thomas frank, “what’s the matter with kansas?”

Thomas Frank
What’s the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America
(Metropolitan Books, 2004)


Our building has bookshelves down in the laundry room in the basement, and among the books was this one, which I didn’t read when it came out, in no small part because I was deeply depressed by where the country was going – 2004, it doesn’t need to be said, was a bad year – & I was afraid of sinking deeper into that. I was familiar with Frank’s argument, of course, from his writing in The Baffler; he was right, I thought, but to me he’d be preaching to the choir. So I put off reading the book, assuming that a copy would show up sooner or later: now one has. (Similarly, I have assumed for most of the past decade that sooner or later I will wind up staying the weekend in a house with a copy of Jeffrey Eugenides’s Middlesex, upon which point I will read that book; that has not happened yet.)

I am in Champaign-Urbana for work, a place that I have not been, as far as I remember, for fifteen years. One finds, browsing the local paper, that the mayor of Champaign just announced at a Tea Party rally that he doesn’t believe the President was born in this country; local residents write letters for and against. It’s not entirely surprising, as Champaign was never the Madison of Illinois, but it’s still a touch disappointing. Champaign was mildly exciting in my youth; now it seems like a college town, with the same shops and chain-story eateries as any other college town, plus a couple of sad and decrepit non-chains. It’s hard to know if the town’s changed or if I’ve changed: probably both, but I don’t remember things feeling quite so generic the last time I was here. Would I have been excited by a Panera Bread in high school? Caribou Coffees? Probably not, though it’s hard to know.

This is by way of saying that I do have something of a personal stake in Frank’s book, being very much someone shaped by the middle of the country, anguished and distanced as that relationship might be. The landscape where I grew up in looked almost identical to where I am now (though of course it didn’t have the benefit of a major state university). And there’s a similarity to the Kansas that Frank describes in this book: it’s the same sort of country with the same sort of people, mutatis mutandis.

There are sober, sociological explanations for Kansas’s penchant for martyrdom . . . . I personally prefer the more romantic notion that the extremity of the land itself accounts for the bumper crops of martyrdom-minded folks that Kansas so reliably produces. Most of the state is an empty place, a featureless landscape capable of quickly convincing anyone of their own cosmic insignificance. For this reason it has often been compared to the Holy Land, where a similarly blank vista generated an endless stream of prophets who descended on the cities to preach “world-worthlessness,” as T. E. Lawrence once summarized the creed of the desert: “bareness, renunciation, poverty.” (p. 215)

There’s an odd, if not necessarily surprising, similarity between this book and Harold Bloom’s The American Religion, the book in which Bloom inspects the history of American Christianity – particularly the evangelical movements and Mormonism – and comes to the conclusion that American Christianity is fundamentally gnostic in character, in the sense that it’s fixated on declaring the real world as an error which must be destroyed to achieve the kingdom of God. Gnostics, for Bloom, are revolutionary; he seems chagrined in that he’d like to see himself as likewise being a Gnostic but doesn’t like his bedfellows. This is also the book, written in the early nineties, where Bloom despairs of ever seeing a Democratic president again in his lifetime; reading it in the late nineties, it was easy to sneer at that, but now I wonder if he wasn’t right.

Frank’s thesis is familiar right now, and it still seems operational. The players have changed slightly in the six years since this book, of course: Ann Coulter’s inanities have been replaced by those of Glenn Beck; George Tiller was murdered, as everyone must have known would happen. Sam Brownback is leaving Washington for Kansas to run for governor. David Brooks is still an idiot. Frank divides Kansan Republicans into “Mods” (the traditional upper class Republicans, now presumably being damned as RINOS à la Charlie Crist) and “Cons” (the conservative rabble-rousers): it’s easy to forget when surveying the doings of the Cons that what the Mods were up to wasn’t, in the end, that much better; with the Democrats moving further and further to the right, we see this playing out on a national scale.

What’s most valuable about Frank’s work, I think, is how he points out that economic arguments have largely been driven out of American political life: we argue endlessly (ceremonially, almost) about taxes, but nobody says anything about class. This is a problem, of course, because class exists whether or not we acknowledge it. At the heart of Frank’s book is a core of autobiography: growing up as a Young Republican in the affluent Kansas City suburbs, he’s generally unaware of class until he arrives at university and is confronted with those much wealthier. It’s a familiar enough story, though not one that’s usually talked about: Frank moved to the left when confronted with the upper class (as did I), though that’s not the usual response. Frank, to his credit, stayed engaged, despite moving to Chicago and then D.C.; I left. Real life happens elsewhere; there’s not a lot of future to be found in the rural Midwest. But Frank can still talk to Kansans, and there’s value in that: he can make sense of those who might be written off as lunatics. But as much of the problem that he’s pointing out is one of discourse: what we talk about and what we don’t talk about.

against the old establishment

“As this half of the countercultural ideal originated during the 1950s, it is appropriate that the evils of conformity are most conveniently summarized with images of 1950s suburban correctness. You know, that land of church-goers, tailfins, red-scares, smiling white people, lines of commuters, sedate music, sexual repression. An America of uptight patriarchs, friendly cops, buttoned-down collars, B-47s, and deference to authority – the America of such backward-looking creatures as Jerry Falwell. Constantly appearing as a symbol of arch-evil in advertising and movies, it is an image we find easy to evoke. Picking up at random a recent Utne Reader, for example, one finds an article which seeks to question the alternativeness of coffee by reminding the reader of its popularity during that cursed decade: ‘According to history – or sitcome reruns –’ the author writes, the ‘the ’50s were when Dad tanked up first thing in the morning with a pot of java, which set him on his jaunty way to a job that siphoned away his lifeblood in exchange for lifelong employment, a two-car garage, and Mom’s charge card.’ The correct response: What a nightmare! I’ll be sure to get my coffee at a hip place like Starbuck’s.”

