From Ways of Seeing, a 1972 book of essays on art and culture by Booker-prize winner John Berger:
Publicity is never a celebration of a pleasure-in-itself. Publicity is always about the future buyer. It offers him an image of himself made glamorous by the product or opportunity it is trying to sell. The image then makes him envious of himself as he might be. Yet what makes this self-which-he-might-be enviable? The envy of other. Publicity is about social relations, not objects. Its promise is not of pleasure, but of happiness: happiness as judged from the outside by others. The happiness of being envied is glamour.
Being envied is a solitary form of reassurance. It depends precisely upon not sharing your experience with those who envy you. You are observed with interest but you do not observe with interest – if you do, you will become less enviable. In this respect the envied are like bureaucrats; the more impersonal they are, the greater the illusion (for themselves and for others) of their power. The power of the glamorous resides in their supposed happiness: the power of the bureaucrat in his supposed authority. It is this which explains the absent, unfocused look of so many glamour images. The look out over the looks of envy which sustain them.
Publicity exerts an enormous influence and is a political phenomenon of great importance. But its offer is as narrow as its references are wide. It recognizes nothing except the power to acquire. All other human faculties or needs are made subsidiary to this power. All hopes are gathered together, made homogeneous, simplified, so that they become the intense yet vague, magical yet repeatable promise offered in every purchase. No other kind of hope or satisfaction or pleasure can any longer be envisaged within the culture of capitalism.
Publicity is the life of this culture – in so far as without publicity capitalism could not survive – and at the same time publicity is its dream.
Capitalism survives by forcing the majority, whom it exploits, to define their own interests as narrowly as possible. This was once achieved by extensive deprivation. Today in the developed countries it is being achieved by imposing a false standard of what is and what is not desirable.
4 thoughts on “John Berger on Publicity”
I want to read this book…
Berger is great – I love that footage of him.
I especially like this part:
“Being envied is a solitary form of reassurance. It depends precisely upon not sharing your experience with those who envy you. You are observed with interest but you do not observe with interest – if you do, you will become less enviable.”
There’s something mathematical about Berger’s way of thinking. He implies a spectrum of morality, but he doesn’t discuss it directly. He uses something like psychological equations to help us become aware of our own egos.
Yes, that’s a great way to put it. Syllogistic thinking huh?
He’s taken many stances – sided with the Palestinians. He has many great essays – one on looking at animals is great in About Looking. There are many about photography in that book.
I see the ‘look out over the looks of envy’ everywhere in the billboards and especially in magazine pictures of people they profile. Look at all the New Yorker pictures of celebrities and politicians, a few months ago they had all these world leaders.
Especially in the ads for TV shows on the subway. We are made to be inferior to these ‘stars’ – bullshit, They will not intimidate me into watching, no way Jose.