Milan Kundera’s novels are punctuated by philosophical asides, and whether you agree with him or think he’s full of crap (or fall somewhere in between), he provides plenty of fodder for keeping the hamsters running on the wheels in your brain. Like his other books, his novel Immortality contains several digressions. Or at first they seem like digressions, but in the end, they serve the whole in a maddeningly perfect way. As we in the United States are now in the thick of election season, busily being bombarded by message after message, I thought it was fitting to pull out one of Kundera’s digressions, about reality, ideology and image.
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.
We know that image is important, so much so that Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin is thought of as that sexy librarian type moreso than as a viable politician. And now that Fox News is busy creating an unnecessary fracas over an unretouched Newsweek cover featuring the governor, it’s clear that at least in Palin’s case, physical beauty trumps all. And seriously, does Fox News not realize how rude it’s being to Palin with the faux hysterics over the fact that — gasp! — she looks human and not airbrushed? Isn’t this akin to saying “WE CAN’T LET THE WORLD KNOW HOW UGLY SHE REALLY IS! NOOOO!!!!” (though I’d argue that she looks pretty great). Idiots.
Let’s move on.
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 to fascinate the crowds. But if that imagologue, in an interview with the press, had amused the Germans by describing Hitler as incapable of moving his hands, he would not have survived his indiscretion by more than a few hours. Nowadays, however, the imagologue not only does not try to hide his activity, but often even 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.
This novel was published in 1990, and here in 2008, this seems just as true. We live in an age of stylists and pundits and spokespeople. Celebrities who gleefully admit their Botox addictions. We’ve listened to talk about Hillary Clinton’s pantsuits and heard arguments about Barack Obama not wearing a flag pin on his lapel. Is wearing a flag pin really that important? Does it adequately express the innermost workings of Obama’s mind and character? Of course not, but he wears one now. It looks like it means something. I guess.
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 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.
I tend to flip-flop on whether or not I agree with this point Kundera makes. On one hand, yes, it makes sense, yet on the other hand, there’s plenty of dogma out there to go around and while it is as hollow now as it ever was, people still seem to be clinging to it. In some cases this clinging is born of devotion and in others it’s grandstanding for audiences, but for some, many even, the dogma (be it religious or political or other) still has the power to attract.
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 the truth. Public opinion polls are a parliament in permanent session, whose function 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.
This bit about public opinion polls is especially timely, considering the fact that in the final run-up to the election, more and more of these so-called undecided voters (who are these people, exactly? I don’t know any of them) will be polled this way and that way to see what they’re thinking, to try to decipher in whose direction these votes will break. People are broken down into stereotypes so they can be spoken of in neat soundbites. We have Hockey Mom and Soccer Mom and Joe Six-Pack (which I’m assuming is not a comment on his killer abs) and we’re white collar and blue collar and down-home folks and coastal elitists and blah blah blabbity blah and the news is so full of talk about what this group believes and what that group believes that we don’t even really need to talk to each other anymore, eh?
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 systems in lively seasonal rhythms. In Paul’s words: ideology belonged to history, while the reign of imagology begins where history ends.
Kundera goes on but I’m going to leave it here because I think it’s an interesting point that bears discussion: if this were true, wouldn’t we have world peace by now?