Maybe Now We'll Start Taking Celebrity Seriously

Image: Pablo GarciaSaldaña

Sunday 4th December, 2016

Robert van Krieken

Donald J. Trump has snuck up on most of us, spending a lifetime building up his celebrity identity, refining Brand Trump, accumulating not just cash, but a huge pile of attention capital that he has cashed in at just the right time, when the discontents of globalisation reached fever pitch.

In looking for the historical origins of the Trump Republic, one could pick different starting points. George Monbiot, for example, thinks we should start with 1975, the year that Margaret Thatcher became leader of the British Conservative Party and declared her intellectual allegiance to the neoliberal economist, Friedrich Hayek. Another possibility, though, is 26 September 1960, the day of the first televised presidential debate between Kennedy and Nixon, and the beginning of a profound shift in how politicians, votes, and the mass media interact.

Trump has been described as a master of the pseudo-event, but what is a pseudo-event? The concept was introduced more than half a century ago by the American amateur historian, Daniel J. Boorstin. His book, The Image, originally had the subtitle “or Whatever happened to the American Dream” (in the 1992 edition it became “A Guide to Pseudo-Events”), which is significant because of Trump’s own claim to be breathing new life back into the American Dream.

It is worth taking a closer look at Boorstin’s arguments because they cast light on the deeper historical roots of Trumpism in the workings of the modern mass media, but also because the differences tell us a lot about what’s changed in the meantime, and how much more volatile and powerful the celebrity, as the human pseudo-event, is today than back in 1962.

Boorstin is best-known for his account of celebrities, who he described as ‘human pseudo-events’, entirely manufactured by public relations and the mass media, to be contrasted with genuine ‘heroes’ – someone who did ‘great’ things or displayed ‘great’ qualities. Once a celebrity entered public consciousness via some pseudo-event, they then became well-known just for being well-known, a formula that became popularized as ‘famous for being famous’.

Boorstin’s book had a broader focus, though, on the illusory character of American social and cultural life, on the influence of the mass media on how people think and feel. He thought it was important to distinguish between real, authentic, actual events, and the illusory, manufactured ‘pseudo-events’ – ‘publicity stunts’ – that had become so widely used by the mass media to manipulate public opinion in the course of the 20th century. Boorstin recognized Edward Bernays, who explained both how pseudo-events are manufactured and their place in modern politics and social relations, as probably the first important theorist of the central role of public relations in a complex, modern society. Unlike Bernays, however, he adopted a critical stance towards the ever-expanding role of public relations techniques, what would today be called ‘spin’.

The world created by public relations and advertising was so much more interesting, dramatic and consistently novel than reality. For Boorstin, the American people appeared to be hopelessly captured by that artificial world of fake images and characters, to a large extent because their insatiable hunger for ‘news’. Celebrity was a product of ‘the machinery of information’, but it was fed by the apparent desire among ordinary Americans to be ‘seduced’ by advertising.

He saw the historical origins of this characteristic of American society in ‘the Graphic Revolution’, by which he meant the period following the mid-nineteenth century, when there was a massive expansion in the capacity to create and disseminate images as well as information. There were, he wrote, increasingly ‘new machines to make accurate and attractive replicas of face, figure, and voice, of landscape and events, and by new machines to disseminate these images, by newspapers, magazines, cheap books, telephone, telegraph, phonograph, movies, radio, television.’

Boorstin identified PT Barnum as ‘perhaps the first modern master of the pseudo-event’, whose extravagant techniques as a showman had become a normal characteristic of American society. The machinery of information has only become more and more sophisticated and effective, and this increasingly powerful capacity to generate images, thought Boorstin, had actually transformed human perception and imagination, altering the general conception of truth and reality, with increasing emphasis placed on the representations or images of reality, becoming more and more independent of that reality itself.

This dynamic extended to individuals, so that the synthetic, celebrity person becomes more captivating than the real one, the hero, and the figures that populate our consciousness are increasingly ‘products’ of the Graphic Revolution. It’s important to note that the event which prompted Boorstin’s book was the first presidential debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon in 1960, and it was the role of television in Kennedy’s win in that election that he regarded as an important example of the pseudo-event’s hold on public consciousness. He felt that politics had become organised around images at the expense of ideals, and that political success had come to revolve around how well imagery was projected and manipulated.

