Don Delillo has been described as a disturbing writer. In his novels he presents us with a clear representation of the society in which we live in in a very dry and bland way, pointing to problems that occur in our society that often go unnoticed and un-discussed. We are then forced to notice and discuss them. However, just as we get to this point Delillo deserts us leaving us opinionless, and solutionless, with no answers to our questions and issues.
This is most apparent in “White Noise” a novel that demonstrates a representation of our social fear of death. The novel depicts the life of Jack Gladney and his family in post-modern American society, told from Jack’s point of view, who is obsessed with fear of death we watch as Delillo points to this social issue and demonstrates how it is transformed and developed in the post-modern world. The dominant worldview within White Noise is a reflection of post-modern ideology and theory involving psychological and social structures.
I am going to perceive how these theories are applied and demonstrated in the world of white noise in context of death and fear of death, discussing this social fear and how Delillo describes it inside the post-modern world the Gladney’s inhabit. The way in which the Post-modern world views, or rather the way in which it chooses not to view death is described by Jean Baudrillard, a familiar reference when discussing ‘White Noise’. His Aesthetic, “Death and the Accident” describes the change in the way we view death in society. Society has changed significantly since the early warrior cultures to our present day situation.
This move has been described by Baudrillard as a move from the human to the inhuman; the further into our society we get the greater the distinction is between the two. This is our privilege over animals. Baudrillard discusses how in the primitive world we rejoiced and celebrated death as a natural part of life, making ritual sacrifices to appease its appetite. However as times have changed, developments in technology and the change into a capitalist society has caused humans to be viewed in economic terms, as producers and consumers.
These things are the way in which capitalism views our lives and if we are neither of these two we are nothing, we are dead. This forces death out of the social realm, we no longer have a place for it in our lives as death has become Unnatural! As Jack says “every death is premature” (Delillo) Death is alienated and pushed out of the world of the living into solitary silent graveyards; pushed out to the edges of the suburbs no longer celebrated but mourned.
Death becomes the opposite of life, not a natural part of it, and due to this binary opposition, in a world that spends its time denying, repressing and hiding from it, death is everywhere. To appreciate an opposite one must be seen in context to the other, our Post-modern society stresses life, prolonging life, living healthily but these are all related to death. Death becomes the other. Everywhere life is death must be.
This is clearly demonstrated in the novel, throughout there is constant harbingers of death, the disasters on the television, the Airborne Toxic Event, even in the supermarket Jack notes the constant roar of waves and radiation, the white noise that surrounds us everyday the language in which “the dead talk to the living”. (Delillo) This out casting of death from life can also be seen when Jack visits a graveyard.
It is eerily quiet here, a graveyard miles away from the bustle of everyday life, death is un-consuming, therefore there is no waves and radiation, no mass marketing, no media, no noise! I was beyond the traffic noise, the intermittent stir of factories across the river. So at least in this they had been correct, placing the graveyard here a silence that had stood its ground” (Delillo) “On the way back from the airport, I got off the expressway at the river road and parked the car at the edge of the woods. I walked up a steep path.
When he enters he notes “The headstones were small, tilted, pockmarked, spotted with fungus or moss… embedded in the dirt was a narrow vase containing three small American flags, the only sign that someone had preceded me in the century. “(Delillo) Baudrillard discusses the changes in the ideology of death in society. Another Post-modern theorist Francois Lyotard speaks of why this change in attitudes towards death has emerged as society has developed from the modern to the post-modern.
He discusses how post-modern society differs from the modern society that preceded it and how this has caused such a vast change in the way in which we view death. Lyotard describes the post-modern society as one that signifies the “death of the grand narratives” (Lyotard) and the reign of the little, and local narratives. Metanarratives are the grand stories that describe our lives and society, the way in which society is the future it should take, such as religion, and Marxism.
Often these Metanarratives are in contradiction to each other and with the rise of one we often see the decline of the other. In the modernist society people believed that reason was important, which marked religion as the enemy. This displays the first usurpation of one metanarrative by another. With the industrial revolution, and the rise in interest in the sciences, leading to the ground breaking theories especially seen in biology (Darwin’s theory of evolution being a notable example) Modernists believed in universals, and truth, and that through reason we would discover the truth.
