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DeLillo in the Classroom: Teaching White Noise in Freshman Composition

Newsletter 4.1

— Ryan Sandowicz

As I reflect on teaching White Noise in my freshman composition class, I mostly think of the analysis the novel receives by my students on the final exam.  One student’s thesis reads, “The media subconsciously regulates what they [The Gladney’s] define as real.”  Another reads, “The last chapter… speaks of youthful hope and optimism in regaining order and life under a toxic inspired sunset.” Though there are those thesis statements that drive less thoughtful essays, most students pick up on the themes in some capacity and tend to really understand how this book relates to their own lives.  It doesn’t start this way.  Invariably, since 2005, students initially and hopefully believe they are reading a book that was made into the 2005 movie White Noise. To help move my freshman English students from some typical groans about reading an unfamiliar work of literature not based on a movie to analyzing how a variety of the novel’s themes interact with each other and reflect meaningful contemporary issues, I use a teaching approach that inspires curiosity and challenges how and what they think about the way in which we live our own daily lives.

Originally, I was concerned that an author like Don DeLillo might not translate very well to students at Golden West College, a mid-sized community college in Huntington Beach, CA. with a diverse student population (15% Hispanic, 33% Asian, 2% African American and 45% White).      Though easily DeLillo’s most accessible novel I wondered whether White Noise might still prove too daunting and thus off-putting for typical 100-level students who, very much unlike College-on-the-Hill’s seasoned students, are often first generation college students who sometimes reveal to me that they’ve never even read an entire book!  These thoughts in mind,  I set out to use White Noise not only as an introduction to complex literature, but also as a simple book that speaks to our own too often unexamined individual and collective experiences in a consumer-based, technology-driven, media-saturated culture.

Before I make any introductory comments to my students about White Noise I have them read the first seven chapters.  The next class students work on mostly subjective discussion questions asking them what they think of the novel and individual characters thus far.  At this point students tend to remark that the narrative seems to randomly jump around, that Jack seems like a good guy who has a strong relationship with his wife and children, and that Murray is kind of weird and maybe a pervert.  Couched within these general observations are more specific insights about Jack’s position as chairman of the Hitler studies department and how his specialty perhaps relates to a few other areas of the novel: the opening scene, Jack’s J.A.K. costume, Murray’s comments about the barn, and the novel’s most pressing question:  “Who will die first?”

Because the novel’s first seven chapters are sans conflict/s, my students are naturally stumped when, to close our discussion, I ask them, “What are the problems in the book so far?”  Typically, students humorously conjecture that Murray is trying to “make a move” on Babette and/or Heinrich might be dangerous as a kind of teenage social outcast.  Without any real answers to this simple question, students are now challenged to identify anything that might seem problematic within the characters’ lives for the next class reading, Chapters 8-13, where the novel begins surfacing the Gladney’s troubles, from Jack’s revelation to the reader to open Chapter 8 that he cannot speak German to his growing death fears to the possibility that Babette may be taking an unknown drug for unknown reasons.

After my students read Chapters 8-13, I use a PowerPoint presentation to introduce the major themes (death, fear, media, consumerism, technology, and systems) of White Noise and how they reveal aspects of our own culture.  Using PowerPoint is especially effective in this regard as its obvious form of technology not only reflects themes within the novel, but also allows for a visual and auditory experience.  (I use various sound files to introduce each theme.)  As an extension activity students begin to build upon personal connections to the novel as we discuss why we do certain things (shop, watch TV, increasingly rely on technology, etc.) to wrestle with questions about the significance of the characters’ actions.

 By Chapter 34, after Vernon has given Jack the gun, student curiosity and opinion peak with thoughtful questions and comments about the Gladney family and their future:  Will Jack find and begin taking Dylar? Will Jack try to find Mr. Gray on his own?  Will Babette reveal Mr. Gray’s real name and/or his whereabouts?  Grappling with these types of questions my students also often respond to the questionable actions of the characters.  Some of these opinions do vary according to student gender.  Mostly, my male students are harsher on Babette than my female students as they tend to sympathize less with her reasons behind her affair with Willie Mink.  Jack comes off as a very sympathetic character to both my male and female students as they find him intelligent, amusing, caring, and deserving of full disclosure from Babette regarding Mr. Gray’s real name.  Pondering plot questions, as well as their own opinions about the actions of the characters and how they relate to the major themes, students diligently work their way to the end of the novel via class discussion and small group work.

