American Magic and Dread

November 2, 2011 § 1 Comment

The title of this post is not mine. It goes back to Mark Osteen’s fabulous book on Don DeLillo‘s fiction and its concern with modern media. But ever since reading that book, the tautological nature of the title, so apt and precise to describe the fiction of DeLillo, has remained with me as a shortcut to a European perspective on America. In a similar way, Liam Cennedy argued that for Europeans, America remained an object of study and also an object of desire (h/t Ida Jahr). Same tautological structure of interest (magic) and despair (dread). Yet, seen from the right perspective, and I speak spatially here, that picture above does make sense to someone driving DOWN the alley in the wrong direction, while for someone driving UP the alley, the letters are just nonsense. The irritated bystander (read: European) perceives the interdiction and the definition at the same time, as mere commands phrased in the same alphabet. This yes/and – no/but structure still seems to capture what many think about America as a cultural space, although the no/but-faction is gaining ground.

Paul Virilio coined the phrase of a projectile image, projecting through space at radiant speed, reflecting on screens and surfaces, thereby reorganizing our perceptions of space at the same time. Now, in addition to these spatial metaphors of images – between the ground floor and the observation deck – there is a temporal dimension of the image, which altogether can go beyond its spatial origins. It’s the visceral and viral image, which resonates in digital time (not space, how anachronistic).

DeLillo was able to capture this mode of being obsessed with images as a fundamental quality of American culture, images as part of the magic, for sure, but also images as the source of dread, of unease, and instability. In Cosmopolis (2003) and Underworld (1997), to name just two, DeLillo weaves the objective certainty of the image into a matrix of uncertain perceptions – phenomenological irritations in the face of photogenic magic. In one short passage, Jeff’s fascination with a video of the “Texas Highway Killer” turns into an ontological journey into the self, an image beyond the consumerist self of wryly calibrated image particles.

Jeff became absorbed in these images, devising routines and programs, using filtering techniques to remove background texture. He was looking for the lost information. He enhanced and superslowed, trying to find some pixel in the data swarm that might provide a clue to the identity of the shooter. (Underworld, 118)

In the constant run of images this clue to an identity is no longer directed at identifying the “Texas Highway Killer” but is used as a vehicle to see an image of oneself gaining shape in an endless swirl of half-codified, half-creative forms of repeated interaction, documented amply in forums and on pinwalls. If there is such a magic of uncertainty, then America might still inhabit the space of attractions. But as the magic of uncertainty of the image surpasses the national turf, it becomes a temporal trope, actualized at haphazard conjunctions of identity processes. One may feel urged to warn: “Do not enter” – “Entrance only” – at your own risk.

Additional background reporting: GC Commentary: BV, JP, JK and IJ.

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§ One Response to American Magic and Dread

  • […] Where does this fear come from? This fear of stopping? This fear of being left behind, of not being the first in the line? It seems like America is organized around the highway, as a means of transportation, as a means of communication and as a general metaphor of sociability. On the highway, the community is small, contained within individually shielded and auto-nomous units that propel through space in a self-reliant way. Windows closed, A/C ventilation of recycled air from inside the vehicles is chilled down to reenter the organisms through lungs and tissue. It’s 90 degrees Fahrenheit outside, but they were freezing. Magic and Dread. […]

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