The Fable of the Ants: Myopic Interactions in DeLillo’s Libra
“There are only two things in the world. Things that are true. And things that are truer than true.”—Weird Beard (Russell Lee Moore, a.k.a. Russ Knight), KLIF disk jockey in Libra
I. Paranoias and paradigms: Who’s afraid of Don DeLillo?
One of the most challenging qualities that Frank Lentricchia finds in Don DeLillo is that he “offers us no myth of political virginity preserved, no ‘individuals’ who are not expressions of—and responses to—specific historical processes” (“Introducing” 241). While most mainstream fiction of the Reagan era is marked by regionalisms and privatisms that bespeak an alarming poverty of imagination, DeLillo dares to project a world in its full political complexity and to grapple with ideas that might make some sense of events observed in the public sphere. Working within a culture that was both postmodern and nostalgic, a culture that longed for the pieties of laissez- faire economics and Euro-American bourgeois individualism while its socioeconomic institutions were busily breaking down any remaining space for individuals or individuality, DeLillo recognized that the 1980s could not be understood without attention to the problem of individual behavior in a social sphere hypersaturated with the products of signifying systems. The “seven seconds that broke the back of the American century” (Libra 181) is a superb symbolic moment on which to focus such attention, since it is obviously much more than a symbol.
To publish a historical novel that posited a plausible chain of events leading to the assassination of John Kennedy was more than an act of defiant imagination or political chutzpah; it raised the stakes for the enterprise of fiction within a culture rapidly losing its allegiance to written language as a practical means of organizing experience. Libra makes the implicit claim that no matter what one might believe of the lone-gunman theory or the Warren Commission’s report—in CIA master-researcher Nicholas Branch’s view, “the megaton novel James Joyce would have written if he’d moved to Iowa City and lived to be a hundred” (181)—the assembly of explanatory narratives from the available evidence surrounding the events at Dealey Plaza is as legitimate a concern for a novelist as for any journalist, historian, or member of an investigative body. Given the evidentiary problems surrounding this assassination, the unexplained (or unsatisfyingly explained) deaths of participants in these events and witnesses to them, and the proliferation of conspiracy theories of varying degrees of credibility, the novelist may in fact be on stronger ground than members of these other fields in asserting truth claims about Kennedy’s death.
This position depends on a precise characterization of the nature of a historical truth claim. Libra achieves its disruptive force by offering a fresh paradigm by which an event like the Kennedicide may be understood. This paradigm1 is post-individualist, while accounting for individual actions and decisions within social signifying systems; it refuses both the easy gambit of universal skepticism toward the possibility of explaining such an event and the equally easy temptation of overreaching causal conjecture. It is immune to charges that might be lodged from opposite directions: the accusation of credulity, involving the sense of universal connectivity associated with conspiracy theory (regarded as paranoid in both the vernacular and the Pynchonian senses), and that of ahistorical nihilism, involving the disjunctivity of explanations that lodge sole culpability with Oswald (and thus reduce an incident with massive social causes and consequences to private motivation, mere inexplicable insanity). DeLillo’s text implies an interpretive paradigm that neither overplays nor underplays its hand, connecting events with participants’ intentions while eschewing any model of those intentions as deliberate, purposeful, or necessarily connected with their outcomes.
Libra’s reception among the guardians of a conceptual border between fiction and the presumably nonfictional discourses of history, politics, and journalism was venomous to an astonishing but hardly inexplicable degree. Like Lentricchia, journalist Hal Crowther assesses the vituperation directed at DeLillo by George F. Will and Jonathan Yardley of the Washington Post as a significant barometer of the book’s power, an indication of the authoritarian paranoia that it arouses—a deeper and truer paranoia than the accounts Oliver Stone, James Garrison, the aficionado of the Austin bookstore’s “Conspiracy” section in Slacker, or any caller to a WBAI-FM talk show might conjure. Crowther posits a credible reason why the paranoia in corporate journalism’s higher circles might mirror or exceed the paranoia in the lower: “At the Post they love to talk about Watergate, but they don’t want to talk about Dallas. Establishment journalists know in their guts that they chickened out on the biggest story of their time and left it to fringe players and exhumers of Elvis” (330).2
Both of the Post commentators are sniffishly dismissive of the political implications of Libra, but Will also makes an explicit case for historical disjunctivism: “It takes a steady adult nerve to stare unblinkingly at the fact that history can be jarred sideways by an act that signifies nothing but an addled individual’s inner turmoil” (qtd. in Crowther 323). Characteristically, Will takes a reasonable-sounding position in favor of willfully limiting the reach of historical reasoning. One may safely presume that any historian, journalist, congressional investigator, or novelist does desire “a steady adult nerve,” but Will’s argument fails to consider why causal inquiry must stop with the observation of individual pathology.
