The Infiltration of Popular Culture in DeLillo's White Noise
In Don DeLillo's satirical novel White Noise, we become acquainted with what we might call a "postmodern family" - a group of people loosely bound together by birth, marriage, and common residence. But as we observe this family, we notice that the bonds between them are strained at best, and that their lives have been taken over by some insidious new force. This force is popular culture. For better or worse, pop culture has infiltrated the lives of our fictional family just as it has the lives of real human beings. DeLillo's purpose in the book is best illuminated by Heinrich's comment after the airborne toxic event: "The real issue is the kind of radiation that surrounds us every day." In other words, DeLillo states that popular culture is ruining - or, perhaps, has ruined - us all.
We must first unpack what DeLillo, speaking through Heinrich, means by this statement. First, we notice that culture of some sort is important to a society's well-being - in fact, some would argue that a group of people does not form a civilized society unless they have culture. Now, "high" culture - the culture espoused by the ruling classes, such as theater, classical music, and the like - is usually delivered live. No radiation is required. In contrast, "low" or "popular" culture is generally transmitted by radiation - the television or the radio. Steffie's "Toyota Celica" episode (154-155) is an example of this, as are the symptoms of the airborne toxic event that continually change in accordance with the radio. Furthermore, the fear of death figures prominently in the novel, and this is parallel to the obsession with youth. Many have blamed the American obsession with youth (especially in women, but in men as well) on the parade of young beautiful people constantly seen on television. This element of popular culture has thus drastically influenced Jack and Babette's lives.
In the novel, the television quite often interferes. It functions as a sort of background voice, always present but never really noticed. It is a source of "white noise", essentially random sound and light that is intended only for such purposes. Yet at moments DeLillo allows the...