Living Against Everything: An Interview with Mark Greif

Mark Greif is a founding editor of the New York-based literary magazine n+1,  and is Associate Professor of Literary Studies at the New School, New York. He is author of Against Everything: On Dishonest Times, a wide-ranging collection of essays on themes as apparently disparate as the philosophy of popular music, the cultural and intellectual significance of hipsterism, and our strange and shifting modern attitudes to diet and nutrition. Though each essay is individual, the book is unified by a larger inquiry, one which makes up the backbone of the Against Everything and around which three of the essays centre: ‘The Meaning of Life’. King’s Review editors Johannes Lenhard and Chris Townsend met with Greif during his 2016 visit to the U.K., and asked him what it might mean to live both critically and well.

Johannes Lenhard: Let’s start by talking about the title. What does it mean to be ‘against everything’?

Mark Greif: I imagined it as a principle of method. I don’t think it’s a particularly surprising or new method in the long tradition of scepticism for the sake of truth and self-knowledge. But I imagined it quite physically. You know this figure of the gold prospector who must bite into the nugget that he finds to see whether it’s really gold or fool’s gold? There certainly is a great deal of fool’s gold in circulation at the moment. But you couldn’t call the book ‘Bite Everything’. I imagined the principle would be in some way to press up against the things people depend upon, to see if they really hold your weight. To see whether the things that everyone seems to admire are actually worthy of admiration, and whether the things that everyone vilifies are genuinely villainous. There was some degree of wishing to tweak the nose, too, of a particular kind of book which gets written now. There seems to have been an acceleration of purely attitudinising or opinionating books — ‘against this’, ‘against that’ — so I figured that someone ought to just take this to its end point, and declare ‘against everything’.

Chris Townsend: Across the essays in your book, this mode of sceptical critique, of being ‘against everything’, is rooted in the particularity of experiences, and in lived experience. It seems like more than just a theoretical position.

MG: I think that’s right. For someone like me, an overly polite person, inclined to sympathise first and only recover the capacity to judge later, what does it take to remind yourself to stop, before falling into enthusiasms? And see if it’s possible to think things down to the root.

CT: How, then, does scepticism in this form relate to the ‘good life’ as it is sketched across several of the book’s essays?

MG: I think we live in a moment when the sheer volume of noisy demands, and commercial utterances offered in the imperative voice, may be greater than at other times in the history of civilisation. It becomes very hard in that din to stop oneself from believing, or even offering a certain degree of assent to, things one doesn’t like. “Well I know I hate it, but it certainly seems as if everyone else is enjoying . . . their cellphones” [laughs]. Over the course of the essays, there is a quite practical dimension of trying to see what it would take, not to halt experience, but somehow to open a space within it, in order to allow judgment, evaluation, self-questioning, self-critique.

JL: You talk about the avoidance of pain in place of the pursuit of pleasure, be that in sex, intoxication, or another form. We are always searching for highs, you feel, and therefore we are always overall trapped in a more enduring low. But you offer two alternatives to this situation: aestheticism and perfectionism.

MG: Yes, yes. There’s a way in which that essay, on aestheticism and perfectionism [‘The Concept of Experience (The Meaning of Life, Part I)’], is the most . . . optimistic essay of the book. I argue that there are practical strategies, and I offer a recipe or list for them. How do you live a life of aestheticism? Well, you treat the things you encounter and the things that you meet as capable of offering you the pleasures which, characteristically, we think of as coming from art, movies, paintings. Or you somehow stylize your life, so that it looks like a work of art with consistency and harmony. But this is not an invention of my own. One of the things I like best about that essay is the discovery, if it is one, that this mode of preservation of experience — the improvement of experience, the transformation of life aesthetically — has a history or genealogy that seems to go back strongly to the 1850s. That’s why Flaubert appears in the essay in the way that he does. Yet it’s a stylization of experience that really does underlie people’s accounts of how they go about living in the present moment.

All of that said, aestheticism may work, but it may come out quite badly too, and I think that if that’s an optimistic essay, it must be twinned with the pessimistic one later in the book on ‘aesthetic illness’. I suppose, in the way that we talk day to day, we also belong to a world of depression, and of a depression that seems characteristically induced by the ecstatic possibilities of our modern collection of experience and fantasy of living successfully all the time. The flip-side of these enterprises, even to improve and purify life, might well be a darkened vision in which one discovered that one was fundamentally incapable of such a heroic enterprise. You wind up in bed wishing that you had not had all those words shouted at you, and that you had not seen all those things—the Kardashians, and ISIS executions, as well as all of the things that a responsible citizen of the world should see.

