Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Mount TBR #37

I read this book for the Mount TBR Reading Challenge hosted over at My Reader’s Block from January 1 – December 31, 2015. The challenge is to read books that you already own.

The Image – Daniel Boorstin

This 1961 book was one of the first stabs by a social critic at how image makers, the media, and we the public collude to delude ourselves. The image-makers create and the media distributes simulations and false appearances to we the people who desire the world to be more lively and changing than it is and to make people more heroic and inspirational than they are. Because stake-holders have to make a living in corporations, government, universities and the military, their PR folks must boost those institutions. Because the media makers have to make a living, they report non-events such as press conferences and debates. Because we the public have extravagant expectations about the ever-changing world and overall wonderfulness of ordinary people, we distract ourselves with a constant stream of information, to get inspired, to stay informed, connected, in the know, cool. We the people come to prefer the shabby fake to the authentic, the contrived to the spontaneous, the remote to the direct. Simulations perpetually offer us forms of sham transcendence over our routine lives.

Boorstin readily admits that he has collected data from his daily life, drawing upon

… my personal experience: the billboards I have seen, the newspapers and magazines I have read, the radio programs I have heard, the television programs I have watched, the movies I have attended, the advertisements I receive daily through the mail, the commodities I have noticed in stores, the salesmen's pitches which have been aimed at me, the conversation I hear, the desires I sense all around me. The tendencies and weaknesses I remark in twentieth-century America are my own.

Too, he has read a ton, and he has talked to a lot of people who thought about this topic. Many of his assertions are impossible, or nearly so, to test empirically. However, the temptation when testing bygone predictions begs us to ask “Was that plausible in the early Sixties,” and “Does that still ring true.” For instance:

“The rise of advertising has brought a social redefinition of the very notion of truth."

“…[for] all of us . .. are daily less interested in whether something is a fact than in whether it is convenient that it should be believed.... What seems important is not truth but verisimilitude"

Bingo – see Stephen Colbert’s notion of “truthiness.”

What Boorstin called “the dissolution of forms” is still spot on. Remember promoter of new age junk Oprah’s outrage at James Frey’s fritzing about with fact and fiction in A Million Little Pieces.

Boorstin's definition of the celebrity is a “human pseudo-event,” That is, a person famous for being famous. See the Kardashian sisters - their whole life is a brand; when K, K and K talk about “working” they are talking about going shopping and drinking coffee in cafes while a camera follows them around. Plus, our celebrity culture has become so deeply pathological that celebrities can now do harm to public health by denying the benefits of vaccinations and evidence-based medicine .  

Certainly, Boorstin is conveying an unhappy message, which was a surprise for me because I’d always thought he was a rah-rah guy for free markets, morning in a America, etc.. Since we "have fallen in love with our own image," we are doomed to frustration: "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."

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