Ekphrastic Fear

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 Near the beginning of White Noise, Jack Gladney takes his new colleague, the “visiting lecturer on living icons” (10) Murray Jay Siskind, out into the country to see a local tourist attraction: the Most Photographed Barn in America. The much-hyped spot–Jack reports that they “counted five signs before we reached the site”–is designed for and replete with the technologies of image production. There is a “slightly elevated spot set aside for viewing and photographing,” and Jack further observes that “all the people had cameras; some had tripods, telephoto lenses, filter kits. A man in a booth sold postcards and slides–pictures of the barn taken from the elevated spot.” Despite all this concern for the visual aspect of the experience, however, Murray quite trenchantly suggests that “no one sees the barn,” that, in fact, seeing the barn in such an environment has become quite impossible (12). In part because of this interest in the self-consuming nature of visual representations in contemporary U.S. culture, this episode has become the Most Written-About Scene in White Noise.[5] There is no small irony in this accomplishment. Critical and theoretical interest in the image–what W. J. T. Mitchell refers to as the “pictorial turn” (13)–has resulted in great attention to such representations of the relationship between the spectacular and postmodernity. And yet, to my knowledge, at least, few scholars have addressed a vital facet of this scene: the savage critique of the academic interest in the image that this pictorial turn evidences. Critical work on the scene has to this point largely focused in the same direction as those dozens of cameras, suggesting that critics, no less than visitors to the site, may be guilty of “taking pictures of taking pictures” (WN 13), as Murray smugly asserts.

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 None of this is to imply that the previous critics are “wrong” in their interest in this scene; such a focus on the production and reproduction of the image in the text is a result of DeLillo’s own apparent concerns with visuality and its technologies throughout his work. Americana and Running Dog rely heavily on film both for their language and for their content; White Noise and Mao II examine both photography and television; Great Jones Street and Libra explore the more amorphous production of the celebrity “image”; Underworld sets in motion the range of twentieth-century media spectacles. In this rich vein of representations, particularly coupled with DeLillo’s own critical treatment of the spectacle in articles such as “The Power of History,” there is much that warrants consideration. Much of this chapter likewise explores these representations of images and their technologies, but I include an additional level of analysis by considering not only the images themselves and the modes of engagement demonstrated by those doing the looking within the text but also the mode of engagement of the text itself with those images: the critical content of the images as represented, as well as their critical function. From this angle, the Most Photographed Barn in America resolves not simply into an example of a peculiarly postmodern obsession with the visual but also into a demonstration of the means by which the novel can rescue culture from that obsession–and, not incidentally, of the means by which the novel can likewise rescue academia from its apparently unhealthy interest in images.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 As Murray Jay Siskind’s heavily satirized manner of “watching” the Most Photographed Barn in America suggests, critical and theoretical perspectives that foreground images are at times equated in the novel of obsolescence with the objects of their study, as the novel of obsolescence levels the same accusation at both: the abandonment of word in favor of image, resulting in textuality’s loss of primacy among forms of mediation. This equation is of course suspect, but it reveals a contradiction inherent in the anxiety of obsolescence, which both proclaims the novel’s death and provides for its continuance; which is simultaneously aimed at critical analysis of the postmodern phenomena it encounters and at an uncritical restoration of the primacy of the novel; and which is as such simultaneously elitist and populist in its renderings of those phenomena. Such is likewise the strategy of cultural critics such as Neil Postman, who see in the contemporary fascination with images an erosion in traditional literacy. Postman has repeatedly described, across his career, the dangers of the current prominence of the electronic media, most popularly in Amusing Ourselves to Death and Technopoly. The first is pointedly subtitled “Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business,” pitting the seriousness of text against the empty flash of Hollywood spectacle. The second is subtitled “The Surrender of Culture to Technology,” as though technology were culture’s antithesis. In both texts, Postman insists that the rise of the image has revealed the decline of print-based U.S. culture. In fact, he argues, the “new imagery” that began to surface during the late nineteenth century, “with photography at its forefront, did not merely function as a supplement to language, but bid to replace it as our dominant means for construing, understanding, and testing reality. . . . The new focus on the image undermined traditional definitions of information, of news, and, to a large extent, of reality itself “ (Amusing 74). For Postman, such technologies of communication as print and television cannot peacefully coexist. Instead, “new technologies compete with old ones–for time, for attention, for money, for prestige, but mostly for dominance of their world-view”; such competition leads to the present situation, in which U.S. culture faces “television attacking the printed word” (Technopoly 16).

