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.
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 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.
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.
Originality and the Literary ‘Readymade’ in Don DeLillo’s White Noise
‘Toyota Celica / A long moment passed before I realized this was the name of an automobile…The utterance was beautiful and mysterious, gold-shot with looming wonder. It was like the name of an ancient power in the sky.’
The twentieth century was characterized by a shift in aesthetics in which craft is largely replaced by concept. The advances of Futurism, Surrealism, and Dada had all distanced an appreciation of art from the Platonic understanding that has dominated so large a span of Western culture. Plato’s hierarchy of the Forms, in which the beautiful indicates the good has largely given way to the utilization of the prosaic, allowing for artistic significance within the crude and the manufactured. The connotations of liturgy attached to DeLillo’s ‘Toyota Celica’ utterance communicate this shift. His juxtaposition is explicit, endowing the branded and the mass-produced with near religious significance. As Fredric Jameson points out, this correlation between the sublime and the bathetic, between ‘high culture’ and ‘mass or commercial’ culture has dominated the expansion of post-modernism. However, what makes De Lillo’s passage so intriguing is not the suggestion that the ‘low’ can serve as the subject of art, but that it can take on its own aesthetic status and merit. Central to this understanding is the notion of the re-invention of prior models. DeLillo’s novel is characterized by its montage of previously created material provoking a questioning of originality and indicating that the art of re-arranging may hold as clear an aesthetic potential as original creation.
In The Precision of Simulacra Jean Baudrillard sets out a view of American culture based on this notion of re-modeling of prior material. His outlook is critical and indicates a lack of originality in Twentieth Century culture. For Baudrillard, Disneyland forms a paradigm of post-modern culture with its assemblage of media products and disjointed phantasms and indicates a kind of crass recycling as ‘the first great toxic waste product of our time.’ This notion of cultural refuse correlates with the ‘senses of the end of this or that’that Jameson places as defining features of post-modernism. The ‘end of art,’ the ‘end of ideology’ (Jameson p1) and the dissolving of social class all add to the sense of cultural exhaustion and deadlocked creativity.
DeLillo’s White Noise is characterized by such ‘recycled’ material. The novel reaches its climax as his protagonist Jack Gladney succumbs to his own obsessive fear of death and ironically attempts to murder the man who has coerced Jack’s wife into sleeping with him. In terms of narrative, DeLillo’s plot appears weak. References to mental instability pervade the novel as DeLillo clearly reveals his character’s fascination with the town’s ‘insane asylum’ (p4) through his frequent allusions to its ‘ornamented’ architectural style. DeLillo’s narrative signifiers are clear; his protagonist is an intellectually unfulfilled, over-weight university professor with an incurable fear of death and toxic ‘Nyodene D’(p173) in his bloodstream. That he should fall prey to mental disintegration appears natural to the reader.
The consistency of DeLillo’s narrative pattern is compounded when Jack’s Father-in-law provides his with a gun. The marked purpose with which he is handed the ‘small dark object’(p290) clearly signifies the path that the narrative will take with a lucidity akin to dramatic foreshadowing. However, DeLillo is aware of the predictability of his plot. In following this exchange with the rhetorical ‘Was he Death’s dark messenger after all?’(p291) he constructs a conscious cliché. The ‘messenger’ of a personified ‘Death’ is a trope that pervades so expansive a range of story that it has become a narrative stereotype. In including it in his text, DeLillo both assumes his readers’ exposure to this tradition and indicates a key element in comprehending his novel; namely that and is driven by recognizable stereotypes. Strikingly, the fundamental stages of the narrative progression display the same linguistic signifiers of genre that make up so many popular thrillers and cheap-reads as Jack is driven to mental instability and attempted murder by the factors that surround him. The novel then, is a parody; it relies on former models for its creation. This is striking in that the linguistic signifiers of the narrative depend on the reader’s awareness of prior models of plot; in keeping with the conventions of Baudrillard’s post-modernist culture, DeLillo has constructed his own form of literary ‘recycling’.
Jameson’s The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism defines ‘Post-modernism’ as a ‘cultural dominant’; a conception that allows for the recognition of its presence within the expanse of culture rather than confining it to a unified style or historical period. In this view, post-modernism is as present within marketing and production as it is within literature and art. The models from which DeLillo draws his novel are based on this commercial expanse. His imagery revolves around materialism and is brought into fluorescent clarity by its road-side motels and gaudy advertising. In the novels climactic scene, DeLillo’s language is cinematic, switching between the present moment and the imaginings of his protagonist with the ease of edited film. The passage is artificially illuminated by a television screen, constructing an image in which the objects in the room ‘began to glow….’(p355) and take on new shape. Here DeLillo’s nouns both present a clear visual tableau and allow for Jack’s imagination to take visual form. The ‘rumpled bed’ is imbued with new significance as he is led to dwell on his wife’s affair; ‘Did she wheel him around the room as he sat on the bed popping pills?…Did they make the bed spin with their lovemaking, a froth of pillows and sheets above the small wheels on swivels.’ (p355) The image created by DeLillo’s verbs is one of burlesque amplification. Watched over by ‘The T.V. floating in the air in its metal brace’ (p351) with the grimy shower just out of shot, the scene has all the defining signifiers of a ‘Grade B’ American movie or pornographic film.
What is striking here is that, as with his narrative structure, DeLillo is not simply initiating a form of ‘recycling’ but has absorbed the ‘toxic waste’ of consumer culture into the novel’s form. Thus, a strange situation is created in which the signs that typically point to what Jameson defines as ‘mass or commercial culture’ (Jameson p2) become integral to the creation of ‘high culture’ as the crude and pornographic are absorbed into the canon of contemporary literature.
