The demons are dancing for n+1. It wasn’t long ago that liberalism seemed catatonic, snowed in by the pragmatic sobriety of the Obama administration. The Republicans were the party of emotions, and in their radical re-envisioning the romantic left became no more than a set of charts on a policy brief. The poles had been reversed, and the progressive coalition of artists, writers, and poets was looking at bigger problems than the death of media. Literary magazines like n+1 were last bastions. Intellectuals flocked to support them not just to forestall the collapse of thought, but to forestall the collapse of romance.
n+1 , in other words, was a curiosity. It built its appeal, at least in part, on what it was not. “In these dire times of creeping mediocrity and the political indifference of the blogosphere, thank goodness there is someone willing to…” Any actual influence enjoyed by the magazine was secondary to its role in the progressive imaginary. “Just when you’re thinking you’re intellectually alone in the world, something like n+1 falls into your hands,” Jonathan Franzen was quoted as saying on the journal’s press page. The important thing to people about n+1 was that it was there.
Until, of course, Occupy Wall Street came along, and the romantic left got its big chance.
With “Occupy,” the left was delivered a far-reaching social movement that practically begged for a brain trust. The format of the literary magazine, all too happy to fulfill that function, could operate not just as a space for political troubleshooting, but as a crucible in which the left could re-imagine itself. Up for grabs was not just activism’s latest responsibility, but the way it would look in a mirror.
Hence the focus of n+1 — seen also in its farm team of smaller, younger journals — on the aesthetic dimensions of the movement. Articles describing its art, its music, its literature, its essential reading, etc. In the literary magazine, Occupy Wall Street could reach the Marxist apogee of full-fledged social critique — and what’s more, it could re-inject the left with relevance, with cultural reverberations that go beyond the think-tank, with the presence of an all-encompassing societal moment.
In a piece that perhaps describes n+1’s situation better than any other, the editors of the journal write that “American political, aesthetic, and intellectual experience can only be glimpsed through a thickening fog of culture war.” If it’s not yet entirely clear, this is a matter of excitement.
* * * * *
The article in question is about elitism, and it was penned by n+1’s editors in a regular feature called “The Intellectual Situation.” Presented as the opening salvo of each print edition, “The Intellectual Situation” is a tri-yearly diagnosis of the intellectual landscape, and it’s frequently outstanding. This particular installment, concerning the culture wars, appeared last January under the title “Revolt of the Elites.” It is fascinating both for what it says and what it tries to hide.
The article begins with an excellent analysis of the evolution of elitism: fights over the term’s definition and coordinates have become some of the key battles of the culture wars, with the concept recently coming to signify more about society than power. It’s not generals and doctors that today are held to be elitist, but tea-sipping professors and music critics. “Recall that in 2004 the educational backgrounds of the cultural elitist John Kerry (St. Paul’s, Yale) and the cultural populist George Bush (Andover, Yale) were remarkably similar,” the article states. “Kerry’s elitism signified not that he had gone to such schools but that he appeared to have learned something there.”
Today’s typical elitist, according to the article, is the art history major who spends the summer working an unpaid internship at an NGO. The track “suggests a certain privileged indifference to material concerns,” and is part of the university’s general trend away from promoting egalitarianism and toward cloning the powerful. “Colleges, in their role as four-year drinking clubs for rich boys, knit their alumni into a WASP mafia pledged to socioeconomic self-preservation,” argues n+1. “Distinctive speech, sports, and garb set them off from the general population.”
The editorial sets out to define, once and for all, what precisely makes an elitist, and here is where it arrives: “The main culprits turn out to be people for whom a monied and therefore educated background lies behind the adoption of aesthetic, intellectual, or political values that demur from the money-making mandate that otherwise dominates society." It’s not an easy sentence to read. It sounds a bit like n+1 attended a seminar on how to write a thesis sentence and this is what the teacher put on the chalkboard after taking too many suggestions from the class. But why write a sentence this difficult when the article is at its most crucial moment? Why set out to define elitism if you’re going to start vomiting as soon as you round third base?
An obscure definition, after all, leaves the reader dependent on examples. It gives n+1 the ability to include the example of the humanities professor, and to forget the one about the kids from Harvard who started a literary magazine.
