That television audio has long been underappreciated by media scholars is an oft-perpetuated truism. Among cathode-era critical accounts, however, two takes on television sound stand out: John Ellis’s “Broadcast TV as Sound and Image” (1982/1999) and Rick Altman’s “Television/Sound” (1986). Ultimately, both Ellis and Altman elevate the status of television audio by insisting that sound sustains, focuses, and directs audience engagement with the medium. In “Broadcast TV as Sound and Image,”(1) Ellis begins by emphasizing television’s role within the domestic space as that of an ambient technology. “Broadcast TV,” he observes, “can be left on with no one watching it, playing in the background of other activities in the home” (Ellis 1982/1999: 392). Because “TV is not usually the only thing going on” (and “sometimes . . . not even the principle thing”), the medium elicits “a lower degree of sustained concentration from its viewers” than does cinema (Ellis 1982/1999: 385, 386). However, given that television “[s]ound can be heard where the screen cannot be seen,” Ellis argues, “sound is used to ensure a certain level of attention, to drag viewers back to looking at the set” (Ellis 1982/1999: 368). Ultimately he suggests that this televisual hailing is accomplished through several ancillary mechanisms that evoke a sense of immediacy, including forms of direct address and the simulation of a perpetual present.
In “Television/Sound,” Altman fleshes out the thumbnail sketch that Ellis provides. Before beginning his theoretical taxonomy, Altman reiterates the environmental role television plays in the American home. Citing “a growing body of data suggesting that intermittent attention is in fact the dominant mode of television viewing,” Altman estimates that, at any given time, “only one out of two switched-on televisions [is] actually being watched” (Altman 1986: 42, 43). Meanwhile, the television “industry has a vested interest in keeping TV sets on even when no viewers are seated in front of them” (Altman 1986: 42). This stems largely from the fact that television ratings (i.e., Nielsen ratings), which “count operating TV sets rather than viewers,” determine advertising rates, and hence, network income (Altman 1986: 42). It becomes the specific function of the soundtrack, therefore, “to keep those sets operating while all viewers are either out of the room or paying little attention” (Altman 1986: 42). From Altman’s perspective, then, TV audio plays an instrumental role in “the commodification of the spectator in a capitalist, free enterprise system” (Altman 1986: 40).
While his reading is dependent on Raymond Williams’s (1974/2003) notion of flow,(2) Altman nevertheless objects to what he sees as Williams’s tendency to make universal his televisual hypotheses. In place of generalizations regarding television’s inherent qualities, Altman advances a theory based on the “specific cultural practice” of the medium, arguing that its “sound track is the major mode of mediation” between what Williams terms programming flow and what Altman identifies as household flow (Altman 1986: 40). Altman identifies six specific methods by which television sound stitches the flow of the medium to that of the household (and hence, keeps television sets on): labeling (the audio allows inattentive spectators to select the objects of individual interest from the programming as if from a menu); italicizing (the audio underscores certain portions of programming as being of greater importance); the sound hermeneutic (the audio convinces viewers that they control the image, when, in fact, the soundtrack is not only controlling their interaction with the medium, but also obfuscating its own function); internal audiences (the audio uses announcers, laugh tracks, studio audiences, and other such devices to model a response to the programming); the sound advance (the audio alerts the preoccupied home audience to a significant visual event before it actually occurs); and discursification (the audio, often using forms of direct address, fosters a sense in the audience that the images have been created and arranged expressly and specifically for each individual spectator). “[T]he whole system,” Altman notes, “is predicated on negativity: the goal is not to get anyone to watch the television carefully . . . but to keep people from turning the television off” (Altman 1986: 43).
