In his 1966 book, Les Mots et les choses (The
Order of Things), Michel Foucault used the word
“epistemes" to refer to deep-rooted paradigms
or structures used by humans to systematize our knowledge
(and potential knowledge) about reality. As a complex technique
of organizing information, an episteme functions as both a
supportive platform and a closed perimeter—it undergirds
existing knowledge from beneath and admits new information
with stringent selectivity. Foucault identifies and characterizes
the epistemes of the Middle Ages, the “classical period,"
and modernity. However, as modernity has given way to its
successor, a new episteme is being forged; concomitantly,
inhabitants of the postmodern world, especially the postmodern
capitalist one, find their world full of disconcerting background
noise, more so than for their ancestors. The support systems
of the postmodern episteme prove shaky under the barrage of
information. (This is “The Information Age," after
all.) The platform wobbles; the perimeter’s gate waves
in the wind. Postmodernity offers far more questions than
it does answers; and it has the habit of obscuring or problematizing
any answers that it does offer.
Central to the postmodern experience, and making certainty
vis-à-vis information and knowledge nearly impossible
for so many people in it, is Baudrillard’s idea of simulacrum.
His basic thesis is that imitation, if left to continue unabated
and if infused with a sense of nostalgia, will lead to supplantation
of the original. Even God knew this, some might argue. Indeed,
Baudrillard cites the Judeo-Christian God’s Old Testament
commandment against iconography in Exodus 20: 4-5. Paraphrasing
God, Baudrillard writes: “I forbade any simulacrum in
the temples because the divinity that breathes life into nature
cannot be represented." Not only do many Old Testament
tales bear out the truth of God’s words, the battle
rages even today both among and between religious sectors
who have tried to immortalize God in a mortal form.
But simulacrum is not merely imitation and/or representation;
its end result is often substitution for, even at the cost
of abandonment of, the original—if such an original
ever existed. In other words, that which follows somehow becomes
more “real" than that which inspired the successor.
Baudrillard further explains that the phenomenon of simulacrum
can also mean that “simulation is no longer that of
a territory, a referential being or a substance. It is the
generation by models of a real without a reality: a hyperreal."
(Baudrillard mentions Disneyland, a fantasy land representative
of a world which never truly existed, and in the midst of
a place—Southern California—which already drips
with simulation and misappropriated nostalgia.) The map precedes
the territory; the abstract, the representative of the real,
is endowed with more significance and is regarded with more
austerity than the real itself.
For Baudrillard, there are four orders of simulacrum:
1. The image reflects a basic reality.
2. The image masks and perverts a basic reality.
3. The image masks the absence of a basic reality.
4. The image bears no relation to reality whatever.
Don DeLillo’s 1985 novel White Noise is representative
of the third order of simulacrum, a novel in which the line
between the simulated and the real has been blurred to the
extent that the “real" is not merely masked—it
never really existed to begin with, or if it did/does, its
importance is secondary to the representation’s.
When Jack Gladney and his friend and colleague, Murray Siskind,
drive to see “The Most Photographed Barn in America,"
five road signs herald the approach of the barn, and busloads
of picture-taking tourists confirm its label. Jack wonders
why it is so popular, and Murray explains that no one is there
to see the barn itself; rather, they are there to perpetuate
and reinforce the aura of the barn. Murray, in his theory
of the barn’s popularity (and reminiscent of Baudrillard),
describes the flock to the barn as an odd kind of religious
experience. Ironically, of course, the experience is far from
religiously inspiring: people are only flocking there, to
put it simply, because everyone else is flocking there.
Murray Siskind, in his worship of television as a wonderful
yet eerily disturbing symbol of Americana, is once again the
voice of Jean Baudrillard. Indeed, the theme of the first
section of the novel seems to be that despite its reduction
to mere “waves and radiation," television nonetheless
possesses some strange, mystical power which cannot be easily
identified. “Waves and radiation," Murray says
grandly. “I’ve come to understand that the medium
is a primal force in the American home. Sealed-off, timeless,
self-contained, self-referring. It’s like a myth being
born right there in our own living room, like something we
know in a dream-like and preconscious way." The mantras
that not just television but radio also (which operates on
the same reductive scientific principles) provide us with
what Murray calls “sacred formulas," catchphrases
like “Coke is it" and “Toyota Celica,"
the latter of which Jack hears Denise repeat from the recesses
of her subconscious mind in a dream after hoping for some
kind of ontological revelation. Just as the awesome “barn
experience" obscures the barn itself, the second-hand
information and jingles that television instills in us result
in misplaced, confused reverence. According to John Frow in
“The Last Things before the Last," the effect
of simulacrum is to create a world in which “the type
ceaselessly imitates itself," making it impossible “to
distinguish meaningfully between a generality embedded in
life and a generality embedded in representations of life."
