Writing Within the Context of No Context

We’ve all had experiences like this.

Some kid moves into our neighborhood and shows up for baseball tryouts. He steps up to bat and blasts screaming line drive after screaming line drive into the left center and right center field gaps. And then he takes the field and plays shortstop like Ozzie Smith. And he does it all seemingly effortlessly.

Or a new saleswoman shows up at our retail job and gets the nastiest/most impossible customers to actually take out their wallets and pay for something. The cranky consumers even leave the store happy. Not just with their purchase but unbelievably happy with their lot in life.

I don’t know about you, but I can barely suppress my internal rage when these kinds of magical people enter my life. They seem to do no wrong and irritatingly push me down a notch, or ten, on mine own private hierarchical totem pole. Leapfrogging over me, they seem to have been touched by greatness while poor I feel like I’ve been rubbed by grinding mediocrity.

Now imagine being writer George W.S. Trow in 1996, witnessing the arrival of writer Malcolm Gladwell at The New Yorker.

After he was tapped by birth to complete the east coast blue blood prep circuit, Trow matriculated with the necessary distinction at Philips Exeter Academy. Then on to Harvard, like about half his classmates, he did go. He served as President of The Harvard Lampoon and a few years after graduation, he sowed his oats as a sometime contributor at the Lampoon’s offshoot founded by fellow Cantabridgians Doug Kenney, Henry Beard and Rob Hoffman, The National Lampoon.

But his real work was writing for editors William Shawn and Robert Gottlieb at The New Yorker. The legendary Mr. Shawn who ran the magazine from 1952 through 1987 brought Trow onto the invisible masthead right out of Cambridge in 1966. Primarily to write pithy “Talk of the Town” pieces.

But it was Trow’s deep-think BIG IDEA piece that made his name.

After editing it personally, Mr. Shawn was so enamored with the work that he devoted just about the entire November 17, 1980 issue to it. Published under The New Yorker rubric “Reflections (The Decline of Adulthood),” Within the Context of No Context was a punch to America’s psychic solar plexus.   If you hold a certain Weltanschauung similar to my own, reading it today is both enormously comforting in its diagnosis of what generally ails us; and equally depressing in its refusal to put forth any possible remedy.

A brilliant look at the raison d’etre of television—creating false “contexts” to prime the engine of mass consumption…i.e. be like these fake people and buy what they buy and all will be well—Within the Context of No Context lays bare the corrosive effects of mindless plugging in to the boob tube. With nothing beyond entertainment designed to spread sales pitch consumption memes, television/media creates and reinforces Groupthink at a monstrous scale. Trow’s article (which was reissued as a book) nailed the thing behind what President Jimmy Carter infamously described in his “malaise” speech of July 15, 1979 as America’s “crisis of confidence.”

But when the masses equate consumption with happiness—when the marketplace reigns—what happens when the grand economic engine sputters? Carter sealed his fate as a one-termer POTUS with his trenchant answer.

But Within the Context of No Context is also unmistakably a lamentation of noblesse oblige nostalgia…for the time when the world had an unmistakable eastern establishment structure. Trow recalls those wondrous days when men wore Fedoras. Without irony. A boy of particular breeding could depend upon the way things worked in the adult world. He knew where he’d fit and where he wouldn’t. Follow the Fedora and all would be well.

Unlike Malcolm Gladwell, who had to build a body of work (what some would call creating and marketing a personal brand) before gaining entree, Trow was hired a staff writer at The New Yorker straight off of Harvard Yard. It’s not surprising that shortly after Tina Brown displaced Robert Gottlieb as The New Yorker’s editor, Trow resigned. (For a dazzling extended piece about Trow, I recommend Ariel Levy’s)

The Exeter/Harvard/New Yorker trifecta made sense in Trow’s day. A to-the-manner-born writer was tapped and then served his ten thousand hours learning his craft under tutelage at a prestigious institution/company. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Trow wrote his seminal work fourteen years after he started at the magazine. Trow needed that time to find his voice and Mr. Shawn bestowed it upon him…as was his custom.

For good or for ill, you won’t get patrician grooming at a magazine or publishing house today.

