BROOKE GLADSTONE: Part of what was so strange about watching Cho speak from the dead was how not strange it was. From his clothes, right down to the poses he struck, we'd seen it all before – in Taxi Driver, The Matrix¸ Quentin Tarantino films or the Korean splatter flicks that inspired them. Cho wasn't just playing to the camera. He was recycling performances taken by other cameras.
But to say he was playing a role is not to say he wasn't also suffering, just as his fellow students in the days after experienced real pain, even as they dutifully played the roles they saw played in school shootings past.
Media theorist Thomas de Zengotita has written extensively about this phenomenon of mediated self-consciousness. He says that the complaints heard from the students at Virginia Tech, that the media were paying too much attention to Cho and not enough to them, revealed a certain sense of entitlement nurtured by our participatory media culture. THOMAS de ZENGOTITA: So when they say this, they're really giving sort of production advice. They're saying: this should be our story, this should be the script; why are you guys collaborating with his script?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I don't want to diminish the horrific experience that those people went through, but it did seem at times as if they were reading lines from a script, almost as if they'd been through all this before. THOMAS de ZENGOTITA: Right. BROOKE GLADSTONE: And we have a couple of examples of that. FEMALE STUDENT: This is something that no one will ever get over. I mean, the people who died, yes, they’re, they've finished their pain, but the pain for everybody else will go on forever. MALE STUDENT: It's just insane. That's just, that's such a big number. Like we were already saying this is just like a college Columbine. This is, it's just really sad. THOMAS de ZENGOTITA: Yeah, those two particular individuals, there's no question in my mind, just listening to their voices, that they understand they're in a drama, as well as something real. It's a fusion of reality and representation. I call it the "story event." The story shapes the event. The event shapes the story. It unfolds in real time, just the way the kids who were trapped in their various classes were reporting on their cell phones simultaneously as the events unfolded, and hearing themselves on their own laptops reporting through MSNBC on themselves. BROOKE GLADSTONE: And we might think that it was a function of 24-hour cable news, but you maintain that it's far older than that. THOMAS de ZENGOTITA: I think Kennedy's assassination was the first story event. I think that was the first time in history where, you know, millions and millions of people who weren't anywhere near some traumatic event of this kind - like say Pearl Harbor for comparison – you know, began to tell stories as if this had happened to them.
The media saturation had reached the point where people felt as if they were there, because, in a way, virtually, representationally, they were. BROOKE GLADSTONE: In fact, they were more there than they were if they had been standing in the grassy knoll. THOMAS de ZENGOTITA: In a way, I think that's very true, because you get a kind of God's-eye view of the whole situation, plus it repeats itself over and over again so you get to dwell on it. If you were just standing in the crowd, you'd hear a shriek, you'd hear a gunshot and you'd catch a glimpse of this or that, and then it would all be over. BROOKE GLADSTONE: So going back to the Kennedy assassination, where all of us who were alive had our "me moments" off-screen - THOMAS de ZENGOTITA: Yeah. BROOKE GLADSTONE: - now Virginia Tech, everyone was having their "me moment" onscreen. THOMAS de ZENGOTITA: Exactly. Don't forget, last year was the year that Time Magazine named "You" person of the year. And they thought they were talking about blogging and YouTube. That was much more profound an insight into the nature of the mediated world, and the central performative role that everybody feels entitled to play in it, than Time Magazine ever dreamt. BROOKE GLADSTONE: In this day and age, is it actually possible to resist the event story? We saw the Amish try when there was a shooting in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. We saw Native Americans try when there was a shooting at the Red Lake Indian Reservation in Minnesota. THOMAS de ZENGOTITA: Yes, it is possible. And the fact that I have never heard of the Red Lake incident tells you what the consequences of that are. The price you pay for that is that you don't exist. And people have a deep-seated need to exist in the public square. Otherwise you have no significance. You don't make any difference, to use that word.
So, yes, you can resist, but if you do, you're counting yourself out of the world in which the rest of us live. And, you know, bully for you. But that's what it is. BROOKE GLADSTONE: We were tracking the media and the impact of the media after 9/11, where the phenomenon became global. THOMAS de ZENGOTITA: That's right. BROOKE GLADSTONE: There was no corner of the world, practically, where a human being couldn't say, I remember where I was on 9/11. THOMAS de ZENGOTITA: You're absolutely right. You're absolutely right, Brooke. And again, this is early innings. This stuff is just starting. And we really have to think in terms of the meaning of some of these images and the effects they can have on people.
I think that when they got that – what amounts to the press kit that Cho sent to NBC - that's what it was, it was a press kit – I really think there should have been a discussion about which one of those pictures to show at all. The aesthetic of his self-presentation is extremely powerful, extremely potent.
And we really have to recognize that this isn't a world of representation separate from a world of reality. This is a fused world of representation and the real that we're all living in, and that means we need to have a whole new set of concepts and a whole new set of ways of making judgments about what to do and not to do in that the world. It's a different world, literally.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Thank you very much. THOMAS de ZENGOTITA: You're welcome. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Thomas de Zengotita is the author of Mediated: How the Media Shapes Your World and the Way You Live In It.
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