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bullies and reactionaries to dominate – did they, for example, appeal to a conservative nostalgia or benefit from an outdated deference?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,

is that person, overlapping with the intentional dropout or the unintentionally declassed individual – the neo-bohemian, the vegan or bicyclist or skate punk, the would-be blue-collar or postracial twenty-something, the starving artist or graduate student – who in fact aligns himself both with rebel subculture and with the dominant class, and thus opens up a poisonous conduit between the two.

Ah yes, I see. Greif is, of course, alert to the evaluative-descriptive potential of the label: ‘Hipster accusation has been, for a decade, the outflanking manoeuvre par excellence for competitors within a common field of cool. “Two Hipsters Angrily Call Each Other ‘Hipster,’” a headline in the Onion put it most succinctly.’ This is echt Greif – the out-cooling of the would-be cool, the hint of a Bourdieusian conceptual frame, the greater wit of letting a witty headline do his work.

Greif now teaches at the New School in New York, a haven for many intellectuals over the years who have been at least as at home in the city as in the academy. Greif has been very good at countering the lazy nostalgia in the prejudice that ‘real’ intellectuals have always resisted any affiliation with universities. A large scholarly work, The Age of the Crisis of Man: Thought and Fiction in America, 1933-73, came out last year.[*] Greif presents that book as a ‘moral history’, and his journalistic writings too seek to chart the ways in which cultural forms embody or repress ethical possibilities.

All this can make him sound like a latter-day Lionel Trilling with street-cred, but although an admiration for the ‘New York Intellectuals’ of the Partisan Review circle between the late 1930s and the early 1950s is a revealing affinity, it would be wrong on several counts to press this identification. Greif would, I imagine, be impatient both with the more conservative consequences of Trilling’s fastidious liberalism and with the Augustan cadence of his sonorous prose. If it is difficult to imagine Trilling writing with the hostility to capitalist work-practices that animates Greif’s analysis of gym culture, that’s partly because it is almost impossible to imagine Trilling flogging himself on the cross-trainer in the first place.

But in another sense the affinity may be worth pursuing. Probably no book of essays could now do for its generation what Trilling’s The Liberal Imagination did in 1950 (it certainly couldn’t sell the 70,000 copies that collection shifted in hardback). But Against Everything does aspire to do some of the same work of moral critique, enabling the present to see itself in the mirror of philosophy and literature. Greif on ‘Octomom and the market in babies’ (on the media circus around a woman, already the mother of six children, who gave birth to octuplets following IVF treatment) is a wholly different essay from Trilling’s on the Kinsey Report, but they share an ambition to take the ethical temperature of a culture by probing matters that are often treated as private or illicit or just blankly biological. A term often used of Trilling’s writing is ‘magisterial’, which certainly doesn’t fit Greif’s supercharged indictments, though they do both seem, for all the outward differences, to write from a similarly elevated altitude. The success of Trilling’s essays owed something to the way in which, in the particular cultural setting of the 1940s and 1950s, they modelled the serious discriminations that culture-hungry readers liked to imagine themselves capable of. The context has changed since then, and deference to an established or inherited culture has declined, but part of the appeal of Greif’s essays may be that, in their own contemporary idiom, they too enable readers to feel that this is what we could be like if we just paid a bit more attention.

Paying attention is both a method and an obligation in this form of cultural criticism. Writing in 2004 about the US invasion of Iraq, Greif declared: ‘This occupation, in reassuming the condition of war, will change the self-conception of the Iraqis, or our own – if only we have the nerve to look steadily at it, and think.’ That can serve as a credo as well as an exhortation: Greif doesn’t lack for nerve and, whatever the object of discussion, his procedure is to ‘look steadily at it, and think’. One of the triumphs of this mode of phenomenological scrutiny is an essay on the police, where he cuts through the usual platitudes by looking closely at what they actually do with their time: mostly they stand around, sometimes they act as ushers at parades, car crashes and other happenings, occasionally they tell citizens to stop shouting at each other – but hardly ever do they catch crooks. Beyond this, ‘police add violence to situations. If we can see, and see through, police, we may see that this becomes a way of injecting testing violence or domination into the heart of society in a public way.’ ‘See, and see through’: this is a mode of critique, revealing the inevitably contradictory logic underlying an activity or institution. It is a mode with a long history that can be traced back through Frankfurt School Marxism to 19th-century German Idealism, together, most pertinently, with its American Transcendentalist offshoot. Greif’s is a dressed-down version, shorn of philosophical abstraction, but a similar ambition is recognisable.

