People Like You: Casting and the Public
While the national worry about the effects
of the content of the media has been as persistent as it has
been unexamined, there has over many years been a growing concern
about the media of an entirely different nature. This concern,
in recent times ballooning out into the academy and business
world, is more complex, more loaded with varied, perhaps contrary,
assumptions than the old reliable sex-and-violence problematic.
The media are accused of failing to represent
the real world. Of conveying a false picture. Many Americans,
none of them nostalgic for Soviet Socialist Realism or admiring
of the righteous fatwa on Rushdie's works and life, believe
that the media must represent the real world in some morally
Of course, literature and drama have always
been subject to critical review over their "truthfulness,"
their plausible recreation of genuine emotions and believable
situations. This has been true of both realistic fiction, which
aims to reproduce the real world up close for those who want
more lives to lead vicariously, as well as for outright fantasy,
which must retain a consistency of characterization, motivation,
and setting, whether on Mars, in undersea colonies, or some bizarre
future world. Literature must ring true, just as acting must
be honest. Paradoxically, art requires sincerity in its pretense.
But for some years now there has been a growing
criticism of mass media fiction of a very different nature that
only superficially resembles this hoary critical tradition. The
media must present characters and settings that are "representative,"
that mirror the real world. Not in the inner realism of believable
characters in plausible settings so much as in some kind of statistically
accurate reproduction of the makeup of the audience, demographed
for race, sex, age, ethnic group, occupation, income group, regional
distribution - as if the world of the media must hold up a mechanical
mirror to the population at large. Where critics and others once
sought the true-to-life, they now check off statistical fidelity
to market composition.
There is an implicit and unexamined affinity
of this call for statistical mirroring to both access and fairness.
Just as, in a democratic society, the news media should
present a spectrum of points of view on public questions
representative of less central as well as mainstream opinion,
so too, the entertainment media should portray
types of characters representative of minorities, however demographically
defined, whether by sex, age, ethnic group, occupation, religion
or other characteristic. Just as the real minorities publicly
ignored should have access to news and public affairs media,
then, their fictional counterparts should have access to scripts
We might be tempted to call this relatively
new phenomenon "portrayal access," based on analogy
with established legal rights for real people. But to do so would
be to completely ignore the fictional nature of the programming
and its humanistic connection to the long tradition of the role
of narrative art in culture.
This is thus a perfect case to show how more
relevant than the social sciences and law are the humanities
at times in intellectually examining the ethics and meaning of
a media policy problem.
Thus, special interest groups have joined
market researchers in subjecting television programming, for
instance, to a sort of ghostly census. How many housewives, affable
homosexuals, black nuclear physicists, bumbling fathers or criminal
Italians are featured on the air is routinely tabulated and compared
with known statistics about the real world. It has been found
that criminals, detectives, young adults, the affluent, sexy
young women, whites, and some other types or categories are "over
represented" in media presentations. This has led to all
kinds of trade jokes about Lithuanian accountants and Republican
transvestites as possible subjects for television series, paperback
pulps, and showcased films in order to introduce balance.
When this trend for "representativeness"
began, it was easy to ridicule the excesses of vigilantism induced
by concern for conformity to the so-called "real world,"
but over the years it has become an unquestioned principle of
programming, production, and distribution in major media. It
is, in fact, part of the new canon. It is remarkable in the relative
speed of its ascendancy, given its clear departure from traditional
norms for artistic evaluation. And, of course, this representativeness
is assuming an ever larger role in educational curricula.
What are we to make of this outside of the
obvious pressure of sociological shifts in the "real world."?
What does it mean for the created worlds of fiction and its inevitable
vehicle, media-world? Let me try to explain what I think it all
means. But first I must clarify some terms or the argument will
The mass media, taken as a whole, primarily constitute a marketing
system, which has prompted comparison with agribusiness. News,
plays, stories, jokes, stars, issues, books are like so many
hides of beef or cartons of fruit and vegetables which must be
freeze-dried, or dehydrated, or compacted, or in some other way
packaged so they may move more efficiently to supermarket, drugstore,
television set, local theater, or delicatessen. Huge production
centers with high technology devices and skilled technicians
who are neither farmers nor artists effect great economies of
scale. The system is centralized, rationalized, and efficient.
