George W.S. Trow’s long essay about American culture and the irreversible effects of television on the national psyche, Within the Context of No-Context, was first published in the New Yorker’s Nov. 17, 1980, issue. It took up nearly the whole magazine. It changed people — and also irritated many. It still has the effect of blowing some readers’ heads off (mine, about 15 years ago) and leaving others puzzled and even cold. If you haven’t read it, you should. (Here’s a tiny taste.) The essay begins:
Wonder was the grace of the country. Any action could be justified by that: the wonder it was rooted in. Period followed period, and finally the wonder was that things could be built so big. Bridges, skyscrapers, fortunes, all having a life first in the marketplace, still drew on the force of wonder. But then a moment’s quiet. What was it now that was built so big? Only the marketplace itself. Could there be wonder in that? The size of the con?
Some other examples of one piece of journalism taking up wide swaths of pages in the New Yorker: John Hersey’s “Hiroshima,” in 1946, arguably the finest piece of prose nonfiction in the 20th century; and Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood,” which appeared as a series in 1965, arguably not the finest journalism ever committed, but a piece that permanently upped the ante for what a feature story can do.
Within the Context of No-Context is not like either of these. It’s a difficult, strange, loopy read. It’s witheringly funny in parts and terribly sad in others. It can be exhilarating in some sections and then get bogged down in others. In simplest terms, it’s a farewell letter to the American attention span. Much of what Trow was warning us about in the essay came to pass. From page 56:
There is another possibility. It is possible to embrace the cold child, after all. To accept the corruption in his smile. Some artists and some terrorists have seen the space made ready for this possibility. They are quite candid that their interest is in defacement. Certain artists, certain terrorists, and, of course, very many children.
Look at the girl smile! The more she smiles, the more certain it is that she represents something trivial, something shocking, or something failed.
In Monday’s class, we talked about our reactions to Trow’s work. I tried to help the class imagine what it might have been like to be alive in 1980, on the cusp of cable television, and to receive your issue of the New Yorker with this … this thing inside it. Trow’s essay can be taken many ways. A lot of it may be correctly read as a pose, a literary collage, a rant from a WASP who won’t let go. What’s worth noticing, still, is how he got his arms all the way around a very big subject (is television ruining us?) and put his finger on it exactly, with examples. It’s interesting to me, in 2012, that we have produced so much thoughtful prose about the Internet (and Facebook, Twitter, iPhones, etc.) and yet we still don’t quite have an equivalent of Within the Context of No-Context about it. If television became popular in the 1950s and Trow wrote this in 1980, it seems like we’re about due the mind-altering essay that gets the Internet exactly and prophesies where it’s all headed. Unfortunately, most of the people writing about the Internet and the future have some sort of personal (or financial) investment in it, or participated in its history. Or we still don’t have the perspective; it’s moving too fast.
I didn’t expect Within the Context of No-Context to be an overwhelming hit in room 301, but I’m glad that many of the students brought a lot of thought to it and were able to relate to it. It sparked some good discussion about the Internet and social networks. We even heard from some of the students who grew up in households with little or no TV. Brooks Johnson brought his copy of Guy Debord’s 1967 essay Society of the Spectacle, noticing the similarities to Trow’s essay, especially in its use of segmentation as a way to organize a long essay as a series of declarative theses. Segmented sections can be alluring to the prose stylist, but writing that way isn’t for beginners; when that format works, it can be quite beautiful. (One of my all-time favorite books, D.J. Waldie’s Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir, is also written in segmented sections.)
All of this is in service of getting the class ready to write their personal essays about popular culture, due Oct. 15. The assignment is to pick some piece of pop culture — a film, a cartoon, a song, a band, a book, a videogame, a fad, a trend, a moment — and write a 750-1,000-word essay about how it changed you, and then zoom out in order to go broad and talk about what it meant to the culture. Not just you; everyone. (Or an idea of everyone.)
The point of this essay is to get the students in touch with how popular culture has affected THEM, so that they can relate better to the subjects of their big assignments this semester — the scene story and the longform narrative.
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For Wednesday, Oct. 3: We’re going to be reading and discussing three essays and one blog post that will help us figure out what works and what doesn’t in a personal culture essay –
• “Take the Cannoli,” (2000) Sarah Vowell’s thoughtful and funny look at her lasting addiction to The Godfather.
• “Daddy Dearest,” (1996) Sandra Tsing Loh’s essay about her eccentric immigrant father.
• “A Letter from Cowabunga Falls,” (2012) Sam Anderson’s New York Times Magazine essay about how he learned to stop worrying and love the local water park.
And also, I’d like you to look at Lindy West’s Jezebel blog post from last week titled “What Is It With Women and Law & Order: SVU?” This is by no means a personal essay; it’s a blog riff that was written fast and furious, but it provides us with the basic building blocks of a deeper essay.