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

 

Communication and the Moon

Two interesting books came out this year relating to the moon.  marketingthemoonIn Marketing the Moon: The Selling of the Apollo Lunar Program by David Meerman Scott, Richard Jurek (MIT Press, 2014), the authors give us a detailed account of the PR campaigns and subsequent media coverage of the Apollo missions. It is not only a well written book, it’s a beautiful book, full of photographs and  illustrations.

Joshua Rothman in the  New Yorker’s August review observes: “…If there was a central pillar to the Apollo P.R. effort, it was live television. Scott and Jurek chart the continual battle within NASA over live TV. On one side were the engineers and military types, who viewed onboard television cameras as an unnecessary addition to the mission payload, or even as an invasion of astronaut privacy. On the other side were the administrators and public-relations specialists, who argued that television was, in some ways, the point of the mission. To the pro-TV faction, the medium had an ideological meaning: when faced with opposition from the engineering team, Julian Scheer, NASA’s director of P.R., said, “We’re not the Soviets. Let’s do this the American way….CBS covered the Apollo 11 landing for thirty-two continuous hours; it set up special screens in Central Park so that people could watch in a crowd. Ninety-four per cent of TV-owning American households tuned in. Without television, the moon landing would have been a merely impressive achievement — an expensive stunt, to the cynical. Instead, seen live, unedited, and everywhere, it became a genuine experience of global intimacy.”

Then there’s No Requiem for the Space Age: The Apollo Moon Landings and American Culture by Matthew D. Trippe (Oxford University Press, 2014) which takes a more cultural view.  It looks at the space program through the lens of of cultural artifact such as movies, novels, rock albums, and religious tracts of the 1960s and 70s and proceeds to analyze why support for the NASA missions decreased throughout the 70s.  requiem One of the reasons had to do with the growing conflict between the more straightlaced-rational-military/scientific culture versus the more mystical-rebellious-skeptical of authority (including scientific) counterculture. NPR’s Robert Krulwich reviewing the book in his blog, Krulich Wonders (July 16, 2014), points out another of Tribbe’s explanations which I find even more interesting (at least it’s less obvious), one that has to do with rhetoric, which he devotes a whole chapter to.

“People, he thinks, were eager to hear what it was like to escape the Earth’s atmosphere, to travel weightlessly, to touch down on an alien planet, to be the first explorers to leave “home,” and too often (much too often), the astronauts talked about these things using the same words — “beautiful,” “fantastic” — over and over. If space exploration was to be a grand adventure, it needed explorers who could take us there, tell us how it felt, explorers who could connect with those of us who can’t (but want to) come along. Inarticulateness, Tribbe thinks, hurt the space program.”

Even if your research these days has no lunar bearings whatsoever, both books look like fascinating reads.