By associating moments of transcendence with trivial and vapid artifacts of popular culture, DeLillo blurs the line between spiritual existence and consumer culture. When Jack hears Steffie mutter Toyota Celica in her sleep, he admits: “The utterance was beautiful and mysterious, gold-shot with looming wonder. It was like the name of an ancient power in the sky […]. Whatever its source, the utterance struck me with the impact of a moment of splendid transcendence.” As such, DeLillo sanctifies consumer culture. But he also presents it as trivial, often allowing TV and radio programs to cut into the narrative at unexpected moments to say out-of-context phrases like, “Hog futures have declined in sympathy, adding bearishness to that market.” In doing so, he depicts TV, radio, and marketing as suspicious media capable of strongly influencing human identity. Although White Noise does not fully condemn consumer culture, it does critically examine how humans receive this kind of information and entertainment, a process DeLillo sees as emotionally charged and potentially harmful to the psyche.
DeLillo often refers to “psychic data” throughout the novel, a term that attempts to explain the ways in which consumer culture appeals to humans. “Psychic data” encompasses the messages embedded in advertisements and labels, which the brain picks up on either consciously or subconsciously. In the supermarket, for example, the psychic data come from the “bright packaging, the jingles, the slice-of-life commercials.” According to Murray, psychic data is always “radiating” out of TV and other media that transmit consumer culture, creating an “aura” of signs and symbols that consumers live in. The language DeLillo uses to describe consumer culture, then, is both clinical and spiritual. The word “radiation” evokes an ease of transmittance, in addition to suggesting a risk of harmful exposure. An “aura,” on the other hand, brings to mind a religious glow, thereby sanctifying the possible toxic messages emitted by consumerism.
In addition to emphasizing the ambiguous duality of consumer culture (its potential for both transcendence and corruption), psychic data also captivates the characters, sometimes inspiring them to search for consumerism’s hidden significance. Murray, for example, believes that psychic data—the products and advertisements in the supermarket—contain hidden symbolism and meanings that he can discern. “It is just a question of deciphering,” he says, “rearranging, peeling off the layers of unspeakability.” This description intentionally invokes hermeneutics, or the practice of interpreting the minutiae of religious texts to discern esoteric spiritual meanings. However, Murray then doubles back on his glowing endorsement of the supermarket, saying “Not that we would want to [decipher the symbols], not that any useful purpose would be served.” As such, DeLillo praises consumer culture, while maintaining suspicion about whether consumerism is capable of revealing any important message about humanity beyond the existence of an innate desire to passively consume. DeLillo, then, refuses to decisively weigh in on the meaning of consumer culture, instead positing that its inexplicable blend of the spiritual with the vapid and banal compels people to worship and interpret popular culture as an end in itself. Consumer culture, in other words, is self-propelled, and it derives its power from a combination of mystery and ubiquity.
Despite its unknowability, DeLillo posits that psychic data has a profound significance for human identity. According to Jack, identity is an amalgamation of data; he even tells Babette, “We are the sum total of our data.” This provides insight into why the messages of consumer culture are given such high importance in White Noise; if the construction of human identity is dependent on the “sum total” of “data,” then the “psychic data” transmitted from TVs, radios, and products are the building blocks of an individual’s personality. The most extreme example of human identity as an amalgamation of consumerism’s psychic data comes in the form of Willie Mink, the creator of Dylar. Willie is so immersed in consumer culture that he randomly quotes TV slogans and dialogue, as if there’s no difference between who he is and what he consumes. He has allowed too much unmitigated “psychic data” into the construction of his identity, making him the human manifestation of gluttonous cultural consumption. To Jack—and to readers, too—he is an example of what people can become if they rely too heavily on the media and other vapid distractions to allay fear, insecurity, or other naturally human existential misgivings. Willie’s presence in White Noise is the closest DeLillo comes to condemning consumerism and issuing a warning of its negative side effects.
Consumer Culture and Identity ThemeTracker
Consumer Culture and Identity Quotes in White Noise
Babette and I do our talking in the kitchen. The kitchen and the bedroom are the major chambers around here, the power haunts, the sources. She and I are alike in this, that we regard the rest of the house as storage space for furniture, toys, all the unused objects of earlier marriages and different sets of children, the gifts of lost in-laws, the hand-me-downs and rummages. Things, boxes. Why do these possessions carry such sorrowful weight? There is a darkness attached to them, a foreboding. They make me wary not of personal failure and defeat but of something more general, something large in scope and content.
