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Monday, March 2, 2015


George Trow.
The New Yorker photo

Putting 90 years of the New Yorker magazine in context

GUEST BLOG By Konstantin Kakaes, Fellow, New America Foundation--I spent the final summer of the 20th century cutting up The New Yorker with a razor. Though the dot-com boom was in full swing, the magazine still kept an internal paper archive sorted by date and author. The protocol I was to follow as an unpaid intern working in The New Yorker’s library called for me cut the three columns of prose into strips and then paste those strips into alphabetized scrapbooks. We also cut out the cartoons and indexed them by keyword so that the editors might search past cartoons to avoid repeating a joke.

This article is reprinted here with permission of The New America Foundation, 

My other task, once the week’s issue had been duly cut and pasted, was to respond to letters to the editor. A surprising number of these were requests, often vaguely worded, for copies of an article the letter-writer had read decades before. I had no hard deadline for clearing the backlog of such letters, and so, even as I continued assembling the archives each week, I had the leisure to browse the past.

… a young staffer took notice of my browsing appetites and told me that I should really read George W.S. Trow, whose article “Within the Context of No-Context” I photocopied that summer and have carried around with me since.

Konstantin Kakaes
Konstantin Kakaes is a program fellow with the International Security Program at New America.  He was a summer intern at The New Yorker.

I could, and did, read Joseph Mitchell and AJ Liebling, John Hersey and John McPhee, Hannah Arendt and Frank Sullivan. There was of course far more worth reading than I could read, and I read more than I remember now. But my lasting lesson of that summer came when a young staffer took notice of my browsing appetites and told me that I should really read George W.S. Trow, whose article “Within the Context of No-Context” I photocopied that summer and have carried around with me since.

The opening sentences of Trow’s piece still floor me:

“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?”

I’m not going to try and summarize the essay here; it does not lend itself to meaningful summary. If those first sentences don’t make you want to run to your nearest Internet Kiosk and download a copy for yourself, then stop reading now.

What was it now that was built so big?

George William Swift Trow, Jr. (September 28, 1943 – November 24, 2006) was an American essayist, novelist, playwright, and media critic. He worked for The New Yorker for almost 30 years, and wrote numerous essays and several books. He is best known for his long essay on television and its effect on American culture, "Within the Context of No Context," first published in the November 17, 1980 issue of The New Yorker, and later published as a book. This was one of the few times that the magazine devoted its central section to one piece of writing.—Wikipedia.

It’s difficult, in writing this appreciation, to suppress the temptation to just keep on typing, to repeat Trow’s essay here. The world has changed since Trow’s essay was published in 1980, and changed more since I first photocopied it in July of 2000. At the time, it was easier for me to find the essay than it would have been for almost anyone else. It took me five minutes. Anyone else would have had to find a good library with back issues of The New Yorker going at least 20 years back. This would take, likely as not, hours, perhaps days. Not impossible, but requiring some effort.

Today, in February 2015, 90 years after the first issue of the magazine, it’s so very easy for you to download images of the pages on which Trow’s words were printed, in giant offset printing presses, 35 years ago. You don’t need to go to an Internet Kiosk, which is precisely the point. How does the fact that the Internet is most everywhere jar and nudge and bewitch us? So many things are easy now.

This ease illustrates a profound dislocation. Trow’s essay interrogates that ease, pushing beautifully past the slaphappy idea that this ease is an improvement that simply makes life better. In “Within the Context of No-Context,” he is writing largely about television, and not of the Internet. But his “mirages of pseudo-intimacy” are not to do solely with television, and boy does the essay read well today.

Among his concerns, salient this week as we reflect on The New Yorker’s 90th birthday, is what magazines do:

“[M]onth after month, year after year, a beneficial thing will occur; a rhythm and a trust will be established between the editors and the readers, and both groups will begin to bring more to the exchange than they did at the start, which is to say that each will bring the history of the relationship to the relationship as it unfolds. For the editors, the gift of history will be the natural formation of a certain authority; for the readers, the gift will be the comfort of trust. Nothing like this will occur in the case of the magazine based on a deceptive or convoluted agreement.”

There is more, but I will let you read him at your own pace. Pages later, he returns to the question of the authority of magazines: “Consider it: all transactions involving authority involve an attempt to alleviate the sense of loneliness that is a condition of life.”

What Trow did was to sculpt a grammar with which to discuss the amorphous effects of technological change on our society and our psyches. He did this without resorting either to sentimentalizing, or to some reductive social science that takes a poll of our feelings about these changes. Nobody gave Trow this authority. With the virtuosity of his prose, he seized the right to make such statements. His detachment gives him power.

“So when popularity is the measure things that were popular in the past can give a comfort. This works two ways. Very different. Not to be confused. But arising out of a single cause: the hunger for history.”

And so we turn to retrospectives on 2015 as seen today, and 2015 as seen in Back to the Future Part II.  I’ll spare you the links here, since hypertext would rather deflate the spirit of praising Trow, but there’s been a slew of articles, starting at the end of 2014, that have tripped over one another trying to parse how are present-day reality measures up the imagination of a 1989 movie. I clicked on many of these links; I too remember thinking hoverboards were cool when I was nine. Things that were popular in the past can give a comfort.

“The idea of choice is easily debased if one forgets that the aim is to have chosen successfully, not to be endlessly choosing.”

Trow is calling out the intoxicating fantasy of having endless choices for numbing us to what it means to choose.
Trow is calling out the intoxicating fantasy of having endless choices for numbing us to what it means to choose. Tinder, anybody? Netflix?

It is not my purpose here to claim that Trow was some sort of prophet, before his time. But he endures.

“The message of many things in America is “Like this or die.” It is a strain. Suddenly the modes of death begin to be attractive.”

I’ve thought of this passage often when discussion of Uber, or Kickstarter, or any number of other innovations. To be skeptical of innovation, of any innovation—to suggest that novelty is not, in and of itself, virtue, is, at this moment in time, to be out of touch with what it is to be a right-thinking American.

Related: Why we need a New York Times in every state.

When celebrating the anniversary of a magazine like The New Yorker, there is certainly plenty more to celebrate in its half-million or so published pages. Many of the articles worth celebrating are exquisitely skillful executions of a formula of journalistic attentiveness. Some, like Frank Sullivan’s Mr Arbuthnot, are just damn funny. But still, among writers from E.B. White to Jill Lepore, Trow’s essay stands apart. It’s confusing, and repetitive, and full of wonder.

“It followed that people were comfortable only with the language of intimacy. Whatever business was done had to be done in that language.” And so, our business here is this: let me whisper in your ear now, gently, the advice given to me fifteen years ago: read George Trow.

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