The Ubiquitous and Panasonic Kipple: Tracing the Consumption of Death, from Philip K. Dick to Don DeLillo’s White Noise
The original title for Don DeLillo’s White Noise (1984) was, but for a legal injunction, supposed to be Panasonic (Hearst), a neologism that roughly translates as “all sound” or “ever present sound.” While “white noise” is certainly an appropriate title for a novel that deals with the ubiquitous infusion and intrusion of consumer culture, death, and sex (inexorably intertwined concepts in western capitalism as well as in the novel), panasonic has the added benefit of also being an “imaginary word” invented by marketers. A word without real origin but seeming to indicate one in its quasi-Latinate morphemes. A word that seems to exude a mystical, hermetic meaning—but in actuality is nothing but a semiotic sign representing a quasi-real entity known as a corporation. Panasonic is a word that is both magical and meaningless—a perfect word for a postmodern novel in which the characters are mortally beset on all sides by the detritus of consumer culture: objects and signs of mediated culture and even sublimated culture where the real no longer even exists amidst the signs that have replaced them. It exemplifies Baudrillard’s hyperreality. Whether the title invokes a persistent sound that carries no signal (white noise) or a cynically manufactured word that has no meaning beyond the ephemeral and subjective (panasonic), DeLillo’s novel could just have easily taken on the name of Ubik: The Prequel for the way it continues the commentary established by Philip K. Dick in the novel Ubik, fifteen years earlier.
Dick’s Ubik (1969) is a novel that straddles the line between modern and postmodern. It presents a narrative that does not adhere itself to strict limitations of time and place, objective reality, or even plot. What it is primarily concerned with is the encroachment of the commodified culture, the decay of the root or primary meaning of the sign, as the development of hyperreality solidifies and the nature of mortality in a society of death denial. Heinrich, the son of White Noise’s main character, Jack Gladney, recognizes the root value of the commodities of their modern culture when he challenges his father to imagine explaining the modern versions of things to people from an ancient past. Everything regresses to basic items, their roots, when you try to explain the modern extrapolations. Heinrich imagines everything comes back to the question of component atoms, basic elements such as light and fire, when you try to explain modern objects to a hypothetical ancient Greek (142-3). In Dick’s Ubik, the main character, Joe Chip, ruminates about the nature of the prime versions of things as everything around him literally regresses into earlier, more basic versions of commodities: “Perhaps this weirdly verified a discarded ancient philosophy, that of Plato’s ideal objects, the universals which, in each class, were real” (132). Dick, through his characters, questions where the real in the commodities are. Both DeLillo and Dick point an unforgiving magnifying glass at the modern, western human nature to attempt to fight death by accumulating objects we assume have innate permanence. We deny our mortality by surrounding ourselves with items that we imbue with the magical ability to provide meaning, filling our Lacanian “Lack” with what should be meaning derived from the “Real,” but instead is just flotsam and jetsam of consumer culture that once separated from the false meaning imposed upon them, become simply society’s debris. Douglas Keesey explores, in his book Don DeLillo, the nature of objects, manufactured and natural, even people, that are replaced by simulacra—distancing us from the original: “If signs of the natural world have come to replace the real thing, so too have media representations of human nature worked to distance us from ourselves” (137). Keesey considers what is leftover of a sign, or simulation of the Real, when the sign is discarded.
This examination of the waste of consumerist culture begins its Dickian life as the same commodities that DeLillo uses as part of the white noise, in Dick’s 1955 short story, “Foster, You’re Dead.” The father (who had refused to fully embrace the capitalist ideology) of the main character, observes:
You know, this game has one real advantage over selling people cars and TV sets. With something like this we have to buy. It isn’t a luxury, something big and flashy to impress the neighbors, something we could do without. If we don’t buy this we die. They always said the way to sell something was to create anxiety in people. Create a sense of insecurity–tell them they smell bad or look funny. But this makes a joke out of deodorant and hair oil. (233)
Philip Dick gets to the root of the commodity culture by forcing us to examine the impetus that drives us to accumulate objects. Our very mortality is addressed by consumerism, preyed upon by the marketers and pitchmen, as we are convinced that our very identity, né, our very life, is at risk if we do not buy into the mass consumption—figuratively and literally. Babette, Jack Gladney’s wife in White Noise, realizes this on some level: “’It is all a corporate tie-in,’ Babette said in summary. ‘The sunscreen, the marketing, the fear, the disease. You can’t have one without the other’” (252). Jesse Kavadlo writes in his essay, “Recycling Authority: Don DeLillo’s Waste Management,” “Waste conveys power and aura; as the excess of photographs in the much-discussed ‘Most Photographed Barn’ passage ‘reinforces its aura’, so repeated spending and Jack’s own sense of buying power reinforces his frail feelings of self worth…” (165-6).
