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December 08, 2008

Save Us, Internets!

This is from Who Will Tell the People by William Greider, written in the early nineties:

The late Lee Atwater expressed the view that the deep resentment and alienation that permeate modern American politics are connected to the communications revolution and he expected them to continue until the disorientations of communications work themselves out of the society.

And this is from Within the Context of No Context by George W.S. Trow, an extremely weird book famous among weirdos that was published in 1980:

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 the 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.


—Jonathan Schwarz

Posted at December 8, 2008 09:32 AM

"Within..." is a splendid if infuriatingly aphoristic book--but you must tell readers that it is about the conquest of America by TV.
"The Germans lost and TV won," is one way Trow saw what was beginning to happen right after WWII.
There is a new edition, with an introduction looking back to what's happened since 1980 publication.
Trow died recently in Italy. He loved the print world of the 1950s--newspapers, books, discussions about ideas, Sartre and Camus. A world he found at Exeter and Harvard and in NYC.
Gone, for the most part.

Posted by: donescobar at December 8, 2008 09:55 AM

The tribe was killed.

Interesting that the tribe is the social organism to be most feared by the parasites of society.

Posted by: meshuga at December 8, 2008 10:23 AM

The tribe cannot be killed. We are all members of tribes, tribes and nations. The tribe of TinyRevolution within the larger tribe of the DFH class within the nation of the Netroots. The Yankees tribe, the Redsox tribe, the Giants tribe (note I don't use the possessive). It's human instinct to form tribes.

I hate to actually agree with Atwater on something, but I would say that communications within society were disrupted in the late 20th C, becoming increasingly top-down. And the internets really have replaced the face-to-face communication we had up through, at least, WWII.

Posted by: Poopyman at December 8, 2008 10:50 AM

mistaking nodes and costume parties for tribes....

Posted by: hapa at December 8, 2008 11:12 AM

Can a costume party evolve into a tribe? and thanks for the reminder about this book!

Posted by: sloweducation at December 8, 2008 11:52 AM

"an extremely weird book famous among weirdos"

yes exactly. i've always been confused by those who call it a "landmark", or act as though it's known to any but the weird. it's a good read, though, bit at a time.

Posted by: petey at December 8, 2008 12:13 PM

The Yankees tribe, the Redsox tribe, the Giants tribe (note I don't use the possessive).

Exactly. Instead of a local supporting social structure (my loose definition of a tribe), we have cheap commercial parodies of them. Any commercial fad or fashion can be used. Maybe the tribe cannot be killed, but it sure can be watered down to harmless b.s.

You depend on either your small nuclear family, or national or centralized society. But nothing in between.

Posted by: meshuga at December 8, 2008 12:20 PM

Yes, corporations and other top-down entities can create synthetic and temporary tribes for crass reasons; yes, many affiliations don't mean/do much--but the point is that the internet makes connecting with each other so much more possible. What we do next--what these connections mean to us, what we use them to do--is up to us.

In fact, Don, the internet has been the single biggest factor in resurrecting The Yale Record as a tribe--precisely the Eastern aristocratic print subgroup you mention Trow mourning. Only this time, we can tone down the snotty "gentlemen at play" vibe; in the past, to get the good stuff--the talking about ideas with smart people--you had to turn yourself into what they respect at Exeter, Harvard, and NYC. That was the price of admission, and it hamstrung those tribes before they even begun. That is no longer necessary. The internet allows for the recreation of tribes on more accessible, more useful models--if the members of the tribe can be encouraged to wish it.

Posted by: Mike of Angle at December 8, 2008 01:15 PM

I looked at Amazon, and they have one (presumably used) copy of Trow's book, asking price 514 bucks.(?!) I want to say something extremely clever about synchronicity and the screwy nature of the universe, but I got nuthin'.

Maybe you should talk to Trow and advise him to blough, and maybe send him a copy of your Kampf.

Posted by: Jonathan Versen at December 8, 2008 01:22 PM

"You depend on either your small nuclear family, or national or centralized society. But nothing in between."

Interesting. This is not nearly so much the case in Utah, where I live, where there is a strong interdependence level in the "ward" (congregation) provided by the Mormon Church.

