'From Co-optation to Self-referentiality: Corrupting Sign Systems in William Gaddis’s Carpenter’s Gothic, Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho and Don DeLillo’s Cosmopolis'

Harma, Tanguy. 2013. ''From Co-optation to Self-referentiality: Corrupting Sign Systems in William Gaddis’s Carpenter’s Gothic, Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho and Don DeLillo’s Cosmopolis''. In: 'American Exceptionalism(s)’. Goldsmiths, University of London, United Kingdom 15 June 2013. [Conference or Workshop Item]

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Abstract or Description

My presentation will be based on three American novels from late-20th and early-21st century: William Gaddis’s Carpenter’s Gothic (1985), Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho (1991) and Don DeLillo’s Cosmopolis (2003). I will investigate the ways in which these three novels use and corrupt sign systems in their own ways, and how they illustrate the latest stages of capitalistic development of postmodernity.
To start with, Carpenter’s Gothic will be interpreted as a novel featuring an essential distortion of its signs: I will show how the overwhelming effect of the narrative flow may be read as an attempt to disconnect the signifier from its signified. This results in a comprehensive tour de force – referred to as the rhetoric of communication – whose function is to corrupt and substitute the original value of signs for an equivalent appointed by the dominant economic power. I will then argue that American Psycho stages a similar strategy of co-optation: as brand names, trademarks, adverts and commodities invade the narrative space by means of endless scatological accumulations, they are celebrated and fetishised to the extreme. Concomitantly, Ellis’s novel signals a shift from a process of co-optation of sign systems to their self-referential articulation, hereby anticipating the transformations of postmodern capitalism. Crucially, French sociologist Jean Baudrillard (1929-2007) identified the semiological interplay of signs as the foundation of the late 20th-century economic order: I will refer to Baudrillard’s writings to interpret American Psycho’s I-narrator Patrick Bateman as a product of signs made of commodities, whether consumed or desired. The self-referential quality of sign systems becomes remarkable in Cosmopolis. The last part of this presentation will decipher the ways in which the digital era that characterises contemporary capitalism – craftfully depicted throughout DeLillo’s novel – tallies with what Baudrillard saw as the ultimate step into ‘hyperreality’. For Baudrillard, signs have become autonomous: their referents are satellitised and erased from physical reality, channelling the immaterial nature of the digital era as illustrated in Cosmopolis.
As a conclusion, I will reflect on the notion of social responsibility that these three authors articulate. While satires stem from a long literary tradition, these meticulous reports of a global reality that oppresses and alienates individuals will be interpreted as contemporary testimonials that both partake in, and critically comment upon, the paradigm of postmodernity.

Item Type:

Conference or Workshop Item (Paper)


Gaddis; Ellis; DeLillo; sign systems; self-referential; capitalism; postmodernity;

Departments, Centres and Research Units:

English and Comparative Literature


15 June 2013["eprint_fieldopt_dates_date_type_shown" not defined]

Event Location:

Goldsmiths, University of London, United Kingdom

Date range:

15 June 2013

Item ID:


Date Deposited:

14 Apr 2016 15:49

Last Modified:

26 Jun 2017 09:10



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