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robertogreco : s-town   1

Airbrushing Shittown | Hazlitt
"S-Town isn’t fiction—we can probably assume that the facts, as we are given them, are “accurate.” But mere accuracy doesn’t make it journalism: the private details of private lives have no clear public interest, and Brian Reed never seriously argues that they do. It’s creative non-fiction, then, a category whose very name is composed out of negations: not fiction, but not non-fiction, either; true, but created. And so the fact that he never finds anything—that nothing happened—is what he finds at the end of his investigation, the discovery that the very opposite of something happened. He finds that something didn’t happen, in a half-dozen different ways, and that it didn’t happen for everyone in a variety of fascinating ways: the murder, the gold, and the conspiracy of silence… He finds none of it, only the story of how he set out to look. And then out of this series of negations, he wraps it all up, neatly, so that we can all go home, entertained.

By the end of the podcast, you come to realize that the monologue that opened it—a monologue about clocks and how they are reconstructed—is really about Brian Reed’s own process, about reconstructing a life. “Sometimes entire portions of the original clockwork are missing,” he says, “but you can’t know for sure because there are rarely diagrams of what the clock is supposed to look like. A clock that old doesn’t come with a manual.” John B. McLemore is the clock, and the testimony Reed has gathered, over long years of work, are the “witness marks” a clock-restorer uses to guide their way, “impressions and outlines and discolorations, left inside the clock, of pieces that might’ve once been there.”

“Fixing an old clock can be maddening,” Reed says. “You’re constantly wondering if you’ve just spent hours going down a path that will likely take you nowhere, and all you’ve got are these vague witness marks which might not even mean what you think they mean. So, at every moment along the way you have to decide if you’re wasting your time or not.”

Reed did not waste his time; S-Town was a smash from the start, a career-making triumph. But in their original function, clocks are not made for entertainment. Clocks are tools that make social life possible. A clock makes time, and organizes it, and time is, ultimately, a social medium: we use it to coordinate with others and to communicate; a sense of shared time helps us meet each other and find each other and arrange the stories that we tell about each other—it allows us to take our turns speaking and listening, and it allows us to put things into their proper perspective. Without clocks—or without some sense of shared time, however constructed—society, as we know it, would not be possible.

John lived in his own time zone, literally: as Reed mentions, John B. McLemore’s house did not observe daylight saving time, so depending on the season, the time at his house might be an hour different than the surrounding area. It’s a good reflection of his relation to his world, his insistent eccentricity reflected in his own, personal, zone of time. It’s a good joke, a playful irony, even a self-consciously Faulknerian expression of being southern, a quiet little rebellion against unification under the guise of turning back the clock. It’s also totally ridiculous, which John surely understood: since all time is social, the idea of having your own time zone is absurd, only meaningful in the irony of its meaninglessness.

Moreover, for all his scrupulous attention to reconstructing the original function of a clock, the irony of clock restoration is that John didn’t repair clocks for their original function. His clocks were repaired to be old, to be antiques: the point of “restoring” them was not simply to make them work—that’s easy enough to do—but to make them work exactly as they once did. That’s why John hand-ground a gathering pallet from scratch. “They aren’t trying to simply make the clock work again,” Reed says of the fraternity of horologists. “Their goal is to preserve and reconstruct the original craftsmanship as much as possible.” Recovering and replicating the inspiration of the original clockmaker makes them valuable enough to sell, but it’s the sale that matters.

After all, clock restoration serves no useful function in a world where we all have clocks on our phones (the same phones we might use to listen to a podcast). In a world where networked clocks are everywhere, an antique clock is so big, heavy, and fragile that it isn’t useful in that sense. Instead, an antique clock’s eccentricity becomes valuable because of how odd it is, how particular, and how much work goes into restoring it. When people pay for a restored antique, they are paying for an incredibly laborious lack of useful value: so much work went into making them work again, but because that work is totally superfluous and unnecessary, it is thus, perversely, worth paying for.

If an old clock is valuable because of the perfectly recovered eccentricity of its original intention, the same could be said about John B. McLemore’s own perverse life, and for that matter, this podcast. So much work went into making it, but what, after everything, is this podcast actually for?

When John B. McLemore heard the earliest draft of Reed’s program, the story of the murder of that didn’t happen, his reaction was disappointment: “I can’t believe how much you’ve worked on this son of a bitch and at the same time,” he sighed, “my god.” Reed wanted him to be relieved, to be happy about the work, and is audibly upset that he isn’t. Perhaps John B. was in a bad mood, even a depressive episode; perhaps that was why he wasn’t sufficiently appreciative. Perhaps his original fit of enthusiasm for activist journalism had long passed—it had, after all, been years since he originally contacted Reed—and he had a different perspective on the story Brian Reed was telling. When Reed observes that “I am not saving the world over here,” John’s retort that “You are definitely not saving the world!” is delivered with a peculiar, bitter intensity, the laugh of someone who once thought it was possible, perhaps, but no longer does. What’s the point of all that work if it can’t save the world?

John B. isn’t cruel, though: “I think you’ve done pretty goddamned good,” he says, finally. And he’s absolutely right—one can only admire how well Brian Reed reconstructed his clock. But what is the point of it? What does it do?

I am writing this and you are reading it because we are sharing a moment: we have all listened to this podcast, the timepiece that Brian Reed built to bring us together. But what do we do with this unity? Across the seven hours of Reed’s production, we are told a story in which we all can understand each other, talk to each other, and hear each other: we can unite in admiration for John B., for the genius that was born to Mary Grace, for his voice, and for the power of storytelling. We can hear his voice and be united in our appreciation for his existence. Is this what we need now? Does it tell us our time? Does it bring us together? Does it help us understand what it means to have Donald Trump as president, and Jefferson Beauregard Sessions as the most powerful cop in the land? Or is it simply a nostalgic exercise in anachronism, like a perfectly restored antique? Is it something we value because it does something, or because it feels old and authentic?

I don’t know. In the end, all it offers is questions."
aaronbady  s-town  storytelling  horology  clocks  purpose  journalism  podcasts  nostalgia  brianreed  johnbmclemore  restoration  accuracy  entertainment  process  criticism 
may 2017 by robertogreco

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