Circuits, Simulations and Viruses: A Case Study of Media Brandscapes

Paul Privateer
Arizona State University

Baudrillard prophesies the future of the ever-crowded 'mediascape,' a space in which existential consciousness evaporates with continual productions of out-of-time / out-of-space picnoleptic experiences. These are indeed deceptive evaporations, for the "smooth operational surface of communication" simply appears as an innocent evolution in the co-symbiosis of semiotics and technology (1983: 127). The tacitness of this "surface" consumer semiotics, with its presumed immutability, ignores the ideological power of advertising as a new discourse collapsing distinctions between the mediascape and the 'brandscape.' The more they become indistinguishable, the more readily advertising conquers the world of meanings, signs, representations, perception, and power. Their amalgamation means that advertising is becoming or will become a dominant and privileged source of information and that ultimately 'product data' will form and shape consciousness. In the end, people will 'become' products because their identities will be derived from the semiotic lexicon of Sony, Tommy H, DKNY or BMW designer markets.

A case study for this fusion is Don Delillo’s White Noise (1984) with its dystopian prophecy, a warning that in an increasingly digitally mediated world the profound meaning-producing relationship between signs, signifiers, and reality is being blurred, if not obliterated. This demolition is itself obscured by the exponential proliferation of informational simulation and replication, but it is also one in which the resulting world of "circuits and networks" composes an omnipresent brandscape (Baudrillard, 1983: 130). Despite this, "Delillo's attitude towards the world of his novel is generous" (Bonea, 1996: 40). While Delillo's desire to "complicate the stiff categories of ideological or cultural critique" is noteworthy, the resigned act of silently observing the drowning of meaning and personal identity within a corporately controlled deluge of information is not so admirable (Bonca, 1996: 40). Although solutions cannot be sought within White Noise, a shamelessly nostalgic and politically passive text, they may be seen to emerge from the outside via a theoretical combination of Donna Haraway and the Critical Art Ensemble.

'What was the barn like before it was photographed?' he said. What did it look like, how was it different from other barns, how was it similar to other barns? We can't answer these questions because we've read the signs, seen the people snapping pictures. We can't get outside the aura. (Delillo, 1984: 13)

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Attempting a critical analysis of the infamous "barn scene" throws one into precisely the same conundrum as Murray and Jack face when visiting the barn. Rummaging through the critical aura surrounding White Noise, it is impossible not to encounter treatment of the barn. Noel King even uses the sequence to explain White Noises's peculiar trait of internal literary ficto-criticism, usually coming from the character of Murray. Critics commenting upon Delillo's internal criticism on his own text ...the layers add upon each other, constructing an 'aura' of colonized meaning around the sequence. Such intertwining of text and several layers of criticism create a true intertextuality, where meaning flows both ways between text and criticism. Of course, metatextualizing the sequence, much less the entire novel, risks obfuscating all meaning in the larger cultural and critical onrush of information. In White Noise, single pieces of information can only establish themselves within the larger semiotic circuit through association with larger auras, much like the barn. Baudrillard explains that the dominant paradigm of the modern communication networks is "one of superficial saturation, of an incessant solicitation, of an extermination of interstitial and protective spaces" (131).

In the network, facts are stripped of there autonomy of meaning and are forced to rely on the entire network for their power. This same erosion of interstitial spaces applies to the individual, "We are no longer part of the drama of alienation, we live in the ecstasy of communication "(Baudrillard, 1983: 130). Actions carry no inherent meaning in White Noise's ecstatic world of severed connections between sign and signifier. As such, individuals trying to validate their words, actions, or selves must apply the rules of Baudrillard's rampaging media to themselves. Facts and locic submit to celebrity charisma, access to the role of speaker, and raw noise. The entire faculty of College-on-the-Hill, Delillo's parodic institution of higher (read: higher as in physically elevated on the hill) learning, defines themselves in this fashion: ... the chancellor had advise me, back in 1968, to do something about my name and appearance if I wanted to be taken seriously ... We finally agreed that I should invent an extra initial and call myself J.A.K. Gladney, a tag, I wore like a borrowed suit ... I had the advantages of substantial height, big hands, big feet, but badly needed bulk ... (17). Authority stems from the simulation of a name that looks distinguished on a plaque or from increasing one's receptive power through size. The faculty even gains authority from "the mere fact of having the enunciative role"(Conroy 101). The role of speaker commands importance for Heinrich, one of Jack's children. During the airborne toxic event, Heinrich carves out a space for himself as a distributor of information, publicizing himself through this 'aura:'

