Phineas T. Barnum once displayed, in his American Museum in New York City, the corpse of a “mermaid” that was in fact the preserved head of a monkey sewn onto the preserved tail of a fish. He once advertised a large but otherwise extremely average elephant as “The Only Mastodon on Earth.” He once “exhibited” a woman named Joice Heth as the 161-year-old nurse of George Washington (and as “The Greatest Natural & National Curiosity in the World”). He then wrote to newspapers to make a confession: Joice was not, actually, Washington’s nurse. She wasn’t even, in fact, human—but merely “a curiously constructed automaton, made up of whalebone, india-rubber, and numerous springs,” operated by a hidden ventriloquist.
An autopsy conducted just after her death would reveal that Joice Heth was, indeed, a person, one who was around 80 years of age when she died. Barnum would admit to that, and to the many other tricks he had pulled in the name of public spectacle—or rather, he would boast about them—in a series of newspaper articles and, later, in Life of P.T. Barnum, the first of his four books. It was published in 1854, the same year Thoreau published Walden.
Barnum was one of the original creators and commercializers of the pseudo-event, the vaguely real-but-also-not-real thing that, the historian Daniel Boorstin argues, has been the fundamental fact of American culture since the days of Barnum himself. Or, at least, in the years between those days and the days of the mid-20th century. Boorstin’s book on the matter, The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America, was first published in 1962; it was, in its time, a blistering indictment of newspapers and television and Hollywood and the habit they all had of turning mortals into gods. (The indictment was so blistering that, when the book’s publication date found Boorstin abroad for a longstanding lecture engagement, a reviewer suggested that perhaps the author had simply decided to flee the country that he had so recklessly libeled.)
Boorstin, in The Image, coined not just the term “pseudo-event,” but also the epithetic descriptions “famous for being famous” and “well-known for well-knownness”; he was, it would turn out, an extremely reluctant herald of postmodernism. While The Image may have arrived on the scene, chronologically, before the comings of Twitter and Kimye and an understanding of “reality” as a genre as much as a truth, the book also managed to predict them—so neatly that it reads, in 2016, not just as prescience, but as prophesy.
“The image” is, in Boorstin’s conception, both literal (pictures, photographs, etc.) and figurative: a short-hand for images’ cultural primacy, and for an approach to reality itself that is blithely Barnumesque in its assumptions. The image, strictly, is a replica of reality, be it a movie or a news report or a poster of Monet’s water lilies, that manages to be more interesting and dramatic and seductive than anything reality could hope to be. The image is the spectacle that is most spectacular when it is watched on TV. It is the press conference and the press release—the media event that finds news being created rather than simply reported. It is the logic of advertising, with all its aspiration and transaction, insinuating itself into culture at its depths and its heights. It is the public expectation, even preference, for celebrities who are manufactured, as goods and as gods, because the only thing more compelling than stars themselves is our ability to question their place in our arbitrary firmament.
And, so: The image is fundamentally democratic, an illusion we have repeatedly chosen for ourselves until we have ceased to see it as a choice at all. The image gives rise, Boorstin argues, to a “thicket of unreality which stands between us and the facts of life.” It is not necessarily a lie, but—and here is the driving anxiety—it always could be.
Boorstin, before his death in 2004, taught history at the University of Chicago and served for more than a decade as the librarian of Congress; his polemic about Americans’ “feat of national self-hypnosis” is, then, fittingly panoramic in its vision. Boorstin traces our “arts of self-deception” to, specifically, the rise of photography in the mid-19th century, and to the public’s attendant ability “to make, preserve, transmit, and disseminate precise images—images of print, of men and landscapes and events, of the voices of men and mobs.”
Boorstin dubs this ongoing state of affairs the Graphic Revolution—images, he claims, are to us moderns what the printed word was to our forebears—and he attributes to its influence a dizzying array of pseudo-realities: the cheapening, and thus the wide availability, of printed books and magazines in the 19th century; the rise of the digest as a literary and journalistic form in the early 20th; the churning public demand for news and entertainment that arose from a glut of media sources; the rise of the celebrity as fodder for public conversation and speculation; the advent of image-driven modern advertising, which has encouraged, in turn, “our mania for more greatness than there is in the world.”
