Libra: Questions on Archival Behavior and Information Paralysis

Shannon Herbert, “Playing the Historical Record: DeLillo’s ‘Libra’ and the Kennedy Archive.” 

“The closet is stuffed with material he has yet to read. He has to wedge new books into the shelves, force them in, insert them sideways, squeeze everything, keep everything. There is nothing in the room he can discard as irrelevant or out-of-date. It all matters on one level or another. This is the room of lonely facts. The stuff keeps coming” (DeLillo 378).

“…Documents have indeed become our landscape, our experience, our idiom, but they do not necessarily help us know” (Herbert 312).

What instances of record-compiling, or archive building, can be identified in Libra in addition to Nicholas Branch and his assignment? How are these ‘paper trails’ meant to function; and further, do they ever serve the purpose they are meant to? What are the ramifications of this self-induced avalanche of information to the modern State and psyche?

4 Replies to “Libra: Questions on Archival Behavior and Information Paralysis”

  1. Even as a teenager, the character of Oswald is obsessive over compiling a secret library for himself, and himself alone. “He kept Marxist books in his room, took them to the library for renewal, carried them back home… The books themselves were secret. Forbidden and hard to read. They altered the room, charged it with meaning” (41). Oswald feels compelled to compile a secret stash of these books in an effort to make himself feel “a part of something” (41). These books helped forge a pathway to his beliefs/ideologies, and as such, they serve, if only in the fiction of Delillo’s invention, as a record through which to understand the assassin he came to be.

    My presentation last week focused a lot on the disconnect between language as a signifier and the intended signified in the context of the representation of history, and I think that, in a less abstract way, this is representative of the underlying problem in record-compiling. Efforts to compile records and build archives of language and evidence are going to fall perpetually short of acquiring every detail about an event, which means that they will always contain gaps. For instance, it is impossible to translate an eye-witness’s experience into writing without losing something of it, yet written and re-told accounts of eye-witness experiences populate the archives of record in courts, trials, biographies, and history books. Additionally, there are always going to be moments missed, small segments of history lost forever, never to be included in the records our culture has come to rely upon. These inevitable gaps in the archives safeguard the public’s ability to question, scrutinize, and oftentimes doubt the official records of events. As the podcast “Rabbit Holes” explores in the context of the Watergate scandal, conspiracy theories in our present society “have become something they’re not really supposed to be… they’re become mainstream.” Where there is a lack of absolute certainty, the public is sure to question, and in many archives, absolute certainty is a difficult feat to achieve. In fact, in some cases, as the quantity of documents compiled in a record increases, so too do the opportunities for nitpicking the contents of those documents, which, as Herbert references, “make facts available to experience whether or not they constitute definitive proof” (312). Habits of record-compiling may be intended, in part, to trace known history and subsequently discourage the widespread belief in conspiracy theories, but the modern public psyche has been trained to be critical of its government, and therefore the paper trails of records will merely fuel some people’s efforts to develop conspiracy theories.

  2. Throughout Libra, there seems to be an obsession with compiling information and gathering secrets. We can see this with Win and the other agent’s former job of gathering secrets, and with Win’s dialogue about the value of secrets. (ie: “You’re here because there’s something vitalizing in a secret. My little girl is generous with secrets. I wish she weren’t, frankly. Don’t secrets sustain her, keep her separate, make her self-aware? How can she know who she is if she gives away her secrets?” (26)). Ironically, Win then gives his secrets away to his friends.

    Lee Oswald also seems to be obsessed with gathering secrets and information. As Elise mentioned, Lee collects secret books, but he also seems to want to collect secret names (like knowing the real name of Trotsky) and have a secret name of his own. He prides himself on knowing information other people don’t, but he gets the information from the library, which is the most public place to get information. And, a secret can’t be a secret if everyone has access to it.

    Libra is filled with a tension between knowledge and secrets, with every character desiring to know and compile information, but also to have exclusive access to that information. This process seems to be a reflection of what we do if we buy into the assassination conspiracies, simultaneously collecting and gathering these secrets to feel like we know something that separates us, and yet attaining the information in the most public places possible (ie: the internet, books from our local library, etc.).

  3. Outside of the work of Nicholas Branch, I noticed similar things to what has already been mentioned above. The agents that orchestrate the events of the plot are shown to be meticulous in their complicated work. To manipulate politics and sway the minds of an entire nation, they must (in an ironic sort of way) be just as attentive to detail as Branch is in his analysis. Win Everett sees the power of false records: “An address book with ambiguous leads. Photographs expertly altered (or crudely altered). Letters, travel documents, counterfeit signatures, a history of false names. It would all require a massive decipherment, a conversion to plain text” (DeLillo 78). These paper trails are designed to confuse, mislead, and frustrate other characters, but we as readers are able to see past this. Even Lee Harvey Oswald, possibly the most central character of DeLillo’s novel, seems to enjoy learning about the world around him. This could explain his habit of watching people on the subway and visiting the zoo as a child. However, this might not directly relate to Nic’s observations. Branch’s work alone is an example of information that might seem meaningless but, when looked at from a distance, creates a larger, more encompassing, and more truthful picture.

    The videos that we’ve watched for class (both clips from the film JFK and the video footage and interviews) reveal this same importance of information in the case. Every little detail plays into the story of the assassination in some fashion. There is even a distinction between studies by the federal government, and analyses of footage and photography at the hands of civilians. This demonstrates the extent of the conspiracy, and the desire for evidence that could not possibly have been tampered with. Returning to Libra, it seems to me that Nicholas Branch faces the same challenges as the investigators in real life: there was so much of information, and it was all important, but the importance was not always apparent. In this way a real conspiracy would be plausible. Branch was literally buried in evidence, but we are able to understand his challenge thanks to both his point of view and that of the conspirators.

  4. As Katie said, the Kennedy conspiracy and the fictional characterization of Oswald provide him as a man of sympathy, who as a person, deserves to be empathized with, in spite of the fact that he killed one of America’s most beloved presidents. As DeLillo creates a storyline for Oswald, he consequently creates an obligation for the reader to feel sorry for him. As DeLillo makes Oswald a character, I can’t help but think of when the media reveals the background of a school shooter who was bullied; the depressing past of the assailant instilling sympathetic emotions within the public.
    I feel as though conspiracy and contingency go along together hand and hand in this novel, as it is a commentary on the terrorism caused by Oswald, as well as the sympathy that the reader is inclined to feel regarding his character. When it comes to paranoia, as Willman says, nothing is an accident (406), therefore anything that can be seen as a sign must be taken as such. In regards to the conspiracy and Kennedy in relation to contingency, the storyline of Oswald can be connected to future events, as I’ve previously detailed, where a terrorist is frequently characterized by the media as a “lost soul” who had a “troubled past,” which is mirrored in this text.

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