, not that at all” has been

    13confirmed. While this sense of deep personal value is “not money,” it can nonetheless be

    quantified, as when the money Jack spends at the local mall comes back to him “in the form of

    14existential credit.” In line with Baudrillard‟s position, Jack‟s attitude in this regard

    demonstrates that consumer ideology does, indeed, have the potential to commodify people as

    well as objects insofar as it allows Jack to define himself as he does the goods he purchases: in

    terms of value.

    For Baudrillard, the key to effecting the kind of “fissuring” Barthes describes in The Semiotic Challenge is ambivalence, which divorces the sign from the abstract concept of value

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    EnterText 5.1 upon which the “meaning-system” of consumer culture is predicated. While interrogating this meaning-system is essential to both Baudrillard and DeLillo, each depicts the mechanics of

    ambivalence differently. For Baudrillard, ambivalence is completely repressed by consumer

    ideology. From this perspective, ambivalence and consumer ideology are so inimical to each

    other that the reemergence of ambivalence within contemporary society would immediately

    trigger the demise of consumer ideology. For DeLillo, on the other hand, ambivalence is

    certainly curtailed by consumer ideology, but it is not entirely repressed. Endangered though it

    may be from DeLillo‟s perspective, ambivalence remains a bulwark against the crushing

    onslaught of consumer ideology and, as such, prevents the total assimilation of the consumer into

    what Baudrillard terms the system of objects. Thus where Baudrillard argues that ambivalence

    must be cultivated in order to overthrow the ideological regime that has reduced everyone to a

    commodity, DeLillo sees such cultivation as a preventive measure: either we strive to view the

    world at large in terms other than value or we run the risk of becoming commodities, or signs of

    value, ourselves.

    Setting the tone for many of DeLillo‟s later works, Americana explores the viability of life outside the grip of consumer culture and, by extension, beyond the logic of value that

    regulates the language of that culture. Describing what he calls the “double-bind” at work in the novel, Tom LeClair argues in In the Loop: Don DeLillo and the Systems Novel that much of Americana is invested in interrogating the conflicting rules and messages, both spoken and

    unspoken, at work in society as well as the ways in which the advertising industry attempts to

    15 suppress those conflicts.For the novel‟s protagonist, David Bell, this double-bind begins within the confines of his family: his mother‟s mental illness results in erratic behavior and conflicting

    messages that David cannot reconcile. She secretly spits in an ice cube tray while entertaining

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    EnterText 5.1 television‟s message is simple: happiness can be achieved through the acquisition of

    commodities. Or, as David‟s father further observes, “In this country there is a universal third

    person, the man we all want to be. Advertising has discovered this man. It uses him to express

    the possibilities open to the consumer. To consume in America is not to buy; it is to dream.

    Advertising is the suggestion that the dream of entering the third person singular might possibly

    20be fulfilled.”

    David‟s description of himself as “an extremely handsome young man” who takes the

    “simple step” of lathering up and shaving whenever he begins to wonder who he is, combined

    with his self-described resemblance to movie stars Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster, suggests

    early on that he has attained the American dream of entering what his father calls “the third-

    21person singular.” Insofar as his sense of identity depends primarily upon the image he sees in

    the mirror and its resemblance to celebrities, David appears to have reduced his life to the two-

    dimensional world of appearances and, in so doing, distanced himself from the disturbing

    conflicts embodied by his mother. In this way, David‟s behaviour sheds light on the relationship between Sigmund Freud‟s notion of ambivalence and that of Baudrillard. In Inhibition, Symptoms and Anxiety, Freud notes that a patient‟s fear of horses represents an attempt to resolve

    an Oedipal attitude toward his father: “a well-grounded love and a no less justifiable hatred

    22 directed towards one and the same person.”While such conflicts are common, Freud notes,

    they generally do not result in phobia. Rather, the child‟s affection tends to intensify at the

    expense of the hatred; this phenomenon, which Freud terms a reaction formation, stems from a

    23need to repress the disagreeable instinct to desire the mother at the expense of the father‟s life.