DeLillo’s choice of model is significant in that it allows the bathetic artistic significance. Here, it seems coherent to draw our focus back to the seeds of post-modernism within the questioning of artistic subject provoked by the works of the American Dadaists. The vulgarity of DeLillo’s motel scene denotes a similar re-invention of subject as Marcel Duchamp’s infamous ‘ready-made’ Le Fountain. DeLillo’s parody of form, his utilization of cheap motifs and the filmic quality of his narrative all add to the idea of a re-using of previously crafted material. Strikingly, in their Dictionnaire abrégé du Surréalisme, Andre Breton and Paul Eluard define the ‘readymade’ as “an ordinary object elevated to the dignity of a work of art by the mere choice of an artist.” This definition is intriguing in a number of ways. Firstly it allows for the artistic recognition of the ‘ordinary’ made evident by Duchamp. Yet, it also serves to further sever the gap between artist and artisan. If, as Breton and Eluard suggest, an object is given the status of ‘art’ at the wish of the artist, the artist is re-defined as a conceptual creator rather than as a craftsman. Thus, artistic merit becomes defined by ideology and concept rather than by skill. In utilizing models of popular culture and media production, DeLillo is drawing on the previously created or the ‘readymade.’ Paradoxically then, the predictability of his narrative construction serves to further the novel’s merit as it poses a comment on the functioning of literature as a whole.
The concept of the readymade stimulates a questioning of the source of art and of the merit of individual inspiration. Unlike the notion of an animating ‘breath’ favoured by the Romantics, the readymade requires a re-constructing of material and not an individual force. This sense of metalepsis or combined allusion to prior models is embodied in DeLillo’s setting. Jameson suggests the ‘modifications in aesthetic production are most dramatically visible’ within its architecture. In the opening chapter of White Noise, DeLillo’s imagery conforms to this interpretation as its range of nouns create a post-modern collective rather than a particular genre or style. We are told how ‘There are houses in the town with turrets and two story porches where people sit under the shade of ancient maples. There are Greek revival and Gothic churches.’ (p4) DeLillo’s combination appears disjointed; an assemblage of styles removed from their original contexts. Not only does the narrative style of the novel display a form of literary ‘recycling,’ its subject is formed from an array of re-shaped models. It is characteristic that the ‘insane asylum’ should represent the clearest conglomeration with ‘…an elongated portico, ornamental dormers and a steeply pitched roof topped by a pineapple finial.’ (p4) DeLillo’s irony is clear. The architecture of the building not only foreshadows the psychological confusion of his protagonist, it corresponds to the larger-scale madness of a culture based on disconnected and perhaps exhausted models.
However, it is unfair to suggest that the novel is defined by a lack of creativity. The very notion of re-invention denotes a level of innovation, indicating transformation as opposed to re-use. Thus, we are brought onto issues of originality and creative autonomy. It is a question that has become increasingly prominent in attitudes towards education and university study over the past half century. In their exploration of plagiarism within academic writing Johndan Johnson-Eilola and Stuart Selber set out a defence of plagiarism as a natural mode of expression within the ‘remix culture’ of post-modernism in which the academic assemblage of borrowed material becomes a ‘valid form of student writing.’ Here, Johnson-Eilola and Selber present re-using as a transformative practice. DeLillo’s protagonist is a university professor whose academic focus is driven by the struggle to reinvent ‘Hitler’ as an appropriate subject for study. DeLillo introduces Jack with his assertion that ‘I invented Hitler studies in North America’(p4) At the heart of this is the notion of transformation. However, here there is metamorphosis in both meaning and form as the figure of Hitler is removed from historical context and thrust into the role of celebrity.
DeLillo solidifies this shift with his surreal comparison between the figures of Elivis and Hitler within a university lecture. Here, dialogue is essential in forming a correlation between the two as Jack’s conjectures on Hitler punctuate the biography of Elvis. Thus, ‘Elvis fell apart with grief when Gladys died’ is rapidly succeeded by Jack’s colloquial statement, ‘There’s not much doubt that Hitler was what we’d call a mama’s boy.’(p84) The theatricality and strange sentimentality of DeLillo’s language shifts the passage into the camp. The result is unnerving as the figures are linked by celebrity status and eclipsed from their actions. It is notable that for Johnson-Eilola and Selber, a key factor holding ‘plagiarism’ back from due appreciation is ‘The ghost of the authentic, creative genius’; the ‘divine force’ of inspiration, suggested by Plato that is now outdated. Yet, the effect of this attitude must be taken into consideration. DeLillo’s tone is cynical indicating the irony of a situation so eclipsed from its context. Like the disjointed mix of architectural styles that make up the novel’s setting, here, the re-invention of a past figure has lost its meaning.
This separation between figure and meaning brings us back to Baudrillard. He draws a distinction between ‘representation’ and ‘simulation.’ Whilst representation communicates ‘the real’ through an interchange between signifier and signified, simulation functions as a cycle of ‘hyper-reality’ in which the unreal is exchanged for itself as ‘an uninterrupted circuit without reference or circumference. Thus, recalling the correlation between Hitler and Elvis constructed by DeLillo, Baudrillard demonstrates the ‘depthless’ nature of figures caught up in the motions of simulation. DeLillo’s ironic narrative warns against this meaningless surface and Duchamp was careful to produce a limited number of ‘readymades’ for this very reason. For if, as Breton and Eluard suggest, a transformation can be made ‘by the mere choice of an artist,’ there is risk of propelling all objects into a form of meaningless ‘art,’ leaving us with the ‘toxic waste’ that Baudrillard warns against.
This Is Your Brain on Technology: Don DeLillo’s White Noise
In DeLillo’s White Noise the new-found abundance of technology enters into human lives to create constant distractions and background noises. The protagonist, Jack, often refers to the television as the ‘voice’ from the other room. In the supermarket, the loudspeaker drowns out conversations between shoppers. Technology is seen as a presence and a character that interrupts human life and conversation in the novel, and with the average American family watching 6.12 hours of television daily (Rue), the television in turn disrupts a majority of actual American family lives. When the television set becomes an inanimate, extra family member, its purpose ends up being to capitalize on people’s suffering and to draw family members away from each other.
In today’s fast-paced culture, there are several distractions that cause distance between family members, and people in general. Especially in a capitalist culture, most people are driven to have the highest education, the most successful career, and the most luxurious goods. With motivations such as these, traditional values such as marriage and family get somewhat swept under the rug, and stress is abundant in everyone‘s life. When another distraction comes into the family, the television set, even its youngest members are highly affected. Though it is impossible to judge how affected children are by television watching, the fact that they are affected is indisputable. In an article about the role a television plays in a child’s life, Richard Fabes argues that the television falls short of what it could achieve: “The potential of television to shape viewers’ conceptualizations of family life is also quite strong given the number of television programs that portray families and their interactions” (2). Wholesome television programs do have the ability to impact viewers; unfortunately, these family sitcoms are not what influence people the most, and they are certainly not what most people remember from watching television.
