Editor John Summers says he hopes the new 'Baffler' 'doesn't sound like Cambridge,' and it doesn't
As journals of unpopular opinion go, The Baffler had quite a lot of fans show up for its relaunch party last night.
The Housing Works Bookstore and McNally Jackson Books co-hosted the panel discussion between publisher John Summers and contributors Chris Lehmann (who is also senior editor), David Graeber, and Barbara Ehrenreich. The event was as well-attended as its name was absurd—"BIFx: The Baffler Innovation Forum," a satirical nod toward the types of conventions and confabs that The Baffler’s writers would be most likely to criticize.
The Baffler loves to poke holes in over-inflated egos; if some member of the media declares you (or your TED talk) The Next Big Thing, you’re likely The Baffler’s next target. As Lehmann put it during his talk, the magazine sought not to be a “thought leader,” but rather a “thought provoker,” or better yet, “thought destroyer.”
The Baffler was born in 1988, when Thomas Frank and Keith White were still undergrads at the University of Virginia. Under Frank’s editorship, the magazine published a total of eighteen issues and two anthologies. Two and a half decades later, Frank is an author of hits like What’s the Matter with Kansas? and a columnist at Harper’s, and White is an executive at CQ-Roll Call, and The Baffler is being reborn.
Last year, historian and critic John Summers bought the magazine and moved its headquarters from Chicago to Cambridge, Mass. Summers took the helm as editor-in-chief and signed a contract with The M.I.T. Press that will ensure the publication of three issues a year for the next five years. Thomas Frank stayed on as founding editor, and Summers’ wife Anna is the journal’s literary editor. (A personal favorite tidbit from the new masthead: “No interns were used in the making of this Baffler.”) Those interested in subscribing—to either the print or electronic format—should head to The Baffler’s newly retooled website as well as the tongue-in-cheek fund-raising video on the magazine’s Kickstarter page.
The copy in the Kickstarter pitch distills what was the original Baffler’s call to arms against the titles with which it was forced to share shelf-space: “Most left-wing journals, then and now, offer wonkery, moralism, dialectical obfuscation, and other forms of boredom. The Baffler offered comic juxtapositions that suggested criticism could be a literary art.” The magazine has always had a mix of fiction, poetry, and art, but its specialty is essays, which skewer ad men and academics alike. The Baffler is at its best when laying bare the lazy spin of some of the culture’s most trusted sources of information. One famous piece by Frank in 1993 exposed a prank that had been played on a slow-head-shake-inducing New York Times reporter.
Now more than ever, its editors argue, there is the need for a thoughtful, long-form, counterculture counterpunch. In a recent interview with The Los Angeles Review of Books, Summers was asked, “Why revive The Baffler now?” He answered, “Leadership-class thought and opinion has flatlined …. It’s a target-rich environment. Then, too, the breakdown of the machinery has left a great many persons socially and ideologically superfluous, without connection to the institutions that normally manage their discontent. Those persons are our readers.”
Issue 19, just out last month, is 180 pages full of critical essays, fiction, poetry, gorgeous illustrations and not a bit of filler or fluff. Moe Tkacik has a ten-page, searing critique of The Atlantic, which she accuses of having become so bland, buzzword-y and predictable that she wonders whether it is in fact a front publication for the C.I.A.
Chris Lehmann, fresh off the success of his excellent Rich People Things (Chapter 1: The U.S. Constitution; Chapter 13: Malcolm Gladwell; Chapter 28: The Social Media), contributed an essay that asks why more popular novels written today don’t have class politics as their focus, as so many books did that were written in American recessions and depressions past. Issue 19 also features an extensive, previously unpublished manuscript by James Agee from 1936, a piece which was later expanded and paired with Walker Evans’ photographs for the book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.
On Monday night, Summers introduced his panel by assuring the audience that little has changed from the journal’s previous iteration to its relaunch. The satirical and abrasive tone is the same, as are its goals, he said, which is to be interesting.
“There is no higher agenda here than the magazine itself, and the writing,” said Summers. “It’s to show by the way of example a form of critical intelligence that sees things for what they are. That’s it. We have no unified theory of history, no superannuated concepts, no bold new political program to save the country.”
Lehmann, who introduced himself as “the ghost of Baffler past,” agreed. He reminded his colleagues of their old slogan, “the journal that blunts the cutting edge.” In the 1990s, that phrase referred to “the false pieties of the new information economy” of the Clinton years. Today, of course, the targets may be slightly different, but the critical eye of The Baffler remains the same. When he and Thomas Frank lived in Washington, D.C., Lehmann remembered, they were occasionally frustrated by peers who tried to convince them their cultural and political criticism would remain ineffectual as long as they remained “outside the debate.” Now, of course, The Baffler wears that label with pride.
“We’re in a situation now where a former hedge-fund manager is poised to win the Republican nomination, and he’ll be running against an incumbent Democratic president who has hired no less than three former investment bankers as his chiefs of staff,” said Lehmann. “Our leading financial and political institutions are little more than glorified A.T.M.s for America’s today’s gangster class. And it’s never been clearer to me that the only respectable place to be is outside the debate.”
Barbara Ehrenreich told the audience that she had felt confident about the project when Summers gave her the freedom to write on whatever topic she chose, and felt gratified when he told her that “it was okay to turn up the snark.” The topic she chose was the weird appropriation of both domesticated pets and wild animals as the means to humans’ “spiritual experience.” And yes, the snark is present and accounted for.
“To my mind, there is something unseemly about all this cuteness, sentimentality, and fake intimacy,” she said. “I have no trouble with the assertion that they are like us, and so on. The problem arises, I think, when you leap from that to the assumption that they are not only like us but that they like us. I don’t think so.”
Ehrenreich expressed her excitement about The Baffler’s rebirth, and sheepishly added that she was already late turning in her essay for the next issue (out in June), a piece which she said would be about “the professional-managerial class and how it relates to the 99 percent.”
The last to speak was David Graeber, anthropologist and author of the recent book Debt: The First 5,000 Years. His piece for the new Baffler issue explores the frustration of a generation who grew up watching "The Jetsons," and later, films like 2001: A Space Odyssey—and who are now all secretly disappointed that technological innovation hasn’t progressed as quickly as they would have liked.
The fact that there’s a pretty new Apple product every few months tends to distract us from a real lack of imagination in a heavily bureaucratized science sector, Graeber said. Funding has shifted away from projects that can truly revolutionize our relationship with work, while shifting toward subtle methods of social control: information technology, pharmaceutical technology, and military technology, for instance. The Internet is great, said Graeber, but where are the flying cars, the teleportation machines, and, most importantly, the robots who were going to do our laundry?
At the end of the panel discussion, an audience member raised his hand and said that one of the things he liked best about the old iteration of The Baffler was that sounded like it was authentically from Chicago. So, he asked, what does the new issue sound like?
“Hopefully it doesn’t sound like Cambridge,” said Summers.
And it doesn't. Despite the fact that The Baffler is now published by The M.I.T. Press, one of the more biting essays is a takedown of M.I.T.’s own much-heralded Media Lab. In true Baffler style, Will Boisvert’s piece “Future Schlock” calls the vision of Media Lab founder Nicholas Negroponte “militantly banal.”
Something both Bafflers stand militantly against.
Editor's note: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that The Baffler was founded in 1998. It was founded in 1988.