The Baffler: Classic or Dud?

Message Bookmarked
Bookmark Removed
Provocative cultural criticism fighting the good fight against the corporatization of everything, or rehashed senior theses with extra snidey bits, starring a nihilist in lefty clothing who couldn't possibly write essays that aren't either inchoate messes or insanely repetitious?

Michael Daddino, Thursday, 10 January 2002 01:00 (twenty years ago) link

Let the shaming begin.

Who you shame -- me or Tom Frank -- is entirely up to you. I can't make all your goddamn decisions for you, you know.

Michael Daddino, Thursday, 10 January 2002 01:00 (twenty years ago) link

I don't you should anticipate a wave of responses on this one. I've never read The Baffler, but I have read The Conquest Of Cool, which was interesting, although it overstretched the argument in places, and One Market Under God, which I thought was a thoroughly excellent analysis of the '90s boom, at its strongest when just quoting some of the more insane things that were being said ("the Dow should be at 30,000!"). So yeah, Tom Frank: he's OK by me.

Mark Morris, Thursday, 10 January 2002 01:00 (twenty years ago) link

Didn't we already do this? "Rehashed senior theses" is pretty much otm, if I were 10 (or 15) years younger, I'd think it was really original and cutting-edge.

Sean, Thursday, 10 January 2002 01:00 (twenty years ago) link

All of the economic stuff is okay, and with its 'indie' and hip associations, it's probably a good thing for those kinds of people to read about it. There's been some good literature in there, too. I have big problems with their takes on culture - I remember one essay in particular that started out good, i.e., "Monet sucks", but deteriorated into championing the WPA as just about the only art 'pure' enough for them. Their attitude toward culture (in essay form, not the actual literature and art in the journal) has been more than a bit puritanical and unforgiving - sort of hypocritical with all of those ads for 'indiepop' in their pages. I believe that attitude was nicely skewered in Puncture (R.I.P.) a few years ago.

Kerry, Thursday, 10 January 2002 01:00 (twenty years ago) link

Here you go.

Kerry, Thursday, 10 January 2002 01:00 (twenty years ago) link

Great link, Kerry - thanks.

Tom, Thursday, 10 January 2002 01:00 (twenty years ago) link

happy new year kerry

mark s, Thursday, 10 January 2002 01:00 (twenty years ago) link

Can I take issue with the idea that Steve Albini's celebrated "The Problem With Music" is any cop? IIRC, about half of it is the rant everyone raves about, then comes his typically trainspotter musings about audio, and then comes that tally (tallying what, I forget).

Son of a godamned gun...I swear I've traded e-mails with David Glenn.

Michael Daddino, Thursday, 10 January 2002 01:00 (twenty years ago) link

courtney love's cover versh was much bettah obv

mark s, Thursday, 10 January 2002 01:00 (twenty years ago) link

For me, anyway, picking on the Baffler would be the worst form of the whole "indie kid self-loathing" issue we've discussed before, this weird tyranny-of-small-differences niggling over details thing to draw clear distinctions between yourself and the guy standing two feet away from you because you disagree about one small thing. I like the Baffler. In a fair relative comparison to just about anything else out there, I'd put the Baffler on top. If we lived in a world where every magazine was like the Baffler, I'd be a happy man - - and then I could start picking on the nuanced differences between Baffler-Like Magazine A and Baffler-Like Magazine B.

No matter what grievances I could list about it, it's a good thing to have around, and I hope they're making progress in their post-fire rebuilding. I watched the tail end of that fire smoldering down, from my desk at work, and I've got to admit that I felt stirred and protective -- which is why I'm damned hesitant to find little reasons to tear down something I think is, on balance, an interesting little publication.

Nitsuh, Thursday, 10 January 2002 01:00 (twenty years ago) link

I've not read it Nitsuh, and two of the people whose taste I most respect take pretty much opposite views on it, so I'm remaining completely open - but the points Mike and Kerry have raised - inability to offer an alternative, and getting the cultural end of criticism wrong - don't strike me as "little", if true. It is possible to say "oppositional magazines are a good thing in principle" and still to find fault with a given example, surely.

Tom, Thursday, 10 January 2002 01:00 (twenty years ago) link

A good point, but somehow beside the point of the magazine, as I see it. It doesn't offer alternatives because it's not a policy rag: it is a few-times-a-year snarky-bitchy-skewing rag, and for them to actually assert a whole lot would sort of ruin that, I think. In closer-to-home terms, it's Indieshite or Buddyhead, not Pitchfork or Freakytrigger.

