Fact-Check: Mark Greif is Not Actually Against Everything
On Thoreau, the Presidential Race, and the Search for Yes
“[S]o much around me seemed to be false, and contemptible, yet was accepted without a great collective cry of pain,” n+1 cofounder Mark Greif writes of his twenties and thirties in the preface to Against Everything, a sentiment that feels reminiscent of Thomas Hobbes’ infamous declaration that the life of man is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” Yet if the essays in this decade-spanning collection are haunted by the ghost of any famous dead philosopher, it’s that of Henry David Thoreau, whose Walden Pond Greif grew up visiting with his mother long before opening the book that bore its name. Despite the tongue-in-cheek provocation of its title, Against Everything is in many ways a work of startling optimism, if not about our current world—in which liberalization has superseded liberation, and life has been transformed into a commodity from which every last drop of value must be wrung—then in the ability of each of us to search for and demand a bigger, better alternative. The essays are less a condemnation than a set of critical questions: about our bodies, our state, our media, and the places in which all three intersect. Reading it, I had the same feeling Greif describes when he finally did pick up Walden: “The book was more implacable than I could have ever imagined, and more hopeful and loving.”
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Jess Bergman: In his classic 2013 Gawker essay “On Smarm,” Tom Scocca writes of the “online sharing economy” that “agreeability is popularity, and popularity is value.” Do you agree with this sentiment, or feel that the internet has contributed to a cultural climate that is inhospitable to critical discourse?
Mark Greif: Oh, that’s funny. I mean, if anything my intuition would be that the internet, or parts of it, have in fact kind of generalized a lot of the familiar pieces and methods of cultural critique, or cultural criticism, such that they just become a familiar part of everyday discourse, often in brief—however many characters belong in a tweet. How many characters are in a tweet? 140?
JB: 140, although now you can include images and they don’t count towards the total.
MG: Oh my god, well why would anyone use letters again? [Laughs] And you know, this is happening at the same time in longform, as its now called. So people sometimes worry—to me, at least, in my hearing—that somehow the old forms of cultural critique, or even just essay writing about culture, are being vitiated or cheapened, and so on and so forth. I don’t know if that’s the case, but there’s that worry. And then I also hear from people fears of the kind of generalized negativism of trolling and cruel comments. So as much as there are buttons one can press to like things, and you can retweet and all the rest, I don’t know that any kind of broad culture of agreeability has emerged online.
I used to read the Amazon reviews for opera, [Laughs] and it was fun because it seems the smaller the population of people online who argue about something, the better the results. It was incredibly striking how in that small community where it seemed absolutely nothing was at stake—talking about operas that everyone loved and merely trying to rank which recording was better—the level of venom and one-upsmanship and really lacerating, blood-drawing commentary was titanic.
There are other forces abroad and in the United States which encourage people to be too nicey-nice with each other, but I don’t think it has really touched the internet, even if it has touched criticism elsewhere.
JB: You write in the preface to Against Everything that “this is not a book of critique of things I don’t do. It’s a book of critique of things I do.” But I’m curious, have you ever managed to talk yourself out of any of these habits or behaviors in the course of your writing?
MG: I have talked myself out of some of them—I actually haven’t been inside a gym to use a treadmill or a stairmaster in the ten years since I wrote “Against Exercise.” And certainly that essay came from a horrible visionary experience of damnation that rose before me when I was on a treadmill. I mean, not that that’s the best thing—I could drop dead during the course of our conversation of a coronary. [Laughs] I should think of a loftier case. The most troubling one to me is vegetarianism as a kind of moral obligation, insofar as in writing the food essay and reading a lot books of food critique, it did seem truly obvious. It’s something I say in the essay, that vegetarianism is the one thing that on every separate kind of measurement could do something really good for humanity and the environment and your arteries and your soul. And yet, I keep trying and I don’t do very well. My will is weak. So I suppose it’s the case that some essays at the very least gave me a way of thinking about things that it was quite easy for me to give up, like the gym, and with other things I struggle from a somewhat fluctuating character. But I really have tried to change my life depending on the way that the essays come out and the way that continued reflection comes out. It’s also the case that the work never quite seemed to me the final word on anything. And, you know, those same topics do still preoccupy me, and I continue to figure out where I might be—just for myself, not for the world—right or wrong.
JB: Speaking of “Against Exercise” and “On Food,” you write in these essays about the tyranny of physical fitness and the way we ascribe a kind of moral value to health (or the lack thereof). Nowhere has this seemed clearer to me recently than in our current presidential race. What do you make of the media circus over Hillary Clinton’s pneumonia diagnosis, or Donald Trump’s appearance on Dr. Oz?
