restricted access The Figure in the Static: White Noise
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The Figure in the Static:
White Noise

In the course of naming contemporary novels he admires, Don DeLillo credits their importance to their common capacity to “absorb and incorporate the culture without catering to it” (Interview with Begley 290). In DeLillo’s own fiction, the challenge has always been to find a way of simultaneously engaging and resisting “the ambient noise,” and that challenge has been answered by means of novels whose cunning does not compose its materials into some decorous conclusion. The DeLillo protagonist must locate some reliable avenue of free agency, some outpost of personal dimension, in face of ambiguous threats disclosed (although never completely elucidated) by the same sensitivities that recognize the need for aesthetic refuge.

For DeLillo himself, the paradox lies at the heart of the writer’s profession: he must break the grip of idiom while continuing to exploit its pressures artistically. “Word on a page, that’s all it takes to help him separate himself from the forces around him,” he declares (Interview with Begley 277). Nevertheless, even as the writer hammers privileged habitats and crafts vantages above the vague extratextual roil—“How liberating to work in the margins outside the central perception,” claims archaeologist Owen Brademas in The Names (77)—his task is to assimilate, not to exclude. 1 Thus DeLillo goes on in this same interview to compromise the so-called ideal segregation of the novelist: [End Page 807]

You want to exercise your will, bend the language your way, bend the world your way. You want to control the flow of impulses, images, words, faces, ideas. But there’s a higher place, a secret aspiration. You want to let go. You want to lose yourself in language, become a carrier or messenger. The best moments involve a loss of control. It’s a kind of rapture, and it can happen with words and phrases fairly often-completely surprising combinations that make a higher kind of sense, that come to you out of nowhere.

Notice the trammeled quality of DeLillo’s “rapture”: he is describing a release saturated with words, which retain the effects of everyday use. Whatever transcendence he pretends to is derivative, obligated to the medium whose undertow he means to supervene.

As DeLillo redefines the terms of access and surrender to language, arbitrating his contradictory drives, he arrives at metaphor, which encapsulates the anxious status between planned exactitude and exhilaration, between decision and accident, out of which he prefers to constitute his projects. In White Noise, however, the task is further complicated by the way in which figures are disarmed by the flood of data, cultural debris, and otherwise indigestible stimuli that contribute to the condition that titles the novel. Whereas metaphor depends upon uniqueness and verbal defamiliarization to earn attention, white noise thwarts distinction, for the proliferation of language, typically through such vulgarized forms as advertisements, tabloid headlines, and bureaucratic euphemisms, submerges difference into the usual cultural murmur. There is always more, but always more of the same. The danger, as it is defined in Great Jones Street, is “sensory overload” (252): technological fallout in all its multifarious forms, including such linguistic manifestations as secret codes, arcana, and all the kabbala of conspiracy. “I realized the place was awash in noise,” Jack Gladney notes as he moves through the burnished interiors of the supermarket. Here everything has an exclamatory glow about it, a euphemistic sheen to needs manufactured and met. But dread penetrates: “The toneless systems, the jangle and skid of carts, the loudspeaker and coffee-making machines, the cries of children. And over it all, or under it all, a dull and unlocatable roar, as of some form of swarming life just outside the range of human apprehension” (White Noise 36). 2 [End Page 808]

Anxiety is awareness that remains on the far side of enlightenment. During an interaction with an automatic bank teller, Jack thinks, “The system was invisible, which made it all the more impressive, all the more disquieting to deal with.” Hence, there is not much consolation in the sense that “we were in accord, at least for now. The networks, the circuits, the streams, the...