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Interview with Mark Greif

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.

Q

The White Review

— What are you setting out to do when you start working on an essay?

 

A

Mark Greif

— I work from some problem or question — something that’s genuinely bothering me or that seems constraining. Another of the things that intrudes upon you in your daily life, which seems unbearable.  The essays, as I understand them, are efforts to try to work through some kind of provisional answer or at least some greater perspective on whatever the obtrusive thing is. Just to feel less at its mercy. But I do think of them as always directed by questions rather than answers. I can guarantee the first, I hope, in the best formulation I can reach, in ways that people might not have thought to ask the question before. But I certainly can’t guarantee the second.

Q

The White Review

— One distinctive feature of your essays is an emphasis on argument. I wondered how clear those arguments were in your mind when you start writing.

 

A

Mark Greif

— Curiously, I think they’re sedimented in some way, or in layers. You’re absolutely right that they’re driven by argument — and arguments, specific lines of argument that have been worked out. And so it would be impossible to sit down and start without the first few lines of attack or the first set of things that seemed the right roads to go down.

 

That said, the problem of argument and thought is that you reach a first end point. I think the thing that’s most valuable — and the thing I understand even to be meant by the title, Against Everything, in some roundabout way — is that if you’re to undertake this kind of work, each time you think you’ve reached a stopping point or even a provisional right position, you ought to insist on asking whether you’re not still wrong and attacking your own conclusions already internally. So a number of the essays are built out of a set of arguments that only go so far, and then a stopping-point and an effort to rethink what it would take to go further. Which is also, I think, why some of them have a quality of shifting tracks midway through.

Q

The White Review

— In terms of publication, ‘Against Exercise’ is the first in the book, and it was the first to come out…

 

A

Mark Greif

— Yeah, and it was really the first essay that I had written to my own satisfaction of that type, where I was able to start from what felt like a point of zero, or freedom. Everything else that we were writing at that time — me and the other founders of n+1 — was occasioned by someone or beholden to some new book that had come out, some new album that had to be reviewed. We were all in our early to mid-20s and it seemed like you had to make believe all of your best ideas came from somewhere else. If you were doing university work, you had to write a long literature review in which you would say everything that everyone else had said, only at the end to pipe up, the size of a mouse, and say, ‘I have one idea too!’ And ‘Against Exercise’ was the first piece where I felt free of that.

Q

The White Review

— The voice feels fully formed from that first essay. Did you have a model in mind of what you were trying to do?

 

A

Mark Greif

— There is a lucky effect of the first thing. I’ve experienced it in other genres too: where you sit down and discover that all of the years of reading and fantasising, and just admiring other writers, leave you free of the questions about voice, tone and vocabulary that bedevil you at all other times — and will, forever. There are a whole host of people whom I read and reread obsessively: Susan Sontag, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Joan Didion, Virginia Woolf. I wish that kind of self-unconsciousness could be attained again. But it really did have the feeling of pent-up energy.

Q

The White Review

— You mention in the introduction to Against Everything that you set up n+1 partly as a place to publish this kind of essay — your own and others’.

 

A

Mark Greif

— When we were starting I went to see Bill Corbett, an old friend in Boston, which is where I grew up. He was the only working writer I had ever really known growing up. He was a poet, and for years he published these small chapbooks out of this house. He had a journal called Fire Exit, which I worshipped. I wanted his advice, but also, I think, his blessing, to start this inevitably doomed, sure-to-fail undertaking. I told him I was thinking of starting a literary magazine, and he was like, ‘well that’s a bad idea, what could possibly possess you to do that?’ And I said, ‘I really have things I’d like to say and things I’ve written that can’t be published elsewhere. And my friends, the same situation. I want to publish myself and them.’ And he said, surprised, ‘Oh, that’s the only good reason to start a literary journal. You really want to be able to put your finger, right away, on what the thing is that’s missing or what the historical purpose of a publication is.’ So in that sense, it really was a matter of friends gathering to complain about all the publications that then existed.

Q

The White Review

— What was it that you felt was missing?

 

A

Mark Greif

— It was a moment of McSweeney’s, where it really seemed as if our generation’s contribution to literature might just be more joking and fey cuteness. Permachildhood. And The Baffler, which was the journal in the States that we by far the most admired, had suffered a fire and ceased publication. So it seemed as if there was no place to ridicule what genuinely needed to be ridiculed: the endless mendacity and fatuity of the business culture and marketing culture. And it also seemed as if there was no place in which people did not rigidly segment political imaginations and hopes from literary desires and foppish aestheticism. Whereas it seemed clear to us that our foppish aestheticism and political desires were all from the same well.

