Don DeLilo’s White Noise: Societal Rationalization as a Coping Mechanism

Twenty-first century American culture is constantly flooded by a mass of noise: television, advertisements, consumerism. At the heart of Don DeLillo’s White Noise is the rejection of the ideology behind these seemingly necessary elements of our everyday life. Through the protagonist, Jack Gladney’s constant state of hyperreality and inability to separate himself from the vast systems he perceives to be governing his life, White Noise illustrates a postmodernist satire of a 20th century American culture. The culture described in the novel is one idolizing consumerism, aimed at deterring death and coping with the knowledge of human mortality through various forms of rationalization. This ranges from simple alterations of language and appearance to technological advancements to grand designs constructed in order for man to affirm his safety within the system. Gladney’s fear of death completely consumes his life, leaking into such intimate and important decisions as his career.

Novelist Don DeLillo
Novelist Don DeLillo

Jack is the head of the department of Hitler studies at The College-on-the-Hill, a position that he has-quite literally-grown into, and that has also become a fundamental part of his identity. In teaching genocide, Jack attempts to become the master of death, studying it from a distance, careful not to get close enough to allow it to penetrate the safety of his position. As Tom LeClair explains in his essay “Closing the Loop: White Noise,” Gladney controls death by gaining “intellectual power” (398) over it, though it does not prepare him in coping with his own mortality. In the submersion of the deaths of others, Jack is reminded of the immediacy of life, as Murray articulates in a long walk with him: “Whether you think about it consciously or not, you’re aware at some level that people are walking around saying to themselves, ‘Better him than me.’ It’s only natural. You can’t blame them or wish them ill” (294). In addition to an attempt at a death-evading career, Jack meticulously chooses aspects of his being to alter, creating a character separate from the true Jack Gladney. A persona is co-created by Gladney and the university chancellor in order for him to be taken more seriously as a professor of Hitler studies: the J.A.K. Gladney who wears dark rimmed glasses and makes dramatic, sweeping gesture in the black robes worn by department heads. He, for years, has evaded the need to speak German, though he conceals this information as it would tarnish the image he has created for himself. Jack explains, “I am the false character that follows the name around,” (17). The reader sees this image break down as an unexpected meeting with Massingale, a colleague from the university, ensues. Massingale observes, “You look so harmless, Jack. A big, harmless, aging, indistinct sort of guy” (83). As Jack realizes this system is not effective, he immediately seeks relief from another outlet: consumerism.

Critic John M. Duvall shares in his essay “The (Super)Marketplace of Images: Television as Unmediated Mediation in DeLillo’s White Noise,” that “Jack replaces his inauthentic Hitler aura with the equally inauthentic aura of shopping, which he experiences, however, as authentic, (441). After Jack’s public embarrassment, he explains that he is in the mood for shopping. Jack uses his credit card to regain his importance. Where he was just emasculated and mortified, he now holds power and control, saying, “When I said I was hungry, they fed me pretzels, beer, souvlaki…I shopped for its own sake, looking and touching, inspecting merchandise I had no intention of buying, then buying it” (83-84). He concludes with the explanation that “the human buzz of some vivid and happy transaction,” (84) filled the mall, and returns to his technology-ridden home life. Gladney’s narrative is frequently punctuated by the presence of technological noise. Both the television and radio serve as background noise, a micronarrative, for the family. The novel paints very elaborate, complex systems, first verbalized by Gladney in reference to his experience at an ATM. After seeing his balance, Jack says: “The system was invisible, which made it all the more impressive, all the more disquieting to deal with. But we were in accord, at least for now. The networks, the circuits, the streams, the harmonies” (46). He is ecstatic at this transaction as it reaffirms his place in the system, which, in turn, reaffirms his existence. This expansive banking system is referred to again as Jack shares a letter from the bank regarding his “secret code,” (295) illustrating ways in which these systems seep into our everyday activity. In addition to the bank, the technology of television is explored at length in the novel.

The television set is an important part of life for the Gladneys, as they ritualistically watch together every Friday night, as an attempt, ironically, to protect their children from its “brain-sucking power,” (16). Their show of choice? Disasters that grow “bigger, grander, more sweeping,” (64) and, of course, involve people far removed from themselves. LeClair articulates that, “The effect of televised death is, like consumerism, anesthetizing” (397). Jack’s life is again confirmed in the witnessing of outside death. This idea is also revisited in “The Airborne Toxic Event” as a man walks around the evacuation center asking, “Does this kind of thing happen so often that nobody cares anymore?” (161-162) in response to the lack of news footage regarding the incident. This demonstrates that the event was not catastrophic enough to be enjoyable to families like the Gladneys, and also affirms Sol Yurick’s argument that the white noise of our everyday lives distract from and prevent the knowledge of “horrifying commonplaces,” (366) such as the airborne toxic event. Perhaps the most subtly interesting illustration of this immersion of media lies in two simple words: Toyota Celica. As Jack watches Steffie sleep, she mumbles these words and Jack wonders how the repetition of a simple, commercial phrase can “make [him] sense a meaning, a presence” (155). Jack seems to be gaining awareness of the ways in which rationalized systems overpower his family’s life. This is also shown in his impending death, a SIMUVAC volunteer explaining that, “The computer [said we have a situation]. The whole system says it. It’s what we call a massive data-base tally” (141). DeLillo portrays a world in which commercial-babble is normalcy and computers diagnose death while Jack clings to this ideology, unable to detach himself from this rationalized culture.

