Consumption And Randomness In Don Delillo’s Novel White Noise

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Much like other postmodern novels, author Don DeLillo has integrated randomness into his novel’s form as well as its overall content. White Noise’s main character, Jack Gladney’s, stream of consciousness is often interrupted by his television, which is almost always streaming some sort of daily newscast about death. At first glance, DeLillo seems to be compiling a bunch of random events in order to create a sense of distraction, or white noise.

However, it is important that readers question the significance of these random events in regards to consumption’s role in White Noise (Weekes, 288). For the sake of this argument, two specific events in this novel surrounding consumption will be analyzed: the Airborne Toxic Event and the revisiting of the supermarket at the novel’s conclusion. A close reading analysis of these events as well as excerpts from several critics will be used in order to emphasize the significance behind White Noise’s random elements and consumerism.

In order to understand the relationship DeLillo is emphasizing between randomness and consumerism within his novel, it is important to understand what he means by “random”. According to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary, the definition of random is “without definite aim, direction, rule, or method”. However, DeLillo’s definition of “random” in White Noise can be interpreted differently. The novel is littered with several unwarranted, unrelated, short-term events, which can distract readers from the main plot of the novel: facing the most primal, human fear of death. However, the entire purpose of these events is to distract readers in order to prove a point: it is easy to become distracted by trivial things such as consumption within the postmodern condition.

Theorist Fredric Jameson highlights the disorientation and confusion that can occur within the postmodern condition. In his essay titled “Postmodernism or the Logic of Late Capitalism”, Jameson explains his theory of disorientation by describing the Bonaventure hotel: “So I come finally to my principal point here, that this latest mutation in space—postmodern hyperspace—has finally succeeded in transcending the capacities of the individual human body to locate itself, to organize its immediate surroundings perceptually, and cognitively to map its position in a mappable external world” (Jameson 83). His main argument concerning the Bonaventure hotel is that this building, like other types of postmodern architecture, does not attempt to blend into its surroundings but to replace them. The Bonaventure hotel attempts to be a total space, a whole world which introduces a new form of collective behavior. Just as Jameson’s Bonaventure hotel disorients the architecture in Los Angeles, consumerism distracts Jack from his fear of death.

In DeLillo’s White Noise Jack’s interactions with seemingly random events such as the Airborne Toxic Event or the supermarket, both parallel society’s relationship with consumerism. The things customers choose to buy are often random distractions from their everyday lives. Therefore, there is a false promise of peace associated with consumerism. DeLillo acknowledges the seemingly positive outcomes of consumerism through Jack’s wife, Babette. Her fear of death is so powerful that she turns to a drug, Dylar in order to disorient herself. However, the effects of the drug are relatively short-term and eventually wear off. Just as the effects of Dylar wear off, the distractions of consumerism will fade as well. The all-encompassing human fear of death will always linger for Jack and Babette despite everything they do to rid themselves of it. The randomness of consumerism makes it possible to mask and distract people from human qualms and fears. DeLillo’s “random events” in White Noise distracts, disorients, and confuses readers with the purpose of drawing parallels to the consumerist world.

In her article titled “Consuming and Dying: Meaning and the Marketplace in Don DeLillo's White Noise” author Karen Weekes discusses the significance of the novel’s random elements from an economic standpoint: “A second economic definition of ‘‘white noise’’ is equally applicable to this text: a random event that has the potential to cause a permanent alteration in behavior, but instead results in a temporary change.” (Weekes 287). Weekes wants readers to understand that DeLillo had a very definitive purpose for including all of the random events that occur in his novel. DeLillo wants his readers to question the idea of white noise and its overall consequences in society. The events that occur in the novel such as the Airborne Toxic Event and the supermarket scenes can all be considered white noise for Jack and his family. These events have the potential to cause permanent change to Jack and the people in his life. However, after some time passes, Jack and his family instead return to their daily routines of continuous media consumption and shopping.

In her article, Karen Weekes also explains how easy it is for important issues to become obscured by random events: “If several potential influences are occurring at once (and when are they not?), it can be hard to see the significance of a real causal agent if it is obscured by too many other factors that are short-term and relatively insignificant” (Weekes 288). This idea is further solidified at White Noise’s conclusion when Jack revisits the supermarket and has the same “religious” experience he did in the beginning of the novel. Jack describes his experience in the supermarket by stating that: “In the altered shelves, the ambient roar, in the plain and heartless fact of their decline, they try to work their way through confusion. But in the end it doesn't matter what they see or think they see. The terminals are equipped with holographic scanners, which decode the binary secret of every item, infallibly. Everything we need that is not food or love is here in the tabloid racks” (DeLillo 141).

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Jack seems to possess an immense amount of faith in the consumerist logic that shopping will make anybody feel at ease. This last scene brings Jack full circle. Even though Jack attempted to come to terms with his fear of death, DeLillo takes readers back to square one: a state of confusion and disorientation with Jack’s character. DeLillo wants readers to acknowledge that despite everything Jack experienced throughout the novel, he seems to once again succumb to the power of consumerism. Jack’s bad thoughts, or the “causal agent” as described by Weekes, is completely obscured by consumerism in this scene.

