Tag Archives: John Summers

The Baffler: The Blunted Cutting Edge

8 Sep

One of life’s mysteries that evades my understanding is why magazines which give thoughtful analysis and critique to the avalanching dysfunction of modern civilization (especially as exhibited by the most powerful nation in the known world) do not have greater followings and readership. Not least on my list of under-appreciated publications is the Baffler

The Baffler  covers

The Baffler covers

Given the  dissatisfaction, all too frequently misdirected, that citizens and other residents of the US of A we are told, frequently express in opinion polls, you’d think there would be a rising movement to seek out answers in other than the unusual places , from other thah the usual commentators. Another one of the great mysteries I contemplate is how persistent foreign policy critic Noam Chomsky has been effectively marginalized by a huge chorus of apologists and publicists for the regnant “enlightened states” foreign policies.But that is the subject for another time.

 No Future For You: Salvos from The Baffler by editors John Summers, Chris Lehmann, Thomas Frank anthologizes 19 essays and articles from the recently resurrected issues The Baffler website explains:

There’s never been a better time to be outside the consensus — and if you don’t believe it, then peer into these genre-defining essays from The Baffler, the magazine that’s been blunting the cutting edge of American culture and politics for a quarter of a century. Here’s Thomas Frank on the upward-falling cult of expertise in Washington, D.C., where belonging means getting the major events of our era wrong. Here’s Rick Perlstein on direct mail scams, multilevel marketing, and the roots of right-wing lying. Here’s John Summers on the illiberal uses of innovation in liberal Cambridge, Massachusetts. And here’s David Graeber sensing our disappointment in new technology. (We expected teleportation pods, antigravity sleds, and immortality drugs. We got LinkedIn, which, as Ann Friedman writes here, is an Escher staircase masquerading as a career ladder.)


No Future for You:  by John Summers  , Chris Lehmann , Thomas Frank

No Future for You:
by John Summers , Chris Lehmann , Thomas Frank

Packed with hilarious, scabrous, up to-the-minute criticism of the American comedy, No Future for Youdebunks “positive thinking” bromides and business idols. Susan Faludi debunks Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg’s phony feminist handbook, Lean In. Evgeny Morozov wrestles “open source” and “Web 2.0″ and other pseudorevolutionary meme-making down to the ground. Chris Lehmann writes the obituary of the Washington Post, Barbara Ehrenreich goes searching for the ungood God in Ridley Scott’s film Prometheus, Heather Havrilesky reads Fifty Shades of Grey, and Jim Newell investigates the strange and typical case of Adam Wheeler, the student fraud who fooled Harvard and, unlike the real culprits, went to jail.

The anthology’s preface provides some background:

The Baffler born in ye olde 1988 was present at the uncreative destruction of American thought and culture.We declined back then to bow before the golden calves of the one and only future, freshly polished and hosannahed by the cyber prophets and generally greeted the messaging campaign of the boom years with a chorus of derisive horse laughs.And when the gilded swindle finally collapsed from the weight of its own sleaziness and the country embarked on its present course of jobless recovery, progress free innovation and unparalleled corporate profits we heard the call. Consensus -makers form both parties woke up in 2008 long enough to rescue the perpetrators of the fraud, then promptly fell asleep while the banks went back to business and we began writing the  salvos you now have lodged between your eyeballs.

Michael Patrick Brady opines in his Boston Globe review

“No Future for You” is by no means a light read — it’s a litany of dark, downcast diatribes that assumes its readers already know that our “postindustrial” society is in the throes of “late capitalism.” But beyond the rhetorical theatrics, the collection serves as 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.

Of the numerous offerings ( also placed under the rubric of salvos defined as sudden, vigorous, or aggressive act or series of acts) I particularly want to point out John Summers’s The People’s Republic of Zukerstan</em> his articulate unpacking of the realities of the so-called Innovation Economy. Here’s a sample:

And so we arrive at the ultimate contradiction of the Innovation Economy’s mode of development. As we have observed, this new republic depends on reengineering the cultural environment. For the market’s winnings, a frame of acceptance must be created to justify the community’s losses. Irony must erode, so that corporate entrepreneurs can be presented as nonconformists; nonprofits must absorb surplus profit, so that hundreds of millions of dollars in government payments, grants, and contracts, along with tax incentives, subsidies, and exemptions, can be banked for subsequent transfer to the market; even the old method of “clustering” must sound futuristic, so that its actual origins in socialist redoubts like New York’s Greenwich Village (today an innovation hub, naturally) can be forgotten.

