Pseudo-Events & Polical Narratives

“We don’t quite know what reality is, anymore. And, more worryingly, we don’t seem much to care.” Daniel Boorstin

In the early 60s, the American scholar Daniel Boorstin wrote a book about the effects of media publicity and advertising on political and social practices in the United States in of the 1950s. The title of the book was The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America (1961). In the book, Boorstin defined a new term called pseudo-event as creating an ambiguous event that appeals to people’s desire to be informed. Boorstin says that their relation to underlying reality is ambiguous. And, in fact Boorstin notes, its interest arises largely from its ambiguity.

He argued that being in the media spotlight was a strong incentive for public figures to stage artificial events, which became real and important once validated by media coverage.

For Boorstin, pseudo-events were the opposite of propaganda, although both forms of communication have similar consequences and result in public misinformation. Propaganda slants facts to keep the public from learning the truth. On the other hand, pseudo-events provide the public with artificial facts that people perceive as real.

Boorstin didn’t realize the true prophecy of his book at the time. It marked a major distinction in the philosophy behind political narratives. Boorstin said nothing about “political narratives” in his book because the word “political narratives” had not yet been born into usage. The word “narrative” was a fairly common word most popular in literature departments of universities. However, the word “narrative” never escaped from academic halls.

Until Boorstin’s book offered a new method of control not based on propaganda but on the creation of an artificial reality. This was the new method of control that Boorstin saw in development in the 1950s. The change from propaganda to the creation of pseudo-events in the method modern political control is held.

The Invisibility of Pseudo-Events

Although Boorstin did not intend his book to be a political book (Boorstin is recognized as one of America’s greatest historians) the hidden subtext of the book really discusses a new method of political control. It was a method that stood in opposition to the old one-way-broadcast method dominating the early years of mass communication and production in America. It was the one-way-broadcast method of distributing propaganda, of telling a populace a bunch of invented lies and untruths about reality.

It was the era before the two-way interactive communication of the Internet and digital media. In the new digital world, propaganda no longer works for political control. No one tells one truth about reality anymore in the digital world. Broadcast, one-way communication is a medium of the past. Rather, one creates a new reality based on two-way communication. Particular political narratives are released into the Ozone of current culture by one of the three players in the political system: the government or one of the two parties.

Creating pseudo-events is a method not for creating the messages of propaganda but rather an entire new medium or environment, these messages exist in. The difference is contained in the themes of the two famous books 1984and Brave New World. A future of government control over a populace based on propaganda and force and narratives. One envisioned a future of outward control. The other, a future of such distraction that control was no longer needed. Two visions of the future.

A Brave New World of Pseudo-Events

“We don’t quite know what reality is, anymore. And, more worryingly, we don’t seem much to care.” Daniel Boorstin

In the early 60s, the American scholar Daniel Boorstin wrote a book about the effects of media publicity and advertising on political and social practices in the United States in of the 1950s. The title of the book was The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America (1961). In the book, Boorstin defined a new term called pseudo-event as creating an ambiguous event that appeals to people’s desire to be informed. Boorstin says that their relation to underlying reality is ambiguous. And, in fact Boorstin notes, its interest arises largely from its ambiguity.

He argued that being in the media spotlight was a strong incentive for public figures to stage artificial events, which became real and important once validated by media coverage.

For Boorstin, pseudo-events were the opposite of propaganda, although both forms of communication have similar consequences and result in public misinformation. Propaganda slants facts to keep the public from learning the truth. On the other hand, pseudo-events provide the public with artificial facts that people perceive as real.

Boorstin didn’t realize the true prophecy of his book at the time. It marked a major distinction in the philosophy behind political narratives. Boorstin said nothing about “political narratives” in his book because the word “political narratives” had not yet been born into usage. The word “narrative” was a fairly common word most popular in literature departments of universities. However, the word “narrative” never escaped from academic halls.

Until Boorstin’s book offered a new method of control not based on propaganda but on the creation of an artificial reality. This was the new method of control that Boorstin saw in development in the 1950s. The change from propaganda to the creation of pseudo-events in the method modern political control is held.

Daniel Boorstin – Prophet of a New Type of Political Power

Although Boorstin did not intend his book to be a political book (Boorstin is recognized as one of America’s greatest historians) the hidden subtext of the book really discusses a new method of political control. It was a method that stood in opposition to the old one-way-broadcast method dominating the early years of mass communication and production in America. It was the one-way-broadcast method of distributing propaganda, of telling a populace a bunch of invented lies and untruths about reality.

It was the era before the two-way interactive communication of the Internet and digital media. In the new digital world, propaganda no longer works for political control. No one tells one truth about reality anymore in the digital world. Broadcast, one-way communication is a medium of the past. Rather, one creates a new reality based on two-way communication. Particular political narratives are released into the Ozone of current culture by one of the three players in the political system: the government or one of the two parties.

