Thursday, November 12, 2009

White Noise: The Disaster Un-Mediated

I just finished teaching Don DeLillo's White Noise for a senior seminar called "The American Literary Response to Trauma." This is one of those books that reveals more and more with each new reading. I'm working on the DeLillo chapter of my book manuscript right now, and so I was especially invested in working through some of my ideas in the classroom.

I'm mostly interested in the novel as a non-representational response to the collective tragedy of the Holocaust. The novel's main character, for example, Jack Gladney, is the Chair of Hitler Studies at his university. He is obsessed with Hitler, and even attempts to look and speak like Hitler (even though he, embarrassingly, cannot speak German). And throughout the novel we get all sorts of tidbits of information about Hitler and Nazi Germany. But there is something conspicuously missing from the novel: there is no mention of the Holocaust or anything that even suggests that Hitler was attached to murder or genocide or anything of the sort. No Final Solution, no smoke-filled chimneys, not even any mention of Jews. Jack Gladney has a blindspot. He lacks an awareness of the ethical dimension of his studies. But we bear witness to his blindspots, his inabilities--and we become secondary witnesses to the disaster of the Holocaust, the event that, in the words of Maurice Blanchot, robs us of all authenticity.

It is this omission of the most obvious aspects of the disaster that draw our attention to it in a way that is unmediated, unfiltered by media or artistic impulses (well, for the most part). Jack's experience of the disaster may in fact be mediated by "white noise," but ours is not--or, at least not to the degree Jack's is. In an era that has become somewhat dominated by media representations of the Holocaust and other collective atrocities, White Noise may be one of the more innovative approaches to dealing with the subject matter.

We've seen enough footage from the events of WWII. We've watched enough films and read enough novels that attempt to sho
w how things really were. And it simply hasn't been enough to appease or satisfy our curiosity. But in DeLillo's novel, the ethical category is broached in the sense that we bear witness to the shattering of mediated realities, even when the characters themselves are unable to bear witness (i.e. Jack's inability to address the atrocities perpetrated by Hitler and his regime). Limit experiences such as the Holocaust pose especially pronounced difficulties because their very breadth and intensity compel us to return to them again and again as topics, using whatever artistic or media outlets we can; and yet truly witnessing a traumatic event like this means that our experience of it is colored by gaps and silences and blindspots.

The question is how do we make these darknesses visible?


Anonymous said...

My favourite moment in this novel is the scene where the family goes to the disaster shelter only to learn that the shelter itself is a simulation of a shelter in case there was a real disaster. That Baudrillardian moment reoccurs throughout the novel. I wonder how that bears on your analysis of the Holocaust in the book. Is it that Jack has a "blindspot" that we, outside the novel, can see, or is it rather that Delillo is suggesting that even we are in the blind spot, that authentic representation, and hence witnessing, is somehow no longer possible? Or is it possible that the fact that Delillo doesn't mention the Holocaust, or Jews, is symptomatic of his own awareness that in some sense the Holocaust is the Real that cuts through the doubling of representation he portrays as our new condition?

Scott D said...

I love your ending question. The assumption is that one WANTS to pierce the darkness in order to...know true tragedy? truth thru tragedy?...maintain the integrity of the victim(s) by, for instance, resisting representations of the experience employed for inappropriate ends?

Perhaps the rationale points to the method.

I tend to think about the political rhetoric. The lead up to the Iraq war relied heavily on the competition to equate the current situation as "Vietnam" or "The Holocaust." So investigating the actual event suspends the urge to appropriate real history into current debates. Yet too much investigation may delay our ability to draw lessons for ethical action. Prudence, Phronesis, is the virute which balances these.

For a different take, I'm thinking of Rene Girard and the sacrificial narratives that make culture. (Monica, did you come across Sander Goodheart at Purdue?). Everything I try to type in 3 sentences seems unable to capture the connection. I'll just say Girard's mimetic theory is devoted to appreciating the victims voice as it becomes concealed through ritual honoring of those victims.

Anonymous said...

It was extremely interesting for me to read the blog. Thanx for it. I like such topics and everything connected to this matter. I would like to read more on that blog soon.

Monica said...

Anonymous--I like the idea that we are perhaps in the blind spot because it goes along with the notion that the trauma of the Holocaust is ongoing. But I don't know that it means that authentic witnessing is "no longer possible," but rather that it was/is never possible. The closest we can come is acknowledging our own inability to "witness" the event.