True and False Authorities: An Interview with Mark Greif

MARK GREIF, one of the founding editors of n+1, has written two books: The Age of the Crisis of Man: Thought and Fiction in America, 1933–1973 and, just out from Pantheon, Against Everything, a book of essays on a variety of topics: exercise, food, childbirth, politics, entertainment, and experience in general. Greif is much more than a cultural critic; he is a philosopher who speaks against the powers that decimate people’s spirits. In this interview, he discusses his influences, style, reality TV, the police and Black Lives Matter, and revolution.


GREG GERKE: This collection seems more politically engaged than many essay collections, which are more interested in exploring the self as it relates to itself, leaving the world around it a distant figure. Your “self” is more conscious of struggle and inequality in the world, as you present a number of forceful opinions about many human staples: exercise, food, childbirth, politics, entertainment, and experience in general, though you don’t rely too much on anecdote in presenting your arguments. You have a celebrated academic background, with the noted philosopher Stanley Cavell as one of your teachers. You come into the reader’s purview with a set of principles in order to explore our culture and our mortality, à la Lionel Trilling and Susan Sontag, whom you make reference to in your first book, The Age of the Crisis of Man, and who both seem important precursors. Can you talk about your relationship to academia, Cavell, Trilling, and Sontag, and how they formed your philological and philosophical approach to writing?

MARK GREIF: Cavell made the deepest impression on me. He portrayed himself as out of place in academia. Nothing in his family background had destined him for a university position. So what put him there? A kind of doubt and longing, which he was willing to follow. Follow further than perhaps he should have. That had landed him in academia, because a college is one place devoted to conversation and questioning. Though not the only place — he was very clear about that. He acted out of uncertainty, and the acknowledgment that he didn’t have a monopoly on truth, or inquiry, or the right to stand up and speak. He said philosophy goes on in good movies, and in everybody’s conversation after the movies, and in kibitzing, jokes, complaints, vernacular language. Drama, at its best, like Shakespeare’s, got made out of that vernacular speech.

I think I heard Cavell saying that you had to start where you were, for philosophy: to try to seek in your experience the things that belong to the common human condition; not just to recount experience, in the manner of memoir — to try to question experiences, with whatever quantity of genius you could muster. His philosophy of “the ordinary” was extremely encouraging to me. As someone who had nothing special about him — I mean, me — except a question-asking impulse, and a certain articulacy or fluency that also added to my skepticism of everyone’s answers — including my own, if words came so easily — it gave me a way to think. Cavell gave me this feeling: “Okay, I’m no one in particular, I’m perfectly ordinary,” and therefore, I could go ahead and ask the biggest questions, and try strong answers. If no one had a prior right to these things, then why not me? Politically, it’s a recipe for democracy and equality. In this extended vision of ordinary language, what was principally required was sensitive listening, and a certain persistence, or obstinacy, in contemplating what you heard — and modesty about the value of your answers, except insofar as they inspired others to talk, too.

My admiration for Sontag is enormous. It has a lot to do with her way of connecting worlds. She took a huge body of scholarly knowledge in philosophy and literature, hid it behind her back out of sight, and then tackled popular culture, with no visible self-doubt. On camp, or science fiction, or pornography, or photography, or cancer, Vietnam, sexuality, the “new sensibility” of the ’60s … She applied a lot of knowledge to immediate experience, putting the experience at the center, linking scholarship to bohemia, too, and to art. There aren’t a lot of models for that, still. Which I imagine is partly at the bottom of your question: what is the tradition of this stuff, and is it academic or worldly? As for Trilling, he’s someone who matters much more to others; he’s a historical topic for me. I’m still slightly puzzled by his appeal, then and now. Clearly it’s to do with a continuity of the tradition of the “generalist” as critic, and with a quite elegant but also provisional and humane voice in print. Let’s say I understand him better historically than personally.

Your style of composition is distinctive for its intelligence, with vibrant architectonic sentences. Two examples: “[Angelina Jolie] is the virago who acquired Brad Pitt, sexiest and emptiest of male stars, and filled his blond vacancy with her life force, stealing him away from simpering Jennifer Aniston,” and,

Unlike television, to which commercials were indigenous — the skunks, mosquitos, and snakes of that particular media ecology — the compulsory commercials preceding YouTube videos now, and now interrupting at intervals the replay of long recordings, are invasive species, purely extraneous and insulting.

Each sentence, while also demonstrating your method of cultural critique, carries a wonderfully consistent music. Your sentences tend to longer Teutonic breaths than the customary quick jabs of today. How do you construct such gems? Am I right in thinking your ideas imbue the language rather than the other way around? Also, can you talk about your process of writing? What is your revision process like?

