“Electromagnetic Myth: ‘White Noise’ and the Language of Distortion” by Noah Levy


Electromagnetic Myth: White Noise and the Language of Distortion

Academic Essay by Noah Levy


Prominent American linguists Benjamin Lee Whorf and Edward Sapir claimed that language affects worldview. As a key proponent of linguistic relativity, Whorf asserted that differences between languages, particularly in the treatment of categories such as colour and time, account for significant differences in perception of the external world. Myth, as defined by cultural theorist Roland Barthes in his essay “Myth Today”, offers unique insights into language and perception.  Barthes defines myth as a form of speech in which an already constructed sign is employed as a signifier, and which functions as a second-order system that “transforms history into nature” (Barthes 129). The context of the original is drained but not destroyed; instead, the receiver is deceived into perceiving some pure and eternal essence that is, in truth, nonexistent. Rather, Barthes asserts that what is taken as natural is, in actuality, a cultural construct. The ubiquity of myth in contemporary American society, as propagated by television, advertising and consumerism has markedly transformed American language, culture, and reality-construction. Don DeLillo’s White Noise mirrors an America in which cultural consciousness floods every space; television’s distortions of language, viewed through a Barthesian conceptualization of myth, charge through the atmosphere as electromagnetic waves. White Noise reveals the disconcerting effect of mass-consumed myth on language, and in turn, shared constructions of reality.

The Airborne Toxic Event’s “black billowing cloud,” in dramatic fashion, reveals the extent to which Jack’s thought processes are informed by myth. Through the weekly ritual of television watching, the Gladney family is deeply familiar with the genre of the natural disaster news report. Such cultural genres are analogous to linguistic treatment of categories like colour, shape, and time. Just as the treatment of these categories within a language affects reality-perception, mythological genres within a culture affect reality-perception as well. Entranced by images of “floods, earthquakes, mud slides, erupting volcanoes,” the Gladneys, to Jack’s confusion, “wish for more, for something bigger, grander, more sweeping” (DeLillo 96, 97). Jack’s colleague Alfonse explains this entrancement, only half-jokingly: “in our hearts we feel California deserves whatever it gets” (DeLillo 100). The sign—natural disaster as depicted on television—functions as a myth connoting divine retribution for an immoral life of leisure. When the Airborne Toxic Event strikes, Jack’s unconvincing insistence that “[n]othing is going to happen” (DeLillo 172) is informed entirely by his fraudulent knowledge of the natural disaster news genre. Jack rationalizes: “These things happen to poor people who live in exposed areas. […] People in low-lying areas get the floods, people in shanties get the hurricanes and tornados. I’m a college professor. Did you ever see a college professor rowing a boat down his own street in one of those TV floods?” (DeLillo 172). This remark reveals the danger of myth as laid out by Barthes.  Alienated from its context, its connotation—in this instance, the invincibility of class structures in the face of catastrophe—purports to reveal the natural and the eternal. In reality, there exists only a cultural construct wearing the mask of Nature. The passive consumer of myth is misled into thinking that he possesses firsthand knowledge of its connotations; this is the case with Jack and large-scale disasters.

After the evacuation is complete, DeLillo’s depiction of an outraged evacuee illuminates the effect of myth on reality-perception, demonstrating the dissonance created by widespread myth consumption. An unnamed man, who shares the Gladney’s evacuation shelter at a vacant karate studio, experiences an animated bout of cognitive dissonance. The man expresses spitting contempt for the news media’s predatory “vile instruments of intrusion”, yet laments: “we deserve some attention for our suffering, our human worry, our terror” (DeLillo 251, 252). While Jack’s interpretation of the Airborne Toxic Event is structured according to hallucinatory essences springing from myth, the outraged evacuee relies on the process of myth-creation to interpret his experiences in real time. The man concludes his speech rhetorically, “Isn’t fear news?” (DeLillo 252), displaying, as Jack does, the collective cultural knowledge of the disaster genre. Although the evacuee’s speech’s tone is that of outrage, his outrage appears as a defense mechanism against his cognitive dissonance. This dissonance stems from the failure of his actual experience to be validated by the expected, even routine, dissemination into the stream of collective cultural myth.