This is exactly the effect of simulacrum in White Noise;
the Gladneys et al. live in a world, notes Frow, “covered
by a fine grid of typifications."
Perhaps the most obvious, and most important, of all simulations
in White Noise involves SIMUVAC and the “airborne
toxic event." The town of Blacksmith is evacuated, despite
Jack’s repeated assertions that everything will be all
right, and his protests that disasters of this caliber only
befall the lower classes in remote places. (“I’m
not just a college professor. I’m the head of a department.
I don’t see myself fleeing an airborne toxic event.")
As the evacuation proceeds, the Gladneys hear the warnings
on the radio about what symptoms those exposed to the deadly
Nyodene D gas should expect. The list changes with each report,
at one time humorously including déjà vu. Jack
begins to wonder how much power déjà vu and
the other symptoms could have over him: “Which was worse,
the real condition or the self-created one, and did it matter?"
Jack’s conversation with one of the people responsible
for orchestrating the evacuation raises this very question:
“What does SIMUVAC mean? Sounds important."
“Short for simulated evacuation. A new state program
still battling over funds for."
“But this evacuation isn’t simulated. It’s
“We know that. But we thought we could use it as a model."
“A form of practice? Are you saying you saw a chance
the real event in order to rehearse the simulation?"
“We took it right into the streets."
“How is it going?" I said.
The men in the yellow radiation suits are using a real, frightening,
life-threatening event as a substitute for a simulation, a
model. Jack is momentarily confused—but only momentarily.
His logical protests quickly squelched, he accepts this bizarre
explanation nearly at face value and then asks the man for
a status report. Yet again, DeLillo shows us how quick and
willing we are to acquiesce.
The characters in White Noise, then, inhabit a world
in which the barrage of information obscures any truth that
may have once existed and, worse, makes the search for truth
so difficult that it hardly seems either worth the effort
or even possible to achieve. Any once-fixed ideas about God,
Truth, Right, and Wrong, or any other form of Platonic Ideal,
prove unfeasible in a world of mass production and unquenchable
consumerism—there is simply too much else to occupy
one’s mind. And the distinction between what is real
and what is not real is no longer an obvious—or even
With God and truth either irrelevant or unattainable (or both),
what emerges in White Noise out of the sea of endless
advertisement, diversion of attention, imitation, and simulation
as the thing which preoccupies the thoughts of the major characters—Jack,
Babette, and even Wilder—is death. Death is the one
thing for which there is no simulation. No team of yellow-uniformed
hazmat men can sweep it from the streets and make sure the
population is uninfected; there is no SIMUVAC-type organization
that can study it and substitute a reproduction for it; there
is no equivalent of the question, “Where were you when
you died?" that the minutiae-engrossed Americana teachers
at the College-on-the-Hill can ask one another. Jack and Babette,
among others, fear it primarily because they cannot experience
it vicariously. Like the sword of Damocles, it hangs over
their lives, threatening to befall them at any time. Wilder,
while he may not be conscious of such a thing as “death,"
seems to be afraid of something, at least, at the metaphysical
level. Death (quite literally during part of the novel) is
in the air.
What is more, in White Noise, society has failed
to devise a way to make death palatable. No advertising slogan
has been created which can make death any less of a finality.
