Lost in Post-Reality

The national entertainment state threatens to transmogrify American life into a soap opera

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.

The opposition of perception (or entertainment) and reality is quite similar to a much older chestnut: the opposition of elite culture and popular culture. Gabler lays out a pretty harsh version of popular culture's imperatives. The basic device of popular culture is pure sensation; that of elite culture is analysis. Popular culture is predictable and formulaic, aiming to push the same buttons over and over again; elite culture aims to "make it new." Popular culture imposes narrative structure on life (it must have characters and a plot); elite culture imposes conceptual structure (there must be categories). Popular culture stresses personality; elite culture stresses character. Popular culture addresses our deepest-seated fears and longings obliquely or metaphorically (think of the relation of a roller-coaster ride to death, or of a movie kiss to love); elite culture attempts to meet them head on and think them through. If we compare the way television discusses the process of government with the way policy analysts or professors discuss it, we see the laws of popular culture at work: because television has to attract a mass audience, it has to communicate the workings of government by creating Gabler's "lifies," with celebrities and plot twists. At the moment, television expects Washington politicians "to star in an elaborate film noir of corruption and/or sex," as Gabler aptly puts it. And so they do.

POPULAR culture has always posed a quandary for intellectuals. The intellectual world is generally aligned with the left, which is to say that it likes to be on the side of the common man; but intellectuals are engaged in producing elite culture, not popular culture. Probably the main tradition in American intellectual life is therefore one of liberal elitism, with, in cultural matters, the emphasis on the elitism. That tradition may now be ending: the generation of intellectuals that was raised on television is much more likely to admire popular culture than were its forebears, the Macdonalds and Rahvs and McCarthys. But Gabler seems to want not to take the side of either elite or popular culture. He doesn't want to be the modern-day Walter Lippmann or José Ortega y Gasset, issuing warnings against the rule of the crowd, and he doesn't want to be a Mickey Mouse-worshipping Jean Baudrillard. Part of the attractiveness to him of the idea of post-reality might be that it offers a way of eliding the issue.

The tone in which he discusses popular culture gives him away, though. When Gabler is writing about members of the celebrity culture, from William Randolph Hearst to Ronald Reagan to Madonna to Tina Brown, his voice is unmistakably disapproving. He says that Vanity Fair magazine, for example, exhibits an "almost deranged obsession with fame, wealth, beauty, status, aesthetics, and heat." Occasionally he slips into sneering sarcasm, as when he's discussing the "accomplishment" of Barbara Walters, the "achievement" of Zsa Zsa Gabor, or Elizabeth Taylor's status as a "theorist." Nostalgia of a kind against which his historical passages rigorously work creeps in when Gabler's subject is contemporary popular culture. He presents institutions that were created to be popular entertainment, such as newspaper journalism, trade-book publishing, and major-league baseball, as having recently been corrupted by entertainment values. It's impossible not to see which side Gabler is on when he asserts that "entertainment is the primary standard of value for virtually everything in modern society.... to be a celebrity is widely regarded as the most exalted state of human existence," and that we live under the threat of becoming "a faux society of authors without books, artists without art, musicians without music, politicians without policies, scholars without scholarship."

This kind of talk would seem to require Gabler to insist that elite control should be re-established over culture and society. Since he doesn't want to do that, he ends by claiming to have no position on the issue of "entertainment as the engine of our lives," or even on whether the new state of post-reality that he has spent the book describing is "morally, aesthetically and epistemologically preferable" to old-fashioned reality. This leaves unanswered what to my mind are the essential questions raised by Gabler's inquiry. Exactly how controlling is post-reality in American life today? And if post-reality is in fact an alarmingly powerful force, what do we do to rein it in?

My guess at the answer to the first of these questions would be that Gabler exaggerates the power of post-reality in private life but has a good point in the realm of public affairs. His idea about private life is that people can make some kind of entertainment-induced dramatic version of themselves come true -- that it's possible to be a Dorothy who never has to wake up back on the farm in Kansas. His idea about public life is that dramatic imperatives now, newly, control the action. I find the first of these propositions implausible and the second intriguing. Monica Lewinsky apparently believed that she and President Clinton could fall in love and marry; isn't that an example of a "lifie" that didn't come true precisely because it was so unrealistic? But the public drama of the affair and its discovery did become the driving force in American politics for quite a while. A private life based on fantasy nearly always winds up foundering on the shoals of reality. A public issue with a compelling story line, though, quite often pushes issues of objectively greater importance off the stage.

As for the second question, what to do about the spread of post-reality, the standard answer has been to devise mechanisms to buffer governance from popular whim. But both questions are big, daunting ones. To establish the precise extent to which reality has lost control of public life and drama has gained it, and to figure out a way to undo the change if it has been for the worse, would be an enormous job. That Gabler hasn't done it here doesn't mean that Life the Movie suffers from a crippling flaw. At modest length, it frames a discussion that seems absolutely vital right now.

Nicholas Lemann is the national correspondent of The Atlantic.

Illustration by Hanoch Piven

The Atlantic Monthly; January 1999; Lost in Post-Reality; Volume 283, No. 1; pages 97-101.