Date of Degree

9-2016

Document Type

Thesis

Degree Name

M.A.

Program

Liberal Studies

Advisor(s)

Steven Kruger

Subject Categories

American Literature | American Studies | Cultural History | Intellectual History | Place and Environment | Politics and Social Change

Keywords

Cold War, 1990's, Don DeLillo, David Foster Wallace, Affect, Biopolitics, Foucault

Abstract

Don DeLillo’s 1997 novel Underworld stands as the framing text for this study of fiction, cultural affect, and resistance in the later part of the 1980’s – the exhausted, waning years of the Cold War – and the 1990’s, the period immediately following its collapse. DeLillo’s book is situated in the 1990’s, a period of what I term “intra-anxiety” following the Cold War and prior to the attacks of September 11th and the ensuing “War on Terror.” The Cold War had provided an organizing myth for America and American culture, absorbing and structuring anxieties and governing affect. “The Cold War, it gave you a reason to get up in the morning,” said John Updike in Rabbit at Rest. DeLillo seems to have thought so; his oeuvre is, in many ways, dedicated to its excavation, and Underworld is his final autopsy. The book casts its glance backward from the 1990’s through to the 1950’s. A specter – of a childhood in the Bronx, of an atomic bomb with apocalyptic designs, of a baseball and baseball game, and the lost world they represent – haunts from behind. A specter of waste and anxiety hangs over the present. A nebulous threat looms in the future: “an unseen something haunts the day,” (DeLillo, 1). The hazy image of the World Trade Center adorns the cover of Underworld.

Part 1 focuses on the novel itself, attentive to three broad theoretical lenses. The first draws on the work of Michel Foucault. The Biopolitical/Disciplinary lens provides a vocabulary for thinking through myriad forms of discipline – on both population and individual levels – in the book. If we scratch below the sometimes fuzzy, if productive term “postmodernism" that governed the theoretical discourse of the era, we find specific neoliberal policies – a fiscal crisis in the 1970’s, an evisceration of the working class and postwar American prosperity – that usher in the new realities of neoliberal consumerism, the “Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism” described by Fredric Jameson. The second theoretical node draws on affect theory and Derrida’s work on the spectral. Harnessing the work of Lauren Berlant, Derrida, and others, I explore how nostalgia and affect govern the psychic lives of individual characters in Underworld and in the culture at large. The third broad theoretical lens is spatial. Postmodern Critical Geographers – such as David Harvey and Edward Soja – provide language for thinking through the text spatially. The novel starts with a ball game, an outdoor event that symbolizes the last moment of a certain notion of an American self that will haunt the rest of the book – most explicitly in the form as the baseball itself.

Part 2 considers the way that fiction writers think about the role of the novel/writer in light of postmodernism during the 1980's and 1990's. I look at the essays of David Foster Wallace and of Jonathan Franzen and others in Harper's magazine that worry over the role of fiction and fiction reading and that consider the role not only of the novelist but of the reading public. Part 2 of the project asks the question of whether the novel can play a significant role in a consumer, postmodern culture – if it can, in short, be a form of resistance.

Part 3, thus, turns its glance more specifically to the question of resistance. I look at punk/DIY youth cultural movements, specifically the musical subcultures of hardcore and punk that sought to build alternative economies of circulation, separate and apart from corporate neoliberal consumer networks.

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