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What Does Literature Feel Like?

A Sense of Time(ly) Seeing in DeLillo’s Later Novels

Stefania Iliescu


Le présent article se propose d’examiner la manière dont l’œuvre tardive de Don DeLillo utilise l’ekphrasis pour explorer de nouvelles modalités de perception de la réalité à travers les écrans ; ces modalités permettent aux lecteurs de découvrir les effets de l’hybridation de la réalité et de ressentir l’impact de l’omniprésence des médias et des dispositifs technologiques qui déforment à la fois la perception du temps et celle de la réalité expérientielle. La qualité de l’expérience perceptive est au cœur de l’esthétique de l’écrivain, qui prend appui sur la capacité du langage à exprimer la perception subjective des personnages tout comme les sensations et les émotions qui façonnent leur vie mentale impliquant activement leur corps pour susciter l’empathie des lecteurs. Contrairement aux romans publiés avant 2000, où la représentation d’images conduit à un phénomène d’hyper-réalité, son œuvre tardive déploie une rhétorique du voir qui donne lieu à une expérience de lecture dont la puissance révèle le présent au lecteur. L’implication de ce dernier réside tant dans l’émergence de la figure du lecteur-spectateur que dans la tension provenant de la dynamique qui se crée entre l’acte de voir propre aux personnages et la réception du récit ; l’acte de lecture revêt ainsi une signification affective. La lecture, à l’instar du visionnage des images médiatiques, devient une expérience incarnée, ce qui permet aux lecteurs de faire l’expérience de la perception subjective du temps propre aux personnages, de ressentir de l’empathie ou bien de suspendre toute réponse empathique.

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The poet—the contemporary—must firmly hold his gaze on his own time. But what does he who sees his time actually see? What is this demented grin on the face of his century? […] The contemporary is he who firmly holds his gaze on his own time so as to perceive not its light but rather its darkness. (Agamben 44)

I’m just translating the world around me in what seems to be straightforward terms. For my readers, this is sometimes a vision that’s not familiar. But I’m not trying to manipulate reality. This is just what I see and hear. (McCrum 2010)

1For Agamben, the contemporary is a poet figure who shies away from the lights of the century and manages to grasp his or her time by dint of anachronism, namely by having a disjointed relationship to time as a refusal to utterly coincide with it. On this account, one may argue that Don DeLillo’s later fiction captures the imperceptible feel of the present thanks to the writer’s ability to split and suture time into a knot of narrative temporalities that create new modes of encountering the present in an increasingly dematerialized world. Readers are presented with narrative spaces which account for verbal mediations of situations and events that rely on visual perception where ekphrastic moments allow for unobscured visual prospects, perspectival interpretation and unhampered empathic responses. Accordingly, his later fiction turns the act of reading into an experience of seeing and feeling which simultaneously appeals to readers’ emotions and cognition. In having a revelatory quality about them, DeLillo’s later novels manage to “put to work a special relationship between the different times” (Agamben 53) and tease out the ways in which our contemporary global media culture produces, not so much visibility and heightened visual abilities, as the kind of “darkness” that Agamben identifies. By the writer’s own admission, his “translating the world” gives rise to unfamiliar prospects inviting reflection on the quality of our perceptual experiences in a hybridized world. The writer’s use of the term “translation” hints at his novels’ power to render experiential reality in a literary language that seeks to capture what the present feels like in order to ground readers’ responses in emotions and increase their experiential awareness of inhabiting a reality that competes with its virtual double replete with digital images. Thus, his later novels become a medium for presenting and representing reality, triggering text-reader interactions that sentiently “translate the world.” As a result, DeLillo’s aesthetics of visual perception engages readers’ attention to the ways in which vision entails sight as an embodied sense since the characters’ perception of temporality and emotional evaluation of their viewing experiences relate to both characters’ and readers’ physical presence in the world.

2The present article sets out to investigate new modes of seeing in DeLillo’s post-2000 novels, which stage a hybridized reality and at the same time paradoxically conceive of the body as a sensing locus from where the world is emotionally and ideologically registered. His new millennium novels make prominent the emergence of an embodied consciousness which can get a sense of the temporality that defines humans’ presence in the world, while simultaneously acknowledging a sort of timelessness devoid of present that characterizes the contemporary hyper-mediated virtual world. DeLillo’s aesthetics of perception produces a type of experientiality that has emotional relevance to the readers generating “the quasi-mimetic evocation of real-life experience” (Fludernik 28). The verbal images which permeate the later novels aptly explore a wide array of receptive possibilities and elicit sensorial and experiential responses on the readers’ part that ultimately recall the physical qualities of embodied existence and its time-bound condition. Readerly involvement resides, I argue, in the tension that develops from the interplay between the characters’ embodied act of seeing and the readers’ responses in relation to the narrative framing of the scene, which turns reading into an experiential state endowed with emotional significance. Hence emphasis is placed on the perception of the body as a sensitive site in which sensations and emotions originate. Embodiment as a condition of being makes readers more effectively partake in the sensorial experiences played out in the text. Consequently, reading, just as viewing, becomes a lived, embodied experience that allows readers to go through emotions and be affected by images brought to life by the writer’s choice of verbal material, and at the same time, decide whether they feel with the characters or choose to block out their empathic responses when shifts in the narrative viewpoint hint at empathic decentering.

From “superreal” images to images “bodied out”

3From his 1971 debut novel, Americana, up to his latest opus The Silence, published in 2020, Don DeLillo has consistently shown a keen interest in the visual and media culture underpinning the present. Hence his body of fiction represents a literary output that gives a poetic rendering of the cultural shifts taking place in the world, with a special focus on how progress in technology brings about altered human relationships. DeLillo’s novels feature situations and events concerning the industrial age of photography, but they also move through the era of analog technology characterized by the reliance of the medium on its ability to generate hyperreality leading to the fetishization of the real. In addition, his later novels critically embrace the current digital age which gradually reduces the ambit of embodiment leading to an ontologically disconcerting hybrid reality. The writer’s fascination with media and the power of technology to alter individuals’ experiential reality has therefore become a staple of his work.

4The innumerable verbal representations that portray instances of seeing originate in multiple sources—still pictures, cinema sequences, videotapes, television footage, media news coverage and on-screen video feeds, to name but a few. They endow DeLillo’s novels with an ekphrastic quality that has the power to “turn the literary text itself into a medium of re-visualization and re-mediation” as Peter Schneck argues, giving rise to moments that “create intense reading experiences which resonate with the power of images and challenge the readers’ awareness of their own ambivalent response to this power” (Schneck 107). Peter Schneck’s argument is perfectly illustrated by the iconic videotaping episode featuring in Underworld. The episode depicting a little girl’s accidental videotaping of a homicide committed by a Texas Highway serial killer is followed by multiple replays of the footage that take on a derealization function because repetition drains the viewing experience of meaning and brings about the ontological displacement of the event. An array of ambivalent viewing responses is thus induced so that readers be in a position to ponder on the transformative power of repetition, which turns the recorded sequence into a presence deemed “truer-to-life than anything around you” (DeLillo, 1997 157). As a result, repetition outstrips the event by depleting its own reality:

You look because this is the nature of the footage, to make a channeled path through time, to give things a shape and a destiny. […]
This is a crime designed for random taping and immediate replay. You sit there and wonder if this kind of crime became more possible when the means of taping an event and playing it immediately, without a neutral interval, a balancing space and time, became widely available. Taping-and-playing intensifies and compresses the event. It dangles a need to do it again. You sit there thinking that the serial murder has found its medium, or vice versa—an act of shadow technology, of compressed time and repeated images, stark and glary and unremarkable. (DeLillo, 1997 159)

5The continual viewing of the recorded event and the overabundance of visual stimuli inherent in the technological medium warp the perception of time and space to such a degree that images become impervious to their real-life referent. Since they are detached from the event, they become “superreal, or maybe underreal is the way you want to put it” (DeLillo, 1997 157). The physical presence of the images and their medium of expression transform representation into a pure simulacrum by blurring the line between reality and representation because there is no clear indication of where the former stops and the latter begins. As Baudrillard puts it in Simulacra and Simulation, representation “has no relation to any reality whatsoever: it is its own pure simulacrum” (Baudrillard 6). In the example quoted above, the narrative voice points out to the immediacy at work made possible by the medium. Without a neutral interval, the assessment of the spatial and temporal coordinates that shape the event as well as the position the viewer might want to assume render the viewing act paradoxically “unremarkable,” albeit “glary,” raising questions about the de-realizing power of images and their function in postmodern culture.