The multitude of magazines, radio stations, newspapers, and other
media that are hailed as irrefutable evidence of diversity are
most often merely retail outlets for relatively invariant wholesale
goods. The mellow sound of your friendly Ohio valley station
may well have been taped somewhere in Burbank; the local media
minister on your television station's routine conscience program
may well be discussing an issue brought to prominence by Time
or 60 Minutes.
Local editors or station managers have become
more like department store buyers, who select, but do not create
or modify, already slickly finished wholesale goods.
Although the medium may not be the message,
marketing does mold formats. Formats, in turn, have a controlling
influence on the content of all mass-mediated goods, from frankfurters
to Reader's Digest.
"Mass media," "media,"
will accordingly mean some or all of the parts of this system
that favors certain kinds of information and certain styles of
entertainment. Television is the prime exemplar of the system,
but it is only prime, not solitary. In the argument that follows,
narrative formats are the central focus.
In this context, then, how are we to understand
a mind-set that takes vast blocks of media content and somehow
postulates them as forming a monolithic counter-universe which
must faithfully, give or take a few bank guards, reproduce the
statistics of the "real world"?
How are we to relate this concern to the tradition
of censorship and fear of art and humor as subversive of good
Plato feared poetry as a seducer of the spirit
through unreal imitations; Puritans banished much song and imagery
as distractions from sober wakefulness in a life of duty. Today
some see the media as purveying dangerous stereotypes and alluring
deceits which may give people the "wrong idea" about
some cherished beliefs or provoke "anti-social behavior."
Are these critics merely the latest version of repression and
Although these questions are in part political
and social, the social sciences are of little help here, and
survey research is part of the problem. It is more helpful to
locate the mass-media/real-world question within the perennial
humanistic preoccupation with the art/life question.
In his essay, "On Fairy Stories,"
J. R. R. Tolkien makes a distinction between primary and secondary
worlds which we may adapt for our purpose. The primary world
is the world of first-hand experience. Our morning cup of coffee
and the news we hear on the radio at breakfast are both of the
primary world. Secondary worlds do not belong to this plane of
existence; they are sub-creations ficted by writers: Prospero's
island, Alice's Wonderland, Frodo's Middle Earth. So, too, are
the lands of the Amazons and the Gorgons, the great bird Roc,
and the cave of Merlin. The London of Sherlock Holmes and the
Los Angeles of Philip Marlowe, although on modern maps, share
the artful isolation and sealed integrity of countries of the
mind. The Troy of Hector and the Jerusalem of David, though they
testify to the spade as real earth, are also sub-creations; in
this instance, of nameless chroniclers.
Although secondary worlds are many, and richly
varied, they are in contrast to what Tolkien, within the scope
of his essay, envisaged as a single, seamless whole - the primary
world. This same world of experience for Peter Berger and other
"sociologists of knowledge" is far from a unitary whole.
It is fragmented into a "plurality of self-worlds."
The worlds of work, school, family, commuting,
clubs, and churches may exist on the same plane, but they are
separate modules of experience, uncoordinated except by clock
or calendar, devices of impersonal number. Modern men and women
read on trains among strangers or listen to the radio alone in
their cars between buildings and sets of people who never meet.
There is no one module, or world, in which they feel totally
at home. Modern people are alienated; they have what Berger calls
"homeless minds." Each separate fragment of the primary
world evokes a separate self, responding to separate sets of
perceptions, expectations, values, and norms of conduct.
A primary world that is whole and entire may
have given minds a true home, but it does not follow that its
denizens were happy and whole selves. There may be nostalgia
for the medieval manor, perhaps even for the Shaker farm, but
there remains a loathing for the ant colonies of Maoist China,
Stalinist Russia, and Cambodian village life under Pol Pot. A
seamless and escape-proof primary world is suffocating. The secondary
world of Siegfried was particularly welcome in dark, winter-locked
The "perilous realm" of Fairie,
the Garden of Eden and the heavenly city of Jerusalem may at
times be grandly transcendent, but they are also humbly escapist.
Their utter otherness and distance are themselves enchanting.
Until recently this had been a central
appeal of all narrative art.