Oswald, as DeLillo represents him in Libra, is indeed addled—afflicted, apparently congenitally, with a moderately severe combination of dyslexia and dysgraphia— and in constant personal turmoil. Will’s criticism thus seems not only disproportionate but misapplied to this novel. In depicting a clueless gunman who bases his actions on romantic adolescent notions of political destiny, plays into the hands of nearly every conspirator or would-be conspirator around him, and even carries the requisite familial baggage for the privatistic banalities of Freudian interpretation (absent father, domineering mother, and largely repressed but recurrent gay desires), doesn’t DeLillo provide individual-pathology theorists with all the evidence they need? But the crucial distinction here is between a reading that incorporates individual pathology and an individualist, disjunctivist reading. DeLillo’s offense, beyond merely “exhibit[ing] the same skepticism that was almost universal at the time the Warren Report was released” (Crowther 323), is continuing the investigation into and through the pathological individual. Oswald is pathological without being particularly distinct from his surroundings.
Will and Yardley’s wagon-circling responses to Libra also resemble Tom Wolfe’s comments about Noam Chomsky’s theories of the structural imperatives of the news media within the corporate state, included in the documentary Manufacturing Consent (1992). Wolfe derisively dismisses Chomsky’s argument about control over the limits of permissible public debate on the grounds that it would require the manipulation of the media by a cabal of plotters, presumably gathered in a single room—a laughably cinematic image of organized malignity, mirrored from the right by Gen. Edwin Walker’s rant about the “Real Control Apparatus”:
The Apparatus is precisely what we can’t see or name. We can’t measure it, gentlemen, or take its photograph. It is the mystery we can’t get hold of, the plot we can’t uncover. This doesn’t mean there are no plotters. They are elected officials of our government, Cabinet members, philanthropists, men who know each other by secret signs, who work in the shadows to control our lives.(Libra 283)
Because his account of the Chomskyist critique adheres to the same individual-intentionalist paradigm, Wolfe cannot imagine a controlled discourse without conscious and practically omnipotent controllers; because they refuse to entertain possibilities beyond Warren Report orthodoxy and rational intentionalism, Will and Yardley conflate DeLillo with the “fringe players and exhumers of Elvis.” To posit mechanisms by which fringe players operate is hardly to embrace the fringe oneself. Like Chomsky elucidating the hard-wired requirements of the information industry, DeLillo outlines certain inevitable tendencies of organized sub rosa actions, aware that those tendencies go into effect no matter who does the organizing or why.
Cluelessness is indeed central to the actions of this novel, but it is crucial to recognize that cluelessness in this political atmosphere is by no means limited to Oswald. From Win Everett’s private mixture of motivations (only belatedly incorporating the recognition that “the idea of death is woven into the nature of every plot” ) to David Ferrie’s sexual desires and religious mysticism, private perceptions with distinct limits shape the actions of each participant in the action of Libra. A plot against JFK arises, but without the conscious guidance of its master plotters. It is a conspiracy that Wolfe, Will, and Yardley would not recognize, an overarching “deathward logic” (221) that encompasses clever players like George de Mohrenschildt, whose loathing for Gen. Walker elicits his only expressions of strong emotion (55–56), and the CIA’s Laurence Parmenter (“part of the Groton-Yale-OSS network of so-called gentlemen spies . . . the pure line, a natural extension of schoolboy societies, secret oaths and initiations” ) along with willfully delusional Birchers like Guy Banister, who spends late-night hours poring masturbatorily over his “final nightmare file” purporting to document “Red Chinese troops . . . being dropped into the Baja by the fucking tens of thousands,” and who “wanted to believe it was true. He did believe it was true. But he also knew it wasn’t” (351–52). Each conspirator, seeing no further than his own interests, fears, or desires for revenge, moves in a private direction; the resultant vector of all these individual movements is something no individualist interpreter dares call conspiracy.
II. Insects and insubordinations: A myopic-interaction model
An interdisciplinary model of collective behavior that develops its own directionality, regardless of any single participant’s agenda, comes from the improbable intersection of two fields of study: entomology (as practiced on an amateur basis by a budding physicist) and computer science. Richard Feynman, recalling his home experiments with ants’ navigational behavior, finds that the insects either move randomly or follow each other’s trails, and that the repetition of small deviations when they follow each other results in a composite trail that gives the illusory appearance of order.
