Resurveying DeLillo's "White Space on Map": Liminality and Communitas in Underworld

By Rozelle, Lee | Studies in the Novel, Winter 2010 | Go to article overview

Resurveying DeLillo's "White Space on Map": Liminality and Communitas in Underworld


Rozelle, Lee, Studies in the Novel


Place is always being born. A landfill or an abandoned nuclear test site may appear to be at the ecological end of the line, but both are filled with latent possibilities for sustainability and transcendent function. Contemporary literary critics are finding ways to re-envision extant post-ecological structures not merely as sites or spaces, but as thresholds for progress and success in the areas of bioregionalism, conservation, and global warming. Though Greg Garrard admits that "the despair engendered by modernity seems to demand an apocalyptic resolution" (91), he reasons: "[T]he real moral and political challenge of ecology may lie in accepting that the word is not about to end, that human beings are likely to survive even if Western-style civilization does not. Only if we imagine that the planet has a future, after all, are we likely to take responsibility for it" (107). American literary history reveals much more than a one-way street to ecocide, and the narrative describing the movement from purity to corruption--particularly under the auspices of crisis--fails to sufficiently consider forgotten places filled with ecological and critical potential.

One important first step to giving overlooked places reconsideration is to complicate the socially engendered critical entities "margin," "border," and the much-theorized "boundary." While having proven integral to studies of race and gender, these terms do not adequately encompass physical terrain in a millennial, transnational context. Lawrence Buell explains that one way "environmental writing and criticism intervenes most powerfully within and against standard conceptions of spatial apportionment is by challenging assumptions about border and scale" (76-77). With this challenge in mind, millennial literary scholarship might offer new theoretical approaches to place that foreground "spatial reapportionment" by shedding conceptions of provincial boundary and by approaching place, particularly abject or forgotten space, as limen. The liminal, a conception traditionally most relevant to anthropology and psychoanalysis, has the capacity to renew the relationship between culture and noxious literary environments. (1) Undoubtedly, post-Word War II literature and film have depicted this capacity for renewal with increasing fascination. Such meditations can be found within the millennial city Eden-Olympia in J.G. Ballard's Super-Cannes, the genetically modified "Paradice" of Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake, and a spate of films ranging from An Inconvenient Truth to Avatar. Like Don DeLillo's Underworld, these works interrogate border regions in the liminal stage to foster new intellectual approaches to rapidly changing landscapes.

Modem conceptions of liminality can be found first in Arnold van Gennep's Les Rites de Passage (1909) and later developed by anthropologist Victor Turner. For both van Gennep and Turner, initiates in rites of passage must go through three basic stages: separation, limen, and reincorporation. Turner explains:

   The first stage, separation, comprises symbolic behavior signifying
   the detachment of the individual or the group from either an
   earlier fixed point in the social structure or from an established
   set of cultural conditions (a "state'"). During the intervening
   liminal period, the state of the ritual subject (the "passenger" or
   "liminar,") becomes ambiguous, neither here nor there, betwixt and
   between all fixed points of classification; he passes through a
   symbolic domain that has few or none of the attributes of his past
   or coming state. In the third phase the passage is consummated and
   the ritual subject... reenters the social structure, often, but not
   always at a higher status level. Ritual degradation occurs as well
   as elevation. (232)

Turner goes on to describe the liminal as "an interval, however brief, of margin or limen, when the past is momentarily negated, suspended or abrogated, and the future has not yet begun, an instant of pure potentiality when everything, as it were, trembles in the balance" (qtd.

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