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  • "A Presence Almost Everywhere":Responsibility at Risk in Don DeLillo's The Names
  • Heather M. Houser (bio)

On March 12, 2002, the newly created United States Department of Homeland Security (DHS) inaugurated its Homeland Security Advisory System. The system was designed to disseminate emergency information smoothly from the DHS to residents and governmental agencies by translating the national threat into one of five colors. Each easy-to-decode color—from red (severe) to green (low)—communicates a threat status that impels government entities as well as the public to modify their preparedness for an emergency. The implementation of this alert system made clear that the nation at large was now, if not at greater risk, more aware of the risks it faced. While federal emergency communication initiatives had been in place for over fifty years, the Homeland Security Advisory System was the first to communicate a perceived threat rather than an actually occurring military offensive or other catastrophic event.1

It hardly requires mention that the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, catalyzed the second Bush administration to create both the DHS and its advisory system. This agency and program were symptoms of the sense that the strikes heralded a new era in America and the West generally. With this sense of a new era came the need, felt in both the social sciences and the humanities, [End Page 124] for another description of the contemporary situation, in its political and historical as well as symbolic and cultural dimensions.2 This infamous date became one in a series of events that inspired new descriptions of the contemporary, prior occasions beingWorldWar II and the Holocaust, the spate of independence movements and anticolonial wars beginning in the late 1940s, and the collapse of the Eastern Bloc and the subsequent end to the cold war. The descriptors that these historical breaks generated— post-Enlightenment, postcolonial, globalization era—join the glossary of concepts that constellate around aesthetic and cultural understandings of the contemporary as a break from or an intensification of the forms of modernism: postmodern, simulated, ironic.3 All of these ways of conceiving the present have gained currency in literary studies, yet at least one model has largely remained outside its purview. Sociologist Ulrich Beck offers the paradigm of the "world risk society," whose emergence the Advisory System confirms, to describe the current advanced stage of modernity. This essay examines how Don DeLillo's The Names, first published in 1982, presents its own vision of the world risk society, one complementary to Beck's. While most critics approach the novel asking what potentialities and limitations of language it asserts, I begin with the simple query, "Why is the narrator-protagonist a risk analyst?" This question [End Page 125] directs us to the mutual dependence of mobility, risk analysis, and the diffusion of responsibility endemic to globality. I argue that the novel theorizes the late twentieth century as marked (even marred) by an increase in travel that simultaneously generates forms of knowledge essential for risk assessment and distances one from forms of experience necessary for ethical responsibility. I analyze how DeLillo's text characterizes mobility as a form of tourism that produces detached observation and a problematic diffusion of responsibility. Rather than leaving ethics unmoored, however, The Names pairs description of the contemporary with reflections on the powers of naming. This pairing aims to recover a locus of responsibility in the idiosyncratic function of the proper name and to point toward a way of reading both the surface materiality of language and the semantic content of narratives.


Set in 1979, the near past of its publication, The Names traverses the globe, beginning in Athens and stopping at Amman, Rhodes, Istanbul, Cairo, Jerusalem, Bombay, and Lahore before concluding back in Athens.4 Following this itinerary is James Axton, a former hack writer who is a member of a new class of knowledge producers, a class he characterizes as a "subculture, business people in transit" who are "versed in percentages, safety records, in the humor of flaming death" (6). Currently an analyst for the [End Page 126] Northeast Group, an American political risk insurance provider that he eventually discovers is feeding information to the...


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pp. 124-151
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