Managing Appearances

by John M. Phelan

John M. Phelan, Ph. D., is Founding Director of the McGannon Communication Research Center and Professor of Communications and Media Studies, Fordham University, New York City.  He came to Fordham as Chairman of the Communications Department to redesign the curriculum when Marshall McLuhan was Professor of Communications there.  He is a media reform activist who works with many public interest groups.  Phelan’s writings include: Communication Control (ed.)  New York: Sheed & Ward, 1969.  Readings on the structures and motives of censorship from psychoanalysis to Chinese thought reform to the First Amendment.

Mediaworld:  Programming the Public.  A Continuum Book.  New York: Seabury, 1977.  Essays about the effect of modernization and industrialization on politics, leisure, art and religion through the media.

Disenchantment: Meaning and Morality in the Media.  New York; Hastings House, 1980.  Essays on censorship, ethinic programming, pornography, popular religious practices, media criticism, effects research, ritual and transmission models of communication.

Commercial Television Campaigns and the Public Interest.  New York: McGannon Communication Research, 1991.  Monograph on the genesis and ethos of public service campaigns; principles and case studies.

The following is adapted from his Excursus of Apartheid Media, Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 1987.


The concern of public relations professionals, advertisers, and politicians with image and appearance as an instrument for persuading people about important matters in the real world of events and decisions is matched by the growing scholarly and intellectual interest in signs and symbols as makers, not merely conveyers, of the world we live in.


The concern of public relations professionals, advertisers, and politicians with image and appearance as an instrument for persuading people about important matters in the real world of events and decisions is matched by the growing scholarly and intellectual interest in signs and symbols as makers, not merely conveyers, of the world we live in.

Appearances now carry a burden perhaps too great.

For instance, before the diversity and division of the modern world, with its intimate mixture of silent strangers, the language of clothing, "the dress code," consisted mostly of nods of agreement or reminders of the familiar. But now individuals sail the high seas, as it were, of a fluid intercultural world and, like ships, must bristle with flags of intention and explanation. Like marriage and money, fashion is being stretched to cover a field of duties and difficulties hitherto borne comfortably by broader institutions in more confident cultures.

Balzac saw fashion as a language, but it now takes a Barthes or an Eco to decipher the intricate uniforms fashion designers have provided for the lost middle classes of the advanced nations : cowboy, tycoon, traditionalist with liberal views, teenage tough, honest laborer, jovial professor, aesthete, and on and on. Those charming nursery books of yesteryear that showed children the stereotypical garb of firemen, nurses, ballet dancers, and policemen no longer can comfort children or adults with the clear categories of an imaginable future. For one thing, job uniforms have been replaced by designer adaptations, often to accommodate the degenderizing of crafts and professions: the fireman is now the sexually ambiguous firefighter, the nurse may well be a man, and so forth. For another thing, the bewildering cosmopolitan menu of affiliations and occupations would exhaust any schoolbook effort toward the reassuringly straightforward.

Over a generation ago, John Kenneth Galbraith under the pseudonym of Mark Epernay poked fun at the solemn triviality of social scientists with his mythical Sociometric Institute. The Institute assuaged the agonies of hostesses and diplomats by assigning a numerically determined prestige horizon to various individuals that permitted secure ranking at the most diverse gatherings. At last, ferryboat captains would know how to address morticians and ancestral dukes could be seated on the proper side of film stars. I recall trotting out this elaborate academic joke in the early seventies only to have it received gratefully as a needed service. What was the phone number of the Institute?

This not really ridiculous earnestness carried for me a further signal. Not only are we at sea in trying to establish the pecking order for others; we are equally, perhaps especially, confused about our own position. In a secular society in which there is no vertical relationship to some ultimately clarifying, and thus comforting, transcendent standard, one's "position" on the horizontal plane of the social order is also one's meaning, one's very self.

Originally, "Style is the man," was a corrective cliche for "Clothes make the man." Unlike the instant attractiveness a good wardrobe might provide, true "style" was the outer result of an inward force, an expression of character. Now character is a not very compelling inference one might or might not draw from observable characteristics. The glass of fashion is truly become the mold of inner form.

The world may always have been a stage, but now set designers and special effects technicians get top billing.

Fashion has thus assumed in the total world the central significance it once had at Versailles: the art of managing appearances with a view to controlling actions. It amounts in fact to a socio-philosophical revolution that has literally turned our view of reality inside out.

Aristotle, the scholastics, and Kant converted Plato's idea to inner substance and then into the secret noumenon, the inner heart which can only offer clues of its nature to the groping senses of inquirers who are by definition permanent outsiders. This professional thought confirmed common sense. Language discounts the surfaces of things as "superficial" and "skin-deep."

But now our wafer-thin technologies with their remarkable power to simulate life's every sight and sound are eroding this once entrenched human attitude.

Freud's serious concern with the trivial actions of everyday life, the superficial, as keys to character is an early sign of this shift. He saw slips of the tongue, stumbles of the foot, harsh words blurted out in rage as no mere chinks in social armor but as enactments of the real self. The face, surely, tells us more than the heart ever could, had we chests of glass.

It may thus be that Castro's battle fatigues, Reagan's World War II bomber jacket and cowboy boots, and the operatic uniforms favored by Latin American dictators tell us more about each man's political views than any number of speeches. It may be that visual media in so relentlessly focusing on "personality" are giving us truer pictures of candidates for office than they would if they focused on alleged "issues." Coverage of "personality" is reporting on what politicians wear and do, whom they socialize with, what their hobbies and little pet hates are - the superficial. Those very things, in short, that Freud (and every parent) sees as the key to character. When real issues are extremely complex and all political decisions are of necessity compromises to be executed by a technological elite that forms the permanent government, then surely character is of greater importance than position papers written by hired "information specialists."

Ronald Reagan's little joke about bombing Russia, slipped out through an inadvertently open mike, surely tells us more than White House press releases about the significance of "Star Wars."

In the disturbing investigations and speculations of Julian Jaynes, language preceded self-conscious thought in human evolution. Acknowledged intentions, plots, plans, the entire human project - all are based on the technology of language.* The inside came from the outside. Life imitates art, as we increasingly see in our crafted mediaworld of images and symbolic gestures.

Seen from the perspective of these reflections, the sanctions/disinvestment campaign can be viewed as not only a wise, but as an inevitable strategy to overthrow Pretoria. To my mind, it is the threat of sanctions and disinvestment, not the actions themselves, that are effective.


*Jaynes, Julian. The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1976.