Throughout the novel, DeLillo adds a few small, seemingly insignificant details in order to emphasize the disorientation white noise consumerism creates in the postmodern condition. It is not until this last scene in the supermarket that readers realize consumerism’s true control over Jack. His experience in the supermarket is short-term and will not help him face his fears about death or the future. This scene can also present a different perspective on consumerism: the logic of consumerism and its mesmerizing power.

In their essay titled, “Consumerism and Man-Made Disaster in Don Delillo’s White Noise” authors J. Kastrokumar and V. Gnanaprakasam also discuss consumerism’s negative effects within the postmodern condition: “The consumers are perpetually enthralled with the consumerist condition. Consumerism produces numerous products offering an elusive guarantee of solace as the answer for issues surrounding death.”(Kastrokumar and Gnanaprakasam 105). During the supermarket scene, Jack finds peace while being distracted from all of his bad thoughts about death by all of the colorful products lining the shelves. He is succumbing to the white noise of consumerism that obscures his notions on death and dying. Although Jack says that he is at peace, whether or not he came to terms with his “bad thoughts” is unclear. In this world, Jack’s mind and behavior is completely manipulated by the logic of the consumerist world.

Another random technological contingency present within White Noise is the Airborne Toxic Event. In the middle of the novel, Jack and his family evacuate their home to escape a toxic spill that releases a deadly compound called Niodene D into the air. In his essay titled “A Rhetoric of Contingency and Analytic Humanism in Don DeLillo’s White Noise”, author Robert Clapperton describes why Jack and his family are so focused on what the media has to say about the event: “The human need for support and approval is found by anthropomorphizing technology. It is found in the hegemonies of consumerism and technologism’s knowledge of our financial make-up. Technology measures and approves” (Clapperton 50). The only thing Jack and his family know for sure about this toxic cloud is that it is deadly and that they must evacuate. During this section, Jack and his family are constantly thrown new information from the media about the toxic event, but the information is never clear. The chaos that ensues over this random event is not over the life- threatening cloud, but over the information given by the media.

In his article, Clapperton also explains how technology is now used to reaffirm identity: “The human need for support and approval is found by anthropomorphizing technology. It is found in the hegemonies of consumerism and technologism’s knowledge of our financial make-up. Technology measures and approves” (Clapperton 50). The power in which consumerist technology has over the characters in White Noise is further solidified during the Airborne Toxic Event. Instead of being focused on the looming fear of death during the Airborne Toxic Event, everybody seems to be focused on living the media event.

When Jack and his family evacuate to a shelter, a man carrying a small television expresses his disdain for the media’s lack of acknowledgment: “There's nothing on network,' he said to us. “Not a word, not a picture. On the Glassboro channel we rate fifty-two words by actual count. No film footage, no live report. Does this kind of thing happen so often that nobody cares anymore? Don't those people know what we've been through?” (DeLillo 74). Once again consumerism is masking the true reality of this dangerous event: the possibility of death. Jack family and the others within the shelter are not focused on the danger of the toxic air, but instead are focused on the media. According to this man’s speech to the shelter, order for an event to be considered “real” it needs to be documented by the media.

Furthermore, both of these events illustrated in White Noise critique the consumerist condition in the 1980s and even today. Technology makes it increasingly possible for consumers to design their lifestyles with detail and precision. In DeLillo’s novel, Jack is able to mask his anxieties about death by constant television consumption and shopping. In his article titled “Technology, Tradeoffs, and Freedom as Depicted in Postmodern Fiction”, author Robert Pallitto emphasizes DeLillo’s depiction of the consumerist world in White Noise: “DeLillo depicts a society where consumer choices benumb people to the safety threats and loss of private space that shape their existence. Anxiety about death, and need for connectedness, are left unassuaged by a consumption- saturated existence, and yet the characters do not alter their daily choices in any way despite the deep dissatisfaction they feel” (Pallitto 401).

In this excerpt, Pallitto makes an excellent point regarding the short-term effects of consumerist logic. The characters in White Noise constantly repeat their consumerist tendencies despite remaining lost and confused. The private space he is referring to could be the Gladney’s family dynamic which is constantly shaped by the white noise of the television and the media. Their lives are completely reliant on the consumerist world. Despite their lives being threatened by a disaster (The Airborne Toxic Event) the Gladneys continue to live for the media.

Between the Airborne Toxic event and the supermarket scene in the novel’s conclusion, Jack’s continuously thinks that consumerism could be the answer to all of his questions. DeLillo argues that while consumerism may provide consumers with an escape from disorientation, this escape is a temporary fix. Much like theorist Fredric Jameson’s Bonaventure hotel, consumerism disrupts the human condition.

As illustrated by the random events throughout White Noise’s plot, the disruption, disorientation and confusion that arise for the Gladney family all stems from consumerism. DeLillo’s critique of consumerist logic is evident through the randomness he presents. Overall, DeLillo’s White Noise provides readers with an important critical perspective on the consumerist culture that threatens to completely overtake all stable points of reference such as religion, science or reason, which can no longer offer any order or meaning in the postmodern age.

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