CT: The internet does make it easy to feel like we’ve just sacrificed a small part of ourselves in the pursuit of an experience. And the experience of violence, or of graphic pornography, might be a sort of awful modern sublime. Is it therefore helpful to think about your work in relation to Romanticism?

MG: The position of Romanticism in the intellectual history of this modern emphasis upon experience is actually quite puzzling. The rise of modern individualism, a strong sense of authenticity, combined with the sense for intellectuals that they, too, must recover sentiments more deeply interfused with the natural world and the world of common people (rather than only fellow university scholars) – all this might be traced back to English Romanticism, on one side, and German or continental Romanticism, on the other. And yet, as I move back toward antecedents of that 1850s moment, which has Flaubert on one side, Thoreau on the other, Kierkegaard a decade earlier – towards people like Wordsworth – there does seem to be some gap or difference that yawns open.

I do find myself spending a lot of time with Wordsworth, trying to figure out the discontinuity between the kind of contemporary experience which it seems to me we do still strongly have in common with Flaubert, Thoreau, Kierkegaard, Baudelaire, but which we don’t, or I don’t, with Wordsworth. One thing that amazes me in Wordsworth is that he’ll say at different points in The Prelude and elsewhere: I sat down in the morning, I was looking out on the valley, I thought for a bit, and then I got up, and the sun was setting. And I realise suddenly: what, he just sat there for eight hours?! It seems to me there is a kind of time availability within Romantic experience that has been lost to us – therefore a key dimension of Wordsworthian ‘experience’ that transpired across forms of duration and physical rootedness has ceased to be possible. To that degree, I actually see Romanticism — rather than belonging to a strict continuity of modern experience-stylization —as embodying something like the unapproachable ‘beyond’ to be recovered. 

The sublime may be another kind of picture of, or way of getting at, whatever breach occurred, between our experience of ‘experience,’ and theirs. It does seem to be true, with accounts of the sublime in eighteenth-century terms — whether in Burke, or Kant — that they point to sublimity unlike ours. Facing the sheer multiplicity of images on the internet, whatever they may be, and the extremity of the images in our image cycle — atrocity, genocide, sexual violence, or just commodified sexuality, and all the rest —people identify these things, not unreasonably, as belonging to the experience of the sublime somehow, and people speak of a ‘post-modern’ sublime. And yet there does seem to be a crucial mismatch between these things and the most violent things that Burke or Kant describe. If we could put our finger on what that difference was, then we would really accomplish something towards the successful description of the present moment – or even towards a successful way to live with or cope with this moment.

CT: One possible distinction you could draw is that the sublime in eighteenth-century aesthetics is always at least implicitly about God or religion. When you see something extremely graphic on the internet, it’s always man against man, or a human production. This might be something like a ‘secular sublime’.

MG: I guess the way in which I would translate that question is to think about the historic emergence of a world of pure immanence, of entirely material nature. It would match those anecdotes of young Flaubert, watching people be cut apart in his father’s surgical theatre, and learning there is nothing transcendent to human beings — ‘Ah, that’s what people are! They’re meat!’ Such materialism does seem to have lasted from his moment to ours. I find myself wondering too about the features of presence or tele-presence now, in that, with the sublime experiences of the eighteenth century, there might have been an ultimate transcendent reference, but also an immediate and present physical threat often presented as crucial to the experience. This would be the eighteenth-century sublime of looking out and seeing mariners in peril, in a boat roiled by the sea which is not affecting you – or the mighty crag that uprears above you physically but at this moment is not going to harm you. Nowadays the risk of many of the things we consider sublime is really notional, virtual, occurring only through the screen, and that becomes somehow central to the updated experience.

On the other hand, the moment I find myself recalling again and again when wondering what this contemporary sublime might be is in Burke, and his statement about the hypothetical destruction of London [Part I, Chapter 15, Edmund Burke’s Philosophical Inquiry]. He says: If all of London fell into a hole tomorrow, I wouldn’t be happy about it, I wouldn’t want it to happen, but let’s admit it – I, and you, and everyone, we would go and look. When I first read that, it felt to me un-anachronistic, curiously seamless with the present.

Yet, over time I’ve come to think that a relevant feature of his imagination is that he would go and look; that is to say, he would physically stand at the edge of the precipice and witness the thing, right in front of him. And still, now, to experience violence in front of you, as it happens in real life, does retain a very, very different character to mediated violence. It’s really immediate, really wrenching. One way of drawing a conclusion from that is to say we haven’t changed as human beings; we, in the face of physical reality, still respond the same way. But another way to think of it, though, is to recognise how much of the stuff that works our thoughts, our emotions, whatever, is virtual, does not have that same feeling of presence anymore.

