HL Essay: Exemplar 2 (White Noise)

Ask a teacher whether we should teach critical theory to IB Language and Literature students and the answers you receive are as wide ranging and diverse as the theories that exist. It is worth reflecting, perhaps, that no classroom is atheoretical, although it may be that the biases, perspectives, and models that frame teaching are never explicitly admitted. Whatever your own position is, there are, within the literature on teaching and learning, strong arguments made that endorse the teaching of theory. As Stephen Bonnycastle points out, "the main reason for studying theory at the same time as literature is that it forces you to deal consciously with the problems of ideologies [...] If you are going to live intelligently in the modern world, you have to recognize that that there are conflicting ideologies and that there is no simple direct access to the truth". Bonnycastle's point clearly addresses issues of critical thinking and citizenship, and may hint at international mindedness which is undergirded by a recognition of multiple perspectives.

In the following HL essay, we publish the excellent work of a student who has studied Don DeLillo's novel White Noise. DeLillo is on the Prescribed List of Authors (for last examinations in November 2020), but is omitted from the Prescribed Reading List (for first examinations in May 2021). White Noise, many argue, is not DeLillo's best work, but it is probably the novel that brought DeLillo to the attention of a wider readership. Published in 1985, this often funny novel does sometimes feel like the literary equivalent of watching Miami Vice reruns - a novel that is, in other words, very much of its time and without the hipster quality that seemed apparent at publication. This said, the novel deals with issues that remain current, vital, and likely to appeal to teenage readers. Concerns about media, mediation, technology, consumption, the environment, and relativism all feature in the novel. The novel is a quintessential postmodern novel and lends itself to a postmodern critique. It is clear in this HL essay that the student has been taught the novel through the 'lens' of postmodernity, and that the teacher has provided supplementary reading to support teaching and learning. As you read the essay you may like to reflect on your own teaching and the position you take on critical theory in the classroom.

For your students, in addition to the essay, we have published reflective entries from the writer's (sometimes mediocre) learner portfolio. These provide an opportunity to think about and discuss what students can include in their own learner portfolios, and how and why they may do this.

Sample HL Essay

 Sample HL Essay

 To what extent does Don DeLillo’s White Noise criticise postmodern American culture in the 1980s?

In Thomas De Zengotita’s book Mediated: How the Media Shape the World Around You (2004), the writer concludes with a personal anecdote. On September 11, 2001, he was sitting in a park by the East River in Brooklyn when American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into the World Trade Center. De Zengotita’s narrative that follows this occurrence is interesting and relevant to Don DeLillo’s White Noise (1985), the subject of my Higher Level essay, in that De Zengotita begins by describing his personal experience of what we now call ‘9/11’. This is unremarkable given that De Zengotita really was in Brooklyn. However, as De Zengotita goes on to reveal, his own story quickly melds into the narrative of a larger ‘event’, continuously reconstructed through incessant media representation. His sense of ‘objective reality’, therefore, is distorted as it blends confusingly with other mediated and fragmented narratives. Although concerned, Zengotita observes postmodernity from an academic’s perspective. For many of the characters of DeLillo’s novel, not least Jack and Babette, their experience of a fictionalised postmodern America[1], where the mediated is more significant than the real, is overwhelming and disorientating as they struggle to find meaning in their lives and fail to lead purposeful lives. Jack and Babette, like most of the novel’s other older characters, ultimately fail to comprehend and navigate postmodern America. It is a society dominated by technology, television, advertising, and mass consumption. This society gives rise to – you may say produces – alienated individuals who, in a state of anomie, lack fixed, essential identities. The physical environment is poisoned, the natural world is disappearing, and there is an absence of morality and spirituality. It is possible to see White Noise, as a playful novel that celebrates the collapse of ‘grand narratives’, the optimism of the Enlightenment, and the failure of science. After all, the novel is often ironic, and the deadpan dialogue is frequently hilarious. However, beyond the humour is, almost certainly in my view, a serious, intended criticism of postmodern America. Outside of endless television and mindless conspicuous consumption, postmodern society cannot give comfort or provide questions to fundamental questions about human life and mortality. Its only solution is, as Postman (1985) asserts (in the same year DeLillo published White Noise), to amuse ourselves to death.

