American Culture

The painted kipper (pt. 5): an end note

Part 5 in a series.

In a piece about the American cult writer David Foster Wallace, who committed suicide on September 12, 2008, James Ryerson writes:

“Wallace was especially concerned that certain theoretical paradigms – the cerebral aestheticism of modernism, the clever trickery of postmodernism – too casually dispense with what he once called ‘the very old traditional human verities that have to do with spirituality and emotion and community.’ He called for a more forthright, engaged treatment of these basic truths.” (53)

Revisiting Reith is no exercise in nostalgia, rheumy-eyed memory of what was but can never be again. Rather it is an attempt to suggest that the fundamental issues which Reith engaged, in his spectacularly singular way, were precisely those questions of “human verities,” “spirituality,” “emotion and community,” of which Wallace wrote and which are every bit as relevant today as on that night when 1926 became 1927 and the Company became the Corporation.

We may mock Reithianism, but we might need to ask who are we to do so, what is so venerable, worthwhile, worthy, evolved about the culture within which we exist today? One does get the sense that when today’s broadcasters reference Reith there is a bizarre theatric of genuflecting, because that is expected, and, if one might use a colloquialism, giving him the finger because that is also expected, at one and the same time, because otherwise they would deemed old-fashioned, elitist, so yesterday. Behind Reith lay an idea, an ethos, a moral and cultural ambition much grander and worthy than anything laid before us now, an understanding that whatever the life well lived may be, it will surely not be within the kind of society and values by which we are now beset with its curious mixture of obsessive consumerism, banal appetites, strange infantile passions and deep irrationalities, “the vaguely furiously driven.”


53) New York Times, December 14, 2008

John Reith, the BBC and Modernity: Read the entire series…


Professor Michael Tracey, has been Professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication, University of Colorado at Boulder since 1988. From 1981 to 1988 he was head of the London based Broadcasting Research Unit, then Britain’s leading think tank dealing with media issues. He received his bachelor’s degree in politics from the University of Exeter in 1971, and his doctorate from the Centre for Mass Communications Research at the University of Leicester in 1975. From 1975 to 1981 he was a Research Fellow at the Leicester Centre. Tracey has written eight books, including his 1983 biography of Sir Hugh Greene, Director General of the BBC from 1960 to1969, “A Variety of Lives; a Biography of Sir Hugh Greene” (Bodley Head) and his 1998 book, “The Decline and Fall of Public Service Broadcasting” (Oxford University Press.) Tracey has also written scores of articles on many different aspects of media and communication, but most notably dealing with the history, condition and future of public service broadcasting. He has also lectured in many different countries. From 1991 to 1998 he was a Trustee of the International Institute of Communications, and from 1994 to 1999, Visiting Professor and Chair of International Communications at the University of Salford. More recently he has produced documentaries, with his friend and colleague David Mills, and their work has appeared in the UK on Channel Four, ITV, and the American networks CBS, Court TV and A&E. They are developing a documentary series that will profile the lives of successful men who never knew their fathers. In 2008 he published his first e-book on Scholars & Rogues. “From Xmas to August: an Essay on Murder, Media Mayhem and the Condition of the Culture” is about his decade long involvement in the case of JonBenet Ramsey. He is currently working on a book of essays, “Lost in a Haunted Wood: Politics, Culture and the Question of Language in 21st Century America” and writing the authorized biography of the life and times of the legendary British broadcaster Donald Baverstock. He now lives with his wife, Jen, three dogs, Beau, Jess and Babe and his cat Miss Bardot, in a small hamlet at 9,000 feet in the Rocky Mountains west of Boulder.