UNIVERSITÀ DEGLI STUDI DI ROMA TRE Dipartimento di Studi Americani Tesi di Dottorato in Studi Americani The Disappearance of the Real Mass Media in Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo, and Cormac McCarthy Candidato:

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UNIVERSITÀ DEGLI STUDI DI ROMA TRE Dipartimento di Studi Americani Tesi di Dottorato in Studi Americani The Disappearance of the Real Mass Media in Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo, and Cormac McCarthy Candidato: Giuseppe Sorrentino (XXI Ciclo) Relatore: Prof. John Paul Russo Coordinatore: Prof. Cristina Giorcelli a.a Acknowledgments This thesis is the result of three years spent as a graduate student at the University of Roma Tre, Department of American Studies. Thanks to the support and the encouragement of all the professors I had the honor to meet in these years, I could live a stimulating adventure trough a study of the American continent, learning day by day about methods and approaches that will forever mark my activity as a scholar. A special thank goes to Sara Antonelli, who was able to share her passion for critical endeavors into American culture and to Cristina Giorcelli, who had the courage of believing in me and my project, ever since its beginnings. Prof. Giorcelli gave me all the help I needed to pursue that idea and I will never forget the enormous care with which she guides her students. During the three years at the American Studies department of Roma Tre, I had the chance to meet three Fulbright professors: Casey Blake, Wilfred McClay, and Lynn Dumenil. Their seminars have been a strong source of stimulating insights into the history of the United States, strongly contributing in shaping my knowledge and attitude towards American culture. I am thankful to John Paul Russo, who has been my invaluable guide in the arduous trip of writing a thesis. He has always been by my side, never imposing his authority, always full of helpful advice and encouragement. I owe him a lot. Chiara Nappi, Edward Witten, Ilana, Daniela, and Rafi Witten, Jake Brenner, and Ari Steinberg gave me all the care I could have needed, and even more, during my stay in the United States, between Princeton and Palo Alto. The comfort of family is a rare commodity in the postmodern era. I strongly appreciate having received an invitation from those responsible for the AFEA Graduate Student Symposium, held during the 2008 Conference in Montpellier. On this occasion I was able to share my ideas and get insightful feedback concerning my project. This symposium represented also an opportunity to meet other students, and to make new friends. Heinz Ickstadt supported me during my three months in Berlin, offering me delightful lunches and engaging conversations; John Logan gave me comfort and friendly assistance in an empty Firestone Library during the summer of This thesis would have not been possible if not through the constant encouragement of my family and the financial support of my mother and my grandfather. I wish to thank Guillaume Bauer, my friend and confident, who has been especially forthcoming with his suggestions and Elisabetta Rastelli for her sustaining love and devotion. 2 Contents Chapter I. Introduction: The Collective Allegory of Postmodernism Page 4 Chapter II. Mass Media and Postmodern Writers: Pynchon and DeLillo Page 35 Chapter III. A thing that becomes a newsreel : Spectacles, Mass Media, and the Power of Images in Pynchon and DeLillo Page 59 Chapter IV. Old fans who ve always been at the movies : Spectators in Pynchon and DeLillo Page 95 Chapter V. You re here for the dance : The Rhetoric of Spectacle in Cormac McCarthy Page 121 3 Introduction: The Collective Allegory of Postmodernism What is real? Russ Hodges, the radio speaker who gives a running commentary on the legendary baseball match between the Dodgers and the Giants held at Brooklyn s Polo Grounds and narrated in the prologue of Don DeLillo s Underworld, has his own personal answer to this question: The thing that happens in the sun. 1 He used to work in Charlotte, North Carolina, creating big league games that were already played, giving his listeners the illusion that they were acted in the same moment in which he was narrating them. His business was representations; representations made out of words. He recalls: somebody hands you a piece of paper filled with letters and numbers and you have to make a ball game out of it. 2 He also recalls that his only desire at the time was to work at the Polo Grounds in New York, doing real baseball. However, when he is finally there, under the New York sun, he discovers that what his voice is narrating does not hold together the different dimensions developing in front of his eyes; and by the end of the show he is dazzled, like a drunkard who mimes a ball game, in the empty stadium. What he thought it was real, corresponded perfectly to the unreal he used to represent. The twentieth century has been strongly affected by a desire similar to that of Russ Hodges for the real thing. Surrounded