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No one can opt out of this pandemic. And that will change us forever.

Thomas de Zengotita on why life during coronavirus will have “a permanent effect on people’s respect for reality.”

The coronavirus pandemic may change our perception of reality for a generation.
Emmanuele Contini/NurPhoto via Getty Images
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

I first started quarantining in earnest on March 12, a Thursday. Vox’s New York office had just closed, and so had the campus of the college where I teach. That morning, I taught my first online lecture, then worked on a Vox story in the afternoon. By that evening, I was already feeling like I needed to bolt — like I just wanted to get away from what was about to happen, to hit the opt-out button.

Escape was impossible, and I knew that. But the inevitability of the situation made me think a lot about the 2005 book Mediated, written by Tom de Zengotita, a philosopher and media theorist whom I first met when I took his courses in my MA program at New York University. (He later supervised my thesis.)

Mediated is an engaging and sometimes lyrical book about, as the subtitle puts it, “how the media shapes your world and the way you live in it”; in it, de Zengotita explores some big concepts that are simple to feel but tricky to describe. He posits that our experiences today are so “mediated” that we rarely have to interact with reality — that everything most of us experience in our everyday lives comes to us through “packaged” means that help blunt the edges of reality and soften it so it “flatters” us.

Modern conveniences like electricity and waterproof materials keep us from having to deal with the reality of a rising and setting sun, or weather. But as more and more technologies, particularly digital ones, have permeated our world, we’ve been able to customize our existences to the point that we get annoyed when we can’t easily talk to a friend halfway across the world because the internet isn’t working quite right, or we have to look at a paper map because the GPS on our phone is scrambled.

The opposite of reality, de Zengotita writes in the book, is not “fake” or “unreal.” It is “options.” We can blunt the harshness of reality with so many different possibilities because in our world, we have nearly unlimited options.

The speed at which some Americans were able to transition to working from home once stay-at-home orders began to take effect across the country — some (like me) with little interruption to our actual work habits — is a testimony to how mediated our existences have become. So have the relatively petty annoyances the more privileged among us have encountered: not being able to order groceries online because all of the delivery slots are taken, or the frustration of not being able to hang out at a favorite bar or go see a movie.

Others have to juggle child care and work in hugely frustrating ways that still don’t compare to what medical or emergency services workers are dealing with. But some of us have a wide array of choices for how to pass the time while stuck at home, like a seemingly unlimited number of movies and TV shows to distract ourselves with, or the ability to talk to our friends online. We have options.

That’s what made my fight-or-flight reaction especially striking to me. I had a visceral, almost primal feeling of needing to “opt out” — the word “opt” is key here — of what was coming, to find another reality to live in instead of this one. I wasn’t particularly scared of getting the virus, and I wasn’t thinking yet about the economic realities that were likely to hit. I just didn’t understand what I was living in and I wanted to skip it. I wanted another option.

But this pandemic doesn’t give options. There isn’t anywhere to go to get away from it. It’s everywhere, it’s invisible, and it’s nowhere, too. I might be carrying the coronavirus; I might have had it; I might not have been infected, or I could currently be infected right now, even though I feel fine. I was in college when 9/11 happened and a recession hit after I graduated, but neither of those “realities” — which were startling and scary and felt like moments when ordinary life had been “punctured” — had the pervasive and eerie feel of this one.

Mulling all of this over, I called Tom. He’s at his home in southern Vermont, teaching courses at New York City’s Dalton School via Zoom and working on a book. And unsurprisingly, he’s been thinking about this, too.

Together we discussed my opt-out moment, the “atmosphere” in which we all find ourselves, the way he’s conceiving of what we’re going through, and whether living through the pandemic is going to fundamentally change how an entire generation of people thinks about and experiences “reality.”

Alissa Wilkinson

When this was all starting to become “real,” so to speak, a few weeks ago, I had this feeling of wanting to opt out. I felt like I can’t deal with this. Of course, that’s not possible.

Tom de Zengotita

I talk a lot in Mediated about the evolution of the word “awesome” from something that meant truly awesome to a word we can now use to describe “awesome meals,” and “awesome French fries,” and all that.

Something similar has happened to the word “surreal,” I think. Just as with 9/11, a lot of people are talking about the world we’re in right now, about the “surreal” feeling it has. The same thing happened after 9/11 for a long time — especially in New York, of course.