One question that I wondered about was why the anttrails look so straight and nice. The ants look as if they know what they’re doing, as if they have a good sense of geometry. Yet the experiments that I did to try to demonstrate their sense of geometry didn’t work. . . . At first glance it looks like efficient, marvelous, brilliant cooperation. But if you look at it carefully, you’ll see that it’s nothing of the kind.(95–96)
None of Feynman’s ants moves individually in a straight line, but the collective movement nevertheless produces a straight line, simulating purposeful effort.
Transylvanian computer scientist Alfred Bruckstein, working with mathematical pursuit problems at the Technion in Haifa, Israel, has formalized Feynman’s conjecture, proving the theorem that an initially disorderly series of pursuit paths will converge to the straight segment connecting the initial point of departure, e.g., an anthill, and the destination of the original “pioneer ant,” e.g., a recently discovered food source (Bruckstein 60–61). His model of “global behavior that results from simple and local interaction rules” (62) has implications for robotics as well as for the behavior of animal colonies. It also has implications for the behavior of human organizations, at least metaphorically—and perhaps, if one notes its resemblance to the “political resultant” theory used in the field of geopolitical decision analysis (Allison 7–8), literally as well.3 If “globally optimal solutions for navigation problems can be obtained as a result of myopic cooperation between simple agents or processors” (Bruckstein 62), can any form of multiple myopia—perhaps the combined myopias of a disgraced, “buried,” and resentful CIA agent; a soldier of fortune with no fixed address and undiscernible loyalties; a disease-obsessed and mystically inclined pilot, sacked from an airline job because of institutional homophobia, who contemplates developing hypnotism as a weapon and claims to “believe in everything” (Libra 314–15); and a dyslexic political naif who daydreams of merging with the flow of history—also give the appearance of directed movement?
In the national security state as depicted by DeLillo, myopic interaction is not a human imperfection in an otherwise efficient system; it is built into the system from the outset. During the planning that resulted in the Bay of Pigs invasion, Everett and Parmenter were part of a layered and deliberately fragmented bureaucracy, described by DeLillo in parodically numbing detail:
The first stage, the Senior Study Effort, consisted of fourteen high officials, including presidential advisers, ranking military men, special assistants, undersecretaries, heads of intelligence. They met for an hour and a half. Then eleven men left the room, six men entered. The resulting group, called SE Augmented, met for two hours. Then seven men left, four men entered, including Everett and Parmenter. This was SE Detailed, a group that developed specific covert operations and then decided which members of SE Augmented ought to know about these plans. Those members in turn wondered whether the Senior Study Effort wanted to know what was going on in stage three.
Chances are they didn’t. When the meeting in stage three was over, five men left the room and three paramilitary officers entered to form Leader 4. Win Everett was the only man present at both the third and fourth stages(20).
The point of all this Beckettish enumeration is not simply that antlike bureaucrats come and go, talking of Guantanamo, but that the form of rationality peculiar to such organizations depends precisely on minimizing the possibility that anyone might know enough to comprehend the full narrative:
Knowledge was a danger, ignorance a cherished asset. In many cases the DCI, the Director of Central Intelligence, was not to know important things. The less he knew, the more decisively he could function. It would impair his ability to tell the truth at an inquiry or a hearing, or in an Oval Office chat with the President, if he knew what they were doing in Leader 4, or even what they were talking about, or muttering in their sleep. . . .
It was the President, of course, who was the final object of their protective instincts. They all knew that JFK wanted Castro cooling on a slab. but they weren’t allowed to let on to him that his guilty yearning was the business they’d charged themselves to carry out. The White House was to be the summit of unknowing.(21–22)
Resemblances to the Reagan-Bush White House, the unpenetrating Tower hearings into the Iran-contra phase of covert national security operations, and the doctrine of “plausible deniability” are perfectly coincidental, of course. But the plot against Castro, taking grimly comic turns at first (poisoned or exploding cigars, “a poison pen in the works . . . testing a botulin toxin on monkeys . . . fungus spores in his scuba suit” ), then culminating in the botched invasion at the Bay of Pigs, serves as a kind of prologue-plot, prefiguring the myopically planned spectacle of Dealey Plaza. When the control of public events requires the diffusion of awareness and dispersal of control, it is unsurprising that Everett’s initial idea of a theatrically managed, well-controlled near miss—as executed, or functionally interpreted, by black-ops technician T-Jay Mackey and his team of shooters, including “Leon” Oswald—goes out of control, its multiple shades of signification simplified to the brutality of an actual hit.
