Recently, I went with a group of friends to a concert of American choral music based on black spirituals. At the intermission, my friends and I spoke excitedly about what we experienced. The sole musician amongst us praised the balance of the ensemble and the conductor’s energy. One woman noticed how nervous the lead soprano was before her solo. Another woman observed that the second tenor, a young man of obvious Mediterranean background, had curled, hairy fingers not unlike an ape, but he sang like an angel. Her observation set us to musing about human nature. For each of us, the concert was a personal experience that we saw with our own eyes and heard with our own ears.
In the twenty-first century, few of us have little personal experience of anything; most of our “personal” experience of the world is filtered through TV, movies, and the Internet. TV-watchers invariably believe that television is an electronic window that brings the world into their living rooms. An opera, Iraq War II, or the Amazon rain forest seen through television is taken for experience of the real event or place. But the hollow, depleted images of television bear little resemblance to reality, and not only because they are edited, rearranged, and altered. The viewer of a TV-opera never feels the excitement that runs through an opera house just before the performance begins; the viewer of a TV-war never is subjected to the confusion of battle or the incredible physical vibrations that accompany an artillery barrage; the viewer of the TV-Amazon never smells the rotting organic matter of the jungle or hears the silence that pervades the deep recesses of the rainforest. An artificial, manufactured experience is taken for a genuine human experience.
TV is no longer confined to a small box in the living room. Portable DVD players, PlayStations, X-Boxes, iPads, and smartphones have increased television watching among the young. A recent Kaiser Family Foundation study found that from 2004 to 2009 TV-watching among eight- to eighteen-year-olds increased by thirty-eight minutes a day. Young people spent on average seven-and-a-half hours per day plugged into an electronic device, and this electronic media consumption did not include ninety minutes of texting and thirty minutes talking on the phone that kids reported on the Kaiser Foundation survey. That the last thing many teenagers touch before falling asleep and the first thing they reach for upon waking is a cell phone confirms our thesis that technology dominates the interior life.
The world of techno-images envelop a person, producing experiences thought to be superior to walking down an urban street or hiking in a Southwestern wilderness area. Carol Kaesuk Yoon in her review of the movie Avatar, the 3-D, five-hundred-million-dollar, technological extravaganza, rejoices over the replacement of actual experience with the manufactured. Avatar “has recreated what is at the heart of biology: the naked, heart-stopping wonder of really seeing the living world.” The trek through the local multiplex screen does not include sore feet, a parched throat, or insect bites, much less a pause in silence to hear the baritone squawks of ravens or to see the play of intense sunlight on the bark of a juniper tree.
To understand how the image world shapes the interior life, the difference between a painting and a photograph must first be grasped. A painting is a unique, handmade object, commonly understood as an interpretation of the subject; a photograph, in contrast, is taken as a record of reality that provides evidence of how a person or place really looked. Suppose a painter and a photographer were both present at some historical event, say Jesus delivering the Sermon on the Mount, or for nonbelievers, Galileo testifying before the Inquisition. To see what really happened, undoubtedly both the devout Christian and the enemy of the Church would choose a photograph over the artistic interpretation, and not just because of a Baconian prejudice that machines are more faithful to reality than the human senses. Critic and novelist Susan Sontag likens a photograph to a footprint or a death mask, to a stencil of the original, and most of us agree — the photograph is an imprint of reality.
Reared in the image-world, we moderns are shocked to discover that indigenous people isolated from Western technology cannot make sense out of two-dimensional drawings and photographs. The Pirahās, who live in Amazonia, “often hold pictures sideways or upside down, and ask…what it is they are supposed to be seeing.” Contrary to what most of us believe, a person must learn to see a photograph as an imprint of reality.
