The Death of Identity in DeLillo's White Noise
In addition to addressing the premonitory electricity of death, the title of Don DeLillo's White Noise alludes to another, subtler, sort of white noise - the muted death of suburban white identity. College-on-the-Hill is not only an elite academic promontory, but also a bastion for white flight in which Jack Gladney's family has taken refuge. Instead of John Winthrop's clear City-on-a-Hill morality, DeLillo presents us with J.A.K. Gladney's muddled postmodern inheritance of J.F.K.'s civil rights legacy. Racial identity no longer demarcates a simple binary between whites and Native Americans, but complicates a nation in which all races stake a claim towards American nativity. Jack's inability to classify the Other in obvious racial terms feeds back into his own identity crisis; unable to gauge what he is not, he is left without the tools necessary to understand what he is. This anxiety of faulty racial organization leaves Jack with America's preeminent homegrown product, consumerism, as a cultural machete for cutting through swaths of identity. But consumerism, exemplified by the supermarket's position as the novel's locus of societal reflection, is a philosophy too scattered and massive to equip Jack with any ordered understanding of race. Furthermore, any insight consumerism might yield is negated by its production of a confusing strain of commercial colonialism. The most feasible "solution," although the novel's persistent chaos denies any clear answers, is for Jack to accept racial hybridization and regard the world not as white noise and black clouds, but as shades of gray. This diminishes his anxiety for a need to identify others and, consequently, himself, through race, by flattening the three-dimensional globe to a two-dimensional model for comprehension's sake, yet allowing the hazy idea of heterogeneity to exist elsewhere in his mind. Paradoxically, Jack can only gain this knowledge by embracing his ignorance, a fitting complement to his obsession with death, the great unknown for which science, intellectualism, and religion all concede defeat in explaining or conquering.
The most obvious form of racial classification in the novel emerges when Jack confronts the visual hodgepodge of a new, multinational society:
What kind of name is Orest? I studied his features. He might have been Hispanic, Middle Eastern, Central Asian, a dark-skinned Eastern European, a light-skinned black. Did he have an accent? I wasn't sure. Was he a Samoan, a native North American, a Sephardic Jew? It was getting hard to know what you couldn't say to people. (208)
For Jack, the immediate importance lies within the cross-referencing of race, the permutational mixing-and-matching Jack performs on color and nationality which fosters his conversational anxiety. Several other keys to this anxiety lie within Orest Mercator's name. Orest may take his first name from...