The Deaths, Desires, and Dreams of Whiteness in White Noise
by Mira Mason
It’s right there in the title: White Noise by Don DeLillo is a book about whiteness. Well, not exactly. The Oxford English Dictionary defines “white noise” as a “continuous, indistinct noise, esp. that which obscures other sounds” (OED, “white noise, n. 1,” italics in original). White noise is that sound which fades into the background, which imperceptibly shapes what we hear even as it becomes impossible to pick out. White Noise then, is a book about the invisible character of whiteness; the way it evades detection, becoming the background of everything else we perceive. Of course, the question remains: what is whiteness? Even in the novel, the term takes on a host of meanings: it refers to the color, to the racial identity, and to the eponymous type of noise. I argue that whiteness of White Noise (and “white noise”) is the racialized system of power. Further, this racialized system of whiteness inculcates a complicated relationship with death. Jack Gladney, the main character of the novel whose fear of death serves as the main driver of the plot, becomes metonymic for whiteness in his simultaneous desire and fear of death.
Although Jack is explicitly racialized as white, the reader doesn’t learn this until the penultimate chapter of the book. When Jack begins his climactic attempt to murder Willie Mink, the inventor of a pill that attempted and failed to eliminate the fear of death and the man with whom Jack’s wife had an affair, Mink asks Jack “why are you here, white man?” (DeLillo, 296). Earlier in the final and third section of the book, Jack mistakes his father-in-law for “Death’s errand runner,” he feels himself “getting whiter by the second” (DeLillo, 232). A more ambiguous whiteness, which merely refers to going pale from fear, but nevertheless links the color white to Jack’s complexion. Before these moments in the last third of the novel, whiteness-as-race goes unmentioned. It’s not as if any kind of race is absent from the first two-thirds of the book: in Part One, Jack Gladney and his family are unable to remember the name of “the black girl who’s staying with Stovers;” when the same family is fleeing an airborne toxic event that defines the second and third parts of the book, Jack speaks with a “black man with the tracts” (DeLillo, 80; 128). The word “white” is even abundant in these earlier sections: they describe the mysterious pills that Jack’s wife is taking, the uniform packaging of the goods in the grocery store Jack frequently visits. But it never leaves the terrain of color. Still, the system of whiteness is very much in the background of the opening acts of the book. When Jack goes to a bank and successfully makes a transaction, “waves of relief and gratitude [flows] over me [Jack]. The system had blessed my life. I felt its support and approval” (DeLillo, 46). This system might appear to be limited to the bank, the network of computers and codes, but Jack is not just “in accord” with the system of the bank but “the networks, the circuits, the streams, the harmonies” (DeLillo, 46). This slurry of words all gesture at the same thing, a kind of invisible network of relations, of power, that Jack is a part of, profits off of, is blessed by. It is an entire field of connections and relationships, a kind of economy of relations that seems to be, but is not called, whiteness. So, whiteness in Part One and Part Two of the book goes unnamed. It fades into the background, does not need to be mentioned, it is the default from which others may deviate. It is the white noise of the novel’s beginning. Now, there’s no need to specify what “the system” is, to give it the indignity of a name: the reader can already intuit the racialized, affective character of whiteness. And yet the moments where whiteness pops out of the background and demands to be mentioned by Jack or those around him are both linked to confrontations with death. Why is it that whiteness only becomes visible, only becomes explicit, when Jack is drowning in existential dread?
