Saturday, July 31, 2010

Imagology by Milan Kundera (excerpt from Immortality)

THE POLITICIAN is dependent on the journalist.  But on whom are the journalists dependent?  On those who pay them.  And those who pay them are the advertising agencies that buy space from newspapers and time from radio and TV stations.  At first glance it may seem that the agencies would unhesitatingly approach all the high-circulation newspapers capable of increasing the sale of their products.  But that's a naive view of the matter.  Sales of products are less important than we think.  Just look at the communist countries:  the millions of pictures of Lenin displayed everywhere you go certainly do not stimulate love for Lenin.  The advertising agencies of the Communist Party (the so-called agitprop departments) have long forgotten the practical goal of their activity (to make the communist system better liked) and have become and end in themselves: they have created their own language, their formulas, their aesthetics (the heads of these agencies once had absolute power over art in their countries), their ideas of the right life-style, which they cultivate, disseminate, and force upon their unfortunate peoples.

Are you objecting that advertising and propaganda cannot be compared, because one serves commerce and the other ideology?  You understand nothing.  Some one hundred years ago in Russia, persecuted Marxists began to gather secretly in small circles, whose members, simplifying further and further this simplification of the simple, kept passing it on and on, so that when Marxism became known and powerful on the whole planet, all that was left of it was a collection of six or seven slogans so poorly linked that it can hardly be called and ideology.  And precisely because the remnants of Marx no longer form any logical system of ideas, but only a series of suggestive images and slogans (a smiling worker with a hammer, black, white, and yellow men fraternally holding hands, the dove of peace rising to the sky, and so on and so on), we can rightfully talk of a gradual, general, planetary transformation of ideology into imagology.

Imagology!  Who first thought up this remarkable neologism?  Paul or I?  It doesn't matter.  What matters is that this word finally lets us put under one roof something that goes by so many names: advertising agencies; political campaign managers; designers who devise the shape of everything from cars to gym equipment; fashion stylists; barbers; show-business stars dictating the norms of physical beauty that all branches of imagology obey.

Of course, imagologues existed long before they created the powerful institutions we know today.  Even Hitler had his personal imagologue, who used to stand in front of him and patiently demonstrate the gestures to be made during speeches so as to fascinate the crowds.  But if that imagologue, in an interview with the press, had amused Germans by describing Hitler as incapable of moving his hands, he would not have survived his indiscretion by more than few hours.  Nowadays, however, the imagologue not only does not try to hide his activity, but often speaks for his politician clients, explains to the public what he taught them to do or not to do, how he told them to behave, what formula they are likely to use, and what tie they are likely to wear.  We needn't be surprised by this self-confidence: in the last few decades, imagology has gained a historic victory over ideology.

All ideologies have been defeated: in the end their dogmas were unmasked as illusions and people stopped taking them seriously. 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, they 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 stronger 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 in 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 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 could break this power.

I want to add to this comparison of ideology and imagology: ideology was like a set of enormous wheels at the back of the stage, turning and setting in motion wars, revolutions, reforms.  The wheels of imagology turn without having any effect upon history.  Ideologies fought with one another, and each of them was capable of filling a whole epoch with its thinking.  Imagology organizes peaceful alternation of its system in lively seasonal rhythms.  In Paul's words: ideology belonged to history, while the reign of imagology begins where history ends.

The word "change," so dear to our Europe, has been given a new meaning: it no longer means a new stage of coherent development (as it was understood by Vico, Hegel, or Marx), but a shift from one side to another, from front to back, from the back to the left, from the left to the front (as understood by designers dreaming up the fashion for the next season).  Imagologues decided that in Agnes's health club all the walls should be covered by enormous mirrors; this was not done because gymnasts need to observe themselves while exercising, but because on the roulette wheel of imagology mirrors had landed on a lucky number.  If at the time I was writing these pages everyone decided that Martin Heidegger was to be considered a bungler and a bastard, it was not because his thought had been surpassed by other philosophers, but because on the roulette wheel of imagology, this time he had landed on an unlucky number, an anti-ideal.  Imagologues create systems of ideals and anti-ideals, systems of short duration that are quickly replaced by other systems but that influence our behavior, our political opinions and aesthetic tastes, the color of carpets and the selection of books, just as in the past we have been ruled by the systems of ideologues.

After these remarks I can return to the beginning of the discussion.  The politician id dependent on the journalist.  On whom are the journalists dependent?  On imagologues.  The imagologue is a person of conviction and principle: he demands of the journalist that his newspaper (or TV channel, radio station) reflect the imagological system of a given moment.  And this is what imagologues check from time to time when they are trying to decide which newspaper to support.  One day they turned their attention to the radio station where Bernard worked as a commentator and where every Saturday Paul broadcast his brief feature Rights and the Law.  They promised to obtain many advertising contracts for the station as well as to launch a poster campaign all over France; but they insisted on certain conditions, to which the program director, known as the Bear, was forced to submit: he gradually began to shorten the commentaries, so that the listeners would not be bored by long discussions; he allowed the commentators' five-minute monologues to be interrupted by the questions of another broadcaster, in order to the give the impression of conversation; he added many more musical interludes, frequently even inserting background music under the words; and he advised everyone talking into a microphone to put on a relaxed, youthful, carefree air, an air that fills my morning dreams with bliss and turns weather reports into comic operas.  Because he considered it important that his subordinates should continue to see him as a powerful Bear, he tried as hard as he could to safeguard the jobs of all his fellow workers.  He surrendered on only on point.  The imagologues found Rights and the Law so obviously boring that they merely showed their excessively white teeth and refused to discuss it.  The Bear promised to cancel the feature, and then he became ashamed of his surrender.  He was all the more ashamed because Paul was his friend.