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 The metaphors Postman chooses to describe the relationship between text and image are repeatedly those of conflict, as he sees in the frontier between these two modes of communication an all-out battle for supremacy between competing epistemologies: “television’s way of knowing is uncompromisingly hostile to typography’s way of knowing” (Amusing 80). The image-based media are represented as not contented with merely existing alongside text; instead, the image must destroy the word. Thus Postman, in referring to Daniel Boorstin’s “graphic revolution,” decries “the assault on language made by forms of mechanically reproduced imagery that spread unchecked throughout American culture” (Amusing74) (see Boorstin). The image’s spread, whether metaphorized as invading army or as raging virus, not only threatens to place visual ways of knowing alongside those of typography, according to Postman; the spectacle in fact actively works to undo typographic epistemology and thus threatens the very heart of print-based U.S. culture. And, as we shall see, contemporary scholarly interest in film as a form of art, or in television as a legitimate cultural artifact, hastens that decline, as the academy treacherously turns its back on the print-based epistemologies under which the university was founded.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 Not everyone writing about the image is similarly convinced of its dangerous potential; for instance, in The Rise of the Image, the Fall of the Word, Mitchell Stephens works to avoid taking what he calls a “declinist” stance, while nonetheless carefully examining how the proliferation of images in twentieth-century communications has affected contemporary uses of language. In a slightly different fashion, a 1990 publication by a group of British communications scholars, with the neutral-sounding title The Telling Image: The Changing Balance between Pictures and Words in a Technological Age, champions the rise of the image as a means of communication, extolling its virtues for all manner of educational purposes. In this work, Duncan Davies, Diana Brathurst, and Robin Brathurst point out that “the pleasures of using pictures can sometimes be greater than those of writing or using words” (3) and boldly admit that “we want to try to add to the number of enthusiastic new potential picture-mongers” (4). While the crude sound of “picture-mongering” might only strengthen a declinist’s resolve, Stephens convincingly argues that, rather than reducing the level of public discourse to silliness, as Postman claims, images present the possibility for conveying much more information with far greater speed than can text.[6] And, as the British scholars indicate, communication through images has existed far longer than has the written word:

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 there were 250 centuries when we had pictures alone and could not learn how to use them generally and effectively. Next there were 20 centuries when we learnt how to use formalized pictures (pictograms and ideograms) as message carriers. There followed some 15 centuries or so during which clerks made the great leap forward of alphabetic reading and writing. During the next 5 centuries, reading and writing thrust picture-communication into the background. However, over the past one-third of a century, the picture has suddenly and explosively become the main means for “reading” and learning, but not yet the main means for the ordinary person’s “writing.” Not surprisingly, we are reeling from the shock. (Davies et al. 2)

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 The effect of this abbreviated history is, first, to resituate visual media at the center of contemporary communicative structures, indicating that print’s dominance has been a brief diversion from the development of more effective modes of pictorial communication. Second, the extremely recent explosion of image-based communication accounts, in this history, for the dislocation experienced by print-based critics such as Postman; the shock comes from speed, not from decline. Third, this narrative indicates the importance of studying images, such that participants in an image-based culture find ways to use them not merely for “reading”–taking what is handed down–but also for “writing,” thus becoming full contributors in an ongoing cultural conversation.

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 The rapid rise of image-based communication has nonetheless been the subject of much critique, as the image is variously implicated in Guy Debord’s “society of the spectacle” and Jean Baudrillard’s “precession of simulacra” and is generally read as evidence either of U.S. culture’s use of the commodity form to quell potential revolution or that culture’s more basic disconnection from reality. Such widespread concern with the image in academic and theoretical writing has resulted in Mitchell’s philosophic “pictorial turn,” as suggested earlier, in which “pictures form a point of peculiar friction and discomfort across a broad range of intellectual inquiry” (13). Mitchell intends this pictorial turn to play off and distinguish itself from what has been called the “linguistic turn” of structuralism and poststructuralism; I suggest, by contrast, the co-implication of the linguistic and pictorial turns. Neil Postman’s narratives of decline indicate that it is precisely the rise of the image that has undermined the transparency of the linguistic sign; by this reasoning, the proliferation of image culture itself produced the linguistic turn in continental philosophy. Moreover, the same set of social and cultural factors that led Jean Baudrillard to explore the ideological determination of the linguistic sign in the early 1970s produced his consideration of the simulatory powers of the image ten years later. Both word and image are equally contained within the political economy of sign exchange and thus equally demand theorization and critique.

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 This equation of word and image under the rubric of “sign” is perhaps unnerving for the traditional literary intellectual; if these two modes of communication are in any sense equivalent, one could too easily be replaced by
the other. This may be the reason for Mitchell’s pictorial turn, the proliferation of writing, both novelistic and philosophical, about the distinctions between word and image. These texts often seek to control the image, arguing, for instance:

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 Visual images don’t provide the same kind of truth as words. What they say is not necessarily inferior but it is different. Meaning is much more on the surface, experienced immediately rather than discovered by extended in-depth analyses of the image. The meaning of the visual image is also far less complex, lacking the multiplicity of meanings characteristic of single words and the ironic ambivalence set up between words. (Kernan 149)

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 Or:

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 visual imagery is more insidious than language, because it seems more “real.” Individual words can be decoupled from the reality they represent (there need be no chair for the word to signify it) and can be combined and recombined endlessly into abstractions. Images are more limited in terms of the distance between the object and the picture of it; images are direct representations of things and cannot be entirely decoupled or divorced from them. For this reason, it is not true that a picture is worth a thousand words. Images carry less meaningful information than words because they cannot be combined to the same levels of complexity. (Slade, “Communication” 73)

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 The image is by these arguments inherently less meaningful than language–but “truth” or “meaning,” in the sense that these writers intend, can be created only by interpreting symbolic signs; “meaning” can be produced only syntactically. Thus, by the definitional restrictions placed upon it, “meaning” can exist only in linguistic form, in ordered structures of symbolic signs; as Postman insists, the image “lacks a syntax, which deprives it of a capacity to argue with the world” (Amusing 72). However, this statement is true only if “argument” is conceived of in rationalist terms; if one can argue in terms other than those bounded by logic, the image is in fact quite capable of argument, as the history of propagandist photography demonstrates. The real danger, then, is less the loss of the “capacity to argue with the world” than the demotion of the linear to one form, rather than the form, of argument.

