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Eye-opening and irascible, hopeful but not optimistic,
this collection offers a clear-eyed perspective on post-
recession America and pays readers the ultimate
compliment of being able to think for themselves.
Publishers Weekly

A powerful summation
of the systemic
challenges we face as
a nation, and a welcome
reminder that we need
strong, dissenting
voices like The Baffler
more than ever.
Boston Globe

The writers possess a contagious enthusiasm for

showing how todays profiteers have caked so much
lipstick on the pig that you can hardly see its face.
Washington Post

t he ba f f ler.com
No. 27

The journal that blunts the cutting edge

The journal that blunts the cutting edge
No. 27

John Summers
Thomas Frank
Chris Lehmann
The Flynstitute
For applying numerous shadings and not a few
9 fripperies to this issue, all due thanks and howarya
M A N AGI N G E DI T OR go to Aaron Bornstein, Diana Clarke, Ari Ebstein,
Lindsey Gilbert Christian Engley, Sophia Holtz, Sean Janson,
W E B E DI T OR Alex Kelly, Sam Mercer, Liam Meyer, and Carolyn
Lauren Kirchner Oliver. Thanks to Peter Kayafas for sending us
L I T E R A RY E DI T OR O, Write My Name: American PortraitsHarlem
Anna Summers Heroes (The Eakins Press), from which we selected
F IC T ION E DI T OR the photos by Carl Van Vechten on pp. 179183.
Kim Stanley Robinson
Emily Carroll
Joan Flynn Noah McCormack
C ON T R I B U T I N G E DI T OR S Valerie Corts
Barbara Ehrenreich, Susan Faludi, OF F IC E M A N AG E R
David Graeber, Evgeny Morozov, Susan Hagner
Rick Perlstein, George Scialabba, FIXER
Astra Taylor, Catherine Tumber, Zachary Davis
Eugenia Williamson PUSHER

9 Aviel Kanter
C ON T R I B U T I N G A R T I S T S 9
Michael Duffy, Lisa Haney, PA S T P U B L I S H E R S
Brad Holland, P.S. Mueller The MIT Press, 20122014
Katherine Streeter Greg Lane, 19932007
9 9
No interns were used in the making of this Baffler. Thomas Frank and Keith White

The Baffler, P.O. Box 390049, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02139 USA | thebaff ler.com
2015 The Baffler Foundation, Inc.

2 1 The Baffler [no.27]

E x h i bi t A 5 Brad Holland


The Baffler [no.27] ! 3

C on t e n t s : The Baffler, no. 27
The High Hat
To the Ninety-Nines 6
John Summers
Splurge and Purge 8
Christina Moon
Keeping Up with the Babadooks 10
Elizabeth Bruenig
Science of Clothes 12
Thomas Carlyle
Consolidated Deviance Inc. 14
From the archive
Bubble Butts 16
Jessica Loudis
Venus in Furs
The Revolution Will Probably Wear Mom Jeans 22
Eugenia Williamson
Dickheads 30
The paradox of the necktie resolved
David Gr aeber
Idle Threads 34
The sartorial unconscious
Ann Friedman
Three Strikes! 42
Thoughts after reading Three Guineas
Lucy Ellmann
Kiss the Boot
VCs Take the Media 92
Jacob Silver man
The Taming of Tech Criticism 102
Evgeny Morozov
People Who Influence Influential People
Are the Most Influential People 114
George Scialabba
All Hail the Grumbler! 120
Abiding Karl Kraus
Russell Jacoby
Satirized for Your Consumption 144
Ben Schwartz
Toxically Pure 158
Joe Bageant drops out
John Lingan
Transcendental Rites 173
Edward Mendelson, with John Summers
The Monk Retires 184
Letting go of Philip Roth
J. C. Hallman

4 1 The Baffler [no.27]

Venus in Furs

Bad Science
Mind Your Own Business 70
Barbar a Ehrenreich
Dollar Debauch
Purple Reign 76
The unmaking of a Yahoo
Chris Lehmann
Runway City
Buffalo Exchange 128
Retrofitting a Rust Belt capital
Catherine Tumber
PhotoGr aphic
Harlem Women 179
Carl Van Vechten
Man Is Not a Rock 196
Joseph Brodsky, with Elizabeth Markstein
Gustus Dei 60
Monica Byr ne
How Much Women Know 191
Ludmilla Petrushevsk aya
Re-Make/Re-Model 20
Peter Gizzi
How Long Now Since the Mailmans Gone Missing? 41
Danielle Blau
Why would the Minoans 75
Caroline Knox
I Swallowed a Moon Made of Iron 113
Xu Lizhi
Berryman Anecdote 157
William Corbett
Haut Monde 172
Manohar Shetty
A: Br ad Holland 3
B: Lucia Fainzilber 19
C: A manda Konishi 29
D: Lou Beach 101
E: Michael Duffy 190
F: Hans Eijkelboom 208
Bafflomathy 204

The Baffler [no.27] ! 5

Th e H i g h H a t

To the Ninety-Nines
As we buttoned up The worthhas been a long- alternative clothing outfit-
Baffler no. 27, on fashion and standing affront to women, ting the artisans of American
power, Mercedes-Benz Fash- not to mention a handy insig- reinventionlike the crochet
ion Week broke out in New nia for encoding and regulat- shorts made from recycled
York, and additional extrava- ing the rules of social class. vintage blankets on the op-
ganzas of the global leisure The general drabness posing pagesorry, we have
set were hotly anticipated of American attire is also nothing to add. Like the boy
in London, Milan, Istanbul, something to consider. Here said (more or less): the empire
Tokyo, Mumbai, Shenzhen, in New England (nobodys has nothing to wear.
and Moscow. idea of a capital of fashion),
Pretty soon, we knew, the aggressive blandness in A whole set of economic
the new spring season of dress probably originated, underpinnings must be
clothing brands, logos, and like everything else, with the snapped in place before
retailers would be impor- seventeenth-century Puritan crochet shorts can seem like
tuning us with unguents settlers. They wrote their a good idea to someone. The
and adornments through an taste for Sadd colors into same creative economy
ever-expanding arsenal of their sumptuary decrees. thats producing expensive
media accessoriesnot only Dress like a dead leaf. artisanal shorts, it turns out,
magazines and runways, In our casual, postmodern is transforming life in Rust
but blogs, streaming micro- life, we strap into the sadd Belt cities like Buffalo, where
videos, reality TV program- uniforms that come with our white collar and blue
ming, and week after week corporate cubicles, and on collar havent quite died on
of luxury-sodden emulation. weekends don our baseball civic tongues.
No wonder the new prime caps, flannels, sneakers, and We have Buffalo covered,
minister of austerity-ridden mom jeansthe studied, along with certain venture
Greece recently turned up casual look that hipsters capitalists of Silicon Valley,
at official functions without have ironically lifted from where hooded sweatshirts
a tie, a pithy gesture of just the working class and that and kid gloves have replaced
how far down he is with the fashion pundits are wont to the dark suits and black ties
99 percent. call Normcore. of the original robber barons.
Dont expect us to strut Okay then, Venus in Furs Eventually, we checked
about in neck-rending analyzes the half-life of into the republic of letters to
formalities either. The work Normcore, takes the measure take stock of several model
arrayed under our slightly of fast fashion, reviews the citizens: the grave-faced
furtive label, Venus in Furs, genre of the sartorial mem- novelist Philip Roth; Joe
amounts to nothing like the oir, makes a case for female Bageant, the redneck hippie
cosmetics kits of upmarket, supremacy, and, among other author of Deer Hunting with
style-addled journalism. provocations aiming to horri- Jesus; the Viennese satirist
Were mindful, instead, fy Puritans of all stripes, sug- Karl Kraus; and Joseph Brod-
that the fashion industrys gests that the mens formal sky, the exiled Russian poet.
main propositionconfus- necktie is an upside-down No, not exactly fashionistas.
ing clothing with personal penis in disguise. But to the In his first interview after

6 1 The Baffler [no.27]

SIMON WELLER | Lord von Schmitt on Etsy

arriving in the West in 1972, pression is that they live for us, you need to be able to
published here for the first the sake of shopping. That look calmly into a void, not
time in English, Brodsky human life exists for the sake expecting it to be inhabited
wondered presciently at of shopping. by any applause. And, he
the absence of purpose he In order to survive the il- might as well have added,
discerned in life organized lusory multitude of choices, if applause ever does come
around changing fashions. the writer needed heroic out of the void, or if you hear
When I look around, he integrity of purpose. Here, the fashion police coming,
mused, I dont understand Brodsky said of the task that duck.t
what people live for. My im- remains in large part before John Summers

The Baffler [no.27] ! 7

Th e H i g h H a t

and Purge
Forever 21 stands on the
south side of Union Square
in New York, just around the
corner from my office. I see
teenagers, working women,
families, and dudes shopping
for clothing there at all hours
of the day, buying up floral
maxi dresses, faux leather and
shearling jackets, and skinny
jeans for as little as eight dol-
lars a pair. Inside, clerks romp Above, a worker frays a pair of jeans at Koos Manufacturing
about in colorful makeup, big in Los Angeles. At right, a warehouse attached to the San Souci
design studio.
earrings, and decal-wrapped
nails. Crowds of young women
and men line up to apply for Make no mistake: fast- Gap. Today, the young con-
work on the stores frenetic fashion companies like sumers I see lining up around
retail floorto stock shelves, H&M, Zara, Uniqlo, and the corner want design trends
fold clothes, mind the cash Forever 21 (the largest fast- fresh off the runway, and say
registersfor a whole nine fashion retailer in the United so on their fashion blogs,
dollars an hour. In the back- States) have dramatically Pinterests, and Instagrams.
ground, a jamboree of pop changed our wardrobes over Fast-fashion retailers have
music runs on endless loop. the last decade. These com- collapsed the traditional
I never see shoppers walk panies oversee how much three-month design, manu-
out of a Forever 21 without a clothing we buy, how long we facturing, and distribution
giant yellow plastic bag stuffed wear it, and how much of it cycle to two weeks; new styles
full of clothes. If you go on we discard. Thanks to them, arrive on store floors daily.
YouTube, you can gawk at so- most fashion today is made The U.S. hub of fast fash-
called haul videos, in which of low-quality synthetic ion is not New York, but Los
shoppers excitedly narrate their materials that are produced Angeles. More specifically, its
purchases, showing you not quickly and in large volumes. a single L.A. neighborhood
only how to wear that floral- In style, this clothingour known as the Jobber Mar-
print romper, but also how everyday clothingfollows ket. Walking through the
much of a deal it is. But dont quick on the heels of runway alleyways and small streets
let the videos fool you; plenty trends; in durability, its of this thirty-square-block
are the marketing schemes equally disposable. neighborhood over the past
of todays clothing industry A decade ago, most shop- three summers, I was vari-
gimmicks from the imme- pers were preoccupied with ously reminded of a suburban
diately gratifying, visually big brand names and logos strip mall, an underground
oriented world of fast fashion. like Abercrombie & Fitch and stall market, and an L.A.

8 1 The Baffler [no.27]


swap meet. At the neigh- The U.S. hub told me she was stuck with
borhoods food court, as I a whole shipping container
of fast fashion
considered Brazilian churrasco, of pleather jackets that had
a Korean shaved ice dessert is not New York, come off the docks and was
called patbingsu, and tacos, I still waiting for her at the
but Los Angeles.
heard talk in Korean, Span- warehouse. She had already
ish, and Portuguese. More 9 paid her sewing factory in
than six thousand fast-fashion China to manufacture the
businesses are located here, ing, and marketinginto one. jackets. Now she had to figure
in five-hundred-square-foot Customers include Forever 21, out how to sell them. The
showrooms stacked against T.J. Maxx, Charlotte Russe, fast-fashion retailers demand
the streets. Company names Urban Outfitters, Macys, floor-ready goods and
like Skinny Bunny, Sugarlips, Kohls, and Dillardsthe charge millions of dollars in
and Sweet Habit constantly majority of American fast- penalties and chargebacks
changethey are place- fashion retailers. Thats right: to wholesalers if hang tags are
holder labels that will soon be the fashions that are thought improperly attached, incor-
swapped out for the brand- to trend directly off the New rectly labeled, or hung on the
name labels of retailers. York runways in fact begin at wrong kind of hangers. They
Most of these Jobber little-known companies run charge for the stuff if it shows
Market companies are owned by immigrant entrepreneurs, up one day too soon or one
and run by Korean (or Korean in the showrooms and design day too late at the Port of Los
Brazilian) families and staffed studios of this one Los Ange- Angeles. If the clothes dont
by Mexican employees. They les neighborhood. sell on store floors, retailers
are mom-and-pop-shops that will return the merchandise
are also conglomerates; they In the fast-fashion business, without paying. Closeout
collapse multiple steps of the margins are thin. Consumer bargain hunters make their
apparel cycledesign, pro- tastes are finicky, trends un- rounds in the market, sniffing
duction, logistics, wholesal- predictable. One wholesaler out desperation to make deals

The Baffler [no.27] ! 9

Th e H i g h H a t
on the millions of dollars in
losses that happen daily in Keeping Up
the neighborhood.
Its the summer of 2013, with the Babadooks
and Im sitting in a pew of
a church in L.A.s Glendale
neighborhood, attending
morning bible service among
Korean congregation mem-
bers who work downtown
in the Jobber Market. This
church is the spiritual home
base of the Chang family,
the owners of Forever 21.
The Changs are born-again
Christians who go on annual
missions abroad. I watch a
young girl in her twenties up
on the podium, eyes closed, IFC FILMS

lift her hands to Christ and From Rosemarys Baby to The Essie Davis and Noah Wiseman
sing, He calls out my name. Exorcist to Carrie, many of the in The Babadook.

As we bow our heads, I finest horror genre standards

think about the shame of fixate on the ways mothers The Babadook follows
fast fashionhow young and make monsters of themselves young widow Amelia and
beautiful the new clothing or their progeny through ne- her troubled tot Sam as they
can make me feel, and how glect or abuse, through mis- discover a disturbing book
easy it is for me to throw it take or design, and in their during a nightly bedtime
away. These garments are most chilling incarnations, reading and unwittingly
made of rayons and nylons, through mundane means. unleash its sinister central
petroleum-based synthetic When 2014 Australian indie figure on their quiet lives. As
materials and artificial dyes horror flick The Babadook hit it turns out, the key to the
that will stick around here on American shores in Novem- creatures undoing is merely
earth, forever. On the bot- ber, most of the attendant to recognize it and rebuke
tom of every plastic yellow commentary zeroed in on just itsomething that Amelia
Forever 21 shopping bag, I such maternal themes. Bitch eventually discovers. But this
remember now, is the bible Magazine took it as a medita- revelation comes after a slow-
verse John 3:16. So I think tion on post-partum depres- burning, suspenseful battle of
too about salvationthe de- sion; Slate located its effec- wills, prolonged by a centrally
liverance from sin and evil tiveness in its dark treatment important fact about Amelia
and how hard it will be to of common parental miseries. that critics have largely over-
make a sustainable life here Both were probably right, but looked: she is working class.
on earth when we believe we theres more to the creep- Clues to Amelias class
will never perish, but have ing menace of The Babadook status are scattered through-
eternal life.t than the regulation Freudian out the film, but theyre most
Christina Moon freakiness of motherhood. clearly manifested in con-

10 1 The Baffler [no.27]

spicuous articles of fashion. Mom-shaming is buy, she contents herself with
Minutes into the film, Amelia foodalone.
powerfully distilled
sits across from the admin- Back in real life, however,
istrators of her sons private in the unraveling Amelia continues to face
school, who are all neatly more quiet but powerful
nightmare of
outfitted in crisp suits and crucibles of class division.
slick buns. She is sporting an The Babadook. When the birthday party
unraveling ponytail and the arrives, five sleekly outfitted
uniform she wears to work as 9 moms congregate in Amelias
an orderly in a nursing home: sisters Crate & Barrel dining
a papery pink shift with a a round of pointedly class- room and gaze accusingly at
peter-pan collar and opaque based recriminations, all Amelia through their chicly
white stockings that taper upbraiding Amelia for not underdone makeup. Pearls
into a pair of scuffed Keds. properly celebrating her and gems dot their lobes and
Amelias clothing is conspicu- sons birthday. throats; our Amelia positively
ously genderedthe powerful Hounded as she is by wilts in their presence, look-
actors in this horror story these disciplinary markers of ing dazed and bedraggled
dont wear pink collars and privilege, Amelia takes mo- as she listens to patronizing
Keds. But more than that, her mentary refuge in fantasies talk of their volunteer work
attire functions as a perma- of material bliss. In a brief with disadvantaged women
nent reminder of the fact of dreamy interlude just before and to humblebragging about
her work, a kind of stigmata her nieces birthday party, their husbands careers. The
of the service sector. Amelia eats ice cream in a pinched scowls only intensify
All the dramatic action glassy, modern shopping mall, when Amelias son throws
among the films adult hu- sitting alone on a sofa posi- a tantrum and she sternly
mans proceeds to flow from tioned in front of windows orders him out of the room.
this core disjuncture of class. full of fashion spreads and Amelia is overwhelmed: it
The school administrators mannequins draped in haute is, in part, her exhaustion that
condescend to her in icy- couture. Unable to shop or allows the dreadful Babadook
precise professional language,
telling her, in so many words, D R AW I N G R O O M
that she has failed to correct-
ly parent her son. And in the
next scene, Amelia sits next
to her sister, a smooth-haired
woman in black nylons and
a blazer, and barely listens as
her upwardly mobile sibling
natters on about installation
art pieces. Miffed by this
indifference to her class as-
cent, Amelias sister abruptly
calls off the joint birthday
party they had planned for
their children. This leads to WALTER GURBO

The Baffler [no.27] ! 11

Th e H i g h H a t
to pass into her life. A string lonely ordeal not by all the Science
of visual cues reminds viewers
of her inability to keep up: her
well-appointed power moms
hovering around them, but
of Clothes
clothes, her hair, the putter- rather by the Australian wel-
ing station wagon she drives, fare state. As the film closes, a Whereto does all this
the blandly functional flat- pair of dogged social workers lead; or what use is in it? In
soled shoes on her feet. As the checks in with the trauma- the way of replenishing thy
movie slides into the gothic tized pair, and the realization purse, or otherwise aiding
terror at its heart, its just as sets in that these have been thy digestive faculty, O
plain that the totems of her the only characters to evince British Reader, it leads to
everyday working-class life real concern for the well- nothing, and there is no
are what feed her primal, and being of this single working use in it; but rather, the
potentially lethal, state of so- mom and her deprived child. reverse, for it costs thee
cial isolation. They differenti- Beyond the claustral somewhat. Nevertheless,
ate her from her peers, their terrors of a classic horror- if through this unpromis-
pastimes, and most crucially, fantasy, The Babadook leaves ing Horngate, Teufels-
their enlightened parenting us with a surprisingly far- drckh, and we by means
practices. reaching epilogue: the film of him, have led thee into
Here is where The Baba- leads us to imagine the kind the true Land of Dreams;
dook is most painfully of programs that could make and through the Clothes-
realistic. So many parenting life as a working-class parent Screen, as through a magi-
techniques earn their cachet more leisurely and secure, cal Pierre-Pertuis, thou
from the glamorous elites like child allowances, paid lookest, even for moments,
who evangelize for them: maternity leave, and all the into the region of the
think The Big Bang Theorys sundry baby benefits that are Wonderful, and seest and
Mayim Bialik hawking the commonplace in European feelest that thy daily life
wonders of co-sleeping for social democracies. Ladies is girt with Wonder, and
The Today Show, or super- who lunch seem capable of based on Wonder, and thy
model Gisele Bndchen as- providing only bitter cen- very blankets and breeches
serting that international law sure, and good politics, with are Miracles,then art
should require all mothers concrete material assistance, thou profited beyond
to breastfeed for at least six will have to be in place before moneys worth, and hast a
months in a luscious Harpers the rest of us can gather the thankfulness towards our
Bazaar spread. Mothers who few pearls of wisdom their Professor; nay, perhaps in
cant pay to play are not only parenting fashions offer. This many a literary Tea-circle,
reviled as bad parents, but is the real horror story of The wilt open thy kind lips,
also marginalized as gauche. Babadook: our culture is at a and audibly express that
Theres an overlooked loss to make the hopeful epi- same.
irony at the heart of all the logue to Amelias story match
mom-shaming so powerfully up with the kind of social A ll Symbols are prop-
distilled in the unraveling isolation that spurred on her erly Clothes; . . . all Forms
nightmare of The Babadook. brief descent into madness whereby Spirit manifests
Amelia and her imperiled son and terror.t itself to Sense, whether
are ultimately helped onto Elizabeth outwardly or in the
the right path out of their Bruenig

12 1 The Baffler [no.27]

imagination, are Clothes;
and thus not only the
parchment Magna Charta,
which a tailor was nigh
cutting into measures, but
the Pomp and Authority
of Law, the sacredness of
Majesty, and all inferior
Worships (Worth-ships)
are properly a Vesture and
Raiment; and the Thirty-
nine Articles themselves
are articles of wearing
apparel (for the Religious
Idea). In which case, must
it not also be admitted that
this Science of Clothes is
a high one, and may with
infinitely deeper study on
thy part yield richer fruit:
that it takes scientific rank
behind Codification, and
Political Economy, and
the Theory of the British
Constitution; nay, rather,
from its prophetic height
looks down on all these, as
on so many weaving-shops
and spinning-mills, where
the Vestures which it has
to fashion, and consecrate,
and distribute, are, too
often by haggard hungry
operatives who see no
farther than their nose,
mechanically woven and

from Thomas Carlyle, Sartor

PATRICK JB FLYNN Resartus (1834). Dont ask us.

The Baffler [no.27] ! 13

FROM THE ARCHIVE | The Baffler no. 5 (1993)

14 1 The Baffler [no.27]

The Baffler [no.27] ! 15
Th e H i g h H a t
Bubble Butts
In the late 2000s, right about lodges near Barranquilla, and delln, and especially when
when the economic bubble to Brooklyn-inspired restau- it comes to one of Escobars
burst in the United States, rants in Bogot. more eye-popping legacies:
Colombias government fi- In Medelln, former home the citys ongoing affair with
nally began making headway of drug baron Pablo Escobar, cosmetic surgery.
against the narco-crime that its considered bad form to On the highway from the
had plagued it for decades. talk about the dark days. airport to Medelln, bill-
Homicide rates dropped, When I visited in Decem- boards advertise affordable
drug production moved to ber, locals boasted about the implants, Sofa Vergara-
Venezuela, and negotiations citys graffiti-free metro, its esque physiques, and boob-
with the left-wing guerrilla starchitect-designed libraries and-butt combo specials.
movement gained traction. located deep in the favelas, Should visitors somehow miss
Before long, American and and the cable car system that these, theyll certainly notice
European newspapers were spares the citys poor daily silicone on the street. Medel-
reporting that wanton vio- walks up mountain inclines. ln is famous for its perenni-
lence and Escobar-era wealth The past is past, and the resi- ally temperate weather, so
in the former cocaine capital dents I met tried not to dwell patients (and doctors) have
were giving way to a gallery on it. But the fingerprints of all year to show off their
scene in Cartagena, to eco- narco-crime are all over Me- work. In 2013 the country


16 1 The Baffler [no.27]


generated $216 million from Medellns obsession with ing to a nip or a tuck might be
medical tourism, up from cosmetic surgery started in a way out of poverty.
$134 million the year before, the seventies, with cartel The culture of narco-
partly because of the good members first regular travels esttica was firmly established
reputation of Colombian to the United States. Thanks by the eighties, and blondes
doctors, and partly because to mens magazines like Play- with big boobs and butts were
of the weakened peso. For boy and womens magazines presented as the feminine
North Americans recovering like Vogue, cosmetic surgery ideal for everyone outside of
from the hangover of decades was just beginning to enter the citys Westernized upper
of partying, operations are the mainstream of American classes. The back-and-forth
particularly affordable: one culture. Newly flush with between crime and cosmetic
cosmetic surgery collective cashat its peak, the Me- surgery continues, as sur-
advertises an all-inclusive delln cartel was bringing in geons now prepare girls for
package of breast augmen- up to $60 million a daytraf- trade in sex tourism, which
tation plus eight nights in fickers essentially began has replaced drug trafficking
Colombia (including meals, buying up local women and as the citys most pressing
hotel costs, and an English- paying surgeons to replicate criminal justice problem.
speaking personal assistant the extreme body fashions au When it comes to female
who will pick you up from the courant in the United States. beauty in Colombia, class
airport) for USD $4,506a Escobar was especially fond dictates culture. In 2011 a
lot less than it would be in of these operadas and let it be Vice video report on Me-
the States, and hey, you get a known to girls growing up in dellns fashion week began
vacation thrown in. Medellns barrios that agree- backstage at a haute couture

The Baffler [no.27] ! 17

Th e H i g h H a t
runway show stocked with You might think this would of Colombias decades-long
two-dimensional models, homogenize surgeries, but civil conflict, bodies began
where styles were distinctly in Medelln, theyre impres- to seem all too dispensable,
European, and ended at sively diverse. Women tailor and altering them became a
Moda para el Mundo, a themselves to match aspi- means of exercising control.
come-one-come-all show rations, and doing so is as Today, this cosmetic culture
whose models were notice- much about opportunity as it is still in place, though dif-
ably curvier and darker is about vanity. ferent forces drive demand.
skinned than their coun- Theres no doubt that The double-D breasts and
terparts. (Peoples arses doctored curves attract at- artificial asses that are still
are such a massive distrac- tention, but what theyre in- ubiquitous in Medelln are
tion from everything else, viting us to look at is a larger a reminder of the citys
remarked the Vice presenter.) question. Its worth keeping liberation from a bloody
Bigger and flashier are in mind that two decades past, but also a sign of a new
deemed dclass, while thin- ago, Medelln was the most regime, one in which tourism
ner and whiter are thought dangerous city on the planet. dictates who goes under the
to be more European, and With dozens of people dy- knife.t
therefore more refined. ing every week as a result Jessica Loudis

Sweat Shop.

18 1 The Baffler [no.27]

E x h i bi t B 5 Lucia Fainzilber



The Baffler [no.27] ! 19

3 Peter Gizzi

The old language I might as well say it.

says the apple This hammering
is the old apple thing, Life, as Ive
and spoke known it, know me,
in categories, is over. The apples
it gave her are scattered
the dance floor on ground.
she needed, all
those vocabularies The earth reclaims
and animal nights its booty right be-
before her. Spotted fur. for the eyes. So
swiftly the letters
Lithe. Taut. replace. The
The syllable in apple letters dearrange
and the ecstasy of and uncompose
naming. Or was it the self in itself.
knowing? Windows
swing open. Am I in danger,
The chest the orchestral side
a hammering thing. is taking away me,
these letters
no longer anchor.

20 1 The Baffler [no.27]

V en us i n F u r s


The Baffler [no.27] ! 21

Venus in Furs

The Revolution Will

Probably Wear Mom Jeans
3 Eugenia Williamson

Americas present need is not heroics, but healing; not nostrums, but normalcy; not
revolution, but restoration; not agitation, but adjustment; not surgery, but serenity;
not the dramatic, but the dispassionate; not experiment, but equipoise; not submergence
in internationality, but sustainment in triumphant nationality.
Warren G. Harding, A Return to Normalcy, May 14, 1920

N ot long ago, a curious fashion trend swept be fooled into believing almost anything is
through New York Citys hipster preserves, trendy?
from Bushwick to the Lower East Side. Once, By March 2014, Vogue had declared Norm-
well-heeled twentysomethings had roamed core totally over, but even that lofty fiat
these streets in plaid button-downs and floral couldnt put a stop to it. Gap adopted the slo-
playsuits. Now, the reign of the aspiring lum- gan dress normal for its fall ad campaign,
berjacks and their mawkish mates was coming and the donnish Oxford English Diction-
to an end. Windbreakers, baseball caps, and ary nominated normcore for 2014s word
polar fleece appeared among the flannel. Car- of the year. A full twelve months after Vogue
go shorts and khakis were verboten no longer. tried to extinguish it, Normcore continues to
Denim went from dark-rinse to light. Sandals convulse opinion, a half-life long enough (in
were worn, and sometimes with socks. It was fashion-time, anyway) to place it among the
a blast of carefully modulated blandnessone decades most enduring trends.
that delighted some fashion types, appalled More than that, elaborate prank or no,
others, and ignited the critical passions of life- Normcore is a remarkably efficient summa-
style journalists everywhere. ry of hipster posturing at its most baroque.
They called it Normcore. Across our Fash- Never has a trend so perfectly crystallized
ion Nation, style sections turned out lengthy the endless, empty layers of fashion-based
pieces exploring this exotic lurch into the rebellion. And never has a trend shown itself
quotidian, and trend watchers plumbed every to be so openly contemptuous of the working
possible meaning in the cool kids new fond- class. Like many a fad before it, Normcore
ness for dressing like middle-aged suburban- thrives on appropriation. But where privi-
ites. Were hipsters sacrificing their coolness leged hipsters once looked to underground
in a brave act of self-renunciation? Was this subculturesbikers, punks, Teddy Boysas
an object lesson in the futility of ritually chas- they pursued their downwardly mobile per-
ing down, and then repudiating, the coolness sonal liberation, they now latch onto the face-
of the passing moment? Or were middle-aged less working majority: the Walmart shoppers,
dorks themselves mysteriously cool all of a the suburban moms and dads.
sudden? Was Normcore just an elaborate Even if it began as something of a self-ref-
prank designed to prove that style writers can erential fashion joke, the medias infatuation

22 1 The Baffler [no.27]


with all things Normcore says a lot. Not least, exploration of the anti-individualist Norm-
it highlights our abiding social need for a san- core creed for New York magazine. Duncan
itized counterculture, for a youthful rebellion remembered feeling the first tremors of the
that can be readily dismissed, for the comfort revolution:
of neoliberal melancholy, for what Warren G.
Sometime last summer I realized that,
Hardingthe unheralded John the Baptist of
from behind, I could no longer tell if my
the Normcore Gospelfamously called a re-
fellow Soho pedestrians were art kids or
turn to normalcy.
middle-aged, middle-American tourists.
The Revolt of Clad in stonewash jeans, fleece, and comfort-
the Mass Indie berelite able sneakers, both types looked like they
mightve just stepped off an R-train after
The adventure began in 2013, and picked up
shopping in Times Square. When I texted my
steam early last year with Fiona Duncans
friend Brad (an artist whose summer uniform
Normcore: Fashion for Those Who Re-
consisted of Adidas barefoot trainers, mesh
alize Theyre One in 7 Billion, a blowout

The Baffler [no.27] ! 23

Venus in Furs

shorts and plain cotton tees) for his take on middle-class youngsters used to strike fear
the latest urban camouflage, I got an immedi- in the hearts of the squares by flouting social
ate reply: lol normcore. normsat least nominally, until they grew up
and settled into their own appointed profes-
Brad, however eloquent and charming, did sional, middle-class destinies. Now, however,
not coin the term himself. He got it from K- the hipster is a benign and well-worn figure
HOLE, a group of trend forecasters. To judge of fun: a lumpenbourgeois urbanite perpetu-
by K-HOLEs name alonea slang term for ally in search of ways to display her difference
the woozy aftereffects of the animal tran- from the masses.
quilizer and recreational drug ketaminethe That is not to say that the hipsters of yore
group was more than happy to claim Norm- made any great strides in the realm of social
core as its own licensed playground. As com- change. The punks of the seventies and eight-
pany principals patiently explained to the ies, together with their nineties-era grunge
New York Times, their appropriation of the and indie-rocker descendants, idealized the
name of a toxic drug hangover was itself a sly notion of authenticity. This arch-individual-
commentary on the cultural logic of the cor- ist outlook translated into an ethos of respon-
porate worlds frenetic cooptation of young sible small-business ownership, an interest in
peoples edgy habits. At a London art gal- the arcana of the letter-press aesthetic, and
lery in October 2013, in a paper titled Youth little else. While independent record labels
Mode: A Report on Freedom, team K-HOLE and artisans built sustainable distribution
proposed the Twitter hashtag #Normcore as a networks, they and their clientele were busy
rejoinder to such cooptation: ferreting out poseurs with the same prosecu-
torial vigor with which McCarthyites once
If the rule is Think Different, being seen as
sought Communists.
normal is the scariest thing. (It means being
Still, it might be protested that Tailgunner
returned to your boring suburban roots, be-
Joe and his followers at least advanced a suc-
ing turned back into a pumpkin, exposed as
cessful agenda. Punk fashion theorists, by con-
unexceptional.) Which paradoxically makes
trast, only paved the way for newer and bigger
normalcy ripe for the Mass Indie uberelites
revolutions in trend marketing. Starting in
to adopt as their own, confirming their status
the nineties, the media and advertising worlds
by showing how disposable the trappings of
latched onto signifiers of youthful rebellion
uniqueness are.
as their own preferred brands, telling buying
Jargon aside, the report had a point: lately publics, in essence, that their individuality was
Mass Indie uberelitesa group more com- just one franchised rebellious gesture away.
monly known as hipstershave been finding Meanwhile, a new body of lax global trade
it increasingly difficult to express their indi- regulations helped to accelerate the round-
viduality, the very thing that confers hipster robin logic of trend endorsement and repudia-
cred. tion. All these converging forces meant that
Part of the problem derives from the hip- outward, commoditized displays of insurrec-
sters ubiquity. For the past several years, hip- tionpiercings, meticulously anachronistic
sterism has been an ide fixe in the popular attire, felted owlsbecame unreliable ways
presscoy cultural shorthand in the overlap- of judging whether or not the person in front
ping worlds of fashion, music, art, and litera- of you was down. And in equally rapid order,
ture for a kind of rebellion that doesnt quite the Internet came along to propel tongue-in-
come off on its own steam. Forward-thinking cheek micro-trends like healthgoth and sea-

24 1 The Baffler [no.27]

Woe betide any actual mother, her lower abdomen distended
in pregnancys aftermath, who tries to pull off mom jeans.

punk far enough into the mediasphere to reach out of datethe early nineties being the last
even oldsters like me. time that loose-fitting, relaxed-leg, tastefully
The great fashion speed-up has spurred stitched jeans were remotely on-trend.
an epidemic of hipster exhaustion. Now that
Rihanna has dyed her hair gray and youth Mothers All!
trends have cycled through the fashion of ev- But woe betide any actual mother, her lower
ery decade at least twice,* where can an ironic abdomen distended in pregnancys aftermath,
counter-gesture take hold? who tries to pull off mom jeans. On all but
This is where Normcore comes in. For all the sveltest frames, they look frumpy, unflat-
its precious, self-conscious packaging as the tering, and hopelessly out of touch. It takes a
mother of all counter-trends, Normcore pos- lithe physique and other signifiers of privilege
sesses a certain irony-resistant purity. Its a to put quotation marks around apparel that,
purely formalist dissident pose with nothing under most circumstances, reads as clueless
at stake but the rules of fashion itself. or careless. Mom jeans are designed for com-
Consider the most recognizable hallmark fort and concealment, while mom jeans
of Normcore attire: mom jeans. Until Norm- mock the need to cover up the flaws of a non-
cores advent, mom jeans was a first-order catwalk-ready body by emphasizing their ab-
fashion epithet. It effectively described and sence, with the added bonus of mocking other
dismissed the bad trouser choices of an entire flawless girls whove fallen for the far more pe-
generation of unsexy and desexualized moth- destrian charms of skin-tight low-riders.
ers. In 2011, Susan Orlean captured the sins Lauren Sherman, writing in Elle, neatly
of the mom jean in a dead-on clinical descrip- summarized the dilemma of the Normcore
tion in The New Yorker: medium wash denim, enthusiast. The Normcore movement, she ar-
buttoned over the slightly-out-of-shape belly, gued, will never actually be a phenomenon
tasteful stitching, legs neither wide enough to
because most women do not want to look
be subversive nor tight enough to be sexy.
normal. They want to look hip or chicide-
Today, mom jeans are a coveted fashion
ally both. And for most people, normcore
item. ASOS, a global, London-based fast-fash-
isnt going to help them achieve those two
ion distributor that sells the trendiest clothes
descriptors. A beautiful stylist in mom jeans
and accessories at a range of price points, pres-
and sneakers does not look the same as a
ently offers seventy-five varieties. Although
mom in the Midwest, my editor said. Clearly,
each pair has slightly different variations
theres a difference between expertly styled,
strategically placed rips, acid wash, pleatsall
proportion-conscious fashion normcore and
share a high waist, an ill-fitting crotch, and
legitimate strip mall-and-minivan normcore.
back pockets stitched high enough to elongate
and flatten the wearers ass. The overall effect While Sherman underestimated the allure
is to make the wearer look twenty-five years of mom jeans among the fashion forward, she

* In the eighties, it was the fifties. In the nineties, it was the seventies. In the aughts, it was the fifties and the eighties
again, and now everybody either dresses like its the early nineties or looks like a damn lumberjack.

The Baffler [no.27] ! 25

Venus in Furs

and her editor perfectly elicited the contempt three years ago with pinup pictures of man-
hidden beneath the pleats. ly men in expensive jeans toiling at blue-
Then again, so did a lot of other people. In collar labor, but its current version features
a discussion of Normcore on Reddits fashion a medium-build, bearded hipster modeling
advice board, the top-rated comment said as slouchy jeans and waxed hunting jackets. The
much: spirit of the original American Revolution,
like that of all the later and smaller-bore rev-
If I dress #normcore in an unfashionable,
olutions in American culture, has thus suc-
tiny, rural, midwestern town, does it still
cumbed to the inexorable entitled preroga-
count? Or am I an asshole for dressing like
tives of the leisure class.
the People of Walmart around me? Am I
When the countrys most powerful men
getting my fashion kicks at their expense and
endeavor to ape ordinary human beings, den-
cruelly poking fun at their lack of dispos-
im seems requisite, a tactic as proven and as
able income for trendy fashion? . . . If I dress
predictable as inserting folks into a stump
normcore at the county fair and theres
speech. As camouflage goes, mom jeans seem
no one cool enough to get the message Im
more effective than pricey selvage: mom jeans
sending with my fashion choices, am I still
ingeniously distract attention from their
dressing normcore?
mediagenic wearers ability to buy whatever
Good questions allbut here again, the the hell he wants. The sophisticated fashion
hipsters rebellion is so contorted that its chal- gamine and the presidential hopeful would
lenge to the herdlike cultural mainstream seem to have entirely different aims, but when
seems poised for total absorption by said they embrace Normcores signature item, it
mainstream. While its hard to interpret the confers on them the same strategic cultural
appeal of the n mom jean as anything other advantage.
than a fairly aggressive mode of derision, re- This advantage goes a long way toward ex-
cent turns in the items history complicate plaining the appeal of mom jeans in yet an-
that meaning. Beyond the anonymous hordes other unlikely and high-profile fan base: bil-
of harried mothers donning shapeless dunga- lionaire tech CEOs. Steve Jobs rarely made
rees to run to Target, the mom jean has other, public appearances without them and, with
far more visible followers. During the last an insouciant flourish, would add a black tur-
election cycle, Mitt Romneys proclivity for tleneck and a pair of sneakers to round out
mom jeans was so pronounced that it became the look. Mark Zuckerberg, too, has made
a full-fledged Internet meme and the subject a habit of dressing in bad denim, most fa-
of its own Tumblr. In March 2014, The Atlan- mously when meeting with fellow mom-jean
tic Wire published a photo retrospective of enthusiast Obama. That meeting, though,
President Obama donning mom jeans at every pointed up one important difference: instead
available opportunity. of pandering to Middle America, the mom-
Jeans are the most democratic of pants, jean-wearing tech CEO flaunts his indiffer-
said The Atlantic Wire while tearing Obamas ence to it.
fashion choices to shreds. Indeed, when con- Hipsters could be aspirationally mimick-
summate populist Glenn Beck decided to ing Zuckerbergs fuck-it attire, or they could
start 1791, a retail label whose name kipes the be struggling to scale the forbidding heights
year of the Bill of Rights signing, he turned of hipster resistance as charted on Reddits
to denim: selvage denim, to be precise, retail- fashion boardwho knows, least of all them-
ing for $190 a pair. The 1791 website launched selves? To ironize all is, at last, to forgive all.

26 1 The Baffler [no.27]

Food for Thought sanal intent. Papa Johns or Little Caesars may
Things get even more complicated when you deliver glorified tomato-paste-on-cardboard
consider the Middle American booboisie alongside tubs of dipping butter to a nation of
on whom Normcore sets its sights. Even as indifferent proles. But if you ask New Yorks
Normcore jeers at neutral, fashion-backward infinitely more with-it pizza correspondents,
attire, it also manages to exalt the clueless ex- theyll tell you, with numbing precision, that
urbanite by turning her into a fetish object: pizza can be toppings-forward and avant-
the Emma Bovary of the strip mall. Its not garde. This range makes pizza the perfect
clear just how and why hipsters came to fixate hipster quarry: sometimes mundane, some-
on the People of Walmart, but its not a pass- times aspirational, and above all, exotic.
ing fancy; one after another, hipsters are el- There is another futile, melancholy sen-
evating dreary things to the height of fashion. timent at the heart of Normcore: nostalgia
Think of the rise of kale. The once-humble for childhood. Pizza, for example, is a childs
vegetable has ascended to such dizzying food. Meanwhile, in the fashion realm, to-
heights that Beyonc wore a sweatshirt em- days twentysomethings don the clothes they
blazoned with KALE in one of her recent grew up with in the early nineties, which was
videos. the heyday of ill-fitting denim and neutral
See also pizza, a closer edible analogue to color palettes. The Midwestern mothers of
Normcore. A friend with ties to the advertis- some of these hipsterssurely theyre not
ing industry informed me of pizzas edginess all from New Yorklikely wore mom jeans
sometime last year, directing me to a Tum- themselves, and may wear them still. In this
blr called Slice Guyz that collects pictures sense, pizza and Normcore play out an es-
of pizza-themed graffiti and the like. For- sentially conservative outlook: a longing for a
mer child star and current hipster Macaulay prelapsarian time before the shame and self-
Culkin started a joke band called the Pizza awareness of city living deprived its acolytes
Underground; it performs selections from the of the simple comfort of Dominos delivery
Velvet Underground catalogue repurposed and loose pants.
with pizza-themed lyrics. In September, New Before you can say plain Hanes tee, this
York magazinethe same oracle that an- longing can shade again into contempt. When
nounced the rise of Normcoreanointed piz- urban hipsters fetishize the dclass and the
za as the chicest new trend. As incontrovert- mundane, they rely on their understanding of
ible evidence that the trend was indeed taking middle America as a colony, one filled with
hold, the magazines fashion brain trust com- happy proles to be mined for fashion inspi-
missioned layouts of Katy Perry and Beyonc ration. This is as true for hipsters as it is for
(now the avatar of food-themed chicness, it Glenn Beck, whose bone-deep cynicism about
would seem) in pizza-print outfits. the heartland is simply an amplified version
To take something recognizably bad, of the same infatuated disdain cultivated by a
whether pizza or bulky fleece sweatshirts, and deliberately dowdy Brooklynite. How else can
try to pass it off as avant-garde self-expression one account for the steady migration of Norm-
is an incredibly defeatist gesture, one both core into the very corporate world that calls
aware of and happy with its futility. Ceci nest the shots on what we buy and howa world in
pas intressant. which web designers, programmers, stylists,
Still, pizza, like denim, is accessible to all advertising executives, and other masters of
Americans and crafted with wildly different the knowledge economy now dress up like call-
levels of competence, self-awareness, and arti- center drones headed to the Dollar Store?

The Baffler [no.27] ! 27

After the streets of New York, the next college isnt quite the fucking joke that our
stop for Normcore was the dining halls of fashion scribes take it to be. Sit tight, Norm-
wealthy college campuses. In the Novem- core kids. The mall and everything in it will
ber issue of the Old Gold and Black, Wake soon be yours.
Forest Universitys student newspaper, an
undergrad noted with evident satisfaction The New Normal
that Wake Forest is currently at peak norm- In 1920, Republican presidential candidate
core. A Wake Forest campus fashion Tum- Warren G. Harding staked his campaign
blr called Forest Folk, she says, is filled with on the less-than-stirring call for a return to
variation[s] on the normcore theme (denim normalcy, based on the notion that America,
jackets, cable-knit sweaters, thick-rimmed fresh out of World War I, was overwhelmed
glasses) juxtaposed against the sites mast- by its recent intervention in European affairs
head, which pithily declares: Dare to be and longed to embrace a quiet nationalism.
different. Its perhaps no coincidence that The only real departure from the middle-
Wake Forest ranks near the bottom of eco- American norm Harding proposed was the
nomically diverse top colleges and special- word normalcy itself, which was a clumsy
izes in training students for well-paid careers bastardization of normality. Like many of
in medicine and law. his modern successors, Harding fractured the
On the Left Coast, Normcore arrived at common tongue by executive fiat.
UC-Berkeley. In the Daily Californian, one While Normcore broke these last few
software-engineer-in-the-making spelled out years, the Obama administration backed Syr-
his strategic presentation of the self in terms ian rebels in an attempt to defeat ISIS and
that would bring a knowing smile to Richard Assad. In Bangladesh, the Rana Plaza fac-
Floridas lips: tory collapsed, killing 1,100 sweatshop work-
ers making clothes for such Normcore name
Sean Soave, a junior computer science major,
brands as JCPenney. In the middle-American
is quick to emphasize normcores hidden-
town of Ferguson, Missouri, white people in
in-plain-sight sensibility. Its like . . . being
bad jeans ran for the hills as protesters de-
undercover, Soave explains. Youre putting
nounced a grand jurys decision not to indict
your outfit together, and youre going for
a white police officer who shot and killed a
the aesthetic of a normal person, but you
black teenage boy. Bill Cosby, the poster boy
arent them. Its stealth mall chic. Its ironic
for eighties Normcore, came under fire from
more than two dozen accusers on disturbing
Ironic conformity: Behold the clarion call charges of rape and sexual assault. Like Hard-
of a new generation of programmers, doc- ings bland postwar call to national recum-
tors, and lawyers utterly assured of their own bency, Normcores hold on the culture could
individualismand just as certain that the well signal a desperate, uncynical wish for a
playful derision they heap on normal working sense of isolated tranquility. It seeks to re-
slobs exempts them from the petty indignities inscribe, through countless layers of adroitly
of the working life. Soon, they will reap the theorized irony, old-fashioned American val-
benefits of their semi-ironic STEM degrees, ues unperturbed by police brutality and sex-
matriculating further into actual jobs in man- ual assault. And it wants, finally, to buttress
agement. Then it will be abundantly clear that a social order in which the wealthy can flaunt
the social privilege they exert over the 68 per- their superiority without fear of reproach.
cent of adult Americans who havent finished Lol. Normcore.t

28 1 The Baffler [no.27]

E xh i bi t C 5 Amanda Konishi


The Baffler [no.27] ! 29

Venus in Furs

The paradox of the necktie resolved
3 David Gr aeber

Some people (me, for instance) put a great

deal of energy into organizing their lives so
that theyll never have to wear a tie. Ive often
wondered why this should be. Why should
ties have such symbolic power? Its not as
if other parts of a formal suitwhite shirts,
tailored slacks, vests, or blazersinspire the
same sort of indignation. Somehow, it feels as
if tying the necktie around your neck marks
a final act of closure. Its the act that trans-
forms all those items into a suit, with all the
suit implies, whether its the power of the
boardroom or the ceremonial formalities of
weddings and funeralsthat whole world of
official business over which men in suits in-
variably preside. No doubt, part of the objec-
tion to the tie is to the pure arbitrariness of
the thing. A tie serves no function. It doesnt
hold your trousers up or keep you warm. But
at the same time, its uncomfortable, so much
so that putting it on does somehow feel like
a gesture of submission, a reluctant pledge of
allegiance to everything the suit is supposed
to represent.
Still, if you think more about it, theres
something peculiar going on herea kind of
paradox. Yes, a tie embodies the message of
the suit, but in many ways its the very oppo-
site. After all, the rest of the suit is almost en-
tirely bereft of decorative elements. Suits tend MARK DANCE Y

to be dark, sober, boring. Ties are supposed

to be the exception. The tie is the one place Ready, Aim, Attire!
where youre allowed to add a little color, to Formal male clothing wasnt always boring.
express yourself a little. Why, then, should the In Elizabethan times, for instance, menpar-
one thing thats least like the rest of the suit ticularly rich and powerful oneswere just
somehow feel like it embodies the message of as inclined as women to deck themselves out
the whole? in flashy jewelry and bright decorative col-

30 1 The Baffler [no.27]

Couldnt we say that a tie is really a symbolic displacement
of the penis, only an intellectualized penis, dangling not
from ones crotch but from ones head?

ors, and even (as in the court of Louis XIV) ple who wanted to define themselves through
to wear wigs, powder, and rouge. All this their actions.
changed in the eighteenth century, a period Actually, I suspect that the ultimate deri-
some historians of dress have referred to as the vation of the business suit is from a suit of
age of the Great Masculine Renunciation. armor. The suit, after all, encases your body,
Suddenly, male clothing was expected to be covering as much of it as possible; what mini-
less ornamental, more generally businesslike mal openings to the world such clothes do
than womens. Eventually, something very affordat your neck and sleevesare bound
much like the modern business suit began to tightly together by ties and cuff links. The
emerge: uniform, dark in color (the more seri- contours of the body are thus obscured, in
ous the context, the darker it should be) with striking contrast with womens formal wear,
little or no patterningits very dullness em- which, even in covering the body, constantly
bodying seriousness of purpose. hints at revealing it, and particularly at reveal-
The modern business suit appeared ing its most sexualized aspects. Skirts, even
around the time of the Industrial Revolu- when they cover the lower half of the body
tion, and it embodied the spirit of the emerg- completely, tend to form an open-ended cone
ing bourgeoisie. Such men scoffed at aristo- whose apex is between the legs, and except in
cratic fops as parasites. They saw themselves the most prudish times, there has been some
instead as men of action, defined by their gesture toward revealing the cleavage. Its
ability to direct and transform the world. almost as if the staid uniformity of mens at-
They were producers; aristocrats were mere tire is meant to efface individuality just as its
consumers. And in this new bourgeois order, design is meant to make the body itself invis-
consumption was to be the domain of wom- ible; womens formal wear, on the other hand,
en, who continued to wear powder, lipstick, makes the wearer both an individual and an
necklaces, and earrings (though usually not object to be seen. Indeed, the conventions of
quite so extravagantly), even as their hus- higher-class fashion ensure that any woman
bands gave them up. wearing such an outfit is obliged to devote a
This transformation explains a number of good deal of time and energy to monitoring
curious usages surviving in our own formal herself to make sure too much is not revealed
clothing: notably, the way a blazer can still and, more generally, to constantly thinking
be referred to as sports jacket, even though about what she looks like.
you wouldnt want to run a race in one. In fact, And this is still true. Just recall the bifur-
the business suit derives not from aristocratic cated fashions at the sexual battleground of
formal wear, but from hunting clothesthis is your high school prom. The guys all dressed
why fox-hunters, for instance, still wear some- identically. They were, in effect, sporting a
thing very much like one. Both uniforms are a uniform. But if two girls wound up wearing
kind of active wear, adopted by a class of peo- the same dress, then oh, what a scandal.

The Baffler [no.27] ! 31

Venus in Furs

The Frail Gaze trast, is to say, You simply have no idea what I
It seems to me that this very effacement of am capable of.
individuality is itself one way of expressing If this formula is true, the generic quality
power. The French philosopher Michel Fou- of formal male clothing, whether donned by
cault argued that the eighteenth century (the factory owners or functionaries, makes some
period that saw the emergence of the busi- sense. These uniforms define powerful men
ness suit) marked a profound transformation as active, productive, and potent, and at the
in how power came to be exercised in Europe same time define them as glyphs of power
and America. In a feudal order, Foucault sug- disembodied abstractions. Womens formal
gested, power existed in order to be seen. It attire, with its flounces and fripperies, sequins
was enshrined in the very bodies of the king and whatnots, defines its wearer as something
and nobles, which were on continual display that you look at, as a passive object, but at
in portraits, pageants, and court ceremonial. the same time makes her bodily, specific, and
Common folk were faceless spectators. The even unique. (The word specific is origi-
modern bureaucratic state reversed all this: nally derived from the Latin specere, mean-
suddenly, it was the powerful who were face- ing to look at. Its the same root as gives us
less, depersonalized abstractions, as it was spectacle, inspection, and specimen.)
they who did the inspecting, examining, and John Bergers famous analysis of European oil
monitoring of everybody else. painting, Ways of Seeing, noticed that the so-
What Foucault was really talking about cial presence of a man in such quintessentially
were two different modes of exercising power bourgeois settings always turned on what he
that always exist, in any society. Sometimes was assumed to be able to do (the promise of
the general struts about showing off his med- power he embodied), while that of a woman
als, and sometimes hes inspecting the troops, turned on her appearance, which was taken
who are expected to keep eyes fixed firmly to indicate how she has treated herselfand
into space. Indeed, the most powerful way to therefore what it is acceptable to do to her.
represent power has always been to refuse to Robert Graves summed it up even more pre-
represent it. Thats why God or spirits in so cisely; in the world those oil paintings repre-
many traditions cannot be shown in images; sent, Man Does; Woman Is. (Only its not
its also why the way to show that something clear that Graves meant this as a criticism!)
is truly powerful is to hide it, to render it invis-
ible, ineffable, unknowable, utterly featureless Semiotics of the Barn Door, Open
and abstract. That which is unknown, Thom- So what does any of this have to do with neck-
as Hobbes once remarked, is for that reason ties? Well, at first glance, the paradox has
unlimited. It could be anything; therefore, only deepened. If the message of the suit is
you have to be prepared to assume it could do that its wearer is a largely invisible, abstract,
anything as well. and generic creature to be defined by his abil-
I suggest a simple formula: To express pow- ity to act, then the decorative necktie makes
er through display is to say to those over whom little sense.
one exercises it, Behold, see how I have been But lets examine other forms of decora-
treated. I have been treated this way because tion allowed in formal attire and see if a larger
of who I am. Now you, too, must treat me this pattern of sartorial power begins to emerge.
way. Kings cover themselves with gold as a Decoration thats specific to women (earrings,
way of saying that you must cover them with lipstick, eyeshadow, etc.) tends to highlight
gold as well. To refuse any such display, in con- the receptive organs. Permissible mens jew-

32 1 The Baffler [no.27]

elryrings, cuff links, fancy watchestends to too fat and colorful; dissipated sophisticates
accentuate the hands. This is, of course, con- wear thin ties; cowboys wear string ties that
sistent: it is through the hands that one acts produce the effect you might expect from
upon the world. Theres also the tie clip, but wearing a bow tie and a regular tie at the same
thats not really a problem. The tie and the cuff timeordinarily, this would be too unsubtle,
links seem to fulfill their functions in parallel, but cowboys are mythic he-men who can get
each adding a little decoration to tighten a spot away with it. ( James Bond can also get away
where human flesh sticks out, namely the neck with a bow tie, but then hes basically just a gi-
and wrists. They also help seal off the exposed ant penis anyway.)
bits from the remainder of the body, which re- Professional women have faced endless
mains effaced, its contours largely invisible. problems over what to wear around their
This observation, I think, points the way necks. Wearing a tie is considered sexually
to the resolution of our paradox. After all, the provocative, threatening. Its telling that this
male body in a suit does contain a third po- is the only aspect of traditional male attire
tentially obtrusive element that is most defi- women have not been allowed to adopt. In the
nitely not exposed, something that, in fact, 1980s and 1990s, there was some effort to de-
is not indicated in any way, even though one velop flouncy bows as an alternative, but that
does have to take it out, periodically, to pee. didnt really work out. The expedient today is
Suits have to be tailored to allow for urination, not to put anything at all in the open space re-
which also has to be done in such a way that vealed by the jacket, and just let the absence
nobody notices. The fly (which is invisible) is speak for itself.
a bourgeois innovation, much unlike earlier You can take it from here. But let me end
aristocratic styles, such as the European cod- with a last observation about gender. As an
piece, that often drew explicit attention to anthropologist, I am aware that one of the
the genital region. This is the one part of the most common features of patriarchyand this
male body whose contours are entirely effaced. is true in a surprising number of places, from
If hiding something is a way of declaring it a Africa to Sweden to New Guineais some
form of power, then hiding the male genitals idea that women produce naturally (they bear
is a way of declaring masculinity itself a form children) and that men produce culturally
of power. Its not just that the tie sits on pre- (they create society). Stated outright, this is an
cisely the spot that, in womens formal wear, obvious liepretty much everywhere you go
tends to be the most sexualized (the cleavage). you can find women doing most of the work of
A tie resembles a penis in shape, and points producing society too. So the message of the
directly at it. Couldnt we say that a tie is re- patriarchs has to be communicated obliquely.
ally a symbolic displacement of the penis, only And I suspect that traditional formal clothing
an intellectualized penis, dangling not from is one such statement.
ones crotch but from ones head, chosen from Think of it this way: if none of us wore any
among an almost infinite variety of other ties clothes, then it would be the male genitalia
by an act of mental will? sticking out visibly, while womens would re-
Hey, this would explain a lotwhy men main largely hidden. Maybe the entire point
who wear bow ties are universally taken to be of formal attire to invert this possibility, to
nerds, for example. True, a bow tie could be say, Yes, in nature, it is women who have mys-
taken for a pair of testicles. But even so, bow terious hidden powers of creation, but once
ties are small, and they point in entirely the we get all dressed and civilized, its precisely
wrong direction. Mafiosi wear ties that are the other way around.t

The Baffler [no.27] ! 33

Venus in Furs

Idle Threads
The sartorial unconscious
3 Ann Friedman

In The Devil Wears Prada, the 2006 rom-com BOOKS REVIEWED

starring Meryl Streep as a cartoonish version
Women in Clothes,
of the notoriously icy Vogue editor Anna Win-
by Sheila Heti, Heidi Julavits,
tour, Streep delivers a speech about the impor-
and Leanne Shapton,
tance of the fashion industry. You think this
Blue Rider Press, $30
has nothing to do with you, Streep says to her
new assistant (Anne Hathaway), who wishes Worn Stories,
she were doing hard-hitting investigative by Emily Spivack,
work rather than fetching coffee for an arbiter Princeton Architectural Press, $24.95
of high-end taste. You go to your closet and
Champagne Supernovas: Kate Moss,
you select . . . I dont know . . . that lumpy blue
Marc Jacobs, Alexander McQueen,
sweater, for instance, because youre trying to
and the 90s Renegades Who Remade Fashion,
tell the world that you take yourself too seri-
by Maureen Callahan,
ously to care about what you put on your back.
Simon and Schuster, $26
And yet, Streep explains, her assistants
sweater is this particular shade of blue because
a designer featured it on the runway a few
years ago, a decision that then trickled down powerful instrument for social change. It al-
through the fashion food chain all the way to lows us to think about who we are as individu-
the shopping-mall clearance racks. Its sort als and as a society. She did not say, A handful
of comical, she concludes, how you think of luxury designers and a few major clothing
that youve made a choice that exempts you brands decide what you will like and, in turn,
from the fashion industry when in fact youre buy and wear. Why would she? The modern
wearing the sweater that was selected for you fashion industry wants consumers to think
by the people in this room. You think you that we are not consumers at all, but curators
choose to wear things because you like them, instead. If the midcentury mantra was Dress
because theyre special, or maybe because to impress, and the roaring-80s catchphrase
youre special. But in fact, youre not special, was Dress for success, the directive now is
and neither are your choices. Youre just an Dress to express.
angora-clad cog in a great capitalist wheel. This approach to fashion is at the heart of
The real Anna Wintour would never put it Women in Clothes, a thick new book based on a
so bluntly, even behind closed doors. Hers is survey that writers Sheila Heti, Heidi Julavits,
an industry that depends on all of us continu- and Leanne Shapton circulated to more than
ing to believe that our choices are special and six hundred women asking them what they
that our senses of style are unique. At a White wear and how they feel about it. The women
House event for aspiring fashion designers offer hyperspecific thoughts about their every
this year, Wintour said, Fashion can be a sartorial choice, but only a few admit that they

34 1 The Baffler [no.27]


Youre just an angora-clad cog in a great capitalist wheel.

are influenced by trends or marketing. They stomach are immune to the intention of the
are much more likely to lay the blame on their jeans. I am a cow!
own bodies. A woman is never thin enough, The survey responses are shot through
writes Vedrana Rudan. I have a double chin, with the hollow promises of the fashion in-
I shove my tits into minimizers that minimize dustrythat with the right combination of
nothing, I get into Levis designed to flatten trousers and shirts and dresses and skirts, cut
the tummy and lift the ass, but my ass and in the right way and worn just so, women can

The Baffler [no.27] ! 35

Venus in Furs

be more glamorous, more powerful, more de- This professed aversion to the rigors of ac-
sired, more respected. I dress to withstand quiring clothing doesnt match up with the
the elements, says one woman. I dress to manifest joy that many of the women take in
be as interesting as the Tate. I dress to in- describing what ends up in their closets. Its
sert myself into social strata, to be accepted, also an awkward fit with the books own ap-
to pass. One five-year-old respondent says, parent marketing strategy. Since it first ap-
in an aside designed to break every would-be peared last fall, Ive seen Women in Clothes on
earth mothers heart, I am always conscious display in several womens clothing shops, for
of what Im wearing. Another woman offers sale alongside small leather goods and gold
a detailed journal of every high-end item she jewelry. Its safe to assume that the owners of
covets, from a Kenzo silk-crepe shirt to an these boutiques dont see the book as an anti-
amazing Gudrun & Gudrun multi-coloured dote to the psychological pain endured by fe-
dream sweater. Even unattainable fashion male shoppers, but as yet another fashionable
goals start to sound like theyd be great fun to accessory.
pursuea repudiation, somehow, of the grim, Theres a lot of whimsy in Women in Clothes
dictatorial vision of sexism as an obliging an artists rendering of various stains as they
handmaiden of capitalism. There are, howev- appear on womens clothing, Lena Dunhams
er, a few brief hints to the contrary: a Muslim description of her mothers sartorial vibe as
woman who wears a jilbab writes, When I see bejeweled ventriloquist dummy, a photo se-
what the women on billboards, commercials, ries cataloging each pair of black underwear
and game shows are wearing, it really aches a woman ownsbut its main revelation is
my heart. I mean no offense to anyone, but it how serious women are about what they wear.
hurts me to see the bodies of these innocent Theyve so thoroughly infused their wardrobes
women being used to sell products. And they with their hopes, dreams, and aspirations that
are made to believe that this is freedom. the anthology could just as easily be titled Wom-
Women, the book implies, are not sheep en as Clothes. Because I resist the ephemerality
who will buy whatever theyre told is on trend of clothing, I make grandiose demands of it: a
or anything H&M stocks for less than $39.50. garment must touch on all that I have ever been
They are thoughtful and careful about what and will be, writes Ida Hattemer-Higgins in
they wear and why. Fast fashion barely ex- an essay about how a secondhand store in Ath-
ists in the world of Women in Clothes; its care- ens helped her get over a breakup. The irony is
fully edited accounts of self-declared style that, for all my grasping at eternity, in the end, I
preferences seem, indeed, to be the sartorial almost never wear any item for more than a few
equivalent of the slow food revolution that months.
Michael Pollan jumpstarted in 2006 with The Out of context, such grandiose pronounce-
Omnivores Dilemma. In response to a survey ments seem over the top, but theyre right at
question about shopping, women express dis- home in a book about fashion and the female
comfort, embarrassment, or outright denial self. While J.Crew and GQ can still get away
before the suggestion that they, as a group, with acting as though its utterly modern for
buy a lot of new clothes. They describe shop- men to care about style, women have long
ping as an activity for which they must adopt been culturally saddled with the knowledge
a battle planor that, at the very least, they that they are how they look, and that there-
avoid on an empty stomach. To hell with the fore they are what they wear. The pursuit of
whole concept of shopping, says one respon- stylishness is not something they opt into, but
dent. Who needs clothes? rather something they must opt out of at great

36 1 The Baffler [no.27]

social cost. Hattemer-Higgins tells herself she and fashion civiliansfall flat. The lesson
is resisting the ephemerality of clothingand seems to be that just because a shirt is mean-
with it the dictates of the fashion industryby ingful to you, that doesnt make it interesting
carefully selecting each piece she wears from a for the rest of us to read about. The stories are
pile of thrifted cast-offs. illustrated with photographs of the items on
But to scour the racks, secondhand or oth- hangers, unworn as if they are up for auction
erwise, for the makings of self-expression a format that makes sense, since Spivack for
is only to double down on the importance of years culled quirky apparel listings from eBay
fashion. The truly transgressive choiceto and published them on her blog, Sentimental
dress purely for utilitynever seems to cross Value. In the book, though, this item-centric
the minds of the women featured in the book. approach comes off as strangely bloodless.
I dont blame them. Utility isnt much fun. If Some of the essays succeed in conveying the
you cant control the fact that youre going to emotional connections the authors have forged
be judged on your appearance, why not derive with their clothes. But many, such as designer
what pleasure you can from conveying to ob- Cynthia Rowleys description of her Girl Scout
servers how you wish to be judged? The inad- sash and actress Greta Gerwigs feelings about
equacy of clothestheir inability to express a mens button-down shirt, are perilously bor-
the depth and complexity of female experienc- ing. Where Women in Clothes adopts the narra-
esprobably explains both why women invest tive strategy of presenting clothes as a stand-in
their wardrobes with so much significance and for women, Worn Stories treats clothes, rather
why their clothes so often fail to satisfy them. wanly, as, you know, clothes.
It can be hard to tell why women are over- Spivack is right to observe that everyday
burdening their wardrobes with mystic pow- items, especially ones kept so close to our bod-
ers of signification: Is it in spite of the fashion ies, are bound to be vessels for our emotions.
industry or because of it? If you were to ask But documenting them tends to produce a
Streeps Wintour-like character, she would more powerful result when its done with a
say the answer hardly matters. Whether you specific goal in mind. Anti-rape activists, for
are an avid follower of fashion or studiously ig- example, have collected descriptions of what
norant of what appears on the runways, youre women were wearing when they were sexually
still affected by the prevailing style thats set, assaulted in order to prove that none of them
in part, by clothing companies. Even second- was asking for it. Efforts like these remind us
hand shoppers are not immune; even the dis- that stories about our clothes neednt be self-
enchanted cant leave their houses naked. indulgentthey can be politically minded. At
times, Worn Stories nods in this direction, by
Garb In, Garb Out virtue of a distinct anticonsumerist under-
Worn Stories, another new book of sartorial current. Against the old adage that theres
memoirs, this one collected by Emily Spivack, nothing more exciting than showing off a
is an extended meditation on the notion that new dress, Spivacks collection insists that a
our clothes are full of memory and meaning. pair of fifteen-year-old black plastic flip-flops
As Spivack writes in the introduction, My are thrilling in their own way: we can claim
own closet is full of clothes; it is also an evolv- the power to give objects meaning, rather
ing archive of experiences, adventures, and than ritually investing them with the power
memories. Despite this lofty preamble, many to give us meaning. The approach to fashion
of the Worn Stories essays and as-told-tosby sketched out in Worn Stories is the antithesis
assorted pseudo-celebrities, creative types, of the shoppers high.

