Monday, December 10, 2007

The Most Photographed Barn in America

I read Don DeLillo's 1985 masterpiece White Noise as an undergraduate in an American Lit course at the University of Memphis about ten years ago now. I was still developing my postmodern muscles at the time, and I loved DeLillo's novel, despite its overly stylized and sometimes too-precious prose. In particular, I loved the very brief but powerful scene at "the most photographed barn in America," which you can read here. The point of the scene, as articulated by one of the novel's protagonists, is that "no one sees the barn... once you've seen the signs about the barn, it becomes impossible to see the barn." People who go to see the most photographed barn in America only see a "sign" of the barn, even as they are photographing it. By being "the most photographed barn in America," the barn ceased to exist in a way, and became a simulacrum. That is, it was a sign with a referent so distant and distorted that meaning of the sign as sign became more meaningful than the meaning of its original referent.

I was delighted to discover that there is, in fact, an actual "most photgraphed barn in America" -- according to Flixter, it is the one pictured above. It's the Moulton Barn, somewhere at the foot of the Rockies. (More pictures of it here.) It is, of course, fascinatingly ironic that these many years later Flixter has intensified the scene in DeLillo's novel to the nth degree. Now, we don't even have to physically visit the most photographed barn in America to (not) "see it"... lending the poor barn, such that it is, an even more hyperbolic irreality.

Several months ago on this blog, I bemoaned the fact that my students' ability to imagine the characters and context of the literature they were reading in my class was handicapped by the movies they had seen. (Achilles can only look like Brad Pitt, now.) Our imaginations have been colonized, in a way, and it seems like we can only imagine pre-fab "images," rather than actively creating signs for the real things to which our signs are meant to refer in a way that is meaningful. My good friend, Professor Grady, reminded me of this recently in a post on his blog entitled "Staging My Imagination." There, he posted a photograph of a street corner that he knew well, but at which he had never seen a "story" take place, and he asked his readers to fill in a story on that very stage. This street corner, pictured as it was, reminded me of DeLillo's barn as, in the context of Prof. Grady's experiment, it was being staged as a sign of a place where something meaningful should happen, at the same time that the specific meaning of that stage (and the reality of the stage itself) was becoming ancillary, secondary... or, in the parlance of deconstruction, supplemental.

I've always been fascinated by the idea, held by many cultures all over the world, that photographs somehow "take away the soul" of the subject photographed. This fascinates me in the same way as DeLillo's implicit claim that photographs take away the "reality" of the thing photographed. I often struggle with my implicit (pre-reflective?) attachment to the "reality" of things. I mean, I'm all for the free play of signs, and I am convinced that legitimately meaninful creations are produced by this play, but I also feel a strange sort of sadness whenever I read DeLillo's story of the barn again. I find myself in a wierd, almost Hemingway-esque, space where I long for some simple correspondence between signfier and signified.

But I guess good deconstructionists are always mourning such things...


bernadette said...

Forgive me, but is there something of the romantic nostalgist here? The fact is that that barn was never all that great. It was just a barn in a field. Needing to go out to the barn at 5:30 in the morning, poor Mr. Old Farmer was cold and slightly damp and knew, always, that they wouldn't pay enough for the wheat to cover the loans he took out to keep his land. Really, he was only keeping the land because it was his only way of feeling connected to his grandfather, the only man who ever made him feel needed working late together in the old shop that blew away in the last tornado. And he knew that at this point it wasn't worth it. What really annoyed him was all these cars that kept coming through with city folk and their special cameras who thought the barn was just so neat and were so eager to click away at it. He was eager to work at a desk, where he didn't have to expose his cracked hands to the cold air, but he knew that was just a dream and that he'd have to keep coming out to this barn, this barn that had become a weight and a responsibility.

Doctor J said...

Ah, bernadette, let me introduce you to Steven, who is also fond of the appeal to cynical materialist narratives.

To your fabulous reconstruction of the famer's wretched tale I say: so what? It doesn't seem to me that the point here is to insist that those who photograph "the most photographed barn in America" OUGHT to be instead advocating for the economic viability of small-family farming. Though it would be nice if they did, I agree.

The point it that there is something similarly wretched about the kind of poverty they are "experiencing" by not-experiencing it. And, yes, that is a bit romantically nostalgic... but in the same way that "the most photographed barn in America" is romantically nostaligc AS a disconnected image, a longing, a mourning for something that one can no longer see but can only attempt to reproduce in an image.

I'm not against the longing or the nostalgia. I'm against the pretense that supplement is sufficient.

bernadette said...

Oh, I'm against longing or nostalgia. I think that's what I was saying. Even the discussion of simulacra seems to be a bemoaning of the loss of "real" experience. Which to me sounds like those people who were once associated with that barn really lived, now that we've taken so many pictures of it, we can't get back to that experience. Wah wah wah.

Ok, so I lie, I'm not against longing or nostalgia, but I think maybe it needs a critical relation and that simulacra conversations seem more and more to me to be nostalgic, especially in the political arena, and that can be dangerous I think. I'm more interested in thinking about how these simulacra work in a way to displace and confront the nostalgia for the "real".

Doctor J said...

um, okay. i think your last paragraph = my last paragraph above, no?

Booga Face said...

geez, who said a materialist can't also be sentimental?

my two favorite movies of all time are "once upon a time in the west" and "in the mood for love" -- both supremely sentimental, and the former Marxist at the same time

Doctor J said...

just kidding, steven. now I'M being a jerk...