Deconstructing DeLillo: Analysis of White Noise Using Psychoanalytic and Deconstruction/Post-Structural Literary Theories
Don Delillo is not fond of postmodern conceptions of reality, including Nietzsche’s nihilism and Derrida’s insistence there is no meaning in things other than “differance.” His novel White Noise reveals instead an affinity for the transcendental romanticism of late 18- and early 19th-century literature. Before he effectively deconstructs the postmodern episteme in favor of the ideals of that earlier era in four poignant scenes comprising the novel’s finale, Delillo illustrates that episteme utilizing the mechanics and theoretical precepts of Freudian psychoanalysis in the life circumstances, beliefs, and exploits of narrator Jack Gladney and his family. Readers will find facets of both psychoanalytic and deconstructive literary theories intertwined through throughout this report in much the same way Delillo weaves them throughout his narrative as we discover, understand, and learn from this important novel’s themes.
Perhaps the scene in which Jack and his friend Murray visit the Most Photographed Barn in America is the best “jumpoff point” to explore Delillo’s main themes. Murray says, more or less, it is as if everyone perceives a superficial representation of the barn rather than the real thing, a statement hailing psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan’s conception of reality as a scaffolding of perceptual structures rather that things themselves—what he calls the Symbolic Order, the “language of norms and roles that assign us a sense of who we are” (Rivkin and Ryan 448). The Most Photographed Barn is too pristine, a sad and ridiculous simulation of the real thing. It is a barn as performance art. Likewise, the tourists’ act of viewing it from a distance, viewing billboards advertising it, purchasing postcards of it, and photographing it are mere substitutes for the real thing. The farmer who abandoned farming to sell postcards is the most poignant example of an ironically inadequate substitute for a real thing. This moment marks the beginning of Delillo’s critique of postmodern society that has evolved, or (de)volved, from a traditional “authentic” culture of strong work ethic, self-determination, self-reliance into an unauthentic, a simulated one of consumerism, consumption, advertisement, and simulation.
Lacan says man’s Symbolic Order comprises and orders his psychology and self-identity, and Delillo is critical of an insidious Symbolic Order of Simulation he sees overtaking supplanting the traditional one. Events in White Noise illustrate his belief (and disappointment) that consumerism, including the mass consumption of information, and, likewise, simulation have become dominant features of postmodern society as well as its Symbolic Order. Indeed, the novel’s title White Noise suggests boundless and unordered information and simulation have interfered with and obscured the Symbolic Order of the postmodern era and, in turn, with postmodern man’s development and conception of personal identity. Events in the novel depict that man’s perception of reality has been overwhelmed by simulations and by information, resulting in numerous mere facades of the “living.” One grand example is the Simevac disaster readiness exercises that simulate heroics, caring for the community, and self-reliance as well as community and national cohesion. The futility of this exercise is highlighted when expected actors in a mass disaster/casualty simulation fail to show up on the day of its staging. A prior, even more poignant illustration of Simevac’s (and simulation in general’s) futility came in the form of the actual emergency precipitated by the Airborne Toxic Event to which Jack’s community as well as his family failed to react effectively, including delayed response, incompetent personnel, insufficient information systems and facilities, panicking citizens, and most poignantly Jack’s exposure to the dangerous (although, in a lucid example of the failure of information, no one quite seems sure) chemical cloud. Another example includes Babette’s secret ingestion of the Dylar pills in an attempt to control her fear of death; pills that, since they symbolically represent her attempt to order and control her life, represent an overt failure of artificiality (another iteration of simulation) to provide her identity. A final example of simulation’s failure, among many examples, is Jack’s Hitler scholarship which only simulates success, control, and self-identity, since he is, in fact, an intellectual fraud unable to even read or speak German. Among these failures of simulation and artifice are weaved examples of information’s interference with life and the symbolic order as well, including numerous interjection of advertising and commercial voices over supermarket loudspeakers and through television and telephones.
