Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Terrorism and Art: Don DeLillo's Mao II and Jean Baudrillard's the Spirit of Terrorism

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Terrorism and Art: Don DeLillo's Mao II and Jean Baudrillard's the Spirit of Terrorism

Article excerpt

While Don DeLillo and Jean Baudrillard hold similar views about postmodern terrorism, they differ regarding the relationship between terrorism and art. For Baudrillard, the sacrificial violence of terrorism is an "artwork" that subverts hyperreal culture. For DeLillo, art remains the best hope for resisting a regime of media and spectacle.

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Don DeLillo is America's foremost bard of conspiracy, paranoia, and terrorism. DeLillo began to hone in on terrorism as early as 1977 in Players, a novel in which terrorists explain their rationale for attacking the New York Stock Exchange in chillingly familiar terms: "They have money. We have destruction" (107). The Names probes the antipathies between fundamentalist terrorists and America's expanding global empire. Mao II, however, represents DeLillo's most fully developed exploration of terrorism and the global society of spectacle. The novel breaks new ground in its exploration of the dilemmas of the artist in postmodern culture, and the relationships between terrorism and art, terrorists and novelists. Mao II's protagonist, novelist Bill Gray, posits an integral, if obverse, relation between the two: "There's a curious knot that binds novelists and terrorists. [...] Years ago I used to think it was possible for a novelist to alter the inner life of the culture. Now bomb-makers and gunman have taken that territory. They make raids on human consciousness. What writers used to do before we were all incorporated" (41). Bill Gray's words take on, retrospectively, a prophetic tone, and give special meaning to the events of September 11, 2001, events that threw into question the degree to which the artistic imagination can make "raids on human consciousness" in the face of awesome, overwhelming, spectacular terrorism.

Another writer who grapples with similar questions is Jean Baudrillard. Baudrillard and DeLillo hold strikingly similar views of postmodern terrorism. Both see postmodern culture as an arena of a media-driven consumption of signs, of autonomous and free floating signifiers, artificial codes, and simulational models. Both writers see terrorism as a canny adaptive response to the Western regime of image proliferation, sign exchange, and spectacle. Both see terrorism (as Baudrillard puts it) "already inscribed in the decoding and orchestration rituals of the media, anticipated in their presentation and their possible consequences" (Simulacra 21). Moreover both writers address the question: how can a challenge be mounted against a hyperreal regime in which the multiplication of signs, images, and information serves to deflect, contain, or neutralize that challenge? In both cases, this question revolves around the fate of the symbolic--the symbolic representations of art, the symbolic as a cultural form--in a regime of semiosis. How can art be subversive in a hyperreal, simulational world where the symbolic--and all the functions pertaining to it: representation, critical interrogation, resistance--has dissolved into commutable, floating, and multiplying signifiers? While both writers address these questions, their speculations point to divergent answers. While Mao II's Bill Gray laments the demise of the novel in the face of the society of spectacle, with its media-driven, postmodern terrorism, DeLillo's novel argues for art's continuing capacity to change social consciousness. DeLillo wishes to retain the notion (so dear to at least one strain of modernist theory) of the artistic imagination as inherently subversive, yet for him the only way to do this is to move beyond modernist forms of representation and forge a postmodern aesthetics of resistance.

Baudrillard, usually seen as an exemplary postmodernist theorist, on the other hand, has embraced something remarkably akin to a modernist aesthetic of estrangement, a stripping away of the banal evil of familiarity, a sparking of a shock of recognition. Baudrillard's thought is characterized by complex movements: in the early 80s, when he began writing extensively on terrorism, the focus of his thinking shifted from the symbol to the sign, in response to his awareness of the accelerated development of the economy of the sign and media saturation in the West. …

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