A Future for DeLillo in Law and Literature Studies?

Newsletter 4.1 (2009)

— Hunter Wakefield

Recently there’s been a small flowering of scholarship on DeLillo in the area of law and literature studies. Law Professor, Adam Thurschwell, has been the first scholar, to my knowledge, to ignite this inquiry into DeLillo’s relation to the law. His work has a superficial resemblance to that burgeoning group of legal scholars who have established themselves in the area of postmodernism and law. This group’s work usually flies under the name of Critical Legal Studies (CLS). Many among this group apply Derridean ideas to law in an effort to demonstrate what they see as the ultimate indeterminacy of legal rules and, as a consequence, the judge’s inevitable invention of the law on a case-by-case basis. More radical CLS scholars see the problem as twofold: either the judge applies fixed rules that have little purchase on the ungovernable singularity of the individual case; or the judge, theoretically, has no rule to apply and simply forces his own interpretation on the case at hand, and, in doing so, tailors a rule to fit the case. Because of what they read as a crisis of indeterminacy in law, many in the CLS movement are consciously political and look to ethical theories for guidance to legal reasoning. While Thurschwell—from what I’ve read—has never explicitly identified himself with CLS, he has written in publications heavily populated by CLS advocates. And in two recent articles, one on DeLillo and the other on Derrida, he appeals to Levinas’s ethics as a potential guide to the politics that steer legal decision making. Essentially, he reads a Levinasian “otherness” at the core of both DeLillo and Derrida.

Because Thurschwell’s reading of Derrida resembles his reading of DeLillo, a brief examination of his article on Derrida will provide a more thorough understanding of his perspective on DeLillo, especially insofar as it relates to jurisprudence. In his article on Derrida, Thurschwell charts the course of Derrida’s work from Of Grammatology through to his later work, like Specters of Marx and The Gift of Death. He pays particular attention to the ethico-political turn in Derrida’s work around the time his essay, “Force of Law: The ‘Mystical Foundation of Authority,’” made its appearance. The work is characterized by a “hiatus” that interrupts the Derridean theorizing and facilitates the reception of an ethical imperative in Derrida’s work. Whence comes this ethical demand, asks Thurschwell, and why is it necessary? Eluding an unequivocal answer, Derrida reads Pascal’s enigmatic line: “It is just that what is just be followed; it is necessary that what is strongest be followed… It is necessary to put justice and force together” (Thurschwell 157-58). Derrida remains indecisive as to whether “it is necessary” to do so in the name of justice or whether it is simply a necessarily fated fact of reality. Ultimately the question, as parsed by Thurschwell, is whether “to ontologize the ethical or not to ontologize the ethical” (Thurschwell 152). And as you may have guessed, this question too remains undecided. All that can be said is that Derrida maintains a certain hospitality, in his thought, to this ethical “arrivant.” And the ethical for Derrida, as Thurschwell notes, informs Derrida’s later political affirmations. Thurschwell, however, reads this ethical undecidability as tragic insofar as Derrida’s ethico-political direction cannot be ascribed to any ethical system. And, as this is the case, the success or failure of Derrida’s ethics cannot be critically evaluated. It is akin to Derrida’s paradoxical “religion without religion” whereby Derrida’s thought takes a religious path without recourse to any specified religious system, or with reference to some phantom system, the source of which is left unvoiced, each reference extinguished as it is conceived in his writing. Thurschwell reads a strong Levinasian bent in Derrida’s later ethics, especially this particular kind of ethics which is located in unconditional hospitality for the “other”; the other being those beings other than oneself—for Derrida, something of a mystery.

