Cable Nature

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 This sense in which the image takes over the space of the real, giving rise to a Baudrillardian hyperreal, returns us at last to DeLillo’s Americana and David Bell, sitting mere inches from his television set, meshing with the image’s “stormy motes.” David’s merger with this image, while conveying a mistaken sense of the image’s material existence, nonetheless exposes the core of its psychic existence; David’s reality is comprised of images, images that do not represent but rather create the real. David’s existence is early suggested to be wholly specular, as he relies upon images and reflections for his sense of self: “I had almost the same kind of relationship with my mirror that many of my contemporaries had with their analysts” (11). In understanding his core self, that which can ordinarily be accessed only through psychoanalysis, to exist instead on the surface of his reflection, David acknowledges that his reality is tenuous, at best. “There were times,” he admits, “when I thought all of us at the network existed only on videotape. . . . And there was the feeling that somebody’s deadly pinky might nudge a button and we would all be erased forever” (23). Such is the situation in a culture literally driven by television: reality, constructed by images, becomes infinitely mutable, even erasable. The desire for merger with the televisual image suggests at the same time the erasure of any phenomenal real that exists outside the videotape and a longing for a more permanent existence in the new real constructed by images.

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 David’s desire for full entry into the hyperreal begins not with his job at the television network but with his youthful fascination with film, and particularly with the screen personas of those “American pyramids” (A 12), Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster. In watching them, David first comes to awareness of the greater “reality” to be found in an abandonment of the physical world and an entry into the spectacular: “I knew I must extend myself until the molecules parted and I was spliced into the image.” The result of this desire is at once an existence as the reflection of a nonexistent celebrity–it is not an unusual event when David is approached on the street by a girl asking for his autograph, saying that “I don’t know who you are . . . but I’m sure you must be somebody” (13)–and unanswerable doubts about the reality of the rest of the world. David thus achieves what the novel refers to as “the dream of entering the third person singular” (270), becoming, in his relationship with the image, “Bell looking at the poster of Belmondo looking at the poster of purposeful Bogart” (287).[35] His life is “an image made in the image and likeness of images” (130). But, on driving through the “country roads” of Connecticut–a suspect characterization of the area, already–he cannot help but “wonder how real the landscape truly was, and how much of a dream is a dream” (13). When images are more real than the real, when the real is paradoxically constructed of images, such questions become all but impossible to answer.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 David’s quest in the second half of Americana is to recover some sense of a real that exists outside the image, the “diminishing world outside the tape” that DeLillo claims the novel attempts to recapture (“Power” 63). The problem, however, is that David, so entrenched in the spectacle, attempts to encounter this real America by capturing it on film, thus creating yet another set of images that construct rather than represent reality. This problem first arises in the suggestion that David might not be able to tell the difference; he describes the town he grew up in, after all, as “American in our outlook, plain and meat-eating,” before acknowledging that the town’s inhabitants were “willing to die for our country, or for photographs of our country” (A 132). The implication is of course that the photographs are the country, or what sense of it the inhabitants have, which amounts to the same thing. Thus, when David emerges from the enclosure of New York into the openness of the West, it is first and foremost an image of the West that he finds, one created by its representations. Moreover, all the inhabitants of this America seem to acknowledge their image-oriented existence through their fascination with its apparatus. David merely “clutched the handgrip, rested the camera on my right shoulder, and walked through the quiet streets”; the presence of the camera galvanizes the town’s inhabitants, and “[s]oon a small crowd was following [him]” (210). In fact, every time the camera is visible, all attention is directed toward it; local folk ask questions about it (211), ask for advice about their own camera purchases (212), ask how the apparatus works (215), and ask about David’s relationship to it (213). Women in a supermarket parking lot wave to it, sensing perhaps that

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 they were waving at themselves, waving in the hope that someday if evidence is demanded of their passage through time, demanded by their own doubts, a moment might be recalled when they stood in a dazzling plaza in the sun and were registered on the transparent plastic ribbon; and thirty years away, on that day when proof is needed, it could be hoped that their film is being projected on a screen somewhere, and there they stand, verified, in chemical reincarnation, waving at their own old age, smiling their reassurance to the decades, a race of eternal pilgrims in a marketplace in the dusty sunlight, seven arms extended in a fabulous salute to the forgetfulness of being. (254)

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 Like David, then, these women seem to understand their lives to be verified only by images, which are somehow more real than they. Douglas Keesey points out in this moment that such an existence in relationship to the camera results in a deep disconnection from the self; “you are not yourself in space or time.” However, it is important to note that Keesey reads this moment as describing “a group of young women outside a supermarket waving at TV cameras” and suggests that David in this moment comes to an awareness of his own disconnection from the space and time he occupies (17). I argue something slightly different, based on the evidence that the camera that the women are waving at is not from some unknown television station, but David’s own Scoopic: his discovery is not of his own disconnection, but rather of his control as the image’s creator, for he acknowledges at the end of the passage: “I could not help feeling that what I was discovering here was power of a sort” (A 255). Moreover, given that the Scoopic is not actually running, the suggestion is that the power of the image is such that even the image of the image is sufficient to construct the U.S. sense of self.

