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The Limousine and Technicity in Don DeLillo’s Cosmopolis

This essay contends that Don DeLillo’s Cosmopolis (2003) stages its own mastery of what Mark McGurl calls technicity, here figured as “cybercapitalism.” I read the novel’s limousine as the institution through which such mastery is tested. The novel’s close attention to the limousine reveals the ways in which such discourses depend on a network of human and nonhuman actants. This is both a commentary on and a departure from DeLillo’s earlier work, in which such technic ideas largely (though not wholly) floated free of such networks.

An author heavily associated with postmodern literature and, perhaps even more so, with postmodern theory, Don DeLillo occupies a complicated nexus in the second decade of the twenty-first century.1 Widely lauded for synthesizing and critiquing the media cultures of the eighties and nineties, as well as the Cold War that shaped and perpetuated such cultures, DeLillo reached something of a critical and literary apex with 1997’s Underworld, an achievement emphasized and mourned by the chilling symmetry between the novel’s cover image and the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center, an event that—even more than the Kennedy assassination, which DeLillo dramatized in Libra —seems almost synonymous with DeLillo’s trajectory as an author. In addition to facing the understandable demand that it address 9/11 itself, the first novel DeLillo published following that event, 2003’s Cosmopolis, suffered from a critical divide that has haunted DeLillo’s reception since at least White Noise : a divide between mainstream reviewers who bemoan DeLillo’s substitution of ideas for characters and academic critics who mine DeLillo’s work for the set of discourses that Mark McGurl describes as “technicity” (Program 63). Mapping the larger contours of what he calls “high cultural pluralism,” a product of the expanded postwar university whereby “most writers of literary fiction have ‘their subject,’ which is to say a signature set of preoccupations stemming (typically) from one or another aspect of their biography” (59), McGurl frames the technical [End Page 146] expertise of writers like DeLillo as providing a kind of identity: hence, technicity, a term (drawn from John Guillory) that combines “ethnicity” and “technical.” McGurl continues, “[W]hat Roth knows about the Jewish experience, and Morrison knows about the African American experience, writers like Powers, DeLillo, and Pynchon know about the second law of thermodynamics, cybernetic causality, communications and media theory, and the like, and it is on the basis of the portfolio of technical-cultural capital that they, too, are put on the [pluralist] syllabus” (62–63). Writers like DeLillo thus have a particular kind of expertise that readers seek in his writing, a “paradoxically ethnic non-ethnicity” (63). In what follows, I’ll examine how Cosmopolis, by emphasizing the material objects around the novel’s ideas, acknowledges its own performance of technicity in relation to the systemic discourse at its core: cybercapitalism. In doing so, the novel both anticipates and challenges readings that would interpret it as a reflection or commentary on cybercapitalism itself. It does so by foregrounding the way its characters, particularly protagonist Eric Packer, perform their mastery of cybercapitalism within the novel’s setting, a white stretch limousine. Serving as a site where such discourses are measurable in their effects and intensity, the limousine represents Packer’s corporate firm as an institution along the lines McGurl outlines in The Program Era . By analyzing the limousine and its network of human and nonhuman actants, this essay suggests that the divide between touchless cybercapitalism and the quotidian world of the streets around it is not as sharp as it seems and that the novel is conscious of how it constructs the former in ways that mark its own self-consciousness as a conveyor of technic discourses.

The limousine, I argue, makes us aware of how the novel’s cybercapitalist abstractions depend on what Leigh Claire La Berge describes as “the discursive and material practices of finance” (41). Reading White Noise, La Berge contends that DeLillo’s 1985 novel uses the automatic teller machine (which La Berge cleverly relates to the “telling” of narrative”) as one means to stage Jack Gladney’s identity as abstract. The novel “does not present finance as an abstraction” but instead represents finance networks as they are “instantiate[ed] as personal banking to shape its postmodern narrative form.” Both Gladney’s identity and the novel’s postmodern form, then, borrow characteristics from the automatic teller machine, even as each could otherwise be figured as participants in what La Berge calls a “virtuosic, deracinated economic world-system.” Pressing this argument further, and keeping in mind McGurl’s notion that technicity constitutes one of the defining facets of postmodernism, my essay scrutinizes the discursive exchanges within Cosmopolis ’s limousine and asks how the participants in such exchanges borrow agency from [End Page 147] the limousine and other material objects, particularly when such discourses seek to describe systems at a vast scale. I draw on the sociologist Bruno Latour, whose work helps unpack the complicated relationship between systemic analysis and the nonhuman world of objects. Cosmopolis, by virtue of the small scale of its setting, makes apparent the analytic leaps necessary to articulate something as vast as cybercapitalism. Alison Shonkwiler has described these analytic leaps as the problem of an essentially indescribable system, what she compellingly calls the “financial sublime” (249), but I believe, contrary to Shonkwiler, that the novel is less useful as a reflection of the lacunae in representations of cybercapitalism as it is, per McGurl, a reflection of its own commitment to representing such. Ultimately, I suggest that this short novel has much to say about the place of systems in DeLillo’s earlier work in terms of the technicity that has formed a key part of his project and reception, including the post-modern theory that has often helped DeLillo’s readers untangle the meaning of such technic discourses.