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People listened attentively to this adolescent boy in a field jacket and cap, with binoculars strapped around his neck and an Instamatic fashioned to his belt. No doubt his listeners were influenced by his age. (Conroy, 130)

While characters can elevate their 'auras' by simulating celebrity, this rush of media and information constantly threatens the deconstruction of internal identity. Such is Jack's fate after encountering Nyodene D, the leaking chemical composing the "airborne toxic event"(117). The toxic event symbolizes the pollution of the holistic, existential self by the relentless ecstasy of communication. Literally floating above the country side, the event constantly changes names, from a "feathery plume" to a "billowing black cloud" (112-113). In the cloud's wake, meaning is totally uprooted, "Remarks existed in a state of permanent flotation. No one thing was either more or less plausible than any other thing. As people jolted out of reality, we were released from the need to distinguish"(129).

Exposed to the cloud, Jack wanders to a 'SEWUVAC' table seeking information on the chemical, a Sisyphean task given the complete destabilization of meaning. The SEWUVAC team demonstrates the complete confusion of symbol with referent, simulation with reality. Jack learns that SEWUVAC used the real toxic event in order to plan out their periodical simulated disaster drills, "The insertion curve isn't as smooth as we would like ... You have to make allowances for the fact that everything is we see tonight is real" (139). SEWUVAC similarly undercuts Jack's perception of himself as a unique, autonomous ontological entity, handing him down a bizarre computerized sentence of certain death somewhere in the future. Afterwards, Jack ruminates on the experience, "It is when death is rendered graphically, is televised so to speak, that you sense an eerie separation between your condition and yourself A network of symbols has been introduced, an entire awesome technology wrested from the gods. It makes you feel like a stranger in your own dying"(142). What else could be expected from a man who was just told, "You are the sum total of your data" (141). Jack is now digitally encoded, a series of data point located within the larger network without, as Baudrillard noted, private space or barriers. Jack's fear at dying from exposure to the cloud hints at a process of cultural and semiotic annihilation on a broader scale: the destruction of the existential individual by the data flow. Jack spends the entire second half of the novel plagued by constant fear of death, but his death is symbolic and ontological. Jack, finding that his "older modernist subjectivity is in a state of siege in the information society ... exhibits a Kierkegaardian 'fear and trembling ...' (Wilcox 348).

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If the dissolution of semiotic logic and meaning into a state lingual affairs not only governed by endless simulation and a penetrative media but also powerful enough to upstage the existential self wasn't disruptive enough, the fluctuating mediascape seems everywhere to be colonized with product names and advertising. Frederic Jameson, in "Postmodemism and Consumer Society," links postmodern aesthetic and ontological developments, including the "death of the subject, to "New types of consumption; planned obsolescence ... the penetration of advertising, television and the media generally to a hitherto unparalleled degree throughout society... "(124). For Delillo, the nuclear family constitutes an engine of meaning, although not necessarily truth, "The family is the cradle of the world's misinformation ... The family process works towards sealing off the world"(82). While the family dynamic renders truth irrelevant, it does create stability and comfort through an array of fictitious yet reliable meanings. Jack's house and family, however, are prey to the shifting influx of meaningless braid signification, mostly via the television. TV, in both the Gladney house and in the postmodern world, occupies a position of factual and moral authority while broadcasting pieces of the brandscape everywhere. The Gladney TV and radio punctuates Jack's narrative with bursts of pure media, "The TV said: 'And other trends that could dramatically impact your portfolio ... “ (61).

Similar eruptions of consumer White Noise begin to form in Jack's narrative independent of the construction, "and the TV said." Leonard Wilcox glosses several, "MasterCard, Visa, American Express ... Lead, unleaded, superunleaded, Dristan Ultra, Dristan Ultra ...Clorets, Velaments, Freedent"(348). Wilcox's interpretation of this fact, however, is less than satisfactory, "These 'eruptions in the narrative imply the emergence of a new form of subjectivity colonized by the media ... They imply the evacuation of the private spheres of self'(348). In a utopian situation of equality in the politics of sign production, media access, and reception, the complete permeation of life by the brandscape wouldn't signify anything more sinister than techno-democracy at work. In White Noise, and the 'real' world at large, this is hardly the case. Baudrillard points out that in an environment characterized by "free speech" and a slanted playing field of reception, "Speech is free perhaps, but I am less free than before: I no longer succeed in knowing what I want, the space is so saturated..." (132).

