Literature Analysis: Don DelilLo’s Zero K (Chp 10)

Don DelilLo’s Zero K (Chapter 10)

A Guide Toward Understanding The Process of Becoming


Ng Lay Sion, Osaka University


  1. Introduction

Following the Russian guide, Jeffery and Ross come to explore a few ‘interesting’ areas in the Convergence such as the veer (139), the site of cryopreservation (142) and a white marble room (148) where a figure of “living breathing art-form, boy or girl” horrifies Jeffery (149). Everything Jeffery sees urges him to ponder the subject of posthumanism. ‘Post-isms’ implies simultaneously the necessity to imagine what is next and the recognition that it must always appear as “unnamable”—“in the formless, mute, infant and terrifying form of monstrosity” (Derrida 293; qtd. in Halberstam & Livingston). In this sense, posthumanism is queer: not as an identity but because it queers. Posthuman desire, which is located between the “‘yearning’ for human potentiality” and the “‘frustration’ about human reality,” is ambiguous and therefore, enables us to think about the ultimate human desire—the desire to “rehumanize, re-member and reinvent” (Herbrechter 7). While my previous paper mainly focuses on the negative impacts of technological innovation on humanity, in this paper I attempt to exhibit an unbiased side of the posthuman condition in terms of gender and sexuality, which encourages one to understand that the concept of posthumanism is not merely an inhuman force that goes against humanity but is also a liberating force that can lead us to think critically and creatively about who and what we are actually in the process of becoming human/posthuman.

  1. Posthuman Gender: A Voice of a Humanist

In the previous chapter, Jeffery describes those ruined mannequins that he sees in the underground catacomb as “neutered human, men and women stripped of identity” (134). In this chapter, while looking at the (human) bodies that “had been emptied of indispensable organs,” Jeffery commends, “these were human as mannequins” (146). Just like “the mannequins hunched in their burial chamber, in hoods and robes,” those “naked humans in pods” are nothing but as dead as mannequins (146). If we think from the viewpoint of a humanist, we come to realize that cryopreservation—which includes the separation of organs and brains, the cutting of hair, the stripping of clothes and so forth—is designed as a tool for dehumanization or degenderization. This suggestion is supported by Jeffery’s shifting of description: from “Woman, man, woman” (143) to “Woman man woman” (146). As a comma is used to separate independent clauses, the exclusion of a comma between woman and man implies posthuman’s fondness of androgyny. Here, humanists come to accuse posthumanists of denying gender identity in favor of uniform androgyny/pansexuality is just as oppressive as current systems of gender oppression. The explanation given by a humanist, as I suppose, is that technology can transform humans into androgynous cyborgs but that does not inherently change the social relationships between gender and sexual identities, nor does it inherently cope with the system of oppression. In other words, androgynous pansexual cyborg society will do more to repress individual gender and sexual expression than celebrating the diversity of lived experiences. Following Jeffery’s narration, this repression of gender identity is further linked to nationality: “Was I sure that it was not a boy?”; She had no nationality. She had to be nationless (149). Thus, a humanist does not support an androgynous pansexual cyborg society because it strips off all kinds of human identities (body, gender, nationality, sexuality etc.)

            According to the research regarding “Are number gendered?”, our tendency to see gender everywhere even applies to abstract ideas such as numbers (Journal of Experimental Psychology General 2012). Across cultures, people see odd numbers as male and even numbers as female. Also, people rate everyday objects according to their its grammatical gender (Language in Mind 2003). For example, Germans see the word “moon” as masculine (“der Mond”) while Spanish see it as feminine (“la luna”). Moreover, people see food dishes with meat as more masculine and salads as more feminine, and this extends to phallic-shaped objects as masculine versus rounded objects as feminine (Gal, 2010). When people are led to believe that an object possesses one gender to another, it changes how they relate to that object. For instance, when a computer had a female-sounding voice, people saw the computer as less friendly, credible and knowledgeable, as compared to the male-sounding computer (Nass et al.1997). From here, we understand that how we perceive the world is based on our perception toward gender; gender helps us not only to understand how to think about someone/something, but it also helps us to figure out a person/thing’s relationship to the rest of the world. Hence, without gender, we would become a lost generation, which would lead us to think of an androgynous pansexual cyborg society as an “enormous white marble tomb” (148), “a chill white silence” (149), a deadly world. Perhaps the narrator tries to emphasize the interrelation that gender carries by claiming, “Prime number. A positive integer not divisible. But what was the rest of it? What else about primes? What else about integers?” (151; italic mine). To sum up, humanists call attention to transforming society towards a more interconnecting world, not to a denial of what it means to be human, not to the “mannequined lives” (146).


  1. Posthuman Gender: A Voice of a Posthumanist

            As I have mentioned before, posthuman desires are derived from the yearning for human potentiality, which, originally, is derived from the frustration about human reality. This frustration is represented clearly by Ross, as his attempt to join Artis is driven by “a dark yearning, a need to be deprived of what he is and what he possesses, stripped of everything, hollowed out, organs stored, body propped alongside others in a colony of pods” (145). This “dark yearning,” which I believe is related to the pressure that Ross feels under a society that poeticizes the notion of “self-made man,” is a kind of compulsive white masculinity (145). Ross’s description that “I had a responsibility to keep living. Suffer the loss, live and suffer…To go with her would have been a wrong kind of surrender” strongly reflects this compulsive masculinity that he/the society has imposed onto himself (143). To Ross, freezing himself will be the same as unmaking the masculinity that he has been working on since the day he changed his name.

