Understanding The Postmodern Condition through Don DeLillo’s White Noise

No part of this essay may be reproduced. If you wish to cite this paper please contact the author at fareed@thingsandink.com for permission.

Upon winning the 1985 National Book Award for his novel White Noise, Don DeLillo was asked to give an acceptance speech. Rising to his feet, the author announced, ‘I’m sorry I couldn’t be here tonight, but I thank you all for coming,’ and sat down. Irrespective of whether one considers this an insolent act of impropriety, DeLillo embodied, with the poetic jest and playfulness of a Situationist Internationalist, the fundamental tenet of Baudrillard’s theory of simulacrum: ‘The simulacrum is never that which conceals the truth—it is the truth which conceals that there is none. The simulacrum is true’ (Baudrillard, 1989: 166). DeLillo transformed himself into a parody of the real and became what White Noise’s protagonist, Jack Gladney, described as the ‘false character that follows the name around’ (DeLillo, 2011: 17). Just as Umberto Eco (1998: 7) roamed the wax museums of America observing that the ‘completely real’ becomes identified with the ‘completely fake’, DeLillo presented himself as a fake so real that he negated the original—himself. White Noise is a remarkable American novel that has produced a multitude of interpretations and critical essays, the majority of which perceive the work through multifarious facets of postmodern theory and thought. Cornel Bonca (1996: 26) attributes this to the novel’s ability to ‘illuminate reigning theories of cultural postmodernism’. This piece will demonstrate the ability of White Noise to illustrate pertinent descriptions and interpretations of the postmodern. We will look at the terms postmodernism and postmodernity, respectively, and reveal the inextricable links between the two. We will then interpret the fusion between mass culture and high art and the context in which these fuse. Finally, this paper will discuss the nature of narrative, knowledge, and technology in a postmodern context; reveal how Baudrillard’s theory of simulacra permeates White Noise; and discuss how technology is omnipresent in the postmodern era. First, however, in order to clearly illustrate how White Noise fictionalizes the concepts of postmodernity, we will attempt a definition of the postmodern.

            There is no straightforward consensus on the meaning of postmodernism, and such are the complexities and ambiguities of our understandings of the postmodern that some may find it easier to reject the notion than engage in irresolute conjecture. This, as we shall come to see, is a fundamental tenet of postmodernity itself—its unwillingness to be rationalised through identification and definition. This intractable theoretical concept/epoch/perspective has had supporters and detractors locking horns as to what it is they disagree or agree on: Is it an age of playful freedom and consumer choice? A dystopian wasteland obliterating communities and culture at the hand of capital? A deeper awareness of ontological relativity? Or is it an abdication from engagement with the ‘real’? The meaning of postmodernism differs across disciplines, yet each of these areas can tell us various things about disparate aspects of our contemporary social and cultural milieu(s). Simon Malpas (2005: 6, 7) says, ‘as a means of thinking about the contemporary world, the post-modern has been defined in a huge variety of different ways’ which ‘evoke ideas of irony, disruption, difference, discontinuity, playfulness, parody, hyper-reality and simulation.’ To make matters even more complicated, ‘postmodernism’ and ‘postmodernity’ both represent separate aspects of the postmodern. Whereas postmodernism delves into the realm of the aesthetic, postmodernity focuses on the cultural context. As Malpas (2005: 9) puts it, broadly speaking, ‘postmodernism is thus often described as a style or a genre, while postmodernity is said to refer to an epoch or period’.

