Saturday, 27 June 2009

underhistory (3)

DeLillo's archaeological counterhistory

‘[E]verything connects in the end, or only seems to, or seems to only because it does’ (DeLillo 1998: 465).
Like so much of Don DeLillo’s work, his novel Underworld (1998) questions the legitimacy of multinational capitalism, its manipulation of images through saturation media and advertising to construct identity through in-toxic-ating acts of consumption, and its managing of ideological ‘waste’ [1]. In his work DeLillo has often proposed a sort of strategic paranoia about America’s military-industrial complex and restricted access to detailed knowledge of its open secrets – realities known to exist and yet officially denied, covered up. Agent orange/orange juice, baseball/the Bomb - ‘everything is connected’, or seems to be, if only in the ‘underworld’; Pynchon’s phrase from Gravity’s Rainbow is reiterated repeatedly in this novel. 

DeLillo also returns on several occasions here to the notion of dietrologia, the study of what ‘lies behind’ (events, appearances), ‘the science of dark forces’ (ibid: 280) - a word familiar to organized crime investigators and conspiracy theorists in Italy. However DeLillo carefully decentres any singular unifying (conspiracy) theory linking people and events in this dynamic, complex and unpredictable relational matrix. Ultimately, he seems to suggest, some potentially connective thread or tissue is always already there and concealed, and our grasp on what transpires is inevitably partial, compromised. 

DeLillo is drawn back again and again to the blank(ed) spaces on the maps, often in the southwestern desert, that strategically constructed ‘empty space’ in geopolitical cartographies. There, and in the overexposed psychic landscape of the open secret, there’s always an absent presence ‘behind’ (dietro), ‘below’, ‘under’, shadowing the complexities of the day world, ‘the thick lived tenor of things’ (ibid: 827). For prepositional multiplicity, impenetrable causal uncertainty and an ambiguous drive-ridden acquiescence characterize the ontological terrain of the contaminated, anomie-laden Cold War subject living through chemistry: ‘drained, docile, soft in our inner discourse, willing to be shaped, to be overwhelmed’ (ibid: 826), in barely contained terror amassing possessions ‘against the dark shape of some unshoulderable loss’ (ibid: 191-2).
In Underworld as elsewhere in DeLillo, there is a recurrent undercurrent – an ‘atavistic dread’ – related to the apocalyptic ecological threat of capitalism, and the media’s normalizing and rendering invisible of this threat. In a novel structured in part through reiterations of disappearance, loss, and betrayal, DeLillo presents a counterhistory of Cold War America in the shadow of the threat of auto-annihilation: a subterranean ‘underhistory of the Cold War, a curious history of waste which forms an underground stream in this book, waste and weapons’ (DeLillo in DePietro 2005: 146). Remember that Oppenheimer called the bomb ‘merde’, the ob-scene thing beyond words …
DeLillo figures wasted lives by describing literal ‘wastelands’, including massive landfills - in particular Fresh Kills on Staten Island, New York - that reflect the volume of waste generated in consumer culture, and capitalism’s postmodern solution to the problem of waste: not containment of the growth of waste (an index of business’s success), but a containment of its appearance. In the novel, Nick Shay works in waste management, pursuing the opportunist entrepreneurial restructuring and recycling of waste as commodity in the production of capital. Shay becomes a ‘cosmologist of waste’ (DeLillo 1998: 88), who encounters scenes that are ‘medieval-modern, a city of high-rise garbage, the hell reek of every perishable ever thrown together’ (ibid: 104). At one point, he muses: ‘Waste is an interesting word that you can trace through Old English and old Norse back to the Latin, finding such derivatives as empty, void, vanish, and devastate’ (ibid: 120).  

