Study Guide

White Noise Identity

By Don DeLillo

Identity

"We see only what the others see. The thousands who were here in the past, those who will come in the future. We've agreed to be part of a collective perception. This literally colors our vision. A religious experience in a way, like all tourism." (3.23)

After he takes Jack to see The Most Photographed Barn in America, Murray comments that everyone who sees the barn actually becomes part of something bigger than just themselves. The barn's uniqueness is a total illusion that's produced by the fact that so many people have bought into the idea that the barn is special. For this reason, no one really sees the barn with their own eyes. Everyone is part of a larger community that thinks the barn is special. Their failure to see with their own eyes shows us that they've also lost their identity in the group of "believers."

The chancellor warned against what he called my tendency to make a feeble presentation of self. He strongly suggested that I gain weight […] If I could become more ugly, he seemed to be suggesting, it would help my career enormously. (4.21)

Jack's boss at the university wants Jack to do more to establish himself as a great intellectual figure. In order to do this, he can't look so normal. He needs to make himself stand out: perhaps by looking ugly. This passage just goes to show how important it is to look a certain way so that people will think of you a certain way. It's not Jack's real self that matters here. It's the person that he is supposed to look like. 

The glasses with thick black heavy frames and dark lenses were my own idea, an alternative to the bushy beard that my wife of the period didn't want me to grow. (4.22)

Even though he doesn't follow his chancellor's advice and get fat, Jack does wear special glasses in order to give himself a unique look. After all, public figures need to "brand" themselves if they want people to see them a certain way. But even in this case, Jack chose the glasses because his wife didn't want him to grow a beard. It looks like Jack chooses his appearance based on what other people think more than what he thinks. 

Babette said she liked the series J.A.K. and didn't think it was attention-getting in a cheap sense. To her it intimated dignity, significance, and prestige. (4.23)

Even something as important as your name is fair game when it comes to the business of creating an identity for yourself. In this case, Jack goes by his initials in his academic life because he wants to sound all literary and impressive. The fact that Babette approves of the change gives him confidence that he doesn't have on his own. 

I am the false character that follows the name around. (4.24)

Jack basically knows that there's a difference between the person he is and the person he tries to make people <em>think</em> he is. But in all the games of image and identity, he actually loses sight of his true self. All he's left knowing is that he's a false character attached to a fake name. Where the real Jack has gone, no one knows. 

As the most prominent figure in Hitler Studies in North America, I had long tried to conceal the fact that I did not know German. (7.1)

Jack knows that it's weird for him to not know German, considering that it's his job to know as much about Adolph Hitler as possible. He tries to study the language, but just can't seem to wrap his head around it. This is another example of the insecurity Jack has to deal with in his professional life. The reason he's so insecure is because he's spent so much of his adult life building up a certain image of himself that isn't totally true. Now he spends most of his time trying to protect the fantasy. 

I wondered what he meant when he said he'd tapped into my history. Where was it located exactly? Some state or federal agency, some insurance company or credit firm or medical clearinghouse? (21.378)

When a dude from SIMUVAC tells Jack that he's "tapped into" Jack's history, Jack doesn't know what's going on. He can't tell if the guy's talking about medical records, credit card bills, or what have you. But the real question being raised here is about Jack's identity. Jack doesn't really know who he is out in the world of computers. For all he knows, his whole life is just a giant record of data. But according to the SIMUVAC guy, that data is the <em>real</em> Jack Gladney. 

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. (37.200)

When Jack walks up to an ATM, he suddenly has a weird moment where he's wondering about his identity. After all, what's a guy without his bank code. If he's just some guy, then he can't enter the ATM's system. It's only his access code that allows him to exist, as far as his money is concerned. This experience makes Jack start to wonder about who he actually is without his code. After all, in the great system of everyday life, who are we, other than the person that other people see? Who are we, other than the messages we're always trying to send other people about ourselves?

"We are your lunatics. We surrender our lives to make your nonbelief possible. You are sure that you are right but you don't want everyone to think as you do. There is no truth without fools." (40.150)

A sassy nun lays down the law with Jack when she tells him that neither she nor any of the nuns working at a hospital actually believe in God. The news devastates Jack, even though he's an atheist. The reason the news is so harsh is because Jack likes to build himself up as an intellectual by making fun of irrational religious people. In other words, he <em>needs</em> them to be irrational so he can go on thinking of himself as a rational atheist. The thought of no one actually believing in God anymore scares him, though, because he bases his identity on the fact that he's smarter than religious people. 

"That's what it all comes down to in the end," he said. "A person spends his life saying good-bye to other people. How does he say good-bye to himself?" (37.198)

For Murray, all of life boils down to accepting the fact that you're going to die. It's a little grim, but it makes sense. After all, we see a lot of people die while we're alive, and it's pretty tough to accept. But it's even tougher to accept the fact that <em>we're</em> going to die. For Murray, we spend our whole lives building up identities for ourselves that we think will last forever. But the truth is that we aren't alive for all that long, and our identities totally die when we do. We might fantasize about being famous so that our identities will carry on after we're dead. But no matter how famous we are, the world will eventually forget about us. 

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