Secondary worlds served the primary world
that made them necessary. For centuries, stories told in words
and dance, in music and picture, even in sculpture and architecture,
have been of the strange and extraordinary: of gods and heroes
and faraway lands, of demons and devils and long-buried times.
The ceremonies that mark the great lived moments of this immediate
life - birth, marriage, attainment of majority, death - have
long been linked with stories of the distant and tales of the
past. The challenges and crises of life - loss of love, conquest,
survival of honor, rivalry, treachery, nurture of talent - are
intertwined with the dramas of people who never lived and of
creatures who could never be people: Odysseus and Siegfried,
Helen and Isolde, Satan and Beowolf, Samson and Caliban. These
figures transfuse into common existence the bright blood of fable
and myth, of enduring art.
Long before people played psychological games,
adopted social roles, or chose lifestyles, boys and girls and
women and men dramatized themselves, their troubles, and their
triumphs according to basic scripts thrilled to in nursery, learned
in classroom, read in libraries or on trains, heard around campfires.
Their least eventful moments, as it were, schooled them to live
through their best and worst times. For them, life is not a tale
told by an idiot but a series of shaped episodes vivified by
the ghostly lives of the legendary and the fictional.
Meaning is thus cast on life by varied cues
from myth and fable and fiction and chronicle. Old cultures,
rich in narratives that have formed lives over centuries, surround
the routines of their participants with purpose; their triumphs
are more exhilarating, their defeats less desolate. Entebbe did
ring with the sound of Maccabees.
Modernization has shattered the primary world into divorced fragments,
from culture to subcultures, without a sustaining, overarching
morality or tradition to bind lives into any one compelling pattern
of belief or meaning. Complementing this breakup of the primary
world there seems to have been a vast and slow shifting of narrative
forms and contents to nourish the human heart. Gradually, but
quite perceptibly, narrative became more and more "realistic,"
turning from sub-creation to everyday life. The new form, the
novel, however artificial in sentiment or improbable in event,
dealt with this primary world and with ordinary people. Both
Tom Jones and James Bond are improbable, but they are not extraordinary
in the way that Parsifal and Orpheus or Hamlet and Jason are.
It is not as if there were no more secondary
worlds or sub-creations available, or as if they were now insignificant.
The works of Tolkien are long-term best sellers, as are the fables
and fairy tales of his colleague, C. S. Lewis (ironically embodied
by Anthony Hopkins now as a figure in a very high class soap
opera). The tales of Richard Adams at one extreme and of Arthur
C. Clarke, at another, may well be classed as true secondary
worlds. But the overwhelming preponderance of contemporary narrative
tales, even much of what might contain patches of magic realism,
is of the primary world; they even drag apparent sub-creations
back into the primary world, as did John Fowles in The Magus
and John Steinbeck in The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble
Fittingly, modern narrative deals most successfully
with proper fragments of the primary world, the "inside
worlds" of banking, high society, government, diplomacy,
medicine, and law. These inside stories are the subjects, and
the appealing subjects, of films and television series as well.
Mere altered circumstance, not fate nor miracle, could easily
insert the readers and viewers of these tales in the "worlds"
they contemplate. In fact, the more realistic, or primary, each
detail is, the more the narrative is appreciated, like a Time
report on the President's bathroom at Camp David.
More seriously intended narratives in the
media, with an emphasis on character, do not violate this modern
need for realism. Although the value given seems to be the "realism"
of the characters' problems and limitations, it is the setting
that bears the burden of authenticity. Real spies want to come
in from the cold, successful writers are heartbroken when they
lose custody of their children, soldiers vomit when they see
severed heads, and Harvard law students get diarrhea before exams.
Television, the vastly dominating vehicle for narrative today,
will promote certain serious programs because they are about
real people. This translates to the limitations and vulnerabilities
of those considered bizarre or offensive by the majority of viewers
who do not share the "inside world" of the characters
portrayed: homosexual parents, terminally ill politicians, aging
sex kittens, lonely gangsters. Their common weakness is their
claim to primary reality. Of course, the appeal of the figures
of sub-creations, of secondary worlds, was more often their uncommon
strength or their egregious destiny; their difference, not their
fellowship, with the ordinary.
