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While the cultural and sociological landscape of White Noise is situated primarily in a postmodern world, the town of Blacksmith, the city that the Gladney’s call home, seems to occupy a space between modernism and postmodernism. The intrusion of technology, a factor which is often attributed with the end of modernism and the beginning of postmodernism, in Blacksmith is described by Jack when he say’s “Babette and I and our childrenâ€¦live at the end of a quiet street in what was once a wooded area with deep ravines (4). Here, technology has transformed the physical and historical landscape of the town in such a way that makes the notion of progress, in regards to the progress of nature, a trope for society, impossible, a defining characteristic of postmodern existence. Old Man Treadwell is yet another example of the tension between modernity and postmodernity within Blacksmith. Treadwell, symbolic of the town’s history, its modernity, has Babette read tabloids to him once a week. Within White Noise, tabloids represent the postmodern certainty of information and it is only through Babette, an interpreter of sorts, that Treadwell is allowed access to the new world and the new language of information. Understanding Blacksmith’s transformation from a seemingly pastoral town to a modern city full of shopping malls, homes, and a host of other technological advancements is important in that it helps, in part, to understand how Jack’s historical sense of self, possibly an extension of the town in which he has lived in for twenty-one years, is at odds with the new postmodern world.
More so than any character within White Noise, Jack, much like Blacksmith, exists between the cultural divide of modernism and postmodernism. While he maintains an acute awareness of the “eternal and the immutable” (HARVEY #), the greater forces at work outside the sphere of existence, he is also overly infatuated with the object rather than the subject, that is to say, his sense of identity is the product of consumerist behaviors and goods. After Wilder, Jack and Babette’s youngest, suddenly stops crying after a seven-hour long fit, Jack say’s “It was as though he’d just returned from a period of wandering in some remote and holy placeâ€¦a place where things are said, sights are seenâ€¦of the most sublime and difficult dimensions” (79). Here Jack is acknowledging the existence of otherworldly, interpersonal realities, a strong indicator of his modern sentiments given that one fundamental characterization of modernism is the power it bestows on the individual to create, improve, or reshape his or her environment, a la Wallace Stevens. During the Airborne Toxic Event, Jack describes the sight of the chemical plume as an enormous dark mass that “moved like some death ship in a Norse legend” (127). Later, when speaking of Babette, he say’s “When she shoveled snow, she wore a furry headbandâ€¦it made me think of the fifth century A.D. men standing around campfires speaking in subdued tone in their Turkic and Mongol dialects” (171). In both instances, Jack, lending himself to the modernistic value of looking to the past to understand the present, seems to suggest that he is aware that life, and all of the images, situations and occurrences that comprise it, existed, in some fashion, before him, an idea that directly contradicts the shallow, superficial sense of time and place associated with postmodernism. However, this notion of Jack as strictly a modernist is complicated early in the novel by his addiction, in every sense of the word, to objects and goods.
When Jack and Babette run into Murray at the supermarket, Jack immediately begins to list the contents of Murray’s shopping cart. He mentions the “generic food and drink”, the “nonbrand items”, the “white packaging” and “simple labeling” (18). His fixation on the objects that Murray is buying is directly related to his own sense of identity, one that is enveloped in a matrix of material goods, and so he searches for clues relating to Murray’s identity, Murray’s character, not within Murray himself but from the objects associated with Murray. While Jack is aware of the utter shallowness which constitutes his identity, and subsequently everyone else’s, saying “I am the false character that follows [my] name around” (17), he is unable to remove himself from the depths of consumerism. This obsession, in large part, is due to Jack’s struggle and overwhelming desire to participate in the emerging postmodern world.
Another characteristic of Jack’s which highlights his modernist sensibilities is his understanding that certainty, or the notion of absolute “knowingness”, is subjective, and as such, should be questioned and critically examined whenever it is presented as entirely established. For example, when Babette is reading horoscopes aloud to the family, which, like tabloids, operate within the novel as mediums of absolute certainty, Jack thinks to himself “I tried not to listen when she got to mine” (18), implying that he does not worry himself with trivial information that has become so pivotal, so meaningful, in the new era of postmodernity. However, Jack and his subjective notion of certainty are constantly at odds with the emerging culture and society of the novel.
