Saturday, December 28, 2013

Point Omega and Waveland: the Political Background of Literary Minimalism

“If the critical intellectual is in the process of disappearing, it seems by contrast that his phobia of the real and of action has been distilled throughout the sanguineous and cerebral network of our institutions. In this sense, the entire world including the military is caught up in the process of intellectualization.”- Jean Baudrillard in The Gulf War Did Not Take Place

"There were times when no map existed to match the reality we were trying to create."- Don DeLillo, Point Omega

Don DeLillo’s 2010 novel Point Omega takes place at a ranch in the Sonoran Desert, “or maybe it was the Mojave Desert or another desert altogether”. The ranch is owned by Richard Elster, a “defense intellectual” who served under president Bush and aided in crafting the Iraq war; young documentarian Jim Finley joins Elster in the desert, hoping to film him commenting on his experience. Instead of offering a big, important, definitive statement on the war on terror, DeLillo offers a slow and vague book that has the most fleshed-out characters and least action of any of his works that I have read. I might go so far as to say that it is character driven insofar as it is plotless—DeLillo recognizes that we no longer have much to do with the grand narratives that ostensibly inspire and mobilize us.

Or with narratives at all. Point Omega begins and ends with an unnamed character (ostensibly Jim Finley) at MoMA watching a video installation called “24 Hour Psycho”- Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho without sound and slowed down to 2 frames per second, causing it to last 24 hours instead of two. Rather than exacerbating that movie’s claustrophobic suspense, this divorces the film completely from Hitchcockian narrative and reduces it to a succession of abstract units. “When an actor moved a muscle, when eyes blinked, it was a revelation. Every action was broken into components so distinct from the entity that the watcher found himself isolated from every expectation.” If one attempts to grasp scope through abstraction, one loses touch with whatever their object of inquiry is and ends up participating in idolatry. It is interesting that DeLillo chose to frame his meditation on the war on terror with descriptions of this video installation. Finley is obsessed with film, and the room where "24 Hour Psycho" is being screened is a safe haven for that obsession and from everything that lies beyond the screening room's door, "that strange bright fact that breathes and eats out there...". The fictional occupation of "defense intellectual" is an inversion on the real occupation of filmmaking; where the filmmaker creates realities on screen, the defense intellectual attempts to create reality itself. The Baudrillard quote I cited at the beginning is useful for understanding "Point Omega". Richard Elster, the main character, personally embodies the traits of an intellectual that Baudrillard lists. When he is brought into the Pentagon in the months preceding the Iraq war, however, he doesn't find what he expects- a well oiled machine dedicated to defending America- instead he finds a well oiled machine dedicated to obviating Western hegemony. When Baudrillard accuses the military of being "caught up in the process of intellectualization", he means that the military bureaucracy is as out of touch as an intellectual perched in an ivory tower. Islamic fundamentalism doesn't offer a real threat to our way of life, and a war waged against it is a theatrical affirmation of the rightness of our way of life rather than a defense of it. 
Michel Foucault
Philosophers like Theodore Adorno and Michel Foucault wrote about how enlightenment is a double- edged sword. Perceived increases in intellectual understanding go alongside actual increases in surveillance and control; the rational mind ends up merely rationalizing the existing order. "Defense Intellectual" is a contradiction—how can an intellectual play an instrumental role in a senseless police state? As a country with a bloated and paranoid military-industrial complex, the war on terror is a war on our own sense of terror, our inability to understand our situation.
Confronted with this morass, Richard Elster retreats to his desert compound seeking out "geologic time". The desert is "womb-like and world sized". The filmmaker Jim Finley joins him; eventually Elster's insular daughter Jessie does as well and the situation becomes familial. The film never gets made, and the three people fade into a routine of meals and idle discussion, Finley discussing film and Elster his intellectual preoccupations. This continues until, out of the blue, Jessie disappears without a trace. Search parties are disbursed to no avail and the case is declared inconclusive. The mystery is that there is no mystery. 

It seems that "Point Omega" attempts to engage with power and ideology by locating the contradictions of western progress in the character of Richard Elster, but the film meant to capture these contradictions never gets off the ground. Why is this? Elster is a richly drawn character full of thoughts and feelings, but if Michel Foucault's contention that individuals are an effect of power rather than possessors of power is true, a critique of ideology cannot take the form of a film criticizing Elster's personal foibles or "moral failings". DeLillo's character studies have an ambivalent tone because he is politically committed.

DeLillo's tone is an influence on the literary movement known as "minimalism" that came to prominence in the 80s, typified by writers like Raymond Carver, Lorrie Moore and Frederick Barthelme, and continuing today with the scene surrounding Tao Lin. While not all of these authors are as overtly leftist as DeLillo, I think that minimalism is an exemplary genre for situating societal critique within. Barthleme's most recent book is 2009's "Waveland". It documents middle class life in post-Katrina Mississippi.

"Waveland" revolves around three characters- a community college architecture professor named Vaughan, his ex-wife Gail and new girlfriend Greta. They are all able to "ride out" the storm and  continue living comfortable, if boring, lives  amongst the wreckage. Their resigned attitudes reflect the wasted landscape around them. They watch TV. They eat Thai food. Vaughan wanders around his house thinking about his failed marriage, plateuing career and splintered family. They watch more TV and eat more Thai food. At the novel's end he finds redemption not by rediscovering love or artistic fervor, but by gratefully accepting the anonymous stability of middle class life in a decaying society and curiously fading into normal existence:

"He imagined what his life with Greta might be in the future- isolated, inconsequential, apart from the world and yet in the world in a new, more immediate way, full of sensory things, a sampler of ordinary pleasures. He imagined their daily life as a succession of such pleasures, a river of tiny recognitions- the pleasures of sunlight, of the dark scent of wet dogs, of summer nights, of the crush of sudden thunder, the warmth of winter socks, the surprise of skin indented by furniture. These weren't the pleasures he had dreamed of, and it wasn't a life he had dreamed of, nor sought, nor even imagined for himself; but facing it, finally, he thought it was a life for which he was now well prepared."

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