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)

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duvall writes that “jack’s failure to recognize proto-fascist urges in an aestheticized american consumer culture is all the more striking since he emphasizes in his course hitler’s manipulation of mass cultural aesthetics” and in fact, this is one of the only things jack discusses involving hilter–the only other topic being his mother.  he argues the irony is in the fact that jack doesn’t recognize the fascism of his own culture. in jack’s world, there is no mass control or ideology, and people are presented with what seems like a freedom of choice. in order to understand what he means, we must first look at a definition of fascism and since this is the internet, wikipedia is probably the easiest though not best place to check saying: “a totalitarian nationalist political ideology and mass movement that is concerned with notions of cultural decline or decadence, and which seeks to achieve a millenarian national rebirth by exalting the nation or race, as well as promoting cults of unity, strength and purity.”

the supermarket is a place of rebirth throughout the book–after the airborne toxic event, after jack has nearly killed someone. it is rebirth under the ideologies of capitalism, collectivism, consumerism, and materialism. purchasing name brands help people like the gladney’s feel “fullness of being” (p.20) while people like murray offer resistance to this “proto-fascism” by attributing to the “spiritual consensus” (p.18) of the generic.

the television is there to tell them what to buy and as a result it tells them what to think. this can be seen by the intrusion of brand names into the narrative or jack’s daughter mouthing car names in her sleep. this fascism isn’t achieved by violence or thought-control but with the illusion of choice and comfort given to them from the only source of information they have: television.

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.

just in ontime, sex, drugs, government control

reading the scene during the airborne toxic event where gladney is talking to the realbutsimulation officer i was surprised in how ahead of his time delillo was. maybe he wasn’t far ahead of his time. since orwell writers have explored the idea of government knowledge and personal privacy.

gladney is, to an extent, an everyday citizen who lives in an interpretation of what the world was in 1985, not some hero of a distopia novel, but he worries what extent of his personal information has been examined by the officer in order to determine how threatened by nyodene d he might be. “where was it located exactly?…what else did he know? did he know about my wives, my involvement with hitler, my dreams and fears?” (p.140)

postmodern is based on reference within reference where culture becomes art, not vise-versa. we must then ask whether orwellian paranoia is a reaction to the world and a distrust that developed out of the actions of the government, or if it was the ideas written about in such books as 1984 that became the worries of the common american. did the paranoia about government control of the culture end up in books or did books create the paranoia of the culture?

it may seem like a circular argument but it could be applied to almost any concept of our culture. in sex, drugs, and cocoa puffs, klosterman writes that during the first few seasons of the real world, he saw people on the show that reminded him of people he knew. after a few seasons the opposite became true: he now met people who reminded him of characters on the show. while something was attempting to reflect real life, all it did was create an image of real life and real people for our society to emulate.

the same could be said about novels from orwell to delillo, the reasons behind the postmodern distrust of government could be postmodern in themselves-people becoming the fabricated image of reality they are presented with.

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 1

the hardest part about the first paper was trying to find an argument to make. i could come up with arguments for each specific quote and tie one to another so that slowly the argument would change, but i found myself arguing different–though not conflicting–themes throughout the paper. another part i found difficult was deciding which passages would best support my point and which seemed like they would help but were really just ‘white noise.’ hahahahaha not funny. but really, there wasn’t conflicting information but an overwhelming amount of it.

the length of the paper surprised me. i felt like i was going to have touble even writing three pages but almost up to four pages there were still many passages i could have used to develope each theme further and even argue new ones. i was alsosurprised how the same information–such as the white packaging or the supermarket being sealed–could be used to argue different ideas and the layers that could e found within the text.

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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

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.

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.

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).