The Television Behemoth: An Eminent Force in Fiction and Reality
First published in 1985, Don DeLillo’s White Noise explores a plethora of relevant Postmodern themes. Some of his most notable commentaries are about 20th Century mass media inventions that utilize invisible technology, particularly the television. In the White Noise universe, television is essentially ever-present. Characters in the novel encounter television in one way or another in nearly every chapter, ranging from witnessing brief snippets of random TV programs when focusing on something else to engaging in social commentary on the nature of the medium. Some of the characters maintain a positive outlook on television while others adopt a more negative view. The characters’ various methods of coping with their uneasiness toward the importance of television in today’s society provide insight into the diversity of opinion about the subject that exists today. According to DeLillo, TV has become more than a mere provider of occasional entertainment; it has emerged as a dominating component of everyday American society.
Throughout the novel, the Gladney family’s television set bombards them with a constant stream of trivialities. One instance of this occurs on page 18 when Jack walks upstairs after dinner. Jack overhears a television program that gives the following suggestion: “Let’s sit half lotus and think about our spines.” Presumably this came from some sort of television program about yoga or meditation. What is striking about this one-liner is that it has no specific relevance to the plot of White Noise. There is no foreshadowing involved in this reference since White Noise contains no more references to Buddhist half-lotus meditation poses. Thus, readers who expect this seemingly random tidbit to be explained or to receive greater significance later in the story are mistaken. DeLillo deliberately uses this odd line that does not receive any follow-up because it instills in readers a sense of disorder. His use of the trivia-sputtering television is a literary tactic that demonstrates the Postmodernist ideas of disorientation and fragmentation. It also demonstrates the eminence of television in Jack Gladney’s everyday life; he cannot even walk from one part of his house to another without overhearing some unimportant piece of TV-talk.
The spontaneous television babble on page 18 is not an isolated incident. It occurs several other times, including once when Babette reads erotic literature to Jack in bed. Just after the bedded couple criticizes the author’s use of the verb “enter” to indicate the act of sexual intercourse, Jack hears the TV say “Until Florida surgeons attached an artificial flapper” (DeLillo 29). One might argue that the “artificial flapper” is a phallic reference, but assuming that this utterance has relevance to the sexual situation at hand is probably not what the author intended. DeLillo wrote this line in order to confuse audiences who try to understand how televisions and erotic literature terminology fit together. There is no connection, at least not in the usual sense of the two elements fitting together in a common theme. Instead, the swift transition from sex to television serves another purpose: reinforcing the idea that, in the odd universe of White Noise, television is an ever-present force that makes itself known even in the most intimate of settings.
Although the spontaneous instances of meaningless television sentences contained in White Noise may at first seem strange and unrealistic, they may be more truer-to-life than one might expect. DeLillo’s stance that television dominates Americans’ everyday lives may not be baseless. In their book entitled The Early Window: Effects of Television on Children and Youth, Robert M. Liebert et al. claim that “The average child today spends more time in the first 15 years of life watching television than going to school” (1). Their firm belief that TV altered Americans’ daily lives more noticeably than any other 20th Century technological invention supports Don DeLillo’s abundant mention of television as a powerful fixture in society. Liebert et al. illustrate TV’s effects on everyday life by pointing out American families’ habit of scheduling their lives around their favorite programming. The Gladney family’s weekly Chinese dinner around the television mentioned on page 16 of White Noise echoes Liebert’s assertion that modern American families have altered their lifestyle so much that they commonly eat meals watching television instead of sitting at a dinner table.
Liebert, Sprafkin, and Davidson were not the only 1980’s nonfiction authors who discussed the extent of television’s reach into Americans’ everyday lives. At the publishing of Donna Woolfolk Cross’s 1983 book Mediaspeak, Americans watched an average of six and one half hours of television per day (12). This fact and others led Cross to believe that “Television has become so important a part of our daily routine that for most of us life without it is not imaginable” (11). She proves this by referencing some early 1980’s legislature. Congress in New York State signed a bill into law that identified television sets as necessary survival tools in society on par with “clothes, furniture, dishes, and kitchen equipment” (Cross 11-12). Thus, it is now a legislated right of New Yorkers to keep their televisions after declaring bankruptcy. As bizarre as White Noise may seem, even DeLillo’s Postmodern novel does not mention any lawmakers that essentially legislated Americans’ right to television or designated it as a necessary survival tool.
