Don Delillo’s White Noise: Obsession, Silence, and Communication that Display Death Revolution
Death is the total and permanent cessation of all the vital functions of an organism. What constitutes the vital function of an organism? Perhaps it is the constant salivation for the presence of someone we love or the bombardment of reality shown in a little box amidst the room in your little world where you take comfort next to the warmth of the fire. Maybe it is the constant beep in your ear that doesn’t shut up, but gives you reassurance that there is no straight line yet. What is death really? Death may be the numerous times you lay on the floor in your dark cave and listened to the same song over and over and over again for four hours straight. It is always darkest just before the lights come on. In White Noise, Jack displays the revolution of death which he does not yet understand. It’s a revolution that not even the geniuses of the world can comprehend, but they try. The concept of death is always looming. Jack displays through obsession, silence, and communication that death is the white noise in the room.
Death carries families, friends, sorrows, tears, joy, pain, reflection, worry, and even obsession. More than just the “loss” of someone, death brings worry and obsession to many people, and many individuals need to understand every single intricate detail to be satisfied with life. Jack is a prime example of a person with an obsession with death. He lectures his class and he explains to them that all plots move “deathward.” Death has many meanings, but the dictionary clearly states the total and permanent cessation of all the vital functions of an organism. Then, let’s consider plots as living breathing animals walking upon this earth. People, especially in the age of technology and speed, look toward the end of a book, a story, a television show, a movie, or even the plot of stages in our own lives. This tells us that we look for the “deathward” movement in plots. We read faster, binge watch television shows, skip commercials, and look up answers on the internet. It shows an obsession with death that many people have even when we don’t realize it. How is Jack’s obsession the same in comparison to other people? In the book, Jack states, “Sweat trickled down my ribs. The digital reading on the clock-radio was 3:51. Always odd numbers at times like this. What does it mean? Is death odd-numbered?” (47). The readers cannot tell if Jack is crazy or if there is fuel behind his paranoia. People have an obsession with death and we have no idea that it is constantly looming. Jack would choose loneliness over death. Do people in real life have the capacity to make that decision too? Perhaps, Jack doesn’t see companionship or someone accompanying him as a vital function of his being. This contradicts his obsession a little bit. Why question death and get so involved with death and yet not want anything to do with it? He would take loneliness over death? Maybe his plot does not move deathward, but remains forever.
A stamp representing Jack Gladney is put on envelope or a Hitler lecture program with Jack Gladney in fine print on the cover. His name is a vital function to living and to being. It would not cessate totally or permanently. Yet, Jack believes wholeheartedly that he is obsessed. Maybe the obsession is not with death, but an obsession without death. Without death, how many people would live on this earth? Without death, does Jack ever have to worry about life without Babette or worry about leaving Babette to live alone? The longing for a life without death is so evident the obsession becomes focused on quite the opposite where it then turns into a fuel that burns in our souls. Death is not Jack’s obsession. Life without death is Jack’s obsession. However, we all know death is the looming white noise in the room.
The interpretation of silence is symbolic amongst the different characters of life. Silence may resemble anger, sorrow, vengeance, and sometimes even fierce love. Silence also resembles fear. Why talk about the things we fear when we can just simply avoid them? That is exactly what Jack and Babette do. Jack and Babette tell each other everything, except about their fear of death. It shows great loyalty in a relationship to tell each other absolutely everything, but the fear of death is something confidential between each individual. One may consider that death is something that is not essential to discuss because no one likes talking about it. What makes death so ominous? Truthfully, in the story, the sinister feeling of death comes between Jack and Babette.
Babette is secretly taking a bottle of pills called Dylar to help her “fear of death” or “obsession”. Babette says, “I’m afraid to die… I think about it all the time. It won’t go away” (196). However, Babette claims we should fear death. Babette did not tell Jack about this bottle of Dylar and she begins to claim her true fear of death, the two things in their relationship that held constant. No secrets and no discussion of the fear of death. A minimal silence that has now been broken by a drug named Dylar. It has the word die in it. Who takes a drug called Dylar? It isn’t an appealing name to make it sound even remotely lively or healing. Maybe Dylar holds the silence. The silence of death. The silence of a marriage so loyal and honest that even that loudest pots and pans cannot disturb. So Babette did not speak of Dylar, her noise is the infatuation with death. The constant beeping is in her ear. Perhaps the silence for Jack is without death. No worry of his prominent death. No deathly forecast. Jack doesn’t turn on the little box in the living room to see a weather man proclaim, “Today is cloudy with a slight chance of death.” It is looming. Jack’s noise is the reminder that death is chasing him. It chases all of us. The road comes to an end somewhere. The silence between the two is fierce love. Neither Babette nor Jack can imagine a life without the other. It is all so crazy. Maybe, the concept of death disappears. The noise stops. Jack and Babette can look into each other in the deepest crevices of each other’s soul. Pure silence will remain. Except for the heartbeat. The white noise is the heartbeat, a vital function that would no longer cessate because of indisputable truth of death.
It is interesting that silence can contribute to death’s white noise and yet communication can do quite the same thing. So why would communication affect the idea that death is the white noise in the room at all? A very simple example of the communication is when Jack speaks about Hitler’s relationship with crowds. He says that crowds are a way to keep out death and to break away from a crowd is to face death alone. This concept is communicated clearly to his students, but what does this mean to Jack? Jack is facing his forecasted death because of his exposure to Nyodene D. He is facing it alone. He confides about this to Murray who is deranged and peculiar throughout the story. But that is not nearly enough to call a crowd. Jack believes his death is certain because he is facing it alone. Had he and a huge group of people been exposed for sure, he would not be nearly as skeptical because the crowd would keep death out. Through this simple communication to Jack’s students, death proves to be looming and especially in Jack’s circumstances. Another communicating event is when Jack talks to Orest Mercator about wanting to sit in a cage of poisonous snakes and then proceed to discuss the possibility of death. Jack says, “You are intentionally facing death. You are setting out to do exactly what people spend their lives trying not to do. Die. I want to know why” (266). Jack cannot wrap his head around the idea of death. This exchange in communication is even consumed with the concept of death whether it be the physical auditory discussion of death or the visual communication. Maybe we must view communication as an organism as well. Once the motion of the vocal folds in the larynx has stopped, the vital function of communication is then cessated. Communication dies. Death prevails.
Now, the obsession is without death. The silence is fierce love. The communication is dead. All in the name of the ominous ghost figure that chases us six feet into the ground. Jack is consumed in a revolution so large that the very concept of death is most likely nonexistent. The crackle of the fire is subtle and becomes hard to notice. The box you stare at constantly sitting on a shelf has now become background noise because it doesn’t meet life’s standards. The music fades. The beeping stops. From here on, the vital function is now permanently cessated, but there is a flicker. A light in the distance. You won’t know what it is until you go there, but it looks to be wonderful. The white noise is death, and the white noise of death is light.
White Noise by Don Delillo – an Illustrative Example of Postmodern Literature
White Noise: The Quintessential Postmodern Novel
The literary theory of postmodernism grew from the turmoil and chaos that afflicted society after World War II. Departing from modernism and traditional writing styles, the postmodern writers harbored a distrust of established ideologies and principles and created a new writing form that deconstructed barriers and rules of society. Postmodern works broke rules of writing and instead, through their complexity and confusing elements, embraced chaos and skepticism and questioned reality and absolute truths. Although the unique and unfettered nature of postmodernism makes it nearly impossible to define, several common characteristics pervade postmodern works. All of these defining qualities exist in Don DeLillo’s White Noise. Despite DeLillo’s denial of his postmodernist label, his novel clearly exhibits all of the identifying characteristics of postmodern literature, assigning White Noise the designation of the quintessential postmodern novel.
DeLillo’s novel possesses the postmodern element pastiche—the combination of multiple genres in one work. Pastiche utilizes genres of the past to create something new and also prove that literature can amalgamate many different writing aspects. White Noise can be described as science-fiction, post-apocalyptic, drama, satire, and comedy. The emphasis on technology and industrial issues which causes an apocalypse-type disaster allows for the science-fiction description, and the Gladney family’s struggle to survive in a chaotic world after “the airborne toxic event” (DeLillo 105) permits the label of a post-apocalyptic novel. The novel has many dramatic moments where the characters discuss life and death and well as intense, philosophical issues, but also has many comedic and witty moments interspersed throughout the novel, making it also a drama and a comedy. The frequent use of irony that adds to the comedic elements of the novel along with DeLillo’s criticism of society’s materialism and dependency on technology also marks his novel as a satire.
The use of irony in the novel also contributes to its postmodernism. Many postmodernists treat serious subjects jovially to distance themselves from the difficult subject. They evoke black humor and different types of irony to offer critiques of society and to display how society should not fear dark and somber things. DeLillo sprinkles irony all throughout his story using it even at the most serious of times. He uses it to show how the characters should not fear death and how the characters ignore danger when “the smoke alarm went off in the hallway upstairs, either to let us know the battery had just died or because the house was on fire” (8) and they did nothing about the possible imminent danger. DeLillo also uses irony to mock certain characters and expose the ridiculousness of certain beliefs and customs. When Jack’s boss advises him to change his name and appearance to gain more prestige, the change they make is pretentious as it is the same name only without one letter, “we finally agreed that I should event an extra initial and call myself J.A.K Gladney” (16). DeLillo continues to ridicule society and its principles by exposing absurdity such as Jack not knowing German despite being the founder of Hitler studies and his college requiring all Hitler majors to understand some of the language, “I had long tried to conceal the fact that I did not know German” (31). The use of irony not only gives the novel a lighter tone, but also exposes DeLillo’s critique of society and acceptance of confusion and chaos.
The fragmentation of the novel’s timeline also displays the postmodernist idea of embracing disorder and irrationality. The postmodern element of fragmentation grants writers an escape from the traditional chronological storytelling and allows for temporal distortion and events told in segments. In DeLillo’s novel, the chapters offer no sense of a chronological time stream and instead appear disjointed and without any connection. Each of the chapters exists independently of the others and only detail one event with no description of when it takes place in the story. DeLillo also has three parts to the story which detail three different periods that have no connection through time. The fragmentation of the story is quite jarring and confusing as there is no clear link between anything which adds to the chaotic nature of society that the postmodernists embraced.