None of the quick blurbs the characters (and we) overhear
from the television in the other room or from the car radio
are able to offer any kind of relief from death. Indeed, as
members of that society, the characters—as we—have
been trained to be suspicious of anything that could lessen
their anxiety. Religion, which once offered the ultimate peace
with regard to human mortality, is now a paradox: on the one
hand, inhabitants of the postmodern world have been taught
to respect and validate religion, whatever its form and however
eccentric or different from preconceptions; on the other hand,
however, society (in particular the society in White Noise)
is also quick to dismiss, even mock, people who practice and
gain peace from their religions. Thus Jack, Babette, and others
have a difficult time reconciling their fear of the unknowable,
death, with their inability to accept any information about
it, an inability which exists because the postmodern episteme
which governs their minds and lives forbids acceptance of
anything that could be construed as an “answer";
furthermore, that postmodern episteme is constantly being
barraged by excess information, white noise.
The barrage of information is unrelenting, but it is not constructive
information. The Gladney family turns the information assault
into a habit of their own, and, as Bryant writes, “feeds
on its exchanges of misinformation—rehashed from the
continuous chatter of radio and television—but is not
necessarily nourished." This is demonstrated early on
in the novel in an exchange between Steffie and Babette. “We
have to boil our water," Steffie says, citing the explanation
as, “it said on the radio," the syntactical shorthand
proving sufficient in lieu of an actual reason. “They’re
always saying boil your water," Babette replies. “It’s
the new thing, like turn your wheel in the direction of the
skid." It is difficult to discriminate between important
and irrelevant information; what is more, this scene (and
the many others like it) show that information in the postmodern
world is plentiful, but not fixed. Like so much else, it is
trendy. But even the truth of information which seems concretely,
unquestionably true is up for grabs. Just prior to this episode,
Jack and Heinrich argue about whether it is raining. Jack,
claiming that it is empirically obvious that it is in fact
raining, is met with opposition from Heinrich, who employs
Einsteinian physics and the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle
to prove that it may not be raining, despite the fact that
raindrops are pelting the car’s windshield and being
swept away by the wipers. When Jack asks him for his version
of the truth as to the presence or absence of rain, his son
concludes, “What good is my truth? My truth means nothing."
Everything is subjective, even the so-called “facts."
Unfortunately, as Ed Shane has argued in Disconnected
America, “More data does not equal more information."
He cites Richard Saul Wurman who identifies the following
five telltale signs of “information anxiety":
1. Chronically talking about not keeping up with what’s
going on around you.
2. Feeling guilty about that ever higher stack of periodicals
waiting to be read.
3. Nodding your head knowingly when someone mentions a book,
an artist, or a news story that you have actually never heard
4. Refusing to buy a new appliance or piece of equipment just
because you are afraid you won’t be able to operate
5. Giving time and attention to news that has no cultural,
economic, or scientific impact on your life.
The last attribute on Wurman’s list is very much characteristic
of the Gladneys and their cohorts. They are besieged at all
times and from all sides by information, the overwhelming
majority of which is of no tangible consequence to their lives,
and their inability to properly sift through that information
to find something of import results in the inability to discriminate
trivia from truth. Wurman states, “Information anxiety
is produced by the ever-widening gap between what we understand
and what we think we should understand . . . the black hole
between data and knowledge."
In the face of this anxiety, Jack constructs what he believes
to be a comfortable, secure identity. He invents a persona—J.A.K.
Gladney—and struts around not only the campus but also
the supermarket in his peculiar academic apparel. He hides
night and day behind dark sunglasses. He pretends to know
German while studying, teaching, and chairing a department
in Hitler Studies. But underneath the façade he has
created for himself, he is more than a little apprehensive.
Jack’s insecurity is revealed to us, as well as to himself,
very early in the book when he admits, while describing J.A.K.
Gladney, “I am the false character that follows the
In chapter eight, Jack makes it a point to learn German, citing
the reason as “shame" at being a Hitler scholar
and not being able to speak in the dictator’s own tongue.
Jack is engrossed in Hitler throughout the novel. Hitler may
have been the most rampant murderer of the century, but he
also symbolizes a unique power: more so than any other person
in recent memory or history, Hitler had the greatest control
over life and death. Millions died under his watch while chosen
others lived. Both of these foci of study serve as symbolic
hiding places for Jack’s existential apprehensiveness.
He attempts to use these shelters, representative of power,
control, and order, as havens from his nagging fear of inadequacy.