The Church too, though, has become increasingly top-down and resembling a corporation in recent decades...

Posted by: Cloud at December 8, 2008 03:12 PM

Awesome topic of conversation, by the way.

Posted by: Cloud at December 8, 2008 03:14 PM

Mike of Angle

You are right, but there's that big "if" in your final sentence. Pockets of the print subgroup survive, but just pockets. At one time this group, not just sub, set quite a bit of the tone at the snotty places Trow attended. And not all members of the group were, by Trow's time, aristocrats.
Education, as has been in pointed out, is in large part an introduction into the art of conversation. Since the 1980s, interests in these same institutions and all over has dwindled.
No point to it, except for what it is in itself. You and I and Jon and Caruso and Donald Johnson et al may relish it. Pockets, much smaller and at times made up of the weirdos in a Classics Department, are still around.
Things go away. They don't always or even often come back.

Posted by: donescobar at December 8, 2008 03:33 PM

This blog is my bowling league.

I don't like drinking in crowds, so I'm happy that I have no substitute for the church. And who needs fraternal organizations when the internet is just one big Canonical Association of Strangers and the nanny state is going to cover the health insurance?

Posted by: buermann at December 8, 2008 04:19 PM

"Maybe you should talk to Trow"

that's be amazing, he's dead.

Posted by: petey at December 8, 2008 07:34 PM

"Maybe you should talk to Trow"

that'd be amazing, he's dead.

Posted by: petey at December 8, 2008 07:35 PM

Petey, did I say it would be easy to talk to him? I don't think so.

Posted by: Jonathan Versen at December 8, 2008 08:09 PM

Don, things do go away, and some never come back--but the point I am making (which I think you get, but I want to reiterate because I think it's valuable given the intellectual-depressive tendencies of ATR) is that people choose for them to go away. Then they choose not to bring them back. Individuals are not passive in this process.

While we can't recreate the larger social conditions that made Trow's Harvard Lampoon (or National Lampoon circa 1971, or Shawn's New Yorker) a special place, we can identify the values that were being encouraged or discouraged. This is not a perfect process, obviously, or even an easy one--but it is an essential part of the mission of small social groups to nurture sets of values that aren't being nurtured by the larger society. What comes out of this nurturing could be a distortion, a wan version of the original, or an improvement on the original, but I don't think the process is ever wholly useless. Because you're being forced to study something you believe has value, identify why it has value, and support those facets. This is good for the soul, much better than mourning.

I'm not talking about colorizing black-and-white movies here; I'm suggesting we study old movies to find out what they did better than contemporary ones, and improve contemporary movies accordingly. Yes, Alfred Hitchcock is dead; but that doesn't mean that "Saw IV" is our only alternative, or even that Brian DePalma is "today's Hitchcock." Both statements are corporations acting for their benefit--creating false or paltry tribes--but we don't have to be passive. We can make our own groups, especially thanks to the internet, and let the worthy/unworthiness of the values we put forward speak for themselves.

Posted by: Mike of Angle at December 9, 2008 03:46 PM

Mike of Angle -

Thank you! I have been looking for a catch phrase to put on my resume, and now I have one!

"Intellectual-depressive Engineer seeks position....."

Rupa -

Even more thanks. In addition to the petition, I think I will walk over to the local branch this evening, and close my accounts.

Posted by: Aaron Datesman at December 9, 2008 05:14 PM


Agreed. We don't have to be passive or wallow in nostalgia. It's picking your battles that is hard. Not because you don't know which ones are most worthy of fighting, but because those most worthy of fighting are the ones you are least likely to win.
But, carry on we should. When Larry Summers became president of Harvard, no profs and no undergrads threw copies of the famous Redbook at him or burnt them in front of his office to slam his ignorance of or contempt for liberal education. It will be one hell of a fight to return a peculiarly American institution--the residential liberal arts college--to at least some of its original mission. The people I know, from, for example, Prof Katz (History) at Princeton, have tossed in the towel. The Humanities are dead or moribund. Where and how will our kids lean to be "human?"
I'm not saying liberal education succeeded at that in the past, but some its servants at least worked at it. So very few of them will risk it today, except at the best and the smallest places and those brave souls at community colleges and in adult education centers.