While psychoanalytic analysis is most productive for identifying Delillo’s illustration of the Symbolic Order of the postmodern era, deconstruction/post-structuralist analysis is most productive in analyzing understanding four separate and very important scenes that consecutive lead up to the novel’s end. These scenes are important because, in them, Delillo effectively deconstructs his own narrative, including the post-modern episteme he has presented, and ultimately destructs the precepts of deconstruction theory itself. Before delving into these scenes, though, it is important to discuss the unique way the deconstruction theory applies to this particular text. Mortenson says texts that assert traditional binaries as Universe Truth ought to be read (deconstructed) “against-the-grain” to reveal the fallacy of such binaries and/or so-called truths while, on the other hand, texts that overtly deconstruct hierarchies (as Delillo deconstructs the postmodern Symbolic Order) ought to be read “with-the-grain” to assess and/or highlight the author’s assertions (“Deconstruction Theory in a Nutshell”). White Noise is of the second type of text. Mortenson also posits that a complexly deconstructive text suggests a “third space, if you will, where the binary falls apart” (“Deconstruction Theory in a Nutshell”). Delillo provides that space in White Noise. After suggesting the futility (or, fallacy) of postmodern society’s hegemonic beliefs and traditions, first with the metaphor of the Most Photographed Barn in America, then, throughout the novel, with subsequent examples of those structures and how they failed for Jack (failing to bring him true happiness, fulfillment, security, and so forth since they mere simulations of the real), Delillo provides, in fact, two separate spaces (two fall-backs) places where truth founds society after postmodern societal structures fall apart: they are displayed in the Sunset scene highlighting the ideals of 19th-century Romantics and literature, a scene reminiscent to Wordsworth’s “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey, On Revisiting the Banks of the Wye during a Tour. July 13, 1798,” as well as other reflections on the transcendence and beauty of nature among his and other Romantic contemporaries’ works. The sunset unfolds as follows:
We go to the overpass all the time. Babette, Wilder and I. We take a thermos of iced tea, park the car, watch the setting sun. Clouds are no deterrent…More cars arrive, parking in a line that extends down to the residential zone. People walk up the incline and onto the overpass, carrying fruit and nuts, cool drinks, mainly the middle-aged, the elderly, some with webbed beach chairs which they set out on the sidewalk, but younger couples also, arm in arm at the rail, looking west (Delillo 307).
What follows is a description of the transcendent natural beauty of the sunset, representative of contact with the reality of which Lacan speaks:
The sky takes on content, feeling, an exalted narrative life. The bands of color reach so high, seem at times to separate into their constituent parts. There are turreted skies, light storms, softly falling streamers. It is hard to know how we should feel about this. Some people are scared by the sunsets, some determined to be elated, but most of us don’t know how to feel, are ready to go either way. Rain is no deterrent. Rain brings on graded displays, wonderful running hues. More cars arrive, people come trudging up the incline. The spirit of these warm evenings is hard to describe (Delillo 307).
By invoking in that scene the form and ideals of Romantic-era literature, Delillo invokes also its key themes of appreciation/acknowledgment of the sublime and transcendent, invoking (or reaffirming) the appreciation and acknowledgment of God in contrast to the Deconstructionist. This is a key invocation/allusion by Delillo; for, although God has been conspicuously absent from Delillo’s narrative up to this point he is revealed, finally, to have always been present behind it all. It is revealed that when all of the overarching hegemonic, perceptual constructs (structures) of society are stripped away, God is revealed to be society’s true foundation. The calm, self-assuring, life-affirming perfection of such a moment in the setting sun, in marked contrast with the dismay and turmoil throughout the preceding narrative, seems rather the point of the novel, a summary of its main theme. Delillo seeks throughout White Noise to (re)awaken in postmodern readers an affinity, similar to his own, for the Romantic Aesthetic of literature of the early 19th century before, he seems to think, technology, media, consumerism, information, and simulation (as illustrated throughout preceded events of the novel)–the white noise of the 20th-century post-modern era–began to interfere with, cloud, and to obscure man’s view and appreciation of nature along with his faith in God and, finally, faith in himself.
