Living with the monster

So, there’s this customs officer who keeps seeing the same truck pull up to his border crossing week after week. Now, he just knows the driver’s carrying contraband, but his searches never turn up a thing. Years pass, and the officer finally says to the driver, “Mister, I know you’re smuggling, but I can’t figure what it is. Look, I’m retiring. Swear I won’t tell a soul. Come on. Tell me what it is you’re smuggling.”

“Trucks,” says the driver.

Todd Gitlin, a sociologist and noted 1960s activist and historian, uses this joke to start off his book Media Unlimited as a way of conveying just how supersaturated American lives are with mass media. “The media have been smuggling the habit of living with the media” for so long now that we don’t recognize their presence even when they’re right in our faces. We don’t just watch media—we’re not merely informed or entertained by media; we live with the media. Megabytes of stats back him up. A TV is turned on in the average American home more than seven hours a day; each individual within that home watches an average of four hours apiece.

The question, of course, is why we subject ourselves to a media soup that we know systematically emphasizes the shallow, the bizarre, the sexual and the violent. “Because it’s fun” only gets you two points out of 10. Gitlin’s answer gets him five, which is to say that Gitlin’s thesis is half interesting but pulls back just when a less academically judicious and “balanced” thinker would plunge.

Gitlin’s training is in sociology, so he naturally gravitates toward thinkers such as Karl Marx and Max Weber to explain phenomena that arise out of capitalist societies. He claims that men and women living in an advanced capitalist society have to learn to live rational lives just to survive the urban jungle. We still feel, of course, but we sideline our emotions, reserving them “for convenient times when they may be expressed without risk to workaday life.” The various forms of mass media, he writes, provide these “convenient times” where our deepest “hungers” can be felt intensely for the moment and then disposed.

Gitlin isn’t always as bullish on mass media as he sounds here, but he clearly sees no need for real alarm. The fact that mass media don’t address our desires (and fears) directly but sublimate and recreate them through a consumerist lens doesn’t strike him as particularly egregious. Though parts of the book are useful, the overall argument is vapid because Gitlin never goes beyond vague talk about “feelings” and “hungers” that mass media supposedly sublimate and distract us from. What are these feelings and hungers, anyway? In a characteristic move, Gitlin first quotes Pascal to the effect that all forms of entertainment were “efforts to divert [ourselves] from the inescapable fact of human mortality.”

Aha! The fear of death makes us panic; thus, we employ all means at our disposal to forget we’re mortal. There’s an idea. But Gitlin rushes away from it. He rushes, too, from the idea that our deepest “hungers” might be for love, communion and relief from loneliness, and that the “love” that media provide us is fatally fake, as false a connection as the ones that form between lonely viewers and the characters on Friends. Gitlin prefers to think that the consumerist sheep, the entertainment junkies that we see all around us—that we perhaps are—are more or less OK. They might be “overwhelmed,” but they’re getting the pleasure and freedom they need.

But look into the eyes of a sullen 12-year-old flicking the buttons of his Game Boy while bobbing to Jay-Z on his headphones. Tell me he’s getting anything close to what he needs.