“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. There was an old picket fence with a sign; THE OLD BURYING GROUND Blacksmith village” (Delillo) Here we clearly see just how far death has been pushed to the psychological, and literal suburbs of life. 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.
This is a very grim assessment of the post-modern world in context of death; it has caused it to become an unbearable, unnatural, thing and then placed its presence everywhere. However it has come up with its own mechanism of dealing with death, Consumerism. With the rise of the global community, mass media and marketing, our age has become defined as the consumer age. Middleton and Walsh describe the characteristics of modernity that have made such an impact on the postmodern world, viewing them as tiers. The first Tier, “Scientism”, provides humanity with authoritative knowledge. “Technicism”, the second tier is about the effective translation of scientific knowledge into control of the creation. The third tier, “economism”, maintains that an increased standard of living is the pinnacle of human life. (Middleton/Walsh) Marx states “What we produce is always miles ahead of what we think” (Spectres of Marx) applied to this theory we see the change in the production and technology finally influences society, applied to history we see how the first two tiers developed and finally the change from modernism to post-modernism was produced via political thought (in the form of the third tier) in other words the change in technology and science brought about a change in the way society was, causing a change in the way society is governed. It is easy to see how mass production, mass media and the global economy have created a capitalist state fed on consumers and producers. We are in an age of choice “a time of incessant choosing” the media and propaganda that surrounds us tells us everyday about the choices we can make in life, a life where anything and everything is for sale. Jack buys his identity, he “picks up (Hitler) off the shelf” and decides to shroud himself in his identity. (Delillo) he buys Dark glasses and long robes that create the person he is. Switching on the television Jack hears “CABLE HEALTH, CABLE WEATHER CABLE NEWS CABLE NATURE” (Delillo) which Michael Moses comments on; This last example with its hilarious concluding term “CABLE NATURE,” advertises in a dense aphoristic manner the underlying promise of posmodern culture: Nature is on tap, on cable, readily available to any American viewer who possesses access to subscriber television…Health, weather, news, nature itself, all are at the disposal of the consumer.” (The American Novel) In this way we see how consumerism is the way in which people repress and hide away death. Looking at Jack and Murray’s conversation in chapter 37 we see Murray tell jack to “get around death by concentrating on the life beyond” or to “put (his) faith in technology” Jack points out that Murray is simply offering him “Self-delusion” (Delillo) but this is all Jack can hope for in a demystified uncertain world.
In a world were everything is “readily available to the subscribing consumer” (The American Novel) even death has become a commodity to be consumed. We see the Gladney family as they sit together hungry to watch death sensationalized on television, they consume it. By turning death into a commodity to be consumed the media alienates the viewer from their own death; they begin to believe then that death is something that happens only to others, and that somehow the more money we have, the more we consume death the more we can repress it the more immortal we become, as Babette says “It’s hard to imagine death at that income level” (Delillo). Even when the airborne toxic spillage occurs not far from the Gladney’s house Jack initially ignores it, firm in his belief that “These things happen to poor people who live in exposed areas. Society is set up in such a way that it’s the poor who suffer the main impact of natural and manmade disasters…I’m a college professor. Did you ever see a college professor rowing a boat down his own street in one of those TV floods? We live in a neat and pleasant town with a quaint name. These things don’t happen in Blacksmith.” (Delillo) Jack completely believes in the images the television has supplied him with and subscribes to the idea that he is immune to death because he has money, because he consumes it at will, distancing himself from it. Heidegger explains, “ In a consumer culture, wealth provides the illusion of invulnerability. The power of technology allows its possessor or user to cover over the nearness and inevitability of personal death. The greater the wealth, the greater the quantum
of technological power, the more distant personal death seems.” (Heidegger) This is how the post-modern self approaches death, with eyes closed and wallet open. Repression and ignorance are all we can use to fight off the fear. In the Postmodern world we are surrounded by facts and saturated by information from the media. However, we know nothing about death, no facts, and no truths because death is “beyond the media’s discourse, the reality of death transcends hyper-reality.” (Maltby) Even this consumption however, is not enough to help us stave off the fear, as we see in Jack’s case. The media betrays him just as religion and science do, eventually everyone will be betrayed by the media, as they will also face their own death.
I think Delillo offers us an idea of what will become of the next generations if postmodernism is to continue in the trends he has set out. I think of Wilder as the personification of the ‘ultra-consumer’ of the future post-modern generation. Throughout the novel Jack expresses a slight envy of Wilder because as Murray says, “ He doesn’t know he’s going to die. He doesn’t know death at all. You cherish this simpleton blessing of his, this exemption from harm”. (Delillo) He has little to no vocabulary, which, in a world were words have been replaced by images and signs is acceptable, possibly even an advantage, as we see him simply mistake Babette on the television screen for the Babette of real life and begin to cry when she disappears off the screen, just as a toddler does when the parents leave the room. At the supermarket he grabs at items on the shelves, gains instant gratification from them, then grabs out for another straight away tossing the old item away with no sentimentality. He is gratified by the image and the item he no longer needs language. At the end of the novel however he almost becomes a warning, completely unaware of death he rides his tricycle across the expressway. He is the example of the ultra post-modern man, what we could all become if we get carried away with post-modern society, or what our future generations will become. Delillo is a disturbing writer precisely because he leaves us opinionless and solutionless. He leaves it for us to decide whether following in Wilder’s footsteps would be the solution to our fears. Should we, as Wilder does on the expressway, let go of our need for control in a chaotic system, or is this a terrible warning, something we should try to avoid and if so how? We are left in a state of ambiguity, worse yet; we are left in the post-modern world he has just shown us.
“White Noise” Don Delillo, Picador 1999
“The American Novel” Ed. Frank Lentricchia, Cambridge books 1991
“The Question concerning technology” Martin Heidegger. Harper and Row 1977
“The difficulty with modernity” Middleton and Walsh. Manchester 1989
“Introducing Post-modernism” Richard Appignanesi and Chris Garratt. Icon books UK 1999
“Simulacra and simulation” Jean Baudrillard cd. Mark Poster. Cambridge 1988
“The post-modern condition” Jean François Lyotard Manchester university press 1984
“Introduction to literature, Criticism and Theory” Andrew Bennett and Nicholas Royle. Prentice Hall 1995
“Beginning Theory” Peter Barry. Manchester University press. 1995
“Ideology and the state” Louis Althusser. London Edward Arnold 1992
“Spectres of Marx” Routledge, London 1994
“Postmodernism or the logic of late Capitalism” Fredrick Jameson. Verson 1991
“What is Postmoderism” Charles Jencks. Academy edition 1986