The notion that DeLillo is a systems novelist has been commonplace since the pioneering work of Tom LeClair in the late 1980s. As Shonkwiler notes, the cybercapitalist system in Cosmopolis evolves from earlier representations of systems in DeLillo’s work: “the mystical waves and rays of White Noise, the cosmological balances and patterns of conspiracy in Libra, the global corporations and intelligence systems of The Names, or the deterministic coincidences of history in Underworld ” (256). In extending this mode of analysis to Cosmopolis, critics have read the novel as responding to its historical context (the period immediately after the dot-com crash of 2000) in terms of a rising shift in capitalist practices, which might be described as the consequences of the wide adoption of Internet technology, such as accelerated risk and 24/7 operations. Using a term that circulated in the 1990s, the novel itself describes such practices as “cyber-capital” (78), variations of which are frequently used by the novel’s critics.2 Jerry Varsava figures the novel as diagnosing “an age in which the negotiation between self and other, between self and community, was neglected wholly by many as they sought psycho-emotional gratification in the sound and fury of financial exchange and its mediating technologies, in the libertarian pursuit of cybercapitalism” (104)—a point echoed by Martina Sciolino, who contrasts the weightless world of Packer’s transactions with the world of human contact. Russell Scott Valentino finds the novel depicting an erosion of solidity in increasingly abstract capital, arguing that Cosmopolis presents the doleful “implications of modern de-corporealization for psychological, social, and political health” (145); Mark Osteen has similarly framed the novel in terms of “the unstable, indifferent, and shifting world [End Page 148] that postmodern money has engendered” (“Currency” 293). Using an ecocritical framework, Nicole Merola asserts that the novel is about the material impact of cybercapitalism (828), concluding that the novel presents both Eric Packer and Benno Levin as raw material to be churned through by finance capital.

In making their case, critics have recognized another familiar dynamic in DeLillo’s project: the quotidian world that contrasts abstract system. Merola describes this as a formal pattern in DeLillo’s work, with the quotidian deployed through a “proliferation of detail [that] reflects an aesthetic mode DeLillo valorizes” (837). Both Merola and Sciolino argue that the discourses of Packer and Kinski abstract the world from “remote, laboring humans” and “the earth itself” (Sciolino 211). Such critics see Cosmopolis as largely continuing the project of earlier DeLillo novels that depict tensions between quotidian life and system. Dylar, Iron City, and the Gladney household contrast with the systemic world of advertising in White Noise; Marguerite Oswald’s testimony and Jack Ruby’s messy world contrast with the conspiracy in Libra; the vital world of the 1950s Bronx contrasts with ideas about waste and the interconnections of history in Underworld .

Yet, I argue, this separation between abstract system and embodied world, a divide that appears in one form or another throughout much of the criticism on Cosmopolis, is less sharp here than in the earlier novels. As Valentino notes, some of this is present on the novel’s surface: even as Packer repeatedly insists on his own futurity, he can’t stop attending to his body’s needs for food and sex, and he courts pain, and financial ruin, as a means of returning to his body (147). Merola similarly finds Packer “effacing” the corporeal, evidencing the novel’s critique of “the flawed desire for a utopian space of postcorporeality” (834). Still, the position of this desire in relation to the novel and to Packer himself could use clarification: what does articulating such a postcorpereal space do for Packer, especially in light of how N. Katherine Hayles illuminates the ideological overtones of claims to posthumanity and virtuality? I claim that performing mastery of abstract theory—that is, of cybercapitalism—is key to both Packer’s identity and his relationships with the members of his team in the first half of the novel. In this context, the limousine acts as a key component of the network that enables the shifts in scale necessary to imagine cybercapitalism.

In making this case I will attend carefully to the midnovel conversation between Packer and his chief of theory, Vija Kinski, a conversation that previous criticism has attended to only minimally or has treated as simply an extension of the novel’s other discourses about cybercapitalism.3 In their conversation, the two examine the meaning of Packer’s wealth and occupation, the financial data on [End Page 149] which his work draws, and the position of anticapitalist protestors in relation to this wealth. This conversation, I argue, represents the most elaborate account of cybercapitalism that courses through Cosmopolis. Elsewhere in the novel, this account is either limited in its scale or kept largely inside Packer’s head. Some DeLillo critics have argued that the location of ideas in the novel doesn’t matter, that, in Shonkwiler’s words, “DeLillo’s detached narrative style yields a form of language that is always already self-contained—dissociated from any particular speaker even as it is uttered” with the result that “discourses . . . run like data” through the novel’s characters and narrator (273).4 But Packer and Kinski’s conversation has distinct characteristics that, while linked to discussions elsewhere in the novel, differ from both Packer’s running internal dialogue and his conversations with other characters. It matters, I argue, that Packer has a chief of theory and that this individual urges Packer to conceive of his wealth, wealth-building activities, and anticapitalist protestors in highly abstract terms, terms closely tied to postmodern theory, the ideas of which have long been seen as central to DeLillo’s work.

Kinski is the last of four advisors to meet with Packer on the ride from the Turtle Bay neighborhood to Hell’s Kitchen. Her entrance marks a crescendo for the book’s discourses of cybercapitalism: these build throughout the first half of the book in both Packer’s mind and in conversations with his team, generally falling off in the second half only to return in a more refracted form in the novel’s final conversations between Packer and Levin.5 Such discourses reach their highest intensity at a logical point in the narrative: the antiglobalization protests at the novel’s center. As the novel’s critics have noted, such protests became widely understood as the flip side of dot-com optimism, a site where the idealized rhetoric of Internet-era capitalism came under highly visible critique. Since few characters other than Elise, Torval, and Levin return in the book, Kinski’s position as the fourth in a series is one to which readers should attend, and her presence in the limousine during the antiglobalization protests is similarly salient.