The Baffler [no.27] ! 37

Venus in Furs

Women in Clothes and Worn Stories both owe editorial spreads. They offer brand-sponsored
a debt to Ilene Beckermans mid-1990s mem- giveaways to devoted readers and disclaimers
oir told through her outfits, Love, Loss, and like This post was written in collaboration
What I Wore. And each, appropriately enough, with HP & Intel to explain why their outfits
got its start on the Internet. Spivack has been are now accessorized with electronics. They
collecting eBay narratives on Sentimental Val- sit in the front rows at New York Fashion
ue since 2007 and accepting submissions for Week, which, in what is either its own nod to
her Worn Stories blog since 2010, and the sur- the rites of digital cool-hunting or a budget-
veys that Heti and Julavits and Shapton used minded response to Mercedes-Benz pulling
to compile Women in Clothes were first sent out its sponsorship, has announced that after be-
as chain emails. Even as Americans spend- ing displaced from Lincoln Center, its moving
ing on clothes has declined, weve found new to an undisclosed downtown location.
ways of digitally communicating the joys of The status of the reader, however, remains
consumptionlike YouTube videos in which unchanged. Blog browsers and magazine buy-
eager shoppers unbox their new purchases, or ers are equally secure in the knowledge that
rich kids Instagram photos hashtagged #Gu- they will never be able to afford the Miu Miu
cci. Online, every mundane choice is a vital skirts and Margiela ankle boots they see pic-
part of identity construction. tured. Rather than normalizing young girls
The books feature a heavy sprinkling of and women wearing luxury items, high-end
celebrities and art-fashion types, but even personal style blogs bring into sharp relief
so, they aim to position themselves as par- the difference between the fashion industry
ticipants in the democratization of fashion. and those who love it, wrote Alice Marwick
Caring deeply about clothes and the meaning in The New Inquiry last year. This frank ac-
they telegraph was once the province of high- knowledgement of budget constraints, espe-
fashion designers and magazinesthe Anna cially when combined with condemnation of
Wintours of the worlduntil blogs made the high fashions unrealities, reveals a push-pull
street the new runway and fashion bloggers relationship between the exclusivity industry
became the new chaperones of taste. that is fashion and the sui generis self-expres-
But as with other online modes of reputa- sion fetishized by personal style blogs. Now
tion, the proliferation of fashion blogs hasnt that fashion blogs are just as inauthentic as
so much diminished the power of the host fashion magazines and runways, weve collec-
industry as created a new perch on which to tively moved on to everyday people talking
prop it up. In remarkably short order, cloth- about their everyday clothes. The exclusive
ing brands latched onto upstart style blogs and nature of fashion is, increasingly, played out in
digital icons of fashion independence. What the personal stories we tell about clothes and
better way, after all, to reinforce the message the meanings that only we can give them.
that every personal fashion choice is a unique
one than to have it packaged in the wisecrack- Bearing a Grunge
ing argot of a teenager or shown through the This transition actually antedates the In-
lens of an amateur photographer? Now, nearly ternet, as Maureen Callahan argues in her
a decade after the advent of fashion blogging, new book Champagne Supernovas: Kate Moss,
most independent style bloggers post pho- Marc Jacobs, Alexander McQueen, and the 90s
tos in exchange for free merchandise, with Renegades Who Remade Fashion. As tastes
courtesy of credits that look much like the shifted away from shellacked and shoulder-
fine print at the bottom of fashion-magazine padded 80s perfection, the industry began

38 1 The Baffler [no.27]

Even secondhand shoppers are not immune;
even the disenchanted cant leave their houses naked.

to question traditional measures of power the traditional industry, and their digital-era
and popularity. High-fashion brands realized successors would be too. McQueen, Jacobs,
that even if consumers didnt want an edgy and Moss may have been insurgents storm-
downtown lifestyle, they wanted edgy down- ing the ramparts in the 90s, but today their
town fashion, or at least an approximation of names are synonymous with the moneyed
it. Designers who sold exclusively to the rich center of the fashion establishment.
started paying serious attention to subcul- And their career trajectories, as Callahan
tures that had never telegraphed wealth or traces them, make this point unmistakably
power. Amazonian supermodels were still the clear. Jacobs was one of the first designers to
norm, but John Galliano wanted Moss, then fully capitalize on the realization that it was
an unknown who was half a foot shorter than coolessential, evento adopt the air of a
the industry standard, to walk his runway be- disaffected outsider. In the first years of his ca-
cause we were looking for new girls, and she reer, when he assiduously cultivated the image
was cast as a wild child. Anna Wintour put a of a scrappy upstart with a tiny staff and bud-
woman in jeans on the cover of the first issue get, Jacobs was living in a luxury apartment on
of Vogue she edited. The industry started tak- the Upper West Side, already had the worlds
ing more cues from outsiders like X-Girla top supermodels walking in his shows, and had
brand designed by Daisy von Furth and Sonic been covered by Womens Wear Daily and the
Youths Kim Gordon and described by its fit New York Times ever since he was a student at
model Chlo Sevigny as too cool for school. the prestigious Parsons School of Design. Al-
The early 90s, Callahan argues, were exander McQueen had an undeniably rougher
packed with challenges to the tastemak- upbringing. Lee McQueenAlexander was
ing power of traditional modeling agencies, his middle namewas the chubby son of a taxi
magazines, and fashion houses. But outsiders driver and was raised in public housing in east
still needed the imprimatur of the fashion ma- London; after he dropped out of high school,
chine to find success. Moss was represented he managed to talk his way into the fashion
by a traditional modeling agency, and Win- design program at Central Saint Martins.
tour favored clothes by known fashion houses But even as he was building a self-consciously
in her editorial spreads. Fashion, Callahan high-end brand, with outr runway shows (his
writes, wasnt just in the throes of a genera- most famous was titled Highland Rape) and
tional coup dtat: What was happening now collections that were deliberately noncommer-
would change everything, and wouldalong cial, he, too, was well inside the power circles
with technologydemocratize the industry, of the London fashion world.
turning real people into models, reality show Both designers understood that the ap-
contestants and pop stars into designers, teen- pearance of transgression is a highly market-
age bloggers into front-row eminences. Yet able thing. The early adopters of high fash-
here, too, one should caution that most of ionthe people who find themselves in the
these convulsions represented only the veneer front row at fashion week and who embrace
of democratization. The renegades who an- a certain look years before its repurposed for
chor Callahans book were deeply invested in lucrative, off-the-rack knock-off deals with

The Baffler [no.27] ! 39

fast-fashion merchandisers like Target and dropped out of high school because she was
Forever 21need to be convinced that they are more interested in the London club scene.
special and nonconformist. If McQueens ge- There is no story of pluck, grit, and drive be-
nius was to take the disgusting and unseemly hind her decision to make fashion her career.
aspects of life and make them glamorous, Ja- In Callahans telling, Moss got famous almost
cobss genius, Callahan writes, was to trans- by chance, after an alternative magazine pho-
mute the lowly into the aspirational. Heres tographer fished her headshot out from a bot-
the way that Jacobs articulated his ethos, as tom drawer at a modeling agency. Even after
it applied to nightlife in the metropole: The she became the face of Calvin Klein and one
ideal girl will just sort of roll out of bed some of the most recognizable icons of the 90s
night after taking a nap and put on a slip that fashion scene, Mosss biography is run-of-the-
looks like this and go out to some club or go mill celebrity stuff: she did a lot of drugs and
dancing or something. Shed be all dressed, dated famous actors and drew accolades for
but shed still be kind of undressed . . . and she her carefully selected vintage dresses on the
wouldnt have to do anything else. red carpet. Even she seemed bored by herself.
She, as it turned out, was Kate Mossas Fashions not satisfying to me at all, Moss
Callahan writes, the first supermodel who said during her 90s heyday. You cant change
was coming of age with the Internet, the first the world through fashion because the aver-
one girls looked to off the runway: What Kate age person doesnt look at fashion pictures.
wore, whether on the street or on the red car- But, as Streep so artfully argued in The
pet, was much cooler to them than what she Devil Wears Prada, that doesnt really matter.
modeled. Her paparazzi photos were becom- The average person doesnt flip through Vogue
ing indistinguishable from her editorials. and doesnt follow Garance Dors street-
Despite Callahans efforts to elevate her style blog and will never come near a copy of
into the full-blown symbol of an age, Moss Worn Stories. Still, its just as clearly the case
comes across as painfully dull. She ran away that the same average person doesnt want to
from her middle-class, suburban home and feel like an average person. So long as she has
even a little bit of disposable income to spend
on clothes, and even if shes shopping second-
hand or raiding a friends closet, shes affected
by the notion that what she wears communi-
cates something about who she is.
Fashion brands and clothing retailers un-
derstand this, which is why they remain so
massively influential. No matter how the basic
elements of a trend, a look, or a line get reas-
sembled under the competitive taste and mar-
keting pressures of a new season, the basic so-
cial contract underlying the fashion system re-
mains intact: every consumer in the orbit of the
industry believes that every choice she makes is
an authentic expression of her true self. Thats
even, or perhaps especially, true if what shes
trying to express is that she doesnt really care
H A L L I E B AT E M A N about the clothes she puts on her back.t

40 1 The Baffler [no.27]

How Long Now
Since the Mailmans
Gone Missing?

3 Danielle Blau

Its a sad yellow feeling

like walking into someone elses childhood.

A flickering
inside a vast, black egg:

its time to go.

The little shops pass

wall-less and candlelit

by night

and she (who greets you at the door)

her mouth

makes a warm cave.

The tables set

for dinner, dear. Yes.

No one

will unravel this (your home address) again.

The Baffler [no.27] ! 41

Venus in Furs

Three Strikes!1
Thoughts after reading Three Guineas
3 Lucy Ellmann

I made nice.2 It didnt work. Women are still strophic effect not only on women, men, and children
but also on the arts, culture, and the environment is:
1In baseball, three strikes and youre out. Out on hand over the money. Transfer all wealth into female
your ass. The expression therefore has some bearing control. Not half of it, not 52 percentALL THE
on the trajectory of this article, my pitch being that MONEY. Given the mean little way that late capital-
men are swinging wild. The original idea for the ism works, a steady and wholehearted redistribution
piece came from reading Virginia Woolfs 1938 essay of wealth seems the simplest method of ensuring that
Three Guineas, to which I was alerted by the novelist women get treated with more respect, and get raped
Peter Burnett. But I couldnt refer to three letters and murdered less (a fad that clearly owes much to
as Woolf does, since nobody writes letters anymore; womens low social status). Until we can return to
and I chose strikes to replace her guinea idea, since a matriarchal form of socialism, or commonism
nobody knows what a guinea is anymore either. (No- (as the Scottish novelist and political activist John
body knows what a strike is anymore, come to think Aberdein would say), in which money has no place, we
of it. Thats why we need one.) Woolf is being ironic must put women in possession of real, unquestionable
about guineas anyway. With wit and eccentricity, her wealth. This pro-female asset-rearrangement, which
essay considers various good causes to which three Ive dubbed the Odalisque Revolution, constitutes a
guineas could usefully be put: the prevention of war, peaceful revolutionary act, and can be achieved on an
rebuilding a womens college in Cambridge, and individual basis, in private, by any right-thinking man
finding employment for women in the professions. In whos tired of hearing about women being deprived,
the end she offers each cause a guinea, this being all denied, despised, derided, deluded, ignored, cheated,
an educated mans daughter could afford: Woolfs exploited, manipulated, mocked, blamed, scolded,
three guineas thus become, in their paltriness, an threatened, raped, killed, overworked, and ordered
emblem of womens second-class status (making about. (Incidentally, women are automatic members
the diminished status of women the real subject of of the Odalisque Revolution.)
Woolfs essay). It may be hard now to imagine being Its not just about guineas, though. The ultimate
patronizing toward Virginia Woolf (arent we all aim of the Odalisque Revolution is the start of a new
supposed to be afraid of her?), but she was well aware matriarchal era in human civilization. It seems to me
of what the intelligentsia and ignorantsia, as she a safe, sensible, efficient, and really rather innocuous
calls them, put most women through. In her essay, solution to the problem of male mayhem, war, and
she concludes that women are outsidersbut in the destruction of the environment. And yet hardly
a good way. So are the many footnotes in her essay. any men to my knowledge have followed my very
Footnotes are always outsiders within a text, and clear instructions on how to relinquish the unfair
therefore make obliging underdogs in an essay on advantages so many of them claim to abhor. Only one
female subordination. The footnotes here are the man (the intrepid English writer and critic Anthony
women of this essay, and theyre taking over. Rudolf ) has asked to have his Odalisque Revolution
2As George Bernard Shaw said on his second arrival Mea Culpa Declaration stamped. This detachable
in America, I told you what to do and you havent certificate can be found at the back of any copy of
done it. In 2013 I put my solution to male violence Mimi (on page xxv): all the contrite uxorious philogy-
toward women in the most palatable form I could nist has to do is sign it and give all his money (or most
think up, a rom-com novel called Mimi, about a rich of it: he can keep some petty cash, for pizzas sake) to
guy in New York who sees the light and becomes a a woman or women of his choice.
champion of women. Mimis solution to the down- The Declaration, written in plain English, merely
ward spiral of patriarchal insanity and its cata- invites the signatory to make an admission that male

42 1 The Baffler [no.27]


property and power are ill-gotten gains, the products long, ill-considered review by Christopher Buckley
of mens misguided five-thousand-year-long terrorist in the New York Times that, among its other failures
campaign aimed at the usurpation and colonization of understanding, wrongly accused my heroine Mimi
of women. To give him his due, my copanelist, Alan of being a nymphomaniacget with it, mister, female
Bissett, at a so-called debate on so-called feminism sexuality is legit).
at the so-called Edinburgh International Book Fes- A few female reviewers have surfaced too, voicing
tival in 2013, publicly pressed upon me 10. It was a doubts about my pro-female cash-redistribution
start, though far from the full relinquishing of funds plan. Now, wait a minute! Youre telling me you
I have in mind. In return, I sent him, too, a stamped object to acquiring all the available wealth in the
copy of the Mea Culpa Declaration. But from other world, and with it the opportunity to subvert the
menapart from my husband, Todd McEwen, who murderous course men have taken? Youre using the
has already given me all he hasthere have been very examples of Margaret Thatcher and Elizabeth I and
few signs of acquiescence to my demands. No one Medea and Pandora and Lady Macbeth to justify
has even asked me to defend my position. Men have never giving women an even break? All because a few
relied on their stock tactic in response to female female creeps rose to high office within patriarchy,
insurrection: they have tried to starve the idea of and because male writers came up with some violent
oxygen by not responding to it at all (aside from a female characters? You really believe women would

The Baffler [no.27] ! 43

Venus in Furs

oppressed, men still running the show. bias at the Academy Awards, topless photos
Theyre still running around raping, killing, on Page 3 of the Sun newspaper in Britain, or
and maiming womenraping, killing, and nude photos of Jennifer Lawrence being sto-
maiming children too (which is really just an- len and shared online, we now have a global
other way of attacking women). Theyre still rape epidemic, with an accompanying crisis of
waging war, spraying every living thing with female self-hatred and self-harm. Sure, wom-
pesticide, eating huge pizzas,3 and charging an en are permitted to work (great, thanks a lot),
awful lot for a cut, highlights, and blow-dry. or deny Brits their Sun fun (though that ex-
And how about this new craze for murder- hausting effort was only semi-successful), or
suicide, which consists of the maddened liq- sue hackers over invasions of privacy, or join
uidation of women (usually ex-girlfriends or reclaim the night demos, or even defile the
estranged wives) and their children?4 And all British ten-pound note with a (prettified) por-
the jihadist outrages. trait of a female novelist,5 but our punishment
These people are trying to kill us! I dont for it will be some new, unexpected form of vi-
know why were all so nice about it. Nothing olence, privation, ostracism, or bomb threat,
substantial is ever done about the way men along with a lot of malignant jibes from Twit-
carry on. Instead, its feminism, that most no- ter trolls. As Mary Beard said in 2014 about
ble of causes, that is forever in retreat. [Pause mens determination to ignore, for the past
to do dishes.] When any outwardly positive step few thousand years, everything women have
forward is madetoward equal pay, say, or had to say, women . . . pay a very high price for
maternity/paternity benefits, or restrictions being heard.6
on the numbers of pink products targeted at Self-inflicted saturation in porn has pro-
girlssomething even worse always seems to duced a whole generation of young men who
happen to women on some other level. Pa- apparently cherish, or at least accept, absurd
triarchal retribution is swift: for all the mild ideas about pneumatic female torsos7 and
protests against Gamergate, or against male male rights (and rites) of domination.8 The
make as big a mess of power as men have? Oh, come
on. Enough of this self-abnegation. Weve run out of 5Yes, the Bank of England has bitten the bullet and
time for ambivalence. What we need more is a radical plonked Jane Austens face on a ten-pound note. A lot
redistribution of power. of good it does her (and she really couldve used 10).

3 Why do men like pizza so much? I think its 6For the whole lecture, see the London Review of
because the boxes look official, like theyve just come Books, March 20, 2014. Beard fixes on what its like
from some important meeting and theyve got some never to feel that you and your kind are properly
really important documents in there or something, represented in the culture. America broke away from
not just a big, hot, slippery blop of dough covered England for just such a reason: No taxation without
with mini-hamburgers, chicken tikka, and pineapple representation. (Not that the United States has
chunks. turned out all that well: founded on the abuse of the
native population, and of slaves, it cannot seem to
4Last December, David Crowley, a gun enthusiast, get massacre out of its ethos, or its gun laws. On the
murdered his wife and daughter (Pat Pheifer, Min- Fourth of July, 2014, eighty-two people were shot in
neapolis Star Tribune, Jan. 22, 2015). Jonathon Walker Chicago, and fourteen died.)
shot his two daughters, his wife, and his wifes
motherthough one of the girls survived (Benjamin 7Our increasing absorption with youth and beauty
Mueller and John Surico, New York Times, Jan. 24, has disenfranchised whole swaths of the female
2015). Because the murderer dies in the fray (of his population. The bodies of older women are now the
own making), these callous acts are often treated last great expanse of unchartered territory in the
in the same way as domestic disputes: culprit-free world.
crimes that are merely tragic family incidents. 8One of the forms this takes, in an all too literal

44 1 The Baffler [no.27]

These people are trying to kill us!
I dont know why were all so nice about it.

consequences of the recession9 here in the of rape and violence degrades us all.10 Despite
United Kingdom (I live in Edinburgh) have the scandalous gang rape and evisceration in
been felt most by those already disadvan- India last year, quickly followed by a similar
taged, and particularly women, through cuts event in South Africa, or the Steubenville case
to the health care system, rape crisis centers, in Ohio, in which an unconscious sixteen-
womens refuges, legal aid, and other vital ser- year-old girl was carried naked from party
vices. Police mistreatment of female victims to party to be sexually molested and peed
upon (activities that some of the perpetra-
kind of backlash, is the newly fashionable taste tors claimed to interpret as consensual sex),
on the part of straight men for anal sex, an avid- doubt only seems to grow about what con-
ity touched on in the aptly named movie Damsels stitutes rape or whether it even exists.11 The
in Distress (directed by Whit Stillman, 2012). Mens worse men behave, the more their crimes get
current unwillingness to concern themselves with
downgraded into minor misdemeanors. This
the vagina is a new blight on our age, and womens
increasing dissatisfaction with their own genitals has perverse transmutation is essential, of course,
kept pace with male oversightsIm not just talking for preserving the status quo: the mass hal-
waxing, plucking, and scenting here, but surgery and lucination that men are okay and women in
the phenomenon of the designer vagina, a term that some way, in so many ways, arent.
begs to be pronounced with an English accent. (See
Marie Myung-Ok Lees article in the Guardian, Oct.
14, 2011.) But the fault is not with female erogenous 10Only eight out of forty-three police forces in
tissue; its with the men who malign it. Straight men England and Wales respond adequately to domestic
have simply become worse lovers than ever before. violence, according to their own body, Her Majestys
(And, given the history of the missionary position, Inspectorate of Constabulary. Their behavior ranges
thats saying something!) They appear to be pitilessly from unforthcoming to utterly shameful. West
unaware of their true role: that of pleasing women. Midlands police officers called one female victim a
Women are not here for male pleasuremen exist to fucking slag. (See the Guardian article of March 27,
give women pleasure. Female prostitution is founded 2014, by Sandra Laville.) Meanwhile, the police did
on a dangerous misinterpretation of sexuality, leading nothing for years about reports of the rampant pedo-
men to pursue their own delights instead of womens, phile Jimmy Saviles crimes, and it now seems that the
in defiance of anatomy, and to the detriment of both whole of the British establishment has been molest-
sexes. Biology supports feminism! For an explanation ing children with impunity for years: the accusation
of the way in which penis construction is oriented to- of unthinking institutional sexism must be added to
ward female pleasure, rather than male, see Catherine the British polices proven proclivity for racism.
Blackledge, The Story of V (2003). 11Whoopi Goldberg perplexingly declared Roman
9Caused by men, but borne by women. Men run the Polanski not guilty of rape-rape. (See the Guardian
banks, the building societies, the buying and selling article by Jessica Valenti, April 24, 2014, on the new
of property, Parliament, Congress, the stock mar- rape vs. rape-rape distinction.) For an infographic
kets, the media, the oil wells, the Internet, and all the analysis of the number of rapes reported and rapists
other enterprises that allow economic downturns tried and convicted, including the minute propor-
to keep happening. We are all being crushed beneath tion of false accusations, see the Enliven Project (at
their incessant belief in growth and progress theenlivenproject.com), though who is enlivened
(male terms for a society doomed to implode) and, by these wretched statistics, I dont know. Argu-
now, their austerity cuts. Men can also withstand ments about rape are so wearyingespecially when
recessions betterbecause theyve got all the dough! you need all your strength for fleeing rapists.

The Baffler [no.27] ! 45

Venus in Furs

How about the sex-slave trade? Or the traumatize women and to subdue them. This
treatment of women and children in detention is traditionally accomplished through rape
centers?12 Or the way the English family court but can now also be inflicted through the jus-
system vilifies mothers?13 The aim is always to tice system. [Pause to hang up laundry.]
This is a society thats failing women,14 a
12In her superb book on the illegitimacy of U.K.
immigration policies, Open Borders (2004), Teresa 14 We think we treat women okay? Then why do
Hayter says all border controls are counterproduc- some women feel they need to look like Barbie dolls?
tive and unjust: Their object . . . is to exclude poor Why do they wear six-inch heels just to get to work?
people, and especially black people. The denial of Why do they feel their only purpose in life is to
free movement across frontiers gives rise to some of shape their eyebrows, give good head, and learn to
the worst and most vicious abuses of human rights, lap-dance? Why is the young Irish mezzo-soprano
and provides perhaps the most fertile terrain for the Tara Erraught described in the English papers as a
agitation of the far right. Its also obvious that in- dumpy (Independent), unbelievable, unsightly and
tolerance toward immigrants and foreigners closely unappealing (Times), chubby bundle of puppy fat
corresponds to the male attitude toward women and (Financial Times)? What about her ability to SING?
animals: all of these groups are left out of calcula- Has the relevance of thatin an opera star!been
tions, except as objects of blame. totally lost? (See Susannah Clapps fiery retort to
13As noted by the UNs special rapporteur, Rashida the insults, in the Observer, May 25, 2014.) Womens
Manjoo, in her statement last April on sexism in the self-image is in tatters, smothered under a deluge of
United Kingdoma report that dropped like cool photoshopped celebs, the designer-fashion parade,
rain in a desert and affronted the Mail. (Or was it porn geared to male pleasure and male fantasy,
the Male?) Among many acute observations about cosmetically altered styles of female body, the sex
British gender discrimination and the countrys objects beloved of advertising, and all the top-heavy
noncompliance with the Convention on the Elimina- superwoman types in cartoon animation. As a result,
tion of All Forms of Discrimination against Women there are girls on anorexic websites congratulating
(a great idea, and one to which the U.K. government one another for dying.
had already signed upwho knew?), Manjoo voiced In answer to the whole current hysteria about
concerns about the family court system. It ignores plumpitude, see The Obesity Era by David Ber-
children and womens safety when hearing applica- reby, which convincingly explains that fatness
tions for contact with estranged parents. . . . Lawyers relates to global pollution rather than to failings
and magistrates have limited understanding of the of self-restrainteven lab rats are getting fatter
dynamics of domestic abuse and force children and (Aeon magazine, June 19, 2013). One defect of Susie
their mothers to enter into unsafe and inappropri- Orbachs book, Fat Is a Feminist Issue, is that in the
ate contact arrangements. . . . Shared parenting is end it descends into diet advice: this much decreases
increasingly seen as an appropriate, default posi- the radicalism of her message. But fatism is a feminist
tion without the adequate consideration of the best issue, because all discrimination on the basis of how
interests of the child principle and ignoring the history you look is (implicitly) directed at women, women
of family abuse (my italics). A little-known aspect being the most likely candidates to worry about such
of Englands despotic family court system (see the things. Women now resort to plastic surgery from an
website of the Children and Family Court Advisory earlier and earlier age. Its a form of self-mutilation,
and Support Service: CAFCASS) is that mothers self-denial, and self-inflicted punishment, that is
who seek legal help to protect their children from becoming the normif you can afford it, that is, and
abusive, violent, or unpredictable fathers are threat- you may well be fired, demoted, dumped, maligned,
ened with having their children taken away if they or shunned if you cantwith every operation per-
dont accept the judges decision: there is no redress. formed putting pressure on other women to endure
Women are also gaggedprevented, on pain of losing the same. Yet even if you manage to be or become
their children, from speaking to the press or anyone whatever is considered beautiful at the time (its al-
outside the courtroom about the treatment they ways changing), youll still be stuck in a sexist society
received. These constraints incapacitate women by that hates you. As the Nobel-winning novelist Elf-
placing them outside the justice system and beyond riede Jelinek wrote in Greed (2006), The slim ones,
the benefits of free speech. who have worked hard for their figure . . . climb up the

46 1 The Baffler [no.27]

society in which women are kept in a perpetu- fered to you when you Google the word women
al, simmering state of terror.15 are womens clothing, womens shoes,
Yet how we bustle around, trying to look and womens dresses. Have we no other
good, be good, restrain ourselves in all kinds interests?17 We certainly arent supposed to.
of ways, and contort ourselves and our own [Pause to messin vainwith my hair.] The
needs and beliefs in order to work within a harsh treatment of Mary Beard or tennis star
setup men have molded to suit themselves, Marion Bartoli by the British media (and the
a setup in which women are forever doomed public), on the grounds of their looks, shows
to be the losers, hangers-on, and the butts of the high level of hostility directed at women
jokes, floozies all.16 The first suggestions of- whose achievements single them out from
the crowd.18 This, after the centuries it took
mountains every day or climb the walls at home.
15 No one has so far questioned my use of the term hopeless at making money, but we sure can spend it!)
terrorism in Mimi to describe all the lousy stuff This idea of male victimhood is neatly contradicted,
men do to women, perhaps because its so apt. But though, when it turns out that Pozdnyshev has mur-
men, the controllers of language, usually get to dered his wife. Her days of excessive buying are over.
define what terrorism is, and therefore never employ 17 Women have to be kept on their toesworrying,
the word to describe their behavior en masse, as a spending, and consumingto keep late capitalism
gender. They trip all over their own feet trying to afloat. So-called fashion is a way of fashioning wom-
define the word (and much, of course, depends on ens psyches into mute, mystified (and impoverished)
which government is doing the defining). Heres how acquiescence. In its feverish attempt to undermine
terrorism is described in the U.S. Department of them, fashion exerts daily pressure on women to
Defenses Dictionary of Military Terms: The unlawful throw one set of carefully chosen clothes away in favor
use of violence or threat of violence, often motivated of another, or risk belittlement. Marks and Spencers
by religious, political, or other ideological beliefs, to 2014 Leading Ladies advertising campaign in Brit-
instill fear and coerce governments or societies in ain displayed well-known, middle-aged women like
pursuit of goals that are usually political. My first actress Emma Thompson and musician Annie Lennox
question would be: Why is any violence lawful? swanning about distractedly in M & S gear (S & M
And next: What is the oppression of women by men, gear would be more appropriate, given the submissive
if not a coercive political campaign that makes use position generally expected of women these days).
of propaganda, blackmail, and the calculated use of Somehow, they all seemed a lot more respectable
(unlawful) violence and physical threat to promote an before they were roped into dopily modeling these
ideology (patriarchy)? Just because this form of terror black-and-white duds. Thus, a vague advance made
has gone on for thousands of years doesnt reduce its by women is twisted into its opposite, on the advice
criminality. Lets be clear about this: ALL VIO- of commerce. Instead of offering middle-aged women
LENCE IS TERRORISM AGAINST WOMEN reason to feel somewhat proud of themselves as people
(unless its committed solely to protect life, i.e., in whove accomplished something (as the ad purported
self-defense), if only because women produced all to do), this M & S campaign implied that whatever
the people being mangled, manhandled, murdered, lofty things these high-flying women may have on
or mutilated. (The fact that children are fathered by their minds, what they really care about is what
men is relevant merely on a molecular level.) Family theyre wearing. In unambitious obedience to the old
annihilationthat euphemism for slaughtering male gaze (a term originally coined by the filmmaker
your whole familyis a misogynistically motivated and critic Laura Mulvey), these public figures become
hate crime. Misogyny is lethal. As Fritz Feld tells just more female bodies on which to hang products.
Katharine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby (1938), The (That word Ladies said it all.)
love impulse in men very frequently reveals itself in 18BBC sports reporter John Inverdale felt his
terms of conflict. estimation of Marion Bartolis feminine allure was
16 In The Kreutzer Sonata (1889), Tolstoys narrator required by the nation when she won Wimbledon
Pozdnyshev complains that the whole world is pro- in 2013, saying, Do you think Bartolis dad told her
woman, because women are big shoppers. (We may be when she was little, Youre never going to be a looker

The Baffler [no.27] ! 47

Venus in Furs

for women to get the vote!19 This, after people did all these struggles mean?
died to protect abortion rights.20 This, after Not a goddam thing. The violence contin-
(many) governments have finally recognized ues, as does the inequality, and the pay gap,22
the injustice of female circumcision.21 What and the production of a million reactionary
Hollywood movies that fail the Bechdel test.
. . . so you have to be scrappy and fight? The Boast- When we peer up through that glass ceiling
ing Buffoon Club (BBC for short) received seven hun- we still see big, dirty mens shoes galumphing
dred complaints about Inverdales comments (and around.23 Even Mary-Kay Wilmers, editor of
even a reprimand from Maria Miller, then secretary
of state for culture, media, and sport). Inverdale duly
the London Review of Books, defended the mag-
apologized for his obnoxiousnessbut what goods azines lack of articles by and about women on
that? The damage to the mental health and aspira- the grounds that men make more pitches, and
tions of women and girls across the country had women have a lot of housework to be getting
already been done. Inverdales message was clear: get on with.24 [Pause to scrub stovetop.]
back to your mirrors, ladies, because, however good
you may be at something else, your only real function to believe, of some future husband. Not even kissing
in life is to be found attractive by jerks like me. (See is allowed before marriage. Weirdly borrowing from
the article by Patrick Sawer and Claire Duffin in abortion lingo, the doting fathers (or High Priests)
the Telegraph, July 6, 2013.) Inverdale later claimed claim to be protecting their daughters choice. (See
that illness had interfered with his judgment. The Katy Winter, the Daily Mail, March 21, 2014.) Any
last resort of the cornered misogynist is, often, worship of virginity is a denial of female sexuality
hypochondria. The MP Michael Fabricant said hed and bad news for women.
just been to the dentist in June, 2014, to explain the 22The Equal Pay Act was passed in Britain in 1970,
following violent tweet about the journalist and and yet, recently, a separate European commis-
critic Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, presumably issued in a sion report calculated the pay gap between men and
state of extreme novocaine confusion: I could never women at 16.4 percent across the EU, with the UK
appear on a discussion prog with [Alibhai-Brown.] I still one of the worst offenders despite having nar-
would either end up with a brain hemorrhage or by rowed its disparity to 19 percent (Gwyn Topham,
punching her in the throat. the Guardian, March 2, 2014).
19 While American women got suffrage a few years 23 Despite the fact that seven women successfully
earlier, British women were fully entitled to vote sued the New York Times in 1974 for sex discrimina-
(i.e., at age twenty-one) only in 1928, ten years before tion in hiring, pay, and promotion, the paper has
Woolfs Three Guineas came out. never quite outgrown its male bias. In 2014 the Times
20For an example of right-wing efforts to thwart fired its first female executive editor, Jill Abramson,
female freedom, see the report by Susan Saulny and apparently on the grounds that she was too pushy.
Monica Davey concerning the murder of Dr. George (See Patricia Sullivans triumphant June 8, 2011,
Tiller (New York Times, June 2, 2009). report at womensmediacenter.com on Abramsons
21 Not a single case has been brought to the courts appointment, and Olga Khazans grimmer May 14,
since specific laws against FGM were introduced 2014, article in The Atlantic on Abramsons dis-
in 1983 and 2002 (Rowena Mason, the Guardian, missal.) Coincidentally, Le Monde fired its first female
March 3, 2014). The West prides itself on its lenience editor, Natalie Nougayrde, the same week! Female
toward female genitalia, keeping most vulvas largely CEOs, it turns out, are more likely to be fired, and
intact (apart from those subjected to cosmetic sur- fired sooner, than male CEOs: studies have shown
gery), but a form of virtual female genital mutilation that male bosses are generally given more time to set-
goes on at American Evangelical purity balls (now tle in (though they hardly need it, since their gender
spreading to Europe). These are cheery gatherings at automatically positions them well), while employers,
which girls effectively neuter themselves, if only tem- colleagues, and junior staff all tend to grow impa-
porarily. Each girl, dressed all in white, grotesquely tient with female bosses more quickly. (See Edward
pledges her virginity to her father (in the fathers Helmore, the Observer, May 17, 2014.)
capacity as High Priest in the homeIm not kid- 24 Eighty-two percent of the articles published
ding) for safe-keeping, for the sake, they are all led in the LRB since its inception were written by men

48 1 The Baffler [no.27]


So lets admit it. Weve tried equality and

(though it did publish Mary Beards lecture on the
silencing of women, mentioned earlier). In Three it doesnt work. Equality within a society con-
Guineas, Woolf warns against any form of gender seg- cocted by and for fascist dictators? Phooey!
regation, citing the enthusiasm Hitler and Mussolini What we needwhat the victims of fas-
shared for separating the sexes. Ideally, perhaps, men cism need, what the victims of war and war
should review womens books, and vice versa, as a way crimes25 need, what the pathetically isolated,
of preventing womens work from being side-stepped
and ghettoized. The LRBs track record seems fairly
progressive, though, compared to the gender ratios ing over the kitchen is that all the food in fancy res-
in just about every Saturday newspaper supplement, taurants now arrives covered in ejaculateall those
in which all women seem able to do is eat noodles genitally boastful drizzles and foams and schmears.)
and model clothing, while most of the columnists, Just wait until men learn how to make bedsthink
gardening experts, chefs, and other know-it-alls are of the prizes, the TV spots, the Olympic bed-making
men. Women garden too! But the self-aggrandize- medals, and CASH theyll hand themselves!
ment of male chefs is particularly irksomewomen 25War and war crimes are actually the same thing;
cooked for thousands of years and didnt make a big theres nothing to be gained by distinguishing the
fandango about it. (The worst thing about men tak- two. The WWI veteran Harry Patch said war is

The Baffler [no.27] ! 49

Venus in Furs

frequently annihilated nuclear family needs, pires, football, darts, and Monopoly. The
what neglected, hunted, infected, injected, Industrial Revolution was no picnic either:
vivisected, near-extinct, factory-farmed, in in just a few centuries, men have managed
fact all, animals need, what every living thing to ruin the environment for everyone, leav-
threatened by disease, disrespect, dishearten- ing us with toxic waste, climate havoc, smog,
ment, detainment, and pizza, needsis fe- sweatshops, suicidal workers, tormented pigs
male supremacy. and chickens, foreclosures, destitution, and a
We can do this the easy way or the hard zillion T-shirts that say things. But who gave
way.26 men permission to mess this way with the air,
People apparently had it good for a couple the water, the land, and life itself?
hundred thousand years: stable matriarchal Men are so messy, always wrecking things.
societies resulted in a three-hour working The plan in Glasgow to demolish buildings
day and plenty of leisure time. Veneration of in celebration of last years Commonwealth
women is a natural impulse in mammals with Games28 was much in tune with the male urge
a high level of cognition, and the results were to desecrate land and sea for fun: mayhem
colossally beneficial to everyone. Free to think for mayhems sake. Obliterating beavers so
and move about outdoors without constraint, they can build their own damn dams! Shoot-
women invented agriculture, pottery, weav- ing dead the first gray wolf seen in Iowa for
ing, music, metallurgy, medicine, painting, almost a hundred years, despite its being a
sculpture, and astronomy. Then men, driven protected species (protected from what
by fear and envy (of women), and a strong de- exactly?).29 Denuding the land. Burning fossil
sire for pizza, loused everything up.27 [Pause to fuel. Men insist on killing everything, and us-
darn cheap sock.] Vengefully appropriating (or ing up every natural resource.30 Do we really
reversing) the progress women had made, men need cars and planes and air conditioning and
instituted their anti-nature religions, their so many throwaway pens you can never find
anti-female taboos, their hatred of the body, one when you need one? Does every last thing
their paternalistic approach to medicine, and
28Games organizers planned to kick off Glasgow
all their favorite games of imperialism, rape, 2014 in July by blowing up the flats ( Joe McGuire,
slavery, witch hunts, war, drug cartels, vam- Daily Record, April 17, 2014). After a public outcry,
they shelved this idea, but their tastelessness stands,
nothing better than legalized mass murder (The uneraseable.
Last Fighting Tommy, 2008). And the novelist Thomas 29 See the article by Ben Romans in Field & Stream,
Bernhard wrote, War is the poetry of men, by which May 14, 2014.
they seek to gain attention and relief throughout
their lives. . . . They [flee] from one misery to another, 30 Warmongering is a male trait (noisily echoed by
one misfortune to another, each one deeper and the ridiculous male absorption in team sports). As
more inescapable than the last, and they always Virginia Woolf writes in Three Guineas, Obviously
[make] sure of taking someone else with them there is for you some glory, some necessity, some
(Gathering Evidence, 1985). satisfaction in fighting which [women] have never
felt or enjoyed. Wilfred Owen, she admits, did not
26 See Valerie Solanass S.C.U.M. Manifesto (1967) share this penchant. And then theres Harry Patch.
for examples of the hard way (S.C.U.M. stands for And Thomas Bernhard. And all the men who refused
Society for Cutting Up Men). But I advocate only to fight in the Vietnam War. And the Veterans for
peaceful methods of revolution. Violence is a male Peace, who declare, We, having dutifully served our
delight, after allto hell with it. nation, do hereby affirm our greater responsibility to
27 See Marija Gimbutass remarkable Language of the serve the cause of world peace (veteransforpeace.
Goddess (1989), on the matriarchal cultures of Old org.ukemphasis mine). So, clearly, the taste for war
Europe. can be resisted.

50 1 The Baffler [no.27]

I advocate only peaceful methods of revolution.
Violence is a male delight, after allto hell with it.

have to be made out of plastic? Must the world further. Never mind what women doit is
be so UGLY? Those devilish inventions, TV, time for men to behave like mensches.33
computers, and the Internet, will eventually Virginia Woolf talks tentatively in Three
destroy us all. And how about the psychotic Guineas about the possibility that patriarchy
male allegiance to nuclear power, waterboard- is based on unconscious sex-taboos, but I
ing, fracking, police sirens, reversing-vehicle think, if were going to get fancy about it, what
beeps, and all the devious lies they tell about were dealing with is mirage-making. Men are
WMDs and government surveillance? Why intoxicated with self-delusion (among their
should we let George Bush (Sr. and Jr.) and many forms of intoxication), and, merely by
Tony Blair get away with it? Whyd we let Hit- dint of superior upper-body strength, they
ler get away with it? Why should we let Jimmy have forced women to engage with all sorts
Savile and Rolf Harris and Mel Gibson and of surreal male ideas about how life should be
Charlie Sheen and Ike Turner get away with it, lived, how sports, business, agriculture, and sex
or Charles Manson (recently engaged!), Fred should be conducted, and even how omelettes
West, Peter Sutcliffe, Thomas Hamilton, should be made! [Word to the wise: very hot pan.]
John Worboys, and Adam Lanza? And Ron- We are left with a whole lot of Dali paintings,
ald Lee Haskell, who executed four children the theater of the absurd, an extensive and ad-
and their parents in Texas last July, because he mittedly inventive literature of alienation, nu-
was in a bad mood about something or other. clear warhead gaps, and cowboy movies. When
Not to mention ISIS and Boko Haram. Why do women get to dream? What about allowing
should we let ANY of them get away with it? us a few hallucinations too? Like that we look
We cant. Basta!31 And yes, I know, I know, okay, or that were okay mothers and daugh-
women sometimes go along with some of this ters, or that we have okay things to say or do
stuff.32 But that is no excuse for indulging men or read or make? Or that were better at om-
elettes. Women need time and peace in which
31 I do (sort of ) realize that most men are not to develop our own insouciance, our own hob-
personally responsible for most male atrocities, bies, our own play, our own (pro-female) phi-
nor do women have a monopoly on humanity and losophies, our own sexuality,34 our own pizza
compassionbut thats no reason for men to be let
off the hook here. The endgame we currently face
was inflicted on us by men as a class (Woolfs term), Stockholm syndrome, and it needs repair work, not
so men should act en masse to redress the situation: censure. Give women a nurturing environment in
they have bungled things and should set them aright. which to recover some self-respect, and they prob-
ably wont savor tales of female torment much longer.
32 Rosemary Goring, literary editor of the Glasgow
Herald, wrote in despair about women crime writers 33 A reference to The Apartment (directed by Billy
and their hordes of bloodthirsty female fans. (See the Wilder, 1960), in which C. C. Baxter is urged by his
Herald, May 24, 2014.) This predilection does let the doctor neighbor to give up his presumed playboy
feminist side down, as it suggests women, too, love lifestyle (that has supposedly led to Fran Kubeliks
violence and gore. But I think its an ironic bloodlust, suicide attempt) and behave like a mensch . . . a hu-
stemming from the self-hatred that inevitably results man being. Baxter takes his advice.
from five thousand years of oppression, disenfran- 34 To quote Jessica Valenti, Were so accustomed
chisement, mockery, and violence. Its a kind of to a male vision of female sexuality [via porn, pop

The Baffler [no.27] ! 51

Venus in Furs

flavors! [Pause to contemplate handkerchief tree in disarmament; and (3) you guessed it, female
Edinburghs Botanical Gardens.] appropriation of wealth, property, and pow-
So heres my new solution, since men er.37 These issues are all bound together in a
wouldnt play the game and just hand over struggle to preserve nature, civilization, and
their money to women like I told them to. the best aspects of human culture. [Pause to
Once again, its up to women to sort this out, help husband find his man-bag.]
Im afraid. We shouldnt have to, weve all
worked hard enough already for little recom- Strike One: Nurture Nature
pense, but it looks like well have to exert our- Attitudes toward animals and the natural
selves further.35 My advice is for women to go world are closely linked to male attitudes to-
on strike, on a private, public, local, national, ward women. They spring from the same
and international level.36 Women make up anti-nature, anti-life, anti-female assumption
half of the worlds population, and so, united, that the world is there to be shaped, ravaged,
we cannot fail to have an effect. And there will and ruined (by men), and that animals can
be jolly times later as we begin to enjoy the re- be exploited, experimented on, and forced
sults of proving of our worth. to yield their every atom in service to mens
There are three forms of strike I recom- needs, whims, and financial greed. Ever since
mend: a housework strike, a labor strike, and Christianity declared the superiority of hu-
a sex strike. I cant wait (for the first two). mans over animals,38 and scientists started
While the ultimate object of all three is fe- up with their loose talk of tool-users and
male supremacy, each strike has its own par- higher and lower mammals, and philoso-
ticular focus: (1) animal rights; (2) nuclear phers chimed in with their notions of instinct
vs. individuality and creative thinking, animals
music and advertisements], its hard to imagine what have been looked on as a commercial resource
authentic and organic female pleasure would look rather than as living beings (though men, too,
like (Guardian, May 13, 2014). A woman-centered can of course be shocked by this narcissistic
society would find out pretty quick. The multiple
approach).39 Prehistoric matriarchal cultures
orgasm is, after all, one of natures triumphs. Why
waste it? never conceived of working against nature in
this waythey left it all intact for us to destroy.
35 Why not get things off to a merry start by spray-
painting, or knitting, matriarchal corrections for So, Strike One is a housework strike, to
street names: Hepburn Road, Solanas Street, Woll- protest against the destruction of the envi-
stonecraft Mews, Lorde Boulevard, (Andrea) Dworkin
Avenue, and so on (along the lines of the artist Jacki 37 Anyone wishing to help organize these protests,
Parrys feminized map of Glasgow, Women in the protest against them, or hone the strike-settlement
City [2012], which used the names of real women bargaining requirements, is very welcome to contact
who have made contributions to Scottish culture me at odalisquerevolution@gmail.com.
except that hers was not an act of civil disobedience)? 38With all that let them have dominion over the
The patrilineal aspect of such names, though, is fish of the sea and over the fowl of the air and over
depressing. the cattle and over all the earth, and over every
36 Barcelona has led the way on this. Last October creeping thing that creeps on the earth (Genesis
22, the city held the underreported Vaga de Totes 1:26, King James, Cambridge Edition) jazz, and other
feminist general strike, and a bigger one is planned maniacal androcentricities. Boy, its men whove
for 2015. Thats the kind of striking we need now, fouled the air!
globallywhether theyre spontaneous events or care- 39 See the scene in Napoleon Dynamite (directed by
fully stage-managed international shindigs like Eve Jared Hess, 2004), in which Napoleon is faced with
Enslers One Billion Rising demos (Valentines Day) chickens on a factory farm: his discomfiture is nicely
and the International Day of Peace (September 21). done.

