The Chronicle Review

The Man Against Everything

Mark Greif has no use for health, youth, or happiness

January 08, 2017

Photograph by Hannah Burton
A few months ago, in The New Yorker, Louis Menand confessed he was having trouble describing Mark Greif’s new book. "I guess Against Everything would be called a work of cultural criticism," he concluded, admitting he did not much like the term. Menand’s hesitancy was typical of the responses to Greif’s collection of essays on such topics as exercise, experience, YouTube, Occupy Wall Street, Radiohead, and Keeping Up With the Kardashians. In the London Review of Books, Stefan Collini compared Greif, somewhat perplexingly, given how few of Greif’s essays address politics or literature, to Lionel Trilling. Meanwhile, Timothy Aubry, writing in the Los Angeles Review of Books, explicitly distinguished Greif from the kind of "cultural critic" who bothers with individual behavior only when it affects the public good. The curious thing about Greif, Aubry contended, is that he treats "private lifestyle choices — what music to like, what television shows to watch — as gravely important."

Greif, 41, is a professor of literary studies at the New School, and one of the founding editors of n+1, where many of the essays in Against Everything (Pantheon) were originally published. He is also the author of a work of intellectual history, The Age of the Crisis of Man (Princeton University Press, 2015), developed out of his dissertation in American studies at Yale. This year he is a fellow at Stanford’s Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, where he works in a cabin­like room with redwood walls, space for books, and, as he puts it during a recent conversation, a window through which he can see "nature outside."

Greif is more interested in the other kind of nature, which is one reason a phrase like "cultural criticism" is inadequate to his purpose. Both in person and in his writing, he is frank about his models and interlocutors: Their names are Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and the Harvard philosopher Stanley Cavell. In fact, Against Everything aspires so obviously to participate in that philosophical tradition that it becomes an interesting question why commentators have so far avoided saying so.

More than mere 'cultural criticism,' Greif's essays obviously aspire to participate in the philosophical tradition of Emerson and Thoreau.
One problem is that it can be hard to remember that philosophical work still occurs outside of seminar rooms and academic journals, or that its business was originally, and principally, to measure how far our "style" of life corresponded with our best reasons for living it. Plato would have agreed with Greif that there is much at stake in what TV shows we watch, which music we download, how we exercise and eat, and whether we fashion ourselves as hipsters, foodies, or punks. But Greif’s list of influences hints at why the difficulty of categorizing his work goes beyond academic myopia. The essays in Against Everything take their cue from a canon of writers whose relationship to philosophy has been a complicated one.

Cavell, himself a marginalized figure within professional philosophical circles, has wondered why Emerson and Thoreau, the twin demiurges of American transcendentalism, are so often denied the title of philosopher by their countrymen. In an essay titled "The Philosopher in American Life," Cavell indicated two characteristics of their writing that seemed to court confusion. One was its unashamedly therapeutic aim: its explicit desire not just to inform but also to inspire, and to change, its readers. The other was its literary quality, the artfulness of its sentences, which followed from the esteem that both Emerson and Thoreau held for poetry.

Those two characteristics were typical of a form of philosophy that, by the middle of the 19th century, had fallen out of favor. One reason poetry was so important to Plato was that he saw it as offering powerful tools — dangerous when misused — to philosophers intent on turning their readers toward the good. But following, roughly, Descartes and the Enlightenment, Western philosophy would borrow more from scientists than from poets, de-emphasizing its therapeutic obligation to the individual in favor of the search for objective knowledge.

Cavell’s suggestion is that Thoreau and Emerson express America’s attempt to bend philosophy back toward the personal, or, as he calls it, the "human." The watchword of this new philosophical voice was self-reliance, its enemy the accumulation of conventional wisdom — including about what were the proper topics of philosophy. "I explore and sit at the feet of the familiar, the low," wrote Emerson in "The American Scholar." "The milk in the pan; the ballad in the street; the news of the boat": these were subjects as ripe for reflection as any other.

Cavell has attempted to inherit Emerson’s example by writing, philosophically, not just about Wittgenstein and J.L. Austin, but also about Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn. One time he gave an extended interpretation of a scene from the sitcom Leave It to Beaver. But although Cavell’s essays on popular culture are works of genius in a certain mode, they are couched in abstruse allusions, a purposefully demanding prose style, and ample references to Cavell’s own, previous work. For the right reader, the payoff is more than worth the intellectual labor, but it is notable that Cavell never attempted to reach a truly broad audience, or even what we might call a magazine readership.

