This paper analyzes the treatment of media in novels by Don DeLillo. Key concepts in the study of media will be presented and explained in regard to how they are represented in DeLillo’s novels. The focus will be on the novels and not on the media, after all this is a master’s thesis in Literary and not in Communications Studies.
Media and media theory, in our age of information capitalism are, now more than ever before, a topic that deserves close scholarly attention. Media theorists agree that to study the media is to study one of the most important topics of the day and that “such study should be compulsory part of every citizens liberal education”. Most people in their daily lives are permanently surrounded by media. No matter if it is our entertainment, information, health, knowledge, memory, identity, dreams, emotions, or even our dying – all have by now been incorporated by the media. It is impossible to understand our acting and thinking without considering the influence of mediation. The entire history of mankind is inseparable from media, from language to the alphabet and the printing press all the way to today’s instant electronic communication. “Every interpretation of anything is medially determined”, media are our means of understanding, it is through them that we try to make sense of the world. As this paper will show, the mass media now have an enormous influence of both public and private life of Western culture, in fact
individuals as much as nations today formulate their agendas, memories, and
identities in response to values and passions that are increasingly formed through
mechanically reproduced images.
Images and electronic media increase their cultural authority to the disadvantage of the print medium, essentially, it has been argued, to the disadvantage of literature. Yet this paper will show how the media are, in turn, incorporated into the contemporary American novel by Don DeLillo.
Don DeLillo was born in 1936 in the Bronx, New York City, to Italian immigrant parents. He graduated in communication arts in 1958 and worked the next five years as a copywriter in advertising. Americana, his first novel, was published in 1971, yet it is not until 1986, and five novels later, that he becomes widely recognized, when he received the American Book Award for White Noise. More novels and more public acclaim follow (Libra hit the bestseller list for a couple of weeks in 1989) and today DeLillo is considered to be one of the most important of contemporary American novelists. Quarterlies (e. g. Modern Fiction Studies) devote special issues solely to DeLillo’s work, his novels, especially White Noise, are compulsory reading for academic courses on contemporary fiction and the University of Texas bought his notes and papers for its archive (The Don DeLillo Papers). In short, as Duvall notes in his introduction to the above mentioned special issue in Modern Fiction Studies, “in DeLillo’s case this construction [of literary celebrity] is ongoing and becoming fully institutionalized: the processes of canonization are in play”.
Still there is more than literary fame and academic recognition that makes DeLillo a good choice for an investigation of the relation between the media and fiction, for “DeLillo is clearly depicting the dawn of the media age”. Maybe it is from his experience in advertising that DeLillo is so fascinated, even obsessed with the media. In an interview he himself says that “the notion of a medium between an event and an audience, film and television in particular” have always informed his work. DeLillo knows that representing contemporary life and culture in fiction is impossible without considering its mediation, he “knows that we cannot escape the media through which we understand, however corrupted they might be”. Therefore the mass media are a chief characteristic of DeLillo’s work. Arnold Weinstein titles DeLillo “the poet laureate of the media age”, arguing that DeLillo is outstanding when it comes to both understanding and writing about the effects of mass media. Consequently he not only incorporates mediation in his novels but also addresses a readership of media-consumers. As Tom LeClair notes:
DeLillo wants to elicit the interest of those general readers who are soaked in or shot
through with our culture of entertainment, the media that we consume and that
Curiously, DeLillo’s special status as a novelist in regard to the media seems to be acknowledged by the mass media apparatus itself, for, as Hal Crowther speculates:
It strikes me that DeLillo may be recorded, and profit by being recorded, as the last
serious novelist denounced by the American media establishment while it still
acknowledges the existence of literature, or indeed of anything that wasn’t created by,
for, or in conjunction with television.
In this regard, this paper discusses one of the most, if not the most important topic in DeLillo’s novels. The novels that I will analyze in this paper are White Noise (1984), Libra (1988) and Mao II (1991).
At the heart of White Noise, a novel that depicts contemporary American small town life, is a chemical spillage, both real and in the media. DeLillo wrote this novel after living three years in Greece, where he wrote The Names, and identifies coming home to American television as a major motivation:
When I came back to this country in 1982, I began to notice something on television
which I hadn’t noticed before. This was the daily toxic spill – there was the news, the
weather and the toxic spill. This was a phenomenon noone mentioned. It was simply a
television reality. It’s only the people who were themselves involved in these terrible
events who seemed to be affected by them. Noone even talked about them. This was
one of the motivating forces of White Noise.
And this is merely one of many media-related topics in the novel. Radio and television are given voices like characters, characters suffer from ‘brain fade’ due to information overload and are addicted to radio and television shows. A rich source for the analysis of the treatment of media, White Noise culminates in passages about the most photographed barn in America, and establishes a sinister connection between media and death.
Libra is a fictional account of the events that lead to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on November 22nd in 1963. The assassination itself is a historical event of high interest to media theory for mainly three reasons. First, President Kennedy was the first American television president. His election campaign was broadcasted and he frequently addressed the nation on television. Second, we know almost everything about the “seven seconds that broke the back of the American century” from the Zapruder film, blurred footage that ironically disguises more than it shows. Third, the Kennedy assassination gave huge rise and power to the mass media, especially television. Johnston reads the assassination as a complicated information multiplicity that paved the way for today’s mass media:
Out of this information multiplicity, moreover, conspiracies proliferated and political
lines of force suddenly constellated into a new audiovisual regime in which public
discourse is defined by mass media images.
The novel incorporates this brilliantly, giving equal attention to cameras and guns. The assassination can be regarded as the dark center of DeLillo’s works, mentioned in more than one of his novels: from Americana, which ends with protagonist David Bell driving through Dealy Plaza in Dallas along the route of the Kennedy motorcade, to Oswald being mentioned in Players, all the way to a screening of the Zapruder film in Underworld. DeLillo has more than once admitted that the assassination might have invented him as a writer:
Certainly, when it happened, I was not a fully formed writer; I had only published
some short stories in small quarterlies. As I was working on Libra, it occurred to me
that a lot of tendencies in my first eight novels seemed to be collecting around the
dark center of the assassination. So it’s possible I wouldn’t have become the kind of
writer I am if it weren’t for the assassination.
