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Don DeLillo, "In the Ruins of the Future"

DeLillo's "In the Ruins of the Future" and the Notion of Preorientation

"The only locational guide the young woman needed was the Manhattan grid. I looked at her in prayers and it was clearer to me than ever, the daily sweeping taken-for-granted greatness of New York. The city will accommodate every language, ritual, belief, and opinion. In the rolls of the dead of September, 11, all these vital differences were surrendered to the impact and flash. The bodies themselves are missing in large numbers. For the survivors, more grief. But the dead are their own nation and race, one identity, young or old, devout or unbelieving—a union of souls (40)."

In DeLillo's passage above, there exists below the surface of the text a specter. To be more precise, it is a "a union of" specters. The apparitions are solidified into a whole community of character-less, quality-less projections of the bodies of the past. They are seen, not through the lens of their own assertive wills, acting in accordance to their own volition, but as reflections of the memorial eye of the survivors. They resemble no more the individuals they once were. Idiosyncrasies are erased, bad habits dispelled, and all identifiable properties that once allowed them to be recognized as different people were impacted and compacted by the crushing weight and heat of the fallen towers. This multiplicity of apparitions haunts us, but with no direct purpose. They do not cajole us to action in any specific way. They merely appear, as if pointing to something that has nothing there. In all manner of speaking, they are directional—encompassing the collapse of the past, the present, and the future into themselves: a direction without discernible time at its center. In looking through the rubble of post-9/11, we stand shattered by grief. That is the only real emotion we can feel. Even anger toward the perpetrators is a recognition of our grief, our own fractured identity. Only the dead can have unity now.

For us, like the young woman, all we have is the "locational guide" of the East. However, it is not a reorientation to the East we find, bound up by the past. The direction has lost all sense of time. It is a preorientation, where time has collapsed upon itself and our only scrap of identity is inextricably intertwined with that of the East. The future of us is the future of the East and so we assuage the possibility of catastrophic recursion, as Grusin said, with "the creation and maintenance of an affective orientation towards the future (48)." We strip away the difference between us and the Other by formulating futures where each cannot help but to generate the other. The anticipation of the specter moves us to orient ourselves in the same direction, but with the possibility of every route already planned out. However, these futures become specters in themselves, which haunt us and force us to feel them as if they were real. But the feeling is real, which means that the thing affecting us must also be real to us. Each future becomes a present, so we position ourselves to each future accordingly, so it cannot scare us. If we can see the specter looming, we can preorient ourselves out of its path, all the while still staring in its direction. Unlike the “souls” of our past, the apparitions of the future are what make us/our present. As long as we can see them, we can preorient ourselves over and again in order to combat their presence. It is the phantoms we don't see that frighten us the most.

New York City itself, a great whole of disjunctive parts, connects together only through its myriad of carefully planned streets and pathways. The "grid" of the city is concrete, both materially and as a point of reference. If we were to imagine New York City, in all its grandiosity, without its street signs or specifically designed "grid," the mass of people in the city would be crippled by their loss of direction. Even if one were to try and memorize their path each day, as soon as one got distracted or wanted to discover something new, one would immediately be lost again. Memory, the apparatus of the past, would fail us, and the anticipation of our future steps would be mired in uncertainty and self-doubt. The city functions on systematized means of orienting oneself. And, just like the city, the people must do the same. The woman, in DeLillo’s work, uses the very same “grid,” the same orienting device as the woman who is on her way to work that same morning. The connectivity of the streets, and the planning of them that lies underneath, generate a link between these two women, between all the people in the city. Instead of the sun as a guide, which is often blockaded by the large towers of the city, we have the sprawl of the city itself. The seemingly inarticulate streets speak to us as a way of orienting us, telling us that we are not lost in relation to it. Although DeLillo talks only of New York City, this is the general occurrence in all major cities or towns. The great metropoles of this world orient you to themselves, and orient you to yourself, allowing you to know where you are in the world.

The present culture of preorientation, a small glimpse of which is shown through the passage of DeLillo’s above, determines a state of constant orientation through affective anticipation. Unlike the specters of the dead, however, the specter of the future causes us a two-fold necessitation of seeing and motion. While time has collapsed upon itself, making the future something real to us in the present, and the past looming out in front of us, also, in the present, motion is the preventative measure we can take against the “unforeseeable catastrophe.” We position ourselves, or hold positions in policy, whether it be for or against something in political debate; we take a stance. Positions on policy go further than doxastic claims, they hold innately within them the potentiality of action, of movement. “To push the legislation through” is a commonly heard phrase in political spheres. The current culture, similar to the political realm, anticipates movement against disaster or catastrophe. We position ourselves, day to day, in preparation for unforeseeable events by making them visible. We schedule our days with minute detail and are constantly in-tune with media coverage, social media, twitter followers, etc. The information allows us to be informed and unsurprised. Far greater cases of speculation occur within journalistic practice today than before; the speculation of a future that is real because once introduced it affects us. The affectation generates an emotional response, but also causes a physical reaction as well. It moves us in all senses of the word.

However, the orientation, or fixation, is to the East, and not only does that mean the Middle-East, but the multitude of other countries as well. The vast network of information and anticipatory measures we cultivate comes from the position that the East is the Other. What must be recognized is the problematized nature of this relationship since the adoption of preorientation. The degree to which we speculate about the East, the more it becomes a part of our present. We orient ourselves, sometimes contrarily, often times contingently, on the specularizing of the East. The multiplicity of so many possibilities causes us to anticipate an even greater number of stances we could take should they arise. We are constantly preorienting ourselves to the movements of the Other. It is like a frantic waltz being enacted in preparation for the partner showing up. The problem is you must keep moving, but you cannot know the exact part of the dance you are in, so you perform all the steps simultaneously. The anxiety that your partner may show keeps you waltzing. It is all you can do because otherwise you will unprepared and surprised, if they do arrive. The specter of the partner, is the specter of the East, of the Other. We direct ourselves with the innate incorporation of the partner of whom is not there, but we dance none-the-less. The affective consequences of the future, in all its perceived possible forms, forces us to preorient ourselves to it in the present. In order to orient oneself, you must fix your direction. The direction must always be in view, and therefore must always be in your mind so as not to lose yourself. The East is always a part of us as our orientation. The distinction between the Other and us, then, becomes less clear. They cannot be extricated from one another, yet they must remain separate. They are, at once, both in opposition and cooperation, for without the other, they would be dancing in a dark room with the knowledge that no one is coming to join them.