Blog #3 — Murray – Postmodern Man

John Duvall’s reading of Murray as “the true villain of White Noise” definitely seems heavy handed. First, why the word “villain,” instead of “antagonist”? The novel seems to be essentially amoral, leaving little capacity for a morally loaded figure like a villain. Regardless, as Susanna said in class on Thursday, there is something vaguely sinister about Murray. I think a more interesting path to take in analyzing Murray is asking why the reader feels this way about him, as opposed to trying to superimpose on him the character of Iago / arch-manipulator. He doesn’t seem to be sinister because of any literal antagonism. Instead, he is sinister because of how totally aware he is, his passivity, and how unemotional he is. When he interacts with other people in the novel, he does so either in the interest of collecting more “data” or of voicing one of his theories. As was brought up in class, he solicits a prostitute at one point, but he wants to do the Heimlich maneuver on her (this is also at the height of the toxic disaster). This kind of eccentricity highlights (albeit comically) the sheer “Otherness” of Murray Jay Siskind, and this is a large part of why he is threatening. Not only is he strange in his eccentricities, but also, his ability to recognize trends in the “white noise” and examine violent spectacle (movie car crashes) as symbols of “American optimism” (218). The latter highlights Murray’s capacity to bypass typical emotional responses and look at phenomenon in a strictly intellectual light. His sheer intelligence and intellectualized detachment strike me as something kind of alien. It’s almost as if he represents the next level of human awareness, an observer and analyst of the postmodern, contrasted sharply with Jack’s frequent cluelessness and intellectual affectation. Murray is the genuine article, whatever that article may be.

Week 3: Frow, the Gilmore Girls, and Apocolyptic Media

White Noise is obsessed with one of the classical aims of the realist novel: the construction of typicality…Social typicality precedes the literary type–which is to say that the type is laid down in the social world; it is prior and to and has a different kind of reality from the secondary representations of it. First there is life, and then there is art. In White Noise, however, it’s the other way round…” (John Frow, p. 409)

I have found, during the course of the past few weeks, with all this pontificating over postmodernism and such, that two things keep cropping up in my mind. The first is the TV show Gilmore Girls. The second is the nagging doubt that much of what, so far, seems to constitute the postmodern dilemma/framework/philosophy/what-have-you is anything particularly new, groundbreaking, or unique to its time.

As to the Gilmore Girls, several discussions have brought them to mind; however, none so applicably, I believe as John Frow’s critical essay on White Noise. Frow spends a great deal of time discussing the way in which the media and simulated experience/cultural fictions script reality and our understanding of what is typical. This sort of reversed typicality, which he most concisely describes in the above quote, plays out frequently in DeLillo’s novel, where commercials and television often become metaphors or explanations for the things Jack experiences and observes. If DeLillo does this frequently, the Gilmore Girls do this to the point of near absurdity (I recommend viewing the short videos linked here which help clarify my example). All the characters often call upon fictional scenarios or roles to explain their feelings and situations and describe their reality. What is interesting to me is that for those who love the show (myself included), its frequent and often over-the-top pop-culture and media references are much of what we love about it. They represent to us a kind of ideal or aspiration. If only we could really talk like that in real life.

This however, brings me to my second pontification. Is this concept of the simulated or fictitious norm creating expectations for reality really anything that new or unique. Granted, we have a much deeper pool of mediated experiences to draw on. Still, haven’t people been doing this for a good long time? I’m taking a class in which we’re comparing Jane Austen to her Gothic novelist predecessors. Both Austen and Gothic novelists created fictitious types which, particularly in the case of teenaged girls both then and now, persist in acting as a basis for our expectations of romance, heroism, adventure, and the like. Gothic literature in particular was a far cry from realistic. Austen pokes fun at certain impressionable readers of such novels through her own heroine–an avid novel-reader herself–who interprets how the events of her life should play out based upon what she has gleaned from the fictions she has immersed herself in. This was two hundred years ago. Or consider the term “quixotic.” This adjective was preceded by a fiction which established a typicality upon which we draw every time we use this word to describe the real social world. So really, apart from the abundance of simulations from which we now can draw, what’s the difference? I echo Frow’s final words: “Television is about everything. It is about the ordinary, the banal, information for living our lives. It is rarely the voice of the apocalypse” (p. 431)