Modernism is a movement that “delights in the natural” (Middleton/Walsh) Modernists worked to “subdue the forces of nature and utilize them for our benefit” (Middleton/Walsh) The post-modern age however, is one marked with suspicion of human reason, and can be seen partly as a reaction against the horrors which it believes came about as a direct result of the “universalist’s assertions” of the modernists (Middleton/Walsh); A reaction against the grand narratives that led to the Holocaust (a modernist narrative stressing the superiority of one universal race), the purges of the Soviet regime (the metanarrative of Marxism), and the tragedies in Ireland (the metanarrative of religion). However it is also the changing technology of the period, the rise in mass media and television, and the fall of Communism that has caused the shift from the singular of the Modernists to the plurality of the post-modern world. Einstein’s theory of relativity suits the post-modern critique of the modernist’s metanarratives.
The age of mass media and global communication has opened the world up and within it lies a myriad of communities. Post-modernists believe that truth is only relative to the community, and since we have discovered there are several millions, it follows there is a myriad of truths also. Post-modernists argue metanarratives are “mere human constructs” (Middleton/Walsh) and when deconstructed are nothing more than “legitimation of the vested interests of those who have the power and authority to make such universal pronouncements” (Middleton/Walsh) therefore the discarding of the metanarrative is the logical conclusion when no metanarrative can be seen as universally true.
If none are true then none can be privileged over the other, the post-modernists encourage only “local Multiple, and marginal narratives” (Middleton/Walsh) This leaves the post-modern world in a constant state of doubt however, with the plurality of voices in our world all competing for “the right to reality” (Jameson) the single, authoritative voice is lost as with each new voice we can’t help but doubt the validity of the other voices.
This ambiguity in the post-modern world is one of the major themes in ‘White Noise’, it is also Jack’s constant battle, with his ex wives all members of some CIA organization which left him unsure and unaware, also with Willie Mink who he calls “Mr Gray”, with his own identity as he struggles to shroud himself in Hitler in order to be someone, but mainly it is what causes his great fear of Death. We see how this has a vast effect on Jack Gladney as he attempts to face his fear of death in a world where he can no longer depend on any single authority to tell him ‘the truth’ about death.
We see Jack attempt to control his fear or at least repress and calm it, using the grand narratives that have aided people in the past. In chapter 37 we witness a discussion between Murray and Jack highlighting this concept. Murray and Jack discuss Jack’s fear of Death and Murray suggests some solutions, which are immediately discredited by Jack when he questions them because he is entrenched in a post-modern world, the more solutions there is to offer Jack the more sceptical he becomes about them and hence they do not work for him. According to Murray, Jack should try to seek his solace in the two great mystical sources: science and religion. Science gives us technology, which both causes death (the Nyodene D) and can possibly cure it (Dylar).
Religion gives us the afterlife, something that also causes death (the person has died) but revives the soul as a new life form. He offers Jack the metanarrative of Science; “You could put your faith in technology. It got you here it can get you out. This is the whole point of technology. It creates an appetite for immortality on the one hand. It threatens universal extinction on the other. Technology is lust removed from nature. Its what we invented to conceal the terrible secret of our decaying bodies. But it’s also life, isn’t it? It prolongs life, it provides new organs for those that wear out. New devices, new techniques everyday. Lasers, masers, ultrasound. Give yourself up to it Jack.
Believe in it. ” (Delillo) Jack makes an attempt at this idea and sets out to find the drug Dylar, however as Murray had explained technology gives and takes away, and despite the possibility of curing his fear the opposite side of the drug is the side affects. Jack also attempts to put his faith in science when he goes to have tests at the hospital. A doctor asks him questions, and Jack answers with healthy-seeming responses, hoping it will add years to his life expectancy. The doctor tells Jack he has traces of Nyodene D in his bloodstream, and tells him Nyodene D can lead to a nebulous mass, a growth without a definite shape, which can cause death.
In the post-modern world we know that science does not hold the universal answer, only a few solutions, but as Babette explains “knowledge changes everyday” and again we find there is no single answer and the metanarrative fails. Murray next suggest that Jack “get(s) around death by concentrating on the life beyond” and suggests he read up on religion “some gorgeous systems have evolved from these beliefs” (Delillo) Jack is immediately confronted by the post-modern condition and says “But these gorgeous systems are all so different. ” To which Murray replies, “Pick one you like”. Immediately he has discredited the idea, as if there are so many which one is right, they are all of equal value in the post-modern world, this however make them all equally valueless, as there is the lack of the authentic and so Jack is left in fear again.