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Escaping  the  Aura:  Consumption  and  The  System  of  Objects  in  Don  DeLillo’s  White  Noise    
Man   is   –   Hegel   dixit   –   ‘an   animal   sick   unto   death,’   an   animal   extorted   by   an   insatiable   parasite   (reason,   logos,   language).     In   this   perspective,   the   ‘death   drive,’   this   dimension   of   radical   negativity,   cannot   be   reduced   to   an   expression   of   alienated   social   conditions,   it   defines   la   condition  humaine  as  such:  there  is  no  solution,  no  escape   from  it;  the  thing  to  do  is  not  to  ‘overcome,’  to  ‘abolish’  it,   but  to  come  to  terms  with  it,  to  learn  to  recognize  it  in  its   terrifying   dimension   and   then,   on   the   basis   of   this   fundamental   recognition,   to   try   to   articulate   a   modus   vivendi  with  it.                                                                                                                                                -­Slavoj  Žižek  


Don  DeLillo’s  novel  White  Noise  was  published  in  1985,  and  is  widely  regarded  as  a   seminal   postmodern   text.     The   novel   deals   heavily   in   themes   characteristic   of   twentieth-­‐ century  literature  of  the  postmodern  vein,  including  media  saturation,  fragmented  identity,   and   the   multi-­‐marriage   family   unit.     Behind   these   subsidiary   themes,   however,   lie   the   book’s   two   main   driving   forces:   death   and   shopping.     Ever   the   satirist   and   social   commentator,   DeLillo   depicts   the   rabid   consumerism   of   American   society   with   unprecedented  vision,  and  he  portrays  society’s  looming  fear  of  death  with  a  commitment   rarely  encountered  in  American  literature.    The  book,  which  deals  with  death  consistently   throughout  its  326  pages,  is  divided  in  two  by  the  21st  chapter—a  54-­‐page-­‐long  account  of   a   family’s   efforts   to   cut   and   run   following   an   industrial   accident   in   the   small   town   where   the   novel   takes   place.     This   segment   towers   in   comparison   to   the   two-­‐or-­‐three   page   chapters  of  the  rest  of  the  novel.  The  novel’s  use  of  “the  airborne  toxic  event”  as  a  dramatic   climax  proved  particularly  fitting  at  the  time  of  its  publication,  given  that  the  Union  Carbide   disaster,   an   industrial   accident   in   India   that   killed   over   2,000   people   and   left   thousands   injured,  occurred  just  months  prior  to  the  novel’s  publication.    DeLillo’s  vision  of  consumer   culture,  in  combination  with  the  eerie  timeliness  of  his  choice  of  an  industrial  disaster  for   an   agent   of   death,   gave   the   novel   so   much   attention   as   to   bring   DeLillo   into   the   national  


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spotlight.     The   attention   made   DeLillo   and   his   work   the   subject   of   many   discussions   on   the   significance   of   death   and   consumption   in   contemporary   America.     Many   critics   contend   that  within  the  pages  of  White  Noise  lies  DeLillo’s  critique  of   Western  society’s  unhealthy   relationship   with   consumer   culture.     In   this   essay,   I   use   this   common   interpretation   to   enter  the  discussion  surrounding  death,  consumerism,  and  culture,    using  this  critique    to   explore   a   number   of   interpretive   problems   within   the   text,   including:   the   relationship   between   one   of   the   novel’s   most   prominent   ideological   institutions—academia—and   the   driving   themes   of   death   and   consumption;   the   role   of   consumer   culture   as   an   unsatisfactory   means   of   circumventing   the   fear   of   death;   the   price   of   participation   in   consumer  culture;  and  what  the  novel  can  tell  us  about  our  relationship  with  death.       The  Birth  of  an  Ideology:  Consumption  as  the  Root  of  Production     DeLillo   is   no   stranger   to   satire.     Consequently,   the   reader   must   take   the   novel’s   idyllic  description  its  quiet  college  town  with  a  healthy  dose  of  skepticism.    The  picturesque   image  painted  by  the  narrative  resembles  one  that  has  been  inverted  and  skewed  by  Karl   Marx’s   camera   obscura;   DeLillo   is   daring   us   to   reveal   this   image’s   real   concrete   substratum   through   careful   analysis.     The   school   in   the   small   college   town   of   Blacksmith,   where   the   novel   takes   place,   is   called   the   “College-­‐on-­‐the-­‐Hill”   (DeLillo   4).     This   name   immediately   calls   to   mind   John   Winthrop’s   allusion   to   the   biblical   “city   upon   a   hill”   in   his   sermon   “A   Model  of  Christian  Charity.”    In  the  sermon,  Winthrop  explains  to  the  Puritan  colonists  of   New   England   that   they   will   be   a   “city   upon   a   hill”   that   is   watched   by   the   world.   The   message  of  Winthrop’s  sermon  was  not  only  that  the  Massachusetts  Bay  Colony  would  be   under   constant   scrutiny,   but   that   it   would   serve   as   an   example   to   the   other   developing  


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American  colonies  and  the  world.    Similarly,  while  the  opening  pages  of  White  Noise  don’t   necessarily   paint   the   “College-­‐on-­‐the-­‐Hill”   as   a   model   of   Christian   ideals,   they   do   call   to   mind  academic  ones,  ideals  like  reason  and  intellectualism.       The  description  that  Jack  Gladney,  the  novel’s  narrator  and  main  character,  gives  of   himself   in   the   opening   pages   of   White   Noise   is   consonant   with   the   ideal   depiction   of   the   College-­‐on-­‐the-­‐Hill   insofar   as   it   suggests   that   his   intellectual   pursuits   are   also   guided   by   academic  ideals.    Jack  is  the  “chairman  of  the  department  of  Hitler  studies  at  the  College-­‐ on-­‐the-­‐Hill,”  a  department  he  founded  (4).    Regardless  of  whether  Jack’s  study  of  Hitler  is   serious   or   not,   the   fact   that   the   department   is   called   “Hitler   studies”   frames   it   as   a   valid   topic  of  academic  inquiry  simply  because  the  topic  is  Hitler;  whether  or  not  the  department   is   worth   its   salt   intellectually   is   irrelevant   if   people   are   disinclined   to   investigate   its   academic   merit   in   the   first   place.     Paul   Cantor   explains   how,   even   in   a   world   where   truth   is   now   generally   regarded   as   relative,   “Hitler   often   seems   to   stand   as   the   lone   remaining   absolute:   the   incarnation   of   absolute   evil”   (Cantor   39).     As   a   result,   Hitler   has   become   something  of  an  “argument  stopper”  in  the  sense  that     People   who   can   agree   on   nothing   else   will   join   together   in   rejecting   Hitler   and  all  he  stood  for.    To  defend  or  admire  Hitler  is  to  risk  removing  oneself   from   the   acceptable   range   of   rational   discourse   and   branding   oneself   as   a   dangerous  extremist  or  an  outright  kook.  (39)     People   are   unlikely   to   label   Hitler   an   invalid   or   discreditable   field   of   study   for   the   same   reason  that  Hitler  has  become  an  argument  stopper.    To  question  the  value  in  studying  an   historical  figure  as  gigantic  as  Hitler  would  be  to  risk  discounting  his  horrifying  influence   on   the   twentieth   century,   and,   as   stated   above,   “removing   oneself   from   the   acceptable   range   of   rational   discourse.”       Jack’s   standing   as   the   preeminent   scholar   on   a   topic   as  