(Tom Frank, “Dark Age,” pp. 13–14 in The Baffler no. 6, 1995.)

baffler #6: dark age

The Baffler #6: Dark Age
ed. Tom Frank


This is the last Baffler I have: I still haven’t seen 1, 2, 3, or 5. Issue 6 is a big one: at 192 pages, it’s thicker than any other issue until the most recent one. The content of this issue seems relatively familiar: I suspect that a lot of this was excerpted or reworked into Frank’s other work. The fourth issue seemed to be a Baffler still in utero, with a nicely amateurish edge; here, the Baffler as everyone remembers emerges, with an enormous “DARK AGE” emblazoned on the cover. Maybe the transition happened in issue 5; there’s a copy of that available on Amazon used for $19.95, which seems a bit hopeful. (Not the most hopeful, however: somebody’s trying to sell a copy of #9 for $89.41, more a tribute to the ridiculousness of the Amazon marketplace for used books than any real rarity or value.)

This is still much more zine than journal: a handful of the ads from the indie labels seem to be entirely hand-written. A handful of the ads have email addresses, some of which end in .edu: it was a different era. But here we see the establishment of the equivalence of post-punk indie rock (of the sort being advertised) and the left, maybe the attitude is remembered most about The Baffler. The Tom Frank essay that bookends the issue examines how the forces of capitalism and what opposes it seem to have set in stone since the 1960s, at least for cultural studies as it existed then:

The two come together in perfect synchronization in a figure like Camille Paglia whose annoying ravings are grounded in the absolutely non-controversial idea of the golden Sixties. According to Paglia, American business is still exactly what it was believed to have been in that beloved decade, that is, ‘puritanical and desensualized.’ Its great opponents are, of course, liberated figures like ‘the beatniks’, Bob Dylan, and the Beatles (needless to say, while Paglia proclaims herself a great fan of rock music, bands like Shellac, Slant 6, and the Subhumans never appear as recipients of her praise). Culture is, quite simply, a binary battle between the repressive Apollonian order of capitalism and the Dionysian impulses of the counterculture. Paglia thus validates the central official myth of the ‘Information Age,’ for rebellion makes no sense without repression; we must remain forever convinced of capitalism’s fundamental hostility to pleasure in order to consume capitalism’s rebel products as avidly as we do. It comes as little surprise when, after criticizing the ‘Apollonian capitalist machine’ in her new book, Paglia applauds American mass culture (in that same random issue of Utne Reader), the pre-eminent product of that ‘capitalist machine,’ as a ‘third great eruption’ of a Dionysian ‘paganism.’ For her, as for most other designated dissidents, there is no contradiction between replaying the standard critique of capitalist conformity and repressiveness and then endorsing its rebel products – for Paglia the car culture and Madonna – as the obvious solution: the Culture Trust offers both Establishment and Resistance in one convenient package. (pp. 15–16)

Paglia was as specious then as now; and her arguments deserve ridicule. Certainly I’m sympathetic to this; I grew up uninterested in the Beatles and Bob Dylan in no small part because of their omnipresence. Young men with guitars and drums can’t really be said to be revolutionary after being dominant for the past half-century. It’s not obvious, however, why indie rock – a slightly different variation on guys with guitars and drums – should be presented as a valid alternative here: why is the post-punk tradition any more ideologically pure than Madonna? Because it was existing outside the corporate tradition, as do-it-yourself culture? Indie rock would be assimilated just as surely as Madonna was; looked at from this distance, it seems more of a signifier of white upper-middle-class culture than anything else. I can’t imagine that anyone became a progressive through listening to Shellac, for all their charms. (See, for instance, a recent interview with Grant Hart of Hüsker Dü where he discusses the non-proletarian origins of their band.) Later Henry Rollins comes in for sustained criticism, in no small part because of how indistinguishable his rhetoric is from business language: a classic sell-out, Rollins is readily merchandisable as a symbol of revolution. One wonders, however, what was really being sold out.

(In the same essay, it’s worth pointing out, my occasional boss turns up, not mentioned by name: the new businessman, Frank writes, “is led by vanguard capitalists like the head of the CD-ROM pioneer Voyager, a former activist whose admiration of the Shining Path, as the New York Times notes, seems somehow appropriate amidst the current ‘information revolution.’ ” (p. 177.) Bob’s business sense and his politics intertwine in a complicated way; he never got rich, though he certainly could have if he’d occasionally set aside his politics. Simply paying lip service to the Shining Path would probably have been more lucrative.)

