Over summer, my wife and I visited the most photographed lighthouse in the world. We didn’t question the claim’s validity. We just went with it. The lighthouse stop was part of our New Hampshire and Maine last minute road trip. It was a good trip. We slept in the car and jumped in the water and ate a lot of seafood. We were in York when we heard about it: “The most photographed lighthouse.” Just up the road, said the internet, a few miles from where you are.
So we jumped in the car and found it. Instinctively, my first thought was, Yes, this looks like a lighthouse. It’s cute, scenic, impressionable. It is all the things lighthouses are and should be.
I didn’t want to take a picture.
Rather, it seemed better to be the guy who visits “Most Photographed” type places, and doesn’t take pictures. The concept would make for a good blog. But as I stood there watching dozens of tourists snapping their film and tapping their screens—a fervent mixture of new and old technology, crunching, shaking, iPhones uploading moments through invisible data, data that I too could claim!—something crept up inside me, like a tremor, and before I knew it, there I was, unceremoniously taking a picture.
So here’s the picture:
It wasn’t until later, while reading a novel by Don DeLillo, that the lighthouse was *uhem* illuminated once more inside my head. As I’ve come to understand, DeLillo is a cultural critic; his novels address society’s many obsessions and explores what roles these obsessions play in our lives, as well as how they define us. Death, technology, consumerism, media, crowds, for instance, these are common motifs DeLillo highlights with excellent vision and irony.
His novel, White Noise, takes a look at these motifs and addresses them in terms of family life and the suburbs (also there’s an Airborne Toxic Event). Here’s what a book cover may look like:
Eerily enough, there’s this scene where the protagonist, Jack Gladney, takes a road trip with his new intellectual friend Murray. Gladney shows Murray the most photographed barn in America. The scene is compelling, one of the most striking passages in recent fiction that I can recall.
Here’s an excerpt:
Soon the signs started appearing. THE MOST PHOTOGRAPHED BARN IN AMERICA. We counted five signs before we reached the site. …
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 at once 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.”…
“Being here is a kind of spiritual surrender. We only see what the others see.”
DeLillo’s passage hit me so hard I threw the book down, got some ice, and pressed the ice against the newly formed bump on my brain. I eventually picked it back up (the book) and reread the passage, and read again, and I did the reading thing once more.
Full disclosure: I am an English major. Yes, we have a tendency to over analyze books. But honestly, most English majors really bother me. I even wrote a play about them. Them, picking their books apart like hyenas on a fresh carcass, liking bones until they’re dry and exposed, without purpose, burying them in some distant field and missing the point of a good story!
Presumptuously, I sometimes pretend I would make good friends with Mark Twain, who, as a preface to Huckleberry Finn, wrote:
NOTICE: Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.
What I’m saying is that I don’t pick apart passages frivolously. I approach books assuming that, mostly, the author is just trying to tell a good story, and when I do dig deeper, I understand that I am probably projecting my self into the text.
DeLillo often wrote about technology, of cameras and television, the intrusiveness of media; he explored how these inventions redefined our views of the world and our expectations. The BARN, the lighthouse, these locations obviously existed before, sure, beautifully, but our raging, rapidly developing technologies have redefined them into consumable goods,
an anomaly of our deeply rooted consumerism,
a stimulus we’ve assigned consumerist value to
because others have labeled them as important,
and in the heat of social hysteria, in the midst of a crowd, no one asks any questions.
So I snapped the picture. I posted it to Instagram and Twitter, Facebook, my blog. I shared, I bragged. “Look at this!” I said. “The Most Photographed Lighthouse in the Universe! Aren’t you jealous?” The collective world offered its selective praise, and we all went on with our lives, albeit me, carrying a slight (shaming) cognitive dissonance I couldn’t quite pinpoint.
I didn’t really care to enjoy the moment.
I didn’t even want to take a picture,
but I did.
Questions to ponder:
- Are we fascinated and addicted to sharing every moment? Or is it simply social pressure?
- Is unbiased beauty compromised/threatened by the “aura” of saturated social sharing?
- What else is threatened? Or is anything truly different?
As DeLillo says, “Whoever controls your eyeballs runs the world.”
I’m curious, rather, who the hell’s controlling my thumbs.