The Artists' Loop: Autocatalysis in Don DeLillo's Underworld

By Ray, Brian | Notes on Contemporary Literature, January 2010 | Go to article overview

The Artists' Loop: Autocatalysis in Don DeLillo's Underworld


Ray, Brian, Notes on Contemporary Literature


Nearly two decades ago Tom LeClair's groundbreaking book on Don DeLillo, In the Loop (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1988), invited further studies of the Bronx writer's works in the context of systems theory, which brings together a number of sciences including those of chaos and complexity. Numerous scholars have, since then, established further connections between the continually shifting field of systems theory and DeLillo as well as other authors such as John Barth, William Gaddis, Thomas Pynchon, and Richard Powers. These authors often craft their fictions with one eye trained on newly developing theories, as DeLillo's giant novel Underworld all too well reveals. One recent theory in complexity science, known as autocatalysis, shapes the very structure of this ambitious book and defines the relationships among its many characters.

In At Home in the Universe, Stuart Kauffman introduces the theory of autocatalysis while using it to debunk the concepts of random mutation and natural selection, which "could not possibly explore ... patterns of gene activities in the lifetime of all the ... worlds" in the universe (NY: Oxford UP, 1995, p. 106). Instead, a natural proclivity to order drives evolution, with autocatalytic networks serving as vehicles--groups of proteins and catalysts that interact in such a way that they complete self-contained loops. In order to accomplish these loops, a "soup" of chemicals must cross a threshold from subcritical to supracritical levels. A soup consisting of only a few reactions never generates an autocatalytic network. But once a soup of chemicals possesses sufficient diversity "a living metabolism crystallizes" and an "autocatalytic system snaps into existence ..." (62). Kauffman describes the human body, neighborhoods, cities, and entire civilizations as conglomerates of these autocatalytic networks.

Underworld's first section, "Long Tall Sally", operates as such a conglomerate. The artwork of Ismael Munoz, to start, originates from the single phrase, "graffiti instinct," that Klara Sax mentions during an interview about her B-52 project several decades after, but several hundred pages before she goes to search for him with her art dealer Esther Winship. Before the interview in fact Klara's former lover, Nick Shay, observes that the planes Klara uses are covered in a sort of primordial soup of paint. A few pagers later Shay and his friend Brian Glassic encounter "condoms marked with graffiti that stretched to your erection, a letter becoming a word, a word that expands into a phrase" (111). While waiting for Chuckie Wainwright, Marvin Lundy encounters graffiti-covered tunnels (311). And, finally, when Klara and Esther go hunting for Ismael, Esther remarks that his graffiti "is so completely everywhere" (381).

It is this point at which one notes a paradox. Although the primordial soup of paint covering the bombers seems to evolve into more complex forms through Ismael's graffiti, Underworld's retrograde narration enables a kind of feedback loop between Ismael and Klara. The chapter in which Klara searches for Ismael actually occurs about twenty years before she becomes famous for her bomber project. It is then, in the 70s as she accompanies Esther into New York's subways, that Klara enters Ismael's "system" as a new catalyst. Inspired by the graffiti, Klara then, several years later, organizes the immense bomber project. …

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