Anyone who has sat down to watch a local news station can affirm the fact that violence, tragedy, and crime capture an audience’s attention. No matter how gruesome the footage, DeLillo confirms that “It’s more or less universal, to be fascinated by television disasters[…] If a thing happens on television we have every right to find it fascinating, whatever it is” (DeLillo 66). No matter how morbid, tragic, or gory a subject matter is, as long as it is on television, it is fair game for any one to be entertained by it. In Amusing Ourselves to Death, a work that describes the media’s effect on American society, Neil Postman describes America as “A culture whose information, ideas, and epistemology are given form by television, not by the printed word” (29). Television is accessible, it informs its audience much quicker than reading the same information could, and it captures a viewer’s attention. Unfortunately, the television is not known for being an educational device as much as it is known for consistent images that are violent, sexual, and gory.
Both Postman and DeLillo agree that the overwhelming number of negative images has an effect on viewers. Postman admits that the normal theory behind the television is that its purpose is to captivate, “Entertainment is the supra-ideology of all discourse on television. No matter what is depicted or from what point of view, the overarching presumption is that it is there for our amusement and pleasure” (87). With most news programs covering negative events daily, it is no wonder that people look to the atrocities in their own communities for entertainment. In general, television viewers not only become desensitized to the horrors portrayed on the TV: they also expect such things to happen in their own communities. As Jack Gladney states about foreign countries, “They have tremendous potential with their famines, monsoons, religious strife, train wrecks, boat sinkings, et cetera” (DeLillo 66). This American family man cannot even fathom why other countries do not broadcast their tragedies as entertainment to their masses, because he is so used to disasters being shown as entertainment. If what Postman says is true, that “Television is our culture’s principle mode of knowing about itself” (92) and that television constantly faces criticism for airing horrible violence, then perhaps American culture is to blame, not the television. Either way, the more heinous the footage, the more viewers will be drawn to it. Most people have heard the saying, “sex sells,” but violence, gore, and tragedy attract a viewing, paying audience as well.
Of course, to those who experienced a tragedy, suffocating, invasive attention from the media is not what they desire. Yet at the same time, the news coverage proves that the victim’s disaster is worth knowing about. After the toxic airborne event in White Noise, a man walks around, carrying a television, unable to understand why terrifying experience seems unworthy of airtime:
Shouldn’t the streets be crawling with cameramen and soundmen and reporters? Shouldn’t we be yelling out the window ‘ Leave us alone, we’ve been through enough, get out of here with your vile instruments of intrusion.’ Do they have to have two hundred dead, rare disaster footage, before they come flocking to a given site…Even if there hasn’t been a great loss of life, don’t we deserve some attention for our suffering, our human worry, our terror? Isn’t fear news?
Even though this man knows that the reporters would be intruding and capitalizing on their pain, he feels like his distress is not recognized by others. Though there had not been a high death rate from this incident, he and many others at the shelter felt like they had suffered a lot with the confusion of leaving their homes and the uncertainty they face. Without the news reporters there covering their pain, however, the people in the shelter felt like their feelings were not justifiable, which made them even more afraid and angry than the tragedy in itself did. In an essay on White Noise, Duvall addresses the lack of coverage on the toxic event: “The awe and terror of this man-made disaster can only be validated through electronic media” (Duvall 436). The people going through this did not necessarily want answers, they wanted attention for the displacement they were enduring.
As the man with the TV in White Noise pointed out, news reporters will ‘flock to a site’ competing with one another to have the best coverage. News programs are ruthlessly money hungry, and their insensitivity towards victims furthers the postmodern idea that capitalism devalues individuals. In America’s culture especially, the basis of the economy and everyday life is capitalism, and this holds true for how television programs are run as well. As Duvall blatantly puts it, “Network and cable news programs, competing for a market, operate under capitalism’s demand to make it newer, thus turning ‘news’ into another genre of entertainment” (437). By gaining viewers’ attention through having the most attractive anchor, the catchiest jingle, and the most convenient air time, news programs are bulking up the money in their pockets, occasionally at the expense of their viewers. Yet, Duvall shows how a television station may not be fully to blame: “As disaster becomes aestheticized, another boundary blurs, that between television news’ representation of violence and violence in film, creating a homogenous imagistic space available for consumption” (437). Without American consumerism, the news programs would not be making a profit. Though so many people exhaustively blame television (among other things) as the reason for the deterioration of our culture, they fail to recognize that they are partially to blame for this conspiracy.
The love/hate relationship the characters in White Noise feel for the television is partially due to their practically including the idiot box as a family member. As Duvall says, “Throughout the novel, the voice of the television intrudes at odd moments, almost as if the television were a character” (447). It becomes humorous for a reader to notice that the television has obscure and arbitrary outbursts throughout the novel, and continuing with the theme of postmodernism, a reader understands that these interjections are meaningless, and knows not to examine them too much. Incidentally, the amount of information a person takes in subconsciously through the background noise of the television is somewhat shocking, yet it occurs throughout the novel. One of the daughters in White Noise, Steffie, even goes as far as reciting ‘Toyota Celica’ in her sleep, and no doubt she picked this up through the exceedingly numerous commercials that are on the air. In an essay on the effects of television watching on children, Rice notes that “Television viewing is so entrenched in American families that it should be regarded as an important socializing influence, comparable to the family, school, church, and other institutions” (Fabes 1). In fact, “By the time they have graduated from high school, youth have spent more time watching television than any other activity except sleeping” (Fabes 1). Thus, it is incredibly naive to think that children do not learn from and shape their thinking through television watching. Yet again in White Noise the children pick things up from media, when during the airborne toxic event the children experience the symptoms the radio tells them they should be experiencing.