Q

The White Review

— And it was early on that you started conceiving your essays as part of some bigger project that could be a book.

 

A

Mark Greif

— I did. I always imagined these very grand books — none of which, sadly, got to be written, because they had to be boiled down into these tiny, hyper-concentrated, 5,000-word diamonds. It is a strange thing to come into the world after university, or after years or reading, knowing that you can do the things that your elders do, and you can do them much better. You can write better books that what they’re writing, you could teach courses when they should not be.  And then to find that actually, it’s your obligation to enter into a decade or more of false apprenticeship. And it’s a real question, what you do with that. One thing is to leave the field altogether; another is to try to hold onto your soul while you’re writing copy for someone. For some reason, knowing that no one wanted the books I really imagined — a true history of fitness culture and the gym, a true look at what popular music does for our feelings — I thought, well, maybe I can say everything I can possibly think of in the shortest space possible. In that way, this book, Against Everything, does feel built up of units that originally belonged together. But they often, in my mind, belonged as books on the shelf, rather than as chapters.

Q

The White Review

— I wanted to ask not so much about the title of the book but the subtitle: On Dishonest Times. How do you think of these times as being dishonest?

 

A

Mark Greif

— I wonder, often, whether I’m crazy.  Because I wander around and I find menus addressing me, to tell me how much they care about my dining experience. And the paper sacks that my hamburger comes in, telling me how much the gigantic company cares about the cows they’ve slaughtered for my food. And I’m constantly being offered advice on how I should dress, eat, sleep, have sex. And yet I suspect that actually, all of these sources don’t care very much about how I do these things. That’s the kind of dishonesty that I imagine. We’re in a culture with very few real friends, and an enormous number of unctuous sales people who will adopt the language of friendship, care and help.

Q

The White Review

— You reference historians at different points in your essays. But there’s also a theoretical apparatus that has, presumably, influenced you at different points — yet, unlike in academic writing, it isn’t explicitly cited.

 

A

Mark Greif

— Unquestionably. And it’s funny, in reviews of this book, people name names, and articulate out loud thinkers who clearly lie behind many of the thoughts, lines of inquiry, formulations. And they’re pretty much always right. It actually gives you a very odd feeling because someone who’s good at this will look at your writing and say, ‘Foucault, Hannah Arendt, Erving Goffman, Virginia Woolf, Hazlitt…’ And it really does make you doubt that you have anything of your own to say at all. It’s not hard to read a lot of books — paperbacks are very inexpensive these days. So I think that when I get home, it will take some work to just sit again and try to figure out what precisely it is that none of the people whom I worship and have learned from had access to, such that it’s worth saying something in the next essay.

Q

The White Review

— You give your reviewers a head start because you’re written The Age of the Crisis of Man, where you mention Arendt and Herbert Marcuse, and other people, so one can then draw links between them and your work.

 

A

Mark Greif

— It’s absolutely true. People have occasionally wondered how I understand the relation between the two books. The scholarly book, to me, is very much the long-term, and quite labour-intensive, library effort to try to figure out exactly what happened in the 50 to 100 years that furnished us at n+1. The kind of literary and intellectual world we entered. What had made the novels that we understood to be the universally acclaimed ones so acclaimed. What were the demands on what a novel would be.

Q

The White Review

— How do you distinguish between your academic work and your non-academic work? Do you see them as part of a single project, or is there a very clear demarcation?

 

A

Mark Greif

— I do. I find the demarcation, if anything, is lessening for me. But that’s a matter, suddenly, of being spoiled — not necessarily to the good — with people promising that they would be willing to publish things by me. So much of what one writes is always doomed to be shaped by where it will go. Insofar as n+1 provided all kinds of freedom in not having to cut, splice and shape to a particular audience, it really was the place that was not the kind of densely footnoted, bibliographised university work that I was doing at the same time.

 

To me, when things really go well, it’s because I start from some problem — and ideally, some problem that genuinely bothers me, makes me enraged, keeps me up at night. And then eventually follows the format and the avenue of publication which allows the best answer. There are certain kinds of questions — especially the densely historical ones — which really do quite well in a scholarly register. Where every sentence is footnoted, and where you want to be able to walk through very precise questions, especially influence and transmission. The present, on the other hand, especially when you’re responding to evidence which comes to you from the atmosphere, when you’re quoting in your mind conversations that you’ve had with friends or things you’ve seen on television, all of those things lend themselves to the very different attack or format I associate with the n+1 essays. I’d like them to blend, to a certain extent, over time. Because one would like to learn how to register the most airy and temporary vibrations of the present in the strong archival writing that scholarship allows.

