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.


(If you haven’t finished the book, I’d skip my post for the time being.  I don’t want to ruin the end for you.)

If “all plots tend to move deathward” (26), but nobody dies, then is the plot complete?  I don’t believe the absoluteness of this statement, that all plots move in this direction, but the phrase and its failure to come to fruition in the novel called my attention to the multiple instances that failed in the novel.

There are parallels to be found in the attempt of Orest to set his record of time spend in a space with venemous snakes and with Gladney’s way of dealing with Willie Mink.  Gladney mentions his plan several times to “swivel my head to look into rooms, put him at his ease, wait for an unguarded moment, blast him in the gut three times for maximum efficiency of pain, take his Dylar, ger off at the river road, shut the garage door, walk home in the fair and the fog” (293).  But neither of these events is realized in quite the way they had envisioned.  Orest is forced underground, the humane society is against him and his attempt, four snakes are provided instead of twenty-seven and his is bitten within minutes.  So despite the exhaustive preparation, his moment of glory only results in him being a “jerk” as Heinrich put it.  Gladney’s revenge follows a similar pattern.  He doesn’t put in the effort Orest does, but his revenge, his quest for Dylar, encounters results that are much the same.   He doesn’t kill Willie Mink; he is himself shot and on top of it all, he discovers nuns don’t believe in heaven and angels either (not immediately relevant, but an interesting conversation).

The two events were both ways of challenging death, to stare it in the face (cliche, I know) or to absorb somehow the life of another by becoming a killer and not a “dier”.  So what’s the conclusion about death then?  If plots move deathward, but nobody dies and attempts to challenge death or gain life from death fail, then is it more about failure than death?  Because it isn’t just Orest and Gladney who are failures (their’s just concern death), but there are additional things in the story: Dylar did not work, the town did not evacuate due to a strange smell, despite the extensive practice drills, and the supermarket fails to provide the comfort after re-arranging its shelves.  Do all these failures tie in with the critique of consumerism and mass culture perhaps?  I don’t know yet.

While slow soaking my tomatoes…

As I sat on my small porch that has been taken over by my tomatoes, herbs, lettuce and broccoli (my attempt at a gardening in an apartment), I was slow soaking my tomatoes (the best way to water them), and reading White Noise (while underlining and making notes in what I forgot was a library book).  I finished Chapter Six and remember thinking – that it was probably the most post-modern thing I’ve come across.  But then I had to think about why.  And here’s what I’ve come up with…

In the conversation about rain between Heinrich and Jack, Heinrich continually response with questions to the questions that his father puts forth.  “What truth does he want?  What good is my truth?  Is there such a thing as now?  How do I know that what you call rain is really rain?  What is rain anyway?”  It is a constant challenge to the power of language, symbolism,  and the weight of an idea if looked at as a subjective thought and not a concrete reality.  But I don’t think that captures all of it.  I think it is part of understanding that the not knowing, the “only guessing” is postmodern in and of itself.  It is in part why Huyssen took a “different route” in his essay “Mapping the Postmodern” and did “not attempt here to define what postmodern is,”  and instead decided to discuss the characteristics of the phases of postmoderism because of the limitations of language.  He concluded that it is moving beyond the binaries and into the tension between them (much like we discussed in class), that there is a breakdown in what is what.  Or maybe the conversation is more easily linked to the discussion of Plato’s “simulacrum” in the Jameson essay as an example of a “culture of the simulacrum (that) comes to life in a society where exchange value has been generalized to the point at which the very memory of use value is effaced.”  Heinrich voices this idea in a way that captures some what I’ve come in the last week to think of as post-modern.  A kind of blurred feeling out of gray areas, and an expression of only guessing.