Everything is concealed in symbolism, hidden by veils of mystery and layers of cultural material. But it is psychic data, absolutely. The large doors slide open, they close unbidden. Energy waves, incident radiation. All the letters and numbers are here, all the colors of the spectrum, all the voices and sounds, all the code words and ceremonial phrases. It is just a question of deciphering, rearranging, peeling off the layers of unspeakability. Not that we would want to, not that any useful purpose would be served.
Who knows what I want to do? Who knows what anyone wants to do? How can you be sure about something like that? Isn’t it all a question of brain chemistry, signals going back and forth, electrical energy in the cortex? How do you know whether something is really what you want to do or just some kind of nerve impulse in the brain? […] It’s all this activity in the brain and you don’t know what’s you as a person and what’s some neuron that just happens to fire or just happens to misfire. Isn’t that why Tommy Roy killed those people?
In the morning I walked to the bank. I went to the automated teller machine to check my balance. I inserted my card, entered my secret code, tapped out my request. The figure on the screen roughly corresponded to my independent estimate, feebly arrived at after long searches through documents, tormented arithmetic. Waves of relief and gratitude flowed over me. The system had blessed my life. I felt its support and approval. The system hardware, the mainframe sitting in a locked room in some distant city. What a pleasing interaction. I sensed that something of deep personal value, but not money, not that at all, had been authenticated and confirmed. […] The system was invisible, all the more disquieting to deal with. But we were in accord, at least for now. The networks, the circuits, the streams, the harmonies.
[…] I’ve been sitting in this room for more than two months, watching TV into the early hours, listening carefully, taking notes. A great and humbling experience, let me tell you. Close to mystical. […] I’ve come to understand that the medium is a primal force in the American home. Sealed-off, timeless, self-contained, self-referring. It’s like a myth being born right there in our living room, like something we know in a dreamlike and preconscious way.
[…] it’s not a question of greatness. It’s not a question of good and evil. I don’t know what it is. Look at it this way. Some people always wear a favorite color. Some people carry a gun. Some people put on a uniform and feel bigger, stronger, safer. It’s in this area that my obsessions dwell.
Words, pictures, numbers, facts, graphics, statistics, specks, waves, particles, motes. Only a catastrophe gets our attention. We want them, we need them, we depend on them. As long as they happen somewhere else. This is where California comes in. Mud slides, brush fires, coastal erosion, earthquakes, mass killings, et cetera. We can relax and enjoy these disasters because in our hearts we feel that California deserves what it gets. Californians invented the concept of life-style. This alone warrants their doom.
Could a nine-year-old girl suffer a miscarriage due to the power of suggestion? Would she have to be pregnant first? Could the power of suggestion be strong enough to work backward in this manner, from miscarriage to pregnancy to menstruation to ovulation? Which comes first, menstruation or ovulation? Are we talking about mere symptoms or deeply entrenched conditions? Is a symptom a sign or a thing? What is a thing and how do we know it’s not another thing?
I turned off the radio, not to help me think but to keep me from thinking.
The sense of failed expectations was total. A sadness and emptiness hung over the scene. A dejection, a sorry gloom. We felt it ourselves, my son and I, quietly watching. It was in the room, seeping into the air from pulsing streams of electrons. The reporter seemed at first merely apologetic. But as he continued to discuss the absence of mass graves, he grew increasingly forlorn, gesturing at the diggers, shaking his head, almost ready to plead with us for sympathy and understanding.
I tried not to feel disappointed.
We all got in the car and went out to the commercial strip in the no man’s land beyond the town boundary. The never-ending neon. I pulled in at a place that specialized in chicken parts and brownies. We decided to eat in the car. The car was sufficient for our needs. We wanted to eat, not look around at other people. We wanted to fill our stomachs and get it over with. We didn’t need light and space. We certainly didn’t need to face each other across a table as we ate, building a subtle and complex cross-network of signals and codes. We were content to eat facing in the same direction, looking only inches past our hands.