The dramatic conventions of popular culture now pervade public and private life in the US. Is that a problem? If so, what should be done about it?by Nicholas Lemann / July 20, 1999 / Leave a comment
Marx and schumpeter both seem to have been wrong,” writes Neal Gabler. “It is not any ‘ism’ but entertainment that is… the most pervasive and ineluctable force of our time-a force so overwhelming that it has finally metastasised into life.”
According to Gabler, the means by which we now organise experience is the creation of “life movies,” or “lifies,” about public figures and ourselves. These have a structure borrowed from popular entertainment, from movies in particular. There must be a strong central character, a plot line and a play on the emotions. We are more absorbed by lifies than the facts of any situation.
Gabler rolls out dozens of examples of the transmogrification of American 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 self-dramatising 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); they 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 looking like a star. Farmers stock their land with exotic animals and go into “agritainment.” Even the pope, Gabler implies, steals his moves from James Brown.
The first reaction to this book is that Gabler is on to a real change, as significant as urbanisation or post-industrialism. Reality is fading as the governing principle in human affairs; the manipulation of perceptions is replacing it. But he then tries to bring some precision to the concept of the “entertainment revolution” and in so doing he sows doubts about its usefulness.
Artifice and illusion have always played a part in the workings of American society. Nineteenth-century America was awash in dime novels, travelling carnivals and other forms of popular culture that used 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…