By Maura R. O'Connor
Sep 27, 2013
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.”
The actual process of mediation takes place, de Zengotita explains, when what is real is represented through any form of media (think of anything from a home video to a multimillion-dollar biopic). As representations grow in variety, sophistication, and intensity, they create what he calls a “psychic sauna” of experiences, sensations, and options that we glide over the surface of, like “a little god, dipping in here and there. . . .” In a mediated world, the flattered self is the center of the universe—the consumer, the viewer, the holder of the remote control—able to opt in or out whether it be in regard to a television set or reality itself. And indeed, technological advancements make it harder and harder to even tell the difference between the two. (Take a movie like Troy, where it's impossible to distinguish the real sets, which are themselves representations of the real city of Troy, from the computer-generated ones.) And as the flood of representation becomes faster, more sensational and ubiquitous, we rarely even make the time or effort to distinguish between what is real and what is synthetic, simulated, or replicated. Nowadays, as de Zengotita puts it, it's as if “the feel of the virtual is overflowing the screens, as if the plasma were spreading into the physical world.” Mediation, he argues, is leading to a fusion of the real and the representational.
Mediated's most significant contribution may be its insights into the existential price we pay as mediated people. De Zengotita writes that the “moreness of everything,” the sheer increase in the volume of media vying for one's attention, leads to adaptations in the psychic life of the human being. Because individuals can only register a certain amount of information in any given moment, the bombardment of media images gives rise to defense mechanisms such as apathy and indifference. Constant exposure to representations creates a “thinness to things, a smoothness, a muffled quality—it's all insulational, as if the deities of Dreamworks were laboring invisibly around us, touching up the canvas of reality with digital airbrushes. . . . Ever notice how,” de Zengotita asks, “when your hand is numb, everything feels thin? Even a solid block of wood lacks volume and texture. You don't feel the wood; your limb just encounters the interrupting object. Numb is to the soul as thin is to the field of representational surfaces.”
Another consequence of growing up in a world of mediation, of always feeding on the “irresistible flattery that goes with being incessantly addressed” by representations, is that one becomes spoiled. The flattered self, de Zengotita writes, “never gets enough. It feels unappreciated. It whines a lot. It wants attention.” In some of the most humorous yet tragic passages in the book, de Zengotita invokes the ethos of the flattered self to weigh in on the discussion. For instance, in a chapter entitled “Twilight of the Heroes in a Teenage World,” he writes, “Take the Big Thinkers. Plato? Augustine? Descartes? Kant? It suddenly hits you. The sheer brass of those guys, pontificating about the ultimate nature of reality and the proper purpose of our lives. I mean, who did they think they were? Don't get me wrong, it's fine to put them in books and teach courses about them and stuff, so long as it doesn't get out of hand, so long as they don't impose on the rest of us who are busy exploring our own options, choosing our own philosophies, our own lifestyles.”
De Zengotita files all the various phenomena and effects of mediation under what he calls “the Blob,” also the name of Steve McQueen's 1958 debut flick (obviously, de Zengotita is not beyond a little mediation himself). The Blob serves as his metaphor for postmodernism, a word that is infamously hard to define. “Anything more specific couldn't possibly do justice to the process of mediation,” he writes. “It proceeds so variously. It works on a case-by-case basis. It comes from all directions and no direction. Nothing is too great for its textured ministrations. Its elasticity is without limit, its osmotic processes calibrated to enfold the tiniest, most private gestures of your secret life and contain your sense of the universe and the meaning of love and death as well.”
There are times, de Zengotita admits, when something will threaten the Blob's supremacy—something that seems real enough, or “sharp enough, as if it might pierce the membrane and slice the pulp.” (Recent examples are 9/11 and the abuses at Abu Ghraib.) “But no,” he writes. “Watch as the media antibodies swarm to the scene of those nascent interruptions. These are the junctures that require the most coverage—and the latent meaning, the ironic dialectic implicit in that word, emerges. What must be covered is any event or person or deed that might challenge the Blob with something like a limit, something the Blob cannot absorb. . . .” To these challenges the Blob will “devote some extra time . . . but in the end it prevails. And how is the moment of its victory marked? By your indifference. That's the signal to move on, the signal for the Next Thing to appear. That's when the original of the real thing has been fully mediated. It becomes representational, and that means optional.”
