Shades of Borges’ Map

Am I the only one who has found the ever-present backdrops that Bush administration officials speak in front of a tad Orwellian? With rubrics like “Defending Our Homeland” printed a thousand times, they seem to be designed to ensure that even citizens who watch the evening news with their TVs on mute get the not-so-subtle message that Bush is in charge and on target. But this week the backdrops became both more sinister and more hilarious. It was revealed by numerous outlets including the AP and the Seattle PI (with a much cheekier article) that the “Strengthening America’s Economy” backdrop was a creepily perfect simulacrum of the actual warehouse scene it covered, down to shelves and stacks of boxes in jaunty array. Except, of course, that the backdrop boxes read “Made in America,” while the actual, hidden boxes all read “Made in China.”

Anytime I read about an actual-size replica of a thing covering the thing itself, I can’t escape comparisons to Borges’ Map, “so detailed that it ends up covering exactly covering the territory.” Inevitably, it is the map, and not the true territory, the people come to love and trust– the simulacrum instead of the true thing. When the map decays, they miss it and feel “lost,” even in the presence of the land itself. You can be certain that if the Washington spin machine stopped for even a day creating its confectionary cover of actual events, we would all be alarmed by the strange country lurking underneath.

But my ur-text for political image manipulation has to be the passage from an essay in The White Album where Joan Didion visits Nancy Reagan in the California Governor’s Mansion on a day when she is accompanied through her daily activities by a TV crew. As an eloquent Geocitiesjournaller recounts:

As Didion records it in her essay, the newsmen tell Mrs. Reagan to go about her normal activities. But might not one of these normal activities be picking flowers, one of them suggests? Yes, Mrs. Reagan affirms. Perhaps a rose, another newsman suggests? At this point, Mrs. Reagan seems to be aware that reality (her public persona) is being constructed because she says she could pick the rose, but she would be more likely to use a rhododendron. Just as the reader sighs in relief that at least there are limits to how much historical fiction a person will participate in, the following happens:

‘Fine,’ the newsman said. ‘Just fine. Now I’ll ask a question, and if you could just be nipping a bud as you answer it…’
‘Nipping a bud,’ Nancy Reagan repeated, taking her place in front of the rhododendron bush.
‘Let’s have a dry run,’ the cameraman said.
The newsman looked at him. ‘In other words, by a dry run, you mean you want her to fake nipping the bud.’
‘Fake the nip, yeah,’ the cameraman said. ‘Fake the nip.’ ( White Album 91)

Of course, we now know it is endlessly naive to imagine any limits to how much historical fiction political figures will generate around themselves. If we are good capitalists, we must believe that there must be voracious demand balancing this endless supply of carefully crafted unreality. And that is a depressing thought indeed.

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