14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 This demotion has produced the threat to typographic culture sensed in the rise of the image; as Postman goes on to argue:

15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 The new focus on the image undermined traditional definitions of information, or news, and to a large extent, of reality itself. First in billboards, posters, and advertisements, and later in such “news” magazines as Life, Look, the New York Daily Mirror and Daily News, the picture forced exposition into the background, and in some instances obliterated it altogether. By the end of the nineteenth century, advertisers and newspapermen had discovered that a picture was not only worth a thousand words, but, where sales were concerned, was better. For countless Americans, seeing, not reading, became the basis for believing. (Amusing 74)

16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0 This concern about the substitution of images for text obtains only if, as the critics above suggest, the image’s lack of depth, of ambivalence, of abstraction, indicates that its meaning lies on its surface, waiting to be experienced rather than analyzed. This too-closeness of meaning implies an uncomfortable relationship with objects, with the image’s referent. In this, these authors echo Roland Barthes, who describes the photograph as a “transparent envelope” for the particular (Camera Lucida 5). This transparency is deceptive, however, hiding the image’s status as sign behind an apparently unmediated presentation of the referent. In fact, while images may seem to be “direct representations of things” whose meanings are “experienced immediately,” they are neither so direct and immediate as they seem, nor are they representations of particular things. To treat the photographic image, for instance, as no more than a “transparent envelope” reduces it to an indexical sign–like footprints, mere evidence that something once was there. On the contrary, images require reading just as do words. The chair signified by a photograph is no more “real” than the chair represented by the word; the photograph is a collection of iconic signs rather than a single indexical sign and communicates concepts through visual likenesses, not by directly presenting object traces.

17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 0 However, while the image seems for these writers to be too “real,” it is simultaneously not real enough; it is too tied to the world of objects to create “meaning,” and yet too far from that object world to represent truth. The possibility that a viewer might assume that the photographic image depicts a once-existent reality is its greatest danger, for those concerned with the proliferation of the spectacle. Images are in a sense deceptive; they do not “represent” reality, but, as Baudrillard suggests, “simulate” it. Thus, by a demented sort of logic, for the traditional literary intellectual there is not only a dearth of interpretable meaning in the image but also too much meaning, telling the deepest sort of lie, fooling the viewer into forgetting that it is mere image and not a direct transmission of reality. By contrast, under this logic, the written word, which as symbolic sign always leaves its constructed nature visible, is a more “honest” means of representation and is thus a more appropriate vehicle for meaningful communication. The novel of obsolescence, by a self-reflexive consideration of its own uses of language and by its strategies for replicating the image in its content, thus confronts what Baudrillard has called “the murderous power of images, murderers of the real, murderers of their own model” (Simulacra 5), attempting to neutralize the image’s power by capturing and transforming it in language.

18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 0 Don DeLillo explores these conflicting concerns about the relative powers of the spectacle and the novel in his 1997 article “The Power of History.” The article, which primarily purports to be an exposition of DeLillo’s working method, reveals his combination of interest in and horror of the image in contemporary culture. In Underworld, as I argue later, DeLillo formulates a theory of mediation, and of the differences in effect of the various contemporary media, from radio to film to television to cyberspace. In “The Power of History,” he lays this theory bare:

19 Leave a comment on paragraph 19 0 Newsreel footage of Bobby Thomson’s home run resembles something of World War I vintage. But the shakier and fuzzier the picture, the more it lays a claim to permanence. And the voice of the announcer, Russ Hodges, who did the rapturous radio account of the game’s final moments, is beautifully isolated in time–not subject to the debasing process of frantic repetition that exhausts a contemporary event before it has rounded into coherence. (62)

20 Leave a comment on paragraph 20 0 The power of history–and, more importantly, the power that the media seem to be usurping from history–has long been at the center of DeLillo’s novelistic concerns. What makes this article striking is his direct confrontation with the power of the image, and his determination to wrest that power away. Our sense of the power of the visual, DeLillo tells us, is no more than an illusion. The lower any image’s quality, the more power it actually wields in the creation of a historical record. And, in fact, the most enduring, important media events are radio transmissions, which have no images attached whatsoever.