This is a great shift, you will notice, in
the type of gift that narrative art brings to its receivers.
The fabulous tale brought the comfort of a
fantastically just and happy ending. The heroic sagas gave pride
of tribe and incentive for sacrifice. The religious legend promised
transcendence through the ordinary. Tragic figures only had such
stature because of the moral solidity of the world they moved
in. Narratives were ways out of the primary world, the home of
the mind, to other realms where something could be imaginatively
acquired for courage and comfort in the face of primary experience.
All the gifts from such tales can be summed
up as moral clarity from enduring values.
Hesitancy, reserved judgment, ambiguity are
modern. They belong to the world of multiple real alternatives,
to the plurality of self-worlds, to the fragments of unconfident
Bruno Bettelheim, an artist of healing homeless
minds in autistic children, has authoritatively declared that
fairy tales are indispensably therapeutic for children. But he
has the inescapable modern mania for realism. He feels obliged
to apologize for the fantastic nature of fairy tales. Children
have irrational fears, he tells us, and therefore need irrational
reassurance, implying that the healthy person will outgrow both
the need and the cure. Enchantment, for the good doctor, is demonstrably
useful. The natural cultural use of these tales, their meaning,
if you will, must be justified for modern parents, who are accustomed
to seek and get quite different benefits from the dominant narratives
of novels, films, and television.
Depicting only fragments of the primary world,
modern narrative neither promises nor delivers transcendent meaning.
It does afford companionship, the universalism of vulnerability,
the venting of vicarious rage or lust, however banal in motive
or meaning. In modern narrative, one is offered a peek into another
room of the enormous modern mansion where there are others, in
different clothes, with different jobs, just like oneself in
age, or values, or expectations. Everyone can observe a media
counterpart, as it were, command an episode. There are no sub-creations
that give shape and substance to the primary world they serve,
presenting ideals or models for inner emulation. Rather, there
are representative figures which attract universal attention
and thus give meaning to various self-worlds.
No wonder New York Police, in a protest against
departmental discipline, long ago literally hoisted the late
Telly Savalas, the television actor who portrayed super-macho
Detective Kojack, on their shoulders. Associating with him, the
symbol-person who is noticed by millions, makes them real. Actors
who play doctors or lawyers have been respectfully attended by
Congressional Hearings on matters of real legality and medicine.
Products are more substantial and trustworthy when "nationally
advertised." Packages boast in print that they indeed really
are "as seen on TV." It therefore follows that human
beings, vocations, political candidates, racial types, even ideas,
when presented by the media, are granted recognition that confers
not merely status, that shadowy sociological category, but actual
meaning. An ignored fragment of the primary world is brought
into the light and shown to be equal with other known fragments.
In a complex world of millions of strangers,
to be noticed is a kind of reward or achievement in itself. This
role of modern narrative, so different from the meaning of the
secondary worlds of true sub-creations, is also a transformation
of the very concept of recognition, which was seen to follow
achievement, not constitute it.
For the classic Greeks and Romans, the principal
spur for excellence and for moral behavior was the formal acknowledgment
and admiration of one's own tribe. The very word "triumph"
refers to a tribal military ceremony. The laurel, the panegyric,
the accolade, kudos - all of these versions of recognition go
back to classic tribal rites, whose most intact descendant is
the Olympic games, significantly become the super-media event
of the planet.
The classic sensibility saw tribal history
as cosmically important and tribal recognition was greater the
longer it lasted. Enduring in the memory of one's people was
immortality. Poets like Horace boasted that their art was a "monument
more permanent than brass." For a modern artist this satisfaction
is muted. Sartre, no great lover of his tribe, derives comfort
from the endurance of The Words in the minds of later
generations. But his understanding of science tells him that
evolution will ultimately wind down so that mind, and all words,
will meet final extinction. This ending in an empty theater casts
an absurd light on all human accomplishment.
Early Christians, close to the classic heritage,
naturally saw recognition as the spur to sanctity. The all-seeing
and eternal eye of God may have been intimidating, but it gave
the comfort of meaning. The immortality of individuals and the
eternity of the community, the company of saints, cast a great
moral clarity on every action of every person. This rather ethereal
conviction was later grounded in the practical politics of Christendom,
with all the apparatus of canonization, relics, and shrines for
tribes and places that sought recognition.