Interestingly, Thurschwell’s reading of Derrida prefigures his take on DeLillo. Thurschwell fits Levinas’s concern for the other at the heart of the work of DeLillo’s artists, Lauren Hartke of The Body Artist and Bill Gray of Mao II. Hartke is demonstrative of that kind of hospitality, which Thurschwell describes in Derrida’s later work. In Hartke’s mourning of her dead husband, she wishes to “open up” and “stretch out time” in order to channel the spirit of her dead husband, the potential arrivant for whom she waits. Like Hartke, Gray seeks, in language, to be delivered to the place of the hostage he will never meet. He does so principally via his writing, which exemplifies the receptiveness of the literary imagination to the place of the other. Thurschwell cites the most memorable passage of Mao II in stating his case: the one where Gray begins “letting the words lead him into that basement room” (Thurschwell 294). While Gray dies before meeting the hostage, and the hostage is shuffled off to another location, presumably left for dead along the way, Gray’s literary act memorializes the plight of the hostage and thereby, Thurschwell suggests, reanimates the silenced other in a living language. Both die but the literature lives on. For Thurschwell, this is a political act, a pact between the dead. Thurschwell contrasts Hartke and Gray with Eric Packer of Cosmopolis and the terrorists of Mao II. Packer, a currency trader “cybercapitalist,” seeks to accelerate time in the interest of predicting the dynamics of the global market. Essentially, Packer strives to write a history of the future. A character like Packer might easily be pared with an “end of history” thinker like Fukuyama who Thurschwell mentions, in his article on Derrida, as one of the targets of Derrida’s critique. At the other extreme are the Mao II terrorist figures, both the religious fundamentalists and the Maoist group. In the interest of brevity I will not go into much detail on the terrorist figures, but, to oversimplify, the terrorist wishes to stop the future and conserve the past, at least as far as the religious fundamentalist is concerned. Using DeLillo’s essay “In the Ruins of the Future” as something of a literary manifesto for DeLillo, Thurschwell contends, “it would seem that art, for DeLillo, is political just insofar as it contests late capitalism by attempting to represent—perhaps we should say, memorialize—the continuing vitality of lived experience” (Thurschwell, 289). Thurschwell sees literature as the political “counternarrative” of which DeLillo speaks in his 2001 essay. For Thurschwell, among literature’s greatest abilities is its power to form bonds between strangers and thus create communities. The crux of this power lies in the artist’s concern for the other.

As interesting as Thurschwell’s spirited reading of DeLillo is, the possibility of ascribing a politics to DeLillo in any meaningful sense is still debatable. The late American pragmatist, Richard Rorty would most likely dismiss Thurschwell’s claim.  In contribution to a series of essays, entitled Deconstruction and Pragmatism, Rorty writes, “I am unable to connect Levinas’s pathos of the infinite with ethics or politics. I see ethics and politics—real politics as opposed to cultural politics—as a matter of reaching accommodation between competing interests, and as something to be deliberated about in banal, familiar terms—terms which do not need philosophical dissection and do not have philosophical presuppositions” (Rorty, 17). For Rorty there are public and private contexts, which need not contest one another but, instead, may complement each other. And, contrary to the skepticism he expresses in the above passage, he admires literature, in general, and, specifically, Derrida’s contribution to philosophy. He calls Derrida a private “world disclosing ironist,” which essentially means, a philosopher who thinks reality all while remaining mindful of the contingency of his ideas and, indeed, himself in the grand scheme of things. Rorty might suggest that what so many literary critics and philosophers miss about Derrida is the full implication of Derrida’s irony, something that is not so much “subversive” of systems and institutions but, more so, functions as a self-check on Derrida’s own ideas—something like a small-print disclaimer that reads, “my private revolutions are in no way intended as directives for public political revolutions.” In this sense, Rorty finds in Derrida much more wisdom than many thinkers, bent on the idea of political “subversion,” wish to admit. I find Rorty’s view persuasive.

One might also think of DeLillo as a world disclosing ironist. It is true that DeLillo has frequently denied any significant political dimension to his work. One example comes from a 1988 interview in which he says, “I certainly don’t try consciously to make political statements or to include political material… What I write is what I am. Aside from the fact that it must naturally flow into one’s books, I certainly don’t have any political program. Not only for my books, but for my life or for the life of my country” (Connolly 38). As DeLillo admits, he may well have his own political biases that are just a part of who we are, but what’s key here is that DeLillo seems to lack the political drive that many would like to read into his work. While Thurschwell reads DeLillo’s “counternarrative” as something that contests terrorism and cybercapitalism, it could also be read as simply a filling in of the individual’s private experience in a world where these two forces are extremely apparent. DeLillo’s work need not be given a political utility. It’s worth noting that, in his 2001 article, DeLillo considers part of the “counternarrative” to be “before politics” (Thurschwell 281).

With all that said, there’s much to admire in Thurschwell’s recent work. Witnessing the movement of a literary imagination within the framework of legal ideas makes his work a pleasure to read. I will be eager to see where he goes next in advancing the field of law and literature.


Thurschwell, Adam. “Specters and Scholars: Derrida and the Tragedy of Political Thought.” Derrida and Legal Philosophy. Eds. Peter Goodrich, Florian
Hoffman, Michel Rosenfeld, and Cornelia Vismann. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008. 152-154.

Thurschwell, Adam. “Writing and Terror: Don DeLillo on the Task of Literature after 9/11.” Law and Literature 19 (2007): 277-302.

Rorty, Richard. “Remarks on Deconstruction and Pragmatism.” Deconstruction and Pragmatism. Ed. Chantal Mouffe. New York, NY: Routledge, 1996. 13-18.

Connolly, Kevin. “An Interview with Don DeLillo.” Conversations with Don DeLillo. Ed. Peter DePietro. Mississippi: University of Mississippi, 2005. 25-39.

Ingram, David. Law: Key Concepts in Philosophy. New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2006.