The Innovation Economy necessitates such cultural changes, but it offers no independent argument for freely choosing them. Instead, the manifest destiny of business touts innovation as if it were synonymous with progress, rather than one among its many necessary qualities, and leaves it at that.

So you can be sure the next time a wealthy college dropout like Mark Zuckerberg filches a banal idea from a couple of wealthier classmates and wants to beat them to midmarket, he need not ride the golden carpet to Silicon Valley and let Stanford or Cal Tech garner all the credit and cash. In Cambridge, teams of elites will regulate the general production from startup to corporate behemoth and make it easy for him to optimize the same thing today that he optimized yesterday. The new man of the Innovation Ideology will be free to code in the morning, head to the laboratory in the afternoon, and brag after dinner, without ever having to read books.

Innovation for what else? Not for art, literature, music, history, dance, sculpture, painting, philosophy, religion, poetry, or drama, the traditional means by which a diverse community grows conscious and formulates its standards of value. The governor of Massachusetts won’t be stopping by your office to encourage you in your efforts at moral reasoning about philanthropy, the state legislature won’t be allocating millions of dollars in matching grants for your next novel about how the homeless live, and the websites that have replaced the newspapers won’t report on your subway concert. And there is no good reason for this, except this is how business wants it.

Here’s an 2012 conversation with editor-in-chief John Summers:

John Summers [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

John Summers [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

PS: Another salvo

Currently reading The Human Age: The World Shaped By Us by Diane Ackerman (WW Norton)

Who Took that Photo ? Part II

7 Jun

Before television (in fact, before rural electrification) periodicals did what some tv programs still attempt to do. Before Henry Luce invented Life magazine, his pet project was Fortune (upon which he concentrated his fawning attention and upon which he lavished many dollars, employing talented artists, accomplished or yet to be. James Agee before he made his mark (Let Us Now Praise Famous Men) (he was awarded Yale’s Younger Poets prize in 1934), was hired to travel to southeastern Alabama to write about white tenant farmers.He was joined by Walker Evans and they spent two months in Hale County, Alabama, living with three different tenant families. The fruits of that project were never published (until recently). The newly renascent Baffler #19, editor John Summers takes great pride in uncovering and publishing a good chunk of this mislaid gem. As John Jeremiah Sullivan observes

That’s the first thing to be said about this essay: Fortune was crazy not to run it. It was a failure of nerve, and a lost chance at running one of the great magazine pieces from that era. But who knows? It’s possible no one ever actually read it. I’ve worked at many magazines; you’d be stunned. Also: fifty pages on malnourished, fatigue-racked poor people? It was Fortune. Magazines do like having advertisers. Which only makes what The Baffler and Melville House have done more valuable.

 Cotton Tenants: Three Families by ames Agee and Walker Evans

Cotton Tenants: Three Families by James Agee and Walker Evans

Sullivan is referring to the recently published 30,000 word essay in book form, Cotton Tenants: Three Families James Agee and Walker Evans’ (Melville House) with an introduction by John Summers. I leave it to you suss outwhat it signifies that 70 plus years later Fortune magaizne is a running a review of the book in its June 10 issue

Here are some of Evans’s photos:

Photograph: Walker Evans

Photograph: Walker Evans

Photograph; Walker Evans

Photograph; Walker Evans

Photograph: Walker Evans

Photograph: Walker Evans

and a slide show here

This Is the Day: The March on Washington  by  Leonard Freed

This Is the Day: The March on Washington by
Leonard Freed

And yet another reminder of the power and poignancy of black and white photography is This Is the Day: The March on Washington (Getty Publications) by Magnum photographer Leonard Freed with textual embellishment by Michael Eric Dyson, Paul Farber and Julian Bond.The March, you will recall, took place on August 28, 1963 with a quarter of a million people gathered at the National Mall in Washington, D.C. in a peaceful protest demanding equal rights and economic equality for African Americans. It was where Martin Luther King declaimed his famous “I have a dream…” Though
Malcolm X did refer to the march as the “Farce on Washington.”

Freed’s tome includes 79 images culled from innumerable photos he shot that day—before, during, and after the march. Included in this array is an account of the preparations leading up to the march by civil rights activist,author and statesman Julian Bond and some thoughts on its significance by Dyson.

You can find a sampling of Freed’s photographs here

Reproduced in This Is the Day: The March on Washington. © Estate of Leonard Freed – Magnum Photos (Brigitte Freed).