You’re very kind. It won’t surprise anyone if I insist that the passage between ideas and words has to be two-way. Finding a thought, and finding words, are both elements of thinking. And I take it that the successful traffic of ideas, within your own mind, and outside of it to other people, depends on recovering and matching vivid past experience and sensations, reds and blues and houses and oceans, with merely “cognitive” or “analytic” contents, if such purged and shaved-down ideas are even possible. I’m not sure they are. I think all ideas may come in colors, clothed in feelings.

I remember reading William James on the mind, and he was suddenly clarifying an abstract idea by an image of a sunlit terrace, with a portion in shadow, and what happens as you cross from sunshine to shadow. Or he named the “all-over-feeling” you get when you’re up on a height, like on a rocky outcropping on a hike, and suddenly feel the chill of longing to jump off, as an impulse of your imagined body, even though you stay put and remain safe. But he unfolded all this to make some other point. I thought: That’s it, William James, that’s exactly how you name thought, and put flesh on abstraction! I was slightly shocked that James would descend to techniques that I thought of, at that time, as the techniques of fiction or poetry. And, you know, I wanted to be a fiction writer or a poet at that time, I guess in college — this thinking stuff was a sideline, it didn’t seem as meaningful as great art.

I think it’s the written invocation of experience, or, at times, a deliberate experience deprivation, sensory deprivation, linguistic estrangement that crystallizes thoughts, and makes ideas precise and communicable — think, on the estrangement side, of Kant’s writing style in the three critiques, or Heidegger’s sententiousness; these have feelings and colors, too, by their seeming iciness or astringency or convolution. Virginia Woolf and Immanuel Kant are masters on the same level, using different means. For myself, temperamentally, I think it’s a mistake, when you swim in language, to leave any of it behind deliberately — you see what can be accomplished, as in the case of a Woolf or Joyce, when you don’t leave any of it behind.

As far as composition goes, I work from notebooks. As lots of people have done. I keep notebooks of ideas. Often the same ideas and thoughts, worked over multiply as they change. And when an opportunity opens up to write, then I assemble the notes, and see what they’re really about. I will say that I revise a lot, and the good pieces of writing go through many drafts. Again, as with many people. I’m not special in any way compositionally. I learned at n+1 that the right number of real drafts for me, real attempts, where something new was happening, changes were occurring, was 12 to 14. Only because the editorial process made me number each new version. I think of my writing process, in going back to the recovery of notebook fragments, as an alternation between being a human writer — kind of casting off or breathing out ideas, very vulnerable, provisional, but also egocentric — and a somewhat cruel, impersonal reader and editor of that person, trying to see elements of general significance within all that stuff. It’s like editing the literary remains of some dead person, to see what leftovers could help the living.

I was struck by your series of essays on “The Meaning of Life,” and in “The Concept of Experience,” [where] you write:

The need to retell experiences becomes your last means to try to redeem experience from aimless, pure accumulation — and either you cannot find a listener or you realize that you are mute, unfit to communicate the colors of this distant realm of experience in any way adequate to the wonders you found there. Thus everyone longs to tell his story today, but not as literature.

With the internet, most everyone can tell his or her story immediately. Some people hardly use social media and some do nothing but. How have cell phones and the internet, more in evidence since this essay was written 11 years ago, changed the concept of experience?

I want to stop myself before I speak from knowledge that I don’t have. I find, when it comes to new technologies, there’s a powerful temptation to declare conclusions without enough thinking — at least for me. I do use a cell phone. I don’t use social media. I have thoughts about both, but perhaps not very deep thoughts. And fundamentally, I can’t know what it’s like to have grown up with these tools of self-representation. I will never be a person who will have seen online pornography before experiencing sex, or will have seen lost friends and former lovers remain as presences on Facebook rather than receding from the world as I experience it. I will always think about being alone as something you do without a phone — of reading, eating at a lunch counter, walking in a city to no place in particular, without any possibility of texts or checking email or calling. So, in a sense, I can tell you how experience comes to feel different on both sides of the divide, when you know both before and after. But only younger people will be able to correct that essay. Or find what is wrong and what could be right, today.

In your essay on reality television, you write that, “It is cheap, it is amoral, it has no veneer of virtue, it is widely censured and a guilty pleasure, and it can be more educational and truthful and American than most anything else, very suitable for our great republic.” I can see how you mean it is the closest we get to seeing what we are really like, kind of how Americans find a truer mirror in the films of John Cassavetes and Robert Altman than in most Hollywood films, with all their eccentricities and dysfunction on display. Many people have averred that we look at other people to learn about ourselves, but can reality television possess art, even in spite of itself? Or do you feel the viewer addicted to watching the vagaries of people on reality television is participating in a virtual bloodsport, desiring to see people suffer?

