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How does White Noise reflect American pop culture and satirize education?

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Don DeLillo’s novel White Noise serves as a scathing commentary on American culture, particularly its rampant consumerism. DeLillo fills his novel with an endless litany of brand-name products which serves to illuminate just how ubiquitous and insidious commercialism has become in daily life. Satirizing American pop culture of the 1980s, DeLillo shows how commercialism influences every aspect of American life, supplanting any trace of originality with superficiality.

The novel also skewers the world of academia by presenting the protagonist, Jack, a professor at the local college, as pompous and self-serious. Jack has created a new department at the College-on-the-Hill focused on “Hitler studies” and brags in chapter 1 that “I invented Hitler studies in North America in March of 1968.” That Jack has created an absurd and exploitative new department, oblivious to the moral conundrum it should raise, seems a fitting reflection of there American cultural context DeLillo critiques. Jack proves to be a bumbling and self-absorbed professor concerned more with his image than with anything of substance. White Noise portrays American education much in the way it does pop culture—as empty and vacuous. Jack muses about his role as a department head:

Department heads wear academic robes at the College-on-the-Hill… I like the idea. I like clearing my arm from the folds of the garment to look at my watch. The simple act of checking the time is transformed by this flourish. Decorative gestures add romance to a life.

He seems to care more about his appearance than with educating. Later in the novel there is a telling scene in which the invasiveness of pop culture intersects with the absurdity of academia. Jack, watching his daughter sleep, ascribes great meaning to her unconscious babbling:

She uttered two clearly audible words, familiar and elusive at the same time, words that seemed to have a ritual meaning, part of a verbal spell or ecstatic chant… Toyota Celica… A long moment passed before I realized this was the name of an automobile. The truth amazed me more… A simple brand name, an ordinary car… She was only repeating some TV voice… the utterance struck me with the impact of a moment of splendid transcendence.

One can argue that American pop culture has become more image-conscious, disingenuous, and invasive since the publication of White Noise in 1985. Americans today are encouraged to think of themselves as a brand and to cultivate a false image by which to influence society’s spending habits. Just as the characters in this novel regard the deadly airborne toxic event as a media sensation to be viewed with all the detachment of a television audience, we see this type of attitude magnified in how Americans consume today's omnipresent media coverage of grave events.

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