The big question facing any publisher willing to launch a print magazine in the midst of the Great Recession—and the equally Great Print Media Die-Off—is obvious, but it still has to be asked. Why bother? Why risk mental and financial solvency to produce something that will likely end up on the back shelves of the few remaining independent bookstores or, worse, will simply go unread? Why jump into an industry sustained by glossy ads and benevolent coffee-table readers without any intent to target either? Finally—and for print media purists, this may be the gloomiest question of all—why not just hedge your bets and do the whole thing online?
The revival of The Baffler—as with any magazine that’s not only launching, but re-launching—naturally makes one wonder. The Baffler was founded in 1988 by Keith White and Thomas Frank, a writer now best known (not without irony) as The Wall Street Journal’s in-house liberal. The magazine’s first incarnation lasted slightly less than a decade, during which it established a project that was refreshingly, if ambitiously, straightforward: “To restore a sense of outrage and urgency to the literature of the Left and simultaneously to unmask the pretensions of the liberal lifestyles.” In short, to jolt readers out of their complacency with what the editors considered the casual deviance of corporate-driven culture.
Thankfully, unlike other magazines of its ilk, The Baffler never succumbed to arguing the minutiae of its own leftism and managed to sustain its focus on “business culture and the culture business,” themes it perceived as among the most significant of the post-Reagan era. To this end, early Baffler essays bore titles like “Burn Down the House of Commons in Your Brand New Shoes,” “The Gaudy and the Damned,” and Stephen Duncombe’s excellently named IBM exposé, “I’ve Seen the Future—and It’s a Sony!”
A basic belief underlying the original Baffler—and which remains at the heart of its resurrection—is that culture and politics are inextricably entwined. This isn’t a roundabout way to revisit the Culture Wars of the 1980s, but rather a call to arms over the fact that in the brave new Information Age, consumerism often passes for politics, and the business class rivals the government in terms of power. “The more closely American speech was brought under centralized corporate control,” the editors say of the 1990s, “the more strenuously did our advertising, TV sitcoms, and even our management literature insist on the virtue and widespread availability of revolution.” To make matters worse, the once-radical Left was nowhere to be found. While this editorial position ran the risk of sliding into dorm-room Marxism or Fuck-the-Man invectives (in which it sometimes indulged), the best Baffler essays examined one of the more alarming trends in the post-1960s era: the ways in which corporate interests disguised themselves as the cultural vanguard.
While The Baffler 2.0 has evolved, the intersection of business and culture remains central to its concerns. In the new issue, Astra Taylor’s “Serfing the Net” offers a biting critique of corporatism masquerading as revolution. After attending a summit about the future of online video, Taylor concludes that Internet pirates don’t represent the birth of a free-culture movement but serve as a Trojan Horse for arch-capitalism, a way for companies to hide behind the buzzword of “free” while laughing all the way to the bank. YouTube may not own the videos it hosts or produce any of its own material, Taylor notes, but the site did sell for $1.65 billion on the merit of other people’s work.
Naomi Klein picks up this thread with “No Logo at Ten”—a follow-up essay to the book that made her famous, and a grim reappraisal of the convergence of politics and advertising. Ten years after No Logo hit shelves, Klein says that the U.S. witnessed the crash and resurgence of the American brand, played out through the successes and failures of presidential marketing campaigns. Branding-as-culture reached a fevered pitch in 2008, when Barack Obama (whom Klein credits as being the first U.S. President “who is also a superbrand”) launched an ad campaign “big enough to be anything to anyone yet… intimate enough to inspire advocacy,” Klein says, quoting Ad Age. It took months, she adds, for people to catch on to the fact that imaginary-boyfriend Barack was not the same as the real person who had been elected to office.
In “Serfing” and “No Logo,” Klein and Taylor bring to mind the best of old-school Baffler essays—pieces that tap into the mechanics and fallout of corporate-driven culture with original insight. But since the magazine folded in 2007, the editors—along with the rest of us—have been dealt a whole new set of problems to think about. Wall Street has crashed and risen again with unnerving vigor, new brands of fringe populism have put down roots across the country, and the jury is still out on the man elected to salvage the country from its previous leadership. While the original Baffler was largely concerned with corporatism supplanting high culture in American society, during its hiatus the financial meltdown brought Wall Street’s Icarus-like ascent to a spectacular conclusion. Only two years after the magazine went under, the “New Gilded Age” referenced in the subtitle of its best of… collection, Commodify Your Dissent, seems hopelessly distant, even if the original intent was snarky.
There may no longer be room for essays about cushy first-time book deals or the leisure class of overeducated 20-somethings (who have since decamped to their parents’ basements) in today’s Baffler, but the magazine’s early interest in the culture of business now seems more prescient than ever. Indeed, the failures of Wall Street take up a full three essays in The Baffler 2.0, and chronicles of its aftermath are everywhere, from a piece about post-crash D.C. to a photo-essay of “feral houses” being reclaimed by nature. Some of these pieces target the pressure-cooker culture of Wall Street—which former Goldman Sachs-ian Yves Smith describes as “white-collar sweatshops with glamorous trappings”—but mostly, this is an attempt to sketch an intellectual history of the past decades, and connect the dots between early signs of trouble and what eventually went wrong.
And in 2010, the magazine definitely seems to have shed some of its adolescent rebellion. While The Baffler still retains some of the tics of its early years—smugness, a fondness for hyperbole—most of its worst habits have disappeared, and in light of its new context, the magazine seems to have returned to its editorial mission with a renewed focus. Most likely, this is due to circumstance: when so many people in the media-industrial complex are complaining about the death of the industry, there couldn’t be a better time to revive a magazine that has been crying wolf all along.
If print journalism was in a death spiral before the crash, then, as the story goes, 2008 both exacerbated the fall and intensified the need for it. For all the “content” now available to readers of both print and online media, it’s become increasingly difficult to sift through the muck and find smart, readable writing. As the editors say in their intro, journalism isn’t threatened by a lack of material, but by “a massive overproduction of content… We read, we comment, we blog voluminously. But what we can’t do on our own is the kind of literary work that requires reporters, editors, organizations.” This may be true, but it fails to acknowledge the reorientation that’s been taking place online over the past few years. The internet is still the Wild West of content and likely will stay that way—but there are many excellent sites that emerged during the chaos and which have upheld the best of these traditions in The Baffler’s absence.
Ultimately, the test facing any new publication in today’s hostile media environment is whether it can appeal to a wide audience while upholding a coherent editorial vision—in short, if it can create a space for conversation that extends beyond the readers who already agree with it. In this capacity, I’m betting on The Baffler. Despite what doomsayers argue, there’s still an audience, if a small one, for good cultural criticism, and I’ve never heard anybody complain about too much of it. Business-wise, it’s definitely not the best time to launch a magazine—but was there ever a good time? And in terms of content, there’s more material than ever, and few places willing to publish the kind of long-form essays needed to deeply explore the seismic shifts of our contemporary culture. Reviving a dead magazine takes a leap of faith, but hopefully the editors of The Baffler will stick the landing.
Welcome back, Baffler. Good luck.