This article was first published in Issue 133.
Gabrielle Bex looks at photography, replicas, and the illusion of authenticity.
When I think back to my days as an undergrad all that time ago (like, literally just months ago but I can’t get my head around that), one lecture in particular stands out. It was from a second year English Literature module called The Modern Age and taught by a lecturer I’d never met before, but whose classes I would go on to obsessively sign up for. The lecture was on ‘Structuralism, Surrealism and Meaning’ and it opened with a photograph of a barn.
That was it, just a plain white PowerPoint slide with some seemingly random photo of a barn copy-and-pasted on to it. ‘This barn,’ my lecturer announced to the group, ‘is the most photographed barn in America.’ While the barn turned out to be real and located, in fact, in Wyoming, my lecturer was more interested in its inclusion in Don DeLillo’s White Noise (1985). In this genre-defining postmodern novel, a very brief but powerful scene makes reference to the barn, or at least a fictionalised version of it.
The point of the scene, as stressed by the protagonist of the novel, is that no one actually sees the barn. “Once you’ve seen the signs about the barn, it becomes impossible to see the barn,” says one character to another. They watch as people with cameras leave the site, only to be replaced by others, and note that the photographers aren’t there to capture an image but rather to maintain one. Every photograph merely reinforces the aura of the barn as an accumulation of nameless energies. The characters are struck with the realisation that they are only seeing what the others see; that self-same barn but viewed by “the thousands who were here in the past,” and by “those who will come in the future.”
In one particularly downcast moment (which, admittedly, doesn’t narrow it down much) set amidst the incessant clicking of camera shutters and the rustling crank of levers to advance the film, one character notes that the visitors are “taking photos of taking photos.” What had the barn looked like, they wonder, before it was photographed? Was it different to other barns, or in what ways was it similar? Ultimately, what was the aura of the barn before the collective perception coloured their vision and limited the ways they could view it.
Then my lecturer began to weave in postmodern theory. It was a 9am and I think we all felt it was a bit too early to be discussing Baudrillard and the Simulacrum, but he went for it any way. Soon he was pouring over the concept that a copy could, in itself, be copied so many times that there may no longer be any trace of the original element. In such a case, as with the barn, the meaning of the photograph as a photograph could ultimately become more significant than the barn, hence why the barn could no longer be seen by the characters.
This sort of thinking can seem a bit much at first. Or, if you’re like me and still struggling to get your head around the idea, it can seem like absolutely nothing. But, once you get the vague gist, it can change the way you view anything and everything. René Magritte’s The Treachery of Images (or This is Not a Pipe) was the example my lecturer used, as he conjured up Foucault and enthused over the fact that while the pipe in the painting was clearly not a physical pipe, it was, nonetheless, a pipe in the sense that it was a simulation of a pipe…
When the lecture ended, I just remember walking home in the rain and being so caught up in the concept that I doubted the originality of everything. Even the puddles seemed inauthentic- they were potholes, a botched manmade copy of a natural puddle. I have no idea where I thought I was going with this puddle nonsense, but at the time it felt exciting. The more I stopped to think, the more copies sprang to mind.
Social media seems a key example. Many people no longer view their online presence as a means of presenting who they are, but rather as an extension of themselves. I’m guilty of doing this myself, through the endless tweaking of a caption or the application of a precise filter, and you might say that the pipe does become the pipe. Or, equally, that I have become the Snapchat flower crown.
So then, just as the characters in White Noise were only able to see the barn as a photograph of a barn, perhaps we as a society are moving further towards the realm of the hyperreal, where our connection with the tangible grows fainter with each like, retweet, and reblog.
Having said that, I’m 100% going to post a photo of this article on Instagram. Let’s embrace the positive aspects of the hyperreal, while being cautious not to tumble too far down the rabbit hole.
[Gabrielle Bex – @GabrielleBex]
[Photo: Nour El-Issa – @dimredspectre]