Section 1: Going Psycho(analytic)
Jack’s fear of death is provoked by an exposure to a toxic airborne event. When he tells an emergency responder that he was exposed, he is given 30 years to live, a span of time that more than overlaps with the middle-aged character’s natural lifespan. Yet, this prognosis causes an existential crisis: “death has entered… You are said to be dying and yet are separate from the dying, can ponder it at your leisure, literally see on the X-ray photograph or computer screen the horrible alien logic to it all…. It makes you feel like a stranger in your own dying” (DeLillo, 137). Faced with death, Jack is alienated from his own experience, and becomes “a stranger,” a mere external observer. He is thrown outside of himself and forced to confront the fragility of his sense of identity. To understand why this occurs, I now turn to psychoanalysis, a branch of philosophy concerned with the nature of the psyche and the desires it produces. For Julia Kristeva, a prominent Lacanian psychoanalytic theorist, death and its alienating force is Jack’s “abject.” In Powers of Horror, Kristeva argues that the abject is that which is outside the subject/object relationship. When confronted with disgusting things, like human waste or rotting food, the “I” often “expel[s] it,” flinging the item of disgust outside the realm of signification so it no longer has to be considered (Kristeva, 3). But, for death, which must be considered at some point, “it is no longer I who expel, ‘I’ is expelled,” meaning that the perception of the bounded Self is put into question (Kristeva, 4). And this is precisely what happens to Jack: he is faced with the fact of his own death and he is abjected from his own person, which comes from the Latin ab-iacio, and means to cast out (Lewis and Short, “abicio”). Jack is cast out from his Self, forced to view his own individuality from the outside in, and thus experiences a temporary dissolution of the borders between subject and object, between the Self and the world.
For Kristeva, this dissolution is deeply, oddly pleasurable. She says that “one does not know [the abject], one does not desire it, one joys in it [on enjouit]. Violently and painfully” (Kristeva, 18). At first, this seems like a contradiction in terms; joy is normally opposed to pain and violence. Yet, the abject is that which exists beyond these normative terms of signification. The abject represents, for the “I,” the space that exists before desire, before knowledge, before the separation of Self and Other. When the “I” is flung from itself in its confrontation with death, it ends up in this space, the place where words do not go. This place is none other than the Lacanian, “abominable real” (Kristeva, 18). The Real, for Jacques Lacan and for his acolytes like Kristeva, is the psychic detritus and experience that cannot be described by language, the parts of life left over after the descriptive power of language is exhausted. The Real is most accessible to the psyche pre-language, before the psyche of the infant develops into an “I.” Calum L. Matheson gives a useful explanation of this infantile phenomenon in his book, Desiring the Bomb:
At first, individual human beings do not have a strong sense of differentiation between self and world. Boundaries are porous. Hungry babies cry, and food is provided. They do not understand the breast (or bottle) as belonging to the caregiver as a wholly different entity. Rather, it is a transitional object, merging self with world. Both psyche and body are disorganized and indistinct because the infant does not have a strong sense of corporeal identity. This experience is perhaps not always pleasurable, but it does bring with it a sense of continuity. (Matheson, 30)
Notice the similarity between Matheson’s and Kristeva’s description of the enjoyment felt through the Real, within this pre-linguistic, developmental state. It is not “pleasurable,” it does not match up with the usual sense of “joy” or happiness. Instead, the Real is deeply satisfying, the sense of wholeness achieved in the absence of any border between the Self and the World, providing an extremely fulfilling way of experiencing the place of the infant in the world. But this state of transcendental bliss, where the baby is one with the world and the world is one with the babe, is not meant to last. At a certain point, the infant recognizes itself in the mirror, identifies itself as a separate being from the rest of the world, and “finally [dons] the armor of an alienated identity,” that of the “I” (Lacan, 78). Lacan’s use of the word “armor” is crucial here. Because that is the role of the “I,” of the perception of the Self as a Self: it shuts out the rest of the world, protects the psyche from Other, and thus constructs the boundary between Self and Other, Subject and Object. But “the same cut that creates the subject also creates the lack, a vacuum left by our [sic] identification with a limited subject” (Matheson, 31). That is, the “I” wants to return to that unbounded state, that transcendental bliss, that oceanic feeling, even though the very ability for the “I” to recognize itself as such is indicative of an inability to return to that state. This permanently unfulfillable desire is the lack, and, for Lacan, Matheson, and Kristeva, it is the driving force within the psyche, the drive from which all the desires of the “I” are derivative.
