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)

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