As much as there is some initial student disappointment about reading White Noise, the-novel-that’s-not-the-movie, I am always happily surprised by the amount of pre-class chat it generates.  Interspersed within the usual discussion of what assignments they did/did not finish, tests they aced or failed students engage in real dialogue about what they read recounting scenes (Jack and Heinrich’s rain discussion is a pre-class chat favorite) in vivid detail, almost as if they had watched it at the movies the night before.

A Future for DeLillo in Law and Literature Studies?

Newsletter 4.1 (2009)

— Hunter Wakefield

Recently there’s been a small flowering of scholarship on DeLillo in the area of law and literature studies. Law Professor, Adam Thurschwell, has been the first scholar, to my knowledge, to ignite this inquiry into DeLillo’s relation to the law. His work has a superficial resemblance to that burgeoning group of legal scholars who have established themselves in the area of postmodernism and law. This group’s work usually flies under the name of Critical Legal Studies (CLS). Many among this group apply Derridean ideas to law in an effort to demonstrate what they see as the ultimate indeterminacy of legal rules and, as a consequence, the judge’s inevitable invention of the law on a case-by-case basis. More radical CLS scholars see the problem as twofold: either the judge applies fixed rules that have little purchase on the ungovernable singularity of the individual case; or the judge, theoretically, has no rule to apply and simply forces his own interpretation on the case at hand, and, in doing so, tailors a rule to fit the case. Because of what they read as a crisis of indeterminacy in law, many in the CLS movement are consciously political and look to ethical theories for guidance to legal reasoning. While Thurschwell—from what I’ve read—has never explicitly identified himself with CLS, he has written in publications heavily populated by CLS advocates. And in two recent articles, one on DeLillo and the other on Derrida, he appeals to Levinas’s ethics as a potential guide to the politics that steer legal decision making. Essentially, he reads a Levinasian “otherness” at the core of both DeLillo and Derrida.

Because Thurschwell’s reading of Derrida resembles his reading of DeLillo, a brief examination of his article on Derrida will provide a more thorough understanding of his perspective on DeLillo, especially insofar as it relates to jurisprudence. In his article on Derrida, Thurschwell charts the course of Derrida’s work from Of Grammatology through to his later work, like Specters of Marx and The Gift of Death. He pays particular attention to the ethico-political turn in Derrida’s work around the time his essay, “Force of Law: The ‘Mystical Foundation of Authority,’” made its appearance. The work is characterized by a “hiatus” that interrupts the Derridean theorizing and facilitates the reception of an ethical imperative in Derrida’s work. Whence comes this ethical demand, asks Thurschwell, and why is it necessary? Eluding an unequivocal answer, Derrida reads Pascal’s enigmatic line: “It is just that what is just be followed; it is necessary that what is strongest be followed… It is necessary to put justice and force together” (Thurschwell 157-58). Derrida remains indecisive as to whether “it is necessary” to do so in the name of justice or whether it is simply a necessarily fated fact of reality. Ultimately the question, as parsed by Thurschwell, is whether “to ontologize the ethical or not to ontologize the ethical” (Thurschwell 152). And as you may have guessed, this question too remains undecided. All that can be said is that Derrida maintains a certain hospitality, in his thought, to this ethical “arrivant.” And the ethical for Derrida, as Thurschwell notes, informs Derrida’s later political affirmations. Thurschwell, however, reads this ethical undecidability as tragic insofar as Derrida’s ethico-political direction cannot be ascribed to any ethical system. And, as this is the case, the success or failure of Derrida’s ethics cannot be critically evaluated. It is akin to Derrida’s paradoxical “religion without religion” whereby Derrida’s thought takes a religious path without recourse to any specified religious system, or with reference to some phantom system, the source of which is left unvoiced, each reference extinguished as it is conceived in his writing. Thurschwell reads a strong Levinasian bent in Derrida’s later ethics, especially this particular kind of ethics which is located in unconditional hospitality for the “other”; the other being those beings other than oneself—for Derrida, something of a mystery.

