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As the political theater season kicks into full swing in Iowa tonight, I’m struck by the pervasiveness of contrived events — events designed and delivered specifically to be reported on and YouTubed and blogged. Way back in the 1960s, historian Daniel Boorstin labeled these as ”pseudo-events,” voicing concern even then about their impact on our collective experience of community. As Boorstin defined it, a pseudo-event had the following characteristics (from The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-events in America):

1. It is not spontaneous, but comes about because someone has planned, planted, or incited it. Typically, it is not a train wreck or an earthquake, but an interview.

2. It is planted primarily (not always exclusively) for the immediate purpose of being reported or reproduced. Therefore, its occurrence is arranged for the convenience of the reporting or reproducing media. Its success is measured by how widely it is reported…

3. Its relation to the underlying reality of the situation is ambiguous. Its interest arises largely from this very ambiguity. Concerning a pseudo-event the question, ‘What does it mean?’ has a new dimension. While the news interest in a train wreck is in what happened and in the real consequences, the interest in an interview is always, in a sense, in whether it really happened and in what might have been the motives. Did the statement really mean what it said? Without some of this ambiguity a pseudo-event cannot be very interesting.

4. Usually it is intended to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. The hotel’s thirtieth-anniversary celebration, by saying that the hotel is a distinguished institution, actually makes it one.

We can all wring our hands at the fact that pseudo-events now comprise the large majority of our media experiences. But the more compelling question for me (at least for this blog) is how cultural managers should respond to the dominance of false reality. We are, after all, purveyors of contrived content — often meticulously planned, scripted, crafted, practiced, and delivered to exacting standards. What distinguishes our work from the larger social theater of politics, of marketing, of media?

Back in a 2000 essay in the New York Times, playwright Tom Donaghy called this very question for his peers in the live theater. In a world of reality television and ”realness” in the commercial media, what’s the unique and powerful role of live cultural experience? Thankfully, he answered his own question:

[It is theater’s singular power] to contemplate our collective reality; as audience, actor and story engage in an unspoken discussion of what reality is, how definitions of reality can be broadened. Theater affords this opportunity like no other medium, as actors and audiences breathe side by side, together engendering the spiritual and meditative power that that shared experience implies.

In the end, we’re all wielding the same tools to construct the experiences and events we offer to the world. The difference is in the intent and purpose with which we wield them.

Andrew Taylor
The Artful Manager