I get most of my book recommendations from Amazon’s Customers Who Viewed This Item Also Bought … feature. Surprisingly, that’s not a bad way to go about it. I don’t know much about the programming or algorithms that Amazon must use to accomplish it, but so far they’ve proven mightily accurate indeed.
Back in October, Customers Who Viewed This Item Also Bought … pointed me to this book:
As interested as I am in media and cultural studies, I was hesitant. At first glance it appeared to be more of a polemic against contemporary digital culture and the age of selfishness and self-absorption (yawn).
While there are some choice comments about self-absorption, what it’s actually about is the phenomenon of ubiquitous, unrelenting representation, and how it affects us.
Zoom in on that cover, if you can. If not on the picture here, then take a close look at the Amazon link. Two people are sitting on a cough, watching TV … watching themselves watch TV. This is what “representation” means. We are constantly surrounded by not just a world, but a world represented: TV, movies, commercials, advertising, and so on that offers us ways of seeing the world, perhaps even to the exclusion of seeing the world itself (and now, as academics, we question whether there really is a world “itself,” accessible without layer upon layer of representation).
De Zengotita opens by discussing the “where I was when the Event happened” story:
Ask yourself this: did members of the Greatest Generation spend a lot of time talking about where they were and what they did and how they felt when they first heard the news from Pearl Harbor? … Did everyone feel compelled to craft a little narrative, starring me, an oft-repeated and inevitably embellished story-for-the-ages reporting on my personal experience of the Event?
No, he says. Oh, there were people who were
physically at Pearl Harbor on the Day of Infamy [who] did have stories of their personal experiences, and told them to each other, to reporters, in letters home … Such stories are primal and anthropologically grounded. But people who just heard about Pearl Harbor on the radio and read about it in the papers didn’t feel inclined to tell those stories because it didn’t feel as if it had happened to them, personally, at all.
It would be easy, in a TV-evangelist kind of way (and how we’ll get to that!), to then “rest your case” about the selfishness and narcissism of our generation, etc etc. But de Zengotita avoids the obvious conclusion – and the also obvious rejoinder that nothing is new under the sun, etc etc – and looks to what might be the cause. The change came, he says, with television. Starting with shows like You Are There and the live coverage of the Kennedy assassination, media began to present us with a sort of God’s-eye view of events – and of Events:
And that’s why people spontaneously told their stories about the Kennedy assassination, no matter where they were physically when it happened. They saw and heard it all unfold, not just on TV, of course … but TV was central … Reams of coverage, endless coverage, amazing coverage—in a way more compelling than if you had been there physically, because virtually you were there from so many different perspectives. You weren’t in one spot, the way you would have been if you were physically there, squashed behind a fat lady, looking in your purse for your sunglasses when the shots went off—you thought they were fireworks at first, until you heard the screaming. No, not like that: you were not there in one humble and limited spot; you were everywhere there, because that amazing coverage put you everywhere there, and more or less simultaneously to boot.
Thus, he says, we are all performers – all Method actors, all engaging in that most ironic of acting techniques in which you try to access your “real” or “inner” self to create the best performance of emotion. (Performance doesn’t necessarily imply insincerity, he points out. But the importance of performance means that we are all hyper-aware of how we appear to others, self-conscious to an alarming degree, engaging in endless reflexivity, seeing ourselves as things to be seen.)
As I read through the book, I keep noticing things I say and do in everyday life that are wrapped in layers of mediation.
Do you say things like “I don’t want to be That Guy”? I do, all the time. That’s a very mediated thing to say; we are relating to ourselves by way of others’ perceptions of us.
And whenever we tell a child to “be yourself.”
Isn’t that a strange thing to feel is important to convey, when you stop to think about it?
I’m planning to continue, in a series of posts, exploring the ideas in Mediated. I have some special interest in advertising as mediation, and the ways Christianity is mediated (only in media-saturated cultures, obviously), and I am going to try to tie some different ideas together as I work my way through the book.