As commodity culture’s allegorical other, waste’s threatening potential is to ‘unmask the symbolic pose of the commodity as a sham’ (Stallabrass 2009: 417) and reveal itself as broken ruin of utopian promise. In the management of waste, therefore, the ideal is to remove all visible traces, disappear it ‘underground’ - as Shay seeks to do with his own contaminated and leaking past. Yet as Viktor Maltsev, one of a number of ‘theorists of waste’ in the novel, suggests, waste is culture’s ‘devil twin’, and its stubborn persistence within its burial grounds stages ‘the secret history, the underhistory’ (ibid: 791) – a repressed history of ‘banned words, the secrets kept in white-washed vaults, the half-forgotten plots’ that Shay imagines ‘out here now, seeping invisibly into the land and air, into the marrowed folds of the bone’ (ibid: 802-3) [2]
One of DeLillo’s triggers for his title relates to proposals for plutonium and other nuclear waste to be buried in the desert in the South-West of the USA at Yucca Mountain and elsewhere. Within the novel, he uncovers the etymological link to Pluto, ‘god of the dead, ruler of the underworld’: the waste managers ‘took him out to the marshes and wasted him’ (ibid: 106). The novel also explores affiliations with a criminal ‘underworld’, as well as an underclass of homeless people in New York, capitalism’s ‘collateral casualties’ (Bauman 2004: 15), redundant and abjected human ‘waste’. Many of these outcast ‘wastelings of the lost world, the lost country that exists right here in America’ (ibid: 628) are based in the subway (‘underground’). In addition, there are recurrent intertextual echoes here of the ‘valley of ashes’ in Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, of the secretive ‘underground’ network WASTE in Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, and of Dickens’ Thames-side dust-ash-and-waste entrepreneurs in Our Mutual Friend.

DeLillo’s bricolage novel references apocalyptic representations in art of the underworld, notably Breughel’s Triumph of Death: a ‘landscape of visionary havoc and ruin’, against a ‘background of ash skies and burning ships’ (ibid: 41). Furthermore, scattered throughout the novel are instances of waste being critically reappropriated and recycled as cultural intervention in radical ‘underground’ or ‘outsider’ art practices. These include: Klara Sax’s ‘Long Tall Sally’, a land art recuperation of the uncanny and sublime carcasses of decommissioned B52s abandoned in the Arizona desert (in part triggered by a visit to Sabato Rodia’s waste bricolage constructions, the Watts Towers in Los Angeles); subway graffiti artist Ismael Muñoz AKA ‘Moonman 157’ and his later commemorative interventions made collaboratively with ‘runaways and throwaways’ (ibid: 813) in an area of South Bronx wasteland known as ‘The Wall’; as well as a group of anarchist ‘guerrilla’ artists who try to steal J Edgar Hoover’s garbage and use it to make performance art. [3] Historically, Hoover himself had authorised ‘dumpster diving’ as a legitimate means for the FBI to gather evidence.
In addition, DeLillo invents a series of Lenny Bruce gigs, improvised jazz-like hipster riffs around the time of the Cuban missile crisis, his uncanny channeling of the voices of the powerful and the irradiated ‘wastelings’, the metaphorical ‘downwinders’, with the reiterated catch-phrase: ‘We’re all gonna die!’ Bruce’s junked-up ‘undervoice’ is described as ‘the revolt of the psyche, the id-like wail from the audience’s own souls, the desperate buried place where you demand recognition of primitive rights and needs’ (ibid: 547).