We are probably not aware of how much the way the camera “sees” differs from natural vision. As an experiment, I took a digital photograph of a wild Russian sage behind my house. The color print, because of improved computer technology and Photoshop, captured the original; the dark purple flowers, the mint green leaves, and the shape of the plant were rendered with striking fidelity. Next, I went outside and sat down in front of the Russian Sage and paid particular attention to my experience of the flower. The plant occupied three dimensions and never stopped moving in the gentle breeze. Soon, I felt the wind on my face, the same wind that caused the plant to sway; the moving air made the plant and me one, in the sense that I could feel the plant’s motion. Next, I realized I always have peripheral vision. I was surrounded by rocks, birds chirping in trees, and changing sunlight caused by clouds passing overhead. I smelt the faint urine aroma of the chamisas, then in golden bloom. When I looked at the Russian sage, I did not see it in a frame, isolated from everything else in the world. If we think of a photograph as a Xerox copy of an object, then the copy drops out most of our actual experience of the object and gives us an isolated, impoverished image.
To me the puzzle of photography was why we almost always reverse the relationship between reality and the image, and take the photograph as the real thing and the actual object as an imitation. To unravel this puzzle, I made another experiment. In my imagination, I attempted to compare my experience of carefully looking at the Russian sage and the digital photograph I produced with the combination of camera, computer, Photoshop, and ink jet printer. Much to my surprise, I could not remember the real Russian sage; however, the photo was easily recalled in detail. Similarly, I look at my face every day in the mirror while shaving, yet cannot find in my memory an image of my face in the mirror, though I can easily remember a photo taken of me the previous summer seated outdoors at Restaurant Counterculture with a glass of red wine on the table in front of me. I can recall with clarity great photographs by Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Weston, and Paul Strand I had seen years before, but I cannot see in my mind’s eye scenes I had personally seen the previous week. In the same vein, I cannot recall with vividness the restaurants and bars I frequent. Rick’s Café Américain in Casablanca, Morocco, is realer to me than the Eldorado bar in Santa Fe, New Mexico; at will I can recall a vivid image of Sam, the black piano player at Rick’s, while my image of Señor Mendoza, the guitarist at the Eldorado, is feeble at best. I do not think I am an anomaly with a quirky memory. When we are in the world, we experience too much to remember—sights, sounds, tastes, and smells, all constantly changing. The camera, both still and motion, drops out virtually everything we experience, and this depleted world—that of images—can easily be stored in and recalled from memory.
In the course of our lives, we do not just see one or two photographs. Everything has been photographed: the Taj Mahal, the Eiffel Tower, Big Ben, the White House, the Presidents carved in rock at Mount Rushmore, the Whole Earth, and the list goes on and on seemingly forever. A photograph, obviously, can be reproduced an unlimited number of times. Before the invention of the camera, manmade images were exceedingly rare; ordinary people saw statues, stained-glass windows, and paintings only in church, while the privileged few owned a small number of paintings, usually commissioned by them, their ancestors, or one of their wealthy brethren. The first fine art museum was the Amerbach Cabinet, originally a private collection, bought by the University and city of Basel in 1661 and opened to the public in 1671.
Nowadays, through magazines, newspapers, movies, television, and the Internet we are saturated with manmade images. We believe that the entire world can be photographed and stored in our heads. A good friend of mine makes a point to buy the annual edition of Time Magazine’s Best Photos of the Year, so she can capture the newsworthy events of the preceding year. The image-world has become for many of us the world we inhabit most of the time. Even though a painting can be easily recalled from memory in great detail, works of fine arts are not part of the image-world because their numbers are infinitesimal compared to photographic images—besides a painting is understood as an interpretation, not an imprint of reality.
