How to Be Ourselves

Stefan Collini

  • Against Everything: On Dishonest Times by Mark Greif
    Verso, 304 pp, £16.99, September 2016, ISBN 978 1 78478 592 5

When the American journal n+1 was launched in 2004, an editorial in the first number lamented the state of contemporary culture. We are living, it said, at ‘a time when serious writing about culture has become the exclusive province of bullies, reactionaries and Englishmen’. The prominence of a number of male English writers in the leading US organs of opinion had been remarked elsewhere, but here that fact was turned, with an engaging exaggeration that became one of the journal’s hallmarks, into a symptom of wider cultural debility. Examined at all closely, the indictment starts to creak: if the writing is by ‘bullies’ and ‘reactionaries’ can it really be judged ‘serious’? And was n+1 making a nativist plea to nurture home-grown talent, or suggesting that English writers owed their relative success in US periodicals to the same causes that enabled bullies and reactionaries to dominate – did they, for example, appeal to a conservative nostalgia or benefit from an outdated deference? However construed, the claim, and the editorial as a whole, was clearly a declaration of radical intent, handsomely realised since in the new journal’s hard-hitting, stylish cultural criticism.

The success of n+1 is the most recent illustration of a recurring pattern: just when conventional wisdom is buffing up the old claim that serious, independent, critical periodicals have died out, along comes a new serious, independent, critical periodical. Founded by four East Coast college graduates in their late twenties and early thirties, n+1 carried long, demanding articles on topics ranging from US foreign policy to the latest food snobbery, and it published fiction and other imaginative writing by young, largely unknown writers. It asked a lot of its readers: there was no talking down, no faux-democratic bonhomie, no embarrassed disguising of the sometimes recondite intellectual sources on which it drew. Although its founding editors – Keith Gessen, Mark Greif, Benjamin Kunkel and Marco Roth – have also been prolific contributors, the journal has never had a single voice. But it has had a recognisable character or style: East Coast urban (its home, physically and spiritually, is Brooklyn, though before heading there many of its founders had been at Harvard); politically well to the left of what passes for the progressive wing of US politics; and equally at home in university humanities departments and in contemporary musical and electronic cultures.

Almost all of the 16 pieces collected in Against Everything were originally published in n+1. The majority of Greif’s fellow editors (the group has grown in recent years and diversified somewhat) write fiction, usually among several other genres, but Greif seems not to have followed this pattern. Instead, he has focused on writing long analytical essays, but of a distinctive type. There is now an abundance of long-form journalism that takes us into a new world, or gives us a lot of information we didn’t previously have, or provides a vivid narrative of particular events, and so on. Greif’s essays don’t primarily do any of these things. What they do is ask ‘What is this phenomenon really about?’, ‘What does it mean?’, ‘What does it say about us?’

In this vein, Against Everything includes essays on the contemporary obsessions with sex, food and exercise (he’s good on ‘the distraction from living that comes with endless life-maintenance’), essays on aspects of popular culture such as punk, rap and reality TV (he describes the way celebrities such as the Kardashians can convey the sense that ‘tan is content’), essays on more obviously political topics such as the US occupation of Iraq (though it is a strength of his writing that he identifies the political stakes in ostensibly non-political topics), and, running through the book, a series of meditations ironically subtitled ‘The Meaning of Life’, which repeatedly return to questions about the nature of ‘experience’ and how we might prevent ourselves from being overwhelmed by the appallingness of contemporary society.

Greif spends a lot of time watching reality TV so that people like me can read about its deep logic without having to watch it. The experience of reading his analyses of such phenomena is flattering to one’s self-esteem: Greif recruits a reader who can take pleasure from his knowing critiques while also feeling ‘Ah yes, I see (but lots of people don’t).’ At the same time, this inevitably generates an anxiety about falling off the pace, a worry that one is only a minor-league reader after all. So much of the writing in n+1 is so shamingly cool. It goes beyond mere knowingness, or even insight, and reaches a level where even the most contentious assertions present themselves as wearily self-evident. Greif strikes this note less often than some of his colleagues do, but nonetheless I felt a subliminal vulnerability when reading his essay ‘What was the hipster?’ The hipster, he writes in a trademark display of sociological knowingness,

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[*] Pankaj Mishra reviewed The Age of the Crisis of Man in the LRB of 27 August 2015.