An object of interest in the third chapter of White Noise, the 1985 National Book Award winning novel by American author Don Delillo.

The scene was later famously served up by David Foster Wallace as an expression of how and why we're all so gut-wrenchingly cynical, in his landmark 1993 essay E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction.

The scene is quite short and excerpted all over the internet (as well as in the Wallace essay) -

The Most Photographed Barn in America

Several days later Murray asked me about a tourist attraction known as the most photographed barn in America. We drove 22 miles into the country around Farmington. There were meadows and apple orchards. White fences trailed through the rolling fields. Soon the sign started appearing. THE MOST PHOTOGRAPHED BARN IN AMERICA. We counted five signs before we reached the site. There were 40 cars and a tour bus in the makeshift lot. We walked along a cowpath to the slightly elevated spot set aside for viewing and photographing. All the people had cameras; some had tripods, telephoto lenses, filter kits. A man in a booth sold postcards and slides -- pictures of the barn taken from the elevated spot. We stood near a grove of trees and watched the photographers. Murray maintained a prolonged silence, occasionally scrawling some notes in a little book.

"No one sees the barn," he said finally.

A long silence followed.

"Once you've seen the signs about the barn, it becomes impossible to see the barn."

He fell silent once more. People with cameras left the elevated site, replaced by others.

We're not here to capture an image, we're here to maintain one. Every photograph reinforces the aura. Can you feel it, Jack? An accumulation of nameless energies."

There was an extended silence. The man in the booth sold postcards and slides.

"Being here is a kind of spiritual surrender. We see only what the others see. The thousands who were here in the past, those who will come in the future. We've agreed to be part of a collective perception. It literally colors our vision. A religious experience in a way, like all tourism."

Another silence ensued.

"They are taking pictures of taking pictures," he said.

He did not speak for a while. We listened to the incessant clicking of shutter release buttons, the rustling crank of levers that advanced the film.

"What was the barn like before it was photographed?" he said. "What did it look like, how was it different from the other barns, how was it similar to other barns?" We can't answer these questions because we've read the signs, seen the people snapping the pictures. We can't get outside the aura. We're part of the aura. We're here, we're now."

He seemed immensely pleased by this.

Wallace and the Barn, or Why You Feel So Cynical About Being You

Wallace used The Most Photographed Barn in America to unpack how irony became a zeitgeist.

He starts with fiction writers.

E Unibus Pluram opens with Wallace calling fiction writers "oglers." We're voyeurs, he says, creepily feasting on unaware humans for patches of authentic behavior to sew into our stories.

This makes television the greatest thing ever. It's like having an ogling device right in your own living room. We can watch human behavior 24-7.

Except there's a problem with this. Television is not authentic behavior. The people on TV aren't unaware humans going about their lives. They know they're being watched. Billions of dollars count on it. Television is a meticulously crafted spectacle.

Yet we still recognize bits of ourselves in it, even while we know it's meticulously crafted to appeal to the widest audience possible (and thus, perhaps, the lowest common denominator). So we relate to television dualistically: we identify with it while simultaneously remaining cynical of its production. This is the ironic disposition. We relate to TV with ironic distance: identifying and condemning at the same time.

It gets worse.

Wallace argues that television has become so prominent that it's an ineluctable part of our culture. We can identify with the father or mother or child in the family sitcom because they are based on American families. We see our own family quirks humorously reflected back at us. We refer to our own mother-in-laws as the mother-in-law on TV. "I swear she's Marie Barone, evil to the core." Then a commercial for Downy laundry detergent comes on and we are reminded just how much Everybody Loves Raymond is a fabrication. This is true not just for television, but of movies as well. People identify with movie stars. They post pictures of them on their Facebook pages. They dress like celebrities, stylize their hair like them, adopt their mannerisms, their attitudes, their ethics. Delillo himself cuts right to the heart of the matter and says film is the culprit. The invention of film changed the way we see ourselves. It created a split not just in our relation to television and movies and youtube clips, but to ourselves. Since we identify with film we suffer the same side effects of that identification: as we see our Self in film, we also see the production of our Self, creating the fractured Self - at once being and neurotically aware of our being. This is how irony became king: because of film, we relate to ourselves with ironic distance, both identifying and analyzing at the same time.