Maximalism in postmodernism also added to the disordered and exaggerated style that the writers of the period practiced. The component of postmodernism features excessive detail and long, exaggerated details. DeLillo’s novel has maximalism in nearly all of the chapters as it describes materials as well as the surrounding sounds. They novel opens with a long list specifying each object that Jack sees, “…loaded down with carefully secured suitcases full of light and heavy clothing; with boxes of blankets, boots and shoes, stationery and books, sheets, pillows…” and continues to describe more of what Jack sees throughout the book. The excessive detailing of objects and supplies illustrates Jack’s fixation on material things and how he perceives people and the world based on it. Unnecessary objects become a representation of an identity for Jack. When he observes people he first looks at their possessions to understand more about them. When he runs into Murray at the supermarket, Jack immediately looks into his cart and observes what he is buying as he sees one’s possessions as a revealer of a person (19). DeLillo also uses maximalism when describing the noises and sounds in the background of Jack’s life, “horns kept blowing, sound waves mixing in the air” (307). The constant sound imagery and detailing of noises display the pandemonium of sound that surrounds people in their everyday lives and how they become so accustomed to such sounds that they no longer notice. Randomly thrown in bits of lines from the television along with other noises portrays how easily people can ignore the never-ending circus of noise that acts as the background for progressing society.
The chaotic nature of society makes it confusing and difficult to understand—causing fear and paranoia. Postmodernists discussed paranoia and terrorism in their works as well as pushing the idea that modern society can not be understood. DeLillo presents the idea that people fear everything, “there is a darkness…something large in scope and content” (6) which plays out when the Airborne Toxic Event occurs. This event—an act of terrorism—evokes panic in all of the characters and heightens their previous fears. Fear motivates almost all of the characters’ actions, especially the fear of death. Babette commits adultery just to release herself from the fear of death, and Jack constantly wonders about death and his time to die. Although most of the characters refuse to embrace chaos and uncertainty, Jack’s son Heinrich propels these ideas. Heinrich believes that the world cannot be understood and that “our senses are wrong a lot more often than they’re right” (23). Heinrich has little fear of the world and holds a postmodernist view of accepting confusion and irrationality—embodying the postmodern theory. To hide from fear and paranoia, the characters lie to conceal the terrifying truth, “something lurked inside the truth” (8) such as Babette’s lies about sleeping with another man and being a drug addict and thus create other realities to escape from accepting their own.
The postmodern idea of hyperreality—the idea of a fabricated world or aspect that becomes more real than reality and that no one has a choice—permeates throughout DeLillo’s novel. At the beginning of the novel when Murray and Jack visit the most photographed barn in America, DeLillo presents the idea of hyperreality. The photos of the barn become more real than the barn itself, and once one knows the barn is the most photographed, they can “only see what others see” (12) and “can’t get outside the aura” (12). Other aspects of Jack’s life become hyperreality such as his own name. The name he creates, J.A.K Gladney, becomes more real than his own. Only known by the historical community by his fabricated name, Jack Gladney only exists for his family, and J.A.K Gladney exists on a larger scale and Jack merely exists as “the false character that follows the name around” (17). DeLillo also creates a hyperreality in terms of sexual fantasies. When Jack rummages through a magazine containing erotica, he notices how the fantasy provides more arousal and becomes more real than an actual sexual encounter “people write down imagined episodes…which is the greater stimulation” (30). The hyperreality of DeLillo’s world assists in the deconstruction of gender roles throughout the novel.
Postmodernists encourage the deconstruction of established beliefs and roles in society, the most common being gender roles. Postmodern authors often subvert the roles of men and women in society and invert the stereotypes that persist. DeLillo deconstructs his gender roles subtly, slowly breaking the established functions of men and women. The first exposure to inverted gender roles occurs in a random mental picture that defies the stereotype of a frail woman cooking for her husband, “she entered the cheerful kitchen where her husband stood over a pot of smoky lobster bisque, a smallish man with six weeks to live” (23). DeLillo once again switches the assigned roles for men and women during a sexual encounter between Jack and Babette. Although Jack states that “as the male partner…it’s [his] responsibility to please” (28), Babette becomes the “pleaser” and thus takes over the stereotypically male dominate role. DeLillo also grants his male characters’ pastimes often categorized as feminine. Whenever Jack feels depressed or unmanly, he goes shopping and comforts himself by immersing himself in the world of consumerism—an activity generally associated with women. The subtle deconstruction of gender roles reveals DeLillo’s postmodern ideals of developing a new world that ignores the rationality and rules established by past movements and literature.
The postmodern period boasted of a break from modernism and the belief in the understanding of modern society and embraced new styles of writing that reimagined literature. Instead of writing a novel that fit into one genre, the postmodern writers wrote novels like White Noise that possesses characteristics from a multitude of genres. Irony also characterized postmodernism as satire and humor lightened the serious subjects and dismissed the fear of things that caused paranoia such as terrorism. DeLillo, along with his fellow postmodern writers, similarly utilized fragmentation and maximalism to create stories with no clear timeline and to present a type of chaotic story telling. With the introduction of the complex hyperreality, postmodernism developed a form of true chaos and critique of society. All of these elements contributed to the deconstruction of established beliefs and stereotypes, such as gender roles, which was the goal of postmodern writers. White Noise utilizes all of the elements of postmodernism and possesses themes and messages about society that follow the postmodern theory, making it the quintessential postmodern novel.
White Noise: True Meaning to Mundanity
The true meaning to mundanity
The absurd interests us. A class called “Hitler Studies” would be sure to get a ton of students just to figure out what it is. The reason why we enjoy the strange so much is because we get bored of mundanity. That is until we take a closer look at it. The book “White noise” provides many insightful ideas as to how people view themselves, their lives and how technology is invested in their lives. By delving deeper into these aspects, we can get a better understanding of what the quotes I’ve chosen follow the theme of true mundanity.
One of the more well-known running themes of the story is the fear of death, or as the book refers to it, white noise. One of the main characters, Babette, has a fear of death that she begins to take an experimental drug, called Dylar, to destroy or suppress her fear. Some people view fear as a way that our primal senses are still infecting and affecting us, even to this day. Don DeLillo explains it as “Fear is self-awareness raised to a higher level.” (DeLillo, 229). In this case, the self-awareness is that she doesn’t want to face an end. It would not be that far of a logical leap to hypothesize that she had a fear of her previous marriage ending. Others in the novel treat death in equally telling ways. Jack fears it but is still willing to face it. Murray, with his strange analytical way of viewing things that are mundane, views death like a movie, constantly viewing it and trying to find its true meaning. Willie Mink says, paraphrased, that there is no death without fear. It even becomes possible to fear technology, just as we fear death.
Outside of death, the main way we are separated from the mundanity of our lives is the sudden realization of that very thing, we become self-aware to our lives. We have an event, be it the airborne toxic event in the book or a death of a loved one, that changes how we look at our lives or unearths information better left buried. To Jack, the airborne toxic event made his normal mundane life in the dust as tried to get revenge on someone that would never live up to his hatred. Technology is almost like a manmade organism that evolves as we feed it. Although not as deeply as the death front, White Noise does delve into the idea of how technology affects us as a group of people. As a follow-up from the previous paragraph, we have discussed how fear is your self-awareness but stronger. The quote I’ll be building off of it “The greater the scientific advance, the more primitive the fear” (DeLillo 161). The sentences that preview this divulge that it builds up the fear as more and more inventions are created. The airborne toxic event is the best example of fearful technology. This is what causes Jack to basically have a timer for his death and it reveals how Babette is using a drug that is still being tested, both involving technology or a side effect from technology being abused. A quote that assists in the fear of technology, “You are the sum total of your data, nothing escapes that” (DeLillo 141), reinforces that people grow to fear technology. Within our time, the idea of internet security has been a running theme in the news. We want to be secure of our history since it explains so much about us. What we choose to support or destroy also support the sum total of data. If at one point someone could merely download all we know, all we have consumed, all we have done, would they be the same as us? If that did happen, I think most would be in both fear and awe of that. Technology is something extremely common to our lives, so much that even though it is awe-inspiring, it has become mundane. If we were able to take a step out of our lives and look at how much technology (in the current sense, meaning electronics) exists, it is impossible to imagine a life without it all. We are even capable of being confused from hearing a name of a tool we use or hear about daily. On the side of death, technology has prolonged our lives and without them we’d die, both due to the loss of simplicity of life and our parasitism towards the technology. The final quote I will be addressing in regards to White Noise is “We began to marvel at our own ability to manufacture awe” (DeLillo 153). This quote references the citizens responding to the recent ufo sightings in their area and the stories they make from that news. This can become a callback to fear where humans greatest fear is that of the unknown, which is why we get more and more afraid of the advancement of technology. Humans can create anything from any information they consume. Perhaps that is how we have survived so long on this world
Confronting Death in White Noise
In his 1985 novel White Noise, Don DeLillo paints a modern society that is composed of systems too great to comprehend, putting control out of the hands of individuals. Don DeLillo crafts a postmodern society governed by cryptic systems, a world in which individuals are alienated from reality by technological codes and formulas dictate success. Dellilo challenges the postmodern thought that academics, technology and institutions can answer the questions of life and death and offers death as a shared burden and final resolution. In Jack’s life the fear of death is a force that operates in a system outside of his control. This unknown system became an all-consuming force beginning at age twenty; this desperation for answers has lead to Jack’s invention of a Hitler studies academic program. DeLillo explores how Jack integrates into a larger system to via formality. Jack’s professional status as a Hitler Studies department head gives Jack the formal distance of academia he needs from this fear: “Death was strictly a professional matter here” (74). At the same time, Jack is very close to the ideas of death. He deals with his fear of death by studying and attempting to embody Hitler, the “master of death.” Hitler, who reduced humane life into numbers and mechanized death on an unprecedented scale, gives Jack a formulaic method to comprehend the unknown: “So Hitler gave me something to grow into and develop toward” (16). DeLillo shows that Jack hides behind Hitler as a shield not only from the unknown but as a way to anchor his existence. Jack’s ex Tweedy uses Hitler to address Jack during a superficial conversation: “How is Hitler? Fine solid dependable”(89). DeLillo suggests that Jack can link himself to immortality by connecting himself to the immortal, unchanging Hitler. Despite Jack’s deliberate creation of his Hitler studies program, however, he does not even understand his own success; he relies on his costume as a formulaic way to achieve success, saying he has “built a career” on it and “can’t teach Hitler without” his dark glasses (221). Where Jack once had achieved equilibrium with uncertainty of death through Hitler, he now faces the subject of death on an intimate and personal level. After exposure to the toxic event caused by an industrial byproduct, Jack comes face to face with his own mechanized death. Upon facing the reality of his death Jack feels he needs to dawn his Hitler studies costume to shelter himself: “It makes you feel like a stranger in your own dying. I wanted my academic gown and dark glasses” (142) When his life data is brought up from Simuvac’s diagnostic computer it illustrates Jack’s new estrangement from his sense of comfort once found in his elaborate Hitler Studies persona: “He spent a fair amount of time tapping on the keys and then studying the coded responses on the data screen… [and] I tapped into your history. I’m getting bracketed numbers with pulsing stars. What does that mean? You’d rather not know” (139-140). Here the use of diction is important to note. The Simuvac officer describes the data output s as “stars and bracketed numbers,” a code DeLillo uses to challenge technology’s capacity to predict and understand death. This recurring motif continually denies clear information to Jack and medical professionals. Jack describes the new code as “a network of symbols [that] has been introduced, an entire awesome technology wrested from the gods.” (142). In this instance DeLillo shows Jack’s vulnerability to the new intimate uncertainty of death abstracted by technological codes that propels Jack to seek answers in the traditional medical sciences paradigm. To decode the new unknown Babbette suggests, “Why don’t you have a checkup? Wouldn’t you feel better if you found out nothing was there?” (220). As a result of many checkups Jack is alerted of a potential potassium imbalance. The doctor again accesses Jack’s data on a computer but denies Jack the details, offering only again a cryptic message. The doctor tells Jack: “Look here. A bracketed number with computerized stars. What does that mean? There’s no point your knowing at this stage ” (260). DeLillo suggests that medical professionals don’t know any more than Jack. The young doctor, described as being less than confident, follows a fixed assessment where Jack chooses the most popular answers and is offered a sealed envelope of medical codes for the doctor to interpret. Leaving the visit with the potassium imbalance problem unresolved, and with a new troubling technological code in hand, Jack concludes that his life cannot be reordered by medical science. DeLillo shows through Jack that technology has ultimately failed to reconcile systems outside of human control or to answer the questions of life and death. However, DeLillo offers a solution by using the supermarket as an analogy for life. When the system becomes chaotic, with rearranged shelves, smeared printing, and people attempting to “discern the underlying logic” (326), DeLillo suggests a reconciliation by realizing the shared burden: “This is where we wait together, regardless of age[…] A slowly moving line, satisfying, giving us time to glance at the tabloids in the racks. Everything we need that is not food or love is here in the tabloid racks” (326). DeLillo suggest that death (checkout) is a powerful unifying feature, common and inevitable, and that death resolves itself by allowing the individual to leave our shared reality and interpret the codes: “The terminals are equipped with holographic scanners, which decode the binary secrete of every item, infallibly”(326). DeLillo concludes by portraying a resolution in death: the codes of life and death wrested from the gods will be made known.