Even a family that communicates well will transition from a socially interactive unit to a viewing audience if a television set is in the room. In an essay on the effects of television on a family, Vincent M. Rue states, “In the presence of the TV, the family tends to observe behavior that is more parallel, or individual oriented, than interactive” (Walters and Stone qtd. in Rue). When a family subconsciously welcomes a television as a new member, the human family members allow themselves to interact more with the television than with each other. As Jack Gladney points out, “If our complaints have a focal point, it would have to be the TV set, where the outer torment lurks, causing fears and secret desires” (DeLillo 85). The television has become so included in the Gladney family that it seems to know the individuals’ deepest desires. They spend so much time with the television that it appears to know more about them than their fellow family members do. Rue recognizes what happens when you become exceedingly close to your TV: “Television, in most cases uninvited, has been and is becoming an ‘ever attentive friend’ for an increasing number of viewers” (79). When you allow your TV to come into your life so often, it becomes destructive. The television clearly added on to the Gladney family’s already present stress, because they stopped communicating with one another and instead turned to their television for ideas, which puts even more strain on the family.
In a novel that both satirizes pop culture and the nuclear family, and is filled with underlying postmodern themes, it only makes sense that the television’s role is to portray literal white noise. With its use of fragment sentences and ideas, the television represents the postmodern idea that the world itself is fragmented. Even images occasionally do not make sense, such as when the family saw Babette’s image on the TV, and Jack initially worries that she was dead or in turmoil. Though written decades before the present, DeLillo’s narrative uncannily portrays American life today. In DeLillo’s world as well as the present, family members only relate to each other through communal watching of television, and as Fabes notes, “Families may gather around the set but remain isolated in their experiences, reactions, and attention to it” (2). Even family members in the same room miss out on interacting with one another when they are welcoming entertainment from surreal television programs. Rarely do family members discuss what they just viewed on the television together, so that their entire time spent with one another has been one of passive spectatorship instead of interaction. The television gives families the false hope that they are bonding when viewing together, yet many families do not detect this delusion. In truth, the television is such a powerful distraction that a family does not even realize the interactions and bonding it is missing out on.
DeLillo, Don. White Noise. New York: Penguin Books, 1985.
Duvall, John N. “The (Super) Marketplace of Images: Television as Unmediated Mediation in DeLillo’s White Noise.” Arizona Quarterly. 50:3 August 1994.
Fabes, Richard A., Patricia Wilson, and F. Scott Christopher. “Television and the Family: A Time to Reexamine the Role of Television in Family Life.” Family Relations. Vol. 38, No. 3. pp. 337-341. .Jul. 1989. 10 December 2007 < http://www.jstor.org>
Postman, Neil. Amusing Ourselves to Death. New York City: The New York Times Company, 1985.
Rue, Vincent M. “Television and the Family: The Question of Control.” The Family Coordinator. Vol 23 p. 73-81. 1974. http://www.jstor.org/
Reproduction and the Shattered Aura in Don DeLillo’s White Noise
Walter Benjamin’s work as a philosopher and theorist speaks at length of mechanical reproduction and the impact it has on society. Benjamin’s work can therefore be applied to the society depicted in Don DeLillo’s novel White Noise, illuminating it as one of reproduction illustrated in the interactions the book’s characters have with each other and their environment. The society, therefore, ultimately exists under the premise of illusion, failing to distinguish between reality and imitation. German cultural critic Walter Benjamin discusses in his essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” the effects of mechanical reproduction in regards to the “aura” of art. This “aura” exists in the art’s authenticity and its place in the realm of tradition. “The aura of an object compels attention. Whether a work of art or natural landscape, we confront it in one place and only one place: [in its history]” (Nichols 628). Benjamin proposes that the aura of art exists in its capitalist, elitist quality of uniqueness, that part of what makes art, well, art is the fact that it is belongs to the elite and the poor are deprived of it. Thus, art is no longer evaluated based on innovation, authorship, or general quality but by history, ownership, and lineage, making the existence and value of art ritualistic, formulaic, and ultimately arbitrary. The aura, the artwork’s authenticity, by definition, cannot be reproduced and, therefore, the mechanical reproduction and mass distribution of art obliterates any aura a piece of artwork might have. “Mechanical reproduction emancipates the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual” (Benjamin IV) on which it was forced to rely and allows for mass consumption. Mechanical reproductions of artwork, such as pictures in books, advertisements, and posters, equalize the “playing field,” allowing art to be evaluated based on the art itself rather than political ties or hierarchical consignments. For example, since the advent of mechanical reproduction and mass distribution, the common person can now enjoy the Mona Lisa as it hangs in their living room—her half smile is no longer restricted to the people who can afford to visit the Louvre. In terms of Don DeLillo’s novel White Noise, Jack Gladney much prefers a mechanical reproduction to an aura, valuing simulation and repetition over unique experiences. He lives in a town named Blacksmith, which is a ‘‘name that advertises old-fashioned values and country goodness’’ and indicates its inhabitants are ‘‘protected from the violence of the inner cities” (Keesey 135). Even Jack doesn’t foresee violence in his little town, claiming that death in Blacksmith, when compared with the fatal urban atmosphere, is “nonviolent, small-town, thoughtful” (76). However, the connotations of the quaint and homegrown name “Blacksmith” are merely ruses. The first whisper of death in the book happens in Blacksmith when a Mylex-suited man collapses and dies while trying to decontaminate the elementary school (40). Furthermore, while searching for the Treadwells the police find a gun and heroine (60). Similar towns situated nearby Backsmith include Watertown, where a fire engulfs a tenement, Bakersville, where two bodies are found buried in a backyard, and Glassboro, where a man dies in a freak, single-car accident (Weekes 290). “Just as there is no smithing in Blacksmith, these communities all evoke an outmoded labor ethic and economic simplicity that no longer exist either in the city or in the village” (Weekes 290). The towns are named for promises they can not keep; the names connote a small-town ideal, a safety, a friendliness, that the towns can not deliver. Blacksmith provides yet another simulation for Jack to hide behind, a forced reproduction of the ideal, rural, wholesome town. Yet Blacksmith is not a town of innocence or guiltlessness and this gap causes the characters in the book to either live in a limbo of confusion, constantly searching for the common ground between the idyllic connotations of the name and the reality of the place, or in a realm of illusion, where one is made to believe that the town does, in fact, embody its name’s implications. Notions like the latter inspire