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.

Week #1 – The Commodification of Aesthetics: A High-Tech Capitalist Conspiracy or a Protest by the Other?

[Note:  “Hereticsnail” is an anagram of “Christina Lee.”]

The two authors we read this week-Fredric Jameson and Andreas Huyssen-both agree that aesthetics has undergone a process of commodification; however, each author cites different causes for why this has happened. 

Jameson believes that postmodernism is a widespread paradigm shift that grew out of late capitalism.  He says: “this whole global, yet American, postmodern culture is the internal and super-structural expression of a whole new wave of American military and economic domination throughout the world” (23).  Therefore, according to Jameson, “every position on postmodernism in culture…is also at one and the same time, and necessarily, an implicitly or explicitly political stance on the nature of multinational capitalism today” (22). 

The commodification of aesthetics is, for Jameson, a terrible reflection of the postmodern condition.  Late capitalism has produced a culture marked by depthlessness and a death of the self.  Thus, postmodern art is dominated by pastiche: it’s all surface and no center. 

Huyssen, on the other hand, focuses on postmodernism as a cultural phenomenon rather than a paradigm shift.  He believes that postmodernism started a protest in the 1960s against the authority that modernists had placed in so-called “high art.”  Early postmodernists used “pop avante-garde” as their weapon of protest, attempting “to validate popular culture as a challenge to the canon of high art” (63). 

Huyssen believes that the recent insurgence of minority movements has contributed to postmodernism by “undermin[ing] the modernist belief that high and low culture have to be categorically kept apart” (64).  The result is “a new creative relationship between high art and certain forms of mass culture” (64).

Whereas Jameson believes that the commodified postmodern aesthetic is empty and damaged, a sign of how messed up our late capitalist culture has become, Huyssen argues that the new postmodern cultural aesthetic is more inclusive and less elitist, a result of positive social change.  Who’s right? 

Both authors seem to me to be writing about different kinds of art altogether.  Jameson might be talking about the darker forms of postmodern art that discuss the fragmentation of our lives.  His description of the lack of depth and waning affect remind me of the stories by Amy Hempel who weaves together bits of mundane conversations to form her haunting narratives.  

Huyssen seems to be talking about “Other” art, art produced by nontraditional artists who might not otherwise have gained any institutional prestige.  For example, black American artists are often not included in the canon of high literature, but my 20th century African American Norton literature anthology includes the lyrics to the song “Things Done Changed” by Biggie Smalls and “RESPECT” written by Otis Redding and sung by Aretha Franklin.  I’m not really sure how the two types of “postmodern art” discussed by Jameson and Huyssen can be compared.

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).

Ruminations

Several particular aspects of postmodernism and Western culture, primarily from our class discussions but also from the readings, have been ruminating in my mind since we last met.

I have found the discussion of the “real” vs. simulation–the question of authenticity–most troubling. What exactly are the implications of redefining our concept of what is “real”? Jameson, it would seem, believes that in a postmodern society, an original and real object distinguishable from its substitute or reproduction would essentially not exist. “This omnipresence of pastiche is not incompatible with a certain humor, however, nor is it innocent of all passion: it is at least compatible with addiction–with a whole historically original consumers’ appetite for a world transformed into sheer images of itself and for psuedoevents and ‘spectacles‘ (the term of the situationists). It is for such objects that we may reserve Plato’s conception of the ‘simulacrum,’ the identical copy for which no original has ever existed.” (pp.27-28) This brought to mind an essay I recently read by the decidedly UNpostmodern author C.S. Lewis, in which he quite insightfully discusses the question of distinguishing the real from from the substitute (or the simulation). Even at the time in which he was writing (the late forties and fifties, primarily), this question was one wrestled with by the society. Although his discussion addresses primarily the concept of religion as a reality or a substitute, he makes several points that came to mind as I contemplated the possibility of our society coming to a point when we can no longer determine any difference between the original and its imitation. Lewis first notes that our initial conclusions, when based upon whether something feels or seems reality or original is often deceptive and must be further scrutinized before we make a final analysis. But he also suggests that a copy or substitution for something real (“real,” as we are assuming this is in question) is ultimately always distinguishable as exactly that: “Authority, reason, and experience; on these three all our knowledge depends…I am not now saying that no one’s reason and no one’s experience produce different results. I am only trying to put the whole problem right way round, to make it clear that the value given to the testimony of any feeling must depend on our whole philosophy, no our whole philosophy on a feeling.” (p.41) Granted, Lewis was not addressing the exact same questions of authenticity which we now face, but it made me wonder if indeed we would come to similar results in our determining the real from the simulation if we employed those three tools to test the things in question. However, perhaps it isn’t even a matter of social anxiety at all. Perhaps the reason alarmists such as Jameson bring the issue of originality up in the first place is because they believe that in a postmodern society, those questions would be irrelevant or at least that no one would care or think it mattered much.

Pastiche, which, according to Jameson is directly linked to the loss of originality, could indeed have a lot to do with a loss of historicity which Jameson seems to fear. A YouTube video I saw recently (don’t worry, it’s short, and, I think, quite absurdly amusing, and you’ll need to watch it to understand the following discussion) is an excellent example of verbal pastiche. The creator of the film used clips from an actual interview with Salvador Dali to create a cartoon “interview” that, while ridiculous and funny, entirely lacks a real historical context, at least for me. I have never heard the interview itself, nor have I recently seen a picture of Dali. In watching this video, I found that I constructed a sort of vague structure of Dali as a person, in which he says utterly absurd things (which is, given what I DO know about him, perfectly plausible) and takes on a cartoonlike appearance in my head. And really, in watching and laughing at the video, I’m really not thinking all that much about the actual historically real person of Dali. He is a foil for entertainment. I was actually a little surprised at the ubiquitousness of pastiche in the world around me, and it does cause one to question how much we as a society may indeed have lost a sense of context and meaningful history. I am not saying I agree entirely with Jameson’s “doomsday” theorizing, but I think he raises some valid questions.

