Two's a Crowd: Mao II, Coke II, and the Politics of Terrorism in Don DeLillo

Article excerpt

I keep thinking, without too much supporting evidence, that images have something to do with crowds. An image is a crowd in a way, a smear of impressions. Images tend to draw people together, create mass identity. --Don DeLillo, "The Image and the Crowd" (72-73)

In his 1991 novel Mao II, Don DeLillo stages a battle between the notion of an individual Western identity and that of a "mass-produced" foreign consciousness, a contest producing equal amounts of xenophobia and paranoia. For most of the novel's characters, an alienating mass identity is emblematized by images of non-Western languages and religious and political leaders such as Mao. But for the novel's author, the seemingly foreign "cult of Mao" turns out to represent a product of American consumer culture--that is, an American appropriation of mass terrorism and the commerce of mechanical reproduction (or a Warhol aesthetic and what it signifies). For DeLillo's characters, xenophobia accompanies such an appropriation as an expression of anxiety over "mass identity" and mass production (displaced onto and emblematized by mass weddings); group identities of consumer culture; photographs that displace the "original" object; and hybridized or multicultural texts and languages. The American notion of terrorism, at least at the point DeLillo was writing, is then born from an acute fear of collective identity based in a long Western literary tradition of fetishizing the individual.

DeLillo sets up an opposition between the Western writer/individual and the Eastern/mass terrorist only to collapse it, for example in recontextualizing the alleged "invasion" of global/third-world English into the United States, and in tracing the myriad ways in which an ideology of American individualism is itself surreptitiously predicated on the practices of "foreign" mass production. The anachronistic white writer's individual words are cast against foreign, hybridized "mass" languages of advertising, politics, and terrorism. Throughout Mao II, DeLillo dramatizes the speciousness of the dichotomy between the domestic and the foreign, both of which turn out to be products of the same Western imagination. More dramatically, the foreign terrorist emerges as the alter ego of the American writer. In this process, the figure of Mao comes to designate not a foreign or alternative social or economic system, but the very mechanics of capitalist production in DeLillo's America. In this sense, one never sees Mao, but only Mao II, a Mao effect.

The appearance of a second Mao or Mao II in the text, Warhol's mass-produced dissemination of the Mao image, is paralleled by the appearance of the product Coke II--to some extent a parodic version of the ill-fated New Coke--staging an ironic contest between which two equally Western symbols will colonize the world. In this series of transpositions, DeLillo dramatizes what Anthony Giddens describes as the surprise of postmodernism, that "scarcely anyone today seems to identify post-modernity with what it was once widely accepted to mean--the replacement of capitalism by socialism"(46). Instead, postmodernity perversely heralds the apparent 'replacement' (but actual supplementation) of capitalism by the capitalist symbols of socialism. With archly postmodern irony, DeLillo uses the appropriated, primary symbol of Marxism to critique capitalist xenophobia and its appropriation of other sign systems to its own uses. The children of Marx and Coca Cola grow up to inherit one another, and discover their actual fraternity.

In this essay I explore the frustrating complexity of xenophobia in DeLillo's texts: where it is generated, whom DeLillo's critique is aimed at, and how we determine what is genuinely foreign. To what extent does the author identify with the views of his white protagonist Bill Gray--is that figure for DeLillo a victim of foreign ideologies or his own xenophobia? An unresolved tension between the implied author's and characters' world-view makes the answer to these questions difficult to determine. …


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