Within the Context of No Context

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Within the Context of No Context may be simply described as the reissue of a book first published in 1981. The description would, however, be misleading in its simplicity. Before there was the book, there was the essay in The New Yorker; the book actually consisted of two essays from The New Yorker, one of which has been dropped from the current edition. It is the title essay of the book, by critical consensus the stronger of the two, that is now reprinted, along with a new introduction that can be called an essay in itself. The topic, simply put, is television; again, however, the simple way of putting it may not be the most accurate. To reissue sixteen years after a first appearance in book form what was originally a magazine piece, ostensibly on a topic that many would consider ephemeral at best, is a step sufficiently exceptional as to suggest that some rather strong claims are implicitly being made for George W. S. Trow’s essay. To what extent does the essay justify such claims?

A longtime contributor to The New Yorker, Trow is also an accomplished playwright, writer of short stories, and novelist. Before the original publication of Within the Context of No Context, Trow had had two plays produced off-Broadway; short stories originally published in The New Yorker were gathered in book form as Bullies in 1980. A short novel, The City in the Mist, was published in 1984, three years after Within the Context of No Context. Trow’s work has been favorably reviewed, although some critics seem troubled by what they regard as an elitist air. The critical question may be whether his work as a whole exposes elitism or exemplifies it. The same issue can arise very specifically in relation to Within the Context of No Context. Readers may eventually forget some of Trow’s subtler points, but no one who reads this book is ever likely to forget that Trow, as he repeatedly reminds readers, attended Exeter School and Harvard University.

Yet it would be too easy to dismiss Trow’s frequent references to his relatively privileged background as mere one- upmanship. Trow is offering in this book a global critique of what he sees as the failings of an American culture that has television at its center, but he never pretends to pure objectivity. He is, on the contrary, careful to define his perspective. He is, first of all, a member of a particular generation, the one that grew up in the years following World War II. The malaise of this generation, their sense of abandonment, is his deep subject. He never claims that the culture he sees will be seen in the same terms by someone whose generational frame of reference is radically different from his own. He is also the product of a particular family history and bears the burden of expectation that comes from that background. In a defining image, Trow recalls his father’s fedora and the expectation that, as his father’s son, he would on arriving at manhood don a fedora of his own. Yet he has never been able to wear a fedora except ironically. Finally, he is self-consciously the product of privilege. In short, what Trow offers is cultural criticism, intended as generally valid, yet honestly uttered from a particular perspective.

These observations, however, do not entirely resolve the issue of elitism. When someone of Trow’s background and accomplishments turns his attention to television, or to popular culture in general, suspicions immediately arise. Are readers in for yet another denunciation of popular culture for being popular? When he makes the sweeping claim that no good has come of television, Trow opens himself to the charge of aristocratic prejudice. If readers, especially readers who do not share Trow’s background, are to be dissuaded from that charge, Trow’s critique must transcend attitude. What does Trow offer in the way of ideas?

The idea of no context (in the book, sometimes rendered as “no-context”) seems an appropriate place to start. According to Trow, “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.” The state of no-context to which Trow refers seems to be the consequence of a loss of a sense of history. History, as summarized by Trow, is the record of growth, conflict, and destruction, and all of these are interfered with by television. The benefits of history reveal themselves in a deepened sense of context, a sharpened awareness of the relations of background and foreground. That, at any rate, is the old history. The New History (Trow’s capitalization) is the history of demographics, the history of no-history. This New History is little more than a record of preferences, in which nothing is judged, everything is merely counted. It scarcely matters whose preferences are recorded; those of a child weigh as much as those of an adult.

Trow finds a telling instance of no-context in a moment from Family Feud, a highly rated show at the time of the essay’s original composition. Family Feud was a quiz show; yet this quiz show did not test the contestants’ knowledge of any body of information. Rather, in a moment representative of the show, and if Trow is right, of a major tendency in American culture of the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, the host “asked contestants to guess what a poll of a hundred people had guessed would be the height of the average American woman. Guess what they’ve guessed. Guess what they’ve guessed the average is.” As Trow comments, there is no reality, not a fact in sight.

New England, says Trow, is history. A complex of personalities, events, conditions adds up, over time, to New England. Yet within the context of no context, New England is merely a complex of characteristics, put on display in a television commercial in which a properly costumed “New England” woman stands on a carefully chosen, or skillfully constructed, “New England” porch and pours some sort of artificial dessert topping (the product advertised) over her New England cherry cobbler. Gertrude Stein is supposed to have said of Oakland, California, that there isn’t any there there. Within the context of no context, it seems, there is no there anywhere.

