I see contemporary violence as a kind of sardonic response to the promise of consumer fulfillment in America. Again we come back to these men in small rooms who can’t get out and who have to organize their desperation and their loneliness, who have to give it a destiny and who often end up doing this through violent means. I see this desperation against the backdrop of brightly colored packages and products and consumer happiness and every promise that American life makes day by day and minute by minute everywhere we go.—Don DeLillo, qtd. in DeCurtis
I imagine people, individuals, watching their t.v. screens and having their own private apocalypses because right in front of them they have vivid images of real earthquakes and the like. Something is happening which has to do with the displacement of desire.—Don DeLillo, qtd. in Nadotti
In a brief essay written to accompany the publication of Underworld, Don DeLillo draws a series of distinctions between our experience of [End Page 571] public events in the present and the meanings we attach to public events in history. As so often happens in DeLillo’s work, he makes the point by referring to visual images: the broadcast videotapes of two violent robberies are compared to “events and documents from the past” (“Power” 63). By pairing these instances, DeLillo sheds light not just on Underworld, but also on an interrogation of history, privacy, violence, and media that he has pursued throughout his career. What “The Power of History” proposes in miniature is a theory of cultural memory and historical difference. The repeated screenings of the videotapes, with their sickening but quotidian violence, are characteristic of the present, according to DeLillo, in the way that they assault memory, efface the distinction between the real and the fictional, and insinuate a complicitous relationship between viewer and viewed. The relics of an earlier time, exemplified by “a Mathew Brady photograph [and] a framed front page—‘Men Walk on the Moon’” (63), evoke, by contrast, an undamaged relationship to an exalted and heroic era. The difference between the opposed visual specimens does not necessarily involve violence or technology: the Brady picture might well show Civil War carnage, and the moon landing is, if nothing else, a marvel of technological ingenuity. Instead, the opposition rests on the social meanings of violence and technology.
The bank robbers who “move with a certain choreographed flair, firing virtuoso bursts from automatic weapons” appear on the videotape to be imitating scenes from a movie; in this way, the “culture continues its drive to imitate itself endlessly—the rerun, the sequel, the theme park, the designer outlet—because this is the means it has devised to disremember the past” (“Power” 63). To this extent, acts of violence performed in a stylized way are typical of a culture of imitation, repetition, and amnesia. A robbery played out as a performance, “choreographed” to resemble a cinematic episode, can be likened, DeLillo claims, to the mechanisms of proliferative consumerism, whereby market domination is achieved through a coordinated range of retail and leisure outlets. Imitation extends throughout the social order, making one set of activities into the mirror of another: shopping is like going to the movies, which is like committing a crime and watching the crime on TV—a spiral of similitude without end. 1 A logic of equivalences is also at work in the other example of contemporary, mass-mediated violence DeLillo chooses. In this instance, the tape [End Page 572] shows a murder caught by a surveillance camera in a convenience store:
The commonplace homicide that ensues is transformed in the image-act of your own witness. It is bare, it is real, it is live, it is taped. It is compelling, it is numbing, it is digitally microtimed and therefore filled with incessant information. And if you view the tape often enough, it tends to transform you, to make you a passive variation of the armed robber in his warped act of consumption. It is another set of images for you to want and need and get sick of and need...