The Function of Noise in Don DeLillo's "Cosmopolis"

Author: Laila Sougri


This article aims to explain the representations suggested by background noise in Don DeLillo's Cosmopolis. In this context, "background noise" refers to Michel Serres's definition of multiplicity. The philosopher argues in Genèse (1982) that because of the multiplicity that characterizes the postmodern world, it is difficult to adhere to one interpretation of it. He offers the analogy of noise as the background of this thought. This paper argues that as we cannot deny the existence of all the noises the ear filters, we can never be fully in control. DeLillo explores this idea in Cosmopolis (2003). The protagonist is assaulted with a multitude of voices that shape his path more than his will does. Based on this, the article aims to answer two main questions. How do the existential and phenomenological representations of these voices structure Eric Packer's path? And how do the experiences that ensue lead to posthuman revelations?

… And beyond all the sounds of the world,

There is silence.

Not the emptiness of space and time,

Silence loaded with background noise.

Listen and marvel,

The world lives inside.

You are the world, the noise in silence,

Expressed and breathed.

Don DeLillo’s thirteen novel, at times described as the “black sheep”[1] of his career, is one of his liveliest novels. Cosmopolis (2003) follows Eric Packer, a twenty-eight years old billionaire whom the reader meets during an April night of 2000. Narcissist, apathetic, and insomniac, Eric watches glimmers of life from the panoramic window of his penthouse. As night gives way to daylight, Eric seeks in the transition something beyond his reach. Suddenly a flying gull reveals to him that the one desire he has left consists of getting a haircut in Hell’s Kitchen.

The desire to get a haircut has to do less with looks than with understanding the source of a sudden existential crisis. In fact, this is the element that gives Eric his depth. He struggles between two sorts of existence: the power of capitalist screened data and that which lies beyond. This may explain a journey aiming to transcend currencies and fame and to drive toward that which Joseph Dewey calls Eric’s “ephiphanic journey beyond” (142). Eric’s semi-egocentric revelation creates a dissatisfaction with the person he is supposed to be. It could be said that he is even seeking to transcend being a person. The advance of his various technologies is the key factor for such parable, as their microscopic inspections allow him to get closer to a promethean future. And thus, “we are seeing familiar material treated to an unfamiliar degree of microscopic inspection” (Laist 153).

Eric Packer’s existential restlessness is clear from the very first sentence. “Sleep failed him more often now, not once or twice a week but four times, five” (Cosmopolis 5). Eric considers calling someone, but he realizes that the situation calls for “silences not words” (5). The billionaire is not even able to utter the word that would “turn off the lights,” as words among everything else have ceased to exist except the “the noise in his head, the mind in time” (6). Indeed, while he lies in his bed with open eyes and silence of words, his mind is submerged with a constant throb of noise.

The Noise of Silence (1949) by Mikuláš Medek

This representation of noise recalls a painting by the Czech artist Mikuláš Medek. “The Noise of Silence” (1949) is a surrealist work that seems to depict the violence of silence. Silence is not devoid of noise. On the contrary, silence is the house of punctured/hooked vessels of expression. It is the screams that cannot be heard, screams that are louder than any uttered sound. Silence is also the reflecting trapped eyes that see layers of unreachable thoughts and images. If we assume that the clear sky is to represent consciousness, the grey underground are all the meshed voices that remain paralyzed in silence. Being fog that rises from the bottom of earth, noise hides the distinctive traits of objects, shapes and even purposes. However, it lets through dim lights of awareness. Detected by Eric, these lanterns illuminate his path more than daylight does.

If all these contradictory aspects of noise apply to Eric, what is its function in his last day? Can we even speak about one function? In order to clarify the role played by noise in the protagonist’s journey, it is beneficial to look deeper into the definition of “noise.”

“The noise was nearly unbearable, taking root in his hair and teeth. He was seeing and hearing too much. But this was his only defense against the spreading mental state.” (Cosmopolis)

In this context, “noise” refers not only to the fluctuations found, for instance, in traffic or malfunctioning machines. “Noise” refers also to the existential background of Eric’s mind where disquiet is gradually amplifying. Noise is the totality of Eric’s “picked” experiences and what is still to be done. Noise is not only an external consequence of an accumulation of random sounds. It is part of that which makes life itself. There is no noise without space and no space without noise (Serres 61). Living itself implies being exposed to a noise that Eric does not only hear but which he feels in space. It comes down to him from the past and adds up around him. As Michel Serres explains in Genesis (1990), noise is not an inconvenience as much as a major engine of life.

