Ritualistic Consumerism: How Consumption Replaces Religion in ‘white Noise’

About this sample

About this sample


Words: 1442 |

Pages: 3|

8 min read

Published: Oct 26, 2018

Words: 1442|Pages: 3|8 min read

Published: Oct 26, 2018


Table of contents

  1. Introduction
  2. The Fear of Death and the Turn to Tangible Consumption
  3. The Negative Consequences of Consumerism as a Replacement for Religion
  4. Conclusion


The concept of consumer culture has garnered significant attention throughout history, with authors and philosophers delving into its various dimensions. In the context of the United States, consumerism often carries a negative connotation, particularly due to the country's association with surplus and leisure, even in times of societal and economic turmoil, as elucidated in Clay Shirky's essay "Gin, Television, and Social Surplus." Don DeLillo's novel, White Noise, takes the exploration of consumerism to another level by depicting a society in which consumer culture transcends mere social norms and rituals, becoming a source of spiritual connection. This spiritual dimension offers the characters an alternative to traditional religion, albeit one that is detrimental and unhealthy. Karen Weekes, in her article "Consuming and Dying: Meaning and the Marketplace in Don DeLillo's White Noise," characterizes this phenomenon as the negative aspect of "white noise." Kalle Lasn, in "The Cult You're In," further emphasizes that such a shift towards consumerism is commonplace in modern society, equating it to a cult-like mentality. In White Noise, Don DeLillo masterfully illustrates how contemporary American consumers, when confronted with existential or spiritual crises, often veer away from conventional religion, replacing it with consumption, driven by the perceived comfort and safety embedded in the culture, a trend that is observable among both adult and child characters.

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The Fear of Death and the Turn to Tangible Consumption

The narrative in White Noise introduces existential questioning at an early stage, with a significant portion of the adult characters, notably Jack, grappling with an intense fear of death. This prevailing fear of death and the accompanying uncertainty make it somewhat comprehensible why these characters turn to tangible and quantifiable possessions rather than seeking solace in spirituality. In today's culture, organized religion can be an intimidating prospect. It offers no definitive answers to the myriad questions that plague individuals, and no single religious system stands out as having superior insights. As a result, contemporary society raises individuals to be at ease with consumption from an early age, effectively initiating them into consumer culture, a process Kalle Lasn likens to cult recruitment.

Lasn's notion of being unwittingly indoctrinated into consumer culture resonates with the events portrayed in White Noise. In the novel, this concept finds embodiment in Jack's children, especially his daughter, Steffie. While she sleeps, Steffie unexpectedly utters two distinct words, both familiar and enigmatic, carrying an almost ritualistic significance. These words appear to be part of a verbal spell or an ecstatic chant: "Toyota Celica." Jack observes this peculiar occurrence with rapt attention. The fact that a young child like Steffie is incorporating car commercials into her subconscious and manifesting them in her dreams underscores the pervasive influence of consumer culture. Furthermore, Jack's reaction to his daughter's utterance is noteworthy; he experiences a profound sense of selflessness and spiritual elevation in response to her simple mention of a brand name vehicle. This reaction reflects the extent to which consumerism has permeated his psyche and underscores the novel's overarching theme of consumer culture serving as a surrogate for traditional spirituality.

The Negative Consequences of Consumerism as a Replacement for Religion

Jack, the central character in Don DeLillo's White Noise, undergoes numerous transcendental experiences through his consumption habits. In a parallel universe where religiosity prevails, Jack's equivalent act would be prayer; however, his response to the fear of death or the complexities of existence is to engage in shopping. Jack resorts to the mall as an escape, where he exchanges money for goods. As he spends more money, its significance diminishes, and he perceives himself as larger than the sums spent. These expenditures seem to evaporate from his being, eventually returning to him as existential credit. In this heightened state, he experiences a profound expansion of awareness, filling every crevice of his existence. However, unlike traditional spiritual practices such as prayer or meditation, Jack's consumption-driven experiences leave him emptier than before. The car ride home with his family is marked by silence and an overwhelming sense of apathy (42). In Mark Osteen's introduction to White Noise, he characterizes the novel as one that delves into the realm of religion and belief, emphasizing its constant allusions to the enigmatic, ineffable, and numinous aspects of life that DeLillo terms the "radiance in dailiness." Osteen's portrayal of spirituality as an awareness beyond the mundane human experience underscores the profound nature of Jack's "spiritual" experiences through consumption. Nevertheless, these experiences prove ephemeral, rendering Jack empty, apathetic, and more bewildered than before. This phenomenon aligns with Karen Weekes' concept of "negative white noise," in which the application and outcome of white noise, or background events, shift from positive to negative (14). Thus, it becomes evident that the ritualistic embrace of consumerism as a surrogate for religion has not only provided catharsis for existential fears but has elevated it to a point of religious and spiritual significance, albeit an unhealthy one. These experiences are not just substitutes for religion; they are insecure and hollow replacements.

However, Jack is not the sole individual within his society grappling with the detrimental consequences of consumerism serving as a form of religion. Consumerism, much like religion, governs the functioning of the society adhering to it. Consumerism operates on the principles of production and consumption, perpetuating a self-serving and superficial foundation for a society (Shirky, 171). When an entire society embraces these principles throughout its existence, it establishes norms and rituals. While these norms may initially seem innocuous, any disruption can have far-reaching consequences for the culture. This phenomenon is exemplified poignantly in the concluding scene of White Noise, set in a supermarket where the shelves have been rearranged, leaving shoppers bewildered and on the verge of frenzy. This disruption is akin to entering a chapel where stained glass windows have been shattered and replaced with images of Marilyn Manson. The customary consumption ritual has been tampered with, resulting in agitation and panic among the shoppers, especially the elderly. They move through the store in a fragmented trance, stopping and starting, as they attempt to discern a pattern or underlying logic, struggling to recall the previous location of familiar products (141). However, the compulsion to consume ultimately triumphs over the fear and confusion. As depicted in the novel, the supermarket terminals are equipped with holographic scanners that decode the binary secret of every item, providing a sense of order and efficiency, thereby alleviating the anxiety induced by the disrupted ritual. In this consumerist religion, the need to consume prevails, as belief does not extend beyond the tangible and "ownable." In a world where faith in consumption is paramount, losing faith is not an option (141).

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In conclusion, Don DeLillo's White Noise effectively illustrates how individuals cope with existential queries and their yearning for tangible answers. The novel offers profound insights into the modern consumer's compulsion to consume and the detrimental consequences when consumption supplants spirituality in transcendental experiences. It becomes evident through the narrative that doubt, fear, and self-doubt, coupled with the uncertainty of the future, can lead to the unhealthy veneration of meaningless material possessions as ersatz sources of solace.


  1. DeLillo, Don. White Noise. Osteen, Mark. Introduction. New York: Penguin Books, 1985. Print.
  2. Lasn, Kalle. “The Cult You’re In”, Common Culture: Reading and Writing About American Popular Culture. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2009. Print.
  3. Shirkey, Clay. “Gin, Television, and Social Surplus”, Common Culture: Reading and Writing About American Popular Culture. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2009. Print.
  4. Weekes, Karen. “Consuming And Dying: Meaning And The Marketplace In Don Delillo’s White Noise.” LIT: Literature Interpretation Theory 18.4 (2007): 285-302. Academic Search Elite. Web. 9 Mar. 2015.
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Ritualistic Consumerism: How Consumption Replaces Religion in ‘White Noise’. (2018, October 26). GradesFixer. Retrieved February 25, 2024, from
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Ritualistic Consumerism: How Consumption Replaces Religion in ‘White Noise’. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 25 Feb. 2024].
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