52 1 The Baffler [no.27]

ronment and the ways in which animals are destruction. To demand a stop to all this, for
misused and misunderstood, from concentra- the sake not just of the natural world, but of
tion-camp-style farming40 and zoos to whal- human civilization too (which depends on the
ing, fishing, 41 and habitat assimilation and preservation of a habitable planet), women
should withhold their home- and family-ori-
40 According to Philip Lymbery and Isabel ented labor: stop mothering, 42 stop daughter-
Oakeshotts Farmageddon (2014), factory farming is
ing, stop wifeing. Stop cooking, stop cleaning,
not only cruel to animals but dangerous to humans,
too, due to the pollution and superbugs its caused. stop taking out the trash, stop making the
We will probably end up with a global flu epidemic beds and ordering the pizzas, stop shopping,
leading to millions of deaths, just so that for a mere stop lugging home bottles of booze for men to
fifty years or so farmers were able to grow meat in glug, stop gardening, stop ironing, stop wash-
record time. Bird flu, swine flu, and variant CJD were ing your hair, stop putting on makeup (in fact
all generated by intensive farming, a euphemism
for mens incorrigible assault on the natural order
stop the whole beauty cult).43 Stop vacuuming
in favor of profits. (Its now accepted that vCJD was
caused by feeding scrapie-infected sheep to cows for in the rudders of boats. Carl Zimmer recently re-
the sake of faster growth.) See the Meat Atlas (Hein- ported that, as a result of climate change, pollution,
rich Bll Foundation/Friends of the Earth Europe, and acidification, the oceans are on track for mass
2014), for further evidence of the destructiveness and extinctions this century. (See the New York Times,
cruelty of industrial livestock farming. Farm animal January 15, 2015.) What is wrong with us? Are we all
welfare in the United States is not protected by law: too busy getting laid to get MAD?
see the 2015 in-depth expos, by Michael Moss, of 42But this strike is not meant as an attack on
the insanely arrogant and negligent attempts to motherhood. (We can leave that game to men!)
retool animals to produce multiple births and ten- Carry on shielding your children from danger and
derer meat, carried out by the government-financed providing them with food, clothing, and shelter.
U.S. Meat Animal Research Center, essentially a Take them to school and help them with their
state-approved school for sadists (New York Times, homework. Life, health, education, and freedom of
January 19, 2015). And as discussed in Farmageddon, movement are all fundamental principles that need
grain and vegetable growing is beset with screwball protection. Denigrating mothers is the oldest trick
ideas too. Having drained the land of nutrients and in the book, and a great way of repressing women.
beneficial insect life (in some parts of California, the It is very important, for patriarchy, to downgrade
soil is now like Styrofoam), farmers have to make up womens major role in procreation and parenting
for the resultant lack of bees, birds, and soil quality starting with patrilineal naming. (What an idea that
by drenching everything in more pesticides, herbi- was!) Childcare, maternity services, family planning,
cides, and chemical fertilizers. (See also the food schools, and parental access arrangements (after
facts documentary film, Our Daily Bread, directed divorce) are all areas in which womens power is
by Nikolaus Gehrhalter, 2006.) Bees are now so diminished, cuts are threatened or enacted, and the
overworked, even by bee standardstransported by gender battle is waged. Laura Mulveys film Riddles
car and plane to pollinate cropsthat theyre like of the Sphinx (1977) movingly pinpoints the political
an insect version of the sharecroppers in The Grapes implications of childcare provision. If you mess with
of Wrath (1939). Rescue bees from slave labor! The motherhood, you are attacking women. Its matrism
whole way we now interact with nature is fraught (a term coined by me): discrimination against moth-
with self-defeating artifice. For the most lucid treat- ers. When women have all the power and the money,
ment of the subject, read Rachel Carsons beautifully maternal matters will be better handled.
vehement Silent Spring (1962). 43We are now OBSESSED with looks in the West.
41 Fishing is now run on an intensive basis too, and Sure, some people are attractive. So what?! Why
relies on cruelty, collateral death and damage, deple- is that big news? Why so endlessly enthralling (to
tion of stocks, and waste. Whales, dolphins, and some)? The meager delights we may find in notic-
sharks are being caught accidentally in fishing nets, ing beauty come at the cost of so much misery: the
leading to repeated trauma and often death, even if deceitful and mercenary diet industry, the plastic
attempts are made to free them. Seals are mutilated surgery industry, anorexia, bulimia, OCD, suicide,

The Baffler [no.27] ! 53

Venus in Furs

and sterilizing the cat litter tray and alpha- The money saved from these enterprises is to
betizing the books and paying the bills; stop be spent on childcare provisions. Six-pack plas-
making all those pots of tea and coffee and tic rings in which turtles get tangled are also
smelling the milk to see if its gone bad. Stop to be banned (men will just have to carry their
doing all the things you do to try to make a beers some other way). And every man must
nice home for your family. This wont be easy make a contribution of 10 percent of his after-
for most women to carry out, since women tax income to Compassion in World Farm-
originally created the home: they needed to ing, the World Wildlife Fund, or Greenpeace,
establish domestic tranquility, comfort, and must agree to clean the toilet weekly without
security in order to raise children. Women being asked, and must from now on confine
invented coziness.44 [Pause to buy artichokes at the foaming, the schmearing, the drizzling,
neighborhood grocery.] But you can put it all on and the fracking to the boudoir.
hold for a little while, in aid of animals and
the natural world, cant you? And what a lot of Strike Two: No More War Work
thinking time youll gain. Forget all the romanticized notions of wom-
DESTRUCTION OF NATURE IS AN ens contributions to war efforts that weve
ATTACK ON WOMEN. The strike will be been asked to stomach lately in celebration
called off only when governments agree to end of World War Iall those TV shows about
animal cruelty, factory farming, the intensive selfless, bitchy, or homicidal WWI nurses, as
use of herbicides, pesticides and chemical fer- well as all the photographs of women slaving
tilizers, chemical pollution, CO2 emissions, away in munitions factories. War is no place
marsh-draining, rainforest encroachment, and for women. It wasnt womens idea (war was
all their other dopey, criminal, and crazy ideas invented by Bronze Age patriarchal societies,
(such as filling the world with nanoparticles). following the invention of superior weaponry),
and its not in womens interests: war promotes
ankle injuries from tumbling over in high heels, mel- and entertains men, but it severely curtails
anomas from tanning salons, and all that unaesthetic womens freedoms. It is designed to subdue
Lycra gear worn by joggers. Im so corrupted myself women and deprive them of what they need.
by all this beauty nonsense that I now have body
Women, therefore, shouldnt have to help with
dysmorphia about other peoples bodies: I see only the
bits that trouble me. Its distracting and depressing, this.45 They shouldnt have to proudly or tear-
and all so unnecessary: there is no need to consider fully or bravely welcome home the dead. They
or discuss peoples appearances all the time. Its rude. shouldnt have to provide the world with young
Supreme beauty is actually so rare that it should be men and women to be killed, raped, tortured,
regarded as an oddity, perhaps to be pitied. I hereby maddened. War devalues the power of giving
call for a one-year moratorium, starting from the date
of publication of this essay in The Baffler, on any
birth. That is its primary purpose. War serves
mention of peoples appearances. We can chat about as a means of rejecting and destroying women.
other topics for a change instead. The beauteous Strike Two, a peace strike, involves with-
would survive a slight lessening of acclaim, and the holding womens labor in the workforce.46
rest of us could relax. After a year of such abstinence
I expect we will find ourselves cured of the fixation, 45 Marching doesnt suit women either: female
and much better conversationalists. soldiers have been injured by standardized march-
44For further elucidation of coziness, see Mimi, ing requirements oriented to the length of the male
pp. 24, 3233, 37, 64, 66, 72, 82, 171, 194, 195, 198199, leg. For further glimpses into the world of military
207, 223, 226, 230231, 234, 273, 294, xii, xiii. (Cour- marching, including a chicken whos pretty good at
tesy of the 2014 Mimi index kindly compiled by the it, see marchright.com.
writer and translator Suzy Romer.) 46Of the three strikes I propose, a labor strike

54 1 The Baffler [no.27]


[Pause to check net for poorly paid part-time jobs.]

should be the easiest to pull offafter all, who wants
to WORK? If womens value to the labor force must The intention behind it is to organize not
be proven in such an elementary way, lets get started. just against war, but also against the threats
Even a strike of one day by all women everywhere to all life on earth posed by nuclear energy
would bring things to a complete standstill. (While and nuclear bombs, and against the suffering
demonstrating, we can sing Union Maid by Woody they have caused and will continue to cause.47
Guthrie, which speaks of the almost bygone days
when workers were defended by unions.) Employ-
ers would soon have to come to the table (a nice legitimate than the exhortation to eat-pray-love,
domestic phrase) and meet our terms. And think of but it makes no real sense, because work is anathema
the delicious sensation meanwhile of a day/week/ to health and love. Women have already worked hard
month/year off! Why should women (or bees) partici- enough in the most menial jobs for centuries anyway.
pate in the Protestant work ethic devised by men? Its time they took things easy. This is why the Odal-
Overwork silences dissent and original thought and isque Revolution will entail much relaxation in cozy
destroys physical, emotional, and community health. surroundings, and the wearing of harem pants.
WoHeLo, short for Work-Health-Love, the motto 47 See Hiroshima by John Hersey (1946). No less dev-
(and greeting!) of the Campfire Girls, may be more astatingly, Stanley Kubricks film Dr Strangelove (1964)

The Baffler [no.27] ! 55

Venus in Furs

Men insist that these forces are manageable by war in any way gets a years paid vacation, in
and economically necessary. They are not. order to reflect and recuperate. (People provid-
We dont need them, we cant handle them, ing essential services, by the way, such as farm-
and we cant afford them. Some of the guys ing and medical care, will have to take turns
involved in creating the atom bomb have had having a year off.) This traumatized bunch will
the grace to apologize, but such apologies are inevitably include all military personnel and
of no value. Who in hell cares about Robert their families, and anyone who has paid taxes,
Oppenheimers conscience, one of the tiniest since successive Western governments have
things in the universe? Nuclear bombs should put a vast proportion of tax revenues into so-
never have been invented. Women could have called defensei.e., into grand-scale, institu-
told men this, and probably did, but war is a tionalized aggression. [Pause to sort receipts for
convenient excuse to override what women tax purposes.] Even after a million or so people
have to say.48 It has always served as a means protested across Britain against the Iraq War,
of suppressing womenthrough rape, trauma, Tony Blair went ahead with it. He and all war-
injury, exile, poverty, deracination, disease, mongers must be tried by the Russell Inter-
starvation, bereavement, sexual frustration, national War Crimes Tribunal, and the only
voicelessness, grief, and male punditry. In the legitimate military outfit from now on will be
twentieth century, warfare was redirected the United Nations peace force.
specifically toward the obliteration of women It is also essential to end non-military uses
and children.49 Whatever noble motives mili- of nuclear energy. When exploiting atomic en-
tarists may claim for themselves, if women are ergy for supposedly peaceful purposes in the
the main victims of war, warfare is just anoth- nuclear power industry, men are prepared to
er outlet for misogyny. take such incredible risks with our lives and
One aim of the strike is to ensure that any- the lives of all future entities on earth that this
one who feels his or her life has been blighted alone is proof that they are unfit, as a sex, to
rule. Nuclear waste and nuclear disaster mess
offers a clever, artistic, and horrifying take on nuclear
cannot be adequately containedthe means
bomb folly. In one scene, U.S. forces fight each other,
beneath a billboard asserting the official ethos of the of doing so have not yet been found and may
Strategic Air Command: PEACE IS OUR PROFES- never be.50 The ease, also, with which crimi-
SION. Peace is the favorite word of hypocrites.
50 Were depending on men to safely dispose of nu-
48 See the documentary film If You Love This Planet clear waste? What, are we CRAZY? These are peo-
(directed by Terre Nash, 1982), in which the great ple who use every pot in the house to cook anything
antinuclear activist Helen Caldicott challenges and then leave them all lying around the kitchen
the official (male) acceptance of nuclear energy and after. They dont cover anything when they put it in
weaponry. the fridge, as short-order cook Harriet disgustedly
49 Sven Lindqvists A History of Bombing (1999) remarks in Sleepless in Seattle (directed by Nora Eph-
charts mens love of the bomb and adoption of civil- ron, 1993). Thus, Hot Particles and bucky balls
ians as its primary targets. Drone strikes are one of (?) from the meltdown at Fukushima will now drift
the latest variations on this sport. And now we have around the planet to the end of time. The Fukushima
Boko Harams massacre of two thousand civilians in plant can no longer contain its contaminated water,
Baga, Nigeria, in January 2015, as well as their new so the facilitys officials pour it into the sea. Tuna on
use of girls as suicide bombers and their abduction of the west coast of America have significantly higher
hundreds of schoolgirls last year, to be raped, mar- levels of radioactive contamination than ever before.
ried by force, and sold as slaves. (See the article by (See fukushimupdate.com, April 5, 20, and 30, 2014.)
Abdulwahab Abdulah and Uduma Kalu in the Van- For the latest thinking on containment strategies
guard, Nigeria, May 5, 2014.) More than two hundred for nuclear wastestrategies that probably wont
of those girls are still missing. worksee the devastating documentary film about

56 1 The Baffler [no.27]

Of the three strikes I propose, a labor strike should be
the easiest to pull offafter all, who wants to WORK?

nals could sneak into nuclear power stations hold themselves sexually from men.52 Men go
at any moment and make off with plutonium on sex strike all the time, to keep women doc-
is never mentioned by politicians when theyre ilenow its our turn! Women mustnt be vin-
foisting another bunch of reactors on us, bom- dictive, though. The pure-minded aim of our
bastically claiming that nuclear energy is safe, sex strike is merely to gain the assets and privi-
efficient, and cheap. Its only cheap if life is. leges to which women are entitled: Im talking
BOMBS, DRONES, WAR, NUCLEAR about THE MONEY. Since men wouldnt give
WAR, AND NUCLEAR REACTORS ARE up their dough voluntarily, they must be forced
ALL ATTACKS ON WOMEN. This strike to hand it over in return for sex. Theyre always
will end only when men hand in all their guns accusing us of being sluts anyway, so this is a
and quit their jobs in the military sector (fe- simple equation they should be able to grasp:
male soldiers can remain, if they must, but only no money, no sex.53
to work for the United Nations peace force), This type of sexual blackmail has similari-
and when governments agree to an immediate ties with the fictional sex strike employed by
end to all peaceful and military uses of nuclear Aristophaness Lysistrata.54 In an effort to
power. Men must contribute means-tested bring the Peloponnesian War to an end, Ly-
contributions (10 percent of annual income sistrata enlists the help of enemy women, on
after tax) to Womens Action for New Di- the grounds that war is bad for all women, and
rections (WAND), Campaign Against Arms it works! They hole up in the Acropolis togeth-
Trade (CAAT), Global Zero, Greenpeace, er, and its quite a successful sit-in, until some
Friends of the Earth, The Ribbon Interna- of the sexually frustrated participants start
tional, or the World Disarmament Campaign. trying to tiptoe off, on the feeblest pretexts:
the moths will be eating my sheepskin, or I
Strike Three: Money for Sex turn out to be pregnant and have to go home
As Woolf points out in Three Guineas, women to have the babybe back tomorrow, or the
have labored in the home unpaid for thousands owls [fellow inhabitants of the Acropolis] are
of years, watching all the family money go to keeping me up at night. (I paraphrase.) But in
mens education, mens leisure pursuits, mens the end, the plan works like a charm: the pri-
beer, mens cigars, and pizzas.51 This money apic men-folk quickly agree to a peace deal, so
must now be reallocated to women, and until
that is done, heterosexual women should with- 52 It will be important to enlist the support of prosti-
tutes in this endeavor, since men (currently) have the
Finlands radioactive waste repository, Into Eternity means to buy their way out of sexual abstinence.
(directed by Michael Madsen, 2010). But no level of 53Women who have sex with women need not par-
radiation is safe. ticipate in the sex strike. Its purpose is male sexual
51 The daughters of educated men received an privation, not female. Gay sex in both genders will
unpaid-for education at the hands of poverty, either be unaffected by the strike, or enjoy a surge in
chastity, derision and freedom from unreal loyalties popularity.
. . . an unpaid-for education . . . that fitted them . . . for 54 Lysistrata, by Aristophanes (411 BCE)see
the unpaid-for professions (Virginia Woolf, Three Lysistrata and Other Plays (translated by Alan H. Som-
Guineas). merstein, 2002).

The Baffler [no.27] ! 57

Venus in Furs

that they can rush the women off to bed. of the biggest threats to peace, climate stabili-
Even with the availability of porn mags and zation, the natural world, and getting close to
sex slaves, a sex strike still seems an excellent paintings in museums. Its essential that we all
ploy in the twenty-first century.55 [Pause to put stop multiplying. Forget in vitro fertilization!
on lipstick.] Its not a bad method of confront- Forget the expense and tedium and thankless-
ing men about their increasing disregard for ness of parenthood itself. With a moratorium
female sexuality either. For greater effect, we on childbirth for a year, just to start with, we
might usefully employ the show-stopping pow- might see women adopting a new identity
er of vaginal display.56 Such a strike would of based on the freedom, leisure, and originality
course have to be carefully policed because of of childlessness.58
male dependence on violence as a form of com- POVERTY IS AN ATTACK ON WOM-
ment and coercionnot everyone is as sane and EN. The sex strike will be called off only once
easy-going as Aristophaness male characters. men have transferred over half of their finan-
Now, no shirking, sisters. No lame ex- cial assets (on a permanent basis) to one or
cuses and secret assignations!57 Remember, more women of their choice or contributed
there will be plenty of sex, and sex maybe of the same to a womens charity or nonprofit
a higher quality, once men have recognized banking organization formed to issue women
their responsibilities. [Pause to push through loans, such as the Grameen Bank in Bangla-
hordes of mamas and babies in caf.] We might desh. Governments must make all violence a
hope for some collateral fall in the population crime, tax men twice as much as women, and
too, while were at it. Over-population is one earmark the resulting revenues for the en-
hancement of womens lives. Men must spend
55Its worked in Colombia (2006/2011), Liberia at least one day a week listening to, or read-
(2003), Naples (2008), Ukraine (2010), the Philip- ing, what women have to say. And children
pines (2011), Belgium (2011), and Togo (2012), and was must study prehistory in order to get an un-
used as a form of protest against the Russian pres- derstanding of the matriarchal cultures that
ence in Ukraine (2014).
predated patriarchy. So as to reinstate mens
56 The vulvas mythic significance as the basis and natural duty to serve female pleasure, biology
origin of all human life makes vaginal display the
courses in school will revise our approach to
perfect antidote to death-lust. In ancient history,
women resorted to vaginal display as a fertility sex, with particular emphasis on the female
rite and as a form of antiwar protest. According to orgasm. Men might as well sign my Mea Culpa
Catherine Blackledge, in Greek mythology women Declaration, too.59 And I wish theyd smile
used this method to quell Bellerophon, who was
threatening to flood the Xanthian plain. And mak- 58 While not wishing to devalue motherhood in
ing derogatory remarks about female genitalia is any way, I dont think women have fully explored
punishable by vaginal display en masse . . . in [parts the advantages of contraception yet. Arent we all a
of] Africa (The Story of V ). Sheela-na-gigs, exagger- little tired of registering every advance in diaper and
ated Mediaeval depictions in stone of women pulling stroller technology? No one dares mention popula-
their vulvas wide open (a remnant of prehistoric tion control for fear of sounding pro-eugenics, and
mother-goddess cult symbols), which were added anti-growth. But just cutting off the governments
to buildings to ward off evil or to promote fertility, supply of cannon fodder seems reason enough
remain one of the few public acknowledgments of to remain childless (a motive mentioned in two
female sexuality in the West. Similarly, Ukrainian womens letters to the Telegraph in 1937, quoted by
feminist FEMEN activists use nudity to shame men, Woolf in Three Guineas). The missing tax revenue and
and have recently moved from going topless to going pension contributions could be supplied by allowing
bottomless as well. free movement of immigrants. (See noborder.org.)
57 Of the heterosexual variety, that is. 59 I, the undersigned, confess to having, conscious-

58 1 The Baffler [no.27]

moremens default facial expressions are far [Pause to caress husbands cheek.]61
too gruff. They frighten me.60 If all else fails, we can always mobilize a
pizza strike. Thats got to work.
ly or not, overtly or not, been part of a worldwide Would we settle for less, to end our strikes?
conspiracy that has constrained womens lives But we have, for thousands of years, and it
through centuries of violence, repression, distress, pains me that Virginia Woolf had to settle for
and discouragement. I recognize that this treatment
of women has been a ploy in a power gamethe result
of male cowardice, stupidity, perversity, and corrup-
tionand that the status of men has been artificially women were smiling and trying to be genial. This
exalted by it. I acknowledge that vast numbers of wasnt because the men were having a lousy time (the
women have been unfairly treated throughout the Guinness was flowing freely); theyre just LAZY.
period of male rule. I therefore apologize for any (What would Joyce have made of it?!) Men should
tyrannical behavior of my own, and that of other realize how threatening the male scowl is. Just as
men, and pledge to do my utmost to prevent such they must learn not to walk menacingly down a dark
injuries, insults, and injustices from occurring ever street behind a lone woman, or interrupt women,
again. I apologize for stubborn male resistance over or scold women for interrupting them, or complain
the centuries to womens ideas, thoughts, decisions, about everything women do, they should adjust their
and remarksin the home, at work, in business, in facial expressions into more frequent displays of be-
the arts, in education, and in government. In light of neficence. Its not fair that women do all the giggling
this loss of female input over centuries, I now agree and buttering-up, forever trying to make people feel
to abide by the decisions women make, without comfortable. Why should we, after what weve been
resorting to mindless criticisms or meaningless reflex through? Its MEN who make everybody uncomfort-
contradictions and derision, no matter how wacko or able, and men who should make more of an effort
whimsical the ideas expressed by women may seem to be convivial. Sheesh, do we have to explain every
to me to be. I renounce male power and privilege, on little thing?
the grounds that they were unsportingly won. I wish
to relinquish all remaining economic, social, and 61 Husband remarks encouragingly that, when the
political advantages I may have obtained, either as aims of all three strikes have been realized, capital-
a mere consequence of being male, or because of my ism will be finished.
active participation (now regretted) in misogynist
acts of terror, either overt or underground. In aid
of this, I have transferred and/or will transfer, and
will continue to transfer, my financial resources to
a woman or women, no strings attached. By such
means, I hope to foster a more humane environ-
ment, in which women are less likely to be mistreated
and maligned. It is my hope that the hand-over of
power and property to women will ultimately lead
to a transformation of society, benefiting people,
animals, and the natural world, as well as ensuring a
future for human culture, and the preservation and
continuation of artistic endeavors. I believe in the
pleasure principle, and therefore renounce the male
work ethic as an indecency imposed by men who
wished to profit from enslavement and subjugation. I
hereby attest the inalienable right of all creatures to
life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. (See Mimi
for further details on stuff men ought to do.)
60 At a small Bloomsday celebration at the Irish
consulate in Edinburgh last June, I noticed that all
the men were standing around scowling, while the HALLIE BATEMAN

The Baffler [no.27] ! 59

wS T O R Y

Gustus Dei
3 Monica Byrne

T he convent sat on a waterless plain. Father Dykstra was paranoid about the In-
Sister Theresa rested on a bench at the edge dians. He was a grandson of westward-bound
of the convent garden. She looked up at pioneers, a child of ambushes. Sister Theresa
the clouds. She imagined them thickening, had once been in his cottage and seen maps
curdling, manifesting. Manna would drop all over his desk: Wyoming, North Dakota,
slowly and drift to the ground like snow- Minnesota. Indian territories were marked
flakes. She and her sisters would gather them up in red.
up in the folds of their skirts and place them Be an early winter!
into their mouths and then feed them to Dont I know it.
each other. Father Dykstra seemed satisfied by this
She saw Father Dykstra lurch into view. last exchange. Sister Joan lingered a moment
He was coming up the rise from his cot- longer for his sake, looking hard out over
tage, kicking up dust from the dry earth. In the plains, as if spotting for gophers. Then
response, Sister Joan, the garden mistress, she turned around. Sister Theresa looked
roused herself from the cabbage bed. away, trying to be unseen, to melt into the
Having seen her, Father Dykstra halted. dust.
He waited, head down, his mouth pursing But Sister Joan had caught sight of her.
and unpursing. He was small and wiry, with In a few steps, her shadow lay across Sister
a red leather face. His hands were clasped Theresas lap.
behind his back. One held the other at the Dont feel like workin!
wrist, and the free hand flapped like an in- It was a statement, with a tinge of sympa-
jured bird wing. thy Sister Theresa did not expect.
Sister Joan stopped a stones throw away No, she said softly. She didnt look up. I
from him. She had a face like a benthic fish, feel a little tired.
with a boxy jaw and beady eyes. She looked Mmmm. Sister Joan looked up at the sky,
beyond him. The nun and priest were like heavy as a blanket. Been feelin tired a lot
two crows, perched askance, biding time. lately, havent you.
They had a ritual. Sister Theresa said nothing. Her hands lay
Winds from the west! limp in her lap.
Yep, squash is late. Why dont you go see Mother, eh?
Silence followed. Sister Theresa watched Sister Theresa nodded. Yes, Sister Joan.
them from the corner of her eye. The two still She swung quickly off the bench and marched
gazed past each other, like tango partners towards the convent, head down.
removed. Sister Joan watched her go, fists balled on
Hear about them Indians? he said. her hips. Then she turned back to her work.
Cant say I did.
We gotta keep em out S ister Theresa came to stand in the door-
Do we. way of Mother Annes study. The abbess
keep our eyes peeled. seemed startled, but then cleared her throat,

60 1 The Baffler [no.27]


fussed for her glasses, and folded her hands The wounds gleamed with tiny bloodstones,
neatly. beaded along the cuts.
Yes, child, hello. You do understand that Communion is
Sister Theresa looked at the floor. essential to our community? That God is the
What brings you to my office, child? bread of life, and to share it means Mother
Sister Joan told me to come here. Anne took a breath. You do understand,
Instead of working in the garden? daughter?
I felt tired, Mother. Sister Theresa nodded into her lap. I
Oh. Tired again. Mother Anne sighed. understand, but
Come sit down, child. What kind of malaise Mother Anne nodded, urging her to con-
is this? tinue.
Sister Theresa sat down. She said noth- The last time I took Communion, the
ing, even though she could feel Mother Anne wafer tasted like . . . nothing. Like dust. Its
waiting. supposed to be some kind of transcendent
I have noticed, Mother Anne continued, experience, but its not, for me. It hasnt ever
that you have not taken Communion for been. I know it should be and I dont know
several weeks now. what Im doing wrong.
Sister Theresa swallowed and studied Mother Anne looked at her in surprise. I
the crucifix on the wall. It was a gift from dont know how you think its supposed to
the founding home of their order in France. taste, she said. Its just wheat. It is pure so

The Baffler [no.27] ! 61

that it can be a vessel for God. I can?
Sister Theresas shoulders slumped. I Of course. She is our beloved Sister Gen-
dont understand why the vessel has to be so evieve.
bland if its God, she said. God created the
universe! He must like colors and flavors. It was late afternoon, a little before sup-
And its not just that. Everything is the same pertime. Sister Theresa walked through the
here every day. I miss home . . . at dinnertime, living quarters. The last room belonged to
when Mama would make c-c-custard Her Sister Genevieve, and faced west. Zinnia-red
voice became thick and she stopped speak- sunlight poured through her open door.
ing. Tears ran down her face. Sister Theresa knocked on the doorframe.
Mother Anne leaned forward, her voice Sister Genevieve looked up from her
trembling both with compassion and zeal. kneeler, a rosary dripping from her hand.
But Daughter, that is how life is supposed to Im sorry, said Sister Theresa. Ill come
be here: pure! uncorrupted! We live in purity back another time.
because God is purebecause thats how we Oh no! Little Sister Theresa! Sister
can come to know him. Genevieves face had cracked into an ecstatic
Sister Theresa only heaved and hic- smile. Come in, child.
coughed. Sister Genevieve coaxed Sister Theresa
Mother Anne leaned back in her chair. from the doorframe to a small table by the
There was a girl I knew here, long before window, which had two seats, one for her and
your time, she said. She came to Our Savior one for a visitor. In her very old age, Sister
of the Plains when she was only sixteen. Not Genevieve bent to the right like a stalk of
much younger than you are now, child. I liked willow. It suited her; she had a great capac-
her very much. But she was very restless. ity for pleasure, and her body seemed to be
Sister Theresa looked up, finally meeting always in mid-swoon. She bent in pleasure to
Mother Annes eyes. sip hot soup, to welcome a visitor, to see an
She thought life here was so dull. Noth- autumn bouquet at the altar. In the face of
ing could please her. She wanted a convent in such sweetness, Sister Theresa always felt shy,
the city. In Sioux Falls, or even St. Paul. She even embarrassed around her.
would say, oh, Im going to do this and Im I was just praying for you, said Sister
going to do that. She even ran away once. Genevieve, winking.
Sister Theresas eyebrows rose. She what? For me? said Sister Theresa.
What happened? Yes, child, said Sister Genevieve, fussing
Well, after two days on these plains, with in a drawer of her bedside table. I always
no food, she came back. And, shed had a vi- think of you. I think how hard it must be, be-
sion. ing so young! And youre so pretty! And all of
What vision? us are such old birds. Out here on the plains
Bright yellow sunlight broke through the like a bunch of Jane-the-Baptists. Were used
clouds and sprayed through the windows, to it. But you have such soft hands!
lighting every dust mote. Sister Theresa blushed, and put her hands
Jesus. In the flesh. He told her to come away, smiling.
back to the convent. Sister Genevieve straightened up. She had
Sister Theresas eyes went wide. an apple-red ceramic jar in one hand, and
Thats it? And she came back? two spoons in the other. Sister Theresa knew
She did. You can ask her about it, too. what it was. More than anything, Sister Gen-

62 1 The Baffler [no.27]

Manna would drop evieve loved honey, so they made any excuse
to supply it to her.
slowly and drift
Sister Genevieve put a hand on hers. Her
to the ground. fingers were long and thin, and translucent
skin coated a lattice of blue veins. I am so
9 glad youre here, said Sister Genevieve. As
soon as I saw you, I thought, Now that girl.
evieve loved honey, and loved to share it. That girl is a warrior for the Lord!
She sat down and lifted the cover. Now Sister Theresa laughed out loud. What?
come, take this spoon, child. This is from a she said.
harvest early last spring. Its reddish, see? See You remind me of myself at your age,
that red color? Thats because of the Indian child, said Sister Genevieve, suddenly grave.
paintbrush growing wild on those hills in the Yes, said Sister Theresa. Mother Anne
north. Theyre everywhere. told me that when you were my age, you want-
Sister Theresa dipped into the jar, and ed to leave.
drew up a spoonful of honey. Her other hand Sister Genevieve nodded.
came out to cup the air beneath it as she Did you really see Our Lord?
leaned forward to guide the spoon into her Clear as day, said Sister Genevieve. Clear
mouth. as day. Id been lost. I was so cold and hungry.
Sister Genevieve watched her, eagerly ask- I was walking over a little rise when, there he
ing, Isnt that good? was, sitting on a branch of a lone sweet gum
Sister Theresa closed her eyes, now, and tree. Little sister, he had on a beautiful scarlet
tasted the honey. It was sweet beyond hope. robe, the brightest red youve ever seen, with
She tasted longer, rolling the honey in her every other kind of color in it. Oh, I wish you
mouth. Her whole mind was wrapped in it. could have seen it! And he said, Dear heart,
She felt suspended in midair. In her mind where are you going? And I said, My Lord,
came a vision of the South Dakota sky, wide I wanted to get out of that place and get out
and cloudless: here in this honey was the into the world. But Ive gotten lost. He said,
wind, the sun, the earth. She could even What will you find out in the world? I felt a
taste the particular redness of the Indian little silly, but I said, Lord, I want to stop all
paintbrush: the flower, the petal, the pollen. this purity nonsense; what is so bad about rich
Warmth flooded her skin, filled her stomach, things? or wearing ribbons in my hair, or city
and sank to her toes. Her heart was beating lights? He said, Every valley shall be filled
faster. When she opened her eyes at last, she in, every mountain and hill shall be made
did not see the same world as when she had low; the rugged land shall be made a plain,
closed them. the rough country, a broad valley. Of course
Yes, she said in answer. I knew that was straight from the Book of
Sister Genevieves face relaxed into a Isaiah, but I didnt know what he meant. I was
smile. Sister Marie gave it to me as a gift feeling impatient, so I said, What on earth
from the hives, because we had too much. do you mean? Then his face collapsed a little,
How could we use all this honey? she said. like he wanted so badly to explain something
And I said, Well, Sister Marie! I can put it to to me, but couldnt. Then he said . . . Sister
use for sure. For sure! Genevieve seemed to lose her train of
Sister Theresa smiled, mostly to herself. thought, and stared out the window towards
Many of the sisters knew that Sister Gen- the setting sun.

The Baffler [no.27] ! 63

Sister Theresa searched her face. He said Dykstras feet scrape the floor.
what? I talked to Mother Anne, and she recom-
Sister Genevieve was silent for so long that mended that I come confess myself. And also
Sister Theresa thought she hadnt heard her. that I begin working in the kitchen, not just
Then she pulled her gaze away from the sun, to help with the meals, but to make the wa-
and looked Sister Theresa directly in the eyes. fers for Communion. To make them as pure
He said, Everything is corrupted, always. as possible. She says this work will help me
She said it with a laugh in her voice, as if she understand the need for purity in our lives.
were telling a joke she didnt understand. There was another silence. She was about
Sister Theresa frowned. What a terrible to launch into the final prayer when Father
thing, she said. What do you suppose he Dykstra spoke.
meant? Dont keep it in your mouth.
I dont know, child. Ive asked him again Sister Theresa made a face, then was grate-
and again in prayer but I never seem to get ful for the darkness. Pardon?
anywhere. Communion.
Maybe he means that the world is corrupt Oh?
and we have to be pure. Thats what Mother Dont want to spoil it.
Anne says? It . . . spoils it if you keep it in your
Sister Genevieve smiled and swirled her mouth?
spoon in the honey jar. Perhaps, child. Got to swallow right away. Dont taste it.
Dont chew it.
Sister Theresa ascended the wooden steps Thats what Ive been taught. But . . . why?
into the confessional and sat down. She heard Gets corrupted.
Father Dykstra clear his throat on the other Sister Theresa wished she had Sister Joans
side of the partition. patience. Why does it get corrupted?
Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned. It Father Dykstra heaved a long sigh, stirring
has been seven days since my last confession. in his seat. God is God. Youre human. Keep
Mmm. Gods flesh on your tongue and God will leave
Sister Theresa could picture him leaning you.
towards the screen, straining his old ears. She Oh! Sister Theresa had finally gotten
tried to clear the image from her mind: across more than a few words, but felt no less con-
the screen was not a dark confessional, but a fused. I wont, then. Thank you, Father.
royal hearing room. God was a king, a majes- Mmph. He was finished.
tic copper-skinned man with a flowing white She said her final prayer. Father Dykstra
beard. His brow was decked with rubies. He muttered an absolution. She stepped back
leaned forward from his throne and his eyes into the echoing silence of the sanctuary.
sparkled, inviting her to speak.
Father, I have not been joyful of late. I Sister Theresa opened the door to the
have been sitting out my work in the garden. kitchen. She smelled earthy potato, tangy
She swallowed. This hurts the commu- onion, and the pale odor of milk. Two other
nity. nuns were there. They kneaded dough with
Mmm. An acknowledgment. muscular hands and grabbed handfuls of
Also, I stopped taking Communion. It flour that hung like incense, cascading down
tasted wrong. Im sorry. the air. Sister Theresa unhooked an apron
There was a silence. She heard Father from the brass hanger on the wall, and pulled

64 1 The Baffler [no.27]

Her body seemed to be the tables edge, there was a bowl of leftover
strawberry compote. Her mouth watered at
always in mid-swoon.
the memory of its taste. She pulled a small
9 jar off the shelf and spooned in the rich red
sauce. She could keep it in her room for a
it on hurriedly, like a little girl pulling on a special treat, just like Sister Genevieve kept
new Sunday dress. honey. Tucking it under the folds of her
At dinner tonight, Sister Genevieve had cloak, she then damped the lamp and left the
said to the table, rather loudly, that Sister kitchen in darkness.
Theresa had a gift. At this, Sister Theresa
swallowed and looked to Mother Anne. Nuns E very morning, Father Dykstra celebrated
were not supposed to be special or, even if Mass for the nuns. The little community only
they were, be recognized for it. Nevertheless, took up two rows of the old stone sanctuary.
she was happy in her new work. Father Dykstra moved slowly from one end
One night, she served the potato soup of the altar platform to the other, muttering
with starbursts of dill. Another night, she the Mass. He held the wafer aloft, his Latin
made chicken legs in a white wine sauce. And reaching stentorian pitch.
tonight, the bread had arrived with a modest Hoc est enim corpus meum!
strawberry compote, for dipping. Sister The- The wafer was now transformed into
resa had watched the sisters out of the corner God Himself. Father Dykstra descended
of her eye. Sister Genevieve drew attention the steps, crabwise, to the little congrega-
to the compote, nudging the nun next to her tion. Sister Theresa stood in line to receive.
to recruit her into her sense of admiration. Father Dykstra fumbled for a wafer. She held
Mother Anne acknowledged it with a small out her hands, one cupped inside the other.
smile, but did not comment on it. Sister Joan Father Dykstra muttered Corpus Domini nostri
stuck her finger in it first. Father Dykstra just Jesu Christi and pressed it into her palm. She
stared at it. could not help but think: This is the work of my
After dinner, Sister Theresa cleared the hands.
table, and began work on the Communion Sister Theresa slipped the wafer into her
wafers. They had to be baked fresh every mouth. She began to swallow.
night. The ingredients were simple, but the But then, she stopped herself. She could
process was laborious. She had to ensure not say why.
purity. It was her daily devotion. She sat back down, glancing back at Father
She ground the flour and salt three times, Dykstra to make sure he wasnt looking, and
picking through for foreign particles. She sucked at the wafer. It collapsed. It began to
carried up fresh cold water from the well. She break apart. She kept her head down.
dropped tiny dollops onto a tray and marked As soon as Mass was over, Sister Theresa
each of them with a cross, using a small knife strode out the door in the back of the sanctu-
she sharpened every night, and saved only for ary. Her steps fell heavy on the flagstones.
this purpose. The oven door swallowed them She reached her room, whirled, and shut the
up in the final purification of heat. She imag- door. She sat on her bed. Having kept her
ined them puffing up, their crosses deepening. tongue still for so many minutes, she released
One night, when the wafers had been it. Saliva flooded in. The wafer tasted sugary;
made and put away, Sister Theresa stood it had begun to break down.
surveying the kitchen. She was alone. Near Sister Theresa leaned over, reached

The Baffler [no.27] ! 65

beneath her bed, and drew up the little jar Once Sister Theresa knew how to procure
of strawberry compote. She opened it. She these visions, she could not stop.
scooped up the glaze and kissed it off. Merely holding the wafer on her tongue
She leaned back on her bed and closed her was no longer enough. She took to stealing
eyes and listened for flavors. First, the taste of the consecrated wafer from Mass altogether.
the compote: fresh strawberries, brown sugar She found a way to tuck the wafer into a fold
syrup, and a trace of the ancient rum shed of her wimple. After Mass, then, she did not
found hidden on a back shelf. Then the more have to rush. She merely found a quiet mo-
humble, earthen notes of the bread itself: ment to slip away to her room. Sitting on her
flour, salt, and well water. bed, she withdrew the wafer and stared at it
Sister Theresa squeezed her eyes shut in her hands. This is God Himself. God incarnate
even more, and a new darkness washed in. in a little piece of bread. Flesh straight from the
She saw herself drawing the tray out of the Cross on Calvary, and its sitting here in my palm.
oven, and setting it down on the table to And then she would reach under her bed
cool. She felt such pride. She admired the to select a jar, one of five or six she now kept
wafers, sighing back to a flat shape. Their under her bed.
heat made the air ripple. Holding the tray Her visions had become more extrava-
in her hands, Sister Theresa swept open gant. Yesterday, Sister Theresa had dipped
the door to the refectory. There, seated at the wafer in maple syrup before eating it.
the long table, were all the people of her Then she leaned back and watched the vision
convent. They sat up smiling. A thousand unfold behind her eyelids. She always began
candles were lit around them. Everyone in the kitchen, and then entered the refec-
was talking, touching each other, hands tory through the swinging doors, bearing
upon head and shoulder and cheek. In their a golden dish of warm Communion wafers.
midst was a great turkey, hot-crispy-golden, Now, at this table of her dreams, the sisters
stuffed with sweet potato bread. Then Sister no longer wore habits of black, but great
Theresa could see that each of them had gowns in autumnal colors: vermillion, mus-
a supper dish piled high, each with differ- tard, soil-black. Of course Sister Genevieve
ent foods on her plate. On Mother Annes wore a regal gown of deep honey velvet, and
plate there was a great shank of lamb next amber earrings dripped from her ancient
to a bowl of thick, creamy soup. Sister Joan ears. They stood together, clasped hands and
presided over a plate laden with steak and raised them together. They took the wafers
potatoes. Sister Genevieve talked excitedly and distributed them amongst themselves.
over a huge slice of meat pie and a pot of There were no plates of food now. There were
honey all her own. She was talking to Father only bowls covering the long table, dozens of
Dykstra, who may or may not have been lis- bowls, holding every color and consistency of
tening to her, because he sat with an expres- sauce, puree, glaze, dressing, compote. With
sion of speechless joy at his enormous plate great reverence they dipped their wafers into
of macaroni and cheese. the sauces and fed them to each other, and
Ahhh, little Sister! Sister Genevieve had each one tipped her face to the ceiling with
seen her. She rose from her chair and ap- eyes closed. They were having their own
proached her, heralding her, with arms wide visions, now. Behind their closed lids, they
open. Everyone was glowing, expectanta sat down at their own communal tables. The
hush had fallen. You have brought us the people at those tables fed each other too, and
bread of life! their heads tipped back, and then they were

66 1 The Baffler [no.27]


seeing even further tables, and so on, until all the Holy Eucharist in one hand, and egg
of humanity was attending the feast, dipping paste in the other.
the bread and feeding each other. Mother Anne stood in the doorway. Sister
One day Sister Theresa came back with Theresa remained silent and frozen. There
the wafer as usual. She reached under her bed was no way to explain anything. Her face
and withdrew a jar of leftover deviled egg fill- drained of blood.
ing, rich and creamy and folded with bright Daughter. What is the meaning of this?
red paprika. She unscrewed the squeaky Sister Theresa grasped for words. This isI
metal lid and plunged her finger down into it. just
Then, balancing the wafer in one palm and What is this? Mother Annes voice
the filling on her finger, she moved awkward- trembled.
ly to position her head on the pillow. Sister Theresa was aware of her finger still
There was a knock at the door. Sister hanging in the air, the egg puree still sitting
Theresa froze. She had left it unlocked; ajar, on her fingertip. She said nothing.
evenhow could she have been so careless? What is that? What are you doing?
She heard Mother Annes voice coming to Mother Annes lips had turned white. Please
her as if in a dream. Daughter Theresa? she tell me. Please tell me the meaning of this.
called. Are you Sister Theresa lowered her hands until
Mother Anne opened the door and looked they rested on the bed. Tears filled her eyes.
in. Sister Theresa was half-lying on her bed, Im sorry, she said.

The Baffler [no.27] ! 67

Father Dykstras head popped above the young one, squeezing her hand and holding
horizon. Sister Joan got up and ambled in his it hard.
direction. He stopped. She stopped. They Sister Theresa nodded and looked away,
waited. quickly enough not to let Sister Genevieve
Father Dykstra made the first gambit. See see her eyes fill with tears.
them clouds? For the whole Mass, she could not focus.
Looks like rain again. She could only replay Mother Annes discov-
Silence followed. The wind blew between ery of her. Caught, shamed. Now she only
them, creamy and cold against their faces. wondered whether her punishment had been
Father Dykstras one hand flapped in the enough. Whether she had stayed in seclu-
grasp of the other. sion long enough. Whether her confession
Saw an Indian fellow in my apple tree. to Father Dykstra had been genuine enough.
Did you now. She dared not even look in the direction of
Just sittin in a branch. Mother Anne. She kept her forehead pressed
Sister Joan lifted her head to sniff the to her folded thumbs.
wind, looking beyond Father Dykstras When the time came for Communion, the
bowed head towards the west, where the sun nuns got to their feet. Sister Theresa did not
was falling towards the horizon. budge. She was not pure; it would be inappro-
That girl. Locked up? priate for her to even approach the altar. She
Sister Joan lowered her head to regard him must wait until her own corruption had faded
coolly, with cornflower-blue eyes, the one away. She stayed within the dark cave of her
lovely feature in her primordial face. Nope. folded arms. She closed her eyes.
In seclusion. A cry echoed with in the sanctuary.
Father Dykstra cleared his throat. Aint Startled, Sister Theresa looked up.
come to Mass. It was Sister Joan.
She will again. Might tomorrow, even. Sister Theresa blinked. She could not be-
Another silence followed. Then, at the lieve what she was seeing. That big old pillar
same moment, each of them began moving of a nun was jumping up and down, her habit
again. Sister Joan turned back to the garden: billowing around her with every little hop.
four long bars of brown dirt. Nuns bent over, Her arms were spread to her sides, her hands
digging with canvas gloves. Father Dykstra scraping the air.
took his daily tour. He walked the rows to see But Sister Joan was not the only one. Fa-
what had been sown. ther Dykstra was rocking back and forth on
his heels, palm holding his own skull, almost
Sister Theresa stepped into the sanctu- tenderly; the golden dish of wafers swayed
ary and looked up. Shafts of morning light precariously in his other hand. Sister Gen-
interlaced like fingers in the open air. Dust evieve had swept one hand across her heart,
hung and sparkled. She looked down again, clutching at the railing with the other. Oh
quickly. She focused on the cement between God! Oh God! she cried as she collapsed.
the flagstones. She took a seat in the second Sister Theresa got to her feet, heart
row, near the outer aisle. She would have cho- pounding, and shoved herself out of the pew.
sen the farthest position, the most humble, She began to hear words.
but Sister Genevieve was sitting there. Sister Bon-bons! I only got em once! My broth-
Theresa sat down next to her. Sister Gen- er stole em for us and we ate em behind the
evieve whispered, So good to have you back, general store! exclaimed Sister Joan, string-

68 1 The Baffler [no.27]

Sister Theresa was half-lying rose up all around them, violet, ale, and sage
in the rising sun.
on her bed, the Holy Eucharist
Magnolias blooming.
in one hand, and egg paste Yep, out by the barn.
Father Dykstra shifted from one foot to
in the other.
the other. Sister Joan had her fists planted on
9 her hips, staring upriver, where the valleys
green mouth opened eastward.
ing more words together than Sister Theresa I got something.
had ever heard her utter in a day. Do you now.
Pine nut bread! called Father Dykstra. Father Dykstra swung his arm around
The Shoshone woman made it for me! Id front. He was holding a burlap sack full of
forgotten, Id forgotten! Tears were stream- round objects. He held it out at arms length,
ing down his cheeks. like a fishermans catch.
Honey! I taste honey! Oh my sweet Lord! Apples, he explained.
moaned Sister Genevieve, collapsing onto the For what?
floor. For the girl.
Sister Theresa hurried to her, dodging out The girl?
of the way of all her sisters who were sway- The one who cooks. She can use em.
ing about, as if in a dance. Goat cheese from Mmm.
Millie! Real Belgian chocolate! Peaches, The Indian feller gave em to me.
summer peaches, from the tree in my gar- Did he now. Sister Joan tucked the sack
den! They staggered towards each other, under one broad arm.
holding out their hands, beseeching. Just sittin there in a tree. Wearin green.
Sister Theresa dropped to the floor where Mmm.
Sister Genevieve lay, now still and panting. He was all in green, he pressed.
Her eyes fell upon Sister Theresa, and her Green?
face softened. Her frail body relaxed against Green like Father Dykstra waved his
the flagstones. arm, gesturing at the earth.
I taste honey, she said. Grass, said Sister Joan.
Sister Theresa nodded. I know, Sister Grass! Father Dykstra chortled. If its
Genevieve. I can hear you. grass its like no grass I ever seen.
Sister Genevieve took her hand for the There was silence between them. The
second time, and said, God corrupts every- river flowed on behind them. Its thundering
thing. had thrown water into the air, and the vapor
She laid her head down. cast rainbows, crossing and interlacing in the
F ather Dykstra picked his way down the Grass with every kind of other thing in
grassy hill from his cottage above. Sister Joan it, said Sister Joan.
strode to meet him at its foot. The river thun- Yes, said Father Dykstra, nodding vio-
dered at her back. lently. Yes.
As they came within a stones throw, as They both stood, heads bowed, contem-
if by silent agreement, they stopped at the plating the grass for a long while. Then, as if a
same time. Grasses of green and gold flowed train had passed and the crossbar lifted, they
around their legs. The verdant mountains turned and went their ways.t

The Baffler [no.27] ! 69

Ba d Sci e n c e

Mind Your Own Business

3 Barbar a Ehrenreich

A t about the beginning of this decade, mass- ersof oppressing Tibetans and disrespecting
market mindfulness rolled out of the Bay Area the Dalai Lama.
like a brand new app. Very much like an app, in During the same stint in the Bay Area, I
fact, or a whole swarm of apps. Previous self- learned that rich locals liked to unwind at
improvement trends had been transmitted Buddhist monasteries in the hills, where, for
via books, inspirational speakers, and CDs; a few thousand dollars, they could spend a
now, mindfulness could be carried around on weekend doing manual labor for the monks.
a smartphone. There are hundreds of them, Buddhism, or some adaptation thereof, was
these mindfulness apps, bearing names like becoming a class signifier, among a subset of
Smiling Mind and Buddhify. A typical exam- Caucasians anyway, and nowhere was it more
ple features timed stretches of meditation, as ostentatious than in Silicon Valley, where
brief as one minute, accompanied by soothing star player Steve Jobs had been a Buddhist or
voices, soporific music, and images of forests perhaps a Hinduhe seems not to have made
and waterfalls. much of a distinctioneven before it was
This is Buddhism sliced up and commodi- fashionable for CEOs to claim a spiritual life.
fied, and, in case the connection to the tech Mindfulness guru and promoter Soren Gord-
industry is unclear, a Silicon Valley venture hamer noticed in 2013 that tech leaders from
capitalist blurbed a seminal mindfulness Google, LinkedIn, Twitter, and other major
manual by calling it the instruction man- tech companies seemed to be tapped into an
ual that should come with our iPhones and inner dimension that guides their work. He
BlackBerries. Its enough to make you think called it wisdom and named his annual con-
that the actual Buddha devoted all his time ferences Wisdom 2.0helpful shorthand, as
under the Bodhi Tree to product testing. In it happens, for describing the inner smugness
the mindfulness lexicon, the word enlighten- of the Bay Area elite.
ment doesnt have a place.
In California, at least, mindfulness T oday, mindfulness has far outgrown Silicon
and other conveniently accessible deriva- Valley and its signature industry, becoming
tives of Buddhism flourished well before another numbingly ubiquitous feature of the
BlackBerries. I first heard the word in 1998 verbal landscape, as positive thinking once
from a wealthy landlady in Berkeley, advising was. While an earlier, more arduous, version
me to be mindful of the suffocating Mar- of Buddhism attracted few celebrities other
tha Stewart-ish decor of the apartment I was than Richard Gere, mindfulness boasts a host
renting from her, which of course I was doing of prominent practitionersArianna Huffing-
everything possible to un-see. A possible con- ton, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Anderson Cooper
nection between her mindfulness and Bud- among them. Mindful leadership debuted at
dhism emerged only when I had to turn to a Davos in 2013 to an overflow crowd, and Wis-
tenants rights group to collect my security dom 2.0 conferences have taken place in New
deposit. She countered with a letter accusing York and Dublin as well as San Francisco, with
people like meleftists, I suppose, or rent- attendees fanning out to become missionaries

70 1 The Baffler [no.27]


This is Buddhism sliced up and commodified.

for the new mind-set. This years event in San made healthier by clearing their minds. Even
Francisco advertises not only familiar faces General Mills, which dates back to the nine-
from Google and Facebook, but also speeches teenth century, has added meditation rooms
by corporate representatives of Starbucks and to its buildings, finding that a seven-week
Eileen Fisher. Aetna, a Fortune 100 health in- course produces striking results. According to
surance company, offers its 34,000 employees the Financial Times,
a twelve-week meditation class, and its CEO
83 percent of participants said they were tak-
dreams of expanding the program to include
ing time each day to optimize my personal
all its customers, who will presumably be

The Baffler [no.27] ! 71

Ba d Sci e n c e

productivityup from 23 percent before the ing out to be fragile, even endangered, and in
course. Eighty-two percent said they now need of constant repair.
make time to eliminate tasks with limited Where brilliance and creativity had for-
productivity valueup from 32 percent be- merly reigned, there were, by the turn of the
fore the course. millennium, suspicions of pathology. Child
psychiatrists began to drop bipolarity as
Productivity is only one objective of the a default diagnosis and turn their attention
new miniaturized meditation; there are also to attention itself. Too many children were
the more profound-sounding goals of wis- deficient in it, just as their plugged-in par-
dom and compassion, which are not nor- ents were often guilty of distracted parent-
mally associated with Silicon Valley or Ameri- ing. The switch from bipolarity to attention
can business in general. Just a few years ago, deficit disorder is hard to date exactly, in part
say in 2005, the tech industry exemplified a because these conditions are now said to be
very different kind of corporate ideology, fea- frequently comorbid, or overlapping. But as
turing multitasking and perpetually divided we began to spend more and more of our time
attentionthink an incoming call conducted interacting with mood-less programs and de-
while scanning a new product design, check- vices, psychiatry seems to have turned from
ing email, and deflecting the interruptions of emotional concerns like bipolarity, which is
subalterns. It was madness, but the business a mood disorder, to cognitive problems like
self-help literature encouraged people to surf ADD and ADHD.
the chaos, nourishing themselves on caffeine At the same time, diagnoses of autism and
and adrenaline. If we needed to unclutter our Aspergers syndrome were skyrocketinges-
minds, we were directed to the gym and an pecially, as a 2001 article in Wired pointed
hour or so of intense physical activity. A trim out, in Santa Clara County, home of Silicon
muscular body, combined with an ever-flick- Valley. Among the adult population, surely
ering gaze, signified executive status. something was wrong with Steve Jobs, who
The backlash against chaos surfing came alternated between obsessive attention to
on quickly, as if The Wolf of Wall Street had details and complete withdrawal into him-
been forced to drink a soothing bowl of self, between a spiritual aloofness and un-
milk. Studies were piling up to suggest that controlled temper tantrums. Some observers
a lifestyle dependent on multiple devices and thought they detected a hint of autism in the
double-shot espressos might be toxic to the unblinking, almost affect-free Bill Gates, and
human mind, impeding concentration and the characters in HBOs Silicon Valley are por-
undermining human connectedness. There trayed as well within the spectrum.
was wild talk of unplugging and fleeing of- So Silicon Valley embraced mindfulness
fline. In Northern California in 2013, a group with a twinge of contrition. Not only did its
called Digital Detox began offering Camp corporate culture encourage something called
Grounded, a well-publicized summer camp geek syndrome, but its products seemed to
for adults, at which all devices (and alcohol spread that same derangement to everyone
and children and real names) were prohibited, else. The devices that were supposed to make
the better to encourage play and conversa- us smarter and more connected to other hu-
tion. We had once imagined that human at- mans were actually messing with our minds,
tention was infinitely divisible, with each par- causing net brain and monkey mind, as
ticle of it potentially available to advertisers, well as physical disorders associated with long
entertainers, and employers. But it was turn- hours of sitting. As we click between Twitter

72 1 The Baffler [no.27]

The backlash came on quickly, as if The Wolf of Wall Street
had been forced to drink a soothing bowl of milk.

and Facebook, text and hypertext, one link the inactive ones wither. Well-connected neu-
and another, synapses are being formed and rons thrive, while neglected ones die. There is
then broken with febrile inconstancyor so even some evidence that neurons in mature
a growing number of experts, such as MITs animals can reproduce.
Sherry Turkle, warn usleaving the neuronal What there is no evidence for, however, is
scaffolding too fragile to house large thoughts. any particularly salubrious effect of medita-
tion, especially in byte-sized doses. This was
A less arrogant industry might have settled established through a mammoth, federally
for warning labels on its phones and pads, but sponsored meta-analysis of existing studies,
Silicon Valley wanted an instant cure, pref- published last year, which found that medi-
erably one that was hi-tech and marketable. tation programs can help treat stress-related
The great advantage of mindfulness was that symptoms but are no more effective in doing
it seemed to be based firmly on science; no so than other interventions, such as muscle re-
hippie bullshit or other woo woo was in- laxation, medication, or psychotherapy. There
volved. A neuroscientist reported that Bud- is no excuse for ignoring this study, which
dhist monks with about ten thousand hours of achieved worldwide attention. So maybe
meditation under their belts had altered brain meditation does have a calming, centering
functions; shorter bouts of meditation seemed effect, but so does an hour of concentration on
to work at least temporary changes in novices. a math problem or a glass of wine with friends.
The field of contemplative neuroscience As for Silicon Valleys unique contribution,
was born, and Silicon Valley seized on it for a mindfulness apps, a recent study concluded
much-needed neural hack. Through medi- that there is
tation, monastic or app-guided, anyone could
an almost complete lack of evidence support-
reach directly into their own moist brain tis-
ing the usefulness of those applications. We
sue and resculpt it in a calmer, more atten-
found no randomized clinical trials evaluat-
tive direction. Mindfulness, as its promoters
ing the impact of these applications on mind-
put it, fosters neuroplasticity.
fulness training or health indicators, and the
No one questions that the brain changes
potential for mobile mindfulness applications
with the experiences the mind undergoes. If
remains largely unexplored.
thought has a physical basis, as scientists as-
sume, then it produces physical alterations For an industry based on empirical science
in the brain. Trauma and addiction can lead and employing large numbers of engineers,
to lasting problems; even fleeting events may Silicon Valley has been remarkably incuri-
leave the chemical changes in the brain that ous about the scientific basis of mindfulness,
we experience as memory. In fact, plasticity probably because the neuroplasticity con-
is a pallid descriptor for the constant, ongoing cept is just too alluring. If the brain can be res-
transformation of brain tissue. Neurons reach culpted through conscious effort, then mind-
out to each other through tiny membranous fulness is as imperative as physical exercise;
protusions, often forming new synapses. Syn- the brain is a muscle and, like any muscle,
apses that fire frequently grow stronger, while in need of training. Googles chief motivator

The Baffler [no.27] ! 73

Ba d Sci e n c e

Chade-Meng Tan was an early adopter, set- Left unanswered in all of this is the ques-
ting up the companys mindfulness training tion of what to be mindful of. Yes, the chil-
program, Search Inside Yourself, in 2007, and dren. But what do you do when one of them
later telling the Guardian: is trying to confide in you and the other one
is screaming from the bedroom? Or say youre
If you are a company leader who says em-
at a business lunch. You have to be mindful
ployees should be encouraged to exercise,
of your companion while simultaneously at-
nobody looks at you funny. . . . The same thing
tempting to eat without spilling or choking
is happening to meditation and mindfulness,
and I say you would be remiss if you failed to
because now that its become scientific, it
notice the sad-eyed busboy who is refilling the
has been demystified. Its going to be seen as
water glasses. Divided attention far predates
fitness for the mind.
the advent of smartphones and is intrinsic to
One popular and highly rated mindfulness many human activities, such as child-raising,
app, Get Some Headspace, advertises itself as cooking a large meal, and waiting on tables.
a gym membership for the mind. Only its Or take one of the most ancient human oc-
easier than working out, of course, or even cupationswarwhich is relevant because
yoga. As one enthusiastic software entrepre- the mindfulness promoters are beginning to
neur said of the Headspace app, You dont market their product to the U.S. military. In-
have to sit in a lotus position. You just press coming fire can come from any direction, at
play and chill out. unexpected times and speeds. Morale must be
Outside of meditation, which can take just considered, as well as changing instructions
a few minutes a day, the daily practice of mind- from the strategists in command. There is no
fulness can be summarized as pay attention, or danger of soldiers distractedly checking their
better yet, pay attention to one thing at a time. Facebook pages; the issue is whether they
Take out the earphones when the children are have the mental bandwidth demanded by the
trying to talk to you. Listen carefully to col- exigencies of battle.
leagues, look them in the eyes, and attempt to Silicon Valley got its own tiny taste of com-
comprehend things from their point of view. bat at the 2014 Wisdom 2.0 conference in
Do not multitask; just sink yourself into the San Francisco. The panel on 3 Steps to Build
moment, one task at a time. What could be Corporate Mindfulness the Google Way had
simpler? just begun when a small group of protesters
walked on stage and unfurled a banner saying
Eviction-Free San Francisco, a reference to
the savage gentrification that Google, among
others, has inflicted on the city. After security
pushed the protesters offstage and started a
tug-of-war for the banner, a Google mindful-
ness representative intoned, We can use this
as a moment of practice. Check in with your
body and see whats happening, what its like
to be around conflict and people with heart-
felt ideas that may be different than what
were thinking. Zen-like, the panel rolled on,
undistracted by the brief glimpse of mass evic-
P. S . MUELLER tions and homelessness.t

74 1 The Baffler [no.27]

Why would the Minoans
3 Caroline Knox

Why would the Minoans fire the

clay tablets which they recorded their
everyday transactions on? They
wouldnt and didnt, so when the

rotted thatched roof of the rented

house of Arthur Evans fell in during a
prodigious downpour, all the unfired
gray clay tablets unreadable as yet and ever

cut out by me in one piece with their

earthly matrix, wrote the discoverer,
had already been reduced to a pulpy mass.
To even get started, Evans had to

buy some of Knossos. To deal with

language barriers, he spoke Latin
with priests. Klutzy, Evans said the only
sport he was good at was

jumping to conclusions,
although right out of Oxford, he and
his brother Lewis hiked and hiked in the Balkans
armed with Bologna sandwiches and Turkish delight.

Older than Oxford by a long chalk,

Bologna is the first continuous
university: 1188 CE. How
terrific that Bologna sandwiches fed

and feed millions of students! Did the

the eponymous Earl of Sandwich go
to Oxford? Trinity Cambridge.
Bologna is home to Luigi

Galvani, inventor of
galvanism. Lokum is
the real name for Turkish delight.
No confection is more beautiful.