Reproduced in This Is the Day: The March on Washington. © Estate of Leonard Freed – Magnum Photos (Brigitte Freed).

Reproduced in This Is the Day: The March on Washington. © Estate of Leonard Freed – Magnum Photos (Brigitte Freed).

Reproduced in This Is the Day: The March on Washington. © Estate of Leonard Freed – Magnum Photos (Brigitte Freed).

Reproduced in This Is the Day: The March on Washington. © Estate of Leonard Freed – Magnum Photos (Brigitte Freed).

Reproduced in This Is the Day: The March on Washington. © Estate of Leonard Freed – Magnum Photos (Brigitte Freed).

Reproduced in This Is the Day: The March on Washington. © Estate of Leonard Freed – Magnum Photos (Brigitte Freed).

Reproduced in This Is the Day: The March on Washington. © Estate of Leonard Freed – Magnum Photos (Brigitte Freed).

Reproduced in This Is the Day: The March on Washington. © Estate of Leonard Freed – Magnum Photos (Brigitte Freed).

Reproduced in This Is the Day: The March on Washington. © Estate of Leonard Freed – Magnum Photos (Brigitte Freed).

Currently reading The Celestials by Karen Shepard (Tin House)

Gorgeous George

7 May
For The Republic by George Scialabba

For The Republic by George

That the flames of ambition have turned to fading embers did not prevent me from attending what will be (ostensibly) my only book party of the year.That the fete was hosted by the inimitable Katherine Powers (whose tome Suitable Accommodations is forthcoming later this summer)was,of course, an encouraging sign. In my past, larger life I was a diligent and ubiquitous attendent of all manner of festivities: commercial, artistic , personal, cultural, callow networking and so on.Now, recognizing the low value of most of those events and having calmed down significantly, I have a preference for remaining within the confines of my somnambulistic zip code. In this instance trekking over to Cambridge for the celebration of George Scailabba’s latest and 4th opus. For the Republic: Political Essays (Pressed Wafer books) balanced out the ordeal of battling traffic as I crossed the Charles River.

The affair turned out to be attended by a lively and congenial gaggle of George’s admirers. Among the illustrious attendees were John Summers, editor of the Baffler; Susan Faludi, a Baffler contributor and well-known social critic; novelists Russ Reimer, Leslie Lawrence, Monica Hileman, and Jane Unrue; George Kovach and Cat Parnell of Consequence Magazine; Lindsay Waters of Harvard University Press; and too many other literary eminences to mention.

For a number of not very good reasons you probably have not heard of George. This is partially explained by Scott McLemee in his 2006 profile:

George Scialabba is an essayist and critic working at Harvard University who has just published a volume of selected pieces under the title Divided Mind, issued by a small press in Boston called Arrowsmith. The publisher does not have a Web site. You cannot, as yet, get Divided Mind through Amazon, though it is said to be available in a few Cambridge bookstores. This may be the future of underground publishing: Small editions, zero publicity, and you have to know the secret password to get a copy. [contact information for Pressed Wafer Press is at the bottom of this page —for anyone inclined to put a check in the mail.*)

When interviewed for his 2009 tome What Are Intellectuals Good For?(Pressed Wafer) George was asked his preference “bad writers who are politically congenial or good writers whose politics he dislikes?”

It’s a complex question,” he says, “leading in all sorts of directions. I’m going to offer a simplified and peremptory answer. Better good writers with bad politics than bad writers with good politics. The former teach us how to think (and feel and imagine); the latter merely what to think. Knowing how to think is incomparably more important. Unless most people know how to think, there can’t be genuine democracy.”

In 2012 with the publication of his (then)most recent collection of essays, The Modern Predicament(Pressed Wafer), here’s his answer to the query,” What, in brief, is the modern predicament? Which authors, and what lived experience in history, most shaped your understanding of it?”:

Modernity is the ensemble of changes – intellectual, political, economic, social, cultural, technological, aesthetic – that have altered the world drastically since roughly the 17th century, until which time the world was, in the above respects, far less different from the world of any previous epoch of recorded history than it is from the world of today. The modern predicament is the set of problems these changes have bequeathed us.

One problem is our loss of ontological, social, and psychological embeddedness. Formerly, the meaning and purposes of life were, to a far greater extent, simply given for most people by the religious, family, and societal structures in which they were born and grew up. Very few people, and even those people to a limited extent, were expected or encouraged to become individuals, free to make fundamental choices about love, religion, occupation, political allegiance, even location. Only a tiny elite could aspire to an individual identity and an individual history.

