Defamiliarisation in White Noise

In his 1917 essay ``Art as Technique'', the Russian Formalist Viktor Shklovsky introduced the term ``defamiliarisation'' (ostranenie). According to Shklovsky:

The technique of art is to make objects ``unfamiliar'', to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged.

Although Shklovsky initially introduced the term in the context of the realist novel (in particular, those of Leo Tolstoy), it can have wider application. Don DeLillo's novel White Noise is a good example. While this work does not show the same attention to detailed factual description as, say, a Hemingway short story, it can certainly be analysed through Shklovsky's defamiliarisation. In fact, it goes further in providing readers contexts which allow them to become ``defamiliarised'' with their own lives. That is, the events which are ``made strange'' in White Noise are often presented with an analysis that applies to the everyday lives of members of a postmodern, mass-culture society.


In White Noise, shopping is an important experience. Murray Jay Siskend says of the supermarket, ``This place is sealed off, self-contained. It is timeless'' (38). In the same passage, he compares the supermarket to ``a transitional state between death and rebirth'' (37). The supermarket is a place to ``recharge us spiritually''---in other words, we experience a rebirth. The mundane, everyday act of shopping is in his eyes something more: it is a transcendent source of ``psychic data''.

When Jack Gladney encounters Eric Massingale in the mall, he experiences a profound change. Rather than accompany his family as they shop, he begins to participate in the shopping himself; his family is ``puzzled but excited'' (83) by this turn of events. In this activity, Jack learns about himself, and ``located a person [he]'d forgotten existed''. He feels the money he spends coming back ``in the form of existential credit''. As Murray spoke earlier, shopping becomes here a form of rebirth.

There is also a darker side to the shopping experience. The aged Mr Treadwell and his sister become lost for four days at the Mid-Village Mall. They spend two days in ``an abandoned cookie shack'' (59), foraging for scraps of food in nearby trash cans. To them, Jack speculates, the mall was ``a landscape of remote and menacing figures'' (59). Later, the sister dies ``of lingering dread'' as a result of the experience (99). This portrait of the shopping (in the very mall, in fact, where Jack undergoes his rebirth as consumer) is very different from that presented earlier. The transcendental function of shopping, apparently, very much depends on the person experiencing it. The Treadwells, who ``didn't get out much'' (59), are simply overcome by their extended visit to the mall.

It is telling that the closing paragraphs of White Noise deal with the supermarket. ``The supermarket shelves have been rearranged'' (325), as Jack comes to grips with his slowly-approaching death, and the near-death he visited upon someone else. The abrupt change produces ``agitation and panic'', as well as ``dismay'' (325). ``This is where we wait together'' (326), presumably for death. What a change this is from the Murray's supermarket as rebirth! It is worth noting that the generic food, which Murray usually purchases, remains where it is; thus Murray will not be traumatised as others are, and will be able to maintain his usual casual optimism.

Television and the Media

Even more everyday than shopping in postmodern America is television-viewing. This form of mass media plays a very important rôle in White Noise. The narrative is interspersed throughout with out-of-context snippets of television speech, such as: ``Until Florida surgeons attached an artificial flipper'' (29), ``Meanwhile here is an attractive lemon garnish suitable for any sea food'' (178), etc. The continued occurrence of these spurious bursts of intellectual ``white noise'' serves to demonstrate the disconnectedness of the postmodern consumerist life that Jack and his family leads.

Murray Jay Siskend, supermarket prophet, has some things to say about television; he is a believer in its mystical nature. According to him, ``the medium is a primal force in the American home . . . . It's a myth being born right there in our living room'' (51). Much like the supermarket, television ``offers incredible amounts of psychic data''. Whereas the supermarket is for Murray a place of rebirth, television is a connection to the past, even to ``ancient memories of world birth''. Television-viewing is a religious experience: the medium presents us with ``sacred formulas'' and ``mantras'' (51).