But death invariably comes, as the scientist who DeLillo’s Jack intends to kill, comes to understand. The scientist who attempted to create a pill, for eventual purchase of course, that would allow one to forget their fear of death—the supreme analog for this commodity-as-panacea theme: the ultimate, “super piece of engineering” (216), manufactured, packaged, and marketed commodity to fulfill the ultimate human desire of repressing (or eliminating altogether) the ultimate human fear. And following that, “…a greater death. More effective, productwise. This is what the scientists don’t understand, scrubbing their smocks with Woolite. Not that I have anything personal against death from our vantage point high atop Metropolitan County Stadium” (294).
So the product of consumer culture builds and collects, gathers around us. What is so expertly packaged and displayed in garish and eye-catching presentation, (or in ironically plain generic labels), patiently laying in wait on store shelves and dealers’ lots, collects helter-skelter as they are activated from their state of potential fulfillment of desire to discarded remnants of unfulfilled desire, upon purchase. A condition of all things associated with consumerist society made readily observable in the consumption of objects. Dick moves his critique of commodification from the manufacturing of desire and its manipulated (non) fulfillment, to the condition of the debris in his 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. One of the characters, living in an abandoned apartment building surrounded by the objects left behind by people who have emigrated off-world, tries to explain the nature of these cast-off commodities, or kipple:
“Kipple is useless objects, like junk mail or match folders after you use the last match or gum wrappers or yesterday’s homeopape. When nobody’s around, kipple reproduces itself. For instance, if you go to bed leaving any kipple around your apartment, when you wake up in the next morning there’s twice as much of it. It always gets more and more.”
“I see.” The girl regarded him uncertainly, not knowing whether to believe him. Not sure if he meant it seriously.
“There’s the First Law of Kipple,” he said. “‘Kipple drives our nonkipple.’ Like Gresham’s law about bad money. And in these apartments there’s been nobody there to fight the kipple.”
“So it has taken over completely,” the girl finished. She nodded. “Now I understand.” (57)
Later in the narrative, the protagonist, Rick Deckard, extrapolates the kipple from simply the remnants of commodities to the entire of human production, if not humanity itself, by ruminating, “This rehearsal will end, the performance will end, the singers will die, eventually the last score of the music will be destroyed in one way or another; finally the name Mozart will vanish and the dust will have won” (86). DeLillo’s Jack Gladney makes this same realization. He discusses with his friend and colleague, Murray, the work of Nazi architect Albert Speer and the Law of Ruins. He explains that Hitler had, despite his range of mental and moral defects, an uncanny appreciation of the temporal nature of things. He understood that despite the best efforts of an individual or even a society, everything eventually crumbles. So Hitler entreated Speer to create Reich structures “that would decay gloriously, impressively, like Roman ruins” (246). Murray’s ending remark in this conversation hints at his understanding that the effort to avoid the ruin, the decay into dust, may be futile when he ironically comments, “In any case, prevention is the thing, isn’t it? I’ve just seen the latest issue ofAmerican Mortician. Quite a shocking picture. The industry is barely adequate to accommodating the vast numbers of dead” (249). Murray later poses the question to Jack: “’That’s what it all comes down to in the end,’ he said. ‘A person spends his entire life saying good-bye to other people. How does he say good-bye to himself?’” (280). In answer, Jack continues his ongoing campaign of throwing away the kipple that he has accumulated throughout his life—discarding everything from crusted paintbrushes and clothes hangers to items that represent his own identity: “diplomas, certificates, awards and citations” (280). Things that are not just commodities but objects that culturally serve as signs of the person, the semiotics of the personhood. Kavadlo describes it as, “The temporary satisfaction from consumption is surpassed by the thrill of disposal; Gladney attempts his own form of existential waste management, discarding the items he had previously used for protection” (166).
