Since 2004, when his work started to appear in n+1, the magazine he co-founded, Mark Greif has taken contemporary bourgeois experience as his principal subject. In wry, densely plotted essays, full of unexpected twists and insights, he questions our attitudes towards exercise, sex, whiteness, war. When placed under his scrutiny, the 21st century is usually found wanting. Informed by history, he shows how we got to this point and how we needn’t settle for it.
As Greif uncovers shallowness and hypocrisy, it’s hard not to feel as if you’ve been found out: after all, aren’t you the very kind of hipster he describes? Don’t you care a little too much about food, the gym? Yet he is not quite the puritan — and certainly not the nihilist — suggested by the title of his new essay collection, Against Everything. Threaded throughout the book, in a series on ‘the meaning of life’, are his strategies for coping with the world, and even improving it. Greif’s outlook is essentially hopeful: he demands more, of us and himself. When we met in London last October — a few weeks before the presidential election — he seemed energised by the political potential of what he then saw as an ‘incredibly good moment’. Although he can sometimes seem forbidding on the page, in person he was jovial and enthusiastic.
Greif’s essays comprise just one aspect of his work. He is also an associate professor of literary studies at the New School, in New York, and the author of The Age of the Crisis of Man (2015). A sweeping intellectual history of America between 1933 and 1973, the book recounts how different conceptions of humanity and history were conceived and debated — before being swept away by the tumult of the 1960s and the arrival of theory. So far, at least, his essays have been distinguished from his academic work by their focus on the present, but he has written that all his work forms ‘a history of morals understood as the history of the construal of necessity and obligation’. He is now working on a book about pornography.