Thursday, 7 October 2010

Media: Culture of Image and “Pseudo-Events”

The culture of image is not an invention of the post-Vietnam generation, but has much deeper roots in the age of materialism. From cities like Las Vegas to theme parks like Disney World, from TV soap operas and “reality shows” to virtual reality games on the Internet, modern society is increasingly moving toward “simulation” experiences as a substitute of “natural” experiences. The world of simulation experience is created by the market economy (especially big business globally) because it sells products and services, by political establishments because it sells ideologies operating within the same political economy (from Socialist to right-wing ideologies) and generically promote the same policies with different nuances designed to sustain the market economy of consumerism rooted in the narcissistic “simulation-experience-world”; a world that can best function with hollow and superficial people in charge of leadership positions to promote such culture.

Daniel Boorstin’s A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America (1961) argued that: “America was living in an ‘age of contrivance,’ in which illusions and fabrications had become a dominant force in society. Public life is filled with ‘pseudo-events’–staged and scripted events that were a kind of counterfeit version of actual happenings. Just as there were now counterfeit events, so there were also counterfeit people–celebrities–whose identities were being staged and scripted, to create illusions that often had no relationship to any underlying reality.”

Of course, the critique applied to the US as the world’s center of the market economy could just as easily apply to most modern societies today, even the ones that sociologists label “traditional” like Muslim Turkey and Dubai or Hindu/ Buddhist/Muslim India, which are in fact moving in that direction as Western materialism superimposes its culture of simulation over religious-based traditions that go back centuries and are rooted in spiritual transcendence instead of simulation transcendence; or “hyperreality” (the world of the absolute fake) as Umberto Eco labeled it. As traits of success, hollowness and superficiality over substance are not only confided to the domain of politics today whether it is with right-wing Tea Party Republican Sarah Palin, French (Gucci) Socialists, or British (parading reformers) Liberals.

From business management to college administrations that have assumed the business management model in terms of modality, structure, salaries and of course PR and appearance, the hollow/superficial personality, at least the projection of that non-threatening image to put it in Machiavellian terms, is a catalyst to success; assuming of course all other prerequisite qualifications are fulfilled in theory (on paper). Hollowness and superficiality have deep historical roots and reflect societal values and institutional structures that create and replicate such personality archetypes destined to float to the top largely by the incredible lightness of being, a level inoffensive and thus acceptable to the establishment which then projects it as socially acceptable and morally superior.

The “hollow and superficial” archetype of course is hardly unintelligent. On the contrary, within the “simulation realm,” the individual is crafty and knows how to manipulate the system that gave her/him birth. Sarah Palin is hollow and superficial only to her critics judging her from their criteria, not from the perspective of her “Tea Party” popular base to which she very cleverly appeals in person and through the media. Mass media/entertainment, especially commercial television–and now the web–promotes hollowness and superficiality because they sell products and services, and they are more interested in the intellectually lazy consumer rather than the Kantian notion of individuals “thinking for themselves.”

One could very argue that there is no reality other than image. Therefore, hollowness and superficiality over substance reflects reality human beings create for themselves to cope with life in all its phases from euphoric to tragic. Indeed, with the exception of mathematics that the mind has created and we reach through pure reason that transcend cultural and geographic boundaries, all other scientific theories and models are based on perception (the individual’s personal universe), not “reality of the world.” Jean-Paul Sartre (The Psychology of Imagination), Michel Foucault (Madness & Civilization), Georg Simmel (The Metropolis & Mental Life), R. D. Laing (The Divided Self) and Ernest Schactel (Metamorphosis) have addressed the dichotomy of real v. false self that modern industrial (bouregois) society creates.

In varying degrees, all of them analyzed the hypocrisy of established science clinging to “objectivity” when in fact analysis is socially based (determined). Genuine or real (natural) experiences are repressed by the fantasy world of material civilization, while false experiences based on what the advertising industry, the politician, the teacher, the preacher, all molded by the same social structure promoting material civilization, wants the person to believe about herself/himself are real. As possessions gain in value, the individual is increasingly objectified and reduced in value and can only raise her/his human worth through the acquisition of more possessions or endeavors that have wealth accumulation (invariably associated with power, prestige, honor, etc.) as the ultimate goal.

A professional person’s success is measured not by the qualitative contributions to the field as a goal because the qualitative contributions are quantified and become tangible only by wealth attached to the accomplishment. And because the person’s reputation rests on that tangible ultimate goal of accumulation, in the age of mass advertising, commercialism of everything from religion to personal tragedies for sale to magazines, TV, radio, Internet, etc., the image-geared society compels the “mass professional” to spend enormous energy on image cultivation rather than substance.

Not just the web, through which people have “virtual relationships” as a substitute for personal contact, but technology in general operating under the bourgeois social order has alienated the individual and promoted “simulation experience.” In a plastic surgery narcissistic world that values image, people seek transcendence through simulation experience at the expense of their own humanity deeply buried beneath the abysmal rubble of the hedonistic culture of unreality. Rapidly effacing traditional cultures and anthropocentric value systems around the world through globalization, is the image-based culture best suited for all humanity in its complex needs from material to spiritual and intellectual, or does it simply serve a small percentage of it while the remaining wallow in the vicariousness of simulation illusions?

 In today's TV-dominated world that reflects the interests of business culture and shapes public opinion - everything from what people ought to eat to what pills they must take to fall asleep - the question of free will must come into question as much as it did in the Middle Ages when Lords and Bishops determined the lives of serfs and peasants. The ultimate goal of the media is to sell everything from products and services to religion and politics, so that the public is so thoroughly indoctrinated it cannot determine the multiple layers of the individual personality that make up a free thinking human being.

If the media molds the human mind with images so imersed in illusions, what hope is there for systemic change in society? Indeed none, until the image itself becomes distorted by reality in the lives of people who see the blatant inconsistencies and contradictions between what the corporate world and political elites are projecting-propagating, on the one ahnd, and the empirical experiences of the individual's life, on the other. Such contradictions when they become evidence to a growing number of people will then lead to societal change from the grassroots.  

No comments: