The Intellectual Situation
President Obama! We salute you. We salute you here in mid-October, though we’ve been hurt before. In 2000, we had “GO-RE” tattooed across our chest, and had to turn it into “GO REDS” and move to Cincinnati. (Eventually we put a shirt on and came back to New York.) Still: President Obama! If this is a dream, then we’ll stay in it. Forget reality! Lately we find ourselves shouting in our sleep: President Obama!
“What?!” says our old friend, shaking us out of the trance. “It’s me. It’s Michael. Jesus, you see a black man and all of a sudden you’re shouting ‘Obama!’”
His wife is up. “Let’s all just go get breakfast,” she says. We’ve been staying with them for a couple weeks, just between jobs.
“He thinks we all look like Obama,” Michael says. “That’s incorrect.”
Forgive us. We’ve got to go to the shrink. A 10 AM appointment.
“You ought to go. You could use some help. You’ve got to make a correction.”
We get up off the couch and pull on our skinny jeans.
“You know who looks the same?” Michael says. “It’s you hipsters.”
In issue six, we published a poem included in an untranslated essay by the Russian poet Kirill Medvedev who, because of his principled opposition to all literary institutions, refuses either to give or deny anyone to publish him. This superb Medvedev poem, we later discovered, was written by Bertolt Brecht.
As recompense to Mr. Brecht, we now publish his poem “For Future Generations,” produced by the same infallible method of translation from German to Russian to English.
For Future Generations
We live in a dark time.
When to speak without anger is only to reveal that you’re a fool.
When a forehead without wrinkles
Is testament to your heartlessness. When he who laughs
Has simply not yet heard
The terrible news.
What sort of time is this, when
To speak of the trees seems a crime,
Since it means you’re keeping silent about violence?
He who steps calmly down the street
Must be deaf to the sufferings and sorrows
Of his friends.
We can still earn enough to live on,
But believe us: That’s an accident. Nothing
We do gives us the right
To eat our fill.
We’ve survived by accident.
(If they notice our success, we’re finished.)
They say to us: “Eat and drink! Be glad at least you’re not hungry!”
But how can we eat and drink if
We’re taking food away from the starving, if
The glass of water we drink is what a thirsty man needs?
And yet we eat and drink.
We’d like to be wise men.
The ancient books tell us what wisdom is.
It means to put aside the battles of the world and live one’s life
Knowing no fear.
To abjure violence.
To answer evil with kindness.
Not to get one’s wishes, but to forget them.
This is considered wisdom.
And we’re incapable of it.
We live in a dark time.
The publishing house soft skull, in a recent catalog, announced that its new book Coming of Age at the End of History, by the young Frenchman Camille de Toledo, had been excerpted in n+1. Unfortunately, it hadn’t been. To fix the historical record, we here excerpt the book.
I ask you, and try to use your imagination, do you think growing up is easy when your mother is a cemetery? Was Fukuyama right? That’s a question for philosophers, not for me. But take the phrase “We’re at the end of History.” Try to listen to that with the ears of a child at bedtime. Try to hear what those words sound like as the book closes and voices are hushed, as the lights are turned out and the dim figures of the people who put us to sleep slip away with a phrase gentle and disturbing at the same time: Sleep tight.
. . . The crisis was past. We were the happy campers. There was nothing left to do but live happily ever after and sleep tight. We are the children of that funeral elegy. It would have been easy to believe it. To believe that any attempt at creating something is in vain, that writing is just a form of masturbation, that resistance is futile. The various causes that might have given us a reason to keep going were either retro or obsolete, check the right box. Independence? Retro. Alienation? Obsolete. Punk Rock? Retro. Rock and Roll? Obsolete. Unionism? Obsolete. Communism? Retro. Modernity? Outmoded.
In issue three, we voiced skepticism toward the rhetoric of the “reading crisis” that uses the grim statistics—the declining numbers of serious readers—to cover up shoddy literature and literary practices. We deplored the protective argument that anything that encourages reading is good, and that all writing encourages reading, especially writing that’s not hard to read, even when it’s written by people who themselves don’t read.
