July 29th, 2005

Imagology vs. reality

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.

13 Responses to “Imagology vs. reality”

  1. Anonymous Says:

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  2. neoliberal Says:

    There seems to me to be a danger in assuming that our ‘Western’ media machines are less likely to indulge in imagological manipulation than those of the imagined terrorist nations. CNN seems a prime candidate for close scrutiny if you ask me.

  3. gumshoe Says:

    “As for blogs replacing the MSM, please give us a ring when 95% of the blogosphere does not reference items in that very same MSM.”
    -Anonymous

    methinks you exaggerate.

    it’s not so much replacing the MSM
    as having a Watch Dog
    (not a Lap Dog,not an Attack Dog)
    regard their once private and pristine domain.

    as McLuhan noted…
    new technologies throw a
    very bright light on the old,
    an reveal them in startlingly
    new ways.

  4. E.M.H. Says:

    Oh, dear God everyone, I posted this under the wrong story. I’m very sorry. The previous post was supposed to go under the profiling post Neo Neo made.

    My apologies, everyone.

  5. E.M.H. Says:

    I think many folks should remember the Israeli’s attitude: Profiling is the first step that leads to questioning and further investigation; in and of itself it is not an accusation of guilt.

    But I admit, I am concerned about misuse. For example, profiling should not be used in any way other than determining who needs to be questioned in pre-emptive security procedures (such as pre-boarding inspections at airports). That, in my opinion, is proper use for profiling. I do worry about using profiling in place of actual gathering of evidence once a suspect is apprehended. I’m also worried about using profiling to bias opinion towards guilt in an otherwise neutral act. But that can be safeguarded against. I think those are reasonable questions to ask regarding any profiling plan, and can also be the basis for constructing checks against misuse of profiling, but I do not see them as being arguments for avoiding it altogether.

    I do admit that I found the contra opinion to profiling to be excessive at times. I remember taking a journalism class in college quite a while ago (back in ’89, 90, thereabouts). It had a computer simulator for practicing interviewing. You were given a situation, then selected from a list who to question first (the bystander, the police officer, etc.), then selected from another list the questions to ask (“What happened?” “When did this happen?” etc.). There was one question “Was he white, black” or somesuch… the answer you got was “human being”, then the person you were questioning would “refuse to talk” any further, simulating offense to your question. And that was a setup for a lecture about assuming guilt based on race, and how you should avoid asking any questions that can be construed as asking after a person’s racial characteristics. On the one hand, I understand the concern about assuming guilt based on anything other than hard evidence of a crime, but on the other hand, skin color and race are as much objective descriptions as height and clothing are. I asked if it was really inexcuseable to ask (the answer predictably was “yes”), but what I took away from that class was not an aversion to asking after race, but rather an opinion that the school as well as the teacher were less trying to teach and more trying to program that any racial questions have racist origins. And now to today: Avoiding the issue of racial characteristics of terrorists is sort of ignoring hard, factual details regarding the reality behind who terrorists are, but it seems as though a whole generation of people have had the “any racial question is racism” hammered into them and therefore don’t confront the reality of the situation. And that’s a shame. It seems as though we’re purposefully hobbling ourselves by holding this attitude.

    I agree with Neo here. Yes, not all terrorists fit the profile. Yes, not all young Muslim males are terrorists. Yes, not all who fit the profile are terrorists. But,it’s crazy to ignore the correlation. And I say that as a young S.E. asian male with roots on an island (Mindanao, Philippines) known for having a muslim insurgency, which puts me smack dab in the middle of that stupid profile. I don’t like brining extra scrutiny down on myself, but even I can’t deny that the profile is a useful tool for determining who gets extra scrutiny. It’s a choice between being insulted and being blown up; I’ll take bruised dignity any day over the alternative.

  6. Anonymous Says:

    Unlike the communists referenced in Kundera, Al-Jazeera does not fabricate the imagery they use for propaganda; it is actual war footage.

    Is that not a momentous distinction?

    As for blogs replacing the MSM, please give us a ring when 95% of the blogosphere does not reference items in that very same MSM.

  7. Dymphna Says:

    Yes, Olivia1, I agree…that’s why I like Michael Yon so much.

  8. olivia1 Says:

    The first person immediacy of news reporting blogs will hopefully get us closer to the grandmother’s world…but, of course, only for those of us who care and have the time to read them.

  9. Dymphna Says:

    Neo-neo–

    I cam over to welcome you back and find we are posting on the same issue, from different perspectives:

    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.

    Come over and read my take on the latest radio “news” from Hamas:


    Manipulating the News, Big Time

    BTW, reading your excerpt from Kundera reminds me of the first time I read him: the sense that Kafka was alive and well. The same sinking sensation when I read the news story out of Gaza today…

    It is hard to “keep aholt to” (as they say around here) one’s soul in such times…

  10. Gerard Says:

    “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.”

    More insidious than that. For example, with large circulation magazines, it is common to poll a selection of readers on the contents of an issue; which articles they read and recalled, what they thought about the articles, etc. in order to get a picture of what the reader is responding to.

    The reports are given to the company ostensibly for the use of the advertising department, but are also disseminated to the publisher and to the editors. They are, of course, never supposed to influence the way in which editors select and assign stories, but of course they do.

    What happens over time is that the magazine gets closer and closer to the core readers’ likes and articles that go against that grain are either spiked or never considered.

    Readers out from this center can feel increasingly distant from the publication until they stop paying attention to it. At that point, the audience is more and more made up of those who are, in some way, driving the story selection via content reports.

    All is well as long as the magazine can keep bringing new readers into the fold, but when that limit is reached the magazine and the subject matter it has come to consider “our subject matter” begins to die off.

    At this point, content reports instead of enhancing circulation actually begin to kill it off. The usual response to this is to think that “our look is wrong” and to send out for a radical redesign. But since the content and story selection isn’t changing, just the bottle it is poured into, the decline continues.

    You can think of a lot of things in American life that follow this poll-powered curve — tv networks, newspapers, the Democratic Party, and even small towns whose means of a graphic redesign is to allow large “heritage” murals to be done on the walls of the abandoned buildings.

    When the graphic redesign or the large murals show up, the town has pretty much had it.

  11. Nolanimrod Says:

    Gerard – outstanding exegesis!

  12. armchair pessimist Says:

    Others who know more please correct me if I err here, but the population of Eastern Europe seem to have stronger ties to that continent than the rest of us. Perhaps 45 years in the red nuthouse gave them their sanity.

  13. Geoffrey Britain Says:

    “Perhaps 45 years in the red nuthouse gave them their sanity.”

    Yes. Hold that thought.

    For the majority of the American public, perception is reality. That condition will hold until reality makes clinging to scapegoats and excuses so thoroughly exhausted as to be entirely untenable.

    Soviet Communism is an historical example of how long it takes for the public to abandon an ideology they once supported.

    Europe is perhaps at its midpoint in working through its socialist delusions.

    We are just at its beginning.

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.
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