Nicholas's Reviews > The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America

The Image by Daniel J. Boorstin
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Jan 02, 11

Read in December, 2010

** spoiler alert ** A criticism of the false reality that the media produces. A critical point that Boorstin made was that we demanded this false reality. We wanted a reality that exceeded what was actually out there.


"Every day seeing there and hearing there takes the place of being there."

"Having read a good deal about the villains who are said to be responsible for our perplexity - the hidden persuaders, the organization men, Madison Avenue, Washington bureaucracy, the eggheads, the anti-intellectuals, the power elite, etc., etc., etc. - I am unimpressed by their villainy. But I remain impressed by the perplexity of life in twentieth-century America. I have long suspected that our problems arise less from our weaknesses than from our strengths. From our literacy and wealth and optimism and progress."

"We want and we believe these illusions because we suffer from extravagant expectations. We expect too much of the world. Our expectations are extravagant in the precise dictionary sense of the word - "going beyond the limit of reason or moderation." They are excessive."

"We expect anything and everything. We expect the contradictory and the impossible. We expect compact cars which are spacious; luxurious cars which are economical. We expect to be rich and charitable, powerful and merciful, active and reflective, kind and competitive. We expect to be inspired by mediocre appeals for "excellence," to be made literate by illiterate appeals for literacy. We expect to eat and stay thin, to be constantly on the move and ever more neighborly, to go to a "church of our choice" and yet feel its guiding power over us, to revere God and to be God. Never have people been more the masters of their environment. Yet never has a people felt more deceived and disappointed. For never has a people expected so much more than the world could offer."

"We tyrannize and frustrate ourselves by expecting more that the world can give us or than we can make of the world."

"We suffer primarily not from our vices or our weaknesses, but from our illusions."

"Nowadays everybody tells us that what we need is more belief, a stronger and deeper and more encompassing faith. A faith in America and in what we are doing. That may be true in the long run. What we need first and now is to disillusion ourselves. What ails us most is not what we have done with America, but what we have substituted for America. We suffer primarily not from our vices or our weaknesses, but from our illusions. We are haunted, not by reality, but by those images we have put in place of reality. To discover our illusions will not solve the problems of our world. But if we do not discover them, we will never discover our real problems. To dispel the ghosts which populate the world of our making will not give us the power to conquer the real enemies of the real world or to remake the real world. But it may help us discover that we cannot make the world in our image. It will liberate us and sharpen our vision. It will clear away the fog so we can face the world we share with all mankind."

"Once the celebration has been held, the celebration itself becomes evidence that the hotel really is a distinguished institution. The occasion actually gives the hotel the prestige to which it is pretending."

"A pseudo-event, then, is a happening that possesses the following characteristics:
(1) It is not spontaneous, but comes about because someone has planned, planted, or incited it. Typically, it is not a train wreck or an earthquake, but an interview.
(2) It is planted primarily (not always exclusively) for the immediate purpose of being reported or reproduced. Therefore, its occurrence is arranged for the convenience of the reporting or reproducing media. Its success is measure by how widely it is reported. Time relations in it are commonly fictitious or factitious; the announcement is given our in advance "for future release" and written as if the event had occurred in the past. The question, "Is it real?" is less important than, "Is it newsworthy?"
(3) Its relation to the underlying reality of the situation is ambiguous. Its interest arises largely from this very ambiguity. Concerning a pseudo-event the question, "What does it mean?" has a new dimension. While the news interest in a train wreck is in what happened and in the real consequences, the interest in a interview is always, in a sense, in whether it really happened and in what might have been the motives. Did the statement really mean what it said? Without some of this ambiguity a pseudo-event cannot be very interesting.
(4) Usually it is intended to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. The hotel's thirtieth-anniversary celebration, by saying that the hotel is a distinguished institution, actually makes it one."

"The telecast was made to conform to what was interpreted as the pattern of viewers' expectations."

"Here are some characteristics of pseudo-events which make them overshadow spontaneous events:
(1) Pseudo-events are more dramatic. A television debate between candidates can be planned to be more suspenseful (for example, by reserving questions which are then popped suddenly) than a casual encounter or consecutive formal speeches planned by each separately.
(2) Pseudo-events, being planned for dissemination, are easier to disseminate and to make vivid. Participants are selected for their newsworthy and dramatic interest.
(3) Pseudo-events can be repeated at will, and thus their impression can be re-reinforced.
(4) Pseudo-events cost money to create; hence somebody has an interest in disseminating, magnifying, advertising, and extolling them as events worth watching or worth believing. They are therefore advertised in advance, and rerun in order to get money's worth.
(5) Pseudo-events, being planned for intelligibility, are more intelligible and hence more reassuring. Even if we cannot discuss intelligently the qualifications of the candidates or the complicated issues, we can at least judge the effectiveness of a television performance. How comforting to have some political matter we can grasp!
(6) Pseudo-events are more sociable, more conversable, and more convenient to witness. Their occurrence is planned for our convenience. The Sunday newspaper appears when we have a lazy morning for it. Television programs appear when we are ready with our glass of beer. In the office the next morning, Jack Paar's (or any other star performer's) regular late-night show a the usual hour will overshadow in conversation a casual event that suddenly came up and had to find its way into the news.
(7) Knowledge of pseudo-events - of what has been reported, or what has been staged, and how - becomes the test of being "informed." News magazines provide us regularly with quiz questions concerning not what has happened but concerning "names in the news" - what has been reported in the news magazines. Pseudo-events begin to provide that "common discourse" which some of my old-fashioned friends have hoped to find in the Great Books.
(8) Finally, pseudo-events spawn other pseudo-events in geometric progression. They dominate our consciousness simply because there are more of them, and ever more."

"The celebrity in the distinctive modern sense could not have existed in any earlier age, or in America before the Graphic Revolution. The celebrity is a person who is known for his well-knownness. His qualities - or rather his lack of qualities - illustrate our peculiar problems He is neither good nor bad, great nor petty. He is the human pseudo-event. He has been fabricated on purpose to satisfy our exaggerated expectations of human greatness. He is morally neutral. The product of no conspiracy, of no group promoting vice or emptiness, he is made by honest, industrious men of high professional ethics doing their job, "informing" and educating us. He is made by all of us who willingly read about him, who like to see him on television, who by recordings of his voice, and talk about him to our friends. His relation to morality and even to reality is highly ambiguous. He is like the woman in an Elinor Glyn novel who describes another by saying, "She is like a figure in an Elinor Glyn novel.""

"No longer external sources which fill us with purpose, these new-model "heroes" are receptacles into which we pour our own purposelessness. They are nothing but ourselves seen in a magnifying mirror. Therefore the lives of entertainer-celebrities cannot extend our horizon. Celebrities populate our horizon with men and women we already know."

"A woman reveals her age by the celebrities she knows."

"As soon as a hero begins to be sung about today, he evaporates into a celebrity."

"When the traveler's risks are insurable he has become a tourist."

"Now, when one risks so little and experiences so little on the voyage, the experience of being there somehow becomes emptier and more trivial. When getting there was more troublesome, being there was more vivid. When getting there is "fun," arriving there somehow seems not to be arriving any place."

"Whether we seek models of greatness, or experience elsewhere on the earth, we look into a mirror instead of out a window, and we see only ourselves."

"Like all great inventions, the idea was beautifully simple. It was merely to "plant" a full-length article (prepared under Reader's Digest direction) in some other magazine, so it could afterwards be digested in The Reader's Digest."

"Whatever the motives, the effect was plain enough. The magazine whose initial appeal was its ability to survey the scene, was now itself making the scene to be surveyed. Like the political interview or the tourist attraction, the planted article was produced in the honest effort to do a job, to give people what they paid for and what they expected."

"In the age of Graphic Revolution people quite naturally prefer a shadow of a shadow to a shadow of an original."

"The American publishing scene has been dominated by a few stars - Ernest Hemingway, Norman Mailer, J.D. Salinger - who have prospered as authors partly because they could be touted as "personalities.""

"To attack as a "rationalization" became a kind of philosophic penicillin - a layman's cure-all for arguments he could not understand or would not take seriously."

"Oversimplified sociological concepts - "status," "other-direction," etc. - appealed because they were so helpful in building images. These wide-appealing "modes," expressed in our dominating notion of norms and averages, led us unwittingly to try to imitate ourselves. We have tried to discover what it is really like to be a junior executive or a junior executive's wife, so we can really be the way we are supposed to be, that is, the way we already are. Naive emphasis on ideals had at worst tempted men to unrealistic pursuit of an abstract standard of perfection; emphasis on modes and images now tempts us to pursue the phantoms of ourselves."

"The momentous sign of the rise of image-thinking, and its displacement of ideas is, of course, the rise of advertising. Nothing has been more widely misunderstood. Daring not to admit we may be our own deceivers, we anxiously seek someone to accuse of deceiving us. "Madison Avenue," "Public Relations," "Organization Men," and similar epithets have given us our whipping boys. We refuse to believe that advertising men are at most our collaborators, helping us make illusions for ourselves. In our moral indignation, our eagerness to find the villains who have created and frustrated our exaggerated expectations, we have underestimated the effect of the rise of advertising. We think it has meant an increase of untruthfulness. In fact it has meant a reshaping of our very concept of truth."

"It is more important that a statement be believable than that it be true."

"They would not put their names to a statement unless it were true, the readers believe, so that it is of little consequence that the actual choice of the words used to convey their approval of Rheingold is the work of another hand."

"The rise of images and of our power over the world blurs rather than sharpens the outlines of reality - permeates one after another area of our life. There is hardly a corner of our daily behavior where the multiplication of images, the products and by-products of the Graphic Revolution, have not befogged the simplest old everyday distinctions."

"Pressure to participate leads to more and more nominal membership: in churches, service clubs, professional societies, pressure groups, charitable organizations, and political associations. Our joining is itself one of the most perfunctory of pseudo-events. We wish our membership to be reported. We do not care to participate."

"New ambiguities enter into "desire" and "function." Does the public really want fins on its new-model automobiles? If the fins do satisfy a public want, are they not then somehow functional? We become more and more confused about our desires in an ever expanding economy where products are always remoter from primitive needs."

"A dream is a vision or an aspiration to which we can compare reality. It may be very vivid, but its vividness reminds us how different is the real world. An illusion, on the other hand, is an image we have mistaken for reality. We cannot reach for it, aspire to it, or be exhilarated by it; for we live in it. It is prosaic because we cannot see it is not fact."

"Yet now, in the height of our power in this age of the Graphic Revolution, we are threatened by a new and a peculiarly American menace. It is not the menace of class war, of ideology, of poverty, of disease, of illiteracy, of demagoguery, or of tyranny, though these now plague most of the world. It is the menace of the unreality. The threat of nothingness is the danger of replacing American dreams by American illusions. Of replacing the ideals by the images, the aspiration by the mold. We risk being the first people in history to have been able to make their illusions so vivid, so persuasive, so "realistic" that they can live in them. We are the most illusioned people on earth. Yet we dare not become disillusioned, because our illusions are the very house in which we live; they are our news, our heroes, our adventure, our forms of art, our very experience."

"It is synthetic. It is believable. It is passive. It is concrete. It is simplified, and it is ambiguous."

"Images are the pseudo-events of the ethical world. They are at best only pseudo-ideals. They are created and disseminated in order to be reported, to make a "favorable impression." Not because they are good, but because they are interesting."

