“AN ARISTOTELIANISM OF BUBBLE GUM WRAPPERS AND DETERGENT JINGLES”: SOME READING NOTES ON DON DELILLO’S WHITE NOISE
Blasting consumer culture, postmodernism, academia, Baudrillard, and fear of death…what’s not to love?
First chapter: Blacksmith, portrait of America.
The station wagons arrive, West campus, loaded with consumer goods. The American consumer herd: “This assembly of station wagons, as much as anything they might do during the course of the year, more than formal liturgies or laws, tells the parents they are a collection of the like-minded, and the spiritually akin, a people, a nation.”
The College-On-The-Hill: like The City on the Hill (Matthew 5:14)
The Gladneys live at the end of a street that was once a wooded area with deep ravines; now an expressway is beyond the back yard. Primal America transformed into consumer America.
The day of the station wagons; like the night of long knives. Means everything to Jack, nothing to Babette. Babette, disheveled, serious, hefty. Conspiracies, cult mysteries. Jack’s former wives had ties to the intelligence community.
Idea of death: perhaps people with a certain income level don’t die. “I have trouble imagining death at that income level.”
Collecting marriages and children like products.
“Why do these possessions carry such a sorrowful weight? There is a darkness attached to them, a foreboding. They make me wary not of personal failure and defeat but of something more general, something larger in scope and content.” Like the failure of an entire culture.
The lunch food is all artificial, plastic, but there’s a sense of hard-won reward in eating it. Babette’s consumer guilt at buying this crap, but also the guilt of not buying this crap, of not participating in the culture.
Academic pretension and absurdity: The Department of Popular Culture: “movie-mad, trivia-crazed. They are here to decipher the natural language of the culture, to make a formal method of the shiny pleasures they’d known in their Europe-shadowed childhoods — an Aristotelianism of bubble gum wrappers and detergent jingles.”
The department head collects pre-war soda pop bottles. The department itself: “the impression is one of pervasive bitterness, suspicion and intrigue.”
Academic satire, all the more biting because the book has become a staple of academic departments, meaning academics don’t get it.
Murray: a visiting lecturer on living icons. Jewish; his friend Jack is head of Hitler Studies. Full professors who only read cereal boxes. Murray likes the small town, away from cities that function on the heat exchange principle, entropy.
Jack’s having made a system of Hitler, made him his Hitler. Murray wants to do the same with Elvis.
The most photographed barn in America: herd mentality again.
Blacksmith is full of obese people, always eating, overeating, consuming.
A life of seasonal routine, the arrival of the students, etc. And one question floats in the air: who will die first?
“The narcotic glow and eerie diseased brain-sucking power” of television. Even Netflix?
Scholarly pretension: Jack Gladney becomes J.A.K. Gladney. He is aware that he is a false character hiding behind the presumed authority of that name. Like Hitler, a name change to enforce an air of authority.
Jack is haunted by the future and death. Future contains death.
Communion in the supermarket, not lost in the supermarket. Paperbacks scattered at the entrance from an accident. The non-importance of books in a culture focused on consuming, achieving a fullness of being through shopping.
Questioning of the truth, senses, is it raining or not? Parody postmodernism.
Teaching Advanced Nazism, the continuing fascination with fascism. Projected background of crowd scenes in the classroom. All plots are a movement toward death.
An intimate moment with Jack and Babette. Sharing “everything,” but not quite. The trust of placing your identity in the care of another person.
The most prominent figure in Hitler studies doesn’t know German.
Evacuating the grade school; prefigures the Airborne Toxic Event.
Back in the supermarket: everything is noise, and just below the noise something just outside the range of human apprehension. This expectation of meaning in everything.
Paranoia is when everything is connected.
Babette’s on a drug which Jack didn’t know about.
Murray sees the supermarket as a place that spiritually recharges us, everything is concealed in symbolism, hidden in veils of mystery and layers of cultural material.
Life as waves and radiation, meaning to be deciphered just beyond the surface of things. Interpretation as infantile, a denial of the truth of death, that things are in essence meaningless and temporary.
Murray: making fun of the academic need to interpret everything, a false and futile response to life. Again, academics don’t get it.
Close up on the family. Everything death-focused. Chewing gum causes cancer in rats. Heinrich plays chess with a murderer by mail.
“The system had blessed my life. I felt its support and approval.” Identity validated by the system, not the self.
Because he has no self, death fear, defenseless against the fear.
