Lost in Post-Reality

The national entertainment state threatens to transmogrify American life into a soap opera
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LIFE THE MOVIE:
How Entertainment Conquered Reality




NEAL Gabler, the author of two outstanding books based on original research, one on early Hollywood and the other on Walter Winchell, has turned his hand to a genre that is logistically easier to bring off but intellectually more difficult: the book-length argument. A history or a biography has a natural way of organizing itself (that is, chronologically), and its analytic passages don't have to drive the book, because narrative does. Argument is a bonus, a pleasant surprise. In a book constructed so as to make a point, obviously the point is going to have to be able to withstand intense scrutiny.
Gabler's argument here is an interesting, even an arresting one. He says that entertainment, the subject of his previous two books (and of his next one, a biography of Walt Disney), has become increasingly important, and not just because it is a big industry and a leading exporter; its logic and rhythm have become the controlling ones in American life. "Karl Marx and Joseph Schumpeter both seem to have been wrong," Gabler writes. "It is not any ism but entertainment that is arguably the most pervasive, powerful and ineluctable force of our time -- a force so overwhelming that it has finally metastasized into life."

The basic means by which we now organize experience, Gabler says, is the creation of "life movies," or (a great neologism) "lifies," about public figures and about ourselves. These have a structure borrowed from popular entertainment, movies in particular. There has to be a strong central character, a plot line, and a play on the emotions. We are far more absorbed by lifies than by the facts of any situation.

Gabler rolls out dozens of examples of the transmogrification of life into stock drama, as entertainment techniques have relentlessly leached into non-entertainment venues. In politics the quadrennial political conventions have changed from real dramas to pageants staged for the purpose of winning the votes of television viewers. Ronald Reagan turned the presidency itself into a procession of scripts and images. The docudrama and the novelistic lead are ubiquitous in journalism. The self-dramatizing memoir has taken over book publishing. Donald Trump became a tycoon by making himself a celebrity first. Ordinary people have turned from religion to the worship of celebrities (Gabler points out that the Air Jordan logo resembles a crucifix), and have also become the dramaturges of their own lives with the aid of home video cameras, Internet chat rooms, and health clubs joined in the hope of getting to look like a star. Busted farmers stock their land with exotic animals and go into "agritainment." Even the Pope, Gabler implies, is stealing his moves from James Brown.

It's mesmerizing to have the surreal dramas that make up so much of the on-rushing stream of American life -- the Washington feeding frenzies and the Diana-keenings and the star-chamber trash-TV interview shows -- presented all together. The nearly unavoidable first reaction is that Gabler is on to a real change, up there in significance with urbanization or post-industrialism. Reality is fading away as the governing principle in human affairs. The manipulation of perceptions is replacing it.

If only Gabler were content to be merely a purveyor of what he calls "simply articulated, controversial ideas" (a category that has taken over our discourse, as another aspect of the tenor of the times), there matters would rest -- at least within the covers of Life the Movie. Instead he tries to limn what he calls the "Entertainment Revolution" with some precision, and in so doing he winds up presenting both a compelling idea and historical evidence that sows a bit of doubt around it.

ARTIFICE and illusion have always played a part in the workings of our society. Nineteenth-century America was awash in dime novels, traveling carnivals, and other forms of popular culture that use crude dramatic conventions. In religion the dominant strain, evangelical Protestantism, was, Gabler says, "highly personal rather than hierarchical, vernacular, expressive and enthusiastic." Beginning with Andrew Jackson, presidential candidates have regularly run on images and slogans created by publicists. Pop-culture celebrity has been around a long time too: Buffalo Bill spent much more of his life as a traveling entertainer than as a real frontier Indian fighter. Even the much revered tradition of "hard news" reporting has its roots, Gabler reminds us, in newspaper publishers' search for "the best way to sell their papers in an entertainment environment" -- news was more dramatic than editorial opinion, which had previously dominated American newspapers. Gabler gives us several examples of long-ago, long-forgotten sensational murder trials that transfixed the press, up to and including The New York Times, every bit as completely as the O. J. Simpson case did.

Mass psychology, public opinion, and propaganda have generated concern among intellectuals throughout the twentieth century. In America writers have been bemoaning the artificiality of life for many years -- at least since the publication of David Riesman's The Lonely Crowd, fifty years ago. Much of Gabler's argument, as he graciously admits, was prefigured in Daniel Boorstin's The Image (1961). In fiction the idea that people try to turn their lives into popular drama goes back even further: think of Madame Bovary, inflamed and driven to ruin by reading romance novels; or the various Mark Twain characters (led by Tom Sawyer) who attempt to leap into the pages of a cheap melodrama; or Nathanael West's addled migrants to Hollywood; or Jay Gatsby and Willy Loman, pathetically trying to build personas that conform to bromides about success. Relatively new academic fields such as semiotics, culture studies, and media studies have gone at the traffic in perceptions with newly intense attention and newly precise analytic tools, but the underlying process has been around for a long, long time. It isn't too much to say that narrative and visual imagery are the basic means by which people process experience.

So what's new, exactly? Gabler says that two developments separate us from the relatively inconsequential manipulation of perceptions in the past. The first of these was the development of the movies, a form of entertainment exponentially more powerful, popular, and illusionary than anything that had gone before. (Gabler treats television as essentially an extension of movies.) The second development, which took place gradually as movies and movie logic worked their way into every corner of the society, was "the triumph of entertainment over life itself."

It may be that this has happened. It feels true, and there's no way to prove or disprove it as a matter of fact. Gabler's evidence, however, could be marshaled in support of the idea that we're seeing a development less earth-shattering than the trumping of reality by perception in the conduct of human affairs. That development would be an expansion in the breadth and visibility of popular culture.

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Nicholas Lemann

"The Atlantic has a national constituency of readers who are interested in high-quality writing about what's going on in the country and in the world," says Nicholas Lemann, "not just in politics and economics but also in their own personal lives. The Atlantic is a single source they can really trust to give them what they want."

Over the years, Lemann has written cover articles on the underclass, the War on Poverty, and the history of standardized testing in the United States. The articles on the underclass were "field tests," he says, for his best-selling book The Promised Land (1991), which received virtually unanimous acclaim from a spectrum of sources. The book established him as a sought-after commentator on race relations and other fundamental aspects of American society. "Thanks to Lemann, white America will never be able to think about the ghetto poor in quite the same way again," Esquire observed.

Lemann joined The Atlantic Monthly as national correspondent in 1983. His first cover article, "In the Forties" (January, 1983), introduced a striking portfolio of photographs that, Lemann wrote, "have the power to suggest the finality with which the life of the nation changed in a generation."

Lemann has also written numerous pieces in The Atlantic Monthly on subjects spanning national and local politics, education, television, and biography. He has contributed numerous book reviews and, in the Travel section, has guided readers through the past history and present beauty of the Catskill Mountains.

Lemann was born and raised in New Orleans. He attended Harvard, graduating in 1976 with a degree in American history and literature. Before joining the staff of The Atlantic Monthly, he worked at The Washington Monthly, Texas Monthly, and The Washington Post.

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