DeLillo also invents a supposedly ‘lost’ Eisenstein silent film called Unterwelt, about institutional power’s failure to contain the ‘mutilate yearning, the inner divisions’ (ibid: 444) of the dispossessed ‘living in the shadows’ (ibid: 424) in the underbelly of the city. In the novel, which resembles this fictional Eisenstein film both thematically and in its montage structure, [4] Klara Sax views it between two other films: Robert Frank’s documentary about the Rolling Stones’ hedonism on tour in America in 1972, Cocksucker Blues; and an art installation video loop of multiple copies of the Zapruder film, a chance document-become-commodity with its flickering traces of the assassination of John F Kennedy in Dallas. Associatively, all three films are concerned with waste and wasting: discarded lives produced by redundancy and repression; the decadence and dereliction of ’junk’/heroin, shot in a melancholic blue light that suggests the ‘nimbus of higher dying’ (ibid: 384); the recycled, infinitely looped trace of horrifying political violence as benumbing ‘snuff movie’ spectacle, alongside the obliterating psychic fission of trashed ambitions, traumatised ideals and atomizing conspiracy-fueled paranoia – the ‘streamy debris of the deep mind’ (ibid: 496).
So in Underworld DeLillo constructs a braided archaeological counter-narrative about proliferation and its waste, in both the arms race and consumerism. Through a reverse chronology structure (Nick Shay’s fallen angel trajectory is ‘backwards into the future’), DeLillo traces ‘underground’ logics of another form of history, ‘the sand-grain manyness of things that can’t be counted’ (ibid: 60), provoked by a desire ‘to unrepeat, to find an element of felt life’ (ibid: 77). In so doing, he provides a cognitive mapping or fractal patterning of History’s ‘waste’ – what it ejects, forgets, overlooks, represses: things, people, values and so on – and its status as uncanny memento mori, mirroring our own ephemerality and mortality. The novel proposes a scavenging resistance, an exercise in waste management, a recycling of history’s fall-out, a retrieval from what Marx, Benjamin and others have called the ‘trash heap’ of history. En route, DeLillo employs a range of compound words, some of them bricolaged neologisms: ‘underbreath’, ‘undervoice’, ‘underdream’, ‘undersheet’, ‘underreal’, ‘underhistory’. A term that recurs throughout is ‘understand’ – the uncovering of the cover-up, or at least the impulse to do so, the infinitely compromised desire to stand-under the unsettling glare of knowledge. This desire loops us back to dietrologia, the science of what lies behind, and to Plato’s hyponoia and Hillman’s ’undersense’ in the underworld.
Sea dreams: ‘blink’
In another dream, the Sea has vanished suddenly - and completely - and its exposed bed is dotted with people out walking, inspecting what it has left behind. Out there, where the Sea once was, all sorts of people, bent over inspecting a patch of ground, or a piece of driftwood the size of a small tree. Or a bloated purple jelly-fish, scratching at the sand around it with their feet. I can see laughing kids with buckets and spades making castles and cities, and dads sculpting mermaids with shells in their hair, and writing messages in huge letters for the sky. Huddled figures have gathered beside a pool and they stare into it in silence, as though it is infinitely deep, or the plug-hole through which the Sea has departed. As far as the eye can see, thousands of shiny fish pulse on the sand, clasping and unclasping like fingerless silver hands.

Perched on some rocks is a wreck of a wooden schooner encrusted with barnacles, its cabin draped in fine weed, like Christmas decorations; its tattered sails slap and dance in the breeze. Closer to the shore a blue yacht lies on its side, its mast pointing to the sky at an angle of, say, ten o’clock; it looks like a weird oversized sun-dial. Elsewhere there is a beached whale and its cub, breathing heavily, with a man posing for a photo next to the mother’s soft eye: as the shutter closes, the whale blinks. The air is full of birds …

I stand transfixed on the shore watching all of this activity, too frightened to walk out on to the sea bed and join the other people. For I’m terrified of the possibility of the Sea’s sudden return … Perhaps that low smudgy strip of grey cloud on the horizon is in fact a thundering wall of water hundreds of feet high …

Nobody seems to notice except me, they just carry on regardless. I stand there, trembling like a hobbled racehorse.


