The Baffler, est. 1988, is a printed and digital magazine of art and criticism appearing three times annually—spring, summer, and fall. We’re headquartered in Cambridge, Massachusetts; edited by John Summers, Thomas Frank, and Chris Lehmann; designed by Patrick Flynn; distributed by MIT Press; and delivered to subscribers and bookstores in all fifty U.S. states.
We’re owned by the tax-deductible (hint, hint) Baffler Foundation Inc., which is as charitable as a church, and a whole lot more fun. This foundation means we rely on your donations and subscriptions rather than chasing advertising. It also means we can’t endorse candidates for electoral office or try to make millions in profit. But hey, why would we do those strange things anyway?
Meanwhile, you can read more about our publishing program, past and present, in this comprehensive pamphlet and in the short history below.
Your Lifestyle Sucks
The epigraph stamped on The Baffler no. 1, from Arthur Rimbaud’s “Morning of Drunkenness,” introduced it as a punk literary magazine. It was the summer of 1988. The founders, Thomas Frank and Keith White, were recent graduates of the University of Virginia. They named their magazine as a joke on academic fads like undecidability, then in fashion. The Baffler was born to laugh at the baffling jargon of the academics and the commercial avant-garde, to explode their paralyzing agonies of abstraction and interpretation.
This magazine would move in the opposite direction. It would strive for the lucidity of independent critical intelligence. It would “blunt the cutting edge” of the creative class gurus, financial journalists, entertainment moguls, cyber-entrepreneurs, and postmodern theorists who were said to be delivering the country from the pesky struggles and conflicts of the Cold War and singing a sweet and blissful lullaby they called the “end of history.” Where there was money to be made.
Pop culture was entering its high hipster phase, and no souvenir that crossed the magazine’s path was spared, not even those countercultural sellouts “Scooby Doo and Shaggy.” (Yes, The Baffler no. 3 explained this pair’s meanderings as an example of the commercial exploitation of deviant subcultures, a process stretching back to the Beats.) When the New York Times Style section unknowingly printed a phony glossary of “grunge speak” in 1992, having been fooled by a member of that particular subculture, it was The Baffler that first reported the prank: “When the Newspaper of Record goes searching for the Next Big Thing, and the Next Big Thing piddles on its leg, we think that’s funny.”
Other lifestyle brands drubbed in the early Bafflers include MTV, Madonna, Quentin Tarantino, Generation X, alternative music, Amway, Skyy Vodka, and Wired Magazine, for starters. Those were the days, alas, when the advertising industry and the hipster were supposed to be locked in a war for the soul of youth. This magazine said they made a happy synergy of like-minded suburbanites.
There was some prescient social analysis to go along with the laughter. The Baffler said bubbles in the housing and finance industries were forming from an extremist New Economy movement that was doomed to fail, though generally deemed too smart to do so. We sounded the death knell of the traditional music industry a decade or so before it occurred, anticipated the dustups over unpaid labor in Information Age media, analyzed the right-wing backlash before it spun out its unmissable perversities, and pioneered the cyber-skepticism that suddenly seems so urgent and necessary.
A printed magazine of such unconstructive thinking was itself a protest. A protest of what? The contraction of the cultural economy in journalism, higher education, and the arts, for one thing, and the torrent of euphemisms designed to hide it, for another. The Baffler broke down post-Cold War market triumphalism into absurd juxtapositions of class and culture. It showed what art and criticism could look and sound like outside the usual filters—the twee literati, the bloated universities, the velvet-gloved foundations, the viral strains of D.C. anti-thought, the meme hustlers. Think of an arts festival sponsored by a tobacco company, and you’ll get a whiff of the brand of fraudulence the magazine set out to ridicule and expose. Issue no. 4, “Twenty-nothing,” was “dedicated to the memory of our friends gone under to the brainwash of corporate jobs, the intense and enthusiastic gone salesmen or congressional staffers; those we slammed with now in the military, hopeless on the dole, struggling on for the long lost cause in small college towns, and otherwise DEAD.”
