The Baffler Returns
Issue No. 19
The Baffler never had much luck. It was founded in 1988 by editors Thomas Frank and Keith White, two college students at the University of Virginia who were very much annoyed with the insipid greed and tech-obsessed optimism of the Reagan era. “The journal that blunts the cutting edge,” was how it described itself. The Baffler built a small but devoted fanbase, published award-winning essays, launched a few careers, and produced two fine anthologies. The problem was, you never knew when the next edition was going to come out. A second issue didn’t appear until 1990, and by 2010, after two decades of chronic money shortages (and an office fire), there were only eighteen.
Read almost any article today in a mainstream magazine about business, culture or politics, and you will find at its heart either the stultifyingly dull gimmickry of counter-intuitive ideas, or the timid voice of reasonable-sounding reform. One expects that, just like everyone else, you have a shelf full of Malcolm Gladwell and Thomas Friedman. The other supposes you’re like the rest of the mythical centrists, wishing the politicians in Washington would get along and pass a few laws so the country can get back to business of progress.
Option one or two, it doesn’t matter: they’re both boring. Insulting, too. They grope for your subscription money and they’re pitched to catch the ear of decision-makers. I suspect this is why The Baffler, despite all its troubles, has always come back from the dead. There are always people who want something else, and today there are few venues in print for the kind of long-form cultural criticism it practices – highbrow but not pompous, unapologetically radical, scornful of popular assumptions.
And so The Baffler returns once again. Last year, John Summers, the new editor-in-chief, a historian and former Harvard professor, purchased the magazine from Thomas Frank (who remains aboard as a founding editor) and secured a five-year contract from MIT Press. Three issues will published each year, and, as Summers told the Chronicle of Higher Education, “everyone gets paid.” “Not only are we in business, we’re in quite good business.”
Thankfully, not much else has changed. Thomas Frank, Barbara Ehrenreich and Chris Lehmann are still here, with the space to go on at length about the cozy brotherhood of blundering pundits, the social relevance of Ernest Poole’s writing, and the goofy spiritualism of the animal tourism industry. The Baffler‘s archives are slowly being repopulated online, but among the handful of articles you’ll find is Keith White’s 1995 evisceration of Wired Magazine‘s faux-hip conformism. (I also commend to you, among others, Steve Albini’s classic on the music industry.) The Baffler always devoted a fair amount of space to criticizing culture’s self-appointed mediators, and this tradition continues in Maureen Tkacik’s lampoon of the deteriorating Atlantic Monthly.
The variety – essays, book reviews, short stories, poetry, art – is still here, too. All of which confirms my first impression, which came to me soon after I opened to the table of contents. I scanned and was immediately drawn to an article called “Future Schlock: Creating the crap of tomorrow at the MIT Media Lab.” It’s author, Will Boisvert, gleefully accuses his own publication’s sponsor of creating things that “are neither dazzling nor scary, but underwhelming and a bit tacky.” So good, I thought: The Baffler can still be trusted.