Revered as Packer’s chief of theory—by which the novel seems to mean not economic theory but critical theory—Kinski repeatedly insists on reading the physical world around her in terms of its constructed or philosophical meanings. DeLillo has at least obliquely acknowledged the circulation of critical theory outside the academy: asked in a 2006 interview about a White House official telling a reporter that “we create our own reality,” DeLillo responded, “It’s what a French philosopher might have said 20 years ago. The White House has just caught up, but now it’s in the real world. It’s marched out of philosophy books and into the center of power” (“Wise”). This is [End Page 150] exactly the position Kinski occupies in the novel. Her analysis begins with a reading of Packer’s apartment, which, she argues, matters not for its “dozens of rooms, incomparable views, private elevator,” “air rights,” or “regulating sensors and software” but instead for the price Packer paid for it, “the number itself” (78). This reading sweeps away all of the physical processes that shape the apartment, including the labor put into building it, the other apartments displaced by its construction, and the regulatory apparatus that might limit what Packer could do with the building. For Latour, these are the long networks of human and nonhuman actants that constructed the apartment and allow it to persist. On some level, her analysis is legible as a critique of wealth for its own sake, one that becomes increasingly important as inequality grows in the United States. Nevertheless, her reading precludes any analysis or critique of the forces that worked to create Packer’s wealth: the apartment exists as long as the signifier “$140 million” exists. By extension, she suggests that Packer’s wealth is inevitable and not, as it would have been for the now-historical 1990s stock trader, based on access to seed capital, insider information, Bloomberg terminals, and pure luck. In their account of disgraced 1990s securities analyst Henry Blodget, Daniel Beunza and Raghu Garud call attention to the paradox of predicting the future in stock forecasting. They describe Blodget’s activities in terms of frame-making: “an activity of creating, providing, and promoting calculative frames” (27). For Beunza and Garud, Blodget fell from grace because he was never a mystic in the first place: his analysis drew on the same frames as other analysis, but for a time he was simply lucky. Mystifying Packer’s accumulation of wealth also suggests that Packer’s activities cannot be understood and, therefore, not regulated. As the novel suggests elsewhere, Packer’s wealth is similarly fragile.

It makes sense, then, that among Packer’s advisors, Kinski is the only one to encourage him to keep betting on the yen—because the “system” is “out of control” (85)—and to suggest that averting his course would amount to “a paraphrase of a sensible text that wants you to believe there are plausible realities . . . that can be traced and analyzed.” While Packer’s other advisors—Shiner, Chin, and Melman—all root their observations in the traceable, analyzable world of server security, currency charts, and the public record of Japanese finance, Kinski advances a mode of analysis that jumps scale to “the system” and “mass convulsions.” This scale jumping is the fundamental difference between Kinski and Packer’s conversation and the other conversations that occur throughout the book.

Throughout his work, Latour points his readers to such shifts in scale. As he returns to the questions of science and reason in An Inquiry into Modes of Existence, Latour iterates a problem that has long troubled his work: [End Page 151]

If we were to believe what they say, officially, about Reason—and Science is almost always the highest example of Reason, in their eyes—this reason could never have obtained the material and human means for its spread. Since, to hear them tell it, capital S Science in theory needs only pure theoretical methods, the small s sciences would have found themselves long since with no funding, no laboratories, no staff, no offices: in short, reduced to the bare minimum.


The “pure” ideas of science and reason cannot, in Latour’s reading, exist without the material support of institutions, objects, transductions to other disciplines, service workers, and so on. Latour stresses that ideas cannot move by themselves; they require the support of the material world. Cosmopolis emphasizes the way its own pure ideas require such a network of human and nonhuman actants. While Packer’s other advisors continually point him to the kind of material network advanced by Beunza and Garud, Kinski urges Packer to attend to what Latour calls “only pure theoretical methods.”

With encouragement from Kinski, Packer expands on his desire to find an “affinity between market movements and the natural world” (86), a move that Shiner, for his part, rejects earlier in the novel:

All this optimism, all this booming and soaring. Things happen like bang. This and that simultaneous. I put my hand out and what do I feel? I know there’s a thousand things you analyze every ten minutes. Patterns, ratios, indexes, whole maps of information. I love information. This is our sweetness and light. It’s a fuckall wonder. And we have meaning in the world. People eat and sleep in the shadow of what we do. But at the same time, what?


It’s that last sentence that matters, the “what?” that echoes through post-dot-com-crash analyses like those of Doug Henwood: what happens after the irrational exuberance is over, the soaring stocks have come down, and the phantasmatic system of the Internet seems to be suddenly located in the shuttered workspaces of closed firms like Pets.com?6 Packer, though, will have none of this: the narrator describes him as wanting to direct a remark at Shiner that is “hard and sharp.” This passage is also telling in terms of what’s at stake for Packer in such phantasms. Immediately after Shiner voices his critique, Packer returns to a mode of questioning that the novel repeatedly calls attention to: the need to perform one’s mastery of large systems though the discourse of constructivism. After Shiner casually asks Packer why they’re in the limousine instead of the office, [End Page 152] Packer responds, absurdly, “How do you know we’re in the car instead of the office?” (15). Shiner knows to back down, saying that if he responds, he’ll “say something that’s halfway clever but mostly shallow and probably inaccurate on some level” that will cause Packer to “pity [him] for having been born.” This conversation immediately segues into a discussion of the “touchless” space that Merola and other critics see as a verifiable “socioecological s[pace] upon which cyberfinance is predicated” (Merola 829). Shiner doesn’t believe in this space. He believes in the physical reality of the car, that there’s nothing special or transcendent about the car and its gadgets. But he acknowledges that in order to be part of Packer’s team, he has to perform his own technicity.

Kinski, in contrast, enchants the car and its devices, describing it as imbued with “the glow of cyber-capital” (78). She further argues that “computer power eliminates doubt” (86) and that, as a result of the computer’s ability to measure the yoptosecond (one septillionth of a second), the present “is being sucked out of the world to make way for the future of uncontrolled markets and huge investment potential” (79). Packer loves such theories and reinforces her views shortly after: “We are not witnessing the flow of information so much as pure spectacle, or information made sacred, ritually unreadable. The small monitors of the office, home and car become a kind of idolatry here, where crowds might gather in astonishment” (80). For both Kinski and Packer, the terminals and data feeds are not sites of information about the yen’s rise and fall; they point to a vast, invisible material reality called cybercapitalism. Their misunderstanding results from what Hayles describes as “the cultural perception that information and materiality are conceptually distinct and that information is in some sense more essential, more important, and more fundamental than materiality” (18). Throughout How We Became Posthuman, Hayles insists that information always has a material instantiation. To argue otherwise, in her reading, is to “privileg[e] the abstract as the Real” (13), a rhetorical move that Kinski makes over and again.

