Within The Context of No Context

December 7, 2010

We sign contracts with our attention, the terms of which we haven't read.

On the title

It is the role of television to establish a context of no-context.

Magazines are based on agreements. Some of these agreements are simple: “This magazine will report on events in the world of tennis.” Some of these agreements are not so simple… What is the real agreement to which the reader is asked to subscribe? Maybe it is this: “This magazine will appear to report on events in the world of tennis but will in fact strive to make the reader envy and seek to emulate a certain group of people, who will be made to appear at ease in the world of tennis.” Maybe it is even this: “This magazine will seek to make its readers uncomfortable by the calculated use of certain icons associated with tennis, so that the readers will turn, for comfort, to the products advertised in our pages and buy them.”

This reminds me of a popular thread on Metafilter: “If you are not paying for it, you’re not the customer; you’re the product being sold.” While most people pay a nominal fee for magazines, it is the business model of any ad-supported product that the audience is what’s sold to advertisers.

The Two Grids

Trow posits two grids: the grid of the 200 million and the grid of intimacy. At one point, there was at least one more grid, a middle grid, a grid of the community. A person was part of a family, part of a community, and ultimately part of a nation. But since the emergence of a national popular culture, its growth has come at the expense of the community sphere. He points to television specifically, which people were staying home to watch instead of going to bowling leagues, social clubs, and fraternal organizations. And with television and film came the era of celebrities, which meant people were much less interested in their neighbors, whose humble exploits paled in comparison to those of Brangelina. The effect is pretty much the world we live in today, where (in slightly reductionist terms) everyone knows the same things about actors and sports teams and movies–and practically nothing about each other.

The graphic design of Life versus People magazines

The graphic design of the two magazines emphasizes the difference here, which is a difference in stress on what the foreground of the magazine is and what the background is. The issue of Life…had a cover with a frame. There was a strong red band, 1½ inches wide, at the bottom and, at upper left, a strong red rectangle, 2? inches by 4? inches, enclosing the name Life, which was shown as strong white space against the red. The design made clear that the magazine constituted a background against which, week by week, different foreground figures would appear…

The cover of People, by contrast, is without a frame. It is a foreground that suddenly appears–like a shout, or like teasing whispers building to a shout–and then vanishes. Its attempt is to create a foreground so powerful by being intimately connected to what one already loves that one picks up the magazine to find out the secret of one’s own affections. Every cover of People says the same thing: “This is what you love. Who can you be?”

And an idea which I’m sure has been repeated but bears repeating once more here:

Choice is not an end. The end is to have chosen well, not to choose endlessly (90).