I don’t see reality television as representing a desire to see people suffer. I do see it as a means of judgment. This is very different from the story people tell about “voyeurism,” which I particularly dislike. I think much of the interest in reality TV lies in judging the decisions, and lifestyles, and rhetoric and daily performance of other people kind of like us. But it’s very important to this process of judging that we are also unusually conscious of the ways the shows are fake, deceptive, self-interested — not to mention utterly incompetent, as cheaply and quickly produced as they are. We stand in a rare position of authority, in comparison to our relation to the sanitized stuff offered on TV, in part because the authority of the shows and their stars is already vitiated.

If you accept that, then you can see that reality TV shows are sometimes better for kind of “looking in” to the truths of the country than documentary or the stylized naturalism of Cassavetes or Altman can be sometimes. Because you’re looking in to a great project of documenting mundane lives, but also looking to see how you’re being hustled. You’re looking for bullshit. And, boy, can you find it. And you can enjoy it at that level, too. “Look how they edited that to make it look like she said what she didn’t say!” But also: “That dude is a bad liar. Whoa, is she going to buy that line? Damn! She must really like him.” Very ordinary. We sit in judgment of daily life and are delighted by it, and we sit in judgment on television, and our ability to see through it or be blinded by it.

In your essay, “What Was the Hipster?” you write that the hipster art of the ’90s kitschified the weightiest tragedies and that, “Hipsterdom at its darkest […] is something like bohemia without the revolutionary core.” It has too much a consumerist core. I think we could agree many hipsters espouse a loose liberalism, but too many, aided by the iPhone, worship at the altar of their own narcissism. Surely, self-involvement goes beyond hipsters, as there are millions of people who aren’t very politically engaged except for a malicious tweet about Trump or someone else that offends their sensibility. In a sense, are most of the people who regard their social media accounts as their daily bread doomed to not only trump the hipster ethos, but also to add nothing to the culture except complaints? A person I admire constantly tells me that this new technology we immerse ourselves in is part of our next evolutionary step, but I mostly see it, in this country, as a step toward being crueler, aside from a pocket of devoted activists.

I see you’re tempting me again to speak hastily. The chief danger I see in the new technologies is in believing in them. But this is a danger for any social technology, let’s say, that can take on the status or feeling of authority, or of “what everybody thinks.” I do miss, in general, the hostility to advertising, to having goods sold to you with babble and blandishments, of the anti-consumer and alter-globalization sensibilities that preceded the hipster moment. And there can be a connection, I think, though it’s quite complicated to spell out between the internet’s ways of seeming to simulate, at the personal level, tools of authority, that weakens people’s hostility to them — so the ability to seem to advertise yourself, for example, reduces a needed hostility to advertising, just as the simulation of transparent markets on eBay, say, could make you think that that’s how other markets work. I hope that’s not too dumb.

But the real fear is not of people being stupid online, but rather of the meta-stupidity or meta-credulity of seeing social media hailed as revolutionary or evolutionary, rather than put in its place as another amusement or entertainment — which may have important consequences, but maybe not the ones you’d even think. And, really, most of the innovations are time-wasting instrumentalities for doing things people have always done — plus many new ones they would never have wanted to do, had the choice been presented coldly. You can see other people’s posed vacation pictures? You can change your thermostat from outside your house? I wouldn’t really care to do that. You can exchange a sequence of five calls, two messages, and 30 texts over three days, up to the very last five minutes, to decide where to meet someone? Formerly you’d agree just once to meet five days from now, and if the person didn’t show up, you’d have another cup of coffee and daydream. I liked the world better before the internet was added to it. It was a lot more pleasurable. The physical world had more weight. I think one thing we can all agree on is that the internet and the iPhone are both wildly overrated. And many of the things which are said to be coming down the pipe stand in the middle ground between intolerably stupid and convenient but boring. Call me when you’ve built the driverless car and I’ll remind you to keep going to legless strolling, genitalless intercourse, and televised sunsets. Sorry.

In the essay “Seeing Through Police,” you write, “Part of the reason police seem at present unreformable is that they have no intelligible place in the philosophy of democracy. […] When our theories of democracy took shape, police as we know them were a minor tertiary agency and an afterthought.” In light of the recent shootings by and against police, and conceding that we pretty much live in an oligarchy, where the police certainly protect the rich and powerful much better than they do the poor — yet, ostensibly, the poor have no one to protect them but the police — what choice do the poor and middle class have, with revolt seemingly off the table, but to accept them as a necessary force and pray reforms will come through?