            Postmodernism as a literary style is best understood in how it differs from modernism. Malpas (2005) claims that the history of the novel is a sequentially tripartite one. (This model can also be applicable to architecture and art, as well as other media forms.) Beginning in the eighteenth century, the first historical phase is realism—an aim to ‘present as lifelike an image of the world as possible by masking the conventional character of its construction’ (Malpas, 2005: 27). We then enter the epoch of modernism. The literature of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries was characterised as ‘deliberately difficult and elitist in its experimentations that aim to explore life and experience’ (Malpas, 2005: 27). This was followed, thirdly, by postmodernism, which ‘continues to experiment with literary technique but refuses to take up the elitist stance of the modernists and instead prefers to play with popular cultural references and pastiche’ (Malpas, 2005: 28). The chronology of literary stylistic shifts can be perceived as one of a loosening on restrictions to freedom. A fundamental feature of postmodernism is what Fredric Jameson (1991: 2) claims to be the effacement of the,

"frontier between high culture and so-called mass or commercial culture, and the emergence of new kinds of texts infused with the forms, categories, and contents of that very culture industry so passionately denounced by all the ideologues of the modern."

            The fusion between mass and high culture is evident within the popular-culture department of Gladney’s university, portrayed in DeLillo’s White Noise. A department dedicated to ‘deciphering the natural language of the culture’ from bubblegum to detergent jingles, popular culture is as important as the high art of the modernist period, offering contemporary people a window into their collective soul (DeLillo, 2011: 9). Murray Jay Siskind, a visiting lecturer on living icons, understands the departure from modernist art and analyses culture in the art galleries of the postmodern—supermarkets and the American home, where cereal boxes are ‘the only avant-garde we’ve got’ (DeLillo, 2011: 10). Consisting of ‘bold new forms’ with ‘the power to shock’, consumer commodities lead the age in original works of art, speaking to us in a language of codes and messages, waves and radiations—‘sacred formulas’—that mark our ‘species as unique’ (DeLillo, 2011: 19, 50). Siskind is in the business of assessing the transference of data, images, and signs between people and their environment, an experience he finds humbling and close to mystical.

            There are those, however, that argue against the idea of a temporal chronology and instead emphasise and advocate the atemporal nature of style. One such theorist, the French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard, does not eschew the tripartite terminology but does reject the historical periodizations. Lyotard proposes that ‘all three coexist simultaneously in any culture and indicate different modes of presentation within a given milieu’ (my italics, Malpas, 2005: 28). Realism depicts the world ‘from a point of view that would give it a recognisable meaning’, where a reader or viewer is exposed to a world according to conventions ‘already familiar so that it can quickly and unproblematically be understood’ (Malpas, 2005: 28). On the other hand, modernism and postmodernism ‘present the existence of something unpresentable. Showing that there is something we can conceive of that we can neither see nor show’ (Lyotard quoted in Malpas, 2005: 29). In other words, modern and postmodern works disturb our sense of reality and dislocate our pillars for meaning. Rather than presenting an immediately recognisable and understandable experience, they disrupt ‘recognition by alluding to what a particular culture represses or excludes from its normal means of communication’ (Malpas, 2005: 29). This is in contrast to what literary critic Jameson believes to be the inadequacy of postmodern literature within the context of a postmodern society. He states that,

"postmodern literature offers little scope for resistance: the distinction between high art and popular culture has been effaced by the commodification of artistic production, and the critical thrust of modern parody has become nothing more than blank mimicry with a pastiche that is ‘amputated of the satiric impulse’ and ‘devoid of laughter’. Parody, according to Jameson, has a critical edge: it challenges and subverts that which it mimics. Pastiche, on the other hand, is concerned only with the superficial appropriation of different modes and genres for the generation of its own performative style (Malpas, 2005: 25)"

            White Noise, however, does offer scope for resistance. The novel is not postmodern in style but is rather a commentary on the postmodern condition; namely, it is a subjective response to a postmodern reality. In offering the reader a glimpse into the fractured, ‘schizophrenic’ perspective of DeLillo’s characters, White Noise reveals a world of simulacra, sublimity, and technological determinism. In doing so, the reader becomes aware of a pastiche reality that they may critique and attempt to challenge. As Bonca (1996: 26) states in his article on this subject, White Noise tends to

draw out a certain buried awareness in my students that the most familiar aspects of their lives—shopping malls, television, families, and the languages of these things—harbour deep and resonant mysteries. It affects them … as a sustained defamiliarization of their own lives … it is impossible to shop in a supermarket the same way, to watch a televised disaster the same way.