Throughout White Noise the most emblematic illustration of Jack’s struggle to maintain his opposition to the idea of total certainty while trying to become an active participant in the new postmodern world is through various interactions between Jack and his son, Heinrich. Heinrich, in both his youth and his vast array of knowledge, represent the first generation of the postmodern world. While the other children, like Heinrich, have grown up in a hermetically sealed environment comprised entirely of technological and mass-media influences, Heinrich is old enough to understand the postmodern world around him and as such he rebels against the notion of modernism. While, for instance, Jack and his family gather to watch the sunset, one that occurred before the Airborne Toxic Event (after which point the sunsets are described as being “postmodern”), Jack say’s “Only Heinrich stayed awayâ€¦he believed there was something ominous in the modern sunset” (61). Jack is aware of the disconnect between his son, a product of postmodern life, and himself, someone who still appreciates “modern” sunsets. While it may be read as an attempt by a father to connect with his son, Jack’s numerous attempts at communication with Heinrich within the novel serves as a microcosm to Jack’s attempt to communicate in the new cultural plane of postmodernism. In a conversation with Heinrich regarding the weather, the two banter back and forth about whether or not it is currently raining. After a series of sharp counters between the two, Jack taking the subjective position (“look at the windshieldâ€¦Is that rain or isn’t it”), Heinrich taking the objective position, or the idea of a media controlled collective subjectivity (“I’m only telling you what [the radio] said”), the two arrive at the root of Heinrich’s postmodern ideology. Jack, obviously frustrated by his failed attempt to participate in Heinrich’s world, tries to coax Heinrich into admitting that it is in fact raining by presenting a situation in which a gun-toting man demands the truth to which Heinrich replies “What truth does he want?” (23). The preceding conversation centers around Heinrich’s notion of language and relativity in regards to the notion of “truth”, or reality, in which the text seems to convey the notion that mass-media derives its power in the postmodern world by being acclimated to an individual’s immediate desire for knowledge. Heinrich exudes information, Jack actively seeks it; the tension here exemplifying one of the largest barriers standing between Jack and Heinrich and, more importantly, between Jack and the new postmodern world.
As Jack progresses within the novel it becomes increasingly evident that while he recognizes the allure of “objectness” and the materialized notion of identity, in other words, postmodernism, he seems unable to wholly participate in it. More so than any other character, Jack is sensitive to the friction between the worlds of modernism and post-modernism. While he grasps the motives of the postmodern man to exist within the collective social network, saying “to become a crowd is to keep out death. To break off from the crowd is to risk death as an individual, to face dying alone” (73), he also constantly questions the role of the new social ideology in regards to truth, knowledge, certainty, and simulation, notably observed in his interactions with SIMUVAC personnel where he questions the importance placed on simulations rather than subjective reality, or experienced reality. However, as momentum builds in his urges to break free from the “understanding” of postmodernism and exist within in it while maintaining his modernist awareness, his interactions with Vernon Dickey, his father-in-law, complicate his attempts to be a passive member of the object-centric, postmodern culture.
