If Thomas de Zengotita didn't exist, we'd probably have to invent him. Luckily he's real; he teaches philosophy and anthropology at New York University and he's just published a book called Mediated: The Hidden Effects of Media on People, Places, and Things. Zengotita mediated himself in my direction this week in the form of an interview in Salon magazine in which he lays out the core ideas of his book, a phenomenology of the postmodern personality. And very interesting ideas they are, too.
Zengotita sees the 21st century human as an incorrigible self-mediator, a Method Actor who manages his own self-presentation skillfully, staging authenticity with the artfulness of a celebrity. We negotiate compromises between the me we want to project and the flattering you presented to us by a consumer culture full of choices, a brandscape in which a plethora of options makes every choice seem somewhat plastic. Who do you want to be today? Whatever you choose, it's going to be the real you. Caught up in this disconcerting paradox, we fake our authenticity daily.
Zengotita admits that his first instinct was to deplore the shallowness of postmodern identity and its banal corollary, therapy culture. Thankfully, though, he's stepped back from the curmudgeonly option (wouldn't kneejerk cynicism be just another spurious attempt to project authenticity anyway?) and tried to look on the bright side. And that bright side is quite surprising. Mediation might be inevitable! Mediation culture might trickle down from the few to the many, and from the rich to the poor! Mediation might provide the basis for a fashion for ethical behaviour in the West! Mediation can end world hunger!
These are indeed "hidden effects of media", and big claims. Without having read his book, I can't tell you how Zengotita sees these beneficial effects of mediation coming to pass. But I do find the idea of self-consciousness, theatricality and narcissism saving the world a refreshing one. And once I start to think about it, I can see ways in which it might happen. We often act charitably or virtuously because we want to be seen that way -- it's a pose, a self-projection, a part of our image management. Who would quibble, if Bono ended up getting third world debt revoked, for instance, that he'd done it thanks to overweening ego and a mastery of self-projection? Surely the appropriate response would simply be, "Thanks, Bono!" And who could complain that people whose countrymen, a generation or two ago, were facing starvation are now facing the difficult choice between becoming a graphic designer or running a TV network from their own bedrooms?
Does that sound far-fetched? Half an hour ago I was listening to a BBC World radio programme which interviewed Beijing University students about what they saw themselves doing in ten years. One wanted to be a newscaster, another a graphic designer "because graphic design is colorful and fashionable". A third said he saw himself in ten years running his own TV network from home. Pretentious? Certainly. Likely? Well, yes. When I visited Hong Kong last year I met a design student who'd been born in Shanghai. I asked her how her life would have been different if she'd stayed in Shanghai. She said Hong Kong had probably allowed her to get more arty in her work, but that, when it came to pretension, Shanghai was catching up fast.
British television viewers are currently being treated to a deliciously vicious stereotype of the self-mediated individual in the form of Chris Morris and Charlie Brooker's cautionary comedy series Nathan Barley (UK Channel 4). Barley, a "self-facilitating media node" who makes prank films he publishes on his website, is a garish and ghastly parody of the postmodern self-mediator. With a headset cellphone clipped to each ear, his hair a carefully-sculpted mess, Barley ponces around London's fashionable Nosegate looking for celebrities to endorse his website. To make it quite clear that Barley is evil, Morris and Brooker set his dandyism against a backdrop of atrocity; Nosegate is awash with crass and insensitive terrorist chic, 9/11 is re-staged for shock value in pop videos, style magazines are called Rape, illicit gambling websites pit Russian tramps against each other in cruel races, Flash animations show policemen shooting up junk and Vietnamese POWs getting their brains blown out. Like the anti-globalism protesters who immediately equate trendy running shoes with sweatshops and child labor, the authors of this series see ludic self-mediation in the developed world coming at the direct expense of the poor in the developing world.
Zengotita isn't so moralistic, although he may well be more moral. Sure, he talks about a "virtual revolution" in which technology and the flattery of consumer culture encourages ordinary people to think of themselves as celebrities. Yes, he details the endlessly reflexive self-mediation carried on through blogging, cellphone snaps, websites, social networking software. He'd certainly recognize Nathan Barley's sense of preening self-importance. But Zengotita goes further into the tunnel and sees light at the other end. Rather than coming at the expense of the poor, mediation might be the next step for them too. If all goes well, we might be looking at a world in which everyone is a foolish tourist, a happy shopper, a postmodern self-mediator. "I think that's essentially what liberalism is becoming," he says, "a liberal imperial vision of bringing what we've got in the West to everybody, though of course in a multicultural sort of way. It'll be a multicultural global mall. Really huge food courts." And, soon afterwards, no doubt, legions of Senegalese, Chinese, Filippino and Thai Nathan Barleys, speaking into headset cellphones, plugging their websites, self-mediating.
Mediated: The Hidden Effects of Media on People, Places, and Things by Thomas de Zengotita (Bloomsbury USA, 208 pages, 2005).