Greif, who helped start a magazine, has taken a different tack, attempting to write not just about, but for, the public. What made him do it?

Greif began his answer by speaking about "insecurity" — not the psychological kind. Cavell received tenure at Harvard when he was in his mid-30s, which meant, said Greif, that "all of his entirely authentic dynamism about what of ordinary life can be undertaken philosophically — to whom am I speaking? should I speak to a bigger world? etc. — all of that transpires within a framework of university security." For Greif, on the other hand, "at the key moments I did not think I was going to go on in academia, I did not think I would teach, I did not think there would be jobs."

This was part of the impetus behind the founding of n+1, in 2004, while he was working on his Ph.D. in American studies. The magazine was intended at first as "a kind of mediating institution," between readable but often intellectually unadventurous magazines like The Atlantic and The New Yorker, and the cloistered pages of academic journals. "If you wanted to publish in public," Greif remembers thinking, "you had to pretend that you were beholden to pop culture for all of your best ideas. In academia, you had to pretend you were beholden to the brick-by-brick development of whatever conversation you entered, including all the people that had said dumb things about it. Why not start at the point where you thought you could learn something, and see how far you could go?" For a 28-year-old graduate student, n+1 provided both a gratifying intellectual outlet and a potential (if itself precarious) escape route if things didn’t work out in the academy.

"The reality is, for our generation, if you care about the life of the mind, you’re just going to have to keep doing it," Greif said, "and who knows where you’ll be doing it? Is it going to be as an adjunct? On a tenure track? At Gotham Writers Workshop? As a journalist? As long as you can keep it going in your own head without going mad, you’ve got something."

“If you believe that it's unlikely any one discipline has a monopoly on truth, then you'd want to learn as many of them as you possibly could.”
But Greif’s way of writing is more than the sum of his career anxieties; it is also rooted in an aversion to disciplinary boundaries perhaps even more extreme than Cavell’s. Although Greif took several classes with Cavell as an undergraduate at Harvard, he felt less at home in a department then dominated by utilitarians like Derek Parfit and contractualists like T.M. Scanlon, than he did in an interdisciplinary humanities program called History and Literature. Into his 20s, Greif dreamed of being a novelist, and at Yale he chose American studies because he felt it represented a middle road between history and literature.

During his fellowship at Stanford — where he reports discovering an attraction to statistics and social science — he is working on a book about pornography (slated to come out early next year), as well as a larger, more amorphous project inspired by a class he took with the Yale historian of slavery David Brion Davis. Just as Davis traced connections between a series of seemingly disparate radical reforms in the 19th century, Greif is interested in exposing the underlying forces behind the expansion of moral recognition to "previously unconsidered categories of beings" — children, fetuses, animals, cellular material — in the 20th and 21st centuries.

Greif’s intellectual promiscuity is rooted in his personality: At one point in our conversation, he compared himself to the Woody Allen character Zelig, who always "turns into the people who are around him." In person Greif emits a strong aura of receptivity, which is indicative of the way he can sometimes seem, as a writer, to be poised precariously between immersion and submersion in his subject matter. But the "Zelig desire," as Greif calls it, is also connected to an intellectual hunch. "If you believe," Greif says, "that it’s unlikely any one discipline has a monopoly on truth, then you’d want to learn as many of them as you possibly could."

Greif’s attraction to literature in particular may be connected both to his desire to reach the kind of popular audience that still reads novels (but not often philosophical essays), and to one of the things that makes his writing compelling in a way Cavell’s isn’t. Much of the page-by-page pleasure of reading Against Everything comes from Greif’s novelistic talent for defamiliarization — his ability to re-present everyday activities as if they were being performed by a race of exotic ciphers. From "Against Exercise": "Exerciser, what do you see in the mirrored gym wall? You make the faces associated with pain, with tears, with orgasm, with the sort of exertion that would call others to your immediate aid." From "On Food": "You become ‘hypoglycemic’: that is, lacking in sugars. You become ‘dehydrated’: that is to say, thirsty. You reach a point where you get lightheaded, sick, unhappy without your food."

