S U C K

"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 23 June 1997. Updated every WEEKDAY.
 
 
 
 
 

Trow-Beaten

 

[This is a picture of a TV.  Some people like TV.  'Must See TV'..... ]

When taking on a 900-pound

gorilla, you can't just sit

around peeling bananas in the

vague hope that Kong will maybe

slip up. Still, that's exactly

the strategy cultural critics

prefer for doing battle with

overgrown monsters like

Television, Advertising, and the

Culture of Celebrity. The

tropics' bounty may be both

tasty and slippery, but in the

end such critical expeditions

get squashed to pulp anyway by

their oblivious foes.

 

[Sometimes you need a text to put things in context. ]

A ripe old example of such deft

yet fruitless peeling away of

subtexts has recently been

reissued: Within the Context of

No Context, a much-lauded New

Yorker rant tagged in 1981 by

George W. S. Trow. In a

signature anecdote, Trow recoils

as Richard Dawson asks Family

Feud contestants "to guess what

a poll of a hundred people had

guessed would be the height of

the average American woman."

Trow can't stand that the

Feuders were reporting on

assumptions rather than dipping

into their own paltry store of

facts. We never learn how tall

US women are, only how tall we

think they probably are.

 

Nearly two decades later, in a

new essay for his erstwhile

nemesis Tina Brown, Trow still

rues the rewards of "knowing

what your fellow citizens are

likely to say their delusions

are." Which isn't to say his

views are necessarily out of

date. For instance, in noting

that "no one, now, minds a con

man, but no one likes a con man

who doesn't know what we think

we want," he's penned an apt, if

somewhat clunky, slogan for the

Web.

 

[This is another picture of a television.  TV indeed.]

The source of most of his

righteous indignation is,

however, television, of course,

that infantilizing,

self-referential "force of

no-history." Context, we're

told, encourages us to behave

like grown-ups instead of

perpetual adolescents. But mass

media erode Context by thriving

on surveys of our appetites -

preconditioned by what we've

already been told is yummy.

 

Some New York Observers have

praised this four-initialed

Yankee's treatise as a

latter-day Democracy in

America. But there's not much in

Trow that couldn't be learned

more viscerally from Paul

Goodman's early television

criticism - or by cranking the

Netscape jingle, "Won't Get

Fooled Again," up to 11.

(Netscape has either greatly

overestimated their customers'

capacity for irony, or perhaps

they weren't paying attention.

Or maybe context doesn't matter

after all.)

 

Can two celebrated essays

bracketing a 19-year era keep

the world from looking just the

same? Like the lightweight

programming he despises, Trow's

argument is High Affect, Low

Effect. Admittedly, his sound

bites sometimes ring true.

Enterprising students will find

handy tools for picking apart,

say, the strange bedfellowship

of Bart Simpson and Pat

Robertson occasioned by

NewsCorp's acquisition of The

Family Channel. (As a former

Harvard Lampoon editor, Trow

himself might be writing for The

Simpsons if he'd been born a

generation later.) No Context

could also be reread profitably

with an eye to the buzzers and

bells of new media, which

Microsoft and Comcast seem eager

to push in an even less

contextual direction.

 

Does anyone really need "middle

grounds" and a vibrant "public

discourse" to achieve a

mature identity? Trow does ably

recreate the chains of events

and trains of thought that

encourage a youth to "abandon

any hope of having a share in

the public culture of his time" -

what Goodman, to whom he owes

a huge debt, called "the early

resigned." But where that

anarchist brashly insisted, "The

Society I Live in Is Mine," Trow

whimpers that the culture he

longed for is lost. Though

heartfelt, Trow's critical

snippets lack teeth. If he's

really too embarrassed to don

his father's fedora -

symbolizing accession to manhood -

that may say more about his

own self-esteem than the society

at large. One wants to say:

Don't blame history, George; put

the damn hat on, already.

 

[This a fancy image taken directly from the Salon Website.  We love their graphics.]

The Atlantic Monthly Press'

reissue of No Context will at

least restake its claim to shelf

space in the garrets and studies

of those who consider themselves

liberated from the fold -

master's candidates, media

critics, and self-styled

adbusters. On panels and at

symposia, Trow's spiritual heirs

competently anatomize the sins

of Madison Avenue and the

doublespeak of synergizing

conglomerates: Meet the new

gloss, same as the old gloss.

 

[This is an image taken from a 50's industrail film.]

One consumer expert lurking

inconspicuously in the audience

of one such gathering smartly

noted that the idealized imagery

of say, '50s industrial films,

are fantasies of Control - just

as these panels, and indignant

articles and books like Trow's

are. Even the windiest

dissenters fail to loosen a

single brick with their huffing

and puffing at corporate

edifices - structures that

thrive, in Trow's system, as

much on abuse as acclaim. One

hears a lot about the evils of

broadcasting, but rarely sees

any TVs on the sidewalk on

garbage day. Two hundred

channels and nothing to watch,

2,000,000 domain names and

nothing to surf - one has to

wonder how much hard-target

searching precedes such

complaints.

 

[This is a picture of a guy with a upc code on the back of his head.  I wonder, if he were to stand really close to a supermarket checkout line, would he come up as a product ening in a .99  or a .00?]

Though usually couched in deeply

personal terms, this kind of

pop-cultural critique assumes an

unseemly responsibility for the

well-being of strangers.

Freighted with needless angst,

it presupposes that the average

consumer is a media victim - as

if, like adult smokers, people

don't know full well what poison

they're swallowing. The

grumbling choir is plenty

familiar with the preacher's

descriptive sermons, and hankers

for prescriptive advice.

 

[These are people outraged by porn.  They hate it.  They really do, you can see it in their eyes.]

If advertising doesn't have to

convince you intellectually to

work, then the only thing left

is to enlarge the venerable Kill

Your TV plan for a broader media

sprawl. End users have rarely

had such power to delete

unwanted print jobs from their

personal queues and erect ad hoc

firewalls. You can turn your

self and family aside without

having to recede into some quiet

vibration land; the neighbors

can take care of themselves.

Denial is highly underrated as

subversion, and it's possibly

the only remaining weapon in a

concerned citizen's arsenal.

 

Dateline and Oprah may prate that

living in denial is at least as

corrosive as living in sin, but

denial today should be

reevaluated as a redeeming

feature, not a character bug.

One can easily laugh and say,

"Nothing's that simple," and

never have the guts to leave the

temple. Still, as the hacker

zine 2600 recently counseled one

paranoid reader, the only way to

win is to not play.

 
 
 
courtesy of Ersatz
 
 
 

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