Postmodern Repersentations of Eco-Collapse

Introduction: This outline is meant to be a starting point for class discussion on Don DeLillo’s novel, White Noise. In doing so it explains some characteristics of postmodern theory and fiction. It also explores how environmental disaster is represented in the novel. Finally, it will ask how the characters of the novel perceive risk.

  1. “Postmodernism has been the focus of many conflicting and complementary definitions, but the term is usually applied to certain social and cultural trends since 1945. Most theories and fictions about postmodernism include certain common assumptions” (Smith 134-35). Some of these found in Deillo’s novel  are:

A. The subject is not unified, but divided and multiple; we all have many different selves.

  • How does the character Babette seem to have different selves?
  • Although Jack is the authority of the world’s biggest mass murder (Hitler) he perceives himself different from his son who plays chess someone imprisoned for murder. Why is this?

B.  Postmodern fictions are not necessarily realist. Rather they use Allegory, fantasy and the construction of new worlds, to escape from-or enlarge on- realist writing and the straightjacket of representation. This is a way of opening new psychological and social dimensions.

  • Critics have claimed that DeLillo’s novel represents a hyper-reality world because events seemed trumped up and almost unreal. How so?
  • Is the novel speculative like science fiction?
  • How does Jack feel about being diagnosed by a computer?

C. Representation is somewhat illusory: language is not a transparent window on the world (even a very lifelike text is a construct of words).

  • Why does Murray only buy generic foods at the grocery store?
  • While in the shopping mall, Jack enjoys having a choice of stores of different names. Why does this empower him?
  •  When Jack confronts Mink we see how Dylar misses with ideas of language when it is supposed to stop the fear of death. How does this relate to the characters perceptions of risk?

 

D. Gender and race are social constructions rather than simply biological states. Human beings are caught up in social discourses, and power relationships: these constrain and dictate their actions, rather than allowing them to act entirely as free individuals.

  • How does Murray feel about gender? Why does he no longer want to live in the city?
  • Why do you suppose Babette cheats on Jack?
  1. DeLillo’s novel was published January 1985 a month after the toxic gas leak in Indian city of Bhopal. As readers, we must then ask if post-modern fictions are able to represent the significance environmental disasters have on our lives.
    1. In the novel, TV plays a major role in how the characters perceive themselves as well as current events. However, in the novel, The Air-Born Toxic Event is given no TV footage. Here are a few questions that might help us understand why DeLillo represents this environmental disaster in such a manner:
  • How is The Air-born Toxic Event in the novel similar to the toxic gas leak in the Indian city of Bhopal? How is it different?
  • When the Gladney family fled from their homes to Iron City, they encounter a man carrying a TV set and making a speech about how their situation was not being televised ( DeLillo 161). The man’s speech then asks readers why isn’t The Air born Toxic Event televised. What might be some reasons it is not? 
  1. Postmodern fictions do not necessarily have a plot, or they have a plot which do not resolve. It is through the subversion of plot that postmodern fictions play with, and questions, the notions of objective truth. To understand how DeLillo’s novel fits this definition we might ask:
  • How does the novel open? What elements of prose (exposition, character, setting, action) do we see as readers?  
  • How does The Air Born Toxic Event move the plot along? That’s if it does.
  • How does the novel end? Does the novel seem to have a point?
  • How does the form of the novel replicate the society it attempts to represent?
  1. Finally, the characters in Deillo’s novel seem to perceive risk according to what they are told by scientists, television, magazines and other media, even computers. We then might ask questions concerning the characters class, sex, and ethnicity.
    1. As head of the Hitler Studies department at College on the Hill, Jack lives in an upper class neighborhood. Because of his social class then: 
  • What is the significance of Jack as professor of Hitler studies?
  •  How then does he perceive his chance of being in an environmental disaster as compared to the poor?
  • To what degree of risk do the evacuees rate The Toxic Air Born Incident- high or low?  as opposed to how the government does?  The Air Born Incident
  1. Jack is under the impression that he has a good marriage. That is until he finds out otherwise. Why then:
  • Does Babette start popping pills?
  • Does she perceive risk differently from Jack?

Conclusion: This outline is meant to be a starting point for class discussion on Don DeLillo’s novel, White Noise. In doing so it explains some characteristics of postmodern theory and fiction. It also explores how environmental disaster is represented in the novel. Finally, it will ask how the characters of the novel perceive risk.

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