Elsewhere in the issue, there’s an extremely good piece by Jesse Eisenger examining how business press releases work and are used by the business press. This isn’t flashy writing, but it does examine the history of the business press release (required by law after the 1929 crash) and their current usage. His description of PRNewswire is a great deal more informative than the Wikipedia page on the company; one wonders why more attention isn’t paid to this sort of infrastructure. Later he does a critical reading of the sort of language that’s used in the press release: today, we see this done occasionally in specific cases, but I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a critical eye turned on the systematics of the press release, especially in an extended fashion. This is why I miss the Baffler: there isn’t a great deal of critical literature on the business world that isn’t all-out boosterism. Also fantastic is a piece on Bill Boisvert on business literature:

Whether they steal fire from the Harvard Business School or find enlightenment through a long pilgrimage in Oriental lands, all popular business books share certain idiosyncrasies. They euphemise their tautologies as “common sense” and their lists of slogans as “practical guides”, as if management theories are both self-evidently true and arcane enough to require a hands-on primer and costly seminars. Like nursery rhymes, they are fascinated by numerology and alliteration, freeze-drying their “findings” into nuggets of doggerel like “the Three C’s: Customers, Competition and Change” or Tom Peters’ typically long-winded “Seven S© Framework: Structure, Systems, Style, Staff, Skills, Strategy and Shared Values.” And to make reading fun for executives, they eschew logical exposition and an organized search for evidence in favor of brief, happy anecdotes about take-charge department heads, couched always in the cajoling rhetoric of cereal-box propaganda. (p. 70)

Always I want to see more criticism of the language of business: Doug Henwood’s Left Business Observer soldiers on, but this seems like an obvious subject for a popular blog. Maybe it’s too depressing to be carried out at this sort of length.

Keith White examines Wired, still brand-new: mostly this is what you’d expect, but it’s interesting to note that in 1995, it was still taken for granted that the Internet was a right-wing creation. At a certain point, the popular idea took hold that the internet was essentially a creation of the left-wing (Stewart Brand, etc.) rather than a military/corporate funded endeavor; somebody should trace this history out. It’s interesting as well that Wired was trumpeting video games as the most culturally significant artistic media even back then, claiming that the $6 million the industry was making then was the “single largest component of the infotainment industry,” whatever that means. Also odd to see is Jennifer Gonnerman’s “The Selling of Katie Roife,” a careful examination of the reactionary politics of Roife and how The New York Times tried to make her into a star in the early 1990s. One sees this sort of piece in media gossip circles – tracing out who knows who, and how a front-page-story gets made – but rarely in such depth. It’s also surprising how quickly this sort of thing is forgotten: Roife is still shilling her ill-sourced idiocy on the front of the Book Review. It’s similar to the examination of the creation of Donna Tartt in issue 4; but this one has more political bite.

Ultimately, the Tom Frank essay is what makes this issue. I like the anger, and I can understand where it’s coming from, but I’m not sure exactly where he’s going with it. (Admittedly, at this point, Frank would have been right out of grad school, and it’s maybe too much to ask for answers from someone who’s just been set free of the academy.) The market, the last sentence of the issue declares, is “putting itself beyond our power of imagining because it has become our imagination, it has become our power to envision, and describe, and theorize, and resist” (p. 192). There’s a certain similarity to the injunction of Sven Birkerts at the end of The Gutenberg Elegies to resist: but how? In both cases, one senses that they’re right, but it’s hard to know what to do next.

the baffler #9: an injury to all

The Baffler #9: An Injury to All
ed. Thomas Frank


Still working my way through old Bafflers: this one’s from 1997. I might be reaching my saturation point: this one took me a while to get through, in no small part because of what the editorial note describes as this issue’s “particularly unhappy tone”. This issue is unusually focused; most articles are on the sorry state of the labor movement in this country in the mid-1990s. Chris Lehmann looks at labor in the academy; Peter Rachleff looks at strikes against Hormel in Minnesota; David Moberg looks at attempts at organizing hotel workers in Los Angeles; Bob Fitch inspects the current state of the AFL/CIO. There’s some history as well: Frances Reed looks back at textile worker strikes in Lawrence, Massachusetts; Hunter Kennedy looks at the forgotten history of cotton strikes in Mississippi; an illustrated piece by Jessica Abel looks at the legacy of labor unrest in Decatur, Illinois, and Jim McNeill talks about his time as a labor editor in Racine, Wisconsin. It’s hard to read now: if anything, things are worse, and one senses that a lot of concerned people have simply thrown up their hands.

But: it’s good for you. And: there’s a lot here that’s useful. Tom Frank’s lead-off essay, a survey of labor writing through the ages is still relevant:

As a rule, advertising, the highest form of information-age cultural production, intentionally avoids discussing where products come from. In a time in which, we are told, style and image transcend all – both for corporate marketers and ourselves as consumers – essays like Edmund Wilson’s long description of the brutal facts of automobile production in “Detroit Motors” come across as nothing short of revelation. For a writer in the 1990s to produce such a piece – insisting on the inherently local, inherently material facts of work in an age when the only journalistic game in town is to wax blissful about the cyber-universe is eclipsing the analog world – would be almost willfully contrary. (p. 11.)

Change the date and it still works. Tom Vanderbilt’s “The Gaudy and the Damned” seems to have discovered a source for Mad Men, reading Chicken Soup for the Soul at Work (still in print, in turns out):

One story, titled “Santa comes to Joan,” caught my eye: “Every office has a Joan, or should have. She’s the one everyone looks to when the workload gets too heavy. She’s the one with the good story and the ready laugh. For our Christmas party, she’s the one who transforms our sterile corporate conference room, Christmas after Christmas, with tiny white lights, real teacups, teapots and plates she had brought from home.” (p. 15.)

