No one could have been more pleased than me when I got Thomas de Zengotita’s Mediated out of the free pile at my work a few days after an excerpt appeared in Harper’s. I thought the Harper’s piece was extremely provocative, gave me material for many a blog post. I put off reading it for a few months, sort of the way you put off listening to all of a new album by your favorite band, or read a letter from a friend very deliberately, allowing the joy to sink in. I wanted to savor the anticipation I had of reading it a little longer, much in the way Colin Campbell theorizes in The Romantic Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. I was enjoying imagining all its insight and all the pleasure I would get from it that would, alas, inevitably come to end when I finished reading.
Only once I started Mediated it quickly dawned on me that I hated it. The central thesis, that our apprehension of reality is compromised by the series of options we are confronted with for refashioning it, is still extremely useful, but the manner in which its presented is relentlessly brash, in prose amped up on Mountain Dew and saturated with in jokes desperate to signify that the author’s “with it.” It’s smug, arch, David Brooksian tone grated on me in every possible way, like Laura Kipnis multiplied by ten. I find it extremely upsetting when people who are obviously articulate in social theory pooh-pooh it and refer to it disdainfully even as they patronizingly dumb it down and employ its arguments. It’s as though they think theory is embarrassing, and they would no sooner employ its terminolgy than expose their genitals in a gatefold insert. They try to posture as though theory is in some crank-intellectual ghetto, while they are comfortable in the mainstream of rational thought, purged of fanciful excessiveness and silly jargon. By adopting this stance, they suggest that the mainstream is synonymous with reasonableness, that “everyday” language is not already ideological in character. That’s the problem with trying to translate social theory into slack tweener slang or commonsense conversational tones. The language of mainstream journalism, of op-ed columns and lifestyle magazines, is built to buffer people from the kind of insight that social theory and media criticism is trying to elucidate. So it seems like de Zengotita is bending over backward to undermine his argument with his own prose style. His arguments tend to devour themselves as he loads them with contrived real-life examples and jokey asides. It’s can be as awkward as one of your parents telling a dirty joke, or scripted Acadamy Award banter between presenters. It’s like late Baudrillard without the nihilistic glee.
But worse than that is the implication of his “Justin’s helmet” principle, which, if I’ve understood it properly, suggests that it’s okay and perfectly understandable for parents to suspend what’s in the best interests of society to do what’s in the best interests of their precious child. This is the very essence of capitalist hegmony as it’s enforced by the nuclear family and its cadre of “family values.” This is what the culture war with its “defense of marriage” is all about, reinforcing this selfish attitude (as well as the gender roles that cement this set of social relations) at the expense of a cohesive society. By stressing overanxious “family values” and instilling divisive hostility in the community at large, atomized families are encouraged to turn their backs on each other and accept the war of all against all as natural and even preferable. It is the essence of the Republicans’ salt-the-earth, fuck-the-poor platform, which destroys all the safety nets and attempts to sell it on the short-sighted principle that “you get more for your family.” Forget Justin’s helmet, this should be called the SUV principle: “I dont care if I waste gas and destroy the environment and make it infinitely more difficult for other drivers to negotiate the streets, I just want to make sure if I cause an accident because I can’t really manage a heavy truck, that I kill someone else’s family and not my own.” It’s troubling that de Zengotita seems to endorse this perspective, albeit with a lot of codicils and semi-regrets and hyperventilating excuses. Because if someone who so clearly is capable of “getting it” still caves in to this principle of personal family-oriented selfishness, and elevates it as a universal, unalterable norm, there may really be no hope, as he never tires of insisting.