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Sunday, January 29, 2006

A question of image

A fascinating piece in today's Observer by Mary Riddell about the role of image in politics:

Personal enhancement, though, is a side-issue. The humbling of Galloway and the treatment of Hughes are, in their different ways, examples of a more suspect form of image manipulation. They belong to what American social historian Daniel J Boorstin described in 1961 as 'pseudo-events'.

Boorstin's theory was that prosperity and success had led rich citizens into expecting the impossible. They wanted to be rich and charitable, powerful and merciful, greedy and thin, solitary and neighbourly. And so, like Napoleon, they began to believe that they could make circumstances.

When heroes palled, they created celebrities to replace them. When news ran out, they invented it. In the absence of any convenient earthquake, assassination or civil war, a PR stunt or movie premiere could fulfil the craving for events. As Boorstin noted, politicians bought into the artificial world. Franklin D Roosevelt could barely kiss a baby without a sonnet scripted by his in-house team of poets and playwrights. Senator Joseph McCarthy called a morning press conference to announce he would be holding another in the afternoon.

And plain Americans began to live, just as the British would, in a synthetic world, where illusion replaced reality. Boorstin, looking back on the half century in which America crossed the divide from daguerreotype to colour television, remained hopeful. With luck, he thought, the West would modify its expectations.

Instead, the illusionary society he identified branched out into PlayStations, podcasts, probiotic yogurt, plastic surgery, reality television, politicians' sex lives, 24/7 news and audiences of millions in thrall to a fat old exhibitionist in a dance suit. All of Boorstin's nightmares have come to pass. Not since the days of fairies and hobgoblins has society been so beset by myths. We may be turning into what Jean-Paul Sartre called automatons.

No society gifted with techno-magic is going to revert to God and crossword puzzles. And so Boorstin's theory of pseudo-events still looks uncannily right. The paedophile hordes who were stalking our schools a few days ago have been forgotten; bird flu has not killed us all; nano-technology has not reduced the planet to grey sludge; the threat of terror has not justified the erosion of liberties.

Meanwhile, politicians are pawns in pseudo-events, programmed to live or die according to the dynamics of the instant sensation.

The performance of the song "I want it now" by Celebrity Big Brother winner Chantelle and her hitherto fictional band 'Kandyfloss' on Channel Four today illustrates how easily our reality is shaped by the illusions created on television and elsewhere. The manipulation of the mass media for commercial and political ends is a modern phenomena that is growing out of control.
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