Murray to say that “it is possible to be homesick for a place even while you are there” (257), thus illustrating the open-mouthed gap that lies between expectations and reality—an obstacle that Jack fights to avoid throughout the novel. Accordingly, Jack Gladney believes that Blacksmith is a safe-haven, a place of safety, a nurturing environment (76), more inspired by the town’s name and its implications than the reality of life within the parameters. Living in Blacksmith, turning a blind eye to reality and desperately relying on illusion, the Gladney family is nonetheless disjoined and dysfunctional at times. Their conversations are haphazard and chaotic, without much substance or narrative significance. The banter might even be considered a form of the white noise suggested by the novel’s title (Packer 657). Heinrich, especially, seems to provide a stumbling block for Jack, as evidenced in the scene where the pair discusses the reality of rain and, consequently, the limitations of language. The conversation mirrors the theme of reproduction and reality in both content and form. As Jack and Heinrich debate the realness of the rain, their conversation turns to larger questions: What is rain? How can we prove that rain is actually rain? How can we identify a universal truth? Is there such thing as truth? And is there such thing as a “now?” After all, “’now; comes and goes as soon as you say it. How can [it be] raining now if … ‘now’ becomes ‘then’ as soon as [it’s said]” (23)? Heinrich champions the real, exploring existence to its most narrow implications while Jack would rather leave “the real” unexplored and blindly accept the norm. Accordingly, Jack grows frustrated with Heinrich’s Hegelian “theoretical bubble-blowing” and, regardless of the validity of Heinrich’s inquiries, ultimately concedes to Heinrich’s argument in a huff of sarcasm. Gladney seems to fear his son’s intelligence; instead of discussing Heinrich’s potentially legitimate inquiries and facing his consequential “loss” of the argument—and inevitable admission to a new notion of reality—Jack dismisses the conversation as ludicrous. Jack’s can see in his daughter Steffie, however, more of a conformation to reproduction, to simulation and illusion, which, in turn, makes his relationship with her less fraught with disagreement, at times even finding philosophical significance in her trivial behavior. Jack seems involved and deeply intrigued when Steffie mouths the words “Toyota Celica” in her sleep. The event happens shortly after the family has to evacuate their house, fleeing the toxic cloud looming over their neighborhood. He observes his children as they sleep and finds revelation in a seemingly insignificant, if not almost pejorative moment:Steffie turned slightly, then muttered something in her sleep. It seemed important that I know what it was… I was convinced she was saying something, fitting together units of stable meaning… She uttered two clearly audible words, familiar and elusive at the same time, words that seemed to have a ritual meaning, part of a verbal spell or ecstatic chant: “Toyota Celica” (154-155).I pause at this point in the excerpt because it seems pertinent for the argument’s sake that Gladney’s reaction to his daughter’s subliminal susceptibility to advertisements is appropriately related to the narrative expectations. That is, Gladney’s approach to Steffie’s utterance makes the reader expect something deeply profound to issue from her small lips, something that would force the reader to reevaluate Steffie’s nine-year-old mind and declare her an insightful little girl, worthy of credence and confidence (Maltby 260). Instead, the reader gets “Toyota Celica.” Slightly deflated, the reader might expect Jack to feel the same upon realizing the banality of the phrase, yet expectations are upset yet again when Jack extracts his own significance, however overtly postmodern and contrived they might be, from Steffie’s unconscious muttering: A long moment passed before I realized this was the name of an automobile. The truth only amazed me more. The utterance was beautiful and mysterious, gold-shot with looming wonder… A simple brand name, an ordinary car. How could these near-nonsense words, murmured in a child’s restless sleep, make me sense a meaning, a presence? She was only repeating some TV voice… Part of every child’s brain noise, the substatic regions too deep to probe. Whatever its source, the utterance stuck me with the impact of a moment of splendid transcendence. I depend on my children for that.(155)The reader might be tempted to interpret this passage as a parody or satire, but Jack’s earnest tone makes the reader consider his words as genuinely searching and valid. “Gladney’s words are not to be dismissed as delusional” but are meant to illustrate the postmodernist’s narrative tendency to “seek out transcendent moments” that “hint at possibilities for cultural regeneration… For what is revealed to Gladney in this visionary moment is that names embody a formidable power” (Maltby 260). Jack experiences “splendid transcendence” in this moment of simulation, of reproduction, and, when compared with his frustrated conversation with Heinrich, illustrates his preference for reproduction instead of authenticity. Jack imposes grandiose and arguably unwarranted significance on Steffie’s utterance of “Toyota Celica” partly because of its unknown origin and how it changes the role of Steffie. He is unsure whether the phrase exists in a television commercial, Steffie’s mind, both, or neither. If the phrase exists in a television commercial, jumping off the screen and landing on Steffie’s lips for the sole purpose of repetition, Steffie is temporarily reduced to little more than a conduit, an outlet for propaganda. If the phrase exists in Steffie’s mind, she, at this moment, is acting as a mere storehouse of media, of “waves and radiation.” The words, therefore, become more important than the medium, reflecting the philosophy of Benjamin, who claims that through mechanical reproduction, which is arguably manifested in Steffie’s utterance presumably repeated from an advertisement of some sort, the piece of art loses its authenticity and originality—it sacrifices its unique nature for a universality that all can experience and enjoy (Benjamin II). The advertisement has been reproduced by Steffie and Jack finds pleasure not in the words “Toyota Celica” and their implications, but in the mere fact that they are a product of reproduction.Jack manages to extract significance, albeit concocted, from his daughter’s unconscious mutterings, yet refuses to engage in a mentally simulating and potentially rewarding conversation with his son. There are numerous reasons as to why Gladney might appreciate Steffie’s “Toyota Celica” over Heinrich’s theories on rain and time, one of them being that Gladney, as a man shaped by his society, values moments of reproduction over moments of authenticity.This preference for conformity, for reproduction and alikeness is also evidenced in the behavior of Murray. A truly bizarre character, Murray seems to be in the prime position to act as an antithesis to the role of reproduction in the novel, yet he finds comfort and even pleasure in repetition, conformity, and simulation. A professor at the College on the Hill—the name of which, in itself, holds the same contrived power of “Blacksmith” or Steffie’s “Toyota Celica,” relying on its generic and reproduced nature for significance—Murray desires to teach courses on Elvis and cinematic car crashes. Murray is attracted by the popular culture, by the obvious and overdone. Murray even uses Jack’s notoriety, which is a fabrication, an imitation itself—based on his invented persona of J.A.K. Gladney and his inability to speak German–to improve the credibility of his own teachings, asking him to attend one of his lectures and draw connections between