By Dr. Andrew Thomas Kania
In his novel, Immortality, Milan Kundera opens up a brilliant polemical discussion between two characters regarding a paradigm shift that he has one character postulate took place in the Western World in the latter half of the 20th Century; a shift from ideology to image; a movement away from thoughts that provide the foundations of a society – to being people who are merely ‘impressed’ upon.
The Renaissance, and the Age of Humanism, followed soon after by the Age of Enlightenment had given Europe, ‘ideology’ – that catalyst which spawned reforms, artistic movements, revolutions and wars. Yet by the time the 20th century petered out to its exhausted end, so many ideologies had been lived and died for – and so many of these ‘ideas’ had been tried and found wanting. A culture of ‘isms’ had seen cities razed to not only their foundations, but their inhabitants immolated in a morass of human flesh and broken dreams – corpses gaping up at the smoke-filled sky from holes in the ground. One of the most infamous of idealogues, Adolf Hitler, had become the archetype of Ideology’s descent into Hell – burrowing himself eventually deeper and deeper into the earth; commanding the dwindling insanity of his Third Reich from what was to become a subterranean cocoon of evil and eventual suicide.
Nonetheless as we began to look forward to a new century – in the hope of having learned something constructive from the de-structive lessons of the previous century, the odour of war so permeated the minds of the West – that dying for a ‘fatherland’ was considered to be an archaic souvenir of a misguided epoch. Make love – and not war had been the anthem of the baby-boomer, who had suckled on the breasts of mothers who themselves had waited for their husbands to return, or not return, from war. The children of the Baby-Boomer generation, the so-called Generation X, gave the sentiments of their parents an intellectual profile. With the decline in a belief in God, and of the world to come – the here and now, became the most sought for prize. Whereas only those who believe in a future Heaven, can in fact give their lives so readily in the present; those who do not believe in a hereafter have to cling on for dear life with all their might to all they have – the present. The Gordon Gekko’s of this world were a product of a lack of faith in the next. Greed being good – is the creed of those who live for the material in the absence of the spiritual.
Moreover, for those born and bred after the war – a sense of universal brotherhood and sisterhood – had emptied the halls of the budding idealogue. A subscription to a belief in anything was plausible – but only up until the point where difference did not lead to antagonism; for if a difference of opinion leads to antagonism, antagonism leads to aggression and aggression leads to war. Ideas are the seed of values – but ideas and values are the sources of arguments – as such too much thinking renders social harmony an impossibility. Absolute values do not easily allow for opposition – and so the largest of all Absolute values – God – had to die in order to obtain peace. In sum, for social cohesion, society has to cease thinking in order to be pacified. What seemed to be forgotten in this cataclysm of ideologies – is that not all ideas were wrong – and that ideology in itself was only dangerous if the goal of the ‘idea’ was to have the human spirit the object of slavery.
But if society stops thinking – what can take its place? Into this vacuum enters – The Image.
Kundera defines as ‘image’ the use of the media to set the patterns of consumption, the fashions of society, and the ‘non-thought’ patterns of the public. To Kundera, or his character at least, modern man and woman in the Western world (the by-product of the end of ideas), are merely slaves to the Imagologue, the person who from their advertising desk – or from their media office, sets the agenda for society. Who are these people? Kundera writes: “The politician is 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”. (Kundera, 1991, p. 130)
Unlike the dictator of the past whose face was on every billboard, the Imagologue is conspicuous by being inconspicuous. He or she is powerful – conquering by winning contracts, and selling more units of product. It is the Imagologue who tells us what is newsworthy; it is the Imagologue who tells us what we should look like; it is the Imagologue who selects what films and music should be seen and played – and by doing this, the Imagologue shapes the psyche of society; society which then loses the ability to think independently, become mere passive slaves to consumerism. Ideas are simplified by the Imagologue to become ‘issues’; wants through the power of advertising become needs; ‘celebrities’ become celebrities by virtue of their frequency of ‘prominence’ in the media; talent is also classified by this same frequency. Whereas the Ideologue was aggressive in the articulation of their message – the Imagologue wraps their message in plasma pixels or digital quality sound bytes. Whereas the Ideologue sought to raise us from what he or she perceived to be our intellectual stupour – the Imagologue massages us into delirium by way of a love for materialism and hedonism. With the Imagologue no one is told to go fight wars – they simply act in accordance with the whim of the media.