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requisitely   serious   and   important   as   Hitler   points   to   the   seriousness   and   importance   associated  with  him  as  an  academic.       Jack’s   aura   of   seriousness,   however,   much   like   the   College-­‐on-­‐the-­‐Hill’s   air   of   academic   idealism,   is   misleading.     We   learn   the   true   nature   of   the   College-­‐on-­‐the-­‐Hill   by   examining  how  DeLillo  portrays  the  breed  of  “academic”  that  the  College  employs  and  the   their   pseudo-­‐intellectual   pursuits.     The   tendency   to   grant   merit   to   that   which   is   academically   unimportant   is   highlighted   in   the   college’s   “Department   of   American   Environments.”     The   department   undermines   the   academic   façade   of   the   College-­‐on-­‐the-­‐ Hill  in  its  willingness  to  accommodate  seemingly  any  subject  without  blinking  an  eye.    It  is   especially   fitting   that   DeLillo   uses   the   College-­‐on-­‐the-­‐Hill’s   American   Environments   department   to   explore   this   tendency.     Jack   first   refers   to   the   department   as   the   “popular   culture   department,”   only   to   add   that   it   is   “known   officially   as   American   Environments”   (DeLillo   9).     The   more   official-­‐sounding   name   is   used   to   impart   an   air   of   validity   to   the   department  and  its  faculty,  and  avert  the  criticism  delivered  by  those  who  would  question   the   academic   worth   of   a   “popular   culture   department.”     DeLillo   obviously   has   his   tongue   in   his   cheek   to   some   degree,   as   he   himself   is   a   diligent   student   of   popular   culture,   but   the   critique  is  definitely  present.       White   Noise’s   critique   of   what   constitutes   meaningful   academic   inquiry   is   perhaps   most   pointed   when   commented   upon   by   the   character   Murray   Jay   Siskind.     Siskind   is   a   visiting  lecturer  in  the  department  of  American  environments  who  wants  to  “do  with  Elvis”   what  Jack  has  done  with  Hitler  (9).    Jack  describes  Siskind,  whose  own  academic  pursuits   could   be   seen   by   some   as   trifling,   as   “embarrassed   by   what   he’d   gleaned   so   far   from   his   colleagues   in   popular   culture”   (10).     As   Siskind   explains:   “I   understand   the   music,   I  


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understand   the   movies,   I   even   see   how   comic   books   can   tell   us   things.     But   there   are  full   professors   in   this   place   who   read   nothing   but   cereal   boxes”   (10).     The   fact   that   the   department   embarrasses   even   Siskind   exposes   the   absurdity   of   the   ideal   academic   depiction   of   the   College-­‐on-­‐the-­‐Hill   by   revealing   that   a   professor   who   spends   all   his   time   analyzing  cereal  boxes  has  become  possible  in  it.       As  the  novel  progresses,  we  find  the  idyllic  depictions  of  not  only  Jack’s  relationship   with  Hitler  studies,  but  Hitler  studies  itself,  to  be  just  as  misleading  as  the  ideological  image   of   the   College-­‐on-­‐the-­‐Hill.     Where   the   Hitler   studies   department   is   located,   for   example,   brings   its   authenticity   into   question   via   sheer   association.     As   Jack   explains,   “there   is   no   Hitler   building”;   the   department   shares   a   building   with   American   Environments   (9).     Jack’s   relationship   with   Hitler   studies   also   clashes   with   the   idyllic   image   of   the   rational,   scholarly   college  professor.    His  actions—like  overeating  to  “grow  into  Hitler”  and  donning  “glasses   with   thick   black   heavy   frames   and   dark   lenses”   to   supplement   his   “hulking   massiveness”   (17)—are   far   from   those   expected   from   a   rational   academic,   let   alone   the   head   of   a   department.     The   strangest   thing   about   the   department   of   Hitler   studies,   however,   is   the   novel’s   banal   and   trivial   treatment   of   Hitler   himself.     On   the   topic   of   Hitler,   Jack   says   at   one   point  that  “it’s  not  a  question  of  good  and  evil”  (63)  and  even  describes  Hitler  later  in  the   novel  as  “fine,  solid,”  and  “dependable”  (89).    By  failing  to  evoke  “the  moral  indignation  and   even  metaphysical  horror”  that  have  become  the  expected  cultural  response  to  Hitler,  and   by  transforming  him  from  a  “willful  tyrant  into  someone  reliable,”  the  idea  of  Hitler  studies   shifts  from  practicable  to  comically  inappropriate,  especially  when  he  is  linked  by  Siskind   to   the   study   of   another   twentieth-­‐century   icon,   Elvis   Presley   (Cantor   40,   44).     Understanding   DeLillo’s   treatment   of   Hitler   within   the   novel   further   reveals   the   reality  


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beneath   the   first   few   pages’   idyllic   portrayal   of   the   College-­‐on-­‐the-­‐Hill,   while   simultaneously   discrediting   Hitler   studies   itself;   the   college   is   in   fact   an   academic   venue   so   “open-­‐minded”   that   it   can   allow   almost   anything   in   the   name   of   academia,   even   the   appropriation  of  something  as  disturbing  as  Hitler  into  the  mainstream  of  western  culture.       At  first  glance,  evidence  in  the  novel  suggests  that  the  ideological  depictions  of  the   College-­‐on-­‐the-­‐Hill,  Hitler  studies,  and  even  Jack  Gladney  himself  are  consequences  of  the   novel’s   characters   operating   within   a   production-­‐driven   Marxist   framework.     Examining   this  evidence  allows  us  to  uncover  just  how  these  ideological  depictions  might  arise  out  of   said  framework.    For  example,  Cantor  states  that  when  Hitler  is  “stripped  of  his  aura”  to  the   degree  that  he  is  in  White  Noise,  he  can  be  turned  into  a  commodity  (44).    The  language  that   Jack  uses  to  describe  his  founding  of  Hitler  studies  supports  Cantor’s  assertion:     I  am  chairman  of  the  department  of  Hitler  studies  at  the  College-­‐on-­‐the-­‐Hill.     I   invented   Hitler   studies   in   North   America   in   March   of   1968.     It   was   a   cold   bright  day  with  intermittent  winds  out  of  the  east.    When  I  suggested  to  the   chancellor   that   we   might   build   a   whole   department   around   Hitler’s   life   and   work,   he   was   quick   to   see   the   possibilities.     It   was   an   immediate   and   electrifying  success.  (DeLillo  4)     The   language   Jack   uses   to   recount   this   experience   does   not   sound   like   the   kind   that   an   academic   would   use   to   describe   the   founding   of   his   department,   but   rather   that   of   an   inventor   or   entrepreneur   recounting   an   early   business   venture.     For   instance,   a   field   like   “Hitler   studies”   cannot   really   be   “invented.”     Consider   the   following   example:     a   small   agricultural  community  living  centuries  ago  may  have  used  manure  from  their  livestock  to   fertilize  their  crops.    This  could  have  taken  place  for  generations,  only  for  one  farmer  to  one   day  realize  that  the  excess  manure  produced  by  his  bulls  could  be  sold  to  nearby  less-­‐fertile   communities   for   profit.     The   random   details   about   the   day   Jack   “invented”   Hitler   studies,   and   the   choice   of   the   word   “invented,”   itself,   suggest   a   similar   revelatory   moment.     I  