The Baffler [no.27] ! 75

The Dol lar Deb auch

Purple Reign
The unmaking of a Yahoo
3 Chris Lehmann

When the great granddaddy of opinion identity had been settled from the first: First
journals, The New Republic, abruptly van- Look Media, the pet project of eBay bil-
ished in a sad, squalid burst of pixel dust and lionaire Pierre Omidyar. There, Rolling Stone
management theory last winter, establish- muckraker Matt Taibbi and John Cookan-
ment journalists rent their garments and other former Gawker editorhad bailed out
gnashed their teeth in horror. The promise of their plum positions editing Racket and The
of American life has been dealt a lamentable Intercept, two much-ballyhooed First Look
blow, a group of former writers and editors startups with a roster of top-drawer writ-
associated with the magazine pronounced in ing and editing talent. (Racket, indeed, was
a public statement. The New Republic, they permanently mothballed after Taibbi fled.)
said, formerly a kind of public trust, had For a few months there at the end of 2014,
now suffered its destruction in all but name. it was as if the crown princes of digital inno-
In-house disputes over how the august vation had become Midases in reverse, repel-
policy organ should adapt to the digital age ling experienced journalists in droves, even in
had claimed the jobs of editor Franklin Foer the face of one of the most depressed markets
and literary editor Leon Wieseltier. A mass for journalism work in modern history.
walkout ensued, with more than thirty writ- Those thousand think pieces bloomed,
ers, editors, and contributing editors forsak- all seeking to shed new light on the strange
ing the shop even before Foers designated mores of tech-industry moguldom, and on
successor, onetime Gawker editor Gabriel how the inventors of the future had failed to
Snyder, could fire up his company email ac- match up to the tough-minded folkways of
count. Chris Hughes, the thirty-one-year-old magazine-style journalism and the notori-
former Facebook mogul who acquired The ously capital-and-labor-intensive work of
New Republic in 2012 amid a round of adula- reporting and analyzing the news.
tory press reports hailing the marriage of To me, though, the overlapping sagas of
Silicon Valley largesse and Beltway savvy, First Look and The New Republic were less a
now stood contemplating his handiwork in dramatic climax of the zeitgeist than a slow-
an all but vacant New Republic office, not long motion train wreck that had already ejected
after hed presided over the magazines one- me through the windows and into the woods.
hundred-year gala. Happy Anniversary. Even as the press notices greeting these en-
The extraordinaryand largely porten- terprises had first unspooled, I couldnt help
tousburst of commentary that followed but hear the low moan of a gathering nemesis
suggested something more was at stake in the distance. Orto switch up my enter-
than the bust-up of a magazine long past its tainment metaphorsI felt increasingly like
prime. A month earlier, similar convulsions a seasoned horror movie fan, espying all the
had upended the management team at an- telltale signs of a disaster waiting to happen:
other journalistic concern, one whose digital the callow corporate rhetoric of disruptive

76 1 The Baffler [no.27]


genius, the witless embrace of a nonsensical news executive in that labyrinth of high-
array of platforms and formats in a sequence octane managerial passive-aggression known
seemingly adapted from a Mad Libs game as Yahoo News.
book, the airy dismissal of content-produc-
tion as though it were simply a species of Into the Purple Valley
hireling grunt work. Yahoo News, it so happens, occupied center
All this had come rushing back because stage in the New Republic fiasco. In October
once upon a time, I had lived through it too, 2014, a month before the whole operation
in my late, unlamented career as an online went to hell, Hughes brought on Guy Vidra,

The Baffler [no.27] ! 77

The Dol lar Deb auch

a former Yahoo News higher-up, to serve as that, on its own, says precisely nothing); the
CEO of The New Republica position above prophetic intonement of the inane as though
editor Frank Foers in the corporate chain of it is, in fact, revolutionary (nothing, strictly
command. Vidra wasted little time remind- speaking, is made possible only through
ing any and all New Republic employees digital means, least of all narrative journal-
within earshot just what he intended to do ism, which is nothing more than thinking,
with his power. At an all-hands gathering to listening, reading, andmost ploddingly
divine the companys digital future, Vidra and least radically of allwriting); the effort
declared that the magazines staff should feel to highlight the thuddingly obvious in the
empowered to break shita classic Valley breathless rhetoric of epiphany (of course
exhortation that means little more than be online media companies will use technology
prepared to do whatever I say, no matter how in the service of journalism because they are,
many times I change my mind. Fast forward ahem, media companies). And when the poor
a few weeks, and Vidra was pronouncing, in reader pans back from all this gibberish, she
one of the new management teams inef- realizes that Vidras mangled subordinate
fectual, quasi-literate efforts to justify the clauses are really just expressing a tautology:
carnage before the bar of public opinion, his digital media companies succeed . . . because
dedication to informing society and impact- they are digital media companies. The
ing the world through analysis and insight. only measurably distinctive element of this
As he gamely tried to specify just how all this outburst is the ungrammatical assertion that
informing and impacting would transpire, The New Republic is a very unique place.
Vidra appealed to the profitable precedents The Yahoo affinities here run far deeper
set by a fistful of brave new media companies than the mere verbal tics of corporate group-
in the process of subduing the Internet: think. Before Hughes and Vidra had offered
Foers job to Gabriel Snyder, they had tried
The most exciting part of the successes has
to give it to Vidras former Yahoo colleague,
been that theyve been achieved through an
Hillary Frey, the executive who presided
array of different strategiesall of which use
over the constructive termination of my own
technology in the service of journalismlead-
perch in the Yahoo news empire. When The
ing to more distribution and creative ways
New Republic was on the block back in 2011,
of telling stories made possible only through
prior to the Hughes deal, there were rumors
digital means. These publishers are growing
that Yahoo itself, then on one of its distress-
and finding new audiences, and, while The
ingly frequent serial media-acquisition
New Republic is a very unique place, we can
binges, was thinking of acquiring the maga-
learn from them.
zine. In a way, that outcome would have been
When my eyes alit on Vidras pronuncia- the more merciful one: rather than going up
miento, I recognized all the elements of a in a fractious exchange of outraged statement
boilerplate Yahoo corporate memo: the and counterstatement, the old order would
lumbering passive voice, peculiarly unsuited have been swiftly dispatched by scores of en-
to generating the boardroom-grade excite- terprising Guy Vidras. The restive spirits of
ment that Yahoo memo-ists sought to convey past New Republic editors and contributors
to the working masses; the cumbersome, Edmund Wilson, Henry Wallace, Walter
noun-heavy diction (somehow successes, or Lippmann, Murray Kempton, W. H. Auden
perhaps strategies, are telling stories, while would have been quietly chloroformed by an
also kicking up more distribution, a phrase endless procession of PowerPoint presenta-

78 1 The Baffler [no.27]

tions, New Economy platitudes, and buzz- that was now both a shuddering storehouse
word-intoning conference calls. of legacy webmail accounts and a surprisingly
potent aggregator of news content. It was
Lost Illusions; or, Shit, Broken unclear whether anything resembling a long-
But lets back up. How, exactly, did a Baffler term business strategy could ever take hold
editor, of all people, come to serve as a Yahoo at the company, but without really mean-
news executive in the first place? ing to, Yahoo had become the most heavily
The broad outlines would doubtless ring a trafficked news site on the web. And since
bell with Chris Hughes, whos fond of advertis- the company had been fortunate enough to
ing his penchant for reading Balzac in French. go public in the delirious belle epoque of the
In 2009, a year into the most crippling depres- nineties tech bubble, it was overcapitalized
sion of the past seven decades, my once-stable on a truly mammoth scale. By simply selling
post in the dying trade of print journalism was off a software patent or two as it went, Yahoo
snatched out from under me. The venerable could keep pumping cash through its great
Hill publication Congressional Quarterlya purple maw as its senior managers tried to
wildly profitable operation owned, weirdly figure out what the company was there for.
enough, by the nonprofit Poynter Institute Yahoo might never again revolution-
was sold to a takeover team at the Economist ize any product or platform in the crowded
Group. My job as senior editor for the CQ digital sector, but what did it matter? In
weekly magazine was among the first casual- an age of rapidly vanishing audiences for
ties of the austerity campaign. Our British traditional media outlets, it had more readers
overlords had declared that CQs already size- than it knew what to do with. It could, like
able profit margins needed to be much wider, the Chicago Cubs (my longtime, and tragic,
and so my salary, benefits, and retirement plan baseball fixation), continue to blow through
were all consigned to the sacred cause of pad- daft management schemes and staggering
ding the bottom line. market failures, and even so, through some
Its an understatement to say that my mystic compact with its fan base, customers
professional prospects were grim. My then- would stream through the turnstiles.
wifes employer, the liberal radio network The Cubs analogy is especially apt in this
Air America, duly went up in flames a month case. Yahoo had launched a successful ring
later. I landed a couple of interviews at some of sports blogs in the early aughtsrapidly
newspaper officesplaces already so deci- harvesting eyeballs in this most obsessive of
mated from their own downsizing campaigns online communities, and drawing big-name
that it seemed like tumbleweeds would start talent away from web-averse print media
blowing down the corridors of cubicles even competitors. The idea, I was told in a series
as I anxiously tried to impress managers with of interviews in New York, Washington, and
my can-do spirit of innovation. As I inter- the editorial home office of the Yahoo news
viewed at one of these shops, a onetime col- division in Santa Monica, was to replicate the
league of mine took me aside and advised, in sports blogs success in the news sphere.
a burst of hard-won gallows humor, Listen, Behind all this ambitious talk was a less
if you get an offer from a company thats not flattering truth: Yahoo, too, was keen to curb
bankrupt, you should probably take that. its costs. It had partnership contracts with
I took his advice. On Twitter, of all places, several high-profile media companies, all
I came across a listing for an editing job at of which were delighted to see their prod-
Yahoo, the infamous failed search engine uct dragged in front of millions of Yahoo-

The Baffler [no.27] ! 79

The Dol lar Deb auch

branded eyeballs. But as their print clientele news bloggers, covering everything from
abandoned them, these companies also media and foreign policy to finance and
sought to pad their own sagging bottom lines national politics. My immediate boss had the
by hiking up their licensing fees and charging title of managing editor for the fledgling blog
Yahoo more. Emboldened by the success of network, but had never previously worked as
the sports blog network, Yahoo executives an editor. (He was and is, let the record show,
figured they could produce news product far a very accomplished publisher and news man-
more cheaply in house. After all, they already ager.) So the day-to-day hiring and supervi-
had, in spades, the main asset that the rest sion of the news blog team fell largely to me.
of the mediasphere was starved for: readers. The numbers alone were staggering.
All they needed now was a team of enterpris- Anytime one of my teams posts landed on
ing reporters and editors to keep daily, and the Yahoo homepage, it could easily rack up
hourly, content buzzing through the com- several million unique pageviews, sometimes
panys outsized distribution system. in a matter of hours. Also-ran posts, such as
Thats where I came in. I was hired in an daily news roundups or procedural updates on
overheated blur of Silicon Valley hype. My the then-burning issue of health care reform,
formal job offer came packaged in a FedEx would usually plateau in the low six figures.
box that had been rigged up to deliver the CQ , New York magazine, the Washington
companys irksome trademark soprano Postany of the media name brands Id previ-
Yahoo each time you opened it. Even after ously worked for, or could ever reasonably
I rushed it into my kitchen trash can, it would hope to work forwould have killed to attract
start in on its infernal yodeling loop whenev- the volume of readers earned by a post that
er Id discard a used yogurt carton or wadded- the Yahoo news team would see as a failure.
up paper towel on top. It was the branding There were other attractions to the job,
mechanism that would not die. too, beyond the obvious inducements of a sal-
A related ominous portent, as I discov- ary and a health plan. After a long tour in the
ered upon opening my big purple yodeling ultra-earnest word factory of CQ (which had
box, was that the companys HR team had deemed the word reform itself too contro-
adopted the cutesy-to-them tic of referring versial and loaded a term to mar our bloodless
to employees simply as Yahoosmaking us copy), the tabloid sensibility that drove the
seem either like backwoods rubes or (to more high-performing content at Yahoo was oddly
literary-minded hires) the ravenous creatures liberating. We were ensured seven-figure
in Gullivers Travels who manage to com- viewerships for reports on any and all subjects
bine both elitism and boorishness, digging calculated to tickle a web users idle curiosity,
through the muck to retrieve jealously hoard- from cheeky music videos put together by U.S.
ed precious stones. Here, too, was a parable in troops stationed in Afghanistan to a global
miniature: Yahoo, the company, clearly was competition to identify the hottest new strain
keen to have me adopt the classic Swiftian of chili pepper. Anything bearing the imprint
version of the Yahoo identity. Meanwhile, of culture-war controversy or celebrity gossip
the career path unfolding before me would rapidly shot up the pageview boards. One
soon transform me into the considerably less of the all-time traffic leaders was a post on a
distinguished, and infinitely more gullible, lesbian high school student denied admission
variety of (decidedly lowercase) yahoo. to her senior prom when she turned up with
But all that was to come. The task ahead a same-sex date; that entry netted more than
was to hire and put to work a new crew of sixty thousand reader comments.

80 1 The Baffler [no.27]

Yahoo could keep pumping cash through its purple maw as its
senior managers tried to figure out what the company was there for.

On one early morning conference call, itto the impact of Arizonas draconian new
I blearily pitched an oddball story Id seen immigration law to the Tea Partys dramatic
about Today Show host Ann Curry; while rise in the 2010 election cycle.
delivering a college commencement address, To my great surprise, some of the most
she had clumsily referenced the history of demanding, information-rich features we
another college of the same name through- assembled earned us major traffic on the
out. The ensuing post dislodged the Alabama homepage. A post on widespread public oppo-
prom drama in the annals of high-volume sition to the Supreme Courts Citizens United
traffic and drew so many pageviews that the rulinga ruling that effectively repealed
editorial team took to using an Ann Curry most reasonable restraints on money in poli-
post as shorthand for a big win for the site. ticsdrew pageviews in the millions, as did a
By randomly stumbling across the tale of a similarly grim set of charts driving home the
minor TV personalitys public embarrass- ensuing boom of dark money in national poli-
ment, I had sealed my reputation for online tics (thanks in part to the editors of Mother
news savvy. (Welcome to American journal- Jones, who graciously let us adapt them). Ya-
ism in the twenty-first century.) hoo readers clearly loved to be titillated, but
In the space between the front-page tab- they also didnt mind sobering updates on the
loid fare and the back-end site filler, though, rickety state of our formal democracy.
we were given a surprising amount of leeway. One especially ambitious project was
The ultimate motives of Yahoos news man- a multipart, crowdsourced account of the
agers may have been baselike those of news rigors of long-term unemployment in the job-
managers everywhere in our blighted age starved recovery from the 2008 meltdown.
but the company also seemed to be genuinely Not knowing what to do with all the material
committed to the sustained, reasonably wed transcribed from tens of thousands of
adventurous promulgation of useful informa- contributors to the series, we created a Tum-
tion on the web. blr devoted to the project, which we updated
Whats more, the middle managers who independently of the daily pull-and-push of
moved copy on and off the front-page portal the Yahoo News homepage. I still recall be-
fought to ensure that Yahoo stories were ing on a conference call with a gaggle of with-
both topical and accurate. I was able to it digital news managers trying to explain to
publish in-depth explainers on the Dodd- them just what Tumblr was, as I fought to
Frank financial reform initiative, the tangled tamp down a growing suspicion that some-
course of the Affordable Care Act, and the thing was very, very wrong. Two years later, of
wigged-out antigovernment delusions of course, Yahoo added Tumblr to its long, and
Gabby Giffordss would-be assassin Jared largely inert, roster of media acquisitions, for
Loughner. My reporting team did important a cool $1.1 billion.
and groundbreaking work on everything
from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill Dumb Money
our reporter moved down to New Orleans That bracing little set piece sums up a great
from New York, on his own dime, to cover deal about what ailed Yahoo in the inner

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reaches of its corporate being: a perennially structions to the ships computer, rest assured
addled (and ever-shifting) team of managers that videos were among the most heavily
with far too much money to burn and virtu- trafficked, and jealously guarded, features
ally no restraints on how they might choose, on the site; this producer was also among the
at a moments notice, to radically reconfigure handful of Santa Monica senior brass whod
the business rationales animating Yahoo logged time as a working journalist.)
News. As our hardy band of news bloggers And then there were the algorithms. Like
plowed through the challenges of daily re- all tech leviathans, Yahoo believed it could
porting, we found ourselves pushing farther reduce almost anythingnews consumption
into the treacherous, bottomless deeps of not excludedto a data set. The companys
corporate groupthink, much like the doomed army of software engineers had designed a
Jedi pilots barreling into the canyons of the customization feature on the Yahoo homep-
Death Star in the final reel of the first Star age called CORE: the content optimization
Wars movie. and relevance engine, for you connoisseurs
First, there was the rotating cast of execu- of tech industry agitprop. The idea behind
tives. Yahoo being a company of nineteen CORE was to take the data Yahoo had col-
thousand employees (in the spring of 2010, lected from its registered users and develop
when I was hired) across the globe, there algorithms that would accurately predict
were many, many bosses, strewn across many what stories would provoke site visitors to
recondite corporate divisions, all of whom click, linger, and read, as a steady barrage of
could mysteriously be summoned onto the revenue-generating ads nudged themselves
same conference call within minutes. into the margins of their experiences. In its
Then there was the companys strange first year of operation, CORE proved to be
aversion to the most basic canons of news- a phenomenal success, netting a 270 percent
making. Soon after I landed at Yahoo, I increase in pageviews.
realized that my central job duties didnt fit The big problem with a project like
into the tech-centric template that the com- CORE, of course, was that it was pretty much
pany favored. The Yahoo hierarchs shared antithetical to journalism as a civic activ-
something of a company-wide allergy to the ity. The always more-than-a-little mythical
inoffensive editor descriptor. Our main image of American news readers as informed
news authorities in Santa Monica were called citizens rests precisely upon the news being
producers instead; their tasks were tethered unfamiliar to themand indeed, on all too
mainly to the portal they served, as opposed many occasions, shocking, scandalous, and
to the readily transferable old-media work of enraging. To lovingly curateas the IT
reporting, writing, editing, and proofread- term of art goesa version of current events
ing. You could be a front-page producer, or a to mirror readers hobbies, taste preferences,
facilitator of partnered content, or a spon- and browsing histories is to downgrade jour-
sorship wrangler, but plain old editors and nalism into the stuff of Pinterest posting
writers were almost nowhere to be found. strangely pleasing in many cases, like a warm
One of the lead producers in Santa Monica bath for an infant, but serving no larger civic
was exclusively tasked with running down the good. In another telling turn of phrase, front-
rights and proper web formatting for video page producers would talk of forcing stories
footage. (Lest that sound like a make-work that defied the counsel of the CORE algo-
gig, akin to the character in Galaxy Quest who rithmsusually breaking news in the world
does nothing but convey the crew leaders in- of politics, policy, and global affairsinto

82 1 The Baffler [no.27]

placement on the front page. In other words, But news and its safekeeping were con-
the independent exercise of news judgment, cepts that the Yahoo management corps
in this code-happy universe, was regarded as would find difficult to digest throughout my
a willful lurch into manual-override mode. tenure, and it showed in the operations basic
And even when a story was forced, if the infrastructure. A separate Yahoo bureau in
click-count didnt spike, it was quickly ban- Washington, D.C., where I was based, was
ished to the nether regions of the site, so the initially focused on financial coveragea beat
algorithms could resume their seamless work that made little sense some 250 miles south of
of optimized news sorting and placement. Wall Street, and even less sense if you consid-
Small wonder, in this strategically clois- ered that the recently designated D.C. bureau
tered news environment, that the director of chief still maintained a principal residence in
the news divisions main tasks were to negoti- New York.
ate contracts with partner companies and to Stranger still, the D.C. bureau was initially
consult with us on any news coverage that housed in the companys lobbying offices, in
might involve potential conflicts of interest a famous high-rise office building devoted to
for the company. He was an entertainment influence-peddling directly across from the
lawyer, and had come to Yahoo from the U.S. Capitol. The notorious, insanely pricey
even more distressed and revenue-challenged Charlie Palmer steakhouse, where industry
confines of the music industry. flacks romance lawmakers just beyond the
The fussy terminological diffidence that ambit of federal lobbying strictures, was on
turned editing into a dirty word betrayed the ground floor. If you happened into the
a deeper unease atop the Yahoo hierarchy. wrong office space while visiting the D.C.
Company executives would get unnerved by bureau (as I usually did, since I worked from
the unpredictable character of the news itself, homethis was long before Marissa Mayer
should it stray too far beyond the familiar took control of the company and deemed
canons of optimal CORE placement. The telecommuting a hazardous drain on Yahoos
independent conduct of journalism was often resources and general morale), youd stumble
greeted with faux market-savvy suspicion; across a cache of Yahoo-branded coffee mugs
how could a giant news aggregator assess or mousepads intended to fill out gift bags at
material that hadnt been pre-vetted by a duly this or that tech-industry reception.
contracted content partner? It was hard, amid such glaring reminders
One of the first pieces I reported for the of the companys true corporate mission, to
site concerned the tactic, favored among feel like you were anything more than glori-
some militia groups, of committing crimes fied party swag yourself. What we were doing
in order to ambush law enforcement person- in the news division added value to Yahoos
nel. Before the post went live, I fielded an brand, to be sure. But we understood all too
anxious phone call from a senior manager in well that just as easily as we had sprung into
Santa Monica. He was alarmed that we were being to forestall continual fee increases from
reporting on this practice for a simple reason: partner companies, we could be stripped
I havent heard of this before. I struggled to down and sold for spare partsor worse,
find a diplomatic way to explain that publish- left to languish in the backwaters of Yahoos
ing things that readers hadnt heard before sprawling global bureaucracy.
was something that a news organization
should be doing a whole lot more of: it was, in Thats Entertainment!
fact, the definition of news. This latter fate in particular preyed on our

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minds, since it was already overtaking another would, like its news counterpart, traffic in
of the companys blog startup projects. Yahoo its own reporting and criticism, it would fit
was planning to debut a ring of arts and awkwardly alongside the boosterish product
entertainment blogs, and had hired a dozen featured on Shine. And in the worst-case
or so well-established digital journalists to scenario, should it succeed on anything like
cover movies, TV, digital culture, and publish- the scale that our news sites had, it would
ing. But as it turned out, the site would never make Shine look even more like the obliging
get off the groundinstead, it stalled in beta waystation for repurposed PR copy that it
development for more than a year. was rapidly becoming. Shine would, there-
While high-stakes corporate intrigue over fore, gleam on, while the entertainment blogs
the entertainment project raged out West, the went abruptly dark (or more precisely, their
propertys entertainment bloggers became chronic darkness became a permanent condi-
steadily more restive, bored, and angry. They tion), right around the Christmas holidays.
suffered all the small-bore indignities of daily My counterpart whod been editing and
blog workcovering dubiously newsworthy supervising the launch was preparing to have
developments in their field and manufactur- a baby and go on maternity leave at the time;
ing click-baity takes on this or that meaning- she at least won a fairly generous buyout,
less popcult trend or product in order to drive albeit one that came with the hidden cost of a
trafficbut in a complete vacuum. nondisparagement clause.
It was like an especially cruel lab experi- Over at the news blogs, meanwhile, we
ment, depriving rats of sustenance and social kept nervously piling up the pageviews. Our
recognition until they started tearing at their 2010 election coverage netted huge traffic,
own flesh. Everyone was being paid reason- as did our treatment of big breaking news
ably well, but each day they generated a full stories, like the Japanese tsunami and the
menu of content for a site that didnt exist, killing of Osama bin Laden. On the sites first
setting out to titillate, engage, and inform anniversary, I wrote a post marking our one-
readers who never showed up. A friend who billionthyes, thats billion, with a bpa-
was hired into this Beckett-like simulacrum geview, and surveyed our achievements with
of a journalism shop told me that he staved not-unreasonable pride.
off the ennui of the job by knocking off early Still, we began to experience our own
most afternoons to go swim at the Y for issues with the Santa Monica brain trust.
hours on end. It felt like a small blow for self- At first, Yahoos executive-suite dysfunc-
respect to get healthy, if nothing else, on the tion looked as though it might work to our
companys dime. advantage. Within the space of a month,
Soon, it all came crashing down for the my immediate supervisor fled for another
entertainment blogs in typical Yahoo fashion. job in television; I got promoted to replace
Without any notice, a division chief in Santa him, which meant, on paper at least, that the
Monica pulled the plug; word had it that she blog and I would be sitting securely, if not
had never liked the project, and felt that it ran exactly pretty, within the managerial maw of
at cross purposes with Yahoos weirdly essen- the purple behemoth. I would be reporting
tialist womens interest portal, whose lack- directly to the deal-cutting news director out
luster editorial mission was neatly summed up West, who greatly appreciated the ways in
by its blindingly chipper name, Shine. which our native content had simplified his
Company veterans readily grasped the real hardball negotiations with content providers.
problem here: Because the entertainment site I wouldagain, on paperbe able to hire on

84 1 The Baffler [no.27]

I wrote a post marking our one-billionthyes,
thats billion, with a bpageview.

a political team to begin covering the fast- something to stop me. He didnt, and I did.
approaching 2012 presidential election cycle. So, with tremulously mounting confidence, I
This balmy sense of provisional well-being could say I was overseeing an actual election
proved short lived: the glorified snakes-and- teami.e., three reporters, as opposed to a
ladders game that would soon establish itself harried and overworked duo.
as the all but perpetual status quo in the
C-suites of Santa Monica was only just getting America: Dont Ask
under way. First, my brand-new editorial pro- Unfortunately, Santa Monica, too, was slowly
tector in Santa Monica suddenly hit the bricks, realizing that a major election cycle was
taking a more congenial deal-making post at on the way. An enterprising soul in senior
Disney. Big company players likewise checked management there had me draw up a long
out at several layers of management above series of memos outlining our election game
him; at one point, on a phone call with a senior plan. I also got dragooned into advising him
manager on the East Coast, we did the math on a half-hearted bid to launch still another
and realized that the closest thing to a clearly informal blog franchise, this one devoted to
defined superior we had was the companys opinion journalism around the election. It
interim CEO, off in Yahoos hulking corporate was here that things started to get truly un-
mothership in downtown Sunnyvale. nerving. Conference call after conference call
Not that Sunnyvale was looking all that ate into my workday, and so far as I could see,
more secure. The companys maximum this projectwhich bore the vaguely Shine-
leader, a gratifyingly foul-mouthed woman like sobriquet Voiceswas on track to join
named Carol Bartz, had been given the the entertainment startup on Yahoos island
heave-ho via phone (you stay classy, Yahoo!) of lost blog toys.
after the company board decided that their The moment of reckoning appeared nigh
stock was underperforming, even by Yahoo when the Santa Monica schemer presented
standards. No one yet knew who would suc- me with an elaborate PowerPoint laying out
ceed her, and I had to jury-rig a set of tem- his, uh, vision for Voices. The first slide of-
porary fixes as I went down my list of urgent fered the familiar toy-soldier pairing of left
needs, from bringing on new correspondents pundit and right pundit; the arrangement was
to cover the 2012 election to getting full- made to look vaguely dynamic only by virtue
time benefits for our blog team, who had all of being formatted as a flow chart. But some-
initially come on, Walmart style, as just-shy- thing more than just the hackneyed muscle
of-fulltime contract workers, strategically memory of cable news production was amiss
ineligible for health care. (All together now: here. In the right quadrant of the flow chart,
You stay classy, Yahoo!) At the end of one in excitable all caps, was the name of the Belt-
especially anguished call with the aforemen- way rights self-styled prince of darkness,
tioned, infinitely patient East Coast man- Robert Novak. The problem was that by this
ager, I told him that I was going to hire at time, Novak had been dead for two years. In
least one new political reporter, to cover the the same measured tones in which I was ear-
burgeoning GOP primary field, unless he did lier obliged to parse out the concept of news,

The Baffler [no.27] ! 85

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I now explained that, while it would indeed energized commentariat, its members would
be a major coup to land Bob Novak for this occasionally descend on a completely unrelat-
project, the move would not result inhow ed post en masse and smear it with thousands
shall I put this?very lively prose. of imbecilic racist outbursts. On one unfor-
It got worse. The consensus pet election tunate occasion, this happened to one of our
project back West turned out to be some- posts, and before we could reverse engineer
thing called Remake America. This was our way out of the hate-fest, the CMS system
essentially an updated video-based version of seized up; we couldnt shut off the comments,
Ask America, a failed Yahoo gimmick from and we couldnt delete the post. For weeks on
2010. The idea back then had been to harness end, it just sat there, oozing ugly misspelled
Yahoos central assetits gargantuan online racist obscenities and brutally mocking the
readershipas a reporting tool. We were high-flown civic conceits of lets-put-on-a-
to be tasked with converting our enormous show digital interactivity.
online following into policy advisers without Ask America, in short, was to tank well
portfolio. We would petition them with ques- before we could get America to cough out
tions about their political priorities, and they a coherent reply. In the blog trenches, we
would, one diligent web user at a time, help coined a new name for the project: America:
the American republic stir out of its forbid- Dont Ask.
ding post-2008 slough of despond.
There were a few problems with this Remake/Remodel
notion. First off, Yahoo readers, like online But the dream of interactivity dies hard at a
readers everywhere, were prone to erecting company with a gargantuan readership and
enormous, vituperative flame threads out of no clear business plan. Even as it became
nothing at all. Putting this group of choleric obvious that Ask America would gain zero
and self-dramatizing personalities in charge traction among our readers, the companys
of the countrys policy priorities was a bit like PR team chugged aimlessly along, dispatch-
entrusting negotiations for a global carbon- ing a clutch of Ask Americabranded trucks,
emissions treaty to the Koch brothers. stuffed no doubt with yet more purple-hued
Second, by far the most vocal Yahoo com- Yahoo swag, to college campuses and hipster
menters were the most dogmatically racist; neighborhoods across the country. When
wed joke grimly that a Yahoo commenter that didnt work, they would try again, two
certificate had to be a complimentary gift to years later.
every newly enrolled member of the Klan. Hence Remake America, which sought
Seasoned front-page programmers knew that to recast its America-probing antecedent as
anytime we published anything touching a high-concept, and closely micromanaged,
on race relations in America, the first order Frank Luntzstyle focus group. Since it was
of business was to disable comments on the clear that we couldnt just throw open the
post before it went live. Likewise, the mood floor to the more, well, yahoo elements of the
among front-page programmers never got Yahoo nation, the overlords of Santa Monica
more frantic than on the occasions when we elected to retain maximum filtering power
managed to push out a post that even mildly over just who would represent America, and
challenged the Confederate mindset with the how. The idea now was to recruit a group
comments still enabled. of ordinary Americans to supply running
To make matters worse, since topical commentary on the election in a series of
reasoning was not the strong suit of this video diaries. It would be a walking, talk-

86 1 The Baffler [no.27]

ing cross-section of the American public: a was initially asked, and when it didnt yield
struggling small-business owner in the upper satisfactory replies, it was to be remade;
South, a Missouri veteran trying to support Yahoos relationship with its host nation, like
his family while recovering from war injuries, that with its workforce, followed the queasy
and so on. In reality, of course, this was a script of battered spouse syndrome.) Today,
fantasy projectionwhat the give-and-take any search for the projects content on Yahoo
of a presidential campaign would look like if a just directs you back to the news homepage;
clutch of Yahoo executives were charged with even in death, Remake America is desperately
casting and scripting it. trying to get you to mistake it for news.
It was also, of course, anything but jour- In the meantime, other changes were
nalism. The voters and families taking part afoot. The long-vacant management slots
in Remake America were carefully screened separating me from the CEO empyrean were
and coached by roving teams of producers at last getting filled, with executives from TV,
and videographers, so that their responses business journalism, and successful Internet
to political events were just about as real and startups. Synergy abounded. TV studios
spontaneous as the drunken hookups on sprouted under the aegis of the New York
Jersey Shore. The eyeball barons in California office, and we teamed up with ABCs politi-
may have been diffident about editing, but cal division to host liveblogs and webcasts for
they sure could stunt-cast. presidential debates and primary nights.
In a series of conference calls and face- This was all well and good, but it lacked a
to-face meetings, I made it clear that my certain visionary lan. If Yahoo was going to
crew of news bloggers would have nothing to become a true digital news brand, it would
do with the projectand that I viewed it as have to go on a major innovation bingeitd
self-promotional news-branding gone off the have to start breaking shit, in other words.
rails. I suggested that the producers choreo- One senior news executive exulted that Ya-
graphing the effort might do well to consult hoo News was in the most enviable position
Albert Brookss prescient seventies takedown that any media company could beit was a
of the documentary-verite style, Real Life, or startup, hed intone, that already had the larg-
the great James L. Brooks journalism moral- est readership on the web. This, too, was clas-
ity play, Broadcast News. Yahoos top brass sic Yahoo corporate boilerplate: it sounded
honored my plea to quarantine the news blog vaguely pulse-pounding when shouted above
team from the overheated doings at Remake a PowerPoint stream, but on closer examina-
Americabut it was becoming increasingly tion, it made no sense whatsoever. Precisely
clear that I was regarded as a doomsaying, because it already commanded the larg-
old-media scold at the great digital cross- est readership, Yahoo couldnt be a startup.
branding banquet. Startups thrive on investor bets made on the
As part of a new partnership with ABC promise of future profitability and, over the
News, Remake America was briefly plastered course of their initial runs, are case studies
across daytime television. But it, too, inglo- in capital destruction; far from ascending
riously expired after election day. America to Yahoo-scale market dominance, theyre
declined to be remade in much the same way expected to rapidly burn through their initial
it had shunned being asked: interrogate it or investment stakes en route to attracting
prod it as we may, the country just sat there. more and bigger investors. For Yahoo to be a
(Taking a somewhat more cynical view of genuine startup, it would have to utterly fail
things, one could hardly blame it. America at being Yahoo.

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Very much by contrast, Yahoo was a down in D.C., I would, absurdly, be expected
lead investor in digital enterprises. It didnt to ignore national politics and the Washing-
develop bold new tech propertiesit merely ton bureau I had hired and supervised. In-
acquired them. The companys main claim to stead, I would be captaining coverage of na-
profitability has been the mountain of shares tional and global affairs. Poor Yahoo; even
it was able to flip when the Chinese online in its bid to banish me from its election-year
shopping giant Alibaba went public. (True to lovefest of media platforms, the company
form, Yahoo declined to float its enormous was betraying yet again its cursory attention
Alibaba winnings to fund a bold or entrepre- to the basic spadework of beat delineation:
neurial bid to revolutionize the web; instead, to supervise coverage of national and global
it spun them off into the guardianship of a affairs was to be in charge of everything.
dummy corporation, so as to save the compa- Or nothing, as the case may be. There was
ny billions in tax liabilities from the Alibaba no mistaking that this redefinition of my job
IPO.) To goad its lead executives into startup duties, however lamely the new management
mode would be like expecting the lead actors team tried to dress it up, amounted to the
in The Sopranos to run a marathon without no- constructive termination of someone who
tice. Far from offering the best of all possible was turning out to be less and less of a team
worlds, as its chief Santa Monica cheerleader player. I told them Id consider the reconfig-
insisted, this managerial conception of the ured post, and after I had, a few days later, I
news divisions pseudo-startup mission of- wrote in to submit my resignation. During
fered the worst. It wouldnt add anything to the long fortnight during which I served out
our already strained reporting and editing my notice, similarly dispirited colleagues told
capacity. The news sites had laid off their only me that the mastermind of my corporate re-
two fulltime copyeditors in an earlier round purposingthe same jaunty soul who longed
of staff cuts, and never bothered to replace to conjure Bob Novak back from the dead
them; why copyedit, after all, when you was crowing that he had blown up Yahoo
can break shit? That lustily intoned startup News. Shit, once again, was broken.
mantra, I knew, was certain to continue
sanctioning colossal wastes of resources and Conflicts Without Interest
effort like Remake America. Let a thousand The smarmy Silicon Valley vacuity of the
videographers bloom! phrase aside, the notion that I and my blog
As I took in all the way-new management- team had been blown up always struck me
speak sprouting up around me, my own as more than a little melodramatic. Nothing
corporate redundancy was mercifully taking ever blows up at Yahoounless its a lurid
shape behind the scenes. In the waning days tabloid listicle or a racist comment thread.
of 2011, an energetic Santa Monica kingpin Absorption, not combustion, is always the
requested that I sit in on a conference call; order of the day.
the subject line of his email request simply It thus came as no surprise that, after my
read 2012, which led me to assume that wed departure, the company went on a celebrity
be discussing election-coverage plans. hiring spree, snapping up industry personages
Instead, I was informed that my job had to be nominal editorial leaders of its most
been completely overhauledand stripped ad-friendly verticals. Cosmetics mogul Bobbi
of most of its critical responsibilities. Our Brown took over as editor in chief of Yahoos
new director of politics coverage was to be beauty site last spring. (Yes, even though Ya-
my deputy, working out of New York, while hoo is now getting comfortable with the term

88 1 The Baffler [no.27]

I was regarded as a doomsaying, old-media scold
at the great digital cross-branding banquet.

editor, the company clearly still doesnt have all the basic rudiments of journalistic eth-
a clue what it means.) David Pogue, a former ics. Behold New York Times reporter Vindu
New York Times digital-gadget correspondent Goels account of the unsightly new effort to
so thoroughly in the tank for his industry repackage a craven old-media sin:
that he actually married one of its PR execu-
Built using technology acquired last year as
tives, was welcomed with open arms in 2013;
part of the companys $1.1 billion purchase
Yahoos maximum leaders lauded him as a
of Tumblr, the new publications combine
perfect specimen of synergistic tech coverage.
original articles and material licensed from
Leading this revolting charge is Marissa
other sites, as well as big photos and videos,
Mayer, the former Google executive brought
into an endless page of titles aimed at entic-
on to captain the company in 2012, after its
ing people to linger. Mixed into that stream
previous Silicon Valley CEO recruit, former
is a different kind of advertisingso-called
PayPal honcho Scott Thompson, was found
native ads or sponsored postswhich look
to have faked his college credentials on his
almost exactly like all the other articles
rsum. Mayer is now banking on an overtly
and videos on the page except that they are
corrupt model of digital journalism to help
sponsored by brands like Knorr, Best Buy,
stanch Yahoos steady hemorrhage of ad rev-
and Ford Motor. These ads, Yahoo hopes,
enue. Significantly, one of her right-hand men
will attract the attention of more readers and
in consolidating this market-prostrate vision
make more money for the company. In some
was the jargon-barking mogul-in-waiting
cases, Yahoo editors even help to write that
Guy Vidra, who rose from captaining the
advertisinga blurring of the traditional
companys vague news strategy efforts to
lines between journalists and the moneymak-
overseeing all of Yahoos news operations.
ing side of the business.
Mayers new synergistic vision yielded
quick dividends. What Mayer is pleased to Indeed, Goels dispatch features Yahoo
call the sites stable of digital magazines is, digital magazine editors trying to one-up each
in reality, the barest of fig leaves for an orgy other in formulating ad-friendly content strat-
of sponsored contenti.e., copy commis- egies and tying themselves up into incoherent
sioned, inspected, and (increasingly) edited knots as they desperately try to rationalize
by advertisers, and misleadingly packaged as their permanent state of market prostration.
reliable, independent journalism in order to I think that our involvement elevates the
win eyeballs and reader trust. (A collateral advertising, Sarah McColl, the erstwhile
casualty of this campaign, oddly enough, was editor in chief of Yahoo Food, told the Times.
the womens site Shine, which was deemed Our ability to bring editorial knowledge
insufficiently innovative, even though it and finesse to advertising content makes it
remained one of the few revenue-earning better and gives it a point of view. No, actu-
stalwarts of the Yahoo media empire.) Under ally: when editorial knowledge is deployed to
Mayers leadership, the company has brought elevate advertising, it stops being either edito-
this ugly art form to sophisticated new rial, or knowledge; its hackery, sold out to the
heightsand in the process blown through highest, or just the bare middling, bidder.

The Baffler [no.27] ! 89

The Dol lar Deb auch

For an edifying look at how this editorial nimble digital news product finally translates
outlook affects hitherto uncompromised and into: a vaguely journalistic veneer strategi-
independent journalism, ponder the grue- cally designed to conceal a rancid interior of
some tale of Yahoo-enabled corporate prior elevated advertising. This, among count-
restraint recently reported by Deadspins Kev- less other reasons, was why one could never
in Draper. Mayers editorial deputy, Kathy make the case for sustaining a stable culture
Savitt, went into heads-must-roll conniptions of reporting and editing at Yahoo News. At
when she learned that Yahoo Sports NBA one bygone conclave of the Yahoo managerial
blogger Kelly Dwyer made passing reference elite, a colleague of mine tried to stress the
to Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilberts need to redouble our commitment to our ex-
career as a predatory lending baron as CEO isting model of independent newsgathering,
of Quicken Loans. Just days before, Yahoo and his plea only earned him this spiteful
had entered into a lucrative partnership rejoinder from a fast-talking Santa Monica
with Gilberts company to produce an inane power broker: Past is prologue.
NCAA March Madness bracket competi- Perhaps, but when all present trends
tion. Yahoo sources told Draper that Savitt are converging toward the thoughtless
began loudly demanding that Dwyer be fired downscaling of editorial work into a bonus
for his revenue-threatening thought crime; accessory in a clients advertising account, the
and while she was evidently talked down past had better make a deeper impression.
from that ludicrous demand, she did proceed, The scrupulous separation of business and
at Gilberts vainglorious urging, to scrub reporting mandates, and the pride of jour-
Dwyers modest blog post from both the site nalistic craft necessary to effectively police
and Yahoos searching functionalities. This that separation, are no doubt old-media tradi-
obsequious brand of synergy speaks volumes tions, but they became old for a reason.
about Yahoos recent devolution. Not only
does it involve the once-respected sports Mixology
blog network that was meant to serve as the And not surprisingly, when you contemptu-
model for the companys news division, but ously muscle these traditions aside, you get
much more to the point, Savitt had precisely a media company that only plunges more
zero background and training in journalism, deeply into its own self-inflicted identity
apart from a stint thirty years before at her crisis. Where Yahoo executives might be
college newspaper. Mayer, in her infinite rewarding grown-up journalists for grown-up
market-prostrate wisdom, merely added all of journalistic work, they instead corral them
Yahoos editorial operations to Savitts baili- together to play-act bit parts for Yahoo-
wick as marketing directorbecause, you see, branded spectacles-on-demand. So it came to
thats just how Yahoo rolls. pass that, amid the blizzard of horrific news
Yahoos present, blinding moment of otherwise known as the 2014 election cycle,
self-devouring synergy is but the logical I came across an invitation to a Yahoo event
culmination of all the counter-journalistic called the Midterm Mixer, to be convened at
practices that so transfixed company man- the Capitol Lounge, a D.C. nightspot.
agement during my tenure there. And what The events jaunty moniker perfectly
this process portends is only too clear. For all captured the careless, slapdash worldview of
the clumsy rhetorical lip service Guy Vidra the producers who confected it. Hosted by
pays to The New Republics hallowed intel- network news also-ran Katie Couric (who
lectual traditions, this is what his vision of a has recently signed on as Yahoos global

90 1 The Baffler [no.27]

anchor), the mixer promised little enough in social-media hype, and probably more than
the way of furtive ruling-class mating rituals; its share of pageviews. But none of the activ-
instead, it was a veritable Grand Guignol ity chronicled on the page was memorable,
of misguided synergy. David Gregory, the insightful, or remotely informative.
recently deposed host of NBCs Meet the Press, And yet, like the clumsily interred
was to be on hand, presumably to make Cou- remains of Remake America, the vacant
rics descent into election night matre d duty spectacle has soldiered bravely on. As I type
appear dignified, at least by comparison. these words, in mid-November, the Yahoo
There was to be, of course, the cable-man- homepage features Katie Courics breathless
dated presentation of matched major-party video promo trailer for the mixer eventfea-
mouthpieces: Leslie Sanchez for Team R and turing a Twitter-sponsored photo booth and
Jamal Simmons for Team D. For depth and a performance by the Georgetown Chimes,
context, there was a similarly yoked pair of an a cappella combo of painfully white
institutional apparatchiks: longtime antitax undergrads clad in power suitssandwiched
and antigovernment activist Grover Norquist, between two other messy, though eloquent,
the leader of Americans for Tax Reform, on specimens of content synergy in our time:
the right; and on the left, think tank honcho David Pogue, informing us that Microsofts
Neera Tanden, of the White Houseosculat- Taylorite new fitness band is simply beau-
ing Center for American Progress. Politico tiful . . . on the inside, and Bobbi Brown,
White House correspondent Mike Allenthe divulging the secret behind Smoky Eyes for
hacks hack of D.C.s bloated and braindead Glasses. The legend above reads Only on
journalism scenewould also be in atten- Yahoo. Thanks to the likes of Guy Vidra
dance, evidently to serve as a kind of Cheshire and Chris Hughes, we can no longer console
Cat mascot at this most Washington sort of ourselves with the hope that it shall remain
(lowercase) tea party. ever thus.t
The 2014 midterms were in many ways
a landmark ballot, forcing sustained and
wrenching reappraisals of reigning assump-
tions about how our major parties approach
the basic work of attracting (and, all too
often, repelling) key blocs of voters. But none
of this was deemed suitable fodder for the
Yahoo barroom display. Indeed, all that the
event managed to conjure in the way of actual
journalism was the totemic whiff of hard
liquor itselfand even that felt cheap and
unearned. The real-time election-night cov-
erage on Yahoo resembled nothing so much
as a directionless piece of performance art
in which the self-conscious players gradually
succumb to their most disabling fearthat
they are performing before a cavernously va-
cant civic house. Like much Yahoo-branded
activity toward the end of my tenure there,
the Midterm Mixer generated a great deal of R ANDALL ENOS

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VCs Take the Media

3 Jacob Silverman

Alex Blumberg wanted to start a business. meta than slightly vertiginous: Where does
The veteran radio producer had established the media object end and Blumbergs startup
himself with such prestige radio programs as begin? Was this a daring new brand of docu-
This American Life and Planet Money. But in mentary journalism or a venture-capital road
2014 he decided he was ready to strike out on show? Was Blumberg turning the spotlight
his ownto build a podcasting network fea- on himself to chronicle his efforts or to pro-
turing several narrative journalism projects in mote them? The answer in all these cases, as
the TAL style. He began by starting a podcast one might guess, is both. But more impor-
about starting his podcasting business. He tant, StartUp serves as a strange but useful
called it StartUp. Meta, I know, he says in case study in deconstructing startup culture,
the first episode. where the future is anything a rich person
Its certainly that, but its also a clever promises it to be and a companys value is a
proof of concept, illuminating the anything- matter of shared hallucination.
but-intuitive connection between startup Given its public-radio pedigree, StartUp is
economics and real-world business planning. what you might expect: confessional, insis-
Whereas most startups fuss obsessively over tently self-effacing, and chatty. Blumberg is
unreleased beta versions of a new platform smart, good-humored, and wears his feelings
or iPhone app, or reconfigure sheaves of on his sleeve. He gets choked up, for instance,
worked-over PowerPoint stacks, Blumberg when he asks a new friend to become his busi-
had something to show people. But there was ness partner. The podcast milks awkward
a hitch. Unlike a conventional documentary moments for dramatic effect, and there are
or reality show, StartUp wasnt a retrospective more than a few. Blumberg has some excru-
chroniclethough it wasnt quite a real-time ciating verbal stumbles when first pitching
narrative either. Blumberg was still building his business to a prominent venture capital-
the company and talking to investors when ist, and again when his soon-to-be business
the show aired its first episode on August partner asks for 47 percent equitya great
29, 2014. More installments followed, one deal more than the 10 percent stake Blumberg
every two weeks. The result was that anyone had in mind. In episode 4, he rises at 5:30 a.m.,
Blumberg talked to while creating his start- his voice hushed so that he wont disturb his
uphis wife, potential investors, business sleeping family, and spends several minutes
partners and their spouses, would-be adver- solemnly reminiscing about The Giving Tree
tisersknew they were becoming characters Shel Silversteins famed childrens fable about
in a piece of narrative journalism. They were unrewarded generositywhich had made him
facing all the struggles that typically beset a cry the previous day.
startup projectfrom disputes over equity to Before sending out a term sheet to poten-
philosophical arguments over how to describe tial investors, Blumberg has to decide how
the companys missionwith the added com- much his company is worth. The number his
plication of playing for the audio recorder team comes up with is $10 millionan essen-
the role of themselves. The effect was less tially arbitrary figure, as hes quick to admit.

92 1 The Baffler [no.27]


The valuation, like everything in this startup bubble-inflated, but that doesnt seem to mat-
world, is a story youre telling, Blumberg says. ter. For one thing, many people in Silicon Val-
Its a promise of future growth. The value ley werent around when the last bubble burst.
isnt, in any familiar sense, real. But all this is They havent been chastened by experience;
typical for a startup, especially in the midst of meanwhile, theres so much easy money slosh-
the present tech bubble. Even some of Blum- ing through the system that its entirely plau-
bergs investors admit that his valuation is sible for a fortune to be coaxed out of it with

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K iss t h e B o o t

little more than a good story and a fistful of redux, these ingredients help to drive irratio-
podcast destinations. nal valuations as much as new technologies,
patents, engineering talent, or bulletproof
The Taking Tree business plans do.
Chris Sacca, the founder of Lowercase Capi- Its thus no great surprise that, after sev-
tal, one of Blumbergs principal investors, eral episodes, StartUp the media phenomenon
acknowledges that Blumbergs inchoate com- begins to eclipse Gimlet Media the startup.
pany is overvalued, but he doesnt care, in part The podcast has ascended to the top tier of
because his $100,000 commitment is com- the influential iTunes rankings. Investors,
paratively small by his firms standards. some of whom had ignored Blumbergs ear-
There are tens of thousands of people lier entreaties, take notice and begin contact-
who consider themselves to be angel inves- ing him. Perhaps its because, for all his pro-
tors, Sacca says. There are hundreds, if not fessed lack of business knowledge and studied
thousands, of these seed funds. And so all this displays of on-air humility, Blumberg actu-
money needs to get put somewhere. So there ally knows how to produce compelling audio.
is a lot of wishful thinking, and even some fan- Still, the strangeness of the situation, a kind
tasy, baked into this company, which, after an of quantum entanglement between StartUp-
extensively chronicled search, settles on the as-podcast and StartUp-as-startup, leaves him
name Gimlet Media. (Blumberg features a surprised. Somehow a podcast about me fail-
naming firm that specializes in these matters ing to generate FOMOa.k.a the fear of
on his show, and it proceeds to offer its services missing outin potential investors, he says,
to him pro bono.) Still, even with its new name generated a lot of FOMO in potential inves-
and mounting investor interest, Blumbergs tors. Hes already raised $1.5 million, hitting
company is a notional, if not strictly fiction- his initial target.
al, creation. It doesnt quite exist yetit was Blumbergs efforts also benefited from
even preceded by its first product, the podcast felicitous timing. The debut of StartUp co-
devoted to the protracted story of its future incided with Serial, a narrative nonfiction
founding. Blumberg doesnt find an office and podcast that has become a pop-culture sensa-
begin hiring people until several episodes in, tionperhaps the most popular, and most av-
and its never clear exactly how or when Gim- idly parsed, podcast of all time. Serial goes un-
let Media is incorporated as a business. mentioned in StartUp until episode 10, but it,
But this is precisely whats valuable about too, is made by TAL alums and staffers, some
Blumbergs show as a document: all this vague of them former colleagues of Blumberg, and
talk and even vaguer follow-through is entire- you cant help but think that its spectacular
ly representative of how startups work. They success expedites Blumbergs elevator pitches.
are as much media phenomena as material Suddenly, the flannel-and-jeans world of
concerns. Hype is part of the package, cer- journalistic podcasts has acquired that most
tainly when they are in pre-launch or stealth evanescent and valuable quantity in both the
mode. Tellingly, most of the early metrics of media and tech worlds: buzz. But with this
startup success are reputational, rather than excitement comes an air of unreality, andfor
measurably concrete: a spot in a prized incu- those of us on the outside of the bubblesus-
bator; write-ups on TechCrunch, PandoDaily, picion. How much of the interest in StartUp
Hacker News, or Re/code; mentions on social flows directly from the meta-level conceit of
media; appearances in festival startup com- the show? Whatever one might think of TALs
petitions; parties thrown. In the tech-bubble twee liberalism, can a similarly styled venture

94 1 The Baffler [no.27]

be more than a succs destime? Since when lar product. What could be wrong with that?
are venture capitalists interested in fund- But the truth is that most people surround-
ing high-quality journalism? Can Blumbergs ing a startup dont want it to become a viable
project really make the kind of money that business. They may not even want it to make
gets VCs up in the morning? moneypie-in-the-sky valuations are easier to
This latter quandary is what worries Sacca. justify when theres no revenue stream, rather
Hes searching for the big payout, and its not than when theres a modest one, which might
clear if Blumberg can become a 10x compa- put a damper on growth projections. Valu-
ny, a breakout venture that realizes ten times ations, ultimately, reflect that great Silicon
its original investment. Yet whats rare about Valley religion: total faith in the future. They
Blumbergs startup is that its already generat- have to remain fantastical so that VCs, com-
ing revenue. He has advertisers, and he uses pany founders, and startup employees paid in
the commercial interludes in each episode equity can get their 10x payout.
(which, he says, go for $6,000 per spot) to And it works. Instagram didnt make a cent
chat up his sponsors, allowing him to simul- before it was sold to Facebook for about $1 bil-
taneously learn from and advertise them. But lion, and industry figures now say that it was
this nascent revenue stream presents a funny, undervalued. Facebook later spent $19 billion
if unacknowledged, problem. Startups arent on WhatsApp, which generated only $10.2
supposed to make money; theyre supposed to million in revenue in 2013. Oculus, a startup
spend it. A companys burn ratehow much developing virtual reality goggles, rode the
cash it spends each monthis a recognized hype train to one of the biggest crowdfunding
metric, a signal of an aggressive growth strat- appeals of all time before it, too, sold itself to
egy and investor confidence. With a burgeon- Facebook for $2 billion.
ing audience, a Rolodex of experienced jour- In this environment, what increasingly
nalists, and advertising, merchandise, special matters is either building up a user base of
events, and other amenities planned, Gimlet millions of consumers (and all the personal
Media shows potential for growth and even data that comes with it) or generating the
sustainabilityyet these arent especially val- kind of irrational exuberance that sells inves-
ued assets in the startup world. tors on the fever dream of future success. This
And thats why, at least in part, Sacca and is what drives valuations and attracts ten-fig-
his investing partner, Matt Mazzeo, fear that ure acquisitions. For all their talk of building
Gimlet doesnt have the potential for global great companies, tech startups arent seek-
domination that they seek. Its not a venture- ing to create enduring institutions that will
scale company, Mazzeo says. It doesnt have produce reasonable profits and middle-class
proprietary technology; it doesnt intend to jobs for decades to come. They operate with
be a platform of potentially enormous reach. shorter time horizons, exercising a particular
Why arent they trying to create the Insta- form of creative destruction. By using cheap
gram of audio? The lack of VC approval is cash to subsidize products and services, and
disappointing. Im describing something then making them available for free or well
that feels like the biggest thing Ive ever done, below market value, successful startups are
and it seems small to him, a diminished able to wipe out incumbents and would-be
Blumberg tells his wife. rivals. This, in turn, allows them to concen-
To civilian eyes, that may not be a problem. trate capital and profit potential by achieving
Before its even established, the company is al- great economies of scale. These are the basic
ready making money and putting out a popu- steps in the playbook that enabled Amazon

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K iss t h e B o o t

to corner the book and online retail markets not business development. As Noam Scheiber
and Uber to present a mortal threat to the wrote last year in a New Republic article about
taxi system. a doomed startup and its deceitful founder,
Every successful startup is in some sense a
Failures Just Another Word confidence game.
This monopsonistic tendency is just one re- Startups, then, are a perfect corporate
spect in which Silicon Valley deviates from structure for a lottery economy in which suc-
commonly held notions of what makes for a cess has been decoupled from merit, crisis is
good business or sensible economics. Whats the norm, and income inequality is at record
valuable to a startup and investors in the short- highs. That they tend to waste money and
term may not be in the best longer-term inter- that most of them fail never registers as an in-
ests of customers or the overall economy. The dictment of the system; on the contrary, their
leaders of the tech elite want different things excesses are regarded as a rationale for mak-
from you and I. Bubbles burst, but until this ing larger bets on fewer companies. Tales of
one does, capital is so cheap and abundant, missed opportunity and others making it big
and potential payouts so enormous, that from only encourage those with means to keep play-
inside the bubble, it seems irresponsible not to ing the game. If you believe that this world is
join the dance. Many bankers similarly knew not random and capricious, that it is essen-
that the housing bubble was inflated, or that tially a meritocracy, then your number should
they were selling toxic securities, but they felt soon come up. The industrys fetishization
they had an obligation to try to extract some of failure stems from its broader talismanic
value while the going was still good. Someone faith that major setbacks are simply rewards
was going to get rich (and, it turned out, those deferred. Failing just means you havent won
who failed would simply be bailed out by the yetand even if you do fail on a permanent
rest of us). basis, youre likely doing it with someones else
In recent months, a number of prominent moneysomeone who can afford to lose it.
venture capitalists have sounded warnings In his recent book Zero to One: Notes on
about companies burn rates and inflated valu- Startups, or How to Build the Future, Peter
ations. At the 2014 edition of Techweek New ThielPayPal cofounder, Facebook investor,
York, an industry conference, I watched as a billionaire VCthrows some cold water on
panel of four VCs reckoned with a simple ques- free-market capitalism. Its an unexpected
tion from the crowd: Are some companies now move from a noted libertarian. Competitive
overvalued? They each conceded that we are in markets, Thiel argues, reduce profits to es-
a bubble and that the prices and reputations of sentially zero. When everyone is competing
some startups are grossly inflated. But none of against everyone, particularly in crowded in-
them was willing to name an example of such a dustries, advantages get worn down and no
company. They seemed reluctant to offend any one makes any money. Just look at airlines,
powerful players or miss out on future oppor- he says, which generate billion of dollars in
tunities. Its not in their self-interest to speak value but make pennies in profits from each
up; after all, once you start poking around, you customer. Google, on the other hand, has a
might end up popping the whole bubble. profit margin around 20 percent. In Thiels
This attitude inevitably influences both eyes, Google achieves this success by being a
how work is done and what kind of culture monopoly, relatively unchallenged in online
is created. Startups are about entrepreneur- advertising and several associated businesses,
shiphustle, networking, and salesmanship like search and email. Any good startup, he

96 1 The Baffler [no.27]

Old medias traditional Ivy League power base
has simply been updated with bullshit titles
like director of digital innovation.

says, should find an undercapitalized market up story, after all, and theres little doubt that
it can exploit and work to monopolize it. he speaks for his class of venture capitalists,
Thiel chooses his examples carefullyand who provide the industrys ideological and
not especially responsibly. The airline in- financial grounding. Call it 10x or monopoly
dustry in this country has been notoriously capitalismregardless of the nomenclature,
unstable since its deregulation, and many air- under its dispensation, VCs and the compa-
lines have only recently kept themselves afloat nies they steer all seek the same thing: to turn
by declaring bankruptcy, merging with other a few big bets into gigantic payouts. In the case
carriers, or soaking passengers for fees. When of Thiel, whose funds tend to invest in five to
Thiel says that markets eliminate profits, he seven companies at a time, the chief task at
proposes an abstract principle, one that ap- hand is to identify companies that might be
plies to perfectly competitive markets, which acquiredand yield those enormous gainsin
never have existed, and likely never will. Led less than a decade.
by the finance industry (which in turn was
aided by Treasury-blessed mergers during the Where the Boys Are
financial crisis), consolidation is certainly in Many VCs share this philosophy because they
vogue. But it seems disingenuous to say that live in a monoculture that has changed little
monopolies are the only route to a valuable in the forty years its been around. Venture
business. In this climate of prostrate, indus- capitalists nearly all look the same and claim
try-captured regulators, seeking to build a similar life experiences, and they hold up the
monopoly may be smart, even reasonable. But same few companies and prominent moguls as
it is by no means standard. Still, Thiel is will- models. According to a recent study by Bab-
ing to go even further. son College researchers, women are in charge
Monopoly is therefore not a pathology or of only 2.7 percent of VC-backed companies.
an exception, he writes. Monopoly is the con- Ninety-four percent of partners at VC firms
dition of every successful business. (Emphasis in are mena four percent increase since the
original.) last bubble.* The number of women in college
In the face of such confident assertions computer science programs continues to de-
from an industry leader, do we bother to de- cline, while the tech industry has acquired the
bate the economics or political implications reputation of a boys club, a pipeline for mostly
of monopoly-as-usual? Or do we simply con- white and Asian American graduates of Stan-
cede that, for our purposes, bigger questions ford, Berkeley, Carnegie-Mellon, and the Ivy
involving the public good simply dont matter League. At Google, Facebook, and Yahoo,
much? Thiel has a singularly compelling start- African Americans hold 1 percent of techni-

* In Something Ventured, a celebratory tour through the history of venture capital, the lone woman featured is Sandra
Lerner, one of the founders of Cisco Systems. Cisco fired Lerner in 1990, with one board member telling the thirty-
five-year-old that she should retire. The documentary uses Lerners story as a prompt that allows the all-white male
cast to explain how hard, but necessary, it is to fire people sometimes.

