“White Noise” book by Don DeLillo – post modernistic novel

“White Noise” book by Don DeLillo

“White Noise” book by Don DeLillo is his the best selling novel. The readers think of it as the most human and the warmest of his books. The ideas in the book seem to captivate DeLillo and are embodied in a real life examples in such a way that no other of his books has. White Noice has won the National Book Award in 1985 and it of course brought DeLillo more fans and a larger reading audience.

“The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel”; “Another postmodern sunset, rich in romantic imagery… We stood there watching a surge of florid light, like a heart pumping in a documentary on color TV.” Everybody will recognize these famous passages. They can be found in White Noise in the third section of the novel called “Dylarama” (227). A strange title for the novel, but not illegible, especially if one recalls “Waves and Radiation,” and “The Airborne Toxic Event,” as DeLillo entitles the previous parts. “Dylarama” combines “Dylar” and horama. “Dylar” is the type of medication that is supposed to counter the fear of death; it is a pill that is developed with volunteers help like Babetter, Jack Gladney’s wife.

Horama means, “sight” in Ancient Greek. One can of course read “Dylarama” as a lexical analogue of “panorama,” “a complete view of an area in every direction,” as Webster defines it. In the similar way Dylarama designates a view of death, a summarizing view shown by the spectator of a fear of death. Interestingly, nobody really dies in White Noise – even when Gladney tries to kill Gray, it does not work. Death does not happen as we are expecting it, although every single character of the novel is obsessed with it. There is always somebody willing to take part in exorcising simulations of deadly phenomena.

Once would hardly think of it as of a terminal” event, as a “discreet” fact, but linguists would say that nevertheless the death is omnipresent as an uninterrupted ongoing process. This process brings about a radical transformation in postmodern ontology and DeLillo’s fictional world in particular. What White Noise plays out is a different kind of death, namely the accelerated erosion of the “real.” Subjectivity and its formerly “natural” environment are the categories most decisively affected by such an ontological displacement of the real. To be sure, death has combed out the rhetoric of its “classical” visibility “real.” Subjectivity and its formerly “natural” environment are the categories most decisively affected by such an ontological displacement of the real. To be sure, death has combed out the rhetoric of its “classical” visibility.

If we still perceive it is a terminal scenario, we should take into consideration DeLillo’s dark imagination and his understanding of subjectivity: White Noise’s subjects and  objects have been made into “terminal identities,” to recall Scott Bukatman’s Baudrillardian title. People’s lives do not “terminate” due to “fatal” accidents or “terminal” diseases. However, death is in-scribed, literally written in the very structure of subjects once “the system” (the market, technology, etc.) has turned them into “terminals” of various networks, as Baudrillard insists in “The Ecstasy of Communication.”

Humans and their surroundings have lost the foundations that were granted them. They cannot be self-sufficient entities anymore, but the effects and results come from the various phenomena. Nature–human nature included–has become artificial performance and is now being staged as a “postmodern” play, mediates make-believe. The anthropological notion of subjectivity does not hold any more since the subject has changed into “a bunch of electronic dots,” to quote from DeLillo’s novel Running Dog. My purpose here is to look closer at the structure of the  “real,” of people and objects in White Noise and eventually locate the point at which this structure and the cyberpunk articulation of reality may overlap. My intervention also touches on the relationship between “mainstream” fiction and “peripheral” genres like cyberpunk within postmodernism at large.