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remember  precisely  when  it  hit  me.    It  was  a  cold  bright  day  with  intermittent  winds  out  of   the  east,  when  all  of  a  sudden:  Eureka!  Hitler  studies!    Jack  didn’t  invent  anything.    Rather,  he   took  something  that  we  can  presume  had  been  studied  for  decades  and  decided  to  consult   someone  with  the  standing  and  authority  to  market  it;  just  as  the  farmer  would  have  gone   to  his  community  leader,  Jack  took  his  idea  to  the  college  chancellor.    In  both  instances,  a   figure  of  authority  is  “quick  to  see  the  possibilities,”  and  a  businessman  is  born.       Other   characters   also   acknowledge   Jack’s   entrepreneurial   savvy.     Siskind,   for   example,   describes   Jack’s   early   efforts   with   Hitler   as   “masterful,   shrewd,   and   stunningly   preemptive”   (12).   The   foresight   Jack   exhibited   was   exactly   what   the   college   chancellor   recognized   in   his   idea;   Jack   had   found   an   open   niche   in   the   academic   marketplace   that   allowed   for   Hitler   studies   to   be   merchandised   like   a   product   and   exploited   to   the   fullest.     Prima   facie,   Jack’s   relationship   with   Hitler—and   the   way   this   relationship   bolsters   the   overarching   ideology   of   academia—is   is   lock-­‐step   Marxist   in   that   it   seems   to   explain   the   ideological  façade  of  the  College-­‐on-­‐the-­‐Hill—and  Jack’s  role  in  that  ideology—as  products   of  the  concrete  substratum  working  itself  out.   Jack’s   relationship   with   Hitler,   however,   proves   more   complex   than   that   of   a   businessman   and   his   product.     The   fact   is   that   Jack,   even   more   than   he   markets   Hitler,   shops  for  Hitler;  he  consumes  Hitler.    In  other  words,  it  is  not  production,  but  the  closely-­‐ related   practice   of   consumption   that   Jack’s   “invention”   of   Hitler   studies   is   predicated   upon,   something   that   Cantor   hints   at   but   neglects   to   develop.     As   Cantor   puts   it,   Jack   discovers   Hitler  as  his  life’s  work  while  “strolling  up  and  down  the  aisles  of  the  vast  supermarket  of   academic  possibilities.”    This  figurative  supermarket  is  one  where  people  are  “free  to  shop   around   for   their   values   and   identities”   (Cantor   41,   43).     In   the   process   of   producing   an  


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academic   commodity,   Jack   is   actually   partaking   in   a   culture   of   consumption   wherein   he   selects   not   only   a   lifelong   profession   but   a   corporate   identity   as   well.     According   to   this   reading,  Jack’s  ability  to  market  Hitler  as  a  field  of  study  depended  first  on  his  decision  to   identify   in   Hitler   his   own   values   and   identity.     We   find,   therefore,   that   the   root   of   Hitler   studies   lies   not   in   Jack’s   production   and   marketing   of   Hitler,   but   rather   his   consumption   of   Hitler.     This   begs   an   important   question:     what   does   Jack   think   he’s   getting   from   Hitler?     Moreover,   where   does   Jack’s   “consumption”   of   Hitler   fit   into   the   overarching   theme   of   consumption   that   is   portrayed   in   the   novel?     These   questions   and   others   are   best   explored   through   an   analysis   of   the   relationship   between   consumer   culture   and   death,   the   two   overarching  themes  in  White  Noise.    By  beginning  with  an  exploration  of  Jack’s  relationship   with  Hitler,  we  can  show  how  consumer  culture  provides  Jack  and  the  other  characters  of   White  Noise  the  empty  promise  of  amnesty  from  their  fear  of  death  at  the  expense  of  their   relationships  with  one  another  and  a  real  lived  existence.         The  Promise  of  Consumer  Culture:  “J.A.K.”,  Baudrillard,  and  The  System  of  Objects     Jack   shopping   for   his   identity   in   Hitler   initially   seems   like   a   relatively   harmless   activity.     The   concept   is   similar   to   one   espoused   by   cultural   theorists   Rob   Shields   and   Michel   de   Certeau,   who   are   of   the   opinion   that   the   consequences   of   a   consumer   culture   are   at  their  worst  benign,  and  at  their  best  empowering.    Shields  and  Certeau  both  assert  that   consumption,  the  driving  force  behind  consumer  culture,  allows  for  “an  active,  committed   production   of   self   and   of   society   which,   rather   than   assimilating   individuals   to   styles,   appropriates   codes   and   fashions,   which   are   made   into   one’s   own”   (Shields   2).   Consumption,  therefore,  provides  a  flexible  social  code  within  which  the  subject  is  free  to  


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produce  a  persona  or  multiple  personae  that  are  not  mere  embodiments  of  popular  trends,   but  reflect  instead  the  attitudes  and  values  of  the  subject.       However,   Jack’s   founding   of   Hitler   studies   does   not   appear   to   stem   from   a   “committed   production   of   self.”     Nor   does   it   seem   to   reflect   his   attitudes   and   values.     We   have   already   established   that   Jack   does   not   adopt   Hitler   out   of   any   deep-­‐rooted   personal   interest  with  him  as  a  topic;  the  random  details  about  the  day  Jack  “invented”  Hitler  studies   suggest  that  much.    If  anything,  DeLillo  emphasizes  Jack’s  choice  of  Hitler  as  the  basis  for   his   academic   career   as—except   for   its   marketability—an   arbitrary   one.     The   inauthenticity   of   Jack’s   commitment   to   Hitler   studies   is   further   reinforced   by   his   lack   of   proficiency   in   the   German   language.     In   reality,   Jack’s   association   of   himself   with   Hitler   is   just   the   first   in   a   series   of   personal   overhauls   that   allow   him   to   construct   an   inflated   shell   of   himself:   the   persona  of  “J.A.K.”  Gladney.    Jack  assumes  this  inflated  persona  whenever  he  is  on  campus,   and   reinforces   it   with   a   number   of   supporting   commodities.     Jack   accomplishes   this   reinforcement   by   donning   dark   glasses   and   wearing   an   academic   robe   (DeLillo   9).     He   literally  over-­‐consumes  food  in  the  interest  of  “growing  out”  into  Hitler  to  convey  “an  air  of   unhealthy   excess”   (17).     Likewise,   the   name   “J.A.K.”   Gladney   is   not   entirely   his   own,   but   rather   a   modification   of   his   given   name;   just   as   the   popular   culture   department   is   officially   known   as   “American   environments,”   Jack   becomes   “J.A.K.”   on   campus   to   reinforce   his   image   with   an   air   of   professionalism   and   intelligence—to   intimate,   as   Babette   says,   “dignity,  significance  and  prestige”  (17).    By  arranging  the  commodities  at  his  disposal,  Jack   creates  the  persona  “J.A.K.,”  who  is  more  intimidating  and  demanding  of  respect  in  a  way   that  Jack  believes  he  is  not  outside  of  an  academic  setting.      


Gonzalez  10   Throughout   White   Noise,   the   divide   between   “Jack”   the   real   individual   and   “J.A.K.”  

