The Good, the Bad, & the Mediated

A few years ago, sometime in 2003, friend and colleague Dr. Don Beck, cofounder of Spiral Dynamics, turned the editors of EnlightenNext on to an article he had recently read in Harper's magazine. The article, which he felt was indicative of a change in cultural values and attitudes, was by media theorist and scholar Thomas de Zengotita and it was titled "Common ground: Finding Our Way Back to the Enlightenment." A fantastic article, it was an analysis of the way in which the fundamental ideals of the Western Enlightenment were essential for the formation of postmodern values, even though it's become popular in progressive circles to denigrate those same ideals. That was our first exposure to the work of de Zengotita. It's not that I perfectly agreed with de Zengotita point by point, but the article was quite an achievement--thought-provoking, incisive, and philosophically stimulating, while also clear enough for a lay reader to grasp. And it addressed cultural issues at the level of deep values and worldview, which is, of course, a big part of what EnlightenNext magazine is all about. And de Zengotita didn't exactly pull his punches. He writes:

What radicals should be doing right now is studying and thinking. You need to put in your ten years at the library, the way Marx did. You need to be figuring out what makes human beings tick and what, if any, direction is to be found in history. And I don't mean some half-assed sci-fi anarcho-Gaia nonsense you cobbled together before you dropped out of Bard; I mean serious study, working toward an alternative to a global bourgeois democracy. What radicals need most right now isn't action but theory.

A couple of years later in 2005, de Zengotita published his first book, Mediated: How the Media Shapes Your World and the Way You Live in It. The book was also quite an achievement. Originally called the The Flattered Self, the book was about the effects of living in a virtualized world where it seems as if everything is constructed to specifically address and flatter YOU--a world in which it's hard to tell the difference between reality and the representation of reality. Norman Mailer perhaps summed up the book better than anyone in a blurb featured on the back of the book.

Mediated has the same liveliness and intense intellectuality as Marshall McLuhan's Understanding Media--which is a way of saying there are anywhere from three to ten stimulating ideas on every page. As McLuhan presented us with the realization that modernism was coming to an end, so de Zengotita has a great deal to say about the saturation of post-modernism in our existence today.

EnlightenNext featured the book and an interview with the author soon after. And I fully expected the book to make a big splash. But a funny thing happened on the way to literary success and cultural influence. The book seemed to sort of die on the vine. I don't know the sales figures, but I didn't hear that much about it; I didn't read reviews of it in any major magazines or newspapers; I didn't hear people talking about it. It just didn't seem to make any waves. What a shame.

I wasn't sure why the book didn't sell well at the time, but now, four years later, I think I can take a stab at it. Perhaps it was too highbrow, too subtle in its analysis of pop culture; perhaps it was too depressing, not hopeful enough in its perspective on media and culture. De Zengotita isn't exactly an optimist. But whatever the case, I want to say to the readers of this blog that it's worth a look. Not because de Zengotita has the answers to the conundrums of our media saturated culture. He doesn't--at least not in this book. And admittedly, reading him can sometimes make you feel that there is no way out. But still, his analysis of the problem can be so enlightening and profound that it will change the way you understand culture--literally. It's powerful, disturbing, and illuminating all at the same time.

Recently, I picked up Mediated, flipped through it and was blown away all over again. I thought I'd share a few of my favorite quotes--this one from the first chapter.

In a mediated world, the opposite of real isn't phony or illusional or fictional--it's optional. Idiomatically, we recognize this when we say, "the reality is..." meaning something that has to be dealt with, something that isn't an option. We are most free of mediation, we are most real, when we are at the disposal of accident and necessity. That's when we are not being addressed.

Think about that for a moment. You could write a whole book on that statement alone. Here's another:

The slang expression "whatever" distills the essential situation into a single gesture. It arose and caught on because it captures so precisely, yet so flexibly, the Janus-faced attitude we assume as we negotiate the field of options that so incessantly solicit our attention and allegiance.

On the one hand, it's a party, a feast, an array of possible experiences more fabulous than monarchs of the past could even dream of--it's "whatever," as in yippee!, as in whatever you want, whatever you can imagine; you can eat whatever, see whatever, hear whatever, read whatever, even be whatever. "No limits," as the SUV and Internet ads all promise.

On the other hand, an environment of representations yields an aura of surface--as in "surf." It is a world of effects. This is another existential consequence of the fact that representations address us by design. We are at the center of all the attention, but there is a thinness to things, a smoothness, a muffled quality--it's all insulational, as if the deities of Dreamworks were laboring invisibly around us, touching up the canvas of reality with digital airbrushes. Everything has the edgeless flowing feel of computer graphics, like the lobby of a high-end Marriott/Ramada/Sheraton--the sculptured flower arrangements, that glowy, woody, marbly, purply, cushioned-air quality. Every gadget aspires to that iPod look--even automobiles. The feel of the virtual is overflowing the screens, as if the plasma were leaking into the physical world. Whole neighborhoods feel like that now, even when you're standing in the street...

Sometime after the book came out, we invited de Zengotita to give a public lecture at our center in Massachusetts. In that talk, again, I found yet a different angle of insight into our mediated world. He presented the barest outlines of what is essentially a developmental view of history based on the evolution of media. At least that's how I would describe it. He didn't go into much detail, but he spoke about the history of representation and media and how it has affected the development of self and culture.

For example, he spoke about oral traditions, and challenged us to imagine what it would be like to never see one's own name represented in writing. Imagine that for a moment. What if you could only relate to your own name as a spoken sound? That you've never seen it represented abstractly in writing? It would radically alter your sense of self. (It also explains the almost mystical power that the spoken name has in a lot of mythology that harkens back to that time). Then he spoke about the emergence of new representational forms with the advent of writing and how radically that changed the perception of self. (One side note: When Plato talks about the "old quarrel between philosophy and poetry" in The Republic, de Zengotita pointed out that he was not talking about poetry in the way we think of it. Rather he was criticizing the older oral tradition of Homer and everything that went along with it. In essence, it was a new worldview based on new media forms arguing against an older worldview based on an oral tradition that was still quite influential in Greece).

>What became clear to me as he spoke was just how linked the evolution of media is to the evolution of consciousness. Of course, it makes sense that parallels would exist between the two, but I'd never seen someone able to break it down quite like he did. I'd never seen someone use that prism to analyze the development of consciousness. I've seen Don Beck use Spiral Dynamics to speak about the evolution of consciousness and culture in terms of values; I've heard Robert Kegan talk about it in terms of subject/object relations in psychology; Philosopher Jean Gebser talk about it in terms of structures of consciousness and our relationship to time; techno-gurus break it down in terms of technology; Robert Wright talk about it in terms of "Nonzero-sumness," and Ken Wilber works with all of those ideas, but I'd never seen someone come at it from the point of view of media. Here is a link to the video of that evening. Again, he only lightly touched on these ideas, but it's fascinating nonetheless.

So what's the message here? Read Thomas de Zengotita, not because he has the answers but because he's breaking new ground, tracking a whole field of disconcerting cultural trends that we'd better begin to understand if we are ever going to transcend.