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"There's no Lack of Void": Waste and Abundance in

Beckett and DeLillo

Peter Boxall
SubStance, Issue 116 (Volume 37, Number 2), 2008, pp. 56-70 (Article)
Published by University of Wisconsin Press
DOI: 10.1353/sub.0.0005
For additional information about this article
Access provided by Amsterdam Universiteit (4 Oct 2014 11:04 GMT)
Peter Boxall
SubStance #116, Vol. 37, no. 2, 2008
Theres no Lack of Void:
Waste and Abundance
in Beckett and DeLillo
Peter Boxall
The opposition between Waste and abundance offers itself, arguably,
as that which structures contemporary culture more fundamentally than
any other. The experience of living in the West today is defined by the
perception of abundance, or of superabundance. There is more of
everything. When George Bush famously quipped to his supporters at a
fundraising dinner during his 2004 presidential campaign that they were
the haves and the have mores, he unwittingly identified a deeper failure
in the culture to think of wealth as in any sense limited, or balanced
against poverty as its defining opposition.
There is only having and
having more, without the shadow of having less and not having. The
physical sign of relative poverty in the West, accordingly, is not
malnutrition, not wasting away, but obesity, as if what remains of
poverty can only show itself in a weakened resistance to the dangers of
abundance. Where the distribution of resourcescommodities as well
as capital and mineral reservehas traditionally been understood as an
unequal sharing, as balancing the wealth of the few against the poverty
of the many, the global economy has produced, and been produced by,
the apparition of a wealth without limit, a wealth that will grow by
contact with poverty, until, in Tony Blairs and Anthony Giddenss vision
of third-way globalization, the market will make everyone rich, will
eradicate poverty and suffering.
This is a benign version of the horrible
sexual appetite that Hamlet so dreaded in his mother, the increase of
appetite that grows by what it fed on (188, 1, 2, 144-145). But if wealth
has absorbed or assimilated its other, in a utopian movement towards
an unlimited global surplus, this supposed triumph of abundance over
scarcity has produced another limit, another kind of boundary.
Abundance may no longer be limited by poverty in the neo-conservative
political imagination (although of course it is so in the material
distribution of wealth, which is as uneven as ever), but it is shadowed
instead by the more uncanny figure of waste. The more there is, the more
we make, the more we consume, the more wastethat monstrous
Board of Regents, University of Wisconsin System, 2008
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57 Beckett and DeLillo
doppelganger of abundancegathers at the edges of our vision,
unassimilable, unincorporable, and threatening the very integrity of the
body politic. Waste, Julia Kristeva argues, occupies an exorbitant outside
or inside, it accumulates beyond the scope of the possible, the tolerable,
the thinkable. It lies there, she writes, quite close, but it cannot be
assimilated (1). The social production of space and of time, like the
production of commodities, may have reached a new kind of peak, and
might aspire towards limitlessness, but it is in this insistent, inescapable
and fatal amassing of the waste product that the culture meets its limits.
For the contemporary psyche, the image of clean, frictionless and limitless
technologies, embodied in electronic money as well as in the clean lines
of postmodern architecture, coincides with the opposite image of
overflowing landfill sites, of melting ice caps, polluted seas, dwindling
rain forests. The very forms of cultural production that make space seem
limitless to usthe limitlessness, for example, of the virtual space of the
internetgo hand-in-hand with the conditions that make another kind
of space seem utterly restricted. We can move freely in our superabundant
technosphere, while our movements in the biosphere become ever more
confined. In the contemporary imagination, the scenario imagined by
Beckett in Endgamein which there is no more naturehas been almost
realized (97). We have become accustomed to the thought that while
there is more of everything, there is almost nothing left. No more
rainforest, no polar ice, no diverse eco-systems, no coral reefs. The
production of cultural abundance delivers a waste product that leads to
an extreme form of natural scarcity. As the narrator of Don DeLillos
vastly abundant novel Underworld tells it, people look at their garbage
differently now, seeing every bottle and crushed carton in a planetary
context (88).