This what Lyotard identifies as the ‘sublime’. As Malpas (2005: 29) states,

"In contrast to the beautiful, which is based on a feeling of harmony and attraction between the subject and the work, the sublime indicates a mixed feeling of pleasure and pain: simultaneous attraction and repulsion, awe and terror … This notion of the sublime as a disturbance of everyday sense-making activity is … central to postmodern theory."

            The difference between modern and postmodern forms of the sublime is in representation. The former can only be alluded to in its absence, owing to the limitations of the conventional narrative form, while the latter ‘invokes the unpresentable in presentation itself’ (Lyotard quoted in Malpas, 2005: 29). The postmodern sublime challenges a reader’s perception about the novel’s form, content, structure, and style, disturbing their understanding of what a novel should be. ‘The modern,’ Malpas (2005: 30) states, ‘and the postmodern are presented here as dynamic forms that work to disrupt the expectations of a culture, and change as that culture is transformed and readers and spectators become used to, and no longer shocked by, their contents and methods.’ Postmodernism is a tool wielded against the realist context of a given culture. Thus, modernism and postmodernism are in a state of flux: what was initially iconoclastic and postmodern becomes the tepid modern of yesteryear. Having ceased to shock and challenge the critical assumptions of the cultural milieu, the postmodern must adapt.

            So far, we have focused on the style and form of postmodern literature. We have seen that style can be divorced from historic periodization and that it exists in a state of interchangeability between the modern and postmodern. However, to conduct an assessment exclusively concerned with the aesthetics of postmodernism is to ignore the social, economic, and political contexts from which they blossom. As Fredric Jameson (quoted in Malpas, 2005: 31) notes, the postmodern ‘is not just another word for the description of a particular style. It is also … a periodising concept whose function is to correlate the emergence of new formal features in culture with the emergence of a new type of social life and a new economic order.’ In other words, postmodernism is not merely a new aesthetic style but a response to a new stage of cultural development: style and context are inextricably linked, and to understand this link one must first have a clear sense of what is meant by the term postmodernity.

            Postmodernity has already been described as a historical epoch. If the modern is a period cradling the rise in humanism—the recognition that human beings are the basis of knowledge and action, are inherently valuable and dignified, and have free will—then to be postmodern is to break from this period of progress and development and to plunge into an age of uncertainty and crisis, where humanist narratives are abandoned, and what it means to be a citizen of the world must be reconceptualised. This reconfiguration is on a scale equal to how the industrial revolution fundamentally shifted the course of social, cultural, political and economic evolution.  Accordingly, Jameson (1991: 1) argues that ‘as the word itself suggests, this break is most often related to notions of the waning or extinction of the hundred-year-old modern movement (or to its ideological or aesthetic repudiation).’ In societies prior to modernity, exchange was conducted through ‘a series of symbolic transactions not yet coded as “value”. Value emerges only with capitalism which distinguishes between use value and exchange value in its system of political economy’ (Best and Keller, 1991: 114). Here, abstract concepts such as money and exchange value rule society. Jameson (1991: 3) offers that ‘the new social formation in question no longer obeys the laws of classical capitalism, namely, the primacy of industrial production and the omnipresence of class struggle.’ We are now in what Baudrillard (Best and Keller, 1991: 118) claims to be a new ‘era of simulation in which computerization, information processing, media, cybernetic control systems, and the organization of society according to simulation codes and models replace production as the organizing principle of society.’ Now, the new social formation favours, as Jean-Francois Lyotard (1984: 4) proclaims, knowledge. ‘Knowledge is and will be produced in order to be sold, it is and will be consumed in order to be valorized in a new production: in both cases, the goal is exchange.’ Wilcox (1991: 347) believes that the commodification of knowledge, assisted by the ubiquity and omnipresence of mass media, ‘strip society of its secrets, inhibitions, repressions, and depths and leads inexorably to the hollowing out of the self—or better to say, the dispersal of self, the generalized destabilization of the subject in the era of networks and electronic transmission of symbols.’ In White Noise, DeLillo portrays this postmodern kind of subjectivity through the protagonist. Gladney is displaced in the contemporary order, desperate to find new pillars of meaning yet tenaciously clinging to old forms of subjective respite. It is to these old forms that we will now turn.