We are told that we need a new mobile phone, even though the one which we own, works well; we are told that to be emaciated is attractive; we are told that grey hair is bad, and that lyposuction and botox are good. We are told that a 32 inch television is less than a 42 inch set, and that LCD and Plasma are worse than the LED and the LED worse than the 3D – and we all have to have one, at least. We purchase cars built for the autobahn, to be driven on restricted and sleepy roads; and we pay for such vehicles, in real terms, far more than our parents paid for the houses we grew up in. Whereas our grandmother was on an exercise-bike, and our mother on a treadmill, we now take up zumba. We are also told that there is no right or wrong – for if there was, half of the things that the Imagologue seeks to market could not then be sold. The Imagologue plays the pipe – and we dutifully reach for our pockets – and then satiated, fall asleep – to think of – well, nothing. In Kundera’s eyes the rise of the Imagologue is an insidious threat to the human spirit.
It would seem that in the modern world there are few principles worth dying for, but more than enough to work yourself to death in order to purchase. Worn out by our labours – our relaxation time becomes the ideal source for the Imagologue to speak to us – we sit totally impressionable before the fount of wisdom – the television, and we are preached too. We weep tears for those the Imagologue wishes us to weep for. We sit and watch a golfer who needs to rescue his ‘image’ in order to rescue his career – plead for forgiveness from the world of television, not in order to save his soul; but in order to save the image that has become disassociated from his soul.
And yet, how many of us can see passed the image – can see that what we are being fed by the media, is a diet that has been chosen in competition to spiritual nutrition. Fed candy by the Imagologue – we spit real food from out of our mouths, from sheer habit of knowing nought else. We lose our desire for the spiritual because the Imagologue has no interest in the unseen – for the unseen cannot bear a price-tag. Like cattle chasing feed from the hand of the farmer, we run this way and that – climbing over each other in order to find happiness – the happiness sculptured by the Imagologue. We consume, we discard, we waste – and as we lie dying – we stare at the ceiling in the hospital, wearing nought else but a cotton hospital dress, looking at the window, waiting for someone to come – wondering about death – what will it be like; wondering about life – what was it meant to be; and what or who we were meant to be.
It was John Stuart Mill, who in The Principles of Political Economy, discussed the need for society to function in such a way that the labourer of the future would have time in order for self-improvement. Mill was envisaging the reading of good books, and the formation of societies where the great ideas would be discussed, consequently leading to the renaissance of a new flourishing of the arts, and a more just society. Today we in the West have a far higher standard of living than the labourers of the past. Had Karl Marx lived in the present age – one wonders what he would need to write about in a London library. With so many labouring hard and joyfully for acquiring the latest gizmo – who would want to listen anyway? The world in the West seems to have turned away from the Logos – and turned toward fashion logos.
We are told to be concerned about the carbon-footprint that we will leave behind after we are no more – but how many of us are concerned about the footprint we will leave in the hearts and minds of those we have shared our life with? Such tragedy would it be if the only sign of our having existed would be the impression we left on the lounge-room sofa or the smudged paint on the television remote control from our thumbprint.
Kundera’s thesis of the Imagologue makes us wonder how much of our daily living, has in fact worth beyond the basic instinct of wanting to be entertained. Is the leisure time that we have now, that Mill fought hard through his writings for, really used for self-improvement – or has the Imagologue, caught us in his vice-like grip? After a day’s work – reality-television, video-games, texting, and on-line shopping, are the staple diet for many. The death of ideas – has perhaps turned society into caged creatures, like mice running through a labyrinth – moving this way and that, around the spinning wheel, over the water obstacle – day-in day-out seeking pleasure; waiting for the Imagologue to throw out his next piece of cheese. Few are thinking because the majority are too busy being entertained – essentially there is no time for thought – the Imagologue has made sure of this.