(“How is Hitler?" a fellow professor asks. Jack’s
response: “Fine, solid, dependable.") And, to
borrow another idea from Foucault, Jack tries to translate
this knowledge into power—power over that fear. His
security is seriously threatened in the second part of the
novel when the airborne toxic event escalates in seriousness
and eventually uproots his family and evacuates them to another
town. His initial reaction is, predictably, denial—he
asserts no fewer than five times that nothing bad is going
to happen and that the cloud of toxic fumes will not reach
the Gladney house.
Interviewed by Anthony DeCurtis and asked to describe his
reaction and feelings when John F. Kennedy was shot and killed—a
defining moment in American history—DeLillo responded
that he did not learn of the assassination until hours later,
having overheard a conversation in a bank between a teller
and a customer. Like every other American, he struggled to
overcome initial shock and lasting grief. He also said that
“certainly a sense of death seemed to permeate everything
for the next four or five days." A similar kind of “permeation"
dwells inside and hovers over everything in White Noise. The
only certainty in the novel is death. Jack’s mantra
is “all plots end in death." Paula Bryant, in
“Extending the Fabulative Continuum," describes
everyone in the novel as under an “ambiguous death sentence."
They may not say so in as many words, but the Gladneys, especially
Jack, are very aware of that death sentence as the exodus
from Blacksmith commences.
Jack’s having been exposed to Nyodene D and having received
a medical appraisal (even if it is somewhat less than perfectly
professional) results in his personal death sentence becoming,
strangely, both more and less ambiguous. He is told that his
exposure to the deadly gas may or may not cause him to die
sooner; the irony being that there will be no way to know
whether Nyodene D will have any effect on his health until
such time that the effects should exhibit themselves. Therefore,
worrying is pointless. Unfortunately, the exposure has a more
definite effect: it terrifies Jack, concretizing his fear
of the most unknowable of unknown things, death. As Murray,
Vladimir to Jack’s Estragon, later tells him, “Once
your death is established, it becomes impossible to live a
satisfying life." Suddenly painfully aware of his mortality,
Jack is even more unprepared when he discovers the truth about
Babette and her memory problems.
Like the German language and Adolf Hitler, Babette is another
source of identity construction for Jack. He is constantly
defining her, speaking to her in the third person and telling
her what she should be because that type of personality is
precisely what he wishes for himself and precisely what he
wishes to have in a wife. “Babette is not a neurotic
person," he tells her. “She is strong, healthy,
outgoing, affirmative . . . That is the point of Babette."
But she has her own set of mortality-related issues, which
result in her exchange of fidelity to her husband for an experimental
drug. For her, the fear of death outweighs her concern and
guilt for being sexually disloyal. She has become addicted
to Dylar, a pill still in the experimental stages. Possible
risks or side effects of the test-drug notwithstanding, her
fear of death is so great that she is willing not only to
take Dylar, but to sleep with its distributor, Willie Mink,
and repeatedly lie to her family. Like any drug habit, her
addiction to Dylar dictates Babette’s life, but she
continues taking it because her fear is too much to live with.
Dylar, as a solution to Babette’s problem, is shrouded
in mystery. Babette first found out about it, she tells Jack,
while reading tabloid magazines to the elderly. Amidst reports
of Bigfoot, revelations about Howard Hughes and Charles Manson,
and announcements for miracle cures, she came across an advertisement
for an experimental drug. Despite its dubious origins, she
was willing to give Dylar a try because what it promised,
however preposterous, was so appealing. If anyone should know
better, it is Babette; but fear is a powerful motivator. Further,
as Bryant mentions, DeLillo designs the Dylar pill like a
flying saucer, “its form drawing attention to its function
as the science fictional pivot of the narrative." However,
it is more than science fiction: Babette, like Jack, is searching
for a way out of insecurity, no matter how outlandish that
way may be.
The Gladney couple’s searches are ultimately unfruitful.
Babette knows that Dylar is only a placebo but is willing
to press on with that knowledge, and Jack’s need for
security, security which is threatened by the toxic event
and increased exponentially when he learns of his stable wife’s
covert instability, drives him to the brink of insanity. Death
is the driving force behind these actions, constantly nagging
them, impelling them to drastic measures in an attempt to
ward it off. Why does DeLillo give them no real alternative
to these drastic measures? Because the postmodern episteme
forbids acceptance of such an alternative.
