On Approaching The Medusa Of Mass Media

by Phil Rockstroh

December 15, 2003


Protected only with a shield of irony, we venture forth to meet the soul-sucking monster that has laid waste to the land. We, the few, the indignant, the defiant, the dejected, the heartsick, and the queasy fight this apparition that holds dominion in empty air.

The Medusa of the mass media, her head -- a nest of spindling, multi-conglomerates -- is the monster we face; it guards the gates of this Empire of Perpetual Distraction. It is an odd, cunning, and dangerous creature: It does not bar us from entering its domain; conversely, it makes it difficult for us to leave...

We have learned that irony is our only protection against it. But in order to be protected by irony, one must allow oneself to be destroyed by it. One must be defeated by irony and live to tell about it. Once decimated on the crucible of irony, we must always be ready to be made its willing victim. Though: We realize that irony is to humor what sentimentality is to true sadness -- and sentimentality is to true sadness what pornography is to erotica. Of course, on a good day, it is far more desirable to be made the willing victim of erotica, than the willing victim of irony. But irony is a good start.

We have our work cut out for us. This is a fight of mythic scale: This monster, with whom we must do battle, never sleeps; it is never silent. It tells us we are nothing without it, that our lives would be unbearable without its constant presence.... It is a phantasm: It exists everywhere and yet exists nowhere. Its true dwelling place is in the darkness of our ignorance (where it thrives). It roams the vast wastelands of our inner emptiness: There it makes its dwelling place, preying upon and sustaining itself by devouring our dreams and desires. Its appetite is insatiable; its favorite dish is more.

It dazzles us by reflecting back to us a false image of ourselves. It creates a mask for us to wear: a mask that bears its own face. All the while, it insists that it is merely a reflection of us -- but -- in fact, we have grown to reflect it -- and, in turn, it reflects this image back to us... thereby creating the disconcerting effect of a hall of infinite mirrors. We do not know where we begin and the media ends: We have merged with the monster.

We cannot accept the sad truth that we have subordinated our essential being to this million-eyed beast of infinite nothing -- so we choose to become blank, to go numb, to become passive ciphers, to hate whom we are told to hate (if we can even rouse ourselves from the attendant ennui and anomie engendered from being in the creature's soul-sucking thrall) because, deep down, we are filled with helpless rage at ourselves for allowing ourselves to have been so compromised.

Internally, we have been shocked and awed. The museums of our ancient memories have been looted. We have been told we have been liberated by this invasion -- but, in fact -- our precious resources are being divided, exploited, and devoured by this monster and its occupying armies of misdirected rage, empty appetite, and insatiable avarice.

We created the creature; now, the creature creates us. It is an appliance that woos and hectors us into compliance. It flatters us, but, as is the case with those who use flattery -- this is a ruse -- because it wants something from us. It has designs upon our time, our attention, our money. We work very hard to live up to the standards it promulgates. It tells us what to eat, what to wear, what we should find attractive. It infantilizes us, yet insists we constantly work to meet its demands and expectations. It becomes, like a matriarchal monster of myth, a mother who eats her young.

Perseus was warned not to look directly into the face of the Medusa, that he must view her through the reflection of his shield. (In other words, we must not take what the media says at face value; we must reflect upon its effect on us in order to not be destroyed by it.)

To look directly into the face of the Medusa is to be frozen in stone -- like hundreds of millions of people are in front of a television, world-wide, right in this very moment. And hundreds of millions more are frozen, at home or work, in front of the screen of a computer (you, for example) at this very instant.

It is imperative that we begin to reflect upon what the corporate media has wrought upon us: It has sanitized images of war and sanctified the images of the demagogues and propagandists who promote it; it has created an insular, corrupt populace, with the attention span of a lobotomized gnat, who have forsaken freedom for consumerism and suffer from a collective amnesia, in which, history has been rendered meaningless and sensationalism is savored; and it has brought about a pervasive sense of emptiness and isolation that breeds paranoia and the kind of infantile rescue fantasies that brought a confabulating, steroid-fed, action-movie "hero" to the governorship of California.

So where do we turn, perhaps the Internet? We were told by sleep-deprived, over-caffeinated techno-utopians that the electronic age and the rise of the World Wide Web, with its capacity for instant global communication, would free us -- and this promise has been fulfilled to some degree: It may very well have brought forth what is universal in us -- but ironically -- it hasn't summoned a collective yearning for knowledge and freedom -- but rather -- it has roused in us responses that are a bit more primal: Thanks to the Internet, there has never been in human history as many people, simultaneously, at any given moment, masturbating. We have learned this much about ourselves: That left alone and to our own devices we will most certainly play with ourselves like caged monkeys. We only have our shield of irony to protect us.

But irony is not enough.

Now, we must find a sword of skepticism and be willing to use it. As did Perseus, we need to get a bead on the Medusa's position by the use of our reflective shield, then we must wield the sword of skepticism -- and cut off the head of the monster... In other words, we must cease to be dazzled and distracted by the monster, cease to be frozen in fear, hopelessness, and cynicism by the sheer size and scale of the ruthless beast, and cease to be stuck in the shallow, greedy, benumbed, ignorant, obsessional modes of habitual thinking that these soul-stealing Gorgons of the commodified age (explicitly and implicitly) tell us is the only way for us to live our lives.

According to legend, when Perseus hued off the head of the Medusa -- the winged horse, Pegasus, sprang head-long and fully formed from the spot where her blood had spilled upon the earth. To kill the internalized, life-freezing voice of the mass media is to gain strength and power: It is to ride a winged stallion across the sky. To mount Pegasus is to rise above the scene and survey what this madness has done to the land and to ourselves.

Perseus did not tame Pegasus himself; he left that task to other heroes. He had more urgent labors to attend to: A sea monster had risen from the deep and had laid siege to the land. Perseus ended its reign of terror by using the severed head of the Medusa to turn it into stone.

Wish fulfillment? The compensatory fantasy of the powerless, a sad mythos of the desperate? Perhaps. But imagine the sense of freedom we would gain -- if -- and this is a big IF -- enough of us woke up and began to demand that the power of the media be used to free us from the reigning tyranny of the faceless, inhuman, corporate/governmental forces that have risen from the vast, turbulent seas of the information age and have lain siege to our lives. What if we, in turn, were to claim that power and brandish it to freeze our corrupt leaders in their rapacious tracks?

I don't know if this would bring about a golden age -- but the quest to achieve this end might have the effect of thawing our frozen hands from the remote, and, at the very least, getting our sagging asses the hell off the sofa.

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America the 'beautiful' on Swans


Phil Rockstroh on Swans (with bio).

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Published December 15, 2003
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