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 David’s attempts to escape the image thus result only in its deeper entrenchment in his sense of the real. The violence of the latter part of his journey makes clear to him that all that exists of America is in fact composed of its “archetypes,” that everything he confronts is built of “images that could not be certain which of two confusions held less terror, their own or what their own might become if it ever faced the truth.” David fully reenters the hyperreal on board a flight back to New York, when he is once again assumed to be a celebrity: “Ten minutes after we were airborne,” the novel’s final line reads, “a woman asked for my autograph” (A 377). Moreover, while the novel ends on that flight, David’s own chronology does not; he narrates the novel from a remote desert island–to which he has brought the film of his journey into America, which he watches obsessively. His representation for us, then, of the life lived within the novel, is constructed from the images he captured in his attempt to find the real that exists behind the screen’s simulations.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 That there may in fact no longer be such a real is a recurrent motif in DeLillo’s fiction. Throughout, we find a trend toward simulation, in which representations, particularly images, take precedence over the objects they are ostensibly there to represent. Perhaps the most often noted evidence of such an interest in simulation is White Noise‘s SIMUVAC, a group that ostensibly uses disaster simulations to prepare for real emergencies, but instead uses the airborne toxic event as preparation for future simulations.[36] When Jack asks a SIMUVAC representative how the actual evacuation as a “form of practice” is going, the answer is appropriately silly: “The insertion curve isn’t as smooth as we would like. There’s a probability excess. Plus which we don’t have our victims laid out where we’d want them if this was an actual simulation. In other words we’re forced to take our victims as we find them” (139). The ludicrousness of such a contortion of the relationship between representations and reality is apparent even to Jack, who is normally inured to such displays. The shock of discovering the event that may in fact kill him treated as a simulation of a simulation awakens him to the fundamental unreality of the world in which he lives. Upon encountering another SIMUVAC volunteer during an actual simulation, Jack turns snarky: “Are you people sure you’re ready for a simulation? You may want to wait for one more massive spill. Get your timing down” (204). In a culture in which an actual event becomes less real than the simulation of that event, as Baudrillard suggests, images no longer bear a relationship to representation; instead, images become images of themselves.

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 Television is, in White Noise, particularly responsible for such simulation. As one of the novel’s many media non sequiturs announces–one of the most prevalent forms of “white noise” in the text–television now channels to its viewers all the reality they could need: “CABLE HEALTH, CABLE WEATHER, CABLE NEWS, CABLE NATURE” (231). This “cable nature,” whether images of a fast-receding undeveloped world or images of an equally fast-receding unmediated human essence, is more than anything the nature of cable: unlimited mediation, with round-the-clock access.[37] Just as cable opens the U.S. home to the onslaught of such representations, such that the images replace the reality they ostensibly represent, however, so another of the novel’s mediating technologies opens the human psyche to the influence of such images: Dylar. Jack’s fervent quest for the drug, produced by his painful encounter with the reality of his own potential death, comprises much of the last third of the novel. Dylar ostensibly interacts with the part of the brain responsible for the fear of death, easing this obsession. Beyond the drug, which is of course a feat of psychobiology, the tablet itself is “an interesting piece of technology” (187), according to Winnie Richards, the scientist Jack persuades to analyze it. The tablet is encased in a polymer membrane with one small laser-drilled hole, through which the drug seeps at a controlled rate; once the membrane has emptied, it “implodes minutely of its own massive gravitation” (188). Plastics, lasers, particle physics–Dylar is much more than a pharmaceutical breakthrough. It is a constructed world in which the fear of death is relieved in controlled, even dosage. “Technology with a human face” (211), Jack claims, not terribly unlike cable nature.

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 Of course, like all technology, Dylar is not without its consequences, side effects that have caused it to be turned down for human trials. The part of the brain responsible for the fear of death is somehow also connected to the interpretation and understanding of language; as Babette says hypothetically, in recounting the drug’s list of potential problems: “I could not distinguish words from things, so that if someone said ‘speeding bullet,’ I would fall to the floor and take cover” (WN 193). There is, in this linguistic disruption, an echo of the unnamed drug Bucky Wunderlick is first asked to hold and then dosed with by the Happy Valley Farm Commune in DeLillo’s Great Jones Street. As it is described to Bucky just before he is injected, the drug, ostensibly developed by the U.S. government, “affects one or more areas of the left sector of the brain. Language sector. Still no market for this product. Street or otherwise. It damages the cells in one or more areas of the left sector of the human brain. Loss of speech in other words” (255). Critic Michael Valdez Moses compares the interactions of these two drugs, claiming that both promise “to return human beings to a blissful but subhuman state, free of either logos or the knowledge of personal finitude” (76); I suggest that Dylar has a very different function from Happy Valley’s drug, and that this difference is what creates its “market.” While the drug in Great Jones Street frees the subject from logos, eliminating the possibility of communication, (see LeClair 100) Dylar in White Noise sets language itself adrift from meaning, eliminating not the signifying process but the distinctions between signs and referents. In this fashion the subject is not freed from logos but trapped within it, in an endless chain of signification that transforms the individual into the ideal television watcher. With this modification, a market is created for the drug at last.