The Postmodern World of White Noise
Paula Geyh writes that “the term [postmodernism] is used by so many people in so many disparate ways, that it seems almost to mean or describe everything–and therefore, some of the critics of postmodernism would say, it means nothing” (1-2). Although the postmodern perspective is, indeed, difficult to pinpoint, its voice is clear in the novel White Noise. The postmodern perspective is exemplified in Don DeLillo’s novel White Noise. In many ways, the novel is a description of “the traditional,” symbolized by protagonist Jack Gladney, fighting against “the postmodern,” or nearly everyone and everything else in his world. Geyh continues, “The novels of Don DeLillo… are remarkable for their ability to depict the often harrowing ‘realities’ of the postmodern world” (13). For Jack, these realities include family struggles, strange drugs, and an “airborne toxic event” in his hometown. As the title suggests, therefore, White Noise seems to be less about any events or people—the signal—and more about the space between them—the white noise. While Jack is uncomfortable navigating the postmodern environment of SIMUVAC teams and Dylar pills, his fourteen-year-old son Heinrich seems to thrive in it. Heinrich is pleased to play chess by mail with a convicted felon from the state penitentiary or support a friend in training endeavors to enclose himself with poisonous snakes. Instead of being lost in the postmodern world like Jack or frightened of it like Babette, Heinrich seems to be an embodiment of Lyotard’s notion of the postmodern in that he is not “governed by preestablished rules… and cannot be judged according to a determining judgment…Those rules and categories are what… [he] is looking for” (1423). Although Delillo fills his novel with creative, concrete images of postmodern concepts, one of the most deliberate is “the most photographed barn in the world.” When Jack and fellow College-on-the-Hill professor Murray visit, Murray comments that the tourists are “taking pictures of taking pictures” (13). He states, “Once you’ve seen the signs about the barn, it becomes impossible to see the barn” (12). According to Lee Spinks, “two modern theories of meaning–structuralism and post-structuralism… have exerted a profound influence on Lyotard’s account of the ‘postmodern’” (4). This tourist-crammed simulacrum where the signifier takes precedence over the signified is an example of Lyotard’s postmodernism and reflects its important ties to structuralism. Laura Barrett writes that the “disconnection between signifier and signified [is] pointedly demonstrated in conversations between the narrator, Jack Gladney, and his son, Heinrich” (97). Structuralism notes this detachment between the two parts of the sign as well as the arbitrariness of the linguistic sign. In Saussure’s words, the signifier “has no natural connection with the signified” (789). Throughout White Noise, Delillo writes funny scenes where Heinrich and Jack bicker, often with Heinrich deliberately frustrating his father. Many times in these conversations, Heinrich reveals the structuralist theories behind his postmodern mindset. For instance, in the “Is it raining?” dialog between Jack and Heinrich in Chapter 6, Heinrich repeatedly asks Jack for a more clear definition of “rain” and then “here and now.” This is more than a juvenile word game of semantics to annoy his father. Heinrich is representing the structuralist perspective explained by Saussure in that “…signs function, then, not through their intrinsic value but through the relative position” (792). Heinrich wants to know where here is, who is asking, and even what is rain? Delillo writes:”What if someone held a gun to your head? …A man in a trenchcoat and smoky glasses. He holds a gun to your head and says, ‘Is it raining or isn’t it? All you have to do is tell the truth and I’ll put away my gun…'” “What truth does he want? Does he want the truth of someone traveling at almost the speed of light in another galaxy? Does he want the truth of someone in orbit around a neutron star…?””He’s holding the gun to your head. He wants your truth.” “What good is my truth? My truth means nothing. What if this guy with the gun comes from a planet in a whole different solar system? What we call rain he calls soap. What we call apples he calls rain. So what am I supposed to tell him?” “His name is Frank J. Smalley and he comes from St. Louis.” “He wants to know if it’s raining now, at this very minute.” “Here and now, that’s right.” “Is there such a thing as now? ‘Now’ comes and goes as soon as you say it. How can I say it’s raining now if your so-called ‘now’ becomes ‘then’ as soon as I say it?” “…Is there rain here, in this precise locality at whatever time within the next two minutes that you choose to respond to the question?” “If you want to talk about this precise locality while you’re in a vehicle that’s obviously moving, then I think that’s the trouble with this discussion” (23-24).At the end of this discussion, the reader may feel confused as to whether Heinrich should be grabbed by the shoulders and shaken for being so antagonistic or applauded for his wit. There is no denying the ingenuity of his arguments, and he does not miss a beat in his comedic timing, particularly with the last line. He also does not leave any assumed detail unquestioned. This refusal to be captive to the laws of casual conversation is the postmodern side of Heinrich, while his tool—linguistic argument—reveals the structuralist influence on his views. In a way, Heinrich is requiring his father to carefully articulate what he means outside of his own individual perspective. Rather than accept a casual conversation about the weather, Heinrich wants to examine Jack’s use of a “standard” comment and take it apart to reveal what is actually being communicated. Saussure comments on this formulaic approach to conversation: “every means of expression used in society is based, in principle, on collective behavior…or convention. Polite formulas, for instance, though often imbued with a certain natural expressiveness…are nonetheless fixed by rule” (788).However, as a representation of the postmodern, the character of Heinrich cannot be judged by these rules nor expected to operate within them.Geyh calls this conversation “an allegory of theoretical postmodernism and a dialogical enactment of several of its central issues, particularly those of ‘truth’ and ‘reality’ (14).” In other words, Delillo illustrates this basic tenant of postmodernism in a simple conversation about rain without a lengthy theoretical explication. Geyh continues, “Before [Heinrich] even arrives at school, he covers the limitations of our sensory apparatus and the way it mediates our perception of reality, the paradoxes of relativity theory, the arbitrariness of the sign, and the indeterminacy of meaning” (15). These matters recur throughout in White Noise. For example, in Chapter 21, Heinrich relays to Jack the news that the “black billowing cloud” has been upgraded to the “airborne toxic event” (Delillo 117). He seems to satirically enjoy that this fresh label frightens his family because he knows a new phrase really changes nothing. However, this new signifier to represent the unmoved signified drastically affects the way it is viewed by the entire family. Later, in Chapter 30, during a discussion with Steffie and Babette, the concept of relativity theory surfaces again. Heinrich brilliantly sums it up by noting that “the whole point of Sir Albert Einstein…is how can the sun be up if you’re standing on the sun” (Delillo 233). According to Saussure’s theories, a linguistic community dictates with which signified a specific signifier is associated. Outside that linguistic community, a signifier may connote an entirely different concept or may not exist at all. Heinrich is expanding this linguistic concept by asking his stepmother and sister to realize that more than just an immediate personal perspective must be considered. Again using a structuralist device to display his postmodern attitude, Heinrich refuses to let them assume everyone is Frank J. Smalley from St. Louis.Another major example of Heinrich displaying the structuralist influence on postmodernism can be found in Chapter 21:”A dog is a mammal.” “So’s a rat,” Denise said.”A rat is a vermin,” Babette said.”Mostly what a rat is,” Heinrich said, “is a rodent.””It’s also a vermin.””A cockroach is a vermin,” Steffie said.”A cockroach is an insect. You count the legs is how you know.””It’s also a vermin.””Does a cockroach get cancer? No,” Denise said. “That must mean a rat is more like a human than it is like a cockroach, even if they’re both vermins, since a rat and a human can get cancer but a cockroach can’t.””In other words,” Heinrich said, “she’s saying that two things that are mammals have more in common than two things that are only vermins” (Delillo 124-5).This conversation shows Heinrich’s structuralist belief that things only can be understood by comparison. As linguistic relations are arbitrary, a signifier cannot be defined outside of language. Saussure says, “a term acquires its value only because it stands in opposition to everything that precedes or follows it” (794). This inability to meaningfully classify a “rat” or a “cockroach” without relating to another arbitrary signifier supports Saussure’s proposal that human understanding only exists in and through language. Saussure writes, “our thought – apart from its expression in words – is only a shapeless and indistinct mass…Without language, thought is a vague, uncharted nebula” (789). In Heinrich’s concluding statement in this conversation, he reiterates Denise’s feeling that the connection of “mammal-ness” relates two items more closely than just sharing the parallel of “vermin-ness.” The absurdity of this idea in light of structuralism is that neither of the labels have real meaning to begin with, so trying to linguistically compare the strength of the relationships they represent is unreasonable. In discussing the postmodern, Lyotard addresses this “powerlessness of the faculty of presentation” (1422). It seems that Heinrich may sense this futility in the conversation, and therefore, rather than waste his own intelligence and wit on the subject, he simply backs out by restating what Denise has already asserted. Lyotard writes that “emphasis can also be placed on the…jubilation which result from the invention of new rules of the game” (1422). It is clear that, as Delillo’s representation of the postmodern, Heinrich enjoys the semantic games he plays with his family. He may not be a postmodernist painter or writer, but in his own adolescent way, he lives out his postmodern convictions in his linguistic battles with Jack and their family. Geyh writes, “DeLillo’s talent for depicting concrete manifestations of postmodernism’s conceptual structures is matched by his remarkable ability to capture the peculiar sensibilities of the young postmoderns” (19). In White Noise, the “young postmodern” is most certainly Heinrich. One of the most critical plot elements of White Noise is Babette’s fear of death and the Dylar pills she swallows to repress it. One of Dylar’s side effects is that a user loses the ability to distinguish between words and actual objects. In structuralist terms, they lose the ability to see that the signifier is not the signified. Barrett sums up this confusion by writing:”Ironically, in White Noise, to alleviate the dread of death… humans can resort to a drug that makes the association between word and object terrifyingly real, so that the phrase ‘a hail of bullets’ effects a physical response. The end result is that language is more distanced from its meaning than ever before: when the speeding bullet, the plunging aircraft, the raining fussilade do not materialize to justify the crouched pseudo-victim taking cover behind a sofa, the masquerade of language is revealed” (102-3).This scene, in which Jack gets his revenge on “Mr. Gray,” is not just the moment when the plot of White Noise climaxes; more importantly, it is the moment when structuralism and postmodernism in this novel collide. Delillo has been using Heinrich as his representation of structuralism’s influence on postmodernism all along, but it is only in this last illustration that his purpose is successfully accomplished.