by images that keep multiplying, people still live in a constant urge for the real. They look for it in newspapers and magazines, in television, radio and on the internet, and the more they watch, the more their distance from reality seems to increase. American society, estranged by a real performed as spectacle in the media, finds only uncertainties in its quest for knowledge. Its condition is still a 1 Don DeLillo, Underworld (New York: Scribner, 1997), Ibid. 4 postmodern one, with all the positive and negative implications that such a statement has. In this respect, little has changed since television and mass media industry in general, began to shape society, and spectacles and images became the main instrument with which reality is experienced. Yet, this wild process, by which a multiform visual language dominated American culture, has offered in the years, from Kennedy s assassination to 9/11, several epiphanic moments. When, for example, on September 11, 2001, millions of Americans watched live on television the downfall of the Twin Towers, the spectacle created an uncanny feeling of virtuality. Was it really happening or was it just another Hollywood production? As Slavoj Žižek suggests 3, what we saw on television that day was not the harsh intrusion of reality in our realm of images, but the exact contrary: the image of the two towers collapsing entered and altered our reality. The point is that our reality was already shaped by images and 9/11 simply revealed it to us. Quoting Alan Badiou and his Le Siècle, Žižek argues that the attack at the WTC represented the conclusion, the climax, of this passion for the real which characterized twentieth century. From this point of view it is possible to trace continuity in the development of mass media from the early stage of their diffusion to the new millennium. This first act of mass media history is over and the rush of new digital technologies opened a new age for communication. Certainly the medium par excellence that defines America, from the post-war era to the present, is television. It has penetrated American homes and minds for decades, selling the only possible world, the only real one; causing what Cecelia Tichi calls an ontological 3 Slavoj Žižek, Welcome to the desert of the real: five essays on September 11 and related dates (London, New York: Verso, 2002), 11 5 change, 4 becoming the very certification of human experience. Still television was perceived as a dangerous medium since its birth. In the film Good Night, and Good Luck (2005), CBS journalist Edward R. Murrow, who struggles against Senator McCarthy s 1950s anti-communism crusade, in a moment of American history in which broadcast journalism and television in general, although still in their infancy, became a fundamental tool for shaping the ideas of an entire nation, gives a speech in which he imagines what historians will find in the recorded traces of 50 s television; he argues that they will only see evidence of decadence, escapism, and insulation from the realities of the world in which we live. Television is, for Murrow, an instrument wrongly used, one that distracts, deludes, amuses, and insulates people. It is a powerful instrument, which can even illuminate and inspire, but can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it towards those ends. Otherwise, it is merely wires and lights in a box. What Murrow said in 1953 remains as valid as ever. Even if his prophecy was true, those hypothetical historians envisioned by him, grope without reference in the virtual world created by the uncontrolled technology of mass media. That world defies analysis; it exists uniquely in a dimension of icons and simulacra, which like modern idols, establish an epistemic realm of representations. As David Foster Wallace notices in E unibus pluram: television and U.S. fiction 5, television literally means seeing far ; and thus it trains the watcher not only to feel really present at any televised event, such us the Olympics or New York under a terrorist attack, but also to relate to everyday life as something distant and exotic, as if it is shown on a TV screen. Wallace s ideas of seeing far and of distance, evoke the words that Guy Debord uses as incipit in The Society of the 4 Cecelia Tichi, Electronic hearth: creating an American television culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), David Foster Wallace, E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction. A Supposedly Fun Thing That I ll Never Do Again. Boston: Little, Spectacle: The whole life of those societies in which modern conditions of production prevail presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. All that was once directly lived has distanced itself into a representation. 