Reality, Technology, and Simulations; Postmodernism and Post-Structuralism in Don DeLillo’s ‘White Noise’

April 1, 2019 by Essay Writer

Don DeLillo’s novel White Noise is a text firmly situated in the modern world. Through the novel, part Postmodernist satire part Post-Structuralist understanding of the world, DeLillo presents an incredibly cynical view of the modern world through his narrator and protagonist Jack Gladney, the head of Hitler Studies at a Midwestern American university. The novel layers a narrative atop Gladney’s altogether unspectacular life that explores the role of technology, computing, and simulation in the postmodern world, presenting contemporary America as enveloped within a system of cyclical programs and paradoxes. The outcome is a novel that probes deeply into the contemporary meaning of reality, showing how in our postmodern world there is nothing concrete, nothing solid or dependable. White Noise presents a world where due to the intervention of technology reality is a fiction all of its own.

To have a good understanding of White Noise it is essential to understand the basics of Postmodernism and Post-Structuralism. Within both Postmodernism and Post-Structuralism there is an overarching nihilism, and though Postmodernism is a far broader field than Post-Structuralism there many other similarities between the two. Post-Structuralism, a reaction within literary criticism against the unifying semiotics of Structuralism, attests that there is no such thing as the a coherent self, that the intent of the author is secondary to interpretation of the reader, that a good understanding of a text is one that incorporates as many interpretations as possible (even if these are conflicting), and that there is no solidity to the signifier-signified relationship of language purported by Structuralism. What this sums up as is a movement grounded in inconsistency, in incoherence and malleability, in a world where nothing can be truly known, understood, or experienced. Postmodernism likewise attests to an unknowable, incoherent self, while Postmodern literature often incorporates black humor, paranoia, metafictional elements, intertextuality, and hyperreality, all of which can be seen through White Noise.

If we replace “text” with “experience” in reference to Post-Structuralism, we are easily able to apply Post-Structuralist analysis to the events of the novel, while simultaneously allowing ourselves to continue a Post-Structuralist reading of the novel’s processes themselves. Moreover, the aspects of the novel that are revealed through Post-Structuralist analysis reinforce White Noise as wholly within the Postmodern tradition. For example, the novel is soaked in black humor that serves to reveal the menacing and debauched ideals and discourses that sit behind contemporary American culture. Gladney’s professional title, “chairman of the department of Hitler Studies” is irrefutable black humor and makes a hint towards the macabre undercurrent in America that DeLillo brings to the reader’s attention throughout the novel.[1] The constant recycling of information within academia and mass culture, as well as the self-awareness that stems from a life and career within academia that is exemplified through Jack’s position, upholds both the Postmodern black humor, as well as the Post-Structuralist assertion that it is the reader not the author that matters: it is Jack’s reading of Hitler’s actions that counts and not the actions themselves. Postmodernism and Post-Structuralism figure into White Noise, weaving intricate thematic points over and over again, reinforcing a cyclical and highly cynical view of modern America.

Many of the Postmodern/Post-Structuralist elements of White Noise stem from DeLillo’s inclusion of technology within the narrative. Technology within the modern world comes, for DeLillo and his protagonist, to embody the cyclical, repetitive, and inauthentic nature of the contemporary psyche, fraught with dissonance and coded meanings. One of the earliest examples of this is in the first section of the novel “Waves and Radiation”. [DeLillo, pp. 1] Even the title of this section, and the novel’s own title White Noise, suggest the thematic technological dissonance that is spread throughout the novel at large. Waves (in the suggested technological sense), radiation, and white noise are products of the modern world, and yet they are intangible things, unseen and unheard by the individual’s own senses and only experienced through the processes of technology. These three things are encountered constantly in our everyday lives: radio waves in our cars, white noise through the static on our televisions, radiation that cooks our food in microwave ovens. However, despite their inclusion within our reality, how are we are we sure that they are actually real? If we only experience them second-hand through a technological translation of sorts, how are sure that they are real and not a fictional by-product of technology? Can we experience radiation outside of a needle pointing at a number on a Geiger counter? Is there a white noise that we can hear without tuning into the static between TV channels? With the title of his book and the titles of the sections of the text, DeLillo is already presenting a Postmodern paranoia concerning the realness of reality, an inauthenticity in what we call reality, and a world where technology has altered our perception and how we question the existence of what surrounds us.