The Fragmented American Family
The family is the strongest where objective reality is most likely to be misinterpreted. (82) Delillo’s portrayal of the American family in his acclaimed novel White Noise is atypical. The narratology changes from a contented American family who initially appear to be close with devoted relationships to each other but later changes to one that is far more fragmented. By looking at Delillo’s protagonist, narrator and paternal figure Jack Gladney and observing his relationships to the various members of his family and his work colleagues, one can perhaps come to the assumption that Delillo is restructuring the notion of the American family dream. The archetypal white-picket-fence, American Dream family is not represented in White Noise; instead Delillo thrives on the Gladneys dysfunctionality. This unusual family is far more disjointed and dysfunctional as the narrative progresses and two different questions arise, firstly, is Delillo challenging the view of the traditional American family or perhaps offering a new, postmodern one. Secondly, what is the function of the fragmented American family? Within this essay I intend to unpack the Gladney family relationships, focusing mainly on the protagonist, and therefore finding solutions to the imposed questions above. The Gladney family resides in the small university town of Blacksmith where Jack Gladney is the professor and creator of a discipline entitled Hitler studies at the local college, sarcastically named College-on-the-Hill. Arnold Weinstein looks into the idea of the ‘middle-American’ postmodern family and describes the Gladneys as ‘the “new” family’ which will have to deal with contemporary domestic issues such as ‘children of previous marriages, the presence of the media, the life of the campus, the threats of the environment, the adventures of consumerism’ and the ‘management of dread.’ (Weinstein 1993: 298) Among these postmodern issues listed above which infiltrate the character’s lives, Delillo also offers a means of escape to this dilemma where he attempts to reintroduce spirituality (in the form of consumerism) and inverts the parent-child gap. In the beginning of the novel Jack and Babette Gladney appear to be the ideal American couple; their relationship comes across as one that is agreeable and happy. The couple attempt to nurture and fulfill one other’s needs, Jack is continually reassuring Babette and she supports his job. Babette ‘gathers and tends the children, teaches a course in an adult education program [and] belongs to a group of volunteers who read to the blind.’ (Delillo 1984: 5) Jack describes his loving relationship with Babette as ‘a form of self-renewal and a gesture of custodial trust’ where love helps them ‘develop an identity secure enough to allow it to be placed in another’s care and protection.’ (Delillo 1984:29) But by reading further into the narrative, one discovers that the couple has no children of their own, in fact, all the children that reside within the Gladney house are from previous marriages from both of the parents. Babette is actually Jack’s fifth wife and the children that live under their roof, two are from Babette’s previous marriage while the other three are from Jacks. Ferarro refers to this complicated phenomenon as a ‘fearful symmetry’ where ‘each adult lives with a third or fourth spouse, a son from a previous marriage, a stepson from one of the latest spouse’s previous marriages, and a stepdaughter from another of the spouse’s previous marriage.’ (Ferarro 1991:16) The Gladney marriage is clearly not as coherent as it starts off in the novels beginning. One of the reasons for this could be that White Noise is labeled as a postmodern novel and the notion of the ‘American Dream family’ is a form of grand narrative that postmodern writers avoid.Another reason for the fragmentation of the family may be that Delillo is offering a ‘new’ type of American family as a reflection to what he believed was happening within American culture during the time period. Although the Gladney family are so fragmented to the point that they are individually focused, Delillo definitely portrays the Gladneys as a family who are constantly looking for a connection to one other. A contextual example of this would be their ritualistic Friday night dinner routine where the family unites through the chaos represented on television: ‘That night, a Friday, we gathered in front of the set, as was the custom and the rule, with take-out Chinese. There were floods, earthquakes, mud slides… we’d never before been so attentive to our Friday assembly.’ (Delillo 1984: 64) The family bonds over natural disasters, their collective desensitization towards nature is similar to the actual family structure. Each character is self-concerned with their personal escape and identity. Unlike Jack who tends does not allow his family to affect him intimately; Babette makes an ongoing effort to keep the family together. An occasion when this happens is in chapter five when she reads all the family horoscopes aloud but Jack avoids listening, as he is obsessing with his own issues and thinking. Delillo writes, ‘At breakfast, Babette read all our horoscopes aloud, using her storytelling voice. I tried to listen when she got to mine, although I think I wanted to listen, I think…’ (Delillo 1984:18)Above Babette’s entertaining family ideals that she incorporates as a means to keep her family connected, Delillo also emphasizes consumerism as a key point in keeping the family together. Through the purchase and consumption of name-brand products the family is pseudo-connected, similarly to the families represented in television commercials, in a place where prominent issues such as divorce and spirituality have been nonchalantly placed aside. And although buying into the media links the family, it is also their escape. Moses states that ‘for Delillo’s characters, contemporary American “reality” has become completely mediated and artificial; theirs is a culture of comprehensive and seemingly total representation.’ (Moses 1991:64) Escape through consumerism is connected to the idea of advertising. By buying a specific product a need that has been created by the advertisers is being fulfilled. So instead of the family focusing on real issues such as Jack and Babette’s necrophobia, they use consumerism of both media and products as a method of escape. Both Jack and Babette Gladney are unhealthily plagued a fear of dying which leads to them constantly talking about their own death and the possibilities of who will die first. Death is the ultimate form of escape in the novel. Another possible form of escape that Delillo offers in White Noise – and is compared to the family unit as avoidance for real life – is the notion of crowds. Jack summarizes this point in a lecture to Murray Jay Siskund’s class. He emotionally addresses the students by saying: ‘Crowds come to form a shield against their own dying. To become a crowd is to keep out death. To break off from the crowd is to risk death as an individual, to face dying alone. Crowds come for this reason above all others. They were there to be a crowd.’ (Delillo 1984: 73) Crowds are therefore in the novel a strategic form of escape where people can look beyond their self-concerns and form a kind of group mentality similar to those of the Nazis. Gladney’s affinity with Hitler goes much deeper than just a subject he established at College-on-the-Hill. By looking at the character of Jack Gladney’s relationship with Hitler studies from a psychological analysis, it is easy to see how work becomes his mechanism through which he escapes. Hitler and the study of Nazism are Gladney’s form of avoidance from his self and his family. Gladney is so immersed in everything related to Hitler that he sometimes cannot relate properly to his personal life. His affinity with Hitler could be metaphorically compared to raising a child. Murray Siskund emphasizes the parent-child relationship that Gladney has with Hitler studies in chapter three, he says: ‘You’ve established a wonderful thing here with Hitler. You created it, you nurtured it, you made it your own. Nobody on any faculty of any college or university in this part of the country can so much as utter the word Hitler without a nod in your direction… he is now your Hitler. Gladney’s Hitler. It must be deeply satisfying for you.'(Delillo 1984:11) Gladney’s paternal affection towards Hitler studies is often more involved than that of his relationship to his children. Perhaps, in this ‘new’ postmodern world portrayed by Delillo the relationship between self and work is much stronger than traditional family values. The children that reside under the Gladney roof are all disconnected to their parents on one level, as they are products of broken marriages.  Babette is more emotionally connected to the children than Jack. Delillo shows Babette’s maternal response to her children – even if they are actually Jack’s children – as emotive. This can be observed in chapter five when Jack Gladney admits to Murray Siskund how Babette fell apart when his daughter broke a bone in her hand at camp. ‘She fell apart when Steffie called from camp with a broken bone in her hand. We had to drive all night. I found myself on the lumber company road. Babette weeping.’ [Jack]’Her daughter, far away, among strangers, in pain. Who wouldn’t?’ [Murray]’Not her daughter. My daughter.’ ‘Extraordinary. I have to love it.'(Delillo 1984:20) The fact that it was Jacks’ daughter and not Babette’s but she still ‘fell-apart’ shows either the intense caring her character has or perhaps a lack of strength when it comes to staying emotionally intact. Jack has an interesting, protective relationship with his son Heinrich, from his marriage to Janet Savory. Firstly, his son has an obvious German name unlike the rest of the children and secondly, Gladney is more worried about Heinrich as Gladney thinks that he may attract danger. (Heinrich plays long-distance chess with a prison inmate) Gladney says, ‘… I find I love him with an animal desperation, a need to take him under my coat and crush him to my chest, keep him there, protect him. He seems to bring a danger to him. It collects in the air…’ (Delillo 1984:25) Gladney’s protectiveness over Heinrich is unassuming but at the same time comforting to him. The unconventional family relationship extends further in chapter seven when Gladney looks for a pornographic magazine so he can read the erotic letters to his wife and Babette, he goes to ask his son for some who tells him to look downstairs. This provides a bizarre tension in the novel, although Jack expresses his affection for his son from a traditional protective perspective, he also looks at him as an adult. ‘I put on my bathroom robe and went down the hall to Heinrich’s room to find a trashy magazine Babette might read from… Wilder was in there watching Heinrich doing a physics experiment with steel balls and a salad bowl. Heinrich wore a terry cloth robe, a towel around his neck, another towel on his head. He told me to look downstairs.'