As the protestors surround the limousine, Packer and Kinski continue to analyze their actions in constructivist terms: “They are working with you, these people. They are acting on your terms. . . . And if they kill you, it’s only because you permit it, in your sweet sufferance, as a way to re-emphasize the idea we all live under” (92). Kinski argues that the surface meaning of the protests is subsumed by the larger idea of cybercapitalism. Such a reading of the protestors’ actions is very different from a more materialist reading that emphasizes “the importance of bodies in situating empirical actors within a material environment of nature, other bodies, and the socioeconomic structures that dictate where and how they find [End Page 153] substances, satisfy their desires, or obtain the resources necessary for participating in political life” (Coole and Frost 19). Merola argues that such concerns lie at the heart of Cosmopolis, that the novel attends to “the materiality of both the human body and the city in the age of cybercapitalism” (828). Such analysis points away from the kind of reading proffered by Kinski herself: that cybercapitalism acts as a kind of hyperreal entity, encompassing the material lives of protestors and Packer alike. Merola’s analysis, like much of the criticism on Cosmopolis, locates the novel’s materiality primarily in the world outside the limousine, and in doing so she misses a crucial hinge between materiality and discourses of cybercapitalism. As Kinski presents her analysis of the protestors, readers are conscious of how the limousine has insulated her from their actions: “The rocking became worse and he watched her follow her glass from side to side before she was able to take a sip” (92). As the novel reminds us here, without the limousine’s materiality—its walls—the exterior violence would quickly overwhelm her analysis.

The limits of Kinski’s analysis become most evident in her choked response to the self-immolating man. As the man becomes visible outside the limousine, Kinski is at first silenced: “He could see the coverage in her face. She was downcast. The interior of the car tapered toward the rear, lending authority to the seat she was in, normally his of course, and he knew how much she liked to sit in the glove-leather chair and glide through the city day or night speaking ex cathedra. But she was dejected now and did not look at him” (100). After some pause, she stutters out what might be considered the most basic, obvious response of postmodern theory to such a scene: “It’s not original.” Kinski’s comment, intended as critique, should limit the meaning of what the man does. But the notion of identity as a copy has a more complex history than Kinski recognizes.7 After all, an act need not be original in order to have meaning; in fact, per Austin’s work on performativity, citationality can point back to the very Latourian networks that support identity. Unlike Packer, the self-immolating man does not believe himself to be original or detached: his protest, like other citational acts, foregrounds its own embeddedness within a history of protests. Inasmuch as DeLillo emphasizes a touchless space that cleaves from the quotidian street, then, he also takes pains to emphasize—at the very moment that the novel’s rhetoric about cybercapitalism is at its most abstract—the limousine as a physical thing.

All this should sound familiar to recent academic readers: the contrast that the novel presents between a set of traceable, analyzable relationships and historical analysis has been richly engaged in a variety of critical modes in the past two decades, including the [End Page 154] mandate for surface reading, McGurl’s institutional analysis, Latourian readings of limited-scale networks, and New Materialist accounts of how objects interact with nonhuman actors. All of these discourses critique constructivism, and I’d suggest that DeLillo’s novel, reckoning with the implications of the dot-com crash for theoretical discourse, shares a similar project. As I’ll suggest later, the divide between a constructivist account of objects and these more materialist accounts of objects has implications for reading DeLillo’s project, a project that frequently devotes itself to questions of system and mass convulsions.

The salient question here is not whether Kinski’s analysis is correct but how Cosmopolis positions Kinski’s discourse within its narrative. If her voice is strained, if her ideas reach a little too far, this necessarily places the novel’s other ideas in tension. Here I want to extend an observation made by Merola about the simulated sex scene between Packer and Melman. Merola argues that even though Packer engages in a “fantasy of virtuality” by having touchless “sex” with Melman, the novel undercuts such virtuality in the way it positions Packer (in that case, with a doctor’s finger up his ass). For Merola, this moment represents a “rupture” (829) that makes manifest the effects of the “electronic apparatuses of cyberfinance” (830), which “[erase] the body” (834). But whereas Merola sees this moment as an exception to the novel’s otherwise “expert” account of cyberfinance (830), I argue that the novel simultaneously figures such expertise as performed by Packer, and particularly by Kinski, and that it uses the framework of the limousine to do so. I contend, then, that the problem of Packer’s self-positioning as virtual is visible more widely in DeLillo’s near-parodic use of the limousine as a kind of institution in McGurl’s terms.

In this sense, Cosmopolis foregrounds the work necessary—the shifts in scale, the transfers of knowledge, the mobilized technologies, the institutions maintained—to ascertain systems on the scale of cybercapital. While one can read the novel taking this work for granted, the continued emphasis on the limousine makes this work harder to ignore than in previous DeLillo novels. It does so in ways that Libra approaches but does not fully realize and that Underworld largely ignores. Moreover, Cosmopolis also encourages readers to think through the roles of system and abstraction in DeLillo’s larger body of work—to think through the role articulating such systems has played in making a DeLillo novel a DeLillo novel. In highlighting the framework for his novel’s articulation of systemic expertise, DeLillo acknowledges his reception as a technic author, in the same way that, say, Colson Whitehead acknowledges his reception as an ethnic author by foregrounding the frameworks through which readers understand African American cultures. (I am thinking, for [End Page 155] example, of how Whitehead presents the novel’s titular material in John Henry Days. )

Of course, as McGurl has suggested, groups of people that express their technic expertise by talking about systems is nothing new for DeLillo. The pages of White Noise, Libra, and Underworld contain plenty of characters for whom talking about systems is a crucial part of job and identity. Cosmopolis differs in terms of the form that DeLillo uses to enclose these characters, a form that takes the shape of a limousine. While McGurl is primarily concerned with the university and creative writing classrooms as institutions, he also discusses the physical spaces that transmute the imperatives of such institutions, such as the bus in Robert Olen Butler’s novel Mr. Spaceman . McGurl reads the creative writing workshop as “express[ing], in condensed and institutionalized form,” the “aspirations” of “the denizens . . . of reflexive modernity,” the demand for humans to “make their lives meaningful,” “more responsive to their desires” (Program 385). It is Butler’s bus that makes the group legible as a creative writing workshop, for it “carries a group roughly the size of a typical seminar enrollment.” McGurl’s reading attends to the way the creative writing workshop both critiques the university’s rational demand for excellence and fulfills it, pointing to the “self-evidently disciplinary dimensions” of creative writing as a discipline and that “takes pleasure in the limitations of institutionalization” (398). Read this way, McGurl’s analysis extends to all of the material support for the creative writing workshop—the room, the seminar table, the department budget, the university buildings—that make the discourse emerging from the workshop possible. In Cosmopolis, the limousine functions as just such a space, and its physicality matters.

The limousine, while not the only object-actant in the novel, is the novel’s most prominent object. DeLillo’s choice to set the novel in the limousine has led Ian Davidson to read Cosmopolis as a kind of failed road novel (473) and reviewer Walter Kirn to critique the novel as a cartoonish representation of the rich. (Kirn snarkily observes, “White stretch limousines . . . conjure up prom nights in Omaha for me, not mornings on Wall Street” [E8].) DeLillo’s use of the limousine ensures that much of the novel occurs on a very small scale, a move that seems designed—as critics like Merola and Sciolino argue about other aspects of the novel—to contrast with the vast world of cybercapitalism. By scaling his novel down from the wide-ranging environs of Underworld or Libra, DeLillo forces readers to examine the material context in which his characters express ideas about system: it may matter that the person speaking is a White House official and not a French philosopher, or the chief of theory for a financial firm and not DeLillo himself. If at times DeLillo’s plots [End Page 156] have been, as some critics might argue, mere vehicles for ideas, here the vehicle is literal and literary: Packer describes the limousine as “prousted” (70). On the one hand this is an elegant, cheeky way for a captain of industry to describe his limousine’s cork lining, but this nevertheless extends the limousine’s association with the literature classroom. The novel opens with Packer reading poetry, and one of the first things he says unites the limousine with the literary: “I look at books and drink brandy. But what happens to all the stretch limousines that prowl the throbbing city all day long? Where do they spend the night?” (13). Packer’s query raises a number of questions about the limousine’s structural stability. As he speaks, the limousine is active, enveloping him and Shiner, both protecting them from the street and maintaining the long network that forms Packer’s often invisible business practices and wealth. But Packer’s question, linked to his own sense of mortality—both in terms of financial ruin and death—concerns how he, his company, and the ideas that underpin them will survive once the limousine is no longer physically present. From the beginning, then, DeLillo calls attention to the way Packer’s self-elevating, literary ideas emerge from a particular material context, again in the way, per McGurl, literary ideas emerge from the material space of the creative writing classroom.

In Sara Ahmed’s terms, both Kinski and Packer are “oriented” toward the limousine, and such orientation enables their ability to speak (250). For Ahmed, the production of abstract, philosophical ideas—what she calls, in terms appropriate to a cybercapitalist context, “paperless” philosophy (249)—depends on “the disappearance of the materiality of objects, in the bracketing of the materials out of which, as well as upon which, philosophy writes itself, as a way of apprehending the world.” Packer and Kinski similarly want to “bracket out” the limousine, to inhabit the limousine as a background to their perceptions instead of as a precondition for such perceptions. The limousine, by virtue of its social prestige, ability to accommodate face-to-face conversations, technological sophistication, and physical separation from the driver (such that Packer can forget he exists), enables the authority Packer believes he possesses. Packer negotiates his identity within, through, and around the limousine. The limousine, then, serves as a constant reminder that Packer is not the abstracted being he claims to be; his agency is defined in relation to the car, and it may be that in some sense Packer only exists in relation to the car, his employees, and the financial instruments provided by the car’s computers. In Latour’s terms, DeLillo emphasizes that “touchless space” (Merola 829) depends on a network of human and nonhuman actants. [End Page 157]

The fate DeLillo assigns the limousine, to be “evicted, scavenged, and scrapped” (179), only emphasizes its contingency as a material object. But while most literary representations of the limousine tend to deploy it as a symbol—as a stand-in for prestige, affluence, protection, or power—Cosmopolis disrupts the limousine’s function as such by repeatedly emphasizing its failure to function as expected. The limousine cannot merely be reduced to a symbol of Packer’s wealth; it does not merely “’transport’ social power, ‘objectify’ inequality, [or] ‘reify’ gender relations” (Latour, Reassembling 72). The limousine is a palpable, disruptive presence. Its disruptive nature becomes particularly apparent once the car’s materiality has been engaged by the antiglobalization protestors: “The car sat stunned. It was slathered in red-and-black spray paint. There were dozens of bruises and punctures, long burrowing scrape marks, swaths of impact and discolor. There were places where splashes of urine were preserved in pentimento stainage beneath the flourish of graffiti” (101). The car’s presence alters the protests; it becomes a focus of the protestors’ energy partly because it figures into networks of privilege and exclusion but also because its long roof provides an apt surface for skateboarding and its long sides for graffiti. The waste that the car’s “mode control” had so effectively eliminated earlier—“Chin loosed one of his vegetarian farts. Mode control ate it at once” (37)—now becomes part of the car’s exterior. The urine on the outside of the limousine foregrounds what has been true throughout the novel: that what seems to be a hermetically sealed space is in fact permeable to the street. By extension, Packer’s perceived autonomy—his insulation from the protestors—also becomes visible as a fiction. When the limousine stops functioning, then, Packer’s mastery of the discourses of cybercapitalism becomes unsustainable.8

