American prospects?

I read your piece on theory in The American Prospect (‘Life After Theory’, 16th July, 2004) and agreed with the conclusion regarding the necessity of mediation between the academy and the public sphere. Do you see n+1 as successfully fulfilling this role yet, or does more need to be done?

Thank you for reading that essay. I don’t think n+1 is filling this role yet. I’ve always wanted us to. I do think there’s still time for it. We’ve tried to do it with the material from the philosopher Nancy Bauer and from the critic Walter Benn Michaels, and the assessments of Agamben and others-and in a different way with a special kind of writing that Helen DeWitt and Elif Batuman and Ilya Klieger can do for us, which variously gets called ‘fiction’ and ‘non-fiction’ and is really something beyond each. But we’re still not doing a very good job.
Mediation between the two intellectual layers depends first on finding individuals who are committed to both the university and to the mass media. Those who have, for each sphere, the right degrees of respect and suspicion. Such people exist, in private; I feel like plenty of people know how to balance the claims of the two spheres of intellect when they’re just reading the paper. But this kind of mediation requires, too, a shared language of mediation, in which you can talk about both worlds and not make stupid distinctions; and not get caught up in the cult worship of the New York intellectuals or the defence of the disciplines; or filter all of intellectual life through the memoiristic, the reactions of the self, and similar garbage. Lord knows, we get caught in those refuse piles, like anybody else. The common language is the missing element. I think the reasons that some such language doesn’t exist are probably economic and defensive.
‘Public’ intellectuals can’t admit they’re really ‘market intellectuals’-that’s Michael Denning’s term-shaped by their uncertain economic fate at the hands of the same forces that promote pulp novels and movies and radio programs. University intellectuals can’t fess up to the dangers of their over-secure economic position, cosseted and paid for, and therefore unrealistic about their relation to the economic world exterior to the university. I don’t see a lot of progress beyond the increasing intelligence people have about what goes on in their own sphere-i.e., intellectual journalists’ sophistication about the funding (and current defunding) of newspapers, and academics’ analysis of what ten years ago they called the ‘corporate multiversity.’
In that American Prospect article I said I wished there were a layer of ‘linking intellectuals,’ between the two spheres. They’d be unafraid of academic thought and would interpret it for the public. But they’d also be committed enough to a public sphere to be able to call ‘bullshit’ on university intellectuals without rancour or the trace of sour grapes. Since that article was written, I’ve been looking for such people. I’ve been disappointed by how strongly professional training in either the academy or journalism ties writers down. The major intellectual development of the last 50 years was the universitisation of intellect, for better and worse, and I don’t see that either the public or academic stories of that process-I’m thinking of the cretinish discourses of the ‘lost public intellectual’ at every level-have found any new, original relation to it. I find the instincts to all these mistakes in myself. I’m the first to make them. But n+1 exists in part to try to tamp down the erroneous instincts of the editors, and improve things. So we’re working on that.

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You mentioned Helen DeWitt-have you read Your Name Here yet? I’m about half-way through and am not sure what to think. On one hand, it’s very funny and well-observed, particularly the Oxford stuff. It was excerpted in the latest issue of Oxford Poetry (as well, of course, as n+1) and seems to work well in that format. As a 580-page novel, though, I’m less sure. She seems to admire David Foster Wallace, but I’m not sure that YNH quite measures up to the subtlety of, say, Infinite Jest or his later stories; it reads more like the gimmicky metafiction of The Broom of the System, or like some Barthian nightmare that just exploded. I know that’s partly the point, but it seems to invest too heavily in this sort of thing not to feel at least a little bit outdated. That, and Ilya Gridneff’s emails are just boring.

Yes, we read it before we did the excerpt. I think it’s an excellent book. That was a big objection among the n+1 editors, that Gridneff’s emails are boring. But I think a good part of the book is the Pygmalion relationship (sexes reversed) of DeWitt to Gridneff, and Zozanian to Pechorin. You have to see that Gridneff is no Joyce to appreciate the manic creation of this young man as a hero, so that the genuine writer-DeWitt / Zozanian-can stay home and fantasise. Beyond that, I think DeWitt is brilliant in part because the underlying ideas are worth it-the fully lotteritized society, for example, as an extension of the current privatised and neoliberal order. Yet they’re rendered in the broadest strokes, for pleasure. She’s fundamentally not an elitist writer, but someone who reaches to a mass audience, more Vonnegut than Pynchon somehow. I really believe if that book were printed it would have a mass audience-a mass audience with aspirations to languages and high culture, which is part of what DeWitt’s book is devoted to making you love. She has a bit of a ‘spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down’ approach altogether. She is so deliberately out of the mainstream that her democratic and anti-elitist tendencies come out alongside her real brilliance and attachment to erudition. I love Helen DeWitt.

I thought the best bits of Issue Seven were the interviews: the conversation with the Hedge Fund Manager seemed accessible to a ‘literary’ audience without being just another ‘economics for dummies’ type run-through, while David Harvey was admirably tentative with his political conclusions. Will n+1 be dealing with the ‘credit crunch’ again in Issue 8, or in future pieces for the website? Does the magazine have a particular stance towards it, in terms of political importance?

We hadn’t done interviews before. In fact we’re against them. They’re often a way to fill up space in a magazine without committing to the hard work or writing and editing an essay-and they’re so plentiful. They’re most plentiful in places where text is just a means for filling in pages between pictures-have you noticed the rich harvest of interviews in art magazines? Since part of the point of n+1 was to try not to run things that people could run elsewhere, interviews were really out of bounds. (What would be the point in that? They should just go elsewhere!) But HFM appeared, the anonymous Hedge Fund Manager, and one of my co-editors started talking with him, and those conversations happened.
This co-editor, I think, is a genius. He knew what he had, and he went with it-he kept interviewing. The funny thing is that the early interviews with HFM happened before the crisis emerged into public discourse. HFM knew things were unwinding, and he was watching what none of us knew to look at-like when, in the second interview, he talks about the possibility that AIG could fail, and the catastrophic consequences, and those of us in the office said, ‘AIwhat?’
I’d tend to think the financial meltdown is immensely important politically. The ambition of a significant part of the US conservative realignment of 1964 to the present had been to keep growing in ideological power until the generation that had experienced World War II and the Depression and the postwar era of growth in real wages would die off.
Then there would be no one left who remembered national solidarity in an economic framework, and the remains of the New Deal welfare state could be chopped up and thrown out once and for all. So a decent, serious, really heinous financial meltdown caused by deregulation and mass business irresponsibility, which can only be salved by massive governmental intervention-you know, it could be character-building for the US and maybe, you’ll have to tell me, for the UK, too. You have a stronger welfare state and, with Gordon Brown, a sane and confidence-inspiring Prime Minister, but it must be nice to be reminded that deregulation and privatisation isn’t the answer to everything.
David Harvey was tentative with his political conclusions, and it’s our inclination not to be tentative-but, also, not to be ‘responsible’ and realistic. The reality is that there are more than enough places which repeat the same sorts of realism.

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