Don DeLillo, “White Noise”

1985

DeLillo’s zeitgeisty “breakout” novel tells the story of Jack Gladney, a professor of Hitler studies (a department he invented) who can’t speak German. He works at The-College-on-the-Hill (perhaps a “city on the hill” reference to the Bible/Kennedy/Reagan) and is married for the fifth time to his fourth wife, Babette. They have a baby, Wilder, and a number of other children, including the prescient Steffie and the morose Heinrich. Both Babette and Jack are obsessed with death and with discussing who will die first. The bland 1980s and its “white noise” in the form of technology and advertising are recurrent subjects in the novel. (I would love to teach this with a John Hughes movie, like Sixteen Candles, and think about how trends, products, and cliches work in each).

When the “Airborne Toxic Event” arrives, Jack is exposed and later learns from testing that he has somehow been affected. The acronym is ironic, as the cloud is dispersed when microbes are released to eat it. SIMUVAC’s priority is to pretend the real event is simulated: “there is no substitute for a planned simulation” (a reality reversal like the most photographed barn bit. The barn’s aura is increased, rather than decreased, with each photograph in a “collective perception” that is different than Benjamin’s original theory: “we can’t get outside the aura” 13). Jack discovers Babette has slept with a man to get Dylarama, a drug to cure people of the fear of death. It is not working for her, but for a time Jack becomes obsessed with procuring some for himself. Jack and Murray talk, and Murray theorizes that “the more people you kill, the more power you gain over your own death… a secret precision at work in the most savage and indiscriminate killings” 291. Jack’s final confrontation with Willie Mink, the scientist who makes Dylar, is a sort of parody of the Marlow/Kurtz communication or the Humbert/Quilty conflict. It also seems to follow on the failed glory of Taxi Driver and the imagined horrors of American Psycho, both of which focus on sex and youth as well. The novel ends with Wilder miraculously surviving as he rides his tricycle across the freeway. Jack decides to stay away from the doctor and the “binary secrets” the information age seems to offer 326.

Sandra Gilbert & Susan Gubar, “Sexual Linguistics”

1985

“Is anatomy linguistic destiny? Is womb a metaphorical mouth, a pen a metaphorical penis?” the authors begin.

“From Freud to Lacan to Derrida on the one hand, and from Woolf to Irigaray to Cixous on the other, masculinist and feminist theorists alike have toyed with the idea of a culturally determined body language which translates the articulations of the body into that body of articulated terminology we call language” 515.

“If language is a process of cultural artifiice that both distances and defines nature, then it would seem that its workings might well embody the bodily differences through which each human being first confronts the fundamental sexuality of his or her own nature… as Julia Kristeva puts it, ‘Sexual difference – which is at once biological, physiological, and relative to production – is translated by and translates a difference in the relationship of subjects to the symbolic contract which is the social contract: a difference, then, in the relationship to power, language, and meaning” 515-16.

Gilbert and Gubar seek to interrogate this psychologically and historically – through the primacy of the mother in the ‘symbolic contract’ and through a tradition of female writing that belies the idea that the feminine does not appear in common language. “The female subject is not necessarily alienated from the words she writes and speaks” 516. A French feminist approach prioritizes the preexistence of a woman’s language that breaks from patriarchy, while an a priori Anglo-American approach has been focused on research into a praxis of linguistics itself. Irigaray and Kristeva picture the female body as open, blank, full of gaps and lacunae that ‘speak louder than words,” and Cixous calls writing an outpouring or disgorging of fluids. These thinkers seek to move beyond the binary of patriarchy – for Cixous, Molly Bloom carries “Ulysses off beyond any book and toward the new writing” 518. By opting for matter over mind, the female body escapes.

However, the “mysteriously multiple fluency” and “antithetical imagining of eloquent silence” is more like the male avant-garde’s fine de siecle concept of women 519. Thus, many feminists “refuse to be Mollified” 519. Is it better to speak illegibly outside history or to join the forces of the enemy? Empiricism is a way out for many American feminists, who examine linguistic structures for how ‘he/man’ usages filter out recognition of female existence; indeed, as if corroborating the French emphasis on blanks, gaps, silences… ‘for females, the only semantic space in English is negative'” 519. Beyond “pronoun envy” are also “lexical asymmetries” of wholeness for man and things like hysteria for women 520. Robin Lakoff proposes that women’s English is collaborative, but weaker than men’s.

Ultimately, the French and American sides of the argument appear quite different, at least in part because French is a more gender-marked and inflected language 520. The authors wonder if the “charisma” of French discourse is a haute-couture of linguistics (“a utopian vision of woman’s language”) beside the “garment district empiricism” of Americans (“a dystopian version of woman’s sentence”) 521. Rather than “a joyously emetic emission from a community based on the commonality of women,” the American approach has stressed that “if a woman learns and uses women’s language, she is necessarily considered less than a real full person,” but if she does not, “she is ostracized as unfeminine” (Lakoff’s double bind) 521.