This sense that technology has ultimately altered our perception of the world is the focus of one of the comic scenes in “Waves and Radiation”. Jack and his precocious fourteen year-old son Heinrich argue about whether or not it is raining:

“It’s going to rain tonight.”

“It’s raining now,” I said.

“The radio said tonight.”

[…] “Look at the windshield,” I said.

“Is that rain or isn’t it?”

“I’m only telling you what they said.” [DeLillo, pp. 22]

Heinrich often comes to exemplify the perception-altering tendencies of technology, often to a comic level of absurdity as shown in this example. We can assume, due to Jack’s trustable narration within the novel, that it is in fact physically raining and that there is evidence of that rain on the windshield of his car. However, this is because we trust the narration of Jack who himself trusts his own senses. Jack still firmly exists in the world of sense based experience.

Heinrich, contrastingly, does not trust his senses, but rather puts his faith in information that technology relays to him as the concrete truth about his reality: “Our senses are wrong a lot more often than they’re right. This has been proved in a laboratory. Don’t you know about all those theorems that say nothing is what it seems? There’s no past, present or future outside our own mind.” [DeLillo, pp. 23] There is a disconnect between reality and information that has been created by technology in a paradoxical fashion. Technology and science, the “laboratory” and “theorems” that Heinrich mentions, have “proved” “our senses are wrong a lot more often than they’re right” and therefore, because of this conclusion, Heinrich places his faith in information and technology over reality as it is experienced through his senses. Technology has altered Heinrich’s reality so that only technology is trustable. Reality, for Heinrich, is too changeable, too inconsistent to trust, and so he places his trust in the immovable and fixed nature of technology. As Tom LeClair writes his book In the Loop, Heinrich’s “response is to information – quantified measures of exposure, possible long-range consequences – rather than to entities”. [2] For Heinrich, sensual experience comes second to informational reality.

This alteration of perception, the secondary nature of sense based experience is again exemplified in “Waves and Radiation” through “THE MOST PHOTOGRAPHED BARN IN AMERICA”. [DeLillo, pp. 12] Jack is brought here by his insightful and highly philosophical co-worker Murray, and as soon as they arrive Jack observes that “All the people had cameras; some had tripods, telephoto lenses, filter kits. A man in a booth sold postcards and slides – pictures of the barn taken from the elevated spot.” [DeLillo, pp. 12] Murray observes that “Once you’ve seen the signs about the barn, it becomes impossible to see the barn … We’re not her to capture an image, we’re here to maintain one. Every photograph reinforces the aura.” [DeLillo, pp. 12] This highly absurdist situation, though not as extreme as Heinrich’s denial of rain, again encapsulates how technology has altered our perception of reality. As Murray notes, once the sign “MOST PHOTOGRAPHED BARN IN AMERICA” is seen, what you see is not a regular, run of the mill barn, but rather an object that exists through a label. It is impossible to see the barn for what it truly is, a regular, run of the mill barn, because after reading that sign it has been objectified, labelled, and made into a consumer product in your mind and perception. The barn has been included within a consumer orientated discourse of postmodern America.