When talking about the Kennedy assassination it is impossible to neglect the way in which it was mediated, in fact ‘The Kennedy Assassination’ is more than a single homicide. It is a historical, political, and a media event. As Karnicky puts it:
The ‘event’ of the assassination includes, and cannot be separated from, the mass
media representations of it. There is ‘no one’ movement of the assassination; the
Zapruder film, the shooting of Oswald on film and endlessly repeated, the televising
of Kennedy’s funeral, and so on… are all components that invented DeLillo.
In this sense, Libra provides rich material for both, an analysis of Don DeLillo the writer and an investigation of the power of mass media and their novelistic representation.
The third novel to be discussed, Mao II, deals with the proliferation of mechanically reproduced images. A major topic is photography and its effects on both the individual and society:
From ‘Yankee Stadium’ to ‘In Beirut’, Mao II carries the reader full circle from
photography’s seemingly innocuous, even benign, use as a preserver of memories, an
attempt to identify and maintain the image of a loved one, through its manipulative
and destructive power to level differences and efface subjectivity, to its unexpected
power to redeem identity.
The novel shows the conflict between the arch-individualistic man of letters and the mass mind of instant electronic communication. It shows how the mass media give rise to terrorists and totalitarian leaders such as Mao Zedong or the Ayatollah Khomeini while posing a serious threat to individual identity.
The paper is divided into four main chapters. The first deals with media studies, with a sub-chapter on media theory and another on the history of media. The second chapter discusses how DeLillo writes about the effect of media on the individual, both physically and psychologically, with sub-chapters on the estheticising effect of media, on their effect on experience, reality, perception and identity. The third chapter is devoted to the novels’ environment, to the way in which DeLillo describes the world of his characters and how it is determined by media and representation. Sub-chapters are mediaspeak, art and aura and the dissolving of the public and private sphere. The fourth and last chapter of this paper is an investigation into the nature of the relationship between the mass media and death in DeLillo’s fiction. I will analyze the death of Mao II ’s protagonist Bill Gray, Jack Gladney’s confrontation with Mr. Gray in White Noise, and the role of media in the deaths of John F. Kennedy and Lee H. Oswald in Libra.
These topics are chosen for two obvious reasons: they are key concepts in the study of media and they are of vital importance and weight in DeLillo’s novels. As stated above, the emphasis here is on literature and not on media, which is why I will try as much as possible to keep the novels’ chronology intact. Still it makes sense to use a coherent structure in the investigation of mass media phenomena, which is why I will apply the compromise of at least partly sacrificing the novels’ chronology and discussing a phenomenon like mediated experience for each novel in turn. Rather than discussing each novel separately, from beginning to end, one after the other, I will seek to compare my findings from all three novels by analyzing the treatment of mass media issues in all three novels in the same chapter. The sequence, which novel is discussed first, varies from chapter to chapter. Often I present the novel that I personally found to be the most rewarding in regard to the chapter’s topic last, thereby attempting to establish a form of climax.
Finding and acquiring secondary sources for this paper did not prove to be too difficult. Research on media and media theory has by now resulted in a vast body of literature and, DeLillo being a favorite in the community of literary studies, secondary sources on the novels are easy to find and mostly also available. For the chapter on media and media theory I will draw on introductions to media theory and on the work of theorists like Adorno, Benjamin, Williams, Hall, and Sontag with an emphasis on the writings of Marshall McLuhan. I will now start with a brief history of the media.
II. History and Theory of the Media
1. Media History
The history of media is complex and difficult to grasp because we now take most mediation for granted. We cannot imagine the world without the print technology or even without writing, much less without language. Still many scholars of Media Theory regard language as a medium, as the first medium. Reading into media theory one is easily overwhelmed by the vastness of the subject, it is difficult to find a starting point when everything that transports (and thereby transforms) information from a sender to a receiver is a medium. In order to avoid confusion, I will start with this brief history of communication, placing the various media in their historical context in order to get a grasp on the complex development that led to today’s mass media regime. After all “the student of a medium cannot go wrong if she begins carefully with its history”. Since language development is still myth and according to many scholars forbidden territory I shall begin my history with the development of the first alphabets. Writing the history of media I draw on the media introductions by Inglis, Mulder, Marris and Thompson.
a. Oral vs. Literate Societies
In oral cultures language meaning is highly specific to everyday needs and also geographically very much restricted. Knowledge is passed on face to face from one generation to the next. The teaching method is showing. What is taught or shown is practical knowledge and the skills that are necessary for survival. The key feature of knowledge in non-literate societies is, of course, memory. This memory is usually passed on by means of oral poetry, with devices like rhyme and rhythm to strengthen individual memory. This way poems serve to establish and maintain identity and tribal consciousness, though always and necessarily in a small community or tribe, the reason being the slowness and local significance of oral poetry.
The first records of human speech are the early alphabets that enabled a literate society and changed social relations. Writing, with the new advantages of compiling files and records, archives, letters, lists, and so on, worked over society completely. The alphabet also enabled the recording of history and new ways of education. The first alphabets were only known by a small groups in the respective societies, thus promoting an elite with special powers over the vast majority.
About 3000 BC the urban societies of China developed the first alphabet, a visual alphabet with many signs recognizably matching the objects they signify. This alphabet is highly complicated, even today it takes over twenty years to fully command, and it brought the mandarinate into being, a powerful literate aristocracy.
More alphabets followed: the Egyptian hieroglyphs and so called syllable alphabets in the Near East (a syllable alphabet has one sign for a sequence of sounds that can consist on more than one consonant and vowel). The division of labor between mental and manual forms that we take for granted today can be traced back to the early bureaucracies of the Sumerian and Babylonian societies.
The most sophisticated and abstracted alphabet was developed in Greece from the eighth century BC onwards. The Greeks learned the alphabet very fast, since they needed a literate society in order to set up their democratic city states. As Inglis points out “the new alphabet, no doubt, would have been both cause and instrument in this process, so that by 500 BC or so, the small, self-governing, prosperous Greek and Ionian city-states were the first generally literate societies”.
b. The Gutenberg Printing Press
Before Johann Gutenberg invented the printing press with movable types (some time after 1460) books were either hand-written or in block-print. In block-print a whole page was carved in wood and then pressed on paper, a very time-consuming and unpractical technology with poor quality. “For a thousand years in Europe, darkness stood upon the face of the earth, and book culture barely survived.” Before the printing press many classic works in Latin and Greek were simply lost.