Interestingly, Thurschwell’s reading of Derrida prefigures his take on DeLillo. Thurschwell fits Levinas’s concern for the other at the heart of the work of DeLillo’s artists, Lauren Hartke of The Body Artist and Bill Gray of Mao II. Hartke is demonstrative of that kind of hospitality, which Thurschwell describes in Derrida’s later work. In Hartke’s mourning of her dead husband, she wishes to “open up” and “stretch out time” in order to channel the spirit of her dead husband, the potential arrivant for whom she waits. Like Hartke, Gray seeks, in language, to be delivered to the place of the hostage he will never meet. He does so principally via his writing, which exemplifies the receptiveness of the literary imagination to the place of the other. Thurschwell cites the most memorable passage of Mao II in stating his case: the one where Gray begins “letting the words lead him into that basement room” (Thurschwell 294). While Gray dies before meeting the hostage, and the hostage is shuffled off to another location, presumably left for dead along the way, Gray’s literary act memorializes the plight of the hostage and thereby, Thurschwell suggests, reanimates the silenced other in a living language. Both die but the literature lives on. For Thurschwell, this is a political act, a pact between the dead. Thurschwell contrasts Hartke and Gray with Eric Packer of Cosmopolis and the terrorists of Mao II. Packer, a currency trader “cybercapitalist,” seeks to accelerate time in the interest of predicting the dynamics of the global market. Essentially, Packer strives to write a history of the future. A character like Packer might easily be pared with an “end of history” thinker like Fukuyama who Thurschwell mentions, in his article on Derrida, as one of the targets of Derrida’s critique. At the other extreme are the Mao II terrorist figures, both the religious fundamentalists and the Maoist group. In the interest of brevity I will not go into much detail on the terrorist figures, but, to oversimplify, the terrorist wishes to stop the future and conserve the past, at least as far as the religious fundamentalist is concerned. Using DeLillo’s essay “In the Ruins of the Future” as something of a literary manifesto for DeLillo, Thurschwell contends, “it would seem that art, for DeLillo, is political just insofar as it contests late capitalism by attempting to represent—perhaps we should say, memorialize—the continuing vitality of lived experience” (Thurschwell, 289). Thurschwell sees literature as the political “counternarrative” of which DeLillo speaks in his 2001 essay. For Thurschwell, among literature’s greatest abilities is its power to form bonds between strangers and thus create communities. The crux of this power lies in the artist’s concern for the other.

As interesting as Thurschwell’s spirited reading of DeLillo is, the possibility of ascribing a politics to DeLillo in any meaningful sense is still debatable. The late American pragmatist, Richard Rorty would most likely dismiss Thurschwell’s claim.  In contribution to a series of essays, entitled Deconstruction and Pragmatism, Rorty writes, “I am unable to connect Levinas’s pathos of the infinite with ethics or politics. I see ethics and politics—real politics as opposed to cultural politics—as a matter of reaching accommodation between competing interests, and as something to be deliberated about in banal, familiar terms—terms which do not need philosophical dissection and do not have philosophical presuppositions” (Rorty, 17). For Rorty there are public and private contexts, which need not contest one another but, instead, may complement each other. And, contrary to the skepticism he expresses in the above passage, he admires literature, in general, and, specifically, Derrida’s contribution to philosophy. He calls Derrida a private “world disclosing ironist,” which essentially means, a philosopher who thinks reality all while remaining mindful of the contingency of his ideas and, indeed, himself in the grand scheme of things. Rorty might suggest that what so many literary critics and philosophers miss about Derrida is the full implication of Derrida’s irony, something that is not so much “subversive” of systems and institutions but, more so, functions as a self-check on Derrida’s own ideas—something like a small-print disclaimer that reads, “my private revolutions are in no way intended as directives for public political revolutions.” In this sense, Rorty finds in Derrida much more wisdom than many thinkers, bent on the idea of political “subversion,” wish to admit. I find Rorty’s view persuasive.