            The status of knowledge was fundamentally altered as societies entered the post-industrial, post-humanist era. Lyotard analyses the transition of modern knowledge to contemporary ways of knowing by assessing the ways in which we discuss and experience the world in terms of narrative. These stories ‘tie together disparate ideas, impressions and events to form coherent sequences’ (Malpas, 2005: 36, 7). Each narrative is ‘grounded in a particular set of rules and procedures’ that determine the narrative’s legitimacy; these he calls ‘metanarratives’ (Malpas, 2005: 37). Metanarratives ‘provide criteria that allow one to judge which ideas and statements are legitimate, true and ethical for each different form of narrative’ (Malpas, 2005: 37). Lyotard then introduces the ‘grand narrative’—these ‘produce systematic accounts of how the world works, how it develops over history, and the place of human beings within it’—in short, an account of human society and its progress (Malpas, 2005: 37). Taken as a whole, these sets of tools enable individuals to understand their place in the world. Lyotard believes that there are two main forms of grand narrative: speculation and emancipation. Speculative grand narrative ‘charts the progress and development of knowledge towards a systematic truth: a grand unified theory in which our place in the universe will be understood’, whereas the grand narrative of emancipation ‘sees the development of knowledge as driving human freedom as it emancipates humanity from mysticism and dogma through education’ (Malpas, 2005: 38). In other words, speculative narrative can be identified as observing and interpreting the path of knowledge, and emancipation narrative is that which uses knowledge. As Baudrillard claims, this modern experience of knowledge was characterized as the era of ‘Marx and Freud, the era in which politics, culture, and social life were interpreted as epiphenomena of the economy, or everything was interpreted in terms of desire or the unconsciousness’ (Best and Keller, 1991: 126).

            This past form of modernist subjectivity has been effaced in White Noise. Gladney is, as Wilcox (1991: 347) quips, ‘a modernist displaced in a postmodern world.’ His desire to latch on to old forms of subjectivity, defined by the metanarratives of humanism and emancipatory aims, is apparent in his creation of a Hitler department at his university. When his daughter questions his motives in obsessing over the German epoch of fascism and defeat, he responds,

"It’s not a question of good and evil … Look at it this way. Some people always wear a favourite color. Some people carry a gun. Some people put on a uniform and feel bigger, stronger, safer. It’s in this area that my obsessions dwell (DeLillo, 2011: 63)"

            Gladney continues to be nonplussed by a world of detached signs, and he endeavours to find ways of preserving modern notions of an ‘authentic’ and coherent identity through conscientious observation of such rituals of family life as Friday-night television, Chinese takeout, and reading Hitler well into the night. Even his daughter has her method of ‘fastening herself to life . . . in a world of displacements,’—by keeping old commodities for their value as ‘remembering objects’ (DeLillo, 2011: 103).

            Knowledge, in the modern project, was seen as a tool ‘to improve the human condition’; however, Lyotard argues that with the advent of a new age, the nature and status of knowledge has changed and that the ‘recent transformations in capitalism and the political systems that accompany them [are] shattering the systematic or emancipatory aims of the grand narrative’. He posits,

"the criteria that organise knowledge, sort the legitimate from the illegitimate in each discipline and guide the development of thought are no longer as persuasive as they were when they formed a part of a modern grand narrative . . . the criteria of universalism and emancipation have been replaced by a single criterion: profit (Malpas, 2005: 38)"