In the case study to follow, I examine another classic televisual text from the 1980s: Don DeLillo’s White Noise (1985/1991). White Noise is a prime example of a heterophonic novel—that is, a work of postmodern fiction so saturated with media aurality that Bakhtin’s (1935/1992) notion of heteroglossia (multilanguagedness) is more usefully reconceived as heterophonia (multisoundedness).(3) For his part, DeLillo’s attention to media aurality is characterized by a somewhat contradictory double logic. On the one hand, he echoes theoretical critiques at the time, offering—as do Ellis and Altman—that television audio expressly manipulates an inattentive audience. He also follows contemporaneous scholarship in emphasizing television’s role as an ambient aural component of the American domestic space. DeLillo’s televisual critiques, however, while ranging from anxious to condemnatory, are counterbalanced by his wholesale appropriation and remediation of television sound: throughout White Noise, DeLillo deploys TV audio as a distinctly literary device. Ultimately, I would argue, such a dialectical engagement with media aurality—this simultaneous impulse to repudiate and to utilize—is the central mechanism of the heterophonic novel.
DeLillo’s somewhat contradictory approach to television audio extends even to his methodology of inclusion. In White Noise, for example—as he does throughout his oeuvre(4)—DeLillo repeatedly calls attention to the function of TV sound by muting his televisions, thereby making the audio “visible” by paradoxically rendering it inaudible. In some of his novels, DeLillo even crosstracks his muted TV sets, replacing the program’s original soundtrack with an ironized narrative surrogate. This, of course, suggests that, like Ellis and Altman, DeLillo subscribes to the idea that television sound is capable of directing audience engagement. By presenting his own surrogate audio, DeLillo attempts to undermine the medium: he deprives television of its native italicization (as Altman would have it) and offers a literary alternative serving the same function. His efforts to silence a competing medium through muting and crosstracking, however, are certainly not the only approaches DeLillo takes in remediating TV sound.
(1) “Broadcast TV as Sound and Image” originally appeared as a chapter in John Ellis’s book Visible Fictions (1982).
(2) In Television: Technology and Cultural Form, Williams emphasizes the continuousness of broadcast television programming and the “remarkably consistent set of cultural relationships” that govern the medium’s sequencing (Williams 1974/2003: 107). “This phenomenon,” he writes, “of planned flow, is then perhaps the defining characteristic of broadcasting” (Williams 1974/2003: 86). Williams ultimately concludes “that what is now called ‘an evening’s viewing’ is in some ways planned, by providers and the by viewers, as a whole; that it is in any event planned in discernible sequences which in this sense override particular programme units” (Williams 1974/2003: 93, italics in original).
(3) The title of White Noise, in fact, was to have been Panasonic, as in “all sound,” but this apparently did not sit so well with the multinational corporation of the same name.
(4) End Zone (1972), Players (1977), White Noise (1985), Libra (1988), Mao II (1991), Underworld (1997), Cosmopolis (2003), Falling Man (2007), the play Valparaiso (2003), and the short story “Hammer and Sickle” (2010) all feature soundless TVs.
Generally speaking, I would categorize his strategies as schizophonic (literally, “sound splitting”). In The Soundscape: Our Sonic Environment and the Tuning of the World (1977/1994), R. Murray Schafer uses the word schizophonia not only to describe “the split between an original sound and its electroacoustic reproduction” but also to “to convey the same sense of aberration and drama” as the word schizophrenia (Schafer 1997/1994: 273, 91). I have no desire to endorse Schafer’s efforts to pathologize media aurality as fundamentally unnatural or aberrant; however, I have appropriated the term to convey—in a similar fashion—several ideas simultaneously. First, DeLillo’s remediation of television sound is schizophonic in the sense that it splits the audio not only from its original source, but from the transmission medium as well, creating something of a double remove. Second, given that linguistic exposition is necessarily diachronic, print fiction is unable to transmit picture and sound simultaneously, and as a result, even a novelist who attends equally to television’s imagery and to its soundtrack is forced nonetheless to split the audio from the video, presenting each in turn. Third, I would deem DeLillo’s audiovisual strategies schizophonic to evoke schizophrenia as a metaphor and thereby emphasize a cluster of bipolar impulses that appear to inform his remediation of television audio. These contradictory impulses not only include the aforementioned desire to simultaneously repudiate and remediate television sound, but also his penchant for both muting and rebroadcasting in equal measure. Furthermore, there is something slightly duplicitous about DeLillo’s anxiety regarding television audio: his concern regarding the power of TV sound to script audience engagement, in short, is often conflated with other domestic anxieties.