  • 1 These novels include The Body Artist (2001), Cosmopolis (2003), Falling Man (2007), Point Omega (20 (...)

6Thus, Don DeLillo’s novels published in the twentieth century symptomatically portray aspects of life in reference to media saturation, commercial culture and the age of globalized free-market capitalism, prompting critics to read his twentieth-century body of work as “a means of redeeming the culture that he depicts” (Boxall, 2008 45). However, the writer’s post-2000 novels mark an aesthetic shift which corresponds to a turn away from images that transform events into a mere imitation.1 His later fiction features new modes of experiencing moments of perception that are achieved through ekphrastic episodes; the episodes shed light on how the embodied consciousness engages with an increasingly dematerialized world rife with digitally-generated images and environments. In these narrative spaces, time is still understood in relation to human embodiment and the physicality of existence. Its presence is acknowledged as an intrinsic quality that organizes humans’ being in the fabric of the world, as is the case with the omniscient narrator in The Body Artist, whose reflections on the nature of time define embodiment as a means of expressing human temporality, and thus mortality: “You are made out of time. This is the force that tells you who you are. […] Time is the only narrative that matters” (DeLillo, 2001 98). The rooting of the body into the physical world of the senses consequently presents readers with a double bind, inasmuch as the exploration of embodiment reveals its firm connection to bodily experience while it simultaneously brings out a virtually dematerialized present. Its main characteristic is the indistinctness of space-time coordinates, which has prompted Peter Boxall to argue that “DeLillo’s novels of the twenty-first century evince […] a sudden and drastic failure of bonds that hold us in time and space” (Boxall, 2012 689). However, DeLillo’s aesthetics does more than focus thematically on technological environments, for the writer’s novels sensitively chart and recreate the hybridized domains in which the digital-being of artifacts has modified the ways in which human beings experience embodiment in space and time. His aesthetics project endeavors to conceptualize human relationship to time in the age of technology as well as prompt reading experiences which help readers get a sense of what it feels like to experience another person’s subjective perception of time.

7Moreover, through the use of verbal images, the writer crafts narrative spaces which make readers both partake in the characters’ experiencing time and the effects of its flow, so much so that his “narratives open to a new temporality that might be assimilated to the notion of a duration internal to the image itself and to the very moment of its perception” (Pitozzi, 2020). As a result, the writer’s handling of both subjective and narrative time affects readers’ perception of time as well as the narrative framework in such a way that “the narration becomes the place where images are recreated, and no longer re-presented or repeated” (Pitozzi, 2020); consequently, the image “acquires a narrative substance in its own right, and merges entirely with reality into the perceptual life of characters who experience it as another reality intervening in (and becoming part of) their own world” (Pitozzi, 2020).

8Don DeLillo’s later novels symptomatically play out the shift in the contemporary modes of perceiving time that may stem from the relationships which individuals have with digital technologies. At the level of the narrative, attention is drawn not so much to the representation of reality as such—or the de-realization thereof—as to the possibility of producing an embodied language which has the ability to elicit readers’ empathic responses and an ethical engagement with the narrative contents. For instance, in Falling Man, the episodes that feature television footage related to the 9/11 attacks rely on visual representation to produce “temporal space for reflection within the narrative” (Carroll 116). More precisely, the aesthetic possibilities inherent in DeLillo’s later fiction call on readers to partake in the narrative and feel the presence of the images as if they possessed a time and a pace of their own; as if they were almost embodied beings taking up narrative space. One may assume that the “narrative substance” (Pitozzi) of the images—their embodiment into the fabric of the text—endows them with a performative quality meant to substitute for the gradual decrease of the materiality of the world, which seems to have “lost its narrative quality” (DeLillo, 2003 77).

9Moreover, the focus on embodiment goes hand in hand with a meditative turn in DeLillo’s aesthetics characteristic of his later novels. Katrina Harack argues that the reflexive dimension marks the “movement past postmodernism, invoking instead an embodied ethics that examines the individual’s relationship to place, to the body and to others” (Harack 304). The meditative turn is programmatically announced by DeLillo himself in his seminal essay “In the Ruins of the Future,” which represents a writerly response to the 9/11 events. Marco Abel duly points out how DeLillo’s response surpasses the intrinsic incomprehensibility of the event and the inadequacy of representational language to express its singularity; in dealing with the event, the writer’s strategy consists in producing a narrative that becomes an experience and “a mode of seeing” in itself. His refusal to “perceive or capture reality representationally” (Abel 1240)—which would amount to altering and demeaning it—gives him leeway to “intervene in the world by seeing, or rhetorically (re)inventing it” (Abel 1240).

10Thus DeLillo’s later fiction fathoms the implications of widening the scope of vision, without losing sight of the experiential dimension inherent in the activities of seeing and reading as embodied acts. Readers perceive how the semantic charge of the images alters the characters’ perception of time and how the textual rendering of the images creates a vicarious verbal presence, since the characters alone can literally sight the visual contents narrated by the text. The different modes of responding to images equally raise the question of the ethical position that readers might want to assume and point to the responsibility they have in the process of othering. If Don DeLillo’s post-2000 novels relate the activity of seeing to a plethora of screens—especially in Cosmopolis, Zero K, The Silence—or to video footage and art installation displayed on-screen, as is the case with The Body Artist, Falling Man, Point Omega, they do so to stage steady back-and-forth movements that go from the viewer’s perceptions to the reader’s ability to respond. This dynamic coming-and-going involves both the recipient of the images and the addressee of the narrative. It also amounts to a rhetorical strategy which turns seeing into an embodied act which relies on the emerging viewer figure whose role resides in eliciting readerly responses such as empathy, identification or distancing.

11What sets the writer’s post-millennial novels apart is both the perceptive and performative qualities that the viewing experience possesses since the character’s body acquires the status of a sensitive communication interface which is affected by images and registers sensitive stimuli. Therefore, visual devices function less as vectors serving to de-realize the real. Rather, they become enhancers of sensory experience allowing DeLillo’s fiction to produce feelings through language—as illustrated by the effects that images have on Lauren Hartke, the eponymous character in The Body Artist, who can “feel the deep silence of other places, the mystery of seeing over the world” (DeLillo, 2001 38). Conversely, visual devices may also work as framing tools which narrow down the field of vision establishing a biased structure of response, as suggested in Zero K. Here the narrator’s appraisal of his viewing experience is conditioned by the terms that the medium dictates, such as the speed and order of display: “I’m watching closely and trying to think into the action onscreen, the uniformity of it, the orderly deployment and steady pace that underlie the urgent scene” (DeLillo, 2016 152).

