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Within the Context of No Context Paperback – March 26, 1997
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Long-time New Yorker writer George W. S. Trow first published the long title essay of this book in 1981, and it now appears with a companion piece, "Collapsing Dominant." Taken together, the two essays are a trenchant and often scathing examination of American culture. As Trow surveys the landscape, he observes that television has created a land of "no context," which it then gleefully chronicles. The many examples he cites of things he has witnessed in the mass media are alarming not for what he has seen--for we have all seen this stuff--but for the intense, and at times lacerating, insight with which he views the passing parade of frivolity. Within the Context of No Context is a slim book that does much to explain modern American society, and the thoughts in its pages will resonate for a long time. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
From Library Journal
First appearing in The New Yorker in 1978 (Trow wrote the "Talk of the Town" pieces) and published by Little, Brown in 1981, this volume dissects 20th-century American culture and how it had spiraled downward in ever-tightening circles into decay. This edition contains a new introduction by Trow.
Copyright 1997 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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People who have so much to share with each other about their own lives instead choose to talk about celebrities and athletes as if the famous ones were our real friends.
And this, for me, is what "Within the Context of No Context" is all about: the substitution of television and celebrity culture for our broader social networks.
Of course, the broader social networks that Trow loved so much formed part of a WASP sense of entitlement and cultural elitism. Trow failed to grasp that the decline in the influence of WASP experts and the democratization of culture were not, by themselves, problems. He complains that demographics now trump history-- that many cultural touchstones have no meaning outside one particular culture-- but he fails to understand that his WASP heritage is just such an echo chamber.
But I think the central question he asks is the right one: "Does what I'm reading right now have any meaning outside of this context?" In other words, if you strip away the context of the Golden Globes, do any of the awards make any difference?
As for the malaise, you've heard it all before. According to Trow, in recent decades (meaning the 60s and 70s, since the essay was published in 1981), a tranquil, contemplative, and authentic American cultural scene has been poisoned by a loud, crass, celebrity-worshiping, bauble-shilling rot promulgated by tabloids and television. To his credit, he manages to find a novel way to package this time-worn complaint. Much of the essay consists of brief (ranging from a few sentences to a few pages) aphoristic sections in which Trow's terse newspaper-like diction is put into the service of a weirdly compelling vagueness, a sort of lobotomized New Journalism. His metaphors skitter right up to the edge of making sense, then slink teasingly away, leaving a sympathetic audience plenty of space to read in their own desired meanings.
Of course a lot of American mass culture really is vulgar, so along the way Trow can't help but make some cogent observations. For example, he keeps returning to the idea of a gap between the "grids" of "two-hundred million" and "intimacy". Reading charitably, he seems to be making a valid observation about how strange it is that people gossip about celebrities as if they were acquaintances. Elsewhere Trow breaks out of his navel-gazing funk to interview an editor from People who describes the way that magazine tries to maximize sales by timing its cover photos to be just behind the zeitgeist. It's a fascinating bit of media anthropology, but it's also the only place where Trow steers the focus away from his own curmudgeonly obsessions. Mostly he just ambles around bemoaning things, oblivious to the fact that others have advanced the same complaints under the heading of "alienation" or weltschmerz years before anyone even dreamed of television.
This book contains another essay, "Collapsing Dominant", written fifteen years later as a kind of follow-up. Though essentially the same stuff (the world is still going to hell, though Trow is surprisingly fond of Quentin Tarantino), this one feels more honest because it is openly autobiographical. Trow talks at length about his family, a New York publishing dynasty, and his distress at watching the eastern WASP establishment culture they represented fall out of favor in the 1960s just as he was becoming an adult. The free-floating anguish of the earlier essay now shows itself as originating in Trow's sense of being denied his birthright. This is hopeless snobbery, of course, but Trow comes off better here for being forthright about his frustrated sense of entitlement, and spells out more of the personal details that lie at the heart of his angst. Perhaps most revealing is an aside about his time at Exeter in the late 1950s, when he belonged to a clique who called themselves "negos", because they had a negative attitude towards the world that sprung from the deep well of disaffection known only to the most bright, sensitive, and privileged young men. Could this be the secret of Trow's enduring appeal: that he speaks to the clever adolescents his readers once were?
Why are we so damned bored? Why is there nothing real to do? What the hell is wrong with us? Why is it the more prosperous we become the more miserable and empty life seems? What broke Western Man's joie de vivre... Then mix some historicity into these questions -- the millions of dead in the trenches of WWI, then WWII and auschwitz, hiroshima, etc. ... And then, ever since around 1950, it has become increasingly obvious that the weltschmertz the modernists felt so acutely was being complicated -- exacerbated and obscured (but by no means cured) -- by the loud sugar-saturated hyper-active consumerist triviality of contemporary culture -- The entertainment Mass Media! TV! yeegads. Quisp. Quake. TV. This is where Trow jumps on... our culture is all mass media'd, all rotten with People magazine and celebrity worship, our long-developed culture (context) is gone, and what's left occurs within no-context: the set of the Mike Douglas show -- Nowhere, but with chairs and a studio audience. I'll give Trow this much: he absolutely nails 'reality TV'... he sees it coming, sees that ultimately there must TV about being on TV... pure context of no context.
But that's about it. Trow does not really add all that much to the conversation -- Pretty much every other thinker/cultural product in the past 50 years, from Philip K. Dick to Roland Barthes to E.M. Cioran to Don DeLillo to Network, has spoken to these issues in some way. The thinker Trow is most like is David Foster Wallace. Trow's book is more like notes for DFW's essays than an independent work. The strongest pages in Trow, the last pages of "Within the Context of No Context" which concern Trow's summer job as a Protocol Guide at the '64 World's Fair are so David Foster Wallace, you can't quite believe DFW didn't write them -- even DFW's smiling-yet-wounded it's-all-so-funny-but-it's-not-really-all-that-funny-actually tone is found in those pages... the only things missing are the modulating shenanigans of DFWs style... Trow isn't the stylist Foster Wallace was.
Trow's little book belongs in a bibliography of The Great Malaise but it is neither the first, last, nor best word on it. This isn't the place for an extended discussion of Trow vis a vis DFW, but I derived the most enjoyment in the essay from thinking about how Trow's writing and thought compares to DFW's.
**a little edit/comment on my own review** my review reads (to me) sour and three years later my recollection of the book is not nearly as negative as this review implies. I also might leave someone with the mistaken impression Trow's writing somehow derives from DFW, which of course is not possible just by simple chronology. My point was DFW and Trow work similar themes but for me at least DFW is more incisive. (Hardly a damning criticism of Trow). I think my review was motivated by a desire to act as a corrective to the many 5 star reviews that proclaim this "book is amazing, oracular, etc." Ok, imo it isn't all that. But it is well worth reading.