The narratives of the past assumed an assured
tribal or religious theater of judgment for each person, however
humble. Current stories, on the contrary, exist in a primary
world where universal judgment and meaning cannot be taken for
granted and from which they are often explicitly banished. The
astoundingly numerous instances of genocide from Biafra to Bosnia
make each tribe and each fragment of the primary world seem fragile
and impermanent. These obvious traits of our times make us even
more anxious for recognition and add a nauseating note of nihilism
to the dread of loneliness and abandoned old age that haunts
our shattered primary world. Art is long, life is short. But
art is not quite long enough to compensate for these profound
Here it is opportune to return to the current
critique of the media as failing to represent the "real
world." As we have remarked, modern narrative is far more
realistic, in almost every sense of this broad concept, than
previous narratives of earlier cultures. And the most popular
narratives, in whatever medium, tend to be the most realistic
in setting. How can they be accused of failing to represent the
But media critics are not looking for what
a literary critic would call realism. The criticism is really
a cry of anguish from separate and isolated monads: individuals
and groups who see the media as the only common forum bridging
the fragments of the primary world. Recognition of their fragment
is what they want. In America, where almost twenty-five percent
of households have but a single occupant, almost all households
are wired to the media. It is significant that blacks, a minority
without sufficient recognition, are more frequent and longer
users of television than whites, even adjusting for equal education
and income. They are also among the most vociferous complainers
about lack of television representativeness.
The recognition conferred by media treatment
has become a kind of ersatz meaning.
The total programming of television, radio,
magazines, comics, trade paperbacks and other mass distributors
of narrative forms can thus be conceptualized as a sort of counter-universe,
a counter-primary world that is somehow not shattered into fragments;
a Platonic heaven of terminal significance, where to be a celebrity
is to be canonized. Whereas only transcendent fantasy could alleviate
the tedium of whole primary worlds, only a somewhat mechanical
reproduction of the statistics of the using public can assuage
the repressed existential terror of homeless minds.
This postulation of a meaning-dispensing media-world
also offers a plausible rationale for the claim of greater "realism"
and thus value on the part of narratives that portray weakness
and failure. These vulnerabilities show the common humanity of
the minority group represented by the players and give them a
fictive fellowship with the scattered and lonely audience, united
in the solitude of their media consumption.
The original sixties film version of In
the Heat of the Night illustrates the point. A redneck sheriff
is forced to work on a murder with a black detective from the
north. In the small southern town where the murder takes place,
the black is considered a "boy." A sophisticated metropolitan
detective, the black is outraged by the racist condescension
and unmasked contempt that he encounters. Again and again he
demonstrates his superiority of intellect and training to the
sheriff, who admires him as though he were a talking dog. But
when an ignorant big shot slaps the black for his "insolence,"
the sheriff sees the fire in the black's eye and his instant
return of the slap. This rage opens the eyes of the sheriff:
"You're just like us!" (to wit: arrogant, proud, tough).
The black detective, Mr. Tibbs, became a series character, whose
brains and stamina no doubt flattered and pleased black audiences.
But the great recognition for rednecks in the audience was the
admission of the sheriff, one of their own, that the black was
just as ornery as they were, and just as angry at being patronized
by rich folks. For a moment the self-worlds touch.
Representation Without Meaning
The positive stereotypes of the media thus serve a necessary
purpose in one sense, but the lack of that second plane, the
creation of a truly alternate world that media realism avoids,
and must avoid, perhaps causes greater problems. The dynamic
balance of whole primary worlds with the secondary worlds of
their literature and art had been strengthening to both the individual
and the culture in which she participated. The concocted realisms
of the media, on the other hand, may ultimately add to the baffling
plurality of self-worlds. Indefinite multiplicity, rather than
a transcendent otherness, empty room after empty room, is too
much like the real primary world of bureaucracy and mass production.
From Kafka to Kubrick, corridors and doors
of indefinite extension and number are symbols of contemporary
hell. Seconds, a John Frankenheimer film about middle-class
and middle-age futility, is a most apt mass-media melodrama about
plurality without purpose. A fortyish banker, pale and flabby
among the ticking of clocks, wishes his life had been different.