Just like a painting, a photograph can evoke intense emotions. The widely circulated photograph of a little South Vietnamese girl, naked, crying, screaming from pain, and running on a road toward the camera, after an American napalm attack, probably resulted in more opposition to the Vietnam War than any anti-war pamphlet. A photograph, a movie, or a TV program can also arouse an emotion that we would not have in real life. Sontag gives the example of a surgery she observed in Shanghai. She watched a “factory worker with advanced ulcers have nine-tenths of his stomach removed under acupuncture anesthesia.” She experienced no “queasiness, never once feeling the need to look away.” However, a year later in a theater, she watched a less gory operation in Michelangelo Antonioni’s China documentary Chung Kuo and the first cut of the scalpel made her avert her eyes. Many of us are repulsed by the extreme close-ups and slow motion sequences employed in PBS nature programs; we may feel sickened when the jaws of a rattlesnake slowly close over a cute mouse with big ears.
Admen are masters of using the emotions that photographs can evoke to sell products. In the 2016 Coca-Cola Emoticons commercial, four wholesome-looking teenagers, two boys and two girls, are strangers in front of a Coke machine. Out of the machine, one of the boys takes a Coke with the emoticon Kiss on the label; the teenagers laugh over different bottles with the emoticons LOL, Sexy, Naughty, and Hello. The teenagers get to know each other, and at the end of the forty-five-second commercial, one couple walks off together with the voiceover “take the feeling, share the feeling,” a happy feeling with Coke that brings young people together.
We sophisticated adults maintain that ads do not affect us, but I am not so sure. Recently, a former student of mine, a young man approaching thirty, complained to me that he could not think straight about purchasing an off-road vehicle because of the Jeep commercial aired during Super Bowl 2016. He could not shake the feeling of himself as once again a young, wild dude, racing over the dessert in Jeep, heading for a bevy of beautiful girls. My former student drew a finger from the top of his forehead to the tip of his nose and said half of me knows that the Jeep ad is a crock and the other half of me wants that youthful joy again — buy the Jeep!
I reminded my former student that we judge situations and objects through reason and emotion, and these two ways of judging are often in conflict. An emotional appraisal is not deliberate or the result of reflection, but is immediate and bypasses reason. When I was ten years old, I was badly bitten by a dog, a mean Chow that terrorized the neighborhood kids. For years whenever I saw any dog, even the friendly golden retriever next door that obviously was not a threat, I felt fright, my heart beat wildly, and my body desired to flee. My reason told me that the golden retriever was harmless; my emotions told me any dog would attack me and inflict a nasty bite.[*]
I used this story to explain to my former student how commercials work. Admen know that emotional judgments circumvent reason. The association of Coke and happy teenagers, or Jeep with being a young, wild dude again is an emotional judgment that is ridiculous to reason; drinking Coke does not result in friends or happiness, owning a Jeep does not result in a new person; the juxtaposition of images is not cause and effect. The image-world falls outside the realm of reason; persuasion through images is not based on logic, intellectual analysis, and assessment of data, but on feelings.
Every adman and every image producer hopes to completely overcome reason by adhering to Joseph Goebbels’ secret of propaganda: Simplify, simplify, simplify; Repeat, repeat, repeat. Simplify makes the message available to every person; repeat aims to form an emotional habit in every person that is contrary to reason.
We must not forget that music videos, late night talk shows, TV sitcoms, and movies are commercials, selling products and ultimately the good life, the ideal family, the beautiful woman, and the exciting, adventuresome life for the young.
The image-world consists of appearances, not actions; as a result, the age of photography is the age of gesture. One hundred years ago, middle-class America spoke of character defined by a person’s actions; now, all Americans, young and old, black and white, rich and poor ask if a person has the look—the clothes and the gestures. A young woman in the 1890s wrote in her diary, “Resolved to think before speaking. To work seriously. To be self-restrained in conversations and actions. Not to let my thoughts wander. To be dignified. Interest myself more in others.” In contrast, a young woman in the 1990s recorded in her diary, “I will try to make myself better in any way that I can…I will lose weight, get new lenses, already got new haircut, good makeup, new clothes and accessories.” These two diaries demonstrate the immense change that has taken place within a single century. Both diarists hold the same goal, to improve herself, yet each approaches her goal in a very different way. The 1890s young woman lived in an era that strongly insisted upon manners and etiquette. American society then instilled in young adults the opinion that personal worth consisted in possessing moral virtues. The 1990s young woman lives in the image-world and therefore believes the projection of the right image will bring her love from others and thus happiness.