The postmodern artistic style and the criticism of postmodernity are apparent from the first page of White Noise. When “the station wagons arrived at noon” (3), they do so, apparently, without drivers. If, following the ambition of the Enlightenment, technology is a vehicle to promote social progress, in postmodernity the Enlightenment is ironically inverted so that technology determines human lives.[2] In DeLillo’s opening paragraph, the station wagons bring with them, not people, but more things, the list of which is increasingly inessential, most would say, to human existence. His asyndeton foreshadows a novel that will be interested in the implications of constant excess. As the first paragraph shifts to the second, there is a shift in narrative perspective with the unanticipated insertion of Jack Gladney’s first-person narration. The abrupt change in narrative perspective, perhaps an example of what Barry refers to as “fragmentation” (88), is typical of postmodernity and postmodern texts. DeLillo’s concentration on consumption and the jagged, sometimes many-voiced narrative is well illustrated in the media snippets inserted into the novel like a postmodern corruption of the Holy Trinity. How can the reader explain, for example, the apparently arbitrary insertion of “the Airport Marriot, the Downtown Travelodge, the Sheraton Inn and Conference Centre” (15) into Jack’s narrative? The answer, it seems, is that this is not Jack’s narrative; rather it is an example of the novel’s omnipresent ‘white noise’, the ubiquity of which permeates the cultural landscape of postmodern America and, by extension, the cognitive lives of DeLillo’s characters.

To a large extent, the novel is concerned with how people respond to the white noise of postmodern excess. The exchange between Jack and his (biological) son, Heinrich, in chapter 6 in is one of the novel’s many funny moments; possibly it is a celebration of postmodernity. The chapter reminds IB students of their Theory of Knowledge class, and involves an epistemological tussle between Jack and Heinrich who argue over whether or not it is raining. Jack insists it is raining as it can be both seen and felt. The relativistic Heinrich recognises the limitation of sense perception as a way of knowing, plays Machiavellian word games, and then goes on to claim that it cannot be raining if rain is not anticipated or confirmed by media technology. While this may be rather benign, later examples of postmodernity’s impact on human experience are much less so: Jack and Babette’s sex life is mediated through erotic literature (chapter 7); the Treadwell’s go missing (chapters 12 and 13) before their ironic rediscovery in a shopping mall; the averted plane crash is made pointless by the absence of media coverage (chapter 18); and the airborne toxic event (from chapter 21) is just that – an event, made cinematic by helicopter lighting. In this section of the novel technology and reality converge, and all sense of rationality and logic are lost. Media can virally transmit a physical response to the airborne toxins and (admittedly comedically) the SIMUVAC team use a real event to prepare for a practice event. Things become more sinister still when, accustomed to media representation, Jack cannot discriminate between the real and the simulated when Babette appears on TV (chapter 20), and then Jack and Heinrich share a moment of enthralled voyeurism as the insane asylum burns down (chapter 32). It is this that Baudrillard (quoted in Barry, 89) means when he refers to ‘hyperreality’, where all bonds between real and simulated, sign and signified are lost. The implication is particularly apparent in chapter 32. Jack and Heinrich have a difficult relationship in the novel. Heinrich is typical of the children in the novel in that he is more knowing than the adult characters (such as Jack). Jack and Heinrich typically ‘talk past’ each other. Either Heinrich beats Jack in epistemological arguments or, it seems to Jack, Heinrich talks in non-sequiturs. Ironically and remarkably, however, they bond as people burn to death. Heinrich says to his father, “It’s funny how you can look at it and look at it […] just like a fire in a fireplace”. Jack responds without admonishment, asking, “are you saying the two kinds of fire are equally compelling?” (229). Neither character can easily distinguish the synthetic from the real or the innocuous from the significant. Only when the smell of the burning ‘spoils their enjoyment’ is the reverie broken and the characters head home. 

