On Preemptive Irritation, by Katie Baker

by Katie Baker


I don’t want to put a damper on anyone’s weekend, but I feel like I should give you unsuspecting folks a warning that an aggregate span of 22 minutes this Sunday is going to have a potentially painful and fairly unavoidable influence on your lives for the following two weeks-which is the length of time that the media has to drunk-drive you down the Road to the Super Bowl.

“Mainly, I cannot fathom what two weeks of Super Bowl lead-up will be like if it’s Favre vs. Manning,” fretted Dan Shanoff yesterday as he imagined a world in which the Vikings and Colts defeat the Saints and Jets this weekend. “I’m totally OK with Saints lead-up. And, while New York media annoys me to no end, I’m OK with Jets lead-up, mainly because it would be so unpredictable.”

You don’t have to understand football to get how he feels. I mean, do you really know anything about Scott Brown? No, but I bet you were dreading the outcome on Tuesday regardless just anticipating the cover of the Post. And you aren’t sure when Vampire Weekend is going to be releasing their next album (called Gstaadpo, it will be positioned as a modern chiaroscuro that ponders the dark side of European history over fireside hot toddys at a ski chalet), but you’ve gone ahead and canceled your Internet connection for the entirety of 2012 just to be safe.

It’s okay to feel that way. You’re preemptively irritated, and so am I.

Preemptive irritation, a pal of mine pointed out, sounds like something that might be listed in the sotto-voce string of embarrassing side effects in an over-lawyered pharmaceutical ad. This is fitting, because there is a blurry line between symptom and cure. Am I being all fancy and media-crit when I see a link to a review of Committed and feel instantly annoyed at the rote condescension sure to be contained within? Or am I just a tedious contrarian who puts the jerk in kneejerk and makes this all worse?

New York Magazine’s most well-known contribution to the charticle genre is the Approval Matrix, but I’m partial to another.

Bending the curve

“Welcome to the undulating curve of shifting expectations-the Heisenbergian principle [Don’t tell Jim Holt!]

by which hype determines how much you enjoy a given pop-culture phenomenon,” explained Adam Sternbergh in 2005, when the graphic debuted.

The first-wave audience is pleasantly surprised, but the second-wavers feel let down; then the third wave finds it’s not as bad as they’ve heard-and they’re all watching the exact same show.

We all have our Tumblrs; we know how this goes. (Thank god for no Twitter in 2005-just imagining a month of #idontknowhowtoquityou makes my muscles go tense.) For years I assumed that my jaded exhaustion with new products or “slants” was just me kicking up my feet in that hammock of backlash. It’s so nice to be lazy and so lazy to hate.

But I think this is different. Preemptive irritation is not a point on the curve, it is a point about the curve. The point being: the curve makes us crazy.

In the editor’s intro to that cherished Winter 2008 n+1, the issue heard ‘round the world wide web, the unbylined writer dismissed the Undulating Curve. He called it a “bullying charticle” that “disfigure[d] even such a once-proud publication” as New York (and while I do genuinely assume that the placement of an n+1 founding editor’s book, Indecision, on the inaugural sinewave has nothing to do with his later assessment, I can’t resist pointing it out.)

Nor was the writer a fan of the “Hype Cycle” underlying the graphic:

Hype-and-backlash overwhelm the artifacts that supposedly occasion them. At this point a basic inversion takes place. Never mind the moon; look at the finger pointing at the moon. Is it pointing too high, or too low? It makes you want to turn away from that overhyped satellite altogether.

Yeah! It’s not that I hate the moon. (Well, unless the moon is the movie Love Actually or the CNBC talking head Julie Roginsky.) What I hate is that I can’t even see the damn thing on account of all the fat fingers in my face telling me where to look, or why to stop looking, or when to buy a set of lunar map placemats from the checkout line of Urban Outfitters.

God, just think about what’s going to happen when Apple finally releases the iSmoov69! I can’t even imagine how many grubby fingerprints are going to be clouding that liquid-diamond screen.


“I don’t know what it is I’m preemptively bristling at,” confessed Leon Neyfakh last year, after reading a blog post declaring a bar the new down-home, just-folks spot. “Maybe just the idea of someone walking into this place and deciding happily that it’s exactly the kind of authentic, no-bullshit joint our ‘nabe’ needs. Because, who the fuck made that person boss?”

Or consider the upcoming Valentine’s Day, a film which, in the grand tradition of He’s Just Not That Into You, stars Everyone Ever in the role of Unlikeable Characters #1–19. I’m sick of this movie and it’s not even out. I’m already anti your every review! Even yours, David Edelstein. Even yours, Mary HK Choi. It’s not the content of cultural arbitration that makes me so weary but rather the predictability of its flow.

This is why Shanoff can tolerate a Jets victory despite his contempt for the New York media circus: setting aside the number of times the word “poise” will be ascribed to The Sanchize (a tally which has itself become a tiresome meme) there’s less clarity (less centricity?) around the insta-takes and counter-takes that would form in its wake.

Conversely, Brett Favre has long been a walking talking Undulating Curve of Shifting Expectations in and of himself, and boy does he look like a kid out there. (A kid who threw two interceptions the last time he appeared in the NFC championships, but I suppose I should wait till we’re all backlashing in lockstep two-ish weeks from today to bring that one up.)

“I’m nostalgic for conversations I had yesterday,” mopes Max in Kicking and Screaming (at the 1:30ish mark.) “I’ve begun reminiscing events before they even occur. I’m reminiscing this right now. I can’t go to the bar because I’ve already looked back on it in my memory… and I didn’t have a good time.”

Max is a cautionary tale for people like me. Avoiding annoyance is a slippery slope: too much measured (slash cynical) foresight and one runs the risk of passing right through the space-time continuum and into the glum realm of proactive retrospect, a far more dangerous place and one littered with neuroses and doubt.

Me, I’d rather revel in being preemptively irked, like a long-distance runner who chases the pain.

But some rise above. Last night I IM’d Leon about that irksome neighborhood bar and he told me it’s now one of his go-to faves. I expressed my surprise, and he Internet-shrugged.

“I couldn’t really hold against it its customer’s ideology,” he typed back.

He’s a better man than I.

Katie Baker writes mostly about sports and weddings and the Winter Olympics.