Besides which that's the general editorial tone, but the bulk of the essays themselves are informational more than polemical. I recall the last two issues containing just-plain-interesting reading like an essay on how the Shmoos related to Al Capp's conservatism, an history of red- and race-baiting in Milwaukee mayoral races, and a discussion of the marketing plan for a failed new cola brand -- all written not as bald-faced opposition, but as straightforward magazine- style journalism-and-criticism. I think what I mean to say is that this is one of those situations where what we think of the Baffler as being may well cloud our vision of what the Baffler actually is.

Nitsuh, Thursday, 10 January 2002 01:00 (twenty years ago) link

Oh hell, I have a problem with damn near all 'oppositional magazines', but I'm glad they exist and I read as many of them as I can. That includes the Baffler, which I actually like quite a bit - I just don't like a lot of the writing on the 'culture industry'. I didn't see as much of that in the last issue, though - I think the "they're co- opting our culture" line is more of a mid-90s thing. Hermenaut does that thing much more sexily.

Kerry, Thursday, 10 January 2002 01:00 (twenty years ago) link

(Part of the success, I think, is that the Baffler is fairly confident in what its readers believe, and doesn't spend much time bashing them over the head re-justifying it and arguing it out yet another time. Much of the content is just entertaining cultural criticism that's already coming from that Bafflerite perspective.)

Nitsuh, Thursday, 10 January 2002 01:00 (twenty years ago) link

They used to publish Dave Berman's poetry so they were OK with me.

Mark, Thursday, 10 January 2002 01:00 (twenty years ago) link

The answer to my own question is: yes.

Shockingly enough, I agree with Nitsuh on a key point, though perhaps not in a way he'd expect: while the Baffler's rep for snarkiness is what makes it fascinating to many, it also works against the journal's rep in what I think are pretty damaging ways. Being something like a "snarky-bitchy-skewing rag" might be all well and good for Indieshite (Buddyhead is something I've never looked at in my life), that strikes me as a much more problematic goal for a journal created by people who understandably want to build reputations as to being shrewd commentators on the American way of life and death. When Tom Frank has to shuttle between the hysterically overstated and the more reasonable, I think it's a reasonable question to ask which is the "real" Frank. Along with his refusal to entertain solutions, that's why a few lefties I know find him hard to take seriously -- they know what he's against, but wonder if he stands for anything at all other than his own rage. Maybe Frank should publish his more screedy stuff under an assumed name or something, though I suppose it's too late now.

The mainstream reception of The Conquest of Cool is another example. Initially I was dumbfounded at the near-universal misreading of it as a rant about the selling-out of the sixties rather than an argument about how the ethos of sixties-style rebellion and the ethos of the advertising industry (and by extension, contemporary capitalism) were never at odds with each other in any meaningful sense. (Ron Rosenbaum in the New York Observer actually gave Tom Frank enthusiastic kudos based on this misreading in a weird-ass essay comparing him to...Tom Petty. I shit you not.) In retrospect, I suppose people thought Frank was just going to apply what he so famously said about "alternative" to the sixties, but no, this time he was a lot more subtle and it just went over a lot of people's heads.

His writings on cultural matters, especially rock, I've found mammothly irritating even when he's really onto something, but it's true that both the Baffler and Frank have moved away from Culture Trust-scapegoating, but I suspect rather uncharitably that might be due in part to the indieland bitchslap Frank recieved for that misguided essay on Chris Holmes and Yum-Yum he did in Harper's. (Incidentally, is it my imagination or did they dispose of the record review section a while back?). I do more or less applaud Frank's stricter focus on dissecting the ways contemporary capitalism tries to explain itself to itself, though.

Tom Frank would make an excellent talk-radio host. Surely it's about time for some mass-media exposure for the guy, considering that his earlier writings prefigured such chic late-nineties ideas as bourgeois bohemianism and The New Sincerity. Plus, his lefty blowhard swagger would act as a highly entertaining counterweight to all the right-wing blowhard swagger that presents itself in spades in radioland.

It's also true that the Baffler is generally more informational than polemical, though that's precisely what I think gives its essays that rehashed-senior-thesis flavor.

I have a very masochistic relationship with oppositional magazines: I'm at home there, but they always disappoint. They always rub me the wrong way, in the wrong way.