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The mediascape of pure surface is disorienting enough, yet the brandscape's imperative of identity reconstruction based on consumption is purely nefarious. After a colleague refers to Jack as "A big harmless, aging, indistinct sort of guy," Jack undertakes a consumer rampage through the mall: I shopped with reckless abandon. “I shopped for immediate needs and distant contingencies. I shopped for its own sake, looking, and touching merchandise I had no intention of buying,, then buying it ... I began to grow in value and self-regard. I filled myself out, found new aspects of myself, located a person I'd forgotten existed”. (84) The synthesis of media dislocation and consumer slavery occurs with the discovery of Dylar, Babette's experimental drug meant to combat death fear. Listing Dylar's sideeffects, Babette recites, "I could not distinguish words from things, so that if someonesaid 'speeding, bullet,' I would fall to the floor and take cover" (193). Hardly a side effect, Dylar deconstructs any remaining boundaries between sign, signifier, and referent. The unbridled force of the ecstasy flows through anyone taking Dylar. Fear of death is tied to existential interiority, and Dylar erodes precisely this interiority. Foolishly, Jack calls Dylar, "the benign counterpart of the Nyodene menace"(21 1). ln fact, Dylar is pure menace. Jack locates Willie Mink, the project director, holed up in a hotel room, slamming, Dylar by the handful. Mink's diction is purely schizoid, "Do not enter a room not agreeing to this. This is the point as opposed to emerging coastlines, continental plates. Or you can eat natural grains..." (311).

Mink's narrative continues without beginning or end, punctuated only by Jack's own internal monologue. Mink, and Dylar, exist beyond the level of pure Baudrillardian schizophrenia. They point to something understated in White Noise yet utterly sinister: But as the one-time project manager of the Dylar research group, which is supported by a multi-national giant,” he is also connected with a global economy. The Mink/Gray composite in fact is associated both with informational flow and transnational monopoly, a New World of multinational capitalism whose channels of control are so widespread...” (Wilcox 359).

The final chapter of White Noise presents a microcosmic pastiche of the larger text's movement from isolated floating signifier disruption to sinister corporate and machinic encoding. Wilder, Jack's son, rides his tricycle over and embankment and onto the freeway, "The drivers could not quite comprehend. In their knotted posture, belted in they knew this picture did not belong to the hurtling consciousness, the broad- ribboned modernist stream. In speed there was sense. In signs, in patterns..."(322- 323). Postmodern events, primarily floating signifiers and continual simulacra such as the “most photographed barn in America" appear on the horizon and gradually encroach. Of course, these disruptions in semiotic and perceptual coherence are rendered irrelevant by the novel's conclusion, in a supermarket, "But in the end it doesn't matter what they see or think they see. The terminals are equipped with holographic scanners, which decode the binary secret of every item, infallibly"(326). The only true, "infallible" language left is that of digital machines harnessed to the lar er cultural enoine of consumer capitalism. Delillo seems content to nostalgize over tabloid racks on the checkout counter while the critical brandscape swarms uncontrollably. Jameson, less determined to "complicate the stiff categories of ideological or cultural critique" than to locate a way out of the infoarchy of the brandscape, ask, "We have seen that there is a way in which postmodernism replicates or reproduces-reinforces-the logic of consumer capitalism; the more significant question is whether there is also a way in which it resists the logic" (125).

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Postmodern forms of resistance cannot mirror precisely how "modernism functioned against its society in ways which are variously described as critical, negative, contesting, subversive, oppositional, and the like" (Jameson 125). Reasserting the modernist paradigm of opposition between the existential self and society produces rebellious forms poorly equipped for the postmodern simulacra of surface, screen, and network. In a digitally mediated world, clarity of perception and the reintroduction of depth into the object become paramount to resistance. The Critical Art Ensemble corrals the mediascape and brandscape into a singular, interrelated paradigm of the war and sight machines. The war machine is the "apparatus of violence" utilized to maintain the global political and economic order. The sight machine is literal Dylar, its goal is "to control the symbolic order"(173).