But the odd thing about what’s happened is the word “surreal,” in the context of ubiquitous mediation, is that it actually now means something more like “real.” When reality intrudes on us in a way in which optionality is lost, the effect — if it’s a dramatic-enough example, but even if it’s small — the effect of that is to give us this little feeling of “surreal.”

It’s just interesting to remember that when the original surrealists started using the term in reference to their art, they were stressing the word “sur-,” meaning “above” or “beyond” the real. And they thought of the “surreal” as being more than or other than “real,” which to them meant something more like routine and prosaic and so on.

The weird paradox that I’m most aware of as I watch things around me is in the differences between how this thing — the effects and experience of living in a world where the virus is spreading — is manifesting itself in different places. I’m in southern Vermont. Before that I was in a little town in upstate New York; I was not in the city. It’s a whole different thing if you’re in the city from if you’re in Vermont, in its details.

But I think the descent of this kind of dome, or globe — except it’s got no limit to it, there’s no containing it — this descent of this atmosphere of what I’ll call “surreality,” for a minute, is really a manifestation of a confrontation we’re having with reality that’s purer than almost any confrontation we’ve had with reality as a collective, as a culture. Beyond even 9/11. Because it’s everywhere and it’s nowhere. You can’t cover it. No matter how many charts they draw, no matter how many statistics they give you, no matter how good their predictions are, no matter what they show, cruise ships and hospitals, you can’t cover this goddamn thing. It’s invisible and it’s everywhere.

Those two combinations of everywhere-ness and invisibility make it the sort of archetypal “thing,” in quotes, that can’t be mediated.

It presents itself as something that isn’t optional. You’re being forced to exercise all kinds of decisions about how to live, little options that you have to decide among in order to cope with it. But it’s all under duress. You’re still online. You’re weirdly as free to be where you “were,” but it’s now like you’re in some kind of prison of option.

I’m just on the edge of getting some concept that this thing is forcing on me. I hope to be clearer in a few weeks than I am right now. I can’t make myself get this — it has to happen as I’m watching and thinking.

Anyway. The surrealists used to think of [the surreal] as something above and beyond the real, and the term has slowly devolved. It became possible to say of any kind of a weird, eerie situation, “Oh, this is so surreal.” What you really mean is that it’s weird or eerie or out of the ordinary, and it lost its dimension of being superior to reality, above reality, that it had for the original surrealists.

Alissa Wilkinson

I have been trying in my mind to compare this experience to any other one in human history. It shares characteristics with other times. Like 9/11, for instance. Or take the 1918 flu epidemic: People reacted very differently to the threat because we had different ideas about science, but we also just didn’t have the internet. The AIDS epidemic isn’t a good analogue, either. People my age clearly remember starting our careers in the midst of a recession, but there are plenty of people who were able to opt out of the recession, to not feel its effects very much. Nobody is able to opt out of the pandemic, no matter how hard they try. The feeling that’s come with living during the pandemic is everywhere.

Do you think the unprecedented nature of what’s happening is messing with our notions of what we’re supposed to do? I have seen people, both young and old, try to refuse to accept that this was real, that it was happening, and that it would affect them. Does that come from living in a world of infinite options? From living in a reality in which big scary things are, for so many of us, always happening, but they’re not happening to us — we only experience them through a screen?

Thomas de Zengotita

The “I’m going to party no matter what” people, or the older tough guys who say, “If my number’s up, my number’s up, I’m not gonna let this bother me” — you know, I actually think those people are not only doing a normal, macho-style refusal to be among the sheep who shudder at every danger. It’s also just a feeling of strength that they get out of having that kind of attitude. That alone isn’t that different from people who are willing to drive at outrageous speeds on road and take ridiculous risks with cars or extreme sport. It’s clinging to the self-reinforcement, self-aggrandizement that they always have when anything threatens them.

But I think — and again, I’d have to really talk to some of those people, and I will if I get a chance — my gut tells me that underneath that they’re actually, trying to do what you were trying to do: “Opt out of this.” In other words, they’re returning to the only way they know of to comfortingly and powerfully defy death. They’re returning to that gesture.

But what they’re really defying is the giganticness of this invisible reality that would bring them to their knees in awe if they let themselves realize that they cannot possibly comprehend this. The incomprehensibility — almost in the literal sense of the term — is a defining characteristic of why it can’t be mediated.