There are a number of elements of Boorstin’s analysis of pseudo-events and celebrities in 1962 that are worth returning to in understanding what is and is not new about the dynamics of the world of Brand Trump today. The power of pseudo-events derives from what Boorstin called the ‘extravagant expectation’ of constant novelty, almost a desire to be sold some new idea or product, as long as it is new. The poisonous charm of the pseudo-event ‘tastes so sweet,’ he complained, that ‘it spoils our appetite for plain fact’. The world of pseudo-events was also founded on a desire to have feelings confirmed, rather than any concern with what was ‘true’ or ‘false’. ‘For everybody,’ Boorstin wrote, ‘it is more important that a statement be believable than that it is true.’ He also noted the power of the self-fulfilling prophecy, of how saying something often enough makes it, effectively, ‘true’. In effect Boorstin was suggesting we were already in a ‘post-truth’ society in 1962.

Without using the term ‘Chinese finger trap’, he noticed the same mechanism of marvellous circularity at play: the harder we try to unmask the pseudo-event, the more intriguing it becomes, and the more attention it attracts. This was why the fact-checking of Trump’s constant flow of untruths not only had no traction, but seemed to add to his appeal.

Even critiques of pseudo-events end up becoming pseudo-events themselves, the insatiable appetite of the PR apparatus knows no limits. ‘By the law of pseudo-events,’ he wrote, ‘all efforts at mass disenchantment themselves only embroider our illusions’. Boorstin’s own book is good example, in turn also becoming yet another product of the marketing machine. So, too, is Trump’s strategy: his claim to be authentic is itself the product of a long history of manufacturing his identity in the mass media, and organised around a constant flow of pseudo-events. As PT Barnum understood so well, the fact that it is trickery, and that people know it is, can only add to the appeal, if the performance is done right. Boorstin noted the multi-layered and self-enclosed complexity of the ways in which people’s relationship to reality was constructed through the mass media: ‘The citizen-consumer,’ he wrote, ‘enjoys the satisfaction of being at the same time the bewitched, the bewitcher and the detached student of witchcraft’.

Equally important, though, are the points where Boorstin’s analysis does not resonate all that well with what is happening today, where we can start to see what is genuinely new about the Trumpist world. To begin with, there is in any case a problem with the term ‘pseudo-event’ itself, because in suggesting an essential falseness, this also implied a certain lack of substance in the real world. But pseudo-events are very real, and real in their effects, so the concept of being ‘manufactured’ or ‘produced’ might be more useful.

Related to this, Boorstin saw the illusions of the world created by the mass media as a distraction from reality, a kind of opiate, rather than as a substitute for or an essential part of reality. This was why he devoted so much attention to celebrities in popular culture. But his own example of John F. Kennedy ought to have alerted him to what is wrong with this understanding, because the whole point was that the world of politics and government – the real world – had become organised around the production of images and illusions, that it was in fact becoming impossible to distinguish between an image on the one hand, and a genuine ideal on the other. At one point he spells out the character of ‘a peculiarly American menace’, describing is as ‘the menace of unreality’ and ‘the threat of nothingness’. In the process he distinguishes this menace from a number of other, excluding class war, ideology, poverty, demagoguery and tyranny.

What Trump signifies, however, is precisely a coalition of these menaces, so that the unreality of a Celebrity Apprentice President aligns itself with the ideology of the Tea Party, the class war between winners and losers of globalisation and the poverty accompanying that conflict, and the demagoguery of a President who sees America as just another Trump Organization. What has changed since 1962, and what Trump embodies, is the fact that new channels of connection have opened up between different categories of celebrity, in popular culture, the world of business, and politics, so that attention capital can be converted not just into either economic capital (Trump before 2015) or political capital (Bushes, Clintons, Obama), but into both at the same (Trump after 2015), and indeed into political power (Trump after 2016). The pseudo-event has suddenly become reality as well as illusion.