But there are two fronts here. One is the nearly impossible demand that Black Lives Matter makes by starting with police — the brilliance of it. It’s a somewhat impossible charge, because the origins of differential policing and police murder and police impunity are located elsewhere; and an undeniably compelling charge, because it focuses on something the populace can see, murders, bodies, which create a sense of radical urgency for forms of violence which have persisted and been ignored since the abolition of slavery. It’s not as if the police just started murdering innocents, and especially innocent African Americans. They’ve done it year in and year out for a century and more. To say, “Stop murdering black people” seems so basic, but it’s surprisingly difficult to change for police, because their task is to differentiate, to separate and sort people according to “community norms,” and also by citizens’ possession of property, which police are supposed to keep safe. So to equalize the methods of surveillance and violence across citizens might require genuinely eradicating racism and color difference within the wider community and overcoming the unequal possession of property by color — things which have risen and will fall historically. That front is fundamentally about the history of anti-African racism in America, ever since the early colonies and early nation kidnapped a vast labor force to build the country. America has done its best to terrorize and differentiate the descendants of those laborers ever since. Not to get all sanctimonious, since I’m a white person; one would rather hear these charges and truths laid at the feet of America by those African-American descendants. And that is what’s happening now, as black knowledge and speech is penetrating the “official” channels of news, that’s part of the glory of this moment.

The second front is different. Police have a historical origin in the protection of property from theft. That mandate continues to shape their defense of people who hold property, sure. But the way in which their Anglo-American history evolved, keeping police forces extremely local, paid for directly by communities, and drawn from the general population and, ideally, the local population — you know, this is part of what was broken down in African-American locales where enforcing white racial dominance was put ahead of genuine community self-defense or self-policing — anyway, this history means that the police in the United States believe that they exist to uphold the will of “good citizens” and to help all citizens in distress. And their belief that they are a part of the democracy and a manifestation of the democracy, at least if they can avoid the cynicism of always seeing this democracy in its worst behavior, cuts against the preference for wealth and property.

I don’t think cops in the United States particularly like rich people. They like “good citizens.” Often wealth stands in for that, because wealthy people can afford to exhibit better manners, and look clean and unthreatening, and keep their crime behind closed doors. But the two very different things — wealth and good citizenship — can and should be pulled apart. There is always a place for police to exist to protect the middle classes and even the poor. Police themselves are drawn from the middle and working classes economically, and they are public workers and essentially care workers. We have to honor and encourage the side of police that believes their loyalty is to the Constitution, to citizens, and to the democracy. They have to be encouraged to see themselves as like nurses and doctors and postmen and firefighters — not like the military, and, also crucially, not like prosecutors or the mayor’s office. It’s perfectly possible to say at one and the same time, “Police, you must leave behind the racism that your job can unwittingly sustain and make lethal,” and, “Police, we love you when you act to protect and serve ordinary people, poor, middle, or rich, insofar as we are the human beings and citizens who need your help and pay your salaries.” This, though, goes to a much bigger question of restoring the feelings of public ownership of public space, of the popular basis of democracy, and of equality and citizenship as lived experiences.

At end of the last essay, “Thoreau Trailer Park,” you speak of the protestors arrested at Occupy Wall Street, who continue to be defiant in court, which goes against the instincts of trying to be let off easier. I know it’s impossible to say what will happen, but after the splintering of the Occupy movement into more community outreach type ventures, like helping with Hurricane Sandy clean-up, what chance of revolt is there against the powers that be? You teach at The New School and interact daily with the youth, those of college age and many in debt, who usually spearhead such movements. They were in their early or mid-teens when Occupy happened. What is their mood today?

I want to say: Lovable, optimistic, militant, and confused. I think Black Lives Matter is, in the larger pattern of history, where Occupy energies went and what that Occupy moment gave way to. And Occupy understood itself as a re-manifestation and derivative of the Arab Spring. Each new formation does what a predecessor couldn’t do, didn’t know to do. It shifts to completely new populations and causes — but it preserves the continuity of a Movement. Occupy was beaten by police, both literally and figuratively, even though police had no real stake in its concerns; and maybe it was defeated too by a white bourgeois ethos. Black Lives Matter does what Occupy couldn’t, or wouldn’t; and it invites people into the Movement in a larger way, while pursuing its own necessary ends. I don’t know about the mood of the young people I see as a whole, but my mood is pretty optimistic, and optimistic in their presence above all. There are always new people coming into the world, and that means the possibility that they’ll see how this world is not the way it could be. Not the way it should be, to be worthy of them. I think this happens to be a singularly good time. Every time I read another headline, “Is the Country Coming Apart?,” I think, Maybe for you, but not for the country.

As for my students and the young, I sometimes do think they believe too much of what they hear without really pressing on it or sitting on it for a while. How could they not believe too much? It is very difficult to distinguish a true from a false authority. And you’ve been told so many things. I think you have to take it slow, and keep checking yourself. In the book, I mark a difference at one point between extraordinary revolt and ordinary defiance. It’s the latter which I think we are most in need of, and it’s within reach.


Greg Gerke’s fiction and nonfiction has appeared in Tin House, The Kenyon Review Online, Film Quarterly, and others. A book of stories, My Brooklyn Writer Friend, is out from Queens Ferry Press.