That’s what makes it different from other sorts of things that I describe as “real” in the book. All the examples I gave of things that escaped mediation did so for a while, like 9/11, until the media caught up with it and covered it. I used “coverage” as a pun — like they “cover” it, and they cover it enough that it’s covered, so now you think you get it. Now, horrifying though 9/11 was, it’s in a box, it’s contained: “Oh, now I know what 9/11 was.” The coverage expands to completely absorb the reality, to become a substitute for that reality.

But mediation, coverage, of this pandemic can’t do that, because there’s no end to it. You can’t put this in a container of representation.

When you say you were trying to opt out, I don’t think you were only trying to opt out of what this was doing to your everyday life, trying to find some way to just ignore it and be your regular self, although you were also doing that. You were also wanting to opt out of opening yourself up to the real, the uncontainable real.

In a way, the chapter that’s most promising that’s in Mediated is the whole chapter on nature, the eventual mediation of nature, the containment of nature. I’ve got this whole thing in there on how museums and the movies have done such a fantastic job of representing the cosmos and the origin of the universe.

When I say a “fantastic job,” I’m literally talking about the quality and the quantity of their representations. At the Museum of Natural History in New York, you go through a whole experience about the birth of the universe. You climb down stairs to where there’s a tiny thread that represents the amount of time in which beings have existed on the planet Earth, compared to the whole experience of walking hundreds of yards down to it. You get an astounding — I was gonna say “awesome” — sense of the universe. But as you leave, it’s like leaving a great movie. You leave with that “whoa” feeling, and you feel as if you’ve contained it. The whole goddamn universe has been … you’ve experienced it in a kind of box.

This won’t let you do that.

Alissa Wilkinson

I’ve been trying to talk with people about the metaphors we use to describe the pandemic and understand how we’re supposed to respond to it. People use metaphors of war, or ecology, all different things. But part of the issue is that almost nobody alive today in America has been confronted with something like this, a scientific thing that we don’t understand yet that directly affects our lives. The concept of a world that’s unknowable is so foreign to us that we’re scrambling to find any box put it into.

Thomas de Zengotita

There you go. The impossible search for an adequate metaphor. Earthquakes, wars — I mean, the effects of an earthquake are vastly more severe and disruptive and horrible, just horrible. A real disaster is just horrible. But it’s … there. You can take a picture of it. In this case, you can take a picture of a doctor, or a corpse, or a microscopic picture of the little virus. You can take a lot of pictures. But none of those pictures feel like they’re pictures of it. There will never be an adequate metaphor.

Compared to what used to be the uncontainability of nature itself — I’m talking about the whole universe — the uncontainability of this is way more problematic. We’ve succeeded in finding metaphors, boxes, ways of containing or understanding our depictions and representations of nature, which have made us feel kind of equal to the task of existing in it. But existing in this atmosphere is like a permanent invisible fog. Because it’s invisible. You can’t mediate it. Even wars and earthquakes are mediatable, if the mediation technologies work hard enough. And when I say “mediatable,” I mean “covered,” in the pun sense of the word “covered.”

But this sucker ain’t gonna be covered. It can’t be represented well enough to give us the feeling that we know what it is. I don’t mean “know what it is” in scientific detail. We can all know that. The “it” I’m talking about is the “it” I’m looking at, right now, outside my window.

For me, the small manifestation of this — which is just so poignant and weird — is the way people in this little town are walking. You go for walks. You go alone, or with your dog, or with your partner and your dog, so the maximum number of walkers is three. The amount of waving to strangers that’s going on in the streets, and even between cars when you walk by someone, happens anyways, sometimes. But there’s no question of the poignancy of waving to someone whom you can’t get close to because of social distancing. The way in which you’re somehow sharing something in the very preservation of the distance between you, that’s sort of inciting people to wave. I feel it myself, to wave to strangers. It’s like, “Hey there. Here we are.”

Again, this is only half worked out, but the emphasis we usually put on the phrase “social distancing” is on “distancing” — “Oh dear, we’re distancing ourselves.” But oddly, I’m finding, in many individual small cases, the sociality of the distancing is intensified by the narrowness of the channel of communication and the impossibility of bridging it.

I’m not sure, but I think something of the same thing might be happening with these completely inadequate Zoom things that people are doing. My class [at the Dalton School] sucked. It just didn’t work as a class. But for me, and I think some of the kids, there’s this kind of [feeling of] waving to someone across a strange distance that was invisibly forced on all of us.

I keep getting back to the invisibility part. The whole idea of a representation is a depiction. By definition, it’s kind of contained.