Previous epistemes have made allowances in the case of the
fantastic when the fantastic was presented in a religious
framework. Religion was able to make the impossible—the
miraculous—acceptable, but, according to DeLillo, religion
no longer holds that power. It is ironic that a postmodern
world which celebrates the numerous and variegated religions
that can be found even in a small geographical space cannot
provide its residents with any certainty about any of them.
Religion’s power is canceled out by its proliferation.
The only thing that could abrogate Jack Gladney’s fear
of death is a religion in which he could take comfort, gaining
the knowledge that death is not the end of life. It worked
for previous generations, but its effectiveness is lost on
this one. DeLillo surrounds Jack with mysteriously religious
characters, nearly all of which Jack (and some of which DeLillo
himself, with something of a wink to the reader) is quick
to dismiss. One of them, who also happens to be one of Jack’s
ex-wives, has “been drawn to Montana, to an ashram."
He goes on to mock her: “Her name is Mother Devi now.
She operates the ashram’s business activities. Investments,
real estate, tax shelters. It’s what Janet has always
wanted. Peace of mind in a profit-oriented context."
Also up for this treatment is Heinrich’s friend, Orest
Mercator. Described as being of ambiguous ethnic background
(which hints at an exotic, mysteriously spiritual quality),
Orest hopes to break the world record for living in a cage
with live snakes. Should he survive sixty-seven days, the
record will be exclusively his. Jack dismisses Orest’s
intended goal as asinine and is not afraid to tell him so,
and DeLillo deals with him similarly: put to the litmus test,
Orest lasts four minutes in the cage and, as Heinrich tells
Jack, drops “out of sight," presumably never to
be heard from again.
But cult members and snake-handlers are not the only objects
of Jack’s disdain. Judeo-Christianity is shunned as
well, very important because Judeo-Christianity, be it in
the form of one sect or another, has been the dominant religious
paradigm of the Western world for centuries. Its various representative
sects in White Noise, however, are portrayed either
primarily (by DeLillo) or secondarily (by one of the characters)
as quirkish, their cherished religious beliefs downplayed,
even degraded. The family of Jehovah’s Witnesses uses
the evacuation and temporary relocation in the barracks as
an opportunity to convert, handing out tracts and speaking
about the coming apocalypse. Instead of acting “normally"
like everyone else—quietly panicked and not-so-quietly
upset—they are calm, perhaps pleased. Jack has no explanation
for them. Later, Babette’s father, Vernon, visits and
in throwaway comments discounts both the Jewish people (“What
is he, a Jew?" he asks Jack about Murray.) and the Latter-Day
Saints (“Let the Mormons quit smoking. They’ll
die of something just as bad."). And of course, the
nun in the hospital toward the end of the novel reveals to
Jack that not only is the Catholic clergy’s dedication
a pretense, their pretense is their dedication, as they have
committed their lives to acting as if their beliefs were genuine
because the masses need not necessarily to believe, but to
believe, however vaguely, that belief is possible.
When all is said and done in White Noise, the question
is this: does DeLillo ever give his audience something to
believe in, a metaphysical life preserver to grab onto? On
the heels of Jack’s conversation with the nun, we read
the book’s final chapter. In it, young Wilder rides
his plastic tricycle across several lanes of traffic on a
busy highway while two horrified old ladies watch from their
window. By way of a final, subtle hint at Americana, DeLillo
suggests the popular arcade game “Frogger" (released
in 1981, only four years before White Noise; the
game’s user-controlled protagonist is a multilane traffic-dodging
frog) and creates a metaphor for life and death. But while
the video game inevitably ends, as all plots do, in death
for the character on the run, Wilder defies the odds and makes
it successfully across. What are we to make of this?
Just as Wilder’s cries earlier in the book were filled
with an odd kind of existential bewilderment, perhaps even
fear, as he cried “out, saying nameless things in a
way that touched [Jack] with its depth and richness,"
his escapade here at the novel’s end is also imbued
with a tinge of something supernatural. DeLillo describes
him as he “began to pedal across the highway, mystically
charged," and when he reaches the other side of the
road he sits on the tricycle seat “profoundly howling"
once again. However, while Wilder’s feat seems like
a majestic, odds-defying accomplishment which causes us once
again to wonder if DeLillo might be saying something about
children’s closer proximity to the supernatural than
adults’ and Wilder’s own indescribable knowledge
of death, there are also words which do not allow us to reach
this conclusion convincingly. DeLillo also describes Wilder
as possessing a kind of “lame-brained determination"
as he pedals frantically, and his howls are not howls of triumph
but howls of fear.
