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People Like You: Casting and the Public Interest
McGannon Communication Research. Analytic Paper #2, 1999

People Like You: Casting and the Public Interest

Getting Real


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 responsible way.

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 and storyboards.

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 be misapprehended.

Worlds Apart

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 order?

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 Puritanism?

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 halls.

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.

Reconstructing Worlds

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 Knights (masterfully).

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 subcultures.

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 disquiets.

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 real world?

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 are serious.

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 meaning.

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.



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