(Delillo 1984: 30) Delillo’s is pushing the parent-child relationship to the extreme, a usually comfortable situation where parents and children do not easily (and freely) discuss anything related to intimacy is distorted. Neither Heinrich nor Jack express typical-feelings of embarrassment or awkwardness, only the readers are left befuddled by the situation. Jacks relationship’s with his children, in particular Heinrich, do not fit in with the typical American dream scenario, Delillo’s absurd take on Brady Bunch is unconventionally and uncomforting. Jack Gladney does not know that his wife takes pills, only Denise does and what they are. From this we can perceive that Delillo may be presenting an inversion of the normal parent-child relationship. This inverted relationship can be explored by focusing on two segments of the novel: first through the parents’ willingness to follow the children’s opinions or advice, and second, via the continual insistence of seeing the world in a ‘new’ way or angle which is from the perspective of a child. In chapter ten the conversation between Babette and Denise indicates the power of their relationship, it starts with Denise telling her mother that sugarless gum is potentially cancerous. The normal response to a child informing a mother what the correct thing to do would be that the child is reprimanded or dismissed yet Babette responds differently. She grumbles, ‘You wanted me to chew sugarless gum, Denise. It was your idea… I’m happy to do it either way… it’s totally up to you. Either I chew the gum with sugar and artificial colouring or I chew sugarless and colorless gum that is harmful…’ (Delillo 1984:42) Her tantrum-like response is almost child-like. The continue to squabble as followed: ‘I’m not a criminal,’ Babette said. ‘All I want to do is chew a pathetic little tasteless chunk of gum now and then.”Well it’s not that simple’ Denise said.’It’s not a crime either. I chew about two of those little chunks a day.”Well you can’t anymore.”Well I can, Denise. I want to. Chewing happens to relax me. You’re making a fuss over nothing…”… go ahead and chew. Never mind the warning, I don’t care.'(Delillo 1984:42-3) Denise and Babette are having a standard parent-child argument except Delillo has altered the parent-child relationship. In theory, it should be Babette who is knowledgeable and chastising Denise and not the other way around. The same situation occurs later in the text when the family discusses geography. (Delillo 1984: 80) The second matter which I will discuss is ‘new’ way of looking at the world presented in the novel by Delillo through the voice of Murray Siskund. In most cultures, there’s a sentimental and intellectual value attached to the elders in a community. In White Noise, a great emphasis is placed on looking at things from a child’s perspective. This point of view concentrates on an innocent, un-opinionated way (without embedded stereotypes and clichÃ©s) of looking at family, the media and themselves. Without preconceived notions, the world perhaps from Delillo’s postmodern standpoint, then has the ability to offer something more sacred. This is completely opposite to religious dogmas where the past is a vital connection and represents something sacred. In the novel, the media plays a large influence on how the characters react towards each other in society and the adults are far more affected by commercialization. Although later in the novel we do see Denise uttering words of consumer culture in her sleep, as if the invariable influence of consumer culture has finally entered her subconscious. Murray Siskund is aware of how damaging powerful media influences (such as television) can be and voices his opinion to Jack Gladney. He says: ‘TV is a problem only if you have forgotten how to look and listen… My students and I discuss this all the time. They’re beginning to feel they ought to turn against the medium, exactly as an earlier generation turned against their parents and their country. I tell them they have to learn to look as children again.’ (Delillo 1984:50) Television’s desensitizing effect on the characters in the story is conceivably one of the things that the postmodern family has to deal with in order to stay together, happily or not. The things that once made up the American dream family have been eroded and replaced with a new, defragmented family where each member is focused on himself or herself yet still protected (or escapes) inside the family unit. An interesting query that comes up is that if the Gladney family were without children, would Jack and Babette still be able to function so adequately. Delillo answers this with his summary of the family in chapter 17. He answers through the protagonist’s thinking: ‘The family is the cradle of the world’s misinformation. There must be something in family life that generates factual error. Over-closeness, the noise and heat of being. Perhaps something deeper, like the need to survive.’ (Delillo 1984:81) The Gladney family purely survives on the notion that they are a family unit that works. Although, as I have discussed above, each character is far more narcissistic then altruistic, the Gladneys function as the ideal, fragmented, postmodern family with different outcomes. I do not believe that Dellilo is necessarily looking at the decline of the family but rather White Noise is depicting a family focused on survival. The unit functions as an escape to overcoming challenges of the Postmodern world. Bibliography Weinstein, Arnold. 1993. Nobody’s Home. Speech, Self, and Place in American fiction from Hawthorne to Delillo. Oxford University Press: New York Ferarro, Thomas J. 1991. ‘Whole Families Shopping at Night!’ in New Essays on White Noise. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge Moses, Michael V. 1991 ‘Lust Removed from Nature’ in New Essays on White Noise. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge Delillo, Don. 1984. White Noise. Picador, Macmillan Publishers Ltd. Great Britain.
White as Death
White as Deathby, Aaron ChanDecember 10, 2004White as DeathDon DeLillo’s novel White Noise confronts the primal fear of death much in the way his own characters do– by nullifying or minimizing this otherwise terrifying human phenomenon. What is referred to as “white noise” in the novel is the barrage of modern life that blocks out most of what it takes to be human. The idea that a pill can remove such an instinctual emotion as the fear of death startles any reader. To remove this fear is to remove much of our own evolution. By not confronting the psychological necessity of fear of death, the characters are avoiding a large part of their own humanity. The author farther emphasizes such a loss of humanity by avoiding narration of first-hand death experiences. By trivializing the information surrounding death, DeLillo is able to make it distanced and less daunting. Here, dath is defanged even to the point of commercialization. DeLillo manages to commodify something as instinctual as the fear of death in order to criticize the direction in which the modern world is moving away from basic human instinct.The novel discusses death in terms of characters and plot by employing a variety of methods working on different levels of the psyche. Psychologically, discussing death as a contest as Jack and Babette do, takes away the edge from such an impending doom. If death becomes a contest, then triumph comes at the finishing line and not apprehension. In the same sense, writing as freely about death as DeLillo does, also removes the fear. As Winnie says, this fear is a necessity. People can only know life when faced with the alternative. If they live with no fear of death, they live with no motivation. The novel is also characterized by its avoidance of the subject of death as demonstrated in the various euphemisms for what is essentially a death cloud. Human nature thus creates a need to understand death to overcome it as represented by Denise’s Physician’s Desk Reference or to tame it as represented by Jack’s idea that good posture wards off mortality. Murray suggests strikingly that technology may hold the escape from death. Although technology is just a concealment of decaying bodies, it conversely prolongs life. In the modern world, death is just a change of the census; it has gradually lost some of its spiritual meaning as a result of being dissected and analyzed. As death has been something removed from common view, from the home to hospitals, people have become more and more estranged with fatality. Fear is a necessity, and as the SIMUVAC practice has removed this fear, people put themselves in danger by becoming too overconfident. Much of what it means to be human lies in dealing with the vast abyss that humans face each moment we grow closer and closer to eventual demise.Interestingly, in a novel with a central theme of coping with death, no death is actually directly witnessed. The incidences in which death is entirely possible do not directly address the victims’ last moments. The toxic spill, the asylum fire, and the plane crash landing are all events that could very possibly end in at least several deaths. Death mentioned is removed as though broadcasted through the nightly news. Each modern degree of removal puts us one step further from confronting a primal instinct. When Mr. Treadwell’s sister dies, it is marked by only a brief mention among a number of obituaries. For a novel that relates so much to death, it is strangely absent from the novel– especially at its end. Though the reader can almost predict a death to end the novel, even that is absent. Jack’s plot to actually kill Mink invokes some predictions about the eventual fatal outcome, yet even Jack’s murder attempt is unsuccessful despite his firm determination, another method for the author to avoid actually bringing death into action. DeLillo does not end the novel with anyone dying; it ends almost the same way it begins. In this sense, he implies that even killing is no escape from the modern world. He does not allow either the reader or the characters to experience death first-hand. Because of Winnie’s idea that the fear of death is what keeps humans motivated, Jack must remain perpetually in fear of death without encountering it directly. If he witnesses the harmlessness of death, the novel would lose its momentum as he regains his sense of identity without the cloud of catastrophe. By keeping death at arm’s length, DeLillo leaves it as a ghostly presence and not something wholly comprehendible. When the novel is not avoiding the issue of death, it nullifies it to the point of making it frivolous. Jack’s job trivializes Hitler, most commonly associated as a bringer of mass death. Despite his creation of an entire department devoted to Hitler studies and the worldwide movement of Hitler scholars, the book does not address Hitler’s most heinous crimes. In fact, DeLillo compares Hitler to Elvis. As Jack himself says, all plots move deathward; but if so, there is no way he can ignore such an event as the Holocaust. In fact, Jack reveals he is drawn to Hitler because Hitler is larger than life, larger than death. He continues to live on despite his death and it is this immortality that appeals to Jack. Additionally, the SIMUVAC disaster simulations also remove the danger of death. When the fake victims actually experience a real disaster, they are unfazed and unaffected. These simulations then become a type of Dylar, removing the fear from actual death and presenting it as a distanced event. By selling Dylar, Mink makes death a commodity, sellable and easily curable. Interestingly however, Dylar does not work; there is no easy escape from the fear of death. Similarly, the other professors from New York break down fatality into the mere quality of someone’s internist. And when Jack asks about the murderer who plays chess with Heinrich, he predictably asks about the nature of the sentence. However, his focus is on the trivial details of the shooting such as the murderer’s obsession with the weapon rather than the actual victims. Much like in his Hitler obsession, Jack does not confront the possibility of casualties, but only on the nature of celebrity. The superficiality of death remains critical as modernity has turned death into numbers.White Noise takes on death in very unconventional ways. Making it one of the central motifs draws attention to such a serious issue which has gone underappreciated in the modern era. Keeping death too far to realize its impact and yet not far enough to forget about makes it the most frightening. The novel asks whether or not people can see through the white noise that is today’s modern media and technology and have a glimpse of life’s unstoppable conclusion.
