The TV voices that permeate White Noise, meanwhile, are brought into relief by two episodes in which the television audio is pointedly withheld. As with much of DeLillo’s other work, such silent televisions paradoxically call attention to background sound by omitting the very element under consideration: the audio track. Both episodes, moreover, complicate televisual anxiety by overlaying other perceived threats to the domestic realm, thereby suggesting (as does Fitzpatrick’s The Anxiety of Obsolescence) that televisual concerns may, in many respects, be the result of the displacement of less speakable anxieties. In White Noise, the first of these scenes involves Babette reprising her role as the focus of communal television viewership. Rather than organizing an evening of television as “wholesome domestic sport,” however, on this occasion Babette appears onscreen. Murray Jay Siskind, the novel’s model auditor, is a serendipitous guest in the Gladney home, and, at the outset of the episode, “engaged in a rapt dialogue” with the children (DeLillo 1985/1991: 103). The television is on, but unattended, its volume—in counterpoint to the many acousmatic interjections throughout the novel— “kept way down” (DeLillo 1985/1991: 103). Jack narrates:
I gave Murray his coffee and was about to leave when I glanced in passing at the TV screen. I paused at the door, looked more closely this time. It was true, it was there. I hissed at the others for silence and they swiveled their heads in my direction, baffled and annoyed. They followed my gaze to the sturdy TV at the end of the bed.
The face on the screen was Babette’s. Out of our mouths came a silence as wary and deep as an animal growl. Confusion, fear, astonishment spilled from our faces. What did it mean? What was she doing there, in black and white, framed in formal borders? […]
A strangeness gripped me, a sense of psychic disorientation. It was her all right, the face, the hair, the way she blinks in rapid twos and threes. I’d seen her just an hour ago, eating eggs, but her appearance on the screen made me think of her as some distant figure from the past, some ex-wife and absentee mother, a walker in the mists of the dead. (DeLillo 1985/1991: 103-104)
The specific language Jack uses—“Out of our mouths came a silence,” above, and “I felt a certain disquiet” a few paragraphs later—focuses attention on the muteness of the television by linguistically echoing its soundlessness (DeLillo 1985/1991: 105). Even Murray stops conversing as the scene unfolds and, “smiling in his sneaky way,” maintains complete silence for the remainder of the section (DeLillo 1985/1991: 105). This inability to speak in the presence of a silent television only reinforces the novel’s suggestions that the medium somehow scripts our desires, choices, and impulses. More telling, however, is Jack’s disorientation. He immediately places Babette in the kitchen an hour before, eating eggs: Babette has not only been reduced to silence, but to a 1950s stereotype as well. And if that were not enough to give one pause, she is then accused of domestic dereliction, both marital and maternal, simply for appearing without her family’s foreknowledge on the local cable access channel. In some respects, then, this represents DeLillo’s recognition of an historic shift in domestic viewing practices. While Altman attempts to tread carefully around issues of gender, “Television/Sound” nevertheless assumes that a woman’s place is in the home, often “follow[ing] the plot of a soap opera from the kitchen” (Altman 1986: 42). By placing Babette outside the home, DeLillo acknowledges the dated nature of Altman’s assumptions; simultaneously, however, he ascribes the same antiquated notions of gender, domesticity, and televisual audition onto Jack, who is markedly uncomfortable at finding his wife on the “wrong” side of the screen. As the passage demonstrates, it is often impossible to discern where socio-cultural anxieties end and televisual ones begin.
Lest this scene be dismissed as anomalous, the novel’s ostensible climax similarly conflates technological and socio-cultural anxieties. Much of the narrative drive in White Noise involves Jack’s investigation into Babette’s mysterious drug habit. Eventually, she reveals that she responded to an advertisement in the National Examiner, and was selected as a finalist for a human testing of an experimental drug—Dylar—that was intended to inhibit the fear of death. Due to the potential risks involved, the study never got off the ground, but Babette made a “private arrangement” with the project manager (involving a liaison in “a grubby hotel room”) and got her fix (DeLillo 1985/1991: 193, 194). Jack is stunned. Unable to get past the image of his wife and “Mr. Gray” in bed together (as Babette dubs Willie Mink, the project manager), Jack steals his neighbor’s car and, gun in hand, tracks Mink to a seedy motel in nearby Germantown.