21 Leave a comment on paragraph 21 0 But that this sense of an inverse relationship between image quality and historical power is but a tentative, uncomfortable conviction for DeLillo becomes equally clear in “The Power of History”:

22 Leave a comment on paragraph 22 0 Maybe it is the evanescent spectacle of contemporary life that makes the novel so nervous. Things flash and die. A face appears, a movie actor’s, say, and it seems to be everywhere, suddenly; or it is an entire movie that’s everywhere, with enormous feature stories about special effects and global marketing and tie-in merchandise; or it is just an individual’s name that haunts every informational nook, and you can’t figure out who the person is inside the name or what the context is that gave such abrupt prominence to the name, but it never actually matters and this is the point. (62)

23 Leave a comment on paragraph 23 0 The problem with the image–and the thing that clearly “makes the novel so nervous”–is not merely a cultural evanescence, a lack of historical permanence, but that this evanescence is connected to spectacle. Images, often in the form of movies, are ubiquitous, are talked about, are successful in the marketplace, but the nature of moving images is to come and go quickly. By contrast, novels, while remaining still, are relatively ignored. Thus, for the novelist, the spectacle is to be deplored for creating an endless cycle in which there is always “another set of images for you to want and need and get sick of and need nonetheless, and it separates you from the reality that beats ever more softly in the diminishing world outside the tape” (63). The image is too concrete to be meaningful, and yet so ephemeral that it distracts from reality. It cannot create a sense of permanence, and yet it commands all desire. The problem with the image is that it is at once too real, not real enough, and, in fact, destructive of reality.

24 Leave a comment on paragraph 24 0 The answer to the problem posed by this “evanescent spectacle” is to be found, unsurprisingly, in the novel, and specifically in the novel’s medium, language. The novel may attempt to rescue the power of history–and with reason, as Baudrillard suggests: “The age of history, if one can call it that, is also the age of the novel” (Simulacra 47)–from the images that have so weakened it. Baudrillard again: “Photography and cinema contributed in large part to the secularization of history, to fixing it in its visible, ‘objective’ form at the expense of the myths that once traversed it” (48). Like the radio broadcast, what gives the novel its vigor is that it is constructed in words only, not in pictures. In this, the novel resists the reifications worked by the image-based media; the novel’s use of language instead resubjectivizes history, restoring its mythical qualities.

25 Leave a comment on paragraph 25 0 Ultimately the writer will reconfigure things the way his own history demands. He has his themes and biases and limitations. He has the small crushed pearl of his anger. He has his teaching job, his middling reputation and the one radical idea he has been waiting for all his life. The other thing he has is a flat surface that he will decorate with words.

26 Leave a comment on paragraph 26 0 Language can be a form of counterhistory. The writer wants to construct a language that will be the book’s life-giving force. He wants to submit to it. Let language shape the world. Let it break the faith of conventional recreation.

27 Leave a comment on paragraph 27 0 Language lives in everything it touches and can be an agent of redemption, the thing that delivers us, paradoxically, from history’s flat, thin, tight and relentless designs, its arrangement of stark pages, and that allows us to find an unconstraining otherness, a free veer from time and place and fate. (DeLillo, “Power” 63).

28 Leave a comment on paragraph 28 0 DeLillo borrows from the tools of visual representation–writing becomes “decorating” with words, thus obviating the need for the image–while he simultaneously valorizes language in its very differences from the visual media. History as it is conventionally known, it would seem from this passage, is built of images rather than words, given its “flat, thin, tight and relentless designs.” Visuality is here central to history, while language resides on the margins as a form of “counterhistory.” There is thus implied an otherness of medium that DeLillo seems to feel is experienced by the cultural practitioner who works in words rather than images. This is a problematic claim in two regards. First, as any good New Historicist would point out, history resides in its textual traces, and thus it is always already constructed in language.[7] Second, this desire to ascribe a historical otherness to language reveals the writer’s claim to a kind of cultural marginalization, a claim that runs the risk of undermining attempts to redress social hierarchies based around human othernesses, such as those of race and gender.

29 Leave a comment on paragraph 29 0 The connection between these two types of otherness–human difference and difference of medium–reveals the cultural stakes in the novelist’s battle to recenter language. Mitchell, in Picture Theory, suggests that the alterity of image and text presents the very terms in which alterity itself is expressed, including that experienced on a social (rather than cultural) level:

30 Leave a comment on paragraph 30 0 The “otherness” of visual representation from the standpoint of textuality may be anything from a professional competition (the paragone of poet and painter) to a relation of political, disciplinary, or cultural domination in which the “self” is understood to be an active, speaking, seeing subject, while the other is projected as a passive, seen, and (usually) silent object. (157)

31 Leave a comment on paragraph 31 0 In this relationship between otherness of medium and the othernesses of subject position, then, one finds an important subtextual meaning of the anxiety of obsolescence: part of the concern about the visual in these novels revolves around the visual apprehension of the other–particularly the racially or ethnically marked other–and the inversions visual culture seems to threaten in the hierarchies of looking, in who gets to be the subject and who gets relegated to the object of the gaze. Given such complexities in all relations based on looking, the presumed binary of visual versus verbal is of course far too simple. As Mitchell points out, text itself is unavoidably visual, just as visual representations are often surrounded by text; “all media are mixed media,” he acknowledges (5). But in exploring this inextricable relationship of words and pictures, Mitchell acknowledges the political import of the writer’s colonizing gesture, particularly in the conventions of ekphrastic writing. Echoing more literal forms of geopolitical colonization, the assumption of ekphrasis, which Mitchell defines as “the verbal representation of visual representation” (152), seems to be that the colonized visual media cannot represent themselves and must rather be represented verbally to be “seen.” Such colonization functions not simply as critique but as a resubordination of looking to language.

