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Windows into the Real (in Reverse)

This whole visible world is a book written by the finger of God, that is, created by divine power; and individual creatures are as figures therein, not devised by human will but instituted by divine authority to show forth the wisdom of the invisible things of God. But just as some illiterate man looks at the figures but does not recognize the letters: just so the foolish natural man, who does not perceive the things of God, sees outwardly in these visible creatures the appearances but does not inwardly understand the reason. But he who is spiritual and can judge of all things, while he considers outwardly the beauty of the work inwardly conceives how marvelous is the wisdom of the Creator.

—Hugh of Saint Victor, “Didascalicon”

He studied the figural diagrams that brought organic patterns into play, birdwing and chambered shell. It was shallow thinking to maintain that numbers and charts were the cold compression of unruly human energies, every sort of yearning and midnight sweat reduced to lucid units in the financial markets. In fact data itself was soulful and glowing, a dynamic aspect of the life process. This was the eloquence of alphabets and numeric systems, now fully realized in electronic form, in the zero-oneness of the world, the digital imperative that defined every breath of the planet’s living billions. Here was the heave of the biosphere. Our bodies and oceans were here, know- able and whole.

—Don DeLillo, Cosmopolis

What Packer sees on the screens is the equivalent to a new dream vision made up of “medleys of data . . . all the flowing symbols and alpine charts, the polychrome numbers pulsing” (13). Sitting in his club chair, he concerns himself solely with charting and predicting the movement of money, seeking out “a pattern in nature itself” (63), those eloquent letters that only the informed reader can dissect and interpret. The assorted screens provide the fragmented and simultaneous outlook of a new book of nature, liquid- crystal, virtual, instantaneous, and networked that marks the advent of the “technological sublime” (Conte 2008, 186). Packer orchestrates a narrative of money, a narrative that, like space and like the body, has become abstract. For now, “money is talking to itself” (77) in a kind of meta-monetary speech. The new book of nature is condensed on screens, in the glow of “cyber capital,” radiant and seductive (78), and admits no doubt (86). Packer goes beyond the despised limits of the human to attain the “eternal present of cyberspace,” a meta-landscape where the “downloaded posthuman consciousness can interact with the analogues of the divine” (Webb 2000, 164). It is no coincidence that Packer’s chief of security outlines the creed of this cyber capitalist reality right after he sees the president on one of his screens. For this futuristic capitalist, Middlewood, the president, exists in the liminal state of the “undead” (77). He represents a political entity, the nation-state, confined within geopolitical limits, that has little to do with the corporate society Packer represents. The president, like the nation itself, falls into the category of the obsolete, that quality that keeps encompassing all the aspects that are not operative in the abstract and fluid society of the future.

So attuned is Packer to the future that he reverses the time sequence and experiences an effect before its cause (Conte 2008, 186). This vision of protracted reality is, in fact, an ancient trope called hysteron proteron. Webster’s Dictionary defines hysteron proteron as a figure of speech consisting of the reversal of a natural or rational order.13 Packer, for example, observes himself recoiling in shock on the screen before the actual NASDAQ bombing occurs. When shot by Beno Levin, Packer’s reality splits between watching a beetle on the wire dangling overhead and the images he can see on the electronic camera on his watch, an ambulance, a morgue, and an unclaimed body. Joseph Conte (2008) has already remarked on DeLillo’s use of this rhetorical figure in the novel, yet we would like to go beyond the literal applications to assess how it structures the narration and the vision of reality. The chapter entitled “Night,” wedged into Packer’s day, anticipates the cycle of the day at the same time that it introduces Packer’s death in the first line: “He is dead, word for word” (55). This “literal” death at night anticipates Packer’s life during the day; first death, then life. There is, moreover, another layer to this reversal of time. Packer has the ability to anticipate fluctuations in world currency, to discern patterns of behavior in the liquid crystal. He is the demiurge that not only reads the world, as the Saint Victor text illustrated, but also discerns a world that does not yet exist (Valentino 2007, 145). His readings, however, fail, and he ends up bringing down the financial system. Although DeLillo has insisted that since the novel was essentially finished on 9/11 he saw no reason to change it (Thurschwell 2007, 279), the references to Packer’s tower as the new Tower of Babel created by the scaffolding of cyber capitalism figure as another instance of hysteron proteron. DeLillo presents the facts on paper, the falling of the tower/power of corporate capital before the actual collapse happens in reality.

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