“The coming of the book was the biggest change the world had ever seen”. In the middle of the fifteenth century Gutenberg was able to print books of uniform good quality in relative high runs. The big advantage over the block-print technology was that Gutenberg used single, movable letters and spaces instead of carving out a whole page in wood. He used a press that derived from the wine and the linen press and created a mixture of lead and antimony to cast his letters. Gutenberg was soon able to exploit his invention commercially, although he printed books in Latin (mostly the Bible) for the first fifty years and thus had a rather small readership. After the market for Latin books was more or less saturated, Gutenberg printed books in German, thereby giving rise to a new culture and literacy. A good example of the enormous change brought about by the print technology is the spread of Martin Luther’s Theses. Originally Luther had nailed them to the door of the Augustinian Church in Wittenberg and not much later they were printed on flysheets and distributed. “It has been estimated that the theses were known throughout Germany in a fortnight and throughout Europe in a month.” That is sensational speed. Before print, ideas and ideologies took years, if not centuries, to spread over a region as vast as the whole of Europe. Never before has a medium had an audience as large as that of the book. In fact, as Thompson stresses, the event of printing is the first of many that lead to today’s global media: “the rise of new media industries as new bases of symbolic power is a process that can be traced back to the second half of the fifteenth century.”. Another development of print that had a huge influence on European culture and history are the newspapers.
c. The Newspapers
About one and a half century after the commercialization of the printing press the first newspapers started to appear. The first papers were very different from our modern newspapers today. They were not published regularly and the format was rather simple: often just a single page filled with seemingly unrelated, arbitrarily chosen news items. It took a while for news agencies to develop a regular and reliable service of information.
As Thompson notes,
the origins of modern newspapers are usually traced back to the first two decades of
the seventeenth century, when regular journals of news began to appear on a weekly
basis with some degree of reliability.
The development sped up more and more and from 1830 to 1880 hundreds of newspapers were founded for different social classes, offering a large variety of audiences a way of orientation in an increasingly complicated world. Around that time, also, newspapers started to industrialize both their production and distribution. Papers like the Daily Mail and then the Daily Express bore down on the market with economics of sale. The bigger a paper’s audience is the cheaper is its production and thus the cost for a single paper, which enables to undercut competitors. The whole process of industrializing newspapers became possible due to a number of technological inventions and improvements, such as the steam press and the rotary press. From that point on the printing industry was able to construct heavy machinery for fast print of high quality. Around the same time the general industrialization lead to a substantial growth of the urban population and a significant increase in literacy. This new urban population constituted a very different and much larger newspaper audience. Newspapers started addressing not only the literate elites as they had done before, but orientated themselves to a much broader public. In order to do so successfully journalists had to adapt their newspaper’s language. Newspaper style became much livelier and lighter. As readerships expanded, advertising assumed an increasingly important role and gave newspapers the commercial character that they still have today. Towards the end of the nineteenth century newspapers
increasingly became large-scale commercial ventures which required relatively large
quantities of capital in order to be initiated and sustained in the face of increasingly
Newspapers united populations in ideology and opinions even faster than books had done before. At the same time they provided a forum for public opinion, what Jürgen Habermas calls the ‘Public Sphere’, and enabled a much better informed public in both monarchic and democratic cultures. News agencies of course depended increasingly on the speed of the telegraph, an invention that I will describe further on. However, before turning to electric media I will discuss the advent of photography.
In order to describe the invention of photography I will briefly turn to the camera’s predecessor, the camera obscura. The first references to the idea of the camera obscura can be found in the writings of Aristotle about 330 BC. However it was not widely known until the middle of the sixteenth century, when Italian architect Giambatista della Porta actually constructed the device and used it to project images of his party guests to a wall.
The idea is rather simple. The camera obscura was basically a dark room with a hole in one wall. The sunlight from outside this ‘box’ entered through the hole in the wall and projected an inverted image of the outside view on the opposite wall. Much later, towards the end of the nineteenth century, lenses were used to solve the problem of the projected image being inverted and more sophisticated versions of the camera obscura were able to project images from paintings instead of merely the outside view.
Around 1800 Humphrey Davey worked on the idea of ‘writing in light’. He had discovered that silver nitrate darkened upon exposure to sunlight and developed a method of projecting images to paper. He soaked the paper in the silver nitrate and placed objects on it. After exposing the paper to sunlight he could remove the objects and the shape on the paper remained light. He then successfully combined the workings of the camera obscura with the use of his photosensitive chemicals. His main problem was not projecting images through a lens on paper but to fix them to a suitable receptive surface.
This problem was solved by Louis Jaques Mande Daguerre with his Daguerreotype process in 1839. With different chemicals and the use of a silvered copper plate Daguerre was able to produce a direct positive image and received wide attention and interest throughout the western world. His only problem was that he could only produce one image at a time, instead of infinite copies as we can today.
The invention of photography cannot be attributed to a single person, instead many researchers in different countries worked on photographic processes at the same time. It was William Henry Fox Talbot who developed the first negative. He conducted his research around the same time as Daguerre and he was able to fix negatives on paper by 1835. The combined findings of Daguerre, Talbot and others were improved and developed and the photograph “became a familiar feature of Victorian sitting rooms, the standard work of art of industrial popular culture”.
The effects of photography on society were enormous. As McLuhan points out, photography brought the pictorial world into line with industrialization: “For photography mirrored the external world automatically, yielding an exactly repeatable visual image”. This automatic nature of the act of picture-taking and the mechanical reproducibility of the images accompanied the wider, general trend of mechanization and automation of the early nineteenth century.
In the United States the spread of photography resembled an explosion. In fact, as Susan Sontag describes, the American West was conquered as much by photography as by the transcontinental railroads, due to photography’s alliance with tourism: “after the opening of the West in 1869 by the completion of the transcontinental railroad came the colonization through photography”. Faced with the vastness of an alien continent
people wielded cameras as a way of taking possession of the places they visited.