the  fabricated  persona  becomes  most  evident  when  Jack’s  authority  is  threatened,  such  as   when   Jack   runs   into   his   colleague,   Eric   Massingale,   during   one   of   his   many   trips   to   the   supermarket.    Massingale  is  a  computer  teacher  at  the  College-­‐on-­‐the-­‐Hill.    Massingale  tells   Jack   that   without   his   dark   glasses   and   impressive   gown,   he   looks   like   a   “big,   harmless,   aging,  indistinct  sort  of  guy,”  a  “different  person  altogether”  (83).    With  what  Jack  describes   as   a   “dangerous   grin,”   Massingale   says   knowingly   that   he   “gets   it.”       Massingale   has   been   provided   a   glimpse   at   “Jack,”   the   real   individual   that   Jack’s   constructed   persona,   “J.A.K.,”   seeks  to  exceed  in  importance  and  prestige.    In  Massingale’s  moment  of  revelation,  Jack  is   left  flat-­‐footed  and  debased.    The  encounter  puts  him  “in  the  mood  to  shop,”  and  so  he  flees   to  the  Mid-­‐Village  Mall.    There  he  consumes  “with  reckless  abandon”  to  meet  “immediate   needs   and   distant   contingencies”   (84).     What   Jack   consumes,   however,   has   little   if   anything   to   do   with   his   “needs,”   but   rather   centers   around   re-­‐establishing   the   “J.A.K.”   persona,   his   “existential  credit,”  as  it  were:   I   shopped   for   its   own   sake,   looking   and   touching,   inspecting   merchandise   I   had   no   intention   of   buying,   then   buying   it.     I   sent   clerks   into   their   fabric   books   and   pattern   books   to   search   for   elusive   designs.     I   began   to   grow   in   value   and   self-­‐regard.     I   filled   myself   out,   found   new   aspects   of   myself,   located   a   person   I’d   forgotten   existed.     Brightness   settled   around   me…I   traded   money   for   goods.     The   more   money   I   spent   the   less   important   it   seemed.    I  was  bigger  than  these  sums.    These  sums  poured  off  my  skin  like   so  much  rain.    These  sums  in  fact  came  back  to  me  in  the  form  of  existential   credit.     I   felt   expansive,   inclined   to   be   sweepingly   generous,   and   told   the   kids   to  pick  out  their  Christmas  gifts  here  and  now.    I  gestured  in  what  I  felt  was   an  expansive  manner.    I  could  tell  they  were  impressed.  (84)     We   find   that   Jack   is   once   again   consuming   to   protect   himself,   and   reverting   to   the   exact   same   language   used   to   describe   his   inflated   role   as   a   professor:   “filling   himself   out,”   he   finds  new  aspects  of  himself  and  locates  a  person  he’d  forgotten  existed.    The  “existential  


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credit”  Jack  describes  is  one  that  he  mentions  at  numerous  other  points  in  the  novel.    In  one   such  scene  Jack  checks  his  bank  balance  at  an  ATM.    When  “the  figure  on  the  screen  roughly   [corresponds]  to  [Jack’s]  independent  estimate,”  a  wave  of  “relief  and  gratitude”  flows  over   him,  “blessing  his  life”  (46).    Most  of  all,  Jack  senses  “that  something  of  deep  personal  value,   but  not  money,  not  that  at  all,  [has]  been  authenticated  and  confirmed”  (46).    This  thing  of   “deep  personal  value”  most  closely  resembles  the  “existential  credit”  Jack  feels  filled  with   after   his   trip   to   the   Mid-­‐Village   mall.     Jack’s   refills   of   “existential   credit,”   however,   are   invariably   short-­‐lived,   and   despite   his   heft,   glasses,   tunic,   and   title,   Jack   is   left   personally   unfulfilled   because,   contrary   to   Shields   and   Certeau,   his   appropriated   “codes   and   fashions”   are  not  made  into  his  own.    Rather,  Jack  is,  as  he  himself  admits,  “the  false  character  that   follows  the  name  [J.A.K.  Gladney]  around”  (17).     Jack’s   continued   alienation   from   the   persona   he   wishes   to   construct   of   himself   draws  attention  to  the  ways  in  which  his  persona  complicates  the  largely  benign  vision  of   consumption   espoused   by   Shields   and   Certeau.     We   can   once   again   turn   to   Jack’s   relationship   with   Hitler   to   explain   why   he   remains   alienated   as   a   result   of   his   participation   in   consumer   culture   throughout   the   novel,   and   how   this   participation   is   a   reaction   to   his   fear   of   death.     The   course   description   for   the   only   class   Gladney   teaches,   advanced   Nazism,   says   that   the   course   provides   “insight   into   the   continuing   mass   appeal   of   fascist   tyranny”   (25).     The   irony   is   that   Jack   himself   has   fallen   victim   to   the   fascist   tyranny   proffered   by   consumer  culture  as  an  escape  from  death,  a  tyranny  embodied  in  the  asylum  he  seeks  in   his  studies  of  Hitler,  among  other  things.    In  his  seminal  text  The  Sublime  Object  of  Ideology,   Slavoj  Žižek  explains  the  role  of  culture  in  relation  to  the  death  drive  thusly:   “All  ‘culture’  is  in  a  way  a  reaction-­‐formation,  an  attempt  to  limit,  canalize  –   to   cultivate   this   imbalance,   this   traumatic   kernel,   this   radical   antagonism  


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through   which   man   cuts   his   umbilical   cord   with   nature,   with   animal   homeostasis.     It   is   not   only   that   the   aim   is   no   longer   to   abolish   this   drive   antagonism,   but   the   aspiration   to   abolish   it   is   precisely   the   source   of   totalitarian  temptation…”  (Žižek  5)     Žižek   later   argues   that   fascism,   which   demands   uniformity   and   forbids   the   reshaping   of   ideology,  is  based  upon  a  single  imperative:  to  “obey,  because  you  must”  (82).    This,  in  turn,   requires   that   one   “   renounce   enjoyment,   sacrifice   [himself],   and   [not]   ask   about   the   meaning  of  it”  (82).    The  consumer  culture  we  witness  in  White  Noise  is  synonymous  with   Žižek’s   concept   of   culture   carried   to   the   extreme   of   fascism   insofar   as   “the   source   of   the   totalitarian  temptation”  is  the  aspiration  to  not  just  limit  or  cultivate  the  death  drive,  but  to   abolish   it   entirely.     In   White   Noise,   there   is   substantial   evidence   that   this   temptation   is   characterized  by  Jack’s  fascination  with  Hitler.    As  Siskind  explains  to  Jack:     “Helpless   and   fearful   people   are   drawn   to   magical   figures,   mythic   figures,  epic  men  who  intimidate  and  darkly  loom.”   “You’re  talking  about  Hitler,  I  take  it.”   “Some   people   are   larger   than   life.     Hitler   is   larger   than   death.     You   thought   he   would   protect   you…‘Submerge   me,’   you   said.     ‘Absorb   my   fear.’     On   one   level   you   wanted   to   conceal   yourself   in   Hitler   and   his   works.     On   another   level   you   wanted   to   use   him   to   grow   in   significance   and   strength.”   (DeLillo  287)     Similarly,   when   a   mysterious   old   man   appears   in   his   backyard   one   morning,   waiting   patiently   in   a   rocking   chair,   Jack   mistakes   him   for   “Death,   or   Death’s   errand   runner”   and   tellingly   hides   behind   a   copy   of   Mein   Kampf   for   protection   (243-­‐244).     The   old   man   eventually   proves   harmless;   he   is   not   Death   but   Jack’s   father-­‐in-­‐law.     Nevertheless,   Jack’s   fear   of   dying   persists,   and   he   continues   to   seek   asylum   in   his   studies   of   Hitler   and   his   continued  outings  to  the  grocery  store,  shopping  mall,  and  other  sites  of  consumption.    It   then   becomes   clear   that   what   Jack   ultimately   wants   from   his   culture   is   protection   from   death.     As   a   result,   his   desire   to   yield   to   the   temptation   Žižek   describes   is   particularly  