“Toyota Celica”

In class we brought up the passage containing the line “Toyota Celica,” and the confusion behind its meaning; however, then and now, I myself can’t get past the thought that this line and others like it are mainly Delillo’s attempt to make us laugh. Lines like this are absurd, and seem to add to the absurdity of everything that is going on in the plot before they occur. “Toyota Celica” is a perfect example of this:

Steffie turned slightly, then muttered something in her sleep. It seemed important that I know what it was. In my current state, bearing the death impression of the Nyodene cloud, I was ready to search anywhere for signs and hints, intimations of odd comfort. I pulled my chair up closer. Her face in pouchy sleep might have been a structure designed solely to protect the eyes, those great, large and apprehensive things, prone to color phases and darting alertness, to a perception of distress in others. I sat there watching her. Moments later she spoke again. Distant syllables this time- but a language not quite of this world. I strruggled to understand. I was convinced she was saying something, fitting together units of stable meaning. I watched her face, waited. Ten minutes passed. She uttered two clearly audible words, familiar and elusive at the same time, world that seemed to have ritual meanings, part of a verbal spell or ecstatic chant.

Toyota Celica.

A long moment passed before I realized this was the name of an automobile. The truth only amazed me more. The utterance was beautiful and mysterious, gold-shot with looming wonder. It was like the name of an ancient power in the sky, tablet-carved in cuneiform. It made me feel that something hovered. But how could this be? A simple brand name, an ordinary car. How could these near-nonsense words, murmured in a child’s restless sleep, make me sense a meaning, a presence? She was only repeating some TV voice…(154-155)

We discussed the possibility of this passage and others being Delillo’s shots at American consumerism. And while maybe he is trying to make a point here, I can’t help but think he’s not as serious as he may sometimes be taken to be. Nothing in the passage leading up to “Toyota Celica,” about Steffie’s sleep-talking was really as mind-blowing and crucial as the passage makes it out to be, as Jack is watching her. For me, the only thing that this passage is really doing is poking fun at the fact that when we all read “Toyota Celica” after a passage like this, we are all going to scratch our heads and wonder what all deep symbols this absurd statement carries in it. “Ten minuted passed,” seems to be making fun of us trying to find deeper meaning as well- ten minutes pass while we struggle in vain to pick out the profundities of this statement. It really just seems like another sardonic statement to me, but I could be wrong. It does stand out, but I’m not sure Delillo meant for readers to look into it as much as they may tend to.

 

*Also, sorry this is a little late!

Week 2: Utter Mayhem…

In chapter 14, Gladney describes his family’s response to watching disaster documentaries on television: “Heinrich was not sullen, I was not bored. Steffie, brought close to tears by a sitcom husband arguing with his wife, appeared totally absorbed in these documentary clips of calamity and death…Every disaster made us wish for more, for something bigger, grander, more sweeping” (p. 64).

When I first read this section, I immediately thought of my own experiences with televised real-life horrors. 9/11 came to mind, when I sat frozen in front of the TV set in shock, watching the flames billow from the Twin Towers as they tottered and collapsed. I distinctly remember two dichotomous and silmutaneous thought processes as I watched the footage being replayed countless times. Part of me, the logically oriented part, registered fear, horror, and shock at  the unbelievable event. The thing was, underneath that, coursed a whole other sensation that, though I attempted to suppress it, nonetheless, held fast. It was hard for me to truly grasp the reality of the disaster. It just all seemed so detached from me, from my reality and existence. Even the Pentagon situation felt far removed, almost fictional, almost like something we were all going to talk about in hushed tones with grave looks, while we all really just felt like it was something to talk about. As DeLillo writes, “It is when death is rendered graphically, is televised so to speak, that you sense an eerie separation between your condition and yourself” (p. 142).