32 Leave a comment on paragraph 32 0 Mitchell delineates three stages in the fraught relationship between the verbal and the visual. The first he terms “ekphrastic indifference,” in which the writer acknowledges the impossibility of fully capturing an image in words but is finally unconcerned about that impossibility. The second phase, “ekphrastic hope,” develops out of a writer’s sense that perhaps the visual can be captured in words on paper, and that some new, exciting relationship between the “sister arts” can grow out of such an attempt. Finally, however, there is “ekphrastic fear,” which is the phase that may shed some light on the attempts of the novelist of obsolescence to confine the image within language. Ekphrastic fear is experienced by the writer as a threatening muteness, a terror not unrelated to the threat of castration; in ekphrastic fear, “the utopian figures of the image and its textual rendering as transparent windows onto reality are supplanted by the notion of the image as a deceitful illusion” (156). This fear of the image’s powers of deception takes numerous forms; I here briefly sketch out three interrelated dangers often ascribed to the visual, to which I’ll return in discussing the uses of ekphrasis in DeLillo’s novels.

33 Leave a comment on paragraph 33 0 First, given its attempts to communicate solely through representations of concrete objects rather than abstract symbols, the image is thought to further a worldview in which things take precedence over ideas.[8] In this manner, culture itself becomes objectified. The threat of this focus on objects is twofold. The most apparent risk is commodification, the transformation of all cultural experience into marketplace exchange. Communication via images thus becomes a series of mail-order catalogs, advertisements for things one can own.[9] As Guy Debord argues in The Society of the Spectacle, because images have come to mediate all of social existence, the spectacle “corresponds to the historical moment at which the commodity completes its colonization of social life” (29). The purpose of the image for Debord is both to distract the subject from the processes of commodification and the inequities that the mode of production requires, and to further promote the commodity itself. Images thus work, for Debord, to heighten exchange value at the expense of use value: “The spectacle is a permanent opium war waged to make it impossible to distinguish goods from commodities” (30). What becomes important in such a commodified culture is not what one knows, but what one has.

34 Leave a comment on paragraph 34 0 There is a further threat in this focus on objects, however: in transforming all cultural experience into commodified, objectified form, the image presumably makes it impossible to think abstractly. Baudrillard’s critique of the situationist commentary on the spectacle takes up this point; Debord reads the spectacle as “only an immense connotation of the commodity,” Baudrillard contends in The Mirror of Production (120). Baudrillard moves beyond the connotative level to interrogate how the image has affected the semiotic code itself. He argues that Debord’s society of the spectacle exists in “the third phase of political economy” (119), in which even the inalienable–language, for instance–falls under the sway of exchange value. In no small part, this assumption of previously uncommodified modes of exchange into the capitalist mode of consumption is due to an increasing traffic in images, which, in communicating through concrete representations of things, transform ideas themselves into objects. The first danger of the image resides, then, in this paradoxical transformation: in objectifying and commodifying culture, the spectacle insinuates itself between human perception and the “real,” translating reality into images. In so doing, the spectacle eradicates the real by cutting off the subject’s linguistic access to it, replacing the conceptual understanding of the real with the reifications of its image. In this manner, the abstract becomes exchangeable; what one knows becomes part of what one has.[10]

35 Leave a comment on paragraph 35 0 The second danger is an outgrowth of the first: the spectacle, in reducing the complexities of reality into images, unavoidably replicates the most dangerous aspects of ideology, setting the stage for explosive violence. As Debord points out, the spectacle is “a social relationship between people that is mediated by images” (12). Moreover, the spectacle’s political implications exceed mere visuality: “It is far better viewed as a weltanschauung that has been actualized, translated into the material realm–a world view transformed into an objective force” (12″“13). The problem is that the visual, given the reductions it works on abstract ideas, is incapable of dealing with such a reified worldview with any complexity. The result is that, on the one hand, the visual interest of the image comes to serve as a tool of state power, an ideological state apparatus, in Althusserian terms. The danger of this visual ISA rests in part in its ability to use the forces of visuality against the seeing subject, reclaiming the power of looking for the state; the images in question can thus be ideologically loaded displays that interpellate the subject into the dominant order, or, perhaps more frighteningly, they can look back. Mitchell distinguishes between these two directions of visuality by suggesting that “spectacle is the ideological form of pictorial power; surveillance is its bureaucratic, managerial, and disciplinary form” (327). These two specular forms nonetheless come together to create a terrifyingly inescapable visual feedback loop in which the individual is at the mercy of the unseen, all-seeing controllers of the image.[11] But in attempting to wrest control of the image away from such state apparatuses, revolutionary forces and lone individuals are led into desperate, violent acts that betray the impossibility of functioning in the zone between reality and images of reality. As Stacey Olster has argued about Pynchon’s Vineland, there is a deep relationship between the image’s reification of the human and violence inflicted against that human: “the media’s representations of humans as characters, of any kind, on a screen, any screen, makes the act of extinction that much easier to effect” (126). In the image, then, is a kind of ideological violence that ultimately makes physical violence that much more possible.