Posted by: donescobar at December 9, 2008 05:32 PM

Don, when I was at Yale in November I sat through several lectures wherein University officials extolled the corporate model with an untrammelled admiration only those who have never worked in corporate America can muster. No acknowledgment of other, perhaps more appropriate models; no acknowledgment of what might be lost in the process; no acknowledgment that perhaps the WHOLE POINT of places like Universities is to embody alternatives to the dominant corporate model. It was sickening, not only because it was blind to the deterioration of universities into mere brand names (or perhaps "hedge funds with boarding schools attached"), but also because it showed such a pitiful lack of imagination.

Since Universities pump out students in their own image, I think this corporation-worship is at the heart of what you're decrying. The good(?) news is that our economy is starting to demonstrate the limitations inherent in the corporate mindset--Harvard's endowment is projected to drop 30% this year. As blind faith erodes, perhaps there will be some hard thinking about what schools are for, or should be for. Not much of a silver lining, sure, but I take whatever I can get.

As to what battles to fight, I fight the ones at hand, and leave questions of importance to others. I just try to be useful. I'm a comedy writer who went to Yale, so for now The Yale Record is where I try to make a difference. It's not earth-shaking stuff, and I thank everybody for their indulgence as I know I bring it up regularly. I talk to the students about cartoons and jokes, in the hopes that they, like Jon, might graduate to weightier stuff--or at least do the lighter stuff compassionately and well.

Don't lose heart, Don--no matter how fucked up the schools are, or the teachers are, some kids still get it. Really. I'd be delighted to introduce you to a few sometime. And if they exist at Yale--the very epicenter of the self-satisfied, corporate, status quo managerial culture--there must be even more of them at schools where Reality more frequently intrudes. The kids I'm talking about aren't afraid of what's happening; they see things changing, and that's exciting to them. They feel the opportunity.

Posted by: Mike of Angle at December 9, 2008 08:48 PM

Mike and Don,

i think you're getting to an interesting point about the future and purpose of education. the lecturing prof model is outdated not just because it's going away, but because it's a crappy way to teach people and cultivate learners and scholarship.

but if profs aren't going to read handwritten notes to students anymore, then what's the better way for students to learn, and what's the purpose of profs?

many schools are grant-writing collectives, and it's clear to those faculty that their top priority is to keep million dollar grants pouring in. they students are clearly secondary, and that's obvious to all the students.

humanities faculty aren't so grant-oriented, and they're facing this crisis of purpose. a lingusitics prof friend of mine was telling me she sat in on a workshop recently about student writing, where apparently the leader was suggesting they do away with the vaunted term paper. is it a good way to assess learning, was the question.

i hate the idea of corporatizing education. but i think it's a good sign that parts of the long-standing dysfunctionality of humanities education are being questioned. and i'll be disappointed if 20 years from now academia is still full of profs reading notes in lecture halls.

Posted by: seattle jerry at December 10, 2008 06:35 PM

That's interesting, Jerry. Do you have any ideas as to what new methods are being tried?

I agree current pedagogy is far from perfect, but don't you think the kids are simply mimicking our adult society? Teachers, writers, scholars--we're the freaks, the outliers. Marooned in a capitalist society, we're working furiously to accumulate something that (usually) cannot be monetized. Why WOULD any ambitious kid want to do that?

Education, a clean environment, dangers we avoid, kindness, wisdom--capitalism can't quantify these, so it treats them as sentimental, when they are basic facts of reality. And so you get dysfunction; the "successful" corporations are the ones that offload as much of the expense of providing these unquantifables onto institutions using non-profit-centered models. Institutions that deal in unquantifiable commodities simply can't use the corporate model without tainting their product--for-profit universities pump out dumb kids looking for the big score; for-profit health care gauges whenever possible; for-profit government gives you Illinois. Methods can be improved--but the real problem I suspect is swimming against the rest of the culture.

Posted by: Mike of Angle at December 12, 2008 01:10 PM