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 The deep interconnection of language and the knowledge of death suggests that Dylar affects the nature of the human by changing its relationship to systems of representation. Such a conclusion can be read in the behavior of Willie Mink, White Noise‘s most extreme representation of Dylar’s side effects. Mink’s dysphasia, the reader is quickly shown, is bound up in a too close relationship with television. Jack has, in the novel’s penultimate sequence, at last discovered the identity and whereabouts of “Mr. Gray,” the semi-anonymous man to whom Babette offered her body in exchange for Dylar. By the time Gladney finds Mink, carrying out a plot that is half revenge driven, the jealous husband out for justice, and half a quest for Dylar, the psychopharmaceutical grail, Mink has vastly overdosed on the drug. Throughout the scene, he randomly flings handsful of the tablets in the general direction of his mouth. Jack, out of curiosity, checks to see how the dysphasic effect is operating on Mink:

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 I said, as a test, “Falling plane.”

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 He looked at me, gripping the arms of the chair, the first signs of panic building in his eyes.

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 “Plunging aircraft,” I said, pronouncing the words crisply, authoritatively.

14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 He kicked off his sandals, folded himself over into the recommended crash position, head well forward, hands clasped behind his knees. He performed the maneuver automatically, with a double-jointed collapsible dexterity, throwing himself into it, like a child or a mime. Interesting. The drug not only caused the user to confuse words with the things they referred to; it made him act in a somewhat stylized way. (309″“10)

15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 Dylar’s technology has thus not only interfered with Mink’s linguistic abilities, the power of differentiating between signs and referents, but also has made his actions “stylized,” somehow inhuman. Jack’s initial assessment, that Mink is acting “like a child or a mime,” doesn’t quite hit the mark, however; Mink is acting, rather, like he is acting. He may not be able to distinguish the words “falling plane” from the thing itself, but his response exists similarly on the level of simulation, an imitation of a representation of the human response to a plummeting aircraft, with none of the screaming, vomit, or blood of the novel’s earlier near crash outside Iron City.[38] This response is thus doubly removed from reality–by the interference of televisual images of such crash positions, and by the destruction of the referentiality of language.

16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0 In erasing the fear of death, in fact, and in interfering with human linguistic abilities, Dylar seems to open the subject to “cable nature,” making Mink, in this case, completely available to televisual suggestion and control. Mink’s speech is peppered with bits of chatter from the television he is watching; for instance, as he explains Dylar’s failure to Jack, he says, “The heat from your hand will actually make the gold-leafing stick to the wax paper” (WN 308), precisely the sort of non sequitur that has emanated from the television in Jack’s house throughout the novel. Mink’s speech has become infected by television’s white noise; his actions are merely representations of human actions. The part of the brain responsible for the fear of death, which is also responsible for the linguistic separation of signs and referents, is apparently the locus as well of the ability to keep one’s real ego separate from television’s simulations.

17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 0 The televisual spectacle, then, threatens disruption in the novel by erasing human access to the real through its objectifications, by replacing human knowledge of the real through its simulations, and by doing violence both to the nature of the human and to the processes of linguistic signification. The novel repeatedly proposes to rescue the reader (and, again, academic culture) from these threats by capturing and containing them in the novel’s own language. In White Noise‘s Willie Mink, as in Mao II‘s Karen, however, we see a further kind of violence done by television: the decomposition of the ego into a radically fragmented, hivelike sense of self. In the multiplicity of television’s voices, both its manifold interconnections and its teeming information, the novel imagines a further threat: the replacement of the individual with the mass-think of the network.

  • [35] This reading is indebted to Douglas Keesey’s Don DeLillo, particularly 14″“16.
  • [36] See Keesey 143″“44; Lentricchia 91″“92; Duvall 138; and Johnston 184, among other possible sources.
  • [37] As Michael Valdez Moses suggests, this is “the underlying promise of postmodern culture: Nature is on tap, on cable, readily available to any American viewer who possesses access to subscriber television. The sequence promises a complete and godlike control of the human ‘environment’; health, weather, news, nature itself, all are at the disposal of the consumer” (64).
  • [38] Similarly, Eugene Goodheart argues that the commodities sold in White Noise‘s ubiquitous supermarket scenes are not food items but the representations of food; in the words of John Frow: “The world is so saturated with representations that it becomes increasingly difficult to separate primary actions from imitations of actions” (183).
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    Source: https://www.anxietyofobsolescence.com/chapter-3/cable-nature/