The new edition of Boorstin’s classic book on media and culture, The Image, has just been released from Vintage. I had the honor of writing a new afterword to the text.
The first edition of The Image was published in 1961, the same year I was born. Kennedy was yet to be assassinated, LSD was yet to reach Harvard University, and the French post-modernists were yet to begin their deconstruction of America’s television-driven culture.
Ironically perhaps, like most readers coming to the book today, my main access to the sensibility of this era comes from television shows such as MadMen which, for all their slick characters, cigarette smoking, and cynical dialogue, actually depict a kind of innocence: the last moment in our history before the images created on Madison Avenue overtook reality. From our current perspective within the chaos of the Twittersphere, the discussions between admen about what slogans might best sell pantyhose seem almost quaint. Though rather devious in its intent, there was an art to the manufacturing of images that could touch the untapped recesses of human psychology. This was a craft that could be mastered by one set of human beings to influence the behaviors of another.
Our widespread fascination with this era – with its styles, appliances, and values – points to our own sense that something was lost back there. Yes, the seamless American narrative was to be irreparably interrupted by a series of brutal assassinations, the Vietnam War, and Kent State. But reaching back just a bit further than this, to the landscape of PanAm, the Worlds Fair, and the Dick Van Dyke Show, we find an America already in transition from one culture into another. We went from what Boorstin would consider the world of language and text to the world of the image.
A conservative at heart, Boorstin saw this as a shift away from thought and consideration to one of instantaneous assumption. While words take time to utter and hear, the image is frozen in time – its impact immediate, and its influence decadent. Before the primacy of the image, a salesman would have to describe the attributes of a product in a rational appeal to the intellect. Afterwards, it was the mythology of the brand, usually concocted by psychologists, that would sway a consumer’s heart. Likewise, the policy platform of a presidential candidate would come to matter less than the ability of his image to convey ineffable or irrelevant values.
Of course, the rise of the image ultimately served the left and liberal no better than it did the right and conservative. Reagan would come to depend even more intentionally on the symbolic language of visual imagery as Kennedy, and modern conservatives would exploit the thought-quelling immediacy of television as well as any liberal democrat.
Where Boorstin proved the most prophetic and relevant to our age, however, is the extent to which created imagery would be able to supplant reality itself. In a process he saw just beginning in his own time, the imagery we created and the media we used to disseminate them were taking on a life of their own. That’s why the era of the MadMen is so intriguing, even nostalgic for us today. There were still human beings utilizing their creativity. The MadMen were actively concocting the logos of banks, the brand myths of soaps, and the characters on cereal boxes. However manipulative the intentions of such image factories, there was a creative innocence fueling all this cultural production and reproduction. The magic of color TV was as spectacular as the race into space.
But as Boorstin had begun to observe, the novelty of television was soon superseded by its ubiquity. The hypnotic lure of these simulated realities became the seamless wash of Muzak and strip malls. Innocence and awe gave way to sensory overload and unconsciousness. As Baudrillard would later explain, we lost touch with any of the creative origins of these media as the simulations they rendered became the new reality.
The first symptoms of this culture-wide disconnect appeared to Boorstin as the precursors to a much greater disease. Unlike Marshall McLuhan, who would later codify these changes in less judgmental terms such “hot and cool,” or “obsolescence and retrieval,” Boorstin made no secret of his concern and disdain for the direction in which the American experience and its discourse were going.
Most famously, he coined the term “pseudo-event” as a way to describe the public relations driven, over-dramatized media moment. He saw events and ideas enjoying dissemination and attention based on little more than their appropriateness to a sensationalist media. These synthetic events distracted us from the issues that mattered, and recast everything in the language of image. He feared presidential debates becoming too much like quiz shows, and coverage drifting from issues that matter to discussions of the candidates’ television performances. The pseudo-event highlights only pseudo-qualifications.
