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The Postmodern World of White Noise

Paula Geyh writes that “the term [postmodernism] is used by so many people in so many disparate ways, that it seems almost to mean or describe everything–and therefore, some of the critics of postmodernism would say, it means nothing” (1-2). Although the postmodern perspective is, indeed, difficult to pinpoint, its voice is clear in the novel White Noise. The postmodern perspective is exemplified in Don DeLillo’s novel White Noise. In many ways, the novel is a description of “the traditional,” symbolized by protagonist Jack Gladney, fighting against “the postmodern,” or nearly everyone and everything else in his world. Geyh continues, “The novels of Don DeLillo… are remarkable for their ability to depict the often harrowing ‘realities’ of the postmodern world” (13). For Jack, these realities include family struggles, strange drugs, and an “airborne toxic event” in his hometown. As the title suggests, therefore, White Noise seems to be less about any events or people—the signal—and more about the space between them—the white noise.

While Jack is uncomfortable navigating the postmodern environment of SIMUVAC teams and Dylar pills, his fourteen-year-old son Heinrich seems to thrive in it. Heinrich is pleased to play chess by mail with a convicted felon from the state penitentiary or support a friend in training endeavors to enclose himself with poisonous snakes. Instead of being lost in the postmodern world like Jack or frightened of it like Babette, Heinrich seems to be an embodiment of Lyotard’s notion of the postmodern in that he is not “governed by preestablished rules… and cannot be judged according to a determining judgment…Those rules and categories are what… [he] is looking for” (1423).

Although Delillo fills his novel with creative, concrete images of postmodern concepts, one of the most deliberate is “the most photographed barn in the world.” When Jack and fellow College-on-the-Hill professor Murray visit, Murray comments that the tourists are “taking pictures of taking pictures” (13). He states, “Once you’ve seen the signs about the barn, it becomes impossible to see the barn” (12). According to Lee Spinks, “two modern theories of meaning–structuralism and post-structuralism… have exerted a profound influence on Lyotard’s account of the ‘postmodern’” (4). This tourist-crammed simulacrum where the signifier takes precedence over the signified is an example of Lyotard’s postmodernism and reflects its important ties to structuralism.

Laura Barrett writes that the “disconnection between signifier and signified [is] pointedly demonstrated in conversations between the narrator, Jack Gladney, and his son, Heinrich” (97). Structuralism notes this detachment between the two parts of the sign as well as the arbitrariness of the linguistic sign. In Saussure’s words, the signifier “has no natural connection with the signified” (789). Throughout White Noise, Delillo writes funny scenes where Heinrich and Jack bicker, often with Heinrich deliberately frustrating his father. Many times in these conversations, Heinrich reveals the structuralist theories behind his postmodern mindset. For instance, in the “Is it raining?” dialog between Jack and Heinrich in Chapter 6, Heinrich repeatedly asks Jack for a more clear definition of “rain” and then “here and now.” This is more than a juvenile word game of semantics to annoy his father. Heinrich is representing the structuralist perspective explained by Saussure in that “…signs function, then, not through their intrinsic value but through the relative position” (792). Heinrich wants to know where here is, who is asking, and even what is rain? Delillo writes:

“What if someone held a gun to your head? …A man in a trenchcoat and smoky glasses. He holds a gun to your head and says, ‘Is it raining or isn’t it? All you have to do is tell the truth and I’ll put away my gun…’”

“What truth does he want? Does he want the truth of someone traveling at almost the speed of light in another galaxy? Does he want the truth of someone in orbit around a neutron star…?”

“He’s holding the gun to your head. He wants your truth.”

“What good is my truth? My truth means nothing. What if this guy with the gun comes from a planet in a whole different solar system? What we call rain he calls soap. What we call apples he calls rain. So what am I supposed to tell him?”

“His name is Frank J. Smalley and he comes from St. Louis.”

“He wants to know if it’s raining now, at this very minute.”

“Here and now, that’s right.”

“Is there such a thing as now? ‘Now’ comes and goes as soon as you say it. How can I say it’s raining now if your so-called ‘now’ becomes ‘then’ as soon as I say it?”

“…Is there rain here, in this precise locality at whatever time within the next two minutes that you choose to respond to the question?”

“If you want to talk about this precise locality while you’re in a vehicle that’s obviously moving, then I think that’s the trouble with this discussion” (23-24).

At the end of this discussion, the reader may feel confused as to whether Heinrich should be grabbed by the shoulders and shaken for being so antagonistic or applauded for his wit. There is no denying the ingenuity of his arguments, and he does not miss a beat in his comedic timing, particularly with the last line. He also does not leave any assumed detail unquestioned. This refusal to be captive to the laws of casual conversation is the postmodern side of Heinrich, while his tool—linguistic argument—reveals the structuralist influence on his views.

In a way, Heinrich is requiring his father to carefully articulate what he means outside of his own individual perspective. Rather than accept a casual conversation about the weather, Heinrich wants to examine Jack’s use of a “standard” comment and take it apart to reveal what is actually being communicated. Saussure comments on this formulaic approach to conversation:

“every means of expression used in society is based, in principle, on collective behavior…or convention. Polite formulas, for instance, though often imbued with a certain natural expressiveness…are nonetheless fixed by rule” (788).

