'Then We Build a System to Deal with It': Waste and the Technological Sublime in Don DeLillo’s "Underworld"





ecoasthetics, waste, technological sublime, the abject, contemporary US-American literature, Don DeLillo


Over twenty-five years after the publication of Don DeLillo’s magnum opus Underworld (1997), which depicts the shift from a naïve belief in technological progress at the beginning of the Cold War to disillusionment as it ended, the novel is more topical than ever, faced as we are with the growing recognition of the failure of both technorationality and capitalism to address humanity’s depredation and despoilment of the biosphere. This article argues that Underworld deploys David Nye’s notion of the technological sublime to depict the attempt to master recalcitrant nature, only to ironically reveal the impossibility of the endeavor. Underworld’s use of waste as a catalyst for the sublime is interesting precisely because waste connotes something valueless, whereas the sublime is occasioned by ‘great’, ostensibly valuable, things. Seen within its own logic, the technological sublime is a project of liberation, a vision of impending omniscience, a permanent deferral of human limitation. Yet when waste becomes sublime, the progression toward mastery does not proceed smoothly. Although the technological sublime “undermines all notions of limitation, instead presupposing the ability to continually innovate and to transform the world” (Nye 60), Underworld’s aestheticization represents it at its limit, when it can no longer regulate the abject threat of waste. Ultimately, I argue that DeLillo asks readers to grapple with abjection by dramatizing the failure of the technological sublime as an aesthetic strategy, which inadvertently reinscribes the boundaries that it seeks to override: the finitude of the embodied human, our relative powerlessness amongst the world within which we are enmeshed.


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Author Biography

Jonathan Sarfin, Doctoral Student, University of Bern

Jonathan Sarfin studied English Literature at the University of Kentucky (BA 2016) and the University of Bern (MA 2021). He is a PhD candidate in the SNSF Sinergia project Mediating the Ecological Imperative, in the sub-project Ecological Imaginaries: Eco-Ekphrasis in Twentieth- and Twenty-first Century North American Fiction. Research interests: Eco-aesthetics, description, 20th and 21st century North American fiction, intermediality, ekphrasis, the more-than human, relationality, ecological ethics.