Globalization in America: The Case of Don DeLillo's 'White Noise.'

By Peyser, Thomas | CLIO, Spring 1996 | Go to article overview

Globalization in America: The Case of Don DeLillo's 'White Noise.'


Peyser, Thomas, CLIO


We can't have the whole world walking across our borders and still call ourselves a country.

Pat Buchanan(1)

There is nothing new about globalization, if by that we mean the patching together of different regions of the earth through economic and cultural exchange or political domination and alliance. Immanuel Wallerstein, whose book The Modern World-System marks an important point of departure for recent thought on globalization, argues that the system became firmly established in the sixteenth century, at which time European hegemony began its long process of entrenchment.(2) Even were one to prefer some other moment as the starting point of a truly modern world-system, the brute fact of two world wars in this century is enough to suggest that the earth has been for some time undergoing a process of increasingly Intense integration, an intensity, that has been immeasurably enhanced and made an intimate fact of everyday life by advances in transportation and communication. What is new - startingly and even shockingly new - is the sway that the idea of globality holds over the imagination, the force with which the processes and consequences of globalization Impinge upon the individual mind. Thus, the decades following World War II have witnessed not only the emergence of what Frederick Buell describes as "a new, syncretic, hybridized media-based global culture"(3) but also of intellectual and artistic, artistic attempts to re-concieve ideas of, human association and culture, ideas whose foundations in the concept of bounded localities have been disrupted by what Roland Robertson calls "the crystallization of the globe as a single place."(4) One novelist who has consistently explored the ramifications of this "crystallization" is Don DeLillo, whose works often depict the pleasures and, more often, the hazards attending the new world order. White Noise, which in some ways seems the most "domestic" of DeLillo's recent novels, presents a disturbing vision of a thoroughly globalized America, an America whose cultural (and territorial) boundaries seem more and more to exist in theory only.

The urgency with which we need to Interrogate visions like DeLillo's - that register the impact of globalization - is easy to understand: whether or not we welcome the accelerating tempo of globalization naturally depends on which imaginative conceptions of the unprecedentedly integrated global order strike us as convincing. This is the justification for Arjun Appadurai's claim that "imagination ... is the key component of the new global order," "a form of negotiation between sites of agency (`individuals') and globally defined fields of possibility."(5) We need, therefore, to think about novels (and other cultural productions) depicting a globalized world not simply because we can show that art is "grounded" in social circumstance, but because novels themselves may have a crucial role to play in the very process of globalization. This is not to say, of course, that the only things holding today's world-system together are imaginative constructs; we can be tolerably certain that all the imagination coupled with the best will in the world would not dissuade capital from its global quest for profit. Nevertheless, the future patterns traced by the flow of capital, culture, and political power will, to some extent, depend upon the way the global field is imagined by those acting as agents within it.

Those familiar with the range of DeLillo's work may find it odd to look at White Noise in this context. After all, such novels as Players, The Names, Running Dog, Libra, and Mao II all focus explicitly - some might say obsessively - on international terrorism and globetrotting expeditions (often spiralling in on the political morass of the Middle East). Some leaders seem to think of White Noise as an exception to this pattern; John McClure's recent, provocative analysis of DeLillo's international theme does not even mention the novel. …

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