July 20, 2001
White Noise and the Stylized Collision
Don DeLillo’s 1985 White Noise offers another perspective on the link between technology and the stylization of the collision. Perhaps more in line with Hayles’ reading of Crash, White Noise suggests an American drive toward transcendence in its preoccupation with living around and through the voices of technology. While the white buzz of the cathode ray pervades every aspect of the novel’s view of postmodern life, suggesting the uniform whiteness of the characters’ existential dread, it also offers a direction about how to live in a technologically dependent and directed world. The novel seems to ask: from where does one find spiritual guidance in the contemporary babble of technology? Much of the guidance that the characters receive is directly from the broadcast media. The media, whether television or radio, sanctions events within the story making them more real than they would be experienced merely through the characters’ senses. Yet, it’s through the senses, heightened by their influence from television and film, that makes life in White Noise worth living.
In his quest for an order and control in his life that will end his dread of death, Jack Gladney, Professor of Hitler Studies at College-on-the-Hill, confides in his friend and colleague, Murray Jay Siskind, on several occasions about eminent death. On one of these occasions, Murray discusses his latest college seminar on car crashes. He reads car crashes in American B-movies as acts of optimism, celebration, and innocence, rather than sharing his students’ view that crashes represent a “drive to suicide”:
|“||“I see these car crashes as part of a long tradition of American optimism. They are positive events, full of the old ‘can-do’ spirit. Each car crash is meant to be better than the last. There is a constant upgrading in tools and skills, a meeting of challenges. . . . I tell my students if they want to bring technology into it, they have to take this into account, this tendency toward grandiose deeds, toward pursuing a dream.”||”|
Rather than a “hurtling rush to suicide,” Murray sees the car crash, as portrayed in film, as a celebratory act of creation, rather than destruction and mutilation. They speak to the visceral side of the human audience that longs for a naïveté in the “fiery and loud head-on” collision that offers a “reaffirmation of traditional values and beliefs” in a dance of slow-motion violence. The car crash, when coupled with the technology of film, offers a stylized artistic product that transcends any actual violence because of its existence in the reality of the medium. This interpretation suggests too, critic John N. Duvall adds, that meaning resides in form rather than content.[a]
DeLillo offers another example of the hypnotic affects of the crash. While today’s “reality” television shows like “The World’s Greatest Car Crashes” did not exist in the American mid-eighties, the preoccupation with the form of collision and disaster did:
|“||But the crash was shown two more times, once in stop-action replay, as an analyst attempted to explain the reason for the plunge. A jet in an air show in New Zealand. . . . There were floods, earthquakes, mud slides, erupting volcanoes. We’d never before been so attentive to our duty, our Friday assembly. Heinrich was not sullen, I was not bored. Steffie, brought close to tears by a sitcom husband arguing with his wife, appeared totally absorbed in these documentary clips of calamity and death. Babette tried to switch to a comedy series . . . [and] she was startled by the force of our objection. We were otherwise silent, watching houses slide into the ocean, whole villages crackle and ignite in a mass of advancing lava. Every disaster made us wish for more, for something bigger, grander, more sweeping.||”|
Here is not the American B-movie disaster and crash, but the eye of the documentary, a deceptively faithful recorder of the actual, as it happened. Yet, this actual is also mediated by the eye of the camera and the screen on which it’s viewed, thus mitigating the physical effects of the event — thank God it didn’t happen to us — and relegating it to the plane of the American B-film, not a place where one should seek apocalypse, according to Murray, but celebration.
Yet, Jack’s colleague Alfonse Stompanato, the chairman of the Department of American Environments, has a different take on America’s fascination with castrophe; he blames it on “brain fade”: “Because we’re suffering from brain fade. We need an occasional catastrophe to break up the incessant bombardment of information.” Stompanato convincingly argues that in the barrage of informational input, “words, pictures, numbers, facts, graphics, statistics, specks, waves, particles, motes,” only the destructive spectacle gets attention: “We want them, we need them, we depend on them. As long as they happen somewhere else.” Stompanato’s explanation suggests that these visceral longings for mut(il)ating collisions manifest themselves through our layers of humanity from the screen. Through that distance, these desires are fulfilled in reality, while remaining actually deferred. Ironically, technology fulfills an elemental desire that transcends the limits of humanity, into an animalistic past: a sort of atavism through technology, or a de-humanizing.
Stompanato and Murray suggest a longing for a lost innocence in their explanation of disaster spectacle. The former posits brain fade as symptomatic of a lost ability “to listen and look as children” (DeLillo 67). Murray supports his colleague’s interpretation in his take on the collision in film: “it’s not decay that they are seeing but innocence. The movie breaks away from complicated human passions to show us a . . . conservative wish-fulfillment, a yearning for naïveté.” Within the simulation of the actual, then, lies a desire to see beyond the white noise of contemporary life — supported by human technology and ideology — to the underlying simplicity and charge of “a wonderful brimming spirit of innocence and fun.” The reality of the simulation keeps the destructive actuality at a distance, postponed, un-real. White Noise seems to suggest, at least on one level, that television is not a distraction from real life, but a representation of actuality that has very real and actual effects (an almost mythic connection), yet remains separated from the actual by a mediating technology. This mediation makes disaster and collision not only bearable, but desirable.
For example, throughout White Noise, Jack Gladney is preoccupied with the idea of his dying: anxious to the point of distraction. Murray explains Jack’s fixation on the latter’s lack of ability to repress. As Jack is a college professor, the majority of his thought processes are trained in art, literature, politics, religion, and philosophy — humanistic endeavors that seek to probe the mysteries of humanity’s place in the universe. Yet, none of these disciplines explain the actuality of death, so Jack, reminiscent of Tolstoy’s Ivan Ilych, can only stare into the abyss and despair. Murray maintains that since we cannot understand death, it’s unhealthy and unnatural to keep looking at it. His answer? Repression. To which Jack replies, “But isn’t repression unnatural?”