            Contemporary capitalism is detached from Lyotard’s idea of a grand narrative, and therefore he sees capitalism as surpassing ‘grand narrative’ in superior relevancy: Modern meaning was secure in the dialectics of history and discourse; however, post-industrial capitalism’s superiority lies in the fact that while grand narratives are overarching conduits of categorisation aiming to compact knowledge into a single system, capitalism can function with fragmentation, so long as ‘those fragments of knowledge continue to develop, grow and make a profit’ (Malpas, 2005: 39). Thus,

"the postmodern condition is … one in which the demands of capitalist economics rule supreme, and all developments of knowledge are determined by the pragmatic logic of the markets rather than the overarching dream of a universal human good (Malpas, 2005: 39)"

            As knowledge has now become a commodity, those societies and persons with greater access to it wield greater power in the international economy. As a result of this transformation, ‘the sole criterion for judging the worth of a narrative is its efficacy in making the capitalist system work more quickly and more efficiently’ (Malpas, 2005: 39). National education budget cuts spare disciplines geared toward improving competitiveness; knowledge is being reduced to a system of efficiency. As Malpas (2005: 39) states, ‘in the contemporary world the markets for science and technology, having lost touch with the emancipatory goals of the modern grand narratives’, have formed what Lyotard (1984: 63) claims to be ‘a vanguard machine dragging humanity after it, dehumanising it’. The financial markets have come to determine the value of everything—the commodification and dominance of everyday life, including human life itself: ‘a race of people with a seven-bit analog consciousness’ who consume goods and services for the return ‘of existential credit’ (DeLillo, 2011: 41, 84). Lives are also reduced to efficiency; even the simple act of making coffee is scrutinized to reveal ‘wasted motion’ that should be saved in order to ‘live longer’ (DeLillo, 2011: 102).

            If modernity was the era of industrial production dominated by the bourgeoisie, then postmodernity is the era of ‘information and signs governed by models, codes, and cybernetics’ (Best and Keller, 1991: 118). In this world of technological determinism, however, the boundaries between the real and the simulated are blurred to the point of eradication. When models or codes structure experience, the distinction between the model and the real implode. Baudrillard calls this ‘hyperreality’. Hyperreality points to ‘a blurring of distinctions between the real and the unreal in which the prefix “hyper” signifies more real than real, whereby the real is produced according to a model’ (Best and Keller, 1991: 119). When the real is no longer simply given ‘but is artificially (re)produced as “real”’, as in parks or roads in a simulated environment such as Disneyland, ‘it becomes not unreal, or surreal, but realer-than-real, a real [that is] retouched and refurbished’ (Best and Keller, 1991: 119). As a result, simulations come to constitute reality itself.

            Gladney’s encounter with SIMUVAC, a ‘simulated evacuation’ procedure, is the quintessence of Baudrillard’s theory. Although the evacuation is real, it is treated as a simulation. Gladney remonstrates, ‘But this evacuation isn’t simulated. It’s real.’ By saying that they ‘don’t have the victims laid out where we’d want them if this was an actual simulation,’ the SIMUVAC employee is effectively confirming the idea that the fake is more real than the real. In this new age, all that was solid has melted into air. The age of simulation is represented by a ‘liquidation of all referentials’ and their ensuing ‘artificial resurrection in a system of signs’ (Baudrillard, 1989: 167). The real is now substituted with signs of the real. Unlike a modernist narrative in which the power of individual subjectivity would be employed to achieve universal goals, White Noise proposes a narrative where subjectivity is fractured into states of schizophrenic inauthenticity, where the self is experienced within a space of simulacrum. In turn, this increasingly simulational and nonreferential world directly affects one’s subjectivity.

