Ritualistic Consumerism: How Consumption Replaces Religion in ‘White Noise’
Consumer culture has been discussed by many authors and philosophers as long as the human race has been consuming. Consumerism is often referred to as a negative force in society, specifically in the United States, due to America’s image of surplus and leisure even in times of societal and economic suffering as discussed in Clay Sirkey’s “Gin, Television, and Social Surplus.” In Don DeLillo’s White Noise, consumerism is described beyond just a social negative; where, in this society, consumer culture has become so ritualistic that it becomes a spiritual connection. This gives the characters a negative and unhealthy alternative to religion when faced with fear of death, making consumption a catharsis and a spiritual escape (an effect that Karen Weekes would describe as the negative aspect of “white noise” in her article “Consuming and Dying: Meaning and the Marketplace in Don DeLillo’s White Noise”). Kalle Lasn explains in “The Cult You’re In” that this is a common occurrence in modern society, where consumerism is nothing more (or less) than a cult. Don DeLillo uses White Noise as an excellent depiction of how modern American consumers, when faced with spiritual or existential crises, can tend to lean away from religion and replace it with consumption due to its assumed comfort and safety in the culture as demonstrated by both adult and child characters.
The reader first sees this existential questioning almost immediately, where much of the adult characters’ (specifically Jack) dialogue is driven by an intense fear of death. When examining the characters in White Noise and understanding their petrifying fear of death and the uncertainty that comes with it, it becomes somewhat more understandable why those characters turn to tangible and quantifiable things rather than spirituality. In contemporary culture, religion is scary. There is no surefire answer to the questions people have and there is no one religion that offers more answers than the rest. As a society, modern humans are raised to be comfortable with consumption because they are raised to be consumers. Kalle Lasn describes the idea of being raised into consumer culture as a kind of cult initiation, explaining that A long time ago, without even realizing it, just about all of us were recruited into a cult. At some indeterminate moment, maybe when we were feeling particularly adrift or vulnerable, a cult member showed up and made a beautiful presentation. “I believe I have some- thing to ease your pain.” She made us feel welcome. We understood she was offering us something to give life meaning. She was wearing Nike sneakers and a Planet Hollywood cap. (51) The audience sees this idea surface itself throughout White Noise with Jack’s children. While his daughter sleeps, “she utter[s] 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,” and Jack watches this (71). Not only is Steffie, a young child, having car commercials slip into her subconscious and surface in her dreams, but her father is also watching her sleep and say these words as if this were a sermon. Jack is left “feeling selfless and spiritually large” at his daughter’s simple utterance of a brand name vehicle (71).
Beyond watching his daughter sleep to hear her speak in car brands, Jack lives through several other transcendental experiences as a consumer. Where Jack would turn to prayer were he religious, he turns to shopping; when faced with fear of death or confusion surrounding life, Jack buys. On one occasion, Jack takes his family to the mall for an escape, where “[he] traded money for goods. The more money [he] spent, the less important it seemed. [He] was bigger than these sums. These sums poured off [his] skin like so much rain. These sums in fact came back to [him] in the form of existential credit. [He] felt expansive,” transcending normal human experience and expanding his awareness to everything and filling up all the space that he occupied. Unlike prayer, meditation, or other spiritual release, however, Jack leaves the experience emptier than he began, driving home with his family in silence, feeling apathetic (42). In White Noise’s introduction, Mark Osteen explains that “White Noise is thus also a novel about religion–or, perhaps more accurately, about belief… White Noise is such a book, one that alludes constantly to what lies just beyond our hearing, to the mysterious, the untellable, the numinous–to what DeLillo calls the ‘radiance in dailiness,’” where Osteen describes spirituality as an awareness beyond the average human buzz. Though Jack has this awareness with his “spiritual” experiences in consumption, the effects are not lasting, leaving Jack empty, apathetic, and with fewer answers than he had prior to the experience. This is what Karen Weekes would describe as “negative white noise”; though white noise (background noise and events) can be positive, the application thereof and result of that application is what can shift the white noise to be negative (14). So here it becomes apparent that not only has this ritualism of consumerism added a catharsis for their fears to a point of religiousness and spirituality, it has done it to such a level that it is unhealthy for any character involved; these experiences aren’t just replacements for religion, they’re insecure and empty replacements.
However, Jack is not the only one in his culture who experiences this struggle with the adverse effects of consumerism as religion. Much like religion, consumerism governs how the society following it functions. Consumerism just happens to function on the ideals of “How much can we produce? How much can you consume? Can we produce more and you’ll consume more? And the answer to that question has generally been yes,” a self-serving and shallow basis for a society (Shirkey, 171). When an entire society follows these ideals for its entire existence, norms and rituals are established. Though in its stagnant state the only issue is the self-serving and cult-like state (“only” being used in the loosest sense), when a norm or ritual is shaken the entire culture suffers. This is expressed extremely well in the final scene of White Noise- a supermarket where all of the shelves have been rearranged and the shoppers are found in confusion and near frenzy. This is like walking into a chapel where all of the stained glass has been shattered and replaced with images of Marilyn Manson. Their ritualistic consumption is tampered with, leaving agitation and panic in the aisles, dismay in the faces of older shoppers. They walk in a fragmented trance, stop and go, clusters of well-dressed figures frozen in the aisles, trying to figure out the pattern, discern the underlying logic, trying to remember where they’d seen the Cream of Wheat. They see no reason for it, find no sense in it. The scouring pads are with the hand soap now, the condiments are scattered. (141) However, the need to consume overcomes this fear and confusion, where …in the end it doesn’t matter what they see or think they see. The terminals are equipped with holographic scanners, which decode the binary secret of every item, infallibly… A slowly moving line, satisfying, giving us time to glance at the tabloids in the racks. Everything we need that is not food or love is here in the tabloid racks. (141) The religion, the cult of consumerism is able to overcome this shaking of the norm because, in a world where belief does not exist beyond the tangible and “ownable,” one cannot afford to lose faith in consumption.
Don DeLillo’s White Noise is ultimately extremely successful in demonstrating the ways in which humans being cope when faced with existential questions and the lust for tangible answers. He gives a wonderful insight in regards to the modern consumer’s need to consume and it’s adverse effect when used in place of spirituality in transcendental experience. Through this novel, it becomes apparent that doubt, fear, and insecurity in ones’ self and future can lead to unhealthy worship of things that really mean nothing.
DeLillo, Don. White Noise. Osteen, Mark. Introduction. New York: Penguin Books, 1985. Print.
Lasn, Kalle. “The Cult You’re In”, Common Culture: Reading and Writing About American Popular Culture. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2009. Print.
Shirkey, Clay. “Gin, Television, and Social Surplus”, Common Culture: Reading and Writing About American Popular Culture. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2009. Print.
Weekes, Karen. “Consuming And Dying: Meaning And The Marketplace In Don Delillo’s White Noise.” LIT: Literature Interpretation Theory 18.4 (2007): 285-302. Academic Search Elite. Web. 9 Mar. 2015.
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