Photograph by Trent Parke/Magnum.
George W. S. Trow’s “Within the Context of No-Context” appeared in The New Yorker in 1980; it was later published in book form. Here is the opening section of the essay.
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?
That movement, from wonder to the wonder that a country should be so big, to the wonder that a building could be so big, to the last, small wonder, that a marketplace could be so big—that was the movement of history. Then there was a change. The direction of the movement paused, sat silent for a moment, and reversed. From that moment, vastness was the start, not the finish. The movement now began with the fact of two hundred million, and the movement was toward a unit of one, alone. Groups of more than one were now united not by a common history but by common characteristics. History became the history of demographics, the history of no-history.
History had been the record of growth, conflict, and destruction.
THE NEW HISTORY
The New History was the record of the expression of demographically significant preferences: the lunge of demography here as opposed to there.
THE DECLINE OF ADULTHOOD
In the New History, nothing was judged—only counted. The power of judging was then subtracted from what it was necessary for a man to learn to do. In the New History, the preferences of a child carried as much weight as the preferences of an adult, so the refining of preferences was subtracted from what it was necessary for a man to learn to do. In the New History, the ideal became agreement rather than well-judged action, so men learned to be competent only in those modes which embraced the possibility of agreement. The world of power changed. What was powerful grew more powerful in ways that could be easily measured, grew less powerful in every way that could not be measured.
The most powerful men were those who most effectively used the power of adult competence to enforce childish agreements.
Television is the force of no-history, and it holds the archives of the history of no-history. Television is a mystery. Certain of its properties are known, though. It has a scale. The scale does not vary. The trivial is raised up to the place where this scale has its home; the powerful is lowered there. In the place where this scale has its home, childish agreements can he arrived at and enforced effectively—childish agreements, and agreements wearing the mask of childhood.
Television has a scale. It has other properties, but what television has to a dominant degree is a certain scale and the power to enforce it. No one has been able to describe the scale as it is experienced. We know some of its properties, though.
Television does not vary. The trivial is raised up to power. The powerful is lowered toward the trivial.
The power behind it resembles the power of no-action, the powerful passive.
It is bewitching.
It interferes with growth, conflict, and destruction, and these forces are different in its presence.
“Entertainment” is an unsatisfactory word for what it encloses or projects or makes possible.
No good has come of it.
For a while, a 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 a process resembling the processes 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 preference began to take on an uncomfortable aspect. Choice in respect to important matters became more and more difficult; people 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 love, but trivial, rather like a sense of home, but apt to disappear. In this mist exists the Aesthetic of the Hit.
The middle distance fell away, so the grids (from small to large) that had supported the middle distance fell into disuse and ceased to be understandable. 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 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. ♦