White Noise by Ciaran Bankwalla
DeLillo’s White Noise is brimming with mortality, to the extent that the title of the book was called ‘The American Book of the Dead’. The novel investigates the postmodern condition and its relationship with death; a world where technology has become a super power in the postmodern world, stepping in on the religious vacancies left by Darwinism and filling in the voids left from the angst of nuclear threat. DeLillo’s White Noise is postmodern; and although it is a truism that postmodernism cannot be condensed into a singular definition, it may help the reader to understand the kind of setting DeLillo was writing in when his novel falls into this bracket. Lyotard argues that postmodernism is “the state of our culture following the transformations which, since the end of the nineteenth century, have altered the game rules for science, literature and the arts” (Lyotard 2010 page 1).
It provides a hyperconscious intertextuality with an ironic post-modern view; a view which concentrates on image and consumerism, and a stance in which reality is overlaid with images and signs that relate to one another. In terms of architecture – it would be of value to think of the typical post-modern building: because a post-modern building is a bit of everything. “Everything is neatly arranged, everything is labeled, and, presumably, everything has a price” (Lentricchia 2010 page 4). Additionally, it would be important to think of Fredric Jameson who claims that parody overtakes pastiche – along with a predilection for nostalgia and a fixation on the perpetual present. Perhaps it is no surprise that decades years later, Simon Reynolds felt that the
pop-music scene was nothing more than “a never ending 1980s revival” (Reynolds, The Guardian 2010). The backdrop of postmodernism that White Noise falls against is significant in its relationship with mortality. It is the entire setting for DeLillo’s novel. There is an essence of never ending continuation in 1980s America; a constant state of deja vu triggered by the endless recycling of image. Existence becomes condensed to image and shopping: with the Gladneys who shop for hours in order to top up “existential credit”. DeLillo’s interpretation of the postmodern condition reduces one to capital value – and Jack Gladney’s days become aimless days of media consumption and hiding from death. For DeLillo, the supposed shelter of death can be found in culture.
In the postmodern world, supermarkets take on a new power; like a cultural Cathedral. “Consume or die” says DeLillo in Underworld (DeLillo 1997 page 287) and that is what the Gladneys do. The bright lights and images that saturate the supermarket are a perfect distraction from the threat of death. It becomes an illusion – stealing one’s attention away from reality. For DeLillo, consumerism “produces what we might call an aura of connectedness among individuals: an illusion of kinship” (Lentricchia 2010 page 20) and this is why the family shop together. There is no mention of Sunday services at Church, rather weekly shopping trips which unite the family under a different setting. It is as if the Gladneys feel that the more they buy, and the longer they are distracted from death; the longer they escape it. Death, then, is repressed. But the supermarket is merely a false haven for the Gladneys; because the accumulation of buried issues eventually leads to bigger problems. (In current times, the reader is encouraged to think of the financial crash of 2008; a collapse of economic powers, largely due to ignored symptoms in the years preceding it.) And this is where DeLillo’s critique sheds an ironic light in the modern day. Supermarkets grow to provide the consumer with everything – and perhaps DeLillo thus naturally envisioned the day when, one day, the supermarket would even start to offer funeral services; offering a reminder of the very thing it covers up. (The coop now have a funeral care service).
Likewise, the title White Noise is a metaphor for covering up and repressing the natural world; hiding from an acute awareness of death. It is an “artificially produced electronic noise invented to cover over the silence which disturbs workers in modern soundproof office buildings” (Lentricchia 2010 page 81). However, DeLillo feels that
the perception of one’s mortality can lead to the “extraordinary wonder of things” (DeLillo 2005 page 301), which is an idea echoed in Heidegger’s existential analysis in Being and Time.
For DeLillo, the avoidance of death soars beyond the supermarket – treading into the territory of all technology. “Television menaces the home with an omnipresent temptation to substitute the communal experience of the image for the ties that no longer bind” (Lentricchia 2010 page 24).What Lentricchia is essentially reiterating is that communal binds are found in culture and that they are empty. However, the television in the family home is used for more than just adverts and communal binding. The media have a “special hunger for death and destruction” (Lentricchia 2010 page 45) and yet the television distances the viewer from it. The transformation of death is condensed into film and print, creating a “mass bodies for consumption” effect; and heightening the illusion that death only happens to others. This resembles the Aristotelian theory that luck is when the person next to you is struck by an arrow – or more significantly, Heidegger’s concept that ‘one dies, not I.’ The media becomes DeLillo’s own version of what Heidegger called idle talk; a representation of people dying at a distance, and by turning death into an eagerly consumed product (the Gladneys appear to thoroughly enjoy televised disasters), the media continues to reinforce the illusion that death only happens to others. The avoidance of death is accentuated by technological media which appears to create its own reality; free from the natural limits of death. But for some critics, technology has become self-governing; like nature itself. The reader is confronted with what is known as the postmodern sublime: a feeling of terror and awe directed not at nature but at technology. It has become self-governing like nature itself and something which people fear has developed a “malevolent, undesirable life of their own” (Lentricchia 2010 page 14). This is why DeLillo uses an airborne toxic cloud event as Jack’s awakening of death; the word ‘cloud’ containing natural connotations, but the toxicity of ‘toxic’ implies a tarring of cooperate meddling.