After Jack's family has an enjoyable evening of watching disaster footage, he discusses the occurrence with Murray's peers in the ``American environment'' department. They trace the American obsession with disasters to the ``incessant bombardment of information'' (66) visited upon us by television. According to Murray, this ``brain fade'' occurs because people do not view television properly: they fail to see the vast depths of psychic data in commercials. Commercials have ``deeper waves, deeper emanations'' (67) than disaster footage---bringing us back to the ``waves and radiation'' (38) Murray finds in the supermarket.

Later, Murray appears at the Gladney home to observe the family and the ``huge amounts of data'' surrounding it. While he is there, Babette appears on television, teaching her posture class. This causes in Jack ``a sense of psychic disorientation'': the ``here'' of life and the ``here'' of television suddenly lose their distinction. Jack feels an ``infantile cry'' rise from his inner being; Wilder tries to talk with the image of his mother. Here we see echoes of Jacques Lacan's ``mirror stage'', extended from the infantile self to the family. We recall what Walter Benjamin called ``the feeling of strangeness that overcomes the actor before the camera'', for him ``basically of the same kind as the estrangement felt before one's own image in the mirror'' (Benjamin 230)---only here the estrangement is visited vicariously upon the family of the ``actor'', who see their own lives reflected in Babette's appearance.

Another view of the media is evident in White Noise. The media is seen as a form of self-justification: a self-justification constantly thwarted. The convicted killer with whom Heinrich is playing chess-by-mail killed six strangers so that he might go down in history---only to discover that, in Heinrich's words, ``There is no media in Iron City'' (45). Later, a plane nearly crashes, but arrives safely in Iron City, its passengers shocked and dismayed. When Jack tells his daughter Bee that ``There is no media in Iron City'', she wonders that ``they went through all that for nothing'' (92). And, in the Iron City camp for evacuees, a man carrying a television makes a stirring speech asking, ``don't we deserve attention?'' (162). In all these cases, individuals desire to have their plight recognised, to have it broadcast and retransmitted; in each case, their desire is unfulfilled.

In a similar fashion, Jack turns to the television for evidence that his family will not be affected by the Nyodene D spill: ``Did you ever see a college professor rowing a boat down his own street in one of those TV floods?'' (114). Again, though, his faith in the truth of television is misplaced: he does indeed have to evacuate his home. Such a view of the truth of media also appears in the daughters, whose symptoms always seem to match those they last heard about on the radio. Jack wonders whether Steffie is ``so open to suggestion that she would develop every symptom as it was announced'' (126). In this cases we see the media as a harbinger of truth---not because the media has predictive powers, but rather because the media creates the truth it announces. White Noise thus presents us with a view of the complicated relationship between objective truth, accepted truth, and perceived truth.


In the instances discussed above, the narrative presents the reader with an everyday experience---shopping or television viewing---and casts it in a wholly different light. The surprise of having such a mundane event become a mystical force with powers of rebirth or truth-creation jolts the reader into perception, in much the same way as do the Tolstoy examples in Shklovsky's essay. Here, also, the scope of defamiliarisation is extended: not only does the reader perceive the work differently---e may use it to perceive the world differently. The reader's own experiences of shopping or television can, through DeLillo's book, be seen in a different light. One who has read White Noise will perhaps begin to hear Murray Jay Siskend in the back of eir mind, urging em to always see the transcendental qualities that others miss.

Works Cited

Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations, tr. Harry Zohn, ed. Hannah Arendt. New York: Schocken, 1968.

DeLillo, Don. White Noise. New York: Penguin Books, 1985.

Lacan, Jacques. ``The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of the I as Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience'', Alan Sheridan, tr. In Rice, Philip and Patricia Waugh, eds., Modern Literary Theory: a Reader, 3rd ed. London: Arnold, 1996.

Shklovsky, Viktor. From ``Art as Technique'', L.T. Lemon and M.J. Reis, tr.. In Rice, Philip and Patricia Waugh, eds., Modern Literary Theory: a Reader, 3rd ed. London: Arnold, 1996.

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