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Devi Rama Foundations of Modern Literary Studies

Select two essays from the Rivkin and Ryan Reader. Type out one quotation from each of the essays which you think encapsulates the essay’s key ideas. Write a commentary of about 250 words on each quotation explaining what you understand from the quotation and a brief summary of the ideas which it reacts against. Then offer a detailed and in-depth analysis of (aspects of) White Noise based upon your chose quotations.

“Truths are illusions of which one has forgotten that they are illusions.” This quotation is taken from Nietzsche’s On Truth and Lying in an Extra-moral Sense. The meaning of this quotation is that there is no reality. This is because we are imposing our ideas and concepts on reality and our truths are actually illusions. These illusions have been imposed so much that we have forgotten that they are in fact illusions that we have created. Therefore there is no real truth or reality. We impose our own ideas which become our truths when in fact there is no truth because our truth has been made up of illusions.

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The key idea of Nietzsche’s essays on this subject is the idea that language is not adequate for reality. It is just an attempt to tame the untamable. There is just too much diversity in reality for language to cover it. The way language tries to classify objects is not adequate. The example used is leaves. We call a leaf using the term leaf but there are lots of different leaves and yet we do not have a name for each different leaf. This is therefore showing the complex nature of reality.

Nietzsche’s ideas are reacting against ‘The Enlightenment period.’ Enlightenment was the “confidence in the ability of human beings to understand the world.” During this period in history, people had confidence in their knowledge. It was when Science was significant. Nietzsche’s ideas challenge that confidence by saying that what we call knowledge is not in fact knowledge at all; it is just an attempt to control the uncontrollable diversity of reality. Overall reality is too complex and chaotic to assert any kind of control over.

Some of Nietzsche’s principles can be applied to the novel White Noise written by Don DeLillo. These can be applied in different ways. For example, Nietzsche’s work reacts against The Enlightenment. Depending on how what perspective it is looked at White Noise can be read as a post-enlightenment novel. Direct parallels can also be made between Nietzsche’s ideas and the novel.

In the novel at the end of chapter ten, Jack walks to the cashpoint at the bank to check his balance. The machine, the way it works and the bank is referred to as ‘the system.’ The system has Big Brother connotations in that there is an unseen power and an element of control. This gives the machine significance. ‘The system has blessed my life. I felt its support and approval’1Here there is a use of personification, giving the machine human-like qualities. It is almost like Jack needs the system’s approval. This gives the machine more significance and in contrast, makes Jack less significant. Therefore Jack has less control and the system has more. Jack does not seem to have any confidence in understanding the machine. ‘The system hardware, the mainframe sitting in a locked room in some distant city’2Here there is no understanding on Jack’s behalf of how the machine works instead there just seems to be some fragmented information of how it may work.

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This is post-enlightenment. In this part, Jack does not have any confidence in understanding the machine. Furthermore, the system could represent a system of knowledge and language. During the time Jack checks his balance a deranged person is removed from the bank. ‘A deranged person was escorted from the bank by two armed guards’3 Here the deranged person could represent the chaos of reality. It seems as though the system does not want anything to do with it and therefore tries to control it by removing it. This can be directly linked to Nietzsche’s ideas where he writes ‘Not “to know but to schematize- to impose upon chaos as much regularity and form as our practical needs require…4’ Here Nietzsche is saying what we call knowledge is not knowledge it is just an attempt to control and tame the untamable. It is an attempt to master the non-masterable diversity of chaos and reality. This is what the system has tried to do with the deranged person.

The almost fragmented information on Jack’s understanding of the machines linked to the way Nietzsche writes. He is an anti-systematical writer so writes in fragments to reflect his ideas.

Nietzsche’s ideas can also be applied to Jack’s narration throughout the novel. In the beginning, Jack starts off as the all-seeing authoritative narrator which makes sense of the novel. He is confident in his ability to understand what he sees; this is reflected in the language he uses. For example, the repetitions of ‘There is…’ and ‘There are…’ This reflects his confidence. This has a link to enlightenment. However, as the story progresses Jack’s narration changes. The confidence in Jack’s narration changes to an almost vague and confused Jack. In the supermarket scene in chapter nine he does not even seem to understand Murray:

I wasn’t sure I understood what he was talking about. What did he mean, much clearer? He could think and see what?5

Here his narration has lost confidence in his understanding. He seems to be much less certain of things. Therefore the narration moves from what seems like backing up enlightenment to a more post-enlightenment narrative where he is unsure of himself and the chaos of his reality.