The degeneration of the historical sense is reflected also in the degeneration of gossip. People as well educated as Trow might be expected to despise gossip, or at least to regard it as a paltry thing compared to history. In fact, Trow does explicitly place gossip beneath history, but, he insists, the current age is beneath gossip. Gossip, he points out, depends on violation. The best gossip of the century arose out of the relationship of England’s Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson, later the duke and duchess of Windsor, and what made it delicious was the clarity of the violation involved. What made it interesting, moreover, was a clash of contexts, a rejection of inhibiting contexts, which included the context of British history itself.

In place of gossip, what one has within the context of no context is merely synthetic talk. When one turns to People magazine, one may be looking for gossip, but one will look in vain. The people in People are not properly subjects of gossip, because their actions violate nothing, occur in no inhibiting contexts. Nor is the discourse of People a violation in itself, since its revelations are not made within any context of propriety, reticence, or discretion.

The place of celebrity within the context of no context is another of the key ideas of the book. When people still lived in history, they lived within a multiplicity of contexts, in the realm of the middle distance. Now, as the middle distance has fallen away, there remain only two grids, the grid of two hundred million and the grid of intimacy. There is national life, or the shimmer of it, and there is intimate life, with nothing between. The power of celebrities, the source of their fascination for others, is that for them there is no distance between the two grids. Thus they, and only they, are complete.

The replacement of history by demographics is the replacement of the record of growth, conflict, and destruction by the record of the expression of preferences. Choice, as one might expect, assumes a peculiar role within the context of no context. In its noble form, now largely abandoned, the aim of choice is to choose successfully; in its debased form, dominant in the late 1990’s, the aim is to be endlessly choosing. Trow does not apply his observations to the pro-choice movement, but is it a symptom of where Americans are that one of the most recognized movements of the period Trow is writing about brackets the question of whether abortion is the right choice in favor of the declaration that choice itself must be defended?

Clearly, Within the Context of No Context is a book provocative enough to impel the reader in intellectual directions that might surprise and disturb the author. The provocation can be located in the book’s manner, in which one discerns the influence of Friedrich Nietzsche and Roland Barthes, as well as in its matter. Sustained, coherent argument is not for Trow. The book is divided into brief segments, some as short as a single sentence, none longer than a few pages. The style is often aphoristic. There is no amassing of evidence. Even factual examples are rare. The categories into which Trow divides his material can seem arbitrary or mystifying. This is the rhetoric of a writer who will not stoop to persuade. Either the reader gets the point or not. Can this fairly be restated in elitist terms: either the reader is one of us or not?

All of this is often brilliant, always provocative, yet not ultimately satisfying. Surprisingly, perhaps, the book’s gravest weakness may lie in the author’s failure to deal adequately with context. In the introductory essay, “Collapsing Dominant,” Trow tells of an encounter in Alaska with a man who is frighteningly certain that all films are made from one political motive: to strip Americans of their freedom. Trow responds by pointing out that the purpose of films is to make as much money as possible, and this, rather than some political agenda, determines most of what is seen on the screen. It is ironic, then, that at times in the book Trow himself sounds like a highly and expensively educated urban version of his man from Alaska, in need of someone to coach him in ordinary cynicism. Television, such a mentor might point out, is primarily an advertising medium; it can be understood only when placed in the context of consumer capitalism. Yet it is precisely in this sort of contextualizing that the book most obviously falls short.

It falls short, if less obviously, in other respects as well. How much, finally, does Trow know about the lives of people who read People, or indeed of people who watch Family Feud? How deeply does he care about these people? Although one senses a passion in the author, it seems a passion aroused by offenses to his refined sensibility, a passion that has little to do with compassion.

In his introductory essay, Trow offers his own evaluation, from the perspective of seventeen years later, of the original Within the Context of No Context. He now finds in the essay the expression of an informed confusion. He also finds that the period for which the formulation of the essay was valid is coming to an end. This raises again the question introduced at the beginning of these remarks. If, in the judgment of the author, the essay expresses an informed confusion about a period that is coming to an end, why does it appear in a new edition in 1997? Perhaps Within the Context of No Context is the sort of book best appreciated when it is happily discovered on a library shelf or in the aisles of a used book store. It certainly deserves to be read. Whether it had to be reissued is another question.

Sources for Further Study

Library Journal. CXXII, April 1, 1997, p. 134.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. May 18, 1997, p. 10.

New York. XXX, May 12, 1997, p. 59.

The New York Times Book Review. CII, April 6, 1997, p. 6.

Vanity Fair. March, 1997, p. 182.