Images of Reality vs. Reality Itself

In the Los Angeles Times, Neal Gabler marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America, by Daniel Boorstin:

Author Daniel J. Boorstin in May 1974. (Associated Press via The Los Angeles Times)

“… Even now on its golden anniversary, there may be no single book that has so shaped ideas about the country’s cultural transformation in the era of mass media, no single book that has so well framed how the American consciousness was reformed from one that seemed to value the genuine to one that preferred the fake. In many ways, “The Image” invented what would later become known as postmodernism — the odd cultural Moebius strip by which so many elements of our lives become imitations of themselves.

… [H]e lamented that that was exactly what mass culture was doing to the country. It was substituting the false for the true, the dark arts of public relations and self-aggrandizement for the higher purposes of human existence.

Everywhere Boorstin looked, and he looked everywhere — at journalism, at heroism, at travel, at art, even at human aspiration — he believed that the eternal verities that had once governed life had given way to something cheap and phony: a facsimile of life. Of journalism, he would say, “More and more news events become dramatic performances in which ‘men in the news’ simply act out more or less well their prepared script.” … Of travel, he would say that tourists increasingly demanded experiences that would “become bland and unsurprising reproductions of what the image-flooded tourist knew was there all the time.” …

Whether we share his anger or not, we all know we live in a world of images, a world where everything seems planned for effect rather than substance, and Boorstin no doubt would have had a field day dissecting “reality” shows that have nothing to do with reality beyond the description. They are practically designed to the specifications of Boorstin’s thesis.

Still, there are limitations to “The Image.” … Boorstin didn’t appreciate the adaptability of culture to circumstance. The fetish for images is not necessarily a blight on the world. It is its own thing — different from, not less than. Sometimes people don’t want the original. Sometimes they want the imitation, not because they are culturally brain dead but because they want release from the heavy hand of reality that Boorstin so revered.

Boorstin may not have been able to admit that because he knew too much about humankind. He knew that you couldn’t keep ’em down in reality once they had seen the image. …”

Which is why we often say that John Fahey’s mission statement for National Geographic — if it had been vetted by the Society’s crack Research staff — would actually say: Inspiring people to care about pictures of the planet.

(I’d argue that’s not a worthwhile or a sustainable mission for the National Geographic Society — but at least it’s true.)

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