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strong,  and  through  much  of  the  novel  he  demonstrates  a  willingness  to  forego  subjectivity   and  the  potential  to  reshape  his  cultural  landscape  in  exchange  for  amnesty  from  death;  in   other  words,  he  demonstrates  a  willingness  to,  as  Žižek  argues,  “obey”  because  he  thinks  he   must.     As   my   epigraph   suggests,   Žižek   contends   that   the   death   drive   defines   the   human   condition.     Similarly,   the   hazard   of   alienation   (from   others,   from   the   world   at   large)   discussed  in  the  preceding  paragraph  is  one  that  French  cultural  theorist  Jean  Baudrillard   views  as  a  fait  accompli  in  a  world  operating  under  the  ideology  of  consumer  culture.    In   stark   contrast   with   Shields   and   Certeau,   Baudrillard   focuses   primarily   on   the   socially-­‐ crippling   effects   of   consumer   culture.     Baudrillard’s   first   major   work   was   The   System   of   Objects.     Not   unlike   this   analysis   of   White   Noise,   Baudrillard   works   within   a   Marxist   framework   through   much   of   The   System   of   Objects   in   the   sense   that   his   rhetoric   centers   primarily  on  production,  only  to  conclude  with  an  attempt  to  define  consumption:   Consumption   is   not   a   passive   mode   of   assimilation   (absorption)   and   appropriation   which   we   can   oppose   to   the   supposedly   active   mode   of   production   in   order   to   bring   to   bear   naive   concepts   of   action   (and   alienation).     From   the   outset,   we   must   clearly   state   that   consumption   is   an   active  mode  of  relations  (not  only  to  objects,  but  to  the  collectivity  and  to  the   world),   a   systematic   mode   of   activity   and   a   global   response   on   which   our   whole  cultural  system  is  founded.  (The  System  of  Objects  199)     Utilizing  this  definition  of  consumption,  Baudrillard  explores  how  the  relationship  between   people   and   the   objects   that   constitute   their   world   stifles   subjectivity.     While   Shields   describes   consumerism   as   an   active   and   committed   production   of   self   and   society,   Baudrillard   reveals   it   in   the   context   we   encounter   in   White   Noise:   a   fascist   consumer   culture   that   aims   to   assimilate   everyone   into   what   Baudrillard   terms   “the   system   of   objects.”     Within   this   system,   according   to   Baudrillard,   the   apparent   freedom   to   reshape  


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ourselves   and   society   through   our   purchases   is   ultimately   illusory;   the   only   real   “freedom”   we   have   within   the   parameters   of   consumer   culture   is   the   freedom   to   accumulate   and   arrange  commodities  in  a  way  that  reflects  our  continuing  advances  in  social  status.    Thus   where   Shields   and   Certeau   might   read   Jack’s   adoption   of   the   J.A.K.   Gladney   persona   in   White   Noise   as   an   instance   of   empowerment,   Baudrillard   would   argue   that   Jack’s   dark   glasses  and  robe  serve  primarily  to  insulate  him  not  only  from  death,  but  the  world  at  large.     Moreover,   Baudrillard   would   likely   argue   that   these   accessories   are   arbitrary   signs   of   differentiation   which   signal   Jack’s   superiority   in   a   particular   social   arena,   and   that   by   investing   these   signs   with   such   value,   Jack   and   the   rest   of   society   neither   strengthen   nor   weaken  consumer  ideology  but  simply  confirm  its  authority.     According  to  Baudrillard,  no  combination  of  purchases  or  arrangement  of  goods  can   alter   the   role   of   consumer   ideology   because   the   exhortation   to   accumulate   and   arrange   signs  of  social  status  is  at  the  very  root  of  its  nature;  the  system  demands  that  we  define   ourselves  in  relation  to  the  objects  we  possess.    Consequently,  the  “totalitarian  temptation”   that   Žižek   speaks   of   is   fulfilled   by   Baudrillard’s   totalitarian   characterization   of   consumer   ideology:  the  so-­‐called  “subject”  has  no  power  to  alter  consumer  ideology  and  can  only  fall   into  line  as  an  object  within  the  system.    Baudrillard  argues  that  by  becoming  surrounded   by   objects,   we   ourselves   have   become   objects.     Consequently,   we   no   longer   interact   in   a   meaningful  way  with  the  world  at  large  or  the  people  who  occupy  that  world;  we  become   insulated  from  meaningful  interaction  of  any  kind.    In  short,  we  are  too  busy  accumulating   and   arranging   commodities,   wasting   our   lives   away   in   malls   and   supermarkets—the   realms   “where   the   goods   of   the   good   life   promised   in   the   magazine   ads   and   television   commercials   can   be   found”   (Langman,   cited   in   Shields   5)—in   an   effort   to   demonstrate   that  


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we   live   “the   good   life”   to   connect   with   each   other   or   the   world   at   large.     Baudrillard   illustrates   the   mechanics   of   this   alienation   by   distinguishing   between   what   he   calls   the   utensil  and  the  object:   A  utensil  is  never  possessed,  because  a  utensil  refers  one  to  the  world;  what   is   possessed   is   always   an   object   abstracted   from   its   function   and   thus   brought  into  relationship  with  the  subject.    In  this  context,  all  owned  objects   partake  of  the  same  abstractness,  and  refer  to  one  another  only  inasmuch  as   they   refer   solely   to   the   subject.     Such   objects   together   make   up   the   system   through  which  the  subject  strives  to  construct  a  world,  a  private  totality.                             (The  System  of  Objects  86)     Therefore,   unlike   the   utensil,   the   object   acquires   a   significance   that   transcends   its   usefulness,  and  in  doing  so  becomes  part  of  a  complex  system  of  objects  that  refer  to  and   define  one  another.    In  the  case  of  Jack  Gladney,  the  self-­‐referential  nature  of  this  system  of   objects  structures  the  subject’s  existence  in  a  way  that  offers  to  reinforce  his  image  as  an   authority   figure   and   loosen   death’s   grip   at   the   expense   of   contact   with   the   real   world.     It   is   clear,   therefore,   that   consumer   ideology,   contrary   to   the   ideas   of   Shields   and   Certeau,   does   not  empower  Jack,  but  neutralizes  him  and  robs  him  of  agency,  ultimately  separating  him   from  those  around  him  and  the  rest  of  the  real  world.     A  Link  in  the  Chain:  The  System  of  Objects  in  White  Noise’s  World  and  Ours   Jack  is  clearly  not  the  only  one  alienated  by  consumer  culture.    The  question,  then,   becomes  focused  on  the  ideology  of  consumer  culture:  how  does  such  an  ideology  emerge,   and   what   are   its   broader   social   implications?     Furthermore,   DeLillo’s   history   of   parody   and   satire  require  that  we  examine  these  implications  not  only  in  the  world  of  White  Noise  but   in   our   own.     As   I   have   mentioned   several   times,   the   goods   that   Jack   consumes   serve   primarily  as  objects.    Baudrillard  would  argue  that  this  is  because  they  seal  the  subject  off  


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from  the  real  world  (The  System  111).    This  “sealing  off”  is  aptly  illustrated  by  the  divorce   from  nature  that  has  clearly  permeated  the  world  of  White  Noise.    The  sound  of  traffic  on  an   expressway   is   described   as   though   it   is   a   babbling   brook   (DeLillo   4).     Pages   later,   Jack   describes   a   scene   at   the   dinner   table   as   one   of   chaos   and   noise;   the   family   darts   around   grabbing  utensils  and  rifling  for  “brightly  colored  food”  in  the  cupboards  and  refrigerator   before   settling   down   to   plaster   mustard   and   mayonnaise   onto   their   respective   lunchtime   meals.    DeLillo  describes  the  mood  as  one  of  “deadly  serious  anticipation,”  as  though  their   meal  was  “a  reward  hard  won”  (7).    “A  reward  hard  won”  calls  to  mind  the  freshly-­‐killed   meal   of   a   hunter-­‐gatherer   or   a   pioneer   smoking   meat   by   a   handmade   fire,   yet   this   description   is   of   a   family   rummaging   through   the   kitchen   to   grab   what   they   can   from   ready-­‐made   cartons,   “shiny   bags   of   potato   chips,   flip-­‐top   rings   and   twist   ties,”   and   “individually  wrapped  slices  of  orange  cheese”  (6-­‐7).     Due   to   the   overwhelming   profusion   of   technology   that   isolates   us   from   nature— including   such   innovations   as   the   air   conditioner,   the   refrigerator   and   television,   as   well   as   advances  in  agriculture,  textiles,  and  manufacturing  that  provide  us  with  an  overabundance   of   commodities—humanity’s   relationship   with   need   has   become   mystified;   we   are   immersed   in   a   largely   artificial   environment   where   mere   survival   or   protection   from   the   elements  is  no  longer  a  concern.    Moreover,  what  presents  itself  as  technological  progress   is  not  progress  at  all  but  stagnation.    Minor  improvements,  refinements,  and  repackaging,   or   in   Baudrillard’s   words,   “anything   to   enhance   the   prestige   of   the   object,   but   nothing   by   way   of   structural   innovation,”   all   pass   for   technological   breakthroughs   in   present-­‐day   society   (The   System   125).     As   a   result,   we   live   in   a   world   of   “pseudo-­‐functionality”   in   which   objects  are  meant  not  to  be  used  but  simply  to  be  purchased  (162).    Objects  are  “structured  


