At Home With Jimmy Carter and Don DeLillo

President Jimmy Carter beneath the solar panels on the West Wing.

I read White Noise recently and noticed by chance that Picador have bizarrely just published a 40th anniversary edition of Don DeLillo’s book, although it was first published in 1985. Perhaps it is the accumulated prescience of the book that is urging them to bring forward its anniversary. Certainly we are only beginning to appreciate the importance of a book which manages to give a portrait of an American academic and his relatively happy family in such a way as to depict the deep crisis in modernity. Martin Amis went someway to acknowledging its power when in reviewing the later book Underworld in the New York Times in 1997 when he referred to White Noise as “that beautifully tender anxiety-dream”.

Given that it portrays a society on the verge of collapse, how can the book still be pertinent (nearly) 40 years later? Because, firstly, that society it depicted never collapsed, was never going to. Secondly because that society is still in that anxious state nearly four decades later. In White Noise, DeLillo is one of the first writers to instinctively understand that instability, quixotically, is a condition of an affluent society that has no collective understanding of its direction: a sense of imminent collapse is the result of the material foundation of modernity suddenly being questioned. Diane Johnson in her review of the book also in the New York Times says that the book prefigures Bhopal. It does no such thing. Bhopal was a real disaster, the ‘airborne toxic event’ in in DeLillo’s book is a disaster which is being managed as if it was a simulation.

Wells Office, Cherry Hill, New Jersey, architect Malcolm Wells.

John N. Duvall writes in the introduction to The Cambridge Companion to Don DeLillo, “[He] has a rare gift for historicizing our present, a gift that empowers engaged readers to think historically themselves.” Whilst he was not actively capable of clairvoyance, Duvall is absolutely correct. More than any environmental disaster to come, the book emerges from the unease prompted by the first oil crisis of 1973 , prompted by the Yom Kippur War in Israel and then the further bout of insecurity prompted by the Iranian Revolution in 1979 that succeeded it. Not only did this prompt a questioning of geopolitical relationships hitherto seen as secure but it also prompted a questioning of the physical infrastructure of America itself – its roads and its housing.

Michael Reynolds, architect. Turbine House, Taos, New Mexico.
Photograph © Michael Reynolds, 2007.

Mirko Zardini, director of the Canadian Centre for Architecture has posited in a series of fascinating texts and exhibitions of which Sorry Out of Gas is the most directly pertinent to this case. The exhibition analysed the oil crisis and how it prompted a profound questioning of the modern project. Social programmes in the West until that time were predicated on a steady improvement in material wealth, mobility and technological advance. The crisis threw that in to question. Rather than directing criticism at the unequal distribution of the benefits of modernity, from this point on, social criticism began to be directed at the pernicious effect of modernity itself. What was just a bunch of drop-outs in the 1960s became in 1973 a possible alternative model for living throughout the United States.

Steve Baer, designer. House of Steve Baer, Corrales, New Mexico, 1971.
Photography © Jon Naar, 1975/ 2007.

In Sorry Out of Gas we see in architectural terms the impact of this event on planning, particularly of homes. Individuals like Steve Baer – an inventor of passive solar devices and Mike Reynolds an architect and builder of houses made of old car tires packed with dirt- creating domestic structures with features which would permit a direct relationship with nature. As much as they represent considered responses to fears over imagined shortages of traditional building materials, they also sit in remote landscapes or are hidden in the earth. There is a physical remove from social interaction. Baer and Reynolds in particular have considered the unit they are building for to be the family.

Indeed it strikes me that White Noise analyses these newly configured relations between society and family, nature and man, in a way that provides a critical tool for analysing these domestic structures. It is telling too that the American family takes the full-weight of anxiety in the book.  “The family is the cradle of the world’s misinformation. There must be something in family life that generates factual error” DeLillo writes at one point.

Obviously this has a political significance both in terms of relations within states and between states. Caroline Maniaque-Benton, associate professor at the École Nationale Supérieure d’Architecture Paris-Malaquais, has written persuasively about the development of an architecture which was prompted by “a desire for autonomy from the state and its infrastructure.” And yet we also see this desire for autonomy from the wider global system of oil at the heart of the US government policy at this time.  Jimmy Carter installing solar power on to the roof of the White House is a fun example of this. Carter makes an architectural response against the US drift towards – what he deemed as embroilment – in the Middle East.

American President Jimmy Carter dedicates the White House solar panels, 20 June 1979. Photograph © Jimmy Carter Library.

The attempt to retreat from the wider world, the domestic turn of environmentalism, are intimated in White Noise in a way we are only just beginning to appreciate. What book and architectural exhibition do is subtly provide an understanding that the family, is far from being in a Freudian sense, the source of neurosis. It is in fact a site on to which social disquiet is projected.


About cosmopolitanscum

Journalist, writer, commentator, blogging about architecture, urbanism and design from a humanist perspective.
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