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Reviews

Mediated: How the Media Shapes Your World and the Way You Live in It by Thomas de Zengotita

Scott Esposito

Postmodernism is an amoeba-like 'blob' that amalgamates cultural and demographic differences together into a pureed mush, and that we are now all method actors busy with the task of performing the identities we have determined to be our own.


Mediated

Publisher: Bloomsbury
Length: 291
Subtitle: How the Media Shapes Your World and the Way You Live in It
Price: $22.95
Author: Thomas de Zengotita
US publication date: 2005-03
Amazon

Historical epochs are notoriously difficult to recognize and define while they are in progress. Take the Industrial Revolution. While it was occurring, no one stopped to think, "The widespread use of industrial machinery is creating entirely new notions of time and distance and forging new political economies." Quite the contrary; most people were unaware of the magnitude of what they were living through and those that did realize it only did so in a very limited way.

So it is with our own epoch, postmodernism, which has been around roughly since the 1970s. (Notice how we understand it so poorly that we can only name it as "that which comes after modernism.") We've spared no effort trying to understand it, what with pronouncements about the logic of late capital (whatever that means), the End of History, and the New Economy, but we're still at a loss for a good name, much less a concise, coherent explanation.

Thomas de Zengotita's Mediated is a worthy addition to our ongoing struggle to understand postmodernism. The first four chapters are by far the most interesting and thought provoking; in these de Zengotita explains his main insight: that postmodern culture is all about us. The author argues that we're surrounded by a "flattering field of represented options". In other words, a web of preferences that both vies for our attention through shameless flattery and offers us the opportunity to construct identities based on what we buy. This ties in to de Zengotita's other themes: that postmodernism is an amoeba-like "blob" that amalgamates cultural and demographic differences together into a pureed mush, and that we are now all method actors busy with the task of performing the identities we have determined to be our own. The author then applies these insights to everything from Harry Potter to Bill Clinton's penis.

The book is written entirely in the second person, probably because, as de Zengotita reminds us time and time again, postmodern culture is all about you. This conversational style is well-suited to a book that says teenagers are as essential to postmodernism as the middle class was to the Industrial Revolution.

Although Mediated confidently places pop culture squarely at the center of analysis, de Zengotita doesn't sound ridiculous, like some unbearably unhip father trying to talk video games with his son. For example, few theorists could pull off the following analysis of the word "like" as spoken by adolescent girls nearly as well as de Zengotita does:

Each "like" is followed by a fleeting pose, held for just an instant -- the whole performance is a string of "takes" -- and the ends of key phrases curl up into questions, seeking audience indications that the visuals have been received: a silent and subliminal call-and-response sort of thing, and woe betide the clunky wannabe who can't follow the nuances, who can't improvise a version of her own... Among such girls, the interrogatory incantation takes on a tentative tone, a tone that reaches perpetually for reassurance... (85)

It's almost like watching Jerry Seinfeld do his "you ever notice how" shtick except that instead of going for a few cheap laughs de Zengotita is dissecting our world via pop culture. This style makes for a breezy, entertaining read, even as de Zengotita tosses out ungainly concepts. It also sometimes leads to odd koan-like sayings such as: "Deconstruction was the academic equivalent of shopping." Part of the book's fun is that the reader may choose to entirely gloss over that or attempt to tease out exactly what it means.

For the most part, de Zengotita's logic is sound and satisfying. One of the few flaws comes when the author asks himself, "hasn't it always been true that people were concerned with creating their personalities through consumption?" The author's response is: "Yes, but it's so much more so now that it's like saying a hurricane is just a bunch of wind." This answer only sounds partly convincing, as though de Zengotita is on the right track but has not yet nailed down the appropriate response.

The other weak point in de Zengotita's argument is his scanty treatment of hip-hop, which deserves more space in Mediated because it is not only the most popular form of pop music in America, setting several trends of its own and influencing movies, television, and advertising, but also a quintessentially postmodern art. It combines de Zengotita's representations (samples of memorable segments from earlier songs) with the self-flattery that de Zengotita says is an essential aspect of our world (emcees do nothing so much as talk about themselves). A popular postmodern art form that has existed for over 30 years and has become deeply involved with commerce and politics should have been given more than the few pages it gets in Mediated.

There's also a question that de Zengotita raises but never answers: What's so great about reality anyway? Why is a mediated world worth refuting? The author's best answer is that it just feels wrong. Most of us would agree -- something just feels wrong about living your entire life via the Internet -- but no one seems to be able to say exactly what. Hence the question, what exactly is so great about reality?

But it's not to de Zengotita's detriment that he can't answer that question, since his book is more about defining postmodernism than judging it. In fact, if the trends de Zengotita so aptly analyzes continue, the question of whether they're good or not may very well become moot. The threat of international terrorism seems to have raised some major questions about postmodernism, but no one yet knows if this is a U-turn or a bump in the road. De Zengotita quotes Jeff Bezos as somewhat patronizingly saying in 1999: "The physical world is a wonderful medium and it's not going to go away." Well, maybe, but maybe not.

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