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White Noise | Context



Originating in the mid-20th century, the term postmodern is used to describe literary works generally published after World War II, and the associated humanitarian and technological horrors that suggest artistic originality comes not in the telling of new or entirely original stories but in the retelling of universal stories in ways that break the boundaries of convention. Postmodern literature may include the following characteristics:

  • Connections between texts
  • References to the text as a text
  • Imitation of other texts or genres
  • Excesses in narrative structure
  • Irony
  • Difficulty in distinguishing between reality and illusion
  • Paranoia in relation to technology
  • Chaotic, fragmented worldviews
  • Thematic concerns with mass media, consumerism, materialism, globalism, competition, and capitalism

Don DeLillo's White Noise, set in the 1980s, has been described as a definitive postmodern novel, as it deals with a fragmented modern family consumed by media and technology. The critic Paul V. Hartman describes the postmodern era as a "postindustrial information economy," and White Noise can certainly be read as a comment on this world. Jack Gladney and his family spend their time buying things in supermarkets and shopping malls while being bombarded by marketing images and language and struggling to deal with this information overload. DeLillo's brand of postmodernism questions the benefits of mass media and technology. The characters in the novel seem unable to function without technology, yet they are also threatened by it. Jack Gladney strives to find an underlying meaning hidden within this media and consumer culture, but his attempts are thwarted by his inability to connect information in any meaningful way.

As with many postmodern novels, the boundaries between simulation—something with the appearance of reality—and actual reality are blurred in White Noise. Jack Gladney assumes the appearance of a distinguished professor, but he lacks substance: he does not speak German nor he is interested in historical fact regarding Hitler. On the other hand, Murray argues that the most photographed barn in America has value not as a barn but as a cultural attraction. Finally, a team studies the novel's airborne toxic event—a reality—in order to make their endless simulations—fake realities—seem more real.


In response to the social and political turmoil of the 1960s and '70s, the decade of the 1980s came to be characterized by political, economic, and social conservatism and a focus on material success.

To begin the decade, Americans elected a former actor to the office of the presidency: Ronald Reagan. In a significant victory over former president Jimmy Carter, Reagan won the support of both Republicans and Democrats by promising tax cuts and small government. His economic policy, known as Reaganomics, purported that people who worked hard for their money should get to keep it. He reasoned that the wealthiest Americans would spend their money on goods and investments, thus stimulating the economy. These benefits would, in turn, "trickle down" to the working classes. In reality, Reaganomics increased the federal budget deficit and created a severe recession. Interestingly, a postmodern gap existed between the economic realities of Reagan's policies and public perception of the man. Despite high levels of unemployment, the loss of businesses, homes, and farms, a stock market crash in 1987, and a number of foreign policy scandals that resulted from Reagan's fight against the spread of communism, Reagan left office at the end of the decade with a high approval rating.

The political conservatism of the decade was reflected in popular culture, as well. Perhaps as a backlash against the social and political activism of previous decades, many people in the 1980s turned their attention inward, focusing self-centeredly on social mobility and material success. The 1980s introduced the "yuppie" to American popular culture—a person born after World War II with a college education, a professional job, and a desire for material wealth. In many ways, the "yuppies" were motivated to make money that would empower them to buy the most expensive and trendiest consumer items. However, this unabashed focus on materialism may be undercut by a look at "yuppie" media habits. They watched television shows such as thirtysomething and made popular movies such as The Big Chill and Bright Lights, Big City, which depict young people burdened by anxiety and doubt. Thematically, material success and emotional or psychological happiness seemed at odds for the "yuppies."

In this context, Don DeLillo critiques postmodern American consumer culture in White Noise for its focus on disposable material possessions. He suggests that this material focus exists because the "yuppies" want to avoid the confrontation of philosophical crises surrounding faith and death. Jack Gladney is so preoccupied with death that he invents a department to study Hitler, a man who notoriously cheated death and gained immortality in the pages of history. Meanwhile, the infiltration of advertising and consumer culture into postmodern existence allows Jack Gladney and others to buy products as an antidote to the fear and anxiety that underlies their lives. Yet, exposure to the cloud of noxious gas brings the inevitability of death to the forefront of Jack Gladney's consciousness, and the background noise of television and radio advertisements and brand names, proves an ineffective countermeasure to death.

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