SEPTEMBER 5, 2016
IT IS SAFE to assume that Mark Greif’s fans have been waiting for him to put out a collection of essays for some time. Greif was, after all, the most prolific prodigy in that class of gifted and talented writers responsible for bringing us n+1, the magazine that effectively remade the intellectual scene in New York City. Launched in 2004 and modeled on midcentury little magazines like The Partisan Review and Dissent, n+1 met a desperate need, providing a platform for serious debate outside the university, where relatively unknown writers could think long and hard about politics, culture, literature, sociology, and philosophy, and reach an audience of like-minded interlocutors. The magazine aspired to publish pieces free of the jargon that tends to fence in academic writing, yet equally rigorous, more broadly relevant, and far more enjoyable to read — and Greif showed everyone how it could and should be done.
The release of Against Everything, a collection that features many of Greif’s best essays, offers a good occasion to consider what it was that made his early work so singularly powerful. His topics do not always seem auspicious. He rails against exercise, but then who hasn’t? Surely right now someone is gaping into a storefront gym and thinking: Look at all those idiots chained to their machines! He finds foodies elitist, but that’s practically a tautology. He contemplates Radiohead, the band that launched a thousand think-pieces. Worst of all, he tries to define the hipster — a task that seems practically guaranteed to inspire a degree of pretension in excess even of those who fall into that category. How does Greif get away with it? What is so great about the way he handles these subjects? The obvious answer is his intelligence, but that doesn’t quite suffice; it’s not what sets him apart. Though his writing wouldn’t be as effective if he were not so smart, its appeal depends upon a somewhat different virtue.
Greif is dedicated, claims Harper’s critic William Deresiewicz, to defending “the values of adulthood — dignity, responsibility, restraint, civilization — in an age of perpetual immaturity.” Though maturity is one of his central themes, Greif’s preface to Against Everything makes it clear that Deresiewicz is only half right. There Greif remembers wondering aloud, as he and his mother walked to and from Walden Pond, what Thoreau might have said about all the human follies they observed around them. “I identify with my mother, as she was then, an adult, who knows that many things don’t change, and with myself, as I was then, a child, who knew that life was not worth entering if it couldn’t become better than it is. And I speak as myself now, still learning to be different than I am.” Notice: Greif deliberately places himself neither in adulthood nor in childhood, but oscillating between; the critic is not one who has matured, but one who is maturing; his knowledge dependent not on being, but on perpetually becoming an adult. All of Greif’s preoccupations can be explained by his need to inhabit this narrow threshold. The questions he asks are almost always preternaturally innocent. Why do we do the things the way we do? Couldn’t we do them differently? Greif’s abiding enthusiasm for punk rock, his discomfort/fascination with the human body, his interest in keeping up with the latest trends on YouTube — all of these are signs of an adolescence extended, or a yearning to extend it indefinitely. Reflecting at the end of one essay on what he has just offered his readers, he audaciously calls it “a meaning of life” — and though the indefinite article is designed to qualify its presumption, the phrase nevertheless claims a knowledge that only the young imagine the old have. To be wise is good, but far better to be wise beyond one’s years. Greif, who was not yet 30 when he helped launch n+1, understands his aspiration perfectly well; his work is committed to mining the ephemeral resources of precocity in order to preserve them against the corrosions of adult cynicism. In “Gut-Level Legislation, or, Redistribution” he proposes capping income at $100,000 and redistributing the rest. It’s an insanely but also deliberately quixotic proposal. Greif’s point is that certain ideas may be no less valid because only a child would take them seriously. He wants adulthood, but a better adulthood, one in which the concepts of unfeasibility and impracticality have been unlearned.
If we consider Greif’s audience, the attractiveness of his stance becomes obvious. It’s no surprise that post-college kids living in Williamsburg or similar neighborhoods where indie rock venues thrive, where bookstores display the heady continental texts that one never finished in college, and where drinking binges and hookups can happen at any moment, have been drawn to such graceful defenses of remaining forever poised on the brink of grown-up life. To be sure, an array of socioeconomic developments has conspired, since the 1990s, to produce the collective prolonged adolescence that has become such a prominent feature of most US cities. The decreasing number of jobs paying salaries commensurate with the cost of living alongside the growing need to get advanced degrees has extended the time during which kids are dependent on their parents’ support. Large majorities of educated women have elected to postpone parenthood as long as possible for fear of missing career opportunities. The destruction wrought by the internet upon fields like journalism, book publishing, and music have made it harder for those seeking jobs in such fields, i.e. intellectuals, to take on adult responsibilities. And finally the perpetual crisis of the academic humanities has only worsened, creating a semi-permanent underclass of abysmally paid adjuncts. To all of the aspiring writers, artists, musicians, directors, and academics living it up but unsure what they will do for a living, Greif offers a reassuring view of their predicament. No need to rush! Where you are now is fine. You will have to grow up someday, but the best way to get there is to take advantage of this strange in-between phase to develop hopes and commitments resilient enough to withstand what is coming next.