So, waste and abundance form an opposition, arguably an
opposition that structures and shapes the way we see the world at the
beginning of the 21
century. Super-abundance is limited and challenged
by the waste that abundance itself produces. But what if waste and
abundance are in fact not oppositions at all? Might the relationship
between waste and abundance be thought of as conforming not to the
rules of opposition or contradiction (which allow for conceiving stable
limits, and for developing a dialectical resolution of contradictory drives),
but to what Frederic Jameson has characterized as the rules of the
postmodern antinomy. Jameson offers as an instructive example of the
antinomy the opposition between identity and differencewhat he calls
the grandest and most empty of abstractions. These, he argues, are
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nondialectical categories, and you would have to bend them out of
shape with some violence to appropriate them for Hegels identity
of identity and non-identity. Identity and difference are, rather, the
realm and domain of the antinomy as such: something they readily
offer to demonstrate by effortlessly turning into one another at the
slightest pretext. (7)
Difference and identity, in Jamesons argument, cannot defend
themselves against each other. In a strangely performative way, the
difference between identity and difference is always threatened by the
revelation that they are the same, just as any suggestion that the two are
identical produces a paradoxical recognition of their difference. Without
a historical content to the abstractions, without, say, the difference
between a ruling class and a working class, or between franchisement
and disenfranchisement, or male and female, there is no contradictory
tension between the terms, which as a result become at once absolutely
different from each other, and absolutely the same. Another example
that Jameson offers is that between change and stasis. The thought of
absolute change, by its very absoluteness, becomes a kind of empty stasis,
a kind of constant. Something that is in a constant state of change is also,
and at the same time, constantly the same. It requires historical and
material content to produce a contradiction between modes of change
and modes of stasis, and thus to produce a dialectical movement that
might deliver historical change, that might lead to a resolution that in
turn would open up a new set of contradictory differences. Jameson
approaches the move from the contradiction to the antinomy in terms of
an (implicit) move from Marx to Freud. Marxist dialectics emerges from
a neo-Hegelian theorization of the contradiction, which rests on the
identity of identity and non-identity. Freudian psychoanalysis emerges
from a theorization of a peculiar kind of contiguity between apparent
oppositions, between, say, the conscious and the unconscious, which
tends to undermine attempts to read the relation between identity and
difference as in any way dialectical. Jameson argues:
Rather than as dialectical, even as an arrested or paralyzed dialectic,
it might be better to characterize [postmodern antinomies] in terms
of a kind of reversal of Freuds (modernist) conception of the
antithetical sense of primal words, which drew our attention to the
way in which, etymologically X-rayed, a single term proved to
carry within itself, along with its primordial meaning, the latters
negation or opposite (most famously heimlich, what is most familiar
and homely, also turns out to mean the same thing as unheimlich,
what is most uncanny, weird and strange). (Ibid., 7)
The terms waste and abundance, it might be argued, betray a similar
kind of tendency to turn into each other. The verb to waste implies
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59 Beckett and DeLillo
dwindling, reducing, tending towards nothing, while abundance suggests
expansion and enlargement. The noun waste suggests illness, abjection,
corruption, while abundance suggests health, fitness, well being. But
despite such oppositions, there is a peculiar and insistent Jamesonian
identity between the terms. We begin to glimpse this in the paradoxical
proposition that waste offers itself as a limit to abundance only to the
extent that waste itself becomes abundant. Waste cannot sustain itself
in any simple sense as the opposite of abundance, as the wasting or
dwindling in which abundance finds itself negated or extinguished. This
is because abundance is threatened not only by the dwindlingthe
wastingthat is its apparent antonym, but also by abundance itself, by
the massive, unlimited abundance of the waste that abundance produces.
Abundance wastes when waste becomes abundant. Abundance turns
into waste when waste turns into abundance. This paradoxical
relationship rests upon a broader set of collapsing oppositions, between,
for example, less and more, plenty and scarcity, nothing and everything,
void and plenum. If the world is to be laid waste, as Revelations predicts,
if it is to return to the tohu bohu, the formless void with which Genesis
opens, then waste itself is to become universally abundant; nothing is to
become everything, lessening will become synonymous with universal
expansion. At the end of history, the Bible predicts, as at the beginning, a
wasted, blasted nothingness will become extremely, absolutely plentiful.