One might also think of DeLillo as a world disclosing ironist. It is true that DeLillo has frequently denied any significant political dimension to his work. One example comes from a 1988 interview in which he says, “I certainly don’t try consciously to make political statements or to include political material… What I write is what I am. Aside from the fact that it must naturally flow into one’s books, I certainly don’t have any political program. Not only for my books, but for my life or for the life of my country” (Connolly 38). As DeLillo admits, he may well have his own political biases that are just a part of who we are, but what’s key here is that DeLillo seems to lack the political drive that many would like to read into his work. While Thurschwell reads DeLillo’s “counternarrative” as something that contests terrorism and cybercapitalism, it could also be read as simply a filling in of the individual’s private experience in a world where these two forces are extremely apparent. DeLillo’s work need not be given a political utility. It’s worth noting that, in his 2001 article, DeLillo considers part of the “counternarrative” to be “before politics” (Thurschwell 281).

With all that said, there’s much to admire in Thurschwell’s recent work. Witnessing the movement of a literary imagination within the framework of legal ideas makes his work a pleasure to read. I will be eager to see where he goes next in advancing the field of law and literature.

Bibliography

Thurschwell, Adam. “Specters and Scholars: Derrida and the Tragedy of Political Thought.” Derrida and Legal Philosophy. Eds. Peter Goodrich, Florian
Hoffman, Michel Rosenfeld, and Cornelia Vismann. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008. 152-154.

Thurschwell, Adam. “Writing and Terror: Don DeLillo on the Task of Literature after 9/11.” Law and Literature 19 (2007): 277-302.

Rorty, Richard. “Remarks on Deconstruction and Pragmatism.” Deconstruction and Pragmatism. Ed. Chantal Mouffe. New York, NY: Routledge, 1996. 13-18.

Connolly, Kevin. “An Interview with Don DeLillo.” Conversations with Don DeLillo. Ed. Peter DePietro. Mississippi: University of Mississippi, 2005. 25-39.

Ingram, David. Law: Key Concepts in Philosophy. New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2006.

“They Laugh in Chicago, but not in Los Angeles”: Don DeLillo on Tour

Newsletter 3.1 (2008)
— Julia Apitzsch, Bonn

DeLillo at the movies: Cologne’s Odeon Theatre provided a perfect venue to launch DeLillo’s third reading tour in Germany. Sponsored by the newspaper Die Zeit, the tour went on from Cologne to Hamburg and Berlin, before continuing on to Zurich, Switzerland.

Frank Heibert, DeLillo’s German translator, opened the evening by asking about audience reactions on the American tour for Cosmopolis. DeLillo replied that the characteristic humor varied from city to city: “They laugh in Chicago, but not in Los Angeles. Tonight—we’ll see” (laughter in Cologne).

The reading was split between English and German. DeLillo read from the narrative sections of Cosmopolis, stressing the hypnotic rhythm of his prose, while Frank Heibert read from his translation of the dialogue in the limo. Here is the discussion that followed the reading.

Question: Why does Eric Packer destroy his whole life, fortune, and in the end even his physical existence? Is it the author’s intention to illustrate decadence, nausea and perversion?

DeLillo denies that this is his intention. He explains that many actions, like Eric Packer’s, are carried out without logic, plan, or strategy. When constructing Packer’s persona, he had in mind a particular clinical condition, the so-called Icarus Complex, named after the figure in Greek mythology who flew too close to the sun. The term is used to describe extremely powerful men who move toward their own destruction. Eric Packer is a brilliant, ruthless young man who wakes up one morning with a compelling sense of his own mortality. The novel, DeLillo continues, moves inevitably in that direction.

Question: In the novel, Vija Kinski talks about the need for “a new theory of time.” The novel is saturated with allusions to this motif. What might a new theory of time look like? What might it involve?

DeLillo responds that time was the dominant topic in The Body Artist. A smile. Silence. Enough said? (Laughter). He elaborates. Cosmopolis is essentially a novel about time and money. It occurs on a day that marks the end of the end of a particular era: the period between the end of the Cold War and the beginning of what is now known as The Age of Terror—essentially, the 1990s. It was a time whose theme was money, DeLillo adds. Corporate executives became global celebrities. Ordinary people spent enormous amounts of time staring at their computer screens as their money began to increase and the stock market kept rising. DeLillo calls attention to a special phenomenon of this period: something in the confluence of capital and technology seemed to make time move faster. We were all living in the future, he observes, at least for a while.

Question: A young woman in the audience confesses that eight years ago she was so moved by one of DeLillo’s books that it raised some questions she felt she could only ask him personally, but didn’t dare to at the time. Tonight, she has one simple but fundamental question: Why do you write?

