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Too Much Information: Don DeLillo’s White Noise
Robert Bright , February 24th, 2018 11:04

Three decades on from its first publication, Don Delillo's White Noise is as relevant as ever, argues Robert Bright in this penetrating and insightful essay

In 1985, American writer Don DeLillo published his ninth novel, White Noise, a tour through the media-saturated, information-glutted, consumer-driven inferno of the modern age. It is satire, thriller, mystery, pulp SF, dystopia, family sitcom, campus novel and metaphysical disputation, yet deeper and wider than any of them, almost as if it were using genre for fuel, burning through different registers as it rockets its way into the starry void. It is, as writer Tim Powers put it, “altogether resistant to containment or antidote.” I’ve read it maybe half a dozen times and it never ceases to work its magic, to glitter anew.

The story is narrated by Jack Gladney, middle-aged professor at College-on-the-Hill, who lives with his wife Babette and a brood of kids in the fictional suburban everytown of Blacksmith. As the novel progresses, we’re offered windows onto personality cults and fake news, conspiracy theory and outrage culture, the global financial system and the strip mall lifestyle. It ponders how the throwaway cultural superstructure – all that white noise disarming and distracting us – works its way back to the opaque, seemingly impenetrable economic substructure, and it muses on who’s in control of these forces, or whether anyone’s in control at all. And at the centre of everything, the novel muses on death with a capital ‘D’, and what dying means to someone living in modern America’s cult of the eternal Now.

As the Western world inexorably slides towards Dystopia Defcon One, what’s particularly striking about White Noise is its examination of media technologies and their kaleidoscopic effects, and how they shape our collective experience. TV and radio are a constant presence. They interject in the narrative with snippets of random, unrelated dialogue, overheard amid the urban static of daily life. So thoroughly embedded in the consciousness of the characters is this media reality that foreground and background begin to merge – dialogue takes on the fast, slapstick rhythm of sitcom; a billowing toxic cloud caused by a chemical spill assumes the presence of a B-movie monster; occult tales about UFOs, ESP and ghosts depicted in lurid supermarket tabloids mix queasily with reality and truth, to the point where ‘reality’ and ‘truth’ have to be hooked by quotation marks, like slabs of meat bound for the relativist slaughterhouse. This palimpsest of real and mediated experiences – dreams as TV and TV as dreams – results in what Mark Fisher refers to as “the terrain of chronic ontological subsidence”. In layman’s terms, the compass is off and north could be anywhere.

As new waves of information crash in on Jack’s life, and he’s cast increasingly adrift in a sea of swirling signs and meaning, uncertainty over the knowledge he possesses makes his need for certainty more craven and desperate. As his colleague and friend, Murray Jay Siskind, observes, “Helpless and fearful people are drawn to magical figures, mythic figures, epic men who intimidate or darkly loom.” For Jack, this comes in the form of the Führer himself. He teaches ‘Hitler Studies’, which focuses on the ‘continuing mass appeal of fascist tyranny, with a special emphasis on parades, rallies and uniforms,’ and above all on ‘propaganda films.’

One of the things DeLillo is constantly drawing attention to in the novel is this nexus between mass media and tyranny, not to assert any trite MSM conspiracy theory (although he certainly predicts the rise in popularity of such thinking), but rather to examine Walter Benjamin’s assertion that the aestheticization of politics – turning it into entertainment, spectacle – is an integral ingredient to fascism. During a coup, there’s a reason one of the first places the new regime parks its tanks is outside the TV and radio stations. But DeLillo isn’t urging us to throw away our flatscreens and laptops and iPhones – this is no Luddite impulse. He knows there’s no way out but through. Instead he’s urging us to recognise the way media representations work on our unconscious, “causing fears and secret desires”, and to acknowledge that, for all McLuhan and Baudrillard’s postmodern wackiness, they were right to draw attention to this theatrical, assimilative quality in media technologies, to the structure of the medium irrespective of content.

Of course, the standard reaction is to say, “But I know how to separate what I see on a screen from real life!” And yet time and again we confuse the map with the territory. One of Jack’s colleagues says at one point, “For most people there are only two places in the world. Where they live and their TV set.” The global reach of the media creates the illusion of global awareness, it encourages opinions on subjects that in truth we know little about, what DeLillo himself has referred to as the “facile knowledge market”. Plenty of people have strong views on the Israel-Palestine conflict, but how many have ever been to Jerusalem or the Gaza Strip, how many have ever spoken to an Israeli or Palestinian, how many understand the history of the region? Far better to own your ignorance and step out of the argument altogether.

Related to this is an anxiety over the increasing specialisation of knowledge in capitalist societies and the psychological effect of the widening of the gap between what is known by any one individual and what is known by the collective. In the novel, it’s best expressed by Jack’s son, Heinrich, who ponders what would happen if they were thrown back into a primitive existence. “Here we are in the Stone Age, knowing all these great things after centuries of progress, but what can we do to make life easier for the Stone Agers? Can we make a refrigerator? Can we even explain how it works? What is electricity? What is light? We experience these things every day of our lives but what good does it do if we can’t tell people the basic principles much less actually make something. […] What good is knowledge if it just floats in the air? It goes from computer to computer. It changes and grows every second of every day. But nobody actually knows anything.”

