Off the Shelves

MEDIA

The Super-Real Life
by Andrew Statum

Thomas de Zengotita
Mediated: The Hidden Effects of Media on People, Places, and Things
(Bloomsbury, 2005)

Ah, what a world! How infinite in variety. How beautiful in diversity. How limitless in options. Through pervasive media representation, the world we live in is more “available” to the average citizen of today than anyone living 50 years ago could have possibly imagined. At the touch of a button, one can be virtually transported to every corner of the globe. With the click of a mouse, one has access to every manner of physical and emotional stimulation. Every opinion can be broadcast to millions of viewers. Every person can be special and everyone can be heard.

As Thomas de Zengotita informs us in his new book, Mediated: The Hidden Effects of Media on People, Places, and Things, this availability is mostly a good thing. Well, maybe. It’s also slightly unsettling in its implications. The least that can be said about media representation is that it is far-reaching and incredibly penetrating. The same can also be said for de Zengotita’s book.

At its most basic, “mediation” means dealing with reality through arts and artifacts that communicate. According to de Zengotita, the “mediated person” is one whose life is shaped by a culture of performance, one who, in essence, learns to perform the gestures of living through the incessant bombardment of media representations that pass for reality. But this is also a reflexive process, meaning that we the consumers, through our patterns of consumption, have an indirect influence over the performance. After all, we do have the option of watching or not watching the performance, don’t we?

And it is all about the options. In the mediated world, everything is optional. One can always change the channel, put down the book, leave the movie theater, look away from the billboard. As de Zengotita points out, this power of choice is mostly a good thing. But it invariably comes with a feeling of falsity, a feeling that all these options are nothing but surfaces lacking depths, a feeling that everything is a performance. It is precisely these aspects of performance that strike us every time we see a politician gesture, every time we see the talking heads on CNN, every time we watch “reality” TV programs. Sure, they are real people, but there’s something not quite right with how they’re acting. It’s like they’re performing with a heightened sense of reality. They’re being “super real” and thus not real at all.

Eventually, we develop a defense against this constant bombardment of options. We narrow the field by picking the ones we want and tuning out all the others. While others may be quick to label this as “apathy,” de Zengotita claims that this is merely a necessary reaction to being incessantly addressed. Sally Struthers can bring you the suffering victims of hunger and malnourishment only so many times before you have to tune her out in order to maintain your sanity.

Throughout the book, de Zengotita explores almost every facet of our culture. Steeped in philosophical learning as well as heartfelt personal experience, his prose moves deftly across every conceivable subject, giving us a fresh insight into what it means to live in the modern era. He examines such disparate subjects as the performative qualities of Princess Diana’s funeral, the hidden implications of the Weather Channel, and the unmediated slowness of his grandfather’s hands. In one particular chapter, a chapter that should be required reading for every kid entering the cutthroat arena of social showmanship that is middle school, de Zengotita gives us the mediated female teenager, both the junkie and the pusher of mediated culture. He shows us how teenagers become aware of themselves vis-à-vis the media, self-conscious performers caught in the agonizing process of creating elaborate self-images. And wait ‘til you check out his linguistic analysis of those two staples of the teenage vocabulary, “like” and “whatever.” It’s like, totally mind-blowing or something.

The only real weakness of the book is the author’s sometimes overly comedic prose. At one point he goes into a quasi-Seinfeldian stand-up routine on the theme of automobile names (I mean, what is the deal?), listing a dozen or so funny-sounding car names and then holding for laughter and applause. In other places, he allows certain sentences to stand alone as paragraphs, indicating a punch line and an appropriate moment for his audience to guffaw, which tends to dilute the conviction of his arguments.

But these moments are few and far between and are easily forgivable because Mediated is such an interesting, thought-provoking book. The pages seem barely able to contain the ideas that jump out at the reader. Thomas de Zengotita is not only an excellent observer and social theorist; he is also a sensitive, talented storyteller who treats his subject with truth and sensitivity.