This difficult synonymity between waste and abundance lies at the
heart of Samuel Becketts oeuvre. Becketts 1958 novel The Unnamable is
perhaps the most anguished prose expression of this confusion between
waste and abundance, between plenty and scarcity, while Endgame is its
most explicit dramatization. The Unnamable starts and ends with a
declaration of the impossibility of continuing to write, a declaration that
the very possibility of writing and thinking is exhausted. The novel begins
with the narrators declaration of the falsehood of the writing subject
itself. I, say I, he says, unbelieving (293). And it ends with the famous
stalled paradox that going on, that continuing under these conditions, is
only possible in the knowledge that continuing is impossible. I cant go
on, the narrator says, Ill go on (418). But between the poles of this
blank, aporetic statement of impossibility, the novel produces torrents
of words, words drawn from the recognition that speaking is impossible,
that the resources have been exhausted. The narrator clears a space for
himself, a space in which to be and to speak, that owes its very extension
to a kind of contraction towards zero. Wondering at what kind of space
he finds himself in, what kind of air he is breathing in this haven won
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from emptiness, the narrator thinks to himself that he should conduct
some kind of experiment, to determine the limits of his abode. To reveal
to himself such limits, he reflects,
I would need a stick or pole, and the means of plying it, the former
being of little avail without the latter, and vice versa. I could also do,
incidentally, with future and conditional participles. Then I would
dart it, like a javelin, straight before me and know, by the sound
made, whether that which hems me round, and blots out my world,
is the old void, or a plenum. (302)
The narrator here is testing the limits of a narrative space that is
drawn magically from a writing that continues to go on, even while it is
unable to go ona writing that is produced by an I who disavows its
own credibility. The placeless place in which the narrator finds himself
is imagined as a kind of flaw in the emptiness, a fold in space and time in
which, as in a later piece such as Imagination Dead Imagine, or as in the
refuge in Endgame, a little life lives on, after its enabling conditions have
passed away. The narrator flings his imaginary javelin at the walls that
hem him in, that blot out his world, as a means of determining the nature
of the historical endedness in which he finds himself somehow preserved,
in which his imagination continues to beat even after its own death, in
which, as the narrator of the Ill Seen Ill Said puts it, the imagination, at
its wits end spreads its sad wings (65). He is testing here the texture of
the continuum that his self-cancelling presence interrupts; is it a void,
the endless emptiness that the Bible imagines as the beginning and the
end of history, or is it some posthistorical fullness, some final becoming
of the heaven and earth? Is the place in which he is imprisoned, he asks
here, absolutely empty or absolutely full?
One answer to the question, I would suggest, is offered by a reference
that Beckett makes quietly here to Madame Blavatsky, that somewhat
crazed muse of the Yeatsian Modernism against which Beckett so often
sought to position himself. Madame Blavatsky explains soberly in The
Secret Doctrine that, to the monistic mind of the deity, there is no difference
between waste and abundance, between emptiness and fullness, between
void and plenum. For Blavatsky,
Space is neither a limitless void, nor a conditioned fullness, but
both, being, on the plane of absolute abstraction, the ever-
incognizable deity, which is void only to finite minds, and on that of
mayavic perception, the Plenum, the absolute Container of all that is,
whether manifested or unmanifested: it is, therefore, that ABSOLUTE
ALL. (7)
For Beckett, and for Blavatsky here, that opposition between the
empty and the full that bounds finite space and time, that determines
the limits of history as well as those of the universe, is a Jamesonian
SubStance #116, Vol. 37, no. 2, 2008
61 Beckett and DeLillo
antinomy, an opposition between terms that reveal their identity at the
critical moment. Historical completion is indistinguishable from
historical exhaustion; the achievement of an absolute identity, a union
with an all powerful God at the end of recorded time, is indistinguishable
from the experience of absolute annihilation. The refuge that The
Unnamable manages to carve out of the posthistorical stillness here is one
that finds itself bounded at once by emptiness and by fullness, as if, at
the limits of historical time, the oppositions that make thinking and living
possible somehow expire, retrospectively cancelling out the earnest
travails of the living. This, too, is the central drama of Becketts beautiful
late novella Ill Seen Ill Said, in which a mourning woman living alone in a
blank wilderness sees the pastures that surround her habitation
gradually die, overtaken by a tide of white stones that emanate from her
house, as if the end of time might be imagined as a kind of calcification. A
central problem with the story is that this gradual death, this erosion of
pasture, this stripping back of the earth to its naked white rock, is also
and at the same time thought of as a growth, a surfeit, an expansion. This
is a wasting that is also an abundance. The white stones, the narrator
writes, grow more plentiful every year. As well say every instant. In a
fair way if they persist to bury all (71). The rhythm and balance of this
novella turn around this oppositional accord between plenty and scarcity,
between proliferation and eradication, between the wasting of abundance
and the abundance of waste. The tension is caught wonderfully succinctly
as the grieving woman stands, gazing at her horizon, a horizon made by
the moving contrast between pasture and stones. Head haught, the
narrator writes, she gazes into emptiness. That profusion (79). Just as
for a frustrated Estragon in Waiting for Godot there is no lack of void (61),
so here, for this woman pinned on the impossible boundary between life
and death, emptiness is itself profuse, waste itself is limitlessly abundant.