Q

The White Review

— Does it feel natural to slip into a more academic register for a subject that strikes you as better suited to academic work, or it does it take some adjusting?

 

A

Mark Greif

— I think it really is possible to operate with a kind of consistency. Poor academics! People really underestimate their pleasure in reading writing with real force, brevity, and spirit. And in a way that’s essentially insulting or condescending, people underestimate the quote unquote general reader’s pleasure in writing with force, even when some of its materials are esoteric, or they’re not thought of as universally available. One of the biggest surprises of editing n+1, in the early years, was when I asked academics whom I knew to be absolute geniuses to write something. And they would send me an essay, or review, which would have all these really stupid jokes and references to Friends (it was a long time ago). So I do think it’s possible, and it would be salutary, if people allowed themselves to simply do the best and most forceful stuff that they have on offer.

Q

The White Review

— The question of the general reader is an interesting one, because with these essays you make a lot of use of the second person, and you refer to ‘we’ a lot. Who were you imagining your readers to be?

 

A

Mark Greif

— I think the only way for me to keep myself honest is to imagine them for myself. Some version of myself, probably the 16-year-old self in the public library, pulling weird stuff off the shelf, which is how I spent a good many weekends in my childhood. I’d like to write for the general reader who is me now, too. And I think you have to presume that the things that bother you or constrain you or make you itch probably bother and constrain some other person too, a potential reader.

 

For me, the thing that has always moved me most is something between direct address, the ‘you’, the best effort to acknowledge a reader who may not come from the same place or have the same life circumstances, but by dint of living in a common culture feels things in common that ought to be articulated and are still hidden. And, on the other side, the writer who has actually put in enough hard work on something, such that they can genuinely speak in a way that makes you reach up and see if you can grasp something which is even slightly over your head. I have always liked the feeling in writing of not quite being at home with the knowledge that the writer possesses, and desperately wanting to be able to converse at their level. It’s between those two things that I find whatever it is that’s best in the address to the general reader that I strive for.

Q

The White Review

— The ‘you’, particularly the way you use it in some of those early essays, can come across as admonishing or moralising. But bringing in the ‘we’ is your way of saying that you do this too — you’re not letting yourself off the hook.

 

A

Mark Greif

— The thing that I was able to say in the preface, which I felt was the most important thing I could say and which I almost wanted to headline every single essay, is ‘anything that I criticise in the following pages I myself do’.  There is no arrow flying from the bow here which should not strike me first. That’s the thing that allows me not to feel like a monster and a fraud, in the admonitory tone. It should be a voice of the better angels of the self or the inner demon speaking first, and not a priest haranguing a crowd.

Q

The White Review

— There’s also something else there which I’m not always sure I pick up on, which is that you are joking.

 

A

Mark Greif

— Yes.

Q

The White Review

— And the point when you often seem to be most serious, and on a certain level are serious, is when you’re also joking.

 

A

Mark Greif

— Yeah. The serious joke — what is it, metaphysically? But of course, I don’t want to say, ‘I’m not joking’, in the sense of not meaning it. I remember reading Max Brod’s anecdote about Kafka reading The Trial out loud to a group of friends in a café. And as Brod records, Kafka just laughed and laughed and laughed. I know that feeling, and I distrust any reader of most of the writers I really love who doesn’t find them extremely funny. I think the laughter is very frequently the laughter of successful recognition of something like a folly or a vanity of one’s own. Or the ability to find words, at last, for the thing which is always there, niggling, which has not yet found its way into the language.

Q

The White Review

— In some ways that’s the conventional laughter of stand-up comedy, ‘it’s funny because it’s true’.

 

A

Mark Greif

— Absolutely. One thing that has preoccupied me — I’d write an essay about it if I ever could — is that once again we seem in a moment in which the figure of the philosopher is most likely to appear in the guise of the comedian. Whether real comics and comedians, or even philosophical figures like Žižek or Peter Sloterdijk, who are obliged to be non-stop stand-up comics in order to undertake the same thing that people have done since Socrates. I don’t have an answer.

Q

The White Review

— Looking back over more than a decade of your writing, there’s a sense of how these dishonest times have changed. Early on, when you guys set up n+1, it seems that the thing that was always in the background was Iraq and the fall-out from 9/11 – even when your work doesn’t explicitly engage with it.

 

A

Mark Greif

— Yeah.

Q

The White Review

— Whereas in more recent years, and this is felt in your essays, there’s much more of a shift towards the impact of the Great Recession, and also the re-emergence of race in public life and discourse. Do you feel like that has taken your work in new directions?

 

A

Mark Greif

— Definitely. I feel that 2016, from the point of view of literature, intellect, my daily life, is infinitely better than 2003 or 2004. When I look at the earliest essays, I hope I’m not alone in being able to recall the feeling of things being stopped. Vicious, lethal lies of the kind that surrounded the invasion of Iraq. Whereas this moment, even though to read American newspapers is to believe that we’re in a moment of unravelling and terrible social strife, it’s really quite glorious. Genuine acknowledgement of permanent social conflict is front and centre in a way that’s just thrilling. The moment now of Black Lives Matter: as a simultaneous movement with Occupy Wall Street, as an inheritor of some energies, as the stimulus to others which Occupy never in a million years would have reached because of the way it was restricted by class position — and partly by race, though not entirely.

Q

The White Review

— You describe yourself as a simple political thinker. What do you mean by that?

 

A

Mark Greif

— If you get old enough, you get a strong sense of where your heart is. Probably you learn it pretty young. And insofar as we live in a world divided into spheres of value and engagement, if you were to sit me down with a shelf of books and ask where my heart leads me, it’s gonna be to Shakespeare and not to Marx.

 

You do with that self-knowledge what you will. For me, it has meant not restricting myself from thinking about topics that would be thought of as primarily political. But it’s meant understanding that whatever it is I have to offer comes from the point of view of someone who wants to live in a good society and with satisfactory political arrangements. In part so he can be free to go off and decorate doilies and admire beautiful paintings and listen to music — a position which I think is actually quite an important one and to be spoken for. People discussing politics whose heart truly lies with politics, the constant day in, day out back-and-forth of conflict and engagement, they really don’t think that way. A vision of a peaceful society, a society of fun, can get lost among people whose passions are solely political.

Q

The White Review

— There is this sense, running through the essays, that one can, and should change one’s life. That change is possible.

 

A

Mark Greif

— I hope so!

Q

The White Review

— It goes back to something more old-fashioned, which is the search for the good life.

 

A

Mark Greif

— Absolutely. And I do think that, as much as we fail to identify the things that are objectionable, and are not honest with ourselves about the things that are bad and the compromises we put ourselves to unnecessarily, I do think it’s easy to miss or underrate some of the truly transformative good things that have emerged. The forms of genuine liberation. For which we ought to be asking, what next? To that extent, I think of it as quite a cheerful book by the end. Because it should open up all domains of things that, once we’ve thought about them and weighed them out and tested them, you would actually come to find are really great!

Q

The White Review

— One influence that comes through — spiritually, more than any thing else, in terms of its urgency — is post-punk and alternative rock.

 

A

Mark Greif

— Yes. I think of it as the embarrassing section of the book. But it’s the deep section of the book, too, which tries to ask why it is that certain veins of popular music — post-punk, hip-hop — have managed to keep alive for people genuinely important feelings, emotions, memories, which you just can’t utter elsewhere in the general culture. But it has done so, often, on the basis of forms which, precisely because they are forms of youth or because the lyrics are kind of stupid in the nature of great lyrics, or because they only fully function when you’re hearing the music at the same time, can’t really be brought out into the light of everyday public discourse. When I imagine the architecture of the book, I do think of that as the stone staircase down to the hidden roiling waters beneath. Even though it seems kind of silly, cos I’m quoting these Public Enemy and Dinosaur Jr lyrics as if they were my Milton and my Shakespeare. But in a sense they are.

Q

The White Review

— Your reference points and influences are often European. But in both your academic work and the essays, your focus does seem to be on America, and what you refer to as ‘the American language’.

 

A

Mark Greif

— It’s funny, because if I think of the actual influences they possess everyone whom you would wind up reading in a university and on the bookstore shelves. But I do, when it comes time to try to make precise the reach of these essays, tend to focus in on the United States, or even, at times, more locally if possible. I really do still think that it’s the national political community that’s probably the widest boundary of the genuinely thinkable, in terms of democratic politics. It’s not even clear, especially in the United States, that it can be thought — there’s a way in which the US is just far too big.

 

In especially the essays about Walden Pond, about Occupy, but even I hope in the retelling of those particular American reality dating shows, I think there is that drive still to try to find the things which you know by kind of native right. The pieces of language, the phrases that you’re able to hear with much greater depth because you’ve grown up in a culture. And because the language of a culture, especially at the street level, really is a repository of all kinds of historical occurrence — to use a grand phrase, resistant thinking and memory — that doesn’t just fall under the sway of TV news. And it has been striking to me that even as public speech — the way politicians talk, the way announcers talk on television — has gotten dumber and dumber and simpler and simpler, it’s not at all the case in the language of people talking on the street, in pubs and cafes, that we really have lost the richness and acuity of the everyday language. That’s the kind of localism, or even Americanness, that I’m heading for.