“Fear is unnatural. Lightning and thunder are unnatural. Pain, death, reality, these are unnatural. We can’t bear these things as they are. We know too much. So we resort to repression, compromise and disguise. This is how we survive the universe. This is the natural language of the species.” (DeLillo 289) Here, the unnatural is what human intellect cannot explain, except, perhaps, through myth. Life is in the plot, not in the actuality. The reality of fiction offers life, not the distracting actuality of the abyss: “To plot, to take aim at something, to shape time and space. This is how we advance the art of human consciousness.”
Yet, the repression though collision cannot take place in actuality, or the repressive reality will break down. Murray is careful to explicitly state several times during his conversation with Jack that they are two college professors having a theoretical discussion. However, when Murray makes the distinction between “killers” and “diers,” Jack takes it as literal advice:
|“||“I believe, Jack, that there are two kinds of people in the world. Killers and diers. Most of us are diers. We don’t have the disposition, the rage or whatever it takes to be a killer. We let death happen. We lie down and die. But think what it’s like to be a killer. Think how exciting it is, in theory, to kill a person in direct confrontation. If he dies, you cannot. To kill him is to gain life-credit. The more people you kill, the more credit you store up. It explains any number of massacres, wars, executions. . . . It’s a way of controlling death. A way of gaining the ultimate upper hand. Be a killer for a change. Let someone else be the dier. Let him replace you, theoretically, in that role. You can’t die if he does. He dies, you live. See how marvelously simple.”||”|
Jack confuses the planes of reality and actuality. He takes Murray’s real advice — here in the form of theory — as an actual call to arms: to kill his wife’s lover and drug pusher, Willie Mink. However, Jack’s botched attempt to be a literal killer illustrates the difference between actuality and reality through the muzzle of a gun.
Through the bristle of white noise that seems to support his terminator-like scheme to end the life of Willie Mink, Jack travels to the hotel where the confrontation will occur: where Jack hopes to become a killer rather than a dier. Jack’s vision and revision of his murder plot echo throughout the chapter and are charged by the ubiquitous white noise. He rehearses his murder plot several times as he gets nearer to ending the life of the man he blames for much of his and his wife’s troubles; the death of this man, Jack believes, will help relieve some of his anxiety: “It made perfect sense. What was I here for if not to define, fix my sights, take aim at? I heard a noise, faint, monotonous, white.” The sizzle of white noise begins to drown out all but Jack’s monomania, even Mink’s reasonable deduction of Gladney’s troubles: “I see you as a heavyset white man about fifty. Does this describe your anguish?”; yet the air is charged by the white noise that drowns out these particulars and suffuses Gladney with the superhuman awareness that makes him a killer, at least for the moment:
|“||I continued to advance in consciousness. Things glowed, a secret life rising out of them. . . . I understood the neurochemistry of my brain, the meaning of dreams (the waste material of premonitions). Great stuff everywhere, racing throught the room, racing slowly. A richness, a density. I believed everything. I was a Buddhist, a Jain, a Duck River Baptist.||”|
The reality of Murray’s theory attempts to assert itself upon the actuality of killing, producing a moment of kairos — a religiously charged instant that exists in Gladney’s popular-culture-infused reality about to collide with hard actuality. The situation takes on an air of stylized, filmic reality in which Gladney assumes the role of the leading man about to vanquish the villain. This feeling intensifies as Gladney pulls the trigger, enjoying the flow of blood: “Mink’s pain was beautiful, intense.” Gladney, I would suggest, is still very much a spectator in the scene unfolding before him, like he’s watching a film in which he has projected himself into the avenging hero’s part. Yet the moment of collision — when Gladney is shot in the wrist by Mink — the pain of his physical injury breaks the Zen trance and makes Gladney aware of the mundane, human implications of his actions. He is no longer the superman supported by the reality of a deferred theory, but an actual man that now must try to save himself and Mink: “With the restoration of the normal order of matter and sensation, I felt I was seeing him for the first time as a person. The old human muddles and quirks were set flowing again. Compassion, remorse, mercy.” The celebratory reality of the superhuman is replaced by the mundanity of the human, and the white noise fades again into the background. The eye of the camera gives way to the ailing body of the human agent.
notes and references
- This reading is further supported by Gladney’s conversation with a nun later in the novel. The nun tells Gladney that “our pretense is a dedication” — that the clergy keeps up an appearance of devotion so that the world does not have to believe. The appearance of faith, she suggests, is the only thing that matters. Ironically, in this view, the unbelievers are the ones who are the believers. This moment of honesty is too much for Gladney, and he screams: “You’re a nun. Act like one.” See DeLillo (1984, pp. 316-320).
- Hayles, N. Katherine (1991). "The Borders of Madness". Science Fiction Studies. 18 (3): 321–323.
- Osteen, Mark (1984). Introduction. White Noise: Text and Criticism. By DeLillo, Don. Osteen, Mark, ed. New York: Penguin. p. xiii.
- DeLillo, Don (1984). Osteen, Mark, ed. White Noise: Text and Criticism. New York: Penguin. p. 218.
- DeLillo 1984, p. 218.
- DeLillo 1984, p. 437.
- DeLillo 1984, p. 64.
- DeLillo 1984, p. 66.
- DeLillo 1984, p. 219.
- DeLillo 1984, p. 292.
- DeLillo 1984, pp. 290–291.
- DeLillo 1984, p. 306.
- DeLillo 1984, p. 308.
- DeLillo 1984, p. 310.
- DeLillo 1984, p. 312.
- DeLillo 1984, p. 313.