When one of my kids began obsessing about getting herself a navel ring, it was about the same time I’d begun to read “Mediated.” I found the first hour of the book highly frustrating. Its premise, that we are what the media have taught us to be, was making me angry.
Thomas de Zengotita, a contributing editor at Harper’s magazine, a PhD in anthropology and a teacher at New York University, immediately lays out his doctrine and turns it into a polemic by employing Princess Di. He tells us that her mourners were not exactly involved in an outpouring of spontaneous, real emotion. They were, he says, a “mediated” lot. They were acting the way they’d been queued to act from years of watching people respond to the deaths of major figures or even minor ones on TV, in the movies, on the pages of glossy magazines, anywhere where someone with a message has the means to reach large segments of society or even specific niches.
These Princess Di mourners were representing—representing is a word de Zengotita uses a lot to show that things are not always simply real—what they believed grief was, or thought that it should be. They were part of an international wave of sadness that had a certain dynamic because everyone had been—mediated.
De Zengotita ends up having Princess Di’s mourners be representative and real—a nice finesse that, later in the book, fits under his definition of The Blob in American society: our constant need to see so many sides of things, we end up manipulating their real purpose or meaning. After laying out his mediation thesis, de Zengotita Blobs himself by telling us that the mourners “were truly grieving and they were performing. [Italics his.] Immersed in a world continuously represented from every angle, they understood Di’s death as an opportunity to play a significant role in it, to represent themselves at levels of prominence usually reserved for the celebrated.”
I began to take exception to this idea instantly. Was I not honestly grieving for John F. Kennedy as a shocked 10th-grader, or later for Martin Luther King, Jr. or Robert Kennedy? When the terrible time came, for my own parents? Had I filled my psyche with what I thought grieving should be and acted simply on that belief? I think not.
Well, whatever I was thinking, I didn’t think for long, because my 14-year-old interrupted me with another argument for her most passionate desire. This was her umpteenth plea for a piercing. The entreaties had begun weeks earlier, when she hit me and my wife, head-on, with tongue-piercing (and headsplitting) arguments. These were complete with Internet documentation, all representing one side. We were steadfast. No tongue pierces. She turned her attention to navel rings. We figured that we could hold her at bay until she worked her way fully south, and demanded an ankle bracelet. Then we’d give in.
I thought a lot about de Zengotita. Where did this piercing stuff come from? It certainly wasn’t reflected in some value I was preaching: “Sweetie, you’re going into high school now, so it’s time to start seriously thinking about the grades you earn and the upcoming SAT’s, about a solid and fulfilling career, about a college that will nurture and energize you, and about piercing your tongue.”
No, it wasn’t from me. The preaching was being done all around me. It was on MTV, in teen and celebrity magazines; it was on the silver screen and her computer screen. It was all around the house, too, with several of her older sister’s friends, who teethed their piercings as they sat in front of our large-screen television (hah!), fully unaware of their constant little oral dance. Perhaps de Zengotita had something.
Living Through Media
There is nothing really new in all this. Through the ages the media in any form would in some way inspire people, or try to move them to action; the Bible, the Koran, the I Ching are three examples. And we could fill the next dozen issues of this journal with more names of books and article headlines and broadcast titles and ad campaigns, down through time, which would be a cheap way to stop Nieman Reports itself from inspiring you, or trying to. What is new, though, is the thought process, refreshing tone and cadence that de Zengotita uses to make us all feel as if our very beings are enslaved by the messages as well as the messengers.
De Zengotita’s book is smart, often hilarious, frequently infuriating, and full of little ideas that zoom around you, seemingly coming from nowhere—light bulbs flashing from a page. It is compelling social commentary; you might agree with it one minute, then shake your head against it the next, as you turn the page. I began laughing out loud somewhere in the second chapter, when I realized that de Zengotita was putting me on at the same time he was making serious points.
He is an uninhibited writer, tossing out thoughts in the same wild beat as perennial Broadway borscht-belter Jackie Mason. If you’ve ever seen Mason, a living bobblehead on stage, you know what I mean: there’s a WIZ-a-wiz-a, WIZ-a-wiz-a rhythm to the delivery of his ideas, and it catches you, making it hard to release yourself from its thrall. De Zengotita achieves the equivalent, in print. In one spin of the cycle, his thoughts are crystalline, in another, his prose is so banal you can’t help but howl. In another, a thought from left field strikes you as being worth an entire chapter. In another, his mastery of academic nonsense language leaves you breathless.
He tells us we surf everything in life, concentrating on little. The Blob, a powerful defense mechanism that ameliorates everything, sublimates our courage by making us indifferent. We are nostalgic for things we never experienced, because we live virtually. We can’t have real heroes because they eat into our fattened notion of ourselves. We are so deeply into self-help we’ve forgotten the self and possibly why we help it. Our genetic engineering is nothing more than “self-help on a Divine scale.”
He uses, as examples to bolster his points about the influences upon us, everything from the power of popular music to Mister Rogers, from “Goodnight Moon” to stress, from Bill Clinton’s lies and George Bush’s performances and self-flattery and being possessed to a beautiful little riff on keys and the singularity of objects. (See the end of Chapter 5, as de Zengotita would write throughout the book. He overuses all manner of cross-references to mock academic, or mediated, or representational writing.)
De Zengotita comments, through it all, on the roles that journalism plays in our current behavior. We are “systematically conditioned by the media” to avoid anything we cannot understand in a minute. We buy into hype: “Who cares how much the woman on ‘Fear Factor’ is exaggerating her trepidation—she is eating a mouthful of live worms.” Crisis and scandal allow politics to compete with sports and entertainment because “only then are politicians genuine postmodern performers, being in the moment, packaged and real.”
He ends his book by looking at the influences on the way we perceive—and he, in particular, has reacted to—terror. I will treat this as a theater critic treats a denouement and tell you nothing about it, so as not to ruin the experience. This is only right, because there is a theatricality to “Mediated” that is obvious. Every worthwhile piece of theater has a right to play out its story without someone like me mediating.
Howard Shapiro, a 1981 Nieman Fellow, is a travel writer and columnist, and a theater reviewer, on the staff of The Philadelphia Inquirer. His younger daughter now wears a shiny navel ring.