Creating pseudo-events is a method not for creating the messages of propaganda but rather an entire new medium or environment, these messages exist in. The difference is contained in the themes of the two famous books 1984and Brave New World. A future of government control over a populace based on propaganda and force and narratives. One envisioned a future of outward control. The other, a future of such distraction that control was no longer needed. Two visions of the future.

In the novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell, Great Britain (“Airstrip One”) has become a province of a superstrate named Oceania and Oceania is ruled by the “Party,” who employ the “Thought Police to persecute individualism and independent thinking. The Party’s leader is Big Brother who enjoys an intense cult of personality but may not even exist. The protagonist of the novel, Winston Smith, is a rank-and-file Party member. Smith is an outwardly diligent and skillful worker, but he secretly hates the Party and dreams of rebellion against Big Brother. Smith rebels by entering a forbidden relationship with fellow employee Julia.

Brave New World has a different prophecy of the future. There is no need in Huxley’s book for someone named “Big Brother” to keep the populace in line. There is little need for instances of obvious political control. This is because the population is distracted and engaged in a – largely – continual stream of government created pseudo-events. The pseudo-events that Boorstin identified on a brilliant early radar system form much of the foundation for modern political narratives.

Narratives of the Modern Political System

Much of the modern political system is filled with pseudo-events. The percentage of the events of a day filled with pseudo-events received little study. It’s interesting that one of Boorstin’s greatest accomplishments was identifying the type of control behind Huxley’s Brave New World. Huxley presented a great prophecy of our current political system in his book. But it was really Boorstin who identified one of the key methods for modern political control through political narratives and their created pseudo-events as ways as creating mediums rather than messages. The creation of mediums of communication rather than messages was always the promise of the idea of pseudo-events that Boorstin came up with in the early 60s.

It might be instructive at this time for us to lay out the various narratives from the three competing political elements in America. By modern political system we mean the dynamics between three forces vying for political power today: the government and the Republican and Democratic Parties. Most think in terms of the two ever-dueling parties. This just might be the plan of that third element – labeled by some as the “deep state” – government system. It is a distinction that Thomas Paine made in Common Sense, that important piece of propaganda a few months before the American Revolution. In the first paragraph he mentioned that the battle was always between the government and the people. Just two in this battle not three.

Boorstin offers many interesting observations on this new phenomenon of pseudo-events in America of the 50s and 60s. He notes that the events are carefully choreographed, following a prepared script and leaving nothing to chance. In order to maximize the event’s exposure, they are often scheduled in advance, and journalists are informed of the specific time when the event will occur. Pseudo-events are designed to be dramatic, to make them interesting for the public, and they tend to generate iconic images, such as big enthusiastic crowds. Pseudo-events can include press conferences, advertisements, speeches, and other similar events covering issues with little value in terms of content and importance.

* * *

So, the somewhat prophetic thoughts of American scholar and historian Daniel Boorstin who foresees not only the change in control from propaganda but suggests a new type of control in the creation pseudo-events as key aspects of modern political narratives. He provides an interesting example of the way this process might work in the business world of publicity, some of the examples in Boorstin’s book are very instructive. To illustrate the term’s meaning he conjures a hotel. Its owners wish to increase its business. “In less sophisticated times, the answer might have been to hire a new chef, to improve the plumbing, to paint the rooms, or to install a crystal chandelier in the lobby,” Boorstin writes. Instead, the hotel retains a PR counsel, who “proposes that the management stage a celebration of the hotel’s thirtieth anniversary.” Once the celebration has been held, the celebration itself becomes evidence that the hotel really is a distinguished institution.

Boorstin identified ambiguity as an important element for creating a new type of political narrative he was (unknowingly) suggesting in his work The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America. As Boorstin notes, their relation to underlying reality is ambiguous – and in fact, that its interest arises largely from its ambiguity. As he observes:

“We begin to be puzzled about what is really the ‘original’ of an event. The authentic record of what ‘happens’ or is said comes increasingly to seem to be what is given out in advance. More and more events become dramatic performances in which ‘men in the news’ simply act out their script. The story prepared ‘for future release’ acquires an authenticity that competes with that of the actual occurrences on the scheduled date. In recent years our successful politicians have been those most adept at using the press and other means to create pseudo-events.”

* * *

In an interesting article from the 12/8/16 Atlantic, Conor Friederdorf identifies some modern incantations of the method of pseudo-events for control. In “Donald Trump – Master of the Pseudo-Event” the author argues that the Trump is a pro at marshaling ambiguous unrealities to his advantage. In other words, creating and using pseudo-events for political advantage.