Don DeLillo’s White Noise: Modernity and the Nuclear Family
Patched together from different marriages, various mothers and fathers, the nuclear family in Don DeLillo’s White Noise is nothing if not impacted and constructed by modernity. This explication of a typical American lifestyle does not examine the simplicity of daily life but rather the influence of outside sensory impact that impinges itself upon the nuclear family. The “noise” that surrounds and engulfs the modern family separates it from larger, universal issues that become muddled with the continuing barrage of information and confusion. Life and death become nothing but commodities, pieces of information, tossed into the slew of images, sounds and movements involved in modern living. TV, radio, food products, toxic wastethey enshroud the family, separating it from universal understanding to protect it, and, paradoxically, destroy it. For Jack and his wife, fear of death is all that remains of survival. Modern life, the implications of technology, capitalism and progress, all separate the typical nuclear family from such philosophical, spiritual understandings as the meanings of life and death. The toxic cloud, spreading its poison over Iron City and vicinity, immediately affects the community and the nuclear family in such a way that technology overwhelms humanity. Heinrich realizes his fifteen minutes of fame in the Red Cross camp where he discusses the dire fate of Nyodene D. victims. His father asks, “Was he finding himself, learning how to determine his worth from the reactions of others? Was it possible that out of the turmoil and surge of this dreadful event he would learn to make his own way in the world?” (131). The cloud of noxious, deadly chemicals was a construct of mankind; the nuclear family is pushed and prodded by this cloud. Their very interactions, personal pursuits and attitudes are drastically altered by a modern, manmade mistake. Technology, as a modern institution, places a literal wall between members of the family by the arrival of this gaseous, daunting smog. Jack watches Heinrich in wonderment; his own son has completely transformed himself into the tour guide, the omnipotent master of Nyodene D. knowledge. The cloud has affected him to such a point that his own family cannot recognize him from the young boy who maintains a chess match with a convicted killer. Jack recognizes this change when he comments, “I didn’t want him to see me there. It would make him self-conscious, remind him of his former life as a gloomy and fugitive boy” (131).The gloomy and fugitive boy, if unimpressed by the overwhelming socio-technological event around him, would remain just as his father had initially perceived him to bea rather introverted, literal, argumentative and highly intelligent creature. With the volatile substance, however, the family was altered. The outside forces, created by man, are implicated in the destruction of man’s social network. The television, perhaps, is the most widely used tool in DeLillo’s commentary. The stunning scene of the family gathered around the set watching their wife and mother mouth instructions about posture is one of the most haunting scenes in the book. The volume is down and the image of this woman gesturing and moving her lips creates such a draw, like the human fascination with a car accident, that all pretences of family disappear. Technology and modernity have separated the family physicallythe face that remains on the set evokes the shock. “Confusion, fear, astonishment spilled from our faces,” Jack relates. “What did it mean? What was she doing there in black and white, framed by formal borders? Was she dead, missing, disembodied? Was this her spirit, her secret self, some two-dimensional facsimile released by the power of technology, set free to glide through the wavebands, through energy levels, pausing to say good-bye to us from the fluorescent screen?” (104). Because Babette is placed in this box of fluorescence and light, her family cannot understand who she is, where she is, or even if she is alive. The universal understanding of death after life is muddled here; Jack and his children see Babette, but they cannot conceive of her living “framed by formal borders.” Technology has inundated their lifestyle to the extent that Babette has overwhelmed the traditional family nucleus and burst out of her sphere into a technological world where boundaries are nonexistentlife is made up of “wavebands,” “energy levels” and essentially, white noise. Death has become inconceivable, the family does not maintain the spatial ability to see Babette in such a position, confined yet emancipated by technology.Technology’s emancipation, though flabbergasting the conception of the nuclear family in the situation of Babette on TV, also brings the family to new heights of modern experience. The continuing flow of information can adversely reform the nuclear family; however, modernity can also sugarcoat it. Commodification of family life becomes mainstream in DeLillo’s novel, offering the idea that modernity can both aid and destroy community. When Jack suddenly feels expansive, in that he wishes to shop til he drops, he recognizes the freedom and happiness that surrounds himself, his family and his community in the midst of the mall. “When I could not decide between two shirts, they encouraged me to buy both. When I said I said I was hungry, they fed me pretzels, beer, souvlakiThey were my guides to endless well-being. People swarmed through the boutiques and garment shopsWe smelled chocolate, popcorn, cologne; we smelled rugs and furs, hanging salamis and deathly vinyl. My family gloried in the event,. I was one of them, shopping, at lastI kept seeing myself unexpectedly in some reflecting surface” (83). The family, pulled together by the love of products, the hunt for commodities, displays its core nuclear essence during this shopping trip. However, the very fact that the shopping itself is bringing the family to a higher essence of being demonstrates that the modern nuclear family is simply a construct of the modern lifestyle that they succumb to. Over and over, Jack sees himself and his family reflected in the surfaces of TV monitors, glassware, chrome. Their well-being is commodified to such an extent, that happiness is constructed by the things that surround them. As Jack explains, “I filled myself out, found new aspects of myself, located a person I’d forgotten existed. Brightness settled around me” (84). The person he’d forgotten existed was only brought to life by the purchase of worldly goods. The “vivid and happy transaction[s]” now have a “human buzz” (84). Humanity has merged with technology to the point that human existence is nothing without the white noise that embodies it. Technology and capitalism go hand in hand, as Jack continues to find self-fulfillment from the modernity that surrounds him. The family remains intact as long as the requisite noises remain the same. The TV set continues its inane flicker, the radio chats interminably, the ATM always spews crisp bills to the beholder. As he says in the mall, “These sums poured off my skin like so much rain. These sums came back to me in the form of existential credit” (84). “Existential credit” demonstrates how the money is an investment in the mind, an investment towards the happiness of his nuclear family. They observe the bills slip from his hand, create instant gratification in a purchase, and retreat to the dull roar of contentment. His interactions with the ATM are of a euphoric state; he has such a faith in the electronic system that receiving money from its bowels is nothing less than an epiphany. “Waves of relief and gratitude flowed over me. The system had blessed my life. I felt its support and approvalI sensed that something of deep personal value, but not money, not that at all, had been authenticated and confirmedBut we were in accord, at least for now. The networks, the circuits, the streams, the harmonies” (46). His life, his family, is unaffected by money; rather, the entire network has created a universal harmony that overcomes the larger issues of life and death. Although Jack and Babette are both constantly threatened by impending doom, this moment of happiness at the ATM machine transcends such humanity and constructs a new reality of modernity. In the same way that Babette becomes addicted to talk radio, Jack finds “personal value” from a machine. They are both completely influenced and subverted by the power of technology, so much so, that it affects their understanding of death and transforms it into overwhelming fear.According to Murray, death parallels modern progress and technology. Death is inherently connected to everyone’s life, but it continues to grow in stature and prominence the more it is deconstructed. “We know it intimately. But it continues to grow, to acquire breadth and scope, new outlets, new passages and means. The more we learn, the more it grows” (150). Like technology, the more humans discover about death, the larger it becomes in their lives. Death overwhelms the psyches of Babette and Jack, frightens Steffie immensely during the “toxic event” and doesn’t even phase Heinrich as he considers the fate of his best friend in a cage of snakes. The family’s understanding of death has been distorted to such a degree by technology that the emotions surrounding the inevitability of death are distorted completely. The drug, Dylar, is perhaps the most obvious distortion of humanity by technology. The family itself is ostensibly skewed by Babette’s actions with “Mr. Gray.” She sleeps with the elusive project manager repeatedly if only to glean some drug-induced understanding into her fear of death. Willy, so overcome by his own discovery and downfall, stuffs handful after handful of Dylar into his mouth as Jack approaches him with the gun. The whole idea of death at this point is so ludicrous and awry that it becomes comical. Technology has so changed the family and the individual’s conception of death and life, that they only reality is an advanced polymer shell of a drug containing a state of the art concentration gradient. Jack feebly attempts to combat modernity’s affect on his understanding of death by striding around the house throwing out old bits of trash. He somehow sees a connection between the commodity and his contorted worldview; his children, meanwhile, follow him around in wonderment, just as affected by modernity as him. The continuous white noise of the radio and TV, the bright packaging of the products attacks their senses unremittingly; Jack somehow discovers the old coat hangers, dirty wash clothes, bent boxes and battered toys are contributing to his downfall. The family feels an inevitability, especially as the girls follow him around the house in a “respectful silence.” Referring to old possessions, Jack says, “They’d dragged me down, made escape impossible” (295). The image of Wilder riding his tricycle amidst traffic on the highway demonstrates the inordinate effect of modernity on the nuclear family. Though many scenes show how the family becomes happier with the addition of radio or ATMs, the climactic period of Jack’s violence elucidates the unnatural control of the constructed environment on the natural, nuclear family. Wilder survives the honking of horns and the swerving of cars without even tilting his head to acknowledge the salvo of technology and “progress” hitting him in the face. As he falls into the roadside ditch, however, he all of a sudden weepsdisplaying an emotional tendency that transcends the influence of technology. To him, the white noise is a way of life. It affects the adults in his microcosm to such an extent that they cannot bear the thought of death while continuing to be influenced daily by the influx of sound and image. The nuclear family is not disconnected from technology; nor is it always engulfed by it. The modern family constantly struggles to maintain the balance of both emotional understanding and commodity influence; DeLillo, thorough his explication of violence and fear may believe that modernity is winning the race for control of the nuclear family.