However, as the sight machine's scope of penetration reaches apotheosis in the Internet, its ability to control the interior of that scope progressively diminishes. White Noise, written in 1984, had to rely on television as its primary symbol of media penetration. Television represents an earlier form of penetration than the computer: although its dynamics of reception are far more hierarchical than the World Wide Web's, its symbolic scope is smaller. Within the free- flowing (at least to those with access) dynamics of the web, it's possible to use technology created to facilitate cold war geopolitics to mark out spaces of symbolic resistance to the sight and war machines, "In these free zones, one can get information on anything, from radical politics to the latest in commodity development. As to be expected, a lot of information floating about is resistant to the causes and imperatives of pancapitalism..." (C.A.E. 181-182).

In Delillo's world, the sight machine effects a unique form of self-censorship: by destroying the notion of meaning, pieces of resistant information lose their political edge and are swallowed up in the breadth of the flow of empty advertising. On the other hand, the rules of ecstatic media operant in White Noise such as celebrity power and volume, are ripe for subversion. Hackers should turn their sichts from cracking into obscure areas of State Department netspace to appropriating, the coded volumes and 'auras' of pancapitalism for the dissemination of resistant messages. White Noise features a seared, mediated, and utterly receptive populace that accepts whatever comes loudest over the circuit. What if the loudest messages were "meta-mes sages" explaining, decrying, or demonstrating the nature of the circuit itself in deconstructing meaning and therefore political resistance? What if the circuit is jammed with messages deconstructing itself.

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Jameson's "death of the subject," Baudrillard's death of "the drama of alienation," and Jack's feared dissolution of identity within the sphere of media illustrate the critical links between media and identity in a postmodern state of affairs. Donna Haraway's "Manifesto for Cyborgs" essentially interiorizes hacking. Haraway welcomes the "reconceptions of machine and organism as coded texts which we engage in the play of writing and reading the world"(30). The body is a site for symbolic and political representation that must hack into its own identity to resist, "the informatics of domination"(32). Delillo's silent supermarket terminals, restructuring the world around a binary monocode, a corporate DNA, are congruent with Haraway's cyborg struggle "against the one code that translates all meaning perfectly, the central dogma of the phallogocentrism"(35). Whereas hacking Delillo's ecstatic world Art Ensemble style means turning the replication of codes within itself onto the very process of replication, a cyborg resistance opens up the Western dichotomies of self/other and machine/organism to allow deeper permeation by the larger symbolic order, to allow a greater informational scope for the creation of further resistance strategies.

Resisting the endless simulation of the sight machine's brandscape and the deeper monocode of the phallocapitalist war machine in Delilo's world of eroded identity and meaning necessitates simultaneously opening the self to information and possibility while also seeking disruptions in the meaning-destroying integrated cultural and semiotic circuit. Modernist methods beyond pure Luddism are rendered ineffective, subverting the machine mandates imitating it, entering its domain and altering the fundamental paradigms of brandscape, sight machine, and war machine that make it so sinister:

We have to acknowledge that the new communications technologies will only further democracy if, and only if, we oppose from the beginning the caricature of global society being hatched for us by big multinational companies throwing themselves at a breakneck pace on the information superhighways. (Virilio, 2001: 26)

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Works Cited

Baudrillard, Jean. (1983) "The Ecstasy of Communication." The Anti-Aesthetic. Ed. Hal Foster. Port Townsend, WA: Bay Press. 126-133.

Bonea, Cornel. (1996) "Don Delillo's White Noise: the natural language of the species." College Literature 23 (June 1996): 25-44.

Conroy, Mark. (1994) "From Tombstone to Tabloid: Authority Figured in White Noise." Critique 3 5.2 (Winter 1994): 97-110.

Critical Art Ensemble. (2001) "The Coming of Age of the Flesh Machine." Reading Digital Culture. Ed. David Trend. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, pp.172-182.

Delillo, Don. (1984) White Noise. New York: Penguin Books.

Haraway, Donna. (2001) "A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the 1980's." Reading Digital Culture. Ed. David Trend. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, pp.28-37.

Jameson, Frederic. (1983) "Postmodernism and Consumer Society." The Anti-Aesthetic. Ed. Hal Foster. Port Townsend, WA: Bay Press, pp.111-125.

King, Noel. (1991) "Reading White Noise: floating remarks." Critical Quarterly 33 (Autumn 1991): 66-83.

Virilio, Paul. (2001) "Speed and Information: Cyberspace Alarm!" Reading Digital Culture. Ed. David Trend. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, pp.23-26.

Wilcox, Leonard. (1991) "Baudrilard, Delillo's White Noise, and the End of Heroic Narrative." Contemporary Literature 32 (Fall 1991): 346-365.


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