POLITICS

An Active Life
by Corrie Pikul

Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards
Grassroots: A Field Guide for Feminist Activism
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005)

Two thousand four was a delicious pie in the face to those who thought activism was dead. In April, 1,150,000 people participated in the March for Women’s Lives, making the official crowd count the largest ever for a women’s rights rally in Washington, D.C. On the eve of the Republican National Convention in late August, an estimated 500,000 antiwar protesters took to the streets of New York City (this tally was double what the protest organizer, United for Peace and Justice, had predicted). The weeks leading up to the election showed an unprecedented number of new activists swarming the swing states, making phone calls and circulating petitions. And throughout the year, groups kept coming up with more creative and over-the-top agitprop (“Lick Bush” panties, anyone?).

Last year proved that people of all ages, political parties, and ethnicities could be mobilized to get up off their apathetic butts and do something if they thought it would effect change. That’s why November 3 was such a debilitating letdown. But for those whose activist appetites have been whetted and are now salivating for a new project to sink their teeth into, Grassroots: A Field Guide for Feminist Activism couldn’t have come along at a better time.

Grassroots is the joint project of outspoken feminists Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards. Their homey definition of activism is “consistently expressing one’s values with the goal of making the world more just,” and an activist is “anyone who accesses the resources that he or she has as an individual for the benefit of the common good.” In additions to dozens of stories from the authors’ own lives, the book is brimming with case studies of people like Emily, a college freshman who was disappointed in the weak branch of the Women’s Caucus at her school, so she collaborated with other campus organizations and took on specific campaigns to completely reenergize the group. Then there’s Jane Lockett, the owner of a UPS store in California who was looking for a way to “give back to the community.” She got together with a friend to brainstorm ideas and eventually decided that the most effective service she could offer was not to donate money or toys to a local charity drive (although she did that too) but to host a post-office box and mail services for the women at a local shelter.

Through their work for various feminist foundations (Richards is also an advice columnist for Feminist.com), the authors have seen hundreds of requests from people who want to get involved. The authors believe that the reason for the gap of inactivity between those who want to help and those who actually do lies in the way the ubiquitous question, “What can I do?” is answered. “Too often the response is what we’ve labeled The Generic Three: ‘call your politicians, donate money and volunteer,’ “ they write. “We believe that in order to maximize this passion, we must have better, more specific and active answers to [that] question.”

The authors take a bottom-up view of activism, urging readers to assess their own lives and focus on their own personal resources (their job, their social network, their talents and skills), instead of depending upon established groups. Volunteering and donating are great, the author say, but these types of contributions create a “one-sided relationship that encourages passivity in the would-be activists.” That’s also why Grassroots doesn’t devote much space to traditional activist tactics like marches, phone banking, sit-ins or boycotts, although they’re all explained in a handy—if overly simplistic—glossary at the back of the book.

The authors eat, breathe, and sleep activism (this is not conjecture: both provide sample daily “To-Do Lists” at the back of the book that consist of notes like “write article for Roe v. Wade anniversary” and “Third Wave Foundation conference call”). But the whole point of Grassroots is that living and breathing activism, making it a part of one’s daily life and not a whole other job, is the best and most realistic way to get anything done.

Grassroots is organized to follow the trajectory of Baumgardner’s and Richards’s lives, starting with their activist urges in high school and continuing through their various fumbles and successes at college, in their first jobs, and in the working world in general. In an attempt to charm and inspire, they also admit to their own mistakes, misunderstandings, and regrets.

Through their own confessions, the authors remind us that our ideas and opinions will change over time, so there’s no use feeling embarrassed about that time we chained ourselves to the tree in our back yard to save it, or for mocking the “Take Back the Night” marches in college, or for not recycling for most of the 1980s. Presented by Baumgardner and Richards, activism is a constantly evolving process.

It’s hard to reconcile personal growth and public actions, so it makes sense that the authors urge would-be activists to make the personal political, instead of vice versa. If you’re always acting on behalf of yourself, there is room for change and maturity. We have almost three and a half years before the canvassing and politicking will start up again in earnest, and there’s a lot of organizing, brainstorming, and action that can take place before then.

FICTION

A Life Less Ordinary
by Suzanne Dottino

Glen Duncan
Death of an Ordinary Man
(Grove Press, Black Cat, 2005)

In Glen Duncan’s last novel, I, Lucifer, God makes a deal with Satan: He gets a month to live on Earth as a nonsinner, after which time he can reenter Heaven. Satan is spirited into the body of Declan Dunn (a very obvious anagram of the author), a failed writer who has just slit his wrists while underwater in his bathtub and is, needless to say, on the brink of death. I won’t go into the clever twists and philosophical dips the story takes on after that, but they’re dense and dazzling. In Glen Duncan’s new novel, Death of an Ordinary Man, the premise is similar, though the roles have changed. In this equally dark yet far more riveting novel, God is channeled through the spirit of Nathan Clark, an ordinary man who is granted a not-so-ordinary reprieve before his soul can truly lie, as is inscribed in his tombstone, AT REST.

“D’you know what ‘omniscient’ means?” Nathan’s dad asks.
  “No.”
“It means God knows everything, all the time.”

Nathan is determined to string together his knowledge of the events of his past that led to his death, despite his internal battle to never know. Glen Duncan grants the dead Nathan the omniscience he needs to move like ether in and out of the consciousness of his family, both close and extended, as well as that of two strangers who appear at his funeral. Nathan inspects with detective-like curiosity the events surrounding the undoing of his family, starting with the untimely death of one of his children. Duncan gracefully unfurls the frailty and complexity of the subconscious’s need to deny the truth: Nathan avoids a particular door in his old house, though he knows that behind it lie the answers that will grant his soul freedom and rest.

Duncan’s elliptical and brilliant prose imposes on Nathan to question hell, faith, infidelity, shame, and the miracle of being alive. His descriptions of the ghost Nathan navigating his way alongside living beings are stunning and vibrant:

Moving was a matter, as formerly, of volition, but with some loss of accuracy, some drift, slightest lapse in concentration and you were way off. Like the bike on the pier at Brighton which when you turned left went right. You fell, every time. He’d wanted Gina [his daughter] but found himself instead alongside Luke [his son] from whom, suddenly can’t overestimate in the end the power of curiosity he said it’d be all right obviously not obviously not before recoil (not from the content [of Luke’s thoughts] but from the bare fact of collision with his son’s consciousness, a bearable twinge like the first suck in of air that reveals a tooth cavity) took him out of range or alignment.

What is so compelling about Duncan’s prose is the ease with which he carries the reader inside the moment-by-moment revelations of seeing life through the eyes, smells, senses, and thought patterns of others. As memory works, so does Duncan write: in flashes of word pictures over the course of two pages of text, he goes from being with his son on the day of the funeral, “feeling his controlled nervousness,” to an argument with his wife about what room to place their dead daughter’s things in, to the moment his son was caught masturbating by his mother, to Nathan’s own mother having caught him masturbating, and ending with a family game of charades years before. In the hands of a less intelligent writer this might come off as either pretentious or utterly chaotic, but Duncan’s prose has the ability to suspend our need to make order out of memory. His use of foreshadowing is so skillfully wrought and poetically sound that you trust it completely.

For all of Duncan’s masterful writing, it can’t mask the fact that the plot pieces don’t quite add up to a whole. By the time Nathan has collected all the pieces of found truths and understands, at last, why he died, the buildup has become so immense that the quick resolution feels ultimately unsatisfying. The snapshot pictures of Nathan’s past are revealing and poignant on their own, but when pieced together they do not quite convince us that he’s a man so psychologically ravaged—how can I say it without giving it away?—that his death becomes a natural outcome of his life, rather than a disappointing resolution.

Suzanne Dottino is a playwright who lives in Manhattan.

PHOTOGRAPHY

Capturing Grief interview
by Brian Avenius

Questions for Vicki Goldberg on Vicki Goldberg: Light Matters (Aperture, 2005)

When the Rail recently caught up with her, Vicki Goldberg was gearing up for the release of Vicki Goldberg: Light Matters. For over 25 years, Vicki has been a consistently objective voice in the world of photography criticism. Eschewing the personal politics that often imbues critique of the arts for a straightforward, both-sides perspective, her work is informed with a true respect of, and passion for, the subject matter. Light Matters revisits some of the best observations from her storied career on the artists behind the lens, the ever-changing perspectives on fine art and journalistic photography, and the sometimes intense societal issues that connect with the art.

Brian Avenius (Rail): We’ve been witness to an abundance of tragic, significant global events over the past few years, most recently the Indian Ocean tsunami. What, if any, are the boundaries that should be respected in immortalizing these images of grief?

Vicki Goldberg: Great opportunities for exploitation lie in every tragedy, and the news media have been known to stake out the houses of people who have lost families in accidents or natural disasters. Look at Weegee’s picture of two women wailing at a fire because the child of one of them is trapped in the flames. Clearly that’s exploitative—and powerful.

On the other hand, the dreadful images of this tsunami surely had an impact on the generosity of people who were not present, and the fact that it was so incredibly widespread, as both reports and pictures proved, reinforced the sense that this is one rather small world, that nature and fortune can capriciously and indifferently affect any part of it, that no man is an island. If, as seems likely, the pictures helped move people to respond and assist however they could, then the (perhaps inherently) exploitative nature of such images is a price that news photography is forced to pay.

It strikes me as respectful not to show faces of the dead until their kin are at least notified, and it’s probably respectful not to insist on photographing people in the throes of grief, when they are so unprotected. The latter will not be curbed in our media age.  

Rail: You explore the often complex relationship between photography and society in several of your essays. Of course, a subject people tend to respond to most passionately is the line between using photography as a tool, to educate or promote a greater good, and exploitation. Where do you feel that line is drawn?

Goldberg: This is a very tricky area, where a drawn line wavers and time and cultures change the borders. It’s pretty much a case-by-case judgment, and in any one case people may well stand on opposite sides of the line. What scorched the soul of a photographer can end up looking like flaming abuse to a viewer. Walker Evans’s pictures of sharecroppers were apparently approved and valued by most of the subjects—at least until they saw how they were used and their children began to resent how poor they looked, especially once they heard how much money photography was suddenly worth. The next generation thought Evans had grown rich on those photographs (which wasn’t true) while they remained needy.

A photographer’s intent certainly matters at the time, especially to the photographer, who has to live with himself or herself. Exploitation is not always entirely the photographer’s fault: Photojournalists seldom have complete control over how their pictures are used, and documentarians frequently don’t either. If their images are used for purposes other than their own, the author’s intent becomes irrelevant.

I believe it’s even possible to exploit people who don’t feel exploited, either because they’re not sophisticated or sensitive enough to understand how they appear to others or because they’re famous enough or narcissistic enough to think any kind of image is good for their reputation (which just might be true in a time that seems to value exploitation).

Rail: You observe that one of photography’s most notable accomplishments is exposing us to every crevasse of the planet. But you also note the risk that, amplified by a digital world, it will start to become boring. What do you see as the solution to that?

Goldberg: I’m not sure there is a solution. We’re on information overload to begin with, and image overload has us reeling. It’s not just that it’s boring, it’s also confusing. So many images of one subject or event pass by our eyes that it’s difficult to remember any one, and the event tends to become a generalized, amorphous impression in the mind.

Rail: What drew you into the world of documenting photography?

Goldberg: It was chance that got me into the field, as so often happens, but once I was there I realized I was at the heart of the modern world. Some recent philosophers have said we are composed of language, but I believe we are at least as essentially composed of images that reflect and interpret our societies and the course of events and have a great impact on our thoughts and behavior. People who live great distances apart and have no common language and very little common culture once unconsciously shared a lot of history in images stored in their minds. This is no longer true as it once was—and yet images still tell us immense amounts about what goes on in the world and what we do or should value.

Brian Avenius tries to balance the yin of every page of PowerPoint he writes with the yang of equal parts greater literary value.

Contributor

Book Staff

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