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

Reviewed by
Mark Jay Mirsky



ediated by Thomas de Zengotita is a wonderful book. It’s also a book I found myself quarreling with—not on every other page, but at certain points, and that vigorously. No doubt it’s intentional—I recently heard de Zengotita remark that he had learned to write the way he spoke in class and he is obviously an inspired teacher at one of the great preparatory schools in Manhattan, Dalton. I graduated from the (then) boys-only, Boston Public Latin School and first met girls from Dalton forty five years ago at college: freshmen who were tough, smart, and taking no nonsense, more than my equal as a Harvard senior full of himself. (Those who graduate from Tom’s classes must be particularly fearsome.) Before reading Mediated I knew Thomas de Zengotita as a writer of short stories (we published one in the magazine I edit, Fiction) and as the author of a complex essay on the Enlightenment in Harper’s, one that made me reconsider the contemporary relevance of a script for rational behavior that the 18th century intellectuals wrote for humankind. The voice in which Mediated is written smacks, however, of the best of classrooms, funny and charged with provocation. While that will assure it of a wider audience, its message is serious and sobering: “People refuse to accept the fact that reality is becoming indistinguishable from representation…” This is a hard idea to accept, although the “virtual world” is certainly everywhere and de Zengotita presents it as terrifying, for it flatters and “the flattered self is spoiled. It never gets enough. It feels unappreciated. It whines a lot. It wants attention.” Worst, despite the wave of flattery from the screens, billboards, signs, our bodies are “manifestly unequal to the wave of solicitation lavished upon them.”

The notion that everything is “mediated,” that it’s impossible to experience a nightmare directly anymore, except as it is represented, is an idea that I resist. While cell phones and chat rooms, and the fetish of being constantly hooked up to electronic umbilical cords, to boyfriends, parents, etc., separates me from their generation, I can’t believe that the deep traumas of life exist even for my children in a virtual world and are quickly succeeded by other representations. If it’s so, I will try to bid them a fond farwell, because the human gene as I understand it has been so altered by this electronic interference that the strands which linked me to generations before me are severed. (This nightmare is one of several “scenarios” Mediated proposes.) I continue to be haunted by my parents’ deaths, deaths I try to grip through representation because their power over me is so great I need the “mediation” of philosophy and religion to try to keep them from overwhelming me.

I have seen this in the lives of friends whose children have died before them, when the human consciousness of the fragile span of life threatens to destroy their hold on any reality. Thomas de Zengotita mocks the scientist who (responding to the ho-hum when science broke the barrier of the speed of light) urges us “as a species of thinkers and doers to maintain our awe of nature while at the same time subduing and shaping it.”

To which, Thomas, in the voice of one of his cocky students, cries, “Hello?

“It’s up to us to maintain our awe of nature.”

The statement certainly invites this ironic rejoinder. On consideration, however, recovering awe in the face of our own mortality and the immensity of existence in relation to it is a task of human consciousness, one that gives us an appreciation of our brief span of life and perhaps prepares us for the trial of death. (It is epitomized for me in a rabbinic epigram in which a rabbi who has grown too familiar with the idea of God asks for a measure of awe and is driven under the bed with terror.) Thomas de Zengotita begins Mediated with a story of studying acting at the Neighborhood Playhouse and the announcement of the Kennedy assassination being misinterpreted by the students as a cue for an improvisation of a “what if” script, feeling the eerie falsity of playing at grief. I also studied at the Playhouse and had a brief career as an actor. Representation of anger as an actor (Shakespeare’s Richard the Third was my favorite role) kept me sane during bitter, frustrating days of high school, and I watched my son smother his own rage by entering the virtual world of video games and shooting down villains when he was being beaten up by the bullies in his class. He also took to the stage in school and it helped him escape an unhappy role assigned to him by corridor toughs and princesses. I showed him Tom’s chapter on those fashion doyens of prep school and their devastating power over status. He laughed with appreciation but then warned me that it was often more complicated.

