It's an impossible maze. These are the people supposedly trying to show us the way out and they're as much a part of it as anyone else, what with their book deals, media appearances, social media branding etc.
What, indeed, is a writer’s? The palpable thrill that DeLillo gives off as he describes Packer’s unearthly powers is in stark contrast to the dull familiarity of Cosmopolis’s anti-capitalist tropes. In a sense that’s exactly the point: the capitalist’s way of thinking is so formidable it is hard to imagine any genuine opposition to it. Violence has always stalked DeLillo’s work, and—as critics have pointed out—it’s often implicitly presented as the only viable response to the sickness of modern society. But in Cosmopolis neither theory nor force seems like an answer to the great webs of encircling power DeLillo evokes. Even if the demonstrators were incited to kill him, thinks Packer, what difference would it make to the system? Although DeLillo spends plenty of time worrying about being complicit with the market, the deeper quandary isn’t about money or selling out. Rather, it’s a replay of another one of the fundamental problems of countercultural thought: How can the product of a society—be it a person or a piece of art—be against that society? Where does the critical distance come from? The point isn’t that these questions are new, but that it has become harder and harder to know how to answer them in a world where capitalism appears as an almost fully naturalized fact of existence, and where there may not be space for an alternative even inside our heads.
What’s unsettling about the phenomenon DeLillo describes is that it doesn’t seem to depend on anybody’s intentions. It’s just how consumer culture works: an impersonal mechanism with an apparently limitless capacity to assimilate dissent, as though every effort to evade the system’s logic were somehow always and already enclosed within it. From his limo, Packer watches as anti-capitalist rioters attack banks and fight with the police in the heart of New York—another of the book’s prophetic details, this time of the Occupy protests—but still he thought “there was a shadow of a transaction between the demonstrators and the state. The protest was a form of systematic hygiene … It attested again, for the ten thousandth time, to the market culture’s innovative brilliance, its ability to shape itself to its own flexible ends, absorbing everything around it.” You don’t need a sharp eye to pick up on the autoreferential subtext here: the demonstration that Packer regards as so ineffectual is already “contained” within the novel Cosmopolis, a marketized commodity. (One character goes so far as to call the riot a “market fantasy,” which it literally is.)
For decades a certain kind of left-wing cultural theory has been formulating and reformulating the same impasse. Is it possible to mount any meaningful resistance to capitalism on the level of culture? Certainly in the West, after the Cold War, it has become extraordinarily difficult to believe that any amount of satire or critique could add up to systemic change. Quite the opposite: we’ve learned there’s no such thing as a work of art or philosophy that’s too dangerous to commodify. Packer’s observations about the protest in Times Square come during a break in a lengthy conversation between himself and his “chief of theory” Vija Kinski, a corporate oracle who spouts slick aphorisms about the nature of time and money while people die and buildings burn around her (a grim caricature, perhaps, of the fate of radical theory after the end of history). The subject of their conversation is whether capitalism has a limit or not. It is Kinski who says that the market is total. The protest is a symptom of the destruction capitalism leaves in its wake, an anger that can only express itself in shapes that the market has already classified and absorbed years before. The demonstrators are “quotations,” the burning man is a “quotation”: nothing they do can threaten the basic conditions of their habitat. “There is nowhere they can go to be on the outside. There is no outside.” Meanwhile, Packer watches as the anarchists flail uselessly around his car, as untouched as the system he represents.
Yet it would be wrong to say that everything feels finished once Cosmopolis ends. Despite its resolutely grim conclusion, some spectral sense of possibility remains—the feeling that perhaps, even so, all of this has just been the prelude for something larger and new. Whatever else, the novel is a testament to the strength of DeLillo’s vision: the world he has been imagining for so long really does seem to have folded out into reality. Dissolving national identities, missing narratives, complicity, powerlessness—aren’t they just facts of globalized life? The intimation that we are all part of a single huge, unseen story has also come closer and closer to lived experience, and our most urgent collective problems (the looming ecological catastrophe, for example) reflect it. But it still feels like more than we can imagine. What would it be to tell such a story—to assimilate its mind-breaking scale, the networks of superhuman technology and the anonymous billions who populate it? For whom could it be anything more than an abstraction? Cosmopolis falls apart before it comes close to answering those questions. But the questions are real. The world demands a response. The riddle is how to become the type of creatures who can give it.
Like his Wall Street-era predecessors, Packer belongs to an economy in which information about commodities is more valuable than the commodities themselves. The difference is that the market he represents has ascended to an unprecedented level of speed, scope and abstraction. At the beginning of his career he made his fortune forecasting stocks, but before long “history became monotonous and slobbering, yielding to his search for something purer, for techniques of charting that predicted the movements of money itself.” Abstract knowledge is what underlies Packer’s status. And information is his object of worship—the testament to a clean and secret harmony behind the manifest world:
"He looked … towards streams of numbers running in opposite directions. He understood how much it meant to him, the roll and flip of data on a screen. He studied the figural diagrams that brought organic patterns into play, birdwing and chambered shell. It was shallow thinking to maintain that numbers and charts were the cold compression of unruly human energies, every sort of yearning and midnight sweat reduced to lucid units in the financial markets. In fact data itself was soulful and glowing, a dynamic aspect of the life process. This was the eloquence of alphabets and numeric systems, now fully realized in electronic form, in the zero-oneness of the world, the digital imperative that defined every breath of the planet’s living billions. Here was the heave of the biosphere. Our bodies and oceans were here, knowable and whole."
Packer’s data is a living map of Earth: a vision of the world as a single huge organism held together by money and technology, a manmade fact so enormous it can only be represented as a cross between abstraction and mystic epiphany. In the capitalist’s exaltations, the logic of accumulation and the religious sublime dissolve into one, a fantasy of ultimate triumph over ignorance and uncertainty, and hence risk—insider information at its most cosmic.
You have.Not heard of Michael judge.
Oh yeah, he turned out to be rubbishYou have.
The Pynchon guys keep going on about this bloke, so I had a look. He has a podcast about conspiracy theories (JFK etc), but fuck podcasts. Anyway, he's apparently a writer too and this caught my eye in an article on him, A good parallel might be the work of J.H. Prynne. His texts, too, are known...dissensus.com
Vanity. Vanity and opportunism.In my barista days I met more than one person claiming to have figured out some great cosmic rhythm underlying the fluctuations of the market. Needless to say they all want you to go to some seminar or other, they don't just tell you the secret and let you find your own way to unfathomable wealth
Isn't that what Aronofsky's film, Pi, is about? Always thought that one looked better than his later stuff. Love the trailer.In my barista days I met more than one person claiming to have figured out some great cosmic rhythm underlying the fluctuations of the market. Needless to say they all want you to go to some seminar or other, they don't just tell you the secret and let you find your own way to unfathomable wealth