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The Culture of No Culture

Within the Context of No Context By George W.S. Trow Little, Brown; 12.95; 230pp.

By Daniel S. Benjamin

IT IS ONE of the curious facts of American culture that some forms of "popular" entertainment--most notably television--have at least as many detractors as advocates. The chorus of critics of the godawful tube swells measurably with every September's new harvest of sitcoms, and their dirge, for good reason usually, is deafeningly loud. Television has had enough evil-sounding adjectives attached to it to intimidate Roget, and the articles on the T.V. drug don't just proliferate, they pullulate. And one has to feel we have scaled the pinnacle of absurdity when T.V. performs a dialogue between self and soul and covers the trial of a young felon who blames his crime on T.V. derangement. Is that meta-television?

There are, however, good reasons why we have not seen an orgy of video-Luddism, if only to staunch the flow of the criticism. Leaving aside television's massive economic power, simply too many people enjoy the swampy scatology and licentiousness of Three's Company and WKRP, not to mention the soaps. They don't speak up in defense of their entertainment because they don't have to. Television isn't going anywhere. Besides, a sizable number of T.V. addicts, one suspects, have already spoken up--against the tube. They're not consciously being duplicitous: Most intelligent people would probably agree that, on the whole, T.V. is "bad"--it screws up the kids and dulls everyone. But after damning T.V. at the dinner table, plenty of us still treat Star Trek or M*A*S*H as the crowning cultural achievements of the century. Too many critics engage in the effortless reductionism which labels all T.V. evil. But even in the truly crummy stuff, the medium has an attraction, one we are not likely to shake soon. So between the ceaseless rhetoric against the sinister box and a national willingness to sit and watch, one can see a strange symbiosis.

In Within the Context of No Context, George W.S. Trow adds a new voice to this great contrapuntal exercise, and it sings in concert with the critics. Indeed, Trow attempts to tackle not only television, but the whole popular culture edifice which television epitomizes. Trying to prove and explain the vitiation of American cultural life in the past 30 years in one lengthy essay, as Trow does, is tricky business. Unfortunately, his effort is marred by reductionism and a fairly pervasive cynicism. In addition, Trow, a staff writer for the New Yorker--which originally printed the book's two essays--has not uncovered many new answers. But the insights he presents in the first essay are trenchant and, often, scary.

At the very heart of all the gloom, Trow contends, lies America's common loneliness. Around thirty years ago, new methods of alleviating that unhappiness--methods that centered on an emotional quick-fix--surfaced. From the outset their comforts were saccharine, but satisfying, palliatives. For the first time, America was united in common activities, tastes, and beliefs, though no one derived any real benefit at all. Half-mockingly, Trow pinpoints the appearance of the slogan, "I Like Ike," as the moment of change in history:

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 a process resembling the process of intimacy. This was a comfort.

From then on, it was all a cancerous bloom. Suddenly, 200 million Americans--Trow has a penchant for all or nothing thinking--entered a state of degrading obeisance to what he calls "the aesthetic of the hit." It was not what you did or how you did it, but the awareness that people everywhere were doing the same thing that mattered. Since "the ideal became agreement rather than well-judged learned to be competent only in those modes which embraced the possibility of agreement." Things went more awry than ever in the places where power is held, as consensus reigned.

The ramifications of this trend toward agreement, Trow says, reveal Americans to be a pathetic bunch. Perhaps worst of all is the cult of the celebrity which evolved. Those people, the beautiful, delightful folks on Carson and in People, they are special, but they have all sorts of problems just like us. Since we are so like the celebrities, well, we must be a little special too. And, of course, now our problems bind us all together, too. No one knows what to do about the problems, but if the people on the talk shows and in the "teledramas" have them, too, maybe it isn't so terrible having them.

And it is a comfort when a comedienne whom we know, whom we love, whom we've known for years and years, whom we've loved for years and years, tells us that there has been a drug problem in her family. Suddenly, the grids merge. You and me and baby and drugs together on the grid of two hundred million. It's so intimate. It's like waking up with a friend. But just for a minute.

The argument has problems. In the way Trow constructs it, it admits no middle ground. Everything appears contaminated and bleak, and Trow makes no allowance for anything redeeming in American culture. In the concept of consensus, Trow has hit on one of the key underpinnings of the culture. But he has not hit on everything, and his presentation--in the form of a series of block notes ranging in length from epigrams to miniature essays strung together into the longer essay--suffers from being overly polemical.

More important, however, Trow fails to delve any deeper into the causes of the emptiness of popular culture. Loneliness, after all, has always existed, but talk shows haven't. Trow's sole explanation, which consists of his pointing a finger at the marketplace and calling it a "con," is facile. Certainly, popular culture has its moguls and manipulators who know how to supply the required "comfort," even how to mold the public yearning for it. Yet one must wonder if the success of the transaction, the apparent (if usually silent) satisfaction of the consumers, does not suggest a widespread desire for this culture of agreement. That assumption is substantial and sadly pessimistic. But it is hard to believe that human nature changed when the slogan "I Like Ike" appeared. More likely, technology's ability to pump a steady stream of "comfort" into every home rocketed. If that is the case, maybe Johnny Carson and People provide an opiate for the masses which masses don't wholly despise.

THE SECOND ESSAY of Within the Context of No Context, represents Trow's attempt to illustrate some of the conclusions he reached in the first title essay. In it he profiles Ahmet Ertegun, founder and president of Atlantic Records, one of the truly powerful musical taste-makers in rock and R&B, and a quintessentially beautiful person. Trow does a capable job of portraying Ertegun and his set and depicting the rise of someone of Ertegun's entrepreneurial ilk. But Trow falls short when he ladles the commentary and the terminology of the first essay onto Ertegun and company. Undoubtedly, the ethic of agreement and the consequent problems it creates have their influence in the fast world of the music industry and the jet set. But there are other things at work in the incredible opportunism and hypocrisy that Trow documents.

Despite his occasionally limiting editorializing, Trow does provide here a fine piece of the kind of journalism which shows how vapid some of the powerful and famous actually are. In a way, it is a fun spectacle. Phonies slither around and ooze grease so much that the essay borders on parody. The only celebrity to come out with any integrity is, interestingly, Keith Richards. Predictably frazzled at parties, Richards walks around suggesting ideas like an end to exorbitant concert ticket prices by having the oil companies pick up the tab. The oil companies have a lot of money, he reasons, and why would anyone want to pick on the kids? No one answers him, but it is nice see Keith thinking about these things.

Trow's second essay does succeed in getting the reader to shake his head in bewilderment. Yes, it is embarrassing if the height of the social season occurs when Bianca Jagger rides through a Studio 54 party on a white horse led a naked man and woman. And it is ludicrous when geriatric fashion priestess Diana Vreeland comments, "The thing about Bianca is the patrician quality." Trow puts together a good piece of debunking journalism. One only wishes he had not confined it in the thinking of his first essay, and let the sillinessof his subjects speak more for itself.

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