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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 2 Phenomenology

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Chapter 3 ‘With a word they could begin to grid the world’1: Denotation and the Language of Self As Cowart observes of DeLillo’s use of language, the novelist’s closest philosophical connections are with Ludwig Wittgenstein, Walter Benjamin and Martin Heidegger (Cowart, 2002, p. 11). What is significant about such a selection of philosophical inf luences is the divergent conceptions of language which they represent. While Heidegger’s linguistic theory, and resulting conception of subjectivity, is rooted in his phenomenological conception of the inextricability of λόγoς and phenomenon (Φαινόμενον) – the impossibility of perception without language – Wittgenstein and Benjamin both argue for an a-linguistic conception of thought as occurring prior to denotation. Even this shared conception, however, does not result in comparable conceptions of either language or Self. While Wittgenstein refrains from exploring what he considers to exist beyond the linguistic, for Benjamin it is this externality which comprises his own philosophical focus. All three philosophers therefore represent fundamentally irreconcilable conceptions of language and subjectivity which raises the question that if Cowart’s assertion is correct, how can DeLillo’s fiction reconcile or syn- thesize such divergent views of λόγoς, subjectivity and their interrelation? To being to address this question, this chapter explores how these three conceptions of language and subjectivity manifest themselves in DeLillo’s fiction, arguing that while there is a degree of overlap within particular novels, a clear progression can still be observed. It will then be shown that it is the dif fering suitability of each philosophy of language as a vessel for...

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