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as   a   function   neither   of   needs   nor   of   a   more   rational   organization   of   the   world,   but   instead   constitute  a  system  determined  entirely  by  an  ideological  regime  of  production  and  social   integration”  (174).     An   example   of   the   kind   of   regime   Baudrillard   describes   appears   in   the   opening  

paragraphs  of  White  Noise,  in  a  scene  that  describes  in  detail  what  Jack  and  Babette  refer  to   with  familiarity  as  “the  day  of  the  station  wagons”  (DeLillo  5);    tts  relevance  in  the  context   of  this  essay  warrants  a  lengthy  citation:     The   station   wagons   arrived   at   noon,   a   long   shining   line   that   coursed   through   the   west   campus.     In   single   file   they   eased   around   the   orange   I-­‐beam   sculpture   and   moved   toward   the   dormitories.     The   roofs   of   the   station   wagons   were   loaded   down   with   carefully   secured   suitcases   full   of   light   and   heavy   clothing;   with   boxes   of   blankets,   boots   and   shoes,   stationery   and   books,   sheets,   pillows,   quilts;   with   rolled-­‐up   rugs   and   sleeping   bags;   with   bicycles,  skis,  rucksacks,  English  and  Western  saddles,  inflated  rafts.    As  cars   slowed   to   a   crawl   and   stopped,   students   sprang   out   and   raced   to   the   rear   doors  to  begin  removing  the  objects  inside;  the  stereo  sets,  radios,  personal   computers;  small  refrigerators  and  table  ranges;  the  cartons  of  phonograph   records   and   cassettes;   the   hairdryers   and   styling   irons;   the   tennis   rackets,   soccer   balls,   hockey   and   lacrosse   sticks,   bows   and   arrows;   the   controlled   substances,   the   birth   control   pills   and   devices;   the   junk   food   still   in   shopping   bags   –   onion-­‐and-­‐garlic   chips,   nacho   thins,   peanut   creme   patties,   Waffelos   and  Kabooms,  fruit  chews  and  toffee  popcorn;  the  Dun-­‐Dum  pops,  the  Mystic   mints.  (3)     The   way   the   description   is   organized   makes   it   one   of   the   most   important   and   lasting   paragraphs   throughout   the   entire   novel   because   it   reflects   the   ontogeny   of   humanity’s   mystification  of/from  need.    The  first  third  of  the  paragraph  sounds  as  though  it  was  pulled   from  the  pages  of  a  19th  century  journal  describing  a  caravan  of  Conestoga  wagons  on  the   Oregon   trail;   the   items   listed   at   the   beginning   of   the   paragraph   are   loaded   down   with   what   seems   like   the   bare   essentials:   light   and   heavy   clothing   for   varying   weather   conditions;   blankets   for   protection   from   the   elements;   boots   and   shoes   for   traversing   unfriendly   terrain;   English   and   Western   saddles   for   loping   on   horseback,   and   rafts   for   spanning  


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formidable  rivers.    Yet  the  (station)wagons  course  not  through  the  uncharted  West  of  the   United  States,  but  the  west  campus  of  the  College-­‐on-­‐the-­‐Hill.       Indeed,   in   contrast   with   the   beginning   of   the   paragraph,   the   last   third   of   the   paragraph  highlights  the  distinction  Baudrillard  draws  between  utensils  and  objects.    The   possessions   in   this   passage   place   their   possessors   in   a   matrix   of   abstract   values,   many   of   which   have   less   to   do   with   the   “real”   world   than   with   what   Baudrillard   describes   as   a   “hyperreal”  system  of  false  needs.    Even  those  things  which  used  to  be  useful—the  English   and  Western  saddles  and  the  rafts  from  the  first  third  of  the  paragraph—are  divorced  from   their   original   purpose;   the   saddles   are   not   strapped   to   horses,   and   the   rafts   are   already   inflated  despite  being  far  from  any  discernable  body  of  water.    The  controlled  substances   foreshadow  the  appearance  of  Dylar  in  the  novel:  the  fictional  drug  purported  to  insulate   its   users   from   the   fear   of   death.     The   tennis   rackets   and   hockey   sticks   are   not   weapons,   but   objects  of  recreation.    The  food  is  described  as  “junk,”  which  reveals  how  even  provisions   have  ceased  to  function  in  any  practical  way  insofar  as  they  provide  no  real  nourishment,   only   empty   calories.     As   Richard   Lane   notes   in   Jean   Baudrillard,   this   blurring   of   the   line   between  reality  and  hyperreality  is  a  major  theme  throughout  White  Noise.    In  response  to   this   lack   of   distinction   between   reality   and   hyperreality,   the   novel’s   characters   become   particularly  concerned  with  the  distinction  between  being  in  the  world  and  being  isolated   from  it:  “There  is  a  constant  teasing-­‐out  of  any  hint  of  inauthenticity,  a  constant  bantering   between   characters   about   the   disjunction   between   information   overload   and   the   feeling   that   nothing   about   the   world,   about   being   in   the   world,   is   known”   (Lane   126).     For   Baudrillard,  however,  this  sense  of  isolation  from  the  “real”  world  is  not  up  for  debate.    It  is,  


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as   mentioned   earlier,   a   fait   accompli,   a   direct   consequence   of   the   proliferation   of   consumer   goods—and  our  dependence  on  them—throughout  society.     The  position  of  the  students  amidst  the  list  of  objects  also  proves  to  be  particularly  

telling.     The   students,   who   leap   from   the   station   wagons   to   unload   all   their   goods,   are   described  in  the  middle  third  of  the  paragraph,  buffered  on  either  side  by  descriptions  of   their   worldly   possessions.     This   juxtaposition   suggests   that   the   students,   like   their   possessions,  are  little  more  than  links  in  a  chain,  comparable  elements  in  what  I  referred  to   earlier   as   Baudrillard’s   system   of   objects.     The   parents   of   the   students,   too,   “stand   sun-­‐ dazed  near  their  automobiles,  seeing  images  of  themselves  in  every  direction”  (DeLillo  3).     Their   diet   trim   bodies,   well–made   faces,   wry   looks,   and   “sense   of   massive   insurance   coverage”   are   all   qualities   that   make   them   seem   almost   identical.     These   qualities,   in   combination   with   the   “assembly   of   station   wagons”   unites   these   parents   “as   much   as   anything  they  might  do  in  the  course  of  the  year,”  and  “more  than  formal  liturgies  or  laws,   tells  the  parents  they  are  a  collection  of  the  like-­‐minded  and  the  spiritually  akin,  a  people,  a   nation”  (4).   The   stereo   sets,   radios,   and   personal   computers   of   the   students   interact   with   and   define   one  another  in  a  complex  language  of  objects  that  identifies  those  students  as  members  of   an  affluent,  college-­‐educated  youth  culture.    In  contrast,  the  sense  of  spiritual  kinship  the   parents   find   in   their   well-­‐made  faces  and  their  overflowing  station  wagons  sets  them  apart   from  their  children  and  many  other  groups.    What  unites  all  these  objects  (remembering,  of   course,  that  “these  objects”  includes  the  students  and  the  parents),  is  the  language  spoken   by  consumer  culture:  Baudrillard’s  language  of  the  system  of  objects.    