The experience of those people who actually witnessed the disasters with their naked eye, who deeply felt the impact of the devastation in the loss of loved ones, were undoubtedly keenly aware of the tangible reality that sprawled before their eyes and left aftershocks of pain and grief echoing through their lives for years to come. I think for most people that would be the case. Indeed, we see this in the second part of White Noise, when Gladney and his family experience the airborne toxic event, in all the family members–except Heinrich. Rather than respond to this disaster in a way that would indicate he is aware that he is in the midst of the mayhem, Heinrich exhibits a disturbing “enthusiasm for runaway calamity,” discussion the technical details of the toxic chemicals and their effects on the community without any apparent realization that the community includes him.

In class this week, Professor Sample suggested that Heinrich is a representation of postmodern ideology, a sort of postmodern poster child. Heinrich’s detached attitude towards death and disaster, even in his own life, appears to confirm this interpretation. But if this is the case, I couldn’t help wondering what that says about me. Granted, I would sincerely hope my response in the midst of such an experience wouldn’t mirror Heinrich’s, but it got me wondering how much we really do operate and respond this way to catastrophic events. And it got me wondering how much of it has to do with this idea of a disconnect between death and self through graphic rendering.

Death / Fear of (Blog Post #2)

(Vague Spoilers for some of you[?], and somewhat tangential.)

It is interesting to look at how the different characters in White Noise react to their own preoccupation with death. (“Death has always been a preoccupation of man” ? Anyways… ) Heinrich’s clinical, detached perspective and fascination with atrocities is offensive to us, in light of Jack’s fate. But Jack himself had a similarly detached perspective earlier in the novel, before the exposure. So Heinrich static character acts as a foil to Jack’s existential pondering, and later Babette’s.

And then the Dylar is introduced. Obviously, the drug starts off as an object of foreboding, becoming a tiny counterpart to the Nyodene D threat. The cloud is an overwhelming phenomenon, opaque and oppressive, confronting the community as a whole with their fears (although noticeably not forging any real sense of community in the process, either overall or within the family). The Dylar, in contrast, is insidious, encapsulating (ambivalent on that pun) the paranoia / hypochondria of the modern consumer. Both, however, render their effects in unseen, uncertain ways. Unnatural death for people in developed countries is no longer an external issue in the way that we think of it as spectacle in developing countries (fires, tsunamis, etc.). Instead it is a delayed, lifelong process – anxieties about plastic leaching into drinking water, unexplainable, gradual neurological malfunctions, and so on. It seems that, in general, the paralyzing fear of, or obsession with, non-immediate health problems is a luxury of the developed world. It is difficult, however, to determine the main cause of these anxieties. Information saturation (“white noise”) seems to be the largest component, but we are also living in a society where medications and (really) health problems are marketed directly to the consumer. “Instant gratification” culture does not engender a psychological acceptance of the possibility of ongoing, debilitating health problems.

Week #2 – The reluctance of characters in White Noise to say what they really mean

DeLillo goes into detail to describe the conversations Jack Gladney has with family and friends.  The conversations that stick out to me most include the bedroom conversation between Babette and Jack in Chapter 7 in which they argue for almost two pages about who should be pleasing whom.  Jack says about the interaction, “I get the feeling a burden is being shifted back and forth.  The burden of being the one who is pleased” (28).  Both are reluctant to spell out what they want and instead act ridiculously polite.

Though the interaction was supposed to be arousing (it’s about sex), the conversation is not sexy at all.  I got the feeling that neither wanted to be pleased, and that perhaps neither wanted to do the pleasing.  Babette doesn’t necessarily enjoy reading “sexy stuff” to Jack, though she seems to do it regularly-just like she reads the supermarket tabloids to Old Man Treadwell even though she thinks the reading material is trashy.  Why does she do this?