It’s kind of a mystery, DeLillo replies. He explains that for a young person, starting to write is mostly connected with the essential urge to make sense of the world. For him, writing is just a deeper, more concentrated form of thinking. Often he does not know what to think about a particular subject until he sits down to write about it. With luck, it will become clear in the process of writing. But he feels there is a deeper answer to this question, which is quite difficult to give. Writing became for him the way one eats or sleeps or breathes—not only what you do, but who you are. He confesses that he always thought about himself as a writer even when there was absolutely no evidence of it (laughter): “And now here I am reading to a group of people in a city in another country. I have no explanation.”

The next question is aimed at DeLillo’s reputation as Mr. Paranoia. Question: Is there a specific image or event to which he owes this interest?

DeLillo remains calm. No, he is not paranoid himself—except about certain questions! His interest in the topic came out of American culture in the most compelling way imaginable in the 1960s. “What I drew from the culture seemed to me to be powerfully located there, not in something I invented.” Although he does not wish to identify a single formative event, he stresses the importance of the Kennedy assassination. It seems that the assassination triggered a fall into suspicion, distrust, or paranoia in response to the actions of the government—or the lack of actions of the government. Vietnam and Watergate added fuel to the fire. As the paranoia of the ‘60s and ‘70s receded, the topic became less dominant in his novels.

Question: Is there a between Eric Packer and Bret Easton Ellis’s Patrick Bateman, the protagonist of American Psycho?

DeLillo says that he wasn’t aware of a parallel and hasn’t thought of it until now.  He sees some basic differences between the two characters: Eric is not at all a typical Wall Street person: he speaks several languages, collects serious art, reads serious poetry, and loves women, quite in contrast to Bateman (laughter). In fact, the only person Eric listens to in the course of the novel is his chief of theory, Vija Kinski. But DeLillo confesses that his memory of American Psycho isn’t that sharp, though he did admire the book at the time.

The next question concerns the different aspects and functions of art and artists that run through his novels. In Cosmopolis, some of the art functions similarly to art in Running Dog, where film and art serve mostly as a vehicle for perversion, sex, and power (e.g., Packer’s trying to buy the Rothko Chapel just for the sheer idea of buying it, or the way Packer’s limo works in terms of power, decadence, and aggression). But in other novels artists—for example, Klara Sax, Lauren and Sully, Acey and Moonman—take up serious parts and carry dominant topics. This accounts for a deeper function and meaning. How does he see the role of art in Cosmopolis and the artist as a special type of protagonist in his books?

In regard to Cosmopolis, DeLillo agrees that people of a certain type do gain power by spending enormous amounts of money on art, in a form of conspicuous consumption with art as a special type of consumer good. In his works, he elaborates, there are often instances of movies, of pieces of art (he refers to radio programs and Lenny Bruce in Underworld), references to TV commercials and many other manifestations of sound and images that surround us. They play a dominant role in the culture and thus appear in his books—as parts of our lives. Since we spend enormous amounts of time watching television and going to the movies, why not give these events some presence in our fiction? Lacking a deeper answer to the appearance of artists in his work (“I have no idea what the answer is”), he adds that it might just be his own interest in painting, film, and jazz that makes him enter the characters of such people.

A young man refers to the fact that DeLillo is known for doing a lot of research for his novels and mixing historical facts into his fiction—the Warren Report for Libra, the pictures of Salinger or crowd photographs for Mao II, newspaper articles for Underworld. Was there a similar trigger for Cosmopolis, such as an ad in the news or the like?

DeLillo explains that the book started with one very simple idea: a man traveling across town in Manhattan. He knew at once that the trip would take him all day and shortly afterward that the trip would take place on only one street. The only research for Cosmopolis concerned financial markets “about which I knew very little and still know very little” (laughter in Cologne).

The Literaturhaus’s moderator closes the evening and redeems the slightly exhausted Don DeLillo: “Mr. DeLillo, thank you very much for your coming. If you are ever in need of evidence that you are a writer, please give us a call—we will organize a meeting.”

“The future belongs to crowds.”

