american novelist and journalist gary indiana is best known for his fictionalized accounts of american crimes, including resentment, a reworking of the murderous brothers lyle and erik menendez, and three month fever, about andrew cunanan’s murder of fashion designer gianni versace.
but indiana is also an essayist of american mores and morals, with an archness of tone and range of reference that brings to mind the best essays of gore vidal.
from utopia’s debris: selected essays (2009):
The Madness of the Day
There is an appliance in every living room that makes people stupid. This was a widely known fact before the late George W. S. Trow’s essay “Within the Context of No Context” appeared in The New Yorker in 1980 (and in book form soon after), but Trow’s impressionistic meditation on the world of television, and the world of television’s effect on mass culture, fingered the trance effect of the medium’s stupidity, and the medium’s message, with arresting precision — arresting not least because the essay’s form mimicked the fractured pastiche that was, in 1980, only beginning to be called “postmodernism,” a condition of things engendered by television which Trow clearly viewed with fascinated disgust.
The essay made waves. It was, among other things, the revenge of The New Yorker, as it then was, on a punitive construct The New Yorker called “downtown,” the retort of a vanishing class to the barbarians at the gate. This was not so much the important thing about the essay as it was its throbbing little imperfection. Like Renata Adler’s jeremiads against the avant-garde in Toward A Radical Middle (1969), it pitted its imperious adultness against a perceived culture of mushrooming infantilism, and sometimes cited little well-intended things that didn’t quite work as powerful, malefic symptoms of regression. It proceeded from assumptions that mostly rang true, and sometimes (just when they began to seem irrefutable) betrayed the careless impatience of hereditary snobbery.
Like Adler before him, Trow had been raised and trained in an upper middle class whose values were no longer viewed by people outside or even inside that class as desirable or necessary. That class had expected to define the mainstream from generation to generation, and suddenly no longer did, or if it did, the mainstream it defined no longer held any cultural authority. In “Collapsing Dominant,” Trow’s new introductory essay to the reissue of WTCONC, the author’s candor on this point is blunt and admirable, and, in its way, as subtly irritating as the tone of his original essay.
That said, the meat of Trow’s book, in both essays, is impressively fresh. As a diagnostician of American consciousness, Trow brings to his job a playfulness and poetic finesse that demonstrate how much the literary mind can do that ideology can’t. He has a genius for parsing the inanities that batter an audience into a demographic, a problem into a product, an idea into a jingle. His subject is the chasm between private feeling and “the grid of two hundred million.” WTCONC is about agreements and betrayals, unreasonable promises scrawled in vanishing ink into a fraudulent social contract, the art of the con job on a massive scale. “No one, now, minds a con man,” Trow writes. “But no one likes a con man who doesn’t know what we think we want.” What Trow does best is show how what we think we want is invented and projected with less and less reference to anything real. And implied in all this is the desperate emptiness of most American lives, without which television as we know it would never be necessary or desirable.
What are we being sold, and how much are we paying for it? Why are we buying it? What’s the implicit exchange? Applying such questions to game shows, talk shows, serial melodrama, celebrity gossip, popular magazines, and “programming” in the broadest sense, Trow sees the original impulse behind such phenomena — the initiating, plausible need — decaying over time, as the context of earlier values (of authority, say, and the principled flouting of authority) crumbles, leaving a foreground of empty forms which then becomes the background against which ever-emptier forms appear. One apotheosis of this process is a “new cable television channel called TVLand. And on TVLand one will view, as entertainment, Classic Commercials … I think people will reinvent their history using specific images from a more organized moment.”
The highly disorganized moment we are living in now, which Trow nailed with such prescience seventeen years ago, owes much of its tinny, squalidly masochistic flavor to the erasure of historical consciousness. We no longer know who we are because we no longer know who we were, which makes it rather easy for other people to sell us an identity. This is a core issue in Daniel Harris’ The Rise and Fall of Gay Culture, a brilliant suite of essays that ranges across many facets of gay culture — from camp, drag, S&M to “lifestyle” magazines, personal ads, pornography, and AIDS kitsch — and which, like Trow’s book, injects the historical sense into a seemingly ahistorical present. Trow documents the collapse of a dominant class; Harris delivers an unsentimental eulogy for a vanishing ethnicity, one that’s been assimilated into commercial culture at the expense of its defining characteristics.
