Momus | Essays

Mediation for the Masses

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).

Comments [14]

Thanks for the post. I'm looking forward to the read.
Gary Fogelson

nathan barley was very funny a few years ago on t.v. go home. the series is too little too late.

zengotita sounds far scarier.

The idea of narcissism as a force for good pretty much mirrors the notion of greed is good. "We may do things because we selfishly want to look good, but hey, if it actually does good, it's all good!" cf: "the free market might work on a principle of self-interest, but hey, if that ends up helping to create wealth for everyone, it's all good!" (The giveaway is your use of the Reaganite expression "trickle down")

Of course both are very comforting positions, which is obviously the appeal of them. "I actually can be a greedy narcissistic asshole, because it's for the common weal!" And the fact that it's comfort-food ideology is precisely why we should be suspicious of it.

Well, I agree with you that it's optimistic, a feelgood or comfort food ideology. Fairness and sustainability have to be key elements in the "trade not aid" mindset that sees benefits "trickling down".

I think, though, a certain optimism and practicality is what the left really needs. Have a look at Lillian Rubin's essay in Dissent magazine, "Why Don't They Listen To Us? Speaking To The Working Class":


There you have it in a nutshell. Traditional left wing arguments can no longer carry the people, especially in America. We need a new template. And whatever you think of Zengotita's mediators, or Richard Florida's rising "creative class" with its three Ts (technology, talent, tolerance), they do provide a template for a kind of liberalism -- a glitzy, narcissistic, selfish, showbizzy sort of liberalism, perhaps, but a seductive and powerful one -- that might actually succeed.

Nick Currie

Also, if people are in an essay-reading mood, Karrie Jacobs' piece in Metropolis, "Why I Don't Love Richard Florida" is interesting:


Jacobs largely agrees with Florida's analysis, but disputes the figures and doesn't think that cities like SF are necessarily a good model for other places. I think, personally, that her argument tends to kick away the ladder that Zengotita wants to keep in place, and I think her perspective suffers somewhat from what I call "pioneer snobbism". "We've all done that thing, so now nobody else can."
Nick Currie

i read the salon.com article and i feel that zengotita is a bit misrepresented by the post. yes he does argue that the effect of mediation can have a global good, but he does so with a grain of salt and a tongue in cheek. right after he makes the comment about 'big food courts', he goes on to say:

"But do I put it this way in order to cause this intellectual pain? Yes. It certainly causes me intellectual pain. Not to be able to think of a real alternative, I mean, like socialism used to seem to be. But maybe we should just sit with this for a while. We're surrounded by so many bogus solutions and predictions about the world, and there are so many spheres of activity you can rush into and feel you're doing something. "

i dont think zengotita necessarily sees light at the end of the tunnel, i think he just doesnt want to give up on where the world is at right now. i dont find his views very prescriptive, i think he just doesnt want to stop at cynicism. and it seems that he is making fun of narcissism. he and the interviewer make fun of 'adultolescents' who suffer existential crisis from having too many options in life, while people are starving and suffering in the world.

the thought that we are always performing is really quite sad. i remember being a foreign student in spain about 12 years ago. i had a few irish roommates they were talking about how they were amazed by the fact that some of their american classmates seemed like complete television personalities. i guess i observed that self consciousness in self projection too when i was in spain in other americans, when they changed themselves in order to be perceived a certian way in a foreign country. being from a 'nonculture' pushed people to act more self-reflexively 'american', though that always seemed to mean a southern accent.

im not sure i understand the comment about the chinese. pretty much all societies in the world were starving two generations ago. wasnt europe in ruins right after wwii? so whats so strange about the chinese students wanting to be graphic designers or television producers? the world is changing fast and im not sure why so many people still find that surprising. as if the 'third world' cant have any benefits of the 'first world'.

and also, there are already legions of filipinos and chinese and thais who are speaking into their cellphone headsets and plugging their websites. just log into myspace.com and youll find a ton of people from all over the world there who are completely mediated already. its not just the british or the americans or the japanese who get to do it.


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.