MG: [Laughing] These are the most fun things to talk about. Like everyone, I frequently get messages from seemingly deranged people on the street and coffee shops. One nice thing about visiting New York last week because the book came out was that I heard lots of street-level news from people who found that I had a friendly face, or else could just tell that I would listen to them. And so I learned almost as soon as Hillary had to withdraw from that 9/11 event because of her pneumonia, from a man in a Starbucks, that it wasn’t pneumonia, it was actually a stroke, and that the real Hillary—if there ever was one—has been whisked away to a secure location, and she’s now been replaced by an alternative Hillary. He said, “Look at the footage: that’s not the same woman going into that place and out of it! She’s gained 40 pounds!” Which is all just to say that actually the speculation on the presidential candidates’ health has made me think much less about health as grounds for all kinds of moral obligation, socially, the weight of which I think I can’t bear, then what it is precisely that presidential candidates mean to us.
You’ll have to forgive me if this goes a bit astray from the question, but the thing that has been impressive to me about the election is what a colossal waste of time and thought and money it’s been. And of course, this is the case every time. I remember a kind of horrible hangover feeling when Obama was elected over Romney, not because I ever wanted the result to go any other way, but because it just seemed such an obvious choice from the start. I thought, these millions of dollars and this incredible orgy of unnecessary reflection, if we had skipped it we could have accomplished something really useful, like democracy. [Laughs] I actually take the reflection on the candidates’ health to be part of this strange measuring process of the candidates against ourselves as individuals and what kinds of fantasized uber-mommies and uber-daddies we want to be. That said, I do definitely believe, as in those essays, that we’ve wound up in a situation in which we can kind of take it for granted that there is something moral about health—or a moral obligation to be in good health—that I think is simply not true. I think it’s actually quite dangerous.
The thing that has been impressive to me about the election is what a colossal waste of time and thought and money it’s been.
JB: Though you don’t address it much directly, social media seems to have a kind of presence in the Against Everything anyway, by which I mean that many of the subjects you write about—food, exercise, travel, the sexualization of the barely legal—are also some of the things you are most likely to see while scrolling through an Instagram or Facebook feed. Even police brutality, which you address in “Seeing Through Police,” now often comes to us first through Twitter or streaming platforms like Facebook Live. Have you thought much about the intersection of social media and some of the threads within the book, particularly the notion that experience has become commodified?
MG: I do think quite a bit about the connection between social media and the sorts of packagings and also ways of saving or preserving experience that are, for example, taken up in that essay on the concept of experience. I also keep cautioning myself not to say too much about social media both because I feel I haven’t thought enough about the parts that I do use and the parts I am familiar with, and partly because of that promise in the preface not to critique things I’m not in some way at stake or the first person to get knocked over for. I’m not on Twitter, and I’m not on Facebook; there’s a way in which it’s too late for me, and I simply will never know the kinds of experiences and modes of transformation of everyday life as well as the people who grew up with it. And so it will be your obligation [Laughs] to answer the question properly.
But I do think it’s been very convenient and also very weird to have people come up to me and say, “Whoa, you know, the essay you wrote about experience is so prescient, how did you know these things before social media?” And I think, “Whoa, your sense of historical understanding is very shallow and your memory is very short.” [Laughs] Only insofar as we tend to ascribe a kind of immediate consequence of ideology to social media first, assuming that it’s the major causal actor, whereas there’s a historical lag and overlapping such that most of the now seemingly inevitable uses of the different social media platforms and applications really probably draw much of their content from whatever practices and ideologies had been around before their arrival. In that sense I’m very pleased that the book goes after things which continue to dominate our lives or have a continuity with the new technologies.
JB: In “Anaesthetic Ideology,” you reference people who withdraw from TV and the internet as “people to whom a need to reduce experience occurs.” How do you feel about the many thinkpieces of late written by people who purport that their rejection of smart phones and other technologies is actually in the pursuit of more experience, or more authentic experience?
MG: Well, as you might imagine, I have mixed feelings about this, or a certain ambivalence. I think my real feelings about them tend to be quite individual depending on the essay. It seems the person who is truly in quest of a kind of self-discovery beyond what’s available in a world of repetitious commonplaces, online or even offline in the world of television and advertising, probably wouldn’t think to do such a thing in order to write about it in a newspaper or on the internet. That is to say that, very often there just seems to be a kind of structurally misplaced intention. The person who understands reality to transpire in media enough that they would try to record even their efforts to escape will never escape. In this, actually, it’s quite like a kind of problem about the efforts in contemporary art to produce happenings or events that would be immediate and only transactional, or relational, and evanescent, insofar as when they keep extensive documentation of the performance in photographs or words and then sell those things to a museum, you can feel a kind of bad faith or misunderstanding of what it would be, really, to separate oneself from the larger institution which is said to be so overpowering and tyrannical.
The person who understands reality to transpire in media enough that they would try to record even their efforts to escape will never escape.
