The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America

Uh oh, I’ve dogeared nearly every page. Boorstin’s 1961 look at the pseudo-events and celebrity that clutter our lives is more relevant today than when it was written. The extravagant expectations we have of our lives demand fresh news hourly (now every minute) and require that news is manufactured in order to fulfill that demand, so journalists create stories where there are none, wreak interviews on us (“The interview is a joint product of some humbug of a hack politician and another humbug of a reporter” – The Nation, 1869), fill us with unending information about non-events. Boorstin reckons this shift as the Graphic Revolution, where our ability to make, preserve, transmit and disseminate precise images began growing at a rapid clip. “The disproportion between what an informed citizen needs to know and what she can know is even greater.” The commodification of news results in packaged news, press releases (deemed “handouts” after the stale food handed out of a house to the needy), and the feeling that one is better off watching things on TV than being present at the event itself. At MacArthur’s parade through Chicago sociologists compared the actual experience of being on the street (waiting, feet hurting, brief glimpse as he rolled by) to the dramatic appearance displayed on TV with screaming crowds (only screaming when they saw TV cameras). The people on the street wishing they’d watched it on TV, while TV viewers were assured by announcers how amazing it was to actually be present on the scene.
Pseudo events are these manufactured events, and they always win out in importance over casual, spontaneous, REAL events. Take the talk at the watercooler in the office, where last night’s TV show overshadows whatever casual event was being discussed. And the fallacy of televised Presidential debates– we get demagogues who look good under the bright lights but who are perhaps lacking in the other necessary characteristics of being President.
Chapter 2 is about celebrity, the human pseudo-event. Boorstin’s famous line is that the celebrity is a person who is known for his well-knownness. The obsession with celebrity has shot up exponentially since the book was written in 1961. “The power to fill our minds with an increasing number of ‘big names’ increased our demand for Big Names and our willingness to confuse the Big Name with the Big Person… we have filled our world with artificial fame… We can make a celebrity but we can never make a hero… all heroes are self-made.” The people who are really making a difference in life, the heroes, if they remain unsung, they continue to be heroes, but once they gain visibility they become grist for the celebrity mill and undistinguished from other celebrities who are famous for non-heroic reasons.

The vacuum of our experience is actually made emptier by our anxious straining with mechanical devices to fill it artificially. What is remarkable is not only that we manage to fill experience with so much emptiness, but that we manage to give the emptiness such appealing variety.

Chapter 3 charts the decline of the traveler and the rise of the tourist. Travel originally was the same word as “travail” (trouble, work, torment). Tour-ist was the original spelling (one who tours), a pleasure seeker instead of actively searching for experience and adventure, expecting everything to be done to him and for him. The word “sight-seeing” first recorded in 1847, after Thomas Cook designed his guided tours for the middle class, unleashing “droves of these creature, for they never separate, and you see them forty in number pouring along a street with their director – now in front, now at the rear, circling round them like a sheepdog.” I love the term “the great backwash” to describe the flooding of Americans into the Old World in tourist invasions in the early 20th century. Tourists demanded packaged tours that simulate local culture but wrapped up in a tidy package that doesn’t feel too different from home. Boorstin argues that museums act as tourist attractions, displaying art out of context.

The impression of individual works of art or of a country’s past culture as a whole, whenever it is formed from museum visits, is inevitably factitious… The museum visitor tours a warehouse of cultural artifacts; she does not see vital organs of living culture… Each living art object, taken out of its native habitat so we can conveniently gaze at it, is like an animal in a zoo. Something about it has died in the removal.

The dissolving forms of Chapter 4 discuss the disintegration of forms of art in favor of more digestible bits (Readers’ Digest giving you the nub of the story as well as placing larger versions of stories it wants to “digest” in other pubs, movies winnowing down the plot of novels into 90 minutes or less, the abridgment or bowdlerizing of books to numb them to lowest common denominator). “Americans were inclined to overvalue whatever could be made intelligible to all: the work of the journalist (Benjamin Franklin) or of the popular humorist (Mark Twain).” Is something a best seller because it is great or vice versa?

Everyone must know more and more about more and more. How to do it?… Abridging and digesting is no longer a device to lead the reader to an original which will give her what she really wants. The digest itself is what she wants. The shadow has become the substance.

Earliest recorded usage of “non-fiction” is 1910, “fact” had been treated as the norm up until then. The business transactions (novels sold for screen rights) becoming pseudo-events that are reported on, if big $ for movie rights, then book must be good.

Man fulfills his dream and by photographic magic produces a precise image of the Grand Canyon. The result is not that he adores nature or beauty the more. Instead he adores his camera – and himself…. Fidgeting with his camera he becomes less concerned with what is out there… photography becomes a form of narcissism. “Have you seen my snapshot of the Mona Lisa?”

Onward to music, phonographs, Musak. “We are music-soothed and music-encompassed as we go about our business. Now the appropriate music for any occasion is that which need not be followed but can simply be inhaled.” What would Boorstin say about the ear-bud wearing zombies that walk around the city, unable to take a single step without the soundtrack to their lives echoing in the white buds?

The object (of music) is to bathe an already half-conscious patient in an anesthetic or a tonic aural fluid. In factories or offices… the stream must “go counter to the industrial fatigue curve.”

Chapters 5 & 6 a tedious look at advertising that didn’t grip me as much.