The primacy of the lack explains why the abject and abjection can be both violent and joy-ous. To be ripped out of the armor of the “I” is necessarily a violent, painful process. After all, the “I” is deeply invested in its own boundedness, in its own individuality. But at the same time, the dissolution of the individual is exactly what the “I” wants, as it represents a return to the Real. However, the abject is not the magical object that immediately satiates the lack. Instead, Kristeva says that “‘I’ want none of that element… ‘I’ do not assimilate it, ‘I’ expel it,” indicating the reaction of the “I” to the abject is one of rejection, rejecting the questioning of the borders between Self and Other that it represents. At the same time, this rejection of the abject is “the same motion through which ‘I’ claim to establish myself” (Kristeva, 3). So, when faced with the abject, the “I” not only refuses to consider it but uses that temporary moment of fragility to reconstitute itself, to become more rigid in its separation between Self and Other. And Jack does this very thing.
Just after declaring himself a stranger to his own dying, he says that he “wanted my academic gown and dark glasses” (DeLillo, 137). The academic gown, which “department heads wear… at the College-on-the-Hill,” and the dark glasses donned to counter Jack’s “feeble presentation of self,” each represent his power in the world (DeLillo, 9; 16). Likewise, Jack’s obsession with getting his hands on white Dylar pills, the mysterious medication his wife takes to alleviate “the fear of death,” marks an attempt to reassert his sense of Self through the consumption and replenishment of whiteness (DeLillo, 190). When faced with the ultimate abjection of death, Jack desires the things that represent his authority, he seeks out a kind of mastery that would confirm the sanctity of his “I,” of his place as a bounded individual. This is the paradox and cruel cycle caused by the tension between the lack and the “I”: the “I” demands close encounters with death to get closer and closer to fulfilling the lack. But it must always bail out at the last second, retaining its coherency, despite that coherency’s cost. Of note, however, is that this “I”’s reconsolidation of the “I” takes the form of a search for mastery, signified in the class markers of Jack’s academic robes and the veiled racial marker of the white Dylar pills. These culturally specific and coded signs of mastery and the solidity of the “I” point to the non-universal, extremely specific character of this kind of psyche.
For our cast of psychoanalysts, the formation of the “I” is a socially contingent process. Lacan writes that the mirror stage, the moment where the infant recognizes its reflection, “inaugurates…the dialectic that will henceforth link the I to socially elaborated situation” (Lacan, 79, italics in original). Matheson concurs, noting that “the caregiver’s nod of assent” is a crucial component of the mirror stage. And Kristeva specifies further, stating that “if I am affected by what does not yet appear to me as a thing, it is because laws, connections, and even structures of meaning govern and condition me” (Kristeva, 10). So, the significance (or opposition to signification) of the abject, the exact formation and character of the “I,” are not universal, ahistorical, and acultural facts of biology, but effects produced by the development necessary to introduce the infant into a web of structures and processes “dependent…on cultural intervention” (Lacan, 79). The ambiguity of these descriptions, of a set of social “laws, connections, and even structures,” of “socially elaborated situation[s],” of “caregivers,” is reminiscent of the description of unnamed whiteness that appears in the beginning of White Noise. The “networks, the circuits, the streams, the harmonies” that make up “the system” which blesses Jack finds its psychoanalytic corollary in these laws, socially elaborated situations, and caregivers (DeLillo, 46). The odd similarity between these two descriptions is not just a coincidence. Rather, for these white, Western writers theorizing about white, Western society, the “I” is formed under conditions and pressures specific to whiteness. And it must be whiteness, not merely Western-ness or capitalism or the postmodern condition, precisely because it is linked to the logic of mastery, over the self, the (non-white) Other, and the world that is neither present nor essential to those other systems.
