Seeking to interest visitors in George Washington's life, curators at his Mount Vernon estate recently attempted to recreate the deathbed stench of the first president as he lay in state. They gave up on the idea, but their instinct was perfectly in sync with a culture consumed by 24-hour technicolor surround-sound entertainment.
"Real isn't real enough," writes Thomas de Zengotita in "Mediated," his spectacular widescreen critique of contemporary American culture. "That's the telltale sign of an otherwise invisible tipping point in the historical balance between representation and represented. It marks a threshold of saturation, the point beyond which no real entity can survive in popular culture."
George Washington's sad fate runs deeper than the common complaint that we live in an age without heroes. Indeed, the reason his story no longer looms as large as Mount Rushmore helps explain how our world came to be mediated, and what it means to live in it.
Compare Washington for a moment with those who now command widespread public enthusiasm, people such as Eminem, Oprah, and Barry Bonds. What distinguishes them is that they're here to perform for us. That's their foremost talent. They're consumer goods, glibly packaged products. Their images can be mixed and matched, ours for the taking, as disposable as press-on nails.
The defining feature of our culture, according to de Zengotita, is our mass narcissism. He refers to this as the "flattered self, a self that exists in its very own field of representations, that constructs its own identity, chooses what it wants to be." We got to be that way primarily because of the astonishing abundance of opportunities that have practically defined the 20th century, perhaps best illustrated by the fact that, in a single afternoon, the average American is exposed to more vibrant sensations in greater variety than was Constantine or Henry VIII or Napoleon over a whole lifetime.
"Reality is becoming indistinguishable from representation in a qualitatively new way," de Zengotita claims. Reality TV and blogging, for example, conveniently close the loop on our narcissism, eliminating the middleman. Prenups and iPods represent the apotheosis of optionality in our lives. Whereas marriage was once forever and music was a special occasion, our experience of reality is now malleable, a customized environment, a virtual extension of our desires. And both of these strands tie together in our fascination with cloning - what could be more narcissistic than living among optional selves?
De Zengotita's book may be just the "real entity" to make us flinch - and think.
• Jonathon Keats is a freelance writer in San Francisco.