More than a decade after Mark Greif and his writer/editor friends started n+1, the literary journal has become a haven for a new generation of activists and artists. Most of the unusual essays in Greif’s new book, Against Everything, were initially published in the pages of n+1, where the author examines the tyranny of exercise, Radiohead, reality television, policing practices and more. Like the works of Emerson, Thoreau, Sontag, and, more recently, David Foster Wallace and Zadie Smith, Greif’s writing is inquisitive, generous and rigorous. Isthmus spoke with Greif in advance of his appearance at the 2016 Wisconsin Book Festival (Central Library, Oct. 22, 4:30 p.m.)
Throughout the book, you advocate for a slowness that seems impossible, given our culture’s obsession with speed and unlimited connection with everything via our machines.
For me, the only response in the face of speedy things, which we all do, and that feel irresistible, is “this isn’t really real.” These needs did not exist, and they are not needs. They are something like amusements, habits, temporary vistas opened up on landscapes we can view. Just finding any mental or habitual means of stopping yourself and opening up a space for thought and withdrawing credulity from all sorts of things that people pretend to be passionate about is incredibly useful. It doesn’t take a lot. It doesn’t require a week-long yoga retreat. It doesn’t require any expenditure, which is very important. You don’t have to pay any money.
Wouldn’t it take a violent act of will to hollow out these spaces within our lives?
I’ve come around to a sense that one of the major alternatives to the “violent act of will” mode is the comic and the mode of ridicule — a mode that turns out to have a much longer tradition, in English philosophy at least, than is always discussed. There is a kind of an enlightened vision of the necessity of ridicule to preserve a kind of civil order and a reasonable society from the presence of zealots. At this moment, one can think of publicity enthusiasts and tech enthusiasts — people who seem to be enthusiastic about enthusiasm, passionate about saying they are passionate about things. Puncturing these conceits with a little bit of laughter — or even just a description of something light and trivial they do as though it were momentous and necessary — preserves a lot of space that’s already there for us, if only we would step into it. It preserves a different and better world that is really just like this one, if only we would step to the side and say, “Nope, not me. Not obligatory. Not necessary.”
Could the comic mode potentially be an antidote to the ghastly political spectacle happening right now?
I’ve been saying to people that as long as Trump loses, which he must, the people of America can give him a medal for having laid bare all sorts of truths about the racism of the Republican party, and also — especially with the groping accusations recently — the dark, historic shifts in mores and what kinds of evil people are prepared to talk about in the realm of the banal. It’s an incredible moment, a comedy that beggars the powers of satirists because it’s happening on the front page of the New York Times.
You were present for much of the Occupy Wall Street movement as it played out in New York City. How do you view the link between that movement and the occupation of the State Capitol building here in Madison.
At Occupy Wall Street people very clearly had Madison on their minds as a place of heroic ordinariness. I remember thrilling reports from the occupation of the statehouse, which discussed the wide range of people who were present, often by occupational categories: teachers, firefighters, government workers, suburbanites, housewives, professionals — which was kind of like saying “democracy.” They were people who, I think like all of us, have some inchoate sense that the basic politeness and fairness of America in all of its parts can be eroded endlessly without giving us any place to go to register for democratic disapproval. Voting won’t do it. But suddenly the Wisconsin statehouse, or a really ugly park in downtown Manhattan, or, it turns out, police stations in Ferguson and Baltimore and elsewhere become the physical places for the real immaterial work of democracy. It’s partly a matter of looking for those moments and throwing yourself headlong into them if you can.