You know the scene-in fact, you've scripted it. Say you're strolling down the street in your Pumas, baggy jeans, a hoodie on top, sporting a thrift-store blazer and courier bag, and the coup de grace: a white cord that runs from your hip to your ears. Your iPod's customized playlist fills your head, and with each change of song you congratulate yourself on your choices. You head to a coffee shop-say, a Starbucks (what are the odds?)-and as you open the door, you just know other customers will turn and look.
At this moment, and in so many others, you are consciously aware of the very performance of you-straight out of central casting from your favorite iPod commercial. According to Thomas De Zengotita and his new book, Mediated: How the Media Shapes Your World and the Way You Live in It, you're representative of a contemporary phenomenon that De Zengotita describes as “mediation.”
In Mediated, De Zengotita claims we're all method actors, that we've become very good at performing who we are, and not just through what we buy, although that's a big part of it. The performative aspect dictates almost every experience we have because we've seen every possible scenario performed and played out in the media. Basically, mediation means dealing with reality through something else, and too often that “something else” is a media industry that so flatters its viewers that they begin grafting media experiences onto natural experiences.
For example, let's take something as fundamental and natural as giving birth. How can the experience of giving birth remain unmediated when one considers all of the movie and television depictions out there, all of the philosophies, techniques, counselors and self-help books at one's disposal? In this case and so many others, De Zengotita suggests readers ask themselves: “If I were to strip away all of those influences, could I conceive of my life?”
De Zengotita is an editor for Harper's magazine and an anthropology professor at New York University. If his teaching is anything like his writing, he's the kind of professor who finds students lingering around the podium at the close of class, eager to share their ideas about the here and now, De Zengotita's chosen terrain. And that's what makes Mediated so appealing-its attempt to capture this very minute in time and how we live in it.
One editor explained the book as trying to “zap the zeitgeist,” a catchy, certainly alliterative, description. But an attempt to capture the zeitgeist also speaks to some of the book's challenges-with such a charge, it can be unwieldy and far-reaching.
In the course of 300 pages, he touches on how mediation plays out in consumerism, the pace of our society, child-rearing, teenage culture, politics and terrorism, with many of these explored through the lenses of anthropology, psychology and philosophy (exploring at one point what Nietzsche would have to say about cloning!). There are golden nuggets of truth therein, to be sure, but they are so many and varied that it's almost impossible to stand back and view the Fort Knox of reality De Zengotita has worked so hard to describe.
Simply put, it's hard to wrap your head around it all.
Yet, Mediated remains a fascinating, exhausting and, at turns, hilarious read. De Zengotita's conversational and playful writing helps cut the edge. Trying to explore an issue with sincerity, he directly addresses the reader as “you, hipster, you” and asks that his sincerity not be misread as irony. He's prone to proclamations like “Whatever!” and to warning the reader of his writing indulgences: “metaphor switch alert.”
De Zengotita sorts a lot out for readers in this book and his observations are haunting. After reading it, you can't help but cast certain co-workers' behavior as mediated or watch TV without seeing the pandering and flattery at every turn. Certainly, De Zengotita is not the first to analyze life in a world flooded with media images, but in Mediated he's contributed to that larger conversation through a nuanced look at how the media has created navel-gazers and method actors of us all.