Despite having the wrong title, this wonderful collection of essays about contemporary American life is not only thought-provoking but also a pedigree version of that rarest beast, “the public understanding of the humanities”. American academic Mark Greif is a founder of the journal N+1, a venue for the “unknown” to say things “as yet unsaid” that aims to “publish a kind of literature that didn’t exist elsewhere” (imagine the London Review of Books but actually interesting and fun). Here, he mixes the autobiographical and the philosophical (the “literary theoretical”, say) in a way I wish more British writers did.
The range of topics – exercise, pop music, television, politics – is consciously constrained because, as Greif writes, it’s a “book of critique of things I do”. Underneath a fox-like curiosity in the seeming ephemera of popular culture is a hedgehog concern with how we experience all these and what that experience means. Inspired by Thoreau – and drawing on the philosopher Stanley Cavell and others – Greif uses his everyday experience, and the shared experiences of his segment of his generation, as the stimulus for thought: trying to live up to his childhood idea of Thoreau: “I knew a ‘philosopher’ to be a mind that was unafraid to be against everything. Against everything, if it was corrupt, dubious, enervating, untrue to us, false to happiness.” But – the wrong title – Greif’s essays aren’t really “against” and oppositional. Instead, they work through the experience of doing to find something more complex and luminous.
For example, he teaches himself (in private) to rap: “I really didn’t know how hard it would be…until I tried”: his first model, 17 syllables in two bars (in contrast to Elvis’ “well, that’s alright Mama”, six in two bars). The lesson: rap’s a “more difficult and complex lyrical art in performance than just about anything that has ever been known to rock”, which leads out to learning both big and small things about his experience as a white American. Seeing the great punk band Fugazi (if Adorno were a band, he’d be Fugazi) is a sort of doing, a commitment. This constant investigation of experience is highlighted in four essays subtitled “The meaning of life”, which analyse the need constantly to work out how we “experience experience”, even or especially of the mundane.
Very occasionally, the desire for elegant prose overcomes the content (country music is about “getting by”; rap about “getting over”; rock about “getting free”, hmm). And, rightly, one doesn’t always agree: where Greif finds in Radiohead a glimmer of “the politics of the next age…the recreation of privacy”, I find (apart from the album The Bends) the sort of knowing, public performance of introversion that begins charmingly but soon becomes unbearably irritating.
But this is how academics and intellectuals ought to write for the (mythical) general reader. On the one hand, Greif never claims a final authoritative voice: it’s provisional, exploratory, it doesn’t talk down or teach. On the other, it’s unembarrassed about citing Plato or Walter Benjamin, or about articulating something that’s difficult. We often talk about the public understanding of the humanities: here is Greif, actually doing it.
Robert Eaglestone is professor of contemporary literature and thought, Royal Holloway University of London.
Against Everything: On Dishonest Times
By Mark Greif
Verso, 320pp, £16.99
ISBN 9781784785925 and 5949 (e-book
Published 26 September 2016