This constant looking for codes and messages, trying to decode the system via television: for Murray, television is a spiritual and psychic system of inclusion.
Babette is starting to forget things, including whether or not she’s taking something that has the side-effect of making her forget things.
Jack’s German teacher also teaches meteorology, the cycles and patterns of weather serving the same need as religion, filling a hunger.
The psychic who leads police to items other than the ones they’re looking for. “The American mystery deepens.”
His obsession with Hitler is an obsession with authority. Names Heinrich Heinrich because he feels it’s a strong name, has authority.
Spending Friday night watching disasters on TV: “every disaster made us wish for more, for something bigger, grander, more sweeping.”
Alfonse Stompanato on the meaning of TV disasters. This is where California comes in.
The Elvis Lecture. “To become a crowd is to keep out death. To break off from the crowd is to risk death as an individual, to face dying alone.” Jack says this but does not understand this.
Wilder starts crying, sustained crying for no discernable reason, seven straight hours of crying.
Confusion of the names of things; in a data stream of nonsense does it really matter?
Jack runs into the computer instructor off-campus in the hardware store, who has never seen him without his dark glasses. “You look so harmless, Jack. A big, harmless, aging, indistinct sort of guy.”
Questioning his identity puts him in the mood to shop. Well-being through shopping. “I began to grow in value and self-regard. I filled myself out, found new aspects of myself, located a person I’d forgotten existed.”
Goes to pick up his daughter and instead his ex-wife is there, unhappy with her life with a diplomat-spy.
The passengers filing into the airport, from the plane with three engines stopped. From the cockpit: “We’re falling out of the sky! We’re going down! We’re a silver gleaming death machine!” The breakdown of authority and command.
The power of storytelling to the tribe, the man relating the tale of the “crash landing.” No media to cover it. “We went through all that for nothing?”
The quiet of the cemetery; the presence of the dead. “Perhaps we are what they dream.” Stay away from plots, death. Double meaning.
Jack muses on Attila’s death as if it were a Hollywood epic.
The choice of dying or being alone.
Now Babette is on television. She has become an image.
The Airborne Toxic Event
From “feathery plume” to “black billowing cloud” to “airborne toxic event.” Media naming disaster.
It won’t affect them: “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…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…these things don’t happen in places like Blacksmith.”
The system’s chaotic attempts to deal with the kind of disaster that it’s supposedly set up to deal with. Katrina.
The comedy of the evacuation, their inability to deal seriously with the scope of the disaster, Heinrich’s evident enjoyment of it, his blossoming into a source of information.
Now information is rumor, official or unofficial, attached to authority or related to authority. News of the cloud.
The man from SIMUVAC. Making fun of using the real event to practice a simulation. Baudrillard’s simulation, the notion that the Gulf war didn’t happen. The Matrix: Baudrillard on Neo’s bookshelf.
When Jack stopped for gas he was exposed to the Airborne Toxic Event.
Babette reading supermarket tabloids to the evacuees: Life After Death Guaranteed With Bonus Coupon.
“Out of some persistent sense of large-scale ruin, we kept inventing hope.” What it means to be human. Also, the need to feel part of a system, that someone out there is in charge.
Heinrich pointing out that despite all our knowledge, all that information, what could we tell a stone ager, could we tell them how to make electricity or stop a plague?
Jack sees authority and power in German shepherds.
We look to authority figures, symbols of power, to protect us from what they cannot protect us from: death. “There must be something, somewhere, large and grand and redoubtable enough to justify this shining reliance and implicit belief.”
We search everywhere for signs and hints of hidden powers; for us it is now consumer goods: Toyota Celica. But there is nothing, just waves and particles, the subatomic, no spiritual world.
The supermarket is the new church of the religion of consumerism. The church itself has been reduced to a place where Babette teaches posture, useless in its former role.
Jack finds the Dylar hidden in the bathroom.
Winnie: “isn’t this what the twentieth century is all about? People go into hiding even when no one is looking for them.”
Dylar is a complex drug delivery system. Like Prozac or Viagra or any of our modern lifestyle drugs.
Babette explains why she’s taking Dylar, her belief that everything in the world can be broken down into classifiable parts, turned into lists, controlled, taught. But this tactic doesn’t work with her anxiety over death.
She confesses her affair and betrayal of Jack for Dylar. He confesses that he is now scheduled to die because of Nyodene D exposure.
American consumerism: an attempt to render unconscious the fear of death through the reassurance of buying things.