Friederdorf brings up some interesting parts of Boorstin’s book in the Atlanticarticle. Writing about the officially sanctioned leak, Boorstin pointed out that “the reporter himself is often not clear whether he is being told a simple fact, a newly settled policy, an administrative hope, or whether perhaps untruths are being deliberately diffused in order to allay public fears that the true facts are really true. The government official himself (who is sometimes no more than a spokesman) may not be clear. The reporter’s task is to find a way of weaving these threads of unreality into a fabric that the reader will not recognize as entirely unreal.” A reporter can, however, decline to report on a leak that seems designed to manipulate the press or the public. As Friederdorf notes, “In the Twitter era, the press cannot ignore statements on the president’s feed that will always be crafted to game current standards of newsworthiness, but neither can it responsibly report on those statements as if they are events rather than pseudo-events.”

The Atlantic article notes that sometimes pseudo-events can backfire. It mentions the event of George W. Bush donning a flight suit, landing on an aircraft carrier, and having his picture taken in front of a “Mission Accomplished” banner years before the end of the war in Iraq. Were contemporaneous observers to conclude that the mission in Iraq had been accomplished? That President Bush believed the mission was accomplished? That Bush knew the mission was not accomplished, but wanted the public to believe that the mission was accomplished? That Bush knew the public would not be convinced by a banner and a photo-op, but wanted the press to report on the event with a photograph of the words “Mission Accomplished” because it would provide a positive news cycle or crowd out bad news?

The Northward Caravan – Real or Pseudo-Event

One of the largest candidates for pseudo-events in progress now (October 25, 2018), two weeks before the mid-term elections, is the northern march of a huge caravan of people from Central America seeking political asylum in America. The great question in this northern march of people is whether it is a created pseudo-event, organized and scripted by a political narrative, or a true organic event, arising not from outside influences but from inner hearts of a people.

Vice President Pence reports that “At the president’s direction I spoke to President Juan Orlando Hernandez of Honduras and he told me that the caravan that’s now making its way through Mexico headed for the southern border was organized by leftist organizations and financed by Venezuela.” The current administration is looking into the situation as the caravan grows in numbers each day. All media is turned towards this particular political narrative – or pseudo-event – that has imposed itself on the conscious of America two weeks before the mid-term elections. President Trump tells media that he suspects that there are many “bad people” within the caravan. That it is not all as portrayed – by liberal media – which show photos and video of families in the caravan.

The liberal/Democrat response to the caravan is of course almost a hundred percent in opposition. The belief in Democrats is for the unbounded, commonality of existence represented by ideals of the Global. In effect, in many ways the grand Feminine archetype symbol derived from the corresponding symbols of unconsciousness, birth, water, equality. In opposition to this narrative is the Republican narrative of a bounded world rather than an unbounded one. In effect, the grand Masculine archetype symbol derived from consciousness, growth, freedom.

* * *

The march of the immigrants, refugees or asylum seekers from Central America to the American border around the time of the mid-term elections happens suspiciously close to an important political election. This leads to the question of whether the event is a real grass-roots, organic event stirred by the people or rather a pseudo-event created by a political party to garner support before the midterm elections.

Whether it is a pseudo-event or not, the caravan does symbolize the clash of two narratives. One is that America is being invaded from without by a “mob” that will take jobs from Americans. It is the narrative told by the administration. Invasion from without. The other narrative is that people are seeking political asylum in America which has always welcomed political refugees. Attached to these narratives is the larger clash between the narratives of nationalism and globalism. The nationalism narrative is told by the Republican administration while the globalism narrative is told by the Democrat narrative. The nationalism narrative needs walls and borders to keep others from invading while the globalism narrative needs no walls and borders because the world’s nations are melding into one global community.

Again, the two grand paradoxical symbols of America’s founding in freedom and equality, clash in the northern march narrative. There are a number of questions to ask about this march. Perhaps the most important one is whether it is real, organic event or one of those pseudo-events Dan Boorstin identified more than half a century ago.

(Above part of a chapter in our new book project)

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One thought on “Pseudo-Events & Polical Narratives

  1. I have read this over again, and think the mainstream news media does use pseudo events to provide their listeners
    with artificial information so their party, the name they use ,, Democrat ,will convince Americans to turn to their party. However, I do think it is back firing, especially with the caravan approaching our border, and the fear of these un-lawful people coming into America, taking jobs, creating more problems , being on welfare and being kept by American taxpayers, which we cannot financially keep doing,. the cost is terrific. The thought for many Americans is whether someone has paid for them to come so far to get into America, how can thousands of poor, refugees have the money to pay for food, and what ever they need for such a long trip. I for one, think someone, like George Soros is funding them, hoping there will be trouble along our southern border and someone will get hurt or killed, guess who the Democrats will blame, and the mainstream media, and they will say is unfit to be our President? Yes, I believe they will say Donald J. Trump, because they are looking for a way to use the 25th Amendment against our President, and he would have to be unfit to be President ,if they wish to use this. They are counting on this effecting the election Nov. 6th. I for one, think this will backfire, the pseudo-events the mainstream media and Democrats are providing will be detrimental to their re-election. Barbara

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