36 Leave a comment on paragraph 36 0 The third danger the spectacle presents lies in its creation of a new reality that finally supplants the “real” to which its viewers have lost access. In this Baudrillardian hyperreal, a reality generated by its own models, the relationship between referents and their representations breaks down once and for all. This is the image’s most profound deceit, that it may not simply create illusions, not simply provide distractions, not simply promote dangerous ideologies, but that it may be taken for the real, for that which it has already destroyed. Baudrillard, in “The Precession of Simulacra,” describes the four “successive phases of the image,” in which we can see the buildup of this threat created by the image’s interference in the real:

37 Leave a comment on paragraph 37 0 it is the reflection of a profound reality;
it masks and denatures a profound reality;
it masks the absence of a profound reality;
it has no relation to any reality whatsoever: it is its own pure simulacrum. (Simulacra, 6)

38 Leave a comment on paragraph 38 0 By the end, in becoming its own pure simulacrum, in abandoning any relationship to the “diminishing world outside the tape” that DeLillo laments in “The Power of History,” the image also denies any relationship to representation, claiming instead transparency, authenticity, reality. This claim is, for the novelist, the most dangerous lie of all; if images become reality, can the novel any longer claim any access, privileged or otherwise, to the real? And if all the participants in contemporary culture can be convinced of the reality of the spectacle, will anyone any longer bother with, much less believe, the too apparently unreal symbolic representations of print?

39 Leave a comment on paragraph 39 0 The image is thus represented as corruptible and corrupting, in terms of both its deceptive proximity to “reality” and its Baudrillardian “murder” of that reality and its availability to representation. Horkheimer and Adorno sensed such a destruction of reality in film: because of its proliferation, they argue, “the whole world is made to pass through the filter of the culture industry. The old experience of the moviegoer, who sees the world outside as an extension of the film he has just left (because the latter is intent upon reproducing the world of everyday perceptions), is now the producer’s guideline. . . . Real life is becoming indistinguishable from the movies” (126, emphasis mine). The blame for this confusion of reality and medium is here laid directly at the doorstep of the reproduction, in the form of the image, of visuality qua visuality. The equation of seeing images of the world with seeing the world–what Postman describes as the basis of the epistemological axiom “seeing is believing” (Amusing 24)–has not made the experience of film more real, for Horkheimer and Adorno, but rather made “real” life less. In undermining the importance of the real, the image has negated any possibility of substantive political resistance. Any, that is, except the novel: Baudrillard’s disappearing profound reality is precisely the “diminishing world outside the tape” to which DeLillo refers, and which he claims the novelist has the ability to recuperate. Such recuperation of course requires the reassertion of the primacy of language and the cultural centrality of the novel, a reassertion that creates an elite capable of looking at images without being drawn in by them.

40 Leave a comment on paragraph 40 0 Ekphrastic fear, as manifested by the novelist of obsolescence, can thus revolve around the translation of the “real” into images, the reverse translation of those images into the “real,” or the violence that simmers in the space between. In discussing the manifestations of each of these aspects of ekphrastic fear in DeLillo, I will in part associate commodification with photography, ideology with film, and simulation with television. This is of course not to suggest a one-to-one correspondence between fears and forms but to demonstrate a kind of progression: as the image becomes more technologically advanced, more pervasive, the nature of the novelist’s anxiety heightens as well. In all cases, however, the novelist works to undermine the image’s power through a form of colonization, capturing it in language. But implied within this ekphrastic fear is an even more wrenching terror: if language is, as DeLillo suggests, our last remaining agent of redemption, what happens when language itself has been so undermined through its co-option by the image-based media that it can no longer function? For Neil Postman, the writer’s cultural death begins with the erosion of the epistemological foundation of typography; in this view, the problem resides in the public’s lack of tools necessary to contend with print, in the inability to see the connections between language and the real. Alvin Kernan’s narrative of decline places part of the blame for this linguistic decline at the feet of “theory”; poststructuralist thought, by revealing the lack of transparency in language, the slippery separation of signifier and signified, and the ideological motivation of the signifying process, has made any innocent use of language impossible (see Kernan, esp. 165). Baudrillard’s political economy reveals the linguistic sign to be as rooted in exchange value as is the image; Foucault describes the ideological motivations of the discursive construction of language; Lacan’s exploration of the symbolic order demonstrates the impossibility of ever accessing the Real, except through the impossible constraints of language. Thus we are reminded that before Mitchell’s pictorial turn, there was the linguistic turn; each of the elements of ekphrastic fear could easily be turned back on language itself. The linguistic turn, as Mark Poster argues, put an end to the nineteenth century’s sense of language’s transparency, to the “stable, comfortable, knowable world where words clearly referred to things, where ideas represented reality. . . . There could simply not be articulated a ‘revolution’ in underarm deodorants” (Introduction 8).

41 Leave a comment on paragraph 41 0 That now there can be seems to indicate that the degradation of language into something unstable, uncomfortable, unknowable is directly connected to advertising and its attendant media. Horkheimer and Adorno, in considering advertising as part of the culture industry, point out that “the more completely language is lost in the [publicity] announcement, the more words are debased as substantial vehicles of meaning and become signs devoid of quality” (164), as though language had once been transparent and has been muddied–“words” devolved into “signs”–by its use in the electronic media. More recently, Sven Birkerts concurs: “If the print medium exalts the word, fixing it into permanence, the electronic counterpart reduces it to a signal, a means to an end” (123). In such an environment, the only revolution still possible is that in underarm deodorants; the very concept “revolution” no longer carries political potential but has, like all other words, been reduced to sign, to signal, to empty, slippery, nonreferential signifier.

