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

The Image by Daniel J. Boorstin
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bookshelves: politics, philosophy

Good thing Daniel Boorstin is deceased. Facebook would send him into despair - but it would not surprise him, as it is a logical extension of what this book is all about.

The root of the problem he addresses is we demand and expect far more than real life can give, thanks to the illusions that the Graphic Revolution presents to us. The Graphic Revolution is the coming of media (print, sound, video) that allow the creation of the pseudo-world, the artificial world that implies that all things are possible. In our desire, we have come to prefer illusion to reality because reality can't possibly come up to our expectations.

This book was written in 1961 and, though the celebrities mentioned are from the 1920's to the 1950's, Boorstin's thesis holds true today.

We live in a self-referential world of images, of pseudo-news (packaged "news" instead of spontaneous events), of celebrities that are known for being known, of "adventure" vacations that are packaged so that nothing unexpected will happen.

Never bored, and never resentful of the illusions that make up our world, we are instead fascinated even by the process that creates them. We love to watch how a movie is made, we are eager to hear about the ad campaigns that are designed to beguile us. Reality TV is as far from reality as can be, but we watch.

We are pleased and entertained yet uncomfortable and never more than temporarily satisfied by living with illusion rather than reality. The image that things and people convey has become what we deal with rather than the actual things and people themselves. Boorstin is dead on when he speaks of businesses redesigning logos and ad campaigns in order to appear in a different way to the public - while the actual nuts and bolts company and product changes not at all. Think of BP as "Beyond Petroleum" with pleasing flowery green and yellow colors at the gas stations.

Here is something right from the newspaper today in a story about South Africa - "During the past month, this country has shown its best side to the world. Leaders from both government and business have declared that South Africa has successfully "rebranded" itself, recasting an image tarnished by AIDS, poverty and corruption, into one of geniality, prosperity and competence."

Boorstin would ask - to the South African on the street what has "rebranding" meant? Nothing.

And so it goes with everything. Go to Africa and stay in places that could just as well be the United States. Take a "safari" in total safety with no unexpected encounters.

In short, we do not live lives of real experience. We are removed from the real and constantly exposed to reflections of our own expectations. Taking pictures of the Grand Canyon with a new electronic gadget can more than equal the thrill of seeing the Grand Canyon itself. The big picture window that allows others to see us in our living room has replaced the porch where we could talk with our neighbors. Need I mention the common "chandelier window" on so many recently built houses that serves no purpose but image building? Following others on Facebook has replaced seeing people in the flesh. Things of no consequence on Twitter are considered news worth following.

Boorstin had the whole thing pegged 50 years ago.

The author is of the generation that revered the spoken and written word (he was Librarian of Congress) so he could see how things were going from a vantage point that hardly remains in the 21st century.

I give only 4 stars because I think early chapters in the book give too many examples. The pervasiveness of what he is trying to illustrate is so familiar now that the examples are unnecessary for today's reader to the point of tedium, though they are interestingly quaint. Skip to chapter five and the freight train of his idea rolls in at full speed.

One leaves the book wondering - how does one escape the world of illusion? Boorstin's suggestions for doing so are hardly encouraging.
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Reading Progress

Started Reading
July 11, 2010 – Shelved
July 11, 2010 – Finished Reading
June 8, 2020 – Shelved as: politics
June 8, 2020 – Shelved as: philosophy

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