Q

The White Review

— An idea that seems to link your two books is the importance of the public, of a healthy public sphere. But also the distinction between public and private, and your concern that as the public sphere has become increasingly impoverished, those things that have been and ought to remain private — including the functions of the body — become increasingly public.

 

A

Mark Greif

— Here I really do follow Hannah Arendt in believing that successful action in public, and the ability to go out and speak before everyone’s eyes the truth that you alone believe despite their dislike or criticism, really requires that there be some place of safety into which you can withdraw. Where you don’t have to be a public person, where you can have the simplest means of the reproduction of the body. You sit, and you eat and drink, and you’re a big slob, and you sleep. I think it’s as dangerous to have a fully politicised society in which everyone is always under scrutiny and always judging one another with no place of recourse to be nothing, to just be alone, as it is dangerous to have what we tend to complain more about at this moment: a fully spectacular society of images which have no one’s assent or commitment. So I do believe, in that sense, in quite a strong public/private distinction. And I do think there’s a way in which, in our preoccupation with the robust public sphere of debate, we miss out on the dangerous super-public sphere of scrutiny, and especially scrutiny of the physical body, the biological body.

Q

The White Review

— One thing I noticed about the essays — perhaps surprisingly, considering the period involved — is that you actually seem more preoccupied with TV than with the internet.

 

A

Mark Greif

— Partly I have discovered myself as a man of the twentieth century. I think if you want to write about the things that you know well enough to really know them natively, you will discover that things come into existence that you really can’t comprehend. So the internet is complicated in the sense that there are parts of it that belong to me, and others that don’t — often by conscious choice. The domain that’s probably missing is social media. Because as someone magnetised by the image, I remember when Facebook first arrived. I thought, ‘Oh my god, that would be it for me! If I join Facebook, I will spend the rest of my life not eating, not drinking but just staring at everyone’s pictures.’ So I have never been on Facebook, I have never been on Twitter.

 

At the same time, there are other parts of the experience of the internet to be reached to. And actually, the book that I’m writing now tries to take up, in a very broad way, what the existence of a million naked people ostensibly having sex on the internet does to aesthetics as we know it, to our way of picturing bodies, to sexuality.  Especially for people who will have grown up having seen endless naked fucking people in porn before they have sex lives of their own. And there, I think, boy, I can say a lot of the things I’d like to say about the internet.

Q

The White Review

— One essay in the book is from 2015. Otherwise, they go back four years, if not much longer. Is there a sense in which you’ve left the essay behind?

 

A

Mark Greif

— Yeah, I wonder. On one hand, I feel like the answer has to be no, insofar as I write anything. Because to sit down with a single problem and to make an attempt to write about it, it has to land on something like that — if not that form, that name. I have always hated essays as an imagined category under that name, although many of the pieces I’ve most loved turn out to be essays. At its best the essay is a truly shapeless, amorphous mess of a thing. And that works best when you’re really trying to do something and almost don’t have a form for it. On the other hand, having been someone who always wanted to write at length and felt, ‘if only I didn’t have to do this academic stuff all the time, if only I didn’t have other constraints, I could produce works at length’ — it now seems much more possible than before to write books. But maybe short books!

Q

The White Review

— How has fatherhood influenced your work?
A

Mark Greif

— Well it certainly has stopped me writing as much as I’d like for three years — Simone is now three. As soon as you said, ‘the police essay comes out in 2015 but there’s a very significant gap in the years before that’, I thought, that very significant gap is going to be expecting me to bring back some of the best UK-only children’s books, and maybe some Cadbury chocolate. I don’t think it’s come into the writing yet; I wonder if it will. One thing about me, which I had known before Simone was born, is that I’m a genuine baby sentimentalist. Of all the things I feel ambivalent about — which covers almost everything — the appearance in the world of children, as well as my own child, I feel only and unequivocally good about. And I had no abstract formulation for it until I came across Hannah Arendt’s very valuable concept of natality. She argues that the only reason politics has the possibility of genuinely producing new action and surprise is that we live in a world in which new people are always appearing. And surely new people, encountering the world as it is, are bound to say, ‘Well, this isn’t good enough for me!’  Now, what will it mean to have something that both philosophically and sentimentally I feel so unequivocally good about? I worry that if I sit down to write about children, or being a father, I will produce the worst kinds of maudlin, rose-tinted, nappy-changing nonsense. So we’ll see if it happens. Otherwise, I’ll have to suppress it.
 


ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR


Daniel Cohen is assistant editor of The Week.


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