In the month of June on the Ark Review, taking inspiration from Mark Grief’s recent book “Against Everything”, we are going to try and write against everything. Collectively though, and one subject at a time. So really more like Against ________. As in, fill in the ________. So, check out Emilie Bang-Jensen’s of “Against Everything”
Sane thoughts for insane times.
You know that feeling when someone puts into words what you had previously only felt as a kind of uncertain prickling of intuition at the bottom of your skull? This is what it feels like to read the essays in Against Everything by Mark Greif. I came across the book in Verso Book’s Podcast and was immediately drawn to the title, perfectly underlined with the subtitle: On Dishonest Times. Though the essays were mostly written around the mid-oughts, they still speak directly into the current experience of a Trump presidency. There really does not seem to be a better time to read a book that claims to be “against everything.”
Greif is one of the co-founders of the journal n+1, and most essays in Against Everything have previously been published there. Though ostensibly printed in a literary journal, Greif’s essay span a wide array of topics, examining everything from the financial crisis, to exercise, to the concept of the hipster, with a methodology that one reviewer calls “a phenomenology of the present”. However, it is the way that Greif juxtaposes these topics that makes the essays truly interesting. In one notable example, Greif explains the public anger against a woman conceiving octuplets through IVF (the so-called “Octomom”) in relation to the lack of backlash for the culprits of the financial crisis. Babies and money, it turns out, are both rare and desired assets.
The essays also span out further and reach into metaphysics with three of them entitled “The Meaning of Life.” Here, Greif talks about the problems of experience, the necessity of a basic wage and a taxation of 100% on any income over 100,000 USD per year, and other fun things that puts life into both an existential and political perspective. My favorite essays, however, may be the less “universal” ones, such as the one in which he thoroughly dissects the concept of “the hipster” (finally someone put into words this diffuse and ubiquitous character!), or his poignant reflections in “Learning to Rap” of race relations in the US, which analyzes his former teenage self’s attraction to punk over rap, through the sober hindsight of adulthood.
The power of Greif’s analyses is most evident in that he takes seriously what others intellectuals do not: The Kardashians, Kanye West, the philosophy of pop music, YouTube, etc. By using these real-world (albeit sometimes virtual) phenomena as a point of departure, he unravels the different hidden mechanisms of our late-capitalist society and our search for meaning. His hunting ground is the North American imaginary, and as a European reader, there are a few unfamiliar events and emotions that are left unexplained. However, as American culture has long seeped into cracks and laid the liquid foundations for European culture, Greif’s analyses still seem close and nearly personally relevant.
Against Everything is smart, and it’s a pleasure to read. It doesn’t rely on academic jargon to make itself valid. Instead, Greif has a journalistic slant to his writing which makes his arguments powerful and witty. His essays do indeed represent sane thoughts in insane times, and I would recommend all who are interested in society, critique and good writing to pick up this book. Preferably at Ark, where it should be in stock again this weekend.