Media, Sensationalism and Media Sensationalism

by Jeff McMahon on May 10, 2011

Lauren Berlant

Lauren Berlant speaking on media sensationalism? I couldn’ t miss that. So I found my way to the University of Chicago’s Gleacher Center to have a listen. Only to find out I’d overlooked the comma between media and sensationalism.

Lauren Berlant is an English professor at the University of Chicago, but that title can’t contain her. She’s one of a very few people I would call, without hesitation, an important thinker of our time.

Terms she invented or illuminated will circulate for decades—infantile citizen, intimate public sphere, cruel optimism, workplace precarity, the love plot— a cascade of articles and books will tumble from each.

Terminology is just an easy handle on slippery work. More important is her deployment.

She dismantles obviousness, stuff we don’t even take for granted because we don’t k now to take it, since we don’t know it’ s been granted. She unmasks the deepest mechanisms of subjectivity, the hidden machinery of our lives, the stuff behind the curtain at the end of the long hallway under the transom on the bottom floor of the elevator that we forgot exists.

“It’s really not possible to read Lauren Berlant, “ said political scientist Linda Zerilli, “without the sensation of losing the ground underneath one’s feet.”

So when I heard Lauren Berlant would be speaking on media sensationalism, well, I had to go. I take full responsibility for overlooking the comma, but she took responsibility too. Here’s what she said at the start of her talk:

You know, we kind of got you in here on a scam or something, because the real title for this talk is “On the Desire for the Political,” but the people at the Franke Institute were worried that desire would confuse you, which—that’s what it does.”

Then we got the real talk about the desire for the political, which was great. But first Lauren gave us a hint of what she might have said were she to give us a talk on media and sensationalism, and this is just such a wonderful plate of spaghetti, I think we might like to twirl our forks in it:

What you thought you were going to see was a talk on political sensationalism and you probably thought we were going to have a talk about what’s going on in the political public sphere right now—which is a place where structural antagonisms, in the United States, in qualities of class or race or genderized sexuality or genuine disputes about the role of the state in the production of the good life, or genuine disputes about what the good life is—those kinds of antagonisms get expressed in the political public sphere as a kind of melodrama of action, so people think that their feelings have to be inflated, and that’s what we call media sensationalism, so that there’s no middle ground to anything, that there can only be a higher ground, and so the whole question of the relationship between the melodramatic ground of politics and the higher ground of political fantasy is sort of like what the talk title that you were delivered promised, and the people will start— we’ll start thinking about why people want to feel intimate in their public spheres and what that has to do with inflating emotion.”

This is the talk she didn’t give, what it would have been about. And maybe the ungiving of that talk is a gift, ultimately, because it gives us license to play—to hash something out together.

We can’t reproduce Lauren’s ungiven talk here, only she could do that, but we could have a different conversation, inspired by Lauren’s spark. It might not escape common sense, but so what?

I’m sure Lauren means much more than what I’m about to impose, but here’s a place we can begin.

Not long ago it was impossible to be progressive without being pro-Obama—in November 2008, say.

And then it seemed to become difficult, if not impossible, to be progressive without being anti-Obama—last spring and summer, mainly, when Obama was somehow responsible for BP’s Gulf oil spill amid a suite of other infractions, like those ongoing wars. I felt at both points there was no middle ground. Perhaps there is now. What do you think?

Here’s a more personal example:

I’ve been writing about radiation a lot lately. When I publish posts like this one, I’m called anti-nuclear. When I publish posts like this one, I’m called pro-nuclear. (And the people who assumed I was anti-nuclear are, as one of them admitted to me, really confused).

Actually, I’m neither. But there seems to be no middle ground.

You think X, assumes some faction. That means you’re one of us. Here’s the rest of what you think.

This sensational battlefield of ideas has little room for flexibility. We’re expected to swallow the doctrine of the high ground we’re occupying. We’re expected to reject the doctrine of that other high ground. But this is such a simplistic reading of Berlant. What do you think?

Are you for it or against it?

Amanda May 10, 2011 at 1:34 pm

I’m not familiar with Berlant’s work, admittedly, but I am intrigued. I definitely feel the need for what a dear friend calls the “radical middle ground” to counter-act the “structural antagonisms” that continue to pit many versions of the “good life” against each other. I’m also a really big fan of “un-given talks” as precursors to other talks, and talks inside of talks that promise to unpack all that lurks “behind the curtain at the end of the long hallway under the transom on the bottom floor of the elevator that we forgot exists.” I am afraid sometimes to turn those corners, peek behind that curtain, but I also realize that not doing so these days means a certain kind of moral — and spiritual — death, and I’m not ready to die like that.

