DeLillo, Brand Names and Post-Postmodernism

The following is an edited and re-worked excerpt of a seminar paper I wrote for a 21st-Century Fiction class at the University at Buffalo in the spring of 2016.

The suburbanization of the post-war United States proved a bounty for corporations just beginning to realize the means to tighten their grasp on the key to truly expanding capital: maintaining a high stock price and unlocking shareholder value.  Jeffrey Nealon notes how, economically speaking, suburbanization and the lifestyle it enabled “led to a sharp intensification of consumption-based capitalism in the first world” of the US and Western Europe.[1]  This phenomenon is evident and takes on a starring role in the supermarket scenes of White Noise.  The characters of the novel grapple with truly existential dilemmas: short of regressing technologically and taking up agriculture and bioregionalism, they are at the mercy of the attention-grabbing, sexually intoxicating invasive realm of corporate advertising and their primary tool of persuasion—the corporate brand name.

Advertisers, note Helmers and Hill, “don’t want to persuade people to buy their products, because persuasion implies that the audience has given the issue some thought and come to a conscious decision.”  Instead, advertisers wish to compel people to buy a product “without even knowing why they’re buying it—as a visceral response to a stimulus, not as a conscious decision.”[2]  They accomplish their goal of resonating in the mind of the consumer through two unmistakable strategies: the monotonous, shiny, meaningless simulacrum-images Nealon identifies and the constant, pound-it-into-your-skull repetition of brand names and taglines.

The opening chapters of White Noise do little to advance the plot of the book that develops later on.  Instead, we are given a slice of the lives of the Gladney family, a quasi-cultured middle-class clan who live a life remarkably typical of the mid-Reagan era suburban American household.  Their interests are varying and diverse, a hodgepodge of hobbies and concerns. Devoid from their lives are old traditions like eating at the dinner table and attending church; instead, their weekly rituals involve a combination of take-out Chinese food and the uniquely postmodern (or post-postmodern) medication that is grocery shopping.

It is in the grocery store that Jack Gladney and his wife Babette encounter Murray, an ex-sportswriter turned Elvis-studies scholar and a colleague of Jack’s. Murray thumbs through packages of pasta, the different box shapes, brand monkiers, product names, descriptive compositions.  Some of them he’s heard of on television advertisements, some on the radio, some in magazines and newspapers.  All are appealing and camouflaged: “everything is concealed in symbolism, hidden by veils of mystery and layers of cultural material,” he says, struggling to navigate which choice is right, knowing all along there’s likely no discernable difference between the many products.[3]

But how deeply embedded can a brand name really be, how submerged into the unconscious?  Viewers of a 2014 Nationwide commercial starring Peyton Manning are treated to the quarterback humming the same catchy, merry jingle as he performs various tasks throughout his day, including bathing, working out and even eating a sandwich, whispering “Na-tion-wide is on your side.”[5] Certainly you’ve heard someone hum the McDonalds song while not eating a hamburger, or heard someone say out loud Just Do It  or Got Milk or there are some things money can’t buy. For everything else, there’s

 

[1] Nealon, Jeffrey.  “Post-Postmodernism: Or the Cultural Logic of Just-In-Time Capitalism.”(Stanford University Press: 2012). Print, 9.

[2] Helmers, Marguerite and Charles A. Hill. “Defining Visual Rhetorics” (Lawrence Erlbaum Associates: 2004), 2.

[3] DeLillo, Don.  White Noise (Penguin Books: 1985), 37.

[4] Ibid, 18.

[5] Nationwide.  “Jingle, Featuring Peyton Manning.” (Nationwide: Youtube, 2014).  Web.

Pokemon Go & Culture Wars

It’s the type of sentence that makes me, a 22 year-old born amid the roaring buzz of the dot-com bubble burst, gag in my throat, close my eyes and shake my head over the keys of my laptop computer.  “Electronic media shuffle us through a myriad of experiences which would have baffled earlier generations” I read in the Foreword to John G. Neihardt’s Black Elk Speaks, “and seem to produce in us a strange isolation from the reality of human history.”  Kind of a strong indictment on electronic media, right? It can’t really separate us from the rest of human history, can it?

Of course it doesn’t.  I’m not sure an argument of such extreme nativity can be argued in the era of the social web in 2016, and I’m not sure that’s even close to the main point of what Vine Deloria Jr. was concerned with when penning the Foreword to the book. But the quotation illustrates a difference in values between older generations and the younger, more digitally-embedded one.  Millennial and baby boomers have clashed and will clash again over the importance digital technologies play in our lives, just as they have since the invention of computers and virtual games in the 1970’s and 1980’s.  Bill Clinton, the first president  to have sent an email while in the White House, is also famous for how sparingly he used the technology.  His wife is the same wa- never mind.

 

Many have commented on a video circulating this past weekend of Vietnam veterans acting, frankly, irrationally toward a group of young Pokemon Go players at a war memorial.  The Gamers, to be fair, responded just as obnoxiously, and seem to bear no understanding of the “crazy vet”‘s feelings or emotions.  Their rhetoric is, as objectively as I can fathom, ridiculously immature, and they do themselves no favors in the court of public opinion with the attitudes they display.

Here’s the video if you haven’t taken a look yet. 

Pokemon Go, for all of its revolutionary affordances and procedures, has been a magnet for controversy these past few weeks.  The entire summer has been dominated by the game, which merges traditional gaming interfaces with interactive, real-world travel based upon Google Maps GPS integration.

There are a lot of easy points to be made from even a surface viewing of this confrontation, so I’ll try to avoid the low-hanging fruit here.  Both sides act foolishly, and neither respect the other.  Beneath a surface viewing, very real culture clashes rise to visibility: is playing a videogame, peacefully and quietly (as the subjects filming allege themselves to have been doing) disrespectful?

Is the veteran more upset with the location of their gaming, or with the attention paid to the gaming itself?

I question how the developers of the game determine where Pokestops are located.  Pokestops are generally situated at important landmarks, and players gather around to collectively construct lures and collect the virtual creatures they attract.  In my city of Buffalo, 50+ players gather daily on our Canalside waterfront to play at nearly all hours of day and night.  I count myself among them (1600CP Magmar, boo-yah!), and because our chosen public place (there are ridiculously-enticing Pokemon here) happens to be situated next to a retired warship and various veterans memorials, we oftentimes get stares, snarky comments and even some polite requests to look up from our phones and “embrace the real world around us.”  Is playing Pokemon Go at a memorial mutually exclusive with appreciating the sacrifices made my veterans of all ages, creeds and backgrounds? Do we really that separated from other human beings? I promise, Pokemon Go is about as social of a game as I’ve encountered, and in my experience the game provides a multitude of conversation topics and starters to help meet new friends and acquaintances around town that I would never have met before.

What is the solution to this problem, both on micro and macro levels? There seems to be a generational divide, and neither side seems willing to empathize with the other.

Digital culture, it seems, is increasingly infringing upon what some might call “tradition.”  Video game players are no longer confined to their basements, out of sight and out of mind except for warnings on television programs.

What is it that makes this culture clash so difficult to talk about?

Please, feel free to comment below.