Still, it’s impossible to escape the truth of Mediated’s thesis, regardless of how one may take issue with particulars. I feel as the author does, overwhelmed on a daily basis by a world that is represented to me, challenged to “feel” by stimuli, which in their “representation” of reality,” seem to offer all possibilities but whose possibilities are staged rather than real. The book asks in regard to this, “Do you make the distinction as a matter of routine processing? Or do you rely instead on a generalized immunity that puts the whole flood in brackets…the ultimate reaches of your soul on permanent remote?” And why is this distinction important?

“The discrete display of options melts into a pudding—and what I will call the Blob, usually a metaphorical entity, shimmers into visibility at this moment, the moment when you stand a-mazed before the vast display at the megaStore.”

Can one predict what this process of endless options and “virtualization” may imply in one’s children and in the generations following them, what the result will be of the constant “mediation” absorbed through television and advertising. Tom contradicts one expert,  a Professor Rorty, who “can’t imagine a culture whose public rhetoric is ironist…a culture which socialized its children in such as to make them constantly dubious about their own process of socialization.

“Where has Professor Rorty been?

“I guess he never saw T-shirts that read Because I’m the Mommy that’s why

“The whole of popular culture is drenched in an ironism only a professor could miss—and a primary target is precisely the child-viewer’s “process of socialization.” The implications of this “socialization” run though the whole of the book and bring us to its frightening conclusions. Its chapters on children prepare us for these but can stand on their own as arresting essays. “No society in history has sanctified children the way we do.” And yet this sanctification is a form of recognition that De Zengotita can not help but “sanctify” as he ponders it. “What we see in children, through children, is all things given for the first time.” His gift for irony does not leave us here, however, as he “meditates” that quintessential story of childhood, Peter Pan, quoting its owlish, cynical author, J.M. Barrie. “Children are gay, innocent and heartless,” Forcing us to see the bitter irony behind the fairy tale, Tom remarks, “Peter Pan is all about instinct, imagination and, above all—utter selfishness,”

At the end of Mediated, those lines will return to haunt us, as the Descartes, Locke, Nietzsche, are marshaled to show us the society that we are headed for, a society where God is dethroned and we have become the sole proprietors of a universe of self regard, and mechanical manipulation, speeding up at an alarming rate.

In its brilliant pages on adolescence which like childhood seems to stretch further and further into adult life, the book warns that the virtual, ironic “exhibition of transgressive sex” that engulfs the contemporary adolescent, because it is so “managed” may have robbed the act of meaning: “It’s all for the best, but something is lost, a dimension of meaning and power that we can only encounter at the point when our comprehension and capacity to manage end. At the edge of the real.

“Which accounts for the fact that we have so many pubic exhibitions of sex that aspire to be transgressive. But—the dialect of mediation again—in reaching for the real in that way, they succeed only in extending the reach of the virtual.”

I wonder though—didn’t all the pornography I devoured as an adolescent also promise that virtual world and didn’t I pass from it into the terror and mystery of the real when I found young women who could not be “managed”?

One walks most of the time, however, through a “managed” territory of everyday life that Mediated makes only too clear. “Chatting on your hands-free caller ID-equipped cell phone as you walk across the park, everything that isn’t summoned by you, for you, flows by like streaming video on some random screen in a foyer—that’s what the external world gets reduced to when we are snuggled down in MeWorld.” I found myself typing up sentences like this and others that vividly describe how I live at present. “We will so conduct ourselves that everything becomes an emergency.”

“Life in a flood of surfaces that demand attention means a life of perpetual motion, and TV provides the model.”

Indeed Mediated reads like a skeleton key or The Outsider’s Insider Guide to the current crop on Television, the hospital and courtroom dramas that run a half dozen plots at once and rarely come to a conclusion. “Stress dramas are about the working lives of the media people who make them.”