The tendency toward myopic interactions pervades the official and unofficial national security apparatus, not only in the Bay of Pigs fiasco but in the meetings that continue after the official dispersal of groups such as Leader 4 and SE Detailed. “True believers” like the men of Leader 4 may be too “overresponsive to policy shifts, light- sensitive, unpredictable” (22) to continue in covert operations, but they carry on meeting obsessionally out of sheer momentum, a shadow-cabal without real powers (and a caricature of Tom Wolfe’s vision of conspirators). Everett, the one agent who knew enough details of the anti-Castro operations to serve as the Agency equivalent of a pioneer ant, is relegated to the emasculated existence of a planted fake professor at Texas Woman’s University, repeating pointless movements:
Mary Frances watched him butter the toast. He held the edges of the slice in his left hand, moved the knife in systematic strokes, over and over. Was he trying to distribute the butter evenly? Or were there other, deeper requirements? It was sad to see him lost in small business, eternally buttering, turning routine into empty compulsion, without meaning or need(16).
He imagines a painting commemorating the confrontation of Leader 4 with agents of the CIA’s Office of Security, titling this canvas “Light Entering the Cave of the Ungodly” (24)—implying religiosity and the Fall, not instrumental rationality, which they have tried for a time and found inoperative.
III. Cinema and simulacra: The fallacy of forensic romance
Everett and his fellow ex-“clandestines” are drawn to pointless activity as lapsing believers are drawn to ritual, no longer convinced that their actions have political content, but compelled to continue them nonetheless. They are not so much a conspiracy as the simulacrum of a conspiracy, performing according to a script whose composition is ongoing and is not under their control. They have effects on history, but hardly the “personal contribution to an informed public. . . . the major subtext and moral lesson” (53) that Everett hopes will ensue, redeeming him in the eyes of history. He fails to see that this romantic vision (the truth seeing the light of day!) is incompatible with the simulacral nature of postmodern political activity—that his plan’s complex elegance is unlikely to survive its implementation by field operatives such as Mackey and Wayne Elko, who have consumed too many images of themselves as Seven Samurai (145) to be reliable executors of subtle instructions (much as follower ants simplify the intricate paths of a pioneer ant).4 Once Everett has embraced the politics of the public image, hoping to manipulate the media and the Agency through the perception of a vengeful Castro—publicly raising the question of just what actions Castro is seeking to avenge—he reveals his myopia: he forgets that the politics of the public image tends to embrace you back.
It is practically inevitable that a consideration of Libra, with its displacements of agency and its recurrent coincidences between engineered events and happenstance (“It was no longer possible to hide from the fact that Lee Oswald existed independent of the plot” ), will lead to a Baudrillardian vision of social processes. The use of Oswald, Boy Marxist, as the instrument of the anti-Castroite conspiracy (a “negative Libran”  whom Ferrie believes might flip in either direction) is a clear example of Baudrillard’s “Moebius-spiralling negativity” whereby
[a]ll the hypotheses of manipulation are reversible in an endless whirligig. . . . Is any given bombing . . . the work of leftist extremists, or of extreme right-wing provocation, or staged by centrists to bring every terrorist extreme into disrepute and to shore up its own failing power . . . ? All this is equally true, and the search for proof, indeed the objectivity of the fact does not check this vertigo of interpretation.(30–31)
Even the Post’s pet conspiracy Watergate was a nonscandal to Baudrillard, a show trial designed to create a “moral superstructure” (27) behind which the amoral capitalist state can function. To interpret such events as struggles of right and left over rationally expressible questions of public interest—rather than structural fictions obscuring the fact that the Watergate break-in and cover-up, or whatever plot culminated in Dealey Plaza, were closer to normative than exceptional state behavior.5—is to mistake vertigo for orientation.
Power, in Baudrillard’s vision, both uses and fears simulacra. It strives for a monopoly on simulation, punishing acts such as a theatrical “fake hold-up” (39); it fears unsanctioned simulation more than it fears violent transgression, precisely because simulation “always suggests, over and above its object, that law and order themselves might really be nothing more than a simulation” (38, emphasis Baudrillard’s). The Everett/Parmenter/Banister/Mackey/Elko/Raymo/ Ferrie/Oswald mechanism converts the near-miss, a simulation that might have publicized sensitive covert operations, into a hit on Kennedy, a shock that the state apparatus can ultimately absorb. Sociopolitical structures could tolerate actual violence against this president, but not symbolic violence against the system of signs that functions as protective coloration for the operations of capital. “Power can stage its own murder to rediscover a glimmer of existence and legitimacy. Thus with American presidents: the Kennedys are murdered because they still have a political dimension. Others . . . only had a right to puppet attempts, to simulated murders” (37).