JL: Coming out of the narratives of modern individualism and consumerism is your interest in the figure of the hipster, a figure which you read negatively in one of the book’s essays. You discuss the ‘hipster primitive’ as the possibility of a potentially ethical form of high consumerism, though even this doesn’t fully satisfy you.

MG: It may seem retrograde or fuddy-duddy, but I retain a real hostility to consumerism! [laughs] I suppose that’s like saying I really dislike shit. Or I really dislike mean people. But in all of my hipster analysis, if you feel some measure of distaste, even for the most innocuous of hipster figures, it has to do with witnessing, under the guise of subculture — something I value — the opportunity for the creation of “rebel consumers.” I feel great repugnance for people who will discover their authentic selves in resistance to an imagined, non-existent Establishment who want to keep them from buying an expensive steak, an expensive hatchet, an expensive coat….[laughs].

Mark Greif, founding editor of n+1, now professor at the New School.


CT: A problem with something like the ‘hipster primitive’ or ethical hipster is that it limits ethics to the consumer realm. You say something similar about punk at one point in the book, and about punk as a form of commodification. Are hipsters better or worse than punks?

MG: Oh… worse!

CT: Okay, but with reference to the word ‘dishonesty’ in your book’s subtitle… are hipsters at least more honest?

MG: That’s an interesting question. I take the question to be: ‘Which would you prefer, the subculture called punk, which elaborates itself around motifs of genuine resistance, powerful nihilism, total rejection, and fails them, in fact is secretly working out the same sales and self promotion schemes as everyone else? Or the nakedly enjoying, fine distinction-producing, project developing, marketing culture of the hipster, where hypocrisy cannot be charged, because the decline is already built in?’.

I used to have an argument with my wife about the concept of ‘selling out’. She would occasionally accuse pop music figures of having sold out. I’d say, you can’t say that, that kind of stardom never promises anything more to begin with. They were always only for sale, they can’t ever ‘sell out’. I have to say, I strongly prefer the person who tries and fails, through weakness or temptation, to the consistent cynic. When we talk about these things, punk or hipster, of course, it’s crucial to say we’re talking about huge gatherings of people, brought together from entirely different social circumstances, on a common basis of negotiation, rather than unanimity and purpose. It is better to have a culture of genuine primary commitments, which a certain number of people may fall short of. There will be a set of people who will be able to live a life of aspiration and effort, and not always buying and selling, getting and spending.

JL: You are opposed to consumerism as it exists and capitalism as we are living in it, and that’s why you make the proposal, in the second ‘good life’ essay, of an unconditional income for everyone.

MG: The proffered solutions in that essay, universal basic income and 100% tax on income over a certain level, aren’t entirely offered as solutions to the global perils of capitalism. I don’t think of myself as in any sense simply against capitalism. Capitalism, what is it? What would it mean to live outside it at this stage of developed civilization? Not very much. You must come down to specifics, to practices and institutions. Anyway. I do think of that particular essay as mostly a restatement of Oscar Wilde’s ‘Soul of Man Under Socialism’. Politically, it reaches a part of the thinking of the Right that does belong, and I think should belong, to thinkers on the Left, or to all of us, about such topics as individualism, excellence, thumos or spiritedness, and the desire for competition, and why those goals point to different institutions that the ones we currently entertain. In that range of emotions, and that range of the satisfactions of life, too, there are good reasons to try to set people up with a minimum. If there’s no super-poverty, you can in a way avoid treading on others while genuinely pursuing your ‘robber baron’-ish competitive existence. By the same token, there are very good reasons to want to wipe out monopoly, and concentrations of wealth, and inheritance, for the sake of, again, true competition, and the true possibility of creating yourself, exalting yourself, even as an entrepreneur.

JL: That was my understanding of your essay — that you have this universal basic income and then people are going to be creative, and to create themselves to their potential.

MG: It would certainly be a start. In a sense — and this very much follows Wilde — the enterprise of that essay is to shift people’s thinking, about what we would think of as ‘ethical obligations’, out of the realm of pity, out of the realm of charity, because such thinking always creates a kind of grey world of condescension, towards something like greater satisfaction in a moral frame. I think of that essay as quite different from the much more global questions of how one would live a good life. We’re talking about some minimum measures to modify the features of capitalism that are ugliest now, not only ugliest for the homeless person in the street but for homeowners too, for people foreclosed upon, and for financiers, too – they just don’t know it.