Kodak put sings at the entrance of many towns listing what to photograph. Sings
marked the places in national parks where visitors should stand with their camera.
Sontag describes how the beginnings of photography were already very much in the hands of industry (Kodak) that packaged the photographic experience for tourists and thus promoted homogeneity in terms of objects that are to be photographed. Further she describes what she calls the ‘predatory effects of photography’, how to photograph an object is a means of gaining power, a kind of symbolical possession of it, when she writes that “to collect photographs is to collect the world”.
Photographs are now a fixed part of our lives. Taking pictures is an activity in itself. Just like people dance or have sex they use photography not as an art form but as a social rite. Photography “mainly is a social rite, a defense against anxiety, and a tool for power”, for example when we use pictures to confirm a reality that we are unwilling to face otherwise. We also use photographs in order to influence and strengthen memory, for example when we collect photos of the achievements of our loved ones, like wedding or graduation pictures.
The meaning of a photograph is flexible. A photograph is a still, fixed representation of a fragment of reality, a slice of reality that shows objects frozen, instead of naturally moving. This way a photograph shows us objects and people as the naked eye can never see them. And since “each photograph is only a fragment, its moral and emotional weight depends on where it is inserted. A photograph changes according to the context in which it is seen”. We interpret meaning into photographs. Part of the meaning derives from the objects or people depicted and another part of the meaning derives from what the viewer brings along, depends on the viewer himself. Photographs often have different meanings for different people.
The camera changed perceptions and ideas of reality. Perceiving reality through the lens of a camera ultimately means seeing the world as objects, promoting a notion of reality being there to be photographed. So strong was this change in the perception of reality that the images became more and more powerful, increasing their power to the disadvantage of the very objects they portrayed. A photograph of a tree for example, aroused much more interest than the actual tree, and additionally the photograph could be endlessly reproduced, changed, possessed, handled and kept in ways that a real tree never can.
The enormous success of photography was obvious from the start. Objects seemed to exist in order to be photographed, nothing could be left out, everything had to be seen on a photograph. This way we create an inventory of the world in images, an inventory that “started in 1839 and since then just about everything has been photographed, or so it seems”. The consequence is a culture with more images than actual objects, with a clear priority of the image over the actual object. According to Sontag this hold of photography over reality is partly a result of the industrial society:
Needing to have reality confirmed and experience enhanced by photographs is an
aesthetic consumerism to which everyone is now addicted. Industrial societies turn
their citizens into image-junkies; it is the most irresistible form of mental pollution.
In fact, we have more images of people than people: photo-albums, passport photos, photographic files - the average Westerner owns hundreds of photos of himself. This development is sped up once more with the digital image and, for example, mobile phones with digital cameras. This way people permanently take pictures that they can view immediately after shooting and store them in thousands on the hard drive of their home computers.
More effects and consequences of the advent of photography will be discussed along with the novels in chapters two, three and four. The next media that I wish to introduce here are the telegraph and its successor the telephone.
e. Telegraph and Telephone
Already rather early, around 1774, French researcher Lesage was able to send signals by interrupting electrical impulses along a wire and it took about fifty more years until Samuel Morse was able to transmit readable messages that consisted entirely of long and short impulses. The Morse-alphabet made it possible, the only problem was that Morse could not transmit over distances longer than twenty miles. Morse and Company solved this problem with the invention of a message magnifier and the reach of the telegraphic system became much longer. By the middle of the nineteenth century the telegraph was a commercially successful enterprise and proved to be indispensable for the industrialization of the American West:
As the Western frontier opened up, what America needed above all, to control the
movements of capital and production over its colossal distances, was long range
The telegraph substituted post-coaches in fast transmission and, through its almost instant speed, changed the relations of industrial production. Not just the industry, also politics (foreign relations, law enforcement) were able to react much faster and gained enormous flexibility. The first cable between the U. S. and Europe was laid beneath the Atlantic Ocean in 1858 and most of the United States was cabled by 1861.
The enormous speed of the telegraph lead to many other changes. One example is the founding of the ‘Associated Press’, an independent news agency that gathered information and news items and sold them to the newspapers. This made the communication of news much faster and also more accessible for everyone, with the side effect that people now not only stuck their noses in their neighbor’s and fellow citizen’s business but in everyone’s.
Instant speed in communication came with the invention of the telephone. Graham Bell made his invention workable in 1876, yet, already before Bell researchers had experimented with make-and-break electronic circuits as a means of transmitting voice impulses. Bell put a membrane that is sensitive to the human voice and its variations of pitch in front of an electromagnet. The magnet converted the vibrations into undulating current which was then transmitted and on the other end of the line this process was reversed to produce sound out of electronic current. Essential to this process is that the sound is reproduced at the receiver. It is not the original voice that is transmitted but a copy of it:
Physical phenomena of a regularly punctual sort (speech, visual images) are turned
into geometrical analogues patterns of electric or electronic surges, transmitted, and
by reversing the conversion-and-transmission process reproduced as a copy of their
Understandably the enthusiasm over the possibilities of this new instant speed in communication was not diminished by the fact that one now conversed with copies of voices instead of real people. The telephone broke down the barriers of space like no other medium had before. “The telephone is now the nervous system of the world”, for the first time it is possible to have a conversation with somebody on the other side of the globe. Again the overall speed increased. Political dialogue was much improved, families re-united and, above all, the telephone paved the way for a global economy. The telephone also changed the private life of most people who owned one. Since we do not spend our life waiting for the phone to ring it always interrupts something when it does ring. Most people feel they have no choice but to answer. Arjen Mulder points out that “when the telephone rings, it comes across as an order: one must answer”, this way the telephone changed the very idea of privacy. The next medium I wish to introduce here is the radio.
f. The Radio
As powerful as the advent of the telephone was, it had one major disadvantage: it depended on wires, which is why many scientists dreamed of discovering a means of wireless communication. Starting from the works of researchers involved in wire transmission, James Clerk Maxwell developed the first radio-wave theorem in the 1860s. He was able to prove mathematically that changes in current could be transmitted without any wires or cables whatsoever. Even though a number of researchers worked on Maxwell’s theory, it is Italian scientist Gugliemo Marconi to whom the patent for the invention was granted. He was able to verify that electromagnetic waves travel between two fixed points that are separated by an obstacle, and his systems were the first that were used for extensive broadcasting.
The first voice transmissions were not entertainment. Radio was exclusively used by military forces and in the communication of ships. During World War One important speeches were broadcasted and played to public audiences through loudspeakers.
The first public radio stations that focused on entertainment were launched in the 1920s (the very first was KDKA in Pittsburg) with immediate success. The interest among the general public was enormous and radio stations soon were set up everywhere in the United States and Europe. In order to increase a radio station’s reach, not all transmission was wireless. Instead broadcasting companies used existing telephone lines to transmit their signals. The United States and Europe wanted to expand broadcasting channels and encouraged the use of shortwave signals (FM). This way the medium radio rapidly spread around the globe and by the 1940s there were about one thousand licensed broadcasting stations operating.
The radio sound can be subdivided into speech, sounds and music. Words on radio have symbolic character for they do not resemble the objects they signify. Sound is indexical. It resembles the sound it signifies, the sound that is all around us. Usually we hear selectively, deciding which noises to pay attention to and which not. This is not possible with radio sound. The broadcaster has to prioritize sounds for us, “foregrounding the most important ones and eliminating the irrelevant ones”. In that sense, what we hear on the radio is, as Crisell stresses, not a simulation of natural sound but the construction of an artificial sound environment:
Radio does not seek to reproduce the chaotic, complex and continuous sounds of
actual life: it may tolerate them to a degree, but seeks to convey only those sounds
which are relevant to its messages and arrange them in order of relevance.
According to Crisell, another important feature of radio sound is the absence of it: silence. Radio silence is indexical in both, positive and negative functions. In the negative function there is simple nothing happening on the medium, it is a void that broadcasters call ‘dead air’. Sometimes a program is framed by intervals of silence to create a feeling of the program’s integrity. The positive function of silence is to stimulate the listener’s imagination. An example of this is silence that encourages the listener to imagine an action that has before been announced in dialogue.
By now many people listen to the radio all day long, for example it can become a way to structure the day. What most listeners appreciate though is the feeling of kinship that radio provides. As Kowaltzke points out, “radio gratifies certain psychological needs, such as the need for companionship and a sense of community.” Marshall McLuhan argues that radio unites its audience in a close community of kinship and close relations of interdependence. Radio creates an instant electronically connected crowd of people that are separated in terms of space and sometimes time, too. Switching on the radio and hearing people calling in, one immediately gets the feeling of being connected to a whole system of fellow listeners. McLuhan’s theories about the radio message will be discussed in more detail further on. For now I will turn to the last two major inventions, cinema and television, to be introduced in this chapter.
The medium film was born when researchers combined the previous inventions of the fixed image from photography and the celluloid filmstrip that Kodak introduced. Before the discovery of celluloid for the camera researchers had experimented with filmstrips made of paper or a revolving disc of film (Etienne-Jules Marey invented a camera that shot twelve separate images on a revolving disc of film already in 1882). During the 1890s researchers developed a flexible, transparent film base with a fast exposure time and a camera with a mechanism to pull the film through, an intermittent device to stop the film, and a shutter to block off light.
W. K. L. Dickson, assistant to Thomas Edison, developed a camera that made short 35mm films (Kinetoscope) in 1891, Edison himself built the fist film studio, the Black Maria, in 1893, and in December 1895 the Lumière brothers held the world’s first public showing of a motion picture at a Paris Café. A year later Edison showed the first motion picture in the United States.
The first films were extremely simple in style and format, often consisting of a single long-distance shot that frames an action. It took another ten to fifteen years for the basic film techniques (continuity principle, point of view shot, shot / reverse shot) to develop. Sound was introduced to film in the late 1920s and by that time the Hollywood product was already remarkably standardized. Around that time also, a few films introduced Technicolor sequences consisting of two colors, and by the 1930s Technicolor had been improved to the use of three primary colors. Also the use of brighter light resulted in the illusion of more depth in film.
Cinema owed much of its enormous success to the theater. The setup is similar, which made the spread of the new medium much faster. Movie theaters reminded people of theater, which gave the movie experience an element of familiarity from the start. In addition to that many theaters were simply, and with little financial effort, turned into movie houses. The cinema was extremely popular and drew audiences towards it that other forms of entertainment, like the theater, could only dream of. No other industry in the entertainment business earned as much profits as the film industry. During World War Two the trade of films from country to country was curtailed and after the war Hollywood emerged as the dominant force in world film production. There is only one medium that was so far able to surpass film in terms of audience size and that is television.
Television was thought about, dreamed off and envisioned long before its actual invention and research must have happened parallel to the inventions of photography and film. The credit for the invention is still handed out accordingly to national preferences. Basis for the invention of television were two previous inventions: the Braun cathode ray tube (1897) and Nipkow’s scanning disc (1884). With these prerequisites researchers like Farnsworth and Zworykin worked out how to transform light into current and vice versa. The image was scanned with an electron beam and thereby converted into current. The current in turn was then sent to the cathode ray tube, which recreated the image by scanning it onto a fluorescent surface in 625 horizontal lines that consist of single dots. About 350,000 such elements make up an average television picture. Way to fast for the naked eye to perceive, a single dot of light is shot towards it at a time. It is our persistence of seeing that enables us to see both still and moving pictures on the television screen and not the light mosaic (in primary colors) that it actually is.
What followed was a patent war among researchers across the globe and among competing broadcasting corporations, while the technology was being further developed. At the 1939 New York World’s Fair the Radio Corporation of America announced the launch of commercial television. The same corporation was leading in the development of color television. RCA’s researchers built the first electronic, monochrome compatible color television system from 1946 until 1950 and the corporation began broadcasting in 1953. One of the main problems was of course, that so many viewers already owned monochrome black-and-white sets, which is why broadcasting in color had to be compatible. A landmark in the development of color television was Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color, broadcasted in 1961, for it persuaded many consumers to go out and buy a color television set.
