Daniel Boorstin got it right in ‘The Image’


Long before there were “real” housewives on television, actor-politicians and even potential celebrity politicians like Donald Trump, theme restaurants, virtual online vacations and Kim Kardashian, who makes her living by being Kim Kardashian, there was “The Image,” historian Daniel Boorstin’s prescient examination of a nation in transition, which celebrates the 50th anniversary of its publication this year. When “The Image” first appeared, one critic predicted that it would join William Whyte’s “The Organization Man” and John Kenneth Galbraith’s “The Affluent Society” as one of those seminal books that not only capture the zeitgeist but change the American mind-set. He was right.

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.

Boorstin, who taught at the University of Chicago for 25 years, won the Pulitzer Prize and became the librarian of Congress (he died in 2004), was writing at a time when traditional culture was under assault from mass culture, and he didn’t much like it. He believed in unalterable truths that had withstood the test of eons — things like heroism, art, primary experiences and high ideals. These were prima facie good. He also believed that anything that drew us away from these truths harmed ourselves and our culture. And he 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 Of heroism, he would say that it had been replaced by celebrity, which he famously described as “a person who is known for his well-knownness.” 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.”

Of art and literature, he would say that if they were “to be made accessible to all, they had to be made intelligible (and inoffensive) to all,” and he carped about what photography, movies and condensed books did to art, which was flatten it. And, finally, of human aspiration, he lamented that “like no generation before us,” we believe that “we can make our very ideals” rather than respect preordained ideals that we have to live up to.

Clearly, Boorstin was a scold and a culturally conservative one at that. He detested the manufactured, the contrived and the confected, and he coined a term that was so widely embraced it would become the subtitle of the book’s paperback edition: “A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America.” The pseudo-event was a “happening” that was not spontaneous but that was designed precisely to be reported or reproduced. A news conference, a photo-op, a movie premiere, an award ceremony, even a presidential debate — all these are staged, in his analysis, simply to get media attention or, in postmodernist terms, to get attention for attention’s sake. They have no intrinsic value or at least not the intrinsic value they purport to have. Similarly, a celebrity is a “human pseudo-event” — a personality who is devoid of any intrinsic value save the value of being advertised.

Boorstin’s chief example was aviator Charles Lindbergh, who, Boorstin wrote, “performed singlehanded one of the heroic deeds of this century” but who “became degraded into a celebrity” by media coverage that had nothing to do with his deed, only with the new narratives of his life, like his marriage to an heiress or the abduction and murder of his baby.

Boorstin wasn’t oblivious to the lure of the pseudo. He understood that the entire society seemed in thrall to its own illusions and to its ability to entertain itself with distractions instead of having to engage in the actual mess of life. He knew that the pseudo could be more exciting, more dramatic, more accessible, more fun and less taxing than the real. He just didn’t think it was worth the price, which was to sacrifice living in the real world with real issues, real emotions, real challenges, real experiences and real values — in effect, to give up the true for the gratifying, the exalted for the illusory.

What is impressive even now about “The Image” is its sweep. There is nothing timid about it. It is epic social history in which Boorstin hoped to provide a unified field theory of cultural decline. Where he led, almost every serious observer of popular culture has followed, from French philosopher Jean Baudrillard to American social critic Neil Postman, to the point where today almost everyone acknowledges what Boorstin so persuasively presented: the emptiness of much of our culture. 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.” For one thing, Boorstin was partly undone by his ambition. By putting things as disparate as news, art and travel into his gunnysack, he wrote a book that is less unified field theory than collage. You get a lot of ideas about cultural demise, but they don’t always form a coherent whole. As one scholar once told me, “ ‘The Image’ is the best book Daniel Boorstin didn’t write.” And for another, 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. We have been living out that observation for at least the 50 years since Boorstin first made it. Boorstin didn’t invent Kim Kardashian, but he knew she was coming, and he knew what she would displace.

Gabler is a senior fellow at the Norman Lear Center at USC and is writing a biography of the late Sen. Edward Kennedy.