No Context
December 12, 2006 12:56 PM   Subscribe

"A fedora hat worn by me without the necessary protective irony would eat through my head and kill me." Goodbye to George W.S. Trow, one of the strangest, wisest, disturbingest writer ever to gape at, marvel at, and love his fellow Americans. His 1980 essay "Within the Context of No Context" (which shared with J.D. Salinger's last published story the distinction of taking up an entire issue of the New Yorker) placed television, irony, and distance at the center of the new United States. He also wrote the less well-known (but equally beautiful) short story collection Bullies, along with a novel and several screenplays, helped found National Lampoon, and was a staff writer at the New Yorker from 1966 until 1994, when he quit in protest of Roseanne Barr's guest-editing stint. He died on November 24, in Naples, at the age of 63. Appreciations from the New York Observer, Slate, and Gawker.
posted by escabeche (17 comments total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
A bit more from WTCONC:
"Two grids remained. The grid of two hundred million and the grid of intimacy. Everything else fell into disuse. There was a national life -- a shimmer of a national life -- and intimate life. The distance between these two grids was very great. The distance was very frightening. People did not want to measure it. People began to lose a sense of what distance was and of what the usefulness of distance might be."
posted by escabeche at 12:57 PM on December 12, 2006 [1 favorite]

The problem I have always had with WTCONC is that it reads like someone within trying to imagine themselves outside looking back in. In other words, it applies only to those who agree with the notion that television (or the context in which television places our lives), feel guilty or otherwise unhappy about it, and yet still consume television.

Once you stop consuming television, you notice two things. First, that you have absolutely no frame of reference for what people who do watch television are talking about or the way in which they are talking about it, and second, that your life pretty much reverts to simply a focus on your local geographic environment (neighborhood, town, etc.) and on the people in your life who may be geographically distant.

BTW, by "consuming television" I do not mean stop watching altogether. I mean only watching a program here or there, but not watching so much that you are watching television that is self-referential. Chat shows or the cable news blabanalysis is self-referential in that it presumes a much higher level of media saturation in its audience than something like law-and-order or the simpsons.

I think a better framework for modern culture is to distinguish geographic distance from "psychological distance". Psychological distance explains the feeling that things you are familiar with feel physically closer to you than things that are in fact geographically closer but unfamiliar or unsettling. Likewise, it encompasses the disparities in the feelings of proximity you have with other people on an online community you frequent (like this one) compared to the proximity you have with people a short distance away from you but culturally distinct.

Thus, an NYC mefi meetup for me would seem to be closer (less of a journey), than a trip to Baltimore (much closer) to visit seldom seem relatives.
posted by Pastabagel at 1:21 PM on December 12, 2006 [2 favorites]

He was snob, moralist, wit, cultural critic, aesthete, nostalgist, lost boy, citizen.

I want this to be my epitaph.
posted by Urban Hermit at 2:00 PM on December 12, 2006

Roseanne Barr guest edited the New Yorker?!!!!
posted by ghastlyfop at 2:08 PM on December 12, 2006

I have also always wanted a fedora, which I would wear wholly without irony, but with, I hope, a certain rakish charm.
posted by Urban Hermit at 2:09 PM on December 12, 2006

I have always found something rakishly charming about having one's head eaten.
posted by nebulawindphone at 2:16 PM on December 12, 2006

thanks for the post, every once in a while I go back to Trow and I find him scarily prescient -- no wonder such clarity cost him his sanity.

a well-deserved


for a great American thinker
posted by matteo at 2:17 PM on December 12, 2006

The Amerian "hustle," claimed in this began, I imagine well before What Makes Sammy Run--I would locate the scam of PR to really go to bat during the nonsense told the poulace during WWII to "stengthen" our resolve that we were Good and the Axis Bad...Irony, the protective condom of the educated person, notices that the worldis seldom so neatly divided.
posted by Postroad at 2:36 PM on December 12, 2006

Every now, maybe every year or so, I pick up Within the Context of No Context and My Pilgrim's Progress for a fresh look. With Trow I always felt I was kind of on the edge of figuring it out--sometimes put off by not getting certain references (his discussion of the 'goat and adding machine ritual' infuriates me, as I can't figure out what the hell he's trying to say, no matter how many re-readings), sometimes thrown off by whatever (is that WASP?) class stuff that seems to be assumed as generally understood.

But, too, there's something about the way he makes connections that I can't really describe (as much as I've tried to type and retype my understanding of it here). It's like he takes the kinds of nebulous, incompletely understood connections that we all make, but he voices it and doesn't explain it, as if he's making the assumption that whatever is happening in his head is common experience; which, the model is, but not the content itself. As if he's counting on us to relate to it on that basis, that we can only understand it as outlines through a fog.
posted by troybob at 2:41 PM on December 12, 2006

of course, it could also be that i'm too intellectually lightweight to get it, which is fine, too
posted by troybob at 2:42 PM on December 12, 2006

I'm curious - how and why did he end up living in Naples (and not, e.g., somewhere more picturesque and writerly - Positano, Ravello, Capri...)?
posted by Flashman at 3:04 PM on December 12, 2006

Cause of death: lack of protective irony.

Oh, how he'd hate the dot.
posted by found missing at 3:08 PM on December 12, 2006

If only there were someone who would let me know how to feel at a time like this.
posted by idontlikewords at 8:41 PM on December 12, 2006

Actually, if someone could explain to me exactly what the dot means, I'd be grateful. :-)
posted by Coventry at 8:28 AM on December 13, 2006

People used to write 'burn in hell you goddamn son of a bitch.'
Well, this took a long time to write out, so this gradually got abbreviated - now people usually just write the dot.
posted by Flashman at 10:46 AM on December 13, 2006 [1 favorite]

posted by Coventry at 10:48 AM on December 13, 2006

Flashman, that's just mean. Think about what's going to happen when idontlikewords posts "." in the "Yanni was eaten by weasels" thread.
posted by lodurr at 1:47 PM on December 13, 2006

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