* * * * *
It’s not that n+1 is completely unaware of its place amongst the elite; it’s that it tiptoes around the subject a little too carefully. It is in a difficult position, after all, having both to take up arms against the one percent and find itself so frequently in its company. n+1’s editorial, and indeed its fundamental situation, is a balancing act — the magazine is both an ardent defender of the poor and a textbook example of the elite.
The problem that faces n+1 is the problem that faces American liberalism in general. In an article for the New York Times titled “The Future of the Obama Coalition,” Thomas Edsall writes of the Democratic Party’s internal forecast:
“All pretense of trying to win a majority of the white working class has been effectively jettisoned in favor of cementing a center-left coalition made up, on the one hand, of voters who have gotten ahead on the basis of educational attainment — professors, artists, designers, editors, human resources managers, lawyers, librarians, social workers, teachers and therapists — and a second, substantial constituency of lower-income voters who are disproportionately African-American and Hispanic.”
American liberalism will succeed to the extent that it nurtures a healthy coalition between the cultural elite and the extremely poor, and it will fail at the moment it self-destructs.
n+1 , for its part, somewhat acknowledges the tension this reality poses. “Recently,” its January editorial points out, “the immortal Eric Hobsbawm voiced a familiar thought about the difficulty in creating a progressive coalition between ‘the educated, Guardian-reading middle class’ and ‘the mass of the poor and the ignorant.’” But n+1’s editorial plays a subtle rhetorical game that bears out its dilemma. It makes slight concessions toward its elitism, but only as long as they are paired with larger attempts at obfuscation.
Take, for example, an interesting passage from the middle of the article. Discussing the ways elitism codes itself into language, the editors of n+1 offer, “When Al Gore said his favorite book was Stendhal’s Red and the Black, this could be boiled down to mean, You know what? I’m an upper-class guy who went to Harvard." It’s a great observation — the kind n+1 editorials are full of. The next sentence, however, is something strange. Not content to leave the point where it stands, the editors add, almost offhandedly, “Of course, everyone with power in America is an upper-class guy who went to Harvard.”
A fairly innocuous statement, until you realize that nearly everyone on n+1’s editorial board went to Harvard — the lone exceptions of the six-person group being a graduate from Columbia and a graduate from Wesleyan. Hearing that everyone who matters in the world went to Harvard isn’t, in and of itself, all that obnoxious — unless you’re hearing it from four people who went to Harvard. Then it’s really, really obnoxious.
Obnoxious is not the end of it, though, if one recalls the central arguments of the article. “Colleges, in their role as four-year drinking clubs for rich boys, knit their alumni into a WASP mafia pledged to socioeconomic self-preservation.” “Distinctive speech, sports, and garb set them off from the general population.” I don’t know what the editors of n+1 wear, but I know what they sound like, and if there is a better example of people with an “educated background” banding together and setting themselves apart from the masses, I know not where.
Al Gore’s choice for his favorite book might whisper to the world that he’s an educated guy who went to Harvard, but n+1’s editorial voice positively shouts it. The editors include the token references to their own elitism, where it is too obvious to ignore, and they follow their paean to Harvard with an apparently more self-aware, “But this isn’t held to be the problem.” It is a mask, however — merely keeping you off the scent for a few minutes while the editors continue their balancing act. “Elitists lie to themselves and everybody else about what’s really in their red-meat hearts,” the article continues, not thinking of itself. “Instead of saying I’m pleased with my superior class background, they pretend to like boring books, films, and sports.” It’s not a mission statement, but it’s close.
Cultural elitism, n+1 tells you, is easy to spot. "Cynical common sense, a draught of table wine Bourdieu, permits you to see through this maneuver." Do not fear — n+1 will shepherd you through you through the dungeons of power and status. Unless, of course, n+1 is the transgressor, in which case you’re on your own. It wasn’t enough for n+1 to tell us that common sense solved a predicament. It had to add a bit about “a draught of table wine Bourdieu” — whatever the fuck that means — and essentially tell everyone, “We’re not necessarily elitist, but we are smarter and better educated than you.” And when the editors speak severely of how “the noxious thing about the cultural elite is supposed to be its bad faith,” you can only laugh.
The rest of the article is an exercise in self-delusion. It will maintain that it is not precisely elitist, not especially esoteric, and yet its demeanor says otherwise. “Take Walter Berglund at the end of Franzen’s Freedom,” the editors request, because in their circles Franzen doesn’t have a first name anymore and plot references are self-apparent. “To the vulgar Bourdieuvian, ‘progressives’ mainly want to suggest they’ve achieved a kind of moral progress ,” the paragraph concludes, before the editors come back one sentence later with, "Never mind that Bourdieu was far more subtle than this in Distinction."