Hitler and Elvis. Murray hopes that both Hitler’s and Jack’s status will lend themselves to his area of interest. Therefore, Murray has to borrow and simulate importance because the subjects that he enjoys do not carry their own notable significances. Murray’s enjoyment of reproduction is explicated in America’s most-photographed barn scene. A certain nostalgia is both established and destroyed via reproduction in the case of barn. As Murray and Jack stand in the viewing spot to observe the fabled barn, their realizations involve a complicated integration of entanglement and enlightenment:“What was the barn like before it was photographed?” [Murray] said. “What did it look like, how was it different from other barns, how was it similar to other barns? We can’t answer these questions because we’ve read the signs, seen the people snapping the pictures. We can’t get outside the aura. We are part of the aura. We’re here, we’re now.” He seemed immensely pleased by this. (13)Murray seems to express feelings of both entrapment and exciting enlightenment when he talks of being “part of the aura.” This thinking is complex and nearly antithetical. Murray proposes that he and Jack, just by being in the realm of the subject of so much mechanical reproduction have become a part of the barn’s aura. Benjamin would argue this, saying that the barn’s aura has been destroyed—not enhanced or broadened—because of the mechanical reproduction of the image of the barn, thereby obliterating any possibility of including Murray or Jack in its essence. Benjamin might propose that Murray does not grow excited because of the barn’s aura but because of the barn’s cult value (Benjamin V). That is, the barn was originally a mere building until mechanical reproduction “recognized it as a piece of art” becoming “a creation with entirely new functions,” namely the artistic function. Benjamin even goes on to claim that “photography … [is one of] the most serviceable exemplifications of this new function” (Benjamin V). That is, while pictures of the most-photographed barn in America might loosely be considered art, they have no genuine aura. Instead, the barn, the location and subject of the cultish reproduction, acquires its own pseudo-aura that is rooted merely in its reputation.Murray’s episode with the prostitute is also telling of his desire for simulation, for staged reproduction. After fleeing the chemical-spill induced toxic cloud, Murray and the Gladney family flee to Iron City, a supposed safe haven and temporary refugee camp. The first night there, Murray pays a prostitute twenty five dollars to let him perform the Heimlich maneuver on her. Upon hearing this, Jack says to Murray, perhaps more in the form of passively advising rather than questioning, “You don’t really expect her to lodge a chunk of food in her windpipe.” Murray answers:No, no, that won’t be necessary. A long as she makes gagging and choking sounds, As long as she sighs deeply when I jolt the pelvis. As long as she collapses helplessly backward into my life-saving embrace.(153)Thus, Murray does not have a desire to be an actual hero—the reader does not witness him helping frightened citizens out of Blacksmith and into Iron City. Rather, he waits until the actual danger and crisis pass so he can fabricate an emergency of his own—he wants the illusion of heroism, not the reality of it. He pays money to be a hero, if only for a second, and, therefore, desires the aura-less nature of reproduction over the opportunities for genuine greatness and heroics in reality.The society depicted in White Noise values reproduction and simulation so much that consumption of television becomes nearly cultish. The role of television as a communication medium often proves to be problematic in that it broadcasts genuine things in a synthetic manner, thus constituting a platform of illusion. In the scene where Babette is featured on television, Jack undergoes the dilemma of seeing a reproduction of his wife through the television screen. He undergoes states of “confusion, fear, astonishment” and “psychic disorientation” upon seeing the image of Babette piped through the tubes (104). Jack fears that Babette has been harmed, that she is either “dead, missing, or disembodied,” that the representation of Babette on the screen is hollow or incomplete. While Jack recognizes the image as that of Babette, seeing her on the television screen makes him think of her as “some distant figure from the past … a walker in the mists of the dead” (104). Only Wilder, the adorable little antithesis that he is, sees Babette and recognizes her fully, touching the television screen where the image of her body lay beneath the warm glass, leaving behind a dusty print—some evidence of his recognition. There are few things in Jack’s life that are real and tangible, but Babette is one of them. He often finds pleasure in her body and her voice, usually resorting himself to a childish posture—as when he lies between her breasts, calls her Ba-Ba, and asks her to read to him. While arguably perverse, Jack’s relationship with and feelings for Babette are possibly the realest things in the book. When confronted with a simulated image of Babette, as he was when she was broadcasted on local cable, Jack suffers from an internal conflict where the reality of Babette, her originality, her authenticity, her aura, is shattered, and replaced by a reproduction, an illusion of Babette, a pseudo-Babette.Jack seems to suffer instantly and profoundly from this shock, this disconnect. He states plainly:With the sound down low, we couldn’t hear what she was saying. But no one bothered to adjust the volume. It was the picture that mattered, the face in black and white, animated but also flat, distance, sealed-off, timeless. It was but wasn’t her… I felt a certain disquiet. I tried to tell myself it was only television—whatever that was, however it worked—and not some journey out of life or death, not some mysterious separation.(105)The mechanical reproduction of Babette in this scene does, in a sense, involve a sort of death, of “mysterious separation”—Babette loses her aura, her uniqueness when she is broadcast. Her image is reproduced to accommodate the medium of television and, in the process, Benjamin would argue, she is separated from her reality and exists merely as a product, a commodity to be evaluated by society. Jack no longer has sole ownership of Babette, but must share her image with the television. This loss, as it might be termed, frightens and unnerves Jack, for he is forced to evaluate Babette as other viewers might. He doesn’t recognize her immediately. He sees her in black and white without sound, as if she were a snapshot. He is worried that she is dead. Jack lives in a society where mechanical reproduction is favored over authenticity, yet he resists the mechanical reproduction of Babette, someone he loves. Perhaps the role of Babette in this instance serves as a small antithesis to Jack’s preference for mechanically reproduced things because she is the proverbial connection that is keeping Jack anchored to the realm of reality. After all, as Benjamin says, the representation of reality is significant “precisely because of the thoroughgoing permeation of reality with mechanical equipment, as aspect of reality which is free of all equipment” (Benjamin XI). That is, mechanical reproduction does depend on reality and, inherently, cannot function without some footing in the real world. Since Babette could very well serve as Jack’s footing in reality, his reaction to seeing her mechanically reproduced is, in a way, justifiable even within the confines of Benjamin’s philosophy for, without some basis in reality, Jack’s world and philosophies would crumble much like a building without a foundation.One of the most telling and rich instances of mechanical reproduction in the novel is in Jack’s repetition of his plot to kill Mink. Jack repeats his plans to:Drive past the scene several times, park some distance from the scene, go back on foot, locate Mr. Gray under his real name or an alias, shoot him three times in the viscera for maximum pain, clear the weapon of prints, place the weapon in the victims staticky hand, find a crayon or lipstick tube and scrawl a cryptic suicide note on the full-length mirror, take the victims supply of Dylar tablets, slip back to the car, proceed to the expressway entrance, head east toward Blacksmith, get off at the old river road, park Stover’s car in Old Man Treadwell’s garage, shut the door, walk home in the rain and fog.