Gonzalez  20   This  language  is  common  between  Jack,  the  students  arriving  at  the  College-­‐on-­‐the-­‐

Hill,  and  the  parents  of  those  students.    In  truth,  a  careful  analysis  of  all  the  characters  of   White   Noise   would   show   that   the   majority   of   them   are   consumed   by   this   very   discourse.     The  consequence  of  participating  in  this  discourse  is  a  social  structure  wherein  “traditional   symbolic   objects”   such   as   tools   and   furniture   bear   “the   clear   imprint   of   the   conscious   or   unconscious  dynamic”  of  human  activity  (The  System  200).    Within  this  structure,  objects   and   people   alike   now   function   as   signs,   and   their   organization   forms   a   signifying   fabric   constituting   the   “virtual   totality   of   all   objects   and   messages   ready-­‐constituted   as   a   more   or   less   coherent   discourse”   (200).     This   discourse   encompasses   everything   and   thereby   reduces  all  human  relations  to  forms  of  consumption.    We  can  neither  live  in  the  real  world   nor  respond  to  each  other  as  human  beings  because  the  objects  we  possess  divorce  us  from   both.    Apart  from  Jack’s  relationship  with  Hitler  and  efforts  to  maintain  the  “J.A.K.”  persona,   the   best   example   of   how   an   individual   can   become   divorced   from   the   “real”   world   (especially   in   the   context   of   evading   death)   is   that   of   Babette’s   consumption   of   the   medication  Dylar.    Dylar  is  a  fictional  medication  that  suspends  the  patient’s  fear  of  death   at   a   seemingly   unwanted   expense:   the   medication   has   dramatic   effects   on   memory.     Babette,   despite   circumventing   her   fear   of   death,   cannot   fully   remember   the   life   she   is   living.     Dylar   is,   in   many   respects,   a   very   literal   manifestation   of   consumer   culture’s   capacity  to  insulate  Babette,  not  just  from  death,  but  also  from  the  real  world.   However,   I   believe   that   the   alienation   Baudrillard   describes   is   best   exemplified   when  Jack  and  Siskind  pay  a  visit  to  “a  tourist  attraction  known  as  the  most  photographed   barn   in   America”   (DeLillo   12).     As   Jack   and   Siskind   approach   the   site,   they   encounter   a   number   of   signs   advertising   the   barn’s   imminence   (and   eminence).     When   they   finally  


Gonzalez  21  

arrive,  they  find  the  area  teeming  with  people  either  photographing  or  selling  pictures  of   the  attraction.    Not  once  in  the  description  of  their  trip  does  Jack  mention  seeing  the  barn.     In   fact,   while   admiring   the   crowd   that   the   barn   has   gathered,   Siskind,   ever   a   source   of   explanation  within  the  novel,  mentions  that  no  one  can  actually  see  the  barn  itself;  rather,   they  are  all  participating  in  the  prepackaged  experience  of  the  barn:   Once  you’ve  seen  the  signs  about  the  barn,  it  becomes  impossible  to  see  the   barn…We’re  not  here  to  capture  an  image,  we’re  here  to  maintain  one.    Every   photograph  reinforces  the  aura…Being  here  is  kind  of  a  spiritual  surrender.     We  see  only  what  the  others  see.    The  thousands  who  were  here  in  the  past,   those   who   will   come   in   the   future.     We’ve   agreed   to   be   part   of   a   collective   perception.    This  literally  colors  our  vision.    A  religious  experience  in  a  way,   like  tourism…They  are  taking  pictures  of  taking  pictures…What  was  the  barn   like  before  it  was  photographed?...What  did  it  look  like,  how  was  it  different   from  other  barns?    We  can’t  answer  these  questions  because  we’ve  seen  the   signs,   seen   the   people   snapping   pictures.     We   can’t   get   outside   the   aura.     We’re  part  of  the  aura.    We’re  here,  we’re  now.  (12-­‐13)     Serving  no  other  purpose  than  to  be  photographed,  the  barn  has  ceased  to  function  in  its   capacity  as  a  protective  storehouse  and  now  functions  only  as  the  image  or  spectacle  of  a   barn—a   “barn”   as   it   were,   in   quotation   marks.     Likewise,   the   spectators   who   partake   in   the   spectacle  have  ceased  to  function  in  their  capacity  as  people.    For  Baudrillard,  this  state  of   affairs   typifies   consumer   culture:   because   nothing   serves   a   real   purpose,   everything   within   this  culture  is  nothing  more  than  a  spectacle.    Just  as  with  “the  day  of  the  station  wagons,”   we   see   that   this   dictum   applies   not   only   to   objects,   but   to   people   as   well.     DeLillo   has   already   shown   that   the   children   unloading   the   station   wagons   can   exist   amidst   a   sea   of   objects  as  objects  themselves;  by  inverting  the  inanimate  object  (the  barn)  with  living  ones   (the  spectators),  DeLillo  reveals  how  the  barn  can  exist  as  a  link  in  a  chain  of  spectators  –   another   object   amidst   a   sea   of   objects.     Self-­‐consciously   participating   in   a   consumer   phenomenon   that   might   best   be   termed   “the   barn   experience,”   these   spectators   cannot  


Gonzalez  22  

simply   take   pictures   of   the   barn.   Rather,   they   exist   primarily   to   service   the   barn,   to   maintain,  as  Siskind  insists,  its  image.    Just  as  the  barn  serves  no  other  purpose  than  to  be   photographed,   the   tourists   serve   no   other   purpose   than   to   photograph   it.     The   tourists   and   the  barn,  then,  are  caught  up  in  a  tautological  relationship  in  which  each  defines  the  other   with  no  real  reference  to  the  outside  world.     The   relationships   that   I   have   explored   in   this   essay,   between   Jack   and   his   J.A.K.   Gladney   persona   (and   the   components   that   make   up   the   persona,   including   Jack’s   sunglasses,   his   weight,   Hitler   etc.),   between   the   students   and   parents   on   “the   day   of   the   station  wagons”  and  their  respective  possessions,  and  between  the  tourists  and  the  barn:   all  parallel  the  relationship  Baudrillard  sees  between  consumers  and  commodities  within   his   system   of   objects.     No   commodity   within   this   system   serves   a   purpose   other   than   to   signify   the   social   status   of   its   possessor   while,   in   turn,   the   primary   role   of   the   commodity’s   possessor  is  to  impute  significance  to  the  commodity.    In  The  Consumer  Society,  Baudrillard   expounds  upon  this  very  tendency  by  arguing  that  the  proliferation  of  consumer  goods  in   the  developed  world  has  caused  us  to  “live  at  the  pace  of  objects,  live  to  the  rhythm  of  their   ceaseless   succession”   (The   Consumer   Society   25).     This   “ceaseless   succession”   stems   from   the  fact  that  objects  do  not  fulfill  real  needs,  but  rather  participate  in  what  Baudrillard  calls   a  “system  of  needs”  in  which  objects  produce  neither  enjoyment  nor  satisfaction  but  signify   successful  participation  in  society  (75).    As  Douglas  Kellner  notes,  reinforced  by  the  mass   media,  the  system  of  needs  presents  a  logic  of  social  differentiation  that  induces  individuals   to  “buy  into  an  entire  system  of  objects  and  needs  through  which  one  differentiates  oneself   socially,  yet  integrates  oneself  into  the  consumer  society”  (Kellner  15).    Indeed,  Baudrillard   notes,  the  message  broadcast  by  every  outlet  of  the  mass  media  is  not  necessarily  to  buy  


