A recent article celebrating its relevance after sixty years (“Why Nothing Seems Real,” by Nicholas Clairmont, in the September 27 issue of the conservative newsweekly Washington Examiner) led me to Daniel Boorstin’s The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America (Harper, 1962), which I found too familiar not to have read it long ago. I was struck by the near-coincidence of its publication date with Girard’s 1961 Mensonge romantique et vérité romanesque (in English, Deceit, Desire, and the Novel) and by the contrast between their critiques of what Girard called “internal mediation”—taking one’s mimetic model from within one’s own society. (This had been from the beginning the essential terrain of the novel as the representative literary form of modernity. Its first protagonist, Don Quixote, introduces the theme by choosing an “external” mediator, the fictional knight Amadis de Gaula—but Girard notes that Quixote’s own “mediated” persona becomes itself a model for Sancho and a number of the other characters.)
Both works have become classics in their field: Girard’s in the humanist world of literary studies, and The Image throughout the social sciences. Although Boorstin never uses the term mimesis, his theme of inauthenticity differs from Girard’s critique of mimetic desire less in substance than in what I would call its anthropological context. But it is in that context that Girard supplies what is lacking in Boorstin’s work: reference to the sacred.
Chronicle 507 described what I think is the secret of Mensonge’s unique success. Girard sees the protagonists of his five novelists (Cervantes, Stendhal, Flaubert, Proust, Dostoevsky) as bearers of their creators’ personal liberation from mimetic desire, which their stories seek to make sensible to the reader by demonstrating the error of worldly mediation and the necessity of its (intrinsically Christian) transcendence. Girard’s reader is learning to read great (“true”) literature as conveying a spiritual lesson. As the epigraph from Max Scheler informs us: Man possesses a God or an idol, that is, we all need a transcendental mediator, and although for Girard only the divine/human mediation of Jesus can guard us against idolatry, the novelist is not obliged to use Christian symbolism—uniquely exemplified by The Brothers Karamazov—to convey this truth.
In a typically detached American social-science perspective, Boorstin presents the modern world as dominated by “pseudo-events” from whose power no one is presumed to escape. His aim is not to propose any particular reaction to this condition, merely to make us aware of it as an unsatisfactory but unavoidable feature of modernity. His denunciation of the modern world’s saturation by pseudo-events and -values can be understood as a highly elaborated version of Heidegger’s denunciation of everyday life’s inauthentic Geplapper, but with no opening to possible redemption.
Even in acknowledging, for example, the efforts of such as Joyce to retain the novel wholly in the world of “internal” language and consequently make it unsuitable to bring to the screen—although Ulysses was filmed in 1967—Boorstin is not led to posit a distinction between authentic and inauthentic artworks. He reserves his most significant praise instead for P. T. Barnum, who rather than insisting that his audience take his own pseudo-events at face value, was happy to proclaim with ironic frankness their inherent spuriousness. Nor does the world of public action offer an avenue of escape; even a genuine hero such as Charles Lindbergh winds up as a mere “celebrity.”
As Boorstin presents it in the still ivory-towered American university of the early 1960s, the public world of the pseudo-event is inescapable save in private reflection devoid of effect on its practices. In contrast with Girard’s integration of the reader’s moral reality into the praxis implied by his analysis, Boorstin’s conception of authenticity is confined to the realm of academic/theoretical discourse.
The Image is an undeniably admirable work; its lack of recommendations for action is irrelevant to the historical thoroughness and sharpness of its analyses of the phenomena described and of the attitudes of their producers. Indeed, its continued relevance after sixty years reflects its success in presenting a unified view of a whole set of representational activities—one that could easily be integrated into an overall examination of modernity as “consumer society,” a term I did not find in the book.
In contrast, Girard’s work tells us only about a few novels… and about desire. But human desire itself, as the Scheler epigraph suggests, and as Girard would demonstrate a decade later in his next major work, La violence et le sacré, is really a function of the sacred. The Image is a masterpiece of social psychology, yet as such it must fail to grasp this point; and in so doing, it anticipates the forgetting of the sacred that defines the West’s current civilizational turmoil.
In deploring the absence of authentic heroes, events, and above all, of representations, what Boorstin regrets without defining it is the active presence of a public sacred, of worldly realities infused by a transcendental status. Virtually all the examples of the cultural figures he misses (military heroes and sovereigns; palaces and cathedrals; artworks found within them rather than in museums…) belong to a pre-modern world of hierarchical castes. Yet Boorstin never pauses to consider that the “deceitful” images and pseudo-events he denounces are modernity’s inevitable responses to the need to replace caste distinctions by more or less meritocratic ones, sacred ones by profane—such that the world-wide mourning of Queen Elizabeth’s passing reflects her role’s ever more unique consecration rather than her status at the top of the social pyramid.
