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"Here But Also There": Subjectivity and Postmodern Space in Mao II

From: MFS Modern Fiction Studies
Volume 45, Number 3, Fall 1999
pp. 788-810 | 10.1353/mfs.1999.0046

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Modern Fiction Studies 45.3 (1999) 788-810

III. Postmodern Identity
The child born in 1900 would, then, be born into a new world which would not be a unity but a multiple. Adams tried to imagine it, and an education that would fit it. He found himself in a land where no one had ever penetrated before; where order was an accidental relation obnoxious to nature; artificial compulsion imposed on motion; against which every free energy of the universe revolted; and which being merely occasional, resolved itself back into anarchy at last.

--Henry Adams, The Education of Henry Adams

Reacting to advances in technology and industry, Henry Adams describes his disorientation spatially: he finds himself in an alien territory. The shift that would come to signify the transition from modernism to postmodernism -- that of a concentration on time to a concentration on space -- was already happening in fin de siècle America. Adams's estranging modernist terrain resembles postmodern space, which is "apt to be skewed or distorted, subject to abrupt shifts and transformations, and ambiguous as to its boundaries" (McHale 158). Fredric Jameson argues that postmodern space is unmappable, leaving its inhabitants disoriented -- as fragmented as the constructions in which they move: "[T]here has been a mutation in the object unaccompanied as yet by any equivalent mutation in the subject. We do not yet possess the perceptual equipment to match this new hyperspace" (38). Jameson adds, "[T]his latest mutation in space -- postmodern hyperspace -- has finally succeeded in transcending the capacities of the individual human body to locate itself, to organize its immediate surroundings perceptually, and cognitively to map its position in a mappable external world" (44).

Don DeLillo's Mao II presents a world in which the negotiation of unfamiliar territory -- labyrinthine urban centers, vexing architecture, ambiguous images, and technological communication -- compromises notions of subjectivity. Indeed, the political prisoner Jean-Claude Julien experiences precisely the inability to situate himself that Jameson describes. For Jean-Claude, who is hooded and gagged, denied the ability to see or write, subjectivity becomes a function of cyberspace: "Cut off from people whose voices were the ravel of his being, growing scant and pale because there was no one to see him and give him back his body" (DeLillo, Mao 110). DeLillo continues, "He was a digital mosaic in the processing grid, lines of ghostly type on microfilm" (112). The disorienting topography of cyberspace, "the computer-generated space mentally experienced by computer operators whose nervous systems are directly interfaced with the computer system" (McHale 251), can be viewed as hyperspace raised to virtual heights.

While William Gibson's "consensual hallucination" describes a meta-world in which characters myopically, if not blindly, negotiate among unfamiliar virtual landmarks, even the actual world offers myriad opportunities for psychological tripping and stumbling. Mao II's Karen, a character who moves from cult membership to homelessness, is the quintessential decentered subject. Glutted with the visual prescriptions of both programmers and deprogrammers, surfeited with incessant images from television and picture books, she suffers from a peculiar lack of perimeters: "There were times she became lost in the dusty light, observing some survivor of a national news disaster, there's the lonely fuselage smoking in a field, and she was able to study the face and shade into it at the same time" (DeLillo, Mao 117). Her body and her name are unfamiliar extensions of an alien personality: "She began to develop a sense that she was only passing through. She couldn't figure out exactly who it was that lived in this body. Her name had broken down to units of sound and it struck her as totally strange" (79-80).

Exemplified by the urban spaces in which these characters move and by the images that constantly assault them, an erasure of the boundaries -- between inside and outside, reality and representation, time and space -- has engendered a loss of subjectivity. Mirrored buildings, repetitive art, and familiar advertisements all conspire to deprive humans of solid identities, suggesting that postmodern art forms are the catalysts for the slippage of personality. However, underlying that reading is a suggestion that the postmodern space of urban centers and photography is not the...


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