Man-Limo Cruising Manhattan
I want to suggest that our faulty representations of some immense communicational and computer network are themselves but a distorted figuration of something even deeper, namely the whole world system of a present-day multinational capitalism. The technology of contemporary society is therefore mesmerizing and fascinating not so much in its own right but because it seems to offer some privileged representational shorthand for grasping a network of power and control even more difficult for our minds and imaginations to grasp: the whole new decentered global network of the third stage of capital itself.
—Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of
Determined to have a haircut, Packer takes his private limousine, another form of verticality on wheels, and courses through the gridlock of midtown Manhattan towards the west. His itinerary takes him from his residence in the international district near the United Nations headquarters and the Japan Society on First Avenue, threading past Times Square and the NASDAQ Center to the south, to finally reach the industrial lofts, tenements, and an underground garage past Eleventh Avenue at the end of his pilgrimage. As the novel enfolds these spatial practices, we see Packer unwillingly sharing a congested Manhattan with the president, who is in town, and with a massive funeral slowly proceeding downtown. The cityscape Packer traverses, however, is envisioned as distance, as a form of devalued space to overcome or conquer (Massey 2005, 96), for the different streets he goes along are treated as mere surfaces to move across. Protected in his symbolically “Prousted,” soundproof, and armored (70-71) stretch limo, Eric is a detached flaneur, a deluxe “limeur” that has given up on the traditional idea of the city as “a place where people can learn to live with strangers” (Sennet 2006, 39). The practice of modern democracy, Richard Sennet claims, “demands that citizens learn how to enter into the experience and interests of unfamiliar lives” (ibid.). The exchange activates and enriches city life, for while “sameness stultifies the mind, diversity stimulates and expands it,” Sennet opines (ibid.). Within the urban choreography of the novel, however, human contact has been reduced to a minimum. “Eye contact was a delicate matter. A quarter of a shared glance was a violation of agreements that made the city operational” (66). There was, additionally, “a pact of untouchability” among its inhabitants. Deprived of the principle of exchange and crossing, the cosmopolis DeLillo describes is the city of sameness. Everything is reflected on glassy textures or digitalized on the flat screens on the limo. Cosmopolis is the city of abstraction, yet it is a concrete abstraction, for data are reduced to the pair 0-1. This digital/ized society is the new imagined community where the stranger, to contradict Sennet’s words, is no longer the bearer of a new freedom. The foreigner or the different does not need to be kept at bay outside a closely watched fence. The stranger hardly exists in this vision of reality unless the threat he poses can be digitalized on the screen. The fence or gate separating an imagined or gated community is no longer manned and has been breached by an infinitude of openings and ruptured enclosures that are equally constraining and segregating (Virilio 2002, 443). The new wall protecting this society of sameness is the screen, the new standard of the real. The cityspace outside the tower and the limo is now considered outmoded, belonging to an actual, tangible city made up of streets tied down to obsolete forms of money that have now become “an offense to the truth of the future” (65). If streets are superseded on the new map of the real, what are the real places Packer inhabits? Places do no disappear, but their meaning becomes absorbed in the network, in the streams of data he watches in the limo. The exchanges create a presumably fluid network society whose paradigmatic spatial configuration is what Manuel Castells terms “the space of flows.” By flows, the sociologist understands “purposeful, repetitive, programmable sequences of exchange and interaction between physically disjointed positions held by social actors in the economic, political, and symbolic structures of society” (2000, 442). The flows, as understood by Castells, are not just one element of social organization; they are the expression of the process dominating our economic, political, and symbolic life (ibid.). This new spatiality is the dominant manifestation of power; its architecture and content, comments Castells, are determined by the powers that be in our world (ibid., 443).
In the face of these fluid exchanges, the term “office” becomes obsolete or indifferent as a workplace and becomes a mere appendix to the space of flows. Sennet has already remarked that “the flexible office is meant not to be a place where you nestle in” and that at the extreme, the office becomes just a “computer terminal” (2006, 47). This is the process towards abstraction that DeLillo enfolds in Cosmopolis as the office becomes mobile and portable. Gone is the office of law that Bartleby refused to vacate. In the chronicle of cyber realism, indifference to space is the rule of thumb. The office expands and invades the city as it abandons specific coordinates. When Shiner, the chief of technology, asks Packer, “Any special reason we’re in the car instead of the office?” Packer’s response, “How do you know we’re in the car instead of the office?” (15), points at this fluid reality where office and limo, main port and extension, are constantly interchangeable. In the context of the new creed, the place of the office, like the skyscraper and the street it is situated on, have become obsolete and “had zero saturation” (15). The office has space coordinates, dimensions, and hence limits; it implies emplacement and spatial coordinates that go against the admonition of Packer’s chief of theory to think beyond the limits. The limo, in contrast, allows mobility and a different kind of occupation. It is not Bartleby’s occupation by difference, by refusing to copy; Packer’s is an occupation by replication, by the constant repetition of sameness. That is the fluidity the vehicle represents: “He wanted the car because it was not only oversized but aggressively and contemptuously so, metastasizingly so, a tremendous mutant thing that stood astride every argument against it” (10). What is the metastasizing aspect of it? The limo carries metropolis inside, abstract, immaterial, and indifferent to place. Note that metropolis comes from Greek metropolis, from metr-, meter mother and polis, city. In the novel the moving metropolis harbors myriads of meterpolises. In his self-exemption, the inhabitant of this new city on wheels is also a metastasizing and metastasized individual, always reflected on screens or transparencies, the perfect copy returning his own reflection, the society of sameness he feels comfortable in.
Constantly watched by his own surveillance cameras, Packer is video- streamed live worldwide. The screen becomes the window onto the world but also the window into a vacated self. This “limeur” is everywhere and nowhere, just a mind outside space and time. His residence does not harbor dreams a la Bachelard (nor his sleep, for that matter); his office is an outdated place by the new standards, and what remains is a homeless mind that inhabits his car. Equipped with examining table, toilet, microwave, a heart monitor, and spycam (13), among many other appliances, the limo will prove to be the new metastasized home where Packer carries out the rituals of business hospitality. The members of his personal entourage get into and out of the limo as they perform their particular business, such as security briefings, technology briefings, theory briefings, and, more importantly, a medical checkup that confirms the fact that his prostate is asymmetrical. The asymmetrical prostate is, in fact, the recurrent image of a material, bodily stratum that refuses to go away. As Lefebvre comments, the body is always at the crux of space and the discourse of Power, and it is irreducible (1976, 195). Through the prostate, DeLillo reintroduces the discourse of the body and the lower spheres in the game of city verticals. Furthermore, the implicit downward movement within the body predicts the downward thrust of the character. Inner topography anticipates outer landscape. Even if Packer is informed by his aids that the limo cum fortress is inexpugnable and that there is no “vulnerable point of entry” (12), the novel will prove the very opposite. The offensiveness of place, just like the offensiveness of his human asymmetry, does posit a veritable threat to Packer’s version of the real, and place and body will be at the center of the downward movement that closes the novel in Rabelaisian fashion.