Revelling as people are incinerated does leave you in some “pretty repulsive company” (Barry, 91). Postmodernism is a superficial offering of choice and plenitude. In reality (sic) it leaves individuals unanchored in a world where commodity relations replace human relations. Jack Gladney is a pathetic figure. He is free to create his persona, but creates a caricature that is itself a commodity, recognising that he is “the false character that follows the name around” (17). Meeting a colleague, Eric Massingale, in the supermarket – a frequent setting in the novel, associated with mass consumption – Jack is made to feel insecure. Massingale tells Jack that without the dark glasses that are part of his professional persona as a college lecturer he looks “harmless”. Responding to Massingale’s comment, Jack tells the reader “the encounter put me in the mood to shop” (83). Jack then embarks on an extravagant spending spree, buying items he does not need to soften his self-doubt. Ultimately, Jack’s shopping leaves him and his family with a sense of emptiness and loneliness. As Jack says, “we drove home in silence. We went to our respective rooms, wishing to be alone” (84). It is a poignant moment, allowing readers to recognise the futility of consumption as a response to normal human anxiety. Jack’s career is a failure, built not on the study of Hitler, but rather on mediated representations of Hitler. Unable to speak German, he is consumed with angst. And, when he bizarrely conflates Hitler with Elvis Presley (chapter 12), the obvious amorality of the juxtaposition leads me to think I would rather live in a reality, full of contestation and strife if necessary, than to claim that the tangible and authentic are illusionary, and at best receding out of sight. White Noise is an often funny novel. However, its criticism of postmodern America is clear. If it were to substitute the television for the Internet and smart phones, it would be, unfortunately, a fine description of the present.

Works Cited:

Barry, Peter. Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory. Manchester University Press, 2017.

DeLillo, Don. White Noise. Viking Penguin, 1985.

De Zengotita, Thomas. Mediated: How the Media Shape the World Around You. Bloomsbury, 2004.

Postman, Neil. Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. Viking Penguin, 1985.

1448 words.


[1] I would suggest that the novel has a particular relevance to 1980s America. The deindustrialization of the fictionalised town of Blacksmith and nearby Iron City, and the ubiquity of television, other media, and new technologies are not particular only to the United States; you could situate this narrative elsewhere and parts of it would be equally ‘realistic’. Also, as a domestic novel, even the scenes of dysfunctional family life transcend time and space. However, it is the case that specific cultural references and, arguably, the often neurotic response of the novel’s characters to postmodernity seem, to an outsider, essentially American. To put it another way, if one were to situate White Noise among the Yanomami, the natives of Istanbul, or the tribes in a Paris housing estate, it would make little sense.

[2] It cannot be suggested that DeLillo, in his novel, anticipates the early decades of the 21st century. However, writing in in 2019, when driverless cars are a reality, it is tempting to identify something visionary in DeLillo’s writing.

Teacher's Comments

Criterion A: Knowledge, understanding and interpretation (5 marks)

  • To what extent does the student show knowledge and understanding of the work or text?
  • To what extent does the student use their knowledge and understanding to reach conclusions about the work or text in relation to their chosen topic?
  • How well does the student use references to the work or text to support their ideas in relation to their chosen topic?

5 out of 5: There is an excellent and highly sophisticated understanding of the novel. References are very well selected, illustrating and supporting the student's ideas.

Criterion B: Analysis and evaluation (5 marks)

  • To what extent does the student analyze and evaluate how language, style, and wider authorial choices influence meaning in relation to their chosen topic?

5 out of 5: Analysis and evaluation are excellent. Arguably, the student could emphasize language and authorial choices a little more. However, what the student writes is clearly evaluative and insightful.

Criterion C: Focus, organization, and development (5 marks)

  • To what extent is the presentation of ideas organized, focused, and developed?
  • How effectively has the student integrated supporting examples into their essay?

5 out of 5: A more direct introduction and a more obvious synthesis might serve this essay well. However, these are minor criticisms. There is a well developed line of inquiry, the thesis is reasonably well maintained, and the cohesion and integration of supporting examples are excellent.

Criterion D: Language (5 marks)

  • How clear, varied, and accurate is the student's language?
  • To what extent is the student's choice of register, style, and terminology appropriate?

5 out of 5: Possibly some words could be omitted for greater brevity, but the writing is mainly excellent and frequently highly sophisticated.