            Nowhere else in White Noise is this more conspicuously portrayed than with the most photographed barn in America. Having counted more than five signs before reaching the site, Murray proclaims, ‘once you’ve seen the signs about the barn, it becomes impossible to see the barn’, ‘every photograph reinforces the aura . . . an accumulation of nameless energies’ (DeLillo, 2011: 12). As the tourists crowd around with their cameras, tripods, telephoto lenses, etc, the barn disappears into cameras, onto postcards. The original experience of the barn is lost within its representations. This is also evident at the airport when Gladney arrives to collect his daughter. As passengers file out from a near-death experience, they gather around the raconteur and listen to his account of the ‘crash landing’. But ‘it was as though they were being told of an event they hadn’t personally been involved in. They were interested in what he said, even curious, but also clearly detached’ (DeLillo, 2011: 91). The passengers needed an affirmation of their experience, and the only way this was possible was to hear it being told, externally to themselves. The fact that there was no media to confirm the reality of their experience was not lost on these postmodern subjects: Gladney’s daughter wondered, ‘they went through all that for nothing?’ (DeLillo, 2011: 91).

            Much of Gladney’s journey reveals the success of media and consumer capitalism in colonizing his subjectivity. Haphazard, seemingly absurd interjections of brand names penetrate his internal narrative: ‘The Airport Marriott, the Downtown Travelodge, the Sheraton Inn . . . Mastercard, Visa, American Express . . . Krylon, Rust-Oleum, Red Devil . . . Dristan Ultra, Dristan Ultra . . . Leaded, unleaded, superunleaded . . . Clorets, Velamints, Freedent’ (DeLillo, 2011: 15, 100, 159, 167, 199, 229). These random invasions of his subjectivity are always preceded by ruminations on death, as if commodities and capital have the ability to anchor him when contemplating eternal obliteration—the vast unknown abyss of death. So insidious and pervasive is the colonization process that even while his daughter sleeps she whispers incantations of ‘Toyota Celica’, and while awake she lip-syncs words preached from television—the modern pulpit, where the sermon consists of goods and services, icons and false idols (Delillo, 2011: 155). Wilcox (1991: 348) interprets this as ‘the evacuation of the private spheres of self, in Baudrillardian terms “the end of interiority”.’ The characters of White Noise live in a dystopia where they feel and act as though they’re helpless automatons in a world ruled by media, corporations, science, and technology. Although their bodies and minds have the ability to produce a living experience genuine in itself, their surroundings have colonized their subjectivity and made them involuntary actors subordinate to the synthetic creations of the modern era. They now live in a purely inorganic state as though puppets controlled by the strings of consumer capitalism and the media. Reality is no longer what they see or feel but what they are told or can attain from conduits of knowledge external to themselves. As Gladney laments, ‘science has reduced everything we say, do and feel to the number of molecules in a certain region of the brain’. When we reduce ourselves to cells and molecules our emotions become meaningless terms, and we are reduced to mere ‘sums of our chemical impulses’ (DeLillo, 2011: 200).

            In this brave new world, technology dictates reality. It is not raining unless the radio announces rain—belief in our own senses is sceptical—‘our senses are wrong a lot more often than they’re right. This has been proved in the laboratory’ (DeLillo, 2011: 23). During the first stages of the toxic event that takes place in White Noise, the radio warns of various symptoms, such as skin irritation and sweaty palms: soon afterwards, Gladney’s children are complaining of these symptoms. As the radio regularly updates the symptoms, his children psychosomatically update theirs. The fact that the fallout is not visually palpable is testament to the power of the media to create an event and then prescribe the emotions and physiology of those at ground zero. As Wilcox (1991: 351) points out, ‘the Airborne Toxic Event . . . depicts a condition where subjective responses are both constructed and validated by radio and television.’ Gladney finds himself exposed to the deadly substance Nyodene D, although the toxic readout was not formulated through a physical assessment but only generated by Gladney’s personal data and statistics (his age, height, weight, medical history, and so on). The readout generated ‘big numbers’, ‘computerized dots . . . [which] registered my life and death’ (Delillo, 2011: 140). The computer database under his name consists of Jack Gladney’s history—his genetics, personals, medicals, psychological evaluations, and police and hospital records—and the readout is a reflection of this: ‘It just means you are the sum total of your data’; in other words, data supersedes the corporeal—death has been wrested from us and now lies in the hands of inanimate objects.