Discourses of truth come in for rough treatment in Baudrillard’s world, and the figures in Libra who try to enact discourses of truth are likewise disoriented and defeated. At the opposite end of the plot from the hapless Everett, who thought he could induce media hyperreality to do the work of the real, sits Nicholas Branch, performing historical reconstruction from the masses of evidence supplied to him by the Curator. Branch, the would-be panoptical reader who can synthesize the entire mass of materials into a credible historical truth claim, is at first driven to complete his history whether or not anyone will ever read it. It steadily becomes apparent to him, however, that he is performing a simulacrum of research. His position is both a scholar’s heaven, with apparently infinite research materials provided instantly on request, and a scholar’s hell of overabundance and nonintegration; his papery environment is hallucinatorily Borgesian, part Library of Babel and part Garden of Forking Paths. Branch is Homo documentarius, linear-thinking Gutenbergian Man, with his logical and recombinatory faculties underscored in his surname,6 but his attempt at a definitive reconstruction of the Kennedicide peters out as miserably as Everett’s attempt to send true information to the public.
For his naive belief in the possibility of a realist discourse about Dealey Plaza, Branch receives a different form of knowledge, which he comes to interpret as a form of punishment, from the sources he depends on. He is damned to an eternal investigation, drowned in information that is sensory as well as documentary, including the contradictory, the irrelevant, and the gruesome. The primary texts that the Curator continues to send him include not only the obligatory Zapruder film (that most exhaustively scrutinized of cinematic texts) but autopsy photos, “the results of ballistics tests carried out on human skulls and goat carcasses, on blocks of gelatin mixed with horsemeat. . . . an actual warped bullet that has been fired for test purposes through the wrist of a seated cadaver. We are on another level here, Branch thinks. Beyond documents now. They want me to touch and smell. . . . The bloody goat heads seem to mock him. He begins to think this is the point” (299). In place of the coherence of an explainable conspiracy, he comes to see the plot as “a rambling affair that succeeded in the short term due mainly to chance. Deft men and fools, ambivalence and fixed will and what the weather was like”—yet “[t]he stuff keeps coming” (441), defying comprehension at Branch’s end of the plot just as events defied control at Everett’s. Instead of attaining the closure one expects from a narrative syntagm, the successful completion of his forensic romance, Branch becomes the Sisyphus of mediated information. He is still reading signs at the close of the novel; he has still written little; he has accepted a grim role as the goatherd of historical hell, keeper of the unintelligible secrets of the state.
DeLillo’s plot is a nightmarish parable of the transmission of any type of consequential information through the public sphere under late capitalism. The sender, mediators, and receiver of the message (Everett, the other conspirators, and Branch, respectively) are all maintained in a state of myopia throughout the process; the initial message is replaced by an antithetical counter- message and never reaches its true intended receiver, the politically responsible public. This is precisely as ruling-class apologists of George Will’s ilk would have it, of course, with forensic interpretation forestalled and political accountability rendered risible. Useful communication is stultified under such conditions; the state’s literal control apparatus (from police to spies) becomes redundant, if not vestigial, when much of the citizenry is occupied with information-games that lack real referents and consequences. In Baudrillard’s glum description of daily life in the realm of infinite simulation, there is “[n]o more violence or surveillance; only ‘information,’ secret virulence, chain reaction, slow implosion and simulacra of spaces where the real-effect again comes into play. We are witnessing the end of perspective and panoptic space” (54).
The capitalist polity, of course, has always had its own defensive mythologies to characterize its processes as positively benign. The theory of myopic interactions is by no means the only case of insect behavior offering a metaphoric explanation of human behavior. If, under this paradigm, a series of antlike actions in pursuit of private interests combine to result in public calamity, one formative myth of the early capitalist era uses another arthropod collective to extol the processes that Adam Smith would anthropomorphize and anatomize some 70 years later as capitalism’s benevolent Invisible Hand. Bernard Mandeville’s The Fable of the Bees: or, Private Vices, Publick Benefits, first appearing in 1705, offers a conceptual structure remarkably similar to Bruckstein’s. His beehive prospers as long as it tolerates a rich array of interlocking iniquities, but it loses both its wealth and its power relative to other hives when it gives in to the impulses of reform, economic leveling, and anti-imperalism. A critical difference between these two images of human- society-as-insect-colony is that Mandeville, while applauding the system that transmutes private vices into public benefits, also inverts the equation and identifies public-spiritedness itself, on an individual scale, with disaster on the social scale. Throughout the period of capital’s social dominance, it seems, one encounters a form of consciousness that wilfully refuses to form a lucid and integrative social vision.
