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Home arrow Language & Literature arrow Occupying Space in American Literature and Culture: Static Heroes, Social Movements and Empowerment


The distorting and fragmenting reflections of one enormous glass surface to the other can be taken as paradigmatic of the central role of process and reproduction in postmodernist culture.

—Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late


Before cracks break apart the well-fortified reality of cyberspace, and before crossing into an urban hell, man and tower stand as part of the same edifice on the East Side. Packer likes to assess the magnificence of the tower by standing next to it. As an active force in constituting bodies, the abstract city of verticals leaves a trace on Packer’s corporeality (cf. Grosz 2002, 303). Gradually divorced from the body, that “structure he wanted to dismiss in theory” (48), Packer seeks to relinquish the primal form of spatiality the body represents; that zero point where space and time axes coincide. The space of the body, the “absolute here,” as Husserl would have it, the “I-center” of any given perceptual field (Casey 1998, 220), yields to the body-in-space, as Lefebvre argued, a mere fixture in the capitalist milieu. Its physicality, that “meat space,”11 degradable and subject to time, is seen as an obstacle to capitalist transcendence. Not surprisingly, Packer seeks the perdurability of another “I-center,” the new and nonsentient zero spatiality of the tower. In Cosmopolis the man-tower composite creates a new entity that absorbs the body. If Bartleby left the contour of his body on the office sofa, there is no space for the body in the new composite, and Packer becomes part of the edifice of cyber capitalism; man reflected, surpassed, and contained in every turn, in every frame of bronze glass. The cyber capitalist might suffer, in fact, from the psychological phenomenon of “psychasthenia,” a condition in which “being and surroundings fuse into one” (Olalquiaga 1992, 1). Psychasthenia is described as “a state in which the space defined by the coordinates of the organism’s own body is confused with represented space. Incapable of demarcating the limits of its own body, lost in the immense area that circumscribes it, the psychastenic organism proceeds to abandon its own identity to embrace the space beyond it” (ibid., 1-2).12 In Cosmopolis, the body and its environment produce and reproduce each other, as Elizabeth Grosz explains: “The city is made and made over into the simulacrum of the body, and the body, in its turn, is transformed, ‘citified,’ urbanized as a distinctively metropolitan body” (2002, 297). Swallowed by the visual and conceptual power of ascensional vectors, Packer surrenders all notion of personal identity. The tower, the narrator notes, “gave him strength and depth” (9). As he stands on the street, Packer ponders on the mass and scale of the tower. Situated in the midst of what Olalquiaga calls “architectural transparency,” he may have the impression of being endlessly reproduced and reflected in an architectural continuum. Unlike in a fairy tale, he does not need any passage through a magical threshold or mirror, for his surroundings are all made of mirrors and endless reflections. There is no opacity of the body, now subsumed in the translucence of his surroundings.

This absence of clearly marked boundaries in the city’s aesthetics of transparencies explains the different domains the tower commands, as Packer ponders: “The only virtue of its surface was to skim and bend the river light and mime the tides of open sky. There was an aura of texture and reflection” (9). The tower as mirror is no longer concerned with depth and volume. It “superficializes” everything. Reality and identity are just two endless reflections and reproductions. Yet there is more than visual and ontological confusion. In mirroring river and sky, the tower stands as the limen between heaven and earth; it becomes a new fulcrum, a vertical bridge that confuses high and low, river and sky. In the novel, the tower becomes the new horizon. Its ontological domain situates it far away from the skyscraper. The tower does not belong to the same order of the old edifice, the architectural sign of twentieth-century capitalism now turned obsolete and anachronistic. “It belonged to the olden soul of awe, to the arrowed towers that were a narrative long before he was born” (9). The visuality of the narrative, with buildings like arrows, the new Is of corporate management, marks the process and progress of the future, spelled out in the new narrative of a city that has exiled the body. “Tall, sheer, abstract” (36), the towers are, in Packer’s eye, the agents of the new time and his role models. Their belonging to different time coordinates makes them stand outside space and time: “They weren’t here, exactly. They were in the future, a time beyond geography and touchable money and the people who stack and count it” (36). Yet these rectangular constructions, with buildings resembling boxes, evoke the niches of a cemetery. It is the Tanatos city (Solans 2000, 143-44), the necropolis implicit in the metropolis, a sterile landscape of asphalt and concrete. The preeminence of the straight line, the rigidity of the materials, and the geometrical structure of the streets evoke a rationalized organization that has excluded organic nature. From the opening of the narrative, Francis Phelan’s meanderings in the materiality of the cemetery and the junkyard, as well as Packer’s passage through an initially abstract Manhattan, are not so far apart.

What are the limits of this ascensional vector? The sky is the limit. As Packer explains to his wife during an impersonal breakfast, they now need a heliport on the roof. The heliport stands as the new way of breaking the crust of heaven. There is no actual limit to verticality, forever projected towards the sky in an apparently infinite Tower of Babel. Yet the tower is a limited, closed space. Its metallic and finished quality allows no crossing, no exchange, not even with his wife, who he happens to see at different points of the ride through town. Packer’s space has been tamed to unimaginable limits and divested of the possible multiplicities that crisscross it. When he steps onto the street, the city does not open up before him, for he carries his own coordinates of self-exemption. Packer belongs to the corporate society. His natural coordinates are those of cyberspace, a supra-demarcation that goes beyond cityscape and nation space. Cyberspace has forged a new kind of isomorphism of people, language, culture, and power divested of the physicality of place and situated on the abstract mapping of what Castells (2000) terms “the space of flows.” It is an imagined community made up of disembodied people who evade the challenges of material spatiality: the facing and confronting of the Other (cf. Massey 2005, 95).

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