Aha! Tricked you! We may have written an entire paragraph supporting the previous sentence, but only a true simpleton would have thought we were being serious. Though there are a wealth of common Bourdieuvians all too happy to believe such tripe, we would never be so vulgar. And thank goodness that in this land of garden-variety Bourdieuvians, there is one Bourdieuvian willing to stand up for what is right.
The simple fact is that n+1 doesn’t need these references. They don’t help n+1 make any points that they couldn’t otherwise make on their own. There’s nothing wrong with drawing from the intellectual well — if anything, it isn’t done enough, and this article itself will draw on contributions from fancy French thinkers — but there is a difference between using scholarship in a way that genuinely elucidates and using it in a way that simply signifies. All n+1 accomplishes by including pithy little asides like, “Culture under capitalism is never merely culture; it’s also always capital,” is a back-door way of saying, “That stuff you’ve read? Yeah, we’ve read it, too.” The references to Das Kapital and draughts of table wine Bourdieu are political inclusions, intended not to help clarify meaning but to make a claim on the intellectual directorate of the left.
It is in this spirit that statements are made like, “Language is that rare thing to be able to consume which is also to be able to produce it.” The reader’s only possible reaction to such aphorisms, besides dwelling on the syntactical carnage, is to wonder how long it took n+1 to come up with the perfect little formulation, and then to say: “Thanks for that.”
n+1, to its credit, partially anticipates the criticism. “It’s educated language and egalitarian ideas that particularly elicit the accusation of elitism today, and particularly in combination,” the editorial states toward its conclusion. As a simple observation, the statement is correct. It is intellectualism and all its attendant trappings that have come under attack from the right, to a tremendous destruction that n+1 is wise to point out. The editors intend more with this statement, however. Mainly, they wish to say that n+1 stands in opposition to this strain of anti-intellectualism, and that those who would take issue with its rhetoric are aligning themselves with the right.
This latter point is half-true. As the target of the progressive imaginary, n+1 indeed stands as foil to everything that is intellectually vacant about the right. It is a role the journal cherishes. But this is the same role the journal held before Occupy Wall Street — when, as an oasis for the dwindling romantic left, it was merely important that it exist. This was a world well-served by dichotomy: the idealistic progressives lining up against the anti-intellectual right. It was not important that these caricatures were precisely true, merely that they held something for those inclined to believe them; that they symbolized, for each side, something it needed to think about itself.
The journal’s role since Occupy Wall Street, however, is of a different nature. Having crossed the line from advocacy to activism — having, that is, joined a movement — n+1 bears the burden now of action. The journal has not taken its responsibility lightly. It has launched a pamphlet called Occupy!, featuring bold-lettered proclamations like “WE ARE OUR DEMANDS,” and sponsored conferences designed to coordinate strategy. The magazine’s editorial voice, while still residing often in the field of commentary, has expanded to include the nuts and bolts of organizing. Beyond a passing alliance, n+1’s relationship with Occupy Wall Street has been a full-fledged marriage — the extent of which can be gleaned from recent announcements on the journal’s website:
“Tomorrow, November 17, we march! In anticipation of this day of action—chosen to mark the two-month anniversary of the Occupy Movement—we want to share ways to participate. If nothing else, come to Foley Square (Duane and Centre sts.) in the evening after work for a mass demonstration planned by OWS and organized labor. For people who want to spend the whole day protesting, here is the full menu: —Breakfast: We’ll meet up at 6:45 AM in front of St. Paul’s Church, on Broadway between Fulton and Vesey. Then we’ll walk together the couple of blocks to join everybody at Zuccotti…”
To the demonstrating masses, n+1 is more than a sympathetic friend — it is a key player, nurturing not just a movement’s intellect but its energy and direction. “Monday Night Urgent OWS Message,” a November announcement on the website read. A “trusted friend and respected activist” had received some disturbing news, and n+1 was broadcasting it to alert the world that “the Occupy movement may be about to lose Zuccotti Park and that a much larger presence is needed starting tonight.” Compelling its readers to action, n+1 left no room for ambiguity. The magazine was a part of these protests, and it was in front.