The next scene in which Jack finally faces/attacks Mr. Gray contains myriad meanings. Perhaps one could write many, many more pages of analysis of this scene, but for our purpose we will point to two overarching themes that poignantly illustrated these themes: first, Mr. Gray himself, babbling nonsense–the “ad-speak” of television and radio commercials–presents an ultimate physical manifestation, a metaphor of the 20th-century man overwhelmed by the white noise of information and, furthermore, obsessed by simulation and disconnection from actuality which is in turn symbolized by his incessant ingestion of the nefarious Dylar. The second overarching theme here refers, again, to Mr. Gray’s nonsense babble, but analyzes it according to Derrida’s conception of differance, meaning that signifiers have no concrete, or, set, meaning as the structuralist philosophers had insisted before Derrida’s time. “Signifiers defer their meaning,” says Mortenson, “to other signifiers, but also have traces of meaning based on differences from other signifiers” (“Deconstruction Theory in A Nutshell”). In other words, Derrida insists that there is no meaning and no absolutes, or, else, that meaning is so slippery and diffuse that none can truthfully and honestly be attributed to anything. Things (words) seem to represent one thing only in contrast to what they are not. ( Rivkin and Ryan 734) Indeed, Mr. Gray, himself and well as his nonsense words, is certainly a living manifestation of differance. Similarly, Conte says the nonsense sign Jack reads on the front of Mr. Gray’s motel symbolizes the white noise of information and simulation diffusing, obscuring, and negating his identity and further suggests that all human identity is similarly diffused, obscured, and negated in the 20th century during the time of this novel’s setting. One must assume internet and high-tech gaming systems have increased white noise exponentially in the 21st century, even further negating personal identity.
It is significant to note: although deconstruction theorists like Derrida insist upon the existence of differance in any literary text and thus no universal meaning, Delillo explicitly illustrates differance itself in the person of Mr. Gray, thereby effectively negating and rejecting the concept itself. In other words, Delillo displays the concept of deconstruction in order to deconstruct it. To wit: during the next scene Jack discusses the existence of God with a nun and insists, contrary to deconstructionist theory, there is ultimate meaning (ultimate truths) in the universe, perhaps in the form of God. Coupling that scene with the next in which Jack’s toddler wheels his trike willy-nilly through rush hour traffic unscathed, Delillo illustrates his novel’s thesis: God most certainly does exist. There is no doubt he saved the child. The child was at once brave, unworried, faithful, determined, and modest–the very opposite of his father. Thus another theme is illustrated: self-determination (courage)–which Jack Gladney certainly lacks; the very opposite of simulation, artifice, and digital (fake) information depicted throughout the novel– ought to be the ultimate focus of a man’s life. Indeed the toddler who courageously and unmindfully faces down traffic is the definitive hero of the novel who in turn symbolizes the potential of 21st-century youth, but only if they forgo the anaesthetization and identity negation of digital information and simulation. With this theme Delillo invokes the very heart of Romantic literature. The child is like Melville’s Romantic-era hero Captain Ahab who, also courageous and unmindful of death, piloted his craft and his harpoon straight into the heart of adversity and death–fully a man; fully real. In closing, we submit that Delillo’s novel is imminently important to postmodern literary discourse because, besides its other superior literary qualities, it is a bulwark against the insidious meaninglessness and nihilism of postmodernism, attempting to negate the violence plaguing postmodern man’s self-identity.
Conte, Joseph. Design and Debris: A Chaotics of Postmodern American Fiction. University of Alabama Press, pp. 112-140, 2002.
Delillo, Don. White Noise. Penguin, 1999.
Mortenson, Lee Ann. “Deconstruction Theory in A Nutshell.” Utah Valley University, 12 Mar. 2019, http://research.uvu.edu/mortensen/2600/assignments/deconstruction.html.
Rivkin, Julie and Michael Ryan, editors. Literary Theory: An Anthology, 3rd. ed, Wiley, 2017.