As I mentioned in my previous post about the Lance Armstrong story, the actual pathology behind the whole affair is its status as a “pseudo-event,” a term coined by the late Daniel Boorstin in his magnificent book (first published in 1962!), The Image (which I highly recommend reading). Here’s how Boorstin defines the term:
“A pseudo-event, then, is a happening that possesses the following characteristics:
- 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.
- 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. Time relations in it are commonly fictitious or factitious; the announcement is given out in advance “for future release” and written as if the event had occurred in the past. The question, “Is it real?” is less important than, “Is it newsworthy?”
- 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 interesting.
- 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.
Boorstin’s insights are all the more remarkable in that he both traces the origins of this sort of information manufacturing in the early part of the twentieth century and catalogues its consequences in his time and beyond. Of particular interest to him was the dawn of the age of celebrity- or hero-worship as a necessary complement to any pseudo-event. This troubling development would not only infect our culture (especially as it became amplified by the advent of the photograph and the television), but more importantly with it also our politics.
There’s no possible way out of this trap today, of course. We have to live with this beast given its centrality to human cognition. But it’s surprising to me how quickly we have given up on talking about it. Just a little over a decade ago when I was an undergraduate in Canada I remember being at least made aware of historical and theoretical studies on the effect of public spectacles and manufactured events on everyday politics. Marshall McLuhan’s theories were taught alongside those by Weber and Rawls, and it was back then when I first became aware of “the image” aspect of world politics.
Alas, today’s curricula - outside a handful of rigorous programs in critical media studies or global politics - scarcely dare to broaden the scope of inquiry beyond the conventional (i.e. uncontroversial, “value-neutral”) canon.
At the same time, I think it’s important not to fetishize the importance of such concepts. Pseudo-events are a regrettable side-effect of late-modern capitalist society, but life still goes on in spite of their rude interruptions. One simply has to realize that in today’s society one has to make a serious effort to create the default conditions of an authentic life. It’s a difficult, solo task; but one which is filled with quiet rewards which are more often than not impossible to even verbalize.