Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Rachel Teukolsky reviews The Mediated Mind

Susan Zieger. The Mediated Mind: Affect, Ephemera, and Consumerism in the Nineteenth Century. New York: Fordham University Press, 2018. 256 pp.

Review by Rachel Teukolsky

How should we write the history of media? Many have found an answer in the machine. Friedrich Kittler’s Gramophone, Film, Typewriter (1999) exemplifies the machine fixation of modern media studies, positing new nineteenth-century technologies as the instigators of new ways of being and knowing. For techno-historians of media, the machine alluringly correlates with a posthuman understanding of the subject, in which the self shows qualities of the virtual, disembodied, automated, even cybernetic. These scholars have located the precursors to postmodernity in the technological breakthroughs of the industrial era.

Susan Zieger’s new book, The Mediated Mind, offers a quietly radical divergent account. She focuses on what she points out was “the dominant medium of the nineteenth century”—namely, mass print (p. 11). Consisting of “ink, metal, paper, and cardboard,” print technology distributed millions of ephemeral printed items in the forms of tokens, tickets, cigarette cards, cheap photographs, advertisements, and other detritus of everyday life (p. 11). Zieger sets out to analyze some of the important mental, affective, and cultural ramifications of the mass print revolution. The modern fetishization of the machine has obscured the role played by printed paper in introducing media habits and trends that are still, as Zieger argues, very much with us. Her account rejects a vision of the self as virtual or postmodern; Zieger finds media usage, then as now, to be a profoundly embodied and affect-laden affair.

“From Paper to Pixel,” the title of Zieger’s introduction, reflects the argument’s surprising overall arc. The medium of paper, with its cumbersome, brittle pages, seems a stark contrast to the pixelated, light-as-air medium of the screen. Yet, as Zieger argues, the rise of nineteenth-century mass print brought about some of the same conundrums that we struggle with today in navigating the realms of social media. In both the past and the present, mass media forms offered captivating fantasies of individual expression, even while those fantasies were formulated within a conformist, repetitive realm of the mass experience. Zieger turns to affect theory to limn the complex feelings surrounding the new print media experience. Among the “abiding cultural formations” she categorizes are the desire for presence conjured by media promoting large-scale live events; the addiction to information, as epitomized by the encyclopedic detective Sherlock Holmes; human memory as a form of media storage; the desire for the “playback” of experience, as performed by the phonograph; and mediated forms of self-fashioning embodied by new Victorian celebrities like Oscar Wilde (p. 3).

Zieger’s chapters treat the world of mass media with a generosity that it has not typically received. While Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer castigated “the culture industry for turning consumers into zombies, Zieger explores the subject with an even-handed curiosity, tracking an array of weird and wonderful Victorian objects—cigarette cards featuring pictures of freshwater fish or Dickens characters; the quill feathers, steel pens, and staining inks comprising the writing technologies of Victorian clerks; the temperance tokens awarded to alcohol drinkers who pledged sobriety.[1] Zieger’s moderated vision of media seems true to our complicated modern experience, where mass social media platforms offer the dangers of tribalism alongside the pleasures of aspiration and self-fashioning.

The Mediated Mind led me to one lingering question: why is passivity still taken as the defining note of modern media consumption? Zieger follows Jonathan Crary, who in Suspensions of Perception aligned mass culture with “states of distraction, reverie, dissociation, and trance.”[2] These associations echo those of Adorno and Horkheimer when attacking the mindlessness of culture consumption. While Zieger assigns a more positive valence to mass culture’s states of “reverie,” “enchantment,” and “daydreaming” (p. 8), the theory still essentially places media usage beyond the rational or conscious self, distinct from the centers of identity. The very intensity of her acute analysis, however, suggests a different possibility, by which our media choices might contribute to a more active kind of self-making and self-definition.

This question is more a provocation than a criticism. Ultimately, The Mediated Mind is a profoundly original and insightful achievement, one that does the best kind of historical work by mining the unexpected sources of our own modern-day preoccupations.

[1] See Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno, “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception,” in Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments, trans. Edmund Jephcott, ed. Gunzelin Schmid Noerr (Stanford, Calif., 2002).

[2] Jonathan Crary, Suspensions of Perception: Attention, Spectacle, and Modern Culture (Cambridge, Mass., 2001), p. 46.