While packing up my office I came across my copy of Daniel Boorstin’s classic The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America. It’s an early account and critique of the rise of a new kind of advertising since the late 19th century. Decades ahead of its time (it was first published in 1962) it winsomely exposes advertising’s influence on the increasing shallowness of contemporary America.
Among other things, Boorstin traces the emergent phenomenon of celebrity. People formerly achieved fame for their accomplishments. Now there is celebrity, which Boorstin famously called “being well-known for one’s well-known-ness.” Celebrities’ “chief claim to fame is their fame itself” (p. 60). Achievement has nothing to do with it. Boorstin’s sustained consideration of this tautologous and vacuous reality is simply brilliant.
Famous people formerly had need of personal secretaries to serve as a buffer between themselves and the public. Celebrities, however, hire “press secretaries” in order to keep them in the public consciousness. They do this through “pseudo-events.” These are events that are staged or planned in advance so that they can then be talked about—celebrity confessions on talk shows, puff pieces in magazines, etc.
Epic heroes of the past often had a tragic flaw—something that led to their downfall or undermined their greatness. The only tragedy for celebrities is to stop being talked about—to rejoin the rest of us who are simply normal, no longer thought of as “special” or “interesting.”
For Boorstin, Charles Lindbergh was one of the first “celebrities.” Newspaper and magazine articles quickly came to the end of chronicling his trans-Atlantic flight and began writing stories about how much press he was receiving.
The social dynamics of celebrity culture are now so familiar that they no longer shock us. Boorstin’s book is well worth a summer read because social networking technologies have exposed us all to the trivializing and hollowing dynamics of celebrity.
I first read Boorstin about 15 years ago and have thought often about the social and cultural forces that tempt us to focus on image-maintenance. These dynamics make us inauthentic and lead to shallow and manipulative relationships. Because we want others to be impressed with us, we’re tempted to craft public images that mask our failures and weaknesses and trumpet our strengths.
Paul wants no part of this. 2 Corinthians 10-12 is probably the most anti-image passage in all his letters. Paul boasts in his weaknesses and would rather trot those out than talk about his strengths (2 Cor. 12:5). While he could list many things that would impress his readers, he resists this “so that no one will credit me with more than he sees in me or hears from me” (12:6).
That statement, flowing from Paul’s cross-shaped vision, is so completely counter-cultural. Image-maintenance strategies are all about getting credited with more than is true of us! But Paul isn’t interested. And it’s because he truly loves his readers. He wants them to have hearts fired with hope in the gospel rather than admiration for him.
It’s easy to be consumed by increasing our online social profiles or increasing our “well-known-ness.” This is manifest in so many ways, but we can resist it by cultivating cruciform patterns of relating that foster authenticity.