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White Noise: Is Honesty the Best Policy?

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Living in the postmodern age involves being exposed to huge amounts of information, which is transmitted by all kinds of media. The term white noise is referring to a permanent background sound that the industrialized environment emits. White noise reveals an idea that we are never free from this external influence, even though we may not notice its habitual presence. Likewise, the todays reality is inseparable from mass media that reflects, distorts, and shapes it after all. Don DeLillos novel exposes the nature of this phenomenon, which feeds on human fears and desires. Just like his characters suffer from the media-implanted fear of death, Malcolm Gladwell considers the same theme of distorted reality created by the media and deeply rooted in such fear of death.

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Throughout White Noise, a clash between the real and imagined ones can be observed. Moreover, it is practically impossible to recognize the truth until the characters live in the zone of media influence before some of them are exposed to brutal reality. The latter one happens to be different from their expectations. Written in 1985, before the Internet era, the novel still exposes a devastating influence that television and radio have on peoples lifestyles and actions. In the world that DeLillo describes, people have an overwhelming fear of death. It is also fed by daily news broadcast on television channels. The feeling of danger is artificially created in order to promote medical drugs that can save from certain diseases, the probability of which is highly exaggerated by an advertisement. This fear of death brings the main character, Jack Gladney, to Autumn Harvest Farms, a special clinic where health tests can be taken. As the patients are not told directly whether their fears are justified, they become addicted to taking non-stop tests and consuming prescribed pills, which gives them at least some feeling of control over their lives. Babette understands the true nature of medicine, yet she cannot escape from its influence: Its all a corporate tie-in. The marketing, the fear, the disease. You cant have one without the other (DeLillo, 1985, p. 264). These words reveal an idea that the characters become conscious of an external virus that feeds on their mind at times, yet they are too weak to deal with it. Likewise, Gladwell claims in his article Big and Bad that people are dependent on the feeling of control: Safety, for most automotive consumers, has to do with the notion that they arent in complete control [...] People feel that the elements of the world out of their control are the ones that are going to cause them distress( Gladwell, 2004, p. 4).

Hence, in order to oust the anxiety caused by the absence of control, people tend to follow the medias instructions on how to create an illusion of control. For Jack, for instance, it is his position as a Head of Chair for Hitler studies, which makes him feel meaningful in his academic environment. He even adjusted his own looks to an expected image and changed his initials for making his name sound more impressive. This ego-based shift from being to seeming is a drastic transformation that characterizes a media-shaped environment. The collapse of his stereotypes and expectations is quite painful for Jack. When the airborne toxic event takes place (or at least announced by the media, as we never know for sure if it is real or not), Jacks self-image reveals itself when he expects himself to be more privileged than other people. In his media-inspired reality, it does not do people to his class of people.

I'm not just a college professor. I'm the head of a department. I don't see myself fleeing an airborne toxic event. That's for people who live in mobile homes out in the scrubby parts of the county, where the fish hatcheries are. (DeLillo, 1985, p. 117)

It appears though that this exaggerated significance of social belonging is false. This imagined importance does not work as a remedy for real-life challenges. This concept goes in alignment with Gladwells position: at the reptilian level they think that if I am bigger and taller Im safer. You feel secure because you are higher and dominate and lookdown. That you can look down is psychologically a very powerful notion (Gladwell, 2004, p. 2). Thus, it appears that Jacks identity as a college professor and a renowned scholar is no more than a hidden desire to guarantee his own security by the means of ensuring a well-established position in a social hierarchy. However, even Jack himself knows that his academic success is partially a bluff because he speculates on the field where no other experts focus. He has never tried to study at least the basic German to ensure his expertise. Instead, he cares about an image and changes his name in order to evoke an association with JFK.

As the events further unfold, it becomes clear that people see the toxic event as it is presented to them by radio and television. As Gladness listens to the radio on a daily basis, the impact of the media is visible even on children. Kids seem to reveal the symptoms of the described disease after they hear what it should be like. However, the information about symptoms changes from one day to another. Children lag behind the new data showing an older version of symptoms. It is also interesting to observe Gladwells study of a concept called learned helplessness. It is characteristic of the todays society. As he mentions, We live in an age, after all, that is strangely fixated on the idea of helplessness: were fascinated by hurricanes and terrorist acts and epidemics like sarssituations in which we feel powerless to affect our own destiny (Gladwell, 2004). It is important to understand that there is a direct connection between the learned helplessness and the mass media. In fact, it is mostly learned from the media because a huge flow of information focuses on natural and human-caused disasters. They implant an idea of insecurity in human mind. It is also true about the world described by DeLillo where there are practically no adult characters who would not be obsessed with the fear of death. As a kind of a paradox, mass media both triggers this fear and soothes it by manipulating the human consciousness. Consumerism is shown to a large extent as a consequence of this fear, because material objects seem to alleviate anxiety and fill the daily routine with an imaginary meaning. As Jack confesses, in the sense of security and contentment these products brought [...] it seemed we had achieved a fullness of being that is not known to people. Yet, it is clear that the fullness of life is just an illusion and that consumerism is a temporary solution of the issue. Babette, Jacks wife, is characterized by him as different from his previous wives for her earthliness and her ability to cope with reality. However, it appears that her fear of death is so overwhelming that her seeming security is achieved by the means of taking Dylar. It is a special drug that soothes the fear of death. She is ready for any moral compromise for the sake of her addiction, so Jack finds out that she has an affair with a physician providing Dylar to her in exchange. The symbol of this drug is quite meaningful in the novel. It does not have a single interpretation. Yet, the following observation that the author has made it possible to establish a link between an effect of the drug and that of mass media: the following is mentioned. As a result of taking the drug, Babette loses an ability to "distinguish words from things, so that if someone said aloud the words speeding bullet, I would fall to the floor to take cover" (DeLillo, 1985). Thus, these symptoms reveal a kind of a mental illness when a person takes the imaginary for the real. It is often the case when being exposed to media influence. The symbol of Hitler, surprisingly, is an essential element in this row of symbols. He embodies an extraordinary power to manipulate the masses and makes them obey to the picture of reality that he has created to them. It is remarkable that Jack says, "Hitler ... we couldn't have television without him" (DeLillo, 1985, p. 63). This comment contains a gloomy humor that reveals a darker aspect of the medias influence on groups and individuals.

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Overall, it should be noted that media is represented as a powerful social instrument that manipulates truth and shapes artificial reality. It is hard to understand a rational basis for this influence because it is mostly based on irrational aspects of the human mind. These ones include such as fear of death and some attempts to compensate this fear by a range of methods like consumerism or status. The media, thus, presents itself both an illness and a cure, which makes a person even more addicted to it and dependent on a daily portion of information. After all, it appears that the distinction between the reality and illusion is next to impossible. It is so because to a certain point the world outside the media does not exist. It is only when Jack faces the experience of dying directly that a hope appears of a more truthful picture of reality being possible for him and other characters.

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