The Mediated Mind in the Rearview Mirror

Scott McLemee examines Susan Zieger’s The Mediated Mind: Affect, Ephemera, and Consumerism in the Nineteenth Century, which helps put into clear view the impact of mass media culture on the way we live now.

July 27, 2018

Among the first books about Marshall McLuhan was one called The Medium Is the Rear-View Mirror -- a title that alluded to the media theorist’s most famous sound bite while also incorporating one of his favorite metaphors. An uncommonly lucid explanation of what he meant by “the rear-view mirror view of the world” can be found in the interview he gave to Playboy magazine in 1969: “Because of the invisibility of any environment during the period of its innovation, man is only consciously aware of the environment that has proceeded it; in other words, an environment becomes fully visible only when it has been superseded by a new environment; thus we are always one step behind in our view of the world.”

McLuhan’s core doctrine was that technology in general and communications media in particular defines the terrain of human experience and cognition so completely as to be, in effect, our real environment -- our second nature, in the fullest sense. A sufficiently transformative innovation, such as Gutenberg’s movable type, reorganizes the whole social and cultural order so radically that, soon enough, it is almost impossible to comprehend the extent of the change itself. Instead, old expressive forms and patterns of life turn into content for the new media system. Television absorbed film, just as film consumed narrative literature, which assimilated and digested oral storytelling -- with changes in audience and habits of attention at each turn.

McLuhan had an unfortunate tendency to coat his insights with thick layers of vatic bafflegab. (Perhaps the less said about his notion of television as a tactile medium engaging the mind more fully than the printed page, the better.) But the nub of his argument is bound to seem plausible to anyone who has lived through at least the last two or three decades of cultural reformatting by digital means. Visible in the rearview mirror now is the telecommunications system of McLuhan’s own day, with messages beaming out from a few stations to a mass audience -- an ordering of attention that grows ever harder to imagine, but that anyone who grew up in it took as a given. “We don’t know who discovered water,” as another of McLuhan aphorisms has it, “but we know it wasn’t a fish.”

Grand insights into cultural change do not prove especially helpful in living through one, and their prophetic value, alas, is just about nil. By contrast, Susan Zieger’s The Mediated Mind: Affect, Ephemera, and Consumerism in the Nineteenth Century (Fordham University Press) puts the way we live now into clearer view than would ever seem possible, given the monographic purview of its title. The author (an associate professor of English at the University of California, Riverside) focuses an intense, sensitive, even ardent attention to largely forgotten artifacts such as cigarette cards, the medallions handed out to reformed drunkards by the temperance movement and advertisements for the most cutting-edge, high-quality inkwells manufacturers could offer. But her interest is not at all antiquarian. “The 19th century,” she writes, “was the first period in which consumers began daily to consider which parts of mass-produced culture they would incorporate into their psyches and which they would reject.” That experience and the strains accompanying it remain very much of interest, even as the process is increasingly overtaken by algorithms.

Concentrating mainly on British and American developments, Zieger takes “mass-produced culture” to include the increasing variety and availability of industrially manufactured goods of all kinds, including printed material -- along with new publics constantly emerging and making their own interests and tastes known. That much is familiar from accounts of readers gathering on the docks in New York to get the latest chapter of a serialized Dickens novel, or Poe inventing a whole new genre by imagining a detective with amazing powers of deduction.

But too narrow an emphasis on such well-known literary figures has the effect of obscuring what was really new and powerful about them. Zieger places them (along with Wilkie Collins and Oscar Wilde, among others) in the context of new patterns of behavior that accompanied the developing technologies and markets. Often the changes were reflected in disposable items that were themselves mass produced.

The campaign to curb excessive alcohol consumption provides some unlikely examples -- beginning with the enormous, not to say incessant, production of tracts “warning against drinking in gin-shops, gambling and rioting.” Distributed by the millions, “they were not,” Zieger notes, “produced in response to market demand. Indeed, their didacticism certainly grated on potential readers.” But if only one tract in a thousand had an effect, it showed the power of the printed word and encouraged individual reform.

Furthermore, the money saved on drink would enable “any person, even in the humblest circumstances,” as one temperance writer put it, to “become the possessor of Histories, Biographies, Travels, Essays, Poetry, and increase his knowledge a hundred-fold, and store his mind with the best thoughts of wise men.”

Hold that thought for a moment; we’ll come back to it. The testimony of some reformed alcoholics was even more compelling in person, with the most spellbinding of them attracting mass audiences drawn by “the two extremes of crudely pathetic personal testimony and seemingly professional entertainment.” Attendees moved enough to pledge abstinence took home ornately printed certificates and medallions.

It’s something of a truism to say that temperance campaigns were inculcating middle-class norms of aspiration and self-control. Zieger acknowledges that the tracts, at any rate, stressed individual moral reform, but the cathartic nature of the mass meetings introduced another dynamic: “The graduation of appealing speakers from their local teetotal meetings to the lecture circuit, traveling to other towns to tell their stories, brings into focus a tension between authenticity and communicative appeal that structured the uneven transition from oral to print culture.” But the medals and pledges also inspired a degree of moralistic reproach: “Critics disparaged temperance medals as crutches or supplements to individuals’ wills, which should have operated without rewards; from this perspective, the medals were superficial mass media items that weakened autonomy …”

Likewise, the image of reformed drunkards availing themselves of the pleasures and benefits of reading was, in time, also turned on its head -- replaced with strictures against the reader who, to quote one denunciation, “hastens on with the story, from page to page and from chapter to chapter, forgetful of other engagements and regardless of the passing hours, his mind all the while steeped in a most delicious intoxication.”

And not just intoxication, either. The new mass-produced, mass-media culture carried a potential for addiction. Indiscriminate browsing, the untutored and undisciplined absorption of narrative and information, inspired a degree of moral uneasiness that did not end in the 19th century. At the same time, new models of genius were taking shape, such as Sherlock Holmes, his powers of concentration fueled by nicotine and cocaine, and exercised on enormous quantities of data drawn from his insatiable appetite for reading. Besides print, other ways to record, process and disseminate information emerged: new media, new messages. This column will continue next week with other developments visible in the rearview mirror.


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