"One of the best books on the media I've ever read."
-- Brian Lehrer, WNYC

"[A] dazzling array of provocative social theories"
-- The Times of London

"[D]eceptively colloquial, intellectually dense ... a must-read for philosophers of every stripe"
-- Publisher's Weekly

"[L]ike spending time with a wild, wired friend--the kind who keeps you up late and lures you outside your comfort zone with a speed rap full of brillaint notions."
-- O Magazine

"A haunting, fertile book...if you want to think afresh about who you are and how you came to believe what you believe, start here."
-- The Observer (Guardian)

"[A] fine roar of a lecture about how the American mind is shaped"
-- Washington Post

"De Zengotita...is probably the best mass media critic out there"
-- raintaxi.com

Read more reviews...


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Reviews and Mentions for Mediated

"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. Let me offer my salute to Thomas de Zengotita.
-- Norman Mailer

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"If the world as we perceive it is made by, for, and of the media, Thomas de Zengotita is our Captain Cook and Christopher Columbus. He sets out to discover what we see and how we know and the result is a brilliant book, as entertaining as it is insightful."
-- Lewis Lapham

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Times of London

Mediated, by Thomas de Zengotita, is a dazzling array of provocative social theories pinned around the idea that the media now permeates every strand of our experience.

We are mediated to the nth degree. iPod, Therefore I Am might have been well served by a closer look at the ideas beneath the surface, whereas the ideas of Mediated come so thick and fast that sometimes the good ones get lost along the way.

Thomas de Zengotita believes that the media influences so many human experiences that it is hard to be certain whether something is real (as in directly lived) or transmuted through the distorting lens of the mass media.

For example, was grief for the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, real or constructed? Is so much now known about public figures that it is inevitable that all heroes will be shown to have feet of clay? Why does our generation indulge a cult of childhood innocence? Why is politics regarded as a charade, and yet sporting excellence increasingly revered as true heroism? De Zengotita answers his questions with a chatty, restless and energetic brilliance that suggests that he can't stop writing in case he loses the train of thought.

Mediated is a polymath's ingenious take on modern life, a cultural examination of the state we're in. Intellectually, there is a slight circularity to the central argument: if the media is interpreted so broadly, it is little wonder that everything can be traced back to the media's influence. Postmodern social theory also has an innate linguistic slipperiness, a problem exacerbated by de Zengotita's fondness for ironies within ironies. This is not an easy book. Sometimes I felt that I was reading a clever idea without being sure what that idea actually meant. But that does not detract from its sparkling intellectual firepower.

Mediated is as impressive as it is provocative.

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The Washington Post

"Let your mind alone!" wrote New Yorker humorist James Thurber in a broadside against self-help tomes by psyched-out psychologists and other well-meaning oafs. But the mind is, as the Zen masters say, a drunken monkey -- and does not want to be left alone. In an age of endless e-mails, tidy TiVos, cell phones, Blast-faxes, broadband and satellite channels by the hundreds, being left alone is not an option for many in the overdeveloped world.

Mediated, by Harper's magazine contributing editor Thomas de Zengotita, aims to "zap the Zeitgeist." It's a fine roar of a lecture about how the American mind is shaped by (too much) media -- aphoristic and brilliant in spots, way over, under and around the top in others. The dust jacket blurb by the bombastic Norman Mailer is no accident, comrade.

De Zengotita shows why we viewers are endlessly "flattered" by the way the world is brought to us by our many fiber-optic wires. You live, he writes, in "a world of effects" where you can be "a connoisseur of what moves you." "It's all about the options -- and they are all about you. No limits. You are totally free to choose because it really doesn't matter what you choose." Why? Because we live in a world where instant shifts by remote controls, mouse clicks and Verizon 411 make our own identities fluid.