The Learner Portfolio as a Reflective Document

In writing this HL essay, the student was asked to maintain a reflective record of their writing and interactions with the teacher. The learner portfolio is not intended to be assessed. While some teachers or schools may choose to assess the portfolio, it was not designed with this intention. Instead, it is intended to be a quasi-autonomous space for students to reflect and develop knowledge, understandings, and skills over time. It is, nevertheless, important that students are given some guidance on developing their learner portfolio if it is to become a meaningful record of learning.

Once students have worked with the HL essay (above) through discussing its strengths and limitations, and marking it, ask them to read, then discuss the extracts from the learner portfolio (below) that accompany this HL essay. Use the following questions to guide a consideration:

  • How detailed are the entries in the learning portfolio? Are they too detailed, insufficiently detailed, or just right?
  • What do you think about what the student writes? Is it appropriate, and is it likely to help the student over time?
  • What qualities and limitations do the student's entries reveal?
  • What advice would give to the student to improve their use of their learner portfolio?

Learner Portfolio Entries

 Three Reflections

Learner Portfolio: Reflections

Reflection 1

I met with my teacher, Mr. _______ , for about 15 minutes to talk about my HL essay. At first, I wanted to write about Sebald’s Rings of Saturn. I loved that book (although it still puzzles me!). But, Mr. ________ told me that I used it in the IO and so can’t use it again. Pity. I told Mr. ________ that I wanted to write about literature again because I enjoy it more and I want to study it at university. Mr. ________ told me that this means I have to write about White Noise, or wait until I have studied more lit. I liked White Noise (not as much as Sebald!), but still… I have also enjoyed the discussions in class on mediation, consumption, postmodernity and so on, so I figure I can make something of that. Mr. ________ said that the essay should focus on something in the novel that interests me. He also said that this was to involve inquiry – so it would be useful to frame the essay in terms of a manageable question. He also told me to use the materials we have read in class and not to waste too much time doing research. He mentioned the extracts we have read from Postman, De Zengotita, and Barry, and said that should be enough to ‘read around the novel’. I am going to meet again next week to confirm what I want to do. If I want to continue with White Noise, I should bring some ideas and questions.

Reflection 2

I met with Mr. ________ again. He was pretty busy and stressed, but we spoke for about ten minutes. He liked my ideas. He said my question was good but that I should try to make it clearer. I told him how I intend to answer the question and he was impressed. He also said that I would have to make choices. I can’t include everything I want in 1500 words (but that I should aim for 1500 words). He also asked me how I was thinking about structuring my essay, and again he seemed impressed. He has told me that he wants the first draft to be as good as I can make it as if I intend to submit it with references and everything. He asked if a deadline two-weeks from now is reasonable, and I said that it is. I can ask him questions – discuss my ideas – as I write, but he won’t comment on my draft until he gets it. Fair enough!

Reflection 3

Mr. ________ gave me back my essay yesterday, and today we talked a bit about his comments and questions he wrote in the margin. He likes it! He said that I should aim for 1500 words instead of 1350 (that I gave him). He isn’t that fond of my intro – he says it could be more direct and more focused on the novel. He says sometimes I have to ‘kill my babies’. Bah! I’m going to keep the intro. Anyway, I have a maths test next week. Mr. ________ doesn’t have a maths test! Mr. ________ also said that I need to keep my thesis obvious throughout my essay – apparently it isn’t always. Mr. ________ says my writing is great but that, if I have time, I should cut out unnecessary words and phrases. Probably we only spoke for about 15 minutes, but there are so many students in the class, so I get it. Mr. _______ and I agreed that I will submit the final version next week. Mr. ________ asked me what I have learned from the process and what I would do differently. I think the fact that I have done the reading for class, participated in discussions, completed my homework etc. has made this quite an easy task. We read and talked a lot about postmodernity in class as we read the novel, so the focus seemed really obvious. I don’t know what I would do differently. I might change the intro. He said I should! He has a PhD. I don’t (yet!). I dunno. A few kids in my class haven’t really been paying much attention – a couple haven’t really read the novel – and they are struggling now (although they said Schmoop would be enough – ha!).

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