Beyond the Context of No Context

George Trow, who died last month, lived to see his worst fears about the media confirmed. Scott McLemee revisits his legacy.

December 6, 2006

Well, so much for the instantaneous availability of information: I've only just learned about the death of George Trow, whose passing, almost two weeks ago, was noted among some of the blog entries ( this one, for example) regularly channeled through my RSS feed. There is a bitter irony in this situation, and most if it is at my own expense.

Nobody was smarter than George Trow about the bad faith that comes with being "plugged in" to streams of randomized data. He once defined a TV program as "a little span of time made friendly by repetition." (Friendly, the way a con man is friendly.) That was long before most of us started spending ever more of our lives in front of another kind of screen.

Perhaps the name does not ring a bell.... George W.S. Trow, who was 63 when he died, can best be described as a minor American author (no insult intended, it's a better title than most of us will ever merit) who wrote fiction, essays, and the occasional screenplay. Two years ago, the University of Iowa published The Harvard Black Rock Forest, which first appeared in The New Yorker in 1984.

It was the kind of piece that people once had in mind (maybe with admiration and maybe not) when they thought of "a New Yorker article" -- stately in pacing, full of deep-background references, heedless of breaking-news type topicality. Iowa included the book in a series on literary nonfiction. That makes sense, but it's also been hailed by the journal Environmental History as something "every student of the history of conservation should read. Twice."

But it was another essay by Trow that really defined him as a writer to reckon with. "Within the Context of No Context" ran in The New Yorker in 1980 and was brought out the next year by Little, Brown as a book. It was reprinted by Atlantic Monthly Press in 1997 with a new introduction by Trow. He also published a kind of supplement to it, My PilgrimÂ’s Progress: Media Studies 1950-1998 (Vintage, 1999). I say "supplement" and not "sequel" because the two books cross-connect in all sorts of odd, nonlinear ways.

Odd and nonlinear "Within the Context of No Context" itself certainly is. It is short, consisting of a number of brief sections. They range from a single sentence to several paragraphs, and each section has a title. While brief, the text actually takes a while to read. The relationships among the parts are oblique, and some of the prose has the strange feel that you would probably get from a translation of Schopenhauer done by Gertrude Stein.

"Within the Context of No Context" is about television, among other things -- about the history of the mass media, with television as its culminating moment, but also about what TV does to the very possibility of understanding the world as having a history. It is an essay in cultural criticism. But it can just as well be called a work of prose poetry. Trow's thoughts unfold, then draw back into themselves. This is very strange to watch.

After a quarter of a century, it may be difficult to appreciate the originality and insight of  Trow's essay. He seems to be making points about the media that are now familiar to almost everyone. In 1980, though, they were not so obvious. It's not that he was venturing into futurology. Nor was Trow a sociologist or historian, except in the most ad hoc way. He did not offer theories or arguments, exactly, but took notes on the texture of American life following three decades of television.

He was describing long-emerging qualities of everyday experience that had been quietly taking over the entire culture. He assumed existing tendencies would continue and deepen. It was a smart bet, but a depressing one to win.

Trow's central intuition was that TV played a decisive role in shaping "the new scale of national life" in the United States following the second World War. As the scion of a New York publishing family, Trow has various points to make about the shift of power from established WASP elites to the new professional-managerial class. (That social subtext is fleshed out with abundant and eccentric detail in My Pilgrim's Progress.) But those structural changes were occurring behind the scenes. Meanwhile, the national consciousness was changing 

Having won the war, the country was starting to come to terms with its own place in the world as an incredibly affluent society holding hitherto unimaginably military power. At the same time, we were starting to watch TV. We were starting to see the world through its eye. These two developments (a new level of power, a new kind of passivity) coincided in ways it was easy to overlook, just because the process was so ubiquitous and inescapable.

More than print or even radio ever had, television could address an audience of millions simultaneously. "It has other properties," he wrote, "but what television has to a dominant degree is a certain scale and the power to enforce it." And the medium's sense of scale was defined by two grids: "The grid of two hundred million," as Trow put it, "and the grid of intimacy."

Trow does not spell out in any detail what he means by "the middle distance" -- the regions of the culture left out of the TV "grids." But by implication, it seems to include most of what's usually called civil society: the institutions, meeting places, and forums for discussion through which people voluntarily associate.

His point isn't that the media completely avoid representing them, of course. But TV does not really encourage participation in them, either. Watching it is an atomized experience of being exposed to programs crafted to appeal to tens of millions of other people having the same experience.  

"Everything else fell into disuse," wrote Trow. "There was national life -- a shimmer of national life -- and intimate life. The distance between these two grids was very great. The distance was very frightening.... It followed that people were comfortable only with the language of intimacy."

And it has a cumulative effect. Not so much in the sense that TV destroys the mediating institutions of civil society -- you know, how there used to be bowling leagues, but now everybody is bowling alone. Rather, it's that the yearning for "mirages of pseudo-intimacy" (as Trow puts it) becomes a routine part of public life.

Off the top of my head, I do not remember 1980 well enough to recall what Trow might have had in mind, at the time. Perhaps it was the interviewing style of Barbara Walters, or Jimmy Carter admitting that he had lusted in his heart. Today we are far downstream. The "grid of two hundred million"  has become the grid of three hundred million. And finesse at handling the routines of "pseudo-intimacy" now seems like a prerequisite for holding public office.

What you also find tucked away in Trow's gnomic sentences is the anticipation of countless thousands of broadcast hours in which people discuss personal problems before a vast audience of strangers. The media would create, he wrote, "space for mirages of pseuo-intimacy. It is in this space that celebrities dance. And since the dancing celebrities occupy no real space, there is room for other novel forms to take hold. Some of these are really very strange." No one had thought of "reality TV" when Trow wrote this. The idea of becoming famous by leaking videotapes of oneself having sex had not yet occurred to anybody.

What makes the essay powerful, still, is that the word "television" now tends to fade from view as you read. It serves as a synecdoche. It is a name for the whole culture.

"Television is dangerous," wrote Trow in one haunting passage, "because it operates according to an attention span that is childish but is cold. It simulates the warmth of a childish response but is cold. If it were completely successful in simulating the warmth of childish enthusiasm -- that is, if it were warm -- would that be better? It would be better only in a society that had agreed that childish warmth and spontaneity were equivalent to public virtue; that is, a society of children. What is a cold child? A sadist."
Over time, the media-nurtured attention span ceases to comprehend anything outside its own history. As Trow put it in a line giving his essays its title: "The work of television is to establish false contexts and to chronicle the unraveling of existing contexts; finally, to establish the context of no context and to chronicle it."

That seems much less like a Zen koan today than it did when first published. It now often feels as if the people making decisions in the media world were deliberately using Trow's work as a guidebook for what to do next: A program like "I Love the '90s" is a literal effort "to establish the context of no context and to chronicle it." (In another line already quoted, Trow anticipated a certain now-familiar tone of nostalgic hipster posturing: "It simulates the warmth of a childish response but is cold.")

My precis of here is selective. It traces one or two strands woven into a very complex pattern. The most it can do is to encourage a few more readers to read Trow himself.

"George W. S. Trow is a sort of tragic hero," as the novelist Curtis White wrote in the best commentary on him I've seen. "His essays offer us clues to how we might correct our national life. But his wisdom is likely to be lost on us, even on those who would agree with him. Like Cassandra, he can tell us things that are true and that would save us if we could understand them, but his working premise seems to be: You will not understand what I am going to say. In fact, why we won't understand is a large part of the truth Trow has to tell us."

Yes, but that's why you find yourself reading him over and over.


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