And reading Josh Mason’s “Three Scenes from the Bull Market” now, one is surprised to discover that Jim Cramer of Mad Money and the real estate bubble got his start at the New Republic, where he suggested that laid-off workers could be quieted with stock options. Still hilarious, and available online at the SEC, is Wired‘s first, failed IPO, excerpted by Doug Henwood; they had operated at increasing loses for their first four years, but they were hopeful about making a lot of money off of suck.com in the future. Another prospectus, from Vans, touts how they’ll be more profitable as they’ve moved all their shoe manufacturing to South Korea.

As its title suggests, Jim Frederick’s “Intern Camp: The Intern Economy and the Culture Trust” looks at the culture of interning, then in a relative infancy. Obviously interning for for-profit corporations is a terrible thing, and there have been any number of pieces written about that. But Frederick’s piece is notable in that it examines the legal basis for internships:

There is, however, another exemption in the FLSA [the Fair Labor Standards Act, passed in 1988 (!)]. Vaguely worded, it concerns “trainees,” or the oddly redundant “student learners.” It allows for-profit institutions to pay short-term employees less than the minimum wage if they are there in an educational capacity. The Department of Labor requires that six criteria be met before it considers someone not an “employee” but a “trainee” exempt from the FLSA: The training is similar to that one would get in school; the training is for the benefit of the trainees, not the employer; the trainees do not displace regular workers; the employer derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the trainees, and may even incur some loss; the trainees understand that they are not entitled to a job at the conclusion of the training; and the trainees understand that they are not entitled to wages for the time spent in training. (p. 53.)

Frederick points out that some industries (banks, law firms, tech companies, engineering companies, and federal agencies) generally follow this; it’s abused by the glamor industries, fashion, architecture, and publishing, which use internships as a source of free labor. There’s a distinct class-based element to intern labor: it’s only relatively affluent young people who can move to New York and work for free in the hopes of getting a job down the road. (David Foster Wallace, more attuned to class differences than one might expect, would get this exactly right in “The Suffering Channel” where he describes a hierarchy of extremely well-dressed interns and the discomfort of his protagonist, working class reporter’s discomfort, with them.) One wonders how much the publishing industry has been hollowed out by two decades of reliance on interns: somebody should be looking at this.

At the end of the book, Robert Nedelkoff’s “Remainder Table” takes a look at the two books of the novelist Alan Kapelner, still neglected. I don’t know Kapelner’s work; LibraryThing reports that All the Naked Heroes was in the libraries of Carl Sandburg and Marilyn Monroe and Lonely Boy Blues was owned by Hemingway. I’d love a compilation of Nedelkoff’s “Remainder Table” columns; the books in them that I’ve tracked down have been worth the time.

And finally, Damon Krukowski had taken on the job of poetry editor with this issue: the selection here focused on poems about labor. Two poems, by Lizinka Campbell Turner (“Distinguo,” poorly scanned but in its original context here) and Edwin Rolfe (“Asbestos”), were rescued from The Liberator (1918) and The Daily Worker (1928); there’s also Kenneth Fearing’s “X Minus X” from 1934 plus Muriel Rukeyser’s “Metaphor to Action” from 1935. It’s an interesting selection, not least because it works well with the rest of the issue: one forgets that there was a sustained tradition of poems about labor, and that labor magazines published poetry. Somebody must have made a good anthology of this by now; I’m impressed that all four can now be found online.

the baffler #7: the city in the age of information

The Baffler #7: The City in the Age of Information
ed. Thomas Frank


I’m still working my way through back issues of the Baffler. This one was laid out in June 1995; after quotations from Randolph Bourne and Edmund Wilson, the copyright page proudly announces that they don’t have an email address (or telephone). Tom Frank’s “Twentieth Century Lite” lays out the theme for the issue: the rhetoric of the right, led by Newt Gingrich, had it that the rise of the information age obviated the need for cities. Everything was about to change. Some things haven’t changed: David Brooks was spouting idiocies back then as well, but for the City Journal rather than the New York Times. A George Gilder quote stands out: “The telecosm can destroy cities because then you can get all the diversity, all the serendipity, all the exuberant variety that you can find in a city in your own living room.” I don’t think that anyone’s still trotting out this idea in a positive sense, at least not publicly, but it’s hard to ignore the effects of the internet, often adverse on the city: there’s no reason for neighborhood book stores if you can get anything cheaper through Amazon.

It’s hard to tell what the idea was with fiction; no fiction editor is listed, although there are poetry and art editors. Short pieces by Janice Eidus and David Berman seem consistent with Baffler style, even if neither is particularly noteworthy; the Berman would work better if it had been declared prose poetry. A brief piece by Irvine Welsh – an excerpt from The Acid House about a trip to Disneyland – feels out of place: reading Scots dialect in this context, one can’t help but think of James Whitcomb Riley. One forgets, though, how much Welsh’s literary reputation declined in this country. Another piece, by Tibor Fischer, doesn’t do much for me; taken together, the two suggest an interest in British models for describing society in fiction, but that isn’t quite matched by the quality of the prose. The poetry – edited by Damon Krukowski – is noticeably better.

