Some years ago, at a tequila-infused gathering in Boston, an acquaintance recommended I read Don DeLillo's 1985 satire, White Noise. In the intervening years, a number of friends and colleagues have made the same suggestion. Given the novel's setting -- a bucolic but altogether dysfunctional liberal arts college in the American Midwest -- and its jaundiced view of media and technology, I was assured the book would have personal and professional resonance for me. It sure does.
Reading White Noise this summer has been nothing short of revelatory. DeLillo's critique of the dehumanizing effects of mass culture and post-industrial society is chilling, as it is prescient. It's also laugh-out-loud funny. Writing in those halcyon days before e-mail, personalized ringtones and salacious Twitter posts, DeLillo describes the unraveling of the nuclear family, if not the whole of American civilization, on the altar of conspicuous consumption.
More to the point, reading White Noise today -- against the backdrop of record unemployment, a spate of natural catastrophes and more man-made crises than I care to mention -- I feel a bit like the novel's protagonist, Jack Gladney, when he wakes in the middle of night feeling "light and heavy, muddled and alert." It's a curious state of consciousness to be sure. And while I might just as easily blame it all on the weather, or a nagging summer cold for that matter, this condition has more existential implications.
"There is a certain unreality to daily life these days that is hard to shake."
There is a certain unreality to daily life these days that is hard to shake. The first time I felt this disoriented was in the wake of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Over time, those feelings subsided but never completely dissipated. Now it feels like a permanent state of being. I vacillate between optimism and despair, feelings of rage and hopelessness one minute, joy and abandon the next. My pleasures are modest -- a properly poured pint, The Jam's 1978 cover of The Kinks' classic track "David Watts," a finely turned 6-4-3 double play. But my fears are profound -- exacerbated by the arrogance of power and the concentration of wealth that are undermining the American Dream at every turn.
Perhaps, at the ripe age of 50, I would do well to embrace modern living with all its contradictions. Would that I could take the abuses of corporate and executive power like so much water off a duck's back. Go along to get along. But I can't. Not just yet.
In a more optimistic state of mind, I think to myself, maybe the American people will rise up, like our brethren in the Middle East and North Africa, and reclaim our democracy. Maybe the species will find a way to survive its own voracious and shortsighted appetites. Hope dies last.
And therein lies the power of art -- high art or commercial art -- take your pick. It is not the power to escape -- for escapism is a fool's errand. Rather, it is a matter of transcendence: A sudden and decisive change in perspective, or simply a quiet moment to reflect and rejuvenate, before taking up the struggle for peace and social justice once more.
So whether it's a trashy romance or The Great American Novel, here's to summer reading -- a refuge from the White Noise of our hypermediated culture and all that alienates us from our common sense of purpose, and our humanity.
Kevin Howley is associate professor of media studies at DePauw University. He is editor of Understanding Community Media (Sage, 2010) and the forthcoming Media Interventions (Peter Lang). He writes regularly on media, culture and politics at e-chreia.