Thursday, December 7, 2006

Image is Nothing

"Image is everything", or so we have heard since that tennis star spouted the slogan for a camera company. If it is, then substance is nothing, and there is no room left for reality.

When it comes to this obsession with the image, is it better to be merely hollow within, or corrupt? This is image's only choice. Bush is largely hollow; Cheney is all corruption inside. The image for both is projected by the Rove machine, which sets everything from lighting to camera angles to sound bites so as to relay the appropriate image that has been carefully calculated to inspire fear, awe, camaraderie, or folksy good humor. Cheney's ubiquitous snarl, for example, inspires a feeling of menace. As one neocon fellow I know said of him, "yeah, he's a bastard...but he's our bastard!" I suppose that makes him acceptable to the neocon mind.

Corporations do the same thing: presenting everything from CEOs to animal mascots and cartoon characters in a calculated light of image. They also do it with their corporate palaces, the home offices where all the profit is taken and the images are created and nurtured.

I was reminded of this on starting my new consulting gig at the World Financial Center here in New York. It is a heavily guarded fortress of opulence, right behind the site of ground zero. To go upstairs to meet my new employer, I had to go through metal detectors and identity checks. Later, when I was sent to get my official company badge, I had not just my picture but my fingerprints taken by a scanner. To get into the building, I have to swipe the picture card at a guarded turnstile and then place a finger on top of the thing. At lunch on my first day, I was walking around the lobby and saw a guy with a dog come up the escalator. The dog walked calmly around the lobby, sniffing at big pots of pointsetta plants, Xmas trees set in a row along one wall, and a number of other planters and holiday decorations. Then he went off toward the shops downstairs, probably to sniff around there as well. Just doing his job.

But that didn't bother me much: the dog was both amusing and reassuring to watch, and the fingerprint thing was a little annoying, but you get used to it. What troubled me was the sheer, excessive, unbroken opulence of the place. Marble, granite, glass, chrome, and light—brilliance everywhere, not an inch of room given over to shadow. No place for a quiet moment, a private, separate space in which to reflect or turn inward.

I am old enough to recall having some of my most private moments in one of the more public space on earth, Grand Central Terminal. There used to be real phone booths, with doors, and benches in shadowed alcoves where you could feel more secluded than in a monastery. A lot has changed in thirty years or so. Here, now, in the World Financial Center, everything—every surface, every corner, every object—is bathed in glittering opulence. It is an orgy of light; a brutally relentless domination by the artificial; an oppression, via muzak, of silence.

I think it would be a mistake to blame it all on 9/11, as if the modern world started on a particular day five years ago. This obsession with glare and noise has been with us a long time; 9/11 merely provided a certain urgency to the note that the voices of the image-makers had already sounded.

Amid the piped tunes, the gleaming surfaces, and the omnipresent light, people walked around, most of them techno-fitted in some fashion. The Blackberry shuffle was in evidence: people walking sternly over the white marble, staring down at their devices as they spun the wheel of productivity. Phones, iPods, laptops, PDAs, and headgear were also apparent everywhere I looked. Image, defined by gear: this is how the stuff is sold.

The problem with image is that it is so easily mistaken for identity. It is a noxious problem, since at a time when it has never been more critical for us to be absolutely clear about who we are, we instead wrap ourselves in a microwave cloud or a bitstreamed cloak—a gleaming miniature of color, light, and the appearance of success.

Believe me, I am a friend of technology: gear is fun and sometimes even useful. I write about tech every Wednesday because I like it. But it does not define me, not even a little bit; and we can't allow it to if we are to have any hope of leaving behind a few drops of sanity in the life-cup of the next generation. We have to give our children more than cell towers and a working Internet, as helpful as those things may occasionally be. We have to give them an opportunity to understand themselves and their planet; a chance to self-create a future that is guided by truth, health, and love.

Our political and corporate leaders, by and large, are not doing this; they aren't even trying. They instil an orthodoxy of conformity, a yearning for the same vapid symbols of success; the ambition to climb the ladder or save (and buy) big on Black Friday. Or showing our support for the troops with bright ribbons and artificial flowers, which can be placed on their graves when they come home.

Psychologists tell us that image—body image, self-image, projected image—is important. I am suggesting that the emphasis upon image is itself driven by the solipsistic preoccupation of the culture and its advertising and media machinery. Image, in reality, is nothing; it is a Roveian illusion perpetrated by a cynical school of human psychology. If you can nurture the light that Nature gave you, that will be more than enough for your image. Whenever we give primacy to substance, to the palpable truth of our individual uniqueness, appearances will take care of themselves. Tomorrow, we'll consider a few alternatives to the societal cult of image-making and its pursuit.

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