“While crises do shake people out of their complacency, forcing them to question the fundamentals of their lives, the most spontaneous first reaction is panic, which leads to a “return to the basics”: the basic premises of the ruling ideology, far from being put into doubt, are even more violently reasserted.” – Slavoj Zizek First As Tragedy, Then As Farce
The “Airborne Toxic Event” does not cause the characters in White Noise to angrily criticize the pharmaceutical companies for failing to dispose of their waste in a safe matter or question the the morality of the capitalist system that allows such events to happen. The characters quietly obey orders as they are shuttled from one facility to another. The symptoms of exposure they are given change drastically, indeed almost hourly, but they still heed the warnings and worry about possible contamination.
Instead of fighting the system, the characters sink into pseudoscience and primitive superstition. Babette reads accounts so fantastic in nature, that a five-year-old would doubt their veracity. Despite the inherent ridiculousness of UFOs and the Japaneese purchasing Air Force One, we are assured that “[n]o one seemed amazed by this account”. The most intriguing part of this sequence is the linking of the paranormal with coupons. Coupons are one of the greatest creations of “late capitalism”; allowing consumers to save money by using hunting and gathering techniques on advertisements. The characters manage to embrace the same economic model that landed them in tragedy.
Is this a realistic portrayal of how human beings would act in such a tragic situation? DeLillo certainly engages in hyperbole at a number of points throughout the novel, but this is not one of them. It is only after the immediacy of the crisis has passed, that we can begin to wonder about the cause of the crisis. Panic will not allow us reason.