During an emergency evacuation, Jack discovers his brief exposure to a toxic waste spill may or may not cause a “premature” death sometime in the next…thirty years (136). His sentence is given to him by an emergency preparedness simulation worker who is disgruntled by the fact this real emergency is not providing the most useful simulation conditions. (In other words, the Real is intruding itself upon the simulacrum where it is unwelcome. The hyperreality is preferred!) While Jack appears unaware of the fact the information he is given about his possible death is no more reliable or specific than a fortune cookie’s message of “You will one day meet your destiny,” his manic disposal of accumulated consumerist rubble and reified identity is an attempt to hold back the death sentence his close encounter with a toxic cloud made him more aware of. Even so, he continues to live in an environment in which his and his family’s vitality and shared, cohesive spirit are fed and nurtured by the hermetic powers of the consumerist media. Babette feels that once-a-week television watching under the auspices of parental figures would demystify and “de-glamorize” the object and the medium (16), although we see throughout the novel that the television appears to move almost of its own accord around the house, from room to room, constantly broadcasting its mystical incantations to buy product, examine the modification of the natural world into new and improved signs and symbols, and to pay attention to your financial well-being. The television in White Noiseis ironically a central character in the Gladney household. It is the means by which daughter Steffie acquires her sleeping vocabulary, such as “Toyota Celica” (148), that sooth Jack like a magical totem. The only time the family really notices Babette is when her light-generated image, the mediated sign that represents Babette and may be more real than Babette herself, is projected to the family through the television. The television is constantly spilling the symbols of kipple into the Gladney house; the family constantly bring it in from the malls and shops. Mark Poster, in his article “Future Advertising: Dick’s Ubik and the Digital Ad” is referring to Dick’s Ubik when he is discussing the power of advertisements, but the same observations apply equally to White Noise: “…commercials are cultural objects, strings of words, images, and sounds. And they are so arranged as to fascinate all who encounter them. They constitute the highest promise of happiness and fulfillment of any experience in capitalist society” (30).
Jack may try to rid himself of the collected objects that are a recursive reminder of material mortality while at the same time serving as a material salve for the fear of death; however, the very sign of commodification has transcended the objects in White Noise and have come to exist without the need of the root item. The reader is shown this in the way the objects of marketing and consumerism permeates the novel, disconnected in any concrete manner. From out of nowhere we are reminded of “Kleenex Softique, Kleenex Softique” (39), “MasterCard, Visa, American Express” (99), “Dristan Ultra, Dristan Ultra” (159), even a passing woman on the street is heard chanting, “A decongestant, an antihistamine, a cough suppressant, a pain reliever” (250). The mystical non-words of commodities take on the feeling of a weight they intrinsically do not have, imbued with meaning that seems to transcend the objects they are supposed to represent. In the book, Muse in the Machine: American Fiction and Mass Publicity, Mark Conroy maintains: “DeLillo is most conscious of how the more elaborate forms of spirituality that preceded consumer culture still inhere, in a degraded and superstitious form, within consumer culture itself” (153). We see the magic of the commodity everywhere—ubiquitous.
