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  • Postmodern Wastelands: Underworld and the Productive Failures of Periodization
  • Johanna Isaacson (bio)

Don Delillo’s Underworld is a postmodern novel that thematizes its own situation by showing, in its tropes and forms, the stakes and impossibilities of periodization. The new novel is a grand gesture in an age when high art and realism are waning forms of representation and the social forms that gave birth to the novel have decayed, are etherealized and in flux. The dominant tropes in Underworld point to this condition of fertile decay. Elegiac in its tone and themes, the novel’s world is one of ruin and resurrection. Underworld, like other novels in this genre such as Against the Day and The Corrections, negotiate their own possible obsolescence, their contradictory terms and premises, and their “liberal form” and by doing so become relevant once again.1 Here I want to look at this genre as a new moment in a long trajectory of debates on aesthetics and politics that are generally discussed in terms of early twentieth-century modernism and proletarianized “cultural front” political forms.2 At this earlier moment, the existence of a Communist Party, strong unions, and a self-aware proletariat supported the hope for engaged literature and aesthetics. Today, the idea of an engaged literature that can map modes of alienation, class antagonism, and exploitation in light of the mode of production may seem like a retrograde critical positioning. But here I will look at how the idea of engaged literature, of politicized culture, haunts the text and navigates historically variant understandings of politicization and depoliticization. My analysis will be informed by Fredric Jameson’s periodization of postmodern culture as embodying the logic of late capitalism and his notion of utopia as a form of critical negation. My argument also owes much to Christopher Connery’s periodization of politicization and depoliticization as they relate to the Cold War and 1960s’ temporalities. Finally, I will be in dialog with Phillip Wegner’s periodizing reading of Underworld that focuses on the 1990s. I will argue that a late capitalist periodization that emphasizes the consequences and later fate of 1960s’ politicization is a [End Page 29] necessary complement to Wegner’s decadal periodization in order to better develop a critical position that neither participates in the depoliticizing tendency nor denies the continued relevance and importance of radical critique. The high postmodernist realist aesthetic, elliptical in structure and attuned to the logic of the fragment, itself suggests the simultaneous impossibility and necessity of a periodization-based apprehension of the totality, and the movement of my own argument will reflect these structural characteristics.

My argument may at first seem paradoxical in that while I insist upon a utopian future-oriented reading of Underworld, I focus on the themes of failure, closure, and nostalgia. Here, following Fredric Jameson’s description in Archaeologies of the Future, I see utopia as a “critical negativity.”3 In the postmodern moment the crisis of utopia is related to the crisis of representation, one that is no longer solvable through modernist tactics of aesthetic formal innovation. Even avant-garde culture is now absorbed into late capitalist dynamics, thus rendering representation of an outside to capitalism virtually unfigurable. This unrepresentability leads to a discourse that figures the present system as eternal. The appropriate response to this rhetoric of unchangeability, argues Jameson, is disruption. This is the politics of “the total formal break and discontinuity.”4 He argues that this radical closure is itself a new kind of content, a “utopian form” that insists that radical difference is possible and that a break is necessary. Political representation is thus the representation of rupture rather than of the content of a positive utopia that would come after the break. The present depoliticized condition leads to a greater need for an appeal to utopia in this negative form. Here, I want to read Underworld’s themes of closure, the residual, and waste and trash as signs of closure that nevertheless contain a utopian moment.

Whereas my periodization lays an emphasis on politicization and depoliticization as it accompanies epochal stages of capitalist expansion, Phillip Wegner’s interpretation of the novel emphasizes the nature and possibility of breaks and...


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