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specific   products,   but   simply   to   participate   in   the   system   of   needs   (The   Consumer   Society   122).         The  fact  of  the  matter,  however,  according  to  Baudrillard,  is  that  our  dissatisfaction  

with  the  objects  we  consume  will  inevitably  surface,  egging  us  on  to  consume  more.    The   degree   of   fulfillment   that   consumer   culture   offers   is   simply   impossible   to   attain.     Jack   is   perpetually   seeking   out   ways   to   top-­‐off   his   “existential   credit.”     When   Dylar   eventually   proves   ineffective,   Jack   and   Babette   retreat   to   the   aisles   of   their   local   grocery   store   or   shopping  mall.    When  Jack  flees  to  the  mall  with  his  family  to  “meet  immediate  needs”  and   “distant   contingencies,”   the   kids   act   fulfilled   and   Jack   feels   filled   out,   but   the   family’s   enjoyment   is   fleeting,   and   they   gain   no   real   satisfaction   from   the   trip.     Upon   leaving   the   mall,   the   Gladneys   drive   home   in   silence   and,   upon   arriving   home,   retreat   to   their   respective   rooms,   “wishing   to   be   alone”   (DeLillo   84).     The   Gladney   house   is,   in   fact,   little   more   than   a   storage   space   for   past   purchases   that   have   failed   to   deliver   on   their   promises:   “things,  boxes,”  all  of  them  items  that  “carry  such  sorrowful  weight,”  and  have  “a  darkness   attached  to  them”  (6).         The  characters  of  the  novel,  be  they  Jack’s  colleagues  at  the  College-­‐on-­‐the-­‐Hill,  the  

students   arriving   at   the   College-­‐on-­‐the-­‐Hill,   or   the   spectators   at   the   most   photographed   barn   in   America,   seek   the   protection,   the   fulfillment,   and   the   wholeness   that   consumer   culture   proffers.     Characters   such   as   Jack   allow   us   to   conclude   that   the   individual’s   participation  in  consumer  culture  is  driven  by  his  fear  of  death.    While  we  do  not  have  the   same   level   of   personal   insight   into   what   drives   the   masses   of   people   we   encounter   elsewhere  in  the  book  to  partake  in  consumer  culture,  several  things  support  that  this  drive   is  a  fear  of  death:  the  novel’s  working  title  of  The  American  Book  of  the  Dead,  the  manner  in  


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which  death  literally  looms  in  the  novel,  and  the  historical  context  in  which  the  novel  was   published,  for  example,  all  imply  that  the  fear  of  death  is  one  that  is  continuously  present  in   the   minds   of   the   novel’s   characters.     As   the   working   title   The   American   Book   of   the   Dead   suggests,   the   characters   of   the   novel   appear   trapped   in   something   of   a   no-­‐win   situation.     The  fear  of  death  is  one  that  Žižek  describes  as  inherent  in  human  nature,  one  that,  as  we   see  in  the  novel,  can  be  paralyzing  in  its  power.    On  the  other  hand,  the  novel  also  makes   clear  that  consumer  culture  is  equally  paralyzing  in  its  capacity  to  isolate  individuals  from   what   Baudrillard   calls   the   real   dimension   of   lived   existence,   replacing   interpersonal   relationships  with  relationships  among  individuals  and  the  objects  they  possess.    It  seems,   then,  that  regardless  of  one’s  participation  in  consumer  culture,  one  effectively  chooses  to   be  estranged  from  life  in  one  of  two  ways.     As  both  Žižek  and  DeLillo  suggest,  however,  there  is  a  third  option.    DeLillo  mocks   both   the   paralyzing   fear   of   death   and   the   sacrifice   of   submitting   to   consumer   culture   by   ensuring   throughout   the   novel   that   everywhere   death   is   expected   to   occur,   it   fails   to   deliver.    Ernest  Mercator,  a  friend  of  Jack’s  son  who  is  trying  to  set  a  new  world  record  for   sitting  in  a  cage  full  of  poisonous  snakes,  survives.    When  Jack  is  exposed  to  Nyodene  D,  the   deadly  component  of  the  looming  toxic  cloud,  his  doctors  tell  him  that  he  will  not  suffer  any   effects   until   he   is   well   into   his   seventies,   an   age   no   different   from   the   average   life   expectancy.     Jack,   who   confronts   Willie   Mink   (the   man   responsible   for   Dylar’s   creation)   with   every   intention   of   killing   him,   ultimately   saves   his   life.     The   novel’s   ending,   wherein   one  of  Jack’s  sons  embarks  on  a  heart-­‐stopping,  death-­‐defying  tricycle  ride  across  multiple   lanes   of   freeway   traffic,   ends   not   in   tragedy,   but   in   the   entire   Gladney   family   enjoying   a   beautiful   sunset.     DeLillo   does   not   mean   to   imply   that   death   is   not   a   reality;   he   is   merely  


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exposing  that  the  fear  experienced  by  the  characters  in  the  novel  is  unwarranted.    I  believe   this  to  be  DeLillo’s  endorsement  of  what  Žižek  suggests  in  my  epigraph:  that  to  truly  live,   one  must  confront  death  in  all  of  its  sublime  depth  and  darkness.    One  cannot  then  fear  it   absolutely,  for  to  fear  death  absolutely  would  prevent  one  from  truly  living.    Nor  can  one   attempt  to  ignore  death  by  partaking  in  consumer  culture,  especially  given  that  ignorance,   as  we  have  seen,  is  far  from  bliss.    Rather,  one  must  acknowledge  the  depth  and  darkness  of   death   and   establish   what   Žižek   characterizes   as   a   modus   vivendi   with   it,   the   ability   to   observe   life   from   the   overhead   perspective   from   which   Siskind   observes   “the   barn   experience,”  and,  ideally,  still  be  “immensely  pleased”  by  what  we  see,  even  if  what  we  are   seeing  are  the  ironies  exposed  by  White  Noise                                                      

  Works  Cited  

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  Baudrillard,  Jean.    The  Consumer  Society:  Myths  and  Structures.  Trans.  George  Ritzer.     London:  Sage,  1998.                              .    The  System  of  Objects.    Trans.  James  Benedict.    London:  Sage,  1998.     Cantor,  Paul.    Adolf,  We  Hardly  Knew  You.    In  New  Essays  on  “White  Noise,”  ed.  Frank   Lentricchia.     DeLillo,  Don.    White  Noise.    New  York:  Penguin  Books,  1998.     Kellner,  Douglas.    Jean  Baudrillard:  From  Marxism  to  Postmodernism  and  Beyond.     Cambridge:  Polity,  1989.     Lane,  Richard  K.    Jean  Baudrillard.    Routlege  Critical  Thinkers  Series.    London  and  New   York:  Routledge,  2000.     Lentricchia,  Frank,  ed.    New  Essays  on  “White  Noise”.    New  York:  Cambridge  UP,  1991.     Shields,  Rob,  ed.    Lifestyle  Shopping:  The  Subject  of  Consumption.    New  York:  Routledge,   1992.     Žižek,  Slavoj.    The  Sublime  Object  of  Ideology.    New  York:  Verso,  1989.      

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