How the Media Shapes Your World and the Way You Live in It

de Zengotita investigates the ways in which our experience of the world is mediated both through traditional media (television, newspapers) but also the ways in which we self-mediate—whether through photographs or status updates, we’ve come to think of our lives as a narrative, with ourselves always at the center. Written before Twitter came along, but relevant nonetheless.

Reading notes

God’s eye view

Writing about the “where were you when Kennedy was shot?” meme, de Zengotita addresses the (at the time, new) experience of reliving an event over and over on television:

Reams of coverage, endless coverage, amazing coverage—in a way more compelling than if you were physically there, squashed behind a fat lady, looking in your purse for your sunglasses when the shots went off—you thought they were fireworks at first, until you heard the screaming. No, not like that: you were not there in one humble and limited spot; you were everywhere there, because that amazing coverage put you everywhere there, and more or less simultaneously to boot.

You had a sort of God’s eye view.

de Zengotita, Mediated, page 7

This creates a new kind of “witness.” In Tina Modotti’s photographs, she witnesses poverty and suffering, and we become the audience to that witness. But in the endless, repetitive TV coverage of an event (Kennedy’s murder, 9/11), we all become witnesses, albeit helpless, silent ones—no more able to say what the experience means than to detect that the experience itself isn’t real.

As you “like” it

A brilliant analysis of the evolution of “like” in American English, from the beatnik-hippie usage where “like” conveyed a sense of awe or wonder too big to be put into words, to its now ubiquitous and performative use by teenage girls:

Adeptly employed, “like” acts as a kind of quotation mark in conversations that no longer work discursively, but work more like TV commercials or movie trailers. The word introduces a tiny performance, rather than a description, a “clip” displaying a message in highly condensed gestural and intonational form…as in this girl’s report on an encounter with an ex-friend:

“She was, like, ‘I’m so happy for you…? But she didn’t know that, like, I already knew what she said to him…? So I just played it, like, we are the sync sisters…? Because I wanted her to find out that she, like, had this booger hanging out of her nose the whole time…?”

Each “like” is followed by a fleeting pose, held for just an instant—the whole performance is a string of “takes”—and the ends of key phrases curl up into questions, seeking audience indications that the visuals have been received…the interrogatory incantation takes on a tentative tone, a tone that reaches perpetually for reassurance and permission to go on.

de Zengotita, Mediated, page 84

The need for reassurance reminded me of this, from John Berger:

To be born a woman is to be born, within an allotted and defined space, into the keeping of men. The social presence of women has developed as a result of their ingenuity in living under such tutelage within such a limited space.…A woman must continually watch herself. She is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself. Whilst she is walking across a room or whilst she is weeping at the death of her father, she can scarcely avoid envisaging herself walking or weeping. From earliest childhood she has been taught and persuaded to survey herself continually.

And so she comes to consider the surveyor and the surveyed within her as the two constituent yet always distinct elements of her identity as a woman.

She has to survey everything she is and ultimately everything she does because how she appears to others, and ultimately how she appears to men, is of crucial important for what is normally thought of as the success of her life. Her own sense of being in herself is supplanted by a sense of being appreciated as herself by another.

Berger, Ways of Seeing, page 46

Taken in that context, the use of “like” among adolescent girls is mere practice—a means to invite criticism from her peers about the identity she is trying on. It is at once a perverse and skilfull means of acquiring power within a society reluctant to give it.