All of this, of course, occurred several months after n+1’s editors penned a certain editorial concerning elitism — and the question, in the popular eye, had been answered. The elites were the one percent, they were Wall Street, they were senile politicians. The poetic ambiguity of n+1’s explication of status, the naive curiosity as to why no one calls out the rich, was gone — resolved and evaporated in a moment. But the tensions highlighted by the piece — of fragile coalitions, of scholarly delusions — would be as important as ever. The battle n+1 was fighting with itself had a broader meaning — and in the final paragraphs, it was born.
Concluding its defense of “educated language,” n+1 introduces a critique (as foil) that turns out to be startlingly accurate. “Such language,” asserts the Nation article with which n+1 takes issue, “stands as testimony to elitism of a different kind, that of a small substratum of the postwar British left whose basically Leninist conception of radical politics led them to abjure too close a contact with the masses, whose ultimate victory they supposedly championed.” Leninist?, n+1 huffs. “Would it be too Stalinist,” it asks, “to exile to Siberia anyone who thinks big words are Leninist?"
But n+1, it might be said, doth protest too much. The matter is not rudely that big words are Leninist, but that n+1 has carefully asserted itself as the vanguard of the progressive movement — using its rhetoric and demeanor to set itself apart from the masses it claims to dignify. Given Occupy Wall Street, the Nation’s argument is all the stronger: the literary magazine will lead the workers into revolution, but only as long as distinctive patterns of speech and behavior permit it to maintain a certain distance.
But language , n+1 cries out, is egalitarian! It is a medium shared by all, liberated by technology! “If you want to know what an amphibology is,” the editors state, “the internet will tell you for free. Then — it’s amazing! — you can use the word yourself."
But the publication that sentences ago was rehearsing the bells and whistles of Marxist theory will here enter contradiction. Six paragraphs prior to this passage, “culture under capitalism” was “never merely culture” and “distinctive speech” was the mechanism by which class coded itself into language. Here, however, the publication so attuned to the clandestine workings of capitalism has suddenly gone blind — a global authority on the hidden power dynamics of Al Gore’s favorite book, yet positively bewildered by the notion that its own language might say two things at once.
“Cynical common sense,” we have been told, is all that is needed to identify elitism. But it’s a “draught of table wine Bourdieu” we are given, and, not having any goddamn idea what that means, we are left only to wish that we were smarter. n+1 sets itself apart this way, enticing you with its spectacle of enlightened cultural critique, repelling you with its unmistakable perfume of class superiority. It is a delicate maneuver, one executed with great care and discretion, yet one that, I would have to believe, is completely unconscious.
Terminally in contradiction, “Revolt of the Elites,” as an argument, fails. But as an illustration, it succeeds wildly — showcasing the impossibly murky waters a progressive journal like n+1 must navigate; showing what it means, on the other end of this discombobulated mess, to be a modern activist.
* * * * *
Activism is in a funny predicament these days, filtered as it is through Facebook and twice-removed revolutionary slogans. The parade of vaguely Communist posters and capital-letter agitation on social media gives the impression that our particular crop of activists is, for lack of a better term, full of shit. Armchair revolutionaries launching social provocations in between music festivals.
n+1 tells us that the reason elitists get on our nerves is because they “lie to themselves and everybody else about what’s really in their red-meat hearts.” The privileged activist, then, is irritating because she is assumed to be hiding something. She is looking for a way to mask her class privilege; still look good when she eventually takes a job at a bank; launch a campaign for sorority Philanthropy Chair, etc. It’s not her good nature that cloys at people, but the cool calculation that’s presumed to lurk beneath. Of course, all this winds up being rather unfair — and strange, because it’s becoming impossible to help somebody without also making some kind of symbolic comment about who you are and how you fit in society.
But if it’s true that, as n+1 claims, elitists are not just lying to others but to themselves, there is something even deeper at play here. Self-interest and charity, it seems, have become so indistinguishable in the lives of others that we are no longer able to tell the difference in ourselves. Perhaps we never were. But now it looks clear that we’ve developed some kind of progressive anxiety — a need to prove ourselves to ourselves — that renders the distinction between selflessness and guile invisible, each a fragment of the same emotion.
