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John Holbo - Editor
Scott Eric Kaufman - Editor
Aaron Bady
Adam Roberts
Amardeep Singh
Andrew Seal
Bill Benzon
Daniel Green
Jonathan Goodwin
Joseph Kugelmass
Lawrence LaRiviere White
Marc Bousquet
Matt Greenfield
Miriam Burstein
Ray Davis
Rohan Maitzen
Sean McCann
Guest Authors

Laura Carroll
Mark Bauerlein
Miriam Jones

Past Valve Book Events

cover of the book Theory's Empire

Event Archive

cover of the book The Literary Wittgenstein

Event Archive

cover of the book Graphs, Maps, Trees

Event Archive

cover of the book How Novels Think

Event Archive

cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

Event Archive

cover of the book What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts?

Event Archive

cover of the book The Novel of Purpose

Event Archive

The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on Objects and Graeber's Debt

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Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Stylistics: New York Social Diary

Posted by Bill Benzon on 06/17/09 at 10:21 AM

A few years ago I stumbled on New York Social Diary, and I’ve been visiting it periodically ever since. It’s what its name implies, a site that chronicles social and civic life among New York City’s rich and powerful, five days a week (with the weekends off). Although gossip and rumor do show up on its pages, it’s not quite a gossip rag – too circumspect. Or, if you will, it’s rather more than gossip. Interestingly so.

Daily stories about lunches, dinners, parties and galas are its journalistic main course, with photo upon photo upon photo and long lists of bolded names as essential ingredients. These reports are accompanied by restaurant reviews, shopping trips, profiles of houses, articles on social history, and a bit of this, that, and the other as appropriate and available.

NYSD is the brainchild of one David Patrick Columbia. As far as I can tell – he does reveal a bit about his own life from time to time – he’s spent much of his adult life around august social circles, but he is not himself a man of wealth and privilege. He has to work for a living, and NYSD is his gig. Many of his subjects also work, but they are more highly remunerated than Columbia is.

But this is by way of background. I’m interested in Columbia’s writing style. Consider this short paragraph perhaps two thirds of the way into a recent story:

It is true that there are people in this town who have what is generally recognized as power. Can they kill people? I don’t know about that. Maybe with kindness or a harsh Fifth Avenue froideur.

The first sentence is a remarkable concoction of distance and familiarity. Let’s work our way toward it piece by piece, almost in the manner of a mathematical demonstration. At the heart of this contraption is a proposition that, if one wanted to be simple and direct, could be put in this way:

There are powerful people in New York City.

We can start with a simple substitution (change underlined):

There are powerful people in this town.

The substitution works only if we can assume the reader knows that Columbia is writing about New York City, a safe assumption, and one that trades on a small element of familiarity between writer and reader. Note, however, that NYC is not a town, it is a city. This diminution creates a sense of intimacy and familiarity, but may also indicate that, to the rich and powerful, this mighty city is but a small and manageable town.

Now let’s rearrange things a bit:

There are people in this town who have power.

This arrangement makes power something that’s separate from people:  There are people; there is power. Some people have power; those are the one’s we’re talking about.

Let’s introduce a generalized audience:

There are people in this town who have what is generally recognized as power.

The phrase “what is generally recognized as” is arch and distancing. On the one hand there is the physical distance it places between “have” and “power.” But there is also the social and almost metaphysical distance it creates by introducing an implied spectatorship, those who do the recognizing. It is not clear whether this spectatorship consists of those who do not move among New York’s wealthy and powerful, but who look up to them, or whether it is simply the gaze of the wealthy and powerful as reflected in, for example, the NYSD. Nor is it clear to me that it matters much one way or the other. There is a gaze, and there is power. The gaze constitutes power as an object of contemplation and/or desire.

Finally, let’s push the entire business even further away:

It is true that there are people in this town who have what is generally recognized as power.

“It is true” is common enough, and pedestrian, whether or not it is also an echo of Jane Austen (“It is a truth generally . . .) I cannot say. But the phrase both brackets the writer’s by now highly nuanced proposition as a hypothetical possibility while asserting that this particular possibility just happens to be true in the real world.

This elaborate verbal machine is followed by a blunt question – “Can they kill people?” – as through the narrator (for this is a narrator speaking, not Columbia himself) is in a position to provide an answer. He quite promptly denies knowledge – “I don’t know about that.” The question in effect wonders whether these powerful are above the law, above society, while the narrator’s demurral leaves that possibility open for consideration. Into that possibility the narrator slips the final sentence, which isn’t a sentence at all. It lacks a verb. And that, of course, is OK.

We have: “Maybe with kindness or a harsh Fifth Avenue froideur.” Obviously, this is a comment on killing people. There is a play on “kill with kindness” but there is also that harsh froideur, coolness or reserve – notice the French. We’ve gone from New York City, “this town,” to Fifth Avenue, a figure for the local world of wealth and power. And from life and death to the Fifth Avenue freeze, social death.

What’s the occasion of this elaborate linguistic ceremony? That’s not a simple matter. This paragraph has been dropped into a report on a book party one David Walentas gave for one Michael Thomas. While there David Patrick Columbia meets another author, one Michael Gross, who’s written a book about the money behind New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. For some reason Gross’s book – Rogues Gallery: The Secret History of the Moguls and the Money that Made the Metropolitan Museum – has not been well received. It is in the course of probing that mystery that Columbia has written that remarkable little paragraph (only 36 words), which introduces one Annette de la Renta into our narrative.

As far as I can tell, Mrs. de la Renta was not at this book party that Walentas gave for Thomas. But she is on the board of the Metropolitan Museum and, according to Columbia, is among the powers who’ve put the freeze on Gross’s book. Thus, our narrator meanders about in that story, making it a story within the story of a book party, and even strays, just a little, into the story behind the Metropolitan Museum, which is thus a story3 (about the Met), within a story2 (about the Fifth Avenue freeze), within a story1 (about a book party). The story about the Met goes back into the 19th century, thus serving up a little of the history behind The Powers. Our little paragraph marks the transition from story1 to story2, within which, story3.

The narrative concludes:

Nevertheless, the atmosphere at the Met still retains more than a few strains of the elitist attitude. Elitist has changed in the new century. Anna Wintour, for example, for God’s sake, is elitist. It should be remembered that the art world is elitist. The connoisseurs and their advisers and their minions and their minions’ sycophants tend toward the elitist. Big time. I am and you’re not. It no longer matters what they’re wearing, of course, but the attitude remains. The game comes from childhood: I-know-something-you-don’t-know. In this great big town, like any great big town, it’s called power.

“Anna Wintour” is in boldface in the original; it’s the house style. But just why that particular name is in this story at all, that’s up to the reader to know, or to figure out. And to ponder that “for God’s sake.”

It’s a very clever game our narrator is playing, this David Patrick Columbia. It’s a game he plays day after day, week after week, and year upon year. He earns his daily bread this way.

But where is HE in all of this? Yes, he’s behind the pen, well, the keyboard. Beyond that, what’s his point of view? Outside, inside, over under around and through. What’s he really think? 


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