Thanks for this post, I’ll start follow threads back to Berlant’s work. I’m craving maps, perhaps she’s one, her mind/reminders.


Rebecca Lehmann May 10, 2011 at 3:03 pm

I’m going to go decidedly more low-brow here and mention John Stewart’s March to Restore Sanity, or whatever it was called, from this past summer, which seemed an, albeit comic, attempt to reach a sort of political middle ground. America has a great history of pragmatism, and I’m reminded that Obama ran on being a pragmatic politician (or was often called a pragmatist while running). I think that pragmatism and American politics were more closely united in the early twentieth century, when thinkers like John Dewey were writing, but it seems to me that the two are now oil and water, much like the Democratic and Republican parties, who seem so diametrically opposed that it’s a wonder anything gets done. I’m not sure if that’s what Lauren Berlant is referring to, or means. I hadn’t heard of her before and will now check her out. Are there any of her books in particular that are must reads Jeff?

Angela Argentati May 10, 2011 at 3:42 pm

Amanda: Way to launch the discussion with a comment that reads profoundly… as well-wrought as a poem!

Jeff: You posit your question “Are you for it or against it?” a bit tongue-in-cheek, but its complexity arises as soon as I say, “Yes, I’m in strongly in favor of it: the middle ground!”

There is something antithetical about adopting a hard-line middle-ground stance, because I think we conceive of the middle ground as a wet depression in the playing field–a weak spot, lacking the support that “strong conviction” ostensibly provides, where one might twist her ankle. We’re either here or there, but if we’re neither here nor there, we seem to be nowhere. (And maybe one of the problems is that we, and the media, find simplistic ideals more easily construable and sound-bite-able than a holistic approach that attempts to understand the complexities of any given situation.)

Speaking for myself, and maybe for some of the other Gen X-Y Cuspers, I think we shy away from the middle ground, because we associate it with complacency. It’s hard not to cling to the life-raft of zealots and high-grounders, when complacency’s undertow feels like it drags us out to drift aimlessly. And then knee-jerking seems a natural reaction… if they turn to extremism, so will we. More in a second post.

Angela Argentati May 10, 2011 at 4:24 pm

Complacency and pragmatism oppose one another, really, so it’s interesting that we sometimes mistake one for the other in a sort of elision.

And I hate to say it, but I disagree that “the ungiving of that talk is a gift”! I want to know what, exactly, Berlant means when she says, “we’ll start thinking about why people want to feel intimate in their public spheres and what that has to do with inflating emotion.”

University of Missouri English Professor Jenny Edbauer Rice explains it relatively well on her blog (quoted below–sorry I don’t know how to indent!):

‘There is no more public sphere, says Berlant, and thus “no context of communication and debate that makes ordinary citizens feel that they have a common public culture, or influence on a state that holds itself accountable to their opinions, critical or otherwise”… Instead, she identifies the strange replacement of the public and its citizens: an intimate public sphere comprising innumerable private lives on display for mass consumption…. According to Berlant, the intimate public does away with the critical energy of a public sphere and transforms it into “the sentimental spaces of an amorphous opinion culture.” ‘

So, then, should we conceive of the middle ground as an alternative to this–a place where facts prevail rather than opinion, where emotions needn’t be inflated? Or does the existence of the intimate public sphere militate against this possibility of finding middle ground? In other words, do we need to change the intimate public sphere into something else in order to make headway?

Jeff McMahon May 10, 2011 at 9:04 pm

I’m just so grateful to be able to have a conversation with all three of you. You all write English that makes the eyes smile and the gears spin.

@Amanda & Rebecca: Lauren has a new book out this year called “Cruel Optimism” that would be a timely place to start. Here’s a definition: “”Cruel optimism is the condition of maintaining an attachment to a problematic object in advance of its loss.” Here’s a sample chapter that someone from UWM posted:

And Lauren blogs here:

@Rebecca, I don’t think Lauren would consider Jon Stewart to be lowbrow. She’s a champion of doing academic work with popular objects. I don’t know if Berlant is thinking back to Dewey, but I do think your observation about Stewart makes sense.

@Angela: What if instead of thinking of the middle ground as a soft soggy spot we thought of it as the blue part of the flame, or the spot where, as Rebecca suggests, the rubber meets the road? Would that be more a more amenable vision to Gen-XY Cuspers?