Embodiment and “placelessness”

12Don DeLillo’s later fiction evinces a sense that lived experience originates in a blend of the physical and virtual world. This perception arises from the fact that characters’ sensations are formed in hybridized environments which largely feed on TV footage and computer-generated images. The real is subsequently interspersed with the virtual, while reality unmistakably comes in all stripes—actual, virtual, augmented—producing either the multiplication of the points of contact one may establish with the real or, contrariwise, “the mass insomnia of this inconceivable time” (DeLillo, 2020 78). The knotty relationship to time that ensues further loosens the ties that embodied existence establishes with the materiality of the world. The image-based orientation of the global culture is triggered by the omnipresence of visual devices the excessive use of which leads to religious-like practices in Cosmopolis: “the small monitors of the office, home and car become a kind of idolatry here” (DeLillo, 2003 80). However, worshipping is put an end to in The Silence, where the activity of watching screen footage unexpectedly comes to a halt since “screens have emptied out everywhere” (DeLillo, 2020 80) prompting characters and readers alike to reckon “what remains for [them] to see, hear, feel” (DeLillo, 2020 80). The disappearance of images brings to the fore the presence of the blank screen thereby creating a space for the possible reinstatement of verbal communication.

13The five characters’ attempt at substituting images for speech in The Silence finds its meta-textual counterpart in DeLillo’s writing, where words produce ekphrastic descriptions to provide a verbal substitute for the impossibility of witnessing the literal presence of images within the narrative fabric. As a literary trope, ekphrasis has a long history, and therefore it boasts a host of definitions. In his influential article “Ekphrasis and Representation,” James Heffernan distinguishes ekphrasis from iconicity and pictorialism because, he argues, ekphrasis refers to works of art, it “represents representation itself” (Heffernan 300). On this account, ekphrastic literature reveals the “narrative response to pictorial stasis, this storytelling impulse that language by its very nature seems to release and stimulate” (Heffernan 301). Nevertheless, W. J. T. Mitchell has expanded Heffernan’s limiting definition of ekphrasis to include verbal descriptions of any type of visual content, defining it amply as “the verbal representation of visual representation” (Mitchell 152). Moreover, Mitchell postulates three different stages of ekphrastic realization; these stages correspond to a stage of impossibility, followed by a phase of hope and finally by a stage of fear. Thus, Mitchell first admits to the impossibility of the written material to bring to the readers’ eyes images in the same way visual representations can, because “words can ‘cite,’ but never ‘sight’ their objects” (Mitchell 152). However, this difficulty is left behind in a second phase by the writer’s calling on imagination and metaphor which allow readers to “discover a ‘sense’ in which language can do what so many writers have wanted it to do: ‘to make us see’” (Mitchell 152). Therefore, ekphrasis becomes a means whereby the narrative can recreate perceptual experiences, where language is used in the service of vision. But the very moment in which the image-text division is overcome, being replaced by a sutured imagetext—where the image actually comes into view—can be finally experienced as a “resistance or counter-desire,” as Mitchell suggests, “a deceitful illusion, a magical technique that threatens to fixate the poet and the listener” (Mitchell 156). Consequently, images—conceived of as the other of the text—can never literally be present. They can only be conjured up as a “potent absence or as a fictive, figural present […]. The ekphrastic image acts, in other words, like a sort of unapproachable and unpresentable ‘black hole’ in the verbal structure, entirely absent from it, but shaping and affecting it in fundamental ways” (Mitchell 158). Mitchell’s line of argument concerning the potency of ekphrasis to affect and shape the narrative is central to Don DeLillo’s aesthetics, where the corporality of the words vividly makes the images present. Thus, the sutured imagetext, or the “black hole,” to use Mitchell’s metaphor, can simultaneously convey a sense of the omnipresence of contemporary visual culture, the feeling that people inhabit an increasingly dematerialized world, and produce a sense of unease in relation to the narrative’s ability to recreate real-life experiences. The writer’s use of verbal images endows his fiction with a potential to make the present visible and legible; readers sense how the fictional reality effectively triggers off perception-based states that are tangibly felt throughout the reading process, since time is stretched out, slowed down or even suspended.

  • 2 Frédérique de Vignemont and Tania Singer set the defining contours of the term “empathy” by relatin (...)

14If images go suddenly missing in The Silence, their absence encourages readers to further ponder on affectivity and sociability and the various ways in which the present is experienced through embodiment and “placelessness” (Harack 309). The disappearance of images is relevant to the ways in which the writer translates the dichotomy presence-otherness into elements of literary structure to either generate or block empathic reading.2 In Cosmopolis, the fictional space is fraught with technological artifacts ranging from computer screens to sophisticated interfaces. For instance, the depiction of the protagonist’s dematerialized habitat highlights the gradual diminution of the physical world, which conditions the perception of his surroundings and invites readers to decide whether they wish to adhere to the present’s uncanny immediacy: “[t]he context was nearly touchless. He could talk most systems into operation or wave a hand at a screen and make it go blank” (DeLillo, 2003 13). Eric Packer comes across as a self-made man whose wealth and assets portfolio result from his effective utilization of technology and cyberspace. The twenty-eight-year-old multi-billionaire’s embodied presence in the sensorial world is offset by his disavowal of the world’s materiality. Eric’s dissatisfaction with embodied existence—his own’s and the world’s—encapsulates two contradictory attitudes, namely a hatred of material existence and a longing for immediate instinctual pleasure that embodiment can provide: “there were days when he wanted to eat all the time, talk to people’s faces, live in meat space” (DeLillo, 2003 64).

  • 3 This appears to be the case in the faceoff scene in which Eric encounters his assassin, Benno. The (...)

15These ambivalent and paradoxical attitudes enable readers to get a sense of what it is like to be an embodied consciousness that conceives of the present as already posthumous, on account of the character’s absolute infatuation with technological devices. Physical space in the narrative is devoid of value as “the world is subsumed to the character’s subjective space” (Daanoune 119). Seeing through computer screens not only shapes perception, but it also implies the acknowledgement of a sensible choice for the character, albeit insensitive to the readers’ eyes, that adds meaning and significance to virtual reality: “[i]t made more sense on TV” (DeLillo, 2003 89). From the outset, the protagonist has a spectral quality about him that bestows artificiality on his being: “[e]very act he performed was self-haunted and synthetic. The palest thought carried an anxious shadow” (DeLillo, 2003 6). By endorsing self-absorption and deprivation of human feelings, Eric’s characterization thwarts the possibility of readerly identification. Due to this impossibility, empathy tends to be directed toward Benno, Eric’s assassin, whose plea chimes with the readers’ sense of human vulnerability.3 Here, empathy originates in “the tension between story and discourse” (Lindhé 21), as it occurs at Eric’s expense since his assassin’s words and confession make him come across as a failing human being, one may say a victim of a more serious wrong, a man more sinned against than sinning.