But what originated this discourse? As Murray asks, “What was the barn like before it was photographed?” [DeLillo, pp. 13] The answer can be taken from a Post-Structuralist analysis of the barn. What makes the barn famous? The answer is that it holds the title “THE MOST PHOTOGRAPHED BARN IN AMERICA” and therefore the fact that it has been photographed so many times is why it is so famous. Why has been it been photographed so many times? It has been photographed so many times because it holds the title “THE MOST PHOTOGRAPHED BARN IN AMERICA”. There is no origin to this title, no reasoning behind the barn’s fame or success as a tourist attraction. What exists is a Post-Structuralist cycle of paradoxical repetition and performative creation. Every photograph taken originates from the barn’s title and fame, and then reinforces this title and fame. For all we know the barn was never photographed before it became “THE MOST PHOTOGRAPHED BARN IN AMERICA”, and now the discourse that surrounds the barn is inescapable, there is no way to view the barn as a regular barn, or for the barn to return to a regular barn. The barn itself does not even exist, only the title projected onto it reinforced by the performative technological act of photography. As Frank Lentricchia writes, “’THE MOST PHOTOGRAPHED BARN IN AMERICA’ is the ostensible subject of the scene; the real subject is the electronic medium of the image as the active context of contemporary existence in America.” [3] Much like how the rain does not exist for Heinrich, yet the forecast information reported through the radio does, the barn does not exist in reality, only the image through photography does. Technology alters our perception to such a point that what is right in front of us, whether it be rain or a barn, ceases to exist outside of a postmodern cycle of technological relays.

All of these ideas, the technological alteration of perception, the Post-Structuralist cycles without origin, the postmodern absurdity of life, are all included in the second section of the novel, “The Airborne Toxic Event”, and the concept of simulation. [DeLillo, pp. 107] The event, where a toxic chemical is released into the atmosphere near Jack, ends with Jack being infected by the chemical, Nyodene D, and seeking help from SIMUVAC, the organization who repositions Jack’s family:

“That’s quite an armband you’ve got there. What does SIMUVAC mean? Sounds important.”

“Short for simulated evacuation. A new state program they’re still battling over funds for.”

“But this evacuation isn’t simulated. It’s real.”

“We know that. But we thought we could use it as a model.”

“A form of practice? Are you saying you saw a chance to use the real event in order to rehearse the simulation?”

“We took it right into the streets.” [DeLillo, pp. 139]

This absurd scenario, using a real disaster to practice a simulation for a disaster management program, encapsulates multiple Postmodern and Post-Structuralist elements. We may notice how the order of real disaster and simulation is mixed up. We expect a simulation to precede a real disaster, in much the same way we expect a rain forecast to precede the rain. However, in the postmodern world reality often comes second to simulation, reality is not as important as simulated information. As Jack asks, “What about the computers? Is that real data you’re running through the system or is it just practice stuff?” [DeLillo, pp. 139] Within a simulation being practiced during a real event, do SIMUVAC use the real event data to test the validity of the simulation, or do they use the data used to form the simulation to test the simulation? The line between simulation and reality becomes inconceivably blurred and the two become almost indistinct. Is Jack living through a simulation or a real disaster if the disaster is being used to practice a simulation?

Much like the question “what is so special about the barn in the first place?” there is no discernible answer. What exists is a Post-Structuralist cycle of repetitions and paradoxes where there is no concrete point of origin. Within postmodern society, everything has become so convoluted by technology, information, and miscommunication that reality and simulation become indistinct from one another. Rain exists only when it is forecast, barns only exist through photography, and real events are used to test simulations. Everything “real” becomes secondary to technology within the postmodern world. For DeLillo we live in a world filled with his titular white noise; reality is filtered through technology and arrives to us as digital static. In the postmodern world reality ceases to exist, only the reverberation of reality exists relayed through technology and endless information without origin. What we are given and what we live in is a paradox, where white noise (postmodern existence) filters and alters reality and thus becomes our new reality. But what, then, is reality if reality is constantly being altered by this white noise? Is there as much reality left anymore as there is a real barn? DeLillo definitively answer “no”; postmodern America exists within a hyperreality of sorts, a new plain of reality clarified, perfected, and tested from the old one.

Works Cited

[1] Don DeLillo, White Noise, (New York: Penguin Books, 1986), pp. 4

[2] Tom LeClair, White Noise, (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1987), pp. 209

[3] Frank Lentricchia, ‘Tales of the Electronic Tribe’, in New Essays on White Noise, ed. by Frank Lentricchia, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991), pp. 88

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