Don DeLillo and Society’s Reorientation to Time and Space: An Interpretation of Cosmopolis

Abstract: This essay reads Don DeLillo’s Cosmopolis as a novelization of social theories of time and space as expressed across various academic disciplines. Changing conceptions of time and space point to an underlying change in the social structure. I thus view DeLillo’s novel as social theory. Economist Jeremy Rifkin recently wrote, “[t]he great turning points in human history are often triggered by changing conceptions of space and time. Sometimes, the adoption of a single technology can be transformative in nature, changing the very way our minds filter the world” (89). Eric Packer lives in a world with a multitude of adopted new technologies. His reflections on language embody this mental filtering. Cyber-capital, and digitization in general, represent these new technologies. Packer’s desire to “live on a disc” (105), epitomizes the novel’s portrayal of changing conceptions of time and space. This paper thus explores expressions of the inadequacy of contemporary language under these “turning points in human history.” It demonstrates how statements on language reflect society’s mental filtering or changing orientation to time and space. Cosmopolis could be viewed as a redescription project.

Cosmopolis tells the story of the twenty-nine year old ego-maniacal billionaire currency trader Eric Packer, whose sole raison d’être is to manipulate the electronic flow of capital on global financial markets. The story unfolds mostly from within his opulent high-tech limousine, from which the other characters are introduced. Most notably, Vija Kinski, Packer’s “Chief of Theory” (77), whose role serves to support the underlying themes as expressed by Eric Packer. The story unfolds over the course of one day. Packer travels from the wealthy Eastern districts in New York (5th Avenue), to the West side so that he can “get a haircut” (7) in Hell’s Kitchen, the working class neighborhood of his youth. Ultimately, he gets his haircut, both literally and metaphorically. A “haircut” is also a common slang word among stock and currency traders for losing enormous sums of money in the stock market. The novel concludes with the assassination of Eric Packer at the hands of Richard Sheets, alias Benno Levin, a disgruntled former employee. The protagonist Eric Packer does not easily invite sympathy from the reader. Yet, it is through him that DeLillo illuminates this short novel’s raison d’être. If one of the central postmodern philosophical notions is that all we are left with is language, then DeLillo promotes the idea that we currently lack the linguistic capabilities to describe our contemporary social and economic environment.

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