The Baffler, one of the great little magazines, is back again in a new print incarnation. And, for the first time (I think), it has a proper website. The US Intellectual History blog has run a short round table on the issue – contributions, in order are here, here, and here, with a reply from the new editor, John Summers, here. George Scialabba is an associate editor, and Aaron Swartz a contributing editor (both, of course, are long time members of the CT community). Readers are warmly encouraged to subscribe and/or to donate to the magazine’s Kickstarter campaign, which ends in only a couple of days.
The theme of the new issue is capitalist innovation and its problems. Quoting the framing piece by John Summers:
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 minimachines, from prosthetic gods to prosthetic pals, and raise a corollary question from amid all these strangely unimaginative innovation: how much of our collective awe rests on low expectations?
There are some startlingly close parallels to the aspirations of the USSR, as described in Red Plenty, which I’ll be talking about at greater length in my contribution to the forthcoming seminar. There are also some claims that I disagree with. I’m not at all sure that this introduction has the diagnosis right. Much like the old Baffler, there are some good and excellently entertaining criticisms of specific elements of techno-boosterism, but also a little too much emphasis on the cultural rather than the political dimensions of techology.
In form, the new Baffler is different from the old one, which systematically refused to have truck with new technologies nearly up to the end. It not only has a website and a Kickstarter campaign, but a Twitter feed, Kindle and Nook versions, and online PDFs. Still, it rather awkwardly carries over some of the old attitudes about the technologies that it uses to communicate. The old Baffler was good at talking about how new economy boosterism served as an intellectual veil, obscuring real relations of power inequality. But it didn’t take any very particular care to distinguish new-technology-as-obfuscatory-rhetoric fron new-technology-as-phenomenon-shaping people’s lives. Sometimes, this worked. The last issue of the old Baffler had a lovely photo-essay on how the etherial Internet (more recently dubbed the ‘cloud;’ a term whose etymology deserves an essay in itself) was based on the squat physical reality of server farms. Sometimes, it didn’t. Like a bizarro-world Thomas Friedman, it seemed to lump new technology together with Nasdaq, globalization, free markets and financial capital. All were interlocking, all mutually reinforcing, all propelling us towards a future of misery and inequality.
This shared perspective (but reversed valences) allowed it to serve up a withering critique of the Friedman view of the world, and its underlying assumptions. It also made it hard to create a practicable alternative agenda. The old Baffler was great on the culture of capitalism, but not nearly as strong on its material underpinnings. It also, I think, systematically tended to misunderstand technology, treating it as a symptom of the culture wars, rather than as a phenomenon in itself.
The new Baffler is better on all of this (not that the old one wasn’t good – it really, really, was, but it had its limits too), and seems to be trying to figure out a different line of attack. That said, as the USIH seminar contributions suggest, it hasn’t quite gotten there yet. Again, when it’s good on critique, it’s very good indeed. Moe Tkacik’s piece on the Atlantic Conventional Wisdom Festival isn’t quite as strong as it could be (a couple too many personal hatchets to bury; some difficulties in capturing the transition from a world in which you have to have the CIA buying cultural institutes, to a world where private enterprise can do the job itself). Rick Perlstein’s article on Ronald Reagan is unsurprisingly excellent. But others don’t work. Will Boisvert’s attack on the MIT Media Lab is surprisingly unimaginative. The critique of Stupid Things That Nicholas Negroponte and His Mates Say could have been made any time in the last couple of decades, by more or less anybody who cared. And when Boisvert says
Last year, MIT posted a list of the Lab’s all-time “Top 25 Products and Platforms: …. Number 3 is Lego’s Mindstorms, a robotics kit beloved of school science fairs and adult hobbyists. Number 2? Guitar Hero. Yeah, they made that, one of the best-selling throw-away video games ever. Number 1 is the e-reader technology in Kindle, so give the Lab its due: it has spawned a subset of the video screens that are destroying the Republic of Letters.
he’s mistaking personal aesthetic peeves for general arguments. I’ll give him Guitar Hero if he really wants it (although I expect there’ll be dissenters in comments), but Mindstorms is as good a tool for engendering creativity in young folks as one could imagine. And e-reader technology as a destroyer of the Republic of Letters … really???
There are a couple of pieces that set out a more positive agenda. David Graeber’s piece I’ll mostly pass over, for fear of more unpleasantness – I think it’s fair to say that it’s provocatively Fourierist-utopian in both the positive and negative senses of that term. Kim Stanley Robinson provides an excerpt from 2312 that makes me really want to read the book – but while the solution to late capitalism may lie in quantum computers solving the socialist calculation problem (again: Red Plenty – Robinson has a joke about the “Spuffordized Soviet cybernetic model”) we probably can’t count on this happening in the near-to-immediate future.
In short, the new Baffler is very strong on describing the stunted possibilities of innovation under the current system, and the ways in which the rhetorics of globalization, the new economy etc cover over this stuntedness. It is less strong on describing alternatives, and has no very clear idea about how to get from here to there. Of course, it’s always much harder to come up with feasible alternatives than to describe the problems with the current system. But also, the new Baffler is still haunted by the ghost of the old one, with its generally dyspeptic attitude towards information technology as well as its more dubious prophets. This makes it harder to think through the relationship between innovation and change.
I’d be very disappointed to see the Baffler becoming techno-utopian, not that that’s at all likely. Still, I would like to see it publishing less articles that seem to dislike emerging technologies on principle, and more that try to figure out the precise circumstances under which they might help or hinder the process of moving towards a better society. For example: my dream Baffler would somehow magically persuade Richard Sennett to go to Foo Camp, and write a piece (likely partly critical, but also engaged) about the relationship between maker culture and his ideals of craftmanship. It would take on some of the hazier arguments about the joys of Government 2.0, but also talk to some of the very interesting things that e.g. the Sunlight Foundation is doing.
To put it a little differently again: the Baffler is right to keep pushing the case that technological rhetoric is no substitute for political and economic equality. But even if new technologies under actually-existing-capitalism are not (as some boosters would have it) inherently radicalizing and choice-enabling, they are not necessarily oppressive or choice-narrowing either. They can cut in either direction. It would have been nice to have had someone in the issue, who argued that technological innovation could be a lever for change in current society. Very likely they tried (putting together an issue of a low budget magazine depends a lot on who has the time and inclination to write for you). That Aaron Swartz is aboard suggests that they are aware of this skein of debate and want to engage with it.
Engagement is not agreement – there’s a lot to be said too for the culturally conservationist skepticism of e.g. George Scialabba (a debate between Geo and Aaron on these topics would be a lot of fun to watch). But this kind of engagement, which would differ a little from the Frank-era Baffler, might allow the magazine to keep what was really great about the old incarnation, while updating it for different times. The mission of the magazine, as Summers sets it out 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.
And hence, presumably, to spur argument. I’m happy and excited that the Baffler is back, and look forward to being much unsettled, occasionally irritated, frequently delighted and often spurred to argument by reading it. Again, I encourage readers to subscribe, or to Kickstart, or both, as takes their fancy. I’ve missed it while it’s been away – it’s good to have it back.