The human capacity to take perspectives other than the one that is currently streaming in via our senses is among the defining characteristics of our mentality and our social life. We adopt alternative perspectives continuously as we interact with one another, and we have also developed this capacity into a range of specialized practices that we label with terms like “art,” “religion,” and “play,” All human societies have mimetic forms through which they imagine and create alternative worlds .
In contemporary society, enormous resources have been harnessed to sustain a mimetic tradition that I call “romantic realism.” The term refers to the tremendous variety of images of perfection that saturate our cultural environment. Television programs, airbrushed photographs, theme parks, romance novels, the list of examples is virtually endless. All of these depict some part of mundane life—they are realistic—and all of them are also more meaningful and appealing than mundane life–they are romantic.
One of the most important examples of romantic realism is much advertising, in which we observe a world which looks a lot like our own world but is somehow better. For example, we are familiar with the concept of friends gathering to eat at a restaurant, but a TV ad depicting such an event is likely to feature spectacular looking people eating spectacular looking food and having more fun than us mortals ever get to have.
I classify romantic realism as a form of entertainment because it follows the same basic pattern as, say, a television drama: We are presented with a fantasy that is similar to everyday life, but with all the boredom edited out and everything that stimulates us (attractive people, suspense, violence, music…) turned way up. Once you start looking for it, romantic realism is everywhere.
Think for example about all the attention our society lavishes on celebrities—romantically realistic people. Even much of our food could be considered a form of romantic realism, in that it is designed to maximize arousal through precisely the right blend of salt, sugar and fat. Or consider what may be the original form of romantic realism—romance itself, the idea that an ideal sexual partner should allow one to transcend all the challenges of long-term relationships.
It is not difficult to understand the proliferation of romantic realism. It is fun to become immersed in a highly stimulating experience, and so people are often willing to pay for that experience. It also didn’t take long to figure out that romantic realism could be used to create an association of fun or desirability with something beyond the experience itself—an extraordinarily effective form of advertising.
But I am particularly interested in the overall effect of observing perhaps hundreds of such images every day. This encourages the notion that there really is a much more satisfying life out there if you could just go to the right restaurants, drive the right car, get the right stuff. That is, it is not only that romantic realism creates desirable products (an adventure movie) or can be used to imply that some other product is desirable. It is also that romantic realism cultivates a general orientation that inclines people to consume, because they begin to believe that the path to fulfillment is through finding the world of romantic realism.
I cannot resist commenting on the similarity of these practices to religious depictions of paradise. However, romantic realism has some spectacular advantages over the promises of a religious outlook. First, the religious leader must encourage faith, because he or she cannot actually show the believer the coming paradise. This creates a challenge of timing—just when will paradise be realized? A very widespread technique, of course, is to link heaven to the transition that occurs at the end of life. But that could be a long wait.
Romantic realism so thoroughly conquers the faith problem that it evaporates. The images of perfection are so ubiquitous and convincing that it becomes virtually impossible to sustain one’s awareness that they are fantasies. Much of romantic realism comes to be accepted as reality. My life really will be transformed when I get a new car, celebrities really are different and fascinating, I know that a life with Mary would be uninterrupted bliss…
This has an important “quality of life implication.” Namely, life as it really exists can come to seem pale, even empty. Complete satisfaction, after all, is just ahead, that’s where we must be oriented. The problem is that this satisfaction always remains just ahead.
• Closely examine some form of romantic realism such as a TV ad or a mail-order catalogue entry. What techniques are being used to create an image that is at once close to our world yet better than everyday experience?
• Locate more areas of contemporary life that share the features of romantic realism. (Some versions of self-help literature or of what we call “the news,” “makeovers,” “reality TV”…) Does everyone agree that these are examples of romantic realism? What do these genres of romantic realism promote?
• Can you provide examples, from your own life or from the lives of people you know, of falling into fantasies of perfection provoked by romantic realism?
• If romantic realism is like religion in that it offers a vision of paradise, how is it unlike religion? Compare these two ways of conceiving utopia, what are their relative advantages and disadvantages?
• Do you agree that romantic realism tends to create a mood of pervasive dissatisfaction? Should this be considered a serious social problem? What are its effects?