Death has entered. It is inside you. You are said to be dying and yet are separate from the dying, can ponder it at your leisure, literally see on the X-ray photograph or computer screen the horrible alien logic of it all. It is when death is rendered graphically, is televised so to speak, that you sense an eerie separation between your condition and yourself. A network of symbols has been introduced, an entire awesome technology wrested from the gods. It makes you feel like a stranger in your own dying. (Delillo, 2011: 142)

            As Murray, Gladney’s colleague, remarks of the modern death, ‘It has a life independent of us’ (Delillo, 2011: 150). Death is turned into a sign, something to be viewed independently from us. As Gladney states, ‘maybe there’s no death at all, just documents changing hands’ (Delillo, 2011: 6). All of these elements of postmodern culture lead to an inevitable dénouement: death. Threatening to eradicate the last true state of subjectivity, Dyler, a new pharmaceutical drug, promises to efface our awareness of death and hence what makes us human—‘we are the highest form of life on earth and yet ineffably sad because we know what no other animal knows, that we must die’ (DeLillo, 2011: 99). Winnie Richards, a lab technician, tells Gladney that she thinks ‘it’s a mistake to lose one’s sense of death, even one’s fear of death. Isn’t death a boundary we need? Doesn’t it give a precious texture to life, a sense of definition? You have to ask yourself whether anything you do in this life would have beauty and meaning without the knowledge you carry of a final line, a border of limit’ (DeLillo, 2011: 228, 9). Gladney is aware of the tendency for all plots to move deathward: if one were to erase the awareness of death, the plot becomes meaningless, as does the whole act. As modernity reifies a teleological order, with a clear beginning, journey, and end, postmodernity rejects this metanarrative. Dylar is a metaphor for this rejection of a logical progression. The only thing that reminds us of the plot is death, hence the fetishization of terminal accidents: ‘we need an occasional catastrophe to break up the incessant bombardment of information’ (DeLillo, 2011: 66). Bonca condemns this eternal flow of ‘words, pictures, numbers, facts, graphics, statistics, specks, waves, particles, [and] motes’ as meaningless techno-babble employed to mask death.

            The characters of White Noise populate a world where the media colonizes subjectivity, signs are detached from their referents, technology and science make up the composite human being, and death is under threat for being the last vestige of modernist reality. While men perpetually scan the small town of Blacksmith for toxic chemicals, the Gladneys continue to absorb trivial knowledge from various conduits, recycling the techno-babble and contributing to the white noise of postmodern society. DeLillo has written a novel where the main protagonist tenaciously clings to a modernist frame of perspective as he’s confronted with a postmodern reality and, in doing so, offers the reader sublime moments that disturb their understanding of the world in which they themselves live.


Baudrillard, Jean 1983, The Ecstasy of Communication, The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture. Ed. Hal Foster. Port Townsend, WA: Bay, pp. 126–134.

Baudrillard, Jean 1989, Jean Baudrillard: Selected Writings, ed. Poster, Mark, Cambridge: Polity.

Best, Steven, Kellner, Douglas 1991, Postmodern Theory: Critical Interrogations, New York: Guilford Press.

Bonca, Cornel 1996, Don DeLillo’s White Noise: the natural language of the species, College Literature, Vol. 23, No. 2, pp. 25–44.

DeLillo, Don 2011, White Noise, London: Picador.

Eco, Umberto 1998, Faith in Fakes: Travels in Hyperreality, Great Britain: Vintage.

Jameson, Fredric 1991, Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, Durham: Duke University Press.

Lyotard, Jean-Francois 1984, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Malpas, Simon 2005, The Postmodern, England: Routledge.

Wilcox, Leonard 1991, Baudrillard, DeLillo’s White Noise, and the End of Heroic Narrative, Contemporary Literature, Vol. 32, No. 3, pp. 346–365.