Mandeville’s account of apian society is founded on the same sort of macro/micro disjunction by which Feynman and Bruckstein explain formic navigation: behavior that looks like error or disorder at the individual level combines with other such behavior to produce order for the collective. Like any capitalist utilitarian, pre-Marxian or post-, Mandeville rationalized the glaring class distinctions among his bees with the observation that “Industry/Had carry’d Life’s Conveniences,/It’s real Pleasures, Comforts, Ease,/To such a Height, the very Poor/Lived better than the Rich before” (ll. 198–202). This is the classical rationalization of inequities and iniquities under capitalism; it would recur in the Reaganite trope of a rising tide lifting all boats. And Mandeville’s identification of social reform as counterproductive, removing the incentives that drive the invisible hand, would recur nearly three centuries later in Margaret Thatcher’s denouncements of any public policy based on compassion or economic justice as tearfully sentimental, or “wet.”
The same contempt for social interaction reaches a peak of comic exaggeration in Libra when David Ferrie, joking with Mafioso Carmine Latta (who will later manipulate Jack Ruby into taking his role in the script) about the Cold War apocalypse that might ensue if the U.S. tried to bomb Cuba to retrieve it from the Communists for the mob, asserts a positive preference for postnuclear Hobbesianism:
. . . I like the idea of living in shelters. You go in the woods and dig your personal latrine. The sewer system is a form of welfare state. It’s a government funnel to the sea. I like to think of people being independent, digging latrines in the woods, in a million backyards. Each person is responsible for his own shit.(173)
How clearly can one distinguish this parodic hyperindividualism from the attitude expressed in the Impeach Earl Warren signs7 and swastika graffiti that sends Weird Beard into nervous premonitory improvisations? (381–82).
On a fundamental level, communication itself is at odds with the belief system shared by Mandeville, Will, Reagan (the “Great Communicator”!), Ferrie, Latta, Gen. Walker, and the looming Bircher population of 1963 Dallas. This is a community that has been immunized against community, unified in acceptance of fragmentation. Much has been written about the proliferation of signifiers from commercial culture in DeLillo’s works, and about how these intersecting messages shred the idea of an individual consciousness: “a whole network of popular mythology, allowing DeLillo to show how the possibilities of meaning and action are shaped by the contemporary ethos of simultaneity and indeterminacy . . . . Character, the transformation and realization of the novelistic subject’s depth through narrative time, is replaced by the notion of character as a function of the frequently self-canceling languages of representation in which the novelistic self is situated” (Wacker 70–71).
These environments are so oversaturated with disconnected messages that they pose a risk of what one might call “death by information”—a particular hazard for someone like Oswald, who lacks (probably for hereditary neurologic reasons) the integrative capacity that makes purposeful linguistic behavior possible. For all his protestations about economic injustice, Oswald’s image of Communism is a consumer item, a boy’s perverse fantasy of becoming the Other the whole culture fears; the roles of Stalin and Trotsky are natural outgrowths of teenage idol- worship, exotic alternatives to John Wayne, in whose screen- sanctified presence he also bathes while on mess duty at Corregidor (93–94). He forgets to visit Trotsky’s house in Mexico City, and “[t]he sense of regret makes him feel breathless, physically weak, but he shifts out of it quickly, saying so what” (358), like a visitor to Hollywood missing part of a Universal Studios tour. Writing his Historic Diary while in Russia, he is “[s]tateless, word- blind”:
Always the pain, the chaos of composition. He could not find order in the field of little symbols. They were in the hazy distance. He could not clearly see the picture that is called a word. A word is also a picture of a word. He saw spaces, incomplete features, and tried to guess the rest.