Naomi Klein, pre-No Logo:

But what does it mean when the still existing malt shop (or cafe or pub or laundro-mat) becomes cyberspace? What does it mean when you leave your house, go to public, urban spaces and spend the entire time ignoring the people around you in favor of finding out more about some angster in Texas named Bryon who has posted his entire diary on the internet in all of its excruciating detail, including a picture of his ex-girl friend Sandi’s cat and the heartwarming description of his relationship with his best friend Kriss: “We do a lot of things together, usually related to computer hardware (buying, selling, fixing).”

This isn’t a particularly good piece – bemoaning the wave of hype that then surrounded cybercafes – but here she gets to something useful, anticipating most of the next decade.

The bulk of the issue is spent examining the current state of the city. The last piece in the book, “A Machine for Forgetting” sees Tom Frank examining Kansas City, getting started on the job of figuring out what the matter with Kansas was. Kim Phillips takes on Chicago, briefly; Robert Fiore looks at Los Angeles selling off its infrastructure. Steve Healy and Dan Bischoff cover Athens and Atlanta, respectively, and a Maura Mahoney review Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil accuses John Berendt of cultural tourism in Savannah. Paul Lukas’s “Forty-Two Pickup” surveys Times Square while Disneyfication was underway but not yet assured of success: it’s a familiar story by now, but the portrait of a New York that still seemed to be wavering between identities. It can be hard to remember now how much the middle of the country’s perception of New York has changed. Lukas’s predictions of the future, like most predictions of the future, are entirely wrong, but it’s good to be reminded that there was a point when an alternative could be imagined.

Most interesting to me was Diamonds Mulcahey’s “Screw Capital of the World,” a survey of the history of Rockford, Illinois, the crumbling city where I was born. There was not a great emphasis on the history of Rockford when I grew up; common consensus was that it was too boring to have a history. The opening of a piece by Calvin Trillin in the New Yorker from 1976 which Mulcahey points out gives a good idea of the civic tenor:

In Rockford, there is always a lot of talk about negativism. Rockford people discuss negativism the way college students in the fifties discuss apathy – as an endemic, mildly regrettable, permanent condition. Apathy is also discussed in Rockford, usually in conversations about negativism.

Trillin’s article covers Rockford at a moment when extracurriculars had been dropped in the public schools because the voting public wouldn’t vote for increased property taxes; my high school was similarly threatened just before I arrived there, but sports were deemed too important. Trillin also points out that forced busing in the schools was an enormous issue even then; this was still dragging through the courts long after I’d left and Mulcahey’s article was written.

Mulcahey’s piece starts with a history of the Palmer raids of 1920, when 180 suspected Communists working in the tool-making and furniture factories were arrested. I’d never heard of this; Wikipedia, which manages to covers Cheap Trick repeatedly, also seems to have missed how the Rockford Daily Republic had declared Rockford to be “a veritable breeding palace for those who plot the overthrow of the United States by force.” Clarence Darrow successfully defended a Swede against charges of sedition. It’s not surprising that this would have fallen out of the historical narrative, but it does help explain how Rockford fell apart as a city. In 1945, Rockford was the “Screw Capital of the World”; but by the time I was growing up, that nickname had been forgotten, and we learned that it was the “Forest City,” on account of the elm trees that lined the streets before Dutch elm disease. (The visitor’s bureau seems unhappy about “Screw Capital of the World”.) In 1945, Life portrayed Rockford as an illustration of “the phenomenon of social mobility.” But Rockford was anomalous early on for being a right-leaning blue-collar city, which comes across strongly in the Trillin piece from 1976, when he finds that everyone is unwilling to pay for education. Industry left; by 1993, Money magazine rated Rockford the worst place to live of the 300 largest American cities.

This is a fantastic piece, anticipating a great deal that’s happened in the politics of the middle of the country since; it’s unfortunate that this piece seems to have no representation at all online. I suspect this wasn’t collected because of the similarity with Frank’s Kansas City. Fitting, really, for a second city to a second city.

the baffler #4: your lifestyle sucks!

The Baffler #4: Your Lifestyle Sucks!
ed. Thomas Frank


Another Baffler: this one the oldest I’ve ever seen, from 1992. It’s a very young piece of work, self-consciously so: the contributor’s notes at the beginning identifies the ages of everyone involved. (“David Berman (26) and company have a 7” record out on Drag City. Band: Silver Jews. Sound: difficult but rewarding.”) After the contributor’s notes, there’s a piece that “was read at a real-life provocation staged by The Baffer on October 21, 1992 at the Hot House, a Chicago “performance space” and favorite art-lifestyle hangout”. That’s followed by the lead editorial, Tom Frank’s “Art As Lifestyle,” set in bold Helvetica for blunter impact, one supposes. Then there’s “Bafflers Behind Bars” which narrates how the editors where mistakenly arrested for provocation and spent “12 to 18 hours” in jail: at this distance, it’s hard to know if this is a joke or if the editors are legitimately proud of the credibility that comes from going to jail for one’s art. Scattered between these are a couple of poems, a full-page photograph of a sheep, and an “ask a post-structuralist” advice column that isn’t very funny. This issue, then, is something of a mess, though it’s enjoyable. Potshots at postmodernism hearken to a time when critical theory was something that people could be afraid of (and a time when ads from Critical Inquiry could subsidize your publication). One notes obsessions with Thierry Muggler and Prague (both seemingly from afar). Lexicographers should take note of a memo from Quaker Oats, in which they propose using the term “granola” to mean the sandal-wearing set. There’s the pre-mature appearance of the “New Urban Hipster” in a fictional piece by Keith White, also set in Prague.