Cosmopolis thus shows that there is nothing inevitable about the processing and distribution of the ideas in the limousine or elsewhere in DeLillo’s work; the novel, with its focus on Packer’s team and its detailed account of the limousine, suggests how much work is necessary for the kind of movements in scale propagated by Kinski and Packer. The novel suggests, in ways that both McGurl and Latour might appreciate, that the transmission and reproduction of theoretical ideas requires specific historical and material conditions. It’s productive, too, to look back over DeLillo’s literary career and the implications of this line of analysis. Here, La Berge’s recent reading of White Noise provides a useful foundation for my reading of Cosmopolis . La Berge sees White Noise as depicting a moment when “the material practices of finance capital and the discursive formations of both postmodernism and financial print culture became increasingly entwined” (37). La Berge argues that, in DeLillo’s portrayal of the [End Page 158] relationship between these material practices and objects like the ATM, “it is the personal that seems to be ‘abstract’” but that, in fact, has been “depersonalized” (39). One of the key passages she identifies is the scene where Jack Gladney finds “energy, excitement and awareness” in confirming his bank account balance (La Berge 48). For La Berge, Gladney’s physical interaction with the ATM confers the illusion that Gladney’s self is abstracted. In her analysis, such slippage between machine and abstract system underlies the Jamesonian “literary-critical common sense” that “postmodernism and finance capital . . . share a disposition of nonfiguration, fragmentation, and abstraction” (40). Like White Noise, Cosmopolis relies on financial objects to depict its abstractions. Consider a passage from the later novel that, as Shonkwiler notes (251), restages the themes of White Noise ’s ATM passage:

With the currency ticker restored to normal function, the yen showed renewed strength, advancing against the dollar in microdecimal increments every sextillionth of a second. This was good. This was fine and right. It thrilled him to speak in zeptoseconds and to watch the numbers in their unrelenting run. The stock ticker was also good. He watched the major issues breeze by and felt purified in nameless ways to see prices spiral into lubricious plunge. Yes, the effect on him was sexual, cunnilingual in particular, and he let his head fall back and opened his mouth to the sky and rain.


What Packer feels is less a sense of balance than an Icarusian death drive, but the passage nevertheless establishes a tie between the world of the ticker screen and the internal world of Packer’s self. In the Latourian sense, the extended network of limousine, financial team, computers, and data feeds does multiple kinds of work. For Packer the currency trader, it produces simulated models of how the yen’s value will go down. For Packer the human being, it produces ideas about his identity, perpetuating the notion that he is virtual and posthuman. This squares with McGurl’s contention that the reflexive modern self in its postwar literary manifestation depends on “a rhetorical performance of cultural group membership” (56), in this case a technic, not ethnic, group.

I have been reading Cosmopolis as a kind of intervention into DeLillo’s earlier work, in which he reframes the abstract ideas of the earlier novels as contingent on the small-scale material environment of a limousine. Of course, this is something of an exaggeration; in his earlier work, DeLillo does attend to the material support of abstract ideas. As David J. Alworth has demonstrated, the supermarket of [End Page 159] White Noise— if largely a symbolic instantiation of advertising and simulation—is engaged as a real sociological place, as what Alworth (drawing on Latour’s terminology) calls “a microethnography of humans and nonhumans in a given site, a portrait of sociality that includes the inapprehensible, or partially apprehensible, ‘swarming life’ of foodstuffs, things, physical infrastructures, and technical objects” (306). Similarly, the guns, pocket litter, erasers, Book Depository, and limousine of Libra also receive the “proliferation of detail” that Merola reads as DeLillo’s turn toward the quotidian (837). In Underworld, too, the baseball moves through a network of carefully articulated sites, suggesting that the abstract notion that “everything is connected” (825) needs the institution of collecting in order to do its work.9 But in these novels, as Shonkwiler acknowledges, objects often seem to be subsumed by the novel’s ideas about system. For example, Kennedy’s limousine in Libra is barely visible amid the rapid shifts in viewpoint DeLillo deploys at the moment of the assassination in order to emphasize what he calls “the confusion and psychic chaos and the sense of randomness that ensued from that moment in Dallas” (qtd. in Passaro). In that novel, DeLillo largely abstains from speculating on what institutions support the novel’s ideas. Nicholas Branch, the present-day CIA chronicler of the assassination, comes close. But the Branch passages, as many critics have noted, are largely designed to emphasize the overwhelming nature of the assassination’s details, reinforcing the novel’s characterization of the Warren Report as the “the megaton novel James Joyce would have written if he’d moved to Iowa City and lived to be a hundred” (181). Furthermore, Branch is not situated in an institution but in a small, isolated room little different than those inhabited by Oswald and the other conspirators—rooms that seem designed, on a narrative level, to convey the detachment from institution that conspiracy is designed to amend. The limousine in Libra, then, like all of the novel’s other objects, is subsumed by the novel’s ideas about the assassination. The narrative doesn’t need to consider it at length; the novel’s ideas about conspiracy do the work of figuring its characters within a virtual institution. In contrast, Cosmopolis uses the limousine to mark the ideas of Kinski—the very ideas that figure Packer as a product of cybercapitalism—as out of scale, dependent on the network of human and nonhuman actants whose activities center on the limousine. By doing so it deviates from the project of previous DeLillo novels, emphasizing the institutional structures that support conceptions of system and projecting an awareness of the relationship between objects and abstract ideas.