He made wild tries at phonetic spelling. But the language tricked him with its inconsistencies. He watched sentences deteriorate, powerless to make them right. The nature of things was to be elusive. Things slipped through his perceptions. He could not get a grip on the runaway world.(211)
Word-blindness is not the same thing as ignorance: “He knew things. It wasn’t that he didn’t know” (211). Spymaster Marion Collings gives Oswald a recruiting speech about the interpretive importance of context—“A fact is innocent until someone wants it. Then it becomes intelligence. . . . An old man eating a peach is intelligence if it’s August and the place is the Ukraine and you’re a tourist with a camera . . . . There’s still a place for human intelligence” (247)—but Oswald is unsuited for this type of cognitive work. He incorporates within his own cranium the perspectivelessness and disconnection of the whole culture; he is a living representative of a myopically interactive informational realm.
Death by information goes hand in hand with the death of information. In a hyperreal environment where messages are infinitely reproducible and convertible, Collings’ elision of the two meanings of “intelligence” (the raw informational material itself and the human skill at making sense of it) metastasizes throughout the culture, and the former overcomes the latter. As William Cain observes after discussing this passage, “in American culture, there are always more facts, more intelligence. . . . The irony is that the spread of information fails to lead to clearer meaning and more finely focused intelligence. People assemble knowledge, and its transmission from person to person and place to place does signify, yet the import of it all stays mysterious” (281). Such a quantity of information ensures that little or no actual informing ever occurs.
Is the dominance of the myopic-interaction paradigm absolute? Does Libra reinforce “what we darkly suspect about the postmodern alteration of the mind” (Cain 281)? The bathetic but intensely imagined monologue by Marguerite Oswald (448–456), patching together incoherent cliches and insights until they achieve a desperate coherence, concludes Libra in a minor key, but it is hardly the same fatalistic minor key in which Baudrillard composes. Implicitly, at least on a metafictional level, passages like this imply that it is still possible to select information from the ceaseless media Babel and combine it in ways that generate power (at least if one has Don DeLillo’s ear for the spoken American language). The question remains whether the borders between art-language and world-language are permeable.
For one alternative to communicative myopia, one can do worse than return to the empiricist intelligence of Richard Feynman. The ant-navigation paradigm is opposed in his text by a recurrent behavioral model that equates global awareness of purpose with problem-solving effectiveness. The most explicit description of this informed-interaction model occurs in the long chapter “Los Alamos from Below,” where he recounts his experiences working on the Bomb. Security interests have mandated the fragmentation of knowledge—with a level of control and surveillance that can properly be called paranoid, however justifiable under wartime conditions—but Feynman intuits that disseminating more knowledge about the project among technical workers will improve the quality and efficiency of their work. Experience proves him right:
The real trouble was that no one had ever told these fellows anything. The army had selected them from all over the country for a thing called Special Engineer Detachment —clever boys from high school who had engineering ability. They sent them up to Los Alamos. They put them in barracks. And they would tell them nothing.
Then they came to work, and what they had to do was work on IBM machines—punching holes, numbers that they didn’t understand. Nobody told them what it was. The thing was going very slowly. I said that the first thing there has to be is that these technical guys know what we’re doing. Oppenheimer went and talked to the security and got special permission . . . .
Complete transformation! They began to invent ways of doing it better. They improved the scheme. They worked at night. . . . [A]ll that had to be done was to tell them what it was.(127–128)
The bureaucrats who set up Special Engineer Detachment counted on the efficacy of myopic interactions, under the assumption that only a small coterie (analogous to the pioneer ant that knows the location of the food) could be trusted with information about the direction of the collective endeavor, but Feynman explicitly demonstrates the superiority of informed interactions for certain types of operations. What works for ants and assassins does not necessarily improve results for engineers, and DeLillo’s account of the information-structures that produced the Kennedicide—regardless of whether the specific events he imagines to occupy that structural framework are veridical, a proposition unlikely ever to be confirmed or disproved— qualifies him as something like a conceptual engineer. This status adds weight to his works’ implicit claim to have influence in the public sphere.
In Mao II, DeLillo extends and deepens the intimation that the Gutenberg/Branch paradigm cannot make sense of the postmodern era’s public events. The transition from the world of Libra to that of Mao II—perhaps a paradigm shift within DeLillo’s work to mirror the one he sees occurring in the political world—becomes clear toward the conclusion of the latter book as Bill Gray approaches death, sensing that his form of information is in eclipse during the days of Moon and Khomeini (“‘What terrorists gain, novelists lose’” ). The literary world where he once enjoyed ferocious debate with his friend and editor Everson is in decline, eroded by the perks of capital (“‘Who owns this company?’ ‘You don’t want to know.’ ‘Give me the whole big story in one quick burst.’ ‘It’s all about limousines’” [101–02]). His belief that his actions have public consequences is also in decline; his agreeing to meet with Abu Rashid’s hostage-holders represents the beginning of a prolonged suicide for both Gray and his mode of thought. Moving eastward toward the rendezvous and the grave, Gray sustains an inner monologue that retreats from public observation into the myopic realm of personal and familial nostalgia.
The individual artist in language, this plot implies, is obsolete because he has always been bounded by, and bound to, his privacy—an artifact of a social order that no longer exists. Yet Gray’s language is succeeded by a different language, that of Brita Nilsson’s camera. She does not refuse to participate in history; her gesture to unmask the armed youth at the end of her meeting with Abu Rashid dramatizes her willingness to be an active participant in events, not a passive recorder (236). She, like DeLillo, is still a public citizen and an artist who can surprise the public; her visual language produces factual texts that are indeed selected—hardly the panoptical god’s-eye view of a would-be master historian like Branch, or of the illusory “objective” news media—but selected with the informed, receptive eye of a new kind of informational engineer. Myopia, after all, is easily corrected with lenses.
1. I will designate this paradigm the “theory of myopic interactions,” borrowing the term from Alfred Bruckstein. Bruckstein does not use the term “myopic interactions” in his Mathematical Intelligencer article, but the phrase is attributed to him in a brief description of this article in Science (April 23, 1993). It is broader in scope than the phrase he originally uses, “myopic cooperation,” since it allows for noncooperative or actively antagonistic interactions such as those involving governmental operatives and Oswald or Ruby.
2. Whether they would still love to talk about Watergate after talking about it with Baudrillard, however, is an open question.
3. Graham Allison offers competing explanatory models for a particularly intricate geopolitical test case, the installation of Soviet missiles in Cuba. According to the “Rational Actor” or “classical” model, the one most foreign policy analysts and laymen have implicitly embraced, governments make decisions monolithically as individual chess players do, referring to specific defined objectives and calculating the rational means of attaining them. However, the “Organizational Process” and “Governmental (Bureaucratic) Politics” models better explain the “intra-national mechanisms” (6) that determine international behavior: each apparent monolith or chess player is in fact a black box containing competing organizations, interests, and individuals, each of whom pursues distinct and only partially compatible objectives. Analysis of the organization, routines, and relative bargaining power of these components yields an understanding of how participants come to make irrational decisions. I am indebted to Katie Burke, MD, FACEP, for calling my attention to Allison’s work and its applications to medical and governmental decision analysis, as well as to the argument presented here.
4. Elko’s identification of his paramilitary role with cinematic models is made explicit, as is his own form of myopia, when he muffs his task of killing Oswald at the arranged rendezvous site, the Texas Theater, by waiting through the feature (Cry of Battle) to “let the tension build. Because that’s the way they do it in the movies” (412), allowing police to apprehend him instead. Staying for the second feature (War Is Hell) after “Leon” is removed confirms Elko’s priorities.
5. “In fact, the charges against Nixon were for behavior not too far out of the ordinary, though he erred in choosing his victims among the powerful, a significant deviation from established practice. He was never charged with the serious crimes of his Administration: the ‘secret bombing’ of Cambodia, for example. The issue was indeed raised, but it was the secrecy of the bombing, not the bombing itself, that was held to be the crime. . . . We might ask, incidentally, in what sense the bombing was ‘secret.’ Actually, the bombing was ‘secret’ because the press refused to expose it” (Chomsky 81–82).
6. Branch is among the first characters introduced in the book, appearing within six pages of another Nicholas: one of young Oswald’s taunting truant companions in the Bronx, Nicky Black, who “know[s] where to get these books where you spin the pages fast, you see people screwing” (8). Referring to himself in the third person as “the kid,” collapsing the distinction between written language and cinema with his primitive porn, bearing the Devil’s conventional given name (though “the name was always used in full, never just Nicky or Black” ), and vanishing from the book after a single scene, Nicky Black is the sort of background character whose very irrelevance to the narrative charges him with symbolism. When a second Nicholas B. then appears among larger, more important masses of paper, does the inference that DeLillo is setting up early subtextual linkages between an obsession with textual forms and Auld Nickie-Ben constitute interpretive overaggression?
7. The irony of rightists calling for the impeachment of the very man who would head the commission that performed a simulacral investigation, thus protecting the plotters (in yet another Moebius-spiral), is unlikely to be lost on many readers of Libra but is probably lost on quite a few of the rightists.