Because television is such a strong influence in their daily affairs, it is no surprise that the characters in White Noise discuss the media source frequently. Some characters rail harshly against it, while others openly accept it. One example of the former presents itself in a dialogue between Jack and Babette’s cantankerous father, Vernon. During a surprise visit to the Gladney home, Vernon randomly asks Jack “Were people this dumb before television?” (DeLillo 249). Here Vernon is expressing both an assumption and a hypothesis. In his jaded mind, it is no less than factual that people are generally stupid. His only question is whether or not the stupidity results from the excessive consumption of television. Vernon’s idea that television makes people unintelligent is reminiscent of Harry J. Skornia’s ideas in his 1965 book Television and Society: An inquest and agenda for improvement. According to Skornia, TV is a “narcotizing instrument” that can cause people to turn off their minds and revert into an unthinking, hypnotic daze (159-160). Thus, Vernon’s somewhat cruel way of thinking is not entirely without merit since there is real evidence of people momentarily losing their capability to think due to TV.
DeLillo also presents readers with a slightly more accepting view of television. As previously mentioned, Babette makes it a rule for the Gladney family to watch TV while eating dinner at least one night a week. According to Jack’s narration, Babette’s logic is that “the effect would be to de-glamorize the medium in their eyes” and to prevent TV’s“narcotic undertow and eerie diseased brain-sucking power” (DeLillo 16). It is evident by Babette’s belief that television has the capability to cause brain disease that she does not think very highly of the medium. Yet instead of taking a strong stance against it by banning it from her household, she makes TV-watching an obligatory recreational activity. Instead of merely allowing television to be watched indiscriminately, which could lead to her children assigning the medium a position of prestige, Babette attempts to “de-glamorizes” television, detracting from its seriousness and importance.
Steffie apparently detests this mandatory family TV time because she “became upset every time something shameful or humiliating seemed about to happen to someone on the screen” (DeLillo 16). Young Steffie is not immune to the nonstop drama on television as are the rest of the family members. Unlike the others in her home, she cannot shrug off the embarrassment she feels for characters in some television shows’ realistic shameful situations. DeLillo utilizes Steffie’s squeamish behavior through Denise, taking advantage of an opportunity to display one of television’s trademark values: toughness. When Steffie returns after leaving the room due to her aversion of intense dramatic scenes of humiliation, Denise extols to her the virtues of being “thick-skinned” and “mean in the world” (DeLillo 16). Because she is exposed regularly to the values of mainstream television, Denise knows how a properly-indoctrinated television viewer would act in an embarrassing situation. She, like many others both in White Noise and in modern-day American society, is influenced by television values to the point that she looks down condescendingly upon the few, including Steffie, who do not share the same viewpoint. Ergo, this scene illustrates an example of how one’s ability to think for him-or-herself is crushed by television-dominated societies’ belief in conformity.
White Noise provides literary audiences with an opportunity to take a step back and examine their own lives. DeLillo’s mastery of Postmodern ideas forces readers to ask themselves if the seemingly bizarre themes of the novel are actually unrealistic. Although people do not frequently pose philosophical questions about the meaning and effects of television as characters in White Noise often do, it is true that television has a much larger and more commonplace influence than people tend to acknowledge. White Noise demonstrates that the American people should question their wholesale daily absorption of TV programming instead of mindlessly zoning out and letting the medium take control of their lives.
Cross, Donna Woolfolk. Mediaspeak: How Television Makes Up Your Mind. New York: Coward-McCann, Inc., 1983.
DeLillo, Don. White Noise. New York: Penguin Books, 1985.Liebert, Robert M., Joyce N. Sprafkin, and Emily S. Davidson. The Early Window: Effects of Television on Children and Youth. New York: Pergamon Press, 1982.Skornia, Harry J. Television and Society: An inquest and agenda for improvement. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1965.