On the other side of the ledger, as his title makes clear, Boorstin takes for granted and avoids any reference to the material distinctions that modern society’s inhabitants have created for themselves and others, not by photo-ops and staged conferences, but by genuine discoveries and inventions—not as representations but realities. Aside from new techniques of reproduction—printing, photography, sound recording…—he refers to the near-total transformation of just about every human activity from sanitation to industrial processes only insofar as it detracts from what we are asked to consider the “heroic” authenticity of what it replaced.
Thus travel, which as Boorstin notes derives from travail, denoting inconvenience and suffering, now having been replaced by tourism, and months-long treks and sea voyages by air travel, has by that very fact lost its authenticity. One might just as well regret all the inconveniences that modernity has freed us from, starting with toilet facilities, running water, electricity… not to forget modern medicine, which has far more than doubled our life expectancy during the time he describes. As Boorstin would surely not deny, the inhabitants of our hall of mirrors live far longer and richer lives than did the denizens of the world of the sacred image.
In a word, Boorstin’s critique takes what Voltaire’s Micromégas led the French to call “the viewpoint of Sirius,” the perspective of a fictional character from another world—a popular trope in the early Enlightenment, as witness Gulliver’s Travels and Montesquieu’s Lettres persanes. Although Boorstin’s tone is far more serious, readers will nonetheless recognize in many of his descriptions of our pseudo-world the ironic but not altogether antagonistic curiosity of an alien observing an alien reality.
If today’s more somber irony reflects America’s waning influence and prestige, as not insignificantly embodied in near-daily illustrations of the incompetence of its political leaders, sixty years ago, when our dominance and above all our self-confidence was challenged far less seriously, Boorstin’s critique of the sociological side of public authenticity was strangely similar to that of his Marxist contemporary Herbert Marcuse in his 1964 One-Dimensional Man—a book regretting what Marcuse analyzes as the convergent decadence of the USA and the USSR (!) that would make most amusing reading today. But unlike either Boorstin or Girard, Marcuse’s politics belong, like French Theory, to the leftist mainstream, whose denunciation of modernity is always at least implicitly a critique of capitalism—whose pseudo-world of consumerism Marcuse feared had begun to affect the Soviet Union.
The Image provides a wholesale critique of modern culture on every level, from art to business practices, yet only implicitly presents it as a problem for the culture to solve. But in retrospect we must read this book as akin to Marcuse’s in foreshadowing the sixties’ New Left condemnation of Western society—given sociological impetus by the Vietnam War—a phase that we can now understand as preparatory to this society’s current major crisis. For if Boorstin offers no solutions, the excesses he denounces certainly imply, in Hegelian terms, the necessity of an antithesis, all the more given the “dialectical” nature of politics in liberal democracy.
In a word, the lesson of The Image is that transcendental uniqueness—the sacred—is constantly imitated but cannot be reproduced. But the crucial point that generative anthropology adds to this lesson is that human existence as such depends precisely upon the uniquely human form of such imitation: linguistic and cultural representation as a substitute for mimetic conflict.
The reciprocal exchange of the sign in the originary event was the first moment of human representational culture that allowed, through the mediation of the sign’s “miraculous” multiplication, a protein-rich animal’s egalitarian distribution via the deferral of (mimetic) violence through representation. Modernity takes this process a great step farther in carrying out by technological means the multiplication of loaves and fishes that Jesus could perform only as a miracle—or better, given the Christian basis of the Western society in which modernity appeared, as a model for the scientists and engineers who eventually made possible its embodiment in reality.
This poses the question of the anthropology of the processes, beginning with the Industrial Revolution, that have enabled, along with the broad-scale reproduction of goods, the commodification of representations, with their concomitant loss of artifactual uniqueness. How should we interpret—and how might we replace—in the course of a development whose overall benefits to the human species can hardly be denied, the waning of public sacrality that Boorstin implicitly deplores in every area from news reporting to art, from consumer products to historical monuments: the disappearance from public view of the embodiments of transcendence that had throughout history allowed each unit of human society to recall the originary lesson that made humanity possible?
The new way of thinking that is generative anthropology provides us with the means to understand—without which we cannot stem—the rising tide of resentments brought about by the deterioration of the West’s public sacred, a decadence that has breathed new life into both the atavistic sacred of jihadism and the dystopian utopia of communism. I remain hopeful that, given the faith and energy of its adherents, our “unproven” hypothesis will increasingly be able to serve thinkers and believers as both a supplement to and a substitute for organized religion, providing in either case a source of originary anthropological understanding as the basis upon which our public sacrality may begin to be restored.