Another way I’ve been trying to think of it: Sometimes I sit in front of a computer, and I look at a screen — the ultimate box — and I think of everything that’s accessible through that screen. It’s effectively infinite. It’s constantly growing. It’s indefinitely vast. Everything is online in some form or another. And it’s not visible, either!

Something is visible — whatever I’m looking at — but there’s this invisible infinity of stuff online. Yet I don’t feel contained in it the way I feel contained in this virus atmosphere. The atmosphere of the virus and everything implied in it — I feel like I’m the one that’s contained. And no matter how hard I try to get my metaphorical arms around it in some representational form, no matter how much I listen to Dr. Fauci do his thing, it doesn’t matter. Nothing is adequate to its vastness.

But why isn’t it like that when I contemplate the infinity of the internet and the invisibility of it? That’s also invisible. Why don’t I have that same feeling? All because of that fucking screen, right? The ultimate box.

I wrote in the Atlantic years ago about why Google Glass wasn’t going to work, before it really didn’t work. I was saying that the reason it wasn’t going to work is that what people are really in love with is their screen, not their access to everything. I mean, that’s cool, too — but the screen is what they love, because it’s this container.

Alissa Wilkinson

It’s a container for a reality that I can manipulate however I want.

Thomas de Zengotita

Yeah! You’re in total charge. You’re the producer of the movie if you want to be. You’re the consumer, you’re the star, you’re on it. You’re the god of the world, insofar as the screen can contain it, and nothing can touch you. In other words, you’ve succeeded in mediational optionality mastery of reality, insofar as it’s containable on the screen.

The uncontainability of the — it’s not the virus itself, again, I’m not talking about concrete medical containability. The way they say, “Oh we’re going to contain this portion of the population,” that’s not what I mean, although it’s metaphorically interesting. I’m talking about the atmosphere that we live in, that we’re in. That’s what’s containing us. That’s what’s uncontainable. I don’t feel like the god of anything to do with this virus when I’m watching coverage of it.

If they can get it all right and cure the fucking thing, I’ll be delighted, of course. But that won’t mean that we’ve contained it. That’ll just mean it went away, thank God.

Alissa Wilkinson

I’ve been thinking about how having lived through this might irrevocably change our perceptions, at least for a generation, about what reality actually is.

Thomas de Zengotita

I think there’s a possibility that for a generation, everyone who’s lived through this — whether they were deeply affected by it personally or not, whether the coming recession drives them down into grinding poverty or not — will remember, and, like muscle memory, will know, will understand, will have as a dimension of their character, the experience of the uncontainable real that hasn’t been accessible to anybody else since mediation took over.

That’s why people go on expeditions, sail boats across the Atlantic all by themselves, climb cliff faces without ropes. They’re looking for that [uncontainable real]. It’s all there; they can make pictures of it.

But this is different. And it’s everywhere.

There remains to be made some great work of art or intellectual art, or theoretical creativity, or some phenomenological account of this that might actually have a permanent effect on people’s respect for reality.

Here’s a little thought, just a tiny example: The way in which Trump and his enablers went from “Oh this is nothing” to “I’m a wartime president fighting the greatest battle since Churchill” in the space of three weeks. The way they did that, because of the science making it impossible for them not to see what was happening, because everything the scientists were saying was going on, went on in a month. If the timeline for climate change could be shrunk so that it paralleled the timeline for the virus, we’d see exactly the same development.

Of course, we’re not going to get to see that. It’s too bad. But the humiliation and embarrassment of their tuning on a dime because of the overwhelming evidence of the truth, of the science, without admitting they were wrong … though of course, they’re not doing that.

Alissa Wilkinson

It has always seemed to me as if Trump’s greatest talent is not manipulating “reality,” but manipulating the surfaces through which we experience reality. He knows how to manipulate the mediation.

Thomas de Zengotita

This goes back long before media as we know it today. I’d say he’s a genius — I wouldn’t hesitate, in the original sense of the word: genius, genesis, the one who captures the essence of the age. He just marched in there with Twitter, saying what he was saying about John McCain. Everyone was saying, “You can’t do that,” and he just fucking did it. And it worked! I mean, it worked.

Alissa Wilkinson

And many people are willing and happy to believe that the mediation he’s manipulating is, itself, reality — because it’s the version of reality they want?

Thomas de Zengotita

Here, I don’t agree with you, based on the following quote from a Trump supporter and from my informal inquiries over the counter at the deli with some Trump supporter I talked to. She said, “I don’t actually believe anything he says is true, but I trust him.”