Another conversation that stuck out to me was one that Jack and Babette had with Murray Siskind in Chapter 9.  Murray invites Jack and Babette to dinner, but is inordinately polite about it to the point that it sounds self-deprecating and silly.  He says:

I don’t want to feel like I’m holding you to something.  Don’t feel you’ve made an ironclad commitment.  You’ll show up or you won’t.  I have to eat anyway, so there’s no major catastrophe if something comes up and you have to cancel.  I just want you to know I’ll be there if you decide to drop by, with or without the kids.  We have till next May or June to do this thing so there’s no special mystique about a week from Saturday.  (40)

He seems desperate to make sure they know he isn’t trying to force them into “an ironclad commitment,” giving them several ways to back out of his invitation to dinner.  He never says, “I really want you to come to dinner.”

In both conversations, there’s a noticeable reluctance to state clearly what one wants, how one truly feels.  People in the novel seem to use others as a gauge for how they should feel.  I think that’s why the family watched Wilder “with something like awe” after his marathon crying session.  Jack describes Wilder as coming back from “a place where things are said,” emphasizing how people don’t really say what they mean (79).  Wilder’s crying was a true, intense expression of personal feeling, something that his family regards as a feat “of the most sublime and difficult dimensions” (79).

Wilder doesn’t seem like a “normal” child.  Jack mentions that he thinks Wilder is too big to sit in the supermarket shopping cart, yet it is his childlike behavior that endears him so much to Babette.  Does Wilder have a mental disorder?  It hasn’t been explicitly mentioned.

Inquiry Debriefing

Bear with me here; I am tired.

The part of the essay I found most difficult was finding a way to generalize and correlate distinct components of the mysticism that DeLillo grants his settings.  Fortunately, he seems to use characters throughout the novel to present various hypotheses about how meaning is constructed in consumerist society, and once remembering and locating these, the going got a lot easier.  I also had difficulty at times telling if I was being hyperbolic, as the characters occasional fall into reveries which can be difficult to categorize as either valid within the meanings of the text as a whole or merely as products of individual characters.

I was interested to notice how much depth there are to character’s own preoccupations, in spite of the “shallowness” of consumerist culture, and how fundamental some of the issues are in a philosophical sense

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How do you classify any one place as more important, more powerful, more haunting than another, especially in the case of White Noise?  Everything seems to compound and condense itself so that the demarcations of where television ends and the character’s thoughts begin, or where one influence ends and another begins seem impossibly gray and vague.  While writing my paper, I was forced to choose, and what with my inclination to assume no place more powerful than another, my answer remained frustratingly unsatisfactory.  It did of course reiterate a point of DeLillo’s–that of separate mediums entangling themselves–but it didn’t help my case of specifically noting a place of paticular prescience.  The suprise of all this, though after four years of such surprises one would assume I’d become immune, was how easily I’ll b.s.ed by way into believing my paper made a strong argument with valid points.  In such postmodern cases as this (a blatant misuse of the term) I think I may have to enjoy the overwhelming ambivalence and ambiguity (and let’s not forget irrationality) of my theses.  PEACE

Comments on Inquiry 1

The most difficult aspect of doing the inquiry was deciding what details to focus on to support my main points. There was so much richness to the text; everything had the potential to have “meaning” and to suggest multiple themes. So I guess narrowing things down to categories of detail (I chose objects, events and dialogue) was one challenge; the next was deciding what details to select within those categories.

The most suprising aspect of this exercise is that the closer I read, the more interconnected I felt the text was within the scene that I chose (supermarket). The events, the objects, the dialogue were, in my mind, more deliberately and carefully chosen by DeLillo than I had at first thought; in other words, there as a “method” to his randomness.–Trish

DeLillo and White Noise: Is there a method to his meandering?