That said, there is another kind of essay, or thinkpiece—terrible word—about leaving the world of media, and I take it to be the kind of honest one, and often a very aggressive or hostile one, in which it is possible to declare in a newspaper that the newspaper is not the thing worth reading, and that people ought to close it. Or to declare on television that television is a lying, destructive medium, and people should turn off their TVs. And people do this from time to time; I think it’s salutary. It’s certainly a surprising thing that many of the most, I think, trustworthy and great philosophers of how you would live your life tell you not to read the newspaper under any circumstances. Thoreau, for example. You have to ask yourself why that would be the case, especially when we think that there’s a kind of special virtue to keeping up with what is happening with democracy, or among people who suffer. The idea there is that the things that truly matter have either local character or repetitive and eternal character in people’s lives, and it’s only by finding ways to be embedded in those things—the things that don’t change—that it’s possible to kind of rightly and politically or compassionately interpret the constant eruptions of surprising things, or unsurprising suffering.
JB: Speaking of Thoreau, Against Everything both begins and ends with Walden. It reminded me that Walden was briefly back in the news last year after Kathryn Schulz wrote that essay in the New Yorker, “Pond Scum,” sort of excoriating Thoreau. I’m curious what you thought of that piece, and what you think of Thoreau’s legacy in 2016 more generally.
MG: I made the mistake of reading that piece—it was an accident [Laughs]. Only because I like Kathryn Schulz and I like Thoreau, and it seemed like something one would want to read. I actually went to my students, they were literature students, and I said, “Oh students, will you please tell me if I’m using the following word in the right way?” And they said, “Yes, yes, poor benighted professor.” And I said, “I read this Kathryn Schulz thing in the New Yorker, and I have been successfully trolled? Did I use that word correctly?” And they said, “No, no professor, you did not.” So I was disappointed.
It’s funny, when you talk about the modes of criticism that seem to belong characteristically to the internet—what are they, how do they work—because as I was reading that piece, I thought, well, this is odd. Here’s an essay on Thoreau by a person who doesn’t like Thoreau and who doesn’t understand him—who doesn’t get his jokes. And the thing that she tells us is that Thoreau is overrated. [Laughs] And what is one to make of this? I think there’s a temptation to think that it’s in some way notable, or that it belongs to the state of criticism in 2016. But in fact, thinking about the New Yorker, they had a great, great fan of Thoreau in the form of E.B. White in the 1940s. And he completely didn’t understand Thoreau either and ludicrously mischaracterized him, turning him into a sentimental Disney figure of trees and stuff. So it’s a New Yorker tradition.
I feel like every time lives with, you know, what Nietzsche calls “cultural philistinism”—with a kind of class of people who will tell you professionally that the things that are great and you know to be great aren’t that great after all, precisely because they don’t see into them deeply. That’s the kind of peril that comes with reading anything in one’s own time, rather than waiting centuries to bury a lot of that stuff in libraries.
JB: In the book’s concluding paragraph you write that “the instant for philosophy is always now.” What would you say to those who view thought and action as inherently separate, or believe that the latter outweighs the former by a wide margin?
MG: I guess you would have say to yourself, what could such a person mean? Presumably the concern of someone who says this with real seriousness would be inaction, right—the possibility that endlessly mulling something over would keep you from ever doing things that are courageous or direct or disobedient. And that seems like a good direction to be heading, insofar as you wouldn’t want to be, you know, a Hamlet. Although, Hamlet actually does quite well, that’s why he’s always a bad example of this, but, you know, someone manacled by thought and incapable of doing the right thing. I could be wrong, but it seems as if we’re always already living with our thoughts; just to be a creature that speaks and has words in its head and is ever able to convince other people is to know that everything you do at every moment is transpiring in some way as a kind of argument you have with yourself and an argument you have with others. You don’t want to disarm yourself, you don’t want to make yourself a kind of puddle of thought-saturated wet newspaper or something. But, yeah, I think that if you accept that you’re already soaked always in other people’s thoughts and words as well as your own then there’s no real action or satisfaction without trying to figure out what those words are that are printed all over you and to try to clarify them for yourself.
JB: If you absolutely had to rewrite your book’s title in the affirmative, what would you call it?
MG: So the obvious answer isn’t For Everything? [Laughs] I actually think that’s probably the right answer. It has a kind of very similar character, or at least I think, if someone were to obligate me to write the book that went with that title it would have a very similar character, insofar as there is a peculiarity of the kind of attitude of the book that says, press against everything first to see if it stands up. Push on your beliefs to see if they’ll hold your weight. Bite into that nugget of gold to see if it might be fool’s gold. You are always seeking by those means the things that are real, or as a teenager would say, “really real.” And I think that in the kind of long historical line of this, too—with Flaubert who appears in the book, with his late book Bouvard et Pécuchet, you get a sense that really the purpose of figuring out the universal folly of human sciences is to discover those things that don’t really change and that are actually quite simple and direct: love and friendship and so forth. There’s a very strange moment in one of Nietzsche’s books where in the midst of just saying the meanest thing about all of the commonplaces of the world and all of common sense, he says, I go through all of this, but I aspire someday to be only a yea-sayer. That the true success of the naysayer would be to be able to find out the things that you can really say yes to, and say yes to again and again and again, with a whole heart. And that’s the sense in which For Everything would be the other side of this negative enterprise.