Commodify Your Dissent
The Baffler was a cultural success, and so the big money never touched it. The founders didn’t exactly cozy up to benefactors. “Our review will be neither the tool of a University ‘creative writing’ program nor the slick product of a great publishing house,” the first editorial statement declared in 1988. A third possibility—that its independence wouldn’t disqualify it from receiving a coupla threepennies from a billion-dollar philanthropic foundation or two—was fanciful. As the big money ascended into the new media cloudscape, The Baffler’s print operation refused to heed the investor-class’s siren song of obsolescence, and struggled successfully enough to disprove it.
The operation migrated from Charlottesville to Chicago with its second issue in the summer of 1990. Thomas Frank assumed the role of editor in chief and over the next two decades oversaw eighteen issues, plus two anthologies, Commodify Your Dissent: The Business of Culture in the New Gilded Age (1997) and Boob Jubilee: The Cultural Politics of the New Economy (2003).
A small crew of part-time volunteers edited, designed, and published the magazine—a quarterly that appeared only once in a while, according to one acerbic subscriber. When issues did appear in bookstores, they just as quickly disappeared. At the end of its first decade, the magazine seemed to many interested observers “as scarce as, well, a decent-paying job with reasonable hours and conditions and a future,” as the Toronto Star complained.
Midway through the Spring 2001 production of issue no. 14, “The God That Sucked,” the operation and most of its inventory went up in smoke. “Years of incendiary cultural criticism finally achieved ignition,” the editors gamely explained. “A pre-dawn fire swept through our office, awakening residents of Chicago’s South Side to the unmistakable smell of burning Bafflers.” Regular publication never resumed.
But the magazine never folded. Two more numbers issued from a rebuilt office three years after the fire. Three years later, in the summer of 2006, no. 17 showed up in subscribers’ mailboxes; three years after that, no. 18 arrived. Around Labor Day in 2010, the founding crew decided to turn over the keys to the operation neither to a university creative writing program nor to a great publishing house, but to a smaller, poorer, and less experienced crew in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Boom Crash Baffler
Lo and behold, The Baffler is now printing on its most regular and prolific schedule since it first stirred to life. Each new issue features our signature salvos in cheerfully independent cultural criticism, plus poems, stories, and illustrations agile and vivid enough to call adverse attention to the illusions propping up the leadership class. Last summer we even copublished a book, James Agee’s Cotton Tenants, a once-forgotten manuscript about long-forgotten farmers living through the country’s last Great Depression.
Yes, the time has finally come for the magazine that’s been filing advance memoranda on the American comedy for twenty-five years, observing the occult ways that business talks all of us into profitable stagnation and culture-free innovation. Our quest to unthink the brands of today finds us spoiled for choice—in no time at all, we’ve covered digital swindles like LinkedIn, Kickstarter, and Facebook-branded feminism to banality shops like The Atlantic and This American Life, hip cool cities like Berlin, and curious distillations of pretend meritocracy, like Harvard. Our recent satires and tearjerkers have gone into French, German, Greek, Italian, Mandarin, Polish, and Spanish, in order to annoy thought leaders in those languages too. Even in the upper reaches of U.S. media, the most censored in the de-developing world, these tales have been singled out for praise, as has the generally high quality of our discontent.
The financial crisis steadily erodes the market consensus that’s brought us a quarter century of wreck and folly. Yet the best that our most influential thought leaders can do is scratch after business as usual—concessions to the richest and sacrifices by the rest of us—to unlock the heavenly door of prosperity once again. Well, we were present at prosperity’s uncreative destruction. Now we want a new alternative—not a return, even in the best of the cases now put to us, to staffing factories; puffing trends in fashion; chasing social success via trampling, tricking, and elbowing; or consuming fake culture. No, thank you. We have seen that future, and it doesn’t work.
Opposed to all that and more, our writers and artists offer a camaraderie of truth, humor, and irony—an asylum from crackpot economics and carnival hokum. And since this is the part where you are begged to remember that all this mockery and analysis can go only so far without your support, please do, if you like what you see and hear, consider subscribing or donating. Join us as we ascend to that true and only heaven of critical acclaim and overwhelming influence!
—John Summers, editor in chief, The Baffler