Nowadays everyone, or at least most people in the rich countries – I realize that this still leaves out most of humankind – can be an individual. But that turns out to be difficult. Over millions of years, we evolved characters and psyches that needed to be held in and held up by intense bonds, usually provided by strong families and local communities. For many reasons – economic development, geographical mobility, religious tolerance, the rise of nation-states, the emancipation of women – those bonds have weakened over the last few centuries. The resulting freedom obviously has enormous benefits for the previously unindividuated. But for many people it also has costs: isolation, loneliness, purposelessness, powerlessness, and hyperstimulation.

The modern predicament, then, is the difficulty of finding a sane, harmonious balance among all the vast and various consequences of science, technology, democracy, mass literacy, feminism, and the other forms of modern progress.

My own involvement with these questions began in college, when the devout Catholicism in which I was brought up – I was actually a member of the traditionalist religious order Opus Dei – met and was vanquished by the 18th- and 19th-century secular critique of religion. For some years after that I was not only a passionate anti-clericalist and philosophical materialist (as I still am), but also a fervent believer in progress as a fairly linear process, a smooth upward slope in which all that was necessary was to complete the long march through all the orthodoxies, religious, political, and sexual, which the Enlightenment had begun.

Then, in my thirties, I encountered the two most important (for me) critics of modernity, D.H. Lawrence and Christopher Lasch. Lawrence was a kind of Hebrew prophet, not of righteousness but of the body, and against what he perceived (at least in early-20th-century-England) as a disastrous over-valuing of the mental, the conceptual, the explicit – what used to be called, roughly from Kant to G.E. Moore, the Ideal. He was a pagan, reasserting the importance of all the wisdom that had been forgotten in the course of the (necessary) rejection of traditional religion and metaphysics. He was also the finest prose stylist I had ever encountered, so I was (and still am) blown away. His essays, collected in the two volumes of Phoenix: The Posthumous Papers are one of the great neglected resources of European culture. I try to say why in the essay “Shipwrecked” in The Modern Predicament.

Lawrence was a bit archaic and exotic; Christopher Lasch was as American as apple pie or Walt Whitman. With different materials and a completely different intellectual and verbal style from Lawrence, he made a subtly parallel argument about the forgotten wisdom of pre-modernity, in particular of the producerist, or yeoman, or civic republican tradition. I’ve written about him at length in both What Are Intellectuals Good For? and The Modern Predicament, but I’m still coming to terms with him.

Morten Høi Jensen has an accurate, succinct take on George Scialabba

… Scialabba’s eloquent prose and boundless literary-intellectual reserves shrug off these claims to redundancy. He is a natural heir to the critics whose lives, works, and careers he explicated so sympathetically in What Are Intellectuals Good For?: Dwight Macdonald, Nicola Chiaromonte, Lionel Trilling, Randolph Bourne, Irving Howe. He is a counterargument to his own claims about generalists. Reading George Scialabba emphasizes the need for more George Scialabbas.

For the Republic is divided into 4 sections: Theories, Thinkers, Plutocratic Vistas and Rant which include ruminations on a wide array of sages and savants—IF STone, Gore Vidal.the Christophers(Lasch and Hitchens),Tony Judt, Thomas Friedman, Edmund Wilson, George Orwell,Victor Serge and Ed Hirsch.In his Introduction to For the Republic Rutgers History mentor Jackson Lears concludes:

But if the forces of inevitability triumph (as their prophets claim they inevitably will), it will not be George Scialabba’s fault. Through the dark decades of Reaganism and neoliberalism, he helped us sort through the portentous trivia and see (against all odds) what really matters…One is reminded of William James, who (according to John Jay Chapman)always seemed as if “he stepped out this sadness in order to meet you.” Sometimes even everyday acts require a quiet heroism. We can only be grateful that Scialabba, like James, has continued to summon it.

George Scialabba (photo: Robert Birnbaum

George Scialabba (photo: Robert Birnbaum

*McClemee writes “the publisher seems to be avoiding crass commercialism (not to mention convenience to the reader) by keeping Divided Mind out of the usual online bookselling venues. You can order it from the address below for $13, however. That price includes shipping and handling:Arrowsmith, 11 Chestnut Street, Medford, MA 02155″
And For the Republic can be gotten at Harvard Bookstore or from Pressed Wafer, 375 Parkside Ave, Brooklyn NY 11226. Or from Amazon.