If you're beginning to find this a tad depressing—it is. As you near the end of the book, having recognized that you are a perpetual motion machine of self-reflexivity and inauthenticity, that in fact we're all method actors coddled by a pervasive Blob of virtual reality, it is hard not to start feeling a little down. The soul-eroding powers of mediation begin to seem inescapable, and in the last chapters, just as you begin to pray for a way out, de Zengotita offers none. Instead, he makes the case that “bogus predictions and lame solutions” have become a genre requirement of social critiques everywhere. Every newspaper column, op-ed piece, book, or article includes a “technological fix.” But these fixes, he argues, aren't so much real solutions as they are aesthetic conventions allowing the reader to feel good and move on to the “Next Thing,” continuing the cycle of consumption. The truth, de Zengotita declares, is that our world is like a fishtailing car on a snowy road: “Things have been getting bigger and faster and more complicated so quickly, for so short a time—and most of what is now happening is happening for reasons no one can fathom. That's about all you can say. So far, we've survived.” He explains that he “hates to be a drag,” but maybe “prediction/solution conclusions persist because they are like that rising tide of music at the end of the movie, the surge of strings that elevates the camera as the expanding horizon shot opens up around the protagonists and gives you that tied-up-in-a-bow feeling to take home with you.”
Despite the truth of this argument, it's hard not to want a solution to mediation. We are living in a world on the brink of disaster on every level—environmental, political, humanitarian. Perhaps the worst effect of mediation, indeed the luxury of mediation for those of us who have the ability to author our own beings, is that it has become the insulation protecting us from the extremity of our privilege and narcissism in relationship to the rest of the world. Residing as we do in a “psychic sauna” of representations, we remain buffered from the reality of a planet in crisis.
With so much at stake, does de Zengotita really mean to say that it's impossible to transcend mediation? If the Blob's elasticity is without limit, does real authenticity no longer exist? Does he believe that we are inescapably condemned by the historical forces of postmodernism? As I pondered these questions, I felt a personal stake in the answers. Having been born into a mediated world, I'd like to think that I'm not forever doomed to feel “nostalgia for the real,” but that authenticity is attainable, that the further reaches of my soul don't always have to be, as de Zengotita writes, “on permanent remote.” Unable to find the answers in the pages of Mediated, however, I decided to consult the author himself.
“Hello, Mr. de Zengotita.”
“I want to start by saying that I found your book incredibly enlightening. You've perfectly articulated my experience of living in the postmodern world, in a culture of optionality and mediation. And I think that many people my age and older are going to feel the same way.”
“I hope so.” (Laughs)
“But I also don't know where it leaves someone like me. I got the sense from the book that once you're a mediated person, it's impossible not to be one; that it's inescapable. Do you think it would actually be impossible for me to transcend mediation?”
“Well, I know a few young people who are serious about this, struggling with this same question, and my gut tells me they've got a shot. And you're certainly one of them. I always have to say that one of the things about an authentic life, as far as I see it, is that the first step is understanding the condition. And mediated is a serious diagnosis. The real answer to your question is that this is a task for you. I will give you every hint and insight I can give, but you're the young people. I'm an old guy. This is up to you.”
“But it's devastating because the book exposes the truth so clearly, yet there's no path to the solution. I mean, once you understand the condition, how can you go beyond it?”
“You just have to not be afraid in this state. Everything significant that has ever come to me intellectually or spiritually has come from this devastated state. That's all you need; it's an openness. You can't be in an ordinary frame of mind because then, when answers come along, you won't even recognize them.”
“That's really interesting. It just struck me that this state of desperation that comes from recognizing the truth is itself a place of authenticity.”
“For sure, kid—I mean, that's what existentialism is all about! I made a conscious decision about the dark, hopeless quality in this book. Most people don't want to read something if they can't feel some bogus feeling of resolution at the end, and I decided that whatever else I was going to do, I wasn't going to do that. I chose a certain role, or voice, because I don't want to let you out of any trap. But that's the artistic design of the book, as opposed to my lifelong goal.”
“Which is what?”
“Anything I can contribute to getting us through this time we're in. Because we can't go back; we have to go through the state we're in to get to new forms of authenticity. That's why I put the burden on your shoulders, Maura. It's always the old guys who get to say gnomic things, but the young people have to do something. And I don't mind leaving you devastated; because I think that if you're the real deal, that's the way you need to be. That's when the next step will come to you.”