During the course of a novel, there is a spillage disaster which then accumulates into a cloud. There are supposed to be symptoms of exposure to this cloud. Jack and his family constantly rely on the radio for updated information even though they can see the cloud. ‘Come on, tell me what they said on the radio while I was out there.’6 The family needs the radio to describe the cloud and to tell them the symptoms of exposure. Here there is a sense of distrust, a distrust of their own senses. Therefore their reality depends upon the radio’s constructions of it.

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An advantage of looking at the novel by applying Nietzsche’s principles is that we can understand the extent of diversity in terms of the novel. We are also able to see the fragmentation in the novel and even more so we are able to see how the novel deals with the idea that there is no reality beyond our constructions of it.

‘The linguistic sign unites, not a thing and a name, but a concept and a sound image.’7 This quotation is taken from Ferdinand de Saussure’s Course in General Linguistics. The meaning of this quotation is that a sound image is actually a ‘psychological imprint’8 on our mind. It is not a thing but what we imagine in our minds when a word is spoken therefore it is the impression it makes on us. A linguistic sign is actually made up of a concept (signified) and what we associate with this concept along with a ‘sound image’ (signifier). This idea of the concept and sound-image works both ways in that both can recall each other. The basic idea is that a sign denotes or refers to something else and things can have different meanings depending on context. The quotation is significant because it sums up one of the key ideas of the essay which is that a linguistic sign is not just sound and thought it is a link that unites sound and idea, signifier and signified9. Therefore a sound is linked to a concept and the meanings attached to a concept.

Saussure is reacting against theories that say that names correspond to realities that existed before them. He is rejecting the theories of a naming process. These theories were called ‘correspondence’ or ‘realist’ theories. The theories were based around that facts exist on their own without the use of thought and language.10 Saussure’s ideas say that language makes up reality rather than reflecting on it, therefore it goes against the idea of pre-existing realities.

The use of signifiers and signified can be applied to White Noise. Saussure says that ‘The bond between the signifier and the signified is arbitrary.’11 This means that there is no reason why certain words should give certain images. Therefore there is no reason why the word ‘spider’ should give an image of an eight-legged creature. In White Noise Hitler is a signifier; the usual connotations of Hitler are negative. Ideas that come to mind are evil, killer and racist. That would be the usual things signified by the signifier of Hitler. However, in the novel the signified is different. It seems as though Hitler has been drained of his original significance. Hitler is seen as a good thing. It is a positive signifier. Hitler is seen as an icon and a celebrity. He is being used as a kind of brand name for self-promotion for Jack; ‘So Hitler gave me something to grow into and develop toward, tentative as I have sometimes been in the effort.’12

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This difference highlights the idea of different things having a different meaning depending on the context which is one of Saussure’s ideas. Don DeLillo plays with the expectation of his signifiers and by doing so shows that meaning can depend on the context it’s used in.

One of the disadvantages of approaching the text of White Noise by applying Saussure’s principles is that it concentrates on classification and therefore may not be in-depth enough to explore the full structure of language. However, the advantages of looking at the text in this way is that it helps us to examine the function of the signifiers in the novel in a theoretical way

In conclusion, literary theories can be applied to novels to can help us understand the novels in different ways. The literary theories can give us a structured angle of analysing a novel making the application of literary theory to novels useful. However, we need to be careful when using literary theories to examine a text as it may give us a limited analysis.

1 White Noise, Don DeLillo (Picador 1999) pg 46

2 White Noise, Don DeLillo (Picador 1999) pg 46

3 White Noise, Don DeLillo (Picador 1999) pg 46

4 Literary Theory: An Anthology, Second Edition, Edited by Julie Rivkin & Michael Ryan: Frederich Nietzsche (Blackwell Publishing) pg 268

5 White Noise, Don DeLillo (Picador 1999) pg 36

6 White Noise, Don DeLillo (Picador 1999) pg 116

7 Literary Theory: An Anthology, Second Edition, Edited by Julie Rivkin & Michael Ryan: Ferdinand de Saussure (Blackwell Publishing) pg61

8 Literary Theory: An Anthology, Second Edition, Edited by Julie Rivkin & Michael Ryan: Ferdinand de Saussure (Blackwell Publishing) pg61

9 accessed 06/12/05

10 accessed 06/12/05

11 Literary Theory: An Anthology, Second Edition, Edited by Julie Rivkin & Michael Ryan: Ferdinand de Saussure (Blackwell Publishing) pg62

12 White Noise, Don DeLillo (Picador 1999) pg 17

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