What those developments amount to, Boorstin argues, is a cultural attitude toward reality itself that is implicitly, and primarily, suspicious. (On advertising: “We think it has meant an increase of untruthfulness. In fact it has meant a reshaping of our very concept of truth.” On art: “As never before in art it has become easy for the great, the famous, and the cliché to be synonymous.”) We are living, still, he suggests, within the sparkle and the spectacle and the fog of P.T. Barnum—whose core insight, after all, was not just that people could be fooled, but that, in fact, they wanted to be fooled. Barnum set about to make people question not just his exhibits, but also him, as their creator. He paid rivals to publicly declare his antics to be false. He bragged that “the titles of ‘humbug,’ and ‘prince of humbugs,’ were first applied to me by myself.” He knew, long before many others would learn from his tricks, the profound power of epistemic destabilization. He understood, intuitively, how many things Americans find to be more enjoyable than reality.
And, so, the defining figure of the current technological and political moments—Boorstin, in the manner of his contemporaries, assumes that these moments are inextricably bound—might well be a guy who took the desiccated corpse of a monkey and called it a mermaid. It might also, however, be the many, many people who gave their money to Phineas Barnum in exchange for the thrill of being lied to. Today, living as we do in the shadow of a man who is most readily associated with gaudy circuses, Americans tend to take performance for granted as a feature of political and cultural life. We often assume that, since we ask politicians to entertain us as celebrities do, they will probably pretend like them, as well. Our leaders have, and indeed they are, “public images.” They are concerned primarily with that most ancient and modern of things: “optics.”
It is no coincidence, Boorstin notes, that it was around 1850—the early years of the Graphic Revolution—that the word “celebrity” came to refer to a particular person rather than to a particular situation. Nor is it a coincidence that the revealing term “non-fiction” arose a little later: That was a response, Boorstin suggests, to the sudden explosion of fictional worlds that came, via books and magazines, to a democratized and newly literate American culture. The image, the stereotype, the ad, the manufactured spectacle, the cheerful lie … these are, he argues, all of a piece. They are evidence of Americans’ constitutional comfort with illusions—not just in our cultural creations, but in our everyday lives. Deceptions are our water: They are everywhere, around us and within us, palpably yet also, too often, invisibly.
Boorstin, with all this sweeping cynicism, occasionally veers into nostalgia and its common companion, cultural conservatism; his discussions of pseudo-events are often predicated on a definition of “event” that values high art, high ideals, and “authentic” experiences over other products of messy democracy. He conflates, sometimes, mass culture with pseudo-reality. He is anxious about artistic reproductions. He compares today’s image-oriented celebrities, unfavorably, to the action-oriented heroes of yesteryear. He harbors a sneaking suspicion, long before Barthes suspected the same, that the author is dead; he wonders whether authenticity itself might be, too; he looks around and is pretty sure that he sees, just beyond the haze, Hollywood starlets and their legions of fans dancing merrily on the grave.
And yet Boorstin also understood, long before Zuck and Jack and Ev were born, that “fake news” might one day help to win American elections, and that American journalists might soon enough find themselves arguing about whether tweets can be counted as news events. He knew that our penchant for illusions would change us, inevitably and irrevocably. He feared, far earlier than it occurred to others to fear it, that the center could not hold—that “The Greatest Show on Earth,” which is not a description so much as a dare, might portend an end of greatness.
Boorstin surveyed history and warned that, “long before Hitler or Stalin, the cult of the individual hero carried with it contempt for democracy.” He examined all the ways the world had devised to understand itself and concluded that, while “propaganda oversimplifies experience, pseudo-events overcomplicate it.” In his work, the anxieties expressed by Walters Benjamin and Lippmann—and, indeed, the wide-scale adjustments of vision made necessary by dictators and innovators and performers and frauds—culminate in a broad reality: We don’t quite know what reality is, anymore. And, more worryingly, we don’t seem much to care. Boorstin took history and philosophy and injected into it a clear-eyed assessment of human nature. He gathered Barnum and Mussolini and David Ogilvy and Marilyn Monroe and FDR and Plato, consulted with them, learned their lessons, and then came to a final, tragic conclusion: If Americans are living in a cave of our own making, even if we are offered the benefit of firelight, we might still choose the shadows.