Scott Fitzgerald defined personality in his 1925 novel The Great Gatsby as “an unbroken series of successful gestures.” For the person effecting an image, the series of gestures can be unbroken only if he or she is always “performing.” Whether exercising at the health club, shopping in the supermarket, or walking through an airport, the image-laden American believes that an actual or imaginary audience is always watching. And if the performer achieves the desired look—whatever that look is—he or she considers the gestures successful.
Social critic Louis Menand describes movies as an “encyclopedia of gestures”: “You know how to brood because you have seen Rebel without a Cause. What better model does the world offer? You know how to ruin your life because you have seen Shampoo. You know how to win because you have seen The Verdict; you know how not to win because you have seen Top Gun. You know how to walk down the sidewalk carrying a can of paint because you have seen Saturday Night Fever.”
Dr. Menand’s point that movies are an “encyclopedia of gestures” is still valid, though his choice of movies to illustrate his argument are necessarily dated, for generations are no longer the measure for human change. The decade is a convenient label, but the unit of change in American life is closer to six or seven years, the time lapse from the birth of a fashion in an obscure loft in New York, a garage in Seattle, or a cafe in Paris to its death by media overexposure. The complete fashion life cycle is obscurity of birth, excitement over the newly found, media saturation, boredom with the same old stuff, and oblivion. Virtually everything is fashion now, dance, music, film, and even philosophy. Think of the originator of deconstruction, the French philosopher Jacques Derrida, whose works were once a rage in the American academy and now mainly clog used bookstores. The appearance of deconstruction on the Oprah Winfrey Show and in the title of Wood Allen’s movie Deconstructing Harry put the new philosophy in the closet next to the bell-bottomed trousers.
Americans are obsessed with creating what psychoanalyst Erich Fromm described as a winning “personality package.” All of us are like Willy Loman, the protagonist of The Death of a Salesman, the quintessential American, selling not knifes, stockings, or watches, but himself. To be successful, the novice salesman must first learn to sell himself. To sell ourselves, we enlist Liz Clairborne, Eddie Bauer, Ralph Lauren, Prada, Abercrombie & Fitch, J.Crew, and thousands of other image-makers, who develop niche personality packages for the young and the old, the rich and the poor, the hip and the straight. The marketers at Lacoste and Jantzen, the first companies to put a logo on the outside of clothing, were geniuses.
In many lives, natural objects are absent; images are reality; and isolated individuals wear ever-changing masks fabricated out of images created to sell products. Consumers are buying a lifestyle, a way of life defined by images. In the past, capitalism exploited workers, took the fruits of their labor, but in this late phase of capitalism workers are being robbed of their very selves—they become what sells products.
The very notion, however, of a creating a personality package, of putting on an “unbroken series of successful gestures,” can only arise in a culture of disconnected and isolated individuals. In a small village where people know one another, wearing an image is not possible. Novelist and art critic John Berger studied French peasant life for fifteen years and concluded that the villagers he lived with did “little performing: peasants do not play roles as urban characters do. This is not because they are ‘simple’ or more honest or without guile, it is simply because the space between what is unknown about a person and what is generally known—and this is the space for all performance—is too small.” Living in close relationship with others makes adopting a personality package impossible.
In America, when an individual who has clothed himself or herself in images steps out into the street—especially in a modern city—the images define the individual, for in the public square he or she is unknown with no family connections and no past. A mere glance at a man or woman riding the subway, strolling in the mall, or walking through busy streets categorizes who this individual is.
Television, the Internet, and social media create the illusion that isolated individuals are connected to each other. Identical images are fed into every individual viewer, regardless of age, gender, education, or ethnic background. Individual experience is reproduced again and again, not unlike the identical parts stamped out by an assembly line. In this way, mass media destroys personal experience, but the atom-units believe they are bound together by the same “experience.” At work, around the watercooler, they heatedly exchange “their” opinions about the latest buzz or passionately argue for or against whatever dominated the cable news or talk shows the day before.