We breath background noise, the taut and tenuous agitation at the bottom of the world, through all our pores and papillae, we collect within us the noise of organization, a hot flame and a dance of integers.

When disturbing sounds are picked and pricked, noise becomes the multiplicity of Eric’s thoughts, the contradictions that keep him awake at night. These predict the danger of losing control. Eric is aware of his protective surroundings, but he is also aware of the mind struggling because of the clicks of a moving clock or even a spycam. Noise prevents Eric from sleep, but it also sharpens awareness of his situation. He cannot ignore the “agitation at the bottom of the world.” The “tautness” of his body and mind emanates from a nascent inability to fully control his mortality.

As an engine of life, noise is inseparable from violence. Welcomed or abhorred, it penetrates space as “the wind under the door.” T. S. Eliot borrowed this quote from John Webster’s play “The Devil’s Law Case.” It is added in the second section of The Waste Land (1922) called “A Game of Chess.” In both instances, the “wind under the door” seems to reveal the breath of death, spleen, or revelation. Noise brings about a chilly change of atmosphere either by announcing murder or betrayal (the play) or by declaring the spread of mental emptiness or despair (the poem). In Cosmopolis, this atmosphere is felt by Eric when he realizes that a miniscule spycam seems to predict his every movement.

The car was moving. Eric watched himself on the oval screen below the spycam, running his thumb along his chinline. The car stopped and moved and he realized queerly that he'd just placed his thumb on his chinline, a second or two after he'd seen it on-screen. (22)

The spycam represents the parasite that connects Eric to his reflected image, to the silent noise that foresees his movements. Although the spycam is not a seer, Eric’s impression that it is seems to emanate from the way he processes his reflection in the screen. Akin to the mirroring eyes of Medek’s painting, the screen reveals Eric’s inclination to trust an image of himself more than his own body. He experiences the events of his last day, not in the physical world, but in the realm of omens that transforms cold seeping wind of noise into information. Despite his attempts to remain in control, an evasive sense of background noise traps him “in midbeing” (205).

An aspect of this entrapment is explored later in the novel. Eric comes across his wife “of 22 days”, Elise Shifrin, while she is busy leafing through poems in a library. They leave together to a luncheonette where he confesses his desire to consummate their marriage. Noisy places are unappealing to Elise, but Eric declares that the whole city “eats and sleeps noise” (71). Even if he had his limousine “prousted,”[2] it still cannot keep the noise out. This noise defies technologies as it finds its way to the remotest places. He tries to convince Elise that the noise in itself is neither negative nor unusual. It is a multiplicity, that is, the accumulation of millions of voices that have been building up for centuries.

The city makes noise out of every century. It makes the same noises it made in the seventeenth century along with all the noises that have evolved since then. No. But I don't mind the noise. The noise energizes me. The important thing is that it's there. (71)

Even if the limousine has been “prousted,” nothing can keep the noise out. It is part of city’s essence that is why the prousted limousine “cannot prevent the seepage of street “noise” (pain, Otherness) into the sealed, theoretical, technological interior of the limousine” (Wright 169). As will be seen later, pain and Otherness refer to the “marks” that the inhabitants of the city leave on Eric. The noise itself suggests the presence of other sorts of dwellers. Ghosts and invisible energies populate the city and penetrate enclosed spaces.

It could be said that noise is the past, the tradition in memory, but also thought in motion. Within its guts are formed the voices of the future, the information that has not yet diced new binaries. This is symbolized both by the spycam and by a watch that pictures Eric’s death. The “hand device,” as Eric calls it, does not seem to belong to the present as “It is so microscopically refined it was almost pure information. It was almost metaphysics” (204). This epiphanic moment is reinforced with the camera’s ability to zoom on a beetle nearby and expose all its details. He declares that at that moment, “something changed around him…the image on the screen was a body now, facedown on the floor” (205). He sees himself as standing in “midbeing.” He is still breathing in the natural world. It is embodied by his attraction to the details that make up the beetle. Simultaneously, he is attracted to thinking in terms of technological transcendence. Eric is fascinated with the parasitic aspect of the watch; he bestows on it not only the function of divulging the hidden information of the beetle but also the expression of “the noise of the future.” The technological apparatus, although not being seer, translates and brings forward glimmers of the noise entrapped in space.