His job and marriage are without meaning. For those like him
who feel this way and are rich enough to do something about it,
there is an unnamed service performed by a mysterious corporation.
He goes to a slaughter house surrounded by
bloody butchers in white coats and is whisked away to an inner
sanctum of multiple rooms that suggest an underground metropolis
(vide the bad-guy headquarters of any James Bond film), a hospital,
a prison. Impersonally but with extravagant skill the banker
is given a new past, a new body, a new face, a new home, a new
occupation, a totally new identity. Some kind of accident has
been arranged and the corpse found is believed to be his. Plastic
surgery, brutal conditioning exercises, psychiatric counseling,
forged diplomas, fake awards, even some provided works-in-progress
give the ex-banker the module, and the self-world, of a moderately
successful painter. In his new world, however, the clocks still
keep ticking. New "friends," who sometimes seem to
be playing a part, cannot reach him. He cannot paint. He is unhappy.
He wants out again - a new, new life.
The mysterious corporation, to which he had
willed all his considerable wealth for his first change, is very
hard to contact. Through a number of melodramatic episodes, he
gets back to the original headquarters, where new lives are programmed.
He begs for a new chance and is treated coldly, like a spoiled
child who knows not what he wants nor who he is.
He is told he must wait while difficult arrangements
are made. He waits a very long time, his days passing in a bizarre
routine in this limbo land. Every morning he reports to a seemingly
vast office where scores of men, in suits and ties much like
his own, sit dutifully and vacuously at identical desks. One
day he is called out by mysterious attendants. His chance has
come; he will be prepared for yet more plastic surgery. As he
is being made ready in his hospital-hotel-prison cell, the patriarchal
head of the mysterious corporation himself enters and gives him
a fatherly talk about "failure": the banker's failure
and the failure of the firm to place him well. As the attendants
arrive to wheel him to the operating room, the truth suddenly
slams into his blanked mind. They are going to kill him. They
need a body for some other new customer's "accident."
The long wait was for a customer who has his general appearance.
Indeed, perhaps all the men who come to this firm connected with
a slaughter house are soon recycled to make room for others.
His last conscious act is an animal scream as a surgical drill
is rammed through his skull.
The true terror of this film comes from the
force of allegory, which breaks through the melodramatic limitations
of the script. The self as totally defined by the primary world
- by surroundings, tools, documents - is meaningless. Not the
surgeon's drill, but the mindless nihilism of the whole procedure
creates the horror. There is no recognition of any value in the
banker's life. There is no search for justice or truth; there
is no true protagonist, for there is no moral struggle (agon),
no one character who bridges various self-worlds. And, like Joseph
Losey's The Servant and the now near-mythical Citizen
Kane, Seconds is a dominantly indoor film: cavernous
or stark interiors, dull echoes incarnating hollowness of spirit.
These seriously intended works, and many others
like them, leagues beyond the average mass media narrative, offer
no truly alternate world which reflects meaning back on the primary
world. Indeed they stylize and enhance the very fragmentation
and meaninglessness of the primary world they never leave behind.
The clarification of the problem of purposeless plurality, brought
to fevered focus in Seconds, is no small contribution
toward the understanding of our predicament, long a function
of literature and art. But there is no complementary reassurance,
no cosmic connection, no structure of meaning offered, long the
valued gifts of folk narrative and mythic art.
In our current primary world, what is most
needed is what is least presented in narrative forms.
One Life to Live
The apparent unifying reach of the mass media, penetrating major
markets of diverse strangers with identical programming and parallel
commercial messages, the ritually repetitious nature of television
news presentations, and the daily habit of newspaper perusal
have suggested to some observers that the media are a form of
religion - the American religion. Certainly the perfect fit that
Billy Graham and other evangelists have with the major features
of the system - staged mega-events and promotional hoopla - would
strengthen the parallel.
The parallel is more precisely with an organized
church, whose dogmas are vague and whose ability to give true
meaning to life is more a matter of promise than performance.