Advanced Disaster Management: “the more we rehearse disaster, the safer we’ll be from the real thing. Life seems to work that way, doesn’t it?” Nope.
The absurdity of simulating an evacuation after they’ve just had the real thing.
Postmodernism: “there’s no substitute for a planned simulation. We are here to simulate.” Not letting reality intrude on ideology. The stupidity of believing all is a simulation to be analyzed and interpreted by academics.
Orest Mercator, the snake boy. “Do you realize you’re risking death for a couple of lines in a paperback book?”
Jack’s first and fourth wife, Dana Breedlove, reviews fiction for the CIA, “mainly long serious novels with coded structures.” The paranoia of the intelligence community, the paranoia of the academic community, obsessed with hidden coded structures. “The work left her tired and irritable, rarely able to enjoy food, sex or conversation.”
Academics’ conversation about influences on their lives: all connected to film, popular culture, not experience.
Murray on car crashes and American violence in general: “look past the violence, Jack. There is a wonderful brimming spirit of innocence and fun.”
While shopping, discussing how their relationship will survive her infidelity.
Jack can’t teach Hitler without his dark glasses.
Winnie: death is the boundary of life, gives definition to life. “Fear is self-awareness raised to a higher level.” Deny fear of death and deny the self.
Jack’s growing jealousy of Mr. Gray.
Jack thinks death has come to visit, but it’s only his father in law. Later, Vernon gives him a gun, to protect himself. Naturally, it’s German made. Vernon is the opposite of Jack, physical, capable, obsessed with defending himself against the outside world.
Jack keeps searching for the four tablets of Dylar. Ironic: a pill to calm the fear of death that has a possible side-effect of death.
Murray’s idiotic interpretations of slanted vs. front-to- back parking. The academic mindset of reading meaning into everything.
Jack interpreting the string of knots in the compacted family trash.
Jack admires Orest for wanting to get into the cage with snakes, for seeking out what people spend their lives trying to avoid: death.
The Hitler delegates arrive.
Jack and Murray discuss fear of death. Murray’s theory: killing as a way of curing death, violence as a form of rebirth. The dier dies, the killer lives. “The killer, in theory, attempts to defeat his own death by killing others. He buys time, he buys life.” Murray’s theory sets Jack in motion to kill Mr. Gray. Murray: “Slaughter is never random…there’s a secret precision at work in the most savage and indiscriminate killings.”
The paranoid interpretive view at work again: “Plot to live.”
Even Murray knows he is nothing, has no life: “I’m a visiting lecturer. theorize, I take walks. I admire trees and houses. I have my students, my rented room, my tv set. I pick out a word here, an image there.”
The capitalist system is built on codes: “only your code allows you to enter the system.” The system itself encourages interpretive, paranoid behavior as a way of life because it’s profitable.
Mr. Gray turns out to be Willie Mink, the disgraced project manager for Dylar. Naturally, he lives in Iron City, in the Germantown section.
Life is just waves and particles, random subatomic processes. By plotting, we have the feeling of participating in sequences and processes. “I sensed I was a part of a network of structures and channels. I knew the precise nature of events.”
The gibberish message.
Willie Mink is a Dylar addict, reduced to living in a room watching tv without the sound. One of the side effects is confusing words with the actual things they refer to. There is no life without fear of death, this is what defines life.
By approaching death, Jack finally starts to live with intensity.
Shoots Mink in a white bathroom: white noise, death, the absence of information and sound.
Jack takes Mink to the clinic to save him (since his plan backfired, literally), where the nuns speak German and there’s a picture of heaven, with Jack Kennedy holding hands with Pope John XXIII.
Jack speaks German with the nuns, speaking German in a place of life; looking at the picture of Kennedy and the Pope: “why shouldn’t it be true? Why shouldn’t they meet somewhere, advanced in time, against a layer of fluffy cumulus, to clasp hands? Why shouldn’t we all meet, as in some epic of protean gods and ordinary people, aloft, well-formed, shining?”
The nun doesn’t believe in any of this. “Do you think we are stupid?” But others need them to believe, need to believe that someone believes in these things. “To abandon such beliefs completely would mean the human race would die.” Jack can’t accept this: “And nothing survives? Death is the end?” He doesn’t want to know this truth.
The final image: waiting in line at the supermarket, reading the supernatural tales in the tabloids. This is life, waiting for death, trying to believe superstitious things, “trying to figure out the pattern, discern the underlying logic…trying to work our way through confusion.” Ultimately, only the binary scanners can do that, reading the secret binary codes of information.