For Beckett, then, the process of wasting away becomes a difficult
one to read, one that is shadowed or undermined by the possibility that
it is also a proliferation. In his brilliant 1958 essay Trying to Understand
Endgame, Adorno characterizes Becketts play as one in which philosophy
and poetry reveal themselves to have become defunct, kaput. Pre-
Beckettian existentialism, Adorno argues, exploited philosophy as a
literary subject as though it were Schiller in the flesh. Now Beckett, more
cultured than any of them, hands it the bill: philosophy, spirit itself,
declares itself to be dead inventory, the dream-like leavings of the world
of experience, and the poetic process declares itself to be a process of
wastage (243). In Becketts writing, Adorno argues here, philosophy
and poetry are no longer exploited as a tool, mined as a resource. They no
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longer produce any goods, or do any work. Rather, in Becketts hands,
they reveal themselves to have wasted away, to have become so much
detritus in the landfills of the culture industry; they are the garbage that
is scattered across the stage at the opening of Beckets comically brief
play Breath. The possibility that philosophy might actually do some work
belonged to an earlier time, Adorno argues:
The irrationality of bourgeois society in its late phase rebels at letting
itself be understood; those were the good old days, when a critique
of the political economy of this society could be written that judged
it in terms of its own ratio. For since then society has thrown its ratio
on the scrap heap and replaced it with virtually unmediated control.
Hence interpretation inevitably lags behind Beckett. His dramatic
work, precisely by virtue of its restriction to an exploded facticity,
surges out beyond facticity and in its enigmatic character calls for
interpretation. One could almost say that the criterion of a philosophy
whose hour has struck is that it prove equal to this challenge. (Ibid.,
For Adorno here, the unreadability of Becketts work, its resistance
to being understood, lies in its emerging from the process of wastage
that it itself stages. In Becketts work, poetry and philosophy persist,
through a performance of the process by which philosophy and poetry
waste away. The challenge for a philosophy whose time has come, Adorno
writes, is to find a means of articulating this Beckettian residue, this
abundant surplus that is born from the death of culture. How can one
read wasting in Beckett, while responding to the possibility that to waste
here is also to flourish? How can one remain true to the poetics of wasting
and impoverishment that is so central to Becketts stamp, while also
attending to the peculiar possibility that the end result of Beckettian
dwindling and lessening, of Luckys famous wasting and pining, is a
kind of abundance, a kind of proliferation? Can Becketts poetics of
diminishment be salvaged from this coincidence of diminishment with
enlargement at the cultural and historical vanishing point? And,
conversely, can the orthodox reading of Becketts writing as a writing of
doomed wastage accommodate the counterintuitive sense that wastage
is intimately related, throughout his writing, to profusion, to abundance?
And if so, might this help us to understand how the collapsing opposition
between waste and abundance that I sketched out at the beginning of
this paper shapes contemporary culture?
