OUT OF CONTEXT
The world of arts and criticism used to be such that one critical work published in the correct publication would ensure one’s permanent place in the culture. For George S. Trow, who wrote numerous articles and plays and who died in Naples this week at 63, that work was a 1980 New Yorker essay entitled “Within the Context of No-Context.” Its thesis, that television and celebrity culture had destroyed contemporary discourse and altered our relationship to the rhythms of history, had its echoes in Adorno,, Marcuse, Baudrillard and many others, but Trow’s stark, aphoristic prose published in a weekly magazine caused new debate about a culture that has now pretty much progressed the way Trow feared it would.
In a time when our ability to choose when to view, download, buy or rent the latest blockbuster is a major topic of debate, I’m going to be a bit old school and remember Trow and his finally melancholic work. (The Times obit characterized him as a “wistful curmudgeon” whose “nostalgia for a waning world grew into an enveloping despair” in recent years.) The New Yorker has published online an excerpt from Trow’s essay. Here’s a portion:
Television is the force of no-history, and it holds the archives of the history of no-history. Television is a mystery. Certain of its properties are known, though. It has a scale. The scale does not vary. The trivial is raised up to the place where this scale has its home; the powerful is lowered there. In the place where this scale has its home, childish agreements can he arrived at and enforced effectively — childish agreements, and agreements wearing the mask of childhood….
THE AESTHETIC OF THE HIT
The comfort was in agreement, the easy exercise of the modes of choice and preference. It was attractive and, as it was presented, not difficult. But, once interfered with, the processes of choice and preference began to take on an uncomfortable aspect. Choice in respect to important matters became more and more difficult; people found it troublesome to settle on a mode of work, for instance, or partner. Choice in respect to trivial matters, on the other hand, assumed an importance that no one could have thought to predict. So what happened then was that important forces that had not been used, because they fell outside the new scale of national life (which was the life on television), began to find a home in the exercise of preference concerning trivial matters, so that attention, aspiration, even affection came to adhere to shimmers thrown up by the demography in trivial matters. The attraction of inappropriate attention, aspiration, and affection to a shimmer spins out, in its operation, a little mist of energy which is rather like love, but trivial, rather like a sense of home, but apt to disappear. In this mist exists the Aesthetic of the Hit.