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Sublimity and history in Don Delillo's Underworld Ticinovic, Maria Anne

Abstract

Don DeLillo's work has long been concerned with the effacement of the individual consciousness and the decay of a social context by the technologies of a simulacrum culture. DeLillo echoes Jean Baudrillard's concern that image technologies make it so that "people no longer project themselves into their objects" ("The Ecstasy of Communication" 127). For DeLillo, the "psychological dimension" that Baudrillard eulogized has been similarly effaced by our concern with money and advertising values and ideals (127). This totalizing, effacing force of the capitalist culture and ideology in DeLillo's work has been characterized by Joseph Tabbi as the technological or postmodern sublime: the "large forces of corporate organization that control the social and economic relations among human beings" (7). In Underworld, DeLillo complicates a sublime aesthetic to demonstrate how these ideological forces constitute a negative sublime that represses history and constrains consciousness, and how a positive sublime lies in fiction's power to reveal lost histories and realities. For DeLillo, this is a moral obligation on the part of the novelist and reader to face personal and social history and trauma. In this essay, I will assess why Don DeLillo uses an aesthetic of sublimity to define what his idea of sublime power is today, investigating how the novel represents the totalitarian power of capitalist ideology repressing certain human realities, in official cultural media and historical records. I will use psychoanalytic ideas of sublimity as a source of fascination and a mechanism of repression, and Slavoj Zizek's transposition of those psychological structures onto the larger culture. In the final section, I will demonstrate how Underworld is an example of DeLillo's aesthetic philosophy: the power of fiction to use those ideological mechanisms of repression to access repressed history, in personal and cultural memory. Using Herbert Marcuse's ideas of the political function of art, I will argue that Underworld is not an ahistorical postmodern pastiche of fragments, but instead represents a turn in DeLillo's work towards a new spirituality or humanism, one which preserves a postmodern aesthetic of plurality and reaches beyond the sometimes banal issues of regionalism.

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