The kinship is evident in his refusal to endorse the dominant consumerist recipes for happiness. This is one sense in which Greif is ‘against everything’. He will not accept any of the substitutes for living that are thrust upon us:

I mistrust any authority that is happy with this world as it is … I cannot understand the failure to be disappointed with our experiences of our collective world, in their difference from our imaginations and desires, which are so strong. I cannot understand the failure to wish that this world was fundamentally more than it is.

But another sense in which his title applies is that nothing is spared, nothing is given an easy ride. This isn’t so much the Jamesian striving to be ‘one of those on whom nothing is lost’; Greif, rather, needs to be one of those who are never taken in, never have any official or mass-produced wool pulled over his eyes.

Reading an author’s essays collected in a volume inevitably produces a different impression from reading the individual pieces as they first appeared. What seemed then so fresh and so singular comes to seem characteristic, even predictable; quirks of style or voice that were appealing can come to feel like distracting tics. When I read some of Greif’s pieces in n+1 I was impressed above all by the resourcefulness of his prose, the concentrated intelligence of the exercise. Reading this collection, these virtues still seemed paramount, while in addition Greif’s impressive intellectual range comes more clearly into view. But so does an occasional strain of over-writing. A Greif essay is, to borrow from his lexicon, a very high-carb diet: while reading, the literary equivalent of one’s glycemic index shoots up, bringing the risk of a post-sugar dip. There is, to put it another way, a surfeit of significance. There are no ‘matters indifferent’ in a Greif essay: he is, in every way, as far from being an Anglican as one could imagine. The unyielding strenuousness of this collection is admirable but I did occasionally want to sneak off for a nap.

As an instance of this, consider his clever essay on Radiohead, which ends by suggesting that the band’s songs somehow create, or urge the creation of, a space of self-protection. In his own voice, he concludes: ‘We’ll all have to find the last dwellings within ourselves that are closed to intrusion, and begin from there. The politics of the next age, if we are to survive, will include a politics of the re-creation of privacy.’ Even if we leave to one side the dubious individualism of the politics, the register here seems to overreach itself. Radiohead’s lyrics may be interesting in themselves, but do they really license this blend of monitory sermon and self-help manual?

Or take his rather self-lacerating piece on why it is in some important way inappropriate for him to try to learn to rap, which segues into a variant of white-guilt over-statement: ‘Why should it be that those who were least cared for, most left behind, should find their way to making and keeping something most classical, valuable, intelligent for America? Why are they alone the bearers of our language when most everything official conduces to mutism?’ Whatever the potential heuristic value of the rhetorical question, surely it is forfeited here by exaggeration. The implicit claim that it is humbling to recognise the roots of linguistic inventiveness in deprivation seems to me simply cloying, and what sense can be given to the assertion that rappers ‘alone’ are the bearers of our language, even if one were minded to concede that ‘everything’ official conduces to mutism? These attempts to ramp up his claims frequently come in the closing remarks of the essays. I enjoy a good peroration as much as anyone, but I wonder whether Greif might be well advised sometimes to stop a couple of sentences earlier.

Once alerted to this feature of his writing, I became a little uneasy about the scale of Greif’s ambition more generally. The conclusion to his book on ‘the crisis of man’ is subtitled ‘Moral History and the 20th Century’, and its first sentence is ‘What should be the starting point for 21st-century thought?’ He makes clear his work in different genres is animated by a common aspiration: ‘In each line of work I pursue, in this book and elsewhere, I understand the over-arching project to be the attempt to constitute a history of morals.’ I begin to wonder whether n+1’s normally intimidating cool doesn’t desert him at such moments. I come from a different culture and a different generation, and maybe for those reasons I favour a slightly drier, less dramatic, idiom. But my unease may also express an anxiety about the politics of such writing.

