Doctor of Philosophy
School of Creative Arts
Howell, Anne, The oscillating subject in Don DeLillo’s White Noise, Doctor of Philosophy thesis, School of Creative Arts, University of Wollongong, 2013. https://ro.uow.edu.au/theses/3912
The dossier of work associated with my doctoral research comprises a creative component in the form of a novel, 1984 Did Not Take Place, and this thesis. Both projects address debates about the subject under the influence of postmodern theory, which arose during what Douglas Kellner calls the 1980s “theory wars” (1995, p 23). In this thesis I conduct an investigation into how the protagonist of Don DeLillo’s White Noise, Jack Gladney, is depicted as reacting to the pressures of these ‘wars’ and how his “maneuvering for advantage” leads to his oscillation between subject positions associated with cultural canonical modernism and postmodernism. In order to determine Gladney’s characterisation in relation to modernist and postmodernist notions of the subject, I draw on key properties established by a range of fictional authors and theorists who have written on what typifies artistic modernism and postmodernism. I argue that White Noise depicts 1980s theoretical preoccupation with mass conformist consciousness, Baudrillard’s “precession of simulacra” (1983a), the dominance of mainstream media, consumerism and the decline of the transcendent subject, and that these themes play out within Gladney’s characterisation in challenging the hegemony of modernist preoccupations with authenticity, originality and individual agency in relation to the subject. I coin the term epiphomerical to demonstrate that Gladney represents the subject caught in between these conflicting cultural paradigms.
This thesis compares Gladney’s characterisation with the modernist artist-hero Stephen Dedalus from James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1992) and with postmodern hedonist-pragmatist Bruno Clément in Michel Houellebecq’s Atomised (1998) to identify a continuum within the cannon of the literary subject in relation to the postmodern challenge to ideas of transcendence. This thesis shows that Gladney occupies a transitional place in this continuum, oscillating between canonical modernist and postmodernist positions. In a final study, I compare Gladney with Jack Blight, the protagonist in my novel 1984 Did Not Take Place, whose role as emerging postmodern artist is represented as a strategic game of survival played in collusion with his peers. Both White Noise and my novel draw thematically on the strong influence of Jean Baudrillard in the period and explore his concerns with the impact on the subject of an increasingly media-saturated consumer culture.
While there are significant similarities in the treatment of the themes explored in this thesis, it is demonstrated that the key differences between DeLillo’s work and my own are, firstly, that DeLillo does not treat these themes explicitly, and secondly that my own work was penned in what is arguably the aftermath of postmodernism, rather than contemporaneously with the height of the theory wars. Some implications of these differences for the representation of subjectivity are considered.