Think about that.

I suddenly realized that they all know this isn’t true — I mean, not all. A substantial preponderance of the people who are being fooled into believing Trump, according to conventional progressive left-wing wisdom, are actually part of the game of reality construction and fabrication that he’s playing. They’re building the fabrication with him. They know it’s not true.

By “they,” I obviously don’t mean every one of them. But if you watch a Trump rally really closely, they’re all laughing. They’re yelling, “Lock her up!” but they’re grinning. They’re not mad. It’s like a pro wrestling match. They’re having fun. It’s like a carnival, and the carnival is to mess with our heads — meaning you and me and other progressive liberal elites who’ve been condescending to them for 30 years — by not caring about the truth. They just go, “Oh, this is a hoax.” And they know it’s not!

That’s what I think. I think they’re participating in making the fabricated reality that we think they’re sort of mindlessly absorbing, or being duped.

Alissa Wilkinson

But that’s just it; they’ve chosen a version of reality that they want, and are participating in constructing it.

Thomas de Zengotita

Right. That’s exactly true. But that’s a crucial inflection: They’ve chosen that, and they feel free to choose that, because all there is out there are versions of reality. And now you’re back to options.

Alissa Wilkinson

So the question for today, then, is what happens when you can’t choose?

Thomas de Zengotita

Yeah, exactly. [Laughs.]

Alissa Wilkinson

The college students I teach who are graduating are truly baffled, and rightly so, by what they are supposed to do. It’s not like they’re the first people to graduate into a bad economy, but they don’t even know if there is an economy right now. They’ve been raised in such a way that they believe that they can be whatever they want to be, and now they literally can’t.

Thomas de Zengotita

Again, to go back to your question about whether it’s conceivable this experience could be an encounter with reality for a critical mass of educated people, where they just wouldn’t be so absorbed in this “blob” [of mediation] as we all have been. I said something about some great artistic work that remains to be done; some great intellectual or phenomenological account moment remains to be given.

My plan for my own students is to talk about this at the end of the course I’m teaching. Wittgenstein wrote The Tractatus while he was serving in an ambulance corps in the middle of World War I in the trenches, around 1917. He’d put earplugs in, and he wrote Tractatus Philosophicus when he wasn’t out on the line dealing with mangled bodies.

What I’m saying is to focus on telling your students, “It’s up to you. I’m not sure how you’re going to make a living. But you fucking better well make meaning out of this.”

Alissa Wilkinson

It’s been a really strange spring. I teach a course on postmodern theory, and suddenly halfway through the semester we’re behind screens, talking about manipulation of metanarratives by the powerful. They get it. But it’s like we’re doing the live-action immersive version of the course, where we act out the theories we’re studying in real time.

Thomas de Zengotita

That’s a coincidence — co-incidence — that you can take advantage of, if you stay alert.

To go back, though, to where we started: What’s important is just the uncontainability of this thing. Just think of the way the screen is able to contain the entire universe as we know it, from its inception at the Big Bang to where we are now, to someday when our sun will supernova and bap! Somehow or other, we can contain all that in representations and mediations. Of course, we have the option of not paying any attention, but it’s there if we want to immerse ourselves in that awesome experience before we go home for dinner.

But with this, the key phenomenological features are invisibility and the uncontainability of the atmosphere, not the virus, the atmosphere. The atmosphere is containing us. We are not containing it.

That’s an encounter with reality that’s analogous to an example I give in Mediated. It’s a little page-long thought exercise: Suppose your car breaks down in the middle of Saskatchewan, and you’ve got no gear, you’ve got no cellphone, you’ve got nothing to read, there’s nobody on the road, so you just sit there for three or four hours. This actually happened to me. What you notice after a while is the way in which everything around you is utterly indifferent to you. It’s not there for you. Every arrangement is accidental. Nothing is presented. You see what you happen to see. It’s indifferent to your view of it. It’s not for you!

Whereas in a mediated world, everything, including street signs, everything is for you. It’s addressing you.

I think the uncontainable, unrepresentable, invisible atmosphere of the virus has that same quality of indifference to you, and of you, and the impossibility of you containing it as opposed to it containing you.

That’s as far as I’ve got with this so far.

Thomas De Zengotita’s book Mediated: How the Media Shapes Your World and the Way You Live In It was published in 2005 by Bloomsbury. He is also the author of Postmodern Theory and Progressive Politics: Toward a New Humanism (Palgrave MacMillan, 2018).

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