However, as a representation of the postmodern, the character of Heinrich cannot be judged by these rules nor expected to operate within them.

Geyh calls this conversation “an allegory of theoretical postmodernism and a dialogical enactment of several of its central issues, particularly those of ‘truth’ and ‘reality’ (14).” In other words, Delillo illustrates this basic tenant of postmodernism in a simple conversation about rain without a lengthy theoretical explication. Geyh continues, “Before [Heinrich] even arrives at school, he covers the limitations of our sensory apparatus and the way it mediates our perception of reality, the paradoxes of relativity theory, the arbitrariness of the sign, and the indeterminacy of meaning” (15).

These matters recur throughout in White Noise. For example, in Chapter 21, Heinrich relays to Jack the news that the “black billowing cloud” has been upgraded to the “airborne toxic event” (Delillo 117). He seems to satirically enjoy that this fresh label frightens his family because he knows a new phrase really changes nothing. However, this new signifier to represent the unmoved signified drastically affects the way it is viewed by the entire family.

Later, in Chapter 30, during a discussion with Steffie and Babette, the concept of relativity theory surfaces again. Heinrich brilliantly sums it up by noting that “the whole point of Sir Albert Einstein…is how can the sun be up if you’re standing on the sun” (Delillo 233). According to Saussure’s theories, a linguistic community dictates with which signified a specific signifier is associated. Outside that linguistic community, a signifier may connote an entirely different concept or may not exist at all. Heinrich is expanding this linguistic concept by asking his stepmother and sister to realize that more than just an immediate personal perspective must be considered. Again using a structuralist device to display his postmodern attitude, Heinrich refuses to let them assume everyone is Frank J. Smalley from St. Louis.

Another major example of Heinrich displaying the structuralist influence on postmodernism can be found in Chapter 21:

“A dog is a mammal.”

“So’s a rat,” Denise said.

“A rat is a vermin,” Babette said.

“Mostly what a rat is,” Heinrich said, “is a rodent.”

“It’s also a vermin.”

“A cockroach is a vermin,” Steffie said.

“A cockroach is an insect. You count the legs is how you know.”

“It’s also a vermin.”

“Does a cockroach get cancer? No,” Denise said. “That must mean a rat is more like a human than it is like a cockroach, even if they’re both vermins, since a rat and a human can get cancer but a cockroach can’t.”

“In other words,” Heinrich said, “she’s saying that two things that are mammals have more in common than two things that are only vermins” (Delillo 124-5).

This conversation shows Heinrich’s structuralist belief that things only can be understood by comparison. As linguistic relations are arbitrary, a signifier cannot be defined outside of language. Saussure says, “a term acquires its value only because it stands in opposition to everything that precedes or follows it” (794). This inability to meaningfully classify a “rat” or a “cockroach” without relating to another arbitrary signifier supports Saussure’s proposal that human understanding only exists in and through language. Saussure writes, “our thought – apart from its expression in words – is only a shapeless and indistinct mass…Without language, thought is a vague, uncharted nebula” (789).

In Heinrich’s concluding statement in this conversation, he reiterates Denise’s feeling that the connection of “mammal-ness” relates two items more closely than just sharing the parallel of “vermin-ness.” The absurdity of this idea in light of structuralism is that neither of the labels have real meaning to begin with, so trying to linguistically compare the strength of the relationships they represent is unreasonable. In discussing the postmodern, Lyotard addresses this “powerlessness of the faculty of presentation” (1422). It seems that Heinrich may sense this futility in the conversation, and therefore, rather than waste his own intelligence and wit on the subject, he simply backs out by restating what Denise has already asserted.

Lyotard writes that “emphasis can also be placed on the…jubilation which result from the invention of new rules of the game” (1422). It is clear that, as Delillo’s representation of the postmodern, Heinrich enjoys the semantic games he plays with his family. He may not be a postmodernist painter or writer, but in his own adolescent way, he lives out his postmodern convictions in his linguistic battles with Jack and their family. Geyh writes, “DeLillo’s talent for depicting concrete manifestations of postmodernism’s conceptual structures is matched by his remarkable ability to capture the peculiar sensibilities of the young postmoderns” (19). In White Noise, the “young postmodern” is most certainly Heinrich.

One of the most critical plot elements of White Noise is Babette’s fear of death and the Dylar pills she swallows to repress it. One of Dylar’s side effects is that a user loses the ability to distinguish between words and actual objects. In structuralist terms, they lose the ability to see that the signifier is not the signified. Barrett sums up this confusion by writing:

“Ironically, in White Noise, to alleviate the dread of death… humans can resort to a drug that makes the association between word and object terrifyingly real, so that the phrase ‘a hail of bullets’ effects a physical response. The end result is that language is more distanced from its meaning than ever before: when the speeding bullet, the plunging aircraft, the raining fussilade do not materialize to justify the crouched pseudo-victim taking cover behind a sofa, the masquerade of language is revealed” (102-3).

This scene, in which Jack gets his revenge on “Mr. Gray,” is not just the moment when the plot of White Noise climaxes; more importantly, it is the moment when structuralism and postmodernism in this novel collide. Delillo has been using Heinrich as his representation of structuralism’s influence on postmodernism all along, but it is only in this last illustration that his purpose is successfully accomplished.

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