Greif can be admirably robust on political matters, as when he responds to the charge that it’s hypocrisy for the radical social critic to advocate any kind of redistribution of wealth without giving most of his or her own income to charity: ‘Morality is not saved by any individual’s efforts to do charity, a pocketful here, a handful there. Charity is the vice of unequal systems. (I’m only repeating Wilde’s ‘The Soul of Man under Socialism’.)’ He is, of course, not simply ‘repeating’ Wilde: he is reworking a basic truth for the circumstances of our time, a time when many appear to believe that ‘philanthropy’ – or the more unctuous ‘giving’ – doesn’t just excuse the rich for benefiting from an exploitative system, but demonstrates the subtle beneficence of inequality. There are several moments in these essays when Greif comes out swinging against the failure of contemporary politics to address the systematic nature of exploitation – his focus, reflecting his setting, is more often on race than class – and I’d like to read more of him in this vein. But the register in which he speaks of life as an existential drama sometimes seems to point away from such clear-eyed analysis of structural problems to something more individual.

‘Occupy Wall Street’ appears to have excited his political sympathies more than any other development in the past couple of decades, though he is alert to the fallibilities of his position as an observer rather than a participant. In 2012 he went along to the trial of those Zuccotti Park protesters the state had chosen to prosecute. He had arrived at the Manhattan courthouse full of sympathy and indignation, but was immediately disconcerted when the young defendants filed in: they were still wearing their defiantly casual clothes, in some cases displaying declarations of their political rage. Greif was instantly anxious that they had miscalculated, that this would further alienate the court. Then, in a fine ‘return upon himself’ (the phrase with which Matthew Arnold famously commended Burke for such self-questioning), he reflects on his timorously conventional reaction. These young men and women weren’t here simply to try to escape convictions; they were here to demonstrate conviction. They were being true to themselves, right down to their offensive T-shirts.

The book begins and ends with Thoreau, which may be a sign of that element of nativism that is not willing to see the task of cultural criticism in the United States outsourced to all those Englishmen. In his introduction, Greif mentions that he grew up not far from Walden Pond in Massachusetts as a way of launching his master-trope of life as a slow learning of how to be ourselves. A strikingly voluntarist note is already present: ‘No matter what you are supposed to do, you can prove the supposition wrong, just by doing something else.’ Following his moment of self-reproach in the Manhattan courthouse, he ends the book with a quotation from Thoreau, followed by a declaration of belief: ‘The instant for philosophy is always now, and every day, because some of us need a lifetime for it. We are slow learners.’ In reality, of course, there is nothing slow about Mark Greif. But by being so alertly of his time, Greif becomes the vehicle for demonstrating just how out of joint the times really are.

A European writer drawn to tread a comparable path would probably identify Nietzsche as the most significant precursor and exemplar. Greif’s attachment to Thoreau emphasises not merely his Americanness (and his debt to Cavell), but also, what may or may not be another aspect of the same thing, his optimistic belief in the power of self-fashioning. Although he can make us feel the strength and rigidity of the iron cage of capitalist rationalism in a manner reminiscent of the European masters of sociological pessimism, he also treasures the capacity of the self-reliant individual to re-create himself by going into the woods and sitting by a pond. This makes me wonder whether Greif’s life-journey so far, from Walden to Brooklyn, represents a fashionable migration from one bohemian watering-hole to another. There is, of course, something seductive about the idea that we might each of us find a way to release our inner Thoreau, but somehow this existential quest has to be made to connect up with collective modes of responding to a world in which global capital threatens to pollute the waters of the pond, build condos around its edge, and prevent access for all but the very rich. I already feel impatient to see how Greif will negotiate these tensions in the next phase of his journey.

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