Over the coming months, you’ll notice a lot of changes at the Don DeLillo Society (DDS) webpage and Newsletter. Moving forward, graduate and undergraduate students at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona will be refreshing the look, revising the content, and publishing all new material. This will free up the Newsletter editors to move toward a peer review model. One new feature we’re excited to roll out is an undergraduate writing contest on DeLillo scholarship. Details will be forthcoming.

In the meantime, please post comments with suggestions about things you’d like to see on the DDS site and we’ll keep working to bring you great content.

The Don DeLillo Society Conference in Sussex

This one-day conference will address the state of fiction in contemporary American culture by focusing on the extensive oeuvre of Don DeLillo, from the 1970s to the present day and beyond. Shortly after the publication of The Names, DeLillo commented that fiction had not yet been ‘filled in,’ ‘done in,’ or ‘worked out.’ How do we read this thirty years later, in the shadow of not only DeLillo’s major works but also the events that have characterised our move into the Twenty-First Century? How have DeLillo’s small leaps between the New York of Players (1977) and the New York of Falling Man (2007) ‘filled in’ fiction? Has DeLillo’s pervasive influence across contemporary American culture ‘done in’ postmodernism? Is the novel in the Twenty First Century already ‘worked out’?

For more information, check out the conference’s website.

Or purchase your tickets here.

CFP: DD Society @ U of Sussex

The State of Fiction: Don DeLillo in the 21st Century

10 June 2015, University of Sussex

Writing also means trying to advance the art. Fiction hasn’t quite been filled in or done in or worked out. We make our small leaps.
Don DeLillo, 1982

This one-day conference will address the state of fiction in contemporary American culture by focusing on the extensive oeuvre of Don DeLillo, from the 1970s to the present day and beyond. DeLillo commented shortly after the publication of The Names that fiction had not yet been ‘filled in,’ ‘done in,’ or ‘worked out.’ How do we read this thirty years later, in the shadow of not only DeLillo’s major works but also the events that have characterised our move into the Twenty-First Century? How have DeLillo’s small leaps between the New York of Players (1977) and the New York of Falling Man (2007) ‘filled in’ fiction? Has DeLillo’s pervasive influence across contemporary American culture ‘done in’ postmodernism? Is the novel in the Twenty First Century already ‘worked out’?

Proposals for presentations of 20 minutes or for pre-formed panels of 1 hour are invited; topics, which should be rooted in the work of DeLillo, may include but are not limited to:

  • The novelist in contemporary (American) culture: canonicity, influence, consumption
  • New contexts: 9/11, Occupy, neoliberalism, globalisation
  • ‘The Power of History’: the state and the shadow-state, popular culture, paranoia
  • New realisms: crisis, terror, apocalypse, childhood, metafiction
  • Language: the individual and the crowd, the everyday and the event, ekphrasis
  • New forms: genres, adaptations, translations, multilingualism
  • The ends of postmodernism? Forebears, afterlives, lateness
  • Environment, global warming and waste

Submissions that are interdisciplinary in nature are particularly encouraged. Abstracts of up to 250 words in length and a brief biographical note should be submitted at delilloconference2015.wordpress.com by 19 March 2015.

Welcome to the New Don DeLillo Society Webpage

Less than 30 years after the publication of his first novel, Americana (1971), Don DeLillo (b. 1936) has been recognized as among the most important writers of his generation. In 1999, he became the first American recipient of the Jerusalem Prize, awarded to writers “whose work expresses the theme of the freedom of the individual in society” and previously awarded to Milan Kundera, Mario Vargas Llosa, V. S. Naipaul, Graham Greene, Simone de Beauvoir and Jorge Luis Borges. The winner of the National Book Award for White Noise (1985) and the PEN/Faulkner Award for Mao II (1991) — among other awards — and already the subject of several books, DeLillo has achieved international prominence for novels, plays, and short stories that powerfully engage the political, historical, and philosophical issues of our time.

Over the past two decades, DeLillo scholarship has grown to include topics as diverse as postmodernity, historiography, systems theory, technology, film, and literary Naturalism, to name but a few. As the body of critical literature and topics for discussion continue to expand, the Don DeLillo Society seeks to facilitate the exchange of ideas between scholars, critics, teachers, and general readers. To learn more about our organization’s goals, activities, and even Don DeLillo himself, just follow the links above.