This September 2012, I had the pleasure of reading Daniel Boorstin's The Image, a book about the images and illusions that flood the American consciousness in our "age of contrivance". I read Boorstin's book for my Mass Communications Philosophy and Principles graduate course this semester at LSU. This book struck a chord with me, as I suspect it will with many an American reader. Boorstin's brief exploration of the images and shadows that plague even the world of science today was enough to cinch my approval of his arguments.
Science, technology and the social sciences today function on "unintelligible frontiers," Boorstin writes. The great deeds of science are less than half-intelligible to most of us. "Facts," even scientific facts, have lost their touch on the American public, giving way to convenient, fabricated information and shinier, ambiguous images. Many scientific events and achievements have become fabricated and even synthetic. Science peer-reviewed journals, science PR, and science journalism churn out "progress" that may or may not be founded on the preliminary finding, the un-replicated study, or even the spurious lab result.
Boorstin writes, “When the dramatic accomplishment was an incandescent lamp, a steam engine, a telegraph, or an automobile, everybody could understand what the great man had accomplished. This is no longer true. The heroic thrusts now occur in the laboratory, among cyclotrons and betatrons, whose very names are popular symbols of scientific mystery. Even the most dramatic, best publicized adventures into space are on the edges of our comprehension" (p. 54).
In modern America, people distrust ideals and accept "images" in their place as never before. The “image” of the scientist is more vivid and believable than his reality. The science lab demonstration is more concrete and impressive than the raw findings. The media coverage of that laboratory demonstration is the very thing the average American finds most “real.” The reality of scientific method and process of discovery is far too complicated and tedious for the average American's tastes.
We live in a time when the number of scientific article publications increase exponentially every year. What follow are press releases about those articles, “behind the scenes” news stories based upon the information from those press releases and brief interviews with the scientists, news stories hyping the controversy behind the findings, blog posts about the newspaper stories, Facebook statuses and tweets that read “Scientists say…” followed by some unrecognizable surprising finding from the article. In such a world of endless transformations of original information or “news,” it is important to think about how and for what purposes that “news” is created. Are we getting the “real” information, or just a copy of a copy of a copy?
I reproduce here the paper I wrote for my 7002 class on The Image and its main points about America’s delusions. I hope it inspires you to read the entire book, or at least take a deeper look at the “images” you probably accept and conform to every single day.
The main point of Daniel Boorstin’s “The Image” is to describe how Americans “have used our wealth, our literacy, our technology, and our progress, to create the thicket of unreality which stands between us and the facts of life” (p. 3). Boorstin gives “a representative sample” (p. x) of Americans’ extravagant expectations and describes the historical forces that have enabled these illusions. He writes about the “Graphic Revolution” (p. 13) and the rise of fabricated events and images that accompanied it. Americans now expect more than the world can offer. They expect more novelty, news, human greatness and exotic experience than the world holds and more human power over experience than is naturally possible. Boorstin describes the activities of advertising, public relations, journalism, mass production and entertainment as supplying the public demand for illusions. An expanding American economy has thrived on the extravagant expectations of its people.
Boorstin describes a “pseudo-event” (p. 11) as a happening that is not spontaneous, a contrived occurrence that lends itself “to being widely and vividly reported” (p. 210). The creators of a pseudo-event produce a self-fulfilling prophecy, planning and planting the event for media coverage. The event’s relation to reality is ambiguous. Reporters focus on the production and newsworthiness of the pseudo-event instead of its reality. The rise of “round-the-clock media” (p. 14) and technologies for reproducing events and images in print, photo, audio and video media in the 19th century led to increasingly vivid and synthetic representations of reality. Time limitations and economic pressures drove public relations personnel and journalists to engage in “making news” through pseudo-events such as press conferences and interviews. The makers of news benefit from their ability to shape and package stories to serve both public expectations and the makers’ own purposes.
Pseudo-events and news-making in turn blur the differences between reality and illusion in the American mind. Pseudo-events are more dramatic, vivid, intelligible, re-enforcing and convenient to witness than spontaneous events. They are more impressive and persuasive than reality. Pseudo-events “thrive on our honest desire to be informed, to have ‘all the facts,’ and even to have more facts than there really are” (p. 34). Creators of the pseudo-event advertise it in advance and plan the event for audience convenience. Pseudo-events also spawn other pseudo-events in a proliferation of news and publicized reactions to news that engage audiences.
Boorstin describes how pseudo-events have replaced human greatness and travel. Since the Graphic Revolution, Americans have shifted their focus from greatness to fame, from the hero’s achievements to the celebrity’s “personality” (p. 168). The celebrity has become a human pseudo-event in response to democratic forces, where Americans have come to see greatness as an illusion but fame as a reflection of popular power. Made to order celebrities “please, comfort, fascinate, and flatter us” (p. 74). Extravagant expectations of exotic everyday experience and middle class desires for adventure have transformed travel into a passive commodity sold to the tourist. The travel experience “has become diluted, contrived, prefabricated” (p. 79).
Boorstin also writes that Americans have exaggerated expectations of their power “to remake the world” (p. 118). America is a land of fabricated experiences: highways, movies, best seller books and popular magazines, celebrities, tourist attractions, popular museums and limitless copies of original works of art. The Graphic Revolution witnessed a “confusion of forms” (p. 127) and a “fragmentation of experience” (p. 129) as cheap books, movies, books turned into movies, news digests and television inundated the consumer’s world. The multiplication of pseudo-events and the popularization of works of art and literature reinforced what Boorstin calls the “mirror effect” (p. 255). Americans now see in the images they create not reality but rather representations of themselves. Pseudo-events conform to what the public already knows of the world.
In addition to the pseudo-event, the “image” or the “pseudo-ideal” (p. 185) dominates the American way of thinking in the graphic age. According to Boorstin, “images” are synthetic, believable, passive, vivid, concrete, simplified and ambiguous. The American now thinks in images instead of in ideals. Images serve the corporation, the advertiser and the politician. The public figure manages his or her “public image” (p. 203) instead of striving for ideals of modifying his or her behavior. Americans are consumed by their efforts to conform to images.
Boorstin refers to the rise of advertising as a “momentous sign of the rise of image-thinking, and its displacement of ideals” (p. 205). The advertisement is both a pseudo-event and a pseudo-ideal in that it represents both a newsworthy event and the image of something desirable. The rise of advertising contributed to the appeal of neither-true-nor-false information, half-intelligible and bewildering statements, self-fulfilling prophecy and the elaborate pseudo-event contrived to court the consumer. Americans enjoy the deception and seduction of pseudo-events and images. They depend upon them as upon reality. Americans look to advertisements to find out what they really want, to opinion polls to find out what opinions and preferences they ought and are likely to have.
Wealth and technology have given Americans license and ability to substitute images and illusions for reality. Boorstin writes, “We have fallen in love with our own image, with images of our making, which turn out to be images of ourselves” (p. 257).