Although the medium television is a very powerful representation it is a representation nonetheless. As Stuart Hall points out:
The television sign is a complex one […] Since the visual discourse translates a three
dimensional world into two-dimensional planes, it cannot, of course, be the referent or
concept it signifies.
An illusion of colored lights forming a mosaic from which we create the image. This is why the film experience seems more realistic than television, the film image comes from light caught on celluloid and is more similar to the way the human eye perceives the world. The television screen in contrast, as McLuhan stresses is visual low in data. It “offers some three million dots per second to the receiver. From these he accepts only a few dozen each instant, from which to make an image.” The selecting of dots and completion of the image stimulates the viewer’s imagination and requires in depth involvement.
Television has direct physical effects on the viewer. According to Mulder television viewing cripples the ability of critical thought:
Neurological research has found that areas of the brain associated with critical
thinking show scarcely any activity during television viewing, but are immediately
reactivated as soon as the set is switched off.
Marshall McLuhan and others after him call this the alpha-state of the brain. During television viewing the right side of the brain almost immediately switches to a neutral, passive state, numbed by the dots of light and color that are shot towards us. The left side of the brain, McLuhan writes, is usually associated with emotions, and is stimulated by the emotional and symbolic content and message of television. The right side of the brain, considered to be the rational guardian of the left side, in its passive state does not protect the left side, which makes us extremely vulnerable to television’s hidden and open messages.
Fred Inglis points out another emotional feature that is inherent in the format of the television screen. He writes that the transmission of only primary colors on rows of dots means that color itself is made very high an crude, that it tends to dazzle. This dazzling effect of the screen serves to glorify even the most profane objects and makes television a perfect medium to arouse desires, making the viewer long for things he does not or cannot possess, which is also why television advertising works so well.
Inglis goes on to explain how television alienates us from reality, as we watch the spectacles of society and envy the participants: “the best explanation of people’s use of electronic television is that they feel powerless in private”. Television promises to bring the whole world to our living room yet this promise turns out to be illusory. Instead, the passive state we are in while watching the screen turns everything on screen into mere spectacle and thus detaches and alienates us from the real events.
Another key feature of television is that it does not maintain a distinction between fact and fiction. Movies on television are interrupted by advertising and trailers for future programs. Yet these are not intended as interruptions. They are what Raymond Williams calls ‘programming as flow’. Program planers seek to catch a viewer’s attention for a whole evening of television flow. The viewing experience is not that of several individual programs but that of pre-programmed flow of different materials blending together. By now this goes as far as inserting a line of text or symbols on the screen during a particular exciting movie scene. Williams calls the this phenomenon of advertising, news, movies, appetizers and trailers blending together “a single, irresponsible flow of images and feelings”. Still most viewers have adapted rather well to the concept of television as a continuous flow of programming, for they plan a whole evening of watching and not a single program or show.
Many things important to the medium television are still left out and simply do not fit in this chapter in terms of space. However, I will now turn to media theory, its development and various schools of thought, before analyzing the treatment of media in Don DeLillo’s novels.
2. Media Theory / Schools of Thought
This being a paper in the study of literature, a chapter on media theory naturally raises the question as to how much theory is actually necessary and helpful for the purpose of this investigation. However I do agree with Fred Inglis, who writes that media studies cannot be as theoretical and abstract as natural science because “nature is lawfully elegant, culture is conventionally messy”. Media theory should neither be too abstract nor too technical. After all what is mainly interesting in the study of a medium is its effects on us humans. Therefore media theory is primarily a human theory and “human theory has to stay near enough to the messiness of human life to take account of time and chance, death and passion, war and money.”. Phenomena in the study of media are interrelated and connected in multi-layered ways, it is extremely complicated to include them in a rational, causal theory. In this sense I understand media theory as Inglis does, as a “means of including a wide range of apparently related events and phenomena within the terms of a single set of descriptions”. Media theory has spawned a large variety of different schools of thought, from which I will introduce only the most important, in regard to their relevance for this paper. I will start with the approach of the US Mass-Communication Studies from the 1920s, proceed with a description of the ideas of the Frankfurt Institute and then move on to the school of British Leavisism. The fourth sub-chapter in this chapter on media theory is devoted to the ideas of Marshall McLuhan, where I will seek to describe his most important theories in more detail. After McLuhan I will turn to Cultural Studies of Media by Raymond Williams and Stuart Hall, then conclude the chapter on media theory with the ideas of Jürgen Habermas and Jean Baudrillard. In the context of this paper I can only describe the most important ideas, concepts and schools of thought of media studies, there will inevitably be gaps and things left out. However I shall try to introduce some of the concepts that are missing when it comes to analyzing the treatment of media in DeLillo’s novels.
a. Mass-Communication Studies in the U. S.
A discussion about the mass media in society was first generated in the United States along with the arrival of radio broadcasting and cinema in the 1920s. Even though the beginnings were rather general discussions, Mass-Communication Studies started serious empirical research that was carried out by psychologists and sociologists already in the 1930s. Robert Merton was at the heart of American social sciences at the time. His work belongs to the functionalist tradition of sociology and he developed a taxonomy of the social functions of the mass media. One of these functions is seen as a dysfunction, namely the ‘narcotizing dysfunction’: Merton argues that the media supply an information overload that narcotizes the media consumer, while making him believe that he is well informed, that he knows about all the problems of the world. According to Merton it is precisely this huge variety of information that creates the apathy in the consumer:
In this peculiar aspect, mass communication may be included among the most
respectable and efficient of social narcotics. They may be so fully effective as to keep
the addict from recognizing his own malady.