The implications of this stress that are dramatized in the medium of Television, Mediated argues, alter our sense of time. “Cell phones and answering machines and digital telemarketing messages and Xerox machines and Web sites and BlackBerries —these are all representational technologies too. They all siphon your attention into unreal time. They represent what is not present and confront you with something else you have to deal with, if only to discard it…” The battle to preserve one’s private time, real time, which is also one’s private and real space, it seems, is almost lost. One example tolled a painful bell in me. “Looking back, having no answering machine provided a built-in-buffer, an automatic prioritizer, an automatic time expander.

“Now, of course it would be just rude.”

That was exactly what I was accused of by a friend of some forty odd years when trying to drop by to see her a month ago, I admitted that I did not have a cell phone. I asked her to call me at specific time that evening or agree to an hour that we could meet the next day. “You have to get a cell phone!” she responded angrily. “You can’t do this to your friends.”

My children join in with the same refrain. (My friend never did call me, but called my daughter on the latter’s cell phone.) But I don’t want to be always on call, always available, or always facing the option of having to shut on or off my attention and access. I want time that is entirely as much as I can make it, mine.

For it is time as we know it, one of the constituents of our uneasy grip on reality, that is disappearing. It begins with our children, according to Tom, in a way that is seemingly harmless, but nevertheless has strange implications. “They can feel nostalgia for times they never lived through. That’s how much a part of the contemporary environment representations have become…” Yet as the sixties, seventies, eighties retreat, will this attempt to live in past time finally overwhelm our children, as the nineties, and the decades of the Twenty First Century pile up? “There are signs of collapse into a synchronistic pastiche.”

Again, “representation” in Mediated’s reading, is a process that overburdens us with choices. Since we are constantly in motion in our heads, with everything frantically asking for attention, we have no real time in both the literal and metaphorical sense. And this reflects, De Zengotia observes, what has been happening on the planet in terms of human management. “Our motion through the last few centuries has been more like that of the skidding car than the steady march of progress we sometimes kid ourselves into believing in…” In fact, a reaction against progress begins to set in, “It can get to be a problem, this new new thing thing… Maybe the postmodern taste for retro and pastiche is more than a cultural phase? Maybe it’s a necessity.”

I am tempted in the spirit of Mediation to put myself in the center of this review and talk about my readings of the Clinton and Bush presidency, which Thomas de Zengotita sees through the shrewd eye of the media analyzer and actor, noting Clinton’s sleazy magnetism as an entertainer, and Bush’s bad acting, “indicating” rather than relaxing into a roll, exhibiting a self consciousness that only endears him to his audience. I will forbear this pleasure however, and speak instead about my engagement with the book.

Mediated at its best is really a set of questions. Is religion possible—Zengotita asks, finding himself seeking a more serious place to wonder about the world, and discovering a church for a moment in that circle of seekers who stopping their cars, get out to stare up at the skies and receive a measure of awe, taking in the weather. Even that dissipates for the author, as the weather itself on the television screen in anticipation of a major storm, is so discussed and chewed over that it is “staged”; reduced except for those stung by disaster, to a chewed over cliché. The disasters like the recent Tsunami, only briefly bring us up to consciousness of the nightmare that can tip the oceans over our heads, but as the author points out, quickly becomes a series of mediations on the uses of charity and the efficiency of distribution and aid.

If indeed reality is increasingly “mediated” so that we perceive it as staged in ironic mode, doesn’t it have another side as well? As a member of a web site known as the Edge, which sometimes blurs the distinction between what can be called science, philosophy and fiction, as its scientists speculate on the nature of existence, I have been challenged in the last few years by the notion of consciousness. All consciousness may be a form of fiction, of invention, and self-deception may be a necessity of consciousness. It is not clear, if we live in a reality that we, and our predecessors, biologically, have in large part created. Acting then is not an ironic mode of existence in which we do not live naturally, only playing at existence, but the way in which we try out possible ways to exist, which then become natural. This may extend to many creatures that exist alongside of us and may be part of the process of their evolution and ours.

