Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Within the Context of No Context by George W. S. Trow

Source of book: borrowed from the library
Date originally posted to Facebook: January 25, 2011

I am gradually re-posting my old Facebook reviews to my blog. This book, which I read over two years ago, remains the weirdest book I have ever reviewed, and one of the weirdest that I have ever read.

This is, without doubt, an unusual book. It is put together from a series of essays written by the late Mr. Trow and published in The New Yorker.

Trow’s central thesis is that television has removed context and what he terms the “middle distance” from society, and has left it in the state of “no context”. While Trow never really defines the “middle distance”, he contrasts it with the extremes: intimacy and what he calls the “grid of 200 million”, that is, the population of the United States. Thus, people interacted with their intimate friends and relatives, and had the semblance of national life, centering around discussion of what was on television, but there was now missing the context in between.

In Trow’s view, the first step was the removal of history as context, and its replacement by demographics. Perhaps we would call this “market segmentation” these days. Television (and advertising) break us up into targeted blocks having demographics in common.

Secondly, adulthood became irrelevant. In the view of demographics, the preferences of a child were equally (or more) important that those of an adult. There was no longer a need to learn how to be an adult because perpetual childhood sold goods just as well. Nothing was judged any longer, only counted.

What this led to was a lack of any real sense of authority. Of course, this vacuum led to attempts to create authority, but only authority of a particular kind: that which gives a sense of comfort but doesn’t give a sense of inhibition.

The book is divided into two sections. The first bears the title of the book itself. The second is titled Within that Context: One Style. The first section deals specifically with the concepts I outlined above by short (often one sentence) paragraphs interspersed with longer narratives. The writing is elliptical and occasionally seems to float right out of context itself. As it goes on, however, it leads into extended discussions of People Magazine, celebrity in general, and a few specific instances. This section culminates in an extended, rambling story about the World’s Fair, at which Trow worked during his college days.

The second section is a bit longer than the first, and is nothing like it. Trow spends this entire section discussing Ahmet Ertegun, the principal figure at Atlantic Records. In this narrative, Trow discusses his dealings with Ertegun and his artists, including The Rolling Stones and Crosby, Stills & Nash. Trow’s point is to illustrate the culture of celebrity through the disconnected, rambling events experienced. I admit that I had a harder time with this section. Trow certainly dropped enough familiar names, but the nuances of the music business feel like they would be better placed in a story with that theme rather than one addressing a broad theme of culture.

Returning to the first section, which I feel was more on point; I was amazed at how Trow’s vision of television culture seemed to describe 2010, rather than 1981, when the book was published. Reality television, American Idol, and the rest demonstrate his theory that television would lead to everyone seeking the status of celebrity. One wonders what Trow would have thought had he lived to see it.

I suppose that I am a bit like Trow at heart. My family when I was growing up refused to purchase cable, and gradually watched less and less television. From age 16 until I married, I didn’t even connect my set to “rabbit ears” to get the local broadcasts. Even now, I like my sports, but I haven’t really felt like spending the time to watch stuff. (I confess to having a Food Network and Mythbusters habit while on vacation.)

I guess that all makes me a hidebound reactionary, old before my time. Or something like that. I prefer my books.

I wouldn’t consider this book to be a light read, but it does have its page turning moments. The World Fair narrative was a particularly engaging section. I probably will remember the concept of the decline of adulthood the most, however. If my practice of law has caused me to think anything, it is that most of us have regressed to the point of banging on our high chairs, unable to look beyond our own desires, unwilling to become adults. Unwilling particularly to accept an authority which causes a sense of inhibition.

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