(304)The above is the first draft of the plan, the original plot, the launching pad. Jack goes on to repeat this plan nearly ten times, each time varying it. In some instances the plot is a mere three lines long (310), while other repetitions take up nearly half of a page (311). Not one reproduction of the plot, however, is identical to another. Perhaps this variation is hinting at a universal truth—that exact replication is impossible because, after the first replication, the original is different than it had been. Benjamin would argue that after mechanical reproduction, the original exists without an aura whereas it had maintained its aura until the reproduction took place. Thus, all reproductions are mere shadows of a once aura-rich entity, not possessing auras themselves and simultaneously robbing the aura of the original. Jack’s variegated reproductions of his plot to kill Mink could ultimately serve as a testament to the lost aura and impossible task of replication (Barrett 108).However, Jack enjoys his mental reproduction of the plot. Repeating the plan to himself encourages him, perhaps even serving as a comfort or a reassurance. While none of the reproductions are exactly the same, they share certain commonalities; for instance, many of them end with “walk home in the rain and fog,” which lends a romantic notion to Jack’s plot. These self-imposed reproductions distance Jack from his plot by over-exposing him to the idea of killing Mink. Benjamin would argue that mechanical reproduction can render society numb to art and its authenticity; after all, if Mona Lisa is hanging in one’s living room, it can’t be too valuable. Likewise, Jack grows numb to the implications of his plot to kill Mink; reproduction makes this distancing possible.Simulation and reproduction run rampant through the scene where Jack actually confronts Mink. Drugged up from eating Dylar like candy, but also perhaps a mere puppet of mass media, Mink dutifully repeats the television, even replacing it as a source of white noise in this scene seeing as his television is silenced. He says things sporadically and without prompt—things like, “Some of these playful dolphins have been equipped with radio transmitters. Their far-flung wanderings may tell us things” (310) and “Using my palette knife and my odorless turp, I will thicken the paint on my palette” (309). Mink becomes a sort of oral camera, a mere reproduction of what has been said on the television. Jack, oddly enough, is not fazed by these episodes of randomness, insisting that the whole room was full of “auditory scraps, tatters, whirling specks” (307). However, Jack’s mental immunity to Mink’s inexplicable outbursts could perhaps be illustrating his comfort and familiarity with white noise, the generic hum of life (Heller 42). Jack’s desire for simulation and reproduction has resulted in over-stimulation of such things and, ultimately, a numbness to them. Only when he is confronted with something new and real—a gunshot that hits its mark—does Jack break free of his zombie-like, white-noise-induced stupor and do something proactive in taking Mink to the hospital.Jack even encounters reproduction and simulation in a hospital run by nuns. Jack asks the nun who is bandaging up his hand whether or not there is still the “old heaven… in the sky.” She responds, “Do you think we are stupid?” (317). Jack insists that the woman helping him is a nun and nuns have to believe certain things. Indignant, he pushes the nun on her simulated religious beliefs, unable to understand that the nuns fake belief for the nonbelievers because “they are desperate to have someone to believe” (318). The nun goes on to say:“Someone must appear to believe. Our lives are no less serious than if we professed real faith, real belief. As belief shrinks from the world, people find it more necessary than ever that someone believe… We are left to believe… We surrender our lives to make your nonbelief possible. You are sure that you are right but you don’t want everyone to think as you do.”(319)Jack is upset by this revelation, repeatedly referring to the religious-looking picture hanging on the emergency room wall as proof that the nuns must believe if they display a picture so overtly (318). Yet the nun insists that the picture hangs on the wall to merely satisfy the expectations of the nonbelievers and is not an indicator or manifestation of genuine faith. When Jack encounters a simulation, a false reproduction of expectations, in the context of an environment he considers to be authentic or a representation of the truth, he can not appreciate it as a result of mechanical reproduction. Thus, Jack can appreciate mechanical reproduction only when he can predict or create it, exposing Jack’s desire and appreciation for mechanical reproduction only when it is coupled with personal control of the situation.Jack Gladney, like many of the characters in Don DeLillo’s novel White Noise, exists in a society where the simulation and mechanical reproduction of objects, events, and ideas are generally valued more than unique entities and experiences. Jack himself is involved in many situations where he prefers simulation over reality, as is Murray. Even Jack’s family, namely Heinrich, Steffie, and Babette, are either involved with or manifestations of mechanical reproduction. Benjamin’s essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” addresses the dilemma that accompanies any form of mechanical reproduction, speaking extensively of an object’s aura and its cultural implications. Through the lens of Benjamin’s theory, the society depicted in White Noise, partial to simulation and dependent on mechanical reproduction, exists in a state of illusion, suffering from trying desperately to connect the worlds of reality and simulation.
Ritualistic Consumerism: How Consumption Replaces Religion in ‘White Noise’
Consumer culture has been discussed by many authors and philosophers as long as the human race has been consuming. Consumerism is often referred to as a negative force in society, specifically in the United States, due to America’s image of surplus and leisure even in times of societal and economic suffering as discussed in Clay Sirkey’s “Gin, Television, and Social Surplus.” In Don DeLillo’s White Noise, consumerism is described beyond just a social negative; where, in this society, consumer culture has become so ritualistic that it becomes a spiritual connection. This gives the characters a negative and unhealthy alternative to religion when faced with fear of death, making consumption a catharsis and a spiritual escape (an effect that Karen Weekes would describe as the negative aspect of “white noise” in her article “Consuming and Dying: Meaning and the Marketplace in Don DeLillo’s White Noise”). Kalle Lasn explains in “The Cult You’re In” that this is a common occurrence in modern society, where consumerism is nothing more (or less) than a cult. Don DeLillo uses White Noise as an excellent depiction of how modern American consumers, when faced with spiritual or existential crises, can tend to lean away from religion and replace it with consumption due to its assumed comfort and safety in the culture as demonstrated by both adult and child characters.