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K iss t h e B o o t

cal jobs; the numbers hardly budge when the grounds to move seamlessly from one job to
pool is expanded to include nontechnical anotherhence the embrace of failure and
personnel at these companies. Although the serial entrepreneurship. Being a contingent
practice has acquired a whiff of controversy, worker doesnt worry an experienced pro-
many tech companies still tout the virtues of grammer. True, he (and it is almost always a
culture fita nebulous designation that, if he in this instance) might find that his salary
youre honest, means hiring people who are has shrunk slightly thanks to the wage-fixing
just like you. scheme undertaken by Google, Apple, and
In Zero to One, Thiel says that the best other industry giantsthe subject of a class-
startups might be considered slightly less ex- action suit currently wending its way through
treme kinds of cults. Because they are sup- the courtsbut hes still getting six figures.
posed to be fanatically dedicated and made Yet when managers reproduce this attitude
up of small teamslean, in the industry further down the income chain, it creates a
parlancestartup employees should be of a frightening form of precarity. This applies
similar mind. Everyone at PayPal, he says, equally to the seventy members of the Intel
was the same kind of nerd.* Thiel is dubious cafeteria staff laid off just before Thanks-
about people who look different. At Thiels giving (the company switched to a different
Founders Fund, he writes, his team institut- catering vendor who declined to keep these
ed a blanket rule: pass on any company whose workers on) and to the long-term unemployed
founders dressed up for pitch meetings. twenty-eight-year-old doing microwork un-
This kind of willful myopia may explain der the direction of Amazons Mechanical
why Silicon Valley has been terribly uncre- Turk.
ative in its business models. Most new start- Some industry executives must be calculat-
ups either seek to monetize user data (through ing in their decision to pamper engineers and
ads or selling personal information) or are part managers while squeezing practically everyone
of whats been called the 1099 economy else. But one wonders if they have also insulat-
platforms that farm out precarious contract ed themselves from seeing the consequences
workers to clean houses, drive cars, assemble of their model. For these peoplethe found-
furniture, cook meals, and perform other ba- ers mythologized by Thiel, even in the name
sic chores for a high-end clientele. In neither of his VC fundthe boom-and-bust startup
case do startup employees create revenue for cycle is nonthreatening because they are gen-
the company; instead, they create a vehicle erally well paid, some of them end up very rich,
through which to extract value from users and and risk is pooled mostly in the hands of major
independent contractors. Labor and revenue investors. The precariousness of employment,
remain elastic things, which the rentiers pre- in which one is bouncing from job to job and
siding over the pertinent servers are able to might be involved with several early-stage
summon on demand and scale up as needed. companies at once, is a kind of art project. Its
To engineers, entrepreneurs, and other all a lark. This is what Nathan Heller, writing
tech elites, this makes a lot of sense. They in The New Yorker, called the new mode of
generally have the right combination of in- American success, where people appear to
demand skills, contacts, and cultural back- float above the exigencies of career.

* To illustrate this, Thiel later notes that four of the six PayPal founders built bombs in high school. When the compa-
ny became locked in competition with X.com, a rival firm led by Elon Musk, a PayPal engineer (one of the founders,
perhaps) designed a bomb and presented it at a team meeting with the idea of blowing up their rival. Calmer heads
prevailed, Thiel says, and the proposal was attributed to extreme sleep deprivation.

98 1 The Baffler [no.27]

Blumbergs Gimlet Media partakes in these content). The attendant collapse of free-
same labor relations and in this same vision lance rates favors those who have money or
of the startup as a kind of Platonic formthe who can treat journalism as a hobby, and so
ultimate proving ground of individual ambi- the barrier to entry remains high. In practical
tion. His company deviates slightly in that it terms, this means that old medias traditional
doesnt have the potential to become a mo- Ivy League power base has simply been up-
nopoly. That also means theres less opportu- dated with a few new moguls, technologists,
nity to extract value from unwitting customers and those blessed with bullshit titles like di-
or contingent workersthank goodness for rector of digital innovation or entrepreneur-
that. Hes hiring journalists, audio engineers, in-residence. Meanwhile, new-media ventures
salespeople, and the like. But one gets the tend to poach from a familiar cohort of es-
sense that Blumberg himself is also not risking tablished talent, generating excitement and
muchthat, aside from his cultural bona fides demonstrating the new companys supposed
and lack of ego, he is only one degree removed ambition. As a consequence, like in the tech
from a conventional Silicon Valley founder. industry, a small group of people rotate among
He has a family to support and indicates that jobs, often failing upward, while earning good
he has gone into modest debtfactors that no salaries and a reputation of being au courant.
doubt heighten his anxieties about seeing his When the next venture fund or billionaire
business through. But such concerns also loom with a conscience decides to start a website for
larger by virtue of their on-air dramatization; digital storytelling, they naturally go back to
with his fundraising goal achieved, the stakes the same well. If you find yourself in this priv-
arent material so much as emotional. Theres ileged population and have good networking
little doubt that should Gimlet Media col- skills, you can play this game for some time.
lapse, Blumberg would have a soft landing at But it is not a way to create enduring institu-
This American Life, or find his way to some new tions capable of both generating profits and
media startup. Venture capitalists have de- fulfilling a civic function.
cided that theres money to be made in media, As the startup model migrates beyond tech
or at least in starting media companiesa fact and media, it loses its charmed aura, especially
that should concern us all. as risk devolves from bankers to more impor-
tant entities like the University of California,
The Journalism App which has a $250 million venture fund, or the
Indeed, Gimlet Media is not merely following state of New York, where Governor Cuomos
in the wake of Serial. Todays VC landscape START-UP NY program has created tax-free
is studded with journalism startups like Vox, zones for new businesses around the state,
The Intercept, Vice, BuzzFeed, Mic, Fusion, Me- leading to a projected loss of $323 million in
dium, and Business Insider. Some of these out- tax revenue through 2017. But startups contin-
fits do fine work, but they havent been able to ue to be seen as an innovative cure-all for our
make up for the industrys decade-long attri- countrys economic malaise, especially when
tion, and journalisms stubborn dependence they can be combined with the false popu-
on advertising gives prospective funders lism of crowdsourcing. It didnt take long for
ample reason to doubt their long-term vi- President Obama and Congress to take note
ability. Online advertising can support a busi- of this. The JOBS Act, signed into law April
ness only at scale, and to scale journalism, 2012, called for looser restrictions on indi-
you have to publish a lot of material, and do viduals investing in emerging growth compa-
it cheaply (this is where journalism becomes nies. After signing the bill, President Obama

The Baffler [no.27] ! 99

K iss t h e B o o t

announced, Startups and small business will ups. Aspiring shareholders had to be accred-
now have access to a big pool of potential in- ited investorsessentially, those who make
vestors, namely the American people. Yes, $200,000 or more per year or are worth at least
now you can plunk down up to $10,000 in a $1 million. Barbara Roper, director of investor
company without needing to be informed of protection for the Consumer Federation of
risks or filing paperwork with the SEC. America, told one of Blumbergs colleagues,
A market that brings together inexperienced
This possibility excited Alex Blumberg
issuers with unsophisticated investors and
and his listeners alike. He began fielding
harnesses the power of the Internet for hype
interest from all over. In the podcasts sev-
is one that is likely to experience a very high
enth episodethe last before Gimlet Media
volume of problems. The show then duly re-
unveiled its first real program, Reply All, a
corded one of its trademark moments of styl-
show about the Internethe announced,
ized awkwardness, with Blumberg forced to
Today on the show, we want to bring in our
acknowledge that he was the inexperienced
last group of investors: you, our listeners. He
issuer, his listeners the untutored lenders, and
continued, sounding like a cross between an
the hype machine the very audio product we
egg-slicer infomercial and an NPR fundrais-
were consuming. Oops.
ing drive: Thats right. We want to cut you in
The warnings didnt seem to matter. With-
on this action.
in hours of the episodes release, Blumberg
To Blumbergs credit, he went on to sur- made an announcement: Gimlet had already
vey some of the risks involved in investing raised $275,000 through Alphaworks, an eq-
in startups. He also explained that the SEC uity crowdfunding platform. The window, at
still hadnt finalized the rules surrounding least for now, was closed. But inside the bub-
the JOBS Act, meaning that ordinary people ble, the next opportunity, or the next failure,
were not yet allowed to put their cash in start- is never far away.t


100 1 The Baffler [no.27]

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tD 5 Lou
D5 Lou Beach


Gran Flor Sin Pantalones.

The Baffler [no.27] ! 101

The Baffler [no.27] ! 101
K iss t h e B o o t

The Taming
of Tech
3 Evgeny Morozov

The Glass Cage: Automation and Us,
by Nicholas Carr, W. W. Norton, $26.95

W hat does it mean to be a technology critic

in todays America? And what can technol-
ogy criticism accomplish? The first question
seems easy: to be a technology critic in Amer-
ica now is to oppose that bastion of vulgar dis-
ruption, Silicon Valley. By itself, however, this
opposition says nothing about the critics poli-
ticsan omission that makes it all the more
difficult to answer the second question.
Why all the political diffidence? A critical
or oppositional attitude toward Silicon Val-
ley is no guarantee of the critics progressive
agenda; modern technology criticism, going
back to its roots in Germany at the turn of
the twentieth century, has often embraced
conservative causes. It also doesnt help that
technology critics, for the most part, make a
point of shunning political categories. Instead ed technologists; the humans, in turn, are
of the usual left/right distinction, they are treated as abstract, ahistorical migrs to the
more comfortable with the humanist/anti- global village, rather than citizen-subjects of
humanist one. What if the cost of machines the neoliberal empire.
that think is people who dont?a clever Most contemporary American critics of
rhetorical question posed by the technology technologyfrom Jaron Lanier to Andrew
author George Dyson a few years agonicely Keen to Sherry Turklefall into the cultural-
captures these sorts of concerns. The ma- romantic or conservative camps. They be-
chines in question are typically reduced to moan the arrogant thrust of technological
mere embodiments of absurd, dehumanizing thinking as it clashes with human traditions
ideas that hijack the minds of poorly educat- and fret over what an ethos of permanent dis-

102 1 The Baffler [no.27]


Silicon Valleys bullshit empire ers, Zadie Smith, and Leon Wieseltier have all
penned passionate tracts that seek to defend
is impervious to critique.
humanistic values from the assault of tech-
9 nology. They dont shy away from attacking
Internet companies, but their attacks mostly
ruption means for the configuration of the focus on the values and beliefs of the compa-
liberal self or the survival of its landmark in- nies founders, as if the tech entrepreneurs
stitutions, from universities to newspapers. could simply be talked out of the disruption
So do occasional fellow travelers who write that they are wreaking on the world. If Mark
literary essays or works of fiction attacking Zuckerberg would just miraculously choose
Silicon ValleyJonathan Franzen, Dave Egg- a tome by Isaiah Berlin or Karl Kraus for his

The Baffler [no.27] ! 103

K iss t h e B o o t

ongoing reading marathon, everything could history. But this surely cant be done within
still go back to normal. the discourse of technology, and given the
Meanwhile, a more radical strand of tech steep price of admission, the technology critic
criticism, confined mostly to university pro- might begin most logically by acknowledg-
fessors, barely registers on the public radar. ing defeat. Changing public attitudes toward
Thoselike Robert McChesney or Dan Schil- technologyat a time when radical political
ler or Vincent Moscowho work on tech- projects that technology could abet are miss-
nology, media, and communications within ingis pointless. While radical thought about
Marxist analytical frameworks, hardly get any technology is certainly possible, the true radi-
attention at all. The last radical critics to en- cals are better off theorizingand spearhead-
rich the broader public debate on technology ingother, more consequential struggles, and
were probably Murray Bookchin and Lewis jotting down some reflections on technology
Mumford; for both, technology was a key site along the way.
for struggle, but their struggles, whether for
social ecology or against hierarchical bureau- The Self-Driving Critic
cracy, were not about technology as such. Nicholas Carr, one of Americas foremost
That radical critique of technology in technology critics, is far from acknowledg-
America has come to a halt is in no way sur- ing defeat of any sortin fact, he betrays no
prising: it could only be as strong as the eman- doubts whatsoever about the relevance and
cipatory political vision to which it is attached. utility of his trade. In his latest book, The
No vision, no critique. Lacking any idea of Glass Cage, Carr argues that we have failed to
how sensors, algorithms, and databanks could consider the hidden costs of automation, that
be deployed to serve a non-neoliberal agenda, our penchant for delegating mundane tasks
radical technology critics face an unenviable to technology is misguided, and that we must
choice: they can either stick with the empiri- redesign our favorite technologies in such a
cal project of documenting various sides of way that humans take on more responsibil-
American decay (e.g., revealing the power of ityboth of the moral and perceptual variet-
telecom lobbyists or the data addiction of the iesfor operating in the world.
NSA) or they can show how the rosy rheto- Carr makes this case using his trademark
ric of Silicon Valley does not match up with style of analysis, honed in his previous book,
reality (thus continuing to debunk the New The Shallows. Drawing on the latest findings
Economy bubble). Much of this is helpful, but in neuroscience and timeless meditations
the practice quickly encounters diminishing from various philosophers (Martin Heidegger
returns. After all, the decay is well known, and stands next to John Dewey), he seeks to diag-
Silicon Valleys bullshit empire is impervious nose rather than prescribe. The juxtaposition
to critique. of hard science and humanities is occasion-
Why, then, aspire to practice any kind of ally jarring: a deeply poetic section, which
technology criticism at all? I am afraid I do quotes Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Robert
not have a convincing answer. If history has, Frost, is abruptly interrupted to inform us
in fact, ended in Americawith venture capi- that a study of rodents, published in Science in
tal (represented by Silicon Valley) and the neo- 2013, indicated that the brains place cells are
liberal militaristic state (represented by the much less active when animals make their way
NSA) guarding the sole entrance to its crypt through computer-generated landscapes than
then the only real task facing the radical tech- when they navigate the real world.
nology critic should be to resuscitate that The Glass Cage is subtitled Automation and

104 1 The Baffler [no.27]

Technology criticism is just an elaborate
but affirmative footnote to the status quo.

Us, and Carr tries hard to direct his critique the inauthenticity of digital technology and
toward the process of automation rather than the erosion of our cognitive and aesthetic
technology as such. His material, however, re- skills, but it doesnt take much effort to dis-
peatedly refuses such framing. Consider just cover that the very same technologies are also
three of the many examples that appear under widely celebrated for producing new forms of
automation: the automation of driving via authenticity (hence the excitement around
self-driving cars, the automation of facial rec- 3-D printers and the Internet of Things: fi-
ognition via biometric technologies, and the nally, we are moving from the virtual to the
automation of song recognition via apps like tangible) and even new forms of aesthetic
Shazam, which identify a song after just a few appreciation (the art world is buzzing about
seconds of listening. They do look somewhat the emergence of The New Aestheticthe
similar, but differences abound as well. In the intrusion of imagery inspired by computer
first example, the driver is made unnecessary; culture into art and the built environment).
in the second example, technology augments Why is repairing a motorcycle deemed more
human capacity to recognize faces; in the pleasurable or authentic than repairing a 3-D
third example, we create a genuinely new abil- printer?
ity, since humans cant recognize unknown Carr quickly runs into a problem faced by
songs. Given such diversity, its not obvious most other contemporary technology critics
why automationrather than, say, augmen- (the present author included): since our brand
tationis the right framework to understand of criticism is, by its very nature, reactivewe
these changes. What are we automating with are all prisoners of the silly press releases is-
the song identification app? sued by Silicon Valleywe have few incentives
Carrs basic premise is sound: a little bit of to exit the technological debate and say
technology and automation can go a long way anything of substance that does not already
in enabling human emancipation but, once presuppose that all communications services
used excessively, they might result in an ero- are to be provided by the market. Its as if, in
sion of skills, a dulling of perceptions, and a articulating a program, Silicon Valley had also
slowing of reactions. Not only would we lose articulated all the possible counter-programs,
the ability to perform certain tasksCarr ded- defining a horizon of thought that even its op-
icates a whole chapter to studying how the in- ponents could never transcend.
troduction of near-complete automation to the As a result, Carr prefers to criticize those
flight deck has affected how pilots respond to technologies that he finds troubling instead of
emergenciesbut we might also lose the abil- imagining what an alternative arrangement
ity to experience certain features of the world which may or may not feature the technology
around us. GPS is no friend to flaneurs. Spell in questionmight be like. His treatment of
checkers once served as tutors, he laments. self-driving cars is a case in point. Carr opens
Now all we get is dumb autocorrect. Here is the the first chapter with rumination on what it
true poet laureate of First World problems. was like to drive a Subaru with manual trans-
Carr doesnt try very hard to engage his op- mission in his youth. He notices, with his usu-
ponents. Its all very well to complain about al nostalgic flair, how the automation of driv-

The Baffler [no.27] ! 105

K iss t h e B o o t

ing might eventually deprive us of important our leisure hours. We shun hard work and
but underappreciated cognitive skills that are only rarely engage in challenging hobbies.
crucial to leading a fulfilling life. Instead, we watch TV or go to the mall or log
This argument would make sense if the on to Facebook. We get lazy. And then we get
choice were between a normal car and a self- bored and fretful. Disengaged from any out-
driving car. But are those really our only op- ward focus, our attention turns inward, and
tions? Is there any evidence that countries we end up locked in what Emerson called the
with excellent public transportation systems jail of self-consciousness. Jobs, even crummy
swarm with unhappy, mentally deskilled au- ones, are actually easier to enjoy than free
tomatons who feel that their brains are under- time, says Csikszentmihalyi, because they
used as they get inside the fully automated have the built-in goals and challenges that
metro trains? One wonders if Nicholas Carr encourage one to become involved in ones
has heard of Denmark. work, to concentrate and lose oneself in it.
Note what Carrs strand of technology crit-
icism has accomplished here: instead of debat- Thus, as our work gets automated away, we
ing the politics of public transportationa are likely to get stuck with far too many unre-
debate that should include alternative concep- deemed alienation coupons! Carrs argument
tions of what transportation is and how to pay is spectacular in its boldness: work distracts
for itwe are confronted with the need to us from our deeply alienated condition, so we
compare the cognitive and emotional costs of have to work more and harder not to discover
automating the existing system (i.e., embrac- our deep alienation. For Carr, the true Stakh-
ing the self-driving cars that Carr doesnt like) anovite, work is a much better drug than the
with leaving it as it is (i.e., sticking with nor- soma of Huxleys Brave New World.
mal cars). Disconnected from actual politi- As with the transportation example, some-
cal struggles and social criticism, technology thing doesnt quite add up here. Why should
criticism is just an elaborate but affirmative we take the status quo for granted and en-
footnote to the status quo. courage citizens to develop a new ethic to deal
The inherent latent conservatism of with the problem? In the case of work, isnt
Carrs approach is even more palpable when it plausible to assume that wed get as much
he writes about the automation of work. He flow and happiness from doing other chal-
starts from the depressing premise that we lenging thingslearning a foreign language or
are all, somehow, born alienated, and the best playing chessif only we had more free time,
way for us to overcome this alienation is by ... away from all that work?
working. Carr draws on research in psychol- Were he not a technology critic, Carr could
ogyMihaly Csikszentmihalyis notion of have more easily accepted this premise. This
flow is crucial to his argumentto posit that might also have prompted him to join the
challenging, engaged work does make us hap- long-running debate on alternative organiza-
pier than we realize. Its absence, on the other tions of work, production, and life itself. Carr,
hand, makes us depressed: however, expresses little interest in advancing
this debate, retreating to the status quo again:
More often than not . . . our discipline flags
work is there to be done, because under cur-
and our mind wanders when were not on
rent conditions nothing else would deliver
the job. We may yearn for the workday to be
us as much spiritual satisfaction. To be for
over so we can start spending our pay and
or against capitalism is not his game: he just
having some fun, but most of us fritter away
comments on technological trends, as they

106 1 The Baffler [no.27]

pop outin a seemingly automated fashion work will be made somewhat less boring by
of the global void known as history. the fact that youll have to save the file manu-
And since the march of that history is in- ally by pressing a buttonas opposed to hav-
creasingly described with the depoliticized ing it backed up for you automatically.
lingo of technologyprecariousness turns This user-producer axis exhausts Carrs po-
into sharing economy and scarcity turns litical imagination. It also reveals the limita-
into smartnesstechnology criticism comes tions of his techno-idealism, for his proposed
to replace political and social criticism. The intervention assumes, first, that todays users
usual analytical categories, from class to ex- prefer fully automated technologies because
ploitation, are dropped in favor of fuzzier and they do not know whats in their best inter-
less precise concepts. Carrs angle on automat- est and, second, that these users can convince
ed trading is concerned with what algorithms technology companies that redesigning their
do to tradersand not what traders and algo- existing products along Carrs suggestions
rithms do to the rest of us. A reliance on auto- would be profitable. For if Carr is sincere in
mation is eroding the skills and knowledge of his belief that technology companies are driv-
financial professionals, he notes dryly. Only en by profit, theres no other way around it: he
a technology criticwith no awareness of the is either a cynic for advocating a solution that
actual role that financial professionals play he knows wouldnt work, or he really thinks
todaywould fail to ask a basic follow-up that consumers can renounce their love of
question: How is this not good news? automation and demand something else from
Nicholas Carr finds himself at home in technology companies.
the world of psychology and neuroscience, Carr firmly believes that our embrace of
and the only philosophy he treats seriously is automation comes from confusion, infatua-
phenomenology; he makes only a cursory ef- tion, or lazinessrather than, say, necessity.
fort to think in terms of institutions, social The trouble with automation, he explains,
movements, and new forms of representa- is that it often gives us what we dont need at
tionhardly a surprise given where he starts. the cost of what we do. In theory, then, we
Occasionally, Carr does tap into quasi-Marx- can all live without relying on the wonders of
ist explanations, as when he writes, repeat- modern technology: we can cultivate our cog-
edly, that technology companies are driven nitive and aesthetic skills by ditching our GPS
by money and thus are unlikely to engage in units, by cooking our own elaborate dishes, by
the kind of humanistic thought exercises that making our own clothes, by watching our kids
Carr expects of them. instead of relying on apps (au pairs are so last
But its hard to understand how he can century). What Carr fails to mention is that
square this realistic stance with his only con- all of these things are much easier to do if you
crete practical suggestion for human-centered are rich and have no need to work. Automa-
automation: to push the designers of our tech- tionof cognition, emotion, and intellectis
nologies to embrace a different paradigm of the intolerable price we have to pay for the
ergonomic design, so that, instead of building growing corporatization of everyday life.
services that would automate everything, they Thus, theres a very sinister and disturbing
would build services that put some minor cog- implication to be drawn from Carrs work
nitive or creative burden on us, the users, thus namely, that only the rich will be able to cul-
extending rather than shrinking our intel- tivate their skills and enjoy their life to the
lectual and sensory experiences. Good news fullest while the poor will be confined to me-
for you office drones: your boring automated diocre virtual substitutesbut Carr doesnt

The Baffler [no.27] ! 107

K iss t h e B o o t

draw it. Here again we see what happens once conclusion that todays technology criticism
technology criticism is decoupled from so- could ever reach.
cial criticism. All Carr can do is moralize and
blame those who have opted for some form of From There and Thou
automation for not being able to see where it to Here and Now
ultimately leads us. How did we fail to grasp A personal note is in order, since in surveying
just how fun and stimulating it would be to the shortcomings of thinkers such as Nicholas
read a book a week and speak fluent Manda- Carr, Im also all too mindful of how many of
rin? If Mark Zuckerberg can do it, what ex- them Ive shared. For a long time, Ive consid-
cuses do we have? ered myself a technology critic. Thus, I must
By offering to reduce the amount of work acknowledge defeat as well: contemporary
we have to do, by promising to imbue our lives technology criticism in America is an empty,
with greater ease, comfort, and convenience, vain, and inevitably conservative undertak-
computers and other labor-saving technolo- ing. At best, we are just making careers; at
gies appeal to our eager but misguided desire worst, we are just useful idiots.
for release from what we perceive as toil, Since truly radical technology criticism is a
notes Carr in an unashamedly elitist tone. no-go zone for anyone seeking a popular au-
Workers of the world, relaxyour toil is just dience, all we are left with is debilitating faux
a perception! However, once we accept that radicalism. Some critics do place their focus
there might exist another, more banal reason squarely on technology companies, which
why people embrace automation, then its gives their work the air of anti-corporate pop-
not clear why automation la Carr, with all ulism and, perhaps, even tacit opposition to
its interruptions and new avenues for cogni- the market. This, however, does not magically
tive stimulation, would be of much interest turn these thinkers into radicals.
to them: a less intelligent microwave oven is In fact, what distinguishes radical critics
a poor solution for those who want to cook from their faux-radical counterparts is the
their own dinners but simply have no time for lens they use for understanding Silicon Valley:
it. But problems faced by millions of people the former group sees such firms as economic
are of only passing interest to Carr, who is actors and situates them in the historical and
more preoccupied by the non-problems that economic context, while the latter sees them
fascinate pedantic academics; he ruminates as a cultural force, an aggregation of bad ideas
at length, for example, on the morality of about society and politics. Thus, while the
Roomba, the robotic vacuum cleaner. radical critic quickly grasps that reasoning
Carrs oeuvre is representative of con- with these companiesas if they were just an-
temporary technology criticism both in the other reasonable participant in the Haberma-
questions that it asks and the issues it avoids. sian public sphereis pointless, the faux-rad-
Thus, theres the trademark preoccupation ical critic shows no such awareness, penning
with design problems, and their usually easy essay after essay bemoaning their shallowness
solutions, but hardly a word on just why it is and hoping that they can eventually become
that startups founded on the most ridicu- ethical and responsible.
lous ideas have such an easy time attracting In a sense, its just a continuation of the old
venture capital. That this might have some- battle between materialism and idealism. At
thing to do with profound structural trans- the very start of my career as a technology crit-
formations in the American economye.g., ic, I fell into the idealistic trap, thinking that,
its ever-expanding financializationis not a with time, good ideas could crowd out bad

108 1 The Baffler [no.27]

The rallying cry of the technology critic
and I confess to shouting it more than onceis:
If only consumers and companies knew better!

ones. As Silicon Valley was extending its reach not being asked and how certain marginal in-
into domains that were only lightly touched terests are being sidelined. To recover these
by information technologythink of trans- lost perspectives and continue a debate that
portation, health, educationthese fields would otherwise be closed prematurely: this
were suddenly overflowing with half-baked, is what the best kind of technology criticism
stupid, and occasionally dangerous ideas. could accomplish.
Those ideas could and should be documented, Well, goodbye to all that. Today, its obvious
studied, and opposed. This, I thought, was to me that technology criticism, uncoupled
the true calling of the technology critic. from any radical project of social transforma-
Serious technology criticism, I thought, tion, simply doesnt have the goods. By slic-
could tie the tongues of our digital gurus, re- ing the world into two distinct spheresthe
vealing their simplistic sloganeering for the technological and the non-technologicalit
cheap dross that it is. All that hankering for quickly regresses into the worst kind of solip-
frictionlessness and eternal bliss, the cult sistic idealism, paying far more attention to
of convenience and total transparency, the drummed-up, theoretical ideas about technol-
thoughtless celebration of self-reliance and ogy than to real struggles in the here and now.
immediacy: so much in Silicon Valleys mas- In a nutshell, the problem is this: given
ter plan smacked of teenage naivet. Instead enough time, a skilled technology critic could
of waxing lyrical about the utility of appsthe explain virtually anything, simply by assum-
bailiwick of conventional technology criti- ing that somebody, somewhere, has confused
cismthe technology critic could reveal the ideas about technology. That people have
political and economic programs that they confused ideas about technology might occa-
helped to enact. Thus, I thought, it was pos- sionally be the case, but its a case that ought
sible to be neither romantic nor conservative to be made, never taken for granted. The ex-
while keeping politics and economics front istence of Facebook-enabled trashcans does
and center. not necessarily mean that the people building
To pick an example from my own work: A and using them suffer from a severe form of
smart trashcan that uploads snapshots of its technological false consciousness. Either way,
contents to Facebookyes, it existsmight why assume that their problems can be solved
be read as an experiment in getting our online by poring over the texts of some ponderous
friends to police our behavior. Or it might be French or German philosopher?
read as an extension of political consumerism Alas, the false consciousness explanation is
to the most banal domestic chores. Placed un- the kind of low-hanging fruit that no technol-
der the right theoretical lens, even mundane ogy critic wants to pass up, as it can magically
objects could help illuminate the contempo- transport us from the risky fields of politics
rary condition. Moving between such objects and economics to the safer terrain of psychol-
and ideologies, the technology critic could ogy and philosophy. Its so much easier to
reveal how important, critical questions are assume that those trashcans exist due to hu-

The Baffler [no.27] ! 109

K iss t h e B o o t

manitys inability to peruse Heidegger and is one reason: whatever attack emerges from
Merleau-Ponty than to investigate whether such framing of the problem is bound to be
the inventors in question simply tapped into toothlesswhich explains why it is also so at-
available subsidies from, say, the European tractive to many.
Commission. If technology criticism were solely about
Such investigations are messy and might aesthetic considerationsIs this gadget well
eventually prompt uncomfortable questions made? Is this app beautiful?such theoreti-
about capital, war, the role of the statethat cal narrowness would be tenable. But most
are better left unasked, at least if one doesnt technology critics find themselves in a double
want to risk becoming that dreadful other bind. They must go beyond the aesthetic di-
type of critic, the radical. Its much safer to mensionthey are decidedly not mere asses-
interpret every act or product as if it stemmed sors of designbut they cannot afford to re-
from some erroneous individual or collective veal the existence of the rest of the matrix, for
belief, some flawed intellectual outlook on that, too, risks turning them into something
technology. else entirely.
Take our supposed overreliance on apps, the Their solution is to operate with real tech-
favorite subject of many contemporary critics, nological objectsthese are the gadgets and
Carr included. How, the critics ask, could we apps we see in the newsbut to treat the users
be so blind to the deeply alienating effects of and manufacturers of those objects as imagi-
modern technology? Their tentative answer nary, theoretical constructs. They are imagi-
that we are simply lazy suckers for technologi- nary and theoretical inasmuch as their
cally mediated conveniencereveals many of rationale is imposed on them by the explana-
them to be insufferable, pompous moralizers. tory limitations of technology criticism rather
The more plausible thesisthat the growing than grasped ethnographically or analytically.
demands on our time probably have some- In the hands of technology critics, history
thing to do with the uptake of apps and the becomes just a succession of wise and foolish
substitution of the real (say, parenting) with ideas about technology; there are usually no
the virtual (say, the many apps that allow us to structuressocial or economic onesthat get
monitor kids remotely)is not even broached. in the way.
For to speak of our shrinking free time would Unsurprisingly, if one starts by assuming
also mean speaking of capital and labor, and that every problem stems from the domi-
this would take the technology critic too far nance of bad ideas about technology rather
away from technology proper. than from unjust, flawed, and exploitative
Its the existence of this technology modes of social organization, then every
proper that most technology critics take for proposed solution will feature a heavy dose
granted. In fact, the very edifice of contempo- of better ideas. They might be embodied in
rary technology criticism rests on the critics better, more humane gadgets and apps, but
reluctance to acknowledge that every gadget the mode of intervention is still primarily
or app is simply the end point of a much broad- ideational. The rallying cry of the technol-
er matrix of social, cultural, and economic re- ogy criticand I confess to shouting it more
lations. And while its true that our attitudes than onceis: If only consumers and com-
toward these gadgets and apps are profoundly panies knew better! One can tinker with
shaped by our technophobia or technophilia, consumers and companies, but the market
why should we focus on only the end points itself is holy and not to be contested. This is
and the behaviors that they stimulate? Here the unstated assumption behind most popu-

110 1 The Baffler [no.27]

lar technology criticism written today. the issue through the lens of technology.
Well, suppose consumers and companies Thus, technology critics of the romantic
did know better. This would mean, presum- and conservative strands can certainly tell us
ably, that consumers would change their be- how to design a more humane smart energy
havior and companies would change their meter. But to decide whether smart energy
products. The latter does not look very prom- meters are an appropriate response to climate
ising. At best, we might get the technological change is not in their remit. Why design them
equivalent of fair-trade lattes on sale at Star- humanely if we shouldnt design them at all?
bucks, a modern-day indulgence for the rich That question can be answered only by those
and the doubtful. critics who havent yet lost the ability to think
The first optiongetting consumers to in non-market and non-statist terms. Tech-
change their behavioris much more plau- nological expertise, in other words, is mostly
sible. But if the problem in question wasnt a peripheral to answering this question.
technology problem to begin with, why ad- But most of our technology critics are not
dress it at the level of consumers and not, say, really interested in answering such questions
politically at the level of citizens and institu- anyway. Liberated from any radical inclina-
tions? The lines demarcating the technologi- tions, they take the institutional and political
cal and the political cannot be drawn by those reality as it is, but, sensing that something is
forever confined to think within the techno- amiss, they come up with an ingenious solu-
logical paradigm; one needs to exit the para- tion: Why not ask citizens to internalize the
digm to get a glimpse of both alternative ex- costs of all the horror around them, for that
planations and the political costs of framing horror probably stems from their lack of self-


The Baffler [no.27] ! 111

control or their poor taste in gadgets? It is in cal battles are long gone.
this relegation of social and political problems In the past, it was political institutions
solely to the level of the individual (there is no trade unions and leftist partiesthat workers
society, there are only individuals and their had to thank for the limited breaks they got
gadgets) that technology criticism is the theo- from work. Today, these tasks fall squarely
retical vanguard of the neoliberal project. on technology companies: the more Google
Even if Nicholas Carrs project succeeds knows about you, the more time you will
i.e., even if he does convince users that all save every day, as it personalizes everything
that growing alienation is the result of their and even completes some tasks (like retriev-
false beliefs in automation and even if users, ing boarding passes) on your behalf. At best,
in turn, convince technology companies to Carrs project might succeed in producing
produce new types of productsits not obvi- a different Google. But its lack of ambition
ous why this should be counted as a success. is itself a testament to the sad state of poli-
Its certainly not going to be a victory for pro- tics today. Its primarily in the marketplace
gressive politics (Carr is extremely murky on of technology providersnot in the political
his own). Information technology has indeed realmthat we seek solutions to our prob-
become the primary means for generating lems. A more humane Google is not neces-
the kind of free time that, in the not so dis- sarily a good thingat least, not as long as
tant past, was at the heart of many political the project of humanizing it distracts us from
battles and was eventually enshrined in laws the more fundamental political tasks at hand.
(think of limits on daily work hours, guaran- Technology critics, however, do not care.
teed time off, the free weekend). Such politi- Their job is to write about Google.t


112 1 The Baffler [no.27]

I Swallowed a Moon Made of Iron
3 Xu Lizhi

I swallowed a moon made of iron

They refer to it as a nail

I swallowed this industrial sewage, these unemployment


Youth stooped at machines die before their time

I swallowed the hustle and the destitution

Swallowed pedestrian bridges, life covered in rust

I cant swallow any more

All that Ive swallowed is now gushing out of my throat

Unfurling on the land of my ancestors

Into a disgraceful poem.

Translated from the Chinese by friends of the Nao project.

The Baffler [no.27] ! 113

K iss t h e B o o t

People Who Influence

Influential People Are the Most
Influential People in the World
3 George Scialabba

Twentieth-century liberalism has won. BOOK REVIEWED

So ran the first sentence of The New Republics Insurrections of the Mind: 100 Years of Politics
eightieth-anniversary anthology back in 1994. and Culture in America, edited by Franklin Foer,
Liberalism inspired democratic revolutions Harper Perennial, $17.99
from the Soviet Union to South Africa, ac-
cording to the anthologys editor, Dorothy
Wickenden, and finally disabused this coun- that call themselves liberal mean by it pro-
try of its prolonged infatuation with conser- business. The leading voice of nineteenth-
vatism. Occupying the White House were century liberalism was The Economist, which
two men with intellectual edge and moral famously argued that to provide famine aid to
intuition, the magazines editors enthused, Ireland would be to interfere with the neces-
who offered the best chance in a generation sarily benign workings of the free market.
to bring reform and renewal to a country that In English (as in Latin), free has more than
desperately needs both. one meaning. Besides unconstrained, it also
How accurate you think this judgment is means generous, as in Give freely to those
depends on what you understand by that pe- in need or Though a Nobel Prize winner,
rennially disputed word, liberalism. Origi- shes pretty free with her time when students
nally it meant the opposite of mercantilism, ask. So in the United States, liberal also
the close government regulation of commer- came to denote redistributive, welfare-state
cial policy to benefit domestic merchants by policies that aim to extend to the nonaffluent
means of tariffs and restrictions on the move- a modicum of economic security, equality of
ment of capital and technology. Mercantilism, opportunity, and civil rights. This sense of
protectionism, and industrial policy all name liberalism, the bte noire of the right from
various aspects of the impulse to limit compe- Nixon to the Tea Party, might seem to have
tition from abroad. As Britain and the United swept the terminological field, but now there
States became the worlds leading economic is also neoliberalism, which, since the Clin-
powers in the nineteenth and twentieth cen- ton administration, has described the biparti-
turies, respectively, each decided that other san consensus on free trade, privatization, fi-
countries efforts to favor the home team were nancial deregulation, and all other dictates of
no longer cricket and that unregulated (i.e., the sovereign Market. No wonder books with
free) competitionwhich, by the merest co- titles like What Is Liberalism? appear regularly.
incidence, they were most likely to winwas Whatever liberalism is, The New Repub-
in everyones best interest. Liberalism, from lic is generally considered to be its American
the Latin word for free, is the name of this avatar. The magazine was founded in 1914
ideology. Even now, European political parties by Herbert Croly, a sometime architectural

114 1 The Baffler [no.27]


critic who had written a book five years ear- democracy, mass movementsall these were
lier, The Promise of American Life, that greatly for outsiders. The New Republic, from the be-
impressed a wealthy philanthropic couple. ginning, was for insiders.
Crolys book argued that Hamiltons federal- Croly himself, though well off and well con-
ism had eclipsed Jeffersons localism, and that nected, was not exactly an insider, but his fel-
Americas destiny was to be a national, indeed low TNR editor Walter Lippmann certainly
global, commercial power, with its activist ex- was. Like generations of his successors at the
ecutive branch coordinating policy with busi- magazine, Lippmann was a bright young Har-
ness, financial, and cultural elites. The whole vard graduate who quickly plugged himself
point, Croly wrote to Willard Straight, the into political Washington and literary New
magazines first owner, is that we are trying York. Soon he and Croly were dining regularly
to impose views on blind or reluctant people. with President Wilsons senior adviser, urging
This self-conscious elitismthe conviction him to let us know whether or not we are mis-
that an inert, ignorant populace needs to be interpreting what the President is trying to
mobilized from above by executive power, do, lest the magazine unintentionally con-
public and private, which in turn requires flict with the purposes of the government.
the guidance of enlightened, responsible in- Intelligence at the elbow of powerthis has
tellectualshas remained at the core of the always been The New Republics ideal. No-
journals self-conception throughout its varie- where is this ideal more lovingly commemo-
gated history. Populism, class conflict, radical rated than in The New Republics latest anthol-

The Baffler [no.27] ! 115

K iss t h e B o o t

ogy, Insurrections of the Mind, published last Since 2000, New Republic writers have seemed
year to mark the magazines one-hundredth demoralized, rousing themselves only for oc-
anniversary. Respectful Suggestions of the Mind casional spiteful attacks on the left (Nader,
would have been, on the whole, a more accu- Occupy, Snowden), for fervent warnings
rate title. about the dangers of Islamic radicalism, and
The marriage of welfare statism and civil for frequent admonitions to presidents to use
liberties, Franklin Foer writes in his intro- American military power wherever possible.
duction to Insurrections, is essentially the Foers definition of American liberalism is
definition of American liberalism. That mar- incomplete: the marriage he describes has
riage came under strain in the 1980s and 90s, actually been a love triangle. From the out-
when the New Rights largely bogus critique set, American liberalisms preference for gov-
of big government conquered official Wash- ernment activism at home has been matched
ington and the media. Faced with a choice of by its internationalism; it has advocated for
righteous irrelevance or glamorous relevance, a unilateral, interventionist foreign policy.
The New Republic chose relevance. The edi- Here is where liberalismand TNRhave
tors supported cuts in taxes and social spend- gone most egregiously and damagingly wrong.
ing, criticized affirmative action, published a Liberalism cherishes skepticism more than
notorious cover article opposing Hillarycare, any [other] ideology, Foer writes in Insurrec-
and hired a slew of conservative writers. Offi- tions, with a touch of self-congratulationand
cial Washington loved it; the Reagan White self-deception. On the contrary, it is The New
House even sent a courier over every week to Republics credulousness, its uncritical accep-
pick up twenty copies. But though this right- tance of the premises of official policy, that is
ward shift was opportunistic, it wasnt unprin- most apparent whenever the use of force is in
cipled opportunism. Opportunism, after all, question.
was the bedrock principle of The New Republic. The magazine supported Americas entry
Not the uncomplicated, self-serving kind, but into World War I, accepting Wilsons argu-
the well-meaning, deluded kind that believes ment that only American participation could
above all in maintaining credibility with the give us the moral authority to ensure a fair
powerful, since how else can anything be ac- and democratic peace settlement. The actual
complished except by whispering in their ear? peace settlement was nothing of the sort, and
Not all the results were entirely bad: Mick- The New Republic, having trusted Wilsons
ey Kauss civic liberalism, for one, was an assurances, looked foolish. TNR enthusiasti-
earnest if problematic effort to craft a humane cally endorsed the Truman doctrine, blamed
alternative to the welfare state, and TNR was the Soviet Union for the ensuing Cold War,
an early and consistent supporter of gay mar- and ignored inciting actions on the part of
riage. But mostly the magazine spent these the United States, including its insistence
two decades distancing itself from grassroots on rearming Germany, maintaining nuclear
liberalism, following Clinton, Gore, Schumer, superiority, and keeping leftists, even demo-
and other centrist Democrats in embracing cratic ones, out of power everywhere in the
the business-friendly neoliberalism of the postwar world. The Indochina war was a co-
Democratic Leadership Council and support- lossal blunder, which should lead us, the edi-
ing such ultimately disastrous initiatives as tors admonished, to reflect on the contrast
NAFTA, financial deregulation, and welfare between our idealism and our crimes. That
reform, which helped kill the New Deal. Al it was blundering idealism rather than a
Gores candidacy was the magazines last gasp. strategy of global economic integration re-

116 1 The Baffler [no.27]

Faced with a choice of righteous irrelevance or glamorous
relevance, The New Republic chose relevance.

quiring the suppression of independent na- left for maliciously exaggerating Israels faults
tionalism that led to Americas intervention and indulging Palestinian terrorism. But al-
in Vietnam and dozens of other places in the though thousands of Palestinian noncomba-
twentieth century has always been an article tants have been killed by Israeli forces in Leb-
of faith. anon, Gaza, and the West Bankat least an
That faith was on display when, endorsing order of magnitude more than Israeli civilian
the Reagan administrations Central America victims of Palestinian violenceno one at The
policy in 1986, the magazine pleaded that it is New Republic has entertained, even to reject,
. . . certain that our aims are different than they the idea that these old-fashioned war crimes
were sixty, even twenty, years ago, argued and law-enforcement excesses also deserve
that the United States only aim was to aid to be called terrorism. Notwithstanding
in the restoration of democracy, and asked Israels frequent assurances that it was eager
tough-mindedly whether anyone believes the to trade land for peace, by now it is clear that
Sandinistas will ever peacefully transfer pow- no Israeli government, Labor or Likud, has
er by election. (For the record, the Sandini- been willing since 1967 to halt the gradual an-
stas did, four years later.) Twenty years later, nexation of the West Bank and its resources.
this same fighting faiththe title of a 2004 But occasional meekly expressed misgivings
manifesto by editor Peter Beinart included from the magazines dovesIrving Howe, Mi-
in Insurrectionscaused TNR to welcome the chael Walzer, Leon Wieseltierhave always
invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. The war been drowned out by an unceasing barrage
against Islamic totalitarianism is, like the of pro-Israel apologetics from Martin Peretz,
former war on Communism, the defining Charles Krauthammer, Michael Oren, and
moral challenge of our time, Beinart wrote, The New Republics other resident hasbarists.
the arena in which [liberal] values find their Why has the magazines vaunted liberal
deepest expression. Those who urged skepti- intelligence lined up so often in support of
cism in response to government claims or who brute force? Part of the answer has been sup-
proposed abiding by international law were plied by Christopher Hitchens, who knew
softs. what to think of contrarianism before he suc-
Credulousness toward another favored cumbed to it:
stateIsraelhas led The New Republic to
In the charmed circle of neoliberal and neo-
support still other futile and bloody military
conservative journalism, unpredictability
interventions. The magazine has continually
is the special emblem and certificate of self-
harangued its anxiously pro-Israel readership
congratulation. To be able to bray that as
about the existential dangers the plucky little
a liberal, I say bomb the shit out of them is
nuclear-armed, American-backed regional
to have achieved that eye-catching, versatile
superpower faces from the revanchism and
marketability that is so beloved of editors and
irredentism of the prostrate Palestinians;
talk-show hosts.
implied that Palestinian rather than Israeli
intransigence is primarily responsible for the But the serious intellectuals who founded
failure of peace negotiations; and scolded the The New Republic were no less eager to ratio-

The Baffler [no.27] ! 117

K iss t h e B o o t

nalize state violence than their lightweight the real responsibility of intellectuals is to
present-day successors, and with similar mo- speak truth, patiently and perseveringly, to
tives. In a masterly essay on The New Republic the powerless. Of this, The New Republic has
and the War (i.e., World War I), Christopher never had a clue.
Lasch retraced the tortuous arguments by The cover or masthead of The New Repub-
which Lippmann, Dewey, and the rest of the lic has, for most of its life, sported the subtitle
original cohort convinced themselves to fol- A Journal of Politics and the Arts. If it had
low Wilson to war, and concluded: been only a journal of politics, there would be
very little reason to regret its recent frontal
Logic may have dictated non-intervention,
lobotomy at the hands of its new owner. Like
but something deeper than logic dictated
liberalism itself, the magazine had already
war. The thirst for action, the craving for in-
definitively surrendered to technocratic
volvement, the longing to commit themselves
managerialism long before Chris Hughes and
to the onward march of eventsthese things
company came along in 2012. But there was
dictated war. The realists feared isolation
always the back of the book. The New Republic
not only for America but for themselves. Ac-
has been lucky in its literary editors: Edmund
cordingly, they went to war and invented the
Wilson, Malcolm Cowley, Doris Grumbach,
reasons for it afterward.
Jack Beatty, and, yes, Leon Wieseltier. Per-
Skepticism? Not when the war drums are etz and Wieseltier each spent around three
beating. decades at the magazine, and each launched
(A minor continuity: the old New Republic more than a few young writers. While
and the new were about equally ungracious to Peretzs recruits are a mixed legacy, Wi-
those who got it right, from forcing Randolph eseltiersJames Wood, Sven Birkerts, Ann
Bourne off the magazine in 1917 because he Hulbert, Ruth Franklin, Jed Perl, William
opposed intervention to setting up an Idiocy Deresiewicz, Adam Kirsch, and, when com-
Watch in 2004 to ridicule those who doubted pos mentis, Lee Siegelare a gift to criticism.
the wisdom of invading Iraq.) So were Wieseltiers own all too infrequent
What The New Republics long history reviews. (His all too frequent Washington
teaches above all is that power goes its own Diarist entries, on the other hand, were a ca-
way. Those who control investment and em- lamity. Rarely has so much verbal ingenuity
ployment, opinion-formation and electoral been expended to so little point, except per-
finance, are the ones who set the states pri- haps in fulfillment of some imagined moral
orities and constrain its initiatives. These obligation to sound intelligent. And the di-
leaders dont care about good new ideas; they ary entries bear a heavy responsibility for the
have their own ideas. Intellectuals can help plague of pseudo-clever putdowns that even-
those in power to market their strategies, or tually infested the magazine.)
to refine them. But they cant change them. The richness of the magazines arts cover-
Youve convinced me, FDR is said to have age was bound to be underrepresented in any
told a group of left-leaning visitors. Now go anthology, but even so, there is far too little of
out and force me. But thatmobilizing popu- it in Insurrections of the Mind. There are a few
lar pressure to counterbalance the power of distinguished pieces of criticism, above all W.
businessis just what The New Republic has H. Audens Freud and Irving Howes The
never shown any interest in doing. At its most Value of the Canon. But not nearly enough.
daring, the magazine has fancied itself speak- Even Wieseltiers finest essay, Matthew Ar-
ing truth to power, and sometimes it has. But nold and the Cold War, is left out. If Wiesel-

118 1 The Baffler [no.27]


tier were to employ his forced retirement in the corner. Mostly, it makes the right noises,
compiling a selection of TNRs best criticism, genuflecting toward quality writing and
it would be a real service to the culture, and putting politics, culture, and ideas side by
keep him out of political mischief besides. side and on an equal plane. Hughes even gets
The last item in Insurrections is a short af- whats wrong about the magazine right, albeit
terword by Chris Hughes, the Facebook bil- inadvertently: the mission, he writes, is to
lionaire who rode to the magazines rescue offer deep, thought-provoking analysis that
three years ago and who in December oversaw encourages critical dialogue between influ-
TNRs transition to a vertically integrated ential people in our country and world. Too
digital media company. Apart from a pass- true. The magazines editors have always be-
ing phrase or two promising adaptation haved as if influential people were not the
a cloud no bigger than a mans handit is problem but the solution. But of course, any-
largely boilerplate, offering no hint of the one who understood that would have come to
digital media clusterfuck waiting just around bury The New Republic, not to save it.t

The Baffler [no.27] ! 119

K iss t h e B o o t

All Hail the Grumbler!

Abiding Karl Kraus
3 Russell Jacoby

Drop the names of Hannah Arendt, Walter BOOK REVIEWED

Benjamin, or Leo Strauss at a highbrow din- The Kraus Project: Essays by Karl Kraus,
ner party, and everyone will nod, and feel a bit translated and annotated by Jonathan Franzen,
smarter. Like many twentieth-century central with assistance and additional notes from
European Jewish intellectuals, Arendt, Benja- Paul Reitter and Daniel Kehlmann,
min, and Strauss have played outsized roles in Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $27
American letters. The same cannot be said of
Karl Kraus, whom few remember. For thirty-
seven years, Kraus, a satirist and critic who wrought, but also tended to be aphoristic, if
died in 1936, was a one-man show in Vienna, not gnomic. All this has limited his export-
publishing his own periodical, Die Fackel, ability.* He does not travel well.
until shortly before his death. He owned the But now Jonathan Franzen, the bestselling
journal, he edited it, and after the first years, novelist from Western Springs, Illinois, has
he wrote all of its 922 issues. assembled The Kraus Project (Farrar, Straus
Kraus, who had a cult following in Vi- and Giroux, 2013), an annotated and bilingual
enna, has had virtually no readership in the edition of two essays by the Viennese satirist.
American world. In Anglo scholarship one The first essay concerns Heinrich Heine, after
bumps into Walter Benjamin oftenprobably Goethe perhaps the best-known nineteenth-
too often. He is endlessly cited, studied, and century German writer, and the second, Jo-
translated. One database shows more than hann Nestroy, a nineteenth-century Vien-
five hundred articles in the last fourteen years nese playwright. While both essays might
with Benjamins name in the title, compared seem distant from twenty-first-century soci-
to just seventy-seven for Kraus. Other writ- ety and its ills, for Franzen they hit on an issue
ers from his generation have also been surfac- that is as contemporary as ever: the yawning
ing of late in English: Joseph Roth and Stefan divide between technological and cultural
Zweig, for instance, who inspired Wes Ander- progress. According to Franzen and Kraus,
sons movie The Grand Budapest Hotel. Kraus advances in science cannot be doubted, but
has not joined this company. the larger culture remains backward. We
The reason for this scant attention is clear. are complicated enough to build machines,
Kraus was drenched in Viennese culture. He wrote Kraus in 1908, and too primitive to
was obsessed with the German language and make them serve us.
its misuse by the Viennese press. He wrote You dont have to be a satirist to see that
scathing attacks on Viennese newspapers. the enterprise of a bestselling American au-
His own writing not only was meticulously thor translating and annotating an Austrian

* The few editions of Krauss work in English have been put out by refugee or immigrant scholars, most notably the
late Harry Zohn, a Viennese-born professor at Brandeis University, and they have largely consisted of excerpts.