Once again the result is uncertainty and paranoia, a strange disconnect between what is known to be real and what we feel to be real. “In many ways, a natural phenomenon such as a black hole is more weird than a vampire,” writes Mark Fisher in The Weird and the Eerie. Myths and folklore are human constructions, moulded to human experience and contained within human limits, but scientific truths are beyond human processes – in their indifference they have a touch of cosmic horror about them. DeLillo recognises this in our media technologies. When Jack unexpectedly sees his wife on a cable channel, he’s struck by its eeriness. ‘Was this her spirit, her secret self, some two-dimensional facsimile released by the power of technology? […] Something leaked through the mesh. […] I tried to tell myself it was only television – whatever that was, however that worked – and not some journey out of life or death, not some mysterious separation.’

As Baudrillard points out, the TV ‘cools’ and neutralises, it ‘contains’. It’s why in White Noise Jack Gladney’s family relish watching natural and manmade disasters on the cable news channels. It is first and foremost exciting. It is good entertainment. But when disaster comes to their town of Blacksmith in the shape of a chemical spill known as the ‘Airborne Toxic Event’, they initially refuse to believe it. “These things happen to poor people who live in exposed areas,” says Jack, trying to reassure his family, even as the sirens wail about them.

Eventually the penny drops for the Gladney family, and as they flee along with everyone else, they realise how paper-thin is the distance between their comfortable suburban existence and the savagery and panic of the mob. “In a crisis the true facts are what other people say they are,” observes Jack. “No one’s knowledge is less secure than your own.” Plenty of theorists have written about how those in power often seek to generate and perpetuate this sense of crisis to consolidate their power, and right now we’re getting a first-hand taste of it, whether it’s far-right governments in Eastern Europe exploiting immigration fears, the Trump administration adopting ‘gaslighting’ tactics to distract from its own criminality, or Brexit Ultras talking about secret plots and saboteurs to cover up their own pernicious lies.

As the crisis of the ‘Airborne Toxic Event’ assails the characters, certain figures inevitably emerge, namely populists and millenarians, the political cynics and the true believers. White Noise links this with the sheer glut of conflicting information emerging through the media, and how so much of that information is attached to political and commercial interests. This endless flow of what Adorno calls an “ephemeral state of informedness” is what creates our postmodern, post-truth atmosphere, a weary cynicism where false equivalences are drawn between knowledge and belief, feeling and truth. In one hilarious and eviscerating scene in the novel, such an equivalence is drawn between Hitler and Elvis.

Visiting professor Murray is struggling to get the department to take his course on Elvis seriously. He receives a helping hand from Jack, who promises to use his prestige as head of Hitler Studies to provide his friend with some reflected gravitas. Jack attends one of Murray’s lectures and the two of them begin a debate, turning on each figure’s childhood love for his mother, the bitter legacy of early failure and humiliation, their shared interest in the occult. But there is a genuinely significant connection between Elvis and Hitler – people’s atavistic desire to turn them into icons and thus turn themselves into followers. Elvis and Hitler demonstrate two sides of the crowd, one relatively benign, joyous, orgiastic, and the other in communion with a much darker nationalistic and utopian impulse. In both cases, argues Jack, the desire inherent in the crowd is to disappear, to become part of a larger body of emotion and action, to find a degree of immortality in being fused with others. “Crowds came to form a shield against their own dying. To become a crowd is to keep out of death. To break off from the crowd is to risk death as an individual, to face dying alone.”

Another aspect of this fanatical, utopian instinct is nostalgia. Jack describes how Hitler’s architect, Albert Speer wanted to build structures that would decay gloriously, like Roman ruins. “This showed a certain nostalgia behind the power principle,” he says, to which Murray replies, “Nostalgia is a product of dissatisfaction and rage. It’s a settling of grievances between the present and the past. The more powerful the nostalgia the closer you come to violence.”

Is this not precisely where we find ourselves right now, confronted by an aggressive nostalgia that demands we believe in the Great Dream, that we pay obeisance to certain symbols and rituals? Nostalgia relies on the unreliability of memory, on the fact that the more time we circulate on the planet, the more we forget. In acute cases, nostalgia comes to displace memory altogether, editing out anything which contradicts it, forming a greatest hits compilation from one’s past, everything sun-bleached, touched with the erotic and the numinous. And like the crowd, nostalgic neverlands exist to carry people out of death, to suggest that time is recoverable. And if time is recoverable, we no longer need cope with regret or failure. Instead, we are redeemed.

Although White Noise was written pre-World Wide Web and pre-social media, nothing about it feels dated. By the mid-1980s, as America basked in the first credit glow of Reagan’s deregulation of the banks, the media’s tentacular growth into every aspect of our lives was already close to complete. Two decades earlier had seen the TV’s coming of age with the launch of the first Telstar satellite in 1962, enabling images to be broadcast instantaneously right across the globe, inaugurating an age of heightened synchronicity and suggestibility. It marked an historical shift that has been both seismic and, for those of us born since, almost impossible to see outside of. White Noise reintroduces the strangeness of living with these cloying everyday fabrications of reality, and reminds us that when we live in a media culture that relies on our capacity to forget what was being said a week ago, let alone a month or a year, remembering how we got here is more essential than ever.

Don Delillo's White Noise is available from Penguin