Michael Daddino, Thursday, 10 January 2002 01:00 (twenty years ago) link

absolute classic, i have to say, especially in my personal pantheon; i can safely say that the baffler has been one of my hugest influences in both the way i write and the way i approach culture. its constant critiques of the culture of business and the way said culture's language and attitudes have filtered through to the mainstream exposes many machinations behind many curtains that are frequently thought of as 'just there.'

while i do agree with the points above about it being too 'snarky' at times (i think it reins in the sneering a lot better than most publications from that time period, although TO THIS DAY i wonder what the edit board's exact problem with the band paw was) and tom frank's, uh, lacking in pop criticism (that yum-yum article in harper's a couple of years made many of my chicago friends want to throw things) i also think it reined its weaknesses in a lot better than 98% of the other publications spawned in that day.

and the overly informational angle that a lot of its articles have are crucial inasmuch as they apply a historical context to what's often trumpeted as an age like no other - perhaps my high school education was lacking but i really didn't know what the 'gilded age' was until i picked up my first issue of the baffler back in 1994. sure, the magazine's poking of balloons was relentless, but back in the days when every publication was constantly trumpeting the greatness of the economy and the long boom and dow 30,000, it seemed like a lone voice of sanity.

tom frank's essay on the privatization of social security in this month's harpers is a pretty precise attack. i was actually wondering this morning if he could succeed lewis lapham.

maura, Friday, 11 January 2002 01:00 (twenty years ago) link

eight years pass...

it's back!

goole, Saturday, 30 January 2010 00:45 (twelve years ago) link

i'll be damned

goole, Saturday, 30 January 2010 00:45 (twelve years ago) link

Tom Frank would make an excellent talk-radio host. Surely it's about time for some mass-media exposure for the guy,

Frank is a regular on the Agony Column podcast and in the Wall Street Journal.

Glad to see it back too!

Elvis Telecom, Saturday, 30 January 2010 00:58 (twelve years ago) link


sarahel, Saturday, 30 January 2010 01:57 (twelve years ago) link

two years pass...

I'm selling off a complete run of #5 through #15 if anyone is interested in buying:

Stockhausen's Ekranoplan Quartet (Elvis Telecom), Monday, 20 February 2012 05:04 (ten years ago) link

two years pass...

just reread this. how depressing. by which i mean, it is a great article, but no matter how cynical it felt at the time, it feels naive now, in that it held out some sort of place of cultural resistance at all.

i think i must have pretty much abandoned this standpoint around the time of FT first kicking off anyway. by then it was already clear that sentiment like "rock and roll is the health of the state" was a cruel joke.

everybody loves lana del raymond (s.clover), Monday, 11 August 2014 21:31 (seven years ago) link

seven years pass...

been pretty impressed with them over the last year. had no idea they've been going this long.

Nedlene Grendel as Basenji Holmo (map), Wednesday, 15 December 2021 17:45 (five months ago) link

The current incarnation is very good, though I sometimes struggle to read everything, it gets pretty bleak

rob, Wednesday, 15 December 2021 17:54 (five months ago) link

yeah, i can only do an article every month or so tbr

Nedlene Grendel as Basenji Holmo (map), Wednesday, 15 December 2021 17:55 (five months ago) link

The article about water in Arizona was really good/infuriating

rob, Wednesday, 15 December 2021 17:58 (five months ago) link

rob, Wednesday, 15 December 2021 17:59 (five months ago) link

four months pass...

this guy is 32 years old, was in his early twenties when all this went down.

the cat needs to start paying for its own cbd (map), Friday, 13 May 2022 22:04 (one week ago) link

Great story. May have convinced me to renew my sub. I spent the Feb/Mar of 2000 visiting a peace corp volunteer in Cameroon about 15km from Chad border (visited two towns mentioned in article). Being around residents who were, by tradition Animists, caused me to really bum out about the competing Islam / Catholicism / Evangelical Protestant missionaries vying for converts. Life for most was on the knifes edge & that was an eye opener for me.

BlackIronPrison, Friday, 13 May 2022 23:25 (one week ago) link

interesting, thanks for sharing.

the cat needs to start paying for its own cbd (map), Sunday, 15 May 2022 00:06 (one week ago) link

i didn't quite parse what was going on at the end of the story, with the extortion from the family, etc.

i was liking the general thrust of the give-poor-people-cars article about mayo pete but i'm tired of reading about american politics assholes or american politics in general. it looks like that's a lot of the articles lately?

i wouldn't mind subscribing when i'm a little less tight.

the cat needs to start paying for its own cbd (map), Sunday, 15 May 2022 00:15 (one week ago) link

You must be logged in to post. Please either login here, or if you are not registered, you may register here.