Fresh Kills
For more than 30 years, Mierle Laderman Ukeles has been artist-in-residence with the New York City Department of Sanitation, initially unsalaried, self-appointed. Many of her large-scale public projects focus on issues and processes related to waste management, and combine the social-civic-participatory, the environmental, and the political. In Touch Sanitation (1978-84), she documented her meetings and conversations with NY’s sanitation workers, over an 11-month period thanking and shaking hands with over 8,500 ‘garbage’ workers in all 59 municipal districts in the five boroughs of New York. In response to their social marginalization, she was endeavouring to re-value the role of sanitation workers in the accumulation of small respect-ful human encounters: empathetic recognition of ‘the domestic on an urban scale’, and the value of human relations.

Flow City (1983-90) revealed to visitors the scale and material reality of solid waste management in NY City. It included access to the vast marine transfer station in Manhattan on the Hudson River, where the city’s waste is loaded from trucks onto barges for transportation by river to the landfill site. The project involved collaboration with artists, architects, scientists, ecologists; it entailed the construction of viewing platforms, a glass bridge/walkway, and video monitors with live-feed relay of the flows of river, landfill, recycling. The work made these ‘invisible’ processes available and immediate, and invited reflection on our imbrication within these relational circuits and their fragile ecologies.

Since 1989, Ukeles has also been working directly around the Fresh Kills landfill site on the Western shore of the borough of Staten Island. This is the biggest landfill site in the world where, for about 50 years until its closure in March 2001, 25,000 tons of waste from NY City were delivered daily. It was eventually closed because of its size – it had become one of the highest objects on the Eastern seaboard of the US, and threatened to impede air traffic. 2,200 acres, about 3.4 square miles, the equivalent of 2.5 Central Parks.

(Currently, and in the coming years, this vast brown fill site is being transformed into ‘Fresh Kills Park’, a huge public park space: the garbage has been capped, covered in a layer of earth and an impermeable plastic membrane, then topped with clean soil - up to 4 feet deep, native plants, its methane tapped and processed).

On 13th September 2001, one part of Fresh Kills, the largest (Western section 1/9), was re-opened as an emergency site for the FBI and NYPD to sift, sort and dump World Trade Centre debris from the terrorist attacks on September 11th. Dormant marine transfer stations and barges were re-mobilised within days. In an article for Cabinet magazine in 2002, Ukeles asked: ‘What is the meaning of this place now?’ She refers to Fresh Kills as a collectively constructed urban earthwork, ‘a 50-year old social sculpture we have all produced, of four mountains made from 150 million cubic yards of the un-differentiated, un-named, no-value garbage, whose every iota of material identity has been banished’ (Ukeles 2002). However with this dispersal of the ‘flying dust’ from ‘thousands of unfound, incinerated human beings’, and the mingling of human remains and garbage, she suggests: a ‘memorial, or graveyard – or whatever it is – needs to be created out of an utterly opposite kind of social contract. The shattered taboo that enabled this unholy shotgun marriage needs to be restored; a chasm-change in attitude is required, one of very deliberate differentiating, of naming, of attentive reverence for each mote of dust from each lost individual. Thus remembered. This must become a place that returns identity to, not strips identity from, each perished person …” (ibid).


Elsew/here: ‘looking for our lives’
Elsew/here, another kind of sea far inland. The travellers arrive in ones and twos, sometimes a small van arrives in a dust cloud and disgorges an unsteady gaggle of people, shrouded against the sun. They carry light bags for the journey, just the barest of essentials. They have long since said goodbye to their families. Those that stay behind never say their son or daughter or husband ‘left’ or ‘migrated’; they refer to them as ‘the burnt ones’, those that have burnt the law, the past.

At the meeting point in the dunes a man in sunglasses shows them the pre-fabricated kit from which they will build the boat. As he explains the process, he traces lines and swirls in the sand with a stick. Lengths of untreated pine are laid out on the ground; to one side on a white cloth, a variety of bolts, screws, two screwdrivers, a hammer, some bags of plastic ballast. The wood looks like the ruptured rib cage of some extinct beast, bleached by the sun, then buried by the tidal movements of the sand, and only now disinterred.

Many of them have never seen the sea; with diverse images of ‘boat’ in their minds, they start to assemble this mysterious thing in which they will entrust their hopes and their lives. Gradually separate pieces are linked together and the boat’s outline emerges. Their tap-tap-tapping is sometimes interrupted by the low throb of a military plane scouring the dunes; they hide under camouflaged tarpaulins, or lie flat on the sand to try to make themselves invisible, just more fragments of unremarkable desert flotsam.

When the boat is finished, they stand around it with a mixture of astonishment and trepidation. In silence they wait huddled against the cold night until dawn, unable to sleep, then at first light they drag the boat through the sand towards the sea. We go looking for our lives, they say.

On these journeys, there is time but not a thing by which to tell it, save the passage of the sun, the phases of the moon, and the patient pulse of the sea’s pull and give.


Slow burial
‘It is interesting, the debris in the air. A surprising portion of it is spider legs, and bits thereof. Spider legs are flimsy … because they are hollow. They lack muscles; compressed air moves them. Consequently, the snap off easily, and go blowing about. Another unexpected source of aerial detritus is tires. Eroding tires shed latex shreds at a brisk clip, say the folk who train their microscopes on air. Farm dust joins sulfuric acid droplets (from burned fossil fuels) and sand from the Sahara Desert to produce the summer haze that blurs and dims valleys and coasts.

We inhale “many hundreds of particles in each breath we take” … Air routinely carries intimate fragments of rug, dung, carcasses, leaves and leaf hairs, coral, coal, skin, sweat, soap, silt, pollen, algae, bacteria, spores, soot, ammonia, and spit, as well as “salt crystals from ocean white-caps, dust scraped off distant mountains, micro bits of cooled magma blown from volcanoes and charred micro-fragments from tropical forest fires”. These sorts of things can add up.

At dusk, the particles meet rising water vapor, stick together, and fall; that is when they will bury you. Soil bacteria eat what they can, and the rest of it stays put if there’s no wind. After thirty years, there is a new inch of topsoil’ (Dillard 1999: 123-4).


To be continued ...


[1] At one point, DeLillo co-opts a Dupont Corporation slogan as an ironic chapter title: ‘Better Things for Better Living, Through Chemistry’ (Delillo 1998: 499).

[2] It is pertinent to compare this ‘return of the repressed’ with psychoanalysis’s core interest in the ‘secret histories’ contained within the overlooked waste products of psychic life. Like Benjaminian collectors, psychoanalysts endeavour to ‘divine secret and concealed things from despised or unnoticed features, from the rubbish-heap, as it were, of our observations’ (Freud 1985: 265). In Agnès Varda’s film Les Glaneurs et la Glaneuse (2000), one of the elderly grape gleaners Varda interviews is the celebrated psychoanalyst Jean Laplanche, although she does not realize who he is until she returns to make a second film Les Glaneurs et la Glaneuse – deux ans après (2002). In this later film, Laplanche suggests that both gleaning and psychoanalysis pay particular attention to the overlooked, ‘what falls from speech (discours). What is dropped, what is picked up. Words which are beside usual speech are of special value to psychoanalysts, because things which are picked up or gleaned are more valuable to us than what is harvested’ (Varda 2009).

[3] This narrative thread seems to be based in part on the self-styled ‘non-governmental garbologist’ AJ Weberman, and his notorious pursuit in the 1960s of Bob Dylan (and others) through raiding his trash, an act of muckraking purportedly intended to recuperate traces that would offer a register of Dylan’s ‘real’ identity’. For a more detailed account, see e.g. Scanlan 2005 147-53.

[4] Cf. Walter Benjamin, history’s ‘ragpicker’ scouring the residual dream-worlds of obsolete commodity fetishism, on The Arcades Project method as ‘literary montage’: ‘I shall purloin no valuables, appropriate no ingenious formulations. But show the rags, the refuse – these I will not inventory but allow, in the only way possible, to come into their own: by making use of them’ (Benjamin 1999: 460).


