There are certain authors I keep coming back to. One of them is Milan Kundera, whom I first read and loved about twenty-five years ago, but whose works, on rereading, seem even more loaded with political and philosophical insight than I realized at the time. One can open them randomly and start reading, and find something pertinent on nearly every page.
Here’s a quote from Kundera’s 1990 work Immortality that I think bears another look. He is talking about the ascendance of imagery (which he refers to as “imagology,” meaning suggestive images and slogans) over ideology, or even over reality:
For example, communists used to believe that in the course of capitalist development the proletariat would gradually grow poorer and poorer, but when it finally became clear that all over Europe workers were driving to work in their own cars, [the communists] felt like shouting that reality was deceiving them. Reality was stronger than ideology. And it is in this sense that imagology surpassed it: imagology is stranger than reality, which has anyway long ceased to be what it was for my grandmother, who lived in a Moravian village and still knew everything through her own experience: how bread is baked, how a house is built, how a pig is slaughtered and the meat smoked, what quilts are made of, what the priest and the schoolteacher think about the world; she met the whole village every day and knew how many murders were committed in the country over the last ten years; she had, so to speak, personal control over reality, and nobody could fool her by maintaining that Moravian agriculture was thriving when people at home had nothing to eat. My Paris neighbor spends his time an an office, where he sits for eight hours facing an office colleague, then he sits in his car and drives home, turns on the TV, and when the announcer informs him that in the latest public opinion poll the majority of Frenchmen voted their country the safest in Europe (I recently read such a report), he is overjoyed and opens a bottle of champagne without ever learning that three thefts and two murders were committed on his street that very day.
Public opinion polls are the critical instrument of imagology’s power, because they enable imagology to live in absolute harmony with the people. The imagologue bombards people with questions: how is the French economy prospering? is there racism in France? is racism good or bad? who is the greatest writer of all time? is Hungary in Europe or in Polynesia? which world politician is the sexiest? And since for contemporary man reality is a continent visited less and less often and, besides, justifiably disliked, the findings of polls have become a kind of higher reality, or to put it differently: they have become the truth. Public opinion polls are a parliament in permanent session, whose function it is to create truth, the most democratic truth that has ever existed. Because it will never be at variance with the parliament of truth, the power of imagologues will always live in truth, and although I know that everything human is mortal, I cannot imagine anything that would break its power.
Kundera has described a great deal of what drives public opinion today, and how public opinion in turn shapes the perception of reality in a circular feedback loop facilitated by polling. He doesn’t mention the MSM directly here (he does get to it later), but of course it’s a big part of this loop.
I found his analysis of why it is possible for the process to work this way particularly compelling; the scale of modern life makes it impossible to know about things in the way people in a village used to know what was going on in that small arena. And so we are dependent on image shapers and the media to construct a reality for us, and we are often none the wiser that it is a distorted reality.
Kundera follows this passage with another one that discusses the ascendance of imagology over ideology. Even Kundera didn’t quite foresee the way in which sophisticated imagology (the Al Jazeera network, for example) would feed into an ancient ideology (Islamicist supremecy and supercesssionism) along with advanced techniques of terrorism, and create the mess we encounter today.