The parallel is to churchiness without faith. For certainly the
media are singular failures in providing meaning and unity of
vision. Although to place such demands on the media is almost
comically unreasonable from one point of view, the singular sociological
position the media occupy does not make these demands unexpected.
As we have seen, some such tacit expectation of meaning is at
the heart of serious attacks on the media for not representing
the "real world."
More average narrative forms that characterize
the vast bulk of media programming illustrate this paradox and
this failure more vividly than the superior films discussed earlier.
The task of programmers is to guarantee comfortable sameness,
a sort of flattering mirror image for viewers of just plain folks
like themselves, but with some superficial marginal differentiation
to avert terminal boredom. Middle-aged lawyers, doctors, detectives,
pilots, editors, each aided by brash but lovable young assistants,
encounter the same crises, told in the same formulaic way, on
a nightly basis. Mad and Saturday Night Live mine this deliberate
policy of banality for constant parody, but the implications
Modern audiences' ingrained sense of living
in a shattered primary world of isolated yet identical self-worlds
is exacerbated by these formulas. Although most critics concede
this point for the comic-book level of programming, they would
like to stop short before the rare but admittedly well done popular
narratives about the vulnerabilities of "real people."
Yet that difference is demonstrably only a matter of degree,
a matter of technical presentation. All levels of mass-media
"realism," whether in sickrooms or staterooms, remain
mirrors of the primary.
In contrast, the stories of secondary worlds
have a sacramental aura that truly does suggest religious parallels.
Many of the Christian churches in their sacramental systems have
carried to its most developed level the use of symbolism about
distant and transcendent events to transfigure everyday life
with meaning and recognition. Human birth is linked to the incarnation
and the transformation of the world, to spiritual rebirth, when
ordinary water is poured over the body of an ordinary infant.
The Eucharist cosmically connects meals and fellowship with immortality
and recognition of justice and sacrifice. Sacraments are believed
to confer grace, holiness, meaning, on ordinary acts.
Such beliefs might be considered charming
examples of peasant simplicity; perhaps sacramentalized Christians
(or pagan ritualists) might be envied their allegedly easy certainties.
However that may be, the "realism" of the media, of
the primary-world narrative, has produced a kind of anti-sacramentalism.
By not presenting a type of person, by ignoring
an issue or a cause, the media seem to rob them of reality and
meaning for a large number of Americans. Conversely, by presenting
a "realistic" story about a minority or an issue, the
media merely show that one more fragment exists, along with many
others, without order, without purpose. It is recognition without
This dialectic between pluralism and monism,
between monolithic cultures and sub-creations, between the fragmented
modern primary world and the episodic realisms of its media,
is bursting with paradox.
The seamless primary worlds of the past were
integral only because they were isolated from other cultures.
Since there was no real commerce nor contact with alien cultures
for the ordinary person, each could invest his imagination with
extravagant tales of totally other "worlds."
Today the planet is enveloped in a teeming
cloud of electromagnetic signals, laced with cables and optical
pipes, pulsing with lasers; borders and barriers are down and
the planet itself, the spaceship earth, can at last be imagined
in the solitary space it really tumbles through. No wonder we
hope we are not alone. Yet all the variety of cultures must somehow
be reduced to the familiar so that we can be at home on this
increasingly inhospitable sea of rapid technical change.
In this planetary riot of the mind, the media
system is seen not merely as a marketing organizer of signals
for sale, but as the invisible government of a global village
unifying a planetary public into a common consciousness. It is
only natural, one must suppose, that both intellectuals and the
ethnically isolated would seek from this technical rationality
a metaphysical platform for universal recognition and cosmic
significance: not so much a global village but a planetary cathedral,
with a prominent place for the pulpit and a democratic list of
speakers in place of a priesthood.
Yet the essence of the media system is mercantile.
Saviors who seek to capture the system as a vehicle for some
unitary "truth" soon find themselves meeting the system's
need for turnover. Celebrity is both competitive and, in any
institutional sense, short-lived.
The media then, to return to our starting
point, do reflect the "real world." They just do not
explain it, nor do they serve it. Critics who fault the media
for not representing the real world have a valid and deep grievance.
But the grievance is with the real world, as we have come to
know its disturbing diversity since modernization, as much as
with its dazzling and distorting media mirror.