White Flight: The Graying of Suburbia in DeLillo’s White Noise
In addition to addressing the premonitory electricity of death, the title of Don DeLillo’s White Noise alludes to another, subtler, sort of white noise the muted death of suburban white identity. College-on-the-Hill is not only an elite academic promontory, but also a bastion for white flight in which Jack Gladney’s family has taken refuge. Instead of John Winthrop’s clear City-on-a-Hill morality, DeLillo presents us with J.A.K. Gladney’s muddled postmodern inheritance of J.F.K.’s civil rights legacy. Racial identity no longer demarcates a simple binary between whites and Native Americans, but complicates a nation in which all races stake a claim towards American nativity. Jack’s inability to classify the Other in obvious racial terms feeds back into his own identity crisis; unable to gauge what he is not, he is left without the tools necessary to understand what he is. This anxiety of faulty racial organization leaves Jack with America’s preeminent homegrown product, consumerism, as a cultural machete for cutting through swaths of identity. But consumerism, exemplified by the supermarket’s position as the novel’s locus of societal reflection, is a philosophy too scattered and massive to equip Jack with any ordered understanding of race. Furthermore, any insight consumerism might yield is negated by its production of a confusing strain of commercial colonialism. The most feasible “solution,” although the novel’s persistent chaos denies any clear answers, is for Jack to accept racial hybridization and regard the world not as white noise and black clouds, but as shades of gray. This diminishes his anxiety for a need to identify others and, consequently, himself, through race, by flattening the three-dimensional globe to a two-dimensional model for comprehension’s sake, yet allowing the hazy idea of heterogeneity to exist elsewhere in his mind. Paradoxically, Jack can only gain this knowledge by embracing his ignorance, a fitting complement to his obsession with death, the great unknown for which science, intellectualism, and religion all concede defeat in explaining or conquering.
The most obvious form of racial classification in the novel emerges when Jack confronts the visual hodgepodge of a new, multinational society:
What kind of name is Orest? I studied his features. He might have been Hispanic, Middle Eastern, Central Asian, a dark-skinned Eastern European, a light-skinned black. Did he have an accent? I wasn’t sure. Was he a Samoan, a native North American, a Sephardic Jew? It was getting hard to know what you couldn’t say to people. (208)
For Jack, the immediate importance lies within the cross-referencing of race, the permutational mixing-and-matching Jack performs on color and nationality which fosters his conversational anxiety. Several other keys to this anxiety lie within Orest Mercator’s name. Orest may take his first name from Orestes, the son of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, who avenged his father’s death by killing his mother and her lover. The Classical allusion repositions Orest as a mythological origin who blends both Greek myth and Biblical allusions (by returning to Eden and confronting the serpent) with his indeterminate lineage. The binary extends to the quasi-palindromic nature of his name, beginning and ending with “or.” This is different from an either/or system of a forced “option”; instead, Orest’s two “or”s imply a ceaseless search for an answer. That Orestes avenged his father’s death reminds us that Orest’s father is an unknown progenitor, hailing from seemingly every continent. By squaring off against a “slimy” (267), slippery, serpentine death, Orest tries to slay his indeterminacy, an equation DeLillo writes throughout White Noise. Considering that “Orest” could hint at either the French “L’ouest” for West, or at an English-French blend of “Or-Est” (Or-East, negating Manifest Destiny’s movement West in other words, describing the flow of immigration and not of colonialism), then language remains the only definite father of Orest while simultaneously shrouding exact etymology behind layers of allusions and variables.
Indeed, the language barrier and the breakdown of any linguistic barriers and unintentional creation of a fluid and fluent Esperanto is what incites Jack’s need for maternal protection at the supermarket check-out line or, more directly, his urgency in protecting the white womb from heterogeneous insemination:
Not everyone spoke English at the cash terminals, or near the fruit bins and frozen foods, or out among the cars in the lot. More and more I heard languages I could not identify much less understand, although the tall boys were American-born and the checkout women as well?I tried to fit my hands into Babette’s skirt, over her belly? (40)
As if the unintelligibility of other languages weren’t bad enough, Jack even finds difficulty in learning the Germanic tongue, supposedly his area of expertise, and roots out contradictions and conflicts in his native English. Before they reach the checkout line, Jack murmurs “‘Dirty blond’” (40), a reference to his previous statement that Babette’s hair is “a particularly tawny hue that used to be called dirty blond” (5). He gives no reason for why this is no longer an acceptable term, but the fact that the adjective “blond” generally denotes a hair color while “blonde” is a noun loaded with gendered implications may have something to do with his censorship. Textually, “dirty blond” is appropriate, but orally it may be confused with the misogynist “dirty blonde.” As the founder of Hitler studies, Jack would be well aware of the additional quarrel this poses for Hitler’s vision of a flawless master race; for Hitler, there is no such thing as a dirty blond(e) person, while for Jack it is a signifier of the ways the changing world can alter language’s relationship to visual identity.
Exercising restraint, Jack is careful to qualify his observation that his German tutor’s “complexion was of a tone I want to call flesh-colored” (32). Jack’s sentence is of a tone I want to call politically correct, although this is not the true reason for his delicacy. Rather, he acknowledges the havoc the new world has wrought on the phrase “flesh-colored,” rendering it obsolete not through newfound sensitivity but gross inaccuracy. When even Bee, Jack’s own daughter, is portrayed as a racial composite of a “small face smooth and white in a mass of kinky hair” (92), DeLillo reminds us that even for those whose racial identity is clearly known, the visual remains blurry. This is why the most sacred of suburban rituals come under fire in White Noise. After Jack tries to play the stilted role of an accommodating husband, Babette corrects his clinical usage of the word “partner”: “‘I’m your partner when we play tennis, which we ought to start doing again, by the way. Otherwise, I’m your wife’” (28). That she recommends they resume playing tennis, the clichéd institution of suburban sport, the married couple playing in their club-friendly whites, underscores their sterile sex life in lieu of intercourse, they pore over old family albums, a return to a past that temporarily wards off the approach of death. Jack’s castration through suburban ritual advances when he comes home one day in the transition between the traditional climax of one paternal routine (working as the family’s breadwinner) and inception of another (Normal Rockwell’s daddy comes home to his evening paper, slippers, and martini): “When I got home, Bob Pardee was in the kitchen practicing his golf swing. Bob is Denise’s father. He said he was driving through town on his way to Glassboro to make a presentation and thought he’d take us all to dinner” (56). Bob has usurped all of Jack’s patriarchal duties his secret job for the government is paying to treat the family for a night out in one fell swoop of his suburbanized golf swing. Jack no longer has these stock suburban traits to fill out his identity, and with their effacement comes the novel’s treatment of the dissolution of suburbia.
DeLillo, presaging his ideas in Underworld, refines his take on the crowds as a case of safety-in-numbers: “To become a crowd is to keep out death. To break off from the crowd is to risk death as an individual, to face dying alone” (73). This is a reasonable account for white flight from the city to the suburb, the repulsion from heterogeneity and attraction to a homogenized subculture. However, the new heterogeneous makeup of the town compromises this safety; the town’s name, Blacksmith, implies both a utilitarian staple of white rural life and an anonymous black man, a black Mr. Smith. In the nearby countryside, a pastoral heaven of “[W]hite fences” and “trailing fields” (12) welcomes tourists to the most photographed barn in America this is the next logical step for the threatened suburbanites, a sub-suburbia sullied only by the reassuring invisible hand of capitalism and not the visible admixture of integration. This integration is most visible in the black cloud of Nyodene D which, if we read as a visual metaphor for minority immigration spurring a mass white exodus, finds its personification in the black family of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Their family unit is a cohesive core of propaganda: “Father and son were handing out tracts to people nearby and seemed to have no trouble finding willing recipients and listeners” (132). This, then, is the new face of suburbia; not a white father and son playing catch in the backyard, but their black counterparts distributing philosophy to the white masses. It makes sense that the whites are “willing” in the midst of death, they recognize the death of old suburbia and the need to belong to yet another group. Murray connects deathly urban anonymity and the palliating identity of suburban death with consumerism: “In a town there are houses, plants in bay windows. People notice dying better. The dead have faces, automobiles. If you don’t know a name, you know a street name, a dog’s name. ‘He drove an orange Mazda’” (38).
The equation of the face with the automobile is just one of DeLillo’s many plays with American consumerism as a signifier of identity. The helpless Treadwells are found “alive but shaken in an abandoned cookie shack at the Mid-Village Mall” (59). The suburban mall outing is inverted as newspaper-driven tragedy; the cookies descend from luxury to sustenance, the shack becomes an actual domicile. Jack redefines his personality at the same mall, relishing its glossy veneer: “I filled myself out, found new aspects of myself, located a person I’d forgotten existed. Brightness settled around me” (84). The blanket of blinding whiteness, the consumer cloud, is both cause of and cure for Jack’s forgotten self, just as the alliterative rhythmic play of objects beginning with “b” and “s” in the opening catalogue of station wagon apparel amplifies and drowns out the importance of each individual component (3). DeLillo takes this to parodic extremes when a mountaintop Jack recites a list of chewing gums: “I watch light climb into the rounded summits of high-altitude clouds. Clorets, Velamints, Freedent” (229).
This form of consumerism, though innocuous, hints at its inherent colonialism (here, a Wrigley line-up reconfigured as a Zen mantra). Expanding his empire’s reach is the white man’s way of resisting integration in his own country (or city or town). Babette deflects a question about Dylar to a discussion of “the black girl who’s staying with the Stovers” (80), which leads to a conversation about the “country” Dakar, and then turns into a culturally ignorant discussion of Africa and Asia informed by Hollywood product. The conversation prompts an even more ignorant question:
“If she’s an African,” Steffie said, “I wonder if she ever rode a camel.”
“Try an Audi Turbo.”