120 1 The Baffler [no.27]


The Baffler [no.27] ! 121

K iss t h e B o o t

satirist has comic possibilities. If an ordinary text by Kraus. On some pages Kraus does not
writer or scholar proposed to a commercial appear at all; it is just Footnote Franzen. On
publishereven to a university pressa bilin- others, the footnotes squeeze Kraus to a few
gual edition of two Kraus essays, one of which lines at the top of the page.
marks the fiftieth anniversary of the death of In fact, the book sometimes feels like a
a Viennese playwright no one has ever heard three-ring circus, since Franzen has enlisted
of (Nestroy), he would be laughed out of the Paul Reitter, an American professor who has
officeor deleted. The project flies by virtue written a book on Kraus, and Daniel Kehl-
of Franzens star power. mann, a German novelist and Kraus aficio-
What would Kraus himself make of this? nado, to help. Not only do they contribute
In an early issue of Die Fackel, he took swipes to the footnotes, but sometimes they argue
at the attention paid to a famous American among themselves over how to interpret a
author gallivanting around Vienna, Mark Kraus passage. The first essay of The Kraus
Twain, who was showing up at multiple Project is about Heines impact on German
events. The hoopla of a famous writer mak- literature, which Kraus considered disas-
ing headlines simply by being present at pub- trous. Kraus thought Heine, a Paris-based
lic functions irritated Kraus. Before now, German-Jewish writer, had dumbed down
Kraus wrote in 1899, we have been unable journalism in Germany by introducing the
to boast a sufficient number of personalities feuilleton, a culture column that appeared
who, if incapable of contributing anything (and still appears) in many European news-
else to the age, were constantly prepared to papers. In a footnote, Reitter challenges
be present among others, and so to fill this Krauss genealogy of the feuilleton, Franzen
pressing need, Mark Twain hastened to Vi- challenges Reitter, Reitter answers back, and
enna and courageously threw himself into so it goes for page after page.
the forefront. Well, you could do worse than to listen to
Lets give Franzen his due. Hes a serious several smart fellows argue about Karl Kraus.
student of German and German literature; But the footnotes take on a life of their own,
he studied for several years in Germany, and and Kraus is pushed aside. That is the irony of
has said he feels a deep affinity with the Vien- this edition. Franzen is more eager to tell us
nese critic. Krauss savage criticism of popu- about his own life or give us his ruminations
lar newspapers, suspicion of technology, and than to let us hear from Kraus. In one example
defense of art all appeal to Franzen, whose of this, Kraus avers that Heine brought about
nonfiction essays strike similar notes. For a literary decline that was interrupted in the
instance, in the spirit of Kraus, Franzen has nineteenth century only onceby Ludwig
attacked the intrusiveness of cellphones and Speidel. Who? Reitter fills us in and questions
the loss of private space as people bark out the the validity of Krauss interpretation. Franzen
dreck of their lives. Much links these writers chips in:
from Austria and Illinois.
Point taken. But, again, Kraus isnt even
Franzen cannot be blamed if the system
pretending to write a conventional history.
fawns over stars like him. And we should be
I confess I havent read Speidel, but I like to
glad that he uses his spotlight to bring figures
imagine that his writing was striking for the
like Kraus out of the shade. But while Franzen
same kind of freshness, humor, and authen-
champions Kraus, he seems reluctant to cede
ticity that Russell Bakers old columns in the
the stage to the Viennese critic. The numer-
Times had.
ous annotations by Franzen overwhelm the

122 1 The Baffler [no.27]

What would Kraus, Linguistic Tickling
Amid his meanderings and mullings, Franzen
who revealed almost nothing
has done us the service of translating two key
about his personal life in print, essays that have not been previously available
in English. For that alone we should tip our
make of his all-American editor,
hats to him. Franzen has done this because
who lets it all hang out? he believes that Kraus speaks directly to the
present and to the cultural decay of modern
9 life. For Franzen, Vienna in 1910 equals
American in 2013. This proposition, how-
What is this? A late-night bull session in foot- ever, seems doubtful. Kraus is a figure of such
notes? Franzen, who prizes Krauss acidity, complexity that he resists simple lessons. Yes,
sounds off about authors hes never read. Of he was a trenchant critic of lax journalism, but
course Reitter replies, and the footnotes con- he also got a lot wrong.
tinue. For starters, Kraus dabbled in anti-Semi-
Franzen fills the footnotes with thoughts tism. He was Jewish himselfor rather he was
about Apple ads, Amazon, tweets, the AOL born Jewish but joined the Catholic Church in
homepageall of which he hates. What has 1911 and left it in 1923. Many of the leading Vi-
this century achieved? High-resolution ennese figures of his time, including journal-
smartphone videos of dudes dropping Mentos ists and newspaper patrons, were also Jewish,
into liter bottles of Diet Pepsi and shouting and Kraus easily and often referred to them as
Whoa! while they geyser. But what Franzen the Jewish press. Most of his polemical tar-
turns to the most is his own past and how, like gets were Jews, which he made plain. Scholars
Kraus, the child of a comfortable family, he and followers of Kraus regularly comment on
became a Great Hater. He traces his hatred his Judaism or flight from it. Gershom Scho-
back to an afternoon in April 1982 in the Han- lem, the German-Jewish savant (who changed
nover railway station. He keeps returning to his first name from Gerhard and emigrated
the story and adding details. More than eighty to Palestine in the 1920s), remarked that any-
footnotes and a hundred pages later, we learn thing one could say about Krauss relation-
that during his troubled engagement to V., ship to Jewish issues would be wrong. This
Franzen stumbled upon a breathtakingly seems accurate.
beautiful lady working as an au pair for a year Kraus died on the eve of the Nazi annexa-
in Germany. He had known her in college. I tion of Austria, which for a left-leaning Jew-
was wildly attracted to her. Thirty-six hours ish-born intellectual would have spelled ei-
later he was in bed with her, but she would not ther a concentration camp or exile. And while
make love with him unless he broke it off with Franzenor rather his second collaborator,
V., which he could not do. In the morning at Daniel Kehlmannaddresses Krauss sup-
the Hannover railway station, he cursed his posed silence confronting Nazism, the truth
and mankinds fate. He became a Great Hater, is that the satirists idiom has not worn well
headed back to Berlin, and enrolled in a class in light of what happened. It is not so much
on Karl Kraus. (Later he married and divorced Krauss attack on Jewish this or that, but his
V.) One wonders what Kraus, who revealed al- repeated eulogies to German national tradi-
most nothing about his personal life in print, tion and the German mind. These appeals
would make of his all-American editor, who might have seemed acceptable when his essay
lets it all hang out. on Heine was published in 1910, but not later

The Baffler [no.27] ! 123

K iss t h e B o o t

in the century. Kraus attacked Heine for his Leftists give a pass
Frenchified, romantic, and feminine prose
to technology. The hoary
and his rootlessness. Against all this, Kraus
celebrated German culture and masculinity. term progressives,
The German mind, he opined, will rise
still used by some leftists,
again only when the intellectual flood of filth
in Germany has run its course: when people captures this affinity.
again begin to appreciate the mental labor of
linguistically creative manliness and to dis- 9
tinguish it from the learnable manual labor
of linguistic ticklings. Such talk of filth and ancing act proved especially fraught. Heine,
German manliness seems a half step toward however, the advocate of enlightenment,
Nazi rhetoric. punctured the illusion of artistic autonomy
But only a half step. Kraus also attacked and brought to the fore the character of art
anti-Semitism, albeit sometimes indirectly. as commodity. He has not been forgiven for
In April 1933, some months after Hitler be- that, remarks Adorno; he elicited the rage
came chancellor and anti-Semitic measures of the person who sees the secret of his own
had been enacted, a German radio station degradation in the confessed degradation
wrote to Kraus asking for permission to use of someone else. This allusive formulation
his Shakespeare translation in a broadcast. probably refers to Kraus. Both were Jewish
Kraus declined to provide a free copy and said artists, but in Kraus the cash nexus remained
he felt obliged to prevent a mistake that discreetly veiled, while in Heine it was visible
would bring the station into conflict with for all. This was Heines affront.
the current German regulations on cultural The offense can be formulated more
criticism. The mistake? He pointed out that concretelyor biographically. Kraus rarely
his translation of Shakespeares sonnets ap- referred to his economic situation. In eco-
peared without an essential notice: It was nomic terms, writes his biographer, he was
actually a translation from the Hebrew. This a rentier, because he derived a significant part
was, of course, a joke or, more precisely, a dig of his income from capital inherited after the
at anti-Semitic Nazi edicts. death of his father. Kraus lived very well as
It wasnt just Heines prose that drove a rentier artist. He occupied the best part of
Kraus to denounce him. It was the failure of Vienna, took long vacations, and stayed at
Jewish emancipation that, in his mind, Heine the best hotels. In 1914, when automobiles
representedan observation T. W. Adorno were rare, Kraus purchased one and hired a
makes in his 1956 essay on Heine. Europes chauffeur. Money was never an issue for him.
Jews remained vulnerable, since they were Heines life was the opposite. He grubbed for
largely middlemen and professionals such jobs, loans, lines of credit, book contracts.
as lawyers, doctors, and journalists with no Money was always an issue. This may have
land or property. In the bourgeois era, art- discomfited Kraus. Even their respective con-
ists have to earn their livelihoods without pa- versions to Christianity reflect differences of
trons, notes Adorno, and that meant attend- style and sensibility. Krauss was done secretly
ing to the imperatives of the market. But at and remains to this day unexplained. Heines
the same time, they had to uphold the fiction was overtly practical or cynical, to improve his
of the pure and autonomous artist. For Jew- career prospects, and he did not hide that real-
ish writers such as Heine and Kraus, this bal- ity. He gave his conversion no religious signifi-

124 1 The Baffler [no.27]

cance. In fact, he considered it a disgrace and tality and facile prose, which to him Heine
stain upon my honor that in order to obtain a exemplified, led him to prize honest power,
position in Prussia, I had to allow myself to be which turned out to be worse. In my despera-
baptized. tion to escape the machine, he wrote, I said
Franzen is more interested in Kraus as a I preferred an already fully dehumanized zone
cultural critic than he is in Krauss relation- to that beauty-smitten thing that resisted the
ship to Heine. Nevertheless, that relationship relentless progress with the leftover wreckage
remains important, in part because it high- of humankind. But he discovered that Mind
lights the dilemma of the cultural critic, who, and God and poison, referring to poison
in railing against modernity, risks becoming a gas of the trenches, went together and that
reactionary. Heine exemplified a liberal cos- a pure aestheticism is no longer possible. He
mopolitanism that Kraus both shared and now knew that a beauty-smitten world that
detested. In his flight from this urbane liber- defends its wreckage is the best choice: In
alism, Kraus often sounds likeand perhaps my flight from it, I was compelled to commit
becomesa backward-looking traditional- an injustice. Ive never rejected the party of
ist. In following Kraus, Franzen faces the human values, and now, when, oh, the stand-
same issue: At what point does the critique point has been reached where Im able to side
of what Franzen calls the infernal machine with it, I owe the world Spirit an apology. For
of techno-consumerism become retrograde? Kraus, who never admitted a mistake, this af-
At what point does the denunciation of mass terword was a major step.
media turn into a lament for a past Austria or But what is the party of human values?
America? What politics emerges from this For Edward Timms, Krauss meticulous bi-
cultural criticism? ographer, the party of human values meant
After World War I, in a partial correc- the Austrian socialists, and the piece marks a
tion to his Heine piece, which Franzen also shift in Krauss politics from right to left. For
translates, Kraus retracted some of his more much of the 1920s, Kraus drew close to the
reactionary formulations and altered his poli- Austrian socialists. It was a partial shiftand
tics, inching toward the political left. Kraus toward the end of the Austrian Republic in the
initially greeted the war with qualified sup- early 1930s, Kraus broke with the socialists
port; he liked the rectitude of soldiers and and supported the Austrian fascist Engelbert
generals, and he preferred straightforward Dollfuss as the best alternative to Nazism.
military bulletins to the phoniness of the ci-
vilian press. He even praised the proclamation Grumbling to the End of Time
of war by the emperor and in his journal visu- Krauss politics never showed much consis-
ally contrasted the imperial announcement tency. Or if he was consistent, it was in his
with cheap advertisements for restaurants and loathing of the shabbiness of contemporary
shoes. For a moment, conservatives praised life, its newspapers and its technologyand
Kraus as a defender of Austrian honor. But this, it seems, is what draws Franzen to Kraus,
the slaughter, fake nationalism, and corrup- who was apt to quote verbatim from the news-
tion soon repelled him. paper, like so: Yesterdays competition at
In this afterword to the Heine essay, Kraus the Dumb Fellow saw the first prize go to
admitted that an explanation was needed for Frulein Luis Kemtner . . . for the smallest foot
his change of heart. In so many words, he said and to Herr Moritz Mayer for the largest bald
that he oversimplified the situation in his He- spot. Prizes will be awarded today for the nar-
ine essay; that his hatred for cheap sentimen- rowest ladys waist and the biggest nose. Of

The Baffler [no.27] ! 125

K iss t h e B o o t

this Kraus commented, This is what Vienna or much of it. It requires an almost visceral
looks like in 1912, before offering a typically revulsion to technology to perceive its ad-
aphoristic remark: Reality is a meaning- vances as hostile to life and letters, and this
less exaggeration of all the details that satire reaction undermines sympathy for the critic
left behind fifty years ago. The irrepressible from progressives of most stripes. This
Franzen pops in: I love this line just as it is, is why the politics of the best recent critics
but its also tempting to update it to begin, of technology, such as Jacques Ellul or the
Reality TV shows are . . . In a previous foot- almost forgotten Ivan Illich (himself a Vi-
note, Franzen, citing a newspaper article that ennese), stood in an uncertain relationship
gushes over the games available on smart- to the leftand the left to them. Kraus be-
phones, decries the ideology of Progress. He longs in this company of independents. They
adds, Arent we lucky that our phones are so damned technology with few qualifications.
smart now! The rub is this: politically, this stance usually
Krauss attack on progress was hardly con- leads nowhere. In a time when everyone asks,
fined to swipes at silly contests; he also de- Whats your positive proposal? the inde-
nounced the technological mind and its role pendents have few answersexcept to flee
in violence. Why should it not be possible for into the past.
technology, he wrote during World War I, In comparing the authoritarianism of the
which makes todays miracle into tomorrows early nineteenth century with the democ-
commodity, to invent an apparatus which by racy of the later part, Kraus did not hesitate
means of some button, lever, or handle would to choose the earlier period. Newspapers may
enable a person unfit for military service sit- have become free, but one decade of phra-
ting at a desk in Berlin to blow London to seological enslavement has supplied peoples
pieces or vice versa? In the Vienna of 1908 he imagination with more stage-prop rubbish
foresaw the Auschwitz of 1944. Progress will than a century of absolutist tyranny. Or this:
make wallets out of human skin. In the age of absolutism, passion for the the-
Denouncing capitalist technology has ater was an outgrowth of the artistic feeling
rarely flourished on the left, which, in gener- aroused by political suppression. In times of
al, believes in progress. Leftists give a pass to universal suffrage, theater gossip is the resi-
technology, which, they say, can be misused due of a culture impoverished by political
or squanderedand often isbut basically freedom.
moves in the proper direction. The hoary Such pronouncements smack of elitism and
term progressives, still used by some left- aestheticism. Once upon a time, Kraus sug-
ists to designate themselves, captures their gests, we enjoyed culture. And thento use
affinity with technological improvements. the title of Ortega y Gassetts classic bookthe
Lenin famously defined Communism as So- masses revolted. Now, their babble pollutes
viet power plus electrification. This needs the air. Krauss megalomania probably fed
little elaboration; ordinary Leninism and or- his stance. According to a census, he wrote,
dinary leftism saw the future as democratiz- Vienna has 2,030,834 inhabitantsthat is,
ing technology, not refashioning it. We just 2,030,833 souls and me. But numbers have al-
have to make it cheaper or more available. ways been used to silence the critic. Presum-
We need to expand and improve Internet ably, if enough people like SUVs, reality TV,
connections. and over-priced athletic footwear, little more
It takes a reactionary sensibilityrare may be said. The majority has spoken.
on the leftto damn the whole enterprise Franzen is anxious to rebut charges that he

126 1 The Baffler [no.27]

himself is a technophobe. He tells us that he a permanent provocation to the ideology of
is enchanted with his new Lenovo ultrabook progress, technology, and cheeriness. The
computerexcept for its name, Ideapad. Grumbler was the name he gave to the char-
But he rants often enough about smartphones, acter based on himself in his antiwar play The
tweets, selfies, and consumerism to leave one Last Days of Mankind. The Grumbler calls
in doubt. And why shouldnt he, or we, have for a new religion based on the idea that
doubts? To challenge progress is to challenge
God created man not as a consumer or pro-
its impact; it is to suggest that society not only
ducer but rather as a human being. That the
progresses but regresses. Things not only get
means of life should not be the goal of life.
better, they also get worse. Compared to the
That the stomach should not outgrow the
era of the concentration camp, Adorno once
head. That life is not exclusively based on the
remarked, prisons were the good old days.
profit motive. That a human being is allotted
I was born in 1959, writes Franzen, when
time in order to have time and not to arrive
TV was something you watched only dur-
somewhere faster with his legs than with his
ing prime time and on weekends, and people
wrote letters and put them in the mail, and
every magazine and newspaper had a robust This is Kraus at his best. Franzens edition
Books section, and venerable publishers made may not succeed in gaining Kraus the place in
long-term investments in young writers. That Anglo-American letters that he deserves, but
world is gone, but is the newer in all respects it is a small step in the right directionprog-
better? ress amid regression.t
I was born before Franzen and attended
university in the sixties, and like students
always are, we were sometimes bored in lec-
tures. We yawned, daydreamed, and napped.
I remember filling pages of my spiral note-
book with intricate doodles. Sometimes we
surreptitiously read the newspaper. On more
than one occasion, our very German profes-
sor, George L. Mosse, would suddenly stop
the lecture and cry out, You! In the back row!
Put down your newspaper! I think of this
interjection now when I lecture in a Wi-Fi
enabled lecture hall. Three quarters of the
students are plugged inor out. Their eyes
and concentration are on screens. They are
looking at their computers or cellphones; and
they are not taking notes, but playing games,
updating their Facebook pages, shopping on-
line, or texting. I give seminars in which stu-
dents have cellphones nestled into their laps,
texting. Is this progress in education or in dis-
Krauss work sparks such thoughts. With
all his flaws and contradictions, he stands as P. S . MUELLER

The Baffler [no.27] ! 127

Runway City

Buffalo Exchange
Retrofitting a Rust Belt capital
3 Catherine Tumber

During the winter of 2014, at roughly the housing and commercial property policies
same time, two projects laying claim to the fu- that amounted to de facto affirmative action
ture were unveiled in Buffalo, New York. One for second-generation white immigrants. By
was Buffalo State Colleges proposal to offer 2000, Buffalos metro footprint had expanded
the worlds first PhD program in Creativity to three times its 1950 size, but the popula-
Studies. The other was a state plan to build fa- tion remained relatively constant. This meant
cilities for two green manufacturers of LED (among other things) that the same number of
lights and solar panels on the former site of people supported three times the infrastruc-
Republic Steel. tureincluding schools, roads, sewer and wa-
As with so many things American, the arc ter lines, and police and fire protectionin a
of these endeavors had been opened in 1967. fiscally reckless, politically divisive, agricul-
Buffalo States International Center for Stud- turally improvident pattern known as sprawl
ies in Creativity, founded in that peak year of without growth.
hippie bliss, has steadily ascended, enjoying It was feckless enough to underwrite
an especially fertile period of growth and sprawling, car-dependent development in
development during the Reagan-Bush era. metro regions with growing populations
That fateful year was also the one in which say, Houston. But subsidizing sprawl in older
Republic Steel suffered its first lashing blow: industrial cities whose urban cores and tax
the Adirondack iron ore mine that had fatted coffers were fast emptyingwhile encroach-
its furnaces for three decades stripped out and ing on prime working farmland, no lesswas
closed. By the early 1980s, the U.S. steel indus- unconscionable. And the insidious, self-can-
try had collapsed. nibalizing development pattern in Buffalo,
While the Creativity Studies program according to sprawl expert David Rusk, was
blossomed and flourished, eventually seeding about the worst.
academic leadership centers throughout the Buffalo was superlative in another way: it
country (nay, the world), Buffalo itself fell into fell so far and so hard. In 1901 it reportedly
catastrophic, and sadly uncreative, decline. had more millionaires per capita than any oth-
Between 1950, when the population stood at er city in the land, with sufficient prosperity to
580,000, and 2000, the city lost about half its host a grand Pan-American Expositionone
residents, hollowing out entire neighborhoods of the first such spectacles to be illuminated
and large parts of downtown. (Locals rejoiced by electric light. Unlike most of the other cit-
when the estimated 2012 census showed that ies strewn along the Rust Belt, which mainly
the exodus had slowed to a trickle.) Deindus- grew with the rise of railroads, steel, and the
trialization and outsourcing account for much auto industry, Buffalo had a diversified econ-
of the disaster. But so does metro Buffalos omy that buffered it from shocks suffered by
ever-widening loop of suburban sprawl, set in any one industry. Whats more, the citys reli-
motion by mid-twentieth-century subsidized able supply of cheap hydroelectric power har-

128 1 The Baffler [no.27]


Elmwood Village, in Buffalo, New York, has reemerged as a walkable neighborhood.

vested from Niagara Falls made it unusually fine the modern urban aesthetic, from Louis
attractive to big manufacturing firms. The Sullivan to Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius, Er-
local grid was a central reason that Republic ich Mendelsohn, and Eliel Saarinen.
Steel, and the unionized high-wage work force Other industries soon sprouted up along-
that came along with it, found Buffalo such an side the citys grain colossus: furniture mak-
accommodating placethat, and the citys ing, breweries, iron, rubber, chemical pro-
unique status as a gateway port linking the cessing, automotive manufacture, aircraft
robust markets along the eastern half of the production, and above all, steel. But just as the
United States to the booming export trade of first signs of automobile-fueled development
the Midwest. appeared beyond the streetcar suburbs, a wave
In the 1820s, Buffalo shot into the indus- of corporate consolidations and buyouts of lo-
trial era as the western terminus of the Erie cally owned firms in the 1920s put the city at
Canal, when Detroit and Chicago were still the mercy of high-flying Wall Street traders.
fur-trapping military outposts. For 140 years, After the bubble burst, the Queen Citys ur-
it was a crucial transfer point for Midwest ban fabric began to fray. Unemployment in
grain shipments to New York and beyond, the Depression years was more than 30 per-
conducted with whipping speed by the worlds cent, and absentee corporate barons began
first grain elevators, which were constructed selling off older buildings to make way for off-
in 1842. By 1931, thirty-eight steel-reinforced street parking and street widening.
concrete grain silos rose over the Buffalo Riv- As with other industrial cities, World War
er skyline, and their austere, functional design II was exceptionally kind to Buffalo, which
captured the fancy of architects seeking to de- received $5 billion in federal contracts for

The Baffler [no.27] ! 129

Buffalo fell so far and so hard.

armaments, artillery, tanks and armed vehi- son to fight either the Saint Lawrence Seaway
cles, rations, andmost lucrativelyfighter or the new federal freight rate changes that
planes. The city weathered the postwar re- favored shipping by rail.
cession unusually well too. In 1951, Fortune
ran a glowing cover story called Made in Binged and Purged
Buffalo devoted to the industrial diversity Disinvestment has a clinical and abstract
of a great city. ring, as do its component parts: the flight
The Luceian hype proved to be short-lived, of capital and policy support, the decline of
however. As the citys postindustrial decline public services, and the falling tax base. But
took hold, the troubles besetting Buffalo fol- the careworn face of central Buffalo shows
lowed a glumly familiar postwar script. First, us what disinvestment looks like: blocks of
enormous infusions of federal dollars for abandoned factory and commercial buildings;
highway building leached jobs and revenue acres of urban prairie punctuated by the occa-
away from the heart of Buffalo. At the same sional house in ramshackle disrepair; the ex-
time, the citys second-generation popula- hausted mien of the urban poor; and oceans of
tion of white immigrants decamped for the parking lots, parking structures, and highway
suburban fringes, marooning newly arrived rights-of-way that have supplanted magnifi-
Southern blacks in the revenue-starved ur- cent hotels, churches, theaters, and depart-
ban center, which was already being called by ment stores, not to mention the fin de sicle
the euphemistic code phrase the inner city. Romanesque Erie County Savings Bank and a
Finally, under the open-shop economic geog- signature Frank Lloyd Wright building.
raphy created by the antiunion Taft-Hartley Viewed through another prism, though,
law, many of Buffalos established industries Buffalos blasted American vistas also have
began to relocate to right to work states in the look of consumer cultureof disposabili-
the South and West. ty on a grand and tragic scale. Lay this imagery
Compounding all this slow-rolling dev- side by side with the kaleidoscopic pastiche
astationshared by cities throughout the of postwar commercial abundancea Barbie
industrial Northeast and Midwestwas a doll here, a Levittown there, a Hostess Ho Ho
far more immediate calamity very specific or shag rug over thereor with the unvarying
to Buffalo, one that effectively flattened office-park-housing-and-retail-plex that has
the citys status as the transport gateway for decades consumed the agricultural land-
to Americas inland grain empire. The con- scape, and you have a dystopian vision of an
struction of the Saint Lawrence Seaway in inert culture of convenience chasing its own
the late 1950s did an end run around the city, tail into the void. Its a slapdash homage to a
sending grain traffic through Canada and rapidly vanishing era: a time when the federal
eventually enriching the Port of Montreal. subsidies were rich, the land was cheap, and
Simultaneously, regional grain processors fell the cost of diapers, kitchen clocks, and other
under the thrall of now-familiar corporate gewgaws for the working poor plummeted,
brands such as ADM, Cargill, Kellogg, Gen- thanks to the same financial interests who
eral Mills, and Pillsbury. These grain moguls shipped their jobs overseas. The hollowing
had zero loyalty to the citys fate and no rea- out of Buffalo stands as testament to the binge

130 1 The Baffler [no.27]


The next focus of the Buffalo Billion is the Belt Line, an industrial rail corridor
that includes Northland Avenue.

mentality of American consumerism every bit Knox Art Gallery, and the Art Deco City Hall
as much as the new super Walmarts dotting building, a phallic triumph that redoubtable
the exurban frontier. New York Times architecture critic Ada Louise
And in a place like Buffalo, the careless Huxtable hailed as one of the countrys larg-
ransacking of the physical world is all the est and finest Style Moderne public buildings
more heartbreaking in view of the citys abun- (and whose architect described it as express-
dance of gifts from the past, in the words of ing the masculinity, power, and purposeful
historian Mark Goldman. As Frederick Law energy of an industrial community). These
Olmsted put it, Buffalo was the best planned and other treasures are traversed by a system
city in America, if not the world. Twenty of parks and parkways, designed by Olmsted
years ago, while living sixty miles down the to extend Joseph Ellicotts elegant 1804 radial-
Thruway in Rochester, I paid a visit to Buffalo and-grid street plan. The term Rust Belt had
with two friendsan artist and a writer, both only recently entered common parlance, and
from Manhattanwho were eager to take smaller, declining cities like Buffalo were just
in the citys aesthetic treasures: an exquisite starting to go dark on the urban-cultural map
terracotta-adorned Louis Sullivan skyscraper, as the newly revived and fashionable stars of
a pair of graceful Frank Lloyd Wright prairie New York, Chicago, and Washington, D.C.,
houses, an abandoned, spooky H. H. Richard- began to ascend.
son insane asylum, the world-class Albright- That more than a few of these gifts remain

The Baffler [no.27] ! 131

Runway City

is testament to the stubborn work of Buffalos of modern art, poetry, and historical archi-
preservationist movement. The Preservation tecture. The city is still home to remnants of
Coalition of Erie County took shape in 1981, its steel, automaking, chemical, aeronautics,
after a downtown demolition spree in the and flour milling industries. And its citizens
1970s almost felled Sullivans Guaranty Build- have retained a strong productive ethos, re-
ing, a masterpiece of modern architecture. flected not only in the citys beleaguered in-
Among other projects, the group arranged to dustrial core, but also in the sensibilities of
have nineteen downtown blocks designated a its preservation and urban-planning activists.
historic district. As manufacturing began to show signs of re-
Theres also the Campaign for Greater turning to American shores in 2012, Richard
Buffalo History, Architecture, and Culture, Floridathe countrys great bard of the cre-
which as its name suggests, takes a far more ca- ative class, which he sees as the panacea for
pacious approach to preservation. Where the all our urban illsleapt at the chance to show
Preservation Coalition focused on individual that his hackneyed ideas were still relevant to
buildings, homes, and parkland and worked post-meltdown America. In the face of rein-
closely with local elites, the Campaign for dustrialization, he declared, we need to bring
Greater Buffalo included the citys industrial about a full-blown creative culture that em-
heritage and a broader swath of the citizenry braces the talent and creativity of workers.
in its crusades. In 1990 the groups cofounder, Well, no. What we need is a culture of
Tim Tielman, published a guide to Buffalos production of the sort sustained in Buffalo,
industrial waterfront, and more recently he one which is based on making and exporting
has organized bus tours of the citys legacy substantial material goods, and which values
manufacturing sites. Tielman, who proud- competence, applied knowledge, an ethic of
ly owns the obstructionist label so often repair, and basic fair play. Part and parcel of
hurled at him, has led successful fights against this ethos is a recognition of limitsto sprawl,
yet another $300 million downtown conven- to consumption, and (yes) to the shiny dream
tion center (which he called the Urban Death of untrammeled creativity as a just-add-water
Star) and a waterfront Bass Pro hunting-and- fix to our structural woes. A key part of pro-
fishing retail emporium funded with taxpayer ductive culture, after all, is the stoic recogni-
subsidies arranged through the cunning of tion that you dont always get to do what you
the governmental-development complex, as love and that talent and creativity, con-
he told the alt-weekly Artvoice. Blocking the sumption and innovation, should be suborned
self-serving schemes of the local kakistocracy to some higher constructivist civic purpose.
is simply coincidental to a democratic process
of building a better city, which is positively Unseating the Kakistocracy
constructionist. Constructive change for the This is illegal, City of Buffalo urban planner
public benefit is our goal. . . . In short, we have Chris Hawley is telling a crowd of some fifty
to preserve and rebuild the urban ecosystems people while pointing to a PowerPoint image
that made Buffalo a successful, useful place of sidewalk caf patrons innocently sipping
to manufacture things and ideas and nurture coffee with friends. And so are the corner
citizens. tavern and the corner store, which are staples
Note that Tielman does not once pander to of Buffalo. What is legal, he explains, is the
the present vogue in urban-revival theory by cookie-cutter suburban template for develop-
using the word creativeeven though Buf- ment: single-use buildings, minimum parking
falo is an internationally recognized center requirements and building setbacks, big-box

132 1 The Baffler [no.27]


Some East Side census tracts have lost as much as 89 percent of their populations since 1950.

stores, residential turf grass instead of garden- practice), hastened the demolition of small
style landscaping. storefronts to make way for large, single-use
It is March 2013, and I have just met Haw- structurestowers, stadiums, convention
ley while serving on a speaking panel togeth- centers, and, of course, parking garages. And
er. The black-bespectacled, buzz-cropped with ones daily roundswork, home, school,
thirty-one-year-olds crisp, rapid manner of shopping, entertainmentnow separated, it
speaking lends urgency to his subject: Buf- became virtually impossible to get around by
falos new zoning ordinance, a.k.a. the Green foot. Euclid zoning was a most splendid wel-
Code. Its what I work on all day, all night, come-to-the-world gift to the automotive age.
and all weekend, he says cheerfully. By this The new code is form-based, meaning
point, five thousand Buffalo residents had al- that it restores the arrangement and inte-
ready weighed in on the drafts evolution over grated uses of various building types, scales,
the three years since the project, funded by a and heights to allow for lively, walkable,
HUD Sustainable Communities grant, had nonalienating streets of the sort that worked
been announced. just fine in cities across the world for time im-
The Green Code will wash away the sins memorial. Form-based planning is one of the
of the citys original zoning ordinance, passed central tenets of the New Urbanist planning
in 1953 on the eve of the great overlapping movement, which designs for compact good
binges of urban renewal and highway build- urbanism in place of disaggregated, car-
ing. The postwar code, built on the principle centric sprawl. Buffalos form-based code is
of separate land uses (or Euclid zoning, after dubbed green in part because it would free
the 1926 Supreme Court case authorizing the people from car servility and, in a particularly

The Baffler [no.27] ! 133

Buffalos blasted American vistas also have
the look of consumer cultureof disposability
on a grand and tragic scale.

bold move, proposes to eliminate minimum controller, protecting the city from liability.
parking requirements for new building. But At this point, the sign display requires ap-
its also green because it promotes multi-use proval from the Common Council. And then,
recycling of Buffalos urban core. Under the after you go through all that, the permit lasts
new code, people will be able to use historic for thirty days and you have to go through the
buildings for a variety of purposeson the process all over again, Hawley said. So re-
principle that the greenest building is the moving barriers and making things easier is
one that already exists. The code also pro- an important part of what were doing.
vides direction on energy-efficiency retrofits,
rain gardens and wetlands, renewable energy Re-Centering the City
installations, brownfields reuse, and tree The New Urbanism, which came together
canopy restoration. Taking its cues from what as the Congress for the New Urbanism in
remains of Ellicotts well-designed grid-and- the early 1990s, could just as aptly have been
radial pattern, the new code connects down- called restorational urbanism, for it sought
town and city neighborhoods to single-use to repair the damage inflicted on urban form
districts, such as college campuses and medi- by suburbanization, with its modernist archi-
cal centers, via pedestrian, bicycle, and transit tectural conceits, auto-based transportation
corridors. planning, and biased financing incentives, and
Just as important to its sustainable aims, to restore the urban-rural divide. At the time,
the Green Code seeks to wrest control from postmodern discourse was ascendant, with
what Tielman calls the kakistocracythe its calls for boundary transgression, non-lin-
elites battalions of legal, finance, and real ear epistemes, and radical subjectivity. The
estate professionalsby making itself intel- subversive novelty of it all might have played
ligible to the masses. Where the 1953 code is well in university humanities programsat
a 1,500-page document of mystifying, text- least for a whilebut in the built environment
heavy legalese, the Green Code has slimmed of actual places, postmodern disruption of-
down to 350 pages of accessible, plainspoken fered little to the critical imagination but dis-
language matched by simple diagrams and il- location and a mood of ironic detachment. By
lustrations. It also streamlines the permitting contrast, it still focuses the mind when New
process, that great bogey of the enterprising Urbanist James Howard Kunstler proclaims
soul. In his 2013 talk, Hawley described the that if our grandparents could see what we
gantlet of horrors a restaurant owner has to did to our cities, they would think it was im-
run under the current code to place a simple moral and insane.
sandwich-board chalk sign on the sidewalk. Although rarely credited for it, the New
After paying a $75 application fee, she needs Urbanists stood athwart this baleful intel-
permission from the commissioners of inspec- lectual legacy of the disoriented 1980s. The
tion services and public works, and then must movements impassioned defense of the pub-
post a $5,000 performance bond to the city lic realm articulated the concept in concrete

134 1 The Baffler [no.27]


Aaron Bartley cofounded People United for Sustainable Housing (PUSH) in 2005,
and has since helped coordinate a Green Development Zone on Buffalos West Side.

terms, rescuing it from the theoretical ab- ficiencies of economic privatization.

stractions, however persuasive, explored by New Urbanism has had plenty of critics
Hannah Arendt, Jrgen Habermas, J.G.A. over the years. It has been attacked, fairly,
Pocock, Alasdair MacIntyre, and Richard for building suburban subdivisions on green-
Sennett. From the movements inception, the fields (i.e., open land) without public tran-
New Urbanists argued for the public realm as sit access, and for turning out cookie-cutter
a historically layered place, a palpable locale, neotraditional designs in the name of resur-
spatially defined by streets and building types, recting local vernacular architecture. It also
where the common life unfolds independently can adopt the architecture professions lazy
of the commercial market or the state. Cham- argot of market conquest with discomfiting
pions of New Urbanism unabashedly called ease, bandying loose and beguiling visions of
for the restoration of public-private boundar- a frictionless postindustrial future. In con-
ies and the reclamation of the urban edge, crete terms, such unexamined shibboleths
along with all the old-fashioned virtues that have graced us with the movements flagship
went with it: beauty, character, and economi- community of Celebration, Floridaa placid
cally diverse development patterns. The and bland Disney-owned paean to walkabil-
movements meticulous attention to pedes- ity thats designed more to be admired in the
trian-level detail also unobtrusively advanced pages of planning-porn journals than to be
elusive public goods such as contemplation put to use by engaged communities of citizens
and sociability, thus winning back time lost to and workers.
automobile commuting and the relentless ef- Less fairly, landscape urbanists who

The Baffler [no.27] ! 135

Runway City

prize ecological horizonality charge that ing their fellow Buffalonians around to the
the movements vision of well-ordered, walk- view that sixty years of modernist, suburbia-
able streetscapes is nostalgic, bourgeois, hi- promoting planning was a historical aberra-
erarchical in its design aesthetic, and way too tion; and as a corollary, they are now fighting
attached to the urban-rural binary. More to restore good urban form as part of a larger
recently, neoliberal advocates of the market- low-carbon economic development strategy.
driven global metropolis have campaigned Particularly striking is the critical mass
vigorously against place-based federal invest- formed by young, post-boomer Buffalo activ-
ment policies, such as the Obama administra- ists committed to embedding good urban-
tions Partnership for Sustainable Commu- ism in a sustainable green economy. I met
nities. Harvard economist Edward Glaeser, Chris Hawley through Bernice Radle, an up-
whose aptly named 2011 book Triumph of the beat yet deadly serious twenty-nine-year-old
City set the terms for contemporary debate who helms Buffalos Young Preservationists
about urban growth in the global economy, and who has racked up an impressive track
argued in an influential 2007 piece published record of restoring old houses in the shadow
in the conservative Manhattan Institutes of the wrecking ball. Active in the Northeast
policy quarterly City Journal that previous Sustainable Energy Association, Radle aspires
spending aimed at resurrecting Buffalo as a to be Buffalos mayor one day, and married her
place . . . was destined to fail. It is more hu- beau last July at the feet of the citys remain-
mane, he claimed, to pursue people-based ing grain elevatorsnow dubbed Silo City.
policies that subsidize the disadvantaged Thirty-nine-year-old Aaron Bartley, a
and equip them with the education needed to graduate of Harvard Law School (where he
take up residence in warmer, more pleasant, worked with janitors to organize the suc-
more productive cities. In a spectacularly ill- cessful Harvard Living Wage Campaign)
timed pre-crash reverie, Glaeser went on to returned to his hometown in 2004 to join an
laud the market-based urban pulse of innova- urban farming project. The following year,
tion following innovation of the sort devised he cofounded People United for Sustainable
by New York Citys financial sector, with Housing (PUSH Buffalo). PUSH organizes,
its mortgage-backed securities and hedge Saul Alinsky style, in the low-income West
funds. Why, Glaeser asks, should smart en- Side; its mission is to rehab the neighbor-
trepreneurs in cities like New York be taxed hoods historic houses while safeguarding
to support place-making in failing cities like their affordability. Along the way, Bartleys
Buffalo? group also shows residents how to repair and
But now that the financial wizards of Wall weatherize their homes, helps find financ-
Street arent looking all that smart, its long ing for small businesses, and coordinates an
past time to take a fresh look at New Urban- award-winning Green Development Zone
ist place-making in Buffalo, since it relies nei- committed to renewable energy and urban
ther on the paper machinations of the finance agriculture. Thirty-one-year-old Franchelle
world nor the vacuous rhetoric of the creative Hart, of SEIU 1199 and the Coalition of Black
class and its courtiers. At the very least, New Trade Unionists, was hired in June to head
Urbanisms admirably concrete and embed- Open Buffalo, a new economic justice outfit
ded approach to place-making has captured jointly brokered by PUSH, Partnership for
the loyalty of Buffalos urbanist insurgents. the Public Good, and other equity-minded
Armed with the simple and practical ethos of groups and funded by George Soross Open
New Urbanist planning, they are slowly bring- Society Foundations. Nearly all have a flair

136 1 The Baffler [no.27]


On Main Street, cars will soon share the right-of-way with transit, cyclists, and pedestrians.

for plugging Buffalos rehabilitationand set- previous months release of the long-debated
backsin real time, notably the New Millen- Green Code for public commentthe Con-
nium Groups Chuck Banas, who has blogged gress for the New Urbanism held its annual
as Joe the Planner; David Torke, who runs the convention, themed The Resilient Commu-
preservation and photography blog fixBuffalo, nity, in Buffalo in early June.
focusing on the citys devastated, predomi-
nantly African American East Side; Iraq war Cracking the Code
Army veteran and urban planner Nate Neu- For all these public shows of good will, Buf-
man, who maintains an active presence on falos emerging New Urbanist revival will still
social media; and Newell Nussbaumer, who have to clear a major hurdle: the taming of
edits the ten-year-old BuffaloRising.com, a the citys sprawl-addicted business establish-
site that covers the citys rebirth, focusing ment. After all, the systemic hollowing out of
on locally owned businesses and grassroots Buffalo wasnt simply a Borg-like convergence
projects. Its like living in Sim City. You can of world-historic trends such as the flight of
really see the changes, and the rewards that manufacturing overseas and of white people
come along with hard work, he said in a re- to the suburbs; it was also the result of unusu-
cent interview. We have the ability to create ally retrograde political leadership.
our own city . . . how often does that happen? The first round of federally funded urban
Of course, all this unbridled civic optimism renewal disasters in the late 1950s through the
still hinges on ratification of the Green Code. 1960s sent a circumferential highway through
In honor of the citys painstaking restoration the citys outer neighborhoods, displaced two
effortsand in a none-too-subtle nod to the thousand African Americans in one neigh-

The Baffler [no.27] ! 137

The hollowing out of Buffalo wasnt simply a Borg-like
convergence of world-historic trends; it was also
the result of retrograde political leadership.

borhood alone, and mowed down hundreds gubernatorial candidate Carl Paladino. Like
of large and small downtown buildings that so many other heroic foes of the public sec-
harbored at least as many independent busi- tor, Paladino got good and rich in the husk of
nesses. This orgy of annihilation made way postindustrial Buffalo at taxpayers expense,
for, among other enormities, a superblock building 160 Rite Aids out on the heavily sub-
complex called Main Place Tower and Mall; sidized suburban frontiers of New York and
the generic designation perfectly captured the Pennsylvania and drawing liberally from state
bland, placeless affect of the compound. Empire Zone economic development funding
But many worse things were lying in wait. to renovate his downtown office buildings
The second round of urban devastation, producing little to no new business develop-
which ran roughly from the late 1970s through ment. There was Ralph C. Wilson, owner of
the end of the 1990s, made Main Place Tower the already profitable Buffalo Bills, who like
and Mall seem like a Jane Jacobs poster proj- nearly every other sports mogul in the land
ect. Over this two-decade stretch, Buffalo lost got himself a new stadium and high corporate
proportionately more manufacturing jobs (31 skybox ticket prices, despite the teams dim
percent) and suffered greater wage drops than record of playing in four Super Bowls in a row
any other city in the country. This was also and losing every time. There was Seneca Na-
the heyday of that great Reagan-era experi- tion CEO Skip Harper, who got himself a
ment in hardy bootstrapping entrepreneur- pair of casinos, also lavishly subsidized by gov-
ship known as the new federalism, which re- ernment grants. The civic troughs were out,
configured federal funding mechanisms into and the regions boodlers were feeding heart-
state block grants and public-private partner- ily. By 2003 the city, and later Erie County,
ships. The idea was to leverage federal financ- were so deeply in the red that the state placed
ing as a come-on to private-sector investors, them under the authority of fiscal control
who now seized on every available incentive boards.
to build cheaply constructed high-margin- When I asked Chris Hawley how on earth
and-low-density boondoggles masquerading the Green Codea document steeped in civic
as market-savvy urban renewal. participation and the principles of long-range,
Presiding over it all in Buffalo were two low-carbon planningemerged from this
multi-term Democratic machine politicians, sludge, he pointed improbably to one man:
mayors endorsed by the Conservative and Robert Shibley. The dean of SUNY Buffalos
Right to Life Parties, who handed out patron- School of Architecture and Planning, Shibley
age like lollipops and hired hacks in the plan- established the schools Urban Design Project
ning department who knew nothing about ur- in 1990 and spent the next sixteen years work-
ban design or economic development and gave ing to usher through a Comprehensive Plan
away the store to favored beneficiaries. There for Buffalos development priorities. By the
was Buffalos largest real estate developer and time the plan had been formally approved in
parking lot baron, 2010 Tea Party Republican 2006, hed gradually enlisted the old-school

138 1 The Baffler [no.27]


Buffalos population declined by more than one hundred thousand people in the 1970s,
when Chippewa Street was called the Street of Broken Dreams.

mayors support, together with a growing seg- house. The Larkin plant was an enormous 1912
ment of the local business community. Aside manufacturing-and-warehouse complex with
from the watchwords fix the basics, build ties to Frank Lloyd Wright and Roycrofts El-
on assets, three of the plans features stand bert Hubbard, located on the East Sidethe
out: its full-throated anticipation of climate most devastated, emptied neighborhood in
change, its commitment to sprawl-curbing the city. It still has a long way to go, but the
smart growth (the regional land-use corol- neighborhood is now home to a thriving com-
lary to New Urbanism), and its intention to mercial center, dubbed Larkinville, that is at-
keep industrial properties zoned for indus- tracting further residential investment, retail,
trial use as part of a mixed economy. and small businesses.
The Green Code legally implements this Zemsky also made shrewd use of his many
vision, and Hawley was hired to pound it out. business and philanthropic connections, as
Far and away the most influential business well as his substantial political contributions
ally of the Shibley plan was Russer Foods heir to both parties. Having served on the regional
Howard Zemsky, whose father founded the transportation authority since 2003, appoint-
business (Zee-Best) in Brooklyn and later ed by governor Elliot Spitzer, he became An-
expanded into Buffalo. Zemsky sold the busi- drew Cuomos chief consultant on Western
ness and, in a dramatic vote of confidence for New York revitalization in 2011, and has since
Shibleys planning approach, invested in the risen to the states top position in economic
2002 purchase and renovation of the aban- development. Thanks in part to Zemskys
doned Larkin Soap Factory and mail-order counsel and Cuomos political maneuver-

The Baffler [no.27] ! 139

Runway City

ing, the state has put through two programs opment funds among its ten Regional Eco-
to rein in runaway private development. The nomic Development Councils, promising a
Smart Growth Public Infrastructure Policy $1 billion jackpot to the proposal reflecting
Act of 2010 (PIPA)requires state agencies to the most fully realized Smart Growth plans,
run local requests for infrastructure support the Western New York REDC won. This
through a checklist that includes consider- should come as no surprise; Howard Zemsky,
ations such as whether development is locat- favored by Cuomo, was running the Western
ed wholly or partly in an existing municipal REDC at the time. Thus was born the so-
center, preserve[s] and enhance[s] the states called Buffalo Billion, much to the disgrun-
agricultural land, and reduce[s] automobile tlement of neighboring cities like Rochester
dependency. And in 2011, Cuomo created ten and Syracuse.
Regional Economic Development Councils Political cronyism? Yes. But it also makes
that wisely seek to shape competition for sub- a world of sense to establish a beachhead for
sidy dollars by forcing municipalities to work upstate economic revitalization in Buffalo to
in concert as unified metropolitan regions match the successful nanotechnology indus-
when seeking state economic development try emerging in the eastern end of the Thru-
funds. way, in the Albany area. By early 2014, Cuomo
announced to great fanfare that $225 million
Our Ally the State of the booty would be used to subsidize the
Here its worth pausing to note the impor- Riverbend green advanced-manufacturing
tance of state-level intervention in the fate complex on the former site of Republic Steel
of small-to-midsize older industrial cities in South Buffalo, not far from Larkinville.
like Buffalo. Richard Longworth, author of (In June, Tesla and SpaceXs Elon Musk an-
Caught in the Middle: Americas Heartland in nounced plans to build the worlds largest
the Age of Globalism, argues that in the age of advanced solar panel factory on the site.) In a
private-market-based, neoliberal globaliza- novel arrangement designed to safeguard tax-
tion, the role of the states is to get out of the payers capital investment, the facility will be
way. But that viewshared by Florida, Glae- owned by the state.
ser, and the likeassumes that great metrop- The hefty investment in low-carbon
olises like Chicago and New York, with their manufacturing nicely complements another
soaring real estate values, can thrive without of Hawleys pet projectsreviving the citys
the productive, energy-generating, and agri- still extant Belt Line rail system and its
cultural capacities of their smaller regional nearby industrial properties. Built in 1883,
metros. Strengthening smaller cities would the circular rail line once bordered the citys
help to slow the much-resented transfer of agricultural greenbelt, and snakes over trel-
wealth from the downstate financial sector to lises and then below grade through Buffalos
the fiscally weakened municipalities scattered old neighborhoods. The major employment
throughout the state. It would be both more center during the period of Buffalos indus-
sensible and more equitablemore greento trial prime, it hosted a commuter rail service
ground Buffalos economic strategy and future (along with freight), moving Buffalos work-
tax contributions in a template different from force throughout the city until after World
those of New York City and other fast-grow- War I. Most of these factory buildings and
ing global cities. warehouses still stand, having escaped the
Back in 2012, when the state ran a com- mid-twentieth-century downtown wreck-
petitive bidding process for economic devel- ing ball: Pierce Arrow, Ford Motor Co., Bell

140 1 The Baffler [no.27]

Now that the financial wizards of Wall Street
arent looking all that smart, its time
to take a fresh look at New Urbanist place-making.

Aircraft, Wonder Bread, Otis Elevator Co., The Looming Silicon STAMP
Curtiss-Wright, Northland Rubber, Niagara What one hand giveth, however, the other
Machine and Tool Works, and bicycle-mak- can taketh away. All of Buffalos long-term,
ers Buffalo Wheel Co. It still hosts two daily hard-fought efforts to jump-start its battered
freight runs for several manufacturing firms, city and regional economy are now directly
including Del Monte Foods, which produces threatened by the selfsame Cuomo adminis-
all the Milk-Bones for Americas doggies, tration that just lavished $1 billion on those
and General Mills, which pumps out the na- efforts. With funding extracted from the Buf-
tions Cheerios. Hawley sees the Belt Line as falo Billion, Cuomo has greenlighted plans for
the third strand in the citys development yet another revenue-sapping, sprawl-feeding
DNA, along with Ellicotts street plan and development compound to be plonked down
Olmsteds parkway and park system. The in a 1,340-acre tractone and a half times the
Green Code proposes to restore the circular size of New Yorks Central Parkmidway be-
corridor for mixed useresidential, commer- tween Buffalo and Rochester.
cial, and light industrialand eventually to In March, the Cuomo administration qui-
resurrect the commuter rail. Zemskys Lark- etly announced that it was directing $33 mil-
inville, located on one of the lines nineteen lion in state funds to build a mega complex
former commuter stops, is part of that vision called the Science and Technology Manufac-
too, as are two other, more recent adaptive- turing Park (STAMP) on working farmland in
reuse residential projects. Alabama, New York, a tiny hamlet in Genesee
Even though the mega-world built on fos- County. The aim, according to the Genesee
sil fuel and Big Wealth is facing contraction, County Economic Development Center, is
Buffalo and the State of New York are betting to attract an as yet unsecured semiconductor
that we will still need big substantial (if also manufacturer (or chip fab in the industrys
greener) thingsthings like renewable-ener- irritating shorthand) in a bid to create Silicon
gy and mass-transit infrastructure, large bat- Valley stretching along the Thruway.
tery storage, freight ships, and carbon-neutral STAMP has been in the works for some
vehicles. And they are wise to rebuild the city, nine years, led by local politicians and private
putting an end to sprawl and preserving their and county Industrial Development Agen-
precious regional farmland in the process. cies. The project both antedated and deftly
Between Zemksys leading investment and sidestepped the consolidation of the states
Shibleys planning vision, the Green Codes smart growth initiative and Cuomos metro-
playbook for a more flexible and vernacular regional economic development program. It
approach to development, and the states at- flew under the radar, as these things do, with
traction of a major low-carbon manufacturing occasional state subsidy support for studies
and research complex, Buffalo, it seems, is on and the likeincluding a 2012 Smart Growth
course to establish the productive green econ- Impact study whose disapproval was waived
omy of its dreams. by the Empire State Development Corpora-

The Baffler [no.27] ! 141

Runway City

tion. Cuomo gave the project only tepid sup- fab jobs at a long, automobile-dependent
port, claiming he couldnt get the funding, commuting distance from Rochester and Buf-
and Buffalos legislative delegation opposed falo, which both have an abundance of fallow
it. But somehow, a deal was cut, and funding industrial properties to spare.
was procured from the Buffalo Billion. If the STAMP supporters defend the location on
dilapidated face of Buffalo is what puts bones three main grounds: the delicate nanotechnol-
and flesh on the idea of disinvestment, then ogy required for chip fabrication is sensitive to
the STAMP project is what the future holds seismic urban vibrations; the projects large
if the traditional forces of sprawl development size will require access to both cities labor
continue to operate on auto-pilot. markets; and in any case, it will need the par-
Long after the low-key March announce- ticipation of new supply-chain businesses that
ment, it caught activist leaders in Buffalo can be located in both cities, boosting their
completely by surprise. I had heard rumors economies. But none of these claims stands up
about this a few years ago, one of them told to even casual scrutiny. Chip fab requires a
me in June, but I had been reassured that it high degree of cleanliness, but an entire indus-
would come to nothing. Local alt-weekly try is devoted to stabilizing vibrations. And
columnist and professor of urban and re- Rochester and Buffalo are only sixty miles
gional planning Bruce Fisher, who special- apartmeaning that a chip-fab complex sited
izes in economic-development governance, in either metropolis would easily satisfy the
responded with similar shock in a May phone rule-of-thumb sourcing requirement of one-
interview. Zemsky himself said by email, In day just-in-time delivery.
my opinion STAMPs a compromise between No, what STAMP boosters wantcon-
two regions, WNY and Finger Lakes. It fits sistent with two decades of sprawl-inducing
the WNY focus on next generation jobs and developmentis control of the land and the
companies, and it falls outside of our focus on political landscape, for all the usual time-
smart growth/existing infrastructure/sustain- honored reasons. They want what Wall Street
ability/and job access for all. wants: the build-to-suit standard real estate
The basic idea behind the STAMP initia- product type, which urban development ana-
tive isnt objectionable. Turning upstate New lyst Christopher Leinberger calls the build-
York into a center of advanced manufacturing ing block of the edgeless city.
makes all sorts of practical sense. The area has If the STAMP folly goes through, devel-
an abundance of excellent research universi- opment companies will buy up all the sur-
ties, underused industrial infrastructure, and rounding land, in anticipation of housing
an existing corps of skilled workers. To attract workers from Buffalo and Rochester who will
a firm that would directly employ ten thou- not abide the slushy commute to Alabama.
sand people, as claimed, and then spin off tens (Area grocery mogul Danny Wegman has
of thousands more jobs in services and suppli- already suggested hed build one of his mega
ers, would be to boost flailing upstate cities stores out that way if STAMP moves into
and the entire state economy. the full development phase.) Those vaunted
But locating it in Alabamafive miles off supply-chain businesses will follow, as will
the New York State Thruway and fifteen the need to fund new water and sewer lines,
miles from the nearest city (Batavia, pop. roads, schools, and police and fire services,
15,000) is a terrible idea. The area already has at taxpayers expense. Thousands of acres
a growing $31 million farming and food-pro- of prime farmlandacres that we will des-
cessing economy. And it would put those chip perately need to feed New Yorkers as global

142 1 The Baffler [no.27]

warming tightens its grip on the internation- more economically self-defeating than genu-
al food tradewill be lost forever. flecting before the occult powers of trickle-
Meanwhile, Rochester and Buffalo, whose down greed. It speaks volumes about the
citizens are busily repairing the urban fabric, incoherence of our loose, multijurisdictional
will continue to hollow out. The minority regional planning regime that state govern-
working poor will, as usual, be deprived of ment is staking out plans for expanding the
access to all that STAMP bounty. Business innovation economy into farmland while
bigwigs in the region pronounce stoically that simultaneously supporting the dense, ur-
this is just how things have to beand that ban, green economic revival of Buffalo, as
they were, for all intents and purposes, ever though the two initiatives couldnt possibly
thus. When the Rochester Democrat and Chron- have anything to do with each other. It sim-
icle asked Greater Rochester Enterprise presi- ply fails to register, at the most basic level of
dent and CEO Mark Peterson why STAMP policy debate, that the STAMP project is all
had to be sited so far beyond the reasonable but tailor-made to undermine and destabi-
reach of existing cities, he shrugged. That is lize the development approach reflected in
the price you pay if youre going to play in this Buffalos Green Code.
industry, he explained, in full-on tough-guy Thats why its beyond perverse to fund
Gordon Gekko cadence. the latter project out of funds earmarked for
It took us thirty years and the rise of in- the former. And thats also why we shouldnt
transigent structural inequality to learn that entrust all the self-hymning apostles of in-
greed is, in fact, not good. Likewise, myopi- novation and smart governmenttied as
cally planned sprawl along the Thruway is they are to Wall Streets standard real estate
not a price worth paying for any industry, investment productswith hatching an eco-
and, in the age of global warming, it is even nomic game plan to equal the times.t


The Baffler [no.27] ! 143

Mo d e l s

Satirized for Your Consumption

3 Ben Schwartz

W e live in an age of satirical excess. If econo- tors joined Twitters online community with
mists were to diagnose it, they might well call a stream of ironic, self-referential jokes. In
it a comedy bubble. We currently have six late- March, President Obama appeared on Be-
night talk show hosts, all nattily clad, life-of- tween Two Ferns, a faux public-access interview
the-party, white-guy topical jokersConan, show hosted by a star of The Hangover com-
Kimmel, Fallon, James Corden, Seth Mey- edies, Zach Galifianakis. Filled with funny,
ers, and (come September) Colbertto sum rude insults from both the president and his
up, and send up, our day for us. We have four paunchy foil, Obamas guest spot brought the
comedy news-commentary showsMaher, then-troubled Affordable Care Act rollout to
Larry Wilmore, John Oliver, and (for a little the attention of Galifianakiss young, millen-
while longer) Stewartand fake news from nial audience, who signed up in large numbers.
SNLs Weekend Update, The Onion, ClickHole, At Christmas, The Interview, a lowbrow
and several lesser lights. Vines, viral Funny or foreign-policy comedy from Judd Apatow,
Die clips, podcasts, Twitter: each new media Seth Rogen, and James Franco, presented the
platform generates stars of its own, ranging imagined assassination of a sitting foreign
from seasoned comedians to everyday office leader, North Koreas Kim Jong-un, as slap-
witsoften, people who have no intention of stick fare. But as its premiere approached,
seeking careers as professional humorists. It the film provoked a series of improbable,
would be easy to sniff in condescending high- real-life plot twists that steered it away from
gatekeeper form and talk of the low signal-to- an Apatow buddy comedy and into a geopo-
noise ratio of truly funny people to not, but litical farce owing more to the imagination of
with 280 million active users on Twitter alone, a Terry Southern. First came a massive com-
that still leaves a pretty big signal. puter hack on the movies backer, Sony, which
And as often happens with bubbles, it evolved into mysterious terroristic threats on
burst. Last year, American satire took one of our nations theaters. The United States then
the stranger turns in its long history of mock- accused North Korea of the hack and threats,
ing, ridiculing, and joking about our target- and the Obama White House instituted a new
rich republic. Were used to comedians speak- round of sanctions on the rogue dictatorship.
ing truth to power, to cruelly topical comedy In an end-of-the-year press conference,
sketches and a steady diet of merciless politi- President Obama scoffed at North Korea for
cal cartoons. But in 2014, comedy was stolen overreacting to something as absurd as The
from the professional jokesters by their tradi- InterviewKim Jong-un, he implied, couldnt
tional targets and became, unexpectedly, the take a joke. But given the Obama Administra-
new language of power, policy, and politics. tions own history of comedy-policy, we might
Thats a bold claim, but consider a few well ask: Who did the president think he was
representative instances. In June, just a few kidding? Its a serious question. After all, our
months before the Senate Select Commit- own government leaders dont exactly laugh
tee on Intelligence released its report on out loud when citizens kid about assassinat-
CIA-coordinated torture, CIA administra- ing them; we live in a country where writing

144 1 The Baffler [no.27]


a farce about killing a U.S. president, or even Correspondents Dinner while a U.S. Navy
snickering about it online, could have the SEAL team invaded Pakistan to assassinate
NSA hacking your computers, land the Secret Osama bin Laden in his home. Kim Jong-un
Service on your doorstep, and put you in fed- may have embarrassed Sony execs and punked
eral prison. The Interviews releasebut whos to say he
If North Korea is guilty as charged by our didnt get the joke?
FBI, the biggest punchline of all is that Kim
Jong-un may not be so crazy for taking Ameri- A Greater Fool Theory
cas new brand of weapons-grade humor so se- Its a common complaint that the abundance
riously. These days, we have a smirking CIA, of porn online has sexualized our culture, or
a healthcare overhaul that was sold via vaude- that mean-spirited Internet trolls have coars-
ville sketch, a State Department that, as we ened our national conversation. A similar ar-
shall see, vetted and approved The Interview, gument can be made about online comedy,
and a president whose signature moment is which has humorized our lives. In the 1990s,
the night he cracked jokes at a White House Maureen Dowd seemed cheeky when she pep-

The Baffler [no.27] ! 145

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pered her Times pieces with pop-culture gibes. rized for your consumption. Forget stodgy
Today, reading her column feels a lot like di- speeches that begin with trite one-liners to
aling up with a modemyou cant believe you break the ice. As the traditional targets of sat-
ever thought it was fast. News, politics, policy, ire seek to demonstrate their relevance to our
and cultural debate now reach us couched in wit-wired lives, full-on comedic performance
jokes. Professional, unfunny journalists fret has become their principal disarming strategy.
that young people get more of their informa- Soon after President Obama appeared on Be-
tion from The Daily Show than from tradi- tween Two Ferns, Hillary Clinton bandied talk
tional sources, and the only time you heard of a 2016 run at the presidencyon Jon Stew-
about NBCs Nightly News anchor Brian Wil- arts show, not on Meet the Press. And when a
liams, before he became our first casualty of recent blizzard in New York fizzled out ear-
imaginary RPGs, was when he appeared on 30 lier than forecast, leaving little snow but many
Rock or Jimmy Fallons show to slow jam the transit closures, Mayor De Blasio charmed the
news. Comedians have so fully mastered the city by reading aloud from the Onions dysto-
language of reporting that when serious peo- pian parody of his snowmongering.
ple get taken in by absurdist Onion stories, no And then, of course, theres the CIA.
one is surprised. Not the Onion has become When the agency opened its official Twitter
inside-the-Beltway shorthand for any offbeat account, it did so with a wry quip about its
development in daily politics that seems like own institutional inability to tell the truth:
farce but isnt. We can neither confirm nor deny that this is
The comedy culture all around us is also, our first tweet.
increasingly, the framework of public debate. Not unpredictably, spy watchdogs and in-
Several of the most heated arguments about telligence monitors raised a hue and cry over
feminism in recent years have comedy as their the agencys puckish foray into social media.
starting points, first in the long list of never- The CIA, after all, relies on the cover of of-
serious Are Women Funny? think pieces, and ficial secrecy to torture and assassinate, to
then in the online firestorm over comedians pay off unscrupulous leaders and bagmen, to
telling rape jokes. Arguably, the phrase rape choreograph coups dtats, and to prop up cli-
culture came to the attention of many people ent states abroad. Theres nothing inherently
by way of humor, thanks to celebrity come- funny about such activities. More important,
dians like Patton Oswalt (who dislikes rape it was more than a little jarring to see the
jokes, and argues that there is a rape culture) CIA lay claim to the language of satire. We
and Anthony Jeselnik (who tells rape jokes, assume satire is for the truth teller, not the
and thus proves there is one). Allegations that truth obscurer. When George Orwell created
Bill Cosby is a serial rapist went from impo- the irony-laden government-speak of Nineteen
lite celebrity gossip to a loud national conver- Eighty-Four, his joke pivoted on one key dis-
sation only after comedian Hannibal Buress tinction: we as readers, and not the gray and
brought them up in his standup routine. earnest administrators of Oceania, recognize
When Bill Maher first adopted the tagline its bleak absurdity for what it is. But now the
satirized for your protection, it was an edgy CIA has shown, in our satirized era, that it,
brag, not a humble one, meant to convey that too, is in on the joke.
his show, Politically Incorrect, would not allow The strident detractors of the anonymous
the news of the day to remain safely spun. smart aleck(s) behind the CIA account had
Twenty years later, a better slogan for the hu- a point: when the official spokesmen of the
mor of the Information Age would be sati- national security state greet you with a smirk

146 1 The Baffler [no.27]

Satire can be seen as throwing down the gauntlet.
That doesnt mean that the other side wont just pick it up
and throw it back at you.

and a good one-liner, youd probably better be micro-films, and serious Internet-backed fi-
skeptical of their motives. Dark humor about nancing (e.g., Netflix, Amazon, and Yahoo)
the CIA is nothing new. But humor from the had arrived, offering alternatives to movie
CIA? To mug for us, la James Bond wise- studios and television networks. Comedians
cracking as he tosses Generic Foreign-Accent like Louis C.K. and Maria Bamford had be-
Bond Villain #243 out of an airplane? Thats gun to offer their own comedy specials on-
something new. line, directly to their fan base, with no net-
work or media executives acting as financial
A Nation of Class Clowns or censoring middlemen.
As the CIA proved last summer, its quite easy To keep up, Chappelle launched his own
to co-opt the potentially subversive language Twitter account, and quickly attracted more
of satire. In the past, comedians, or their staff than 463,000 followers. But like so many ce-
writers, appeared to have a rare gift for wit lebrities who sign onto Twitter, he found that
and getting laughs; the funniest kid in class there was already someone pretending to be
always stood out. Now, we are a nation of class him, a fake Dave Chappelle account, com-
clowns. Social media gives us all a platform to plete with original jokes. The Fake Chappelle
preach and vent, but also to crack wise on a had racked up more than 120,000 followers.
global stage. And these everyday wits are just Thats incredible for an account clearly la-
as sharp and funny as the professionals, with beled as a counterfeit.
some, such as Alison Agosti and Tim Seidell, Its easy enough to start a fake celebrity ac-
hired off of Twitter to write for the likes of count. Twitter allows you to use any name you
Seth Meyers and Larry Wilmore. Wit is much like (say, Dave Chappelle), post any picture
more common than previously thought, and as your avatar (say, Dave Chappelles), and go
what determines a professional humorist, it about pretending to be anyone you want (say,
seems, isnt rare comic genius, but mainly the Dave Chappelle). Some do it as a fans homage,
willingness to move to New York or Los An- some do it to mock a hated celebrity and make
geles and suffer the entertainment industry. obnoxious statements in his name, and some
Take the case of Dave Chappelle, who has hope to deceive the celebritys followers, for
recently returned to show business proper af- who knows what dishonest purpose. Chap-
ter a long absence. Chappelle quit his some- pelle found his fake tweeter was something
times brilliant Comedy Central sketch com- else, something quite unexpected. As he told
edy show in 2005, after two seasons, and kept Jimmy Fallon on The Tonight Show, It turned
a comparatively low profile for years. In 2014 out, Jimmy, the guy was like, hilarious. . . . I was
he returned for a stand-up comedy tour, be- like, this guys funny . . . and then, like a week
ginning at Radio City Music Hall. or two into it, he just turns evil!
Nine years is a long time to be away, and Real Chappelle saw Fake Chappelle start-
on Chappelles return, he found the comedy ing Twitter feuds with an account associated
world changed. Social media, podcasting, with Katt Williams, a comedian friend of the

