In 1962 Daniel J. Boorstin published The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America. A pseudo-event is a public relations tactic—a carefully crafted, television-ready spectacle that makes news for the sake of making news. Think of the press conference or political debate—in Boorstin’s time and today. Add the celebrity Twitter “feud” and star-studded movie premiere as current examples.
Boorstin wrote eloquently about celebrities, people “known for their well-knowness.” The Kardashians exemplify well-knowness today. Kim Kardashian rose to fame following the leak of a private sex tape. Her first press release was a case of pubic relations. Who’s screwing whom, we ask TMZ. In the end it’s the buying public—emotionally stunted pop culture voyeurs anxious for the money shot.
We are just as disgusted with the Kardashians’ antics as we are mesmerized. Some of us maintain a healthy dose of incredulity, refusing to support the Kardashian Hype Machine. We use irony as a weapon in a post-ironic world in which selfies replace family portraits and depth is measured at face value, that is, the sexual worth men—and women—ascribe to the airbrushed female body.
But beyond our collective eye-roll, the Kardashian Image persists, sharpening its focus while simultaneously extending its field of vision. The Kardashians not only go about their business, but get stronger. Our derision feeds their appetite for attention. They assume the challenge and up the ante.
It’s the same today with athletes, pop stars and politicians. Our feeble attempts to question the billions of dollars pouring into professional sports and the national committees of both major political parties go unnoticed. The rich and famous absorb all discord, trampling plebeians too dumb to see that personal investments matter more than the public good. We pay people “known for their well-knowness” to entertain us, to rid us of the illusion that change is still possible, that there still exists a space for committed political action against a self-serving Consumer Society.
Some observations on the Batman movie massacre two days ago:
It’s clear the line between reality and fantasy is quickly disappearing. When the smoke bombs went off and the gunfire started, moviegoers in Aurora, Colorado at first thought the activity in their theater was a publicity stunt related to the show. That it took a moment for reality to sink in is not a surprise. Beyond being unable to comprehend the chaos around them, the spectators (as do all of us in our media-saturated culture) simply couldn’t distinguish between simulation and flesh-and-blood experience. In America today, where the Image has superseded the Real, even death seems staged, except when people are dying all around you.
Some opportunistic moralists out there might use this event as another example of violent forms of entertainment making people violent. But the potential for violence exists in all of us, regardless of our obedience to civility or the Greater Good. Deft filmmakers like Christopher Nolan (of the latest Batman trilogy) know this, and they market violence-laden movies to a general public that is willing to pay big bucks for the cathartic release of its inner rage. Most of us don’t shoot randomly at innocent people at the local cinema, but for those who carry out such terrible acts, their reasons for pulling the trigger are more complex than being a Dark Knight fanatic.
How long will it take the mainstream media to accept the everywhere-everyday quality of social media? I found both local and national newscasts running stories about the reporting of the story of the Aurora, Colorado Massacre via the cell phone cameras and Qwerty keyboards of people on the scene. Some stations posted Tweets from the shooting site. We saw videos of victims covered in blood being rushed from the theater to safety and medical attention. But the impact of social media is nothing new in 2012. Either the major networks are excited about Joe Citizen helping them deliver the news or they’re singling out Twitter and Facebook and YouTube, etc. as the dreaded Other of broadcast journalism. Regardless, stories about how stories are coming in to the station are overplayed and often induce a “yeah, so what?” response from experienced “breaking news” viewer-creators.