There’s a lot of fiction in here; there’s also a lot of poetry, and a smattering of art. It might be worth tracking down what happened to most of these writers, as most of them are utterly unknown to me: presumably they were people floating around U. Chicago in the early 90s. But there’s a predominance of non-fiction here: it seems by design, a project to present an alternative to the mainstream. Mat Lebowitz’s “Uncoupling” is a chronicle of yuppy New York of the time in the style of Brett Easton Ellis: perhaps this is what Walter Benn Michaels was calling for in his demand for capitalist realism in the style of The Wire, though I can’t help but find an echo of the criss-crossed generations of Henry Green’s Nothing in it. It is worth looking at how the creative work functions here: a good deal of it (though not all) is pointedly socially engaged, to the general detriment of the poetry. The end of D. M. Mulcahy’s “Libidinal Tourist,” looking at how Prague was being marketed as a bohemian paradise, turns into a manifesto:

There are two worlds, that of those who live life and that of those who purchase lifestyle. Therefore we at The Baffler consider worthwhile only that art which understands these relations. To those artists we despise, we will not say, “Your painting is bad; your music is boring; your writing is trite.” We will say instead, “Your lifestyle sucks.”

The critical side of this is taken up by a pair of pieces about Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, a novel “eclipsed by the event of its publication”. (See, for example, a piece from the New York Times business section.) Maura Mahoney’s “The Packaging of a Literary Persona” is unabashedly snarky; but it’s hard to say that Tartt didn’t deserve it though, when Vanity Fair was evidently gushing about how she had T. S. Eliot reading “The Waste Land” on her answering machine. Mahoney does nail the appeal of the novel: “Young, professional, liberal-arts alumni, nostalgic for the life of the mind while experiencing the harsh truths of the life of the paycheck have been targeted to consume the Tarttian version of their most cherished myth – if it’s elitist, it must be art.” Mahoney’s piece is complemented by a shorter one by Richard F. Kolbusz, Jr., examining the novel’s dust jackets – by Chip Kidd, before he was a household name.

What I like most about this issue is how unabashedly amateur it is: from the typography, which systematically marches through all the native Mac fonts from 1992, to the fiction and poetry clearly written by their friends. (Particularly “Honey,” a soppy love poem written by “A.P.,” identified only by initials: maybe this is an inside joke?) The origin of the odd layout of later Bafflers, where shorter articles snaked down the margins of longer articles for spread after spread, can be seen here; here, though, the inside and outside articles tend to be on the same subject, revealing it to be typographic experimentation: somebody clearly had seen a copy of Derrida’s Glas. There’s a scan of a draft of “The Libidinal Tourist” signed by Mike Ditka; there’s a fashion shoot featuring the editors. The final section, “Twenty-Nothing” turns into a Gen-X manifesto, written at a moment when the mass media was busy codifying grunge. There’s an entertaining prediction of the future:

More disturbing is the thought of these products being sold in the form of nostalgia years from now. We can doubtless look forward to television shows like “Slammin’,” chronicling the adventures of a group of alienated Washington D.C. teenagers who use peculiar dance rituals to express their misunderstandings with the parents. “This Old Garage,” will peek in on the coming of age of a homosexual vegetarian brother and his feminist sister as they clash and come together on the fringes of the Seattle rock world. More important than the shows will be the products sold along with them. As teens today sport the tie-dyed shirts of the sixties and the bell-bottoms of the seventies, so will our children model Doc Martens, special hair-griming formulas, and knee-exposing jeans in the year 2005.

“Twenty-Nothing” is more impassioned than reasoned; it doesn’t stand up very well, like most manifestos, or, for that matter, most writing by the young and excited:

Our youthful vision of the world was influenced more by Minor Threat (‘who’s that?‘ you wonder) than by the Partridge Family.

In retrospect, one might say that two roads diverge here, like when hardcore punk spawned emo and straight-edge. The Gen X self-consciousness points the way to Dave Eggers’s Might, where politics was rejected in favor of cultural whimsy – The Real World even comes in for generational scrutiny here. (Shiny Adidas Tracksuits and the Death of Camp, read five years ago, didn’t hold up very well at all.) Deeper political engagement leads to the later Baffler, the one that’s remembered, as well as Thomas Frank’s career. There’s not as much recourse to arguments from American history here as there would be later: while the history of American populism is tentatively brought out towards the end, it’s not as fully deployed as it later would be, perhaps for fear of seeming overly academic.

the baffler #8: the cultural miracle

The Baffler #8: The Cultural Miracle
ed. Thomas Frank


I don’t think that I ever actually had a copy of this issue of The Baffler, #8 from early 1996, though pieces are familiar from their appearance in Commodify Your Dissent (my copy of which is, as far as I know, still in a warehouse about a rug factory in north Somerville). The arrival of Baffler 18 seemed like a good excuse to pick up old issues that I was missing – most show up on Amazon used for not much – & this was the first to arrive in the mail. At sixteen years old, this is an old issue, almost a pre-Internet Baffler: there are a couple of web addresses in the ads for Sub Pop and Dusty Groove, but those are the only acknowledgments that the web existed. The (first) Internet Boom hadn’t happened; Monica Lewinsky hadn’t happened yet, and Newt Gingrich was ascendent. There’s an ad for The For Carnation on the inside back cover; most of the full-page ads seem to be connected to Sub Pop in some way or another. Both poems (“Cantos for James Michener”) and drawings by David Berman feature prominently. Okay Soda is mentioned not in nostalgia but as a present horror; the marketing of Red Dog beer, which I’d completely forgotten about, appears more than once.