The Baffler [no.27] ! 147

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real Dave Chappelle. The Williams account Last season we started the series off with
responded unpleasantly, which, Chappelle told this sketch about a [blind] black white
Jimmy Fallon, hurt the real Dave Chappelles supremacist. Very controversial. Yes, veryit
feelings. Only, as Chappelle learned later sparked this whole controversy about the
when he ran into Katt Williams and braced appropriateness of the N-word, the dreaded
for an awkward meeting, it turns out that Katt N-word. And you knowand then when
Williams has no Twitter account. Fake Chap- I would travel, people would come up to
pelle was feuding with a Fake Katt Williams. mewhite people would come up to me, like,
Such was the comedy world, circa 2014. You Man, that sketch you did about them niggers
could read it as just another instance of In- that was hila [Chappelle does a double
ternet celebrity identity theft, or of an Inter- take in shock here.] Take it easy! I was jok-
net upstart forcing a celebrity into a moment ing around! I started to realize that these
of public embarrassment. But the discovery sketches, in the wrong hands, are dangerous.
that Fake Chappelle is actually funny? Funny
enough to attract 120,000 followers? That, Worse still, Chappelles name came up in a
too, is something new in the comedy bubble. lawsuit filed by the city of Baltimore against
Wells Fargo for its subprime mortgage loan
Whos the Punchline? programs, which, the suit alleges, targeted
This rapid-fire Twitter tutorial had to be par- African Americans. In a moment of wince-
ticularly unsettling for Chappelle, whos been inducing irony, one employees complaint de-
struggling for some time to rescue his materi- scribed how a Wells Fargo loan officer quoted
al from the clutches of bad-faith fans and imi- Chappelle while he pushed black families into
tators. His realization that truly evil people foreclosure:
were co-opting his humor was a key factor in
Dave Zoldak, who succeeded Dave Margeson
his decision to quit his show and put his career
as my branch manager in 2005, used the word
on hold. In much the same seamless-yet-dis-
nigger at the office. Although Wells Fargo
turbing way that the CIA adapted its official
knew Mr. Zoldak used racial slurs, it promot-
voice to mimic Twitters wit and snark, some
ed him to area manager after I complained
of the people Chappelle attacked regularly
about his discriminatory comments. On Oc-
racistshad taken to adopting his humor. In
tober 21, 2005, I complained in my email to
a 2006 CNN interview, Chappelle explained
Mr. Zoldak directly about his use of the word
that he once was filming a skit for his show in
nigger and speaking about how African
blackface and noticed a white person nearby
Americans lived in hoods and slums. Mr.
laughing uncontrollably. But, as he recalled,
Zoldak replied that he had used the slurs in a
it didnt seem that the onlooker was laugh-
humorous way, just as the African-American
ing with him. The way he laughed, it made
comedian Dave Chapelle did on television
me feel like this guys laughing for the wrong
and thought that I would find the use of these
reasons. . . . It stirred up something in me that
terms humorous.
was like, I dont want to subject anyone else
to. After his show became a hit, Chappelle Its hard to picture a more grim co-opting
discovered that some of his white fans were of Chappelles comedy at the height of his
grievously misunderstandingor more likely, shows popularitythe Wells Fargo incident
intentionally distortinghis satirical intent. occurred in 2005, the same year Chappelle
Early on in the second season of his show, he walked away. But the co-opting of satire, and
offered this anecdote: specifically, the racist misapplication of comic

148 1 The Baffler [no.27]


material, has long been a problem in American Is shining in deir eyes.

humor. In 1832 the first minstrel star, Thomas And if de blacks should get free,
D. Rice, of Manhattan, went onstage with I guess deyll see some bigger,
black makeup on his face and took the name An I shall consider it,
of a folk character, Jim Crow. No modern A bold stroke for de nigger.
audience would tolerate his performance: Im for freedom,
the casually offered racial slurs, the ugly ste- An for Union altogether,
reotyping, the racist imagery. But there was a Although Im a black man,
twist to Rices humor. He interpolated anti- De white is calld my broder.
slavery lyrics into the music he appropriated
from African Americans: In a barbaric era of American history,
during which the very humanity of African
Should dey get to fighting,
Americans and Native Americans was dis-
Perhaps de blacks will rise,
puted, Rice was, in these early days, an am-
For deir wish for freedon,
biguous symbol of progressivism. Its hard to

The Baffler [no.27] ! 149

Mo d e l s

know whos speaking here, T. D. Rice or Jim administration, for one, has managed to fuse
Crow, writes historian John Strausbaugh in wiseguy wit with policy like no other White
his study of race comedy, Black Like You: Black- House. And Obamas recent comedy-show
face, Whiteface, Insult, and Imitation in Ameri- appearancesincluding an entertaining visit
can Popular Culture. Maybe both. Thats the to The Colbert Report, to take over Colberts
importance of the blackface mask: Rice, as a Word segmenthave helped demolish any
White man, probably would not have stood up hard-and-fast distinctions between insiders
before an audience of Five Points rowdies and and outsiders in the world of satire.
openly advocated a violent revolt by de nig- With The Interview, state-sponsored satire
ger. But as Jim Crow he could. And the same went next level. Certainly, slapstick foreign
Bowery boys who put on blackface themselves policy comedies are nothing new. A partial
to hurl brickbats at their Black neighbors (and quality-neutral) listing of significant en-
cheered the idea of Blacks (in the South any- tries in the genre includes Douglas Fairbanks
way) rising up. His Majesty, The American (1919), Will Rogers
If Rices ambiguous Jim Crow helped make Ambassador Bill (1931), The Four Marx Broth-
minstrelsy a national fad, he could not stop ers Duck Soup (1933), Wheeler and Woolseys
pro-slavery imitators from going onstage and Diplomaniacs (1933), The Three Stooges You
appropriating his own very much appropriat- Nazty Spy! (1940), Chaplins The Great Dictator
ed act. They turned his plea for freedom into (1940), Kubrick and Southerns Dr. Strangelove
a tool of oppression. And in a further convo- (1964), Woody Allens Bananas (1971), Falk and
lution, Rices popularization of the Jim Crow Arkins The In-Laws (1979), Ramis and Mur-
character went on to supply the name for the rays Stripes (1981), Elaine Mays Ishtar (1987),
postCivil War Souths century of terrorism Sandlers You Dont Mess with the Zohan (2008),
against African Americans. and Sacha Baron Cohens The Dictator (2012).
As for Chappelle, one can only imagine Some of these movies drew political ire in
what he must have thought upon learning that their day, but nothing close to The Interviews
his humor about race was serving as an alibi of notoriety. Yes, isolationists called Chaplin a
first resort for a Wells Fargo manager seeking warmonger in the highly charged days before
to couch a business model of displacing Afri- World War II. But when Will Rogers praised
can American families from their homes in the Mussolini by name in 1931s Ambassador Bill, it
language of a Comedy Central sketch. Small was ignoredhe was a cowboy comedian, after
wonder Chappelle walked away to rethink his all, not a real ambassador. Duck Soup, produced
career. Satire can be seen as throwing down the by Herman Mankiewicz, a serious satirist, is a
gauntlet. That doesnt mean that the other side burlesque of World War I that posits that the
wont just pick it up and throw it back at you. war was fought for bankers and millionaires (a
In Chappelles imitators, one can see evi- cynical bit of common wisdom in the Depres-
dence of a larger trend in American humor: sion). Mankiewicz later cowrote Citizen Kane,
increasingly, the established culture seeks to in which he and Orson Welles argue that their
inoculate itself from the complaints of the Hearstian title character started the Spanish-
satirist by appropriating the satirists voice. American War to sell newspapers. But unlike
Comedians have always traded on the role of the controversial Citizen Kane, Duck Soup was
the prototypical outsidera role often cov- seen as light, silly fare. Theres no record to
eted by savvy politicians, who hope to dis- suggest that the Marx Brothers farce netted
tance themselves from establishment Wash- so much as a single outraged letter from ag-
ington in the minds of voters. The Obama grieved Wilsonians or veterans groups. Ku-

150 1 The Baffler [no.27]

Try and find thirteen minutes on the vagaries of net-neutrality
policymaking on any serious network news broadcast.

brick and Southern tacked on a disclaimer once the DVD leaks into the North (which it
from the military that the events depicted in almost certainly will). So from a personal per-
Dr. Strangelove could never happenbut that spective, I would personally prefer to leave
only makes the movie seem more subversive. the ending alone.
The military never seriously tried to ban the And as Politico reported, Bennett wasnt
movie from commercial release. alone in this view.
Yet The Interview was taken to be a true
The leaks reveal that on the same day Ben-
reflection of American foreign policy, both
nett wrote his review, a top Sony official
by our foreign policy professionals and (ac-
emailed Bennett to say a U.S. government
cording to the FBI) by North Koreas. Rogen,
official supported Bennetts assessment.
Franco, and Apatowthe marquee comic
Sony CEO Michael Lynton wrote back,
talent of the filmwound up sidelined as the
BruceSpoke to someone very senior in
least interesting aspect of the whole debacle.
State (confidentially) . . . He agreed with
Consider The Interview from Kim Jong-uns
everything you have been saying. Everything.
point of view. He sees the ongoing conver-
I will fill you in when we speak.
gence of U.S. power and comedy, the CIA
on Twitter, and Obama performing stand-up Yes, if you came from a dynasty as violent
comedy after ordering the Bin Laden assas- and paranoid as Kim Jong-uns, where all
sination. He can scarcely fail to notice that culture is state controlled, and if you had an
comedy is now the means by which people adversary like our comedian president, you
in the upper circles of U.S. power communi- might take The Interview seriously too.
cate with the public. He duly notes that the
movies corporate coparents are based in Ja- Odd Comics Out
pan and the USANorth Koreas two chief Rogen, Franco, Chappelle: in 2014, its the
historical enemies. Then, he learns, via Sonys comedians who lost ground in this comedy
hacked emails, that CEO Michael Lynton bubble. Their work quickly moved out of their
and other executives behind The Interview control and became something they never in-
consulted with former and current State De- tended. We often hear talk of satires devastat-
partment officials, who vetted and encour- ing impact on its targets. But this age of humor-
aged this regime-change comedy. As The ous excess has shown that satire, even when
Daily Beast reported, a North Korean defense delivered in the sharpest and most unforgiving
analyst for the RAND Corporation, Bruce forms, hardly makes a dent. The proliferation
Bennett, heartily approved of the horribly of satirists has multiplied the amount of funny
violent death of Kim Jong-un in the movies material out there. But it has diminished the
finale. Bennett wrote, I believe that a story belief that satire, political or otherwise, can
that talks about the removal of the Kim fam- serve any real purpose beyond amusing us.
ily regime and the creation of a new govern- This, too, is a new consequence of the
ment by the North Korean people (well, at comedy bubble. We once had all day to ab-
least the elites) will start some real thinking sorb the news, and the political parries and
in South Korea and, I believe, in the North counterparries arising from the news, before

The Baffler [no.27] ! 151

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late-night comics went on to turn it all into but while they are always ready to mount
jokes. By that time, TV satirists could pro- a charm offensive to influence the work of
voke that cathartic (if clichd) response from prime-time network journalists and Times op-
their viewers: Finally, somebody said it. To- ed columnists, they dont expend much energy
day, by 11:30 p.m., when the late-night shows pushing back against late-night comics.
go on, millions of us online have already said For one thing, the fallout from satirical at-
it, sometimes hilariously. Now the late-night tacks is far more easily managed. Nixon found
comedians job is not to speak for us, but to this out during his 1968 appearance on Laugh-
top us. Some shows have hired writers from In, arranged by the shows arch right-wing
Twitter, and others crowd-source jokes online head writer and Nixon friend, Paul Keyes. By
(@midnight) or feature tweet of the week then, Nixons awkward public personality was
segments (Ellen). old news to comedians and cartoonists. Since
Johnny Carson once had this field all to the appearance of being able to take a joke
himself. As the New York Times wrote of Car- greatly benefits a politician, Keyes took advan-
son when he died in 2005: tage of Nixons greatest television negative, his
Tin Woodsman stiffness, by showing the ul-
His credibility with the American public
tra-square Nixon struggling mightily with the
was such that his monologues were carefully
shows then-hip punchline, Sock it to me!
monitored by politicians mindful that no
Nixons halting effortsSock it to me?are
one who became a frequent target of Johnny
still funny to see, nearly five decades later.
Carson could long survive in public life. It
The larger lesson here is that presidents
didnt help Richard Nixon when Mr. Carsons
dont fear comedians. They go on these shows
monologue produced some of the funniest
to take advantage of their big audiences, and
Watergate jokes around. Nor did it help when
get points in the process for being a good
Mr. Carson trained his sights on former Sena-
sport. The confrontations always end up cute.
tor Gary Hart, a Democrat from Colorado
Nixon said ... that appearing on Laugh-In is
who found allure both in the presidency and
what got him electedand I believe that. And
in women he didnt happen to be married to.
Ive had to live with that, the shows produc-
Mr. Carsons jokes about Mr. Harts extra-
er, George Schlatter, has humble-bragged.
marital activities were surely not the only
Schlatter might rest a little easier at night
reason his political fortunes evaporated in
knowing that the cultural and political tide
1988, but they were repeated often enough to
that brought Nixon back to power was far
have played some part.
bigger than Laugh-Injust as the New York
Survive in public life? Its doubtful Car- Times obituary desk would do well to recall
son had the impact the Times describes; the that far larger historical forces than a series
creepy behavior and considerable hubris of of Carson monologues brought down Nixons
Messrs. Nixon and Hart were far more instru- presidency.
mental in their undoing than any late-night Presidents score points for being good
monologues lampooning their excesses. It sports, but no one pauses to ask, What about
could also be said that the cautious Mr. Car- the comedians? For the most part, these en-
son rarely got out ahead of the public, prefer- counters between the ruling class and the fun-
ring to wait until the Nixons and Harts were ny caste deflate the fiction that jesters speak
already punchlines before speaking up. Presi- uncomfortable truth to power. After the cer-
dents and their communications offices moni- emonial presidential visit to a comedy set, a
tor every major show that comments on them, once devastating satirist is then revealed to

152 1 The Baffler [no.27]

us as merely a professional entertainer. These him. We know that polls are just a collection
visits are now an accepted part of our electoral of statistics that reflect what people are think-
vetting process; every four years, every serious ing in reality. And reality has a well-known
party nominee stops in to chat with the late- liberal bias.
night talk show hosts who mock them. Whether the unnerved audience in the
As the politicians show us that they can room laughed or sat aghast as Colbert built
take a joke, they also reveal that the whole momentum has been a subject of some debate,
thing is only a joke. We often describe our great but either way, it was a great moment of awk-
political satirists as devastating or eviscer- wardly pointed satire. Colberts performance
ating their targets, and call them brave for made people uncomfortable because he was
speaking out. But more often than not, our saying all this directly to Bushs facewhat
comedians are ignored by the nations rich more dramatic instance could there be of a co-
and powerful, who may dislike them, but who median speaking truth to power?
never really suffer much for what they say. Has But then . . . what? After all, Colbert wasnt
there ever been a time when our newspapers at the dinner to topple the administration. He
and media havent been full of sharp political was there to entertain it. Bush watched him,
cartoons or gibes? A time without a Frank- chuckled politely, and, somehow resisting the
lin, a Washington Irving, a Twain, a Nash, a devastating power of Colberts monologue,
Mr. Dooley, a Mencken, a Mort Sahl, a Garry managed not to resign on the spot. As for Col-
Trudeau, a Jon Stewart? Donald Trump insists bert, he returned to work, unharmed, by all
on answering seemingly each and every insult accounts, by the NSA.
hurled at him by nearly anyone on Twitter, but Fans of political satire tend to think that if
his is the behavior of an egomaniac who feels only someone dares speak out, something will
personally threatened by public ridiculeand change, the powerful will flip out, and, faced
is one reason (on a very long list) why Trump with a hilarious and unanswerable exposure
will never be president. of their misdeeds, the pols will reverse policy.
In some high-profile exceptions, American One need only consult Bushs own perfor-
satirists have suffered for their art, if never mance at the 2004 Radio and Television Cor-
anything like the Charlie Hedbo crew. Lenny respondents Dinner to disprove that notion.
Bruce got sent to jail and died broke, drug In that monologue, the president turned the
addicted, and unable to work. The Smoth- truly scandalous nonexistence of WMDs in
ers Brothers lost their CBS show, and after Saddam Husseins Iraq into comedy. Present-
9/11 Bill Maher lost a networka blessing in ing a jokey White House photo album, Bush
disguise, since moving to HBO gave him the showed a picture of himself haplessly search-
freedom he needed. ing under his Oval Office desk. Those weap-
What impact does even the boldest satire ons of mass destruction have got to be here
have on the powerful? A high-water mark of somewhere, he narrated. If Colberts shtick
contemporary satire is generally acknowl- represented a new level in speaking satirical
edged to be Stephen Colberts 2006 perfor- truth to power, so did Bushs performance
mance at the White House Correspondents of co-opting that same satirical missionby
Dinner. There, with President Bush in the au- admitting he was not only wrong about Iraqi
dience, Colbert delivered a masterfully ironic WMDs, but utterly incompetent for ever be-
faux-conservative tirade in his sublimely lieving they existed.
boorish OReilly persona, advising the presi- That Colbert said what needed to be said,
dent to ignore Americas clear disapproval of and Bush admitted what needed to be admit-

The Baffler [no.27] ! 153

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ted, did nothing to derail the next four disas- The White House Show
trous years of the official U.S. occupation of Starring Barack Obama
Iraq. Instead, the expectant moments merely This key limitation of political satire is one
dissipated, as intended, into memorable en- reason President Obama could safely appear
tertainment. Colbert made that point with on Between Two Ferns, an often hilarious paro-
unmistakable clarity in 2014 during the dy of community cable-access shows. We have
farewell edition of The Colbert Report. For always appreciated quip-ready presidents like
his final show, he filled his soundstage with Kennedy and Reagan, but selling policy in
celebrities and political figures, including insult-comedy sketcheswell, this too was
George Lucas, Katrina vanden Heuvel, Toby something else. Sitting face to face with Presi-
Keith, and Henry Kissinger. As a group they dent Obama, Zach Galifianakis, playing his
sang Well Meet Again, the World War part as the vacuous stoner host of the show,
IIera song used to ironic effect in the clos- asks him, What is it like to be the last black
ing credits of Dr. Strangelove as the films president? Its a funny, pessimistic joke about
superpowers enter a nuclear holocaust. But American racism and its current miserable
the spectacle lacked anything like Kubrick state, one that cruelly deflates the loose pun-
and Southerns bite. By appearing on stage dit talk of a new post-racial America.
with icons of the far right and left, Colbert When Galifianakis asks what Obama
let his audience know that he never really would think of a third term, Obama replies,
meant it. His mugging faux-OReilly persona It would sort of be like making a third Hang-
turned out to be shtick wrapped inside more over movie. It didnt work out too well, did
shtick. The star-studded ensemble also made it? Throughout the interview, Obama and
it quite clear that CBS hasnt hired a lefty Galifianakis loft rude and funny jokes at each
demagogue, as right-wing detractors had other. From Galifianakiss side, he gets some
loudly insisted when the news broke that the distinctly biting and mean laughs, which helps
Comedy Central host was ascending to the to burst the dignity bubble that envelops the
Letterman chair. In the new Colbert era, Dr. American presidency. As with the 2006 en-
Kissinger, a cold warrior only one small step counter between Colbert and Bush, the ex-
removed from Peter Sellerss Strangelove, change at first triggers shock: Is this mum-
will occupy the same celebrity cultural real bling schlub really saying that to the president?
estate as George Lucas. But once Obama proves he can take it, and hits
In other words, it was always just a joke. back hard, he comes across as cool enough to
Eight years after publicly eviscerating Presi- pitch the ACA to Galifianakiss hip, twenty-
dent Bush and calling out the biggest for- something fans, a demographic that had thus
eign-policy blunder in a generation, Colbert far failed to register for coverage under the law
backed away from any truly subversive satiri- in significant numbers.
cal intent. And President Bush? He was in the The performance was rightly hailed as a
news late last year, too, to unapologetically masterful Oval Office manipulation of youth
reaffirm his support for perhaps the ugliest culture. Thanks in part to Between Two Ferns,
aspect of his administrationhis torture the ACA was satirized for our consumption,
policy. He even refused the usual presidential and millions reportedly consumed. In seeking
luxury of deniability and enthusiastically re- out Galifianakis and his cult show, the White
endorsed the policy and those who executed House grasped something essential about the
it. In 2014 it was Colbert who was distancing conduct of political satire in our day: it feeds
himself from his legacy, not Bush. on the audiences expectation that real conse-

154 1 The Baffler [no.27]

Dark humor about the CIA is nothing new.
But humor from the CIA? Thats something new.

quences might result from encounters between ic than a network news anchor will the same
comedy and power. And like other such fever- night. Try and find thirteen minutes on the
ishly hyped dustups, this one drew a crowd vagaries of net-neutrality policymaking on
and ensured that, in the end, the jokes only any serious network news broadcast.
helped to shore up two high-profile careers. To close his longform piece, Oliver called
Still, even as presidents mug their way into on the Internets legion of utterly horrible,
the view of young constituencies, and even as culture-coarsening, snarky trolls and anony-
Mayor De Blasio twists the Onion to his will, mous commenters to use their venom for
some satirists are punching out of todays good, just this once, and contact the FCC. If
comedy bubble, or trying to. In 2014, John Dave Chappelle went into semi-retirement
Oliver emerged as one of the few comedians over such people, and if Rogen, Franco, and
who maintained his edge while influencing, or Apatow never saw the new policy-comedy as-
at least distracting, real-world policymaking. pect of the modern era coming at them, Oliver
His net neutrality episode, in particular, re- understands this new comedy world perfectly.
vealed that even in todays satire glut, a come- His fans reportedly overloaded the FCC site,
dian can inspire an audience to take civic ac- which crashed. Its one of the few instances,
tion. Net neutrality, which the FCC is on the its worth noting, in which political satire has
verge of retiring in favor of a dual-tier model had a demonstrable, government-stopping ef-
that reserves speedier net access for those who fect. Whipping up Internet rage mobs is easy
can pay for the privilege, is not a new issue. (any mention of Gaza, gun control, or Woody
And unfortunately, its a boring, complicated Allen will do the trick). Whats hard is helping
subjectKryptonite to the usual comedy de- millions of people understand a critical policy
livery systems. But in June, Oliver devoted issue that they perhaps hadnt reckoned with
thirteen solid minutes of his showabout half before. Olivers plea actually took.
of itto net neutrality, advancing a hilariously To say that Olivers stunt tipped Obamas
compelling argument in its favor and turning hand in favor of net neutrality is a bit much.
his jokes into a cogent explanation of what is But the Internet-savvy White House, which
at stake. Before he could ridicule the FCCs finally came out in favor of neutrality after
policy, he had to unpack its missteps in detail. the 2014 midterms, had to have taken notice.
Informing the audience, skewering illogic, Olivers detour into comedy-advocacy showed
and building it all into a truly devastating fi- that fans of a satirist can, at least every once in
nale the way Oliver did: thats more than just a while, make a very loud agitprop noise, one
throwaway jokes on Twitter. After the initial that puts the policymakers on the defense for
HBO broadcast of the segment, it went on to the short term and that informs the public for
net 7.7 million views on YouTube. the long term.
When media watchdogs fret over young Can satire hope to achieve much more than
people getting their news from comedy this in todays comedy-Costco world? Most
shows like Olivers and The Daily Show, they of the time, its enough for us to feel that our
forget to mention that these comedians of- cultural, political, or otherwise ideologically
ten spend three times more airtime on a top- backward foes have been verbally drubbed

The Baffler [no.27] ! 155

Mo d e l s

before we turn in for the night. How else to to the man himself. Unlike Bush at the time
explain Twitters legions of quipsters? Theyre of the Colbert encounter, MacMillan had not
certainly not getting paid for their work. Seth yet, until Peter Cook arrived, been seen as a
Meyers coined a word for such cathartic mo- joke. After watching Cooks show, a young Eric
ments, clapteri.e., that rather hollow and Idle, then nineteen, was thunderstruck. They
perfunctory moment when a partisan audi- attacked everything that I had just spent nine-
ence is loudly applauding and cheering a po- teen years being oppressed by, he recalled.
litical joke for merely hitting its target, more
Royalty, police, authority, teachers, every
than actually laughing. Our late-night talk
single authority figure was completely pillo-
shows give us that much in truckloads: snark
ried and destroyed and my life just changed.
about Bushs excessive vacation days, say, or
... The government had been in power thir-
imitations of Obamas condescending profes-
teen years. And the slogan was Youve Never
sorial rhetorical style.
Had It So Good. And so when Peter Cook
When satire has its greatest impact, it al-
did Harold MacMillan on-stage it completely
ters our perceptions, or gives us a language to
made them a figure of fun and redundant ... it
answer and describe what we see going wrong.
was no longer possible to take them seriously.
In 1964, Britain was in its own satire boom and
And I think that satire can, occasionally, do
had its own Colbert-Bush moment. Comedian
things like that.
Peter Cook starred in the revue Beyond the
Fringe, which featured his impression of then Beyond the Fringes impact on British humor,
prime minister Harold MacMillan. Imitat- from that legendary revue on, is incalculable,
ing anyone as dull as a PM was a novel idea in from the Pythons up through John Oliver.
swinging, early 1960s London, so much so that Fifty-odd years after Idle witnessed Cooks
MacMillan himself came in to see Cook do it. MacMillan, in the heart of our own comedy-
Cook rose to the occasion, departing from the saturated age, Jon Stewart came to a similar
script to speak to MacMillan as MacMillan conclusion about satire while promoting his
new (quite serious) drama, Rosewater. When
NPRs Terry Gross asked if he considered sat-
ire to be a weapon, Stewart replied, Satire, or
what we do on the show, certainly has its limi-
tations, but I think we try to utilize it to the
best of our ability. . . . I dont see it as a weapon
as much as I see it as a conversation . . . against
dogma. . . . I see all of these shows as in some
ways a weapon against complacency.
In the right moment, in the right place, sat-
ire can still alter perception and change the
conversation. The difference today is that pol-
iticians and policy apparatchiks now under-
stand this as well as the comedians. Whether
satire is devastating or not, whether the pow-
erful can survive it or not, perhaps isnt the
point. Theres no joke or movie that can topple
a president. Or maybe there is, and thats why
P. S . MUELLER the CIA went on Twitterto find it.t

156 1 The Baffler [no.27]

Berryman Anecdote
3 William Corbett

He came into the Grolier

carrying his head,

hungover like death.

He told of the time

hed come into a class

and to introduce himself

written his name, hand

shaking, on the blackboard.

He turned and saw rows

of puzzled faces then turned

back to the board then back

to the class, They didnt hire

me, ash shook from his hand,

for my penmanship.

The Baffler [no.27] ! 157

Mo d e l s

Toxically Pure
Joe Bageant drops out
3 John Lingan

Shortly before the first election of the sec-

ond President Bush, Joe Bageant convinced
his third wife that they should move from Or-
egon to Virginia. At the time, Barbara was a
bored Merrill Lynch middle manager, while
Joe, a self-taught intellectual with stifled lit-
erary aspirations, was editing an agribusiness
newsletter. They had money and lived well,
but when Military History magazine offered
him a job in Virginia, Joe saw it as an oppor-
tunity to return to his hometown of Win-
chester. He hadnt been back in decades, and
like many displaced Southern men on the far
side of middle age, he felt the pull of home.
The people were real there, he told his wife.
They took care of each other. Without spend-
ing too much, Joe and Barbara could buy a
colonial with a porch, right downtown, and
say hello to a dozen friends every time they
walked to the store.
So they moved. Bought the colonial,
downtown as promised, and settled into the
nominal capital of the Shenandoah Valley, a
250-year-old, tradition-bound town that had
given George Washington his first political
victory and Patsy Cline her first stable home.
Before long, Joe shook off the cultivated air
hed acquired in his west-coast days. He start-
ed dressing in cheap work clothes and guz-
zling beer alongside the rednecks hed grown
up with. At karaoke nights and in the 7-Eleven
parking lot, he listened to his people rail about
their menial jobs, their healthcare debt, and
their proud anti-liberalism.
Joe was familiar with the shitkicker ethos,
but he was unprepared for the tone of panic
and resentment that charged his old friends

158 1 The Baffler [no.27]


The Baffler [no.27] ! 159

Mo d e l s

conversations. Increasingly despondent, he rightly called Americas paternalistic

vented his frustrations in writing, first in Ivy League-centered, media-connected,
chatrooms, and then in the galloping voice politically correct power centers. Whether
that hed honed as a Hunter S. Thompson educated liberals believe this or not, it is true.
obsessed newspaper columnist in his earlier Tens of millions of Scots Irish and thousands
life. Something new and . . . ominous is afoot of Scots Irishinfluenced communities be-
down here, he wrote in 2004, in the first essay lieve it is true and vote as if it is true, and that
to appear on his website, joebageant.com: makes it true.

Our girthsome, ill-educated polity hoots,

Joes book prompted speaking invitations
cheers and guffaws at a Fox network made-
in England, Italy, and Australia. His ideas
for-the masses political movie called America,
were quoted approvingly by the New York
the Baddest Dog on the Block, as the power elite
Times, NPR, and the BBC, particularly as the
pick every pocket in the audience through
2008 presidential election neared. His rage
regressive taxes, stopping only to loot the
became his brand, a fishing vest and beer gut
local treasury on their way out the back door
his uniform, and before Barack Obama began
to that money-insulated estate they bought
campaigning for a second term, Joe Bageant
for a song.
was dead, at age sixty-four. It was cancer,
That essay, Howling in the Belly of the not suicide, but by the end hed grown so an-
Confederacy, invoked a hellscape of blue-col- gry about the root cruelty and unfairness of
lar anger. Before long, similar tractsabout American-style capitalism that the only sol-
guns, real estate, alcohol, Pentecostalism, ace he allowed himself in his columns was a
and other aspects of the Scots-Irish Southern firm belief in the oncoming collapse. It is
trailer lifestylestarted appearing more fre- seeing everything in material terms, just like
quently than most people exercise, and by the our avaricious capitalist overlords, that holds
time Bush left the White House, Joe Bageant us back, he wrote just months before learn-
had detailed Winchesters spiritual and eco- ing of the tumor that had clenched around his
nomic devolution in dozens of elite-indicting intestines like a fist. We are in the sixth great
online tirades, a book of which, Deer Hunting species die-off here.
with Jesus, brought him a six-figure advance Returning as he did to Winchester right as
from Random House and blurbs from Studs Bush took office, Joe Bageant stepped into a
Terkel and Howard Zinn. writers dreama perfect confluence of sub-
His return home, as described in that ject, setting, and personal knowledgeand
book, had convinced Joe that American cul- he responded with fury, writing essay after
ture is based on two things: television and raging essay, a dazzling output that collec-
petroleum. We live in an age of corporate tively foresaw the housing crisis and recession,
dominion just as we once lived in an age of Obamacare, and the 1 percent as a rhetori-
domination by royal families, kings, and war- cal tool. Yet four years after his death, hes re-
lords. He reserved his greatest ferocity for membered for one book and a corresponding
the liberals who let it all happen, with their moment of semi-fame as Americas Most Lit-
erate Redneck, if hes remembered at all.
thick-headed denial of what is obvious to
From the outside, Joe Bageants career and
nearly every thinking white person: A class
image seemed to materialize spontaneously,
conflict is being played out between the
but for all his bubba bona fides, Joes outlook
Scots-Irish culture and what James Webb
was equally the product of LSD, Buddhism,

160 1 The Baffler [no.27]

His rage became his brand, years, when Joes anger ambushed them both,
replacing marital comfort with a nobler, less
a fishing vest and beer gut
enjoyable purpose. But I was not the first aco-
his uniform. lyte to come to town asking for a sense of the
man, and her pride, too, was obvious. Barbara
9 pulled a crinkled brown shopping bag out
from under her chair and started searching
American Indian activists, Timothy Leary, through her husbands makeshift archive.
and the back-to-the-land movement. In fact, She chose a couple of photo albums from
the twenty-first centurys foremost chronicler the bundle of manila folders and scribble-
of red-state dispossession was more than just filled notebooks. Outside, beyond the window
a literate redneckhe was an avenging angel behind her, the walking mall stirred with the
of the forgotten rural hippie movement. If usual weekend crowd: Civil War tourists and
his workparticularly his vivid second book, parents visiting their kids at Shenandoah Uni-
Rainbow Pie: A Redneck Memoir, which remains versity on the other side of town. But the pic-
without a U.S. publisherwere more deeply tures on these stiff pages recalled an earlier,
and widely read and his life more fully under- gruffer Winchester. Joe had put these albums
stood, Joes most radical propositions might together haphazardly, so snapshots of his mid-
seem worth considering: he insisted that tree- 1960s beatnik phase sat next to pictures of his
huggers are the natural allies of trailer trash, three kids, twenty-five years later. There were
and that the political disasters of the last few a few of his father, but only in old age, and
decades are a result of the mainstream lefts nothing at all from Joes earliest years, because
disavowal of them both. that life, the subject of Rainbow Pie, didnt in-
clude cameras.
Off the Farm Joe Bageant was born in 1946 and grew up
I first met Barbara, Joes widow, in a cof- in the Blue Ridge Mountains north of Win-
fee shop in Winchesters newly refurbished chester, just over the West Virginia line. Joe
downtown walking mall. In a scathing 2007 knew the family farm on Shanghai Road as
essay about this quaint, yuppified historical Over Home, a place where generations of
district, Joe described this exact place as the Bageants had grown, picked, and preserved
towns obligatory Starbucks knockoff. Even their own vegetables and slaughtered their
Barbara, who grew up in the Midwest and own hogs, all without modern machinery or
clearly has no moral objection to the yoga cen- vehicles. In his memoir he describes his child-
ter or artisanal jewelry boutiques across the hood as anachronistic even in the 1950s . . .
way, laughed at the impeccable leaf design in vestigial, charged with folk beliefs, marked by
her latte foam. Heres how you can tell D.C. is an ignorance of the larger world, and lived un-
creeping in, she said. We have baristas now. selfconsciously under the arc of Jeffersonian
It was hard to imagine this quietly thought- ideals, backed up by an archaic confidence in
ful, middle-aged womana genealogy and lo- the efficacies of Gods word and grapeshot.
cal history researcher in the town library two The only currency in such a life was
blocks awaysharing more than twenty years work, calories burned. Joe estimated his
with a man who eventually lived abroad be- grandfather never made more than $1,000
cause he refused to pay taxes to the empire to a year, but the family lived well enough on
kill brown babies. There was a semi-stunned only a few acres of vegetables, a small stock of
quality to her voice as she discussed those last animals, and deeply ingrained wisdom about

The Baffler [no.27] ! 161

Mo d e l s

the management of each. Shanghai Road was Whether or not he actually cut the sena-
dotted with similarly rooted families. They tors grass, Joe was immediately affected by
patronized the same general store for staples the stark class division that Byrd and his ilk
and relied on each other for the rest of their enforced. His father quit trucking and began
worldly needs, like a truck to haul the yearly working in an auto shop, but money remained
tomato harvest to the nearest cannery. It was tight. The Bageants moved whenever they
a system where everyone benefited through fell behind on rent, which meant they moved
an economy of labor, he wrote in Rainbow Pie, constantly. Even as a teenager, Joe sensed
with the small money of small farmers sup- that their relocation to the city had cost them
plying the grease for the common-sense ma- much more than a place on their ancestral
chinery of community sustenance. And even land. His mother was repeatedly hospitalized
before Joe was old enough to join hunting trips for depression, and his father, whose labor had
with his daddy and uncles, it was doomed. once been enough to fill his three kids bellies,
The postwar boom made quick work of now struggled to keep their bedroom heated.
hill-country living like this. New highways Joe so pitied his father that he didnt even hate
and subsidies gave large-scale producers an the man for taking the shame out on him with
advantage over family farms. It took barely a a belt.
generation for rural Americans to succumb, Bad at school, bad with girls, beaten at
and soon they were ensnared by corpora- home, Joe found refuge at the Handley Re-
tions; whether on assembly lines or by driv- gional Library. He would often skip school to
ing truck, they started working for the same follow what he later called a marvelously un-
people who had put them out of business. directed pursuit of the mind, consisting of
With a Teamsters salary coming in, Joe
Boys Life Magazine, the history of the Shenan-
Sr. took his wife and children to the city and
doah Valley, Pericles orations, Jack London,
left Over Home to the grandparents. When
Fur, Fish and Game magazine, countless books
the Bageants arrived in Winchester in the
on painting and great painters, Civil War
late 1950s (or rather, returned, since the fam-
diaries, American Heritage magazine, and old
ily name had been there as early as 1755), it was
hardbound editions of Lord of the Flies, Rich-
still largely controlled by a small group of land-
ard Wrights Native Son, Dickens, Genet,
owning families. Chief among them were the
Sartre, and Rimbaud.
Byrds, whose patriarch, Harry Flood Byrd,
had been Virginias governor in the 1920s and He also painted well enough for a mail-order
its senator since the 1930s. He also owned the art school representative to visit one of the
towns only newspaper, the Winchester Star, Bageants many addresses and offer a scholar-
and a couple other regional weeklies, as well as ship covering two-thirds of the courses tu-
the largest orchard business in the apple-rich ition. Joe, then thirteen, offered to pick up an
valley outside the city limits. Joe later claimed extra paper route to cover half of the remain-
to have mowed Harry Byrds lawn as a teen- der, but his father still had to decline. That
ager, though he had a lifelong fondness for last $50 was too much for the family to bear
suspiciously unverifiable stories, particularly on a car repairmans wages.
regarding brushes with celebrity. (By various This was how Joe learned about the shame
friends accounts, he was either babysat or of poverty. Not material lackthe subsistence
given a toy or sung to by Patsy Cline, who was life on Shanghai Road had certainly been
still living on South Kent Street when the Bag- dollar-poorbut the brutal reality of his dads
eants came to town.) sixty-hour work week for non-negotiable pay

162 1 The Baffler [no.27]

America, but his military career was only just
long enough to secure VA benefits, and when
he returned home, he had found a
small psychedelic scene, one among thou-
sands in heartland America at the time ...
an assortment of perhaps fifty artists, gays,
hillbilly hipsters, academics from a nearby
college of music, passing beatniks, and
psychedelic enthusiasts ... hanging out at a
marvelous old dinner and juke joint in the
poor section. ... Finally, the good fundamen-
talist Christians and Republican business
community just couldnt take it any more.

Joe was the inaugural victim of the crack-

down. He claimed for years to be Winchesters
Joe Bageant in Winchester in 1966: a twenty- first marijuana arrest, and also claimed to
year-old Navy vet and LSD enthusiast. have lived while awaiting trial in Resurrec-
tion City, an encampment in Washington,
that barely covered lifes necessities, let alone D.C., set up by Martin Luther King Jr.s Poor
his sons blooming artistic dream. It was the Peoples Campaign. This dates the ordeal to
unfair terms of the struggle that stuck with the summer of 1968, meaning he was already
Joe, the fact that wealthier people had pushed a father; Cindy gave birth to Timothy, named
his family off the farm, and then kept them in for Leary, in 1967. Joe was acquitted, but the
a chokehold when they landed in town. experience shook him enough that he knew
And then, like a bomb: acid. He first took it he couldnt keep his young family and newly
in 1965, expanded consciousness locked in Byrd coun-
try anymore. In 1969 he and Cindy escaped in
thanks to my gay friend George, who was
a school bus, hayseed flower children set free.
being treated for his homosexuality with
lysergic acid and enjoying every minute of A Fleeting Paradise
treatment. ... After creating a small medita-
At the time, Boulder, Colorado, was referred
tive space with plants, a Tibetan mandala,
to as the Buckle of the Granola Belt, and in-
and classical music on the turntable, we took
deed there might as well have been a dog
it. Five years later I was still taking it at least
whistle blaring on Pearl Street, beckoning the
once a week, and to this day I consider LSD
nations dropouts and longhairs. The clean air
the Promethean spark of whatever awaken-
and relative seclusion attracted everyone from
ing I have managed to accomplish in th[is]
the Weathermen to the Nitty Gritty Dirt
life. ... For the first time in years, my life in
Band to Allen Ginsberg. The nearby Pyg-
that small town was very enjoyable.
my Farm, one of the many rural communes
By this point Joe had dropped out of school sprouting up at the time, hosted visitors like
and married a curly-haired country girl named Chgyam Trungpa, a Buddhist scholar who
Cindy. He was also a veteran, having lied loved the area so much he stayed, founding
about his age to join the Navy at sixteen. He Naropa University and the Shambhala Medi-
had served noncombat time aboard the USS tation Center in the early 1970s.

The Baffler [no.27] ! 163

Mo d e l s

Joe and Cindy pulled in after nearly a year His return home
of travel in their school bus. They were head-
had convinced Joe that
ing for San Francisco, that better-known hip-
pie mecca, but the Rockies felt like kismet. American culture
Joe liked to say that they pulled into Boulder
is based on two things:
on the inaugural Earth Day: April 22, 1970.
The atmosphere of Buddhism, banjos, and television and petroleum.
Beat poetry made San Francisco seem unnec-
essary. 9
Jerry Roberts, now an assessor for Boulder
County, was a recent college graduate when he Mark and the Mysterians. Bliesener, who had
first met his neighbors Joe and Cindy in 1973. never written seriously before the Musical Ex-
Jerry came from West Virginia, but his other press, recalls visiting the Bageant trailer home
connection to Joe was musical; they spent to deliver a draft for the upcoming issue: He
most of their early friendship playing guitar gave me a copy of The Elements of Style, sold me
together. Joe had an encyclopedic knowledge a bag of speed, and said, If you want to write,
of Appalachian and country music from Over heres what you need.
Home. Jerry, a few years younger, was plainly Joe started taking road trips with the Ex-
in awe. He was an incredibly creative per- presss distributor, Ward Churchill, who is now
sonit just oozed out of his pores, he told me. a prominent American Indian advocate (and
The mood in Boulder was high-minded in a former college professorhe lost his job in
every sense, but Joe was the son of a laborer 2007 after referring to World Trade Center
with a son of his own, and he wasnt afraid to workers as little Eichmanns). Churchill took
take on manual work. At one point, moving Joe on numerous trips to reservations, and in-
boxes at a grocery store, his back gave out. troduced him to activists like Russell Means
Laid up in the hospital, Joe began to write in and Vine Deloria Jr. Joe was still a voracious
earnest. He shared a poem when Jerry came to reader, and would almost certainly have read
visit, a Howl-indebted portrait of Boulders Delorias epochal Custer Died for Your Sins: An
nightlife scene. With a couple of friends, Jerry Indian Manifesto (1969), a wry and bitter essay
made copies of it and posted the poem around collection about the historical exploitation of
the city. His name was left off, but when he a rural minorityand a book that Joe may well
was discharged from the hospital, Joe was have had in mind while writing Deer Hunting
happy to see his work out in public for the first with Jesus.
time. It was an era of agitation for Indian rights.
He started picking up freelance bylines, In the summer of 1979, a federal court award-
writing features about local characters and ed the Sioux tribe more than $100 million in
touring musicians. His steadiest work came damages for their forced removal from the
with a Boulder-based ersatz Rolling Stone states Black Hills region. The Sioux refused
called The Rocky Mountain Musical Express. Joe to take the money and began a prolonged, vio-
was its main editor by 1977, and also its most lent standoff in the Black Hills. Joe patrolled
frequent contributor; he filled pages with his the occupations border with Ward Churchill
own writing under multiple pseudonyms. His and a group of John Birch Society members
freelance staff included Mark Bliesener, a stu- imperfect but willing partners who had come
dio musician who arrived in Boulder in 1976 on board out of shared contempt for the U.S.
while playing in a late incarnation of Question government.

164 1 The Baffler [no.27]

but he returned as a seasoned journalist, and
ended up working for the Byrd family once
again, this time on the staff of the Star. Rem-
nants of the Granola Belt still clung to him:
he claimed a battered, thrown-away desk for
his office, and lined up almost twenty contain-
ers of vitamins on its edge to advertise a strict
regimen that hed heard would give him total
But Joe had few other outlets. He and Cin-
dy separated in 1979, and Joe was devastated.
Hed found his way into the Winchester mid-
dle class but didnt get much comfort from it.
The divorce, as he surely recognized, would
disrupt Tims life right at the age when Joes
COURTESY OF BARBAR A DICKINSON had been shaken by the loss of Over Home.
Joe with Gypsy Joe Hess, to whom he He retreated back to Boulder, a radical with
dedicated one of his later essays. Boulder, no outlet and a romantic with a broken heart.
Colorado, 1975. By then, Boulders conversion from hippie
outpost to commoditized yuppie playground
But for all his broadening horizons and was well underway. The Peoples Republic
writing momentum, Joe hadnt yet made a vibe was losing out to higher costs of living and
proper home for Tim and Cindy, so after a de- real estate development. The Musical Express
cade out west, they decided to move back to was no more, though Joe managed freelance
Winchester. There were few goodbyes, and features with other local and national maga-
this would prove to be a pattern. Joe could zines. He met a bright and idealistic woman
make friends with anybody, anywhere, but named Nancy, who was writing a newsletter
always had an eye on the exit. I dont know for the well-known Boulder Free School.
anyone in my life who was smarter than Joe, United in their disappointment over para-
recalls Jerry Roberts, but that doesnt give dise lost, Joe and Nancy dropped out. Joe
you self-esteem. He was always wanting to go knew that Indian land was cheap, so they got
somewhere else. Later, Joe would look back married and set out for the Coeur dAlene
on his time in Boulder as one of the happiest Reservation in the Idaho panhandle. Plenty
periods of his life: All these years later I am of their peers had attempted a similar feat,
beginning to understand the effect [that] liv- but the heyday of Mother Earth News and
ing for a decade or so in a genuinely free time The Modern Utopian had passed. And most of
and place had on my life. . . . A weird electric- those middle-class homesteaders in the 60s
ity arched over everything, as blown-away and 70s had tried some kind of communal ar-
rap sessions drove into the starry night while rangement, whether sharing a house between
sanity cowered in the back seat. Yup, this was several families or joining a collective. Joe
paradise all right. and Nancy, by comparison, found a desolate,
forest-adjacent plot about ten miles from the
Back to the Land nearest town, St. Maries.
Joe had left Winchester as a high school drop- They bought the shack in 1982, with no
out, teen father, and purported drug casualty, electricity, running water, or address. It was

The Baffler [no.27] ! 165

Mo d e l s

on a dirt road about halfway up a mountain, In 1969 Joe and Cindy

which must have recalled Shanghai Road. Joe
escaped in a school bus,
worked tirelessly, clearing forest and planting
a garden behind the house. He built a barn for hayseed flower children
horses and livestock. Their first child, Patrick,
set free.
was born in November 1982, and their second,
Elizabeth, arrived in May 1984.
To the extent that any couple can remove
themselves from the politics and culture of a traveler. A lot of women my age were raised to
country while still living there, Joe and Nancy accommodate men, she says, but that wasnt
managed it, living more or less self-sufficiently a big thing with Joe. Instead, they could talk
apart from rare trips to the St. Maries food about books and music. He cooked for her and
co-op. But as a quest for personal happiness, it reminisced about his own radical days.
wasnt as successful. The kids reached school On January 23, 1990, Joe wrote an Idaho-
age by 1988, and by that point the pressures of nian column about Mississippi, particularly its
self-sufficiency were too much. Like his father blues traditions and poverty: Sometimes it
before him, Joe took his kids from the country seems to me like the Mississippi River washes
to the city, in this case Moscow, Idaho, on the all the unconscious repressions of the rest of
border with Washington state. He and Nancy America down to the Delta, where they lie in a
divorced soon after. volatile, dormant state until some new change
Joe was now forty-two years old, with three comes along to touch them off. After an evoc-
children, two failed marriages, and no defi- ative litany of southern scenerykudzu, field
nite home. He took up writing again, this time hands, bobbing white cottonhe ended the
for a local paper, The Idahonian. From his easy essay on a personal, not political, note: I miss
but musical style you wouldnt guess that hed it. I really do.
been chopping wood and tending to horses for Nevertheless, he went west next, not south.
the previous six years. He interviewed Wood- Eugene, Oregon, was a more liberal town
stock attendees for the festivals twentieth an- than Moscow, but the move inaugurated the
niversary, and touched on politics by talking straightest, most middle-class period of Joes
to locals like Big Leroy about everything life. He first worked for a nonprofit that served
from gas prices to Vietnam veterans. foster children, writing their PR materials and
Around this time he met Barbara, who was mentoring kids. On one field trip, he took a
living in Pullman, Washington, right across group of young boys to see then-candidate Bill
the border. Both are small college towns, so if Clinton on the 1992 campaign trail. But soon
you were over thirty, you just wanted to meet he left that job for Crop Production Magazine, a
anybody, Barbara told me. Anything besides glossy trade publication that had one patron:
watching how drunk the twenty-year-olds the gigantic food processor ConAgra, which
could get on the weekends. But it turned out sent issues to all its customers.
that she and Joe had more in common than The arrangement was beyond lucrative,
simply being stranded. The decade before, and as editor, Joe was obliged to live the same
Barbara had been an antiwar protester and lavish lifestyle as his publisher: dinners out on
vocal feminist in Madison, Wisconsin, rais- the corporate card, sometimes in San Francis-
ing her son in a reflexively liberal community co, and expenses-paid trips to Las Vegas with
steeped in Gloria Steinem and Free to Be You the wives, where a $500 shopping allowance
and Me. From the first, she recognized a fellow awaited them at check-in. Joe was suddenly a

166 1 The Baffler [no.27]

the properties are more like castles. Nearby
was Stonewall Jacksons former headquarters,
now a museum. Joe and Barbaras place, with
its pillars and porch, fit right in, even if they
had to clean a little mold off the walls.
Winchester had become unrecognizable.
For one, an influx of outside companies had
brought a huge new labor force, many of whom
were immigrants. More than 50 percent of
Winchester residences were rentals, a fact Joe
gleaned from conversations at working-class
bars like the Royal Lunch and Coalie Harrys.
He further learned that the biggest property
owners served on the local government, and
had efficiently suppressed any regulations on
rental properties. The old anger returned, as
did the memory of watching his father trem-
ble when the rent money ran out, and soon Joe
founded the Winchester Tenants Board.
He interviewed renters and gave away his
own money when they asked him. He wrote
regular scathing letters to the Star detailing
Joes professional portrait for The Idahonian. the exploitation. He killed rats in the unregu-
Late 1980s. lated apartments and brought them to city
council meetings in a boxanything to call
man for whom Scotch preceded dinner, and attention to the abuse. Soon Coalie Harrys
dinner preceded brandy. Which is to say, he could no longer contain his exasperation, and
had finally caught up to the business class that he began writing in chat rooms under the
ran his hometown, and to the kind of compa- screen name ScreamingMan. Then came
ny, ConAgra, that had driven his people into Howling in the Belly of the Confederacy,
the cities. and the deluge began.
And it made him miserable. The work was As a private citizen, Joe despised Win-
vapid and superficial. It was as bad as Joe had chesters cretinous Republican class, but once
always assumed the world of the Byrds was, his writing grew more ambitious, he tapped
even while envious of its money. Now he had into a deeper, more personal resentment of his
money of his own, more than hed ever ex- self-satisfied liberal peers who could somehow
pected to have, and he came to the realization never understand his feelings about work-
that it didnt quiet his mind or offer any sense ing people. Fifty years ago, men and women
of meaning. And so he asked Barbara, what of goodwill agreed that every citizen had the
about Winchester? right to health care and to a free and credible
education, he wrote in Deer Hunting.
A Colonial Home
It was to liberal Americans and their party
Their house was on the west side of town, far
that these humanist ideals were entrusted.
from the train tracks and close to the unof-
... Nobody kidded themselves that Republi-
ficial royal mile, Washington Street, where

The Baffler [no.27] ! 167

Mo d e l s

cansthe party of businesswould look out siderations, but also because its metrical thun-
for the education of the working class, or for der had been stolen by Eat, Pray, Love.
the health of working-class children and old- Joe used his advance to move to Belize,
sters. ... Thats what Democrats and liberal- a country he hadnt seen in thirty years, and
ism stood for: working people and collective then only as a tourist. As he told it, he arrived
progress. Between 1932 and 1980, Democrats there and soon met a young family from the
held comfortable majorities in both houses of town of Hopkins Village, a coastal outpost
Congress in all but four years (19471949 and founded by the survivors of a slave ship crash.
19531955). Youd think that sometime during He agreed to pay for and help build a guest
those forty-eight years the party of Roosevelt house that the family could rent for extra
would have done the right thing about health income. As payment, he could stay in it for
care and education for everyone. Especially free whenever he came to Hopkins. Three
during the fat nineties. But the stock market thousand miles from Shanghai Road, Joe felt
was booming, and middle-class professional hed found one last bastion of the communal,
and semiprofessional liberals had their diplo- sustainable life that American consumerism
mas in hand and their student loans paid off. had long since made impossible. What I get
They had jobs and those newly established out of it is a feeling of direct accomplishment
401(k)s that begged to be fattened, and air- that a man can never have in this country, he
fare to France was cheap and ... well ... you wrote on his site.
know how it is. I cannot point fingers here. I
Being a working man in America means that,
was certainly among them at the time.
no matter how much you earn or how hard
you work, it is never enough and the job is
This vein of anger, guilt, and sadness
never done. Never do you feel the immediate
proved surprisingly relatable. By January 2005
satisfaction, much less security, from your la-
Joe was receiving so many fan emails that Ken
bors as a citizen of the empire. Pay and work
Smith, a fan himself who had offered to create
and grind and pay some more as everything
and manage joebageant.com, started running
drags on forever extracting ever-increasing
them on the site. The emails came from all
sums of money just to hang onto what youve
over: Fair Oaks, CA, and Auburn, WA; Du-
already paid for. And always there is the
Quoin, IL, and Davenport, IA; Chatsworth
specter of retirement and all the geet that is
Island, Australia; Leeds, Vancouver, Beijing.
supposed to require. ... I have no doubt that I
The writers tended to be Joes age, with a sim-
could easily live in Hopkins for about $400 a
ilar perspective on Americas despoliation.
month ... and manage to have some left over
My roots are in the Texas dirt, but I made a
for rum, guitar strings and a little ganja.
journey through the student radical acid com-
munal left, said one. Your articles remind It wasnt the romanticized toil of rural
me so much of my family. They are the same labor that Joe missed, nor the uneducated
pissed off, ignorant white trash that fought culture of mountain people. Rather, it was a
their way from Virginia, through the Appala- sense of wide-eyed exploration and a genuine
chians, to East Texas, said another. affection for the soil. This is what the Colora-
He signed his book deal in May 2005; the do Buddhists espoused, what the Nitty Gritty
working title was DRINK, PRAY, FIGHT, Dirt Band and the other newgrass acts of the
FUCK: Dispatches from Americas Class Wars, era conveyed. That attitude was short-lived in
though late in the editorial process it was America, though Joe lived through its zenith,
changed, in part because of commercial con- and Deer Hunting with Jesus, which only glanc-

168 1 The Baffler [no.27]


Joe near the height of his middle-class period, meeting candidate Bill Clinton
on the 1992 campaign trail.

es at this aspect of his life, is shot through with they have priced American labor completely
its influence. In one chapter, Joe describes his out of the market. ... Tom, like me, has heard
sideways kin Tom, another country trans- this line from birth.
plant. Theyd met back in 1957 in Winchester,
and bonded over Dylan and drugs. Given this Joe blamed Toms transformation in part
shared background, he wrote, on liberals, who, in their noble rush to disown
the racist southern elements of their party
you can imagine my slack-jawed incom-
during the civil rights era, pulled away from
prehension when all these years later we
the region entirely, leaving an information
meet again and I see that he has become
vacuum that Fox News and GOP operatives
a conservative hard-liner and, at least for
would later exploit. There is no good reason,
a while, a born-again Christian. ... Tom is
Joe continued,
intensely antiunion, which amazes me since
I can remember when he had a Che Guevara why for the past thirty years the uncertainty
poster on his apartment wall. Youd think and dissatisfaction of people like Tom ... was
after twenty years in a southern factory a guy automatically snubbed as unenlightened by
would be begging union organizers to sweep so many on the left. If the left had identified
through this town like Grant took Rich- and dealt with this dissatisfaction early on, if
mond. But Tom and most other plant workers they had counteracted the fallacies the Re-
here have bought the rightist mantra that publicans used to explain that dissatisfaction,
goes: Maybe unions were once valuable, but if they had listened instead of stereotyping

The Baffler [no.27] ! 169

Mo d e l s

blue-collar angst as Archie Bunkerism ... we signed dream, so they always win, even when
might have witnessed something better than they lose. And Democrats were willing to
the Republican syndicates lying and looting forsake their old base of Southerners and en-
of the past six years. vironmentalists just to enjoy their own small
version of that victorious feeling.
There was a time, Joe contended, when
Americans were concerned with actualizing Expatriots
individual potential, and that time was the Joe lived much of his final years in Ajijic, an
1960s. He cited the desegregation of schools expat-filled town near Guadalajara, Mexico,
and colleges, the commitment to social at the invitation of his webmaster Ken Smith.
change, and of course the cultural-pharma- Joe needed the international airport in order
ceutical innovations. to honor his frequent speaking invitations
abroad, and though he still lived half the year
There was such vigorous electricity in the
with Barbara in Winchester, he wanted to
air, so many possibilities in ourselves and in
avoid paying American taxes. Barbara says
America, that this working-class boy grabbed
he used to joke that his months away were his
his wife one day and said: Lets grab the
gift to her; he knew that hed grown intoler-
baby and head west, and grow our brains and
ably bleak, and he was so terrified of a third
hearts, read Rilke and Chief Joseph and Rim-
divorce that it seemed better to just stay away
baud and Lao-Tzu and burn meat on open
and avoid fights. Joes ethical view had grown
fires with cowboys! Maybe even meet Allen
toxically pure, with no room for the normal
Ginsberg! And we did it too.
compromises most people must make in order
Joe Bageant was hardly the only one to view to buy affordable clothes or occasionally enjoy
the sixties this way. The sons and daughters of themselves in the First World. He had the
mainstreamed baby boomers have heard it moral high ground in every argument we had,
all our lives. But Joe recognized that the eras Barbara claims. She didnt discuss her own life
passing meant more than just a dropoff in the because she didnt feel like getting a lecture
quality of pop radio. It signaled victory for the or being made to feel petty. Compared to the
money-grubbers. The most prominent liber- Belizean poor, she had nothing to complain
als of Joes generation, people like the Clin- about, after all.
tons and John Kerry, were corporate types A few days before Christmas 2010, less than
just like their purported foes: They support a week after Joe had gone into the Mexican
the troops. . . . They play the imperial game, mountains on horseback to drop acid with a
maintain their credit ratings, and plan to keep group of gauchos, Ken took him to a doctor to
the beach house and the retirement invest- have his stomach pains checked out. An X-ray
ments no matter how dismal life may grow revealed a gastrointestinal stromal tumor, big-
for the rural residents of West Virginia, New ger in mass than his liver. I dont want to die
Mexico, or Mississippi. Joe argued that Amer- in the America I see emerging, he had written
icans turn away from the earthand with it, four years earlier, justifying his move to Belize.
our marginalization of people who live for it, He would not get his wish. After three months
red or blueconstituted a denial of the one in and out of VA hospitals and in a prescrip-
truth held in common by every enlightened tion painkiller haze, Joe died with his three
civilization: we are our brothers keepers. kids, Barbara, and Cindy by his side. In lieu of
This new, profits-first society driven by fear, a funeral, they drove up to Shanghai Road and
debt, TV, and petroleum is a Republican-de- scattered his ashes in private.