42 Leave a comment on paragraph 42 0 This devolution of words into signs is made manifest in Pynchon’s V. in the language of the Whole Sick Crew. As Rachel first notes about Paola, “the girl lived proper nouns.” But her assessment of this situation just misses the mark: “Persons, places. No things. Had anyone told her about things?” (51). In fact, there is no need for Paola to have been “told about” things, as all the persons and places she wields as proper nouns have become, with their capitalization, fully thingified. It takes an onlooker from farther outside the Whole Sick Crew to better assess the Crew’s uses of words as “signs devoid of quality”: Dudley Eigenvalue. The Crew’s language has, in his estimation, degenerated into

43 Leave a comment on paragraph 43 0 a kind of shorthand whereby they could set forth any visions that might come their way. Conversations at the Spoon had become little more than proper nouns, literary allusions, critical or philosophical terms linked in certain ways. Depending on how you arranged the building blocks at your disposal, you were smart or stupid. Depending on how others reacted they were In or Out. The number of blocks, however, was finite.

44 Leave a comment on paragraph 44 0 “Mathematically, boy,” he told himself, “if nobody else comes along, they’re bound to run out of arrangements someday. What then?” What indeed. This sort of arranging and rearranging was Decadence, but the exhaustion of all possible permutations and combinations was death. (297″“98)

45 Leave a comment on paragraph 45 0 Words are for the Crew ponderously concrete, fully reified “building blocks” that can be moved and manipulated. But their very concreteness is the source of their inevitable destruction, for in their solidity they have become “finite.” The physicality of the “sign” in this milieu, as opposed to the ephemeral abstraction of the “word,” has sent language into what Tony Tanner calls in The City of Words “an inevitable decline”; worse, “the Whole Sick Crew seems to be hastening the entropic decline of language as a vehicle for the transmission of significant information, by playing with all its permutations regardless of what reference any of the permutations may or may not have to reality” (161). What has perhaps begun with advertising is being sped up by this decadent pseudointellectualization–and, one begins to suspect, in following Jack Gladney’s progress through White Noise, by the same sorts of pseudointellectualization that run rampant through the university, posing as cultural studies and cultural theory.[12]

46 Leave a comment on paragraph 46 0 But Pynchon leaves a shred of hope in the face of this “inevitable decline”: the possibility that “somebody else” might come along to introduce new possibilities, to reopen this closed, entropic system.[13] This “somebody else” is, of course, the serious writer who exists outside this realm of advertising, pseudointellectual chatter, and the university.[14] Perhaps, as DeLillo argues in “The Power of History,” the novelist’s use of “language” can rescue not simply the literary form but the culture itself from the degradation it is suffering at the hands of the image. But it can do so only if it can somehow rescue language first. For, as Fredric Jameson reads the postmodern novel–in his case, represented synecdochally by the nouveau roman of Alain Robbe-Grillet and Claude Simon–it is itself an enactment of “linguistic failure” in its very uses of language, in which the “breakdown” of the relationship between signs and referents “is experienced over and over again as a process, a temporary runoff between the habitual onset of linguistic belief and the inevitable degradation of the signified into its material signifier or the sign itself into a mere image” (139). Language in the novel threatens to degrade into images; this is perhaps the phenomenon that William Gass is referring to when he claims that the discovery “that novels should be made up of words, and merely words, is shocking, really. It’s as though you had discovered that your wife were made of rubber” (27). Words as signs are, like the image, fakes, simulations of a reality that we cannot fully grasp. Gass’s suggestion of this particular metaphor makes it clear, in fact, that the words that comprise the novel are, like the images they are devolving into, pornographic. The particular pornographies that the wife as latex doll represents–think back to Benny’s Violet and Stencil’s future V.–function, as does Gass’s metaphor, to reassert and buttress traditional hierarchies: of subject and object, of watcher and watched, of verbal and visual.

