The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America by Daniel J. Boorstin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
The Image is a modern classic of sociology first published in 1961. Anyone reading it today will probably be struck by how Boorstin identifies trends that are so prevalent today -especially the way society is fixated on images rather than the underlying reality.
Some might call Boorstin prescient but it’s more accurate to say that he was an astute observer of what was already happening in the mid-20th century as the era of television was making sweeping changes in society. The paperback copy I picked up is a 25th-anniversary edition, with an introduction from the author and an afterword by conservative cultural critic George Will, written in 1987. So reading this today is like a time machine with multiple stops. For in the 1980s, the internet was still a decade in the future but the MTV era was well underway.
This is one of two influential books from the 1960s that deals with a similar topic, the other being Society of the Spectacle, by Guy Debord. The latter is still on my reading list and from browsing through it in used bookstores I expect it to be the more challenging of the two, as European philosophers can be rather abstract. By contrast, Daniel Boorstin writes in the straightforward manner of an American traditionalist.
The subtitle of this book tells a great deal of the story: “A guide to pseudo-events in America.” Boorstin is obsessed with the phrase “pseudo-event” and it’s used throughout the book. A pseudo-event is something that’s contrived, such as a press conference or publicity shoot as opposed to a happening that occurs spontaneously. Boorstin’s main point is that society is increasingly made up of pseudo-events. When you think that he wrote this some half century before the advent of reality TV and social media, it’s quite amazing.
The Image recounts trends that are so familiar now that we barely notice them but that was just getting underway in the mid-20th century, such as the staged quality of presidential campaigns and debates and celebrity product endorsements.
Speaking of celebrities, Boorstin may have been one of the first to thoroughly examine and critique the whole idea. Celebrities, he notes, have largely supplanted heroes. While heroes are known for their character and great feats, celebrities are famous for being famous. As Boorstin puts it, “a celebrity is a person who is known for his well-knowness.” This is something that people started to note with the rise of the celebrities such as Paris Hilton and the Kardashians in the early 21st century. Apparently, however, it dates back quite a bit before that. Boorstin explores the case of Charles Lindbergh at length, seeing his story as one of the first truly modern celebrities. Lindbergh was initially a hero in the traditional sense after making the first nonstop solo flight from New York to Paris. However, he quickly turned into a mere celebrity whose every movement was reported. When his baby was kidnapped, speculations and rumors filled the media for many months.
One of the most interesting chapters is “From Traveler to Tourist: the Lost Art of Travel,” which describes the emergence of another major trend as modern mass tourism supplanted the age of leisurely travel. Boorstin and other cultural critics look on with horror as cruise ships, commercial airlines, hotel chains, and the emerging American highway system do away with differences and bring about the modern, increasingly homogenized world. Boorstin explains how tourism has created a whole new category of pseudo-events, such as museums and other attractions set up solely to entertain tourists and native dances and rituals performed outside of their original context and reimagined as entertainment.
Of course, a lot of what Boorstin is analyzing here, especially in the chapter about travel but also throughout the book, is about a world that’s increasingly populated, educated, and democratic. He explicitly mentions that prior to the 20th century, long-distance travel was mostly limited to the wealthy.
He similarly complains about the phenomenon of bestsellers, which are books that are considered great because they sell well. As with travel, however, there’s also the underlying issue of more people reading and buying books than ever before. The mass appeal of books began when mass printing became possible and literacy rates increased.
In all fields, there tends to be a trade-off between quality and mass participation. As more people than ever before read, travel, vote and participate in politics, watch TV and movies, and otherwise partake of culture, and at the same time technology accelerates, more events and items take on a mass-produced quality.
As Boorstin also laments, works of art were once all unique. Now, anyone can buy a poster, postcard or other reproduction of any painting. This is yet another example of where we have the advantage of widespread access versus the decline in quality and, perhaps, appreciation. while it’s nice to be able to get a refrigerator magnet featuring Van Gogh’s Starry Night, the very ease of acquiring such things necessarily takes away some of their magic).
According to the bio at the conclusion of the book (which was obviously added post-1987), Boorstin died in 2004, just at the cusp of the next development of the image in culture. For as Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram have taken off, images have quickly come to dominate the internet. Although Boorstin may never have seen a selfie, I doubt if he’d be surprised as it’s the next logical step in everything he was describing.
The Image is a kind of reactionary critique and rant on a single topic, albeit an important one. Like many thinkers trying to prove a very broad point, Boorstin may take his argument too far in some cases. He tries to draw sharp divisions between hero and celebrity, real events and pseudo-events and images and ideals. I’m not sure it’s quite so straightforward. Plato’s Socratic dialogues, written more than 2000 years ago, largely dealt with the difference between appearance and reality. In fact, it’s almost surprising that Boorstin doesn’t mention Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, which has enjoyed a resurgence of popularity recently. Plato discusses how shadows, or images, are mistaken as reality by the ignorant masses. Perhaps Boorstin doesn’t reference this classic because it would have undercut his thesis, namely that The Image is a relatively modern phenomenon.
While the forces Boorstin identifies in The Image may not be as starkly new as he supposes, they certainly accelerated greatly in his time and even more so in our current time. I often find it instructive to read sociological viewpoints from earlier decades to see how modern trends got started. In the case of The Image, we’re dealing with one of the central issues of our time. For even if images were an issue as far back as Plato’s time, they certainly didn’t dominate the everyday consciousness of people as they do now.
This is a complex issue and, as much as I enjoyed reading The Image, I don’t think it really does much good to simply rail against cultural trends. Today we have a host of anti-internet critics who are telling us how current technology is dumbing everyone down. While they have a point, there are other ways to look at it as well.
Images are only getting more central to our existence. Does this mean we’re sinking further into the realm of Plato’s cave dwellers, the Maya of Buddhism or perhaps the complacent citizens of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World? Perhaps. However, there are always multiple ways to look at everything. There can be truth and beauty in images as well.
Whatever your opinion, The Image is well worth reading for its insights and historical perspective.
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