In seeking to address these questions, this essay will approach
waste and abundance in Beckett obliquely, through attention to the ways
in which Becketts profuse emptiness resurfaces in those writers who
come after him, and particularly in the work of Don DeLillo. One of the
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63 Beckett and DeLillo
ways, indeed, in which the confusion between waste and abundance in
a Beckettian context manifests itself is in the question of Becketts legacy.
Throughout the earlier decades of his reception, Beckett was widely read
as the poet in whom a modernist spirit, and often the very possibility of
a critical fiction, petered out, or wasted away. He was the last modernist,
the last writer, the poet of doom. In him everything came to an end. In
works such as Endgame, Beckett depicted a world in which everything
was finished in advance, in which the end was in the beginning. But over
recent years, this orthodox view of Beckett as an end point, as the writer
who presides over the death of the twentieth century, has had to
accommodate an opposite sense that Beckett is becoming a well spring, a
fertile breeding ground, the writer who exerts the strongest influence on
a range of the worlds most prolific contemporary writers, artists,
dramatists and film makers. From Beckettian diminishment has sprung
a form of abundance, a new, fertile way of thinking and seeing. Beckett
continues to go on, after the moment of his own demise, in work that
ranges from the theatre of Harold Pinter and Sarah Kane, to the poetry of
J.H. Prynne and Susan Howe, to the theoretical work of Helene Cixous,
Jacques Derrida and Gilles Deleuze, to the film and video work of David
Lynch and Bruce Nauman, to the prose work of Bernhard and Sebald, of
B.S. Johnson and John Banville, of J.M. Coetzee and Paul Auster, Thomas
Pynchon and Don DeLillo. With the centrality of Becketts writing in the
oeuvres of all these writers, the contradictory surplus of deficit with
which Beckett marked the end of a literary, cultural, philosophical and
political era, extends itself again, adapting itself to an extraordinary range
of genres, media and cultures, evolving into a new cultural matrix in its
own right.
It is this contradictory capacity for extension that Don DeLillo sees
in Becketts writing. He wrote recently, in a letter to Gary Adelman, that
Beckett is the last writer whose work extends into the world.
This is a
perplexing comment, for many reasons. DeLillo seems here to be making
a wilfully skewed observation. Surely, whatever we think about Becketts
writing, it is not primarily or definitively a writing which extends into
the world, or which, in the words of Bill Gray, one of DeLillos narrators,
pushes out toward the social order (Mao II, 200). DeLillos comment
here, in fact, mirrors another comment by Bill Gray, who remarks that
Samuel Beckett is the last writer to shape the way we think and see.
After him the major work involves midair explosions and crumbled
buildings (ibid., 157). To claim Beckett as a writer who engages with the
world, who seeks to make it and shape it, seems deliberately to read
against the grain of a body of work that has refused the worldarguably,
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more strenuously than most. The last gesture of Becketts first full length
play, Eleutheria, involves the protagonist Victor Krap lying in his small
bedsitter, and turning his emaciated back both on the audience and on
humanity (170). It is this kind of gesture, this abandonment of the
world, of the audience and of his readers that has stuck in the critical
mind, rather than any Beckettian gesture of extension, or of social making
and shaping. And similarly, DeLillos identification of Beckett as the last
writer to extend into the world seems strangely perverse, coming as it
does from a writer who has engaged rather more strenuously with what
we might think of as the world than Beckett himself ever did. Indeed, one
of the difficulties about discerning a line from Beckett to DeLillo lies in
the apparent incompatibility between their respective attitudes to the
world, and to the worldliness of fiction. Becketts is a writing that
dwindles, that withers, that retreats, that wastes, while DeLillos is a
writing that swells, that absorbs, that assimilates, that proliferates. While
Becketts writing seems to suggest that the world is beyond help, that
there is nothing to be done, DeLillos writing seems hell-bent, one might
argue, on remaking the world, on putting it back together again, on re-
writing it, recycling it, salvaging it. What is Underworld, one might ask, if
not an extension into the world, if not an attempt to grasp the last fifty
years of world history and refashion it, reshape it, redeem it?