47 Leave a comment on paragraph 47 0 But the flimsiness of these hierarchies remains, particularly that which attempts to differentiate the powers of linguistic signs from those of visual signs. Thus John Duvall raises the “problem” that “remains for DeLillo as a satirist: if he insists that the world is wholly mediated, what distinguishes the novel as a medium from the electronic media he criticizes?” (148n). The distinction is in fact minimal; the writer’s fear for his own destruction includes his sense that there has been an apparent diversion of signifying power away from language, an awareness of language itself as a form of mediation–and worse, a creeping sense that the “media” are more practiced in manipulating these forms of mediation than are writers. In DeLillo’s White Noise, for instance, we see repeatedly the withering of language during media-covered crises. After a plane nearly crashes, Gladney relates the story as told by one of the passengers: “Certain elements in the crew had decided to pretend that it was not a crash but a crash landing that was seconds away. After all, the difference between the two is only one word. Didn’t this suggest that the two forms of flight termination were more or less interchangeable? How much could one word matter?” (91).[15] In fact, words cease to matter during such crises except as driven by the media itself; during the novel’s central disaster, the nature of the crisis remains vague and undefined, not right, unnamed, until the radio announces the name it has been given, changing this name from the “feathery plume” to the “billowing black cloud,” before finally settling upon the “airborne toxic event.”[16] It is not that the words have no meaning; the point is that these meanings and the power to name them–the right of signification–seem to obtain only for the media, which has claimed (and been given) the powers of naming.[17] Moreover, it is possible to reread the “airborne toxic event” as the novelist’s own description of television and radio themselves, which suggests that these powers of language always belong to the media and that the definition of a crisis is not, as Babette later suggests, “based on the fact that it’s not an everyday occurrence” (174); a crisis is rather what the media says it is.[18] Any use of language in such a mediated culture remains undefined, unofficial, until verified by media sources: “Remarks existed in a state of permanent flotation. No one thing was either more or less plausible than any other thing” (129). The same holds for David Bell in DeLillo’s Americana; in the corporate environment of the television network, “words and meanings were at odds. Words did not say what was being said nor even its reverse” (36). Words are not to be counted on at all within such an image-driven environment; what Marcuse has referred to as “the functionalization of language” (86) seems thus to stem directly from its co-optation by the forces of the electronic media. And if television has indeed succeeded in functionalizing language, the power of the novelist can only diminish.

  • [5] The following sources represent a mere smattering of such commentary: Duvall 140; Lentricchia 88″“90; Lentricchia, “Libra as Postmodern Critique,” in Introducing Don DeLillo, ed. Frank Lentricchia (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1991): 196; Frow 180″“81; Keesey 136; Yehnert 359″“60.
  • [6] “Moving images use our senses much more effectively than do black lines of type stacked on white pages. In a video there is so much more to see, not to mention hear. Moving images can cut in, cut away, dance around, superimpose, switch tone, or otherwise change perspective, without losing their audience’s attention; they can encompass computerized graphics, even words. Seeing, consequently, can become a more complex activity; we might see from more perspectives” (Stephens xi). This question of perspective is extremely important; as I’ll argue later in the chapter, much of the novel of obsolescence’s desire to contain the image is determined by a desire to reinforce the traditional hierarchies of watcher and watched.
  • [7] For an exploration of the implications of history’s textuality as it pertains to the postmodern novel, see Hutcheon. For a slightly counterreading of the relationship of history, textuality, and baseball in Underworld, see Fitzpatrick, “Unmaking.”
  • [8] See, for example, Daniel Boorstin, who feared that “image-thinking,” which relies upon an “artificial imitation or representation of the external form of any object, especially of a person” (197), would triumph at the expense of “ideal-thinking.”
  • [9] This condensation of all communication into advertising may be seen in the examples that were frequently given during the late 1990s for ways that television could be made interactive in the future, in which it was suggested, for instance, that a viewer of Friends who liked Jennifer Aniston’s dress could click on her for purchase information.
  • [10] Whether this reification of intellectual life is directly ascribable to image-culture, however, is debatable. Mark Poster, in The Mode of Information, attributes the capitalist exchange of “objects” previously thought communal and inalienable to network culture; see Chapter 4 here.
  • [11] It is worth noting that this rhetoric of the image as a tool of ideology resonates with echoes of the rationale for verbal representation’s colonization of the provinces of visuality; in envisioning the threat of images that can look back, the novelist of obsolescence creates the terms of his own marginalization as object of an oppressive gaze. In this appropriation of the mantle of the oppressed, the novelist is able to mask his reinstatement of the traditional hierarchies of looking.
  • [12] Let me hasten to add, in case I haven’t made it clear enough: I consider my own project to be of a piece with cultural studies and heavily informed by cultural theory. Any hint of “pseudo” attached to those fields, any sense of decadence in the contemporary university’s interest in image-culture, should be attributed to the texts under consideration, and not to the author of this study.
  • [13] For more on entropy and the closed system in connection with the network, see Chapter 4.
  • [14] Thus the irony that, while DeLillo attributes this redemption of the power of history to a writer with “a teaching job [and a] middling reputation” (“Power” 63), he nonetheless prides himself on never having been required to hold such a university position.
  • [15] That this near disaster is not literally covered by the media is due only to an accident of geography; as it turns out, “[t]here is no media in Iron City.” Jack’s daughter expresses the indignation that the novel seems to expect the passengers to feel, the sense that this was clearly a media-driven event from the outset, whether or not the media actually showed up: “They went through all that for nothing?” (DeLillo, WN. 92).
  • [16] See Lentricchia 106″“7 and Keesey 144″“45 on the implications of this movement to scientific euphemism.
  • [17] John Fiske sees the “question at issue” here as “whether the mass media and popular culture debase our language or revitalize it” (Understanding 106), arguing the case for revitalization by pointing particularly to puns and coinages. DeLillo seems to suggest otherwise.
  • [18] As Jack thinks, “We’d become part of the public stuff of media disaster” (DeLillo, WN. 146). All such disasters are in themselves media by-products (just as the billowing black cloud is the by-product of insecticide manufacture), despite the fact that, once again, the lack of “media” in Iron City means that the disaster itself gets only minimal news attention (see 161″“62).
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    Source: http://www.anxietyofobsolescence.com/chapter-3/ekphrastic-fear/