This is more or less what David Foster Wallace calls the “fraudulence paradox” in his short story Good Old Neon:
“My whole life I’ve been a fraud. I’m not exaggerating. Pretty much all I’ve ever done all the time is try to create a certain impression of me in other people. Mostly to be liked or admired. It’s a little more complicated than that, maybe. But when you come right down to it it’s to be liked, loved. Admired, approved of, applauded, whatever. You get the idea. I did well in school, but deep down the whole thing’s motive wasn’t to learn or improve myself but just to do well, to get good grades and make sports teams and perform well. To have a good transcript or varsity letters to show people. I didn’t enjoy it much because I was always scared I wouldn’t do well enough. The fear made me work really hard, so I’d always do well and end up getting what I wanted.”
The narrator falls into a vicious psychological loop where everything he does is fraudulent — just a shameless attempt to make other people like him, or to make him like himself, or to accomplish any variety of self-serving goals. For the character, this is devastating. He tries meditation, but he tries so hard to prove he’s good at it that he winds up feeling like even more of a fraud than before. He enters therapy but spends the entire time trying to convince his therapist that he already understands his condition. The really crippling part is that he knows he’s doing all of this. There’s always some part of his inner-monologue saying, “You are a fraud.” He can’t handle it so he kills himself.
At one point in the story, the narrator is hit particularly hard by the realization that his time in a charismatic church was just an act — that the fainting and the speaking in tongues were just an attempt to fit in. The irony, of course, is that everyone in a charismatic church is just trying to fit in. There is no “authentic” charismatic churchgoer — just parishioners acting out their ideas of what they’re supposed to do to look sincere. The narrator never quite realizes this, thinking he’s always the big impostor, but it becomes apparent in the course of the story that everyone participates in some program of self-deception. For some it’s speaking in tongues, for others it’s social status, and for our purposes it might be activism. The additional revelation of the story is that there’s not really anything wrong with this.
What the narrator calls “fraudulence,” we eventually realize, is really just a fundamental part of being a human being. We try to impress other people, and since we have this inner-monologue always going in our heads, we try to impress ourselves, too. The narrator feels empty because he can’t seem to tap into his “inner true self,” but it becomes painfully obvious that there is no such thing. We are all prisoners of our own charade, a never-ending skyscraper of illusions and manipulations, and the world we live in has nothing to do with any kind of authentic reality whatsoever.
This doesn’t preclude meaning, or love, or happiness, despite what the narrator of Good Old Neon thinks, but it does explain the performance anxiety we face when trying to prove to everyone — ourselves, most of all — that we are good.
“People are really good at self-deception,” wrote David Brooks in a recent New York Times piece titled “Let’s All Feel Superior.” Dissecting the moralistic outrage in the wake of the Penn State sex scandal, Brooks found more than a touch of insincerity. “Commentators ruthlessly vilify all involved from the island of their own innocence,” he wrote. “Everyone gets to proudly ask: ‘How could they have let this happen?’” The incident was a horrible tragedy, but people mostly just used it as an opportunity to brandish their ethical credentials. Activism, in the same way, cannot be quite separated from psychology.
Perhaps this phenomenon can best be described with the example of the combative Occupy Wall Street poster. Two images, particularly, come to mind. One, calling for “Mass Non-Violent Direct Action,” depicts a single protestor standing before a row of tanks in a Tiananman-style moment of gravitas. Loud proclamations of “SHUT DOWN WALL STREET,” “OCCUPY THE SUBWAY,” and “TAKE THE SQUARE” grace the poster above a call to action for November 17 th. In another poster, a revolutionary giant in a blood-red sky storms through the streets of New York, flanked by a command to “OCCUPY THE STREETS.” The latter caught my eye as the profile photo of a Facebook friend from Harvard; the former as an advertisement on a leftist book review.
This was to me, at first glance, the highest order of bullshit. Here are a bunch of smarmy kids from Harvard uploading Soviet posters on their Facebook pages and calling it activism. They toss in some statuses with excessively urgent rhetoric, maintain a vague tone of militancy, and from their dorm rooms in Cambridge call for revolution. What bothered me even more was the idea that some graphic designer from Brooklyn was essentially creating his stock advertisement for “MASS SOCIAL UPRISING” and it was being passed around as if it weren’t totally derivative or blatantly corporate or categorically empty. The whole thing just really pissed me off.
Eventually, however, I found myself wondering what real activism would look like. Here are protests, here are calls for action. Their existence on Facebook certainly doesn’t discredit them off-hand. The Internet is, after all, just a medium. And I realized, to a fair degree of surprise, that real activism, transposed to the “digital age,” would look exactly the same as it does here. It would contain all the same posters, all the same statuses. It would probably include an intellectual wing of socially-minded undergraduates. And I realized that here, in my archetype of phoniness, was the very definition of protest.