CT: I recall that one of Wilde’s key examples of a successful individual was Byron, who seems to exist at a crucial point in the forming of modern individualism; he’s somewhere between the ideal that you describe in your essay and the ‘rise of the individual’ narrative of U.S. economics. The latter seems like a terrible misstep in that narrative.

MG: Yes. You have to think about the displaced but not entirely misplaced Romanticism of the heroic capitalist, the creative destructionist, the entrepreneur, and so forth. It does represent a terrible misstep. But only to the extent that it sets itself up as the only route, the ‘one God’. One thing I do find myself tending toward, which I don’t quite know how to defend but which I would like to, is a kind of plural vision of human liberation, in which you would want to make room for the people whose highest good is really evil or amoral. Not that Byron quite achieves that, but in a sense a truly human society would be one in which the flourishing of the satanist, and the byronic folks, and indeed the gambler financiers was also fulfilled. What would a slightly better moral and political world than this one look like? Probably one in which people were able to do the things they were best at or most creative in, but without their position being settled in everyone else’s enterprise as a consequence of it. But there’s a problem. For the financier, the lone realm of excellence of judging and guessing market prices and values by the mechanism of money also turns into getting the best seat at the opera, getting first say with the politician about what you would like policy to be like, etcetera. Whereas a world in which people were able to achieve their characteristic excellences without either dominating others or being entirely subordinate would be much better, I think. At least much fairer.

JL: The problem you’re describing is a fundamental inequality of capitalism, and money as a form of mediation — where we can buy anything and everything, including power.

MG: It may have to do with the power of money to introduce a kind of single metric or single instrumentality which causes all kinds of, as it were, misjudgment, misallocation, and incorrect ranking in other spheres.

JL: So what we should want is what Bourdieu [in Distinction] talks about as separate forms of capital, and they should be kept separate? But at the moment there is only one dominating form.

MG: You’ve put your finger on it. If I think of a very precisely defined picture of utopia in this way, it would be Bourdieu’s differentiation of fields, but with with greater autonomy. So that the person who accumulates extraordinary capital in one domain, the arts, or in another, finance, possesses it only in that domain, but everywhere else he’s kind of a regular citizen.

JL: And that takes us back to consumerism, because we all have to take part in that form of capitalism. Even if we are artists, we have to make sure we get enough money.

MG: I think, a little differently, it takes you back to democracy, as the idea we have the most possession of already as a kind of ideal, which could most serve the purpose of this equalization where it matters, and excellence where it matters. It’s a very old idea, but the figure of the person who, while a star basketball player on his NBA team, or a star investor in his investment bank, still has to stand in line, or queue up for the bus, with everyone else, and is truly no better than the man in the street — because he himself is the man on the street, or woman on the street – that really is, I think, a superior democratic vision to try to recover. And this is where consumerism itself often feels like the wrong thing to ignore. I find myself becoming angry at these structures of flying on airlines, where suddenly we’re divided into ranks of who gets to board first, or second, based on who has bought which ticket. Consumerism undoes the best parts of a democratic civilization that makes sure people are equal in public spaces.

CT: Orderly queues strike me as very socialist structures, where we recognise the rights of others as much as our own. It comes back to something of the implications of Against Everything, as a title, and as a theory or practice. It’s a politics of politeness — living the politics you want, or performing the society you want to live in.

MG: I think that’s right. But also it’s funny, that this context, a context of politeness, or of ‘the citizen rules’, ‘the man on the street rules’, will also produce the forms of necessary social antagonism, or dissent, that are most effective. This is the greatness of Thoreau’s gesture to insist on sitting in the town jail for a day for not paying his taxes for the Mexican war. On one side, it furnishes the most direct and intimate and local effect for others to review: Why is Henry sitting in the jail? Should I be sitting in the jail too? But on the other side, in Thoreau’s account of it, there is an account of experience and growth, on the side of the individual, sitting in the middle of his hometown, and seeing it in a different light: ‘I didn’t know the perspective on my own town from jail’. I suppose a politics of equality and politeness means knowing the society as it is experienced from all perspectives—as boss and subordinate, policeman and jailer—to make you want to preserve freedom and justice for everyone and for yourself.

Chris Townsend is Articles Editor for the King's Review, and is a Ph.D. candidate in English literature at the University of Cambridge. He writes broadly on literary history and the arts. @marmeladrome.

Johannes Lenhard is currently a PhD candidate in Social Anthropology at King’s College, Cambridge. His research is focused on the intersection of alternative economics, social theory and the ethnographic study of homelessness and mental health. He tweets under @acjf37 and is the current editor-in-chief of KR.