Just after the nun tells Jack that there exists nothing worth
believing in and that anyone who does believe in something
is a fool (“There is no truth without fools. We are
your fools."), DeLillo dangles this event in front of
us, daring us to believe in something—anything—by
using religious buzzwords such as “mystical,"
“exalted," and “profound" but countering
those words with others like “lame-brained." By
doing this, DeLillo challenges his audience directly by asking
them what they will choose to believe. After all, the seemingly
irrational, random events that have occurred in the novel
to this point, after Jack slowly morphs from a quasi-normal
family man into an insane would-be murderer, after an archetypal
woman of God tells us herself that she and everyone like her
is faking it, DeLillo dares us to believe in a miracle. Cars
fly by, their horns blaring and brakes screeching, and a toddler
on a tricycle survives where so many frogs have been squashed.
Perhaps the previous events are to serve only as the moral
wasteland of a backdrop against which the miracle occurs.
Perhaps the book leads up to this miracle as a way of offering
us just a bit of hope. As Jack, Babette, and Wilder watch
the sun set and as the men in Mylex suits continue to roam
the area, there is an odd sense of serenity in the pandemonium.
Then again, we are forced to consider Wilder’s terrible
howling. If he howled before at the knowledge of certain death,
his reaction less mature or complex but borne of the same
gut-level emotions as Jack’s, is he howling here, as
he sits on the ground on the opposite side of the street,
for the same reason? Just as Jack’s death is indeterminately
postponed (his exposure to Nyodene D may or may not hasten
his demise, but in any case no one will know for sure until
he is dead), his fear remains unalleviated, and Wilder’s
death has been put off until an unknown date as well. It is
possible that Wilder’s frustration —expressed
as best a toddler knows how, in wails and cries—is a
product of his knowledge that although his death has been
postponed, it has not been canceled. Sooner or later, his
life will end in death, too.
Postmodernity, both in reality and in literature, is nothing
if not ambiguous. Despite not being a “postmodern"
writer per se, DeLillo has written a postmodern novel: he
has created events and characters that defy definite identification
and categorization. Anything we apply to them, be it literary
interpretation or moral judgment, fails to stick. This is
true of the final major episode in White Noise just
as it is true of everyone and everything else in it. DeLillo’s
devilishly clever ending invites a plethora of conclusions
which can be substantiated while at the same time he defies
us to make any of them “stick." But Wilder’s—and
Jack’s and Babette’s—preoccupation with
death permeates their lives. Miracle or not, the fact that
Wilder narrowly avoids his own demise cannot be denied. If
Wilder’s fear persists throughout his life, he may be
as metaphysically and ontologically frustrated and anxious
as his father. The cycle will continue—what alternative
is there? As Jack himself admits, “What we are reluctant
to touch often seems the very fabric of our salvation."
Don DeLillo is not a postmodern writer in the manner of John
Barth or Donald Barthelme. At the same time, his themes, particularly
in White Noise, are distinctly postmodern, as he
concerns himself deeply with the postmodern episteme by looking
at twentieth (and twenty-first) century people’s ontological
problems and situations. As Scott Rettberg writes in “American
Simulacra," “DeLillo's characters pathetically
struggle in a world of indecipherable, de-centered systems.
There is no one system that is universally accessible. In
DeLillo's America, to paraphrase Yeats; things have fallen
apart, the center could not hold, and mere anarchy has been
loosed upon the world." Thus the characters in White
Noise fail in their attempts to redefine or recreate
themselves in the face of the only thing they know about the
future: their impending death. Jack Gladney is on a quest
that could end with new knowledge that might abrogate his
fear of mortality; the trouble is that the episteme which
governs his mind (and the white noise which perpetually impedes
his thinking) will not allow him to find it.
From guest contributor Christopher S. Glover