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The title of Mark Greif’s new collection of essays, Against Everything, sets us up for an extended literary rant — an out-and-out cynical dismissal of life as we know it. We expect something along the lines of Philip Roth in American
Pastoral railing against the “flashing bullshit of this world”. But what we get instead is a book that has a peculiarly American optimism at its heart. The kind that always looks at human life as something potentially, and realistically, improvable. “To wish to be against everything,” Greif writes in the book’s “Preface”, “is to want the world to be bigger than all of it...”
The term “bigger” here has a strictly moral meaning. It connotes, ironically, a sense of modesty; suggesting that we cut down to size our world that has become too big for its own good. From a socio-economic viewpoint, this world is large enough to accommodate antagonistic extremes such as, in Greif’s coinage, “superwealth” and “superpoverty”. And the author believes that “eradicating one (individual superwealth) might help eradicate the other (superpoverty)”.
This social dichotomy is charted out in an essay called “Gut-Level Legislation, or, Redistribution”, and one of its recommended “legislative initiatives” introduces a “tax bracket of 100 percent to cut off individual income at a fixed ceiling, allowing any individual to bring home a maximum of $100,000 a year from all sources and no more.” Again, for the world to become bigger than it is, Greif argues in his provocative yet charming way, we all need to scale things down massively, and not shy away from disrupting the status quo. “Simplify, simplify,” the words once uttered by Henry David Thoreau — the thinker most important to Greif, and one who makes his appearance several times in these pages — could well have served as a fitting epigraph to this book.
Though it might seem otherwise at first glance, the author’s main concerns here are not purely political or socio-economic; they are cultural. Greif, who is among the most intelligent and engaging pop-culture critics of our time, as well as a founding editor of n+1 , one of America’s most cerebral and edgy contemporary magazines, takes a broad view of culture. For him, cultural studies is not a field disconnected from politics, economics and philosophy; it is central to it.
The 16 pieces collected in Against Everything — on topics ranging from pop music to reality television and the Internet — mark a set of insightful forays into our contemporary experience. Why is it that television, even when dispensing scenes of inhuman violence and catastrophe, can have a calming effect on viewers? Why does our culture conflate youth, and to some extent childhood, with sexuality? What explains our proselytising zeal for physical exercise? These are some of the questions the book attempts to address, without quite aiming to arrive at simplistic answers.
It’s also worth remembering that while Greif’s writings are specifically about American culture, they have a bearing on all of us. If Hannah Arendt had a point when she wrote, in 1968, that “all people on earth have a common present”, it was only a couple of decades ago that we began to really feel the import, the immediacy of that remark. Thanks mainly to the American media and technological wave — with the Internet being its apogee — pop culture of the West attained truly global dimensions. And in that sense, Against Everything advances a critique not just of the American experience, but of our common present.
Greif’s essay on the band Radiohead is easily the best and most original thing written on the subject. You need not be a Radiohead fan, or even have heard their music, to sense the brilliance of this piece.
It further helps that Greif is not playing the philosopher-king looking down on that unrepentant mass of consumers who subsidise pop culture. He identifies with them. Indeed, he is acutely sensitive to the many virtues of pop phenomena like hip-hop and punk rock — musical genres that the author grew up with and continues to cherish.
Greif’s essay on the band Radiohead is easily the best and most original thing written on the subject. You need not be a Radiohead fan, or even have heard their music, to sense the brilliance of this piece. “Thom Yorke’s voice is the unity on which all the musical aggregations and complexes pivot,” Greif writes, referring to the band’s frontman. “You have to imagine the music drawing a series of outlines around him, a house, a tank, the stars of space, or an architecture of almost abstract pipes and tubes, cogs and wheels, ivy and thorns, servers and boards, beams and voids. The music has the feeling of a biomorphic machine in which the voice is alternately trapped and protected.” To call this music criticism — which it is, on some level — would to be to unjustly limit the scope of the writing.
The problem with Greif’s book has precisely to do with the difficulty of attaching labels to it. Even the individual essays on music — like the one on Radiohead, or the one on the post-punk band Dinosaur Jr. — exceed their brief: by including elements of philosophy and personal history, these essays achieve that uncommon distinction of transcending the very themes and topics that they were supposed to explore. For that reason, each of Greif’s pieces in Against Everything is about much more than what we initially thought it was about. And that’s exactly the kind of artful deviousness that makes great literature worth re-reading.