Friday, November 25, 2005

"Black Friday"

Today, on local and national newscasts across the country, the lead story was probably "Black Friday", the biggest retail day of the year. The day when countless stores finally go into the "black." (Hence "Black" Friday! Don't you just love book-keeping related humor?) Every goddamn year, we're told that the Friday after Thanksgiving is going to be a shopping pandamonium, and, sure enough, like clock-work, every Friday after Thanksgiving roles around...and we pack ourselves like sardines into our vehicles, fight to the death for mall parking spaces, and are herded through retailer after retailer, a trail of coupons in our wake. Then, that night, there are a hundred thousand television news stories about all the people at the mall. And we watch it, hoping, maybe, that we'll be in one of the shots, lugging a bag of cargo pants behind the reporter.

So why the hell do we still go shopping when we know it's going to be crazy and crowded and there are thirty more days after Friday when we could shop in a more relaxed environment? There are reasons, and some of them are the same reasons people started stampeding to the mall the day after Thanksgiving in the first place: one-day special discounts, and the fact that you've got a house full of family members you're deeply sick of being around and fifteen pounds of congealing leftovers; suitable motivation to get the hell out of the house any way possible. Still, those are only some of the reasons. I think a big part of why we are compelled to follow the "Black Friday" ritual is because it has become just that, a ritual.

Historian Daniel Boorstin coined the term "pseudo-event" in his 1961 book "The Image."* A "pseudo-event" is, according to Boorstin, a public spectacle that exists soley for the purpose of being observed. Things like press conferences, campaign stops, and other political events that are staged by those who want people to attend, and to see and read about them on television and in print, and would not happen otherwise. These events have no content, no meaning, outside of being observed. Since Boorstin wrote his book, the number of pseudo-events has expanded to include almost everything we consider to be "news": a political campaign, not just speeches and photo ops, but party conventions, as well, which used to be fraught with tension, but have been slowly bled of meaning over the years, is one long pseudo-event. Even media coverage of actually spontaneous news, such as wars or natural disasters, devolves into a series of pseudo-events almost instantly. The first few hours of September 11th media coverage, for example, contained actual news. From that point on, the attack, for all practical purposes, became a pseudo-event: day after day of interviews with people who had nothing new to impart to our understanding of what happened, just pathos and drama to entertain the audience. There is no purpose to this coverage outside of its value to the viewer as spectacle. Same goes for the Iraq war, Katrina, etc, etc. By this point, almost all news is pseudo-news.

Part of this phenomenon has been the creation of "Black Friday" as an actual news story: "this just in: women be shoppin'!" Under no serious definition could this possibly qualify as news, in the abscense of the media's desire to cover it as such. And, I think, there is a significant, subconscious desire on the part of many Americans to take part in a "historic" moment. This act of utter mundanity (is there ANYTHING more mundane than shopping?) having being transformed into a collective national experience by the prescence of the television camera's unblinking eye. At least, I think that might be the case: there's no way I know of to prove it.


*Speaking of "pseudo," here's how you can tell that I am a pseudo-intellectual: I knew what "pseudo-event" meant before I wrote this post, but I had to google it to remember who originated the term.

3 Comments:

Blogger 'Thought & Humor' said...

You have a riveting web log
and undoubtedly must have
atypical & quiescent potential
for your intended readership.
May I suggest that you do
everything in your power to
honor your encyclopedic/omniscient
Designer/Architect as well
as your revering audience.
As soon as we acknowledge
this Supreme Designer/Architect,
Who has erected the beauteous
fabric of the universe, our minds
must necessarily be ravished with
wonder at this infinite goodness,
wisdom and power.

Please remember to never
restrict anyone's opportunities
for ascertaining uninterrupted
existence for their quintessence.

Best wishes for continued ascendancy,
Dr. Howdy

'Thought & Humor'

7:20 PM  
Blogger matthew christman said...

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8:08 PM  
Blogger John M. said...

There goes my revolution. Sigh.

1:56 PM  

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