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DELILLO’S COSMOPOLIS: PLACES OF SELF-EXEMPTION

Shih Huang Ti, segffn los historiadores, prohibio que se mencionara la muerte y busco el elixir de la inmortalidad y se recluyo en un palacio figurativo, que constaba de tantas habitaciones como hay dias en el ano; estos datos sugieren que la muralla en el espacio y el incendio en el tiempo fueron barreras magicas destinadas a detener la muerte.8

—J. L. Borges, “La muralla y los libros”

Capital accumulation . . . creates not only spaces but different forms of spatiality (through such moves as the organization of financial markets in cyberspace).

—David Harvey, Spaces of Global Capitalism

In the seventeenth century, Rene Descartes realized that consciousness in the mechanistic worldview of classical physics appeared to exist in a realm separate and distinct from nature (Nadeau 1981, vii). For the French philosopher, this separation is noticeable in the account of our experience, which is essentially “inner”: we exist as minds (Matthews 2006, 114). This split between mind and body rests upon the assumption that each can exist independent of the other and in different realms.9 The consequences of this dualism are clear for Robert Nadeau: the mind is a “self-contained and self-referential island universe with no real or necessary connection with the universe itself” (1981, vii). This well-known problem of the “homeless mind” (ibid., viii) in the mechanistic universe of the seventeenth century recurs in DeLillo’s Cosmopolis, a futuristic fable of cyber capitalism that rewrites the relationships between corporeality and the metropolis. Its protagonist, Eric Packer, experiences a total divorce from his body and lives as a homeless mind. Enmeshed in abstract and homogenized spaces, the body in the novel has become emptied out, made useful, and turned docile. Even if occupying his figurative palace, much in the fashion of the Chinese emperor Borges chronicles, Packer roams around the forty-eight rooms of his apartment in the tower where he lives. Like Francis Phelan at the end of Ironweed, Packer inhabits his own fabricated empyrean made of bronze glass. His empyrean also girds a particular primum mobile that now communicates movement to the new architecture of reality. Packer’s is the heaven of late capitalism, the abode Francis was exiled from.

The tower turns out to be more than a simple address, for it is his place of self-exemption, where he retreats from immediate sociality. Just as Michel de Certeau described the texturology of Manhattan from the 110th floor of the World Trade Center, Packer stands by the window and watches the view of the bridges, boroughs, and suburbs at the crack of dawn. From the top floor of the World Trade Center, de Certeau wrote that one is lifted out of the city’s grasp, no longer clasped by the labyrinth of streets; one becomes an Icarus that can ignore the admonitions of a Daedalus enmeshed in the usual comings and goings of material spatiality. This elevation transforms Icarus into a voyeur and allows him to transform the city into a peculiar parchment to be read with a “solar Eye” (1984, 92). This is the exhilaration behind DeLillo’s character and his lust to be a “viewpoint and nothing more” (92), extricated from the city’s spatial parameters but also exiled from the zero spatiality of his own body. Unable to see the movements of those who are still captured by the horizontal city of Daedalus, Packer can only imagine the comings and goings in the city, with prostitutes abandoning their lamplit corners, produce trucks rolling out of the markets, bread vans crossing the city. Yet this is the old form of capitalistic development; what DeLillo presents is a form of capitalism that is abstract, flexible, and indifferent, constantly reflected on screens, suitable to a kind of aspiring post-human Faustian hero that assesses the texturology of the city. Man and tower feel “contiguous,” part of the same construction and engineering of capitalism; not a skyscraper but a tower, an edifice designed, as Lefebvre would have it, to impress and intimidate by introducing “a phallocratic element into the visual realm; the purpose of this display, of this need to impress, is to convey an impression of authority to each spectator. Verticality and great height have ever been the spatial expression of potentially violent power” ([1974] 1991, 98).

The tower is much more than verticality and power. It is an edifice of biblical proportions that surprisingly, as Eric’s chief of theory remarks, “goes unpunished by God” (103). Like the biblical edifice, the tower has “the kind of banality that reveals itself over time as being truly brutal” (8). The engineering of the edifice, the inner logic that makes it stand aloof on the horizon, is the scaffolding the novel reveals. The tower is a landmark in a new topography of power that begets and communicates a new concept of the real. As if to illustrate the tendency towards hyperreality in contemporary cities,10 this fluid reality is digitalized on flat screens and engenders its own citizen, the kind that belongs to a corporate society of equals and inhabits purified spaces such as the tower or the limo. However, as the story progresses, this new pilgrim will realize that “there are always cracks in the carapace” of space (Massey 2005, 116) and also in the metallic quality of corporate and inexpugnable power/towers. Packer ends up being another “everyman” who relinquishes all kinship, fellowship, and goods until he finds himself homeless, facing his assassin. The places of self-exemption overlap with the places of abjection. The homeless mind becomes the homeless body, in a perfect circle that leads him to the West Side. Icarus morphs into Daedalus; the representative of decorporealized corporate power is reduced to a meeting with his “asymmetrical” body and double. No angels or warriors wage a heroic struggle to gain control of his soul as he proceeds on this journey across Manhattan. As the ride takes him from the vertical city to the horizontal city, his outer journey becomes indistinguishable from the journey into his own psyche (Valentino 2007, 153). No faith, chastity, patience, humility, temperance, reason, or concord appears to redirect his steps. Instead, Packer is visited by the long enumeration of chiefs of theory, of security, of finance, all of which fit the prototype of updated deadly sins impersonating idolatry, pride, extravagance, anger, or avarice. Once divested of these companions, he will be guided by his personal driver, Ibrahim, who will lead him to his moment of reckoning in a landscape reminiscent of inferno.

 
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