Election Reading Recommendation

musserWe often forget that previous election campaigns juggled and were shaped by new media forms just like our own, albeit with different “contraptions.” Politicking and Emergent Media, US Presidential Elections of the 1890s, by Yale American Studies/Cinema Studies professor, Charles Musser, is a fascinating read about the election campaigns of the 1890s (and I mean read–in sense that as erudite as it is it’s very readable).  In those days the Democratic party was the less adventursome one in terms of media–it was comfortably ensconced in newspaper formats.  It was the Republicans who experimented more with new media that included the steriopticon (what’s that?) and later motion pictures, telephones, and phonographs.  Writes Lisa Gitelman (New York University), “Charles Musser shows how screens first entered American politics. Whether they are true politics junkies or frothing critics of America’s quadrennial horse race, readers will be tickled by the resemblances between presidential campaigns then and now. This is media history of the finest kind, rendered by one of our most accomplished scholars of early cinema.”

I like Jeffrey Alexander’s observation, writing about the book. “It turns out that technology has been newly emerging over the past three centuries, and the performance of politics has long been deeply transformed as a result.”

If you’re multitasking as you listen to the endless election and post-election punditry, consider opting for this book in your lap rather than just another screen.

October CommQuote

Our selection for October  (in just under the wire) comes from George W.S. Trow’s screed on American culture, WITHIN THE CONTEXT OF NO CONTEXT Originally appearing in 1980 as a long, even by New Yorker standards, essay in a special issue of the magazine, it was subsequently published as a book, and in 1997 reprinted with an additional introduction by the author.  

The essay is an indictment of American culture in general, specifically television and, to a lesser extent, magazines. I think the essay holds up pretty well applied to today’s culture.  Where it falls short, in the sense of feeling a little dated, is in the vitriol’s television-centeredness, given how television has become so varied and, as argued by many recent critics, out-performs the movies in storytelling innovation and nuance. But I find his idea of demographics as the “new history” chilling and even more spot-on in the internet age which finds us awash in puerile preferences that are not judged, but merely counted.  More on demographics in two excepts below that position the reader to think about the role of the hit (tv show). 

For 21st century context, you might want to check out Emily Nussbaum’s piece in the October 12 The New Yorker, The Price Is Right: What Advertising Does to TV, which touches on the Trow essay (and got me reading it). 

The New History

The New History was the record of the record of the expression of demographically significant preferences: the lunge of demography here as opposed to there...  (p.63)

False History

For a while, certain voice continued.  Booming.  As though history were still a thing done by certain men in a certain place.  It was embarrassing.  To a person growing up in the power of demography, this voice was foolish.

 The Aesthetic of the Hit

To a person growing up in the power of demography, it was clear that history had to do not with the powerful actions of certain men but with the processes of choice and preference.

 The Aesthetic of the Hit

The power shifted.  In the phrase “I Like Ike,” the power shifted.  It shifted from General Eisenhower to someone called Ike, who embodied certain aspects of General Eisenhower and certain aspects of affection for General Eisenhower.  Then it shifted again.  From “Ike,” you could see certain aspects of General Eisenhower.  From “Like,” all you could see was other Americans engaged in the process of intimacy.  This was a comfort.

 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 preferences began to take on an uncomfortable aspect.  Choice in respect to important matters became more and more difficult; people had found it troublesome to settle on a mode of work, for instance, or a 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 of 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 a sense of love, but trivial, rather like a sense of home, but apt to disappear.  In this mist exists the Aesthetic of the Hit.  (p.64)

–From: Within the Context of No-Context by George WS Trow, The New Yorker, November 17, 1980