Pseudo-Events & Extravagances

I. Introduction

II. Passages From Daniel Boorstin's The Image: A Guide To Pseudo-Events In America

I. Introduction

Some forty years ago the historian Daniel Boorstin wrote a book that betokened the postmodernism of our era. In The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events In America, he expressed his uneasiness with the myriad ways in which we have used our wealth and technology to create a "thicket of unreality whichstands between us and the facts of life." He was bothered that news could be so easily fabricated and manipulated; that from the waxing of television and evolution of advertising there arose what he termed "pseudo-events."

A pseudo-event 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." It is planted for the purpose of being reproduced, and the all-important question is not whether the event is meaningful but whether it is newsworthy.

A fantastic illustration might be the function of the presidential debate in America today. No reasonable person expects there to be any connection at all between what is said in a presidential debate and what is illuminating and true. The questions, interviewers, format, staging, lighting, and logistics of the thing have all been decided in advance. The questions are usually broad, admitting of canned responses and quips, and the answers are squeezed, according to the format, into the time frame of literally so many seconds.The point of the event is for two candidates, drawn usually from the same class, subsidized usually by the same commercial entities, to look good in front of the camera, to seem "natural," to deliver the rehearsed one-liner with smiling aplomb and to doenough so that the chattering sluggards in the media will declare victory for them. The debate itself has no real meaning, apart from being pseudo-event and spectacle; it means whatever the battalion of onlookers says it means, and what they say it means is informed in no small part by the candidates' propagandists and handlers, and by the accumulated judgments of journalists and editorialists.

What would be a real debate? One, first of all, in which there were a generous allocation of time for the participants to answer a question, articulate a thought, cross-examine their opponent, offer a convincing rebuttal. An answer or reply would not be required to conform to time frames of 60 seconds or fewer. If a candidate needed twenty minutes just to describe his general position on an issue, then twenty minutes (or more) would be granted him. And if the same candidate tried to slip by with a vague or skimpy response, the moderator or opponent would press the participant to elaborate. In such a format, a person's familiarity with the subject would be the test of success, not whether he or she looked good on stage, managed to utter whole sentences without stuttering, or was able to remember when to use the rehearsed one-liner and when to flash a broad smile. Content and depth, rather than performance and appearance, would be what mattered.

This is but one example of what Boorstin means. Another is celebrity. The word, he noted, "originally meant not a person but a condition -- as the Oxford English Dictionary says, 'the condition of being much talked about; famousness, notoriety.'" This use of the word dates back at least to the 17th Century, and was not as strong a word then as "fame" or "renown" was. The disciples of a philosopher back then, for instance, might be said to have "celebrity," while the philosopher himself would be said to have "fame."

The word "celebrity" today, however, refers to "a person of celebrity," a "famous or well-publicized person." Someone, that is, who is "known for his well-knownness." As Boorstin puts it,

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 expectation of human greatness. He is morally neutral...He is made by all of us who willingly read about him, who like to see him on television, who buy recordings of his voice, and talk about him to our friends. His relation to morality and even to reality is highly ambiguous.

Thus, celebrityhood no longer requires genius, heroism, lifelong achievement, unique talent. It can be whipped up out of thin air. It can be made a commodity and sold at the check-out counter at grocery stores, in the form of the cover of a weekly tabloid. If well-knownness is all that matters, at least in the eyes of a celebrity-revering society, then it doesn't matter if someone stars in this season's reality television show or sequences the human genome. It doesn't matter if a musician turns out to be Sir Georg Solti or Britney Spears. It doesn't matter what "one's claim to fame is," just so long as fame is won.

Boorstin understood that a constant flood of such pseudo-events would over time spawn a culture in which very little meant anything, and in which very little mattered. The distinction between the authentic and inauthentic, sincere and insincere, real and unreal, true and untrue would be blurred into oblivion. "The least and the most we can hope for," he wrote, "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 isenough. Then we may know where we are, and each of us may decide for himself where he wants to go."

II. Passages From Daniel Boorstin, The Image: A Guide To Pseudo-Events In America (New York: Atheneum, 1985), pp. 3-4, 11-12, 182-183.

"Extravagant Expectations"

"We expect too much of the world. Our expectations are extravagant in the precise dictionary sense of the word -- 'going beyond the limits of reason or moderation.' They are excessive.

"When we pick up our newspaper at breakfast, we expect -- we even demand -- that it bring usmomentous events since the night before. We turn on the car radio as we drive to work and expect 'news' to have occurred since the morning newspaper went to press. Returning in the evening, we expect our house not only to shelter us, to keep us warm in winter and cool in summer, but to relax us, to dignify us, to encompass us with soft music and interesting hobbies, to be a playground, a theater, and a bar. We expect our two-week vacation to be romantic, exotic, cheap, and effortless. We expect afaraway atmosphere if we go to a nearby place; and we expect everything to be relaxing, sanitary, and Americanized if we go to a faraway place. We expect new heroes every season, a literary masterpiece every month, a dramatic spectacular every week, a rare sensation every night...

"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."

Defining A Pseudo-Event

"(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 measured by how widely it is reported...

"(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 an 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 interest.

"(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."

19th Century & 20th Century America

"In nineteenth-century America the most extreme modernism held that man was made by his environment. In twentieth-century America, without abandoning belief that we are made by our environment, we also believe our environment can be made almost wholly by us. This is the appealing contradiction in the heart of our passion for pseudo-events: for made news, synthetic heroes, prefabricated tourist attractions, homogenized interchangeable forms of art and literature (where there are no 'originals,' but only the shadows we make of other shadows). We believe we can fill our experience with new-fangled content. Almost everything we see and hear and do persuades us that this power is ours. The life in America which I have described is a spectator sport in which we ourselves make the props and are the sole performers."

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