25th Anniversary Cover Art by Michael Cho
25th Anniversary Cover Art by Michael Cho

Throughout White Noise, Jack begins to see virtually every system he believes in break down. While not a religious man, Jack puts his faith elsewhere: into these socially construed designs in place to keep him feeling safe. He explains to his wife, “Society is set up in such a way that it’s the poor and the uneducated who suffer the main impact of natural and man-made disasters, (114) as if nature would spare him simply due to the position he holds in society. This imagined system completely crashes in “The Airborne Toxic Event.” After Jack learns of his impending death, he slowly realizes the true nature of these systems. Where he once felt power buying products, he now finds comfort in purging these items: “I threw away picture-frame wire, metal book ends, cork coasters, plastic key tags, dusty bottles of Mercurochrome and Vaseline, crusted paintbrushes, caked shoe brushes, clotted correction fluid. I threw away candle stubs, laminated placemats, frayed pot holders. I went after the padded clothes hangers, the magnetic memo clipboards. I was in a vengeful and near savage state. I bore a personal grudge against these things. Somehow they’d put me in this fix. They’d dragged me down, made escape impossible.” While Jack is beginning to think of this rationalized consumerism as a burden, rather than a strength, these systemic failures cause him extreme anxiety, as illustrated in his interaction with the nun. Jack’s perception of the religious sytem differs from the actuality the nun describes, which proves a difficult reconciliation for Jack. Jack believes the nun lives a life of faith and devotion, but she explains that “The nonbelievers need the believers,” (318) and her role is to maintain order within the system. Even death itself is attempted to be rationalized in the novel, as Murray explains to Jack that there is a system in which “life-credit” can be earned and lost: “To kill is to gain life-credit” (290).

The modern American finds it extremely difficult, if not almost impossible, to escape the white noise that floods into even the smallest corners of our culture, as they are constantly submerged in a rationalized, systematic way of life, to the point where one may not even be aware of its existence. This is, however, not the case for Jack Gladney, who believes himself to be very aware of these systems. Don DeLillo, in his quintessentially postmodern novel White Noise, forces his character to witness the truths behind these seemingly grand designs. As rationalization governs the world Gladney lives in, it also governs his most intimate thoughts, using various forms of rationale, in attempt to deter death for yet another day.

Works Cited

Duvall, John N. “The (Super)Marketplace of Images: Television as Unmediated Media in DeLillo’s White Noise.” White Noise Text and Criticism. New York City: Penguin, 1998. 432-55. Print. LeClair, Tom. “Closing the Loop: White Noise.” White Noise Text and Criticism. New York City: Penguin, 1998. 387-411. Print. Yurick, Sol. “Fleeing Death in a World of Hyper-Babble.” White Noise Text and Criticism. New York City: Penguin, 1998. 365-69. Print.

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  1. Al Harrington

    I’ve read a few Dellilo books, and obviously it’s down to personal taste, but I really think White Noise was his best, End Zone was second, the only criticism was it wasa a bit brief.

    • Brittany Goodin

      I have only read White Noise. I read it for an Intro. to English studies class. I had an amazing professor and ended up enjoying the novel much more than I thought I might. I plan on reading his other works.

  2. Merrilee

    After I finished White Noise, I read Underworld and loved it.

  3. Spangler

    `White Noise´ is an amazing novel: it is full of ideas and philosophies, without pushing any of them into dogma that continually hovers over the plot and characters, as it typically does in some of the philosophically engaged literature.

    • Brittany Goodin

      Agreed. I recently read Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, which is just so philosophically charged. I admit I enjoyed it, and it gave me a new perspective on capitalism, but sometimes her philosophy was pushed way too hard to enjoy the characters.

  4. I think the book says things that everyone thinks, but perhaps too much satirical realism in pushing to the point that everyone’s life is more or less meaningless and the dramatic plot points we thrive on in literature and film are fleeting and unfulfilled/unfulfilling.

  5. DeLillo using Hitler in the novel, in his binary of random death/calculated, predictable death, strikes a chord with the modern mechanization of both life and death that lie at the novel’s heart. Jack becomes a victim of this technologically advanced death in the way that many of Hitler’s victims did. Fame ties in to these themes as well. Jack studies a man famous for his brutal efficiency in killing as he ponders the modern world that has hindered life itself through this technological efficiency.

  6. StinsonMe

    I will be honest right off the bat, I have not read Cosmopolis or Mao II; White Noise was supposed to be my introduction into Don’s work. When I first heard about it I was told that it was a profound look into society and a gripping exploration of the human psyche facing death. Instead, this piece of “philosophical” literature comes off like that one idiot in college who read Nietzsche once and thinks he’s a master of philosophy.

    There are a lot of good concepts in this book, and there is a lot of potential for interesting satire and philosophical conversations, especially when we get into Gladney’s psychosis following the Airborne Toxic Event, but this potential isn’t satisfied because the author doesn’t DO anything with the concepts he creates. Even his attempts at deconstruction via Heinrich just end up unsubstantial and irritating. And while I get the implication of me saying this, the end result of my time, money, and energy invested in this book is the painfully annoying sound of static in my ears. Because, in the end, this book is just noise.

  7. White Noise was an interesting book that gave me new insight about how people thought about death.

  8. Helen Parshall

    Thank you for this piece! I’ve never read anything by this author, but now I want to go out and pick up a copy of White Noise. Thought-provoking analysis, very excellent.

    • Brittany Goodin

      Thanks so much!
      From the comments, you can see some people loved it and some hated it. I personally really enjoyed the novel, and I think a lot of the negative comments that people have, specifically about the novel being just white noise, or meaningless, is part of DeLillo’s point.
      Hope you enjoy it!

      • dashannah

        Wonderfully written article. As I was reading I found myself wanting more and more to relate to the character in hope of better understanding his perception. This book is now on my summer reading list!

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