Merton collaborated with Paul Lazarsfeld who had immigrated to the U.S. in the 1930s. Lazarsfeld studied measurable changes in attitude and behavior in regard to mass communication. The chief concern of the Mass-Communications approach from the thirties to and during the cold war was, if cultural and esthetic standards were being debased or if the capitalist media developed a historically unprecedented mass popular culture. However Lazarsfeld and Merton do not answer this question and conclude that the solution to the debate can only come from extended empirical research. Still they were quick to discover the self-referential and glorifying characteristic of the media. In 1948 Merton and Lazarsfeld write that “the mass media bestow prestige and authority of individuals and groups by legitimizing their status”. This points to the phenomenon of celebrities, for example television presenters who are famous simply for being in the media. Now, instead of further elaborating on the beginnings of media theory, I shall turn to the famous Frankfurt Institute and its theorists’ Marxist approach to mass media.
b. The Frankfurt Institute
The Frankfurt ‘Institut für Sozialforschung’ was founded in the 1920s by businessman Felix Weil, who wanted an independent inquiry of Marxist theories in regard to German academic studies. The institute’s main researchers were Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Leo Löwenthal, Herbert Marcuse and Walter Benjamin. When Hitler came to power, this group of Jewish scientists who conducted research on Marx was forced to emigrate and continued researching in U. S. exile. However the reception of their work on the mass media received public recognition in the English speaking world very late, since most or their writings were only translated in the seventies.
The group studied what Marx calls the ‘the ideological superstructure’ of cultural life, which is built on top of the economic base and the working masses. They were highly concerned about the culture industry’s (which they viewed like any other industry) aim to sedate the masses, to keep them quiet, in order for the benefactors of capitalism to be able to keep on drawing profits. This negative view about the culture industry is very strong in the writings of Adorno. He criticizes the industry’s tend to pre-package and to level differences. What it comes down to, he writes, is a destruction of the autonomy of art: “the autonomy of works of art […] is tendentially eliminated by the culture industry, with or without the conscious will of those in control.” Adorno is concerned about the industry’s reductiveness and its pretence to actually deal with real life conflicts, while the only thing it does is simulate an illusion. He writes that conflicts portrayed in the media are only solved in appearance, in a way that they can hardly be solved in real life. Yet Adorno, from his elitist position, does not have too much sympathy for the consumers of mass media either:
It may also be supposed that the consciousness of the consumers themselves is split
between the prescribed fun, which is supplied to them by the culture industry, and a
not particularly well-hidden doubt abut its blessings. […] People are not, as the saying
goes, falling for the swindle; if it guarantees them even the most fleeting gratification
they desire a deception which is nonetheless transparent to them.
His view of the culture industry is solely negative, a capitalistic enterprise that successfully sedates the masses and stimulates consumption, while the consumers themselves are happy to keep quiet. As long as they are served enough spectacle to provide fleeting gratifications.
What probably received the most academic acclaim out of the works of the Frankfurt Institute is Walter Benjamin’s famous essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. Benjamin writes that the sacred quality of art, its aura, is lost if the work of art is mechanically reproduced. Contrary to Adorno’s elitist position of condemning new art forms, especially film, Benjamin sees much greater democratic possibilities in reproduced art than in traditional, aureatic art. Novels and films are always reproductions. Of course there is an original manuscript or film role, but this does not make up the ‘work’ simply because it was handled by the author. To reproducible art Benjamin attributed an exhibition value and to aureatic art what he calls ‘cult value’, the aura of authenticity and uniqueness.
As Inglis stresses, it is not quite clear, if Benjamin resents this development for destroying traditional values, or if he enthusiastically heralds a new culture of reproducible art that is freed from the pseudo-religious attributes of its cult value. However, I will discuss the artwork essay in more detail when it comes to identifying the concept of aura that DeLillo develops in his novels. Nonetheless it is clear that Benjamin’s attitude towards the culture industry is as critical as Adorno’s. He reproached the film industry’s attempts to “spur the interest of the masses through illusion-promoting spectacles and dubious speculations”. He resented how the industry could successfully promote film worship and convince the masses that being reproduced on film is absolutely desirable.
No matter how much the members of the Institute argued and disagreed regarding new art forms, they agreed in their criticism of the U. S. Mass-Communications Studies. From their functionalist origin, researchers like Merton and Lazarsfeld claimed that the human institutions and practices are necessary to keep things running and maintain the ordering and powering of society. Now the members of the Frankfurt Institute criticized this attitude for simply endorsing in the way things are and thereby betraying the responsibility of intellectual criticism. Coming from Marxism, they argued that the media systematically protect the ruling class, and reproached functionalists for choosing research topics in order to keep things the way they are. The functionalists, goes the criticism, avoid conflicts and describes a changeless world. The next important school of thought in media theory is British Leavisism and has its origin in literary and cultural studies.
c. British Leavisism
British media theory has its origins in the cultural studies approach by Queenie Leavis. She laments the loss of a society where an elite had a rich, morally charged culture, without low art forms like the detective novel, the film and other non-noble creatures from the capitalistic media. She writes that in the industrial age more than ever people long for meaning, a way to make sense of the world “because modern urban and industrial life cut them off from the strong language and believe of their agrarian grandparents”. Her husband, F. R. Leavis, built his wife’s project into a whole politics of culture and published a pamphlet called Mass Communication and Minority Culture in 1930. He laments how modern life reduces humanity and deprives man of creativity and moral values. His recipe for the crisis was a carefully chosen list of traditional writers for intense reading that would enable the individual to fight off modern life. Together with Denys Thompson he published a guide for teachers called Culture and Environment in 1932. In this book, the authors counterpose an image of pre-industrial life to life in an American town. Leavis argues that pre-industrial society spoke a ‘muscular specific’ and spiritual tongue and thereby held together body and soul. He further claims that when language was split into poetry and prose that human identity was split too. He laments that prose is entirely in the service of science, and poetry in the hands of advertising. Well-meaning as this mourning for traditional values is, it ignores the structure of production, the arrival of industrial capitalism.