That said: it’s strange how contemporary so much of this feels. Maybe that’s this moment speaking, when the Supreme Court has decided that as legal people, corporations deserve to have free speech, real health care reform has been taken off the table again, and when the Democrats can’t even hang on to Teddy Kennedy’s seat. I don’t think we’ve been in a holding pattern for the past fourteen years; but reading this, you get the sense that we might have arrived back in the same place. Frank’s opening piece, “Gold Diggers of 1996,” which posits that the present has returned to the turbulent 1930s, ready to explode, could be followed, in true Busby Berkeley style, by a “Gold Diggers of 2010″. Some pieces may have been ahead of their time: the Mike Neuwirth short story that closes the issue, about a bartender in East Hampton, seems vastly more appropriate to 2006 than 1996. A piece by Negativland explains how record companies exploited consumer ignorance to artificially raise the price of CDs after decades of attempts to sell different formats; it ends:

So what’s next? How can they get you to buy another copy of your favorite Pearl Jam release when you already have it on CD? Don’t worry, they’ll come up with an answer for you soon.

(p. 31.) That particular story has finished itself; but, as ever, nonconformity is still used to market conformity. Robert Schuller’s Orange County Crystal Cathedral, visited by Tom Vanderbilt, had been superseded by megachurches; Pat Robertson remains. Owen Hatteras’s “Pelf and Powder Blue,” about the public taste for blockbuster shows (Monet & Caillebotte at that time) and America’s lasting taste for the Impressionists feels like a prelude to the popular success of Thomas Kinkade, which A. S. Hamrah took apart in the most recent issue of the magazine. Robert Nedelkoff’s fictional interview with a campaign manager feeling out a Senate run for Steven Seagal is McSweeney’s before the letter.

What’s most striking about this issue – especially when compared to McSweeney’s and what’s followed – is how angry it is. Most of what they were angry about is still worth being angry about. Right-wing “populism” is still a threat to civil society. But I think it’s been hard to sustain outrage in the face of so much that’s happened since: witness, for example. the general indifference to Scott Horton’s report in Harper’s demonstrating that our government has been torturing and killing prisoners and disguising this as suicides; or the military’s seeming need to command & control Haiti before bothering to aid the people. There’s a sense of burn-out on the left presently: the thrill of the Obama win aside, it’s hard to imagine serious change actually happening, and at best the Democrats stand as a bulwark against further right-wing indignities. Here there’s the idea that maybe if people understood these things, they’d wake up. Now one worries that people understand but can’t care.

The indie aspect still looks weird: now the focus on post-punk seems more parochial than anything else, an attempt to graft a politics onto an aesthetic. But in this issue, at least, that mostly comes through the ads, which suggest a certain sort of readership, a readership who were primarily interested in books and Chicago-style post-rock. There’s a lot of Hunter Kennedy (of Drag City/The Minus Times, which seems to still be going) in here; in the TOC, it’s art. Zines will be zines; the roots show through on the ads and art, some of which appear to have been made with scissors, tape, and a photocopier. A Gary Groth piece castigates Quentin Tarantino, then culturally ubiquitous; it’s paired with a piece by Ray Carnie, slamming middlebrow taste in film (then being adopted by emergent media studies programs) in favor of John Cassavetes, at that time impossible to find on video; both of these would be argued differently today when media has become less of an either/or choice.

The most beguiling piece in the issue, for me, is Aaron Cohen’s reclamation of Artie Shaw for the left (online here), which follows an excerpt from Shaw’s Sideman, which was to be a “92-chapter autobiographical novel which, in Dostoevskian fashion, he intends to be the first part of a trilogy”. As far as I can tell, none of these ever appeared; nor did Good Enough Isn’t Good Enough, a multi-disc set of his own work that Shaw was compiling. But the voice of Shaw makes you wonder why you haven’t heard it before. The piece ends with this account of surviving McCarthyism:

I’m convinced that the thing that saved me, the one thing that kept me going, through it all, was sheer downright orneriness, the fact that I was just too damned mulish to lie down and oblige a pack of righteous idiots who believed they cornered the market on truth. Besides, I was curious to see what might happen next. Who knows? (I kept thinking) there may be a sudden outbreak of mass sanity. Hey, don’t laugh. It may happen yet. Listen, anything is possible.

a curse of our culture

“It’s a curse of our culture, this addiction to smartness and knowingness. It’s not just Tarantino. Look at MTV. Look at Spy magazine. Look at the ads in The Sunday Times Magazine. What’s so great about being so knowing, so smug, so cocky? Why do we want to be cool and ironic? Why are we so afraid of emotions? It’s an American disease. Our emotions can help us out of traps. Emotions are the way of truth. We need works of art that defeat our intellectual and emotional habits, that force us to see and feel freshly. We need an education in emotion. That’s why we have artists. They can be our teacher, if we are willing to let them.”

(Ray Carney, “Pulp Affliction: The Sorry State of Contemporary Film,” p. 49 in The Baffler #8, 1996)

the baffler, vol. 2, no. 1: margin call

The Baffler Vol. 2, No. 1: Margin Call
ed. Thomas Frank


A new issue of The Baffler (number 18) arrived yesterday & I’ve already made my way through it. There aren’t a lot of magazines that I reliably read through on arrival any more: I’ve fallen down on Dot Dot Dot, which was carrying me for a while, though I do generally make it through new issues of Fantastic Man. Everything else piles up. The past decade has been bad for magazines: wandering the magazine stores, it’s hard to find anything that looks necessary. I still miss Nest. Did I miss the Baffler? It never really folded per se, though it did seem like it faded out across the 2000s: the major lights had gone on to better things, and though four issues were released after Bush came into power, offering intelligent critique seemed beside the point in a world so impervious to reason. One can only say “I told you so” for so long.

The media world changed too: though the Baffler had done a superb job of covering the idiocies of the first Internet boom (Tom Frank’s One Market Under God is probably worth re-reading), it seems like they were taken aback with how radically the media landscape had changed. This new issue finds them taking stock: a quick piece by the editors leads off the issue by surveying the unexpected death of established media and the all-too-expected life of Wall Street. Chris Anderson & Wired come in for some old-time bashing. Focus stays on the Internet & the changing media world in the essay section, starting with Christine Smallwood (the problems of thinking about the Internet) and documentarian Astra Taylor (the problem of the artist in a world where everything can be pirated). Naomi Klein looks back at No Logo, examining the assumptions of 1999 (the same piece just appeared in The Guardian: presumably it’s an introduction to a tenth anniversary edition). Michael Lind finds oligarchs in America: at about this point it becomes clear we’re safely back in Baffler territory.

A. S. Hamrah’s piece on Thomas Kinkade and flipping houses is vintage Baffler: maybe my favorite piece in the issue. Yves Smith takes on the excesses of the finance industry. Walter Benn Michaels reprises a piece from Bookforum where he accuses the recent American novel of a lack of engagement with class issues; the piece has been reworked since its last appearance and is stronger for it, though I’m still not sure that championing American Psycho is the right way to do this. Moe Tkacik’s piece on the business writing of the recent bubble is good, though it pales against the memory of Tom Frank’s obvious love for the language of American business. Will Boisvert looks at Detroit; Ryan Ruby surveys the cultural devastation levied on New York by Mike Bloomberg; Jim McNeil looks at housing in DC. Will Schmenner’s piece on movies using the compilation soundtrack as a shortcut to emotion isn’t bad, but it could appear in any number of places; and the essay section is rounded out with the resurrection of an old conservative (Henry Fairlie) to serve as a voice for the progressive.

The magazine looks nicer than it did – though the “fi” ligature in the font they’re using draws an unseemly amount of attention to itself, as does the way they smallcap all abbreviations. There’s a blue bookmark, and the binding is good. The photos, in full color, are beautiful; a graphic section by Angie Walker isn’t particularly strong and feels like it belongs in Harper’s. The back of the book is lighter: a Dan Kelly piece starts with a list of authors drawn from a Facebook meme and explains how they’d do in a fight. Chris Lehmann takes apart revisionist histories of the New Deal; Mike Newirth reconsiders Nelson Algren; Matt Taibbi enjoys Rod Blagojevich’s book as much as anyone can, almost a return to his writing at the eXile. Two fiction pieces, by Paul Maliszewski and Lydia Millet provide a soft ending. There’s no Robert Nedelkoff, which is too bad, but he’ll turn up, I’m sure. It’s a solid issue: it feels revitalized after a long absence: maybe a good place to start volume 2.

*     * *     *     *

In a way, it’s as hard for me to think critically about The Baffler as it is for many to think about Salinger, as it’s one of those things that I found at exactly the right time: the late 90s, the height of the first dot-com boom, at a college that was a charm school for the upper class, where day-trading was taking place over breakfast in the dining halls, everyone had a start-up based on some ridiculous idea which were, astonishingly, getting funded. The Baffler, then, was a necessary corrective: proof that somebody, somewhere was thinking sensibly, and that meant a lot. Coming across old issues on the shelves of used bookstores since then still provides a shock of recognition: it’s tied up with how I constructed myself at a certain point in time.

The magazine seemed to lose its footing after the Bush inauguration: in an era where blatant disregard of facts was the official order of the day, informed criticism felt besides the point. And of course, attention was elsewhere: Thomas Frank’s been doing solid work since then – in-house leftist on the Wall Street Journal‘s opinion page seems a good fit – as have most of the other people involved: Paul Maliszewski’s book on fakery last year, for example, deserved much more press than it received. Maybe the problem is the place of the literary journal right now: a piece by Ted Genoways, editor of the VQR in Mother Jones, suggests that while everyone’s busy submitting to literary magazines, nobody’s actually reading them. (The MFA industry is as readymade a Baffler story as can be imagined.) Attention’s moved: I don’t know that it’s moved elsewhere so much as it’s lost duration. Nobody needs to hear this again. But it’s nice to see the Baffler back.

(Worth noting: a handful of old issues – 11, 16, and 17 – can be downloaded in PDF format by clicking on the individual issues. These seem to be scans of the images)