Blogs, newsgroups, and online newspapers extend the office watercooler to cyberspace. Anyone, anywhere, anytime, now, can instantly post an opinion on anything. The Internet has become an ocean of opinion, one comment washing over another, quickly submerging whatever truth that tries to surface. In the image-world, passion rules, not historical facts, scientific data, or tight logic. Both the Democrat and Republican National Conventions of 2016 revealed that political discourse has become personal and emotional, with opposing viewpoints irresolvable, an inevitable result once admen were given control of political campaigns. Like all ads, the ones for a political candidate must stand out from the clutter, and, in the main, that requires that the aspirant advocate extreme positions, not only to generate political passion but to keep the candidate from looking like everyone else.
Mass produced images fill our interior life. “Memory, as the ultimate in private property, is a vestige of a vanished century,” movie critic Geoffrey O’Brien declares. “In the new civilization, half the faces in the memory bank are of public personalities, actors playing fictional characters.” He points out that a farmer plowing his field in the Housatonic Valley in 1803 had memories of family, neighbors, people he passed on the road going to and from the market and knew the names of characters in the Bible and outstanding patriots, such as Washington and Jefferson. At school he had learned stories, ballads, and episodes of American history that taught a moral lesson.
With the advent of the image-world, everything changed. An inhabitant of the Housatonic Valley knows the images of hundreds of familiar strangers. Every single person, everywhere, is a “walking encyclopedia, a directory of show‑biz personalities.” And the heads of celebrities, too, are populated by other celebrities. In talk shows, the host and the guest celebrity talk about other TV shows and other celebrities. “I saw him on your show last night talking about seeing her on his show last week.”
O’Brien imagines how an image-saturated citizen would reply if interrogated by the secret police about his life: “I am the living end product of a bizarre experiment. They have colonized my memory. I had a name once but I am no longer sure what it signifies. For the memories and images in my brain are shared by so many other people that we are almost interchangeable.”
As we live more and more in the image-world, the interior life becomes more and more superficial, just like the photographic images skimmed from the real world. Television, the Internet, and social media isolate citizens from each other and nature, and the end result of the digital revolution may be that the interior life collapses to hollow images and counterfeit emotions.
At the beginning of the twenty-first century, a fiber optic cable and Wi-Fi signals travel outward from each house to touch the world. Citizens, alone, in darkened living rooms, watch images of death and destruction in Ethiopia, Iraq, Syria, and other once remote places, and they “feel” the pain and suffering of once strange peoples. Atom-units follow politics on the evening news, cable TV, and blogs; each has his or her “own” opinion on every issue of the day. Computer networks and the Internet replace human relations. Personal experience disappears, replaced by events stamped out by the media machine.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.
[*] Years later, I learned my fear of dogs was an emotional habit that I acquired accidentally and like any fear could be overcome by not avoiding but directly encountering what is feared.
 See Key Findings of the Kaiser Family Foundation Study, Generation M2: Media in the Lives of 8- to 18-Year-Olds (January 2010).
 Carol Kaesuk Yoon, “Luminous 3-D Jungle Is a Biologist’s Dream.” Italics added.
 Sontag, p. 168.
 Coca-Cola Emoticons.
 Official 2016 Jeep Super Bowl Commercial.
 Joan Jacobs Brumberg, The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls (New York: Random House, 1997), p. xxi.
 F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby (New York: Collier Books, 1980 ), p. 2.
 Louis Menand, “That’s Entertainment,” The New Yorker (Nov. 22, 1993).
 Geoffrey O’Brien, The Phantom Empire: Movies in the Mind of the 20th Century (New York: Norton, 1993), p. 218.
 Ibid., p. 219.
 Ibid., pp. 27-28