Cyberpunk and post modernistic novels

In his “Constructing Postmodernism” Brian Mchale suggests they these genres can have more in common than we think. Cyberpunk is not just covering a marginal sector of postmodern narrative; it also is present in such hardcore books as Gravity’s Rainbow and Vineland by Pynchon or Ratner’s Star, White Noise, and Mao II by DeLillo. They all draw on the transformation real people and environments undergo under the pressure of technology in “late capitalism.” Needless to say, there are important differences between DeLillo’s and Gibson’s views of this process. But, again, what I am here most interested in is the area in which mainstream and not-so-mainstream postmodern representations of reality and subjectivity may cross each other. The treatment of human and natural reality in White Noise and Neuromancer also shows that their specific takes on these issues dovetail pretty well. In both texts, such a reality gets dislodged or, shall I say, “deconstructed” as reality since, as I have pointed out, it is produced, written–which renders the ontological distinction between the natural and the artificial hardly operative. The subject appears in DeLillo, to recall the terms Derrida uses in his interview “Eating Well,” as a “fable” (102), “a surface effect, a fallout” (103). It is the result of a “plot” that “writes together,” mingles heterogeneous data or “pocket litter,” to recall a famous phrase of Libra. “You are the sum total of your data” (141), Gladney learns during a “simulated evacuation.” One can view this type of subject as the core theme of DeLillo’s whole work. In White Noise it is less the CIA “plotters” and “writers” who concoct the story of the subject, of the subject as an object and therefore as an instrument. Subjectivity gets processed, “written” by other, less visible  “agencies” and “agents.” Their intervention makes it fit into the post-structuralism paradigm that punctuates, to quote Derrida again, “dehiscence…, intrinsic dislocation …, difference, destinerrance” (103). In this light, DeLillo’s novel brings to the fore the subject’s condition in a “post-humanist” environment. To come back to the section titles, the human and its “natural” surroundings have been transformed into “unnatural” objects, upshots and spin-offs of various technologies. Once affected by “waves and radiation,” “airborne toxic events,” and the like, they have gotten “dehumanized,” to use a more traditional term. The subject is nothing more than”fallout,” an “ersatz,” but so is its medium. Natural phenomena are always suspected of being nothing more than “by-products.” Chemistry has taken over. Psychologically, the formerly “genuine” perception of nature has been replaced by a “hermeneutics of suspicion” that routinely denounces the natural as technological setup. Heinrich, Gladney’s son, insists that what we assume to be rain may actually be “sulphuric acid from factories across the river” or, even worse, “fallout from a war in China” (24). It is such an unexamined belief, he suggests, that lays the basis for a sort of unacknowledged compact under girding social life. We are simply supposed to take the natural origin of the visible for granted. But beside “spills, fallouts, leakages” (175) as visible phenomena that may motivate the exercise of the hermeneutics of suspicion, there are less noticeable yet far.

The real issue,” Heinrich claims, “is the kind of radiation that surrounds us every day. Your radio, your TV, your microwave oven, your power lines just outside the door, your radar speed-trap on the highway” (174). There are at lest two important implications here, physical (or physiological) and intellectual (or ideological). First, humans are literally affected by “being exposed to constant rays” (175). They are radiated and turned into “fields” themselves, dissolved as bodies and self-sufficient, Cartesian entities once they have come to be modeled by and depend upon an external source of energy. At a less symbolic level, this can result in “nerve disorders, strange and violent behavior in the home,” “deformed babies” (175), and so forth. An analogous deformation may affect people’s minds, turning them into “Tubeheads,” as Pynchon suggests in Vineland. Watching TV is the utmost ritual of Gladney’s household. Hypnotically gazing at catastrophic reports amidst catastrophic developments completes the disintegration of subjectivity. Intellectual radiation–intellectual eradication–equals physical radiation, whether this is controlled or occurs by accident, nuclear or otherwise. Exposure to TV rays or TV information, to X rays or atomic radiation, to media discourse or “toxic events” yields basically the same results. In this view, physiology may very well function as an intellectual trope. Our thinking is–or can turn into–the sum total of the information the TV screen “radiates” as much as our identity is, Gladney realizes, a computer file, a chemical formula perpetually “rewritten” by technology or a “contract,” a “capitalist transaction,” as Babette owns (194). White Noise brings forth a “digital subject” held captive and refashioned in a “digital world,” as Horst Ruthrof points out (196). The subject and its environment strike us, to use Gladney’s own term, as “texture,” writing effects, whether we are talking about humans, the “natural” or “commercial” landscape (the omnipresent “supermarket”). To cite one of Derrida’s observations of his essay “No Apocalypse, Not Now,” reality has become “fabulously textual,” “constructed by the fable” (23). Both Derrida’s nuclear criticism and DeLillo’s catastrophic imagery play out a reality, human or natural, deprived of original substance, a reality as fallout, effect, writing effect. Subjects and objects are being transformed into holograms through radiation, radio waves, toxic and TV emissions–which are basically the same thing. To indulge into etymological play a bit, not only renders DeLillo’s narrative hologrammatology the body–the nature’s body included–a technological performance, a hologram, specter, chemical sunset, or other picture “developed” by technological means. White Noise is more than such a simulating writing that defines reality, as Jonathan Culler described Derrida’s grammatological project, as “already written,” produced as text (75). It also forcefully foregrounds the ontological displacement such a writing brings about. Its “hologrammatology” pinpoints the lack of “substratum,” of “Aristotelian substratum,” to quote from another novel by DeLillo. Such lack characterizes his people and places. more menacing phenomena impinging upon us.

DeLillo has a knack for capturing the essence of American popular culture through intelligence and ironic humor. White Noise essentially is about American’s fear of death, but it touches upon so many silly things in our society that it certainly goes far beyond this subject. On the other hand, you can say that it is simply about everyday life and everyday relationships. I find it interesting that this book was first published in 1984, since it seems to point out things that seem even more true today, (like a drug similar to Prozac) than I recall from 15 years ago. One thing that dates the book is the “generic” food section at the supermarket. Remember the black and white packaging? Now, where did that concept go?


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