[Marxism] The Co-Founder of n+1 Is ‘Against Everything’

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sun Aug 28 10:37:58 MDT 2016

(N+1 is the Marxist journal I have been quarreling with about Syria.)

NY Times Sunday Book Review, August 28 2016
The Co-Founder of n+1 Is ‘Against Everything’

By Mark Greif
304 pp. Pantheon Books. $28.95.

We live in singularly unsubtle times, when presidential candidates shout 
invective instead of delivering talking points and Twitter posts 
privilege catchiness over nuance. Then again, ours has never been a 
culture to value the reflective life — unlike in France, say, where 
public intellectuals hold political positions, or England, where 
Oxbridge dons form an aristocracy of the mind. Except for a brief period 
during the last century, from the 1930s through the 1960s or so, when an 
active intelligentsia (even the word sounds dated) loosely known as the 
New York Intellectuals formed around a clutch of publications including 
Partisan Review, The Nation and Commentary, and critics like Lionel 
Trilling, Dwight Macdonald and Mary McCarthy had a say on matters 
literary and political, we tend to give short shrift to intellection for 
its own sake, regarding it as something best corralled off in the academy.

And indeed, for the last 20 years, instead of thinkers, we have seen the 
rise of pundits, those ubiquitous opiners on the news of the day who 
take the short view of necessity. This trend has been bucked by a 
handful of serious-minded magazines with a spectacularly small 
readership and by the occasional erudite voice in newspapers like this 
one. Sensing a gap in the discourse, a group of young, mostly 
­Harvard-educated writers started a publication called n+1 in 2004, 
which attempted to fill the void where Partisan Review and the like had 
once engaged in “the life of significant contention,” as Diana Trilling 
put it. Which brings us, happily, to the occasion of “Against 
Everything,” a new collection of essays by Mark Greif, an editor at n+1 
(where most of these pieces first appeared) and a frequent contributor 
since its inception on widely disparate themes.

“Against Everything” is a portrait of the egghead as a youngish man 
(Greif was born in 1975), trying the culture on for size, deeming it too 
saggy in some places and too constricting in others. Greif, who has a 
Ph.D. in American studies from Yale and is an associate professor at the 
New School, seems to have read everybody on everything: His writing is 
studded with references from Diogenes and William James to Stanley 
Cavell and Baudrillard to Anatole Broyard and Foreign Affairs. Unlike 
his earlier book, “The Age of the Crisis of Man,” which set out to trace 
American humanism and was unavailingly (sometimes ponderously) academic, 
this collection decodes subjects both Hi and Lo, from the meaning of 
life and the philosophy of contemporary warfare to the implications of 
rap and reality television. In a short preface, Greif (who grew up near 
Walden Pond) credits Thoreau with inspiring his approach to experience: 
“I taught myself to overturn, undo, deflate, rearrange, unthink and 
rethink.” His method of inquiry combines a kind of scholarly purism — 
what would our approach to x (nutrition, sex, exercise, punk rock, the 
police) be like if it didn’t come wadded with expectations and a 
codified system of mores? — and an endearing modesty. His sensibility 
wavers between the hopeful and the elegiac. “To wish to be against 
everything,” he observes, “is to want the world to be bigger than all of 
it, disposed to dissolve rules and compromises in a gallon or a drop, 
while an ocean of possibility rolls around us.”

“Against Exercise,” the book’s opening salvo, shows Greif at his 
contrarian, learned best, invoking the ancient Greeks and Hannah Arendt 
while questioning the distinction between private and public ­spaces. 
“Our gym . . . is the atomized space in which one does formerly private 
things, before others’ eyes, with the lonely solitude of a body acting 
as if it were still in private,” he writes. As will prove his wont, 
Greif tends to employ economic terms — “the desperate materialist 
gratifications of a hedonic society,” “fund of capital” — to make 
humanistic points. There is more than a whiff of the student Marxist in 
him, but instead of narrowing his view, this slightly censorious impulse 
lets him see things most of us prefer to overlook, including the 
anorexic delusion behind the pursuit of fitness: “The doctrine of 
thinness introduces a radical fantasy of exercise down to the bone. It 
admits the dream of a body unencumbered by any excess of corporeality.”

