Turning the Century: Essays in Media and Cultural Studies

By Carol A. Stabile | Go to book overview

critics of media and popular culture similarly emphasized what was new, distinct, and specific to contemporary culture. To a large degree, these claims of millennial transformation were possible only insofar as history could be forgotten or ignored; at the end of the century, history appeared less and less relevant to the present.

Like Thomas Hardy's darkling thrush at the close of the nineteenth century, I find "little cause for carolings" as this particular century turns, and much reason for skepticism in the face of millennial proclamations in the media, be they ecstatic or apocalyptic. For above all, the turn of the twenty-first century has reinvigorated the media's longstanding narcissistic romance with rupture, with the unprecedented nature of the present, and with the "new." The American mass media -- from newspapers to radio to television and the Internet -- have long understood themselves as the harbingers of modernity, as world-historic agents in the production of the present, and to a large extent, as both the alpha and the omega of massive social changes.

Given widespread popular acceptance of the media's self-representations, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that the media and the modes of storytelling employed therein have histories, and that claims to novelty and modernity have long been deployed as strategies for increasing various forms of media consumption as well as for promoting new and old media alike. These strategies proceed through a logic of distinction, in which new media technologies and cultural practices are abstracted from social and historical contexts and presented as entirely revolutionary. The logic of distinction requires that history and historical connections be downplayed; and the commercial basis of mass media operations demands that properly historicized narratives -- particularly those that might give consumers a sense of déjà vu -- be repressed. 1

We can see this process of distinction very clearly in the current marketing of the Internet, wherein new computer technologies are represented as changing the way we are educated, the way we do business, and the nature of our communities, our families, and our everyday lives. To lack access to the Internet and the World Wide Web is to be old-fashioned, outdated, and ultimately obsolete. The Internet, we are told, bears no resemblance to previous media technologies; and debates about Internet regulation and access seldom, if ever, refer back to earlier debates about print media, radio, or television. Similarly, we are treated to endless sermons about the effects of the Internet, video games, and other media technologies on "vulnerable" populations, as if these technologies alone were the causes of violence, apathy, and despair.

Despite the apocalyptic timbre of these debates, we have had these conversations many times over the past hundred years and the language and direction of these debates remain virtually unchanged. The novel, it was said, had deleterious effects on the moral health of women and children, and the Penny Press had similarly negative consequences among "the masses." Early film exhibition was likewise charged with having a corrupting effect on workers, women, and children.

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