When Jack arrives at the motel, he finds the room unlocked; Mink is inside “watching TV without the sound” (DeLillo 1985/1991: 306). As Babette reveals in her initial confession, one of the major side effects of Dylar is an inability to “distinguish words from things,” and this—we soon learn—is why Mink has muted his television (DeLillo 1985/1991: 193). It turns out that he has not only been supplying Babette with Dylar, but has himself been popping the “stuff like candy” (DeLillo 1985/1991: 308). Realizing this, Jack begins to terrorize Mink with words:
“Plunging aircraft,” I said, pronouncing the words crisply, authoritatively.
He kicked off his sandals, folded himself over into the recommended crash position, head well forward, hands clasped behind his knees. He performed the maneuver automatically, with a double jointed dexterity, throwing himself into it like a child or a mime. (DeLillo 1985/1991: 309-310)
The ensuing scene echoes the famous “Echo Courts” episode in Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 (1967/1999), in which Metzger is unable to differentiate between the “fictional” world onscreen, and the “real” world inside his motel room and, as a result, reacts with terror to the sounds emanating from the television. In White Noise, Mink behaves in a similar fashion, unable to distinguish between narration (televisual or otherwise) and actuality. Jack launches a verbal assault—“Hail of bullets”; “Fusillade”—delivering his lines as though he were a television newscaster (“crisply, authoritatively”); Mink cowers, “showing real terror,” and “watch[es] the screen” (DeLillo 1985/1991: 311). In fact, the line between the televisual and the tangible is so comprehensively compromised that “[a]s the TV picture jumped, wobbled, caught itself in snarls, Mink appeared to grow more vivid” (DeLillo 1985/1991: 310). Eventually, however, Jack makes good on his verbal threats, and shoots Mink twice.
Of all the televisual moments in White Noise, the Willie Mink episode is the most fraught. Mink is a domestic threat on multiple fronts: he is, in no particular order, the agent of Jack’s cuckoldom, possessor of an un-American face (according to Babette, who insisted on wearing a ski mask during sex), and the former representative of a dubious multinational pharmaceutical corporation—in short, a sexual threat, a racial threat,(7) and a corporate threat, all rolled into one. And if that were not enough to sort out, Willie Mink is also—simultaneously—the personification of television audio. Mink claims to have “learned English watching American TV,” but that cliché fails to explain his peculiar patois (DeLillo 1985/1991: 308). He does not, in fact, speak English; he speaks Television. The vast majority of non sequiturs that issue from Mink’s lips are absolutely and entirely indistinguishable from the acousmatic interjections that permeate the novel:
“Some of these sure-footed bighorns have been equipped with radio transmitters,” he said. (DeLillo 1985/1991: 306)
“Some of these playful dolphins have been equipped with radio transmitters. Their far flung wanderings may tell us things.” (DeLillo 1985/1991: 310)
He said to me, “Did you ever wonder why, out of thirty-two teeth, these four cause so much trouble? I’ll be back with the answer in a minute.” (DeLillo 1985/1991: 312)
“And this could represent the leading edge of some warmer air,” Mink said. (DeLillo 1985/1991: 313)
“Some millipedes have eyes, some do not” (DeLillo 1985/1991: 315)
“No one knows why the sea birds come to San Miguel,” Willie said. (DeLillo 1985/1991: 316)
Notably, Mink’s televisual babble insistently references the natural environment. As with the other acousmatic interjections in White Noise, this serves as an ironic counterpoint to the novel’s media-saturated domestic spaces. In Mink’s case, however, the “natural” imagery also emphasizes that he is “unnatural,” a deviant—socially, sexually, racially, even professionally.