6 Paraphrasing the same words with which Marx begins the first section of the Capital, Debord signals a crucial shift in the postmodern development of capitalism: the commodity has become spectacle, image, and mere representation. Of extreme importance is the term Debord uses to point out this process: the real s est éloigné, distanced itself, it went away; a concept that a medium such as television embodies perfectly. The Society of the Spectacle was published in 1967, when mass media were still in an archaic phase of their development, in comparison to the present. In such a phase Debord has sensed the malignant charm of representations, and prophesied the immaterial reality of today. Using as a starting point the first section of Marx s Capital, the one in which the fetish side of the commodity is analyzed, Debord builds his two hundred and twenty one theses, conveying a crucial message, that is the spectacle is the last stage of the transformation of the commodity, which has no more value in itself, but only as an abstraction: The Spectacle corresponds to the historical moment at which the commodity completes its colonization of social life. It is not just that the relationship to commodities is now plain to see commodities are now all that there is to see; the world we see is the world of the commodity; 7 It is not something related uniquely to the world of mass media, but to the entire capitalist society: The Spectacle is capital accumulated to the point where it becomes image; 8 It makes the real become image and only the images can be real: 6 Toute la vie des sociétés dans lesquelles règnent les conditions modernes de production s'annonce comme une immense accumulation de spectacles. Tout ce qui était directement vécu s'est éloigné dans une représentation. The translation is mine. 7 Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle (New York: Zone Books, 1994), Ibid., 24. 7 ...reality erupts within the spectacle, and the spectacle is real; 9 It establishes a monopoly of the truth, a unique unbreakable order of things: The spectacle manifests itself as an enormous positivity, out of reach and beyond dispute. All it says is: Everything that appears is good; whatever is good will appear. 10 Debord distinguishes two forms of spectacles: a concentrated spectacle, which is related to totalitarian societies, and a diffused spectacle, typical of western democracies; however, in his Commentaries on the Society of the Spectacle, he envisions a unique integrated spectacle, which unifies both the forms theorized before. Whereas the concentrated spectacle could not control peripheral societies and the diffused spectacle could not control society in all of its expressions, the integrated one pervades all of reality, without possibility of escape. When the Commentaries were written, in 1988, the Berlin wall had not yet fallen, but Debord confirmed his capacity of prophesising on this further development of the spectacle, which interests the contemporary world. It is thus in this way that the theories enunciated in The Society of the Spectacle are fulfilled. Spectacle is a term that better than others gives significance to the way in which mass media transforms reality; it transcends technology in order to underline the human role in this process. Instead of considering mass media as autonomous forces, Debord looks at them as strictly embedded in the society which produces them. Such an approach should be of help in finding paths to resist the overwhelming power of the media, but also Debord is not immune from a sort of impotence that affects critics of mass media. One of the characteristics of mass media s critique is that it has, paradoxically, helped them to flourish. Critique seems to have functioned as those prohibitions that inflame curiosity and interest for the thing they try to prevent. The more critics build theories, 9 Ibid., Ibid., 15. 8 systems of thought that attempt to understand, classify and dominate the technologies of mass media, the more these technologies multiply their power, acquiring consent, and proving their necessity. In Understanding Media Marshall McLuhan writes: not even the most lucid understanding of the peculiar force of a medium can head off the ordinary closure of the senses that causes us to conform to the pattern of experience presented. 11 The closure of the senses is a sort of dream-like state of mind to which many visual media (television above all) force our brain. Being used to their languages since childhood one is compelled to structure one s thoughts in terms of passive spectatorship. One is not the creative interpreter of a certain message, but submissive spectator of a medium. That the force of a medium is something not easy to counteract is made clear by the fact that the relationship with a medium (television for an example) is always unequal: the power to control the medium is limited to certain types of operations that one can perform in order to obtain a limited result. But the medium can operate without control from the moment in which it starts to function. If a statement like McLuhan s is true, this dissertation, which tries to help its readers have a lucid understanding of the peculiar force of a medium, is useless. If nothing can be done in order to resist critically that force, then there is nothing left to do but to give up and accept living in a technological age where thought is always more controlled by the technological means that govern people s lives. 