From the idea that an individual has the power to create, improve, and reshape their environment to the importance of creative destruction, or the notion that in order to make something new, the old must be abandoned, destroyed, or disassembled, Vernon, in stark contrast to Jack, embodies modernism. Saying that he is “shingling here, rustproofing there”, his hands described by Jack as “scarred, busted, notched” and “permanently seamed with grease and mud”, his attention fixed on “trying to spot something that needed replacing or repair” (245), Vernon is very much in control of his environment; reshaping it, building it, creating it. Jack, however, views himself against Vernon as “fundamentally useless”, mentioning that “it put Vernon at an advantage to talk about gaskets and washers, about grouting”, about “the things that built the world” (245). Vernon, of course, recognizes the difference between himself and the postmodern world, asking Jack “were people this stupid before television?” (249). While Jack, to some degree, shares this sentiment, his desire to participate in the postmodern separates himself from Vernon, from modernism. Of creative destruction, Vernon, again contradictory of Jack, is not afraid of death. In fact, Jack notices that Vernon takes on a “sardonic pleasure in his own hacking and spasms”, chronic coughs that, either from smoking or old age, or both, suggest a progression towards death, a progression towards something new: the afterlife. In these instances, Jack realizes that his previous notion of existing within postmodernity as a passive modernist is unattainable given the fact that in the face of modernism, Vernon, he does not recognize the image of himself that is reflected. This realization propels him towards his decision to be what Murray calls a “killer” rather than a “dier”, that is to say, someone who acts in the world instead of simply being acted upon; in other words, he refuses to be an object within the postmodern world who simply succumb, accept, and absorb. Jack, while no longer the fragmented modernist he once was, maintains his ability to examine and scrutinize, thus deciding for himself that the path of surrender and inaction required in the postmodern world is unacceptable and so, in what will lead to the climatic encounter with Willie Mink, Babette’s sexual liaison, he decides to become a subject, a “killer”, and heads to Iron City with the purpose of murdering Willie.
Jack’s encounter with Willie Mink, the physical embodiment of post-modernism itself, is an allegory which speaks to Jack’s resolve to overcome, with respect to himself, the seemingly impenetrable and nonparticipatory nature of the postmodernist world. However, Jack’s interaction with the insensible, lobotomized Willie ultimately undermines his meaningful resolve to defeat postmodernism due primarily to the fact that Willie proves to be too strong in his “objectness”.
Adorned with Budweiser shorts, the first indication of his physical personification of post-modernism, Willie drones out TV phrases and indecipherable riddles, saying “some of these sure-footed bighorns have been equipped with radio transmitters” (306) and “the pet under stress may need a prescription diet” (307). Like the “diers” described by Murray, Willie simply disarms and absorbs Jack’s attempts at communication and dispatchment. The postmodern aura, or the collective unity of information, materiality, technology and knowledge, proves too powerful to be measurable and overcome by Jack’s common standard of logic, reason, and discernment. So overwhelming, in fact, was the realm of postmodernism which existed within both Willie Mink and the motel room itself that it began to consume Jack. He says “things began to glowâ€¦the air was rich with extrasensory materialâ€¦[Willie] appeared to grow more vividâ€¦things in their actual stateâ€¦white noise everywhere” (309-310). Overwhelmed and frightened, Jack puts into action his meticulously overstated plan to kill Willie, the last-ditch effort to obtain the “subjectness” and authenticity that he felt would be realized by surmounting postmodernism. However, Willie, and the aura of postmodernity, again dispels Jack’s attempts by literally absorbing the gunshot in his gut. Jack, overcome with disappointment and frustrated in the face of the inevitability of defeating Willie, then recognizes the fundamental impossibility of bridging the gap between subject and object, between modernism and postmodernism, between himself and the new world. Instantly, Jack, for the first time in the novel, see’s the world as it truly is: “The extra dimensions, the super perceptions, were reduced to visual clutter, a whirling miscellany, meaningless” (313).
Ultimately, Jack learns that the most important aspect of existence is being able to step back from the cultural frays of modernism and postmodernism, of subject and object, of reflection and criticism and certainty, in order to understand the rationality which gave rise to them in the first place. When one exists outside the realms of either movement, as Jack does at the end of White Noise, the beauty of being reveals itself in the mysteries of not knowing what comes next, what came before, or what forces drive our existence.
Certainly there is awe, it is all awe, it transcends previous categories of awe, but we don’t know whether we are watching in wonder or dread, we don’t know what we are watching or what it means, we don’t know whether it is permanent, a level of experience to which we will gradually adjust, into which our uncertainty will eventually be absorbed, or just some atmospheric weirdness, soon to pass. (324-25)
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