There are many things to be learned from the rise to power of Donald J. Trump. Even if studies in Trumpology is the only field of work where he does in fact create jobs, it will be a significant boost to the employment figures. The significance of Twitter for political communication and the links between processes of globalisation and authoritarianism are just the first two on the list. The historical roots run deeper still than 1960. Boorstin himself had already commented on the significance of radio in Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s campaign in 1932 in the shift from dealing with ‘the people’ to engaging with ‘public opinion’. You can hear the echoes of Trump’s twitter campaign in Boorstin’s comment on Roosevelt’s radio campaign, when he wrote in 1955, that ‘never before has it been so easy for a statesman to seem to lead millions while in reality tamely echoing their every shifting mood and inclination’. One could go back to 1851, when Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte seized power in France in 1851, for as Karl Marx observed in The 18th Brumaire of Louis Napoleon in 1852, Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte’s coup was executed in opposition to all the established political groups, the working class, the bourgeoisie, and the aristocracy, in alliance with the peasantry, the petit-bourgeoisie, and the lumpen-proletariat, similarly drawing on ‘bitter and witty invective’. But the implications of Boorstin’s account in The Image, in particular, adds a number of significant layers to the analysis.

Boorstin’s own conclusion about the purpose of his intervention into public debate, why we were not doomed to dissolve in a sea of ever-more seductive advertising, public relations ‘pseudo-events’ and meaningless celebrities, appeared at the end of the book. He suggested that if we are at least aware of the mechanics of PR and the artificial creation of pseudo-events, this could make it possible to make a clearer distinction between reality and illusion. Although he had undermined this idea himself in pointing out that being a student of enchantment was no barrier to enjoying and going along with enchantment, he also noticed that ‘pseudo-eventfulness’ did not always elicit a positive response, and that there can also be a yearning for authenticity and sincerity. Trump has shown how even this desire can itself be harnessed to his own pseudo-eventfulness, so there are no guarantees in that respect, but Boorstin’s analysis still provides a number of important insights into the rise of Trump.

First, it shows that, in terms of Boorstin’s original contrast between illusions and ideas at least, Trump as the PT Barnum of the 21st century cannot possibly embody the American Dream, and constitutes precisely its antithesis, the world of pseudo-events. Trump only narrowly won the election, Hillary Clinton still won the popular vote, so with just a little more focus on what was concerning voters in the rust-belt states, she’d probably be the President-elect. So although there’s been a lot of talk about a post-truth society, and it seems as though the fact-checking made no difference, I believe it did for many voters, and it will remain important in the future. We must not forget the PT Barnum principle: it is possible for people to know they are being sold a fake, but it does not always bother them that much, in fact they get a kick out of knowing it, so the problem becomes not how to expose the fakery, but how to address the pleasure people get from the show.

Second, Trump is not that new, he is drawing on characteristics of the role of mass media in politics that have been present at least from the introduction of television, arguably from the appearance of radio, and for Boorstin from the spread of mass-circulation newspapers in the mid-1900s, even if he is also taking things in new directions. When you think about it, the slogan ‘yes we can’ was no more meaningful than ‘make America great again’, so emotion and enchantment is clearly always going to be a large part of the process. If Donald Trump is a great salesman, that is clearly the game that we are in, and the challenge becomes how to outperform figures like Trump. The public relations theorists like Edward Bernays and Walter Lippman are basically correct in their understanding of how the public sphere works, so that opposition to pseudo-eventfulness requires a mastery as much as a critical understanding of its techniques.

Finally, and this is where we need to diverge, having learned from, Boorstin, it is important to recognize the enormous political potency of celebrity. Celebrity is not mere mindless diversion, or distracting illusions, under certain conditions its attention capital can be leveraged to link up with various other sorts of economic, social and political capital, to create a perfect storm of world-altering societal transformation. There are many other examples, all unique in their own way – Berlusconi and Hitler are two examples that spring to mind. It is important to remember, for example, that it was the media coverage of Hitler’s 1924 trial following his failed putsch which turned him a celebrity for right-wing nationalists, one of the factors launching his career as a political superstar.

The dominant perception was that the idea of a reality TV star and real-estate tycoon becoming President was a joke, but nobody’s laughing now Trump has understood and harnessed the forces running through the formation of collective consciousness that for too long have been treated as peripheral and trivial. If we do not understand the pseudo-event, we will only be at the mercy of those who do.

Robert van Krieken is Professor of Sociology at at the University of Sydney. This piece was originally posted on his blog and is republished here with permission. 

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