While extremely stressful for the individual and lacking in any grand noble vision beyond getting “ahead” through the accumulation of capital or status, the free market mentality that Trow characterized in his Within the Context of No Context is the origin story of contemporary American culture.

While often dispiriting and demoralizing, what the market does allow is for that kid from across town that has been hitting baseballs off a tee religiously all winter to show up at baseball tryouts and win a job. Sometimes he even takes the coach’s kid’s position.

And despite appearances of wunderkind arrival at The New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell didn’t come out of nowhere. He was not touched with greatness nor was he tapped as one worthy of institutional training by virtue of his birthright.

He came to his place at The New Yorker not the old-fashioned way, but in the way all of us must find our place today. He earned it.

I imagine that George W.S. Trow may have despaired after he’d read Gladwell’s third piece for The New Yorker on June 3, 1996. Probably not because he thought Gladwell was some miraculous hack who’d come on the scene to take his place as preeminent cultural observer. A pro recognizes another pro and Gladwell’s piece is so professionally constructed that Trow would have admitted as such.  Trow was obviously a complicated snob, but even a snob recognizes quality.

Trow would have despaired because what Gladwell was getting at in The Tipping Point confirmed his deepest fear. That the marketplace had become so deeply ingrained in our collective worldview that we accept, without protest or even consciousness, that we’re just behavioral protoplasm capable of being arbitrarily manipulated. Resigned suckers content to follow the crowd.

That is, we no longer see ourselves as self-directed thinking machines capable of personal choice. Instead, we’ve come to accept our place as just a cell within a mass…a mass capable of being poked or prodded into a collective response by invisible Svengalis.  We buy Hush Puppies and repress urges to commit crime by rote.  And we don’t find that notion all that troubling, either.  In fact we wish to harness this obvious truth to our best advantage. We wish to become one of those Svengalis ourselves.

In the end, I think what Trow would have taken away from Gladwell’s piece was that in our the market is the message era, the only value of Context is as a reactant within a chemical formula—like one part hydrogen plus two parts oxygen reacts to produce water.

And that kind of thinking–that there is no meaning within a Context beyond its relationship to producing a response–is a bummer.  As Gertrude Stein said, “there is no there there.”

Others, though, had a wildly different response to The Tipping Point piece in The New Yorker.  They saw the makings of a huge bestseller. If Gladwell were able to flesh out his thesis and deliver the formula for making things “tip,” it would be a license to print money.

More on that next.


7 comments on “Writing Within the Context of No Context

  1. Keep ’em coming, Shawn. I love and learn from each and every one. With gratitude, Debbie.

  2. Mary Doyle says:

    Terrific post! The issue of mass consumption is a great tie-in to an audio book I’ve been listening to in the car this week – Michael Moss’s “Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us.” I thought that I had an intellectual grasp about how manipulated we are by food advertisements, but I underestimated both the advertiser’s cunning and my own gullibility. Thanks for my second “eye-opener” this week!

  3. Tina Goodman says:

    Being handed a career because of breeding goes against our American work ethic. Hurray for Gladwell and his Western, New World way of life.

  4. George in Quito says:

    Even though I lived through that era, I was busy doing other things. Other than my steady diet of scifi and the odd fantasy to degunk my brain, I would read an occasional Atlantic article, and that was the extent of it. This post was an eye opener.

    Gladwell’s book has been on my to-read bucket list, and all my writing friends have been prompting me to read it for a few years now. I’m determined to at least get the book before you finish this segment.

    By the way, that last throwaway caught my attention. Gertrude Stein was talking about Oakland when she said that. Just sayin’. Thanks for this post. I got a lot out of it.

  5. Wolf says:

    Story Grid is a great work of methodology which I would unfailingly recommend. Your chemistry however needs a touch of Walter White: “like one part hydrogen plus two parts oxygen reacts to produce water” .
    Excellent article though – keep ’em coming…

  6. I find this entire post disturbing — in the best possible way. Challenging, upsetting assumptions and beliefs, poking at sacred cows with a pointy stick.

    You scare me sometimes, Shawn. Thank you!

    (So happy to see the Tipping Point posts appearing again.)

  7. Thanks, Shawn. I have nothing to add, really, but I am so enjoying this series!

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