What are all these references to Don DeLillo doing in an article about how computers are evil? I propose to treat this question as a historical mystery à la the Shakespeare authorship question. Naturally, there is no need to actually read the article, because its contents are as trite, inflated, and predictable as these little quotes suggest. Specious references to Freud sit side-by-side with admiring quotations from blowhard Lee Siegel. (The latter, lest we forget, wrote the pompously titled Against the Machine after he was busted using a sockpuppet in an online discussion. "Take that, you bunch of immature, abusive sheep" indeed! The prominence of this book speaks, er, volumes about the willingness of upper-middle-class NPR fans to gobble up worthless "cultural critique.")
Two unrelated observations about writing have snagged at my attention in the past couple of days and refused to go away. The first was a quote from Don DeLillo, the author of the great modern epic, Underworld. DeLillo was talking about how he continues to write on a typewriter, and suggested that: "I need the sound of the keys, the keys of a manual typewriter. The hammers striking the page. I like to see the words, the sentences, as they take shape. It's an aesthetic issue: when I work I have a sculptor's sense of the shape of the words I'm making." ... Somewhere in between these two observations there seemed to be a disconnect, a kind of paradox, but it took me a while to work out where it lay. It had something, of course, to do with the fact that Don DeLillo, the pre-eminent American novelist of the present moment was holding tight to the technology of the past ... DeLillo, who knows a good deal about the difference between writing and content, clearly resists this idea. Writing for him is a highly physical act; meaning is discovered and shaped in individual words and sentences, and their external form is fundamental to what they are communicating ... This Christmas may well mark the moment when the Nintendo idea of writing – and reading – takes precedence over the DeLillo idea of it ... Moreover, that the capacity for rigorous sentence construction, of the kind explored by Don DeLillo, is being replaced in online communication by a lazy and hasty "whateverism", where nothing that is written has to adhere to the rationalities of syntax or argument, and where no time is given to clarifying thought ... One person with a comparable range of paranoias and interests to communicate to the world as Barger is Don DeLillo. It is telling that DeLillo has succeeded in finding the connections between all the multiple strands of his attention, not through exponentially multiplying and endlessly self-referencing links to distant corners of the internet, but through the hard labour of putting one word down next to another and having each of his thoughts make sense with reference to the observable world. DeLillo is an extremely brilliant example, but that's what writers do. It is impossible to judge whether the 800 pages of Underworld could have been written on a computer, with all its inbuilt distractions and dead ends, but I'm guessing not.
- Tim Adams, "Will E-Books Spell the End of Great Writing?" (Guardian, Dec. 6, 2009)
Anyhow, Siegel is beside the point. The point is that Tim Adams is unnaturally fixated on two things: evil electronics and Don DeLillo. He's terrified that things that run off electricity and display text will forge readers into an invincible fascist Army of One, lost in the narcissism and isolation of their hopeless little screens and wielding their snarky weapons to destroy all Deep And Serious Thinking forever. Don DeLillo, with his precious little typewriter and fat "modern epic," is the latter's white-horse-riding handkerchief-bearing favorite knight. Never mind that the actual content of his novels seems to be completely ignored here; if instead of DeLillo we were talking, say, Dostoevsky or Schopenhauer, I would understand, but an epigone-postmodernist is definitely a unorthodox choice for a champion of Authentic Intellectualism.
But not completely unorthodox, which brings us to our first hypothesis: The choice of DeLillo is meant to demonstrate that the author appreciates the quirks of contemporary society without being corrupted by it. Remember that, aside from writing weepy "evocations" of a movie-set Cold War era, DeLillo has also produced such gee-whiz gems as The Most Photographed Barn in America. There's nothing insightful about this little passage, but it does put you, the reader, in an interesting position: you are the one who's in the car; you are the one who thinks he's so much better than the tourists; you are one with deep delusions of profundity. (Gosh, uncle Don, what was the barn like before it was photographed?) For some readers, consuming this kind of stuff is a way of savoring all the resentment (and ressentiment) they build up in their unsatisfying daily lives without losing the security of the always superior cultural critic. And that, of course, is what's happening in the article.
This hypothesis isn't completely satisfying, however. The article isn't smugly ironic, like DeLillo tends to be in his cultural-critic moments. There's a certain artlessness in it, a genuine lack of awareness or concern that the argument might be fatuous and derivative rather than trenchant and insightful. So let's offer another: DeLillo's wide-eyed sentimentality flatters the writer's sense of himself as an innocent laudator temporis acti. Perhaps this theory is a little better. It's clear that what Tim Adams thinks he's doing in "evoking" the typewriter and bemoaning contemporary narcissism is fundamentally similar to DeLillo's project in Underworld. The idea, apparently, is that the past--and especially anything intellectual having to do with the past--has great value by definition, making the "defender of the old ways" pose inherently rewarding. Thus Adams calls in DeLillo as an ally because DeLillo is what passes nowadays for an appreciator of history.
Probably. And yet I don't think this really gets to the core of the issue. The hypothesis that seems most plausible is the third: DeLillo's writing has nothing to do with his presence in the article, which in fact, is the result of an Internet-derived fit of narcissism, written while the author was under the delusion that he and the computer were all alone in the world. "DeLillo" is merely a comforting, motherly, semi-divine presence, akin to Philosophy in Boethius, whose sole purpose in the text is to reassure the author that his taste in lit-rah-chah is still respectable. In this view, Eliza, Lee Siegel, the guy who had the first blog, and even the Kindle are just so many pieces of mental furniture, images chosen by the author's addled mind to represent his deepest anxieties. The article, we now see, is not a tedious piece of banal cultural critique after all: it is the journal of a madman who has fallen in love with his own written reflection.