As I shall presently investigate, schizophonia’s pathological overtones hold great appeal to the practitioners of constitutionally paranoid fiction. Simply speaking, the heterophonic novel hears voices, and many of them are televisual. In the case of White Noise, some of these might be termed acousmatic interjections—snippets of television audio that irrupt suddenly (and seemingly inexplicably) within the narrative space. These recurring interjections are “acousmatic” in the sense that readers “hear” the television audio without ever “seeing” the corresponding video. Consider, for example, these representative samples:
I heard the TV say: “Let’s sit half lotus and think about our spines.” (DeLillo 1985/1991: 18)
The TV said: “And other trends that could dramatically impact your portfolio.” (DeLillo 1985/1991: 61)
The TV said: “Now we will put the little feelers on the butterfly.” (DeLillo 1985/1991: 96)
Throughout White Noise, DeLillo’s acousmatic interjections replicate the model of distracted reception that both Ellis and Altman describe. When a viewer’s attention wanders, it is the soundtrack that insistently “call[s] the intermittent spectator back to the set” (Altman 1986: 50). Acousmatic interjections hail the reader in a parallel fashion, while frustrating any attempt to attend to the visual: the image is not present in the novel, only the audio. Such interjections, moreover, also echo broadcast television’s predilection for what Ellis calls buttonholing: that is, “addressing its viewers as though holding a conversation with them” (Ellis 1982/1999: 388). The examples above—let US sit / impact YOUR portfolio / now WE will put—are all discursive, “addressing the audience and involving spectators in dialogue, enjoining them to look, to see, to partake of that which is offered up for vision” (Altman 1986: 50).
If hearing voices in the form of acousmatic interjections seems only mildly pathological, other television voices are even more explicitly rendered as auditory hallucinations. DeLillo, in particular, has a penchant for channeling characters’ paracusia through the TV set. In White Noise, for example, Heinrich plays chess by mail with a convicted murderer, whose killing spree began after he heard voices on TV “[t]elling him to go down in history” (DeLillo 1985/1991: 44). In Libra, it is Jack Ruby to whom the “TV gave directions” (DeLillo 1988/1991: 452). Nevertheless, DeLillo is not, I contend, merely channeling the televisual medium. His attention to television—and to television audio in particular—is suffused with a complicated media anxiety; all these television voices, in other words, are but symptomatic. In The Anxiety of Obsolescence: The American Novel in the Age of Television (2006), Kathleen Fitzpatrick offers a provisional diagnosis. She argues that postmodern novelists “reveal through their representations of the media a cluster of anxieties about being displaced from some possibly imagined position of centrality in contemporary cultural life” and “that these anxieties are in certain ways a pose, an assumed stance that provides access to a number of useful writing strategies that assist the novelist in trying to regain his ostensibly faltering importance as a cultural critic” (Fitzpatrick 2006: 201). While Fitzpatrick’s reading resonates, it is overwhelmingly visual. Some of postmodern novelists’ most revealing expressions of anxiety, I contend, as well as some of their most interesting recuperative strategies, involve the representation of television audio.
As both Ellis and Altman establish, one of the most significant differences between television and cinema involves audience reception. Films are traditionally screened in theaters by a ticket-buying, somewhat attentive, collective audience. Network television, meanwhile, is broadcast directly into the home, free, and often unattended. Anxieties over the supposed deleterious effects of television, then, often revolve around questions of attention. In White Noise, the first appearance of a television finds Babette, the wife of the narrator Jack Gladney, attempting to mandate attentive reception by instituting a “filmic” viewership regimen:
That night, a Friday, we ordered Chinese food and watched television together, the six of us. Babette had made it a rule. She seemed to think that if kids watched television one night a week with parents or stepparents, the effect would be to de-glamorize the medium in their eyes, make it a wholesome domestic sport. Its narcotic undertow and eerie diseased brain sucking power would be gradually reduced. (DeLillo 1985/1991: 16)
While the description of television’s influence is deliberately comic, it nonetheless echoes a longstanding cultural anxiety regarding the medium. As early as the 1950s, Leo Bogart (1956) notes “a feeling, never stated in so many words that the set has a power of its own to control the destinies and viewing habits of the audience, and that what it ‘does’ to parents and children alike is somehow beyond the bounds of any individual set-owner's power of control” (Bogart 1956: 268). Babette’s deliberate attempt to domesticate television is an effort to socialize the medium, to make it part of the family.(5)
In DeLillo’s fiction, however, television is always part of the family. As I mention above, the medium’s omnipresence is often established through the use of acousmatic interjections, snippets of television audio that readers “hear” despite having no access to the corresponding video:
Someone turned on the TV set at the end of the hall, and a woman’s voice said: “If it breaks easily into pieces, it is called shale. When wet, it smells like clay.” (DeLillo 1985/1991: 28).