What is the difference, then, between activism and pseudo-activism?
There isn’t one. They are exactly the same thing.
* * * * *
The militant Occupy Wall Street poster is not merely an example of today’s activism — it is its perfect expression. Activism and pseudo-activism having collapsed into one another, what we’re left with is something neither exactly real nor exactly phony but indifferent. What we’re left with is advertising.
“It is not by chance,” writes the French intellectual Jean Baudrillard, “that advertising, after having, for a long time, carried an implicit ultimatum of an economic kind, fundamentally saying and repeating incessantly, ‘I buy, I consume, I take pleasure,’ today repeats in other forms, ‘I vote, I participate, I am present, I am concerned.’” For Baudrillard, who wrote brilliantly of this phenomenon in 1981’s Simulacra and Simulation, the entrance of activism into the realm of advertising is symptomatic of a broader societal loss of meaning. Mass media have piled so many layers of reproduction and filtration on top of reality that we are no longer able to discern real from illusion, fake from original, etc. There, according to Baudrillard, is no longer any “mediating power between one reality and another, between one state of the real and another” but instead “the absorption of one pole into another, the short-circuiting between poles of every differential system of meaning, the erasure of distinct terms and oppositions.” The convergence of activism and pseudo-activism, more than an isolated phenomenon, is a reflection of the loss of meaning everywhere.
Interestingly, Baudrillard dates the union of advertising and activism to two events: the October Revolution, in which Lenin led the Bolsheviks to glory, and the Great Depression. “The whole script of advertising and propaganda comes from the October Revolution and the market crash of 1929,” he writes. “Both languages of the masses, issuing from the mass production of ideas, or commodities, their registers, separate at first, progressively converge. Propaganda becomes the marketing and merchandising of idea-forces, of political men and parties with their ‘trademark image.’”
Fascinating that the universal diffusion of advertising would have its origins in Soviet revolution, and more fascinating still how we see this phenomenon being played out today. If the Great Depression indeed helped originate this fusion of activism and advertising, it’s fitting that we’d see the resurgence of these symbols in response to another major economic disruption. And how perfect that Occupy Wall Street’s advertisements would explicitly recall Soviet imagery, resurrecting not merely ideologies but contradictions. Trading images across the Internet, is it possible that our recreation of history is not so subtle?
And might it be that the description of n+1 as Leninist is not so silly after all?
Far from letting n+1 off the hook, the crisis of activism merely brings its situation into clearer relief. The martial posters we see on Facebook recall not just the symbols of Marxist revolution but its very scripts — including, crucially, the necessity of a vanguard party of intellectuals. The vanguard party, in other words, is a fundamental component of the collapse of activism. And the protests they lead — in their articles and their images — reawaken not activism but its death.
No longer is there the possibility of revolution, merely the possibility of re-enacting revolutions past. Facing this devastating reality, journals like n+1 look to resuscitate the mythos of history, the idea that we are in the midst of a critically important moment, and they attempt to position themselves as the central analysts of the situation. They fall head over heels in love with movements like Occupy Wall Street because these movements breathe new life into the idea that politics really matters. Occupy Wall Street gives n+1 both something to stand for and a subtext that what they stand for is important. This is not just any series of protests — these are protests in the tradition of Tiananman Square. This is our revolution. This is our moment.
But there is no moment, only what n+1 perceives as its moment, and it has only what Baudrillard terms “a retro politics, emptied of substance and legalized in their superficial exercise, with the air of a game and a field of adventure.” Here, n+1 returns more or less to where it started — a repository for the dreams of the left, an ongoing romance for those who want only something to believe in.
The effects of this romanticizing have been on clear display to readers of The New Inquiry, a New York-based journal of young intellectuals with a voice fairly similar to n+1’s. A recent piece about a public reading of The Adventures of Mao on the Long March begins with a nod to the misplaced allegiances of the dictator’s early sympathizers — ”Mao is evidence that whatever chain of misunderstandings led American youth to identify with the Red Guards…” — yet it continues:
“We read for over four hours that October day. When we came to the end of the words, we realized that we had not come to the end of the book. At that moment, thousands were gathering in demonstration in Times Square. It had become impossible not to join them. A short time later, when we stood in the square bathed in cascades of Coca-Cola and CNN-flavored light, we knew we were not alone—and that reading itself is never a solitary act. Wresting the Chairman from the pages of a novel, we hoist his banner aloft for our own movement. And from there we took to the streets chanting, ‘Whose time? Our time!’ Now is the perfect time. Youth are on the streets. The march of freedom again shakes the earth. Why try to keep a sure footing when you could dance?”