The fact that the “noise of the future” predicts Eric’s death does not render it altogether negative. It would be short sighted to limit the representation of noise as an undesirable source of either awareness or forgetfulness. Being multiplicity, noise can reveal a soothing atmosphere. In the way to Hell’s Kitchen, Eric’s limousine is stopped in an intersection. When light turns green, the noise that follows the horn-frenzy does not disturb Eric as there was something familiar about it. “It was the tone of some fundamental ache” (14). In his dissertation Tendering the Impossible: The Work of Irony in the Late Novels of Don DeLillo, Nicholas Wright suggests that this “fundamental ache” refers to the pain related to “the condition of living in history, memory, and living in the body, all of which the ‘futurist’ attempts to transcend” (169). Wright is correct to consider history, memory and the body the main components of such ache. However, even if Eric’s ultimate goal is to be stripped from them through becoming data on disk, there is something in the noise that he “did not choose to wish away” (14). This background noise, as Serres calls it, reinforces Eric’s sense of life in the same manner his ancestors used noise as a symbol of life.

For Serres, the primitive chaos-noise that retains the “secret” of life is “like the wind of violence, unleashed, mastered, lost, retaken, delirious, and disciplined” (55). Serres refers here to the noise of crowds, such as rugby crowds. Even if the noise made in a stadium is different from that made in traffic, the spirit of the all-encompassing noise is still there and plays an important role in reviving the atmosphere of community. It is at the same time delirious and disciplined because on the one hand it emanates from one’s anxiety, whatever it is, and on the other it is crucial for the advance that involves many people. Even if the primitive noise invokes violence, it is the sort of violence that Eric feels comfortable around because it has a purpose. It refers to “the call, the grievous need” that reinforces one’s existence in space.

Therefore, noise is not only an external consequence of an accumulation of random sounds. It is part of that which makes life itself. There is no noise without space and no space without noise (Serres 61). Living itself implies being exposed to a noise that Eric does not only hear, but which he feels in space. It comes down to him from the past and adds up around him. In the novel, one of the numerous examples of this is the Cosmopolis itself. Eric meets various people with various backgrounds and functions in one day and in one city. As he is about to die, Eric thinks of most of the people he had met earlier in the day.

He was thinking of the bodyguard with… the hard squat Slavic name, Danko…He was thinking of the Sikh with the missing finger, the driver he'd glimpsed when he shared a taxi with Elise…He was thinking of Ibrahim Hamadou, his own driver, tortured for politics or religion or clan hatreds…He was even thinking of Andre Petrescu, the pastry assassin… Finally he thought of the burning man and imagined himself back at the scene, in Times Square… (194)

By the end of the day, Eric is filled with the echoes of remembrance. He keeps a particular thought of those who inhabit and define the “Cosmopolis.” They are the ones who distract him from adhering completely to a technological logic because their humanity attests to the existence of something beyond numbers and devices. When he is about to be shot, Eric “stared into space…[then] he closes his eyes one more time” (209). The reason for this last gesture is not a fear of facing death. For him, the end of his body does not imply the end of his being. Rather, Eric closes his eyes to better listen to one voice among many, screaming silently in the Cosmopolis. This voice is his own, guiding him back to the underground: the noise in silence.



[1] In Technology and Postmodern Subjectivity in Don DeLillo's Novels, Randy Laist suggests that “In terms of critical reception, Cosmopolis is the black sheep of DeLillo’s recent novels… it is as if he has exhausted bigness with Underworld and has become newly entranced with the possibilities of the minute, the inward, and the evanescent” (152).

[2] A reference to Marcel Proust who had his chamber sound-proofed.



DeLillo, Don. Cosmopolis. London, Picador, 2011.

Dewey, Joseph. Beyond Grief and Nothing: a Reading of Don DeLillo. Columbia, University of South Carolina Press, 2006.

Eliot, T. S. Collected Poems: 1909-1962. Orlando, Harcourt, 1991.

Laist, Randy. Technology and Postmodern Subjectivity in Don DeLillo's Novels. Frankfurt, Peter Lang, 2010.

Serres, Michel. Genesis. Translated by Genevieve James and James Nielson, Ann Arbor, University of Michigan, 1995.

Serres, Michel. The Parasite. Translated by Lawrence R. Schehr, Minnesota Press, 2007.

Wright, Nicholas. “Tendering the Impossible: the Work of Irony in the Late Novels of Don DeLillo: a Thesis Submitted in Fulfilment of the Requirements for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy in the University of Canterbury.” University of Canterbury, 2006, Accessed 15 Feb. 2017.