In the postmodern age, a ubiquity of history is flattened and the consumer has an array of options for whatever they require. The consumer experiences a rendering down of everything, including politics, into a spectacle which then avoids critique – and this is what happens beyond the satire of Hitler Studies in White Noise. “It’s not a question of good and evil” (DeLillo 1984 page 63). DeLillo flattens him; presents
him as bland and something which amorally slots into an academic discourse. What does this tell us? “Once a horrifying phenomenon like Hitler can be represented, it can be stripped of its aura and turned into a commodity,” explains Lentricchia (Lentricchia 2010 page 44). Indeed, turning Hitler into a commodity and domesticating him strips him of the horrors committed. Mass death becomes flattened by culture and technology.
When the toxic cloud spreads, Jack Gladney wakes up to the idea that death can indeed happen to him, and as Becker suggest, “there is nothing like shocks in the real world to jar loose repressions” (Becker 2011 page 21). Gladney’s paranoia is unleashed and his fear takes hold of the novel. “Our sense of fear – we avoid it because we feel it so deeply, so there is an intense conflict at work. I brought this conflict to the surface in the shape of Jack Gladney.” “I think it is something we all feel, something we almost never talk about” (DeLillo 2005 page 71).
The repression of death can be so effective, that some people are almost entirely unaware of it within themselves. One may feel that if they avoid disasters or accidents, they will simply live forever – or at least, that it will happen later. Likewise the economic contentedness that the Gladneys live in provides a comfort blanket; the illusion that disaster doesn’t happen to wealthy people. For Jack an immediate awareness of death reemerges with the toxic. Death is inside him and, in a way, always has been. It will take decades for him to learn if the poison has shortened his life, of which a death through old age will almost certainly reach him before he finds out. DeLillo reminds us here that death through old age is possible; and by placing the threat with immediacy, brings new life to Jack’s fear of death.
But Jack’s fear of death is on the brink of obsession even before the airborne event. His “personal obsession with death and the finality of his own life” (Hantke 2012 page 47) is embedded in the narrative; and his obsession with death causes him to see it regularly. “For that reason the world of White Noise is teeming with events that do, in fact, seem to testify to the omnipresence of death.” (Hantke 2012 page 47). The reader only has to cast their mind back to the poison material in school building, plane crashes and an elderly couple who almost starve to death. This is not placed in the narrative unintentionally; it is done to show Jack’s unhinged relationship with mortality. Although he attempts to live under the intentionally ignorant assumption
that death cannot happen to him – he is paradoxically always aware of it, and it surfaces in the novel’s narration. He fears he is pursued by a “fateful sense of purpose and inevitable mechanistic inevitability.” (Hantke 2012 page 47) and accordingly, the narrative follows Jack through dangerous situations.
It is the paranoia of death that motivates Jack to hide behind the image of Hitler. As a teacher of the Hitler studies, “Gladney is searching for someone who can restore significance and value to his life, and the powerful image of Hitler offers fullness to his emptiness.” (Lentricchia 2010 page 47) “Hitler is larger than death. You thought he would protect you.” Claims Murray (DeLillo 1987 page 287). It is the idea that by flattening a figure; one lives like a commodity, and thus eternally, because they are not human. But likewise, Gladney is attracted to Hitler’s hypnotic power over crowds and this is explored in his own lectures. He believes that he can fill a religious need in his crowd, giving them someone to look to – in the same way that Hitler took control of his own supporters. It is in this sense that DeLillo comments on the culture of Nazi Germany, claiming that many of Hitler’s supporters were looking for someone to turn to in the face of a somewhat religious void. “Still experiencing a spiritual void, Americans turn not to an actual political leader but to a purely artificial image of greatness” (Lentricchia 2010 page 53). DeLillo’s commentary is apparent with such lines as “Crowds came to form a shield against their own dying.” (DeLillo 1984) It emphasizes the idea that Gladney’s profession is steered by the concept of beating death.
