Study Guide

White Noise Versions of Reality

By Don DeLillo

Versions of Reality

"Once you've seen the signs about the barn, it becomes impossible to see the barn." (3.19)

When Murray Siskind takes Jack on a day trip to see "The Most Photographed Barn in America," he shows Jack something more than just a famous barn. He shows Jack how little of a grasp on reality people have. For Murray, it's impossible to see the barn objectively as a barn because you can't get anywhere near the thing without passing a half-dozen signs that advertise it as the most photographed barn in America. The point is that once you know this, you can never just see a barn. You can only see a barn that you know thousands of other people have seen a certain way, and you can't help but join them in seeing it from a specific mental angle. 

"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." (3.21)

It's not just any one camera that makes the most photographed barn in America what it is. Every person who stops and takes a picture contributes to the "aura" of the barn. In this way, the "aura" is like an invisible residue that builds up on the barn more and more as each person comes to snap a picture. Each photo, says Murray, turns the barn into something more than just a barn. Each photo turns it into something that only exists for the sake of being looked at. 

"I am the false character that follows the name around." (4.23)

Jack doesn't feel all that secure as a professor. After all, the guy became one of the best pros in his field by… <em>inventing his own field</em>. That's kind of a sneaky way to become the best at something, and another example of how people tend to invent their own reality rather than see the world objectively. Jack's so concerned with keeping up a certain image that he wears hipster glasses and uses his initials J.A.K. instead of Jack in academic settings. As he says in this line, though, he never for a moment thinks of himself as genuine. He's just a character that he made up, not the real Jack Gladney. 

"It's going to rain tonight."

"It's raining now," I said.

"The radio said tonight." (6.3-6.5)

So much for "Father Knows Best." Jack can't even get his son Heinrich to agree with him that it's raining outside. That's because Heinrich totally refuses to accept commonsense answers to simple questions. To be fair, Heinrich is being a little bit difficult here. But if you take what he's saying seriously, he makes a good point about how much the media (like TV and radio) conditions the way we look at reality. Let's not forget that later in the book, Jack won't evacuate their home after a toxic disaster because TV has taught him that disasters only happen to poor people in trailer homes. 

"Just because it's on the radio doesn't mean we have to suspend belief in the evidence of our senses." (6.9)

Jack gets right down to it here. When it comes to reality, we should trust what our eyes and ears tell us, not the radio. But this is more easily said than done. Throughout this book, the radio is always there, jabbering away. It's like there's no getting away from it in Jack's household. It's always inserting itself in conversations, and always warping what people see when they look outside.

Only a little later in the book, Steffie starts having fits of déjà vu after the radio told her that déjà vu is a possible symptom of toxic gas exposure. The funny thing is that the radio later says that déjà vu <em>isn't</em> a symptom, leaving us to wonder if the radio itself tricked Steffie into having déjà vu. The media can plays tricks on the mind in this book. 

"Is there such a thing as now? "Now" comes and goes as soon as you say it. How can I say it's raining now if your so-called "now" becomes "then" as soon as I say it?" (6.22). 

Heinrich's a crafty kid, and he's good at dancing away from his father's hardline reasoning. For example, he shows his father that it's totally bogus to ever say that a certain thing is happening "now," because the present moment is over before you've even finished saying it. 

"You see the sun moving across the sky. But is the sun moving across the sky or is the earth turning?" (6.32)

Here's a noodle-scratcher: does it even make sense to say the sun goes down when we know it's just an illusion caused by the spinning of the globe? In this case, Heinrich shows us a really good example of how our personal point of view is always coloring our reality, and how we can never really know an objective reality because we're always coming at the world from a certain angle. 

"But this evacuation isn't simulated. It's real."

"We know that. But we thought we could use it as a model."

"A form of practice? Are you saying you saw a chance to use the real event in order to rehearse the simulation?" (21.396)

Wait a second, these SIMUVAC guys are only supposed to run simulated evacuations, right? But what happens when they use an actual disaster so they can practice to make their simulations better? In a passage like this, DeLillo shows us that in the modern world, simulations or fake realities can sometimes completely replace reality. It's kind of like the way a commercial paints a really fake version of reality, except that in this case, the SIMUVAC guys have the power to turn real life itself into a simulation.

"To begin your project sweater," he said, "first ask yourself what type sleeve will meet your needs." (39.29)

When Jack meets the pill fiend named Willie Mink, it doesn't take Jack long to realize that Willie has totally destroyed his brain with pills. The damage has gotten so bad that Willie can't really tell the difference between his own thoughts and the lines that his TV is feeding him. Willie's obviously been watching some sort of knitting show, but he can't tell where the show ends and "real" life begins. DeLillo uses this kind of scene, and others like it, to show how TV can get into our heads and totally take the place of the "real" world in our minds. 

"There must always be believers. Fools, idiots, those who hear voices, those who speak in tongues. We are your lunatics. We surrender our lives to make your nonbelief possible. You are sure you are right but you don't want everyone to think as you do." (40.150)

When Jack goes to a hospital, he's shocked to find out that the nuns working there don't actually believe in God or an afterlife. When he asks why they go on pretending, a nun tells him that normal, cynical people <em>need</em> religious people to make them feel smart for not believing in God. If everyone were an atheist, atheists wouldn't feel special. Basically, the message here is that no matter how cynical or non-believing a person is, that person will always take comfort in the thought that somewhere out there, there are actual believers. 

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