12 The humanistic tradition that shaped human creative thinking has no more reasons to exist, because people need only to be cold executors of actions imposed by technology. McLuhan s statement is true, but still there is a strong necessity to react to any force that closes our senses and our understanding of 11 Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964), Jacques Ellul, The Technological Society (New York: Vintage Books, 1964). 9 reality. In order to do this, in order to resist the force of technology, one can find a way of escaping that force and looking at it from a critical perspective thanks to literature and writing. Literature responded to the advent of cinema and television, often critically, often with an aura of cool detachment that might give a different, more thoughtful, perspective on reality. Apart from the great artistic quality that many visual products can reach, if one considers the medium used, there is a crucial difference to underline: the possibility to control that medium. Cinema and television present moving images and sounds that most of the time pass rapidly in front of one s eyes, and through one s hears, without giving the opportunity to reflect and interpret those images. A book, instead, gives space to a various range of actions that can be performed by its reader in order to gain control over the form and content of the medium. The reader is always engaged in a never-ending interpretative process by which he or she becomes the main actor of the communicative act he or she is involved in with the writer. In The Movies and Reality (1926), Virginia Woolf deplored 1920s cinema, in which travesties of great novels, simplified to a ridiculous degree, were the norm: The eye says: Here is Anna Karenina. A voluptuous lady in black velvet wearing pearls comes before us. But the brain says: That is no more Anna Karenina than it is Queen Victoria. For the brain knows Anna almost entirely by the inside of her mind her charm, her passion, her despair. All the emphasis is laid by the cinema upon her teeth, her pearls, and her velvet Virginia Woolf, The Movies and Reality, 1926; rpt. in Authors of Film, ed. Harry M. Geduld (Bloomington, 1972), But that same brain to which Woolf gives so much power can be easily titillated, and settles down to watch things happening without bestirring itself to think. 14 However something different happens when one finds himself in a reversed situation: reading a book where the act of watching a movie or a TV-show is described. In this case, and as examples one could use various passages from Don DeLillo and Thomas Pynchon, passages that will be later analysed in this thesis, the author never induces the reader into passive receptivity; a rambling narrative like Gravity s Rainbow, for example, forces the reader to reconsider his status as spectator, to critically look at the environment created by the media. It works as a sort of filter for all those images that overwhelm him in everyday life. The postmodern authors on whom this thesis is concentrated, seem to be strongly aware of their role as writers who can challenge the power of the media. On the 12 th of June 1966, The New York Times Magazine published an article by Thomas Pynchon titled A Journey into the Mind of Watts, a journalistic account of life into the black neighbourhood of Los Angeles, after the famous riots which happened the year before, in summer This text, though, goes beyond the mere facts and presents the reader with a deep inquiry on post-war American society at large. More than reflecting on the events that have led to a disrupted community, Pynchon analyzes the structure which sustains that same community, looking at a racial problem from an unusual perspective, revealing elements that only a writer with his postmodern sensibility could have underlined; elements which become crucial in the light of his novels. In describing the different perspectives that African Americans and whites have on everyday life, he points out that white culture is concerned with various forms of 14 Ibid., systematized folly, 15 that it can afford to ignore the basic realities with which black culture has to deal, such as violence and death, and that it is psychologically distanced from Watts, even if the neighbourhood lies near them. Pynchon is thus creating a scheme of the facts that helps looking at them from a deeper point of view: what was happening in Los Angeles, according to the author of Gravity s Rainbow, was not a clash of racial identities, but rather a conflict between two perspectives on reality; and the whites reality was strongly shaped by mass media. Commenting on the airplanes approaching L.A. International Airport, over the heads of Watts s population he writes: From here, much of the white culture that surrounds Watts and in a curious way, besieges it looks like those jets: a little unr
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