David Alm May 11, 2011 at 5:55 am

I haven’t had time to read through the comments yet, but in response to the post itself, I’d just say that this issue has been percolating for years. You know this, of course, but I think it’s somewhat surprising that it continues to be a “new” point of observation and discussion. Perhaps this is because the players change, the stakes are raised, and the 24-hour news cycle makes the sensationalism all the more sensational.

Never before has “meta news” — that is, news about news — been as compelling and complex as it is now. It used to be that stories about the media were rather dull. Not anymore.

In a way, the circus of media sensationalism is a good thing. It inspires us to consider the news more critically than we did before, and to have discussions like this one. Clearly, it is an enormous topic, one that will be debated and analyzed for decades to come. If we’re lucky.

M Washburn May 11, 2011 at 8:03 am

heya everyone,
@Rebecca: for my money, Lauren’s “The Queen of American Goes to Washington City” is a nearly perfect piece of critical work. supplement that with a few of her essays, esp “The Subject of True Feeling” and her famous piece co-authored with Michael Warner, “Sex in Public.” i haven’t read her in about 10 years, and i know she’s been productive since then, but i can’t overstate the power that these pieces had on me. i’ve yet to disenthrall myself entirely, not that one really should….

as for the topic at hand, a bit of a question: it was my understanding that Berlant thinks of affect and the intimate public sphere not so much as something to be diminished or escaped, but as something that needs to be acknowledged and redirected. after all, as i think she once wrote, emotion is an attachment to politics not a detachment from it. the screw’s turned once people mistake emotion for “fact,” yes, but the point isn’t to get away from emotion as it is to realize that politics is and always was an arena of emotional, affective engagement. the current problem is that we’ve been convinced that the emotions we’re invited to enjoy in public are those that have very little productive influence on change. they make us the infantile citizens of Jeff’s original comment. or am i totally wrong on this, Jeff?

another question: i find it very compelling, in her remarks, the move between “political sensationalism” to “that’s what we call media sensationalism.” the intervening language- and i’m not sure i mean this – seems, at least to me, as i continue to qualify myself, to assert that the expectation she presumes her audience arrived with undermines or misapprehends the political salience of the structural and very real problems of the contemporary political scene. maybe. so perhaps there’s a trifecta of sensationalisms here (political, media, emotional) and that it’s the steadfastly implicit or misunderstood nature of this third sensationalism, the emotional, that explains how we understand what we think we’re doing when we do politics.

to pragmatize her and turn her thinking toward the world is a bit tricky, at least for me. still thinking….

Jeff McMahon May 11, 2011 at 10:56 am

Thanks for chiming in, gentlemen. It seems to me that there are two ways this discussion could go. The first is the Berlant-Certified route, in which we try to figure out what she means. I’ve tried to steer away from that one because we haven’t done the reading. I’ve done a bit of the reading and attended several of her lectures, but her work instills humility along with understanding. I don’t think we could get it right without turning this discussion into a course—or a major. I know I’m not prepared to speak for her meaning. The second is the Berlant-Inspired route, in which Lauren’s work serves as a springboard for our own thoughts about media, sensationalism and media sensationalism. But Mike is absolutely right when he says, “to pragmatize her and turn her thinking toward the world is a bit tricky.”

I’m also intrigued by the shift in her quote between political sensationalism and media sensationalism and the emerging structure that Mike calls the trifecta—the hint she gives at the end, the one that Angela wants to chase—about emotional sensationalism. “How we understand what we think we’re doing when we do politics,” in Mike’s words.

Jeff McMahon May 11, 2011 at 4:15 pm

P.S. I was at an industrial supply-chain conference today, and I was struck by how not-inflated was the rhetoric. Not deflated either. These were businesspeople and industrialists, likely to harbor conservative sympathies, uttering statements like, in the case of a locomotive manufacturer, “We’re going to reduce our NOx and particulate emissions 20 percent by 2015,” etc. Matter of fact. No radical skepticism, no conspiracy theorizing, just this is what it is.

M Washburn May 13, 2011 at 4:28 pm

while looking for something else, i happened across this…

Jeff McMahon May 15, 2011 at 4:20 pm

Mike, thank you for posting this. I think Lauren is clearest and most explanatory when she’s speaking not from her written text but extemporaneously before the public, as she does in this video, connecting the concepts in her work to practical aspects of people’s lives. I’ve been dodging the academic thicket here because this forum is committed to communicating with the public (and not excluding the public by using academic language that’s meaningful to the few). In this video Lauren cuts through the thicket for us.

p.s. Annie Murphy and I have a conversation about the problem of the two audiences—public and academic—in the comments here.

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: