Against Everything, by Mark Greif, Pantheon Books, 304 pages, $28.95
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Most of the essays in Mark Greif’s smart, profound, and sometimes frustrating collection, Against Everything, were published first in n+1, the magazine that he co-founded in Brooklyn in 2004. As Greif tells us in his preface, n+1 was conceived as a venue for “a kind of literature that didn’t exist elsewhere.” That is: a cultural and political criticism that might engage a generation alienated by the middlebrow faux-mandarin style of venerable US periodicals, but would also shun the inward obscurantism of the post-theoretical academy. In both respects, the magazine consciously recalls certain journals from the middle of the twentieth century—notably, Partisan Review—and public intellectuals of the time: Lionel Trilling, Mary McCarthy, Susan Sontag. Greif’s first book, The Age of the Crisis of Man (2015), was a study of the universal disquiet of that period; his second is a good test of whether mid-century seriousness will stand revival today.
The best essays Greif wrote for early issues of n+1, a number of which appear in Against Everything, are actually indebted to a different intellectual tradition. They read as if the Roland Barthes of Mythologies, or the LA-exiled Theodor Adorno of Minima Moralia, were deposited amid post-millennial American culture. “Against Exercise” is an ingenious tirade contra the bio-politics of self-preservation and improvement, the machinic and numerical fantasies that some of us act out at the gym in lieu of manual labor or weekend sports. Exercise becomes a type of labor, or punishment: “Were ‘In the Penal Colony’ to be written today, Kafka could only be speaking of an exercise machine.” Greif’s essay “On Food” skewers the present madness of “making of eating a ‘hobby’”—like Barthes, he discerns in contemporary food culture a set of almost metaphysical meanings, with attendant bathos. Like Adorno, he remarks that sexual liberation easily cedes to mere liberalization, as sex is everywhere but sexual freedom still moot: a theme pursued with admirable self-scrutiny in “Afternoon of the Sex Children.”
What such essays do not often aim at is sustained analysis of individual cultural products, never mind what we might still want to call works of art. At one point Greif opines: “We do not live in an age of the arts.” He means that the barely authored texture of design, technology, and fashion has smothered the specifics of novels, paintings, and symphonies. He may have a point. But what of pop music, movies, and television? Something odd happens to Greif’s canny style when he turns toward music, as in his much-admired 2005 essay “Radiohead, or the Philosophy of Pop.” While arguing (entirely conventionally) that pop music provokes feelings of defiance rather than genuine revolution, Greif sticks earnestly to the British band’s lyrics, almost ignoring their existence as, and immersion in, sound. When he does try another tack, the results are stilted at best: “Their music had started as guitar rock, but with the albums Kid A and Amnesiac the keyboard asserted itself.” It’s as if Greif is writing at some debilitating remove, and can hear the band only as symptom of its age.
The more essays I read anew or revisited in Against Everything, the more I wondered what this hampering distance consisted of, exactly. (It’s present also in essays on reality TV and on Greif’s slow, grudging appreciation of hip-hop: his “critique” hardly snags for more than a sentence or two on discrete examples.) The problem has to do I’d venture with the special version of critical seriousness that Greif has inherited from his public-intellectual precursors, a tone with which he has identified strongly but perhaps feels himself unable to match. Most of these pieces were written when the author was in his twenties and thirties, vexing himself as to “why so much around me seemed to be false, and contemptible.” His governing urge is toward a generalizing sociology of contemporary culture—there is a good deal here about “we” and “you,” and all involved seem to be American—but also a persistent anxiety about what it means to be an intellectual today, especially an intellectual who feels the approach of middle age. In a sense, the argumentative spine of Against Everything is a series of more or less explicit reflections on the category of experience, and whether it is ethical to want to opt out of experience, given the debased forms of it given us today.
Such reflections risk making Greif’s critical project seem both vague and solipsistic—not to mention “privileged,” a term one hardly heard at the time n+1 started. Greif knows this, and perhaps also knows that the moment for invoking, or reviving, the generalist public intellectualism of old has long passed. In the latter reaches of Against Everything, he is at his best when he is most precise. A raging, scrupulous essay on the idea and reality of the police is probably the best example. It begins with a remarkable passage on the ease with which police officers may touch other citizens—not even violently, not at first—and moves on to discuss the political-philosophical anomaly of policing, its failure to fit any reputable model of the democratic state. At such moments Greif appears to have parlayed his earlier critical persona into a more exact and alert form of witness: the essay as metaphysical reportage.
Greif’s title—Against Everything—recalls Against Interpretation. Regardless, any youngish American intellectual of Greif’s wit and range will inevitably be compared with Sontag, usually to no useful end. As a critic Greif is quite unlike Sontag, who was fiercely partisan about the most advanced forms of art and literature, at least early in her career. He is unlike her too in his almost total focus on American affairs, in the ease with which he speaks of “the nation.” But Greif resembles Sontag in a singular respect: he seems torn between an informed focus on a political or aesthetic event, and the temptation to pronounce generally, deploying that always suspicious “we.” On the evidence of Against Everything, I would love to read a Greif who was less eager to sketch “the intellectual situation”—as they say at n+1—and more willing to adventure into its interstices, to figure what things feel like, what they sound like.
Brian Dillon’s books include The Great Explosion (Penguin, 2015), Objects in This Mirror: Essays (Sternberg Press, 2014), The Hypochondriacs (Faber & Faber, 2009), and In the Dark Room (Penguin, 2005). He is UK editor of Cabinet magazine and teaches at the Royal College of Art, London. He is writing a book about essays and essayists.