Despite the apparent perversity of DeLillos reading of Beckett here,
however, I would suggest that DeLillos discovery of extension in Becketts
writing is key to an understanding of the ways in which his own writing
proliferates. Abundance in Becketts writing is only ever, or almost only
ever, a function of wastage. As waste, emptiness, and desertion become
more abundant in his writing, his works get shorter and shorter, until
his work opens, in the briefest fashion, onto a vast ocean of white
emptinessa limitless whiteness interrupted only by a kind of white
writing that fades into the whiteness, all white in the whiteness
(Imagination, 182). Becketts is a writing in which waste becomes abundant.
DeLillos writing is inhabited, I would suggest, by this abundance of
emptiness, of silence, of wordlessness, as a kind of legacy, as a way of
receiving Becketts extension into the world. But while Beckett finds that
an abundance of waste leads him to a kind of sparsity of expression, in
which words seek to merge, whitely, with the emptiness that they
designate, for DeLillo, such abundance produces a prolific mode of
expression. The more abundant waste becomes in DeLillos writing, the
longer his works become. Where Becketts work makes waste expressive
by seeking to merge with it, to waste away, DeLillos writing seeks to
absorb waste back into an expressive economy, to recycle it, to make it
SubStance #116, Vol. 37, no. 2, 2008
65 Beckett and DeLillo
useful again. The work in which this recycling aesthetic is most
thoroughly worked out is perhaps DeLillos longest novel, Underworld
(1997). Underworld is a novel about waste, and about the ways in which
the oppositions between waste and abundance, between what one keeps
and what one discards, between what one values and what one excoriates,
evade our attempts to separate them, to keep them compartmentalized.
Waste spreads virally through the novel, reaching tentacularly into all
the forms of plentyeconomic, cultural, aesthetic and politicalthat
the novel charts and performs. Nick Shay, the novels protagonist, reflects
at one point on the word waste, on the deepness of its etymological roots,
which testify to its capacity to spread and infect: Waste is an interesting
word, that you can trace through Old English and Old Norse back to the
Latin, finding such derivatives as empty, void, vanish and devastate
This moment offers itself as a key to the novel, to its compulsion to
recycle, to trace connections, to find an underground, secret and paranoid
force that holds all things together, offering to make all things meaningful.
The word waste itself offers, here, to bring what has vanished to the
surface, to make, in Freuds words, what was hidden come to light.
promises to bring Jamesons antithetical meaning of primary words
that expressive overload that threatens to tip over into the Freudian
uncanny itselfto the point of an all-encompassing, illuminated
expression. The word itself here spans the entire scope of human history,
as recorded in the Christian imagination. The words empty and void suggest
the opening of Genesis, in which the earth was tohu bohu, without form
and void. This derivative of the word suggests the fecal waste through
which the narrator of Becketts How It Is is condemned eternally to crawl,
from the moment that he was shat into the incredible tohu-bohu (45).
But the derivative devastate suggests not the beginning of Christian
history, but the end, and the four angels of the apocalypse whose duty is
to devastate the earth and the sea (Revelation, 7:2), to lay waste to the
world at the end of history. The word waste reaches across time and
space, DeLillos novel suggests at this point, bringing everything into its
sweep, cancelling the contradiction between the beginning and the end
of time, between salvation and damnation, bringing even that word
vanish, to the point of a new kind of wasted expression. Nicks
compulsive obsession here, and across the novel, is with his absent father,
the missing patriarch, who vanished in his youth, wasted, he suspects,
by some small-time mobsters (106). It is this obsession, perhaps, that lies
behind his fascination with waste, with the recycling and the repackaging
of waste, with the possibility that waste itself, the force that leads from
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emptiness to emptiness, from devastation to devastation, might be the
agent that allows us to recuperate, to rediscover what has been lost. It is
the very omnipresence of waste, as it worms its way through our culture
and our language, as it riddles our homes and our bodies and our minds,
that lends it the power to harbor and preserve what DeLillo has described
elsewhere as the lost historical category (Ratners Star, 387). The power
of the word, Nick reflects here, lies in its capacity to name the dark, to
bring the dark back into the light.
This capacity of waste to reveal hidden connections, to bring a secret
underhistory to the point of expression, runs throughout the novel,
gathering and accumulating. One of the many minor characters in the
novel, Jesse Detwiler, an underground political activist who calls himself
a garbage guerrilla, argues at one point that the power of wasteits
force as an underground foundation to the cultureis such that the
orthodox relation between civilization and waste, between preservation
and abjection, between value and trash, needs to be turned on its head.
