By Indy Media
Feb 7, 2008
Not just a book review
of Thomas de Zengotita's Mediated
by Maura R. O'Connor
From a very young age, I remember being asked what I wanted to be when I grew up. Always eager to give an answer, I framed my ambitions around the books and movies I loved so much, conjuring up fantastic scenarios in my head and spinning them far into the future. I envisioned myself skipping over waves on a boat with the spray of the ocean on my face as a compassionate marine biologist or making an incision in someone's brain tissue as an accomplished neurosurgeon. Among many other ambitions eventually discarded, I wanted to be a fashion designer following in the footsteps of great artists like John Galliano, and even, bizarrely, a humble carpenter. Okay, I was fanciful, but the reality is that as a young American, any one of these options could have been mine if I had wanted it badly enough.
Options. What parents wouldn't want their children to have them? “You can be anything you want,” my schoolteachers told me. “An astronaut, or the first female President of the United States!” And it was (in theory) the truth. Whether we knew it or not, my generation grew up assuming that endless options and possibilities were our birthright. The sense of freedom and entitlement this gave us would have been incomprehensible to past generations. Having reaped the benefits of the struggle for equal opportunity beyond class, gender, race, or sexuality that defined our parents' generation, we were born with an extraordinary privilege: to be the authors of our own destinies, largely freed from past societal norms or traditional forms of morality.
It's no wonder that, like many of my peers, I spent my teenage years transitioning from one subcultural identity to another. Much of the time, I felt unmoored, not really knowing who I was, and so I surfed the options available to me with great fervor. Collegiate indie-rocking brainiac? Nothing stopping me. Bisexual GLAAD activist? Sure, why not. Punk rocker? I tried. Identity crises during college were regular extracurricular activities as we all self-consciously browsed through our optional selves. In fact, self-invention was like a full-time vocation in and of itself, what with all the research and execution that had to be done. But looking back, what strikes me the most is just how early on I became aware that my identity was in my own hands, to be molded and tailored according to my deepest desires—or my fleeting whims. At some point I switched from just experiencing life to seeing life experiences as accessories that would aid in the construction of Me. The music I listened to, the books on my shelves, and my dreams and ambitions—not to mention the interesting combinations of and ironic contradictions between all these things—were like mirrors, reflecting myriad identities back to me.
There's a kind of tragedy in all of this. What my peers and I sought was a lack of pretension, a sense of genuineness, but it consistently eluded us. Unable to find the authenticity we were looking for, we eventually grew cynical and assumed our postures toward life with less and less sincerity. Overwhelmed by more and more options, some of us just opted out.
I experienced a revelation in regard to these matters when I received a manuscript from respected writer Thomas de Zengotita of his new book Mediated: How the Media Shapes Your World and the Way You Live in It. Having interviewed Zengotita previously, I was familiar with his ideas. And yet little could have prepared me for what I would find in the pages of his latest work. I discovered that terms and concepts actually exist to describe the experience of growing up in the postmodern era. I discovered that we are living in a mediated world, and I am a mediated girl.
The central focus of Thomas de Zengotita's Mediated (Bloomsbury, 2005) is “how the media affects your life and the way you live in it.” De Zengotita's work follows in a short but rich tradition of media studies that began with pioneer Marshall McLuhan (1911–1980), often referred to as the “prophet of the digital age.” McLuhan once said, “When things come at you very fast, naturally you lose touch with yourself. Anybody moving into a new world loses identity.” It was in his first book, The Mechanical Bride (1951), that McLuhan began to chart this “new world,” recognizing that it was being shaped and created by the forces of swift technological advancement and the rapid spread of new media among widespread populations of people. He believed electronic media were literal “extensions of man,” expansions of the individual's nervous system and self-identity that fundamentally changed his or her relationship to the world, and in turn, changed the world itself.