One issue is the repetition of women as suppressed, as not yet fully present. But even Virginia Woolf, in tracing a weak line up to her own time, 70 years before Gilbert & Gubar are writing, found a tradition beginning in the late 18th century of women’s writing 522. Woolf’s “woman’s sentence” is neither French nor American in its approach – it is more historical than the first and more optimistic than the latter. Woolf used “what was essentially a fantasy about a utopian linguistic structure… to define (and perhaps disguise) her desire to revise not woman’s language but woman’s relation to language” 523. The woman’s sentence is not so much about the grammatical construction of language as it is about overturning the idea that a sentence is final, judgmental, or complete, “by which woman has been kept from feeling that she can be in full command of language” 523. Woolf’s fantasy is of the legal power to sentence being moved to the realm of femininity.

Molly Bloom’s, while held up as example, is still a leaky, chaotic discourse set against the two men’s. James (in The Bostonians) fears the chatter of women will take over male discourse, and Eliot (in “Hysteria”), has “caught” the disease from woman and runs on in a paragraph rather than a poem proper 526. Even in The Waste Land, the female characters are hysterical, and can “connect nothing with nothing,” except for the silent hyacinth girl, and Eliot’s goal seems to be to transcend female language, “justifying Joyce’s claim that The Waste Land ‘ended the idea of poetry for ladies'” 526.

The authors point to Emily Dickinson as the foremother of a fantasy of women’s language as sorcery, as well as Wharton, Barnes, Cather, Hurston, H.D. and Stein. Stein “speaks in tongues” in Tender Buttons, “recover[ing] the numinous names of an alternative history” 529. G & G also point to the inscrutable sky-writing of Mrs. Dalloway, where the homeless woman’s song is mystical and Clarissa and Septimus are given a similar language 531. “Woolf emphasizes the fact that both the alienation from language her books describe and the revision of lexicography her books detail are functions of the dispossession of women, as well as of women’s natural resources in the face of this dispossession” 531. This includes Mrs. McNab and Mrs. Bast’s creaking on in To the Lighthouse as they keep the house from further disintegration 531.

What is the difference between “mother tongue” and “father speech”? The latter is an external possession, like Latin or Greek, and is hierarchically above and more pure the intimate vernacular we gain at birth 533. Perhaps men translating between these two forms of speech also feel belated to their forefathers. Joyce is the prime example, the authors hold, of the transformation of mother tongue into dense, hard father speech. “Oxen of the Sun” plays through a “(male) linguistic ontogeny” that “recapitulates (male) linguistic phylogeny” (the individual’s development scans the biological history of that development) 534-5. “Most male writers are either reacting against or appropriating the verbal fertility of the mother,” since there are truly “no father tongues” 535.

The “swerve” Lacan must make to align language and the Oedipal complex demonstrates the extreme fixation on the necessary abjection of the mother. The child already has language at this point, language fed to him by his mother, but Lacan makes a logical detour to conceal this and subsume language as “fatherly,” as part of individuating from the mother 536. Is the obsession with a patriarchal language actually the result of the fear that it is matriarchal? Thus castration anxiety is more about the anxiety of the knowledge that woman is complete, that she is not castrated, as Susan Lurie argues 537. The symbolic (maternal) contract is “signed” before the social (paternal) contract is constructed 538.

“We must also ask whether the whole structure of ‘hierarchized’ oppositions that some of us have thought essentially patriarchal has been historically erected as a massive defense against the deep throat of the mother and the astonishing autonomy of that mother tongue which is common to both genders” 538.

It would be interesting to compare this to stories and food in Toni Morrison’s Beloved, where a female language is also under construction.

“To carry such an empowering intuition one step further… can it be that feminist theorists must look beyond the traditional alphabetizings of history, with its masculinist syntax of subordination, to discover and recover the ways in which, as we have seen here, women have sometimes stealthily and sometimes ecstatically claimed the alphabet to capitalize (on) their own initials and their own initiatives?” 538.

Here, you might think of Mr. Ramsay’s stubborn progress through the alphabet, or even the narrator of Isherwood’s Prater Violet, cataloguing his male lovers. The authors suggest seeking language and readings and writings in the chaos of an “alphabet soup””

“The very possibility that women might achieve such a vision implies that the relationship between anatomy and linguistic destiny, between sexual diference and the symbolic contract, may promise not just female jouissance but feminist puissance. For at last, in spite of feminist doubt and masculinist dread, we can affirm that woman has not been sentenced to transcribe male penmanship; rather, she commands sentences which inscribe her own powerful character” 539.