I’d like to suggest one more implication for this reading of Cosmopolis, one linked to the French theorists of thirty years ago, [End Page 160] noting the ways DeLillo’s reception has been intertwined with such theorists. Within DeLillo criticism, no theorist looms larger than Jean Baudrillard, and Kinski’s reading of wealth, data, and protestors would fit well into a Baudrillard text.10 DeLillo’s relation to postmodernism has been the subject of long-running debates in DeLillo criticism, primarily in terms of whether DeLillo is fulfilling or resisting its claims. While DeLillo’s work has been the subject of a range of critical approaches—among them ecocritical, historicist, and religious—the great bulk of DeLillo criticism engages in some way with questions of postmodern culture. Leonard Wilcox’s influential 1991 account is emblematic: “In White Noise DeLillo’s protagonist Jack Gladney confronts a new order in which life is increasingly lived in a world of simulacra, where images and electronic representations replace direct experience,” representing “a view of life in contemporary America that is uncannily similar to that depicted by Jean Baudrillard” (346). This is particularly evident in three major monographs on DeLillo. Peter Boxall identifies a divide in DeLillo criticism between critics who see work as “a celebration or symptom of postmodernism, that it derives from the kinds of weightlessness produced by the abandonment of a dialectical politics” and critics who see his work as “find[ing] . . . a quality or a value that survives postmodern depthlessness (13). Along similar lines, Mark Osteen observes, “DeLillo has been read both as a denouncer and as a defender of postmodern culture,” but that “neither description adequately fits” (American 3); he concludes instead that DeLillo’s “dialogue with contemporary cultural institutions respects their power but criticizes their dangerous consequences.” David Cowart situates DeLillo within recognizably postmodern themes, in which “the only reality knowable is the one shaped by endlessly self-referential sign systems and by an art committed to replication, pastiche, and the commodified ‘mechanical reproduction’ that Benjamin describes in his most famous essay” (3–4). However, he also argues that DeLillo’s texts “undermine this postmodernist gospel” of “language as a system of signifiers that refer only to other signifiers in infinite regression” (5). And yet regardless of what relationship DeLillo’s novels have with postmodernism, the fact remains that his texts have circulated alongside and been enabled by accounts like those of Baudrillard and Jameson.

While Baudrillard’s work has now become marginalized, a relic of a particular conflux of art and theory in the 1970s and 1980s, his influence lives on in what many agree to be the central account of postmodernism: that proffered by Jameson in Postmodernism, Or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. 11 In his history of postmodernism, Perry Anderson observes that Baudrillard’s theory of simulation and simulacra was instrumental to the development of Jameson’s [End Page 161] theory, arguing that Baudrillard’s time in San Diego while Jameson was teaching there influenced the composition of the 1983 essay “Postmodernism and Consumer Society” (52). As postmodern theory and culture has become historicized, Jameson’s account has come under critique. To take two representative examples, Andrew Hoberek describes Jameson’s argument as “problematically totalizing insofar as it projects onto the world at large the experience of the postwar American middle class in transition” (117), while Rachel Adams asserts that Jameson’s conception offers “a periodizing concept, but one with no apparent end in sight,” one that “encompasses such strikingly different historical contexts and expressive forms that it threatens to become incoherent” (250).12 For Hoberek and Adams, among others, Jameson’s account is itself distanced from the lived life of the late twentieth century, a quality that has become particularly problematic as the field has moved from “the hegemony of theory to the hegemony of history” (McGurl, “Ordinary” 332). If Jameson’s celebrated account of the postmodern has become challenged, then Cosmopolis itself both acknowledges the passing of this simulacra-driven version of postmodernism as well as DeLillo’s own implication in such. If such an implication was never complete—and perhaps, as Amy Hungerford argues, does not represent DeLillo’s oeuvre as a whole—it has nevertheless kept DeLillo’s work alive, if only in courses on the postmodern novel.13

Of course, none of this means that DeLillo himself has made use of or incorporated the ideas of either Baudrillard or Jameson. And yet the sheer amount of ink spilled trying to figure out how exactly both Baudrillard and DeLillo ended up publishing work on the simulacrum during the mid-1980s indicates that the two are connected. Here, Kinski’s role as “chief of theory,” as Sciolino suggests in an aside (217), may look back on the cultural context that made both DeLillo and Baudrillard respected authorities on the postmodern condition.14 Noel King figures theory and DeLillo as occupying the same space, such that neither overshadows the other. Instead of providing some grounds for suspicion, occupying a hierarchical position in relation to the text: “uncovering the ‘not said’ of the novel,” King suggests that theory may instead “constitute some of the conditions of intelligibility of the text, delimiting its production and consumption, indicating its socio-literary visibility ” (75). He concludes, “Both White Noise and these other writings would exist on the same discursive terrain, together forming the surface on which a particular form of writing and reading can occur.”

If, as Rita Felski argues, literary history can itself be subject to Actor Network Theory analysis—if “artworks can only survive and thrive by making friends, creating allies, attracting disciples, inciting [End Page 162] attachments, latching on to receptive hosts” (584)—then postmodern theory, particularly the Baudrillardian variety invoked by both Cosmopoilis and DeLillo’s critics, has been an instrumental vehicle propelling DeLillo’s reception forward from the 1980s. I have tried to suggest here that DeLillo situates Packer’s self-conception as transcendent and the postmodern theory that fuels this self-conception within the concrete environment of the limousine. In King’s reflexive account, Baudrillard and DeLillo sit side by side in these spaces, “forming the surface on which a particular form of writing and reading can occur.” By shifting the location of his critics from the classroom or office to the limousine, DeLillo both satirizes theory-inflected literary criticism and reminds readers of the privilege associated with such discourse. Though Hungerford, Harack, and others are correct in depicting White Noise as an anomaly in DeLillo’s oeuvre, it can hardly be said that DeLillo has stopped being interested in the simulacrum since. Libra, Mao II, and Underworld abound with references to the Jamesonian landscape of what Osteen calls “the bombardment of consciousness by cinematic and consumer images” (1). Underworld ends, after all, with a hallucination on a billboard, which, however attached to the sacred or transcendent it might be, is nevertheless firmly located in the consumer realm—a product of what Jameson calls a “culture of the image or the simulacrum” (6). But this is not what DeLillo interests himself with in Cosmopolis . These themes appear in the novel, but they are spoken from a particular place of critique. Not coincidentally, the novel makes readers aware of the material site from which such observations emanate. In doing so, DeLillo, like Latour, lodges a material critique of the modern discourses in which he has long trafficked and that his critics have long reflected.

