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Other Book Reviews:

The Shape of a Pocket
- John Berger

Somebody's Gotta Tell It
- Todd Gitlin

Carter Beats the Devil
- Glen David Gold

Violence, Nudity, Adult Content
- Vince Passaro

Perpetual War For Perpetual Peace
- Gore Vidal
The War Against Cliche
- Martin Amis
Look at Me
- Jennifer Egan

Them: Adventures With Extremists
- Jon Ronson

Tishomingo Blues
- Elmore Leonard

Letters to a Young Contrarian - Christopher Hitchens
With Love and Squalor -
Kip Kotzen and Thomas Beller
Shanghai Baby -
Wei Hui
Shop Talk -
Philip Roth

Halls of Fame -
John D'Agata
This is Not a Novel -
David Markson
My Name is Red -
Orhan Pamuk
The Corrections -
Jonathan Franzen
Nickel and Dimed On (Not) Getting By in America -
Barbara Ehrenreich
Spreading Misandry
P. Nathanson and K. Young

Media Unlimited
How the torrent of images and sounds overwhelms our lives
by Todd Gitlin (Metropolitan Books, 2001)

See if this sounds familiar. You're on the couch flipping the channels, seemingly engaged for 10 minutes here, five minutes there with shows that actually seem to pique your interest. The only trouble is, when they cut to commercial and you cut to another channel, you end up forgetting the program you just mentally noted to come back to. It's only later that you realize that if asked you couldn't describe anything you just watched. There go three hours of your life.

Odds are, no matter how engaged you are in other pursuits, this scenario rings a bell. If it's any consolation, rest assured that you're not alone. Television is merely the easiest target (though the Internet made a brief run at the top spot a while back) in a system comprised of the latticework of supply and demand in which capitalism, technological advances (making everything faster, quieter, hipper and tastier than we could ever have imagined!) and human desires all factor in to play to both create and feed a culture which refuses to rest on its laurels. In the age of prequels, sequels, co-branding initiatives, product placement, hands-free communication, cars which have become rolling entertainment centers, online matchmaking, reality TV and instant idol worship and instant demonization, there is a surprising amount of navel-gazing that occurs on the subject of what entertains us and keeps us plugging in.

Is it mere hubris or a sign of our moral bankruptcy which leads us in search of more, or is it perhaps something intrinsic to our western, liberal cosmopolitan culture which keeps us always in search of the newest content provider to stream information into our increasingly harried lives? In his newest book, Media Unlimited, sociologist Todd Gitlin holds that it is the latter, arguing that these "nonstop mass-produced images and sounds are central elements of our civilization" and in this schema, "There is no choice but to navigate. Sink or swim."

Sounds vaguely like a threat. But is it? Beginning with the concept of what he calls "iconic plentitude", in which "To grow up in this culture is to grow into an expectation that images and sounds will be there for us on command, and that the stories that they compose will be succeeded by still other stories, all bidding for our attention, all striving to make sense, all, in some sense, ours." Gitlin makes the argument that what we are experiencing, much like globalization itself, is merely an intensification of processes long since at work, and to which we are accustomed by dint of growing up in a culture that values innovation, speed and ease of use.

In the hyper-specialized realm of American media, controlled as it is by a dwindling number of international mega-corporations, content is king only insofar as it is able to move units and sustain a certain level of profitability. Living in a market-driven society, there is nothing surprising, or even particularly wrong with that, but in the desiderata of our day to day lives, this twirling, flashing, shouting attempt to capture our attention for a few short moments has led to a glut of uninspired, unfulfilling media that lives in such close proximity to us that we barely realize we're experiencing it anymore.

While cultural critics bemoan the "dumbing down" of the citizenry through the constant bombardment of images and sounds we're enticed with on a daily basis, Gitlin takes a bit more studied approach to the subject. Though he agrees that "broadcast dissemination does not discriminate well between the trivial and the momentous" and thus we become obsessed with the absurdity of the O.J. Simpson trial while ignoring things like massive systematic genocide in Rwanda, Gitlin unfortunately seems to think that we are only able to only react to the media, and like a causeless monad, are powerless to take a proactive stance.

How did the media come to dominate our lives in such a seemingly effortless manner? Well, it was neither effortless nor quick. Obviously, you can trace the origins of mass media back to Gutenberg's moveable press and the mass production of books and newspapers. The postwar German social theorist Jurgen Habermas, in his seminal work The Social Transformation of the Public Sphere, outlines the process brilliantly. The rise of the middle class due to expanding trade during the late Middle Ages and Renaissance period precipitated an increase in social clubs and business associations which sought to spread useful information among its members. This led to the advent of trade newsletters which eventually spread to include news from other towns and cities as business expanded, and so information, and its dissemination, became to be seen as a commodity and therefore something of a business unto itself. As these publications grew in number and became cheaper to produce, they also became more accessible to the population in general and began to delve into scandal and gossip in order to cultivate demand as competition increased. Our own digital media has continued along this path, and continues to grow and reproduce itself as components become cheaper, smaller, and more readily available to the population at large.

The early talk about the centrality of "mass-produced images" to our culture continues to some degree throughout the book, but the crux of the book only comes about half-way through, and most of what comes before seems like filler, only vaguely leading up to his ultimate argument. One of the odder sections of the book concerns a rather too-lengthy discussion of the number of words and punctuation marks in the first sentences of magazine articles and novels over the past century - including graphs that seem to prove his exercise pointless, as in many cases, the change is negligible. In any case, even if the change was greater, it proves little more than the fact that language is elastic and tends to change over time, not necessarily that we have shorter attention spans now than previous generations. Why, after all, should something written in 1896, or even 1936, read the same as something written in 1996? Should the punctuation be the same? Word count? Of course it shouldn't, and it can't, unless we have stopped growing as a culture and no longer discard certain linguistic conventions just as we take others on. After all, should Moll Flanders have the same linguistic structure as London Fields? We should certainly hope not.

What Gitlin spends all this time getting at is an exposition of his categorization system for naming ways we respond to the media (which it seems he believes is all we can hope to do). Each of us, he holds, can be categorized in one of seven different ways: as a fan, critic, ironist, paranoid, jammer, secessionist, or an abolitionist.

The "fan" selectively over-identifies with media icons; the "critic," conversely, "tries to keep a certain distance from the foam to avoid a soaking" but assumes that the world would be a better place if the nature of the content were more intellectually stimulating. The "paranoid," is just that, seeing conspiracy at every turn, exemplified in academia by the Frankfurt School of social criticism. The "exhibitionist" is an eager participant in the media torrent (where would our reality show obsession be without a steady supply of these?), the "ironist" is "confident that the spectacle is nothing but weightless contrivances", while the "jammer" uses the media's images against it, like the cyberpunk literary movement of the 80's and early 90's attempted, with varying degrees of success, to do. Finally, the "secessionist" is one who eschews e-mail and cell phones and tries to plug her ears to the sounds and images that bombard us while the "abolitionist" finds meaning in trying to bring the system down, like the anarchists who have co-opted the anti-globalization movement, or extreme cases like the Unabomber or violent environmental groups.

An interesting take overall, but Gitlin fails to recognize the obvious - that each of us is a little bit of each of these categories rolled into one. We are complex animals who respond to situations in different and often surprising ways. As a sports fan, I admit that I probably over-identify with my favorite baseball team just as much as I am a paranoid who is wary of marketing tactics trying to get me to think or feel a certain way. Each of us has abolitionist tendencies and has probably personally boycotted certain products for ideological reasons just as we all yearn for the little trill we receive when we see our name in print, satisfying our exhibitionist proclivities.

What Gitlin ignores -- purposefully, one assumes - are the wider social ramifications of some of our newest media outlets. As Cass Sunstein points out in his slim, yet excellent book Republic.com, is that our media, while providing us with a thin conception of cultural assimilation, estranges us from one another in a very real way. Sunstein focuses his account on the Internet, so is more limited in scope than what Gitlin is trying to do, but his points translate to our media culture in general. As the range of our media choices grow, we find little niches in which we are most comfortable, and tend to stay there. Pro-life activists read certain websites and participate in online chat forums in which they speak to people who feel the same way. They only watch conservative talk shows and listen to conservative radio programs. They purposefully cut themselves off from other influences and therefore become more radicalized in their beliefs due to the lack of dissent. While we used to have to rely on the local newspaper and television news for our information, and therefore were forced to listen to views which we disagreed with, now, thanks to the "Daily Me" in which we are exposed to only that information which we choose to be exposed to. Our connection to the larger world is actually stunted by specialty web sites and the explosion of content-specific cable television channels, rather than expanded by our immersion in the New Media.

In the end, Gitlin's point about the "torrent of images and sounds" being an indispensable part of our culture is well made, and it is a point many theorists ignore. But he spends too much time conducting little thought experiments and relating personal anecdotes that don't really go anywhere for the book to be a success. Likewise, his "styles of navigation" thesis, or the categorization of how we relate to the media, would likely best have been made in some other forum, as it simply seems tacked on the second half of the book and it's wholly speculative nature clashes with the more academic historical discourse presented at the books outset.


--Paul McLeary


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