McLuhan also had a vision of a future “global village” (he coined the term) in which there would be no “cardinal center, just many centers floating in a cosmic system which honors only diversity”—a metaphor for the harmonious existence of fully autonomous individuals. Today, we do inhabit a global village, but the utopian promise implicit in McLuhan's vision is far from realized. Indeed, over the last fifty years, our society has become increasingly focused on the individual. This phenomenon was explored by Christopher Lasch in his seminal book The Culture of Narcissism (1979), in which he identified the archetype of the postmodern individual as one who “carried the logic of individualism . . . and the pursuit of happiness to the dead end of a narcissistic preoccupation with the self.” In addition to Lasch's and McLuhan's work, books such as Jean Baudrillard's The Consumer Society (1970), Umberto Eco's Travels in Hyperreality (1983), and Jean Francois Lyotard's The Postmodern Condition (1984), made landmark explorations into the social developments of the late twentieth century—a time in which media technology and a high degree of individualism were influencing one another in radically new ways, and at lightning-fast speeds.
Thomas de Zengotita picks up where these authors left off, synthesizing their work to expose the gestalt of postmodernism in an unusually accessible way. Mediated portrays the technologically advanced, media-saturated West as a world composed of millions of individual “flattered selves,” each living in its own insulated “MeWorld.” De Zengotita believes that this narcissism on an epic scale has been engendered and is constantly being nourished by media representations in all areas of our lives, from the most private (videos of one's wedding, photographs of loved ones) to the most public (subway advertisements, television). “Our minds are, as a matter of sheer quantitative fact, stocked with mediated entities,” he writes. “Ask yourself: is there anything you do that remains essentially unmediated, anything you don't experience reflexively through some commodified representation of it? Birth? Marriage? Illness? Think of all the movies and memoirs, philosophies and techniques, self-help books, counselors, programs, presentations, workshops . . . and the fashionable vocabularies generated by those venues, think of how all this conditions your experience.”
Driven to unprecedented heights of self-consciousness, the postmodern individual's quality of being, according to de Zengotita, is that of a method actor. In a culture saturated with media performances, one's life is informed by representations of “life,” thereby becoming a subtly self-conscious performance. To illustrate this point, de Zengotita uses the image of athletes celebrating a victory on television:
There's that same element, that same quality in the way those exhilarated men position themselves in front of each other, or the larger audience and the cameras, beefy faces alight with a peculiar blend of exultation and hostility, tendons bulging in their necks, fists pounding the air or curled tight upward at the ends of crook-dangling arms, bodies thrust forward as if to bulldoze past all compromise, apparently frenzied, apparently berserk, bellowing in tones suggestive of profound vindication, bellowing “Yeaauh! Yeaauh! Yeaauh!” And each “Yeaauh” lifts above the preceding one, as if to reinforce it, but also to comment on it, even to parody it, and suddenly you realize, looking into their eyes, beaming out at friends and neighbors in the stands, you realize that this is also a performance, and a contest, a folk art—and oh-so-self-conscious after all.
We have become, he says, “celebrities all, celebrities at last”—the knowing stars in the self-directed movies of our lives.
De Zengotita writes with an easy brilliance, bringing both a sharp wit and an impressive depth to his critiques. For the past six years, he has been a contributor to Harper's magazine, writing feature articles that delve into pop culture with the sort of intellectual rigor usually reserved for the lecture halls of academia. (He has, in fact, taught philosophy at New York University's Draper Program for nearly a decade.) His style has always been to use the language and metaphor, the humor and spirit of contemporary culture as a kind of Trojan horse for his philosophical ideas, and this new book is no exception. Mediated explores both the truisms and the subtle idiosyncrasies of our postmodern age, waltzing from seemingly disparate topics like children's literature, society's loss of heroes, Bill Clinton, the epistemology of the word “whatever,” blogs, middle school, cloning, and the Weather Channel to Nietzsche, John Locke, and Plato. Most readers will undoubtedly recognize some aspect of themselves in nearly every page, and it can be an alternately enlightening and terrifying reflection. Indeed, at one stage of the writing process, in defiance of the growing market for self-help literature, de Zengotita considered using this cover blurb for Mediated: “If you're looking for a book to make you feel good about yourself, and show you how you can feel even better about yourself, this isn't it.” Read the rest of this article here