“Try a Toyota Supra.” (81)
The gross stereotyping of the unfamiliar leads to the very familiar land of automobiles (themselves imported products) as the discrete sections of the conversation geography, a movie, waves, a play, an animal, cars form a continuous link only through the encompassing scope of cultural colonialism. Colonialism provides all the rewards of a country’s product without any of the dirty work; Murray lavishes praise on the supermarket’s eclectic tastes of the globe: “‘Exotics fruits, rare cheeses. Products from twenty countries. It’s like being at some crossroads of the ancient world, a Persian bazaar or boom town on the Tigris’” (169).
DeLillo deepens the novel’s view of colonialism beyond a simple critique of corrupt American values. Colonial history seeps into every crack of American life, especially those based on survival and information, the foundations of America’s red-blooded Protestant values and blue-chipped computer-age success. The town’s evacuation mimics the bi-directional sweep of empire:
The voice on the radio said that people in the west end of town were to head for the abandoned Boy Scout camp, where Red Cross volunteers would dispense juice and coffee. People from the east end were to take the parkway to the fourth service area, where they would proceed to a restaurant called the Kung Fu Palace, a multiwing building with pagodas, lily ponds and live deer. (119)
The western advance towards America and its cultural signifiers (Boy Scouts, Red Cross, refreshments) opposes the exotic retreat to the restaurant and demonstrates the natural tendency of different peoples to separate themselves by geography and, subsequently, culture. This fractured quality of colonialism is at the heart of Jack’s confused relationship with the world:
Our newspaper is delivered by a middle-aged Iranian driving a Nissan Sentra. Something about the car makes me uneasy the car waiting with its headlights on, at dawn, as the man places the newspaper on the front steps. I tell myself I have reached an age, an age of unreliable menace. (184)
The menace has something to do with the electronic surveillance by the car’s inanimate eyes, but it also has to do with the jumbled delivery of the newspaper, handed over by an Iranian who drives a Japanese car. The newspaper serves information on an escalating scale of local, national, and international news, but the Iranian’s presence reminds us that the local is already international and that borders are increasingly porous. The border-less world incites Jack’s central fear, prompted by Willie Mink (a.k.a. or, perhaps, J.A.K.[A]. Mr. Gray): “‘Why are you here, white man?’” While his question suggests a revision of the white man’s attempt at spiritual purchase from a Native American (in this case, buying Dylar), the question smacks less of spirituality than of spatiality, of the indeterminacy of spatiality, of the meaninglessness of spatiality.
If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. Babette tries to protect Jack from the truth of her Dylar exchange by drawing Mink as the composite figure Mr. Gray, from Gray Research. The dilution of identity follows through when Jack meets Mink and spews out a list of internal questions that echoes the passage on Orest quoted at the beginning of this paper: “His nose was flat, his skin the color of a Planter’s peanut. What is the geography of a spoon-shaped face? Was he Melanesian, Polynesian, Indonesian, Nepalese, Surinamese, Dutch-Chinese? Was he a composite?” (307) As with Orest, Jack must take this entity and blur Mink’s three-dimensionality until he is completely indistinct and no longer a threatening figure, even in the pose of a sexual predator: “I thought of Mr. Gray and his pendulous member. The image was hazy, unfinished. The man was literally gray, giving off a visual buzz” (214). The haziness tortures and calms Jack, defying his visual comprehension (he soon after runs “upstairs to find my glasses” ) but applying the “sheer relief” (213) of a nebulous simulacrum standing in for reality. The heterogeneity cannot be completely compacted but, as with the Mercator map from which Orest takes his surname, it can be tamed and made appreciable for white eyes. The melting pot of America produces a gray stew of definite flavor whose ingredients are ultimately unknown, and Orest’s and Mink’s races remain ones of specificity and generality. This paradox, which makes Jack wonder “what you couldn’t say to people,” finds an account for its terror in Melville’s rumination on the White Whale’s color in Moby Dick: “?in essence whiteness is not so much a color as the visible absence of color, and at the same time the concrete of all colors?a colorless, all-color of atheism from which we shrink” (Moby Dick, 282). One-hundred-and-thirty-four years after Melville, the spectacle is not absolute whiteness, but the repressed chiaroscuro of white on black (as with the nuns), used copiously in the book’s design (diagonally-split section divisions of white and black) and, of course, in the actual text of black ink on white pages. This may be a book which can be judged by its cover; “White” is printed in black lettering on the top white half background, while the bottom black half has the word “Noise” superimposed not in white, but gray. That Penguin is the publisher of White Noise can be chalked up to mere coincidence, or because in the gray haze of postmodern criticism, where everything is a shade to be filled in, the critic shares the same philosophy with Jack: “In the commonplace I find unexpected themes and intensities” (184).
Follow the Signs: Technology’s Effect on Society
Don DeLillo’s modern classic, White Noise, examines a so-called normal family in 1980s America to demonstrate the pervasive nature of technology in contemporary society. Technology and media have become a staple in the everyday life of the average American, and its prevalence in peoples’ lives continues to grow the more advanced it becomes. In his novel, DeLillo indicates the way in which modern technology is interlaced into his characters’ lives as a reflection on similar habits within the lives of his readers, including how technology has become an unavoidable and, at times, unintentionally used influence on society. He wrote his novel as a warning about the dangers of such a reliance on technology, for he mourns for a time when people were not so controlled by it, and he sees technology as a true menace to society.
DeLillo employs his protagonist to demonstrate the danger of seeking identity and reassurance through technological means. Jack is a rather insecure character and is unsure of his identity. Rather than simply going by his name in his professional career, he goes by a series of initials, J. A. K., which causes him to feel like a “false character that follows the name around” (17). So, when he goes to the bank one morning and sees a monetary amount accompanying his name and personal information he feels “support and approval” from the machine. Through this transaction with the ATM, Jack felt as though his identity “had been authenticated and confirmed”. Furthermore, the machine confirmed Jack’s estimate about the amount of money in his account, which fills him with “relief and gratitude”, as well as a sense of accomplishment, as the number on the screen is seen by jack as a direct result of his hard work at the University. In that way, the ATM interaction “blessed [Jack’] life” (46).
Though this novel was written long before the emergence of smart phones, worldwide internet access and social media, DeLillo knew even then the potential dangers of such institutions. Finding one’s identity through technological means is not an uncommon feature in current culture, as many people feel defined by technology in one way or another. Most often nowadays, people feel defined by their social media and other online accounts. Some people feel their worth is weighed on the number of followers on their Instagram accounts, just as Jack felt his identity was solidified by the numbers on the ATM machine. DeLillo foresaw such a future, which is why this novel was penned in part to warn about technology’s dangers, for though Jack is comforted by the ATM “at least for now” (46), the author hints that this symbiotic relationship between man and machine may be short lived, for Jack and for the readers, and could lead to disastrous results.
Heinrich, Jack’s son, showcases how such involvement with technology can taint one’s mind. Heinrich has incorporated technology and modern media into his life far more so than his father, but he is reliant on media to a fault, so much so that when he hears the radio report rain scheduled for that evening, he refuses to accept that it is raining earlier than when the radio had previously reported. Jack pushes his son on this, arguing that he can ‘“see it’s raining’” (24). Heinrich, however, refuses to admit that it is raining and he launches into an account of epistemology, describing how it is impossible to know whether or not it is truly raining, despite what his senses may lead him to believe. Although he witnessed the rain, Heinrich continues to deny its existence, though he had no problem proclaiming that it would undoubtedly rain that evening, because this is what he learned through the media. With this scene, DeLillo highlights how media consumption, facilitated through technology, can warp people’s grip on reality. It is the tendency of humans to believe what they hear on the radio, see on television, and read online without question, and accept it as the honest truth- as Heinrich does with the weather forecast. This is a dangerous habit, for one can be easily convinced of a lie if he blindly believes what he learns from the media. This begs the question, if it does not rain that evening, will Heinrich still believe it does, because that is what the radio told him would happen? This is root of the problem when technology is so deeply assimilated with culture, the inability to know anything for oneself, but rather, to trust only what is learned from technology.
In addition to the mental distortions of technology within Heinrich, his very existence proves a physical pitfall of technology. This is discussed when Jack muses about the premature receding of his young son’s hairline. Jack wonders if he unknowingly raised his son “in the vicinity of a chemical dump site, in the path of air currents that carry industrial wastes capable of producing scalp degeneration” (22). Jack considers the possibility that a toxic environment, resulting from technological advances in fields such as energy production or nuclear weaponry, is the cause of his son’s hairline aging before its time. This thought embodies a great problem in the advancing of technology, that so much of it operates outside the control of men. The more this industry grows, the more people will be unable to control how it grows and things will spiral in a dangerous direction which could result in catastrophic consequences for mankind.
The novel’s title, White Noise, is a hint at how integrated technology and the media is in everyday life- its “noise” permeates through everyday life and provides the soundtrack to modern life. Through Jack’s narration, the readers see just how much DeLillo believes technology intrudes on people’s lives. One afternoon while the Gladney family was eating lunch together, their smoke alarm began to sound on the second floor. Jack assumes the device was beeping either because “the battery had just died or because the house was on fire” (8). The family was unperturbed at the possibility of the latter and they finished their lunch without interruption. Jack’s two possible explanations for the smoke alarm testify to the author’s opinion on technology- either he sees it as something unimportant, like a dead battery, or as a great danger, like in the instance of a house fire. DeLillo has no capacity for positive thoughts when it comes to technology- this is due to the fact that he sees technology’s presence as plaguing the modern world. Technology’s music is omnipresent in the lives of the Gladney family throughout the novel. One night, when Jack and his wife were in bed, “someone turned on the TV set at the end of the hall” and Jack unintentionally absorbed the television’s content (29). This is dangerous because it exposes the imposing nature of technology and media and how it impacts people even when they do not actively participate. Instances wherein the characters experience the “white noise” of technology in the background of their daily lives occur throughout the novel. DeLillo uses these details to illustrate that, even when one does not directly use technology, its influence is unavoidable in such an advanced society- and it has since become even more of an issue, as it is near impossible to escape from all forms of technology and the media’s clout.
In White Noise, author Don DeLillo examines the way technology has shaped contemporary society and the significant effect it has had on the way people in a society communicate and connect with one another, as well as the harmful yet common habit of using technology to shape their own identity as well as their perception of others. Such a dependence on technology- for standard operations of everyday life, seeking identity, and communication- is the hamartia of modern society and, in DeLillo’s opinion, fails to contribute anything but turmoil, and therefore should not be such a vital aspect of daily life.