Reflection by Kimberly Hall
In its critique of what Victorian studies has been, the V21 Collective Manifesto challenges scholarship that “fails to imagine paths of argument compelling to scholars who do not care about Victorians as Victorians.” What is so exciting about The Mediated Mind is that Susan Zieger is clearly reaching beyond Victorianists to reach a wide and diverse audience of readers. The ambitious scope of the book, paired with its meticulous research and insightful close readings, allows it to illustrate why the nineteenth century is “the first period in which consumers began daily to consider which parts of mass-produced culture they would incorporate into their psyches and which they would reject” (6). The aim of the book is to draw out affiliations—both in practice and in representation—between the media cultures of the past and present and allow the points of comparison to serve as illuminations of both moments. And while this aim is undoubtedly achieved, one of the book’s most important contributions to both Victorian studies and media studies, is the more subtle analysis of how the consumption of media has become central to the construction of “authentic” selfhood.
This question is key to the analysis of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray in the fifth chapter, which considers the “play between depth and surface in describing personality in the age of mass media” (199). This tension is, of course, figured in the difference that develops between Dorian’s unmarred visage and his increasingly hideous portrait, but as Zieger points out, this metaphor also extends to the trials of Wilde himself, where self-preservation requires him to detach personality from the person and to instead articulate a “zone in between real people and the images they project into their social world” (205). This space between the “real” self and the constructed self is the realm of mediation, one inhabited by Instagram Influencers and Dorian alike, and this perceived schism between selves has generated significant hand-wringing and critique. But in her reading, Zieger suggests that these practices of mediated selfhood offer productive frameworks for identity formation not otherwise available, particularly for socially marginalized individuals. As Zieger notes, “feeling ‘more real’ can repair the social damage done to those who are not already socially visible or validated,” but the politics of recognition assumed by such models are as complicated now as they were in Wilde’s moment (201).
But it is in these correlations that the stakes of authenticity within the mediated economy of selfhood are revealed. While on the one hand the media “prosumer” has many more tactics for constructing and circulating identities, these tactics can lapse into personal “brand” production, requiring a difficult negotiation of the politics of authenticity. And although Zieger withholds judgement on the contemporary dynamics of this issue, in her careful reconstruction of the history and stakes of such practices, she offers a reparative analysis of the long history of media consumption in identity construction. In so doing, she offers us much more than the assurance than nothing we confront now is new: she instead suggests that strategies for negotiating these ongoing dynamics are available to those of us willing to find the Victorians compelling for more than just their Victorian-ness.