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The Language of Self

Strategies of Subjectivity in the Novels of Don DeLillo

Phill Pass

The Language of Self explores the portrayal of subjectivity in Don DeLillo’s fiction. It proposes that his characters’ conception of self is determined by the tension between a desire for connection and a longing for isolation. The particular form taken by this language of self is shown to be both shaped by, and in turn formed through, an interaction with larger, social constructions of agency. In order to explore this phenomenon from both an individual and a social perspective, the author undertakes detailed close readings of DeLillo’s texts, informed by nuanced theoretical analysis which stresses the symbiotic interaction of social and individual context.
This method informs the structure of the book, which is divided into three sections. The first, entitled ‘Dasein’, conceptualises how DeLillo’s characters navigate between isolation and connection, shaping a particular enunciation of self which reflects the balance they strike between self and other. ‘Phenomenology’, the second section, explores how DeLillo’s treatment of language and image alters this balance and examines the sustainability of each enunciation of self. The final section, ‘Das Man’, addresses how the language of self shapes, and is shaped by, a wider social context.


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Section 1 Dasein


Chapter 1 ‘[L]ife narrowed down to unfinished rooms’1: Isolation and the Language of Self For the majority of DeLillo’s male protagonists isolation is the predominant state to which they aspire. Rather than an opportunity for intersubjectiv- ity, the Other is perceived as a source of dread. Such a tendency has been noted, at least in part, by other DeLillo scholars such as McGowan who observed, in reference to Underworld, that there has been a ‘dramatic change in the structure of society’, marked by a ‘turning away from the Other and toward narcissistic self-absorption’.2 This chapter argues that for DeLillo’s male protagonists this self-absorption arises from the desire for isolation and autonomy, an attempt to create a self-actualized subjectivity which is as free as possible from need and dependency upon the Other. Exploring and conceptualizing this desire, the subsequent analysis focuses upon the enunciations of David Bell, Glen Selvy, Bill Gray and Nick Shay. In addition to providing relatively separable enunciations from the interaction of other signifying systems, the four characters chosen cover a wide chronological range, beginning with DeLillo’s debut novel Americana (1971), Running Dog (1978), Mao II (1991) and finishing with Underworld (1997). By exam- ining material from across DeLillo’s oeuvre it will be demonstrated that in spite of variations in strategy and environment, the fundamental paradigm of the striving for a predominantly isolated enunciation of Self remains consistent, comprising three principal components: a space – either literal or cognitive – within which the individual can create a second, ‘true’...

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