I had learned about the literary magazine n+1 while I was still at the Center, having stumbled one day across a webpage so hideous I could only assume the ugliness was politically motivated. In the opening “Intellectual Situation,” the unattributed section at the beginning of the magazine, the editors of n+1 took aim at two publications that back then I would have said I admired. Dave Eggers’s McSweeney’s “was a briefly significant magazine,” the editors wrote, which had sunk into obsolescence as it prioritized “the claims of childhood” over the workings of intellect. Leon Wieseltier’s highly acclaimed books section in the New Republic suffered from the opposite problem: its self-seriousness had hardened into a vulgar decadence. For a book of Lionel Trilling essays he was editing, Wieseltier had chosen the title The Moral Responsibility to Be Intelligent. “The moral responsibility is not to be intelligent,” the n+1 editors chided. “It’s to think.”
The editors were expressing a sentiment, I realized as I read it, that I shared but hadn’t yet been able to articulate to myself: a disappointment, or irritation, with the existing intellectual alternatives. Also a reminder that there was such a thing as thinking, and that you could fail to do it. Sometimes you could fail to do it even though it looked to everyone around you like you were doing it. I reflected on this as I sat at my desk at the think tank, reporting on progress. Then I subscribed to n+1.
Not long after, I attended the magazine’s first release party in Manhattan. By the time I arrived, several hundred people were gathered in the dimly lit Lower East Side gymnasium. Here were the “younger left intelligentsia” that the historian Russell Jacoby, in his 1987 book The Last Intellectuals, had hoped would one day be roused from their academic slumbers. Had they been roused by the Iraq War, the magazine’s trenchant analysis of late capitalism, or the cheap drinks? Did it matter? They had gone to the same schools as my colleagues at the think tank, and studied many of the same subjects (a bit more Derrida here, a bit more Schlesinger there). But whereas at the think tank everyone was hunched anxiously forward, imparting an air of professional intensity (or panic; the line was thin), the partygoers arched away from one another as if steadying themselves on skis, their postures connoting a carefully calibrated alienation. We held our $2 beers in one hand and our $10 maroon magazines in the other, and waited for the band to play.
n+1, founded in 2004, turned out to be the first of many “little magazines” that would be born after the end of history, after the end of long form, and after the end of print. The New Inquiry, Jacobin, the Baffler (v. 2.0), Pacific Standard and the Los Angeles Review of Books, as well as refurbished versions of Dissent and the Boston Review, all followed over the next decade. (The Point was founded in 2009.) These magazines would go on, despite minuscule budgets and peripatetic publishing schedules, to produce or support a high percentage of the most significant cultural critics and essayists of the next decade. You know their names if you read any of the legacy magazines or the New York Times, all of which now regularly poach writers and editors from their talent pool.
Like the New York intellectuals who had clustered around Commentary and the Partisan Review in the Sixties, and partly in conscious imitation of them, the writers and editors of the new magazines blended art, criticism, philosophy and self-examination in the confidence that these activities would all be, when carried out with a sufficient level of clarity and insight, mutually re-inforcing. Indeed the appeal of n+1 was, for me, not merely due to its ability to articulate my dissatisfaction with literary culture. The magazine took for granted that the failure to think was responsible all at once for the sorry state of the American short story, our manic relationship to exercise, and the complicity of liberal elites in the invasion of Iraq. Reading it, one had the feeling that, in fact, the entire country had stopped thinking—or had grown satisfied with a false form of thought, just as it had grown satisfied with false forms of so many other things. This was a phenomenon that had to be tracked down in each and every area of our experience. My favorite early essays in n+1 were about Radiohead, Russian literature, the rise of the “neuronovel” and the psychology of the Virginia Tech mass shooter. Another was about taking Adderall. These were not topics that would have been considered of great political importance at a place like the Center. I was not sure that my own interest in them was primarily political. But the passionate intensity with which they were treated undoubtedly owed something to the sense that they were not of merely subjective significance: square by square, the magazine was filling in a map of contemporary experience, and that map would show us where to go next, not to mention what (if anything) was worth taking with us when we went. The project was political primarily in the sense that it pointed in a direction, indicated by the magazine’s title. “Civilization is the dream of advance,” read a note from the editors in the first issue. We were not merely going to report on progress; we were going to make it.
It was exhilarating to try and live this way. It invested what might seem like trivial everyday decisions with a world-historical import. At least that’s how it felt to me for a little while. Eventually, I began to notice in myself a tension that also existed at the heart of the project of n+1, and of many of the other little magazines. My aesthetic and cultural tastes, the reflection of a lifetime of economic privilege and elite education, did not always, or often, match the direction the magazines were trying to take me politically. This had not troubled me before, because I had never considered that—as the little magazines echoed Fredric Jameson in asserting, or at least implying—“everything is ‘in the last analysis’ political.” But now I had come to see that politics were not just an activity that people engaged in at certain times: when they voted, or protested, or wrote newsletters for think tanks. It was something that could be said to infuse every aspect of one’s experience, from which big-box store you shopped at for your year’s supply of toilet paper, to what restaurants you chose to eat at, to who you chose to sleep with. This was what it meant not just to engage in politics but to “have a politics”—a phrase I probably heard for the first time at that n+1 party, and that was often brandished as if it legitimated one’s entire way of life. What it meant for everything to be in the last analysis political, I came to see, was that everything I did ought to be disciplined by my politics. But what if it wasn’t? Should I then revise my politics, or myself?
I was coming to appreciate an old problem for the “intellectual of the left.” This problem is so old, and has been addressed unsuccessfully by so many very smart people, that we are probably justified in considering it to be irresolvable. To state it as simply as possible, the left intellectual typically advocates for a world that would not include many of the privileges or sensibilities (partly a product of the privileges) on which her status as an intellectual depends. These privileges may be, and often are, economic, but this is not their only or their most consequential form. Their chief form is cultural. The intellectual of the left is almost always a person of remarkably high education, not just in the sense of having fancy credentials, which many rich people who are not cultural elites also have, but also on account of their appetite for forms of art and argument that many they claim to speak for do not understand and would not agree with if they did. They write long, complicated articles for magazines that those with lesser educations, or who do not share their cultural sensibilities, would never read. They claim to speak for the underclasses, and yet they give voice to hardly anyone who has not emancipated themselves culturally from these classes in their pages.
One of the things that made n+1 such a compelling magazine is that their editors, instead of pretending, as many left intellectuals do, that this was not a problem, agonized openly about it. In the Intellectual Situation entitled “Revolt of the Elites” (2010), they called for an education system that would close the cultural gap between themselves and the rest of society, thereby making their high education the norm rather than a privilege. In “Death by Degrees” (2012), they offered to burn their Ph.D.s in protest of the unequal system that had produced them (if only they could torch their understanding of Bourdieu!). In “Cultural Revolution” (2013), they imagined a future where the “proletarianization of intellectuals” would lead to an increase in the “antisystemic” force of their critique. None of these proposals, however, addressed the central issue in the present: anyone writing, editing and reading articles in n+1 or any of the other magazines that had grown up with similar politics in its wake—anyone trafficking knowingly in terms like “proletarianization” and “antisystemic”—was engaging in an activity that, if it didn’t actively exacerbate the gap between cultural elites and the rest of society, certainly didn’t look like the most direct way of addressing it. How could the elitism that is intrinsic to the institution of the little magazine be squared with the urgent importance their writers and editors attached to the subversion of elitism?