Throughout the book’s first section, Greif turns the quotidian world 
over like a miniature globe in his hand, scrutinizing it for false 
messages, bad faith and the occasional sign of progress. “Afternoon of 
the Sex Children” draws a chilling picture of a culture in which 
youthfulness is fetishized and the pedophilic impulse of Nabokov’s 
Humbert Humbert has become normalized. Greif traces the evolution of 
what he calls “the sex child” to “a merging of old prurient fantasies, 
dating from the Victorians and the Progressives, with the actual sexual 
liberation of children after midcentury.” He perceptively notes that our 
equation of sexual desire with juvenescence sets up a form of 
competition whereby the mandate to remain young is played upon by all 
the forces of the marketplace — “the professional commentators and 
product vendors and the needy audiences and ordinary people.” Similarly, 
our narcissistic view of sex as a “focus on self-discovery” rather than 
an avenue to “overwhelming romantic love” turns it into a mirror instead 
of a window: “Self-discovery puts a reflecting wall between the self and 
attention to the other, so that all energy supposedly exerted in 
fascination, attraction and love just bounces back, even when it appears 
to go out as love for the other.”

There is, in truth, nothing that Greif writes that doesn’t have a kernel 
of interest at its core, even if his prose frequently bristles with 
abstractions. So his essay “On Food,” although it is filled with 
clattering facts about “agricultural mechanization” and “technicized 
food” and threatens to go off on a full-scale critique of capitalism as 
well as a smaller quarrel with the writer Michael Pollan, contains 
pertinent ideas about “foodieism” (“a natural hobby for first-world 
professionals,” Greif says, “ostensibly taking up the world, but 
referring back to domination and the perfection of the enriched, 
physical self”) as well as what he terms the “progressive food 
philosophy” that enjoins us to believe that “unexamined food is not 
worth eating.”

But perhaps the most surprising essay in this section — in that it’s not 
what one would expect from someone with the guilt-ridden liberal 
credentials Greif seems to have — is his piece on Nadya Suleman, the 
infamous Octomom. Rather than blame Suleman unilaterally for her 
decision to have six embryos implanted in her womb (two of which she 
claimed split, adding pairs of twins), in addition to the six children 
she already had, three of whom were disabled, he proposes that she was 
simply living out another tale of 21st-­century excess: “She played a 
version of the drama of our time in the marionette theater of her womb.” 
He isn’t suggesting she is admirable — “She clearly belongs to the 
tradition of the great American wrecks,” he notes — but he is suggesting 
that the media’s anger toward her was displaced from the financial 
meltdown around the same time, that it was easier to demonize Suleman 
than to take on the failing banks and fat-cat financiers who created the 
housing crisis: “Octo­mom was the fat spider at the center of a hanging 
web. Squash her!”

There are a host of other essays, including one on the allure of 
Radiohead that didn’t quite grab me, although even here Greif has 
intriguing insights about the way pop music fuels defiance (as distinct 
from revolution). Four loosely linked ­pieces on “The Meaning of Life,” 
with titles like “Gut-Level Legislation, or, Redistribution” and 
“Anaesthetic Ideology,” attempt nothing less than to define the nature 
of reality as mediated by a “market culture.” These have a tendency to 
pile dense idea on dense idea in a way that can be taxing to read — but 
the final one, “Thoreau Trailer Park,” connects Greif’s formative 
beliefs with the Occupy movement in a manner that is touchingly personal 
and ultimately hopeful.

In our dumbed-down, social-media-­driven age, “Against Everything” 
embodies a return to the pleasures of critical discourse at its most 
cerebral and personable. Greif brings to mind a host of critics from 
William Hazlitt to Lionel Trilling, but most of all he suggests it is 
possible to write about the culture with a reverence for language and a 
passion for what has come before. I would read anything he writes, anywhere.

Daphne Merkin’s books include the essay collection “The Fame Lunches” 
and “This Close to Happy: A Reckoning With Depression,” which will be 
published in February.

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