Articles » National Post

Todd Gitlin’s Media Torrent

March 21, 2002

Post image for Todd Gitlin’s Media Torrent

“Every book,” Todd Gitlin writes, “begins with a dissatisfaction,” and his new survey of our media-drenched environment (Media Unlimited: How the Torrent of Images and Sounds Overwhelms Our Lives; Metropolitan, 2001), offers itself up as an expansive, pleasing antidote. In the field of media studies, academic tracts and trendspotting texts alike have been mired for some time in tired little debates and observations, many bearing little consequence: the tres sophistique pleasures of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or chic new video games in which players are soccer hooligans or WTO protesters. All that creates is a forest-for-the-trees disconnect from the real issue, Gitlin says.

Foregoing the big questions about the media’s effect on society, children and the family cat, the level of intellectual discussion has often rested at trying to keep up with changes to our ever-bubbling media moment. That’s why, even in a rapidly changing field, more venturesome books from yesteryear, like Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death, still cast a tall shadow. Books about understanding the media overdosed in the last decade on the thriving cultural studies market: anyone aching for another Camille Paglia take on Madonna? A veritable cottage industry, the field of media crit brings to mind what Richard Posner recently termed the “market failure” of public intellectuals, who promise the moon but produce stardust.

Moments of atrophy, however, have a way of provoking athletic performances from the more capable. Todd Gitlin, a leading cultural critic and professor in NYU’s Department of Culture and Communication, has made a startling, eloquent and particularly timely contribution to the field with Media Unlimited, one of the most ambitious media treatises since Postman’s classic study, fifteen years ago. It’s a book which takes stock of many media-related squabbles—our obsessions with tabloid news, the relation between on- and offscreen violence, and so on—and synthesizes them in one overarching thesis: it’s the totality of our media diets, the “torrent of sound and images,” that affects our personal behaviour and social attitudes. Media Unlimited offers up a convincing way of seeing media’s effect on us, and suggests the ways in which—even if we don’t know it—we’re actively trying to navigate an all-media, all-the-time lifestyle.

With impressive economy and control, Gitlin plots a tradition of historical concern with distraction, leisure and pleasure: from Pascal to Marx, Wordsworth to Weber, and de Tocqueville to Benjamin. The larger chorus of philosophers and poets teeming in Media Unlimited provide a harbinger of how historical and cultural change has paved the way for our rapacious appetite for the media. The book proceeds from industrialism through rationalized modernity and the media-centric global culture. Gitlin dwells especially on early 20th century German philosopher Georg Simmel, and his notion that modern man “will be overwhelmed and feel disorientated [SIC]” and develop “the hunger for feeling and the taste for the transitory.”

Gitlin glimpses a world rapidly verging on David Foster Wallace’s remarkable vision of pleasure addiction in Infinite Jest., a novel that thoughtfully considers the narcotic effects of our entertainment sensorium. Contemporary global pop culture is a phenomenon that, with its homogenous genres, is unprecedented in “its commitment to entertainment,” as Gitlin explains. It’s a spooky proposition. Gitlin writes: “Media are means. We aim, through media, to indulge and serve our hungers by inviting images and sounds into our lives, making them come and go with ease in a never-ending quest for stimulus and sensation. Our prevailing business is the business not of information but of satisfaction, the feeling of feelings, to which we give as much time as we can manage, not only at home but in the car, at work, or walking down the street. We seek and sometimes find a laugh from a sitcom joke, an erotic twinge from an underwear ad, a jolt of rhythm from a radio playlist, a sensation of moving with remarkable speed through a video game.”

Consider the world Gitlin surveys. It’s a place of constant (always-on) television households, in which the sentence length in bestsellers has declined 43 percent since 1936, in which the cost of entertainment has dramatically decreased and the supply exploded, and in which the [CUT development of the] Walkman and car cup holder, reality TV, the Napster phenomenon, elevator music, branding, and the stars of Hollywood and webcam life are all products of a “fast,” convenience-based economy. The coins of the realm are speed and stimuli: “Today’s camera … cruises, glides, swoops, circles, inches, zooms, hovers, cranes, and jiggles past and around fugitive objects of its attention.” It is a world in which commercials and video games are now “career training grounds” for filmmakers, and in which the mandates of show business reign over the news—this week’s 24/7 tabloid melodrama standing in as “the national discussion.”

“The montage is the message,” Gitlin argues, “and the message is that the torrent feels good.”

The most promising but unrealized segment of Media Unlimited is directed towards understanding different strategies we use to consume media. In his too-brief analysis, Gitlin considers fans, paranoids, exhibitionists (who crave overnight celebrity), ironists, jammers, secessionists (who think remote controls and mute buttons keep them in control) and abolitionists (who advocate tuning out altogether).

Although Gitlin’s remarks are succinct and frequently brilliant, the outright considerations of consumption tend to be unduly reductive. Since the “torrent” is inescapable, he argues, no amount of irony, paranoia, tuning out or idol worship will allow a consumer control over their experience. The all-powerful ability of pop culture to co-op resistance, originality and authenticity for its own means is long since an idée fixe of our times—that Gitlin dwells on it so extensively reveals a certain level of disillusionment. “[S]urrounding oneself with amusements …” Gitlin announces, “tranquilizes us, wrecking not only democracy and spirit but even deep pleasure itself.” All the same, it is difficult to disagree with some of his more withering observations. “The critics rarely address the popular passion for illusion,” he insists, “the will not to know.”

In his honest but calm worry about the media’s ultimate influence, Gitlin’s book is an encouraging counter-point to yearsUNIFIED THEORY OF MEDIA of earnest this-or-that nostrums: “Media surely influence ideas, conduct, the tone of our civilization, though not all by themselves,” the author maintains, “and not always irresistibly, or reliably, or permanently, or necessarily in obvious and predictable ways.”

The premise of Gitlin’s laser-focussed and expansive book is sound (if daunting) and its direction bold. The various models of media navigation are probing ways of approaching the next frontier, the subject of media literacy—in other words, our increasing interpretative savvy as consumers of media. It remains to others, now, to pick up where Gitlin’s trail has gone cold.

Jeffrey MacIntyre ( writes on media and culture. He lives in Vancouver.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Kaito October 6, 2009 at 3:28 pm

“The premise of Gitlin’s laser-focussed and expansive book is sound….”

You spelled focused wrong 🙂

Leave a Comment

Additional comments powered by BackType