"We are all Method actors now," writes de Zengotita, who actually did study Method acting. Because we see so many performances, we live in a Performance Culture, aided by a Therapy Culture. Ever notice how even "normal" people speak in sound-bite when interviewed at random? That's because our behavior becomes part of an ongoing narrative about ourselves, shaped by the thousands of narratives we are force-fed by our endlessly seductive media every day.

The upside of media saturation is that we are more tolerant of others because we see their stories, too. One downside is that childhood has become a cult, replete with options that often last into midolescence (kids in their twenties, unable to choose, living at home). The antique world view of a stable, instructive mom and dad on "Leave it to Beaver" has been replaced by "The Simpsons," where the world is "chaos. No one is in charge. It is absurd in small ways, teetering on the brink of catastrophe in larger ways. . . . . Adults in this show are weak, conniving, hypocritical, vain, confused, deluded -- at best they are well-meaning but inept." At the end "we know the Simpsons will gather again on their couch bathed in the glow of their giant television. . . . We understand why they immerse themselves in representations to shelter themselves from whatever reality there is out there -- may the saints preserve us from it. We do the same thing."

De Zengotita's is a book of provocative description. He is an adventurer of the digitized American psyche, telling you the strange and glittering concepts he saw looking at "the ids of our kids," the twilight of our heroes (about whom we now know too much), politics in the grip of crisis and scandal (the only time we care) and how even once-awesome Nature has to get "realer than real" to hold our vagrant attention.

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Thomas de Zengotita's Mediated will fundamentally rework the way you see the world, which may in turn lead to fundamental reworkings of how you live in it. Perhaps the easiest way to describe what de Zengotita means by "mediated" is to say that everything in the world-- every car color, perfume scent, and variety of corn chip-- is there for you: The world as presented to us by media revolves entirely around us consumers. Couple this with the fact that everything operates simultaneously as thing and as representative-- there's McDonald's, the actual place where you can buy fries that taste the same in Minneapolis and Madrid, and there's "McDonald's," which is the fact of McDonald's in the world-- and de Zengotita's argument becomes clearer: there's nothing that isn't mediated. For example, when you're introduced to someone and you shake their hand to meet them, you also meet yourself meeting them--you mentally gauge yourself, the firmness of your grip, and if your smile is that perfectly practiced mix of earnestness and wisdom you've seen so often in the media.

De Zengotita, a contributing editor at Harper 's, is probably the best mass media critic out there, if for no reason other than that he's simultaneously dead serious, funny as hell, and he actually uses vulgar language in the truest sense. He uses "like" in the way you and I use "like" (as in, like, a lot), and he begins sentences that become questions halfway through. His writing never gets mired in academic terms, never makes you feel like if you missed the Ph.D. train, you'll probably miss his point, too. Best of all, de Zengotita wonderfully refuses to allow that there's some simple, clear way out of this; as he carefully articulates, there are few scenarios other than emergency or chaos that can snap us from our bubble of mediation (and sometimes not even then-- when we respond to the late-night, desperate phone call, is our response informed by all the late-night, desperate phone calls we've seen on television?). His conclusion especially is not the self-congratulatory closure that our mediated selves desire--which is, of course, precisely de Zengotita's point.
-- Weston Cutter

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O Magazine

Reading Thomas de Zengotita's MEDIATED is like spending time with a wild, wired friend--the kind who keeps you up late and lures you outside your comfort zone with a speed rap full of brillaint notions. Some disintegrate under sober scrutiny; others are potentially life-changing. De Zengotita offers no solution to the problems of the mediated life--except heightened awareness. Mission accomplished. His challenging assertions, presented in zingy, robust prose, will keep you up thinking.
-- Judith Stone

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Publisher's Weekly

In a deceptively colloquial, intellectually dense style, de Zengotita posits that since the 1960s, Americans have belonged to a culture of reflexivity, and the media in all their forms have put us there. We're bombarded from childhood with so many images putting "us"--"the individual person--"at the center of the universe that we cannot help thinking that this is where we belong. We live in a Times Square world, says the Harper's contributing editor, and thus we become the ultimate Descartesians: media think only of us, therefore we think only of ourselves. The result of this self-centeredness is that we become increasingly numbed by the bombardment of images and, in a variation on the "if a tree falls in the woods" query, we can no longer imagine our premediated lives. Media imagery has given us an omniscient perspective--"we can be on the grassy knoll, by the Twin Towers, on the beach as the tsunami hits--"while never having to incur the horrors of being there. "Mediation" inevitably closes us off to the unmediated world, home of those victims of the tsunami whose lives are hideously hard and where no media put them front and center. This provocative, extreme and compelling work is a must-read for philosophers of every stripe.

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De Zengotita's style is both reflective and sardonic as he delves into the ways the media has shaped our individual reactions to modern culture and events. Influenced by the media-inspired "culture of performance," we now live our lives as if we are performers practicing method acting, he maintains. We go through the motions of expected reactions to everything from the 9/11 terrorist attacks to Princess Diana's death to documentaries of the Kennedy assassination and the civil rights movement. The Internet,a satellite television, and a host of technological products and services now give us the impression of participating in current and historical events to such an extent that we can barely distinguish the varying levels of what de Zengotita categorizes as ranging from the real-real to the unreal real. Analyzing car commercials, cell-phone usage, the social art of teenagers, and other aspects of modern culture, with keen detail and wit, de Zengotita offers an amazing look at how media affects our culture, our choices, and our responses to our media-filtered lives. Completely absorbing, amusing and insightful.
-- Vanessa Bush

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Library Journal

de Zengotita, Thomas. Mediated: How the Media Shapes Your World and the Way You Live in It.
This first work by de Zengotita, a contributing editor at Harper's and the Nation, is smart, provocative, and funny. The author challenges us to consider what, if anything, we still experience that remains unmediated, or uninfluenced by media representations. Weddings, for instance? No, we probably think Big White Dress, Cake, Nervous Groom. Once something is mediated, it can't be unmediated, and it becomes representational; we are not compelled to care deeply about it. In any case, we are so bombarded with choices and options that we simply lack the time and energy to process our experiences originally. We simply choose "our" issues and turn off emotional reactions to the rest. To show how powerfully the media influence us, de Zengotita uses a wide range of material, including the commodification of historical monuments, the death of Princess Diana, and the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal. The result is a compelling analysis that's also solidly grounded. Highly recommended for both public and academic libraries. [Feb 15, 2005, v130 i3 p141(1)]
-- Audrey Snowden, John F. Kennedy Sch. of Queretaro, Mexico

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Christian Science Monitor

Reality is so passé
The 'flattered self' is chic
By Jonathon Keats

By Thomas de Zengotita

Seeking to interest visitors in George Washington's life, curators at his Mount Vernon estate recently attempted to recreate the deathbed stench of the first president as he lay in state. They gave up on the idea, but their instinct was perfectly in sync with a culture consumed by 24-hour technicolor surround-sound entertainment.

"Real isn't real enough," writes Thomas de Zengotita in "Mediated," his spectacular widescreen critique of contemporary American culture. "That's the telltale sign of an otherwise invisible tipping point in the historical balance between representation and represented. It marks a threshold of saturation, the point beyond which no real entity can survive in popular culture."
George Washington's sad fate runs deeper than the common complaint that we live in an age without heroes. Indeed, the reason his story no longer looms as large as Mount Rushmore helps explain how our world came to be mediated, and what it means to live in it.

Compare Washington for a moment with those who now command widespread public enthusiasm, people such as Eminem, Oprah, and Barry Bonds. What distinguishes them is that they're here to perform for us. That's their foremost talent. They're consumer goods, glibly packaged products. Their images can be mixed and matched, ours for the taking, as disposable as press-on nails.

The defining feature of our culture, according to de Zengotita, is our mass narcissism. He refers to this as the "flattered self, a self that exists in its very own field of representations, that constructs its own identity, chooses what it wants to be." We got to be that way primarily because of the astonishing abundance of opportunities that have practically defined the 20th century, perhaps best illustrated by the fact that, in a single afternoon, the average American is exposed to more vibrant sensations in greater variety than was Constantine or Henry VIII or Napoleon over a whole lifetime.

"Reality is becoming indistinguishable from representation in a qualitatively new way," de Zengotita claims. Reality TV and blogging, for example, conveniently close the loop on our narcissism, eliminating the middleman. Prenups and iPods represent the apotheosis of optionality in our lives. Whereas marriage was once forever and music was a special occasion, our experience of reality is now malleable, a customized environment, a virtual extension of our desires. And both of these strands tie together in our fascination with cloning - what could be more narcissistic than living among optional selves?

De Zengotita's book may be just the "real entity" to make us flinch - and think.

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"A conversation with Tom de Zengotita is about the most engaging and enlightening experience a thinking person can have. This book feels as natural and personal as having Tom in your own living room, drawing you out, considering your responses, and then bringing you to new levels of awareness. Here's a man who understands both the media and his medium so completely that the connections he makes across the vast landscapes of popular culture end up feeling like spontaneous discoveries by the reader. Invite Tom into your head and heart by all means, and try walking around the world really seeing for a while. You may decide to stay that way."
-- Douglas Rushkoff
author of Media Virus, Nothing Sacred, Coercion, ScreenAgers

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"Read Tom de Zengotita's Mediated for a brilliant reflection on postmodern culture and our peculiar, performing, contemporary selves and the media that make and reflect us. It's a great read, and you'll never feel the same about your kids, your friends, or yourself again."
-- Frances Fox-Piven
author of Poor Peoples' Movements and The War at Home

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"One of the best books on the media I've ever read."
-- Brian Lehrer, WNYC

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The Observer (Guardian)

Why we are what we are
Thomas de Zengotita argues that the modern media shape people's lives in totally new ways in his haunting study, Mediated, says Peter Preston

At first sight, the latest media studies thesis in town isn't exactly cutting-edge. Indeed, the Bard of Avon had the jump on Thomas de Zengotita, professor of anthropology at New York University (and Harper's guru). All the world's a stage and all the men and women merely players? Just so. It's precisely what the prof is arguing. But at least his Shakespeare arrives in postmodern, anti-terrorist dress with high-tech gadgetry attached.

Long ago, he says, de Zengotita was taking a course in method acting, simulating extreme grief, when news came banging at the door. John Kennedy is dead! And suddenly his Lee Strasberg-dtrained class dissolved into true grief, except that, audibly, visibly, no one could tell the difference. The method was the continuing message. It is this utter confusion of reality and virtual reality that sends his mind spinning on.

Were the hundreds of thousands of Londoners who turned out for Princess Di's funeral genuine mourners, gripped by genuine emotion? Perhaps, in a way; the mediated way of his title. But they were also volunteer players on an ad-hoc stage, groundlings seeking their moment in history's arc-light. And if that was true for Di, and for the thousands who thronged St Peter's Square when the Pope died on nonstop cable news, think what de Zengotita would have made of London two weeks ago and its silence for the slaughtered lambs.

Almost everything, you see, comes to us through some media prism, which, in turn, colours not just our view of this life, but our own self-definition. We are products of immense, often inchoate, media indoctrination.

Moreover, the very pattern of life we take for granted, our normality, is hectic, digital and new, quite different in kind from that of even recent generations. You know where you were when Kennedy or Di died or the Twin Towers came toppling down. But does anybody, except those few who were there, on the spot, remember Pearl Harbor?

No, because no instant, vivid media existed to bring the enormity of that moment to you and make you share it. Our lives, as recently as the first half of the 20th century, were different in kind: isolated, unchanging, experiencing great events at a sluggardly distance.

You recognise that in so many ways if you pause and ponder. De Zengotita, who has a wonderful way with personal anecdotes, says silly little reconstructed things can make you cry, and he's right.

I remember, a few years ago, weeping uncontrollably in my living room at the sweep of a panning shot which ends Mississippi Gambler as Piper Laurie rushes aboard the steamboat into Tyrone Power's arms. Why weep? Because, 50 years after I first saw that film, a lone schoolboy in the back row of the Victory cinema in Loughborough, experiencing it all over again, as though I was still that boy, first tears remembered and frozen in time.

No generation before had such a bank of mediated memory to draw on. Old music hall stars perished and vanished forever. Old wonders of history were written about, not experienced. The world had heroes, say, Nelson or Alexander, but the world did not see them close up, if at all. Human existence was cramped, confined. Most people had few life choices to make because life itself gave them few options.

Rivetingly, de Zengotita examines what that means for the ages of man. Childhood? That used to be a brief, passing phase between cradle and a full working life, not a decade or more of anxiety and expense. Teenage years? The very concept of 'a teenager', all acne and slammed doors and CDs blasting out, is a totally 20th-century construct. We didn't have teenagers with teenage problems before then: neither the word nor the concept existed.

At which point, other puzzles fall into place. Take the supposed political apathy of the young. If, for years on end, they're sifting the mediated options, deciding who they are or want to be, then is it any wonder that politics, using pop video techniques and pop slogans inferior to the pitch on cans of Diet Cola, is the option they never find time for, one limp message among many more compulsive ones?

It isn't the spin that turns them off; it's the style and the tone of voice. It's Clinton and Bush and, yes, of course, Tony Blair acting again, because acting is what they all have to do while the media carousel turns.

This is a fertile, haunting book, with a thesis that peddles awareness, not conclusions. But once you've absorbed the awareness, you're bound to see life a little differently, and to keep asking the most vexing of questions. If I am a sponge, an assemblage of images, sounds and influences, always looking out for my 15 minutes of fame, always rehearsing what I'll say if a camera pokes its head round my doorway or a producer from reality television comes knocking with a contract, then where is the real me, the inner core, not the outer show?

De Zengotita remembers looking at his mother one day in the kitchen and thinking: 'That woman bore me in her womb.' We've all done that, I guess. But is it reality or a line from a movie somewhere?

And so, inevitably, queasily, back to the biggest mediated experience of our age. On the morning of 9/11, de Zengotito was sitting in a park by Brooklyn Bridge. What was that bang? A gas main exploding? It's days before he's allowed to cross the East River to see for himself. 'It was chaos, a gigantic instantiation of necessity and accident.' It had cracked apart the expected frame of media representation. It was a tangle of shapes and miseries on a beautiful September day. It was - the exact word - surreal. More, much more, than a Hollywood blockbuster: a shattering experience because without the gloss of art or intellectual point or meaning, a glimpse of reality unmediated, the difference between watching a screen and being there amid dust and rubble.

Was that the difference for Londoners between the choking blackness of the Piccadilly line and the silence of Trafalgar Square? Or had one bitter reality been subsumed by mediated mourning? The professor, witty and pungent throughout, says he voted for Ralph Nader in 2000, so he's not infallible.

But if you want to think afresh about who you are and how you came to believe what you believe, start here.

Copyright Guardian Newspapers Limited


About the Author

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Thomas de Zengotita is a contributing editor at Harper's Magazine and holds a Ph.D. in anthropology from Columbia University. He teaches at the Dalton School and at the Draper Graduate Program at New York University. (Click here for a list of Thomas's publications.)


» Mediated Glossary
» Introduction & Basic Concepts (PDF) (mp3)
» Samples of Slang Analysis:
     - Whatever (PDF)
     - Like (PDF)
     - Awesome (PDF)
» The Fate of Nature (PDF)

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