MFS Modern Fiction Studies 51.3 (2005) 648-666
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"At the Dead Center of Things" in Don Delillo's White Noise:
Mimesis, Violence, and Religious Awe
Matthew J. Packer
Has Don DeLillo's supermarket satire, White Noise, passed its own use-by date? Critic Dana Phillips suggests that the work's contribution to our understanding of postmodernism has been thoroughly examined (235). 1 His claim that critics have mined the novel of its slogans and readings confirms a widespread impression the novel is a resource all but depleted. A feeling of belatedness marks the commentary, as though White Noise now has become like its own "most photographed barn in America" (12). Arguments about this and the novel's other scenes of simulacra 2 have made this passage the "most discussed passage in DeLillo"—and suggested both it and the novel can no longer be experienced directly (Cowart 87). Much of the commentary resembles the news in the novel where "no one thing is either more or less plausible than any other" (129); one observer's recommendation that we suspend criticism in "a state of permanent flotation" tells of the exhaustion. 3
Since the novel's publication, though, DeLillo has increasingly revealed, in his other works, interviews, and essays, questions largely of anthropology—not only has White Noise not expired, a fundamental element in the author's art has remained unexamined. Where the novelist's early work announced especially American topics, the later [End Page 648] novels like Libra (1988) , Mao II (1991), and Underworld (1997), along with greater public commentary, have emphasized an ongoing concern about mimesis, violence, and the sacred: an apprehension of culture like that found in the work of René Girard. The contemporary writer, notes DeLillo, "has lost a great deal of influence," but the margins of the culture are still "a perfect place to observe what's happening at the dead center of things" ("American Strangeness" 16)—DeLillo's reflections upon many ground zeroes and his question about why "we depend on disaster to consolidate our vision" ("Power of History" 63) resemble those illustrations by Girard and Eric Gans that show how the sacred and the significant in our culture stem from the misunderstood human tendency toward imitation and violence. In Libra 's "seven seconds that broke the back of the American century" (181), in Mao II 's "raids on human consciousness" once made by novelists but now terrorists (42), in Underworld 's "awe of central events" (826), and also in response to September 11, the author has explored how imitation and mimetic violence in particular generate crises that become, problematically, sacred in their power.
In White Noise, though, the sacred and the other anthropological elements have scarcely been considered—despite the religious awe looming in the airborne toxic event and the narrator's invitation to consider "the scientific study of the cultural behavior and development of man" (320). 4 Hidden among the novel's characters—hidden by them—is an imitative tendency that first shapes not representational behavior but desire itself. The same desire DeLillo identifies first in Americana, which "moves from first person consciousness to third person . . . a universal third person . . . we all want to be" (270); the same triangular desire Girard documents in the French novel 5 structures much of White Noise. Commentators have alluded to its symptoms of imitative desire, but without following the paths from the mimesis to the crises. 6
Missing in the conversation about White Noise, in other words, is the possibility that mimesis in fact precedes language. The critical problem for the species, it appears, stems not from the "precession of simulacra" as Baudrillard argues (2), but the fact that humans, individually and historically, imitate not the world around them first, but each other. The crucial problem for the species, Girard and Gans argue, 7 is the escalation of imitative rivalry: in protohuman history, the institutions of language and the sacred appear during crises when animal hierarchies can no longer contain the violence arising from rivalries...