Is this really the case? Most of us, surely, are suspicious of people who seem to be putting on an act - faking the appearance of authenticity and not being true to who or what they really are. We need to trust people to enter into social, emotional and, for that matter, business dealings with them and you can't trust someone who is faking. This isn't to say that people, especially young people who are still finding out who they are, don't experiment with their personalities and behaviour. And, of course, we express different sides of ourselves in different situations. But in an older person choosing "who you want to be today", as though there was nothing stable at the core, won't be convincing. We'll wonder what they are trying to hide.

The questions this interesting post raises touch directly on design. The problem with so much design effort is that it is so transparently a form of faked authenticity. Its effect is willed, confected, insincere, manipulative. It reflects what its commissioners and designers want the thing it represents to be, rather than what it actually is. It substitutes surface for depth. Narcissism a solution? I can't see it.
Rick Poynor

i think it is an interesting post as well. there is another longer thread on this board that is discussing the question of authenticity as well, albeit from other angle.

what i find interesting about momus' post and zengotita's article (tho to a lesser extent in his writing because i think he is not as wide eyed and optimistic as he is presented to be) is the underlying theme of finding authenticity through helping others. in purely objective terms i suppose that helping others does make the world a better place.

helping 'those less fortunate' is a good branding strategy for corporations, as well as for individuals. i remember starbucks had an instore campaign that featured photographs of all of their indian south american workers who picked their coffee beans. starbucks got to promote how they deal in a fair way with their workers in south america and dont oppress them, which was good for their brand, and the imagery of non-white, poor people added a nice authenticity to their stores. all the while the customers in their stores are participating in globalism by drinking up indonesian and south american blends.

the point is, those 'less fortunate' are usually the impovershed non-westerners of the world. missionary zeal really hasnt died in the west. perhaps 'helping others' is another version of missionary zeal?

usually the west finds authenticity in the "other", and even though we are in such a multicultural age (its a fact and reality, not an ideal), it surprises me how much people from europe and north america still look to what used to be called the third world and hope to find authenticity there. its a more sophisticated form of the sixties. rather than go backpacking in india, one goes to goa for raves or thailand for moon parties. i guess its a lot more decadent now, but also a lot lighter.

i guess where i agree with zengotita is that, well, maybe all this shallowness isnt so harmful. human beings arent perfect. a lot of people are shallow, you know, and dont really like to think about things. theyre too busy with school or work or their kids or whatever, as they should be. the world is what it is and maybe its better not to question it so much.

"The problem with so much design effort is that it is so transparently a form of faked authenticity. Its effect is willed, confected, insincere, manipulative."

If it is so transparent how come it is a problem? If it comes across as insincere, how can it be manipulative?

There's a fine line between exaggerated and fake. There's a fine line between what we will and won't tolerate.
Steven K.

Manuel's point that "usually the west finds authenticity in the "other" is spot on, and an example of the dangers of rejecting our own postmodernism. Our desire to preserve the authenticity of the other is, effectively, a desire to kick away the ladder, to preserve the poverty of the other. We see it in Karrie Jacobs' article attacking Richard Florida. Sure, she seems to say, creative values are fine for we San Franciscans. But you guys in Baltimore wouldn't really want to be as plastic as we are. And we need you to stay "real" for us.

Rick said: "Most of us, surely, are suspicious of people who seem to be putting on an act".

Well, that's why we fake authenticity daily, rather than simply presenting ourselves, more honestly, as something constructed and confected! I think there are differences between Europeans and Americans on this issue. (And possibly between pop musicians, trained to commodify themselves from the start, and writers, trained to "get to the realities behind appearances".) Europeans still want people to seem authentic, whereas Americans are more open to the idea of a Nietzschean self-construction as something legitimate. Even when this goes as horribly wrong as it has done in the case of Michael Jackson, intelligent observers are left wondering whether the facade is real, or the facade is a facade, or whether the facade being a facade is itself real. Tina Brown, writing in the Washington Post, is still speculating on whether Jackson has a "false front" and isn't in fact less weird than the freak show suggests.

Wondering, in other words, whether he's concocted an elaborate self-mediation in order to conceal some kind of authenticity! Horrific as it may seem, I don't think it's far-fetched to say that we are all, in some small way, Michael Jackson. I've certainly noticed a surprising number of Jackson impersonators in the third world, which tends to confirm the idea that postmodern identity mediation really is "trickling down", and much faster than we realise.

The day after I posted this essay, with the aside about Bono managing to revoke third world debt thanks, in part, to his skills in self-mediation, a story appeared on MSNBC news saying that Bono was being considered as the new head of the World Bank! Life is stranger than... well, essays!

Rick concludes his comment: "The problem with so much design effort is that it is so transparently a form of faked authenticity. Its effect is willed, confected, insincere, manipulative. It reflects what its commissioners and designers want the thing it represents to be, rather than what it actually is. It substitutes surface for depth. Narcissism a solution? I can't see it."

Surely this isn't limited to design. What you're describing is the essence of postmodernism itself. And I think the originality of Zengotita's analysis lies in the idea that instead of retreating from postmodernism (with the danger I outline above, of retreating into a reactionary Romanticism of authenticity in which the poor stay poor) we must go further into it. The solution is in expanding spin culture, self-mediation culture, the culture of surfaces, postmodernism, to everyone.

By the way, I accept that I have over-stated Zengotita's Panglossian optimism somewhat. Ass-covering qualifications don't really interest me. In a short essay, you go for your subject's biggest, boldest ideas.
Nick Currie

Places that depend on tourism project an image that enforces outsiders' stereotype of the natives, in order to continue receiving tourist dollars.

In Hawaii (which is still considered an exotic getaway, even though it is a US state), locals of color work part time jobs dressed up as natives at the polynesian cultural center to keep alive ideas of otherness and exoticism in visitors. In the Philippines, I've been to an eco park where one can observe muslims and native 'mountain people' living in their 'natural habitat'.

At the end of 'man on the moon', andy kaufmann goes to the philippines in the hopes of finding a secret indigenous cure to his cancer. but in the end, he finds that the joke is on him, realizing that the magical healers are pulling a scam on unwitting visitors.

in more current events, an extreme example of wishing to help others is happening in iraq, where americans can't understand why iraqis dont want the freedom we americans are bringing them. im sure there are quite a few enlisted men and women who believe they are acting selflessly and bringing american ideals of capitalism and self governance for the benefit of locals.

so maybe the desire to project an image that is selfless and is only wishing to innocently help others can actually be quite harmful. but then again, powerful currency is beneficial to places that depend on tourism for their sustenance. and maybe 'the american way' might turn out better than saddam's way.

i guess any way you look at it there is no easy answer.


Well, I still find that Momus's postmodern proselytism echoes the neocon discourse on exporting "freedom" to the world, and I don't see why a culture of self-mediation is going to do anything significant to eliminate poverty in a general way. I find that notion quite bizarre, in fact. It will simply create new divisions, just as it has done in the U.S. itself, where the wealth gap is wider than ever before. The alternative that Momus warns us about, that we return to the romance of the extoticised "other" which will perpetuate poverty, is really the feeblest of straw men. This is not the nineteenth century.

The notion of authenticity -- the "realness" of those who suffer, and the supposed dignity and humanity that suffering confers -- didn't, alas, end with the 19th century. Like the poor, and like religion, it seems always to be with us. It's not a straw man, but a real and present danger, in my view.
Nick Currie

The problem with so much design effort is that it is so transparently a form of faked authenticity. Its effect is willed, confected, insincere, manipulative. It reflects what its commissioners and designers want the thing it represents to be, rather than what it actually is. It substitutes surface for depth. Narcissism a solution? I can't see it.

but what about hero worship? role models? i want to be like _______. isn't that sincere, earnest, heartfelt, authentic? there are plenty of designers to look up to, and it's human to not be praiseworthingly original. this is just on the production side, though.

and ditto on steven's post. we know they're posers, just like us.

which is not to say that authentic people aren't respected. it's just not possible for some people anymore.

 Momus Nick Currie, more popularly known under the artist name Momus (after the Greek god of mockery), is a songwriter, blogger and former journalist for Wired.

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