Philip K. Dick reveals this is the nature of commodity, of the marketing that serves as the magical rites and processes that transform meaningless sounds into hyperreal signs, or signals, in the novelUbik. Where in White Noise DeLillo ends certain sections and chapters with incantations like:
PLEASE NOTE: In several days, your new automated banking card will arrive in the mail…. WARNING. Do not write down your code. Do not carry your code on your person. REMEMBER. You cannot access your account unless your code is entered properly. Know your code. Reveal your code to no one. Only your code allows you to enter the system. (281)
Dick begins each of his chapters of Ubik with almost cliché and panasonic marketing spiels like:
We wanted to give you a shave like no other you ever had. We said, It’s about time a man’s face got a little loving. We said, With Ubik’s self-winding Swiss chromium never-ending blade, the days of scrape-scrape are over. So try Ubik. And be loved. Warning: use only as directed. And with caution. (61)
Each chapter begins with similar epigraphs in which the unknown product “Ubik” stands in for various common commodities from coffee to cars, cleaner to bras. Each commercial injected into the narrative reveals the marketer’s objective of creating an anxiety that can only be alleviated by the product being sold—as explained by Dick’s Mr. Foster and DeLillo’s Babette. And each ad/epigraph carries a reminder of the inherent threat the commodity poses with the disclaimer: “Use only as directed,” an admonition DeLillo injects when Jack is on his way to kill Dr. Gray: “Void where prohibited” (289).
In White Noise, DeLillo has the noise of mediated culture come through the television: the advertisements, the cultural wisdom, and the family’s wife and mother at one point. In Ubik, Dick has the corporate patriarch communicate to the main character through various consumerized media, such as matchbook covers—and the television. Where DeLillo’s Babette’s very essence is imagined to enter the house and permeate the family with her radiant image (102-4), Dick’s Glen Runciter is actually dead and literally communing with the protagonist through the same device that disseminates the advertisements and symbols of consumerist culture (124-9). Mark Osteen examines the way in which the television and the media at large serve not only as a material but spiritual medium as well, in his book American Magic and Dread: Don DeLillo’s Dialogue with Culture: they “regale viewers with commercials bearing the gospel of consumerism: that consumption provides therapy for body and soul.” These advertisements, or, “channels of desire,” Osteen contends, “also describes a popular form of New Age spirituality, the practice of ‘channeling,’ in which dead souls… allegedly speak through living humans, or ‘channels’” (166). The device for entertainment that is often used as a means to carry advertising into the home, is the device that mediates, or “channels,” major characters in both novels—creating a deeper confusion of the Real with the symbol for it. Note that in all of Jack Gladney’s purging of kipple from his home, he never considers removing the television as part of the problem, part of the source for the desire to horde as a way of mitigating the fear of death, confusion of identity, and succumbing to manufactured material need. Jack, as a participant in his own commodification (through his career in which he was “shrewed” enough to find a way to sell himself, and then maintain the illusion by creating a false identity for his students and colleagues, and himself, to buy into), and a participant in the ubiquitous consumerist society, spends incredible energy and takes incredible risk to try to free himself from this situation that he must ultimately succumb to. In contrast, note how Jack’s German tutor, the reclusive Howard, gives in to the kipple. Upon each of Jack’s visits, Howard’s boarding room becomes increasingly similar to the abandoned apartments of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. In each instance the waste and furnishings amass until finally Jack says, “I went to one last lesson. The walls and windows were obscured by accumulated objects, which seemed now to be edging toward the middle of the room. The bland-faced man before me closed his eyes and spoke, reciting useful tourist phrases. ‘Where am I?’ ‘Can you help me?’ ‘It is night and I am lost.’ I could hardly bear to sit there” (227). One can easily imagine that if Jack were to return to Howard, he might be discovered to have actually disappeared into the waste of objects, turning to the dust that Rick Deckard foresees as the fate of everyone and everything from Mozart to himself.
One of White Noise’s working titles was The American Book of the Dead (Barrett 186). Just as Panasonic would have been an infinitely appropriate title, so would that fictional addition to the line of ancient Book of the Dead tomes. Howard had a copy of the Egyptian Book of the Dead in his room, and Jack refers to the Tibetan Book of the Dead—the novel White Noise is in many ways a modern equivalent of these religious texts. It provides consumerist chants such as “Coke is it, Coke is it, Coke is it” (51), and “Leaded, unleaded, super unleaded” (189) in semi-non sequitur context to the narration, and describes the manner of persistent dying in the western culture in relation to the stuff we accumulate, whether it is to forget death or with the wish to be able to take it with us like the pharaohs of Egypt. In many ways we share the same belief as these dead cultures in that we believe the things we acquire transcend their physical form, just as we believe we do upon death, and will carry on with in some ethereal consumerist existence. Mark Osteen suggests: “People desire containers that fulfill their spiritual yearnings, and consumer packaging fills the void created by the disappearance of traditional religious icons. Thus…for Jack and many contemporary Americans, consuming attaches persons to the things whose reproducibility betokens immortality” (171). In some subconscious manner we tie our identities to the things we own, expecting them to exist apart from and beyond their reality. Commodity fetishism reverting from a modern ideological abstraction back to an ancient connotation of magical fetishism—the totems that have spiritual and mystical life beyond the physical.
