White Noise: A Real Dystopia?
Don DeLillo’s post-modern novel White Noise examines the relativity of meaning in a consumer and media-controlled society. A classic dystopia comments on society’s reliance on the media, and in White Noise, it creates character identity instability and hyperreality. However, White Noise does not completely portray the conventional dystopia; the lack of a dystopian hero fighting to expose the malfunctioning society, in addition to the absence of a controlling power illustrate the hopelessness of a modern culture revolving around the media. White Noise fits the dystopian model in one aspect with Jack’s construction of his identity by the surrounding culture; this persona emphasizes his desire to find identifying legacy that will prevent him from dying. Jack’s malleable identity is strongly influenced by his surrounding society and his peers. When Jack is called “indistinct” (83) by a colleague, he creates an academic facade that will immortalize his image. As a Hitler innovator, “Jack wanted to be taken seriously “(16). He realizes that he has to create his own persona; he adds an extra initial to his name and always wears “thick black heavy frames and dark lenses” (17). The now J. A. K. Gladney wears his new identity “like a borrowed suit” (17). This persona that Jack has created for himself as a Hitler innovation emphasizes his desire to create a legacy that will live on forever. Jack’s evident fear of death is relived in his association with Hitler. He feels immortal when correlating with the unforgettable image of Hitler, even though he knows he is “the false character that follows the name around” (17). Jack wraps himself in the man’s gruesome, yet powerful and historical image; Hitler’s genocide of millions of people makes Jack’s own inevitable death seem insignificant. Murray calls Hitler “larger than death,” expressing the everlasting image of his legacy. The sheer name of “Hitler” and his immortal legacy attracts Jack—he is fascinated with molding his own personal identity. Jack hopes immersing himself in Hitler’s persona will make him greater than death and erase it altogether. Nevertheless, the creation of this alter-ego unavoidably becomes ambiguous—Jack cannot differentiate between the reality and imaginary of his existence, revealing one dystopian element of White Noise. The hyperreality of the White Noise dystopia, especially in the TV and radio, reveals how the media has the ability to radically shape and filter an original event or experience. Jack isn’t the only character who has trouble differentiating between reality and the imaginary in this partially dystopian society. One of the most prominent examples of this hyperreality is SIMUVAC, or Simulated Evacuation. This group consistently practices for disasters, yet they are unaware of how to deal in a real situation. Their first “practice” happens to be in the airborne toxic event, a real disaster. Jack questions this situation: “A form of practice? Are you saying you saw a chance to use the real event in order to rehearse the simulation?” (139) Their status as a simulation takes precedence over a real disaster, satirizing human inability to discern between reality and simulations. DeLillo’s humor is shown when the SIMUVAC worker states during the real disaster that they “don’t have our victims laid out where we’d want them if this was an actual simulation.” It is evident that the simulations are more important in the eyes of the population, illustrating how simulacra has replaced reality. Perhaps these simulated events were created to give the community a sense of control. These evacuations allow them to plan out a natural disaster in every possible detail which supposedly prepares them for a real disaster. When a real disaster comes, however, they are unprepared—they are only comfortable in their own, created simulations. Furthermore, the simulations are often mistaken for reality by use of the media. An example of the media using these simulations is when Babette appears on TV. As they watched, out of their “mouths came a silence as wary and deep as an animal growl. Confusion, fear, astonishment spilled from [their] faces” (107). This is the family’s first experience with a family member being projected through the simulation media. At first, they have a difficult time distinguishing Babette through the distorted pixels on the TV. Besides, when they do recognize her, they only believe her to be a collection of pixels and light. Jack and his family watched Babette “shining a light on us, she was coming into being, endlessly being formed and reformed as the muscles in her face worked at smiling and speaking, as the electronic dots swarmed” (107). The picture with a distorted sound is confusing to the family. This appearance of Babette on TV illustrates the hyperreality of Jack’s family and how they cannot differentiate between reality and simulation. The family, except for Wilder, believes Babette is a different person when on TV—she was seen “as some distant figure from the past, some ex-wife and absentee mother, a walker in the midst of the dead” (104). Jack cannot immediately comprehend Babette’s appearance as a simulation; she appears as some unknown character, a figure of the past. Wilder is the only one who believes the TV to actually be Babette, as he has not been exposed to this type of simulation. Wilder cries when the screen turns black, illustrating his confusion in the “real” Babette and in the electronic dots creating her Babette. What sets White Noise apart from other dystopian novels is its lack of a dystopian hero; Jack’s fear of death and fear of being exposed as an insignificant man illustrates his stark difference from the normal dystopian hero and the inevitable failure of a media-driven society. Jack’s fear of death seems to overwhelm him—the discovery of the Nyodene D. and its vague diagnosis only adds to his paranoia. The chemical remains in his body for 30 years and he cannot be diagnosed for 15 years, which is another aspect of death that Jack cannot control. Although he establishes Hitler studies to study the everlasting life and death of a famous character, Jack still manages to fear his own death. Furthermore, this protagonist does not want to be exposed as an incompetent teacher. He has not mastered the basic skills of German, even though he is the head of the Hitler department. Jack created this persona to appear as an intellectual, yet the masking of his true identity does not embody the actions of a true hero. Jack’s worries about death only accumulate in his life; he eventually chases after Willie Mink to obtain Dylar for suppressing his fear of death. Is this how a dystopian “hero” would act?—succumbing to a placebo drug to mask his fear? Jack, in the end, does not expose the media-centered society to its citizens nor does he fix the society. In fact, it seems as though this society accepts the false stories of the media to disguise their imminent fear of death. This promising hero merely accepts his fear of death, illustrating the inevitable failure of this media-driven society. The letdown of this consumer and media society is mainly a result from the dystopian character’s instability and hyperreality. Although White Noise exhibits many dystopian characteristics, its lack of a modern hero reveals the portentous hopelessness of a society controlled by the media. DeLillo’s novel is hardly fiction—it is an ominous truth of what are society could easily become. The failure of the White Noise society questions our need for a modern hero to expose and save our own similar dystopia.
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Don DeLillo’s post-modern novel White Noise examines the relativity of meaning in a consumer and media-controlled society. A classic dystopia comments on society’s reliance on the media, and in White […]