Late-Capitalism and the Information Age

Jameson states of his theory on the “waning of affect”: “As for expression and feelings or emotions, the liberation, in contemporary society,from the older anomie of the centered subject may also mean not merely a liberation from anxiety but a liberation from every other kind of feeling as well, since there is no longer a self present to do the feeling. This is not to say that the cultural products of the postmodern era are utterly devoid of feeling, but rather that such feelings…are now free-floating and impersonal…”

Could this be the reason for why depression has become almost a way of life for Westerners in this so-called postmodern era? With modern technology, have our social interactions become emotionless and shallow? Are we lacking in real affection? Has the information age imprisoned Westerners rather than liberated us?

And what about the cheapening of sex and intimacy through the information age and modern technology? Sex, as well as “media, arts, and education” has also become commodified in contemporary culture, has it not? And even the intimacy of a well thought-out letter to a friend or family member has been lost in the meaningless chatter of the information age. While the response may come quick and easy, it’s not exactly fulfilling- it lacks depth.

Is it possible for Westerners to be fulfilled after the effects that late-capitalism has had on contemporary society, and with the commodification of basically every aspect of our lives?

i no good with technology

jameson states that “not only are picasso and joyce no longer ugly; they now strike us, on the whole, as rather realistic.” in this he argues that, culturally, we are always reinventing ourselves where the ugly and profane become the genius and revolutionary, which becomes mimicked and diluted throughout society until we get to a point where it is the norm and what was once deemed to be ‘revolutionary’ is now deemed as classic and people become bored with the classics and want to create something new of their own.

this can easily be observed by looking at the smaller movements within the modernist movement: symbolists and realists developing out of angst against the romanticist, surrealist and imagists hoping to gain more depth, and cubist trying to think outside the box [pun intended], and dadaist reacting against basically everything.

the difference with postmodernism is the mindset of believing that everything has been done before and the false presumption that, for the first time, people have realized this. as a result, art has become a mere synthesis-such as the mcmansions mentioned by trish-something mass produced, or something without effort or thought but instead created to be seen as being an artist-such as painting an entire canvas one color.

the idea of mass-productions is one of the most noticeable differences between modernism and post-modernism. postmodernism is under the illusion that modernist art is ‘high culture’ art, though many of the sub-movements within modernism were actually against it. one way that this could be argued though, is that not everyone can buy a painting by dali or picasso, but any college kid can go into urban outfitters with their parent’s credit card and buy an andy warhol print. because of our ability to mass-produce-and artist’s knowledge of this as they produce-postmodernism has succeeded in becoming more mainstream and engrossed within the culture as a whole than earlier movements.

Fredric Jameson’s Essay: The Theory of Everything

Jameson’s essay requires that readers bring with us a great deal of cultural literacy, if nothing else. I understood his allusions to Munch’s The Scream, the “Faulknerian long sentence,” Freud, Stravinsky and Wallace Stevens, but they were swimming in a greater sea of off-hand references that repeatedly sent me to the dictionary and the Internet for further illumination. In today’s psycho-babble parlance, I don’t find his essay particularly accessible.

Aside from that quibble, I did connect well with his discussion of “pastiche,” or the “random cannibalization of all the styles of the past” (28), which to me so accurately describes popular culture and seems to be central to his argument on postmodernism. These observations are particularly telling as he relates them to postmodern architecture, which, he says, “randomly and without principle but with gusto cannibalizes all the architectural styles of the past and combines them in overstimulating ensembles” (28). We see the result in buildings encumbered with classical columns and Chippendale pediments (that one is okay, I guess) or of McMansions in the suburbs that feature turrets, oversized Palladian windows and porticoes, and multiple hip roofs. What are these people thinking???

Also, I found Jameson’s discussion of the “historicist” version of events interesting, especially as I could see that this inevitably results in the representation of an event that becomes “factual” to the viewer or reader. Thus, the historical novel, from Walter Scott’s Waverley to Leon Uris’s Exodus, or TV and movie “dramatizations” of real events, become to us “how it happened,” even if it didn’t happen that way at all. Is that a manifestation of postmodernism, however? How would the tradition of folktales, ballads and epic poems, many of which build on “real events,” fit into the theory? Are some of our oldest literary traditions, if they are harking back to a previous history or even a pastiche of histories, “postmodernist,” too? Am I missing something here?

Overall, Jameson’s main thesis, if I understand it at all, argues that today’s art, literary criticism, architecture, philosophy and psychoanalysis, not to mention pop culture, are all the result of the overwhelming economic force known as capitalism (which, one can infer, is bad in Jameson’s book). Bran Nicol in his introduction refers to this as “totalisation.” It’s a sort of “theory of everything” where all roads lead to a society that is defined by “class history,” by an American postmodern culture that is explained by “a whole new wave of American military and economic domination through the world” (23). Now, wait until capitalism reaches China, Mr. Jameson. Oh wait, it already has.—Trish Higgins

Welcome to ENGL 414: American Postmodernism

Welcome to the class blog for the Fall 2008 English Honors Seminar “American Postmodernism.” If you are a student in ENGL 414, you can register for the blog, something you’ll need to do before the first week of classes is over.

Even if you don’t want to register yet, you can still browse this site, which will play an essential role in our course this semester. Of particular interest will be the course guidelines and the day-to-day class calendar.


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