This culturally contingent construction of the “I,” its lack, and its relationship with abjection informs how the reader understands the escalatory attempts Jack makes to fill his lack. Jack starts off the novel with relatively benign and controlled encounters with death. At first, he simply watches disasters on the television, “floods, earthquakes, mud slides, erupting volcanoes” (DeLillo, 64). But that fails to fill the lack: “every disaster made us wish for more, something grander, bigger, more sweeping” (DeLillo, 64). And Jack gets his next hit of abjection in more direct terms, with the in-person recounting of the almost-plane crash starting on page 90. Both internal to the story and for Jack himself, the encounter with death makes “being alive … a richness of sensation,” if only until the “I” reconstitutes itself (DeLillo, 91). Even in this moment, the satisfaction with living can only be achieved through a sense of mastery. As the plane, having lost power, falls, the passengers and crew panic, faced with death, abjected. Then, “the engines restarted. Just like that. Power, stability, control” (DeLillo, 91). This “control,” the mastery over the air and motion, is what turns the terror of death into the satisfaction of abjection and is what differentiates the desire to encounter death from a suicidal desire to die: the “I” only encounters abjection on its own terms, even if those terms are set retroactively. The sense of fulfillment is only achieved through the assertion of mastery. The next step of escalation is for Jack to encounter his own death, his exposure to the airborne toxic event mentioned above. Yet, that only causes his desire to become more extreme, in need of either a more direct encounter with death or a dissolution of knowledge of death in the first place. This confrontation comes in the form of Mink, the inventor of those white Dylar pills. Jack, throughout the encounter, dramatically asserts his mastery over the situation. He repeats his plan like a mantra: “advance gradually, gain his confidence, take out the Zumwalt, fire three bullets at his midsection for maximum visceral agony,” reminding the reader, over and over again, that he is in control, that everything that happens is as it is supposed to, despite the long, extended nature of the attempted murder (DeLillo, 295). In this murder plot, Jack is in a position of absolute mastery. Mink recognizes this absolute mastery. He calls Jack a “white man,” again, explicitly racializing him for the first and last time (DeLillo, 296). Thus, Jack is most white, identifiably so, only in this position of absolute mastery, only on the verge of his most fulfilling encounter with death yet. Sure enough, upon shooting Mink for the first time and witnessing the gore that follows, he “saw beyond words…. Mink’s pain was beautiful, intense” (DeLillo, 298). This moment, enjoining mastery and death, mastering the making of death, is the almost-euphoric explosion of the Real into the psyche, the entrance of the place without words into the “I.” And like any good junkie upon getting their fix, Jack makes the most of his death making as he can: “I fired a second shot just to fire it, relive the experience” (DeLillo, 298). And yes, that third shot is withheld, but only because Jack is “pleased to see how well [the murder] was going,” only because he is too caught up in the feeling of absolute satisfaction, of the brief reappearance of the Real, to think straight (DeLillo, 298).
Yet this perfect storm of circumstances that allows the improbable mixing of mastery and abjection still only leads to temporary satisfaction. By the end of the novel, Jack is still afraid of death, “afraid of the imaging block. Afraid of its magnetic fields, its computerized nuclear pulse. Afraid of what it knows about me” (DeLillo, 309). This fear is the original refusal to accept or confront the abject, the process of rejecting the abject while utilizing that rejection to form the “I,” which Kristeva explained. This return traces out the necessarily cyclical nature of whiteness’ relationship with death: it starts with denial, then turns to minor confrontations, before escalating more and more, eventually exploding into material violence (directed towards the Self or the Other) that results in material death and the ultimate experience of abjection. Then, the “I,” still unfulfilled (if it still exists), must start the cycle over again. Surely this cycle is not inevitable. Surely those raised into the psychological system of whiteness are not damned to be trapped in this vicious cycle. But what other forms of desire are possible? Through what means can the “I” be dissolved, if not through the violence or death of abjection?
Section 2: If You Love It, Let It Go
White Noise does offer a couple of alternatives to this cycle of death and desire, but they are limited in their efficacy. The first of the two is the character of Orest Mercator, “who wants to sit in a cage full of deadly snakes” (DeLillo, 197). Orest’s solution to the problem of death is to embrace the risk, to confront it extremely and totally in a room full of danger. Yet, his goal is still to master death. When Jack asks him how he knows he won’t be bitten, how he knows he will be triumphant, Orest asserts that “they [the snakes] won’t bite me…. Because I know [they won’t]” (DeLillo, 197). Simply: he will find a way to control the snakes. Similarly, Murray, Jack’s colleague at the College, argues that Jack should simply embrace death, instead of denying it: “once we stop denying death, we can proceed calmly to die…. Another reason why I think of Tibet. Dying is an art in Tibet. A priest walks in, sits down, tells the weeping relatives to get out and has the room sealed. Doors, windows sealed. He has serious business to attend to” (DeLillo, 38). In both instances, the embrace of death is nothing but an excuse to master it. Orest masters death through controlling the snakes, through asserting authority over the makers of death and thus, through metonymy, death itself. Murray also seeks the mastery of death, to find forms of dying where the time, place, setting, and conditions of death are all finely tuned to the wants of the Subject. Both these strategies fail to leave the cycle of the psyche of whiteness because of their limited aims: they only seek to move death from abject to object, from unknowable reality to controllable fact, keeping the “I,” the subject, and its lack intact. Instead, another way of desiring all together is needed.
