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PopThink

What we talk about when we talk about the culture.

Jan 18, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 17 • By SONNY BUNCH
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 Criticism of Gladwell often strikes me as a little unfair, but this retort reeks of false magnanimity: If all he cared about was engaging readers, he should be thrilled they’re expending the mental energy needed to get worked up about his writing. But he’s not looking for engagement; he’s looking for genuflection.

Klosterman, meanwhile, would be amused by genuflection, though he shouldn’t be: Now that David Foster Wallace has died, there’s no writer with a better understanding of pop culture and how it affects the American psyche. Given the dominance of pop—music, art, movies—amongst the masses, it’s fair to say that there’s no writer who better understands the American cultural landscape as the Baby Boomers recede into the distance and the Gen X/Millennials come to the fore. 

It’s a different expertise than that of, say, David Brooks, who is more attuned to the inner workings of upper-middle class life. Within Klosterman’s circles, phrases like Status Income Disequilibrium don’t mean much; grappling with the importance of Kurt Cobain’s death carries far greater resonance for a far broader swath of this society. That may be a sad comment on American intellectual life, but it’s almost certainly true.

Klosterman’s career as a journalist, music and film critic, and cultural essayist has kept him in constant touch with society’s moving tides and afforded him an insight into the way its evolution affects everyday living and the ways we see ourselves. He explains how sitcom laugh tracks have permeated our lives so thoroughly that two friends can’t carry on a discussion without conversation-bridging titters, and why the shared failure of Werner Herzog and Ralph Nader to comprehend irony renders them incapable of navigating the modern world—and leaves the modern world unable to understand them.

But his dissection of Ralph Sampson’s career is the highlight of Eating the Dinosaur. In “What We Talk About When We Talk About Ralph Sampson,” Klosterman sheds more light on the culture of celebrity in fewer words than I would have thought possible. Sampson was a center for the Houston Rockets, and despite being a preternaturally gifted college basketball player and physical specimen unlike any the game had ever seen, he fizzled in the NBA. He has become a symbol of unfulfilled talent, shorthand for inexplicable failure. His life-defining

disappointment—along with the existence of such celebutards as Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton—“are the unifying entities within this meta era. In a splintered society, they are the means through which people devoid of creativity communicate with each other. .  .  . They allow Americans to unilaterally agree on something they never needed to consciously consider.” Sampson was “needed to remind people that their own self-imposed mediocrity is better than choking on transcendence.”

If there has been a better summation of the modern impulse to build celebrities up, only to tear them down shortly thereafter, I haven’t seen it. It’s the driving ethos of our age, seen in the world of politics, celebrity, and sports, as Tiger Woods can attest, and it’s not going away anytime soon.

Sonny Bunch is a writer in Washington.

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