Those looking for an explanation of how American youth could have supported the Chinese dictator need look no further. The article claims a kind of critical distance, an awareness of the problems associated with championing such a figure, yet its retelling of the event borders on the erotic, illustrating perfectly the romance it finds in revolution. The New Inquiry is even more esoteric than n+1 — one article begins, ”It can be hard to keep French writer-provocateur Michel Houellebecq’s novels straight in one’s head,” a problem I can’t say I’ve ever had — and its fascination with Mao seems a prime example of vanguard party millenarianism, today’s dictatorship of the one-percent of the proletariat.
What is perhaps most striking about the development of the romantic left is how capitalist it has become. Today’s activism is more than anything an exercise in marketing, a rush to promote the trademark images of Occupy Wall Street, with even the aggressively Marxist New Inquiry finding time in their praise-song to Mao to “bathe in cascades of Coca-Cola and CNN-flavored light.” Baudrillard highlights the left’s problem at one level — sustaining power because it needs something to oppose, “constrained to revive the wheels of capital in order to lay siege to them one day.”
But even in more concrete terms, we can see how this is true. Take, for instance, the process of donating to n+1. For a mere $10,000, you can become a “Benefactor” of the magazine and receive an invitation to its annual party. You will be given a chance to meet the editors and bring up ideas for future projects. And if that particular donation is above your pay-grade, you have five other less-expensive options to choose from. All in all, the donation program resembles that of many non-profits — necessarily vacuous, giving donors fancy titles that make them feel like they did something more than sign a check. But n+1’s program is particularly egregious, advertising its “Benefactor” package as it would a product, underlining the description of its benefits with a price tag of “$10,000.00 USD” and a button that says “Add to Shopping Cart.” There is no effort at all required to become a “Benefactor.” Click the button and the naked exchange is revealed. Even a donation is something you buy, add to your shopping cart, trade for a promise of influence and status, purchase amongst the whirrings of invisible capital on the World Wide Web. While you’re at it, you can buy an n+1 tote bag and, for the small price of $15.00, show the world how enlightened you are.
“Here,” writes Jean Baudrillard, “in the sophisticated confines of a triumphal market economy is reinvented a penury/sign, a penury/simulation, a simulated behavior of the underdeveloped (including the adoption of Marxist tenets) that, in the guise of ecology, of energy crises and the critique of capital, adds a final esoteric aureole to the triumph of an esoteric culture.”
n+1 ’s version of Marxism is a brand. You can buy an n+1 T-shirt just like you can buy a Che Guevara T-shirt, or a bag of granola and a funny hat. It overtly plays out the old saying that the critique of capital is a part of capital, and in the process it demonstrates why the formative split of n+1 — some Harvard kids go to Wall Street, some start a literary magazine — is not as much of a fork as it seems.
The editors of n+1 staked their identity on diverging with their friends from college (editor Keith Gessen in an interview with the Harvard Crimson: “One problem with going to Harvard is that you get out and all of your friends are investment bankers”). The bankers were the opportunists, the editors the critics. But when it came time for the banker to write his tell-all book (Diary of a Very Bad Year: Confessions of an Anonymous Hedge Fund Manager, n+1’s first major release), n+1 was around to publish it. The banker who made money on Wall Street became the banker who made money criticizing Wall Street and n+1 was there to facilitate the transition. The literary magazine can criticize the banker, the banker can ignore the literary magazine, but at the end of the day, they are part of the same system.
The intellectual acrobatics of n+1 — the subtle language, the delicate arguments — lie central to the world it has created for itself. They are a survival mechanism, not just for the literary magazine but for the idea of politics. They are n+1’s last stand for romance; a trumpet for the revolution always just over the horizon.
But when the revolution comes into the camera, the blustering hordes can only be allowed to do so much. n+1’s editorial came out in January, when romantic liberalism was still an instinct. But a few months later, bearded protestors were moving into Zuccotti Park and “Revolt of the Elites” could be read a different way. Occupy Wall Street was the revolt, and it belonged to the elites.