TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 17 August 2011
This is an absolutely fascinating look at the notion of entertainment, as it evolved as a form of popular culture into a political and even life compulsion. From the beginning, I was rivetted by Gabler's wonderful writing and unusual ideas. You can read this many times to great profit.
Gabler begins with a definition of what entertainment is: as opposed to the high art tradition, which requires elite education and effort to "get" it (e.g. to "properly appreciate" Opera), entertainment emerged as a democratic impulse soon after the beginning of the 19th century. Rather than high brow fare for esthetes, entertainment brought an immediate sensation of pleasure to the masses and a sense of losing oneself in a story without preparation. WIth the development of technology, Gabler continues, entertainment entered the news, particularly as images, but also as exciting stories, first in the penny press and then in film and finally TV. The penny press brought news to the masses at a price it could afford, largely replacing the elitist partisan editorials that cost 5 times as much in Jefferson's day. The trick was finding the right hook for less educated audiences, to get them into a narrative with which they could identify personally. This history is told in splendid detail, in a well spring of ideas that makes the reader (or at least me) want to research a lot more into this.
From popular culture, Gabler then argues that the need for entertainment created a kind of bizarre feedback loop, according to which it must be manufactured, even when it does not exist. That means that reality is made to fit the story, not the other way round. This leads not only directly to celebrity - those who are famous for being famous more than for having accomplished anything, e.g. Zsa Zsa Gabor as a "personality of glamour" - but also to a transmogrification of the news and even politics, particularly with Ronald Reagan. Rather than pondering complex issues, Gabler believes, the public now wants flashy stories, mood, and outsized personality. As such, he posits, Reagan could say it was "morning in America" while ignoring pressing issues, keeping the public lulled - diverting them - by spin and PR. This Gabler sees as a significant problem in our body politic and I would agree: who doesn't feel disgusted with the way the news media examines politics as a horse race rather than help to analyse the problems that politics should solve? As Gabler says, what reporters tend to report on is how campaign tactics get people to react. It is a bore.
In another example, Gabler tells the story of when doing a story on Christie Brinkley's lifestyle in her new Long Island house, House Beautiful journalists arrived to discover that she had not yet moved in or even decorated it. No problem! Without her approval, they hired an interioir decorator to "do it" for the interview photographs, and Brinkley liked it so much that she kept it. That is what readers, in Gabler's view, would take for a reality to model their own lives on!!
Or alternatively, we get celebrities "writing" books (with a little help from expert word smiths) that get attention because they are who they are rather than what they have to say. You even find public intellectuals taking outrageous positions because it will get them attention, as Gabler argues Camille Paglia has done with her attacks on feminism. In my reading, this is what gets thinkers like Steven Pinker to argue that parents have no impact WHATSOEVER on their children's personalities, whom he argues both learn more from their peers and whose behavior is primarily genetically determined. That argument is outrageous to parents, but it gets him ample media attention. The issues, even the truth, are secondary to entertainment value in this view.
To conclude, Gabler argues that we are all now seeking to create lives that are entertaining, drawing our own narrative in a kind of "mediated self"; the sources of these, he says, are film, celebrity journalism, and over-hyped "news". Reality, in his view, matters less than the idea one can make and maintain of one's life story; while this flatly contradicts Frued's "reality principle", perhaps it is possible now for people who live in a bubble of affluence.
Of couse, my description cannot do justice to the subtlty and elegance of Gabler's argument. This is extremely heady intellectual stuff. While I believe that he takes the argument too far as intellectuals often do when creating a new metaphor, the book is so dense with ideas and frankly so right on the money that it is worth a careful read.
For example, in my own work researching business, this argument is extremely relevant. I have been in many companies whose marketing strategy is to develop a kind of narrative for the consumer to enter, either to imagine they belong to some "tribe", or as a feeling of taking part in something bigger than themselves, or simply a series of products that evolve as a story progresses. For example, Ducati is making motorcyles that recall the company's past glory in races: they are still excellent bikes, but they also evoke an experience of belonging to a story, complete with accessories, the periodic appearence of Ducati bikes in films, etc. This is also true of Disney self-reinforcing multimedia marketing (characters in film and parks = buzz, which sells toys), LEGO's bionicles, Alessi's quirky appliances that bring art into the home, and any number of other companies: they are in part manufacturing an alternative reality, an experience (of entertainment), that is to be found in how we describe ourselves to ourselves.
This book has allowed me to articulate this to myself in a new way, though I must sift through the ideas in my own mind over time. I am sure that anyone interested in culture, politics, or business will feel the same way once they have read this book. This is delicious brain food.
Warmly recommended as an outstanding intellectual adventure. This is a masterful essay that consolidates a huge range of research, including updates of Neil Postman, Marhall McLuhan, Daniel Boorsten and many others. His prose is unusually dense and vivid. A final thing that I should add is that, while Gabler is very critical about these developments, he states very clearly that he wants to stimulate debate rather than offer prescriptions - he admits he has none.