The TV said: “Until Florida surgeons attached an artificial flipper.” (DeLillo 1985/1991: 29)
The TV said: “This creature has developed a complicated stomach in keeping with its leafy diet.” (DeLillo 1985/1991: 95)
With regard to the immediate action, the vast majority of the acousmatic interjections in White Noise prove to be non sequiturs. As a result, a reader might be tempted either to dismiss them as amusing asides or tune them out altogether. Nevertheless, they not only replicate the extent to which televisual threads are interwoven into the domestic fabric, but, given that most explicitly reference to the natural environment, they also function as a contrapuntal foil to the novel’s media-saturated domestic space. By contrasting the observable (the artificial, techno-electric, built environment that is the Gladney home) with the overheard (acousmatic interjections on topics ranging from the geological to the lepidopterological), DeLillo employs classic televisual irony once again and provides the attentive reader with another unique example of how heterophonic fiction simultaneously utilizes and critiques the technologies it remediates.
(5) Compare Babette’s attempt at “family building” to the following description from The Names:
“I knew our marriage was shot to hell when we started watching TV in different rooms,” he said. “If her sound was up loud enough, I could hear her changing channels in there. When she went to the same channel I was watching, I switched channels myself. I couldn’t bear watching the same stuff she was watching. I believe this is called estrangement.” (DeLillo 1982/1989: 69)
In both cases, the measure of domestic felicity is communal viewership. Here, as is often the case in DeLillo’s fiction, it is audio that ultimately mediates the relationship. (Note, too, the curious result of dual viewing: from the perspective of either auditor, when the channels coincide, the other television is effectively muted.)
Internally, the most conspicuous advocate for attentive televisual audition is sportswriter-turned-academic Murray Jay Siskind. While other characters express varying degrees of apprehension regarding the medium, Murray is far less trepidatious. “TV,” he offers, “is only a problem if you’ve forgotten how to look and listen” (DeLillo 1985/1991: 50). “There is light,” he tells Jack, but also “there is sound” (DeLillo 1985/1991: 51). While watching television, Murray asserts, we must consider “the wealth of data concealed in the grid, in the bright packaging, the jingles, the slice-of-life commercials, the products hurtling out of the darkness, the coded messages and endless repetitions, like chants, like mantras. ‘Coke is it, Coke is it, Coke is it’” (DeLillo 1985/1991: 51). Such corporate triptychs, in fact, recur throughout White Noise, usually as brand-name trios of consumer choices—“Dacron, Orlon, Lycra Spandex” (DeLillo 1985/1991: 52); “Mastercard, Visa, American Express” (DeLillo 1985/1991: 100); “Krylon, Rust-Oleum, Red Devil” (DeLillo 1985/1991: 159). As a narrative device, such triplets echo the novel’s acousmatic interjections, but differ insofar as they lack dialogue tags ascribing them to a particular electronic device (i.e., “The TV said…”). In “Tales of the Electronic Tribe,” Frank Lentricchia (1991) describes this curious narrative technique as “the novel’s formally most astonishing moment” and offers that it demonstrates “[j]ust how far down and in media culture has penetrated” (Lentricchia 1991: 102):
A deep refrain—like a line of poetic chant, with strong metrical structure—is placed by itself in privileged typographical space, part of no paragraph or dialogue, without quotes and related to nothing that comes before or after: a break in the text never reflected upon because Jack never hears it. It is, of course, Jack who speaks the line because White Noise is a first-person novel, and it could therefore be no one else. Jack in these moments is possessed, a mere medium who speaks. (Lentricchia 1991: 102)
Lentricchia is correct in noting that Jack often serves as a mere mouthpiece for circulating televisual refrains. Nevertheless, I would object to the assertion that he never hears the mantras he repeats. At the risk of splitting semantic hairs, Jack does hear the televisual triplets (in the sense that they enter his ears), for he re-transmits them. What Jack does not always do is follow Murray’s lead in listening to the consumer mantras. On one particular occasion, however, Jack does pause to listen. Upon discovering his daughter mumbling “Toyota Celica” in her sleep, he eventually realizes that Steffie is “only repeating some TV voice” (DeLillo 1985/1991: 155). He then proceeds—reflectively rather than reflexively—to do the same: “Toyota Corolla, Toyota Celica, Toyota Cressida,” Jack intones, rolling his tongue over the “beautiful and mysterious” texture of the “[s]upranational names” (DeLillo 1985/1991: 155).