But in order to offer redemption to his readers, Greif must preach. “This is not the future we wanted,” he laments. Becoming an adult means taking on the responsibilities that follow from the childlike view that the world can be different from how it is now. His analysis does, to be sure, often sound more sociological than moralistic. When describing the eroticization of youth, for instance, he refuses to blame individuals, arguing, “It took the whole history of postwar American culture to make the sex child.” And yet, even as he identifies mass social phenomena, he seems to hold each individual responsible for perpetuating the trend. His frequent use of “you” accomplishes both purposes at once. Explaining the motives behind hookup culture, he remarks, “You would like to know how somebody particular will kiss, what a particular body looks like, what you, personally, are capable of, what the postures of bliss will be.” While the unbounded scope of “you” allows it to designate a set of transpersonal, learned habits of desire that structure a given social system, the tone is admonitory, and thus Greif also seems to be pointing his finger at “you, personally” — the individual reader who is perfectly free to eschew the dispassionate sexual connoisseurship that he is documenting.
Moreover, Greif’s motives for his hectoring postures are only sometimes political, which means his grounds for urgency are often unorthodox, at least within the genre of intellectual nonfiction. What you choose to do matters to Greif, not just because it may either support or challenge injustice, inequality, and so forth, but because it will make you either happy or unhappy. His project thus violates the premise shared by libertarians and leftists alike that an individual’s actions matter only when they affect other people. Greif wants to meddle in our lives, not just for the sake of the collective good, but for the sake of the individual, for your sake, to make sure that you do the serious thinking necessary to achieve self-fulfillment. Thus, Greif treats private lifestyle choices — what music to like, what television shows to watch, what thoughts to have while navigating everyday routines — as gravely important. Advising his readers on how to lead their best lives, Greif can sound like a perversely sophisticated inspirational thinker or self-help author.
There is something potentially embarrassing, then, about what Greif does in his essays. He hints that this is deliberate in his reading of Radiohead, one of the smartest pieces in the book. Greif observes:
There is a characteristic affect that follows from a medium [pop] that allows you to retain and reactivate forms of knowledge and experience which you are “supposed to” forget or which are “supposed to” disappear by themselves — and “supposed to” here isn’t nefarious, it simply means that social forms, convention, conformity, and just plain intelligent speech don’t allow you to speak of these things, or make them embarrassing when you do.
Producing a space within which socially unacceptable feelings and thoughts become viable, pop music activates not revolution but “defiance.” The words may be indefensible, embarrassing, or irrational, but we believe them when we sing them. Radiohead’s lyrics, Greif admits, often consist of clichés, “phrases of self-help,” “junk slogans,” yet they are powerful because they are encased in noise: “You have to imagine the music drawing a series of outlines around [Thom Yorke], a house, a tank, the stars of space, or an architecture of almost abstract pipes and tubes, cogs and wheels, ivy and thorns, servers and boards, beams and voids.”
This description can serve as an apt account of what Greif intends when he struggles to give certain childlike visions of how life might be a compelling form. But if his aim is to produce an effect similar to that of rock music — and he admits that he wishes his essays could be as captivating as a Dinosaur Jr. album or a Fugazi show — then what plays the role of the noise, the insulation that protects his embarrassing thoughts from contempt or mockery? It has to be, of course, the only quasi-musical resource he has at his disposal: his style.
Consider the following sentence: “In all forms of defiance, a little contingent being, the imperiled man or woman, hangs on to his will — which may be all he has left — by making a deliberate error about his will’s jurisdiction.” Incongruous tonalities already grapple in “a little contingent being.” The tritely cinematic mood of the scenario he describes, the little guy fighting fate, is curtailed by the academic resonance of “contingent.” Moments later, the melodrama rallies and the soundtrack soars, as the man hangs heroically onto his hope against all odds, but then the music cuts off, and his hope becomes “a deliberate error about his will’s jurisdiction.” Now the legalistic language mimics the inhospitable social norms that prohibit the expression of youthful optimism — as if Greif has caught himself sounding naïve and needs to check the impulse. And yet the language conveys precisely the defiance that its tone wants to stifle: the individual’s readiness to refuse reality, to attempt the impossible. The final phrase preserves its hope by concealing it within the discourse of hope’s censor, the voice of the law. But readers can hear this muffled triumph only because the stray, foreclosed notes of melodrama earlier in the sentence have prepared them to. Thus Greif’s language performs how the child can survive within the mind of the adult.
The masterful ease with which Greif escorts his readers through the steps of his arguments can sometimes obscure his constant jumps from one genre of discourse to another. In any piece, in any paragraph, he can sound sociological, then hortatory, then confessional, then novelistic, then inspirational, then factual, with each new style serving to curb the excesses of the previous, to avoid its bad logical consequences, buying Greif a little more freedom to think as he wants. At times, he slips into a terminology and syntax that are downright weird, almost indecipherable, designed to make human situations alien, as when, in discussing the exerciser’s obsession with statistics, he remarks “[y]ou discover what high numbers you can become” or, in describing police officers, he observes, echoing the cadences of Stein or Heidegger or who knows what strange source, “This sitting is being added to their nature; the stasis gathers at their waists.” This, then, is the noise, the amplifier feedback, the looping, reverberant, unrecognizable cacophony that surrounds and lends sway to the voicing of more guileless and fragile convictions: that life is painful but it doesn’t need to be, that our thoughts can change the world, that we are all of us lost and alone, but it is still not too late to create a more vibrant and sustaining community.