“Long before homosexuals were accepted by mainstream society,” Harris writes, “we had become so financially useful to the business world that our integration as respectable Americans was inevitable, for how could any ethnic group that contributed as heavily as we did to the nation’s economy be ostracized forever?” In America’s urban areas, at least, this integration is fairly complete. With the help of repetitive propaganda from magazines like Genre and Out, fashion designers like Calvin Klein, endorsements for understanding and tolerance from Hollywood’s “role models,” and a publishing subindustry of self-help literature, homosexuals have achieved the middle-class mediocrity, and even the Pavlovian patriotism, typical of successfully assimilated groups. Harris has no great longings for imaginary good old days, but his book has the immense virtue of exposing the unspoken, i.e., what gay people have had to abandon in order to be accepted and absorbed. Not all of it was good; much of it was pathological. But none of it was quite as banal as the current emphasis on gay marriage and monogamy, for example, or “coming out” as the endlessly restaged, central drama in every homosexual’s life, or the compulsive mimicry of mainstream tastes and “lifestyle” options promoted by bourgeois gay media. While gay politics has suffered serious recent setbacks, gay culture, in a drastically sanitized form, has won the patronage of corporate America, eager to exploit a vast market of “dual-income no kids” consumer units. Gay culture has, in effect, had its vectors swallowed by the pulsating pudding of disintegrated contexts that Trow describes as “adolescent orthodoxy.”
The exchange involved here — and it is an exchange, for which liberationists have avidly lobbied, not a unilateral colonization — requires the suppression from public view of everything that really does, or really did, make the homosexual different from the average American, whether it’s male effeminacy, elitist artistic taste, specific sexual practices, or the forming of easy alliances between same-sex persons of radically different classes. The reward is the transformation of the outcast into a welcome, faceless consumer. “The permission given by television is permission to make tiny choices, within the context of total permission infected with a sense of no permission at all,” Trow writes. For “television” substitute “corporate benevolence” or “inclusion in the demography of a product’s target audience.”
Assimilation hurts. Harris’ argument is similar to that of Pasolini’s Lutheran Letters, i.e., that the special features of distinct groups fall away as these groups are homogenized into commercial culture. In the case of gays, much of what is disappearing came into existence in the first place as defense mechanisms against exclusion — camp, for instance, provided a species of wit that turned straight culture’s artifacts into double entendres, by which homosexuals devised a rich, densely coded underground culture, that despite its abjection, had an uncanny quality of difference no longer discernible in contemporary gay life. (Harris makes the point that young gays, today, have more in common with young heterosexuals than they do with older gays; what Harris calls “glad-to-be-gay propaganda” is almost exclusively focused on people under forty, and its points of cultural reference are exactly the same films, music, books, celebrities, consumer products, and leisure activities promoted by mainstream media.)
The process of hidden-things-becoming-visible that’s unfolded since the late ’60s has been one of seasonal identity crises for the “gay community,” a construct that requires quotation marks since part of these crises has always been a question about which parts of this “gay community” the culture at large is prepared to assimilate. Another part has been a question of redundancy: at what point do we admit that something is no longer “transgressive,” no longer a challenge to the dominant society, no longer interesting? As the raison d’être of such phenomena as drag evaporates from a culture where gender roles are no longer strictly codified in clothing and behavior, getting up in drag becomes an exercise in folkloric kitsch, with no more subversive content than the costume pageants at Colonial Williamsburg.
Many years ago, Fran Lebowitz said that if you removed the homosexual influence from American culture, what you’d have left would be Let’s Make a Deal. Today, the social oppression that drove so many homosexuals into the arts is disappearing. As Harris puts it, “When gay men no longer feel degraded and insecure and therefore driven to prove their worth to the heterosexual mainstream, they will cease using culture as a means of achieving social prestige and, as a consequence, will stop flocking to art schools, the stage, the concert hall, or the opera house, becoming much more conventional in their aspirations and gravitating to less creative jobs in the business sector.” While none of us exactly long for the oppressions of the past that brought us everything from Ronald Firbank to Lypsinka, the passing of this culture cedes ever more ground to the philistinism and mediocrity of the consciousness industry. In their different ways, Trow and Harris sound the alarm that Let’s Make a Deal is quickly becoming all we have.
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