Lentricchia is also mistaken in several other respects. Most notably, the branded triplicates in White Noise are afforded their own privileged typographical space at the outset, but as the novel progresses, the trios become increasingly entangled in the narration. For example, in the third and final section, Jack describes a “postmodern sunset, rich in romantic imagery” (DeLillo 1985/1991: 227). “I watched light climb into the rounded summits of high-altitude clouds,” he recounts. “Clorets, Velamints, Freedent” (DeLillo 1985/1991: 229). Not only is the minty triplet appended to a descriptive paragraph, but it also serves as a sort of whispered subvocalization: the postmodern sunset is—like the mint products—“cool,” yet the word itself never actually appears.(6) Later in that same section Murray and Jack walk through town. “We window-shopped a while,” Jack reports, “then went into a shoe store. Murray looked at Weejuns, Wallabees, Hush Puppies” (DeLillo 1985/1991: 287). In this example, the trio of brand names is purely (and appropriately) descriptive. It is as though Jack has consciously chosen to utilize the same branded refrains that earlier he could only unconsciously retransmit. Lest we mistakenly conclude that Jack has somehow transcended the effects of commercial advertising, however, the very next triplicate occurs just pages later in the supermarket. Not only has this one been re-assigned something of a privileged typographical space, but the products—“Tegrin, Denorix, Selsun Blue”—appear for the first time in quotation marks, a sort of mocking gesture that underscores their indeterminate provenance (DeLillo 1985/1991: 289).
Ultimately, both the consumer triads and their evolving deployment are significant in diagnosing the novel’s domestic anxiety. If, as Lentricchia argues, the triplets are “an effort to represent the irruption of the unconscious,” it is most certainly a consumer subliminal and not some strictly psychoanalytic structure (Lentricchia 1991: 102). As Duvall (1994) and others have noted, “DeLillo’s novel proves an extended gloss on Jean Baudrillard’s notion of consumer society” and Baudrillard “counterintuitively proposes that the broad range of consumer choices in today’s shopping malls, which appear the embodiment of individual freedom, is actually a form of social control used to produce the consumers that capital crucially needs” (Duvall 1994: 136).
As a narrative technique, in fact, DeLillo’s name brand triplets seem to be an explicit echo of Baudrillard’s commentary on the relationship among branding, advertising, and consumption. In The System of Objects (1968/1997), Baudrillard concludes a meditation on the function of brand names by suggesting that they “mobilize emotional connotations” (Baudrillard 1968/1997: 191). “The psychological restructuring of the consumer,” he argues, “may thus turn on a single word—PHILIPS, OLIDA or GENERAL MOTORS—capable of connoting at once a diversity of objects and a mass of diffuse meanings: a synthetic word covering a synthesis of emotions” (Baudrillard 1968/1997: 191). In The Consumer Society (1970/2004), he continues in this vein, suggesting that chains of products operate as “a more complex super-object, drawing the consumer into a series of more complex motivations” (Baudrillard 1970/2004: 27). “Washing machine, refrigerator and dishwasher taken together,” Baudrillard notes, “have a different meaning from the one each has individually as an appliance” (Baudrillard 1970/2004: 27). Product groupings, he argues, “are always arranged to mark out directive paths, to orient the purchasing impulse toward networks of objects in order to captivate that impulse and bring it, in keeping with its own logic, to the highest degree of commitment” (Baudrillard 1970/2004: 27, italics in original). “Clothing, machines and toiletries,” Baudrillard continues, offering up yet another trio, “thus constitute object pathways, which establish inertial constraints in the consumer” (Baudrillard 1970/2004: 27, italics in original). “The fundamental, unconscious, automatic choice of the consumer,” Baudrillard ultimately concludes “is to accept the style of life of a particular society (it is therefore no longer a choice (!) and the theory of autonomy and sovereignty of the consumer is refuted)” (Baudrillard 1970/2004: 70, punctuation in original).