170 1 The Baffler [no.27]

The outpouring of grief came on his web- placed, community-obsessed man? He gave a
site, where Ken rounded up tributes by blog- hint in one of his essays that appeared online
gers and writers from around the globe. It is after Deer Hunting. Often at my speaking en-
the final irony of Joes life that he found his gagements or readings, I see one or more of
largest audience by writing about the dissolu- them in the audience, he wrote, long gray
tion of his community. Raised on the eastern hair, loose-fitting, sensible, well-worn cloth-
frontier, reborn in the acid-drenched West, ing, soft eyes, and perhaps an herbal amulet
and lost all over again in the corporate hinter- around the neck or in the hair. . . . Immediately
lands, Joe Bageant returned to Winchester to after the reading or talk or whatever, I seek
bury the shame of childhood poverty at last. them out if at all possible (press agents some-
Instead, he found a battlefield on which he times screw this up). Always there is the big
could finally use the full force of his drop-out smile and the hug.
beliefs on behalf of the people who had taught And we are again brothers and sisters, as
him to love the land in the first place. These we used to sincerely address each other on the
people, of course, didnt read his book; they street. And again I have been granted the gift,
barely read anything. that brief spark of unquestioned mutual love
Where was home for this terminally dis- and goodwill in a darkening time.t


The Baffler [no.27] ! 171

Haut Monde
3 Manohar Shetty

Hes not yet into botox

but vain enough
for a transplant on his
thick head of hair to offset,
he confides, the future loss
twenty years on when
his pate might glint
like a Nikon
flash on the ramp.

It was painful but worth it
these dont fall or turn lank
grey with age, though
he concedes the docs fees
were steep with zeroes
on the cheque like the wheels
of a goods train,
but now is the time, isnt it,
to live life like an Express?
And who cares if
the folliclesas doc calls them
are artificial?

I admire his raven black presence
but cant resist the obvious:
What of heart, kidney,
other internal parts?
But his smile is broadest,
teeth flashing like forked
lightning in glossy ads
for a cosmetic dentist.
Those parts, he beams, no one
can see and in my business
seeing is believing,
external is eternal.

172 1 The Baffler [no.27]

Mo d e l s

Transcendental Rites
3 Edward Mendelson, with John Summers

E dward Mendelson is the Lionel Trilling Professor in the Humanities at Columbia University and
the literary executor of the estate of W. H. Auden. His new book is Moral Agents: Eight Twentieth-Century
American Writers (New York Review Books, $21.95), which contains portraits of Saul Bellow, Alfred
Kazin, Norman Mailer, Dwight Macdonald, William Maxwell, Frank OHara, and, as it happens, Lionel
Trilling and W. H. Auden. Moral Agents is dedicated to Robert B. Silvers, editor of the New York Review of
Books, where earlier versions of these portraits appeared. John Summers, a great deal less distinguished, is
editor of this magazine. Even so, Mendelson agreed to answer some of our questions about his book in the
wee days of the New Year (that would be January 1 and 2). Eds.

John Summers: Lionel Trilling was the

first tenured Jewish professor in Columbias
English Department and a public figure
whose literary essays served as some form of
national therapy, as you write. Yet you also
quote the following passage from Trillings
journals: I am ashamed of being in a uni-
versity. I have one of the great reputations in
the academic world. This thought makes me
retch. What gives?
Edward Mendelson: It was part of Trill-
ings genius that he saw that his own status
as a campus sage was harmful to himself and
to everyone who admired him for it. He let
himself be revered as a calming presence who,
merely by being there and talking in his mea-
sured, deliberate way, suggested that rational,
well-meaning people can solve all problems.
But in order to do this, he had to suppress all
the unsettling things he knew about his own
and everyones irrational impulses, everyones
self-deceptions, and he despised himself for
Lionel Trilling
suppressing what he knew. He never blamed
anyone but himselfhe never thought he was DAVID JOHNSON

forced to be decorous because he was the first

but dont actually care about because they
tenured Jew in his departmentbut he knew
dont increase the endowment. Trilling might
he was betraying his own genius by present-
have taken deep pleasure from his teaching
ing himself as the kind of loyal beloved
if he had let himself say what he believed,
professor whom universities always honor
instead of letting himself get frustrated with

The Baffler [no.27] ! 173

Mo d e l s

Columbia because it was the place where he

suppressed himself.
JS: This years freshman class at Columbia
will be graduating during the fiftieth anniver-
sary of the 1968 protests. What do you think
of the university now as a host for Trillings
kind of calming sagacity?
EM: The calming figure of the beloved
professor is just as prevalent now as in Trill-
ings day. The beloved professor becomes
loved by telling people the comforting things
they want to hear. What Trilling wanted
to saybut seldom did, except in the most
roundabout waywere things that people
dont want to hear because it would make
them uncomfortable about themselves.
JS: Are you worried that, like their pre-
decessors, todays students will wise up to
what America has in store for them and tear
through the campus for old times sake?
Granted, students in U.S. history have almost
Norman Mailer
never been a hinge of social change. But you
never know. Trilling himself seemed merely
bewildered back in 1968, when they rebelled
the present atmosphere of frustration and
the first time.
intimidation? Maybe it will soon be time for
EM: People who are staring at their cell the beloved professors to desublimate!
phones never rampage. They merely bump
EM: Maybe so, though I dont have any
into things.
specific recommendations. It seems to me
JS: But thousands of people are protesting that whats wrong with universities right now
police brutality on the streets of New York cant be fixed without massive changes in the
even as we are enjoying this Very Serious whole national economy and the way univer-
Conversation. At least a hundred Columbia sities are run and funded. As long as intel-
University students have joined in. Some of ligent, strong-minded people see that a career
them have been pepper-sprayed. in the university is likely to mean teaching
The cohort of writers in your book embod- six sections of remedial English while leaving
ies the ideal of free-ranging skeptical inquiry them unable to pay the rent, theyre going to
and the fact of social mobility. How can we go into other work, and the kind of university
imagine a contemporary university capable that you ask about isnt going to exist.
of carrying on this kind of inquiry, and a city
JS: Ive read a whole bunch of Norman
with its economic prerequisites, without wag-
Mailers books, but even after appreciating
ing some sort of adversarial struggle? What
your portrait of his life and work, where you
quality of culture may we expect to flow from

174 1 The Baffler [no.27]

argue that his whole career was a quest for
transcendence, I have trouble regarding him
as any kind of moral agent. I cant seem to
get past his deplorable treatment of women.
Given all the horrible things he did and wrote
in this respect, Im sometimes tempted to
think of Mailer (since he loved sports analo-
gies) as the Ray Rice of American novelists
only thats unfair to Rice, who never stabbed
his wife with a penknife during a party held
to announce a quixotic run for New York
Citys mayoralty. Is it wrong to hold Mailers
immoralities against his books?
EM: Moral agent doesnt mean a good
moral agent (or a bad one); it means someone
who is morally responsible for his or her own
acts, who wasnt forced into them involun-
tarily by culture, biology, parental mistreat-
ment, or anything else. Mailer was certainly
that, and he knew it. One thing thats espe-
cially interesting about him is that he took
Alfred Kazin
ideas seriously enough to act on them, and he
acted on some very bad ideas. Hes a classic DAVID JOHNSON

example of how bad ideas (about hipsters and

moved by his music. I have the same mixed
psychotics, for example) lead to bad actions in
feelings about Mailers books that I have
someone who might not have done anything
about his life.
of the kind if he hadnt had those bad ideas.
And those bad ideas were Mailers own moral JS: Yes, as you suggest here and say in your
choices, his own inventionshe wasnt driven introduction, Moral Agents alights on the
to find some merit in a shopkeepers murder conflicts between the inward, intimate
(as he did in one of his more theoretical es- private lives of its eight authors and the lives
says) because someone else propagandized they led in public. So you read their public
him about politics. What went wrong in and private writings, plus the memoirs about
many of Mailers books is essentially what them (Diana Trillings, Ann Birsteins, Greg
went wrong in a lot of his life: he was more Bellows, Adele Mailers, for starters). And
comfortable with theories about human be- in knuckling through their conflicts, you
ings than he was with human beings. dont stoop to accusing any of your subjects of
As for holding someones bad acts against hypocrisy, which must have been tempting,
their books, I think everyone is selective given the sometimes reckless and unpleas-
about this. Louis Althusser murdered his ant emotions they displayed in the service
wife, and, for me, that just confirms what I of their personal ambition. Mailer was not
dont like about his political writings. But the only writer in your group to make the
Carlo Gesualdo also murdered his wife (and quest for transcendence look a bit ugly now
her lover), and it doesnt stop me from being and again. Did you find a common attitude

The Baffler [no.27] ! 175

Mo d e l s

toward the aesthetic use of private experience

that these writers shared and that influenced
your own method?
EM: Only in that all these writerslike
every other writersaw the world in ways
that were shaped by their private experi-
ence. Human beings cant avoid that, but
that doesnt mean that everyones view of
the world is equally valid or invalid. Auden
says somewhere that goodness can imagine
evil but evil cant imagine good, and its fairly
obvious that one sign of intelligence is the
ability to recognize that someone else is even
more intelligent. What struck me about all
these writerssome more than otherswas
their ability to see that their own perspec-
tives shaped what they saw. I hope that by
telling their stories as parablesas truthfully
as possible, but in the shape and form of a
parablepeople who read those stories can
decide for themselves whether the stories tell
them anything worth thinking about.
JS: I spent some time during the George
Bush years reading Ralph Waldo Emersons
journals, maybe as gesture of mental dissent W. H. Auden
from the war technique. So Im fascinated
that you say Alfred Kazins journals portray
him, unexpectedly, as Emersons Jewish that lifelong socialist Irving Howe wrote
heir. Later in the same chapter, you applaud an approving book on Emerson late in life,
Kazin for standing up to the bellicose lead- and Howes approach had a lot in common
ers of the neoconservative movement. Do with Kazins. The point in each case was to
you ever wonder whether Emerson himself read an earlier writer in order to find out
wasnt something of a neocon, with his what that writer had to say that was worth
spiritual laws projecting noble justice and learning, not in order to condemn him for
all? having some ideas that intellectual thugs
later endorsed.
EM: I think Kazin read Emerson selec-
tively. Some of Emersonthe parts that JS: Well, in a country that continually
sound like libertarianismseemed to him subverts its own cultural traditions, one must
merely childish. What he admired were scramble to explain how the thugs have won
the parts that made him feel independent- the realm of politics. In that same spirit,
minded, not freed from social responsibility. let me ask you about W. H. Auden, another
When he said, Emerson made me a Jew, independent, religiously committed poet.
this was basically what he had in mind. Even You write that he was less interested in the

176 1 The Baffler [no.27]

obvious distinction between a responsible
citizen and an evil dictator than he was in the
more difficult question of what the citizen
and the dictator had in common, how the
citizens moral and psychological failures help
the dictator to succeed. What might Auden
have said, or helped us to understand, about
the contents of the U.S. Senates torture re-
port, released in part in December? Are they
our fault?
EM: Auden wrote half-seriously that politi-
cal history is something far too criminal to
teach to children. What are surprising are
the moments when dreadfully evil things
dont happen, not the moments when they do.
I dont want to guess what Auden or anyone
else would have said about current events.
But I am reminded of many things Auden
said about temptations to power, about every-
ones sense that justice means one-point-one
eye for an eye, about the fantasy that what
works is worth doingalso the passage in
his Christmas Oratorio where Herod mas-
sacres the innocents in order to save civiliza-
Dwight Macdonald
tion, and much else. But these are things that
everyone knows, or ought to know, without DAVID JOHNSON

anyone telling them.

police misconduct with the world-historical
JS: If the torturers and their handlers knew bullshit peddled by the secret intelligence
their actions were evil, then they should be in agencies. What can the next generation learn
jail. If they didnt know, maybe the rest of us about the moral imagination from the writers
should be. What might Auden have said to us discussed in your book?
pie-eyed citizens who cannot accept as real
EM: I hope youre right about younger
the premise of his Christmas Oratoriohu-
persons, and, if so, they seem to me to be
manity lying low in its fallen state, etc.or
facing structural problems in world society
who, for whatever reason, insist on our right
that are almost as intractable as the ones that
to be surprised when we encounter evil done
people faced in the Cold War. Its not exactly
in our name?
easy to deal with a world where governments
Many younger persons today who havent
and corporations seem to share the idea that
traveled far enough into the professional mid-
if something is technically possible (infor-
dle class to be saddled with its go-along/get-
mation gathering via spying or torture, for
along mode of resignation are aroused with
example), then they ought to go ahead and do
half-articulate and semi-organized fervor
it. Governments used to think that way about
over the crimes of their government. Theyre
bombs, and now they think that way about
struggling to connect the up-close realities of

The Baffler [no.27] ! 177

Mo d e l s

enhanced interrogation techniques and contrast between such truth-tellers and the
data-gathering. Nobel Prizewinning president who cam-
Maybe the only thing I would feel com- paigned on a platform of moral action and
fortable saying about the relation between then decided it was safest to forget about it.
moral imagination and political reality is Parables about this kind of thing run
something like this: When you think mostly through the book, and some of them com-
in terms of partisan politicsour side versus plicate the whole issue. Norman Mailer, for
their sidethen you inevitably start worry- example, was always committed, in what
ing about whether an action or attitude helps seems to me a thoroughly admirable way, to
your side or the other side, and you lose sight the democratic left, very much like Dwight
of what your real goal is, which (I hope any- Macdonald, but Mailer got himself tangled
way) has something to do with a social world up in the idea that his own personal mythol-
that might be fit for free and responsible per- ogy and vision mattered more than what
sons to live in. But if you think about politics happened to other people. Macdonald never
as a way of putting your moral intelligence made that mistake, but Macdonald paid a
into effect, then you make it harder for other price for seeing things as clearly as he did: he
people to obfuscate the issue in order to serve spent many years in something like passivity
their own immoral purposes. and despair, which didnt do him any good,
It seems to me that in recent years the and certainly didnt do any good for the kind
people who have done the most to make of society he wanted.
some worthwhile change possible have been Auden once said something to a friend
the truth-tellers, those who said things that that I think may get to the heart of both the
did themselves no goodtheyre going to be difficulty and hopefulness of all this. He said
on the run from the authorities more or less (Im paraphrasing from memory), Americans
foreverbut that they couldnt stop them- get very angry when you tell them there are
selves from saying because of a moral, rather no answers, but in a crisis, they look forward,
than a partisan, motive. Theres a pretty clear unlike Europeans, who look backward.t


178 1 The Baffler [no.27]

Photo gr a ph i c 3 Carl Van Vechten

Harlem Women


Marian Anderson, contralto, 1947.

The Baffler [no.27] ! 179

180 1 The Baffler [no.27]
Mary McLeod Bethune, educator, 1949. Ruby Dee, actor, 1961.
Katherine Dunham, anthropologist, 1940. Ella Fitzgerald, jazz singer, 1940.

Baffler [no.27] ! 181

182 1 The Baffler [no.27]
Zora Neale Hurston, novelist, anthropol0gist, 1935. Mahalia Jackson, gospel singer, 1962.
Bessie Smith, blues singer, 1936. Fredi Washington, actor, 1933.

Baffler [no.27] ! 183

Mo d e l s

The Monk Retires

Letting go of Philip Roth
3 J. C. Hallman

T he phenomenon of Philip Roths retire- Roths Wheres Waldo? approach to forsak-

mentand that seems to be what it is now, a ing the public stage shouldnt trigger another
phenomenonis not about a writers vanity, an wearisome debate over how trustworthy the
ego grown so massive its like a publicity black utterances of fiction writers need to be (short
hole sucking up limelight that might have answer: not at all). Instead, it should give us a
shined warmly on other equally deserving au- moments pause to ask just who Roth thinks
thors. Nor is it about an inability to shut up, hes talking toa question that, not inciden-
even though Roth admitted that his decision tally, continues to sit, unanswered and argu-
to quit writing, announced abruptly in 2012, ably unanswerable, at the heart of all literary
had triggered in him an impulse to chatter. enterprise. Just as the moment of reading, the
(Almost everyone has taken this quotation event of literature, is as much a function of a
out of context, and I have too, which means readers excited mind as it is the end product
that chatter may be on its way to becoming of a writers work, so too does the phenome-
one of those offhand remarks that gets used to non of Philip Roths retirement say as much
make a famous person appear to mean the op- or more about what readers expect from their
posite of what he probably did mean.) relationships with writers as it says about
No, Roths announcement that he would Roth, and his gnomic, ever-shifting sense of
leave the literary stage, followed by his con- his own literary posterity.
spicuous failure to do so in favor of a series When it comes to the question of what writ-
of curtain calls, is about usRoths audience, ers are, exactly, in relation to readers, there is
a community of readers. Were the ones end- a remarkably broad range of thought. On the
lessly fascinated by Roths penchant to pontifi- academic side of book culture, you have the
cate about himself in public, from an interview whole death-of-the-author spiel, which would
with the BBC aired last spring (titled Philip have us believe that writers are completely ir-
Roth Unleashed) to a promised appearance relevant to the literary experience, apart from
on The Colbert Report (reportedly scheduled having served as the corporeal conduit be-
for last summer, but apparently scrapped). tween ether and text. In contrast, on the busi-
Through it all, Roth continues to insist that ness side, theres an entire industry dedicated
hes retreating into full Garbo mode. You can to manufacturing author personas: a market-
write it down, he told a reporter last May after ing complex based entirely on the notion that
a star turn at the 92nd Street Y. This was abso- readers use books as a means to become in-
lutely the last public appearance I will make on timate with writers who either have, or have
any public stage, anywherethis just a week been outfitted with, compelling backstories.
before collecting an award from the Yaddo These extremes have something to do,
writers retreat and two weeks before accept- I think, with Roths assertionmade in
ing an honorary doctorate at the conservative the same interview in which he initially of-
Jewish Theological Seminary. fered his momentous announcementthat

184 1 The Baffler [no. 27]


The Baffler [no. 27] ! 185

Mo d e l s

he would have preferred to have had no bi- a little bit?), and at one moment seems flus-
ography written of him at all. (Here, too, he tered when Roth doesnt make the straight-
was airing a flagrantly Whitmanian self- forward sense she expects (But you just spent
contradiction: he had just recently begun col- our whole interview saying that the life of
laborating with biographer Blake Bailey.) This a writer has no bearing on his work). From
interview was first conducted in English two there, its not hard to imagine that Roth,
months before the 2012 presidential election, having gone through hundreds, maybe thou-
and then translated into French for publica- sands, of interviews like this, might have been
tion by the arts magazine Les Inrockuptibles. starting to wonder whether his books had
Several weeks later it was translated back into somehow failed. A glance at his last ten years
English to appear, in snippets, on Salon and of production certainly reveals a predilec-
Hyperallergic; finally, The Paris Review got its tion for dark and ascetic turns of mind, and it
hands on the original English transcript, and doesnt seem much of a stretch to suggest that
posted it online a week after Obamas reelec- by this point hed sunk into another private
tion. The exchange is worth a closer look, and oblivion, one that could only be exacerbated
not just because it happens to be the one in by evidence of his books having not been read
which Roth gave out that he planned to write by the very sorts of people who are charged
nothing at all for at least ten years. (Given that with safeguarding his contemporary literary
he was seventy-eight at the time, this was tak- reputation.
en to mean retirement, but its noteworthy Its worth putting the pivotal moment of
that Roth himself never used the word.) the interview under a microscope. Kaprilian
Roth was interviewed by the French liter- has just asked Roth a facile question about
ary journalist Nelly Kaprilian, and, in truth, whether The Professor of Desire is autobio-
Kaprilians questions are a little cringeworthy graphical, and Roth handles it with aplomb.
in their simplicity, the sort you might expect She follows up with a simple Why?a way
an undergraduate to pose for extra credit. (One to buy herself a moment to segue to some new
representative sample: So what makes you topic, perhaps. Then we get this:
write?) I think its possible to sense frustration
[Kaprilian:] Do you still have the desire to
from Roth when he realizes, at one juncture,
that Kaprilian is not particularly familiar
[Roth:] No. Anyway, I have no intention
with his work: Kaprilian asks whether Roth
of writing in the next ten years. To tell the
could imagine writing a book about a happy
truth, Im finished. Nemesis is going to be my
marriage, and Roths exclamatory replyBut
last book. Look at E. M. Forster. He stopped
I already wrote that book! (he means The Pro-
writing at around the age of forty. And I, who
fessor of Desire)might indicate anything from
used to churn out book after book, havent
mildly perturbed condescension to haughty
written anything in three years. Ive been
fury. But hes clearly annoyed, maybe because
working instead on my archives so I can turn
writers, as a general rule, would prefer to have
them over to my biographer. Ive turned over
their books speak for them; thats what books
thousands of pages which are like memoirs
are for. Yet whether in interviews or in biog-
but not literary, not publishable as such.
raphies, readers push for something more or
something different, and then, more often than What catches my eye here, beyond the odd
not, look askance at the results. bombshell that Roth drops in the least likely
Indeed, Kaprilian doubts Roths answers of places, is the phrase To tell the truth. Ive
on several occasions (Arent you exaggerating always been curious about this phrase and

186 1 The Baffler [no. 27]

Philip Roths retirement may well go down in history
as one of the literary worlds greatest pranks.

phrases like it, such as Just between you and in the interview: it comes after Kaprilian has
me and Frankly: they are more tone than challenged his assertion that hes not interest-
literal meaning, and they manage to commu- ed in philosophy. Wasnt Nemesis, she wants to
nicate the exact opposite of what they say. know, full of philosophical ideas? Roth dodg-
These phrases are interesting, too, because es that part of the question. And when he goes
you really cant, when they turn up in conver- on to say that stories are the only things that
sation, offer an immediate challenge to them. interest him, its hard not to wonder if what he
To do so would to be to slap the face of some- really means is that interviews are most defi-
one who appears to be extending to you an nitely among those things that do not interest
uncommon intimacy. You cant very well, as him.
youre being entrusted with private informa- From there, Kaprilian asks a series of
tion (Just between you and me) or addressed increasingly annoying questionsshes be-
with unflinching directness (Frankly), sug- coming his nemesis. To the three questions
gest in the next breath that the speakers real prior to his momentous announcement, Roth
goal is either to widely publicize a delicate fact responds, semi-hostilely, by rejecting their
or to make a quasi-rational assertion that is premises. The interview must have hit a very
more the product of guile than honesty. weird mood for Kaprilian to have even come
In reality, though, thats just the sort of as- up with the relevant queryDo you still have
sertion that these phrases prefacethey are the desire to write?as its hard to imagine
rhetorical tricks that lubricate a strategic du- any interviewer jotting that one down be-
plicity. So whenever I hear someone say To forehand. And Roths answerNo. Anyway,
tell the truth, I always take it as an admission: I have no intention of writing in the next ten
either my interlocutor has been deceiving me years. To tell the truth, Im finished (which,
up to this pointthe statement implicitly con- incidentally, came as a complete surprise to his
cedes that whatever has been said before has agent and his publisher)is notable because
not amounted to truthfulnessor whatever To tell the truth seems like an invitation to
he or she is about to say is not true at all. recognize that what hes about to say is utter
Its worth mentioning that Roths To tell nonsense, nonsense that mirrors and mocks
the truth in announcing his retirement is an increasingly nonsensical set of interview
actually the second time the phrase appears in questions. The anyway smacks of a kind of
what is really a quite short interview. The first plaintiveness, a giving up, and its tempting to
time, Roth uses it to distance himself from see it as a signal that Roth has now decided to
abstractions: To tell you the truth, Im not toy with this silly interview, which he prob-
much given to abstractions. But from there, ably shouldnt have agreed to anyway, because
he immediately attests to a lifelong interest in readers should read the books a writer writes
stories, which are, arguably, a form of applied and not the interviews he or she gives. Its still
abstraction, a way of couching ideas in con- more tempting to speculate that what has hap-
crete detail that give them body, shape, and pened since the interviewRoth chumming
substance. This use of To tell you the truth the waters of a great bizarre frenzy of analy-
is perhaps the first note of Roths annoyance sis that is still under way two years latermay

The Baffler [no. 27] ! 187

Mo d e l s

well go down in history as one of the literary ties charity auction last winter, his notes on
worlds greatest pranks. the former amounting to a short essay dated
12/21/13. (So much for no intention of writ-
Anyway, we all know writers dont retire. ing in the next ten years.) And Roth, like
Writers might become incapable of going James, is an author whose dedication to litera-
onthat seems to be what happened to Gar- ture has been described as monastic in nature;
ca Mrquez in his later yearsbut they dont whats more, this particular way of conceiving
just get tired and quit. They cant quit. Take of an authors vocationand hence, his or her
Stephen Dixon. Not too long ago, I read an relationship with the literary audiencemay
assessment of his inexhaustible work in which come from James himself, who likened Balzac
the critic appeared to be mystified as to why a to a monk in The Lesson of Balzac, a speech
book of Dixons from a decade and a half be- that James delivered across America during a
fore was titled 30. The critic was unaware of 1905 series of appearances that was probably
Dixons early career as a journalist, so he can even then regarded as something of a valedic-
perhaps be forgiven for failing to make the tory tour.
connection with the traditional mark that Of course, the writers Ive just listed here
journalists use to indicate the end of a story: Roth, Dixon, James, and Balzacare known
30. I admittedly have some inside infor- for incredibly voluminous production, and it
mation on this one: I studied with Dixon at should be noted that, for all Roths claims of
Johns Hopkins while he was working on 30, churn[ing] out book after book, measured
and he was telling everyone that it would be on sheer quantity alone, Roth ranks as the
his last book. Yet at least seven others have least productive among the four. (And this
come since. is to say nothing of his contemporaries: were
So too with Henry James. James never an- Roth to go on writing and somehow publish
nounced a retirement, but he did agree to the fifty more books, he would still lag well behind
190709 reprinting of his lifetime of novel- the output of Joyce Carol Oates.) The ques-
writing in the so-called New York Edition, tion of quantity may be critical to understand-
which weighed in at twenty-four volumes; in ing whats really going on with Roths retire-
fact, he produced eighteen prefaces of seven ment. Recall that Roth compared himself to
thousand words each for the occasion, prefac- E. M. Forster immediately upon making the
es that aimed to solidify his work and vision. announcement. Forster would appear to chal-
But James lived more than six years after the lenge the idea that writers cant quit writing:
last volume of the New York Edition was pub- he produced a relative handful of novels and
lished, and more books duly arrived. James stories and then packed his bags. But did he
turned out to be so incapable of retiring that retire? Did Hawthorne? Did Rimbaud? Did
even on his deathbed, after speech left him, he Harper Lee? I dont think so, and its impor-
was observed twitching his fingers, as though tant to note that Roth did not say that Forster
moving a pen. retired, only that he stopped writing. This
The James example is especially appropri- distinction points us back in the direction of
ate here, because in the Kaprilian interview, what an audience expects of a writer.
Roth admits to having recently read through The literary audience is collectively and no-
all his own published work, much as James toriously fickleand thats putting it politely.
did while writing his prefaces. Indeed, Roth Write too little, and the audience will cry for
reread and annotated first editions of Portnoys more and question your nerve if you cant bring
Complaint and American Pastoral for a Chris- yourself to produce. (This was the recent ex-

188 1 The Baffler [no. 27]

perience of the celebrated short story writer emphasize that being a writer is not like hav-
George Saunders, who came in for a round of ing a job from which you might retirethats
Internet carping for his failure to put out a not what a writer is supposed to be in relation
proper, full-scale novel.) Write too much, and to his or her audience. The usefulness of the
the audience will accuse you of mercenary mo- monk metaphor peters out after the obvious
tives and whine about not knowing where to in-this-world-but-not-of-it similarity, and the
begin in your oeuvre. (Cf. the prolific Oates, truth is that writers are not particularly monk-
and scores of revered but now-neglected mas- like: they are neither mystics, nor hallowed,
ters of the Victorian novel.) Readers, it seems, nor pure. But the point is that being a writer
want enough books to be able glimpse an au- is a special kind of life, and a writer serves a
thor from a number of angles, but they dont special role in relation to his or her culture
want so many that they would have to sign and society. And to suggest even in jest that
over a significant chunk of their lives just to a writer has retired is to cheapen that role,
keep up. and to cheapen that culture.
One sees this studied diminution of writ-
I ts likely that Roth picked Forster as a model ing and writers almost everywhere these
because his British forebear hit that just-right days, as writers are pressed, more and more,
sweet spot: a half-dozen novels that, over a to promote themselves, to become their own
few years, just about any reader could fit into publicists. Take, for example, the unexpect-
even the busiest of schedules. And that brings edly popular event series known as Literary
us to one part of what I have to say about Phil- Death Match, in which writers become the
ip Roths retirement: it may be that Roth, sort of vague celebrities one used to see on
by his own standards, has written too much. game showsthough Literary Death Match is
Even if his announcement has since morphed even more disturbing in that it would appear
into a brilliant marketing ploy, I think it start- to offer metaphoric comfort to the academic
ed out as a sudden and sad realization that in notion that a writers job is, ultimately, to
the end hes going to wind up feeling that a lot get out of the way, to die. The phenomenon of
of his work has been unnecessary, and will be Philip Roths retirement has been driven by
misunderstood even if it does get read. the fact that he said he would make no more
And now for the other part: The imposi- appearances yet has repeatedly appeared, to
tion of retirement on Roths initial claim receive awards, to sit in on conferences devot-
may well be a kind of joke, the literary worlds ed to his work, and even to grant more media
way of insisting that Roth is nothing at all like interviews. What if what Roth really wants is
Forsterhe obviously writes from need and to avoid agreeing to those kinds of appearanc-
compulsion, like Oates and James, and if he re- es that cheapen the writers role in society, the
ally thinks that hes going to stop writing, well kinds that, whatever their intentions, turn the
then, well just have to see about that, wont idea of the writer into a clich? If that were the
we, pal? But it also indicates something else, case, would we still chide him for retiring? Or
something rather unseemly, I think, about would we see this deconstruction of the phony
what readers expect from writers these days. intimacy produced by the accessible celebrity
Corporate stooges retire. Athletes retire. Fac- author as another reason to thank Roth for his
tory workers and soldiers and surgeons retire service? Who knowsit might be a welcome
when they are no longer capable of doing their excuse to return to a few of the many books
jobs. The whole point of thinking of Roth he published when we were too busy to take
and James and Balzac as monks of a kind is to notice.t

The Baffler [no. 27] ! 189

E x h i bi t E 5 Michael Duffy


190 1 The Baffler [no.27]

wS T O R Y

How Much
Women Know
3 Ludmilla Petrushevskaya

T his story concerns a perfect girl, raised by unreadable but impressive medical note of
her perfect mother and grandmother. Three excuse, something to do with Katyas legs
ageless beauties, crme de la crme of Mos- prophetically, as it turned out. From then on,
cows Jewish intelligentsia. Katya sat in a corner of the gym with a book,
The grandmother resembled a charming while the boys paraded their athletic prow-
infant. A former pianist, she wore lace gloves ess. Katya looked like a pink beauty from
in the summer. The mother, a psychiatrist Renoirs paintings.
in a mental clinic, looked plainer, but her pa- At college she chose math, but later
tients adored her. In her presence they forgot switched schools and took up languages
about dangerous emanations, pursuers, and (she already knew two)in other words, she
threatening voices. Among her patients were took the path of least resistance. Most boys
celebrated musicians, poets, and artists. She came to that college after their army service;
never mentioned their names outside the they were hardened ambitious men, a lower
clinic, but the top shelf in her bookcase at breed. After college, Katya found much-
home was lined with their autographed books coveted work in the periodicals section at
and records. Even the hard-drinking nurses the Library of Foreign Literature, which
at the mental clinic worshipped her. was frequented by intelligentsia and artistic
Like many great women, Maria Iosifovna bohmes. Katya fell in love there. She fell
had a weakness: her daughter. She loved the in love with Anton, an older, degenerate
girl surpassingly. She mopped up after Katyas gambler who made a living as an orderly at
bath, brought her tea in bed, and refused to a hospital. She brought him home to intro-
lecture or discipline her. Katyas classmates duce him to her mother and grandmother.
adored her; the girls surrounded her in a ring, He brought with him a suitcase.
while the boys studied her every move. But Maria Iosifovna took one look at Katyas
the teachers couldnt forgive Katyas innate fianc and diagnosed psychopathology with
sense of superiority, which expressed itself a touch of epilepsybut she couldnt exactly
in an exaggerated, icy politeness. A new gym send him to the clinic for a Wassermann
teacher put his foot down and demanded test. Soon, Katya became ill and hid her
performance and attendance in physical symptoms. An abortion was performed:
education. Katya was a lazy child who didnt Katyas beloved had insisted on taking her
believe that she should be expected to run to a back-alley clinic he knew. The mother
laps with her tongue out, to climb ropes knew about Katyas pregnancy and word-
like a monkey, or to hurl discs in a vulgar lessly supplied the required sums. Then,
squatall mandatory exercises. She tried one day, Katya tossed an empty vial past
once, and her girlfriends giggled at her, while the trashcan. Her mother, who cleaned and
the boys gasped. Katya then refused to go to mopped the house (the grandmother had
school, and her mother provided her with an taken to her armchair) picked up the vial,

The Baffler [no.27] ! 191

Even the hard-drinking nurses
at the mental clinic worshipped her.

read the label, and asked Anton to join her in copied Antons handwriting from an old
the courtyard for a little talk. Anton blamed envelope he had addressed from a prison
Katya, who, he claimed, had picked up the camp to another woman six months before
disease from someone at workwho knew he met Katya. (So this Anton was barely out
what went on at that library? Maria Iosifo- of prison when he latched onto Katya.) The
vna did the impossible: Anton disappeared letter must have been returned to Anton in
from their house. Go, she told him. They person. The woman must have broken up
are sending you on a business trip. In fact, with Anton violently and for goodpeople
he had nowhere to go. What housing he had usually save letters from loved ones. She must
once, he had surrendered to an ex-wife and have loved him once, as she did take the time
their child. All he had to his name was three to throw that letter in his face.
years of jail, as hed once confessed to Maria Later, Katyas grandmother observed her
Iosifovna. flipping through the phone book. Katya
asked for the map of Moscow, probably to
T he same day, Katya came home from a look for the post office where the fraudulent
clinic, where she was secretly undergoing letter had been stamped. But to actually get
tests. She found a note on her desk. She read up and go, Katya didnt have the strength.
it, collapsed on her bed, and stayed there. Mother and daughter began speaking again,
She remained in bed for months, next to their exchanges brief and to the point. Maria
the phone. On hearing the wrong voice, Iosifovna offered to resume Katyas IVs to
she simply hung up. She ate nothing. Her improve her blood and complexion. A nurse
mother brought Katyas letter of resignation came and took a blood test, which showed
to the library. She began giving Katya IVs that Katyas venereal disease had been cured
with glucose and vitamins, but her condition but that Katya herself remained as weak as a
worsened, and the grandmother returned to newborn kitten.
life from her armchair to nurse Katya and to Katya grew stronger and began leaving
walk her to the toilet. the house. After a tremendous effort, she
Katya eventually put two and two to- returned to work at the libraryas a part-
gether. She must have understood what time replacement of someone on maternity
made Anton disappear; or maybe Anton got leave. Katya was trying to place herself in
in touch with her. In any case, she stopped Antons old tracks. Instead of Anton, how-
talking to her mother. After some time, the ever, she captured Gleb, who set for himself
grandmother brought her a letter from the the herculean task of asking her out on a date.
mailbox. It was empty and without a return Negotiations were conducted over the fam-
address, but the handwriting on the envelope ily phoneeveryone in the house followed
was definitely Antons. Katya revived. She Glebs progress. Finally, Gleb invited Katya
began leaving her room, and talked about to join him and some friends at his dacha for
going outside. a New Years party. Maria Iosifovna imme-
Katya didnt know that her mother had diately added a certain compound to Katyas

192 1 The Baffler [no.27]


IV, and it worked: Katya came back from the Glebs parents, Colonel Ivan Petrovich
dacha with swollen lips and shadows under and his wife, Emma, liked to emphasize
her eyes. Her resistance had been overcome their blue-collar origins and to keep their
by Glebs sexual onslaught (Gleb was built manners simple. Without waiting for the
like a spermatozoidstocky, with a large banquet to end, therefore, they threw an
head), and now she followed him around like ugly scene and practically kicked Gleb out,
a zombie, eyes half closed, lips perpetually together with his young wife. The newly-
swollen. Through the flimsy door in Katyas weds had planned to settle in Glebs room
room, her family listened to the creaking and in his parents apartment, where he had
the thumping. painstakingly redone the floors and painted
At the wedding banquet, Katya briefly re- the walls, but what can you do? Gleb shoved
gained consciousness and ran outside to cry. Katya into a cab and took her back to her
Her mother and grandmother left soon after. mothers. There he dumped the entire story

The Baffler [no.27] ! 193

The mother was screaming,
Arent we all family? outside the locked door.

on Maria Iosifovna (people dumped their his own mother! She expounded like this in
stories on her whether she wanted them or front of Maria Iosifovna, declaiming loudly
not), and stayed there to livethere was no- that Katya must be suffering from gonor-
where else to go. Katya cried all night. Her rhea at the last stage, that she must be tested!
mother didnt come to her. (Katya must have confided to Gleb in a ten-
der moment.) Her other constant theme was
Eight months later, Katya gave birth to a that the children were not Glebs.
girl. Every night, Gleb carried the child for Poor Gleb bounced between his mother
hours: the girl had a hernia. Two years later, and his own family. He despised his mother
a boy came who lookedsurprise, surprise but couldnt help believing her; he loved his
exactly like Anton. Nonetheless, Gleb car- wife but didnt trust her. He came home
ried this child, too, every night, despite his drunk, reeking of booze, and often slept on
mothers protestations that the boy wasnt the floor where he collapsed. His dissertation
his. Katya, in the meantime, grew thinner stalled. He stopped talking to his mother,
and weaker, like her grandmother, who soon who began calling Maria Iosifovna to shower
died. Maria Iosifovna held herself like the Katya with obscenities (prostitute with a
Queen of England, despite everything. Her lover from prison and so on).
son-in-law hated her absolutely. Maria Iosifovna died. She died a strange
In her youth, Glebs mother, Emma, had so death, at her desk, during her shift at the
charmed Col. Ivan Petrovich that he left his clinic. Why did her heart stop like that? At
wife and son and never heard from them again the funeral her colleagues were seething with
until the first wife died and left their teenage hatred and suspicion. Again, why? Maria
son alone. That son ended up in a colony for Iosifovna never revealed the goings-on in her
juvenile delinquents, from which he wrote to house to anyone. But people knew. (People
his father asking for food. No food was ever always know.) Glebs parents were there with
sent: Emma saw to that. Later, the son resur- unspoken words frozen on pursed lips.
faced once more. He came to visit, was sent
away for good, and, apparently, died. Katyas family survived. Gleb stopped
Emmas husband found her enchanting. drinking after the funeral.
She sank her teeth into her son like a bulldog He didnt even drink at the wake. He told
and kept on gnawing and nagging, gradu- his parents to stay away from the wake, but
ally killing all that was best in his nature: they came anyway, and he slammed the door
his kindness, his sense of pity for the ailing in his mothers face. (The father was hiding
Katya, his love for the babies who both had on the stairs, the mother was screaming,
hernias and werent supposed to cry. Emma Arent we all family? outside the locked
couldnt stand all that sickness and weakness. door.)
She ridiculed Gleb, kept telling him that he Katya was made director of the periodi-
was being used by these strangersthats cals at the library. Her mothers soul seems
right, instead of giving all that love to her, to to dwell in her. Always surrounded by ador-

194 1 The Baffler [no.27]


ing colleagues, serene and competent, Katya Maria Iosifovna made her own heart stop,
can barely walk. Her husband fetches her in without any pillsshe knew, you see, that
his car, carries her down the steps, and then Gleb was going to leave his family because
places her in the elevator. The kids are grow- of her, because of her unyielding pride. But
ing. They bring their homework to mamas you wont, Emma screams into the phone,
library and stay there all afternoon. you wont leave them like your idiot of a
Emma continues with her prophesying. father left his family, you take after me, not
She calls her son regularly, to accuse him him! The screaming is harrowing, but Gleb
of abandoning her and to warn him that cannot hang up on his mother. He sits there,
Katya and her children must be carrying bad squirming, taking it all in.
blood, as she puts it, since Maria Iosifovna How much women know, how much.t
clearly killed herself. Who knows where
she picked that one up! According to her, Translated from the Russian by Anna Summers.

The Baffler [no.27] ! 195


Man Is Not a Rock

3 Joseph Brodsky, with Elizabeth Markstein

This conversation between Russian poet Joseph Brodsky and

Austrian writer Elizabeth Markstein happened in Vienna during
the summer of 1972, and its believed (by us, anyway) to be his first
recorded interview after being expelled from the Soviet Union for
no good reason. Privately held until Marksteins death in Vienna on
October 15, 2013, the recording, along with a transcript, was published
two weeks later by the magazine Colta, one of the few independent
outlets in Russia today. The interview appears, abridged, in English
translation for the first time here.*
The conversation begins with Brodsky reading five poems, includ-
ing The Candlemas, or Nunc Dimittis, dated February 16, 1972.
The poem alights on the meeting of Simeon and Jesus at the Temple
and is dedicated to Anna Akhmatova. Brodskys final stanzas seem
to foreshadow his own torch-carrying exile (in translation here by
George L. Kline):

He went forth to die. It was not the loud din

of streets that he faced when he flung the door wide,
but rather the deaf-and-dumb fields of deaths kingdom.
He strode through a space that was no longer solid.

The rustle of time ebbed away in his ears.

And Simeons soul held the form of the child
its feathery crown now enveloped in glory
aloft, like a torch, pressing back the black shadows,

to light up the path that leads into deaths realm,

where never before until this present hour
had any man managed to lighten his pathway.
The old mans torch glowed and the pathway grew wider.

Elizabeth Markstein: Are there trends, schools, in contemporary


* W hy the interview was not published (in any language) during the lifetimes of the two participants we dont know.
Brodskys literary executor, Ann Kjellberg, informs us that he speaks critically of several writers and friends
whom he held in high regard during the decades following; perhaps this was a constraint, and he did not in the end
elect to make those viewsnecessarily of the momentpublic. Thanks to Ann Kjellberg for her kind permission
to publish this interview, by the way.

196 1 The Baffler [no.27]


The Baffler [no.27] 197


Joseph Brodsky: I dont really keep up. There are directions, I

suppose. And they all smack of something unpleasant. If the piece is
about, say, national pride, then its full of chauvinism or just general
idiocy. If its something romantic, there is an agenda.
EM: Socialist realism?
JB: Exactly. Or, if its a satirical piece, its just plain negative. There is
no sense that a person is engaged in satire from some high viewpoint.
He stays within the imposed frame of reference. There are a handful
of poets who could have gotten somewhere, but now it may be too
late. They were not silenced, or shot, or even prosecuted. They more
or less choked on lack of air, lack of an outlet. In any art, but espe-
cially in writing, you have to be totally possessed by it if you are to
keep going in spite of any circumstances. Because sooner or later you
are visited by the thought, What on earth am I playing at? Its just
a pleasant hobby, really, one needs to make a living. So you begin to
look around, maybe compose a little play, a little script, sell it on the
side. Become a hack. After all, hackwork is literature too. And the dis-
tinction isnt that important in the end. So you cant get published, so
what. Chewing on the same negative emotion is exhausting. A sense
of relativity sets in, and thats really dangerous.
EM: Do you have someone specific in mind?
JB: Vladimir Ufland, for one. This man is certainly very gifted. Then
there is living in Leningrad one poet, Mikhail Eremin, who writes
one or two poems a year maximum, in the manner of Ezra Pound, but
very provincial. He started by composing wonderful, strong poetry
reminiscent of Velimir Khlebnikov. But then he needed to find his
own way, and at that stage, because he was his own judge and audi-
ence, because there was no atmosphere, no milieu, he began to thin.
You know, became more and more sophisticated. Then he crossed the
line into riddles. Crosswords, rebuses, with Chinese hieroglyphics,
or Latin or Greek words. On the one hand, its all very clever, but silly
too. In any case, the lyrical tone is muffled.
There are three others, of varying quality, but in my opinion
good. If they had had an opportunity to work normally, they could
have grown into something interesting. Now, Im afraid it may be too
late. Ive learned a lot from them. They are two or three years older. I
met them in 1960, for better and for worse. We became friends, and
then it all fell apart. In each case, it ended badly. Anna Akhmatova
called us the magic choir. But when she died, the dome collapsed.
The choir ceased to exist, split into separate voices. They are Yevgeny
Rein, Anatoly Naiman, and Dmitry Bobyshev. There were four of us.
Now, well, Rein makes a living churning out magazine articles
and popular science scripts, and little by little he is becoming some-

198 1 The Baffler [no.27]

If you really want to enforce principles, if you dont want
them to remain just empty words, bubbles in the air,
then the only way to do it is by shedding blood.

thing of a monster. He is already pretty much broken, by his own

personal circumstances. He doesnt know which plane he occupies,
whether he is a poet or a hack.
Naiman is a translator. He has never been an independent figure;
still, he had some sharpness, some spiciness, some subtleness. But
those translations of his, all that hackwork hes done, they ruined
him, really. Because he no longer knows which words are his own and
which are not. Words are just like bricks for him, as they are for all
translators. They contain nothing of innate value. I feel the same way,
Bobyshev, I know him less well. He is pretty talented, has a very
high sense of language, of its possibilities. This was his strength, and
he exploited it to death. He didnt seek new tools. I guess he would
have, if he had had some collegial competition, some audience. It may
sound funny, talking this way about poetry, but poets need that too,
competition with peers. If it existed, something might have come out
of him and out of the others. As it is, they are more or less going off
the rails. Or maybe switching to new ones, I dont know.
EM: Do you consider yourself a Soviet poet?
JB: I object rather strongly to all definitions except Russian, because
I write in Russian. Still, Soviet would be correct. Whatever its ac-
complishments and crimes, it exists, and in it I existed for thirty-two
years. And it did not destroy me.
EM: Im glad you brought this up. There are migrs, and Soviet citi-
zens too, who try to deny its existence, pretend its not there. But how
can you? The Soviet Union is a historical and cultural fact.
JB: A cultural fact. Exactly. So many Soviet artists drew their inspira-
tion not from divine intervention but from the idea of resistance.
That is something to consider, with gratitude even. True, I unexpect-
edly found myself in the position where one can feel grateful. While
you actually live there . . . Im not sure what it is, what is wrong with
my nervous constitution, but when I lived there, I couldnt quite raise
myself to anger or to hatred. Anger, yes, but never hatred. I always re-
membered, you see, that the regime and its manifestations were indi-
vidual, ordinary people. I couldnt give it a single face. For a resistance
fighter, for a questing dissident, such emotion is death. Therefore, Im

The Baffler [no.27] ! 199


not a fighter. An observer, perhaps.

EM: In Czechoslovakia in 1968, in some cities during the first seven
days of Soviet occupation, or maybe it was just one city, there was a
slogan, Remember that you are people of culture.
JB: This is precisely what ruined their cause.
EM: How so? I believe they had won more ground than was expected.
JB: I really dont think so. They behaved like schoolchildren. They
decided that the principles they were defending, that somehow they
had discovered a new way of defending those principles. But in fact,
if you really want to enforce them, if you dont want them to remain
just empty words, bubbles in the air, then the only way to do it is by
shedding blood. Otherwise, all you will get is a better or worse form of
slavery. Once you start talking freedom, how you deserve it, how you
want it, how its been denied you, how you refuse to remain a slave,
youve got to take up arms. There is no other way to fight a slave-
master. True, they did disgrace the Soviet Union, but pragmatically
speaking . . .
EM: I used to think that death is preferable to life on ones knees. But
now Im not so sure. Im beginning to think that any life is better than
JB: True. But still, the question is, what should we remain alive for?
Man is not a rock, he cant exist just for his own sake. Theres always
the what for. I understand that here, in the West, I wont find the
answer. Because when I look around, I dont understand what people
live for. My impression is that they live for the sake of shopping. That
human life exists for the sake of shopping. The only solution is to stay
on the margins, to not get too involvedin shopping, I mean. If I had
grown up here, I dont know what I would have become. This is a very
disorienting feeling. I just dont understand what its all for. It must
be a very Russian, very totalitarian idea that something so good must
come only as a reward, not as a given.
EM: Yes, this is a very Russian way of thinking.
JB: From my perspective, I see what is good in it, but I do not like
it very muchits the illusory multitude of choices. No matter what
you choose it will at best affect only your pocket. But psychologically,
subjectively, as a person, youll be in the same condition you were in
before. Unless you buy a car, which can move you forward. But in
a spiritual sense, this gives nothing, absolutely nothing. Here, you
would need to be an extremely sensitive, exceptionally gifted person,
a person in whom the gift is strong enough to vibrate all the time, so
that the gift is more real than anything else. It must be something

200 1 The Baffler [no.27]

unhealthy, you know? Only a very physiological artist can exist here.
Not a calm, reasonable, normal person with some ideas about life.
Poetry, however, is something else. Im not sure what it requires:
protest, indifference? But in all situations, whether good or bad, when
I managed to put together something passable, I always told myself,
Joseph, you need to take a higher note. Here, Im not sure if a higher
note alone would do it. Because here, life appears as if justice had
triumphed. Its a bewildering thought.
In Leningrad, I know this person, he is a son of an important uni-
versity professor, a terrible scoundrel. So this Mikhail always moans
and complains that he doesnt know what to do, because his daddy has
done this and that, and his hands are in blood to the elbow. Meilakh,
Im talking about the son of Boris Meilakh [Ed. notea leading Soviet
Pushkin scholar, beloved by the Party and government, whose books are a
perfect example of conformist scholarship]. So he lives in his daddys sum-
mer place. I told him to leave it alone, to imagine that he lives on the
family farm.
He quieted down, and then came back, still moaning, but this
time he crawled. So I told him, Mikhail, suppose you are right, you
defend the good, and he defends the evil, and that makes you enemies.
In that case, how do you imagine the triumph of justice?
How? he asked.
The triumph of justice in the end, I told him, will come down to
this very same summer place and all these same . . . Because in their
material design, justice and injustice are identical, correct?
EM: In a sense, this happens to 95 percent of dissenting artists, who
are immediately put in a golden cage.
JB: Exactly.
EM: I wanted to ask whether you agree with Dostoyevsky, his
philosophy of sufferingthat a person can realize himself fully only
through suffering.
JB: No. Through happiness. But thats very rare.
EM: But you said earlier that poetry is inspired by resistance.
JB: Right. Poetry is always a conquesta conquest of someones at-
tention. In the Soviet Union, for example, it happens instantly. You
instantly grab someones attention, maybe two or five or ten people.
How much attention is needed depends on ones vanity. Five people
read you, agree with you, and you are all right. Then there are oth-
ers, like Yevgeny Yevtushenko, who require a full arena. Here in the
West, its more extreme. Here, you need to be able to look calmly into
a void, not expecting it to be inhabited by any applause and so on. And
if a person can stand it . . . No, Dostoyevsky was absolutely right, yes,

The Baffler [no.27] ! 201


through suffering. But perhaps though happiness, too . . .

EM: Thats never happened.
JB: Yes, it has. I know some people, but theyre still in the midst of it.
I dont know yet how it will turn out.
EM: I still believe that the cornerstone of human development must
be suffering. Happiness could be a turning point but not a cornerstone
experience. In theory, I cant imagine how a person can become fully
human without having suffered.
JB: You know, I knew such people. They are a couple, they are very
happy, they simply love each other very much. And they are people of
a very high order.
EM: Maybe they suffered at some early point in their development?
JB: Maybe they did suffer in childhood. I dont know. Who knows
what happens in childhood and why we should make it a foundation
for everything? They werent persecuted, they never lived with other
spouses, they had never been jailed. I know from experience: most
people dont realize themselves through suffering. Most people break
down and turn into something uglyso I wouldnt insist on the thera-
peutic role of suffering.
EM: But the artist suffers when he works.
JB: I wouldnt quite agree with that. I understand how an artist can
be happy when he discovers something new while he works. I believe
that Georges Braque, my favorite painter, was not a sufferer. He didnt
become an artist through suffering. Enormous inner wealth and work
itselfthis is what fulfilled him. Even Marc Chagall is not a sufferer, I
EM: Are there differences between painter, writer, composer?
JB: Of course. The writer is especially like no one else.
EM: Are there differences in the process of creation?
JB: No. Only in the means of creation. Language is a very special
instrument. Because one cant use it freely, any way one wants. Thats
why the writer comes to the process of writing already frustrated. In a
sense, writers, poets, are condemned to suffering a priori. Painters less
so. Composers less still.
EM: You are right. They are so much freer. In Mozarts case, one can
imagine the act of creation as complete liberation.
JB: The longer art exists, the more time passes, the harder it is to
practice, because, among other things, art requires not only what the

202 1 The Baffler [no.27]

artist has to say, but new means, new tools and so on. And this is not
simply an internal process, but is also in a kind of competition with
the past, with whats been already said. And in this regard the writer
is, of course, in the most difficult situation.
EM: I think that a writer, a poet, speaks directly to the audience, the
reader, whereas an artist or a composer addresses himself to nature, to
harmony of the highest level.
JB: I agree that everyone has a different language. A writer certainly
addresses himself to the society, but not only. In the long run, a writer
doesnt really address himself to the society; it is a matter of the inner
life, he is writing for himself. He does it for himself and has to be
more critical of himself than any other artist. Self-imposed quality
control. Musical language allows more leeway. It doesnt box you in on
every side.t

Translated from the Russian by Anna Summers.


The Baffler [no.27] ! 203

Bafflomathy [No. 27]

Danielle Blaus (How Long Now Since p. 113) worked at a Foxconn factory in Shenzhen,
the Mailmans Gone Missing? p. 41) mere eye China. Several of his poems have been translated
was selected for a Poetry Society of America into English by friends of the Nao project and
Chapbook Award. She teaches at the City published at libcom.org. Jessica Loudis (Bubble
University of New York. Joseph Brodsky (Man Butts, p. 16) is coeditor of the essay collection
Is Not a Rock, p. 196), a Nobel Prize winner, was Should I Go to Grad School? Edward Mendelson
a Russian poet. Elizabeth Bruenig (Keeping (Transcendental Rites, p. 173) is the Lionel
Up with the Babadooks, p. 10) is an essayist in Trilling Professor in the Humanities at Columbia
Washington, D.C. Monica Byrnes (Gustus University. His latest book is Moral Agents: Eight
Dei, p. 60) debut novel is The Girl in the Road. Twentieth-Century American Writers. Christina
William Corbett (Berryman Anecdote, p. 157) Moon (Splurge and Purge, p. 8) is an assistant
is a poet, memoirist, and writer on art. He lives in professor in fashion studies at Parsons The New
Brooklyn, where he directs the small press Pressed School. Evgeny Morozov (The Taming of
Wafer. Barbara Ehrenreich (Mind Your Own Tech Criticism, p. 102) is a contributing editor of
Business, p. 70) is a contributing editor of The The Baffler and the author of To Save Everything,
Baffler. Her memoir is Living with a Wild God. Click Here and The Net Delusion. Ludmilla
Lucy Ellmann (Three Strikes! p. 42) was born Petrushevskayas (How Much Women Know,
in Illinois and now lives in Scotland. Her latest p. 191) books include There Once Lived a Girl Who
novel is Mimi. She likes poodles and running for Seduced Her Sisters Husband, and He Hanged Himself:
her life. Ann Friedman (Idle Threads, p. 34) Love Stories. Ben Schwartz (Satirized for Your
is a columnist for New York magazines website. Consumption, p. 144) is an Emmy-nominated
Peter Gizzi (Re-Make/Re-Model, p. 20) is the comedy writer and journalist. George Scialabba
author of several collections of poetry, including (People Who Influence Influential People,
Threshold Songs, The Outernationale, and Artificial p. 114) is a contributing editor of The Baffler and
Heart. David Graeber (Dickheads, p. 30) is a author of What Are Intellectuals Good For? and For
contributing editor of The Baffler. His latest book the Republic. Manohar Shetty (Haut Monde,
is The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and p. 172) is a poet and fiction writer who lives in
the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy. J. C. Hallman (The Goa, India. His new book is Goa Travels: Being the
Monk Retires, p. 184) is the author of The Chess Accounts of Travellers from the 16th to the 21st Century.
Artist, The Hospital for Bad Poets, and Wm & Hry. Jacob Silvermans (VCs Take the Media, p. 92)
His book on the work of Nicholson BakerB & book, Terms of Service: Social Media, Surveillance,
Me: A True Story of Literary Arousalarrives this and the Price of Constant Connection, is published in
month. Russell Jacoby (All Hail the Grumbler! March. John Summers (To the Ninety-Nines,
p. 120) is the author of Bloodlust: On the Roots p. 6) is editor in chief of The Baffler. Catherine
of Violence from Cain and Abel to the Present, The Tumber (Buffalo Exchange, p. 128) is a
Last Intellectuals, and other works. He teaches contributing editor of The Baffler and the author
in the history department at UCLA. Caroline of Small, Gritty, and Green. Carl Van Vechten
Knoxs (Why would the Minoans, p. 75) ninth (Harlem Women, p. 179), an early twentieth-
book, To Drink Boiled Snow, will appear this fall. century writer, photographed many artists of the
Chris Lehmann (Purple Reign, p. 76) is senior Harlem Renaissance. Eugenia Williamson
editor of The Baffler, coeditor of Bookforum, and (The Revolution Will Probably Wear Mom
the author of Rich People Things. John Lingan Jeans, p. 22) is a contributing editor of The Baffler.
(Toxically Pure, p. 158) lives in Maryland. Xu Translators
Lizhi (I Swallowed a Moon Made of Iron, Anna Summers, friends of the Nao project.

204 1 The Baffler [no.27]


Graphic Artists
Karen Barbour, Hallie Bateman, Lou Beach, Philip Burke, Hollie Chastain,
Joseph Ciardiello, Mark Dancey, Sofia Drescher, Michael Duffy,
Albrecht Drer, Hans Eijkelboom, Randall Enos, Lucia Fainzilber,
Chris Ferrantello, Mark Fisher, Patrick JB Flynn, Walter Gurbo, Lisa Haney,
Brad Holland, David Hughes, David Johnson, Victor Juhasz, Lewis Koch,
Amanda Konishi, Stephen Kroninger, Lauren Lancaster, Tim Lane,
Pete Mueller, Sol Robbins, Hazel Lee Santino, Eleanor Shakespeare,
Katherine Streeter, David Suter, David Torke, Carl Van Vechten,
Spencer Walts, and Simon Weller.

The front cover of this issue of The Baffler is illustrated

by Chris Ferrantello. The reproduction on the back cover
is from Albrecht Drer, a 1504 engraving.

Hoefler Text and Gotham typefaces are employed throughout the pages of The Baffler.

The Baffler [no.27] ! 205

C on t e n t P rov i sion s

Feeling the urge to send us a letter? You are warmly invited to muster every
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Poetry with grace and fiction with personality are most welcome; anything
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will be printed out and lit on fire.
All contributions to The Baffler are paid (a little).

Invite Us
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At this point, you feel a pang of courage. Sure, your boss and his boss above
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206 1 The Baffler [no.27]


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E xh i bi t F 5 Hans Eijkelboom


People of the Twenty-First Century.

208 1 The Baffler [no.27]




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