Avgi Saketopoulou, in her essay “Risking Sexuality Beyond Consent,” offers up one method for the “I” to escape the cycle of the death drive and its refusal. Although she is a Freudian, not a Lacanian, psychoanalyst, her arguments about the ego and its tyranny get at the same issue that the white “I” faces. For her, “nothing new happens with the ego’s consent” (Saketopoulou, 780, italics in original). That is, there is only mastery for the Freudian subject, dull, monotonous, boring mastery where even new experiences become variations of the same old, same old. Although the specifics of the Freudian ego are different from the Lacanian “I,” they both face the same problem: a kind of brittleness to their desire, an inescapable sense of desire unfulfilled and unfulfillable. So, Saketopoulou’s tentative solution remains relevant. She argues for “overwhelm” or moments and experiences that are so unexpected and unexpectedly pleasurable, that the ego is overwhelmed, the “I” is dissolved, and more satisfying and pleasurable experiences can follow. Now, this concept of overwhelm does bear some similarity to Kristeva’s conception of abjection, but there is a crucial difference: “overwhelm and limit experience cannot be planned or orchestrated” (Saketopoulou, 787). Unlike Jack’s encounters with death, which are variously planned and variously controlled, overwhelm requires the giving up of mastery, the ability to orchestrate the encounter with death/the abject/novelty on the “I”’s terms. This difference is crucial because it radically alters the effect of the dramatic encounter, of the limit experience, of the event which produces an emotional reaction stronger than what the psyche can handle. Rather than its primary effect being the reconsolidation of the “I” through the refusal of the abject/limit experience, the abdication of mastery instead leads to a weakening of “I” and an acknowledgement of its fragility. Of course, no single experience will be enough to remake a psyche, but through repeated moments of overwhelm, repeated practice in abdicating from mastery, the “I” may very well dissolve, may very well be let go as unneeded. What is at stake is the explosions of death-making violence that define the psychological topography of whiteness. Although the construction of the “I” is defined by lack, the materiality of the violence that the drive to fill the lack produces, the white supremacist violence that results, is all but lacking. It is the responsibility of the “I” itself to work towards its own dissolution and cease the violence it produces. Therefore, I and “I” have got to disappear.
Mira Mason is a sophomore at Columbia College majoring in English and Gender Studies. She is interested in how systems of power limit the way we think and literature can be used to reveal and repel those limitations. Her work has appeared in The Gadfly, The Blue and White, and Neologism Poetry Journal.
DeLillo, Don. White Noise. Penguin Books, 1999.
Kristeva, Julia. Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. Columbia University Press, 1982.
Lacan, Jacques. Ecrits. Translated by Bruce Fink. W.W. Norton & Company, 2006.
Lewis, Charlton T. and Charles Short. “abicio.” A Latin Dictionary. Clarendon Press, 1879.
Matheson, Calum L. Desiring the Bomb: Communication, Psychoanalysis, and the Atomic Age. University Alabama Press, 2019.
Saketopoulou, Avgi. “Risking Sexuality Beyond Consent: Overwhelm and Traumatisms That Incite.” The Psychoanalytic Quarterly, vol. 89, no. 4, Oct. 2020, 771-811, DOI: 10.1080/00332828.2020.1807268.
“white noise, n.” OED Online, Oxford University Press, December 2022, www.oed.com/view/Entry/423243.