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Daniel Boorstin got it right in 'The Image'

The historian wrote 50 years ago that U.S. culture was moving away from substance toward sensationalism in an era of mass media. And so postmodernism was born.

April 15, 2012|By Neal Gabler, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • History-book author Daniel J. Boorstin in May 1974.
History-book author Daniel J. Boorstin in May 1974. (Associated Press )

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.

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