Sunday, July 17, 2005

Stop Worrying and Love the Blob
I have never really understood the phenomenon of people who are enjoying some sumptuous dessert saying, "I can't have any more, it's too rich." Until now.

I've finally finished Mediated: How the Media Shapes Your World and the Way You Live in It by Thomas de Zengotita, and it took me longer than it might normally have because I frequently found myself stopping, saying to myself, "I can't have any more, it's too rich." Mediated is the kind of book best read when The Mrs. is out of the house, because I found myself wanting to read great chunks of it to her aloud.

De Zengotita's premise is twofold (and I will probably distort it severely in summarizing it): First, that modern life is so drenched in media that absolutely everything that humans experience, individually and as a group, is eventually subsumed in the media torrent and spit back at us like a packaged commodity we can choose to buy or not, a phenomenon he calls the Blob. When we shop this vast parade of options, depth becomes an enemy--there's no time for it. Instead, everything we experience is surfaces without edges. And this leads to the second part of the premise: That because absolutely every experience human beings can have can be reflected back at us somewhere in some sort of media representation, we no longer really live our lives independently. Instead, we perform our lives, like method actors--we shop from an endless supply of guises to create a person known as "me." All of the representations out there are aimed at us individually, and so we come to have what de Zengotita calls a "flattered self." The world really is made for each of us alone, sitting in front of our TVs or computer screens or plugged into our iPods. De Zengotita is a good-enough writer to make this and all of the accompanying groundwork for it seem so obvious that you can find yourself wondering why you didn't think of it yourself.

One of the book's biggest "why didn't I think of that" moments came for me in the chapter on politics. De Zengotita explains George W. Bush in terms of an action/adventure hero. There's the moment early in every Steven Seagal movie, for example, where Seagal is playing catch with his son or hugging his wife, a scene intended to set up the vengeance fantasy later in the film, after the evildoers kill the son or kidnap the wife. In our post-9/11 world, it's left to Bush to play the Seagal role, which accounts for the "bring it on" swagger and his other Texas county sheriff-isms--it's all part of the role. But it's de Zengotita's comment on Bush's most adoring audience that captured my attention:
Above all they don't think about what they really mean by highly charged phrases that cement their political identifications, that make their hearts beat as one with their leader's. When they talk of love of country and pride in being American, what happens is that very rich and deep and, above all, specific feelings for family and friends and neighborhoods, for places they vacationed as children and hung out as teenagers, places where they courted their wives and husbands, places where they lost them, too, all the places they belong to--the particular smell of a school hallway, the mood of an empty intersection at the center of town, when you stop at the traffic light, just before dawn--a host of genuine attachments like that get projected onto the giant geopolitical categories presented to them in the media. The striking symbols and stirring anthems, images of people-like-us suffering, images of people-like-them enraged, on and on, until you can no longer distinguish between what you identify with directly and caricatures of that larger reality that concerns the Leaders of Big Entities to whom the media attends.
In other words, hate my country (in whatever way I as an individual define "my country," and if my definition doesn't match yours, that's your problem and not mine, especially if it allows me to hate you with as much venom and justification as I hate foreign enemies) and you hate my grandmother and the '74 Dodge Dart I used to own, and nobody messes with my family. On one hand, patriotism is probably at its most honest when it's expressed in terms of the things we value the most. On the other, however, you can't think rationally about, say, geopolitics in a complex world if all you can see is people who have some kind of grudge against you personally. There's no distance.

(Although, as de Zengotita argues elsewhere, we've got nothing but distance in our lives now--ironic distance. See what I mean about my risk of distorting his ideas?)

De Zengotita explains why people like their busy, overscheduled lives, why politics has turned into advertising, why the words "like" and "whatever" punctuate our speech the way they do, and much else about the way we live now. You really need to read it. But not all at once.

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