Beyond distorted interpretations caused by the second-order chain of myth, DeLillo explores the destruction of this second-order chain and the resulting effects. As the still-mysterious Airborne Toxic Event unfolds, Jack’s son Heinrich explains, “At first [the radio] said skin irritation and sweaty palms. But now they say nausea, vomiting, shortness of breath” (DeLillo 167). When Jack’s daughters “complain[] of sweaty palms”, Heinrich smugly advises that “[t]here’s been a correction… Tell them they ought to be throwing up” (DeLillo 169). Later, when the radio further updates the symptoms to include déja vu, Steffie suffers this ailment as well, although Jack notes that “[Steffie]… had been lagging all evening. [She was] late with sweaty palms, late with nausea, late again with déjа vu” (DeLillo 191). DeLillo’s depiction of Steffie’s “lagging” radio-induced symptoms is humourous, as are his depictions of Jack’s stubborn denial of danger and the outraged evacuee’s impassioned speech. Yet, the ability of the radio to produce symptoms is deeply unsettling. Similar to Jack’s conflation of media-induced myth with lived experience, Steffie experiences radio-broadcast signifiers as direct symptoms; her body responds to the suggestions of radio waves that carry the arbitrary signifiers of speech. Steffie’s helpless absorption of signs is exaggerated with frightening effect in the case of Willie Mink at the novel’s climactic confrontation. Because of the Dylar drug’s effects, Mink conflates words and reality, taking Jack’s utterances of “[f]alling plane” and “[p]lunging aircraft” as literal experience. Provoked into frenzied panic, Mink “fold[s] himself over into the recommended crash position, head well forward, hands clasped behind his knees” (DeLillo 476). In contrast, as Jack “advanc[es] in consciousness” and “[sees] beyond words” (DeLillo 468, 481), he dismantles the myth that had previously clouded his reality; his knowledge of “what red was, […] in terms of dominant wavelength, luminance, purity” (DeLillo 481) illustrates an awakening of pure perception. However, this awakening is temporary. When Jack is shot, he regresses from a “killer” to a “dier,” a role in which “those vivid textures and connections [are] buried in mounds of ordinary stuff” (DeLillo 482).

All of these distortions—Jack’s hallucinated disaster-essence, the outraged evacuee’s cognitive dissonance, and Steffie and Mink’s processing of signifiers as pure experience—arise from the prevalence of myth-creating media. Neurochemist Winnie Richards, whose expertise Jack seeks in order to understand the drug Dylar, expresses this sentiment bluntly: “The infant’s brain develops in response to stimuli. [America] still lead[s] the world in stimuli” (DeLillo 287). Frequent interjections of television voices provide this stimuli within the text of the novel itself. These short clips are invariably non-sequiturs, such as “other trends that could dramatically impact your portfolio,” or “This creature has developed a complicated stomach in keeping with its leafy diet” (DeLillo 91, 145). The impact of constant stimuli on the subconscious, and therefore underlying cognitive processes, is exemplified by Steffie’s utterance, “Toyota Celica” (DeLillo 240), in her sleep. Comically, Jack takes this sleep-talk as “transcend[ant]”, and evokes the religious imagery of “the name of an ancient power in the sky, tablet-carved in cuneiform” (DeLillo 240). Much like the ancient gods of antiquity, “[s]upranational names, computer-generated” have become “[p]art of every child’s brain noise, the substatic regions too deep to probe”. Jack’s friend and colleague Murray Siskind notes “the medium [of television] practically overflows with sacred formulas” in reference to the “endless repetitions, like chants, like mantras. ‘Coke is it, Coke is it, Coke is it’” (DeLillo 76). Prevalence of myth in White Noise is not limited to television and radio; the grocery store and shopping mall serve as vast repositories of myth motivated by advertisement. Within each of these spaces, products are packaged in containers, obscuring the actual object, displaying instead a myth that serves to drain history and communicate a constructed essence. The constant probing interjections of myth, as propagated by television, radio, grocery stores and shopping malls, shapes “the substatic regions [of the brain] too deep to probe”—white noise to the brain’s white matter.

Barthes criticizes myth as a “regression”, in which “the meaning leaves its contingency behind; it empties itself, it becomes impoverished, history evaporates, only the letter remains” (Barthes 116). Myth claims an eternal truth while its substance is entirely artificial. However, Murray posits that fear, pain, and reality itself is “unnatural”. Myth, Murray claims, is “the natural language of the species,” in all of its “repression, compromise and disguise”, and is a mechanism to “survive in the universe” (DeLillo 444). Murray’s claim verges on Darwinian: myth is a naturally arising cognitive process that serves as a survival mechanism. If myth is innate to the human experience, its ceaseless transmission through electromagnetic waves is inevitable and natural. White Noise concerns itself with the distortions in thought arising from this constant hum of myth-creation, from subtle ironies to grotesque schizophrenia. DeLillo reflects a world in which this roar of data is inescapable, for better, as Murray claims, or worse.  Regardless, as Jack discovers, we are “the sum total of our data,” anchored to a world submerged in waves and radiation (DeLillo 217).

Works Cited

Barthes, Roland. Mythologies. Trans. Annette Lavers. New York: Hill and Wang, 1972. Print.

DeLillo, Don. White Noise. New York: Penguin, 1985. Epub.

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