Andrew Strombeck

ANDREW STROMBECK <andrew.strombeck@wright.edu> is Associate Professor of English at Wright State University. He has published essays in journals such as Post45, Contemporary Literature, Science Fiction Studies, Cultural Critique, and African American Review. He is currently at work on a monograph on the literary response in the Lower East Side to the 1975 New York fiscal crisis.


1. Green calls DeLillo “the representative postmodern novelist for the end of the century” (4). Kelly traces DeLillo’s influence on so-called “post-postmodern” writers such as Benjamin Kunkel and Jennifer Egan (395).

2. As Merola notes, DeLillo was quoted in the April 2003 issue of Esquire describing the novel’s inspiration in terms of cybercapital: “The idea occurred to me just about the time that the market was beginning to flatten out, which was spring 2000. I then realized that the day on which the action occurs would be the last day of the era—the golden age of cybercapital, with booming global markets and rampant dreams of individual wealth” (124). [End Page 163]

3. Giamo calls Packer “one of the most loyal disciples of postmodernism” in DeLillo’s work, comparing him to Murray Siskind from White Noise (5). Varsava claims that Kinski offers views on globalization similar to those DeLillo outlines in “In the Ruins of the Future” and those that can be extrapolated from Underworld, especially in its epilogue, “Das Kapital” (92). I would agree that Kinski’s language intersects with the DeLillo of “Das Kapital”; I differ, however, in how DeLillo positions Kinski and Packer and read the ties between Cosmopolis and Underworld as oppositional, not contiguous.

4. Shonkwiler’s larger point here is that the novel deliberately foregrounds the limitations of language to describe financial systems, whereby “[a] word is no longer an indicator of value; it indicates nothing but its inadequacy to stabilize value” and “[d]iscourse inflates into a bubble of competing indicators” (274).

5. Valentino is among several critics to observe a shift between parts 1 and 2 of Cosmopolis . For Valentino, part 2 is marked by Packer’s “spiral inward” as he eliminates “all impediments to his own physical end” (145).

6. Henwood’s After the New Economy (a text that Shonkwiler uses in her article) offers a scathing account of dot-com-era rhetoric, emphasizing in particular how the revolutionary tone of such rhetoric masked growing income equality and how the era’s lauded increases in productivity, credited to the Internet, tended to involve instead pushing employees to work longer hours for less pay.

7. See, for example, Butler’s work on citational identity in Bodies That Matter : “Femininity is thus not the product of a choice, but the forcible citation of a norm, one whose complex historicity is indissociable from relations of discipline, regulation, punishment” (232).

8. The objectness of the limousine in Cosmopolis is not, of course, unique. DeLillo’s use of the limousine in a nontransparent, noninstrumental way has its best parallel in Jauss’s minimalist short story “Torque,” in which a working-class, directionless protagonist finds his own self-destructive version of identity in a quest to build his own limousine, a quest that ultimately destroys his family. Unlike Packer, Larry Watkins’s dream is to be both producer and consumer of a limousine; he buys a battered old Cadillac that he saws in half (but never completes). Because it remains disassembled throughout the story, the limousine in “Torque” allows readers to be conscious of the limousine as a physical thing. Other texts also bring the limousine to life: for example, when a freeway turns into a homeless encampment in Yamashita’s Tropic of Orange —the camp is called “Limousine Way”—a “sleek white limousine” becomes a particularly desirable home because of all its space (121). In Gray’s Swimming to Cambodia, the limousine in which he is filming a scene becomes a “black torture box” when its air conditioner and electric windows break (37). The limousine becomes for Jauss’s protagonist, Yamashita’s homeless, and Gray a thing that readers cannot see through because they do not function the way they should. [End Page 164]

9. For a useful explanation of “everything is connected” as one of Underworld ’s major tropes, see the last chapter of Knight.

10. Conte agrees that Kinski sounds like Baudrillard (185). Sciolino writes that “it might be useful to ask whether Kinski is, in some sense, DeLillo’s response to the assimilation of White Noise by postmodern critics, many of whom refer to Baudrillard. If so, could we consider Cosmopolis a swan song for postmodernism, a tongue-in-cheek critique of theory when that theory serves to keep us in thrall to capital, despite its theorists’ intentions?” (214). She then dismisses such an idea as an exercise in “seeking psychology in caricature.”

11. Jameson’s account has by now become almost synonymous with an abstracted view of post-1945 aesthetics; as one commentator notes, Jameson’s “analysis made subsequent references to postmodernism that did not mention its political or economic dimensions appear balefully incomplete” (Konstantinou 413).

12. In an article that figures Yamashita’s Tropic of Orange as, essentially, the last postmodern text, Adams defines postmodernism more narrowly, as a period of literary experimentation stretching from the early 1960s to the late 1980s and including such authors as John Barth, Kathy Acker, and Ishmael Reed.

13. Hungerford writes that “the ironic, playful White Noise (1985), a standard text of the old post-modernism, now seems an aberration within DeLillo’s oeuvre” (xx). Harack similarly observes, “ White Noise is of course somewhat anomalous in DeLillo’s body of work, reflecting an ironic postmodern sensibility that he does not maintain in his later novels” (304).

14. Without pursuing the idea further, Sciolino writes, “It might be useful to ask whether Kinski is, in some sense, DeLillo’s response to the assimilation of White Noise by postmodern critics, many of whom refer to Baudrillard (217).

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