Understanding The Postmodern Condition through Don DeLillo’s White Noise

Abstract: In this paper, I analyse Don DeLillo’s dystopian novel, White Noise, to demonstrate concepts of the postmodern and the postmodern condition. Differentiating between the aesthetic focus of postmodernism and cultural purview of postmodernity, I describe their various contested meanings while keeping in mind that White Noise is not postmodern in style; rather, it is a commentary on the postmodern condition. DeLillo’s protagonist, Jack Gladney, is a modern man in a postmodern society, in constant friction with the changing status of knowledge. Employing Baudrillard’s theory of hyperreality, we find Gladney occupying an increasingly simulational and nonreferential world. Through Gladney’s obstinately modernist frame of perspective, DeLillo confronts the reader with a disturbing reality.

Key Words: White Noise; Don DeLillo; Postmodernity; Postmodernism; Hyperreality.

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.

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