For Detwiler, waste does not come about as a result of civilization, as a
by-product of our abundance, but rather precedes it, forming the basis
upon which all prosperity, all civilization is based:
Civilization does not rise and flourish as men hammered out hunting
scenes on bronze gates and whispered philosophy under the stars,
with garbage as a noisome offshoot, swept away and forgotten. No,
garbage rose first, inciting people to build a civilization in response,
in self-defense. We had to find ways to discard our waste, to use what
we couldnt discard, to reprocess what we couldnt use. Garbage
pushed back. It mounted and spread. And it forced us to develop the
logic and the rigor that would lead to systematic investigations of
reality, to science, art, music, mathematics. (Underworld, 287)
Detwilers argument resurfaces time and time again in the novel, as
garbage pushes back, asserting its primacy, asserting the force of waste
as a first principle, as the ground upon which value and thought is built
the basis for value rather than its antithesis. The narrative dwells, for
example, on the maintenance of an enormous landfill site on Staten Island
called the Fresh Kills Landfill, recalling Detwilers balance between
civilization and refuse. A character named Brian Glassic watches the
waste engineers attending to the mountain of garbage on the outskirts of
the city, and he
imagined he was watching the construction of the Great Pyramid at
Giza, only this was twenty-five times bigger, with tanker trucks
spraying perfumed water on the approach roads. He found the sight
inspiring. All this ingenuity and labor, this delicate effort to fit maximum
waste into diminishing space. The towers of the World Trade Center
were visible in the distance and he sensed a poetic balance between
that idea and this one. (184)
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67 Beckett and DeLillo
The Giza Pyramid and the World Trade Center, both structures that
enshrine a form of human aspiration, both structures that house or
symbolize the accumulation of capital as an antidote to death, are held
here in counterpoint to the labor of waste managementarchitectural
grandeur held in a poetic balance against the amassing of human
effluence. But what underlies the balance, the counterpoint, is the
perception that the same idea animates both the World Trade Center
and the Fresh Kills Landfill, that the erection of a shrine to capital
abundance is equivalent to the erection of a municipal sculpture fashioned
from the citys waste. The central drama of Underworld, its task as well as
its beauty, is to choreograph this movement between cultural value and
cultural waste, to provide a poetic form in which the continuity between
the World Trade Center and the Fresh Kills Landfill can emerge alongside
the opposition between them. Nick Shay reflects, at the close of the novel,
that waste is the secret history, the underhistory (791). The current
ecological crisis has simply made apparent a critical relationship between
abundance and waste, between civilization and abjection, that is as old
as culture itself. In our case, Nick thinks, in our age, what we excrete
comes back to consume us (ibid.). Underworld is a response to this threat,
this pushing back of waste into the social order. The novel seeks to
articulate this movement, and by archeologically excavating the waste
that is seamed through the cultureby bringing the waste that forms
the dark shadow of abundance to the point of a poetic expressionthe
novel looks for a form in which to imagine a new future, to imagine a
new, ecological accommodation between what we discard and what we
seek to preserve.
So, to begin to move towards a conclusion, we might hazard that
both Beckett and DeLillo organize their work around a peculiarly
antinomial relationship between waste and abundance, as between
terms that are at once oppositional and identical, contradictory and
tautological. DeLillo exploits the peculiar continuity between the
treasured and the vilifiedthat Freudian relationship between money
and shitto reach for a form of recycled expression that can
accommodate its own negative, its own underhistory, that can produce
an account of the world in which, as DeLillo puts it in Libra, nothing is
left out (182). This is an art that Beckett refers to in one of his essays on
the history of art as the total object, complete with missing parts.