One of the charms of Mediated is its sense of our common experience of life at this point in the Twenty First Century, that fiction that we call reality. The book is not so much a denunciation of ourselves as a warning. We are in danger of losing a sense of belonging to the world that we live in, of feeling natural and complete. (The Book of Genesis’ praise of the last patriarch, Jacob, is that he is a “complete” man.) In a brief few pages Tom recalls his grandfather, the surgeon’s ease in handling things against the author’s own clumsy clutter of objects, and we sense his admiration of that lost sense of completely possessing objects and the rhythms with which we use them. He sets his grandfather’s relation to objects against contemporary usage. What if “someday people would be able to pay attention to everything at the same time?” Tom answers his own question. “Wouldn’t that be cool?” then challenges it.


“What does that even mean?”

“There’s only so much that a human being can pay attention to in a given moment…If you don’t want to sink, you learn to surf, you have to. You learn how to go fast…it means missing most of what goes on around you but learning not to regret it because nothing is that much more valuable than anything else…more forwarding, more Cc-ing, more browsing, it’s all so easy, so insulated, compared with actual human encounters and the clumsy stubbornness of implements and furnishings in the physical realm…” And then in a moment when Mediation quietly does answer its own questions, Tom recalls his grandfather’s, his tackle box, his ease. “But it was his hands that I remember most of all, the care they extended to everything he touched, one by one, no haste, no waste, to each its due. That much was obvious. But subtler qualities made for beauty in even his simplest actions. Before using things, he took time to assess them… He never held anything too tightly, but nothing every slipped his grasp. And he loved to prepare—to unwrap, to lubricate, to sharpen. To lay everything out. When at last he executed a task, the outcome followed from the preparation like a dénouement…. No wonder that the things he owned, seen in repose, apart from him, showed the history of this treatment in graduates of their wear, in just those places that reflected implemental purpose. No wonder that they always seemed to be waiting for him to come back.”

For underneath the hip rhetoric which the book’s voice parodies and exploits is a stern protest against the dizzy motion that we have embraced, articulated in Tom’s essay on the Enlightenment, which challenged the dangerous swamp of cultural relativism. The ideal of eighteenth century thinkers, that men and women possessed a common humanity, he argued was not only worth defending but is our only hope to continue in a rational human society. In a mediated world however, the notion of a bedrock value begins to lose meaning “Kermit the Frog gives college commencement addresses because no dominant discourse now determines values—and vice versa.”

Has everything lost “value”––time as well? The tocsin sounds in his final chapter as he considers the threat of September 11th and his own reaction. And despite himself and the retreat of the moment, he acknowledges the way awe has dissipated into a general anxiety.  “The possibility of mass terror haunts the world.”  If we don’t agree that we all share humanity, we may well blow ourselves up. Yes, but that “possibility” of the end of the world, has haunted men and women for a long time. I witness my memory of the first atomic bomb, adults communicating to me their fear that reality had changed forever. It haunted me before that, as I became conscious of the world around me, during the outbreaks of polio in 1943 and 1944, when the illness lurked everywhere and seemed to strike at will. That “awe” or “fear”––the Hebrew word embraces both meanings––is part of the mystery that Mediated acknowledges. The book asks at one point, reflecting on the plethora of books, art and their spread among the general population, whether “all this creative activity—while indubitably mostly a good thing—has to reach a certain point of mass meaninglessness.” At that point I would challenge its metaphor of the blob and recall the example of Tom’s grandfather and his pace.

Creative “genius” is in my opinion, as rare today as it has been in the past. What may be true is that the obsession with “going fast” has made it impossible for many intelligent people to discriminate between what is worth slowing down to spend time with or assimilate. Very few “poets” whom I know, have read Dante. One of the major shapers of Western thought and of its poetics is too much trouble for them to try to absorb. To its credit, Mediation dispenses its own medicine. The final chapters, return to the time of Descartes, Locke, and Nietzsche, forcing us to look at ourselves through these philosopher’s eyes, pause and wonder—where are we hurrying to?