Currently reading Snapper by Brian Kimberling (Pantheon)

The New Baffler

3 Apr

By now, if you are the kind of person that I hope you are, you are aware that a great beacon of reason,the modern era’s answer to the Smart Set or American Mercury, The Baffler has been rekindled with a 2/3 of its editorial troika intact. Veteran Baffleroids,Thomas Frank (Pity the Poor Billionaire) and Chris Lehman(Rich People’s Things) join editor-in-chief,historian John Summers (Masscult and Midcult: Essays Against the American Grain, editor ) ,in the resurrection of this much lauded and much needed critical voice.

Of course the above mentioned make their presence felt with signature long form essays along with familiar muck rakers such as Barbara Ehrenreich, Rick Perlstein, Dubravka Ugrešić and the wretched of the earth’s newest hero, David Graeber. Additionally, there are a number of enjoyable discoveries, not the least of which is “Omniscient Gentlemen of The Atlantic” by Maureen Tkacik— an enthusiastically iconoclastic expose of the once highly esteemed Atlantic and (David Bradley), its current 1 %er ownership.

Ms Tkacik opens her vivisection by describing her attendance at one of the Atlantic’s Idea Forum (which she points out is one of the, uh, whatchamacallits that are taking the new Atlantic to an unsightly, newly found profitability):

The din of younger colleagues tapping keyboards is never soothing, but sitting in the press room of the Ideas Forum felt like a human rights violation. What could anyone write about something so tyrannically dull— other than an angry elegy for the massacre of meaning? The average C-SPAN 3 segment is a crowd-pleasing cliffhanger by com- parison. Mind flickering between rage and somnolence, I tried my best to keep awake by writing notes.

In the peroration of her piece the well-travelled Ms Tkacik cites a tragically-ignored article by Andy Grove (formerly of Intel) as what I identify asher coup de grace:

The Bradley-subsidized chattering class in- stinctively knows to tune out altogether more articulate assessments of our plight, such as former Intel CEO Andy Grove’s withering indictment of free-market dogma in a sum- mer 2010 Bloomberg Businessweek cover story. Grove blamed the economic malaise on a sick cultural deification of “the guys in the garage inventing something that changes the world” at the expense of anyone involved in what happened afterward. His lament was the most eloquent tribute to the symbiosis of design and production and imagination and reality I’d read since Mao’s 1937 essay “On Practice,” which declared “man’s knowledge depends mainly on his activity in material production.” The Thought Leaders of our own political leadership class would never know about Grove’s broadside, though—it was greeted by a Washington-wide wall of silence. (Indeed, the one wayward D.C. player who did take it to heart—former SEIU chieftain Andy Stern— was reduced to imploring unsympathetic readers of the Wall Street Journal op-ed sec- tion to search online for Grove’s essay some sixteen months after it appeared.)

What mystified Grove was the assertion, voiced by the economist Alan Blinder and others, “that as long as ‘knowledge work’ stays in the U.S., it doesn’t matter what happens to factory jobs.” This was not only inhumane, Grove declared; it was idiotic.

But it is why the ideas, so-called, that inspire the omniscient gentlemen of The Atlantic are flat: their world is, literally, flat. Habitual “bipartisanship” has given way to a tendency to level the playing field between reality and fiction…

And in case you have any questions (you don’t do you?) about what value Ms Tkacik places on the Bradley owned enterprise, she is not hesitant to expostulate:

Comrades: I hope that you want to throw up now, because I have run clean out of bile to waste on the mental morlocks who think up this sort of shit.

Yes, indeed. Which I can assure you is not the stuff of which the Baffler is constituted.

Currently reading Mission to Paris by Alan Furst (Random House)

Contra Samuel Johnson

25 Dec

Sadly (maybe not), I can’t pay myself for my writing. Well, that’s if I follow the sentiment of well known 18th century crank Samuel Johnson (“No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.”) So, there are conversations, notices and other tidbits and hors dourness that appear in other places that I can lay claim to;

As for example is my longwinded by delightful chat with Sven Birkerts

Sven Birkerts copyright 2011 Robert Birnbaum

And my enumeration of books exhibiting a feast of visual images at The Daily Beast

Saul Bass: A Life in Film & Design

Coming soon chats with BAFFLER editor John Sunmmers and BAFFLER founder THomas Frank

Baffler editor John Summers copyright 2011 Robert Birnbaum

Currently reading Pity the Poor Billionaire by Thomas Frank (Henry Holt)


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