We were right about the bogus crisis but we missed the real story. We have a writing crisis on our hands. Everybody in the country is writing books but only a fraction of that number is interested in reading them; while the Chinese work, we workshop. There’s no bigger folly than writing instruction displacing “literature” in college English, though this seems to be what’s happening—not because you can’t teach writing, but because there’s no point in teaching writing when you haven’t reproduced the art of reading. The best you can hope to do is create an artificial market of people who will have to purchase the current round of books, whatever they may be, because they weren’t given the skills to read the books that came before. It’s like those Hollywood remakes that trade on the fact that modern viewers can’t watch black and white, or Technicolor, or even actors with bygone accents and uptight hairdos—and so do unnecessarily what’s been done better before.
In issue six, we declared the end of Gawker.com. Assistant Editor Carla Blumenkranz surveyed the history of its various writers, editors, and personnel, from Elizabeth Spiers to Jessica Coen to the then-present, and noted the instincts for exploitation and cynicism of the site’s owner, Nick Denton.
We must announce a correction to our original assessment. Jessica Coen did not grow up in Los Angeles.
We have kept up a constant critique of hipsterism as a new politics of identity adopted by a subset of the bourgeoisie at the end of the 20th century—a particular manifestation of class privilege in the West. (Cf. in particular Christian Lorentzen’s work at nplusonemag.com.) Our failure was not to look into the future: What will happen to the hipster in the age of American decline? In New York already we can see the forces ranged against each other in the next century. On the Lower East Side, Chinatown has fought Hipsterville to a standstill. It is the forces of immigrant dynamism against the forces of “native” capital. The hipsters expand southward; the Chinese northward. Right now the hipsters control the area from Grand up to 14th Street, the Chinese from Delancey down to City Hall. That Chinatown will now expand southward to take over the canyons of the abandoned financial district is beyond a doubt, but who will rule the battle zone between Delancey and Grand? If the hipsters once had, through the good graces of their wealthy suburban parents, a serious economic edge to counter the superior numbers in Chinatown, that disappears with the collapse of the credit bubble.
Our analysis will be continued in an upcoming Research Series pamphlet, “What Was the Hipster?,” sponsored by the State Department.
Since our first issue we have maintained a steadfast policy, online and in print, against the overvaluation of the dead and gone. Until the current issue, we have not published works by dead authors or artists, nor devoted articles to the long dead, nor reviewed the ubiquitous reprints of dead people’s publications—not because dead authors aren’t the best (oh, they are), but because we believe in the necessity of a contemporary and progressive American literature, fed by and in dialogue with the foreign and the dead, and the foreign dead, but facing forward. Really, the dead have too many publishing opportunities, and a competitive edge. Since they don’t need to eat, they don’t need to be paid: a favorite situation of publishers. Plus they’ve already turned in their manuscripts.
We believe in the idea of a magazine devoted to the best unpublishable and unpublished work of our own time, working toward a new culture to rival any in the past. But confidence is harder to muster these days. Maybe it’s the economy. Maybe it’s the writing crisis. Anyway, we’re publishing work by dead people, just in this issue—lucky number 7. We’ll be carting the corpses back into the tomb for Issue Eight.
Asleep as soon as Michael and Mary went out to breakfast. All these weird dreams again. Maybe it’s the Ambien; it’s been months now that we’ve been taking it, ever since the summer, really. Lately we wake shouting the poll numbers; we see the swing states hovering, blurring, merging. Or maybe it’s just that, as the poll numbers improved, we started to relax, swaddled under the promise of an American patchwork quilt turning blue in the dawn.
Now we sleep enough to dream, and this one’s a doozy. We’re in a familiar—an unfamiliar place. Smells of boiled cabbage . . . the tang of unwashed bodies . . . signs along the walls, in an alphabet we can’t read. We’re in a crowd of people, faces tired and greenish under flickering fluorescent bulbs, the young in tracksuits, the old in winter coats, a group of drunks in desert fatigues against a wall, two of them missing legs. The tottering soldiers come toward us, waving bottles, and one of them, a white-haired veteran with the face of John McCain, grabs us by the lapels with his working arm. “You!” he exhales. “You will be the third!” Then the metro roars into the station, the Cyrillic letters assemble a language, and, in the header of a fluttering newspaper scrap, we learn where we are: Moscow, November 5, 1988. How on earth—?