An Early Theorist of Simulation: Daniel Boorstin
by Ken Sanes, http://www.transparencynow.com
The first social critic writing nonfiction who understood the way contemporary culture uses simulations and false appearances may have been Daniel Boorstin. Although it isn’t in this brief text, he also saw that we seek simulations because we aren’t satisfied with what the mundane, nonfiction, world can offer. In other words, Daniel Boorstin recognized to some degree that simulations offer us forms of phony transcendence over everyday life.
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Even as society has been developing new and more elaborate simulations, there have been a growing number of efforts by social critics to understand what has been taking place. Most have the same message: society, they say, is in danger, from the growing role of illusion in our material and cultural environment.
It was the historian Daniel Boorstin who may have been the first to suggest this idea in a book, published in 1961, titled The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America. In it, Boorstin recognized that simulation is a distinct social category, linking together many apparently disparate phenomena.
He claimed that America was living in an “age of contrivance,” in which illusions and fabrications had become a dominant force in society. Public life, he said, was filled with “pseudo-events” — staged and scripted events that were a kind of counterfeit version of actual happenings. Just as there were now counterfeit events, so, he said, there were also counterfeit people – celebrities – whose identities were being staged and scripted, to create illusions that often had no relationship to any underlying reality. Even the tourism industry, which had once offered adventure seekers a passport to reality, now insulated travelers from the places they were visiting, and, instead, provided “artificial products,” in which “picturesque natives fashion(ed) papier-mâché images of themselves,” for tourists who expected to see scenes out of the movies.
Boorstin’s criticism came from the political right. It is in a long tradition of works that warn against the vulgarization of high culture by mass society. In addition, his metaphor was blatantly mccarthyite in inspiration. America, according to Boorstin, was threatened by “the menace of unreality,” which was infiltrating society, and replacing the authentic with the contrived.
As a result, he believed, America was losing contact, not merely with reality, but with the ideals that had given the nation strength throughout its history. In the age of contrivance, American ideals were being replaced by superficial images.
When Boorstin published The Image in 1961, it was early in the emergence of these trends. Nevertheless, he saw what was taking place with a remarkable clarity. His criticism of the packaging of politicians, politics and celebrities, is by now one of the most significant truths of American society.
* Footnote – To my knowledge, Boorstin first published his ideas in an article in 1960. That was the same year as the Kennedy-Nixon debate in which images of the debate on television affected people’s perceptions of who won.