Beckett, on the other hand, sees in the continuity between waste and
abundance, between void and plenum, between emptiness and profusion,
the occasion for the failure of the expressive urge. To witness the peculiar
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SubStance #116, Vol. 37, no. 2, 2008
reversals that inhabit the limits of thought and of perceptionto find
that the wasteland that borders the realm of the intelligible is not of a
different substance to the intelligible but of a piece with itthis does not
allow for a fullness of expression, a surplus of meaning, but on the contrary
signals the radical failure of expression. To be an artist, Beckett has
famously remarked, is to fail as no other dare fail (Proust, 125). Or as he
puts it later, exploiting the antinomial and defeated logic that inhabits
all attempts to think the extremes of emptiness and failure, our only
option is to fail again. Fail better (Worstward Ho, 101). To hazard an
epigrammatic form of this distinction, where DeLillo makes waste
expressive, Beckett stages the wasting of expression. But while this may
appear to be itself an oppositionbetween bloated abundance and
aesthetic scarcity, between success and failurethis is another of those
oppositions based on an underlying continuity. From DeLillos first
published novel, Americana, which builds a loose-jointed picture of the
U.S. in the 1970s through an investment in what the narrator describes
as aesthetic silence and darkness (347), through to Underworld and
beyond, DeLillos prolific output, his profusion, has been built on a
recognition of the continuity between scarcity and plenty, between waste
and abundancea continuity, I would argue, that is in large measure an
inheritance from Beckett. DeLillos extension into the world, his capacity
to push out towards the social order is not based on an American
confidence, or on the development of an aesthetic that feels enabled,
invigorated, entitled to make the world in its image. Rather, it is built on
the kind of extension that DeLillo finds in Beckett, an extension erected
upon a troubling and uncertain continuity between being able and not
being able, between fullness and emptiness. Further, it is this continuity
between waste and abundance, this identity won from difference, that
enables both Beckett and DeLillo to respond to the cultural, political and
ecological conditions that determine their writing. Beckett, for Adorno,
emerges from the collapse of an entire cultural regime, into the thin air of
a culture longer driven by the dialectical forces that took us from the
Enlightenment to Auschwitz. The fusion of wastage and persistence that
lies at the heart of Becketts writing is a response to the perception that
continuing to think and to write poetry and philosophy after Auschwitz
requires us to think without the benefit of the old boundaries, the old
oppositions; it requires us to think in the light of a new set of global
antinomial oppositions, which do not obey the laws that have brought
us to where we are now. DeLillos writing is built on the kinds of thinking
that Beckett made available in Endgame and in The Unnamablea kind of
thinking that seeks to attune itself to our space and time, so that we
SubStance #116, Vol. 37, no. 2, 2008
69 Beckett and DeLillo
might continue to go on, even though we are finished. In Underworld
and elsewhere, DeLillo takes us from the post-war to the new millennium,
and follows the dissolution of cultural boundaries over that time
between east and west, between local and global, as well as those between
scarcity and plenty, between waste and abundance. The loss of such
boundaries makes DeLillos oeuvre a profoundly disorientating and
disorientated one. Reading DeLillo, like reading Beckett, leaves one feeling
at once nourished and starved, at once lifted up and cast down, at once
lost and found. DeLillo, like Beckett, finds beauty, persistence, possibility,
in the very failures that have brought us to the brink upon which we
now teeter. But this is not a false optimism, or an ignis fatuus. It is the
beginnings of a means of thinking our global predicament, which has
never been more timely, or more essential.
University of Sussex
1. A clip of the speech in which George Bush makes this comment is included in
Michael Moores film Fahrenheit 911 (Lionsgate, 2004).
2. For Anthony Giddenss influential development of third way politics, see Giddens,
The Third Way: The Renewal of Social Democracy (Oxford: Blackwell, 1998). For an
example of what Giddens calls the global third way in action, see Blairs speech to
the Labour Party on 2 October 2001, in the immediate aftermath of the September 11
attacks. A transcript of the speech is available on Guardian Unlimited: http://
3. See Gary Adelman, Becketts Readers: A Commentary and Symposium, in Michi-
gan Quarterly Review, vol. 54, no 1, Winter 2004, p. 54.
4. See Sigmund Freud, The Uncanny, in the Penguin Freud Library, vol. 14, Art and
Literature (London: Penguin, 1985), p. 345.
5. Samuel Beckett, Proust and Three Dialogues with Georges Duthuit (London: Calder,
1965), p. 101.
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