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 long time, too: Buffalo Bill spent much more of his life as a travelling 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 newspapers. Gabler gives us several examples of long-forgotten sensational murder trials that transfixed the press every bit as completely as the OJ Simpson case did.
Mass psychology, public opinion and propaganda have been a cause of concern among intellectuals throughout the 20th century. In the US, writers have been bemoaning the artificiality of life for many years-at least since the publication of David Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd, 50 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 turn their lives into popular drama goes back even further: think of Madame Bovary, inflamed by reading romance novels; or Mark Twain characters 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 personae that conform to bromides about success. Relatively new academic fields such as semiotics, culture and media studies have latched on to the traffic in perceptions with intense attention and precise analytic tools, but the underlying process has been around for a long time. It is not 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 manipulation of perceptions in the past. The first is the development of the movies, a form of entertainment exponentially more powerful and popular than anything that has 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, is “the triumph of entertainment over life itself.”
Maybe Gabler is right. But maybe something less earth-shattering is happening: an expansion in the breadth and visibility of popular culture. The opposition of perception (or entertainment) and reality is 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; 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 deep-seated fears and longings obliquely or metaphorically (think of the relation of a rollercoaster 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 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 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. This 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 Jos? Ortega y Gasset, issuing warnings against the rule of the crowd, and he doesn’t want to worship Mickey Mouse like 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 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 “achievement” of Zsa Zsa Gabor or Elizabeth Taylor’s status as a “theorist.” More sloppily he presents institutions which 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 is easy 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.”
This kind of talk would seem to require Gabler to insist that elite control should be re-established over culture and society. But because he does not 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 the big questions raised by Gabler’s inquiry. Exactly how controlling is post-reality in American life today? And if post-reality is indeed an alarmingly powerful force, what do we do to rein it in?
My guess at an answer to the first question is that Gabler exaggerates the power of post-reality in private life, but is on to something 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 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 a while. A private life based on fantasy usually winds up foundering on the shoals of reality. But a public issue with a compelling story line often pushes issues of objectively greater importance off-stage.
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. Life the movie
Knopf 1998, $25