And this, I would argue, is the domestic threat DeLillo articulates: television—and its audio stream in particular—is the primary source of corporate programming. As a near ubiquitous aural backdrop in the home, moreover, television audio often goes unnoticed: we tune it out as so much background noise. DeLillo’s barely sublimated anxiety is that this audio stream, whether we consciously attend to it or not, nonetheless permeates our consciousness, creating networks of objects, orienting our purchasing impulses, and ultimately scripting our motivations. While a Baudrillardian take on consumer control through simulated choice is admittedly a more nuanced fear of televisual control than the one Leo Bogart articulates in the 1950s, it is, nonetheless, an extension thereof. What is innovative about DeLillo’s engagement with televisual sound, however, is his narrative paracusia. He appropriates televisual voices—from the multitude of acousmatic interjections to the branded clusters of corporate choices—and subsequently redeploys them in structures that both echo and critique their televisual origins.
(6) DeLillo uses this fascinating trick throughout his fiction. Time and again he evokes the presence of a particular word without actually using the word itself. Sometimes he accomplishes this by directly noting the absence of the word in question (i.e., evoking “callipygian” in The Names by having James Axton narrate: “I ordered another drink and tried to recall the word for well-proportioned buttocks”) (DeLillo 1982/1989: 220); other times he is slightly more oblique (i.e., evoking “thalassophobia”—also in The Names—with the line “The fear of sea and things that come from the sea is easily spoken”) (DeLillo 1982/1989: 73).
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.
(7) The “un-American” tag Babette hangs on Mink has both national and racial overtones, as Jack’s narration makes clear: “His nose was flat, his skin the color of a Planter’s peanut. What is the geography of a spoon-shaped face? Was he Melanesian, Polynesian, Indonesian, Nepalese, Surinamese, Dutch-Chinese? Was he a composite?” (DeLillo 1985/1991: 307).
Ultimately, I am not arguing that DeLillo is some sort of closeted bigot, working out his uncomfortable cultural anxieties in the shadows of fiction. I would, however, offer that the “anxiety bundling” that we find in the Willie Mink episode (and elsewhere) is a kind of shortcut, a deliberate attempt to cast aspersions on a competing media technology by appealing to baser prejudices, fears, and anxieties. DeLillo uses race, in other words, to color his presentation of television audio, to amplify the “danger” it presents. What otherwise might seem an unethical trick, however, is itself a critique: DeLillo, in advertising the dangers of television audio, has resorted to the logic of television advertising—the insinuation, the intimation, the bait-and-switch. It is, after all, the same sort of dis/claiming logic that typifies his overall approach to media aurality.
In the final analysis, DeLillo extends the critiques of Ellis and Altman by examining not only the function of television audio, but also its potential effects. If television sound does sustain, focus, and direct audience engagement with the medium, he asks, and if this all relates—as Altman argues—to the commodification of the spectator, what, then, is the effect on language? How does television sound affect our ability to reflect on language? And how do age-old cultural anxieties regarding the domestic realm complicate televisual narration? In many respects, White Noise is fiction as philosophical sandbox, where critical theory and popular anxieties converge. By remediating television sound, DeLillo develops a range of specific schizophonic strategies, and, in so doing, renders television audio an ironic literary device capable of turning the medium back upon itself.
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