Bauman, Zygmunt (2004). Wasted Lives: Modernity and Its Outcasts, Cambridge: Polity

Benjamin, Walter (1979). ‘Naples’, in One Way Street, and other writings, London: Verso, pp. 167-76

Benjamin, Walter (1992) [1940]. ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’, Illuminations (trans.
Harry Zohn), London & New York: Fontana/HarperCollins, pp. 245-55

Benjamin, Walter (1999). The Arcades Project (trans. Howard Eiland & Kevin McLaughlin), Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press

Biemann, Ursula & Homes, Brian (eds) (2006). The Maghreb Connection: Movements of Life Across North Africa, Actar

Calvino, Italo (1974). ‘Continuous Cities 1: Leonia’, Invisible Cities (trans. William Weaver), Florida: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, pp. 114-6

Davis, Mike (2006). Planet of Slums, London: Verso

DeLillo, Don (1998). Underworld, London: Picador

DePietro, Thomas (ed.) (2005). Conversations with Don DeLillo, Jackson: U.P. Mississippi

Dillard, Annie (1999). For the Time Being, New York: Vintage

Fonseca, Isabel (1995). Bury Me Standing: The Gypsies and their Journey, London: Vintage

Hawkins, Gay & Muecke, Stephen (eds) (2003). Culture and Waste: The Creation and Destruction of Value, Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield

Hillman, James (1979). The Dream and the Underworld, New York: Harper & Row

Lacy, Suzanne (ed.) (1995). Mapping the Terrain: New Genre Public Art, Seattle, Washington: Bay Press

Lippard, Lucy R. (1995). ‘The Garbage Girls’, Z Magazine, New York, December 1991: reprinted in The Pink Glass Swan: Selected Essays on Feminist Art, New York: New Press, 1995

Lundstrom, Jan-Erik, Dimitrakaki, Angela (eds) (2008). Ursula Biemann - Mission Reports: Artistic Practice in the Field, Bristol: Arnolfini Gallery

Marx, Ursula, Gudrun Schwarz et al (eds) (2007). Walter Benjamin’s Archive: Images, Texts, Signs, London: Verso

Neville, Brian & Villeneuve, Johanne (eds) (2002). Waste-Site Stories: The Recycling of Memory, Albany NY: State University of New York Press

Rathje, William & Murphy, Cullen (1992). Rubbish! The Archaeology of Garbage, New York: Harper Collins

Rogers, Heather (2005). Gone Tomorrow: The Hidden Life of Garbage, New York: New Press

Saviano, Roberto (2007). Gomorrah: Italy’s Other Mafia (trans. Virginia Jewiss), Basingstoke: Macmillan

Scanlan, John (2005). On Garbage, London: Reaktion

Senior, Kathryn & Mazza, Alfredo (2004). ‘Italian “Triangle of Death” linked to waste crisis’, The Lancet (Oncology), vol. 5, September, pp. 525-7

Sinclair, Iain (2003). London Orbital, Harmondsworth: Penguin

Sinclair, Iain (2009). Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire: A Confidential Report, London: Hamish Hamilton

Steedman, Carolyn (2001). Dust, Manchester: Manchester University Press

Strasser, Susan (1999). Waste and Want: A Social History of Trash, New York: Henry Holt & Co

Ukeles, Mierle Laderman (2002). ‘It’s about time for Fresh Kills’, Cabinet no. 6 (‘Horticulture’), Spring, pp. 17-20. Published online at Cabinet website:

For Legambiente, Italy, see here
For Legambiente’s illegal waste archive reports, see here

A version of some of these 'Underhistory' texts, was first presented as ‘Underworld, underground, underhistory: ecomafia landscapes’, part of the 4-day AHRC-funded ‘Landscape and Environment’ conference at Aberystwyth University, Wales, in June 2009. (Coordinators: Mike Pearson and Heike Roms). For further details, see here

No comments: