Media Unlimited

By Todd Gitlin

One of the big issues today’s media or culture critics have to deal with is the relation between what they are doing – writing about the media – and what they are talking about – which often includes the decline of a print consciousness. You can blame the “torrent of images and sounds” for overwhelming our lives with shallow trivia, but where then does your book fit in? How is the author’s description of the torrent influenced by what he or she is describing?

Reading Todd Gitlin’s Media Unlimited makes you wonder. For starters, it is a disjointed book full of superficial analysis mainly borrowed from other sources. Its four chapters are basically separate essays on today’s media. The only one of these that is any good is the first. Here Gitlin lays out his thesis that “unlimited media are exactly what an urban-based, industrial society with a money economy and a division of labor requires. The whole panoply and soundscape of everyday life are compensation, recreation, tranquilizer, partial transcendence – a realm of felt freedom and pleasure.”

That may sound vague (the “whole panoply” of the media as a whole panoply of abstractions), but it’s a conclusion born of rambling analysis. The world of media unlimited is ahistorical, and Gitlin’s skimpy dash through several centuries of “how we got here” (“For brevity’s sake, I am compressing a tangled history . . . Still, the main direction has been clear enough”) seems almost written for television. What points he does make are only tossed off. That the media are more concerned with selling disposable feelings and sensations than transmitting information is one example. But then we are back in TV-land, with banal observations appearing like sound bites on a teleprompter. I suppose it takes an academic to say something like “Throughout the twentieth century, supply and demand looped together in an unceasing Möbius strip,” but what does this really mean? That supply and demand influence each other? Even I had that figured out.

The rest of the book is very weak. I couldn’t get anything out of the second chapter, “Speed and Sensibility,” at all. But then, any critic who suggests that the movie Speed was a “superior action movie” that reaches “toward the kinetic sublime” has already lost all my respect (the bus in that movie didn’t even look like it was going fast!). And the problem isn’t only with what Gitlin is saying. There is also the way he says it. While he criticizes the trend toward shorter sentences (in a rather un-scientific survey that doesn’t mention the results of other analyses), there is nothing complex about his own prose. Most of his sentences only bulk up when stuffed with dreary, run-on, laundry list constructions:

By the early 1830s, when Alexis de Tocqueville visited the United States – long before Times Square or Hollywood, before vaudeville or Al Jolson, Michael Jackson or Arnold Scwharzenegger, USA Today or the Internet – American culture was already sensational, emotional, melodramatic, and informal. Long before the remote control device, call waiting, cruise control, the car radio scan option, or the Apple mouse, before electricity, let alone the humble on-off switch, the United States was consecrated to comfort and convenience.


By the 1980s scarcely a public space lacked a soundtrack: shops, malls, airports, dentists’ offices, gyms, banks, hotel lobbies, theme parks, elevators, bathrooms, waiting rooms of all kinds.


In fact, they protect not only from Muzak and woofer-heavy hip-hop car stereos passing by but from miscellaneous motors, truck, bus, airplane, and motorcycle engines, honking horns, cracked mufflers, sirens, chain saws, and pneumatic drills – not to mention the steady drones, rumbles, whirrs, and hums emitted by fluorescent lights, refrigerators, heaters, computers, fans, air conditioners, microwave ovens, dial tones, and the rest of the apparatus of everyday electrified life.


While our professional and managerial classes are commuting, multitasking, ad-scanning, channel-grazing, Web-surfing, call-waiting, cell-phoning, chat-grouping, desktop-day-trading, they are also complaining about their hectic lives and plotting their retreats to the country.

But enough of that. The other aspect of the presentation that gets annoying is Gitlin’s fondness for categories and labels. The third chapter comes up with a classification system for different “styles of navigation” through the media. We can think of people as critics, paranoids, exhibitionists, ironists, jammers and secessionists. But immediately this is qualified (“These labels hardly encompass all the ways we approach the media onrush . . .” etc.). And in the end we “come full circle. The would-be secessionist shades into the fitful secessionist, who in turn fades into the discerning consumer, the ironist, the content critic.” Nothing much is being said. The labels are just for fun, much like the three movie formulas that Gitlin sees dominating Hollywood: the Western, the action movie and the cartoon. Again the list is “hardly exhaustive,” and hardly makes a lot of sense (The Fugitive is a Western, The Wild Bunch an action film).

“Instead of stringing together piecemeal analyses, arguments, complaints, and fulminations about media, I thought this was the time, at least for me, to leave behind the more manageable questions and head toward the baffling media totality itself.” So Gitlin begins. And yet Media Unlimited is, finally, little more than a stringing together of piecemeal analyses, arguments, complaints and fulminations about media, with nothing but bafflement before the media totality itself. “Can all this clutter and haste really be good for us?” he asks at the end of his chapter on “Speed.” Well, who knows? But that is the question, isn’t it?

All of this brings us back to the question I began with. What influence does the media have on the media analyst? Are the two looped together like a Möbius strip? Is a book like Media Unlimited a symptom of the disease, or its diagnosis? At one point Gitlin remarks how “university trendhoppers” have let themselves be seduced by the paranoid imagination of Michel Foucault into thinking that the “defining institution of the European nineteenth century was the Panopticon”: a model prison imposing total surveillance. But for Gitlin the “heart of modernity was not the Panopticon but the panoply of appearances that emerged in everyday life.” What mattered most was not that we were always being watched (or, as Foucault would have it, that we felt like we were always being watched), but that we were always watching.

With Nietzsche, we should reject the either/or. When you look into the media abyss, rest assured it is looking into you.

Review first published online October 10, 2002.

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