Introduction to The Baffler number 19, published in March 2012
One day we will tell you all that’s happened since we moved the journal from Chicago and revived it in Cambridge. But it was a lunch-time remark uttered along the way, a memorable snatch of conversation from a patroness, that has set the mood of this new issue. Attempting to console us for our pitiful yield in raising funds, she insinuated a class confidence was about to be betrayed. “You know,” she whispered, leaning over the hummus, “there’s plenty of money around. It’s just a matter of getting to it.”
Why, yes! How could we not have noticed? Politicians, pundits, and officials have been ruminating on the scarcity of credit, the necessity of austerity, and the fact of America’s degeneration into bankruptcy. Yet our thought leaders haven’t exactly displayed the courage of their faltering convictions. All the talk of decline has not led them to imagine that conventional notions of wealth and progress are also used up. They still celebrate big corporations as value creators and agents of advance to the celestial city. The intricate schemes and scams that uplifted our business civilization have collapsed, as everyone knows, but its reliance on confidence remains as fatuous as ever.
All that’s valuable about an economy, they still tell us, proceeds from an increase in private business wealth, which is supposed to be motivated by the possibility of infinite growth, and guided (more or less) by the intercession of government. Our ascension can be closely monitored with leading and trailing indicators—corporate profits, balance of trade, ratio of debt to gross domestic product, inflation and interest rates, stock market averages—that indicate nothing but dominance of the corporate perspective. Three years into this New Depression, then, the whole scheme of bonuses and incentives that enabled the fraud remains intact, awaiting the right political combination of concessions to the rich and sacrifices by everyone else to unlock the heavenly door once again.
Many commentators said the Occupy Wall Street protesters knew not what they wanted. But scour the messaging campaign of the official media for ideas equal to the scale of the country’s devastation and you will find naught but a wreck of dogmas, bound in shallows and miseries. What is wealth for? Why is economic stagnation said to lead to cultural decline, or standing in place taken to mean falling behind? The Market is understood not as a fallible mechanism for setting prices and distributing resources, but as metaphysical truth incarnate. Has the market god, though, ever appeared so remote and mysterious as it does in the present crisis? At what other juncture have its servants in government failed so miserably in their duty to create low-wage jobs? When have our lofty culture moguls come up so empty in carrying out the crucial task of manufacturing codes for the cool and formulas for the fabulous? It’s as if the whole history of business-class homiletics—those flinty aphorisms, those mind cures, those sloughs of despond, those endless prayers for favorable tax legislation—are unable to change the sad fact that novelty in popular fashion has come to a thudding halt. As Vanity Fair bravely reported last fall, blue jeans have yet to go out of fashion.
Awful though that may be, Baffler 19 alights on a part of America that still stirs optimism among chroniclers of the prosperity gospel. In the land of the creative class, the real estate prices are booming. The restaurants are booked, and all the business corporations are dedicated anew to cutting-edge thinking. The menswear may be nothing to emulate; but you can’t quarrel with the data. In Silicon Valley, job creation clicks in at three times the national average. Scrums of young billionaires collect record salaries and profits, offer world-beating stocks, and host bacchanalias at night after changing the world during the day. Just now, in fact, the tech industry’s self-made men are locked in a battle for the ages, pitting the boldest companies and savviest minds in a contest to reinvent … television. What won’t they think up next?
A great deal, it turns out. The fable that we are living through a time of head-snapping innovation in technology drives American thought these days—dystopian and utopian alike. But if you look past both the hysteria and the hype, and place the achievements of technology in historical perspective, then you may recall how business leaders promised not long ago to usher us into a glorious new time of abundance that stood beyond history. And then you may wonder if their control over technology hasn’t excelled mainly at producing dazzling new ways to package and distribute consumer products (like television) that have been kicking around history for quite some time.
The salvos in this issue chronicle America’s trajectory from megamachines to mini-machines, from prosthetic gods to prosthetic pals, and raise a corollary question from amid all this strangely unimaginative innovation: how much of our collective awe rests on low expectations?
The stories, poems, and art in the issue, meanwhile, comment on the omnipresence of tools, applications, and utilities from a different vantage point. These revolutionary improvements in the technique of living always seem to come packaged in the language of work, the cumulative effect of which is to inflict the disciplines and punishments of the office park on our everyday lives. By contrast, we think the missing, redemptive element of culture in business civilization lies in the playful, spontaneous joy of literary and graphic art, in making believe, rather than making tools.
And so we won’t lull you with dead language, shame you with bleeding conscience, gull you with salvation through our bold new program, or employ any other tic or trick to manage your discontent. Our mission is to debunk the dogmas that discourage the intuitions of experience from fully forming in a critical intelligence. But we do not aim to conciliate any person, party, or philosophy. We aim to unsettle, and, if necessary, to irritate.
Everything we’ve learned in reviving this journal has taught us that a miraculous national recovery, as business defines it, would not increase support for our kind of art and criticism by one Krugerrand. Nor would any such economic revival, however much it might buoy the millions of Americans damaged by business fraud, spur credible visions of the future from a leadership class mired in the over-determined, under-performing vistas of yesteryear. Experience teaches us to count on recovery to deliver more of the same: constant changes in street fashion and gadgetry; social success via trampling, crushing, and elbowing; and a culture organized around the selling of commodities.
And then it would be back to the same cubicles and service counters to report to the same managers about our performance of the same stupefying tasks. No, thank you. We have seen this future, and it doesn’t work.