Living With the Media

Todd Gitlin urges you to get comfortable with the monster

Gitlin isn't always as bullish on mass media as he sounds here, but he clearly sees no need for real alarm. The fact that mass media don't address our desires (and fears) directly but sublimate and re-create them through a consumerist lens doesn't strike him as particularly egregious, nor does the fact that, as Gitlin puts it, "the essence of capitalism is broken promises ever renewed" through media.

Though parts of the book are useful, especially his enumeration of the multiple ways media supersaturate us, the overall argument is vapid—and it's vapid because Gitlin never gets close enough to the actual subjective experience of media exposure to analyze what it does to us. And he never goes beyond vague talk about "feelings" and "emotions" and "hungers" that mass media supposedly sublimate and distract us from. What are these feelings and hungers, anyway? In a characteristic move, Gitlin first quotes Pascal to the effect that all forms of entertainment, even the 17th-century ones Pascal saw practiced by those around him, were "efforts to divert [ourselves] from the inescapable fact of human mortality."

Aha: the fear of death makes us panic; thus we employ all means at our disposal to forget we're mortal. There's an idea (and it's not just Pascal; it's everywhere in philosophy and literature). But Gitlin rushes away from it. He rushes, too, from the idea that our deepest "hungers" might be for love, communion, a relief from loneliness—and that the "love" that media provide us is fatally simulacral, fake, as false a connection as the ones that form between lonely viewers and the characters on Friends.

It would help, I think, if Gitlin had consulted, seriously and sustainedly, writers and theorists who think deeper into what "being with media" actually means. I'm thinking of Heidegger, of course, who would say "being with media" is essentially a contradiction, since media are forms of technology whose very nature removes us from a true feeling of being alive. And I'm thinking of two American novelists—Don DeLillo and David Foster Wallace—who've trailblazed for anybody who's brave enough to follow how mass media can both impoverish our inner lives and addict us to its offerings. How Gitlin can write a book with the subtitle "how the torrent of images and sounds overwhelms our lives" without examining White Noise or Infinite Jest—the late 20th century's greatest imaginative treatments of these themes—is baffling. Of course, both DeLillo and Wallace are, according to Gitlin's categories, "paranoids," those who believe that media "is an addiction . . . an all-around agent of stupefaction" which keep us from feeling the pain of being alive in postmodern times. Gitlin is too sane for this kind of talk. He prefers to think that the consumerist sheep, the political passives, the entertainment junkies that we see all around us—that we perhaps are—are more or less okay, that they might be "overwhelmed," but they're getting the pleasure and freedom they need.

But look into the eyes of a sullen 12-year-old flicking the buttons of his Gameboy while bobbing to Jay-Z on his headphones. Tell me he's getting anything close to what he needs. Tell me he's getting anything resembling "transcendence." Give me paranoia any day.

Media Unlimited by Todd Gitlin, Metropolitan Books. Paperback, 260 pages, $13.

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