What we talk about when we talk about the things we talk about

[Dave is buried under a heap of knowledge at this writing. You will, I hope, kindly accept substitutes.]

My more-or-less friend O linked me to this sketch from Portlandia in the middle of a strangely hostile conversation about, I guess, The New Yorker’s latest article on Scientology.

What got me into this was IMing O about Gossip Girl. So, back in college my friend Sharon asked me to watch The Guiding Light because she watched it and didn’t have anyone to talk to about it. I did indeed watch it for a couple of years, with the added benefit that my mother and sister occasionally watched it so hey, automatic five-minute conversation topic with family. My father would say “how can you watch that crap?!” and I would say “I don’t think any of us is laboring under the illusion that it’s high art.”

Actually, it reminds me a little of my grad school roommate, a PhD candidate in Media Studies who went all “I don’t even own a tv” on my ass, prompting me to point out that “media” is a plural and most of the world watches tv. Oh snap, Smearcase, you are thinking. Right?

The point of this…what was the point of this…oh yes. People watch tv. And then they talk about it. Sometimes they also watch it because it is great, but often enough what “great” means is “discursively fertile,” if you ask me.* O is actually most of the time more than happy to talk about Gossip Girl, a terrible show in which everyone looks exactly alike, across gender lines. They’re all just this blond(e) thing, but if you aren’t in the mood to discuss drug policy and city bureaucracy–I hardly need specify what show–you can pass a few minutes discussing Dan and Blair hooking up** and the drug war doesn’t become any the more barbaric for your having done so.

Somehow, this time, Gossip Girl prompted a tirade about how sick he was of (his phraseology, no kidding) “being a slave to the Zeitgeist” as a condition of living in this city. If another person asked him about the Scientology article, said he, he was going to jump in the riv.*** Oh come on, said I, someone actually came up to me and my friends at the Russian Baths and started talking to us about it. I hadn’t finished it and it didn’t portend to be life-changing, but what the hell, we talked about it.

I will, for once, not fish out the old M.F.K. Fisher thing about how, when we write about food, we are writing about love &c. &c. but suffice it to say, Scientology (and its discontents) resonated with our lives directly or indirectly in such a way that we felt moved to speak of it. I don’t think we were just proving we’d done that week’s required reading, about which see more below.

O leaves the story at this point or, more properly, is kicked out, because all he did from there was have a meltdown at me and imply I am one of the rich white people who make this city so unbearable. (O is Canadian. Of Finnish extraction. He’s not white; he’s translucent. If there’s one thing that sets my teeth on edge it’s white people complaining about how awful white people are in the Third Person Heavily Implied.)

But yes. Probably why this conversation was upsetting for me was that some of what he was complaining about was right on the money. Yes, there is a sense here that you have to have Read The Thing About, or what on earth will you talk to people about? It’s a kind of intellectual conspicuous consumption. It feels competitive at times, and empty.

But ok O can’t go home quite yet–I have to use him again: I says to O, says I, “what exactly would you like people to discuss instead?” One reason I read The New Yorker et al. is because sometimes it contains something people will find interesting and want to talk about. “Interesting is a fairly low bar” says O.

Is it shallow to consume things for conversational fodder? I remember that horrid quote about great minds discussing ideas, average minds:events, small minds: people. Oh dear god, look: it’s attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt. Surely not. It’s hideously reductive/smug/prescriptive/coffee-mug-ready, and it grates. She should leap from the grave and disavow it.

I guess all I’m saying is: I don’t know what people talk about that is interesting or worthwhile. With new friends I wonder: what will we talk about when you’ve heard my stories twice? Thinking of old friends I can’t remember making any effort, doing any homework. There are comfortable silences eventually but also usually something to say. So perhaps it’s an ineffable balance of deliberate topic-gathering and the warm blanket of negative capability that familiarity breeds when not nesting contempt. Is it?

*which you didn’t. Can’t win ‘em all.
**Oh my GOD.
***as Ogden Nash would have it.

9 responses to “What we talk about when we talk about the things we talk about”

  1. Tim says:

    I loved this! I’m going to talk about it with all my friends and loved ones.

  2. Mister Smearcase says:

    Then that’s the answer! What we talk about is: blogs.

  3. Tim says:

    Also, we can talk about people who at times can be irritating, such as your more-or-less friend. I understand the need to take a break from the city, but blaming it on “white people” who “talk about magazine articles” seems a bit irrational, especially when one is a white person who talks about magazine articles.

    Or sports. We can talk about sports.

    I actually quite like O’s phrase “a slave to the Zeitgeist”. It’s preferable to me to have an occasional fling with the prevailing culture rather than set up a master-servant sort of thing, and he may simply have been expressing a disgust with self.

  4. Mister Smearcase says:

    It’s a really good phrase. It was just lobbed at me in such a blaming/self-dramatizing way that I found I couldn’t enjoy it.

    I have long meant to find a sport that doesn’t make me grumpy and bored because they really are a thing people talk about. You can talk to complete strangers about sports, and this is no small thing.

  5. AWB says:

    I was talking to a class of mine yesterday about the rhetoric and knowledge–that we all know how to fake knowing something we don’t, but almost none of us knows how to talk about something we do know about well without apologizing for ourselves. One young woman stayed after class to tell me she came to a realization during class that she had never said anything from the perspective of knowledge without apologizing and making it sound like she knew less than she does, especially with family or while dating. I was all OMG my sister, you know how you use a word around a grown heterosexual male that he doesn’t know and he looks at you like you just castrated him? And she’s all OMG that is the worst!

    So I was explaining to her that sometimes grownups have friends who are *also* smart, and we can exchange knowledge without intimidating each other. If one of my friends says they’ve read something I haven’t, I don’t go throw a fit because I’m not actually 12. Unless this person is a competitive reader (in which case, wouldn’t be my friend) I tend to assume they think I might be interested in something they learned about, and I’m grateful for the summary, because I don’t have a lot of time to read, frex, the New Yorker anymore. And whenever my friends would like to know the plot of a gothic novel, I’ll be there.

    My read of this is that O has one of the following problems:
    1) He is super-easily intimidated.
    2) He thinks you are actively trying to intimidate him.
    3) He’s at that tender age when everything seems like a systemic conspiracy, and he’s willing to be shitty to his friends to prove it. (I experimented with radical feminism in my early 20’s; I know what this is like.)

  6. AWB says:

    “about rhetoric and knowledge”

  7. AWB says:

    I haven’t found a place yet to share my jaw-drop from the Oscars, so it might as well be here. Some ditz reporter is lobbing softballs at all the stars on the red carpet, and she gets Halle Berry to sit down with her. They talk about Lena Horne for a minute, as Halle Berry compares herself to Lena Horne, talks about how Horne blazed a trail for African-American women to do real art, etc. (like Catwoman, I guess?), and how Halle has looked to great African-American women stars of the past to inspire her to do great things. Then the host asks about her dress, and Halle gushes, “Well, I’m just a slave to fashion, you know.” But officer, I don’t even have a self-awareness!

  8. Mister Smearcase says:

    In fairness, maybe, to O, he had read the article, and in fact snappishly told me he wouldn’t be discussing it if he hadn’t. But yes, I think it is all about his self-perception, and also about him being not so much at as regressed to the tender age when what you said.

  9. PB says:

    I talk about food, the route I took to drive here, movies, trend colors at H&M and the weather with people I don’t know that well.

    I talk about saints, the plague, fairy tales, organizational processes, Merlin and my theories on limbic decision-making with people I know better.

    Hmmmm . . . I don’t really know a lot of people better.