Mediamatic Magazine vol 4 #1+2 Jorinde Seijdel 1 jan 1989

The Image: a guide to pseudo-events in America

DANIEL J. BOORSTIN, Atheneum Macmillan (pub),
New York 1987(first published in 1962)
ISBN 0-689-70280-9, English text, pp319, $7.95.


The Image: a guide to pseudo-events in America -

1962: The world had not yet come apart at the seams. No one on the moon, Kennedy alive and kicking, communism scary, green the colour of grass, TV an exclusive novelty and the computer science fiction.

Yet in this innocent year, the American historian Daniel Boorstin saw his country as having the grotesque proportions of an ‘illusion’. America was a black box floating through a ‘Spaceless Age’ in which the standard of time had dissolved and the real had vanished in the artificial. A gigantic land of mirrors, the world upside down: the inhabitants of this shapeless Limbo suffering from diplopia (double vision) and feeling no pain.

The Image is not a historical analysis but a ‘guide’ showing how modern America disappears in its various manifestations: the exploration of a fathomless surface, a world addicted to counterfeit. Sidereal America: forever relevant.

Since the Graphic Revolution and the democratization of information and culture, unprecedented quantities of synthetic images have been produced. The new machinery of mass production, mass media and transport have launched an ‘Iconography of Speed’ in which the difference between transport and communication is erased, and categories of experience are created in which ‘real’ or ‘unreal’ are no longer important, and ideals have been replaced by illusions.

With nostalgia and irony Boorstin sketches in six chapters some ‘degenerations’ of experiences and phenomena determined by the modern ‘image’ - stereotype and artificial - and by the pseudo-event - staged events, shows. These have supplanted all forms of reality and ideology, and have made subject and object, history and historians, mutually interchangeable. They feed and are fed by our ‘extravagant expectations’ of what the world should be, of our power to shape the world. Boorstin is not very optimistic , but he is critical without being pedantic: Because I cannot describe ‘‘reality’ 1 know I risk making myself a sitting duck for more profound philosopher-colleagues. He describes the ‘imagination’ of duplication and counterfeit, a theme now further explored and updated by French thinkers as Baudrillard. (See the reviews by Ernie Tee and Geert Lovink in this section). The way in which the ‘news’ is produced and directed is an obvious example of the production of‘pseudo-events’. Boorstin discusses this issue in detail in From News Gathering to News Making: from newspaper journalism to public relations strategies to TV- reports (so called live events that are stage-managed to ‘look good’ on TV: the influence of TV on politics. Pseudo-events are not rooted in reality. They represent nothing but themselves. They are hollow, never spontaneous and are produced with a view to reproduction: they arc ‘commodifications’.

In Front Hero to Celebrity, Boorstin introduces the ‘human pseudo-event’ in the shape of the 20th-century celebrity. (A celebrity is a person who is known for his wellknownness). Whereas the traditional ‘hero’ had to acquire his fame, celebrity is simply produced: exit hero. The celebrity appeared on the scene when the concept of‘folk’ had declined, and the notion of‘mass’ was emerging. ‘Folk’ had a universe of their own and expressed themselves: they had a voice. The masses only have ears, they have no voice; they are the target, not the arrow. The hero has no individual characteristics, only idealized ones; the celebrity on the other hand suffers from ‘idiosyncrasy’, which at the same time makes him a personality ‘without any characteristics’. Only in this way can he belong to the masses, a living tautology.
While the passing of time enhances the status of the hero and even invests it with mythical dimensions, time destroys the celebrity, who is a replaceable product and dies before his time in order to stay young eternally. Even God has been knocked off his pedestal: He is the celebrity-author of the world's best-seller.

From Traveller to Tourist deals with the lost art of travel, and describes the eclipse of travel as a ‘movement in space’, as a ‘metaphor of change’. The democratization of travelling at the beginning of this century was facilitated by the expansion of transport and an improved infrastructure: train, automobile and airplane have turned the active ‘traveller’ into a passive ‘tourist’ (the word ‘travel’ can be traced back to the French travail) and changed travel into commodity. Travelling has become a pseudo-event. Hotels simulate the exotic; natives arc kept in quarantine, spied on by tourists through the picture-window of their cameras, w'ho desire strangeness and couleur locale while retaining all the comfort they have at home - tourists who want to get far away, yet without having to travel a long time. In Ycllow'stone National Park, nature is designed by man as a kind of scenery, imitating the artificiality of tourist attractions. Travel guides select places of interest that arc easy to ‘photograph’ and attractive for ‘all people’, culminating in the Baedeker’s star system. (In 1942 Goring apparently ordered his Luftwaffe to bomb all sites and objects in Great Britain marked with an asterisk in the Baedeker.) The automobile has been adapted to our body design (...) from the old open touringcar to the new moving \picture-window ’ through which we can look out from air-conditioned comfort (...) while time and space implode in the Jumbo jets. We have turned travel into a tautology, a mirror in which we only sec ourselves.

From Shapes to Shadows discusses the blurring of form in literature, film, and the visual arts: the disappearance of the author and the original, of representation. As never before in art it has become easy for the great, the famous and the cliché to be synonymous. The original somehow loses its originality.

The copy is far more familiar. Boorstin relates the history of Reader’s Digest as the history of a pseudo-event; discusses the ‘best-seller’ phenomenon, the influence of film and TV on literature and vice versa, the manipulating power of the ‘star system’, he deals with Muzak as a musical pseudo-event (we are not quite clear where the air conditioning ends and where the Muzak begins).

In From Ideal to Image, the ideal has conclusively been supplanted by the image. What the pseudo-event is in the world facts, the image is in the world of values. In all aspects of experience and life, the image has superseded reality, our intentions and desires, and has destroyed traditional distinctions and opposites. We manufacture experience. The Image has made a commercial article of America itself. The image is everywhere, in our ethics, our expectations, in advertising, in statistics that ought to show w'hat we feel and think, yet only illustrate what we already know.

Finally the bubble of the American Dream bursts, and is then re-inflated as the American Illusion. The frontiers of the world are only mirror walls. All our attempts to transgress them are reflected and reflected...: We have been deceived by the machines we have invented ourselves to enlarge our vision.

Boorstin knows no cure for a diplopic America that does not wish to be healed and is heading for hallucinatory ‘triplopia’. The one escape route is the possibility of individual realization that there may be a world out there, beyond our present or future power to image or imagine"

In 1989 America is the w'orld and the world docs not change much although the machinery that produces ‘images’ is extensive, it has become faster and more all-encompassing, its strategy more sophisticated. Boorstin’s diplopic person has become ‘telematic’; the ‘image’ is no longer connected with a ‘principle of the current’, but to the ‘virtuality of paradoxical logic’. Today, the soft lines and pale colours of the Sixties image have become hard and digital; no longer the result of thought, but the actual thought itself.