Libra: The Effects of Conspiracy and Contingency Questions

Skip Willman, Traversing the Fantasies of the JFK Assassination: Conspiracy and Contingency in Don DeLillo’s Libra 

“He feels he is living at the center of an emptiness. He wants to sense a structure that includes him, a definition clear enough to specify where he belongs” (DeLillo 357)

“Within these interconnected narratives, DeLillo ‘traverses’ the underlying social fantasies of conspiracy theories and contingency theories, the two diametrically opposed conceptions of ‘social reality’ at work in the interpretation of the JFK assassination” (Willman, 407).

What does the Kennedy conspiracy provide Oswald and in turn, Everett? Are their motivations different or the same? Do their motivations say something about American society? How does conspiracy and contingency work in the two narratives of Oswald and the CIA conspiracy according to Willman?

5 Replies to “Libra: The Effects of Conspiracy and Contingency Questions”

  1. The conspiracy theory in a way offers us a solution to our problem. Our problem is who would kill John F. Kennedy? If it is proven that our government staged an assassination of its own leader then that would be one of the most tragic events in our history. This is because the killing of JFK would represent the end of our democracy. The motivation to kill him was supposedly to radically change how our country social relations were being handled. If certain people can murder the president in order to have things run their way, then our government has lost all validity. This conspiracy provides Oswald with the fuel to commit murder. Here is a man who is unable to figure out how to function in a normal society. Assassinating the president was Oswald’s way of fighting the power of a rich society. Always unable to achieve the American dream, Oswald sought a place that accepted him and gave him the same advantages as everyone else. Once Russia failed next was communist Cuba. Oswald believed he would gain passage to Cuba if he showed his commitment to the cause. Killing a democratic leader would in his mind would do such a thing. These motivations are not the same as the conspiracy theory suggests why our government killed Kennedy. However, they provide similar results in that the loss of Kennedy was a loss of a man who was trying to do good. He was pulling troops out of Vietnam. He was increasing friendly relations with Russia. He was diffusing a nuclear missile crisis. Things were going well. It’s genius that these two narratives existed side by side in the book because both are plausible. This killing has been a mystery for decades. What this book does is show that if the conspiracy theories are true then the reason we haven’t learned the truth is because of how deep it would go. Thre are too many trails to follow.

  2. I think the quote “He feels he is living at the center of an emptiness. He wants to sense a structure that includes him, a definition clear enough to specify where he belongs” perfectly captures what the Kennedy assassination offers Oswald (DeLillo 357). As we’ve talked about in class before, there is an inherent narcissism and egocentrism in entertaining conspiracy theories. Oswald has been an outcast his entire life, somewhat wobbling between the worlds of Russia and America. In many ways, I think DeLillo wants us to sympathize with him. He is vulnerable, alienated, and is desperately looking for connection. We see this specifically after he returns from Russia and is immediately brought into the plot to assassinate General Walker.

    For Everett, I think conspiracy functions as a means of protection and rebranding one’s self. Similar to Oswald, Everett also experiences a level of narcissism/egotism about creating this conspiracy, as it was originally meant to repair their reputations and regain their positions within the CIA. However, by staging a fake assassination of Kennedy, Everett sets Oswald up as the villain. Although the intentions of Everett and Oswald appear wildly different, both men, in one way or another, are looking to be seen by others in ways that will improve their reputation and give them a stronger sense of connection with others.

  3. When considering what the Kennedy conspiracy provides Everett, I think it’s certainly worth turning to Willman’s article. Willman makes light of the fact that the CIA veteran in question suffers a “humiliating symbolic castration,” a result of his transference to an all-women’s university in Texas after being diagnosed with “motivational exhaustion” following his involvement in the Bay of Pigs invasion. I think it’s helpful to note that the Libra quote Emily uses in her response to describe Oswald’s potential motivations for participating in the Kennedy conspiracy can also help readers understand Everett’s motivations. Reduced to “a zero in the system,” Willman argues (I think correctly so), that the Kennedy conspiracy gives the ex-CIA agent an opportunity to regain a sense of agency and inclusion in the “structure” the DeLillo quote speaks of. Willman argues, too, that this desire to regain a feeling of inclusion and importance transcends Everett as individual. Indeed, through implicating Kennedy and exposing the president as a fraud, Willman explains on page 412 of his article: that “Everett hopes not only to tarnish Kennedy’s public image but to serve the interests of the CIA by emphasizing the importance of its role within the national security state as the “invisible Master” of the geopolitical sphere.” This is concurrent with the larger concept of conspiracy theories, which are function, according to Willman, as an attempt to provide a “meaningful constellation” (407) to seemingly disconnected events.

  4. The Kennedy conspiracy theory and the fictional version of Oswald, provide Oswald with sympathy. A broken man that does not know where he feels like he belongs, easily manipulated into doing something drastic that he believes is justice while at the same time being set up for something that he wants no part in. The conspiracy theory allows us to see Oswald as a human being, and not just a manifestation of terrorism. In being able to see Oswald as a person, we are able to sympathize and better understand him and why he did plan on assassinating someone, just not the President. We know that he is a broken man in the world looking for a way to connect with other people, while at the same time trying to make sense of his own beliefs and differences.
    The conspiracy theory does not offer Everett sympathy, but it does say something very similar about American society when looking at these two men. Both Oswald and Everett want to feel like they belong somewhere, to be able to connect to the same values and beliefs within a nation. Currently, they both are unable to do so, so they plan on staging an event that will create a connection between them and the people of America. Oswald and Everett feel let down by the people in charge, be it President Kennedy or General Walker, and want to get back at these men of a higher position, to knock them down a peg and make them realize why their ideas should be valued and considered. In these violent acts, Oswald and Everett are just trying to find a way to make a nation see their point of view, why they are right, and to rally behind them, so that they can feel connected to the people and like they belong within this space. Through this, DeLillo is able to illustrate to us that it is important for Americans, anyone really, to feel connected to the people around them, to share similar values and beliefs so that they can feel like they belong and are wanted.

  5. It is worth simmering on just how perfect both this quote which Kate has presented, as well as the rest of the paragraph which it belongs to, describes so well and so concisely the experience of the subject in the face of lack as suggested in Lacan’s structure of the self. At this moment he is discussing the “bureaucratic trap” of never being able to assimilate into its symbolic order and thus perhaps denoting the reason for his frustration of it denying him a coherent self or identity, and to have a “definition clear enough to specify where he belongs”. Thus the reason for him to be so impressionable and have his allegiances lie anywhere he might be able to be noticed and accepted. By being an outcast and not being able to assimilate into a “structure that includes him” he is confronted with the tormented truth of his core, being void and lack. Think of the imagery of “zero” when he is described as a “zero in the system”. Zero is even a symbol of the void, lack, a whole, nothingness which he experiences in his interaction with the system. It is also interesting thinking how his way approach to entering into the symbolic order (of history books) was done by killing the ultimate symbol of the symbolic system. I wonder what this might say about the symbolic systems seeming transcendent power.

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