Greif’s capacity to balance embarrassing disclosures of feeling and belief with the coolness of his punk-inspired style falters and tips toward plain embarrassment when he addresses one particular subject clearly out of his comfort zone. Calling American Idol’s Randy Jackson “the Spirit of Diversity,” or referring to Kylie Jenner’s “enlarged quasi-African-American lips,” Greif uses language that borders on insensitive when he discusses race. While he is generally referencing, not expressing, certain widely held prejudices, his willingness to make impolitic statements allows him to be remarkably honest about his own relationship to black culture in an essay he has, until Against Everything, withheld from publication in English, “Learning to Rap.”
Acknowledging that his failure growing up to appreciate hip-hop, which he calls “a new world-historical form,” has begun to seem “sinister, not to say racist,” Greif makes an all-out effort to teach himself at a late age how to rap alongside songs by Nas, Snoop Dogg, and Biggie Smalls. The result is utterly mortifying. He won’t do it in public, but he does describe it, and it’s enough to make one cringe. He tries to learn the opening to “N.Y. State of Mind,” but can’t quite manage it:
Rappers, I monkey flip ’em with the funky rhythms I be kickin’ —
“Rappers I …” what?
Rappers, I monkey flip ’em with the funky rhythms I be kickin’ —
“Rappers I — mubbliggithm …”
“Rappers I go up in ’em ….”
“Rappers I grow up with ’em …”
Then he glosses his transcription: “I think what Nas is saying is that his rhythmic flow has such force that it sweeps his rivals’ legs out from under them.” If he read it aloud, one might imagine Greif falling into the stiff nasal intonation that black comedians use to make fun of how white people talk, as one might when reading: “‘nigger’ makes an extremely flexible two-beat metrical insertion in rap and wide-ranging rhyme in English.” But this is not self-parody: Greif is entirely earnest in his desire to understand how rap works. Thus his statements are arguably braver, if more problematic, than jokes would be, precisely because he is exposing himself to humiliation.
Greif’s honesty is most disconcerting when he parrots liberal pieties, showing his white intellectual readers that there is something wrong with the way they think about black Americans. Hearing black kids rap loudly on the subway, Greif rehearses the typical sociological analysis:
“Hmmm,” I would have thought once upon a time, “what is the proper liberal explanation for what seems otherwise like rudeness?” At hand, I had the old explanations I learned as a kid for inner-city graffiti and suburban skateboarding: This is a way of reclaiming public space when it is segregated, owned by absentees, or dominated by adults.
Such theories are bad enough, Greif acknowledges, because they are condescending, but then his newfound interpretation, based on the great difficulties he has learning to rap — “you had to practice!” — is somehow no better, insofar as it presents itself as an exciting discovery. Greif knows so little, has tried to know so little, about a culture in whose vicinity he has lived his entire life. In this, of course, he is not alone.
Greif’s essay provokes a particular emotion — both vicarious and self-directed — which it suggests is the appropriate response for white people to have to racial inequality: shame. His relative lack of enthusiasm for rap growing up is, he announces in the second sentence of the essay, “especially shameful when it could have carried you, if only in imagination, across a racial barrier in America.” The default state of mind for liberals, white guilt, has been the target of much criticism — because it is mere sentiment, a privileged neurosis that doesn’t accomplish anything other than allowing educated white people to prove their virtue. This critique is perfectly persuasive, but it ignores the fact that white people do have to feel something about inequality, and some feelings are better than others. The problem with guilt is that it can so easily become historical, a condition shared by an entire race. Shame is more personal, more visceral; it registers the way you as an individual have participated in or failed to change the things that make it hard to be black in the United States. It responds not to atrocities in the distant past, about which white people can all feel serenely appalled, but to everyday interactions yesterday and today, awkward encounters, moments of failed communication, evasions of contact, clumsy euphemisms aimed at masking uncomfortable feelings. Shame prickles the skin; it is thus the most bodily way that white people can experience their own whiteness, can try to grasp what it means to inhabit a racialized body.
To feel this way of course will not make you good; indeed, it is a reminder that you have not always been. To say, in other words, that Greif is struggling to encourage the experience of shame in his white readers is not to say that all of his statements about race are forgivable. But then, it’s pretty clear that forgiveness is not really what he is after.
Timothy Aubry is an associate professor of English and deputy chair of the English Department at Baruch College (CUNY), specializing in American Literature from the 20th and 21st century, contemporary fiction, literary theory and criticism, and popular culture. He is the author of Reading as Therapy: What Contemporary Fiction Does for Middle-Class Americans.