One aspect of Don DeLillo’s White Noise that intrigues me is the novel’s narrative style and structure. The author certainly opens his novel in a traditional way: he sets the scene of a college campus and the circumstances of the narrator and his wife and family. And certainly DeLillo’s telegraphic sentences, almost Hemingway-like, are straightforward and factual. He’s sparing in his use of adverbs and adjectives and generous with his nouns and verbs.  But there is so much that is unexpected about this narrative style, which must have seemed astonishingly fresh, if not puzzling, to readers in 1985. DeLillo effortlessly moves back and forth between the present tense and past tense.  Much of his narration consists of sentence fragments. He includes seemingly irrelevant sentences or sentence fragments in seemingly random areas of the text (“The Airport Marriott, the Downtown Travelodges, the Sheraton Inn and Conference Center” [15]; “We believed something lived in the basement” [27]; “We had two closet doors that opened by themselves” [64]; “MasterCard, Visa, American Express” [100]).

Along the same lines, interspersed throughout the narrative are references to disembodied bits of television broadcasts, often begun with the phrase, “The TV said” (95, 96). This narrative style, I am certain, is carefully constructed to reaffirm the ubiquitous presence of advertising (billboards and elsewhere) and of television and to point to the fragmentary nature of our modern-day, media-soaked experience. It’s just a little, well, disconcerting, because it seems like an odd overlay to the story unfolding before us. But perhaps, as I suspect, that’s the whole point.

Further, there is quite a bit of dialogue to consider in looking at the narrative style, which often gives us our only glimpse of emotions and feelings of the characters, but often the dialogue veers “off topic” and peters out without coming to a conclusion (hmm, sort of like my conversations with my 20-year-old).  There are also seemingly random events and scenes to wonder about. The mysterious crying jag of Babette’s son Wilder (75-79), for example, seemed bizarre and unrelated to the story. This narrative style strikes me as “deliberately randomized” to achieve effect.

Is DeLillo toying with readers, asking us analyze and connect these odd scenes and sentences and get to a “deeper” meaning? Having read only to page 105, I don’t know, but I’m guessing it will continue in the same vein and that he will make us work hard to peel back the layers of this intriguing novel.

Postmodern Angst

(I composed this in Word and then couldn’t find the “import from Word” function; so, hopefully, the formatting isn’t crazy.)

Reading Don DeLillo’s story “Coming Sun. Mon. Tues.,” I found a parallel between modernist and postmodern fiction. There is a scene in Mrs. Dalloway where the narration fluidly shifts between the protagonist and other Londoners. Although the experiences of these figures are disparate, they are united by common spectacle – in this case a plane overhead advertising a product spelled by its contrails. A sense of community is formed. The postmodernist text, on the other hand, uses stream of consciousness in a different way, to affect the divorce of the individual from community. In the “information age,” we have more and more ways to interact with, and ostensibly become part of, communities via technology. It seems as though the act of representing oneself online should reinforce a sense of individuality and the sense of being part of a greater community. But the sheer amount of content available has the effect of trivializing both the individual and community. In the postmodernist reader introduction, the author mentions Umberto Eco’s assertion that, “we want to say things but our simultaneously aware … that they have been said before” (Nicol 4).

It seems to me that this sense of redundancy is a large factor in the alteration of our perception of authenticity, and subsequently the feeling that meaningful human interaction and community has been declining in recent years. Whereas in Woolf’s narrative the airplane unites the various figures, technology in DeLillo’s White Noise is a facet of the dehumanizing forces apparent to citizens of the “postmodern era.” The elitism and sense of progress (as producers of literature) espoused by many modernist authors is noticeably absent in DeLillo’s postmodernist screeds against the banality of consumerist culture. At one point, Murray, a character in White Noise, encapsulates the author’s postmodern angst, describing “the vast loneliness and dissatisfaction of consumers who have lost their group identity” (DeLillo 50).