It's a terrible, grinding way to go about life.

So while fiction writers don't want to rely on TV because it's inauthentic, TV itself is an ineluctable part of our contemporary lifestyle, and thus, argues Wallace, kind of authentic in its lack of authenticity. We are TV. We are film. "We can't get outside the aura," Delillo's Murray says above. "We're part of the aura. We're here, we're now."

We're caught in a feedback loop between ourselves and film. And we desperately want to escape.

The Toiletbowl Spiral of Recursion

This is what's going on in The Most Photographed Barn in America.

The people are there photographing the barn. But, as Murray notes, they're there recording the barn not because it's worth recording per se, but because it's "The Most Photographed Barn in America." It's famous for being famous. It's being recorded because it's known for being recorded, which is why people record it, which makes it known for being recorded, which is why people record it, ad infinitum. It's caught in a feedback loop.

Murray, a pop culture professor (whom Wallace calls a "poor shmuck of a popologist"), is there trying to escape the feedback loop by expressing awareness that there is a feedback loop. He does this by analyzing and commenting on the photographers. This is the ironic move. Murray is the awareness of the production of the phenomenon. Only he admits he can't escape the loop because he's ultimately there for the same reason as the photographers: because this is "The Most Photographed Barn in America." Knowing why it's being photographed doesn't change it from being "The Most Photographed Barn in America." It will not magically revert to a "real" barn just because you know how silly the feedback loop is. Irony does not privy you to authenticity. It only makes you painfully aware of just how inauthentic everything is.

Jack Gladney, the narrator of White Noise, takes a further recursive step by retreating into silence. He even refuses to speak when directly addressed. "Can you feel it, Jack?" asks Murray. Jack says nothing. Why? By refusing to analyze and comment, Jack hopes to one-up Murray and himself escape the feedlack loop. Silence must be authentic.

Is it?

Jack is, after all, the narrator. He is still narrating his silence, which itself is a type of commentary on the phenomenon that he too is there to witness, "The Most Photographed Barn in America." Even his second-level recursive step is sucked into the feedback loop of the barn.

And what about us? The reader. Voyeuristically taking it all in, commenting in our minds, wondering, analyzing, filling nodeshells with cute little write-ups about it. We too are sucked into the loop. Recursion is no escape. It just turns the feedback loop into a toiletbowl flush, spiraling down down down, but never away.

Reality Hunger: How I Stopped Being Cynical and Learned to Love the U.S. Tax Code

There is hope yet.

Delillo's novel and Wallace's essay are somewhat dated. White Noise was written in 1985. E Unibus Pluram was written in 1993. While both were landmarks that informed American fiction for decades, that period may be over.

With the publication of David Shields' Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, lit critic and essayist Morgan Meis has declared the age of irony to be done. We found a way out of the toiletbowl by stripping off our ironic layers and diving naked into our hearts (and the world). Meis calls this Neo-Sincerity. I won't go into the hows and whys as it's far beyond The Most Photographed Barn in America. Read the linked articles if interested.

However. David Foster Wallace killed himself in 2008. Considering who he was and what he meant to so many of us, the news was devastating and rather depressing. Why? If the greatest of us couldn't find a living way out of the toiletbowl, what hope do the rest of us have?

This isn't entirely true. It's always dangerous to ascribe reasons to a suicide, especially in this case as the The Most Photographed Barn in America probably had nothing to do with Wallace's suicide.

Wallace left behind a mostly-completed-but-not-finished novel called The Pale King. It's about IRS agents. Yes. IRS agents. The most boring people on the planet working the most boring jobs imaginable. But apparently that was Wallace's point. It appears that Wallace had found his own way out of the toiletbowl by making a very Zen move toward relishing every single minute stupid little thing in this ridiculous world. Even the hellishly boring figures and documents of the U.S. tax code. If you can learn to appreciate this (and apparently his characters love it) then you can forget all the analysis and commentary and recording and irony and just lose yourself in the world. Hope is there, Wallace seemed to be saying. It's in a box-like IRS building, buried deep at the bottom under the chaos of the U.S. tax code.

  • Morgan Meis on "The Pale King"
  • Morgan Meis on Neo-Sincerity
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