He worried about the tendency of Hollywood to recycle the stories of novels, creating the illusion that the forms were interchangeable and that people could truly get the gist of a book simply by seeing the movie. (We can only wonder what might Boorstin say of today’s college students who get the “gist” of Hamlet by reading a two-paragraph summary on SparkNotes.com?) And while movies are capable of representing panoramic sweeps and many kinds of spectacle, they are generally limited to speaking out on issues. Novels, on the other hand, by engaging with individual readers’ minds over longer periods of time, have the ability to “speak in” and address a more interior drama. In a world dominated by the image instead of the word, interior life gives way to exterior show. Substance gives way to simulation.
Pseudo-events, in turn, give rise to a new kind of celebrity: people who are famous for being famous. Boorstin was thinking of the Hollywood star system, how it manufactured “types” whose very casting in a part communicated pretty much everything one needed to know about the character. But he was also getting at least a vague premonition of today’s “reality” television, where any sort of talent is not only superfluous, but actually a hindrance. The kids on MTV’s Real World, for example, excel most for their ability to behave like “real world” castmembers. The Real World season, like that of any other reality show, is itself a pseudo-event, absolutely manufactured and all the more successful for its refusal to do anything other than be itself.
On such a pseudo-stage, celebrity becomes not just what Boorstin called a “self-fulfilling prophecy,” but a self-referential vacuum. The purity of celebrities is measured and confirmed through their ability to prove their incompetence in all real things. Paris Hilton, for example, is famous precisely because she is not qualified to do anything other than be famous. Her hit reality TV series followed her and her friend through America as they failed at doing basic tasks, either through laziness or incompetence. Likewise, Charlie Sheen reaches the highpoint of his own celebrity not by performing well on his television sit-com, but by sharing his manic delirium with the world through social media. Even his fictional television role was more of a tongue-in-cheek comment on his pseudo-event real-life debauchery than an acting performance.
Although Boorstin predated the net, he did foresee the direction in which we were going, and longed to alert us to both the humanity and intellect we would be destined to leave behind and as we leaped headlong in a world of image. What he may not have realized, however, is the extent to which the emergence of peer-to-peer networking technologies might eventually challenge the preeminence of the image factory from which he recoiled. By making images for one another instead of just consuming those of corporate America, we could begin to reverse the process through which we are, in Boorstin’s words, being “programmed” by advertisers.
He also seemed somewhat oblivious to the role of the market economy in fueling all this image-making and meaning-taking. As we understand now, media does not act independently of other social institutions, but as part of a greater ecology of forces and technologies. Television did not cause the pseudo-event any more than Facebook caused Arab Spring – even though the biases of these media types were certainly contributive to kinds of outcomes they yielded.
In the case of America in 1962, corporate capitalism was understood as a given. The only question at the time was what might be the best method for promoting its values and products to America. The MadMen of Madison Avenue believed they could create a mythical landscape in which brands and consumption would feed both our corporate coffers and our unconscious desires. Boorstin saw such efforts as not only dangerous, but also an admission of defeat. Why do we need the lies of an advertising industry unless we are covering something up? By surrendering to the disingenuous image-maker, we were acting as if we had something to hide. In hindsight, perhaps we did.
Whether or not a truer American dream may have been realized without the manipulations of the advertising industry, there is little doubt that we descended into a dream nonetheless. It was a dream we built ourselves in a spirit of optimism and infinite possibility, from Detroit to Levittown, in offices and bedrooms furnished by Eames and Heywood-Wakefield, and televised by NBC and Philco.
If we are inclined look back at that era with fascination and longing, it may be less for the mid-century furniture and fashions than to comprehend the consciousness with which they were created and used. Those last wonderful moments before we drifted off to sleep.
This book is one of the clearest missives we have from the other side of that dream. It was a dream into which Boorstin saw us drifting, and a dream from which he was imploring us to wake up. By reckoning with this analysis of how we were lulled to sleep, we may finally stand a chance of rousing ourselves into consciousness again.
Hastings on Hudson, 2011