American Idle

When it comes to pop-cultural literacy, I’ve lately discovered, it’s the thought that counts. It’s important to know what you’re supposed to know—but you don’t actually have to know it firsthand.

“Oh, my God, did you see Clay Aiken butcher that ‘Starry, Starry Night’ song last night?” a friend asked the Wednesday before the American Idol finale.

“Not yet—I TiVo’ed it,” I said.

My answer somehow satisfied my interrogator. Woo-hoo! I thought. Spared again! I had shown that I wasn’t so clueless I didn’t know that the deeply uncool American Idol had somehow become mandatory viewing for the pop-cultural literati. My response signaled that I was planning on being part of the national conversation surrounding so-bad-it’s-good Idolmania—but I’d been so busy I hadn’t had a chance yet.

The only problem is, I wasn’t really planning on watching it.

Over the past several months, my TiVo had dutifully collected 39 hours of American Idol episodes. And then, just as dutifully, my TiVo had systematically deleted those 39 hours, mostly unwatched. (Unlike a VCR, TiVo can be programmed to automatically erase shows it’s automatically recorded—to make room for more shows you probably won’t watch.)

Tina Brown helped me figure all this out. In Manhattan media circles, awareness of the April 30 debut of her quarterly CNBC talk show, Topic A With Tina Brown, was unavoidable. Endless pre-show hype had culminated in a sweaty-palmed story in Section A, of all places, of the New York Times—as if the television debut of the buzzy British magazine-world refugee was news of national import rather than the Manhattan-chattering-class curiosity it turned out to be.

Talking Tina was a preordained talking point, so I TiVo’ed her show.

And then I didn’t watch it.

“Did you see Tina’s show last night?” more than a few friends and colleagues asked me.

“Not yet—I TiVo’ed it,” I replied. I’d discovered my digital “Get out of jail free” card. Everyone was all too happy to engage me in conversation about the show I had (sort of) planned to watch but now didn’t need to.

The beautiful thing is that by collecting their observations and mixing them together with a few blogged opinions culled from the Web, I was able to hold my own—with ever-increasing authority—in the conversation about Talking Tina.

The blog thing, especially, was key. Because I didn’t have to read, in long form, the endless pontificating about Tina’s TV debut either (it’s a bit like not even bothering to read book reviews but still being able to talk about books). In the same way I delegated the task of watching Tina’s show to my TiVo, I delegated the task of forming an opinion about it to media-news blogger Jim Romenesko (—who, come to think of it, had delegated the task of actually thinking and writing about Tina to the assorted opinion-makers he’d linked to and summarized.

“I delegated the task of watching Tina Brown’s show to my TiVo—and the task of forming an opinion about it to bloggers.”

Now I’m very much looking forward to not watching the next installment of Topic A With Tina Brown. Not to mention not watching American Idol 3.

Okay, so as a seemingly knowledgeable conversationalist on any number of pop-cultural and media subjects, I’m a fraud. But I’m perpetrating what’s become a very commonplace deception.

In fact, I first became conscious of the faking-it phenomenon in regards to my own “content.” As a writer for this and other magazines, I find my stuff often gets linked to by assorted bloggers. Over the past year in particular, I’ve noticed more and more of my friends and colleagues saying things along the lines of “I saw you on Gawker” (, the Manhattan-centric and media-crazed white-hot blog du jour). There is, increasingly, no pretense of actually having read what I’ve written, or even having the intention to read what I’ve written. This is a qualitatively different declaration from the pre-blog-era “I saw your piece in New York”—which, if the person hadn’t read it yet, was always tinged with a mixture of guilt and faux anticipation, as expressed in a follow-up statement (“Haven’t had a chance to read it yet, but … ” or “Can’t wait to read it”).

“I saw you on Gawker,” though, has a certain hermetic finality. The person saying this, of course, already has a rough idea of what I’ve written about, thanks to Gawker empress Elizabeth Spiers’s pithy summary. So there’s really no pressing need for my purported readers to actually read what I’ve written. Spiers has done that for them! There is therefore no need to feel guilt or any further obligation. Engaging by proxy is virtually as good as actually engaging.

More to the point, though, “I saw you on Gawker” (or Romenesko or or is a way for the blog reader to say, “Good for you that you wrote something that somebody in a position to know has decided is interesting or relevant or mildly amusing.”

And it works at a subtly self-congratulatory level, too, of course: It’s a way of saying, “I’m clever enough to know that all the clever things I need to know are on [insert blog name here].”

As it turns out, there’s a circle of European-philosopher types—mostly self-described Lacanians (adherents of the theories of French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan)—who have recently been parsing this sort of thing. Chief among them is Slavoj Zizek, a Slovenian philosophy professor and worldwide academic cult figure who has promoted the concept of “interpassivity”—a catchall term that Lacanians use to describe everything from laugh tracks on sitcoms (the sitcom laughs for you, relieving you of the obligation of deciding what’s funny on your own) to people assembling home film libraries. “Although I do not actually watch [them], the very awareness that the films I love are stored in my video library gives me profound satisfaction,” Zizek has written of his own interpassivity.

But I’d argue that certain information-delivering technologies—like TiVo and blogs—up the ante so dramatically, and so seamlessly, that they create an entirely different sort of interpassive lifestyle, one that’s, well, hyperpassive.

A home video library, or a physical collection of information of any sort, exists. The pleasure derives from the ownership of objects, but those objects—the piles of unread papers and magazines and books, the stacks of unwatched videotapes—also constantly taunt you, reminding you of their presence.

A machine removes that punishing presence. A blog, for instance, constantly pushes even slightly stale talking points to the margins (or the bottom of the homepage, or the archive). And while in hope-springs-eternal obliviousness you can always think, in the back of your mind, Oh, I’ll go back and catch up on what I missed or I’ll go back and read the article that was linked to, chances are it’s not going to happen because there won’t be any tangible evidence of your failure to do so.

What’s more, a machine erases not only physical boundaries (the information object vanishes) but psychological boundaries as well. The point where you begin and where the machine-generated awareness ends begins to blur. (I’m starting to feel like I really have watched Tina and Clay.)

The blog reader isn’t thinking, Jim Romenesko is smart about media for me or Elizabeth Spiers is drolly engaged in Manhattanism for me. The reader is thinking, I’m smart about media and I’m drolly engaged in Manhattanism.

And I really hate to do this, but I can’t help but bring up that kid, Jayson what’s-his-name, at the Times, who sat in his apartment with a laptop and a cell phone, collected all manner of information from disparate sources, and said to himself not only I am knowledgeable but I am a reporter.

For him, firsthand experience was secondary: Life was blog, blog was life.

The truth is, I’m getting a little blurry myself on some of the boundaries (maybe this column is a cry for help), including the shape and scope of my own argument. If I’m lucky, a clever blogger will summarize this column and crystallize its meaning not only for other readers but for me. (I can’t tell you how many times Romenesko has blogged me and I’ve thought, Oh, so that was my point.)

Meanwhile, I have to ask: Did you read this essay or did you read about it?

American Idle