Yet Greif’s literary efforts are always attuned, as Thoreau’s and Emerson’s were, to a philosophical objective. Within individual essays, it is often possible to trace a progression that Greif recalls making in his own high-school years, from the "drama of character" to the "drama of explanation." In "The Concept of Experience," for instance, Greif alternates between an evocation of our habitual behaviors — in this case, our obsession with the kind of "peak" experiences we hope to find in travel, sex, and intoxication — and the current of thought that galvanizes them:

Happiness is a vague bliss. Sunny and sociable, it considers the well-being of family and friends, while ordinary pleasure is immediate and private. If you say "I live for happiness," no one will challenge you, since everyone is assured of the crumbs from your meal. The flaw of this philosophy, however, is that neither happiness nor pleasure can be put into reality directly. The pursuit of happiness has to enter occurrence, and raw occurrence can’t be saved or savored. … So we learn to ask ourselves what it was like when the encounter or shock of sensation took place. You monitor the inward influence of occurrences as you undergo them, ruminating an interior object, something that can be brought up, later, to release a musty whiff of pleasure; or chewed again, to test if it’s "the real thing," life; or digested some more to see if it will yield some elusive nutrient of happiness.

The insight here goes back to Emerson’s lament, in the essay from which Greif’s takes its name, about the "evanescence and lubricity of all objects, which lets them slip through our fingers then when we clutch hardest." Greif’s trick is to translate this gnomic perception into the chorus lines of our contemporary inner monologue, where, clothed in the familiar metaphors of nutrition and physical pleasure, it exposes the flaw in our conventional sense. Suddenly we are able to see how, when we blame ourselves for failing to have the right experiences, it is in fact our concept of experience that is defective.

This discussion contributes to the book’s central philosophical theme: how concepts like "experience" — also "health," "youth," and "happiness" — have come to ensnare us in a "new unfreedom." Greif unspools the same sad story again and again: In the more privileged parts of the developed West, we have largely emancipated ourselves from biological necessities (hunger, disease) and even from moral ones (God, the old taboos), but, perplexed by our unprecedented liberty, we have fabricated a new set of necessities to take their place. We no longer suffer from food scarcity, so we devise a baroque maze of taboos regarding what we can consume. We no longer prohibit any one form of sex, and yet, in making sex an all-important component of our self-esteem, we bow down to a new set of norms (namely, that we should always want sex, and with different partners) nearly as coercive as the old. We squander our "free time," a relatively recent gift of history, at the gym, in ridiculous outfits, on primitive machines, in order that we may have a little more free time to spend in a future that perpetually recedes.

"The whole effort of the book," Greif says, "is to ask whether the reasons that we articulate for our most time-consuming daily habits are actually the reasons we hold." This is a classical enough philosophical objective, and yet Greif’s focus on "daily habits" — his version of Emerson’s "low and familiar" — is also what makes his book so seemingly difficult to describe.

To some of his critics, Greif’s optimism about what Stefan Collini calls the "power of self-fashioning" looks unserious, a virus of self-help infecting what would be better presented as pure political or "structural" critique. For others — especially in the academy — the attention Greif pays to the thought patterns of ordinary Americans, not to mention his explicit aspiration to intervene in them, marks the book as merely devoid of interest. Greif has received little feedback from philosophy professors, a situation he doesn’t expect to change, even though he does admit to a persistent daydream: "In the best of all possible futures, after I’m dead, some young person will say, ‘Philosopher, have you read this essay, the Concept of Experience?’ and believe that actually that thing is part of the tradition of philosophy."

For now, Greif appears content to straddle the border between popular and academic, literary and philosophical, amateur and professional — but it remains a balancing act, and not just for professional reasons. Cavell has observed that one of the singular traits of American philosophy, in contrast to European or ancient philosophy, is its belief in democracy as a form of government, and in the demos as a locus of wisdom. But what happens when the demos makes, as Greif described it to me a few days after the election, a "huge historic mistake"? What happens, moreover, when our everyday democratic spaces are marked less by deliberation or debate than by hostility, anxiety, and mutual suspicion?

The ancient philosopher, in such times, could barricade himself in some Canada of the imagination, and wait for it to pass. Thoreau, less than a decade before his country plunged into civil war, built a cabin in the woods. For some, today, there is tenure, or, at least temporarily, a different kind of cabin, with bookshelves and a desk, in Northern California. Partly by design, and partly by circumstance, Greif has remained on the periphery of such refuges, which means we can probably count on him to remain out here with the rest of us, insecure.

Jon Baskin is a founding editor of  The Point.

Correction (1/10/2017, 12:54 p.m.): This article originally misidentified T.M. Scanlon. He is a contractualist, not a utilitarian philosopher. The article has been updated accordingly.