Becker discusses man’s desire to be heroic, claiming that it is also his tragic destiny to “justify himself as an object of primary value in the universe” and “show that he counts more than anything or anyone else.” (Becker 2011 page 4) This is why the book satirically claims that Hitler is larger than death. If man creates something long lasting in nature, they feel they have created a legacy; something of value and “of lasting worth and meaning, that they outlive or outshine.” (Becker 2011 page 4) But this is the crisis of the postmodern world; because society reminds us that the youth can no longer feel heroic in their surroundings. The great historical truth is described as “the great perplexity of our time” by Becker (Becker 2011 page 7), who feels there is an ignoble heroics of all societies. It can be “the viciously destructive heroics of Hitler’s Germany or the plain de-basing and silly heroics of acquisition and display of consumer goods” (Becker page 7). DeLillo’s protagonists thus have nothing else to turn to, aside from images.
Once Gladney’s fear of death has taken hold of him – he turns to Dylar, a drug which is designed to repress the fear of death. It is the ultimate metaphor for the postmodern condition; manufactured to distract. It is at this point that where Zilborg is useful for understanding why Dylar would be a counterproductive idea if it actually worked.
“The business of preserving life would be impossible if the fear of death were not as constant. The very term self-preservation implies an effort against some force of disintegration, the affective aspect of this is fear, fear of death” (Zilborg 1943 page 465).
The fear of death has to be present behind our normal functioning in order to be armed towards self-preservation. This is why Orest wants to engage in the activity of breaking a record. However, “the fear of death cannot be present constantly in one’s mental functioning, else the organism could not function.” (Becker 2011 page 16) This imbalance is prevalent in Babette; who feels she is almost unable to function with her fear of death. She becomes “extra-sensitive to the terror of death”. (DeLillo 1984 page 226). Here, Zilborg is echoed by DeLillo’s Winnie Richards who warns Jack: “It’s a mistake to lose one’s sense of death… Doesn’t it give a precious texture to life, a sense of definition” (DeLillo 1984 page 228). However her views are contrasted against Murray who is the symptom of a postmodern age, and his views represent the majority of DeLillo’s characters: “Fear is unnatural.. Pain, death, reality, these are all unnatural.” (DeLillo 1984 page 289) This is why DeLillo’s characters cannot be heroic. In Heidegger, Dasein’s mode towards death is always anxiety, but not an obsessively crippling fear. And although DeLillo’s characters fear death – they cannot face this fear.
When Jack attempts to understand how much the airborne cloud has affected his mortality, he hopes that the signs in his world will signify a connection – and they don’t. His consultation with medical experts merely reveals a representation of stars and digits. The signs transmitted by the whole system could mean trace amounts of Nyodene D or high levels of potassium. Gladney then looks to images for answers with a body scan, only to “discover that he has no directorial control over what the screens broadcast” (Duvall 2013 page 88). “The computer displays a picture of someone being consumed from the inside, someone whom death has unquestionably entered” (Duvall 2013 page 88). His subjectivity and his belief over what makes him Gladney is lost in a flurry of digits and stars; and images which relate to nothing.
Add this, then, to Heinrich’s brain theories, that a human being cannot distinguish “what’s you as a person and what’s some neuron that just happens to fire or just happens to misfire” and Jack is at a loss (DeLillo 1984 page 46) This is what makes DeLillo the “laureate of terror” (The New Yorker 2011). Individuality is jeopardized, and in death, the concept of subjectivity is threatened by the concept of nothingness. Gladney’s pursuit for answers and meaning through the images that punctuate his life leads to nothing. Consider Mink’s perceived damaged from Dylar; a frail mess huddled by pills when Jack finds him. DeLillo is highlighting something more than just a physical death; and instead looks to a death drenched in a postmodern angst. It is the “disintegration of the humanist sense of self” (Duvall 2013 page 90). DeLillo paints a world resting on the foundation of empty image; a world without faith, and a world desperate to condense, flatten and hide behind death. And Mink’s deterioration is the result of this – it is the postmodern death.
The conclusion features young Wilder escaping death on a busy highway. It is apt that DeLillo finishes with this passage, as it becomes commentary on the development of one’s awareness of death and how it develops through age. When trying to comfort Babette, Jack declares “There’s no one who has lived past the age of seven who hasn’t worried about death” (DeLillo page 226). For Becker, the child slowly develops an awareness of death through the development of actually existing; and during this stage, the world must appear quite magical to them. They appear to be eternal in their lacking knowledge of death. Becker then argues that by observing the ability to acknowledge and live with death, the child is slowly able to mirror their parents’ treatment of it. But Jack and Babette do not triumph over death. “What if death is nothing but sound?” worries Babette, “Electrical sound” (page 228). Here is DeLillo’s use of terror. What if the entire system that is designed to be a distraction, is actually death? The empty signs, the busy supermarkets, white noise; all of which are used by DeLillo to cover up the fear of death are all of the things which simultaneously carry the reminder of it. For the Gladneys, death is subliminally embedded in the postmodern world; and it is conclusively inescapable.