Leavis and his followers, often termed liberals, are mainly concerned about the freedom of individuals, while Marxist focus on social classes. As Inglis puts it: “Liberals deploy the facts they do because they are interested in the liberties of the individuals to move freely through society”, while “Marxists pick out their facts because their preoccupations fasten upon the oppression, not of individuals but of classes, by those with the capital which gives them the power”. In both approaches the method follows the interest. However both Liberals and Marxists criticize the “giant structures of culture whose desire for commercial profit seems to destroy the humanness of the world they are supposed to serve”. The difference in method is again obvious in the respective schools’ findings: the Liberals blame industrialism and the Marxists blame capitalism. Out of the tradition of Leavisism evolved later, in the 1960s the cultural studies approach to media theory by theorists like Hall and Williams. But before discussing their work I will turn to the much celebrated and much criticized theories of Marshall McLuhan.
d. Marshall McLuhan
McLuhan was a scholar of English at the University of Toronto and published his fist book about media, The Mechanical Bride, in 1951. Others, The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962) and in 1964 Understanding Media, his most widely known publication, followed. McLuhan views media as extensions of our bodily and psychic faculties: print, or the book, is an extension of the eye, the wheel an extension of the foot, clothing an extension of the skin, electric circuitry an extension of the central nervous system, the photograph is both an extension of the eye and of memory, and radio is an extension of the ear. Television is an extension of our sense of touch because its mosaic form addresses the whole person. According to McLuhan television is so popular precisely because the viewer enjoys being involved with his entire person.
McLuhan writes that all media work us over completely, they influence our bodies and minds independent from us, no matter if we like it or not. One of these influences is the numbing of one or more of our senses, especially when we use a medium we have not used before. In order to use a new medium, we are required, to a certain degree, to give ourselves up to it because “to behold, use or perceive any extension of ourselves in technological form is necessarily to embrace it.”. A medium then, narcotizes exactly the very human faculty it extends:
An extension appears to be an amplification of an organ, a sense or a function that
inspires the central nervous system to a self-protective gesture of numbing the
extended area, at least so far as direct inspection and awareness are concerned.
Thus, when using a medium, we are numbed by the “narcotic effect of new technology that lulls our attention while the new form slams the gates of perception”. Perception is changed dramatically. Through media we extend the reach of our perception in time and space. The medium works us over completely and changes us. This is why the medium is not only the message but also the massage. We are able to perceive in ways we were never able to perceive before but perception is always mediated. It is this artificial element in extended perception that McLuhan describes in his famous claim that the medium is the message.
 Fred Inglis. Media Theory. An Introduction. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1990. p. 6
 Arjen Mulder. Understanding Media Theory. Language, Image, Sound, Behavior. Rotterdam: V2_Publishing/NAi Publishers, 2004. p. 179
 Lutz Koepnick. Walter Benjamin and the Aesthetics of Power. Lincoln/London: University of Nebraska Press, 1999. p. 213
 John N. Duvall. “Introduction. From Valparaiso to Jerusalem: Don DeLillo and the Moment of Canonization”. Modern Fiction Studies. 45,3 (1999). Pp. 559-570. p. 559
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 Inglis. Media Theory. p. 76
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 Inglis. Media Theory. p. 10
 Inglis. Media Theory. p. 14
 Inglis. Media Theory. p. 14
 See: Mulder. Understanding Media Theory. pp. 123-124
 John B. Thompson. The Media and Modernity. A Social Theory of the Media. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1995. p. 57
 Thompson. Media and Modernity. p. 52
 Thompson. Media and Modernity. p. 65
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 Inglis. Media Theory. p. 23
 Marshall McLuhan Understanding Media. The Extensions of Man (1964). London / New York: Routledge Classics, 2004. p. 206
 Susan Sontag. On Photography (1971) . Penguin Classics: New York, 2002. p. 65
 Sontag. On Photography. p. 65
 Sontag. On Photography. p. 3
 Sontag. On Photography. p. 8
 Sontag. On Photography. p. 106
 Sontag. On Photography. p. 3
 Sontag. On Photography. p. 24
 Inglis. Media Theory. p. 23
 See: Mulder. Understanding Media Theory. pp. 136-137
 See: Inglis. Media Theory. pp. 23-24
 See: Inglis. Media Theory. p. 24
 Inglis. Media Theory. p. 24
 Mulder. Understanding Media Theory. p. 136
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 See: McLuhan. Understanding Media. p. 328
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 Stuart Hall. “Encoding/Decoding” (1980). In: Paul Marris and Sue Thornham (ed.). Media Studies. A Reader. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1996. pp. 41-49. p. 44
 McLuhan. Understanding Media. p. 341
 Mulder. Understanding Media Theory. p. 46
 See: Marshall McLuhan and Bruce R Powers. The Global Village. Der Weg der Mediangesellschaft in das 21. Jahrhundert. Paderborn: Junfermann Verlag, 1995. p. 121
 See: Inglis. Media Theory. p. 162
 Inglis. Media Theory. p. 188
 Raymond Williams. Television. Technology and Cultural Form (1974). London / Hanover: Wesleyan University Press, 1992. p. 86
 Inglis. Media Theory. p. 173
 Inglis. Media Theory. p. 173
 Inglis. Media Theory. p. 74
 Robert K. Merton. and Paul F. Lazarsfeld. “Mass Communication, Popular Taste and Organized Social Action” (1948). In: Paul Marris and Sue Thornham (ed.). Media Studies. A Reader. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1996. pp. 14-23. p. 18
 See: Paul Marris and Sue Thornham (ed.). Media Studies. A Reader. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1996. pp. 5-6
 Merton and Lazarsfeld. Mass Communication, Popular Taste and Organized Social Action. p. 16
 See: Inglis. Media Theory. p. 38
 Theodor W. Adorno. “Culture Industry Reconsidered” (1963). In: Paul Marris and Sue Thornham (ed.). Media Studies. A Reader. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1996. pp. 24-29. p. 25
 Adorno. Culture Industry Reconsidered. p. 28
 Adorno. Culture Industry Reconsidered. p. 27
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 Walter Benjamin. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1936/1939) . In: Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen (ed.). Film Theory and Criticism. Introductory Readings (1974) . New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press, 5th edition, 1999. pp. 731-751. p. 743
 See: Inglis. Media Theory. p. 49
 Inglis. Media Theory. p. 33
 See: Inglis. Media Theory. p. 35
 Inglis. Media Theory. p. 77
 Inglis. Media Theory. p. 77
 McLuhan. Understanding Media. p. 50
 McLuhan. Understanding Media. p. 187
 McLuhan. Understanding Media. p. 69
- Quote paper
- M.A. Jan Riepe (Author), 2006, The Future Belongs To Crowds: Media in Don DeLillo's Libra, Mao II and White Noise, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/80337