Friday, November 25, 2011

The Image (1962)

Author: Daniel J. Boorstin
Title: The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-events in America
Publisher: Vintage
Price: Birthday Loot
LCC: E169.12 B66 1992

The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America (1962) is Daniel Boorstin's effort to help his contemporaries understand the media environment around them. Anticipating the thought of post-structuralist thinker Jean Baudrillard, Boorstin is preoccupied by the diminishing status of reality and the concomitant rise of what he terms "the image." A self-described "how not to do it" book, The Image hopes to "dispel some of the mists" that surround America so that the reader "may better see the landscape to find whatever road he chooses." Nearly 50 years later, Boorstin's text seems to posses a basic common sense, but it is as unlikely to empower readers today any more than it did in 1962. Despite the fact that it addresses itself to the common citizen, The Image is underwritten by a nostalgic conservatism, tinged by pessimism and hostile to people in the aggregate.

Boorstin's title may mislead readers. He is not concerned with images per se, but with the mirages produced by contemporary media. Rather than produce reports on the world-as-it-is, contemporary communication systems begin to manufacture events in order to serve their own ends. Boorstin traces this development to what he terms the "Graphic Revolution." The term signifies a seemingly endless process that began in the Industrial Revolution when the means of communication became easier. This produced both a tremendous upsurge in the number of communications and a tremendous market for them.  Whether these communications were found in visual media like the newspaper, the book, and the cinema or in audible media like radio does not matter. The rise of the "image" comes about because, according to Boorstin, there has never been enough "real" content to satiate the needs of these communication venues.  In order to serve their respective markets, communication firms have had to produce "pseudo-events." These events all have four things in common: 1) they are not spontaneous; 2) they are planned for the sake of publicity 3) their relation to reality is ambiguous and 4) such events are intended to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

Anyone paying attention to our current political affairs must have noticed the prevalence of such pseudo-events. However, nothing seems to demonstrate the pseudo-event as the political career of Sarah Palin. When Palin pretends to be running for president she fulfills all four criteria. Her visits with her family to historic American sites are certainly not spontaneous family trips, but are planned around the production schedules of television news media. Such trips are not spiritual journeys for the Palins--after all, they seem to learn almost nothing from them--but are conducted solely for the purpose of bestowing an air of patriotism to the Palin family name. I think we can all admit, especially at this point, that Palin's presidential run had at best an "ambiguous" relationship to reality. Finally, these trips were intended to make Palin an important political force, and in a sense, they did secure a role for Palin as a prominent political commentator.

Boorstin's focus on the celebrity as "human pseudo-event" also possess a certain diagnostic acumen. Boorstin laments the loss of heroes who achieved their notoriety through great deeds. In their place, came the celebrity who is principally well known for being well known. Perhaps nothing represents this transformation than the career of Hulk Hogan. A former wrestler whose matches were staged, Hogan went on to participate on a reality TV show. Hogan Knows Best, modeled itself after a 1950s sitcom, documented the lives of Hogan and his family as they did. . . well, they didn't do much of anything. Nonetheless, it managed to revive Hogan's career and temporarily launch the career of his daughter Brooke. Boorstin's theories also help explain the careers of movie stars as well. Describing the emerging institution of the late night talk show and the already established gossip magazines, Boorstin writes, "One becomes better known by being the habitual butt of another's jokes, by being another's paramour or ex-wife, or being the subject of another's gossip, or even by being ignored by another celebrity." Could any other sentence better explain the success of Jennifer Aniston's post-Brad Pitt career?

While we have all experienced the lack of reality that Boorstin describes there are a number of problems with the arguments he lays out in The Image. With his concern for "reality" and "experience," Boorstin may seem to fall into the American tradition of philosophical pragmatism. However, Boorstin is in fact an idealist and this gets him into trouble when he tries to imagine alternatives to a public life dominated by the image. Instead of calling for a return to "reality"--whatever that might mean--Boorstin calls for a return to ideals. For Boorstin these ideals can be located in religion, in history, and more problematically in the world around us. Boorstin is aware of the vagueness in his definition of "ideals," and he tries to minimize this difference by saying that searching for ideals is a difficult process than manufacturing "images." However, I think Boorstin recognizes that if he pressing his definition of ideal further he'll find that he has come very close to his definition of "image" as "the un-real." The real problem with Boorstin is that he cannot recognize that all social situations and institutions are constructed. He is, at his root, an essentialist.

Boorstin's appeal to religion and history of course mark Boorstin as a deeply conservative thinker. Boorstin is not the type of conservative currently represented by the Republican Party, but he is a conservative in the Burkean sense of the term. (George Will, however, does provide the book's glowing afterword). Boorstin longs for a time before industrialization and capitalist market relations. The problem of the image is, after all, the problem of the Graphic Revolution and the markets it produced. Latent throughout The Image is a nostalgia for a time when writing was restricted to an aristocratic manuscript culture and the rest of us had an oral folk culture. This is a romantic vision but I imagine few of us would leave the comforts of the present for the brute simplicity of feudalism. Ultimately, a kind of austerity underwrites the entire project. Although it is an austerity very different than the one currently advocated by European elites, it nonetheless seems to support the interests of the wealthy few while castigating the many.

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