Places of Eviction and Places of Self-Exemption. The Homeless in William Kennedy’s Ironweed and Don DeLillo’s Cosmopolis
A street retreat is a plunge into the unknown. An opportunity to go beyond our imagined limits. A chance to see beyond our small selves, to begin to eliminate the barriers.
The city provides the order and organization that automatically links otherwise unrelated bodies. For example, it links the affluent lifestyle of the banker or professional to the squalor of the vagrant, the homeless.
—Elizabeth Grosz, “Bodies-Cities”
The authentic twentieth-century passion for penetrating the Real Thing (ultimately, the destructive Void) through the cobweb of semblances which constitutes our reality thus culminates in the thrill of the Real as the ultimate “effect,” sought after from digitalized special effects, through reality TV and amateur pornography, up to snuff movies.
—Slavoj Zizek, Welcome to the Desert of the Real
At a time when the current economic crisis and its attending foreclosures and evictions have pushed more and more people onto the streets, a different phenomenon, that of street retreats, is assembling an entirely different congregation in cities such as New York. A street retreat, as one of the official organizations explains, is a “plunge into the unknown” that takes retreatants, mostly belonging to the middle class, into unfamiliar geographies of the city. For a few days, the group enjoys the opportunity to go beyond familiar landmarks. As a border-crossing experience, the street retreat takes the participants beyond “imagined limits” in order to eliminate barriers. The rules that govern the retreats are simple and center upon the need to look like a homeless person. Others instruct the retreatants to prepare for weather extremes and for a great deal of walking. No money, illegal drugs, alcohol, weapons, cell phones, or jewelry are allowed. Besides the clothes they are wearing, participants are instructed to take an empty plastic bag for collecting food from shelters. The organizers encourage participants to practice rummaging through garbage cans and picking up pennies on the street prior to the retreat. Finally, participants are reminded to bring a blanket that they can roll up or wear. For the duration of the retreat, the participants leave their particular spatial practices in the city and start occupying unspecified places. For a number of days, the striated spaces of the homeless become smooth, away from social and cultural limitations and inscriptions. If Bartleby turned his small cubicle into the opaque “hermitage” beyond the lawyer’s gaze, these neo-homeless negotiate the urban grids by locating places of self-exemption. Situated in a zone of abjection that immediately distinguishes them from walkers, flaneurs, or passersby, their seeming idleness and indolence separates them from the normalcy of society. They become part of another enclosure, a class-based immobilization. The idea, which emerged among New York missionaries in the 1960s, is now spreading in the U.S. and is making its way to European cities. Beyond the simulacrum implicit in the retreats, they illustrate “the thrill of the Real as the ultimate ‘effect’” (Zizek 2002, 12). There is, cautions Zizek, a correlation between this virtualization of the real, transformed into an “effect,” and what he calls “an infinite and infinitized bodily pain” (ibid.), as if only physical deprivation or discomfort, the actual suffering inflicted on the body, can stand as a reminder of the real.1 Paradoxically, enacting the role of the remainder of society, the part that can be surgically removed, acts as a reminder of the real.
The retreat also illustrates a spatial overlap in the city, for the places of abjection where the homeless are traditionally fixed and immobilized become zones for voluntary and temporary self-exemption. In this new urban role-playing, gatedness and apartness become the new game in town (Diken and Bagge Laustsen 2005, 147). The game can take different shapes. It may imply an unconventional vacation in the alleged liberating, smooth spaces of the homeless, but it may also create its own liberating spatial coordinates in protected communities that are based on the subtraction of the individual or the group from the communal. This chapter explores this bifurcation in cityscapes as it compares places of eviction and places of selfexemption in William Kennedy’s Ironweed (1979) and in DeLillo’s Cos- mopolis (2003). While the homeless inhabit zones of abjection in Kennedy’s novel, the protagonist in DeLillo’s novel creates his own liberating fortress. Whereas Kennedy depicts the visible and invisible geography of a homeless person, Francis Phelan, and his entourage, DeLillo portrays the pilgrimage of cyber capitalist Eric Packer, the homeless mind that roams the rooms of his forty-eight-room apartment without being able to feel at home. In spite of these differences, it is possible to argue that the superfluous, the layer of society that is redundant (refugees, immigrants, homeless), could actually play the role of alter egos, fellow travelers, mirror images, caricatures of the new power elite of the globalized world. “Like that elite,” Bauman argues,
“they epitomize the unfathomable ‘space of flows’ where the roots of the present-day precariousness of the human condition are sunk” (2004, 66). Significantly, both protagonists, the homeless body and the homeless mind, will end up among the socially and physically discarded.
Although seemingly distant in time, the two novels dissect the impact of economic downturns at different points in history and retake the Wall Street capitalist environment that Bartleby interrupted. Kennedy’s explores the Great Depression in Albany, New York, during the 1930s, while the economic downturn of the 2000s, for many the second Great Depression, is captured in Don DeLillo’s novel. As it traces their respective spatial practices and Icar- ian flights, the chapter juxtaposes the material spatiality of Albany and the abstract quality of New York City, initially only perceived on screens and glass reflections. The discussion moves from the literal homelessness to the epistemological homelessness; from market capitalism and the production of machines as depicted in Ironweed to multinational capital and machines of reproduction in Cosmopolis, to use Fredric Jameson’s (1991) terminology; from the exploration of the limits of the real in Ironweed to the thrill of the real and the encounter with bodily pain in DeLillo’s novel. Like Phelan, Packer becomes a social ruin, the visible outcome of “giving way and falling down,” according to Webster’s Dictionary.1 “Ruin” derives from Old French ruine and Latin ruina, “a collapse” related to ruere “to rush, fall violently.”3 Kennedy and DeLillo, the chapter illustrates, dramatize this fall in different ways. While a down-and-out Francis finally reroutes the idea of home and reclaims the spaces of eviction as an open home before he initiates an Icarian flight towards the empyrean, Packer, the cyber capitalist and financial wizard, is only allowed a vision of his homeless body unclaimed in a morgue. His Icar- ian fantasy of being buried in a decrepit bomber that finally falls in the desert transformed into “a work of land art” (DeLillo 2003, 209) is never fulfilled.4 While Packer ends up “grounded,” it is Phelan that finally reappropriates and reroutes the geography of exception as his landscape of choice and can finally feel at home in the nonhome. But there is more common ground between the two novels, for Ironweed can be considered as a hysteron proteron of Cos- mopolis, as the fall before the rise of cyber capitalism. DeLillo’s novel, for its part, anticipates the fall of a cyber capitalist and the fall of the financial market at the same time that demonstrators’ storming of the NASDAQ building effects their own emptying out of economic and ideological premises.