16If characterization impedes empathy to Eric’s detriment, the narrative space further thwarts empathic responses due to the temporal hiatus at work. The order of the discourse disrupts time’s irreversible arrow—which moves from the present to the future—to suggest that Eric’s virtual death has to precede his real one: “He looked at his watch. […] There was an image, a face on the crystal, and it was his. […] [T]he image on the screen was a body now, facedown on the floor. […] Whose body and when? Have all the worlds conflated, all possible states become present at once? […] O shit I’m dead” (DeLillo, 2003 204-206). So, one may wonder what it means for the readers to partake in the character’s witnessing his own death on-screen. Eric Packer’s downfall and death certainly mark the fulfilment of the character’s yearning for a dematerialized existence, but they also make apparent the accomplishment of the narrative tension toward which the whole fictional and aesthetic edifice has headed for so far. If Eric can catch a glimpse of his own inanimate body on the screen of his connected watch before his actual death in the physical world, it further means that death has no actuality in the present of the storytelling, which is also the readers’. At the level of the diegesis, readers are presented with a view of the present as devoid of substance. A present that awaits its actualization in the space-time coordinates, intimating both absence and a present-less existence, thereby supporting the idea that the present time is “harder to find […] being sucked out of the world” (DeLillo, 2003 79). However, at the level of the discourse, readers can notice a shift in the point of view, as the third person narrative is left behind since the “I” takes over, which corresponds to Eric’s realization of his own death taking place in the present. This acknowledges the actuality of embodiment in the materiality of the world, whose very presence is the necessary condition for death to occur.

The reader-cum-viewer position

17The ways in which ekphrasis is handled within discourse make it possible for DeLillo’s aesthetics to provide readers with a structure of seeing and feeling where words act like pictures allowing them to experience the events from within characters’ frames of reference, to feel with the characters or on the contrary to fail to respond empathically to the visual scenes that unfold. If DeLillo translates the experience of vision into a textual form, he does so with an eye to intended discrepancies that arise between the characters’ reception of images and the readers’ partaking in the process of reception, instantiating what Suzanne Keen calls “empathic inaccuracy,” namely deliberate “discordance arising from gaps between an author’s intention and a reader’s experience of narrative empathy” (Keen 215).

18To make his texts act like pictures Don DeLillo designs embedded structures in which the ekphrastic moments deeply draw readers into the reading process; these moments create the reader-cum-viewer position where the reading-seeing experience implies the enactment of the character’s viewing body through the translation of his or her reactions and the visual contents of the images into textual equivalents. In particular, seeing through the characters’ eyes, getting privileged access to their thoughts in reference to their watching experiences, as well as temporarily adopting their viewpoints, are narrative strategies that provide readers with an intimate knowledge of what the characters are thinking and what it feels like to experience the passage of time through media-generated events. I especially intend to focus on the array of responses produced by different occurrences of death taking place on screen. These scenes are indicative of the ways in which the rhetorical use of language generates emotional contagion, elicits empathic responses, or contrariwise, induces distancing attitudes in readers. For instance, Cosmopolis and Falling Man provide scenes which build on extreme bodily emotions where occurrences of death taking place on-screen confront readers with ethical and experiential dimensions that prompt them to assess the medium’s ability to annihilate the ontological traits of the event. Thus, emotionally disturbing material helps generate narrative situations that rhetorically affect readers. These episodes elicit unforeseen emotional states and ethical stances because stress is laid on individual experiences of horror and the subjective quality of the impact produced by the traumatic event upon the subject who experiences it. Secondly, I aim to examine the ways in which ekphrastic moments bring out the notion of embodiment in relation to virtual spaces and therefore question the ontological nature of reality against the backdrop of a global media culture. The reception of images is determined by the pace and the quality of the time they give rise to. This is particularly the case in The Body Artist, where real-time images help the protagonist reinstate a non-traumatic relationship to time; in Point Omega, the presence of the art installation relies on effects stemming from its running pace in order to explore multiple levels of perception conducive to reality formation—a topic that is equally central to Zero K, where computer-generated images acquire an embodied quality to the narrator’s eyes. Through speed variations, limiting viewpoints and reliance on free indirect speech, the narratives deliberately distort the viewing conditions in an attempt to reveal what remains out of sight in order to present readers with new prospects of the real by “alter[ing] the format and expos[ing] the flaws” (DeLillo, 2010 130).

19By presenting scenes that focus on instances of death occurring on the screen, both Cosmopolis and Falling Man explore how feelings and sensations affect the characters’ viewing bodies, verging in places on sensationalism. Screens work here not only as mediators but also as enhancers of the real, inasmuch as they stand for conveyors of visual information giving rise to contradictory emotions. Take for example Lianne’s repetitive watching of the 9/11 attacks in Falling Man, or Eric’s maniacal watching of the footage featuring Arthur Rapp’s death in Cosmopolis. Even if Eric’s and Lianne’s viewing experiences set dissimilar emotional contexts, they both create a two-layered structure that embeds the character-as-viewer level into the readers’ level, allowing the latter to participate vicariously in an embodied viewing experience. Readers modulate their responses in light of the empathic consonance or dissonance that either narrative orchestrates. Active visual participation and ethical responses are called forth on the part of the readers, who relate emotionally to the narrative contents and asses the aesthetic and ethical effects at work.

20Death “infotainment” and the presence of sensational material replete with graphic violence reframe the readers’ modes of seeing. Eric psychotically ogles the video contents featuring Arthur Rapp’s killing. This establishes a stimuli-conditioned state that feeds on sensationalism from which the protagonist retrieves intense voyeuristic pleasure. Referred to as the managing director of the International Monetary Fund, Arthur Rapp is an ancillary character in the novel, whose death is turned into a world spectacle by global media. The murder scene is tinged with situational and verbal irony creating the salutary distancing effect for readers. Irony lies in the fact that, even though Arthur Rapp is “killed live on the Money Channel” (DeLillo, 2003 33), Eric is able to see two different occurrences of Arthur’s imminent death simultaneously. In addition, Eric can take a peek at the present from the vantage point of the future, which implies that irreversibility and human temporality are relinquished in favor of technological time: “Eric watched him sign a document on one screen and prepare to die on another” (DeLillo, 2003 33). The multiplication of temporal occurrences gives time a spatial quality that actualizes multiple instances of death and does away with its unicity; paradoxically, it makes real the repetition of a logically impossible occurrence substantiating what Peter Boxall refers to as the uncanny presence of “out-of-joint time” (Boxall, 2012 691). Readers, for their part, witness the violent circumstances of death and the obscene show of brutality in an ekphrastic mode that requires selective empathic responses. Arthur Rapp is murdered in real time but the spectacle of his death goes on in loops, feeding Eric’s voyeuristic drives: “Eric watched it happen again, in obsessive replays” (DeLillo, 2003 33). The repetitive loops reveal Eric’s mechanical mode of reception underlining the character’s desensitization as he endows the scene with a sensational dimension.

21Here the rhetorical strategies elicit readerly empathy, not so much on account of the readers’ siding with Arthur Rapp at Eric’s expense, but rather as a result of the dissonance at work. Since the death footage is verbally rendered, the plot does not hush the events displayed by the screen. However, the expeditious unfolding of the murder episode accompanied by the sustained rhythm of the sentences turns the violence of the scene into a repulsively ludicrous situation. The episode verges on the grotesque in a bid to silence the graphic account of the event so as to impede the readers’ appraisal of the situation and make them fail to feel for the character’s physical agony. Seeing through the scene implies both the assessment of the discordant planes that originate in diegetic and stylistic elements and the acceptance of a reading pace that does justice to the rhythmic cadence and paratactic quality of the text:

A man in a short-sleeve shirt came into camera range and began to stab Arthur Rapp in the face and neck. Arthur Rapp clutched the man and seemed to draw him nearer as if to share a confidence. They tumbled together to the floor, tangled in the mike cord of the interviewer. She was dragged down with them, a willowy woman whose slit skirt ran up her thigh and became the pivotal point of observation. (DeLillo, 2003 33-34)

22The dynamic quality of the language builds on the prevalence of monosyllables (“a man in a short-sleeve shirt”) and the presence of alliterations (“willowy woman whose slit skirt ran up her thigh”). Thus, the graphic violence underlying the images is quickly swept away, while the quirky comment on the embrace-like struggle between the assassin and his victim as well as the unflattering comparison that intimates Arthur Rapp’s face mutilation serve to downplay the character’s death throes:

There was a close-up on one of the screens. It was Arthur Rapp’s pulpy face blowing outward in spasms of shock and pain. It resembled a mass of pressed vegetable matter. Eric wanted them to show it again. Show it again. They did this, of course, and he knew they would do it repeatedly into the night, our night, until the sensation drained out of it or everyone into the world has seen it, whichever came first, but he could see it again if he wished, anytime, through scan retrieval, a technology that seemed already oppressively sluggish, or he could recover a slow-motion shot of the willowy woman and her hand mike being sucked into the terror and he could sit here for hours wanting to fuck her then and there in the bloodwhirl of knife and random limbs and slashed carotids, amid the staccato cries of the flailing assassin, cell phone clipped to his belt, and the gaseous bloated moans of the dying Arthur Rapp. (DeLillo, 2003 33)

23First, the episode has a burlesque quality about it because of the shift in focus from Arthur’s pain to the journalist’s fall; then, it records Eric’s desensitized reception and the sexual fantasies arising in him. The narrative voice intently whizzes through the scene imposing a rapid pace reminiscent of the voice-over. The narration segues from the verbal description of the video images into Eric’s consciousness, graphically rendered by italics: “Show it again.” However, the use of narratorial commentary—compounded by free indirect discourse and the juxtaposition of concurring external and internal points of view—divides readers’ loyalties, as they distance themselves from Eric’s perception, which rests on a conflated and reversible space-time supported by the use of deictics “here,” “then and there.” Instead, the presence of the polysyndeton makes readers sense that each new element adds to a list meant to elicit repugnance, creating therefore a distancing effect: “the bloodwhirl of knife and random limbs and slashed carotids, […], and the gaseous bloated moans of the dying Arthur Rapp” (emphasis added).

  • 4 Here are some examples, among many others, of traumatic occurrences that pervade the whole narrativ (...)

24Falling Man also features an episode in which death becomes a repeatable event. Lianne’s obsessive watching of the video footage which shows the planes that strike the Twin Towers relates to the novel’s concerns, namely the workings of trauma and its effects on traumatized people whose perception of time is altered. In Cosmopolis, the images that narrate Arthur Rapp’s death amount to a mock-cathartic show where violence imparts vitality on the protagonist: “He felt refreshed. The death of Arthur Rapp was refreshing” (DeLillo, 2003 35). The character’s feelings create a sense of incongruity in relation to the killing scene, preventing readerly identification. Conversely, Falling Man is intent on letting readers come closer to this trauma-permeated text, and vicariously experience what it feels like to be a trauma victim and have a distorted relationship to time. Written as a polyphonic narrative, Falling Man can be read as a literary rendering of the 9/11 trauma which seeks to weave together individual and collective stories. The novel’s universe is replete with trauma-related incidents; the characters’ backgrounds are informed by different types of trauma which go back to their childhoods and end up surfacing back into the present. Thus trauma is pervasive throughout the story on account of the fractal patterns it creates in the fabric of the narrative since it appears on different levels, at ever smaller scales, tying characters and events together. In fact, elements of the overall pattern are repeated, either by being zoomed in on or by being viewed from a greater distance, namely by characters looking back at events that took place in the past.4 Thanks to the fractal design that repeats the disabling condition at different scales, readers get a sense of how trauma informs the narrative structure and how traumatized people are beset with obsessive images, with flashbacks and circular time that prevents the characters from fully living in the present.

25Though Lianne has experienced the attacks on the Twin Towers vicariously by means of media images, she is nevertheless a trauma victim. Unbeknownst to herself, her compulsive watching strengthens memory mechanisms based on fear conditioning, causing her to experience the traumatic event over and over again. The character ends up developing fear-conditioned implicit memories. This “emotional memory” (LeDoux 183) averts the encoding of conscious emotional experience into the character’s explicit declarative memory, which Joseph LeDoux calls the “memory of an emotion” (LeDoux 183). According to Cathy Caruth, to be traumatized is “precisely to be possessed by an image or an event” (Caruth 5) and Lianne fits the definition since she cannot help watching the videos showing the planes that hit the towers:

Every time she saw a videotape of the planes she moved a finger toward the power button on the remote. Then she kept on watching. The second plane coming out of that ice blue sky, this was the footage that entered the body, that seemed to run beneath her skin, the fleeting sprint that carried lives and histories, theirs and hers, everyone’s, into some other distance, out beyond the towers. (DeLillo, 2007 134)

26The use of determinants expressing frequency gives a temporal texture to the scene indicative of the character’s repetitive watching and her fear-conditioned mode of reception. Readers are given access to Lianne’s consciousness for whom the presence of the images and their emotional force condition her perception of the event, and make her experience it as if it were taking place now. The use of “then” suggests a pause in the character’s mind, a longer lapse of time connoting hesitation. Her mind is aware of the vivid sensations that her body is registering, letting readers notice how the images control the tenor of her thoughts and produce psychic pain. Lianne’s continual watching of the scene creates a layer of media-induced memories that contribute to altered memory formation. It also brings the present and the past together, giving rise to an emotional experience that has a temporal dimension of its own, being situated beyond linear time. Readers have direct access to Lianne’s lived experience, to the ways in which she perceives time and its suspension due to the traumatic condition she finds herself in:

Standing by the wall he reached toward the chair and took her hand. She bit her lip and watched. They would all be dead, passengers and crew, and thousands in the towers dead, and she felt it in her body, a deep pause, and thought there he is, unbelievably, in one of those towers, and now his hand on hers, in pale light, as though to console her for his dying. (DeLillo, 2007 134, emphasis added)

27The third-person narration brings out the influence that the images have on Lianne, since her body and mind plunge back into the past to experience anew the emotional intensity and fear she felt back then. The syncope-like pause imparts a sense of void, making Lianne live again the initial terror felt at the loss of lives and her dread at Keith’s possible death. The presence of the footage makes possible the merging of the past and present time, which turns Keith’s standing beside her into a spectral presence. Her past memories and present sensations come together in the present to create a site for trauma within the narrative and allow readers to experience firsthand the reenactment of traumatic memory.

28In Cosmopolis and Falling Man the video footage becomes a vehicle that does more than mediate events occurring in the world. For readers are stationed in an advantageous position which makes apparent the workings of the characters’ embodied consciousness, where the verbal rendering of the video sequences is reinforced by the emotional transcription of the characters’ mental states and bodily reactions. The characters’ bodies register media events and become the host of sensations producing feelings and thoughts that mirror and interpret what is taking place on the screen. In Cosmopolis Eric’s watching experience and his unresponsiveness in reference to Arthur Rapp’s violent death register the protagonist’s desensitization which is closely connected to his hatred of embodiment. In Falling Man, Lianne’s compulsive watching lays special emphasis on the acknowledgement of her traumatic experience. The focus on the character’s senses and subjective perception allows for the reenactment of the workings of trauma within the narrative. Moreover, by establishing the reader-cum-viewer position, the ekphrastic episodes participate in a rhetorical strategy intent on opening up un-totalizing and critical perspectives. For this position enables readers to simultaneously notice the characters’ bodily sensations, to come nearer to their emotions, to feel with the characters or to distance themselves from them. Hence, by inviting readers to inhabit the position of the embodied viewers, the narrative generates a modulatory mechanism that either enhances or reduces readerly empathy.

29As a result, Don DeLillo’s novels enact what Suzanne Keen calls the “triangulated empathic bond” inasmuch as they encapsulate the author’s empathic intentions and at the same time they contribute to “the creation of textual beings designed to elicit empathic responses from readers” (Keen 221-222). On this account, it is worth considering how Don DeLillo achieves the “triangulated empathic bond” in the final pages of Zero K where special attention is given to the guerilla war taking place in Ukraine, as the footage is broadcast on the screens of the Convergence. Here the writer manages to make his readers sense the affectless mode in which the camera registers instances of killing and death, while using narrative prompts to drop hints and simultaneously modulate readerly involvement. The narrative relies on the gradual shift in point of view which silences Jeff—the first-person narrator of the story—in an attempt to bring into prominence the limiting perspective of the recording camera. By restricting the point of view, a sense of immediacy is conveyed so that readers may experience the scene as if they were actually there. However, the narratorial interventions serve as a reminder of Jeff’s viewer status, who certainly concedes to the force of images and accounts for the necessity to step back. Nevertheless, by doing so, the narrator manages to make palpable the effects of the camera on the viewer; consequently he renders ineffective the intimacy of the camera to the readers’ eyes. Readers become aware of the closeness imposed by the camera on Jeff and therefore they do not share the narrator’s short-lived blocked empathy:

It looks and it sounds like traditional war, men in arms […]. Sounds of local gunfire, and the men take cover, searching out the source, firing back, and the soundtrack flows into the action, loud, close, voices calling, and I have to step back from the screen even as the camera becomes more intimately involved, creeping along the terrain for close-ups of men’s faces, young and not so young, fingers gripping triggers, bodies edged against the frame of a ruined structure. […] [A]nd all I’m able to do is watch and listen, a sudden clutter of sound and image, the camera sways and jitters and then finds a man standing in the hulk of a wrecked car, rifle sweeping the area. He fires several times, upper body flinching in rhythm. He ducks down and waits. We all wait. The camera scans the area and it is empty debris and light rain and then the single figure is back in sight […]. [T]he firing resumes from various quarters and the picture jumps and the man is hit. This is what I think I see. […] He is hit again and goes to his knees and I’m reciting these words to myself as I watch. He is hit again and goes to his knees and there is a distinct image of the figure, khaki field jacket, jeans and boots, spiky hair, he is three times life size, here, above me, shot and bleeding, stain spreading across his chest, young man, eyes shut, surpassingly real.
It was Emma’s son. It was Stak. (DeLillo, 2016 262-263, emphasis added)

30The camera captures the scene in detail and thwarts the presence of multiple points of view so that readers be able to follow the story through Jeff’s astounded mind’s eyes, sensing the impact of the images on the narrator who literally becomes the receptor of the visual and aural information. However, the narrative’s recourse to the first-person personal pronoun, “We all wait,” represents a direct address to readers to reconsider their modes of reception. Only upon reconsidering his own act of seeing can Jeff question the very nature of perception, and subsequently he manages to distance himself from the unemotional recording of the events displayed by the camera. Thanks to the shift from the camera to the narrator’s embodied consciousness, the target acquires the status of a victim who is finally seen as a person toward whom the narrator can be empathic. In addition, the finale of the scene comes as an epiphanic moment since the victim turns out to be nobody else but Stak, the adopted son of Jeff’s girlfriend. The narrator’s realization turns the impersonal pronoun into a subject, “It was Stak,” effectively belying Eric Packer’s assertion in Cosmopolis that existence makes “more sense on TV” (DeLillo, 2003 89).

“We’re seeing only intimations”

31References to media and digital infrastructures feature in Don DeLillo’s later novels to foresee the transformation of the world into a globally monitored space which may result in the disruption of the individuals’ relationship to inner and outer spaces, to themselves and the physical world. If seeing becomes the preserve of technology due to the networks it deploys, since “satellites in the orbit […] are able to see everything” (DeLillo, 2020 90), the narratives are interested in exploring the widening scope of vision and the impact it has on human perception. Take for example The Silence, where the narrative voice admits to the capacity of technological devices to subdue perception and relegate it to the media that controls it: “Our personal perceptions sinking into quantum dominance” (DeLillo, 2020 77). Likewise, the piecemeal video footage orchestrating worldwide calamities in Zero K or the samples of reality collected from distant horizons which are displayed on the artist’s computer screen in The Body Artist provide panoptic views of the world. These vistas bring out not so much enhanced seeing capacities as insights into perception. Thus the narratives stage episodes featuring characters who watch video footage and moving pictures on TV and computer screens to insatiate how the perception of reality is shaped by digital images, giving therefore rise to a contemporary perceptual culture dependent on the existing media infrastructures.

32The ekphrastic episodes in DeLillo’s later novels enact a shift in focus, as they move away from the slippage of reality behind the proliferation of free-floating images and come closer to acts of subjective perception, where seeing is an imaginative act rather than an act connected to the sense of sight, as one of the characters in Zero K suggests: “We’re seeing only intimations. The rest is our invention, our way of reconstructing what is actual, if there is any such thing, philosophically, that we can call actual” (DeLillo, 2016 45). Seeing implies perceptual moments that acquire their own time and pace, raising readers’ awareness of the connection underpinning the perception of the present and one’s consciousness. In addition, screens contribute to the characters’ experience of hybridized reality as a heterotopic space demanding perceptive efforts on their part to surpass the opacity of the device. As a device, the screen opens up perspectives pertaining to the real, while it also brings about a divide between the physical world and the virtual space that it makes possible. Anna Caterina Dalmasso argues that screens open onto a heterotopia which establishes a dialectical relationship between the real and the virtual (Dalmasso 46). She further contends that screens open onto a show which differs from the world where the spectator stands. By introducing a discontinuity between the samples of the real they convey and the spectator’s space, screens generate a heterotopic surface that stimulates the viewer’s awareness and therefore perception.

33In The Body Artist, the real-time images livestreamed from a remote town in Finland retain the same temporal and spatial characteristics as the real-world elements they relate to. The amount of sensorial data captured by the camera allows for minimal losses and it actually displays a multi-layered reality that helps reframe the character’s ways of reaching out to otherness within her own subjectivity. However, this is not the case in Zero K and Point Omega where images are all at once generated, manipulated, and filtered through the lens of technology, as the medium carries out the effects sought out either by the biopolitical ideology in power in Zero K or the artist’s aesthetic quest in Point Omega. The latter features an anonymous character who is engrossed in watching Douglas Gordon’s 24 Hour Psycho in the novel’s opening and closing chapters. The installation consists in slowing down Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho to make it last for twenty-four hours. By means of ekphrasis, the contents of the installation become available via the character’s verbal mediation where stress is put on the perceptual process. This process actively takes place through the character’s constant awareness of the visual distortions stemming from the speed and movement with which the images are displayed. Awareness through the senses is in the limelight and subsequently perception becomes the protagonist in the narrative, prompting readers to readjust their own scales of perception and reconsider the true existence of things in the light of their heightened use of the senses. Readers are free to adhere to or disregard the character’s conclusion concerning the potentiating effects of the installation and therefore decide on the meaning they want to attribute to lived experience: “[h]e would not be able to watch the real movie, the other Psycho, ever again. This was the real movie. He was seeing everything here for the first time” (DeLillo, 2010 135).

34Screens as technological devices possess therefore a reflective function; they invite viewers to question different layers of perception in order to become aware of the multiple versions of the real screens convey. Moreover, if ekphrasis in The Body Artist imparts the idea that the character’s access to digitalized reality increases her awareness and creative potential, the presence of screen images also intimates the possibility of surveillance, which is further explored in Zero K and The Silence. Here characters experience a sense of manipulation due to the comprehensive amount of data collected from the physical world. In The Silence the implementation of “[m]ass surveillance software that makes its own decisions” (DeLillo, 2020 80) leads to “[g]ranular surveillance” and “Tech-dome” (DeLillo, 2020 115). More precisely, the notion of granularity is brought to the fore to suggest a change in scale implemented and supported by technological devices, which are efficient enough to acknowledge the presence of discrete elements and provide a high level of detail which proves to be beyond the perception of the human eye. Technology enables therefore enhanced viewing capacities that paradoxically result in visual impairment and vulnerability, as the narrative voice notices in The Silence and aptly asserts the impossibility of relating the available information to one’s own lived experience: “The more advanced, the more vulnerable. Our systems of surveillance, our facial recognition devices, our imagery resolution. How do we know who we are?” (DeLillo, 2020 61). Subsequently, the excessive amount of data fed in by the sensors gives technological devices the ability to perceive and register the sensible world to a degree which human perception is not properly qualified to detect. For this reason, the narratives’ reliance on the ekphrastic mode can be read as a rhetorical strategy which functions thematically as an indication of the wealth and scale of details to which the characters have access; and stylistically as a means of morphing visual elements into communicable verbal forms that can embark characters on a quest for empathy. In this manner, ekphrasis becomes a literary tool that makes readers aware of the diverse forms that otherness can take and commits them to making out the complexity of the sensorial world so that readers can step out of their habits of perception.

35The Body Artist can also be read as an attempt at staging multiple instances of perception, originating in the vantage point of the artist. The novel’s fragmentary structure sets readers in a position that allows them to follow the artist’s embodied consciousness engaged in the very process of perceiving time, with its halting pace and irregular flow in the aftermath of the traumatic event. Within the diegesis, Lauren Hartke, who is a body artist, tries to overcome the shock caused by her husband’s suicide. The artist’s viewpoint seeks to make do with human vulnerability and acknowledge the notion of becoming as a dynamic process involving otherness and identity. Lauren repetitively watches live-streamed images from Kotka, in Finland. This experience enhances her perceptive abilities and prompts her to think through the ways in which alterity lodges within one’s own existence. The writer’s choice of language and narrative techniques makes it possible for readers to approach the artist’s affective states first-hand. For instance, free indirect speech gives readers unmediated access to Lauren’s consciousness, whose perception of real-time images produces a sense of contemporaneity to each passing moment. Linguistically, immediacy is rendered by means of deictics—“now” and “here”—which join together the spatiotemporal notions of proximity and present to those of distance and past to form a single instant, which, by definition, is imperceptible. The occurrence of the present moment is made apparent in the watching act. Thus, the character’s perception and awareness of each moment’s inexorable flow, moving from the present into the past, helps Lauren reinstate a salutary relationship to time:

It was the middle of the night in Kotka, in Finland, and she watched the screen. It was interesting to her because it was happening now, as she sat here, and because it happened twenty-four hours a day, facelessly, cars entering and leaving Kotka, or just the empty road in the dead times. The dead times were best. […] It was the sense of organization, a place contained in an unyielding frame, as it is and as you watch, with a reading of local time in the digital display in a corner of the screen. Kotka was another world but she could see it in its realness, in its hours, minutes and seconds. (DeLillo, 2001 37, emphasis added)

36Consequently, the active perception of real-time images reveals the flow of time, simultaneously bestowing on the artist a sense of perspective and ontological presence. Moreover, Lauren’s focus on the dead times helps her detect the discrete quality of each passing moment suggesting the artist’s ability to perceive the density of duration. Her disposition bears comparison with Tessa’s, one of the characters in The Silence that embodies the poet figure. Tessa’s interest in words rather than images “carries [her] back into dead time” (DeLillo, 2020 112), creating moments of temporal consistency that build on perception, imagination and past memories. For Lauren, the video streaming also makes perceptible the multidimensionality of the world, inasmuch as it multiplies the artist’s points of contact with the real. It equally brings out the medium’s ability to reveal otherness as “realness,” “Kotka was another world.”

37Since images provide access to distant spaces located beyond the body’s perceptive abilities, they take on qualitative and poetic functions in the body artist’s eyes:

She didn’t know the meaning of this feed but took it as an act of floating poetry. It emptied her mind and made her feel the deep silence of other places, the mystery of seeing over the world to a place stripped of everything but a road that approaches and recedes, both realities occurring at once, and the numbers changed in the digital display with an odd and hollow urgency, the seconds advancing toward the minute, the minutes climbing hourward. (DeLillo, 2001 38)

38Lauren’s ability to enlarge her perceptual range by emotionally embracing the vastness of the world eschews totalization and keeps intact the mystery inherent in otherness, which has the power to heighten her affective states and increase her creative potential. The artist incorporates measured time in her performance to acknowledge the co-existence of otherness within her intimate being. This conveys the idea that living in the present is a matter of being constantly assailed by affective and aesthetic experiences, as well as being inhabited by a desire for transcendence and becoming. The artist transposes the force of time into her bodily performance, so that readers may perceive the actualization of finitude intrinsic to embodied existence.

39Unlike The Body Artist, Zero K examines the ways in which video images distort, or actually manipulate perception, rather than enhance it. The utopian promise of immortality that biotechnology harbors is epitomized in the diegesis by the Convergence, a research center located “at the far margins of plausibility” (DeLillo, 2016 115), “beyond the limits of believability and law” (DeLillo, 2016 254). The Convergence is a reminder that technology and science cannot utterly control life’s complexity and dispense with human vulnerability. By relying on the ideologically redefined concepts of state and language, researchers work hard here to test the limits of the human, ideating the possibility of immortality. At the core of the highly hybridized space of the Convergence, Jeff—who is the reflector of the scene—undergoes a screen-mediated experience in which both sight and seeing are shaped by ideologically-loaded images. Videos of manipulated and mutilated reality are a caveat for Jeff against taking a single point of view. His viewing experience is distorted twice: firstly, on account of the fabricated quality of the images, and secondly, due to the narrator’s presence in a place “beyond believability” which adds an extra layer of artifice. Through Jeff’s verbal mediations, readers vicariously sense the compelling force of the images and the distorting effects of the screens. Screens are turned into ideological tools which seek to manipulate perception and convey world vistas controlled by technology. As a result, perception is altered since the viewer fails to see through the orchestration at work and falls prey to the emotional sway of the images:

At first the images were all water. […] I watched as water kept rising in city streets, cars and drivers going under. The size of the screen lifted the effect out of the category of TV news. Everything loomed, scenes lasted long past the usual broadcast breath. It was there in front of me, on my level, immediate and real, a woman sitting life-sized […]. A man, a face, underwater, staring out at me. I had to step back but also had to keep looking. It was hard not to look. Finally I glanced back down the hall waiting for someone to appear, another witness, a person who might stand next to me while the images built and clung.
There was no audio. (DeLillo, 2016, 11)

40By focusing on a single element, the footage carries out an ontological transformation which has direct consequences on Jeff, since the narrator decides against categorizing it as “news.” No longer perceived as a visual representation, the footage becomes an embodied presence that takes on a performative function, prompting the narrator to wish for the presence of someone—a witness to this scene—with whom he can share its forceful effects. Obviously, readers are the only witnesses available, and are directly encouraged to join in the visual experience. Despite the emotional sway the footage has on Jeff, its incongruous editing effects incite the narrator to write it off as visual fiction: “a digital weave, every fragment manipulated and enhanced, all of it designed, edited, redesigned. […] These were visual fictions” (DeLillo, 2016 152). And yet, the acknowledgement of the fictional character of the video cannot set Jeff free from its controlling influence, since the visual contents still retain their performative and affective potential. Accordingly, the video images enact an ontological shift as they manage to blur the nature of the digital being of the image, which psychically affects the embodied being of the viewer:

I went a few more paces and had to stop, the noise nearly upon me, and then they came wheeling around the corner charging in my direction, the running men and women, images bodied out, spilled from the screen. I hurried to the only safety there was, the nearest wall, back flattened, arms spread, the runners bearing down, nine or ten abreast, blasting past, wild-eyed. I could see their sweat and smell their stink and they kept on coming, all looking directly ahead.
Be calm. See what’s here. (DeLillo, 2016 152-153, emphasis added)

41The excerpt makes prominent Jeff’s perception of the scene, enabling readers to notice how the character experiences the attack first-hand as if it were taking place in the sensible space where the act of seeing is carried out. Imagination feeds into perception inasmuch as Jeff literally feels through his senses the reality of the images, since he can actually see and smell the sweat of the people chasing him. However, the performativity underlying the footage wanes as soon as a phenomenon of displacement occurs, once Jeff has managed to see himself as the spectator of a show which affects his body and mind—“Be calm. See what’s here.” Self-reflexivity as well as his ability to reframe the manipulative character of the visual contents make it possible for Jeff to distance himself from the performativity of the images.

42The episodes which focus on the instances of seeing through screens in The Body Artist, Point Omega and Zero K thus help disclose how perception is conditioned by hybridized reality. For Lauren, the livestreamed images reinstate her awareness of irreversible time, which includes an ethical component for the artist, namely her accountability for being present in the world. This results in her conscious transformation of time into embodied time that is expressed through a series of bodily changes staged throughout her performance in order to challenge the notion of identity and add an ethical dimension to her body art. In Point Omega and Zero K, seeing through screens becomes an intimately embodied act which instantiates the ways in which the characters perceive and are affected by the edited visual elements that unfold before their eyes, suggesting that perception does not rely on sight only. Rather, it is a construct which certainly builds on outer stimuli, but it also calls on imagination and memory; it requires the characters’ active participation as well as the readers’ right distance to appreciate the degree of empathic involvement required by the narrative.


43Don DeLillo’s interest in media culture and his concern for the power of technology to reveal contemporary modes of being are notably rendered in his body of work through the presence of ekphrastic moments. These episodes not only contain the depiction of visual contents appearing on screen, but they also display the characters’ interaction with their media environments to reveal the ways in which disembodied digital entities affect the characters’ embodied beings and their subjective perception of reality. Accordingly, DeLillo’s post-2000 narratives mark a shift from the “overload of mimetic effects” (Tréguer 103) that arise from the visual media pertaining to analog technology. In his later fiction one can sense a subtle departure from the world of representation, in which the power of the media customarily subdues vision and leads to phenomena of de-realization. This departure has been counterbalanced by an eager acceptance of embodiment, by an active involvement into the present moment that esthetically translates into a rhetoric of seeing, or what Marco Abel calls the presence of “the rhetorical mode of presentation, the ethical how” (Abel 1236).

44Hence the writer’s twenty-first century aesthetics builds on the affective quality of the media images and the potential that language has to picture characters’ subjective perception, to instantiate rather than represent emotions in the narrative fabric in order to make readers feel the sensations that shape the characters’ embodied consciousness. These experiential modes of seeing generate a reading experience which produces feelings and emotions that originate in the distortions of subjective time engineered by the narrative, giving rise to what Noëlle Batt refers to as “moments-sensations” or “moments-events” (Batt 155). By doing so, DeLillo’s writing manages to deconstruct the perceptual act and lay bare its mechanics, giving rise to a form of reading that promotes readers’ experiential awareness of their embodied presence in the world. Consequently, readers are wrenched out of their deep-seated habits of seeing, becoming in their turn sensitive to the workings of perceptual reality, being able to make out what lies “at the edges of our perception” (DeLillo, 2020 88). Consequently, the written text becomes a verbal structure that gives readers a sense of what it means to experience the perception of time through media events. Additionally, the reader-cum-viewer position draws readers’ closer to the characters’ emotional charge, raising readers’ awareness of the mental and affective states that characters may experience. Such a privileged place regulates the mechanisms of readerly empathy, substantiating Anna Lindhé’s argument that reading is a practice which trains readers both in manifesting and withholding empathy.

45Ultimately, DeLillo’s later novels succeed in enacting “triangulated empathic bonds” (Keen 221); empathic triangulation involves the writer’s intentions, which consist in esthetically and ethically configuring the mechanisms of subjective perception, then the characters’ perceptual acts, which undergo distortions due to the influence that technological devices have on their experiential reality, and finally the readers’ sensitization to the potential that the narrative has to modulate readerly responses. In addition to eliciting sensorial and experiential responses, the reading experience also becomes an ethical process that involves position taking which helps reframe ingrained modes of seeing since readers are cautioned that “[i]t takes close attention to see what is happening in front of you. It takes work, pious effort, to see what you are looking at […] the things to see, the depths of things so easy to miss in the shallow habit of seeing” (DeLillo, 2010 16-17).

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1 These novels include The Body Artist (2001), Cosmopolis (2003), Falling Man (2007), Point Omega (2010), Zero K (2016), and The Silence (2020).

2 Frédérique de Vignemont and Tania Singer set the defining contours of the term “empathy” by relating it to four conditions: (i) one is in an affective state; (ii) this state is isomorphic to another person’s affective state; (iii) this state is elicited by the observation or imagination of another person’s affective state; (iv) one knows that the other person is the source of one’s own affective state” (de Vignemont and Singer 435). This set of conditions follows a necessary-sufficient logic, and therefore the four conditions should be met so that empathy may occur.

3 This appears to be the case in the faceoff scene in which Eric encounters his assassin, Benno. The scene relies on the coupling of showing and telling, as Benno directly confesses to his vulnerability and his need to be delivered from his obsessive ideas, whereas the narrative voice insists on Eric’s inability to feel with Benno, paradoxically on account of the closeness at work, as the following excerpt suggests:

“I wanted you to heal me, to save me,” Benno said.
His eyes shone beneath the hem of the towel. They were fixed on Eric, devastatingly. But it wasn’t accusation he encountered. There was a plea in the eyes, retroactive, a hope and need in ruins.
“I wanted you to save me.”
The voice had a terrible intimacy, a nearness of feeling and experience that Eric could not reciprocate. (DeLillo, 2003 204)

4 Here are some examples, among many others, of traumatic occurrences that pervade the whole narrative in Falling Man: Lianne suffers from trauma caused by her father’s suicide, but she also feels threatened by memory loss due to Alzheimer’s disease; the 9/11 events are a traumatic experience for her, while the insecure future is looming large and she fears for her son’s inhabiting a violent and dislocated world. Another instance is that of Florence Givens who trails along traumatic episodes in relation to her former husband’s death following a car accident; besides, she is a 9/11 survivor, as she directly experienced the attacks in one of the Twin Towers.

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Stefania Iliescu, « A Sense of Time(ly) Seeing in DeLillo’s Later Novels »Transatlantica [En ligne], 2 | 2023, mis en ligne le 01 novembre 2023, consulté le 22 février 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Stefania Iliescu

Université Rennes 2

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Le texte seul est utilisable sous licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. Les autres éléments (illustrations, fichiers annexes importés) sont « Tous droits réservés », sauf mention contraire.

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