The reader first sees this existential questioning almost immediately, where much of the adult characters’ (specifically Jack) dialogue is driven by an intense fear of death. When examining the characters in White Noise and understanding their petrifying fear of death and the uncertainty that comes with it, it becomes somewhat more understandable why those characters turn to tangible and quantifiable things rather than spirituality. In contemporary culture, religion is scary. There is no surefire answer to the questions people have and there is no one religion that offers more answers than the rest. As a society, modern humans are raised to be comfortable with consumption because they are raised to be consumers. Kalle Lasn describes the idea of being raised into consumer culture as a kind of cult initiation, explaining that A long time ago, without even realizing it, just about all of us were recruited into a cult. At some indeterminate moment, maybe when we were feeling particularly adrift or vulnerable, a cult member showed up and made a beautiful presentation. “I believe I have some- thing to ease your pain.” She made us feel welcome. We understood she was offering us something to give life meaning. She was wearing Nike sneakers and a Planet Hollywood cap. (51) The audience sees this idea surface itself throughout White Noise with Jack’s children. While his daughter sleeps, “she utter[s] two clearly audible words, familiar and elusive at the same time, words that seemed to have a ritual meaning, part of a verbal spell or ecstatic chant. Toyota Celica,” and Jack watches this (71). Not only is Steffie, a young child, having car commercials slip into her subconscious and surface in her dreams, but her father is also watching her sleep and say these words as if this were a sermon. Jack is left “feeling selfless and spiritually large” at his daughter’s simple utterance of a brand name vehicle (71).
Beyond watching his daughter sleep to hear her speak in car brands, Jack lives through several other transcendental experiences as a consumer. Where Jack would turn to prayer were he religious, he turns to shopping; when faced with fear of death or confusion surrounding life, Jack buys. On one occasion, Jack takes his family to the mall for an escape, where “[he] traded money for goods. The more money [he] spent, the less important it seemed. [He] was bigger than these sums. These sums poured off [his] skin like so much rain. These sums in fact came back to [him] in the form of existential credit. [He] felt expansive,” transcending normal human experience and expanding his awareness to everything and filling up all the space that he occupied. Unlike prayer, meditation, or other spiritual release, however, Jack leaves the experience emptier than he began, driving home with his family in silence, feeling apathetic (42). In White Noise’s introduction, Mark Osteen explains that “White Noise is thus also a novel about religion–or, perhaps more accurately, about belief… White Noise is such a book, one that alludes constantly to what lies just beyond our hearing, to the mysterious, the untellable, the numinous–to what DeLillo calls the ‘radiance in dailiness,’” where Osteen describes spirituality as an awareness beyond the average human buzz. Though Jack has this awareness with his “spiritual” experiences in consumption, the effects are not lasting, leaving Jack empty, apathetic, and with fewer answers than he had prior to the experience. This is what Karen Weekes would describe as “negative white noise”; though white noise (background noise and events) can be positive, the application thereof and result of that application is what can shift the white noise to be negative (14). So here it becomes apparent that not only has this ritualism of consumerism added a catharsis for their fears to a point of religiousness and spirituality, it has done it to such a level that it is unhealthy for any character involved; these experiences aren’t just replacements for religion, they’re insecure and empty replacements.
However, Jack is not the only one in his culture who experiences this struggle with the adverse effects of consumerism as religion. Much like religion, consumerism governs how the society following it functions. Consumerism just happens to function on the ideals of “How much can we produce? How much can you consume? Can we produce more and you’ll consume more? And the answer to that question has generally been yes,” a self-serving and shallow basis for a society (Shirkey, 171). When an entire society follows these ideals for its entire existence, norms and rituals are established. Though in its stagnant state the only issue is the self-serving and cult-like state (“only” being used in the loosest sense), when a norm or ritual is shaken the entire culture suffers. This is expressed extremely well in the final scene of White Noise- a supermarket where all of the shelves have been rearranged and the shoppers are found in confusion and near frenzy. This is like walking into a chapel where all of the stained glass has been shattered and replaced with images of Marilyn Manson. Their ritualistic consumption is tampered with, leaving agitation and panic in the aisles, dismay in the faces of older shoppers. They walk in a fragmented trance, stop and go, clusters of well-dressed figures frozen in the aisles, trying to figure out the pattern, discern the underlying logic, trying to remember where they’d seen the Cream of Wheat. They see no reason for it, find no sense in it. The scouring pads are with the hand soap now, the condiments are scattered. (141) However, the need to consume overcomes this fear and confusion, where …in the end it doesn’t matter what they see or think they see. The terminals are equipped with holographic scanners, which decode the binary secret of every item, infallibly… 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. (141) The religion, the cult of consumerism is able to overcome this shaking of the norm because, in a world where belief does not exist beyond the tangible and “ownable,” one cannot afford to lose faith in consumption.
Don DeLillo’s White Noise is ultimately extremely successful in demonstrating the ways in which humans being cope when faced with existential questions and the lust for tangible answers. He gives a wonderful insight in regards to the modern consumer’s need to consume and it’s adverse effect when used in place of spirituality in transcendental experience. Through this novel, it becomes apparent that doubt, fear, and insecurity in ones’ self and future can lead to unhealthy worship of things that really mean nothing.
DeLillo, Don. White Noise. Osteen, Mark. Introduction. New York: Penguin Books, 1985. Print.
Lasn, Kalle. “The Cult You’re In”, Common Culture: Reading and Writing About American Popular Culture. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2009. Print.
Shirkey, Clay. “Gin, Television, and Social Surplus”, Common Culture: Reading and Writing About American Popular Culture. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2009. Print.
Weekes, Karen. “Consuming And Dying: Meaning And The Marketplace In Don Delillo’s White Noise.” LIT: Literature Interpretation Theory 18.4 (2007): 285-302. Academic Search Elite. Web. 9 Mar. 2015.