While Ross holds on to his masculine power by not freezing himself, Artis emphasizes her feminist power by becoming a posthuman. Throughout the history we understand that some of us might never been as “human.” In fact, the notion of humanity itself is biased as it always excludes some humans that do not correspond to the ideal, according to gender, race, class, culture, nation and so on. However, posthuman conditions provide “the possibility of a ‘we’ when facing the ongoing deconstruction of humanism” (Herbrechter 6). In a posthuman condition, the oppressed groups will no longer remain in oppression since the difference between human and non-human becomes inseparable. In this sense, posthumanism is a performative process toward feminism. More specifically, a posthumanist requests one to think beyond the traditional humanist limitations and “embraces the risks that becoming-other-than-human beings” (Herbrechter 2). The reason given to support this suggestion is that since “capitalism” seems to be faster and “good at embracing biotechnology and new media technology,” in the near future, there is no choice but to construct an interdependent relationship with all living organisms, which includes nano-humans (qtd. in Herbrechter 2). At this point, even though the humanist Jeffery still remains skeptical about a posthuman future (“Do they ever get a hard on?” (147)), he is urged to imagine its utopian features:

“When he joins her, in three years or thirteen, will nano-techonologists steer their ages downward?…Think of the soulful reunion. Let’s have a baby…how spooked to be embracing my spirited father and newborn half-brother, who has my withered finger gripped in his tiny trembling hand.” (145-46; underline mine)

With a nanobody, Artis is able to reproduce without going through the process of reproduction or even sexual intercourse, as there are multiple ways to bring about the union of a sperm and egg such as vitro reproduction. Technological options make it possible to assert a non-relation between sex and reproduction, and also gender and reproduction. If Ross also turned himself into a cyborg, he could experience reproduction, an important element of motherhood, if he wanted to. Thus, through overcoming the limits of biological gender, it becomes possible to achieve a gender-neutral society where masculinity/femininity (fatherhood/motherhood) converges into the androgynous nanobodies. This leads to a point where posthumanism is a world of practices without identities, where one is able to insert whatever practice one wishes without becoming gay or straight, without becoming man or woman. This, as Judith Halberstam and Ira Livingston suggest, results in the development of “multiple viabilities” (18). Since gender inequalities are extracting high economic costs and are leading to “social inequities and environmental degradation around the world,” an androgynous cyborg society will create a non-gender and non-racialized distribution of labor, which, in turn, will lead to a sustainable ecological society (Stevens, 2010).

  1. Conclusion

            Although posthumanism seems to have priority in creating a sustainable future for mankind, its relation to humanism remains unresolved, as humanity represents a state of chaos that is really there while posthumanism stands for the silence that is here. Like the fresh towels on the racks, or the nice new bar of soap, or the clean sheets on the bed that give texture and pleasure to the day of human life, the world’s hum—the oceanic sound of people living and thinking and talking, billions, everywhere, waiting for trains, marching to war, licking food off their fingers (135)—is a call for justice, a demand that has become more urgent than ever in our posthuman times: “a cry that needs to be heard by what is left of ‘us’ humans, and by what is left of the humanities” (Herbrechter 10). In Zero K, this process/very moment of becoming posthuman is accomplished by the humanist Jeffery’s narration where, as Heisenberg suggests, the act of observing something happen in effect makes it happen:

What happens depends on our way of observing it or on the fact that we observe it…the term “happens” is restricted to the observation…The observation plays a decisive role in the event and…the reality varies, depending upon whether we observe it or not (50-52)

That is to say, Jeffery creates the “reality” of the posthumanization by writing/narrating about it. Hence, the separation of observing subject from observed object becomes impossible, which means humanism and posthumanism are inseparable from each other; excluding the inhuman elements from posthumanism will only stop its process of becoming.


Delillo, Don. Zero K. UK: Picador, 2016. Print.

Gentner, Dedre. Language in Mind: Advances in the Study of Language and Though. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2003. Print.

Halberstam, Judith. and Livingston, Ira. Posthuman Bodies. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1995. Print.

Heisenberg, Werner. Physics and Philosophy: The Revolution in Modern Science. NY: Harper, 1958. Print.

Herbrechter, Stefan. Reviews on Rosi Braidotti (2013) The Posthuman. Cambridge: Polity Press. Culture Machine, 2013. Print.

Nass, C., Moon, Y. and Green, N. “Are Machines Gender Neutral? Gender-Stereotypic Responses to Computers With Voices.” Journal of Applied Social Psychology 27: 864-76, 1997. Print.

Stevens, Candice. “Are Woman the Key to Sustainable Development.” Sustainable Development Insights. USA: Boston University, 2010. Print.

Wilkie, J. E,. Bodenhausen, G. V. “Are numbers gendered?” Journal of Experimental Psychology. General 141(2): 206-10, 2012. Print


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