"Discovering we cannot have another people's virtues, we call them vices."

"In our popularity game we ask the world not, "Do you like me?" but, "Do you like my shadow?""

"We mistake our shadows for ourselves. To us they seem more real than the reality. Why should they not seem so to others? Out technique seems direct only because in our own daily lives the pseudo-event seems always destined to dominate the natural facts. We no longer even recognize that our technique is indirect, that we have committed ourselves to managing shadows. We can live in our world of illusions. Although we find it hard to imagine, other people still live in the world of dreams. We live in a world of our making. Can we conjure others to live there too? We love the image, and believe it. But will they?"

"It was disturbing, he said, to hear yourself quoted to yourself by somebody else who thought it was himself speaking: you began to wonder whether it was your language after all."

"We no longer do a job; we play a role. We do not learn parental virtues; instead we are prompted on how to "play the role of" parents."

"People really struggling to win, and not merely to have their victory reported in the papers."

"One of the deepest and least remarked features of the Age of Contrivance is what I would call the mirror effect. Nearly everything we do to enlarge our world, to make life more interesting, more varied, more exciting, more vivid, more "fabulous," more promising, in the long run has an opposite effect. In the extravagance of our expectations and in our ever increasing power, we transform elusive dreams into graspable images within which each of us can fit. By doing so we mark the boundaries of our world with a wall of mirrors. Our strenuous and elaborate efforts to enlarge experience have the unintended result of narrowing it. In frenetic quest for the unexpected, we end by finding only the unexpectedness we have planned for ourselves. We meet ourselves coming back."

"More and more of our experience thus becomes invention rather than discovery. The more planned and prefabricated our experience becomes, the more we include in it only what "interests" us. Then we can more effectively exclude the exotic world beyond our ken: the very world which would jar our experience, and which we most need to make us more largely human. The criterion of well-knownness overshadows others, because the well-known is by definition what most people already know. We seek celebrities, not only among men and women but even among books, plays, ideas, movies, and commodities. We make our whole experience a "reader's digest" where we read only what we want to read, and not what anyone else wants to write. We listen for what we want to head and not for what someone wants to say. We talk to ourselves, without even noticing that it is not somebody else talking to us. We talk to ourselves about what we are supposed to be talking about. We find this out by seeing what other people are talking to themselves about. "All I know," Will Rogers remarked in the earlier days of the Graphic Revolution, "is what I read in the papers." Today he might modernize his complaint: "All I see in the papers is what I already know."

"All I see in the papers is what I already know."

"We have fallen in love with our own image, with images of our making, which turn out to be images of ourselves."

"At home we begin to try to live according to the script of television programs of happy families, which are themselves nothing but amusing quintessences of us."

"More and more accustomed to testing reality by the image, we will find it hard to retain ourselves so we may once again test the image by reality. It becomes ever harder to moderate our expectations, to shape expectations after experience, and not vice versa."

"We are deceived and obstructed by the very machines we make to enlarge our vision."

"Our discontent begins by finding false villains whom we can accuse of deceiving us. Next we find false heroes whom we expect to liberate us. The hardest, most discomfiting discovery it that each of us must emancipate himself. Though we may suffer from mass illusions, there is no formula for mass disenchantment. By the law of pseudo-events, all efforts at mass disenchantment themselves only embroider our illusions."

"While we have given other great power to deceive us, to create pseudo-events, celebrities, and images, they could not have done so without our collaboration. If there is a crime of deception being committed in America today, each of us is the principal, and all others are only accessories."

"It is dangerously tempting to treat our illusions by compounding them."

"We must first awake before we can walk in the right direction. We must discover our illusions before we can even realize that we have been sleepwalking. The least and the most we can hope for is that each of us may penetrate the unknown jungle of images in which we live our daily lives. That we may discover anew where dreams end and where illusions begin. This is enough. Then we may know where we are, and each of us may decide for himself where he wants to go."

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