    Where the reaction of Little Hans to his disagreeable Oedipal instincts is a fear of the

    horses he associates with his father, David‟s is a more typical reaction; he simply represses the

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    EnterText 5.1 ambivalence he feels toward both parents. One thing that allows him to do so is the model

    provided by the advertisements his father has created. In Baudrillard‟s terms, because these

    advertisements proffer the illusion of a world in which commodities can thoroughly meet all

    human needs, they eliminate David‟s ambivalence toward objects. In so doing, these

    advertisements also create an environment that eases to the point of suppression the ambivalence

    he feels toward the members of his family even as it reduces him to a two-dimensional

    commodity, the third-person singular image of himself. As a result, Davis comes to define

    himself solely in terms of value. In this context, what LeClair refers to as “the new consumerism

    24of communications, with its entropic tendency toward the most probable and reductive state” takes on heightened significance: the most probable and reductive state proffered by television

    advertisements is value, and David‟s entrance into the third person singular, his “buying into” the

    ethos of advertising, is at the same time his crossing over into what Baudrillard terms the system

    of objects. If this crossing over into the system of objects tends to isolate David, it also proves an

    attractive alternative to living in the often painful “real” world precisely because it offers order in

    the face of apparent chaos; the conflicts and contradictions embodied in David‟s mother are

    denied by what DeLillo refers to in his 1983 Rolling Stone article, “American Blood,” as “the

    25artificial and dulling language” of the consumerist dream. Indeed, from Barthes‟ perspective,

    such language can only result in the suppression of conflict and contradiction because the

    message of advertising always boils down to a single notion: the unparalleled excellence of all

    26commodities.

    The problem, of course, with the language of advertising as Barthes frames it is that it

    27eliminates difference and, in so doing, “entirely exhausts the intention of communication.” If every brand of mouthwash, for example, is touted as “the best,” then only the most superficial (if

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    EnterText 5.1 any) difference exists between the messages of each brand‟s advertisement. In Americana, David‟s father demonstrates the validity of Barthes‟ argument when he describes his own efforts to devise an advertisement campaign for Dentex mouthwash:

    Okay, so we zero in on one of the essential ingredients, quasi-cinnamaldehyde-

    plus. QCP. We take the hard-sell route. Dentex with QCP kills mouth poisons and

    odor-causing impurities thirty-two percent faster. Be specific. Be factual. Make a

    promise. Okay, so some little creep says to me in a meeting: thirty-two percent

    faster than what? Obvious, I tell him: thirty-two percent faster that if Dentex

    didn‟t have QCP. The fact that all mouthwashes have this cinnamaldehyde stuff is

    beside the point; we were the only ones talking about it. This is known as pre-28empting the truth.

Citing QCP as the ingredient that makes Dentex “the best” mouthwash even as he admits that all

    mouthwashes contain this ingredient, David‟s father reveals that there is, in fact, no “best” and,

    by extension, that the hierarchy established by the concept of “the best” is entirely artificial. Nonetheless, the concept of the “the best,” which is the benchmark for the concept of value, continues to serve as the governing myth of David‟s culture, as evidenced by his friend Pike‟s

    obsession with establishing a universal pecking order for such mismatched animals as polar

    bears and tigers, as well as David‟s obsession with his own place on the corporate ladder.

    Like his fellow employees, David sees the workplace as a battleground rife with signs

    that he is either gaining or losing ground in his efforts at being recognised as “the best” in his field. Indeed, so convinced is David that everything in the workplace is a sign that he begins to

    agonise over the décor of his fellow workers‟ offices. After providing an exhaustive list of his

    co-workers and the colours of their sofas and office doors, David explains, “I had all this down on paper. On slow afternoons I used to study it, trying to find a pattern. I thought there might be

    a subtle color scheme designed by management and based on a man‟s salary, ability, and

    29prospects for advancement and decline.” Likewise, his co-workers all subscribe to a system of

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