Interestingly, Ubik is acutely associated with the Tibetan Book of the Dead as well. In Dick’s world of Ubik, people can actually exist beyond death in keeping with the beliefs of “waiting places” and reincarnation found in the ancient religious book. More than that, people can communicate with the living thanks to the miracle of modern technology—so long as you have enough money to buy space in a moratorium and can afford the upkeep. Within this limbo, called “half life,” all the trappings and accoutrement of the consumerist society remain. You really can, in a sense, take it with you. Except, as Ubik’s Joe Chip discovers, the assumed persistence of commodities, both mystical and material, can not be relied upon as things regress back to earlier more primitive versions of themselves. Or, in the case of people, revert back to the dust from which they were created: “But this old theory—didn’t Plato think that something survived the decline, something inner not able to decay? The ancient dualism: body separated from the soul…. Maybe so, he thought. To be reborn again, as the Tibetan Book of the Dead says” (132). Does DeLillo’s Jack come to the same realization Joe Chip toys with but in the end fails to accept? That despite the encroaching kipple and its ultimate decay, we are not doomed to be completely swallowed up by it? Jack begins White Noise as part of the culture, so enmeshed in the commodification that he is himself commodified. He recognized the hyperreality of the world around him, but he participates in the evolution of the simulacra to the hyperreal. When faced with the reality of his own death he tries to deny it ridding himself of the debris society convinces us we need to live, but remains a subject of the process. Finally, Jack does learn that death is inescapable—a lesson Joe Chip does not. Laura Barrett observes in her article: “’How the Dead Speak to the Living’: Intertextuality and the Postmodern Sublime in White Noise,” how “the novel’s most powerful mystery, death, supplied the very fabric of Jack’s salvation; his near-death experience allows him to move beyond his paralyzing fear of death” (191).Ubik leaves Joe Chip in a situation in which he is so ultimately beholden to consumerist culture that the ideology of commodification (in the physical form of the product “Ubik”) is his temporarily effective weapon against the manifestation of the ideology of consumption (in the form of the novel’s antagonist), trapped in an existence that is literally all appearance and illusion. Jack, on the other hand, while also still trapped in a world of illusion, has come to realize his place in it and its inescapableness. Joe is left in the constant battle against the encroaching kipple, decay, and death; Jack seems to resign himself to it and simply appreciate the ironic beauty of it.
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DeLillo, Don. White Noise. 1984. New York: Penguin Books, 1999.
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—. “Foster, You’re Dead.” The Philip K. Dick Reader. New York: Citadel Press, 1987.
—. Ubik. 1969. New York: Vintage, 1991.
Hearst, Andrew. “An Annotation of the First Page of White Noise, With Help From Don
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I enjoyed that paper. I seriously need to read White Noise now.
On Ubik I have come to a number of conclusions that mirror yours. I’m currently writing a masters paper on Dick’s novel (a french masters in english language literature). I would like to quote a passage of your paper in mine. Call it intertextuality in post-grad studies.
It would be better if I had your full name though and I can’t seem to find it. Would you care to get in touch ? I left my e-mail while registering, I believe you have access to it.
Ugh, I just realized how terrible the formatting is! I need to do something about the paragraph breaks.
Thanks for reading it, and I’m glad you found something of value in it. =)
After this semester’s over I plan on giving it another edit and then submitting it to a journal, so you may see it in another form hopefully.
(But then, how many times in different forms has Jameson’s introduction to POSTMODERNISM been published?!) 🙂