When we launched this magazine back in 1988, our beef with the world was simple and singular. We objected to the deliberately obscure academic style that was then applauded as political engagement of the most advanced sort. We thought it would be fun to heave some dead cats into the sanctuary of high theory. The priestly class was not amused.
One battle led to another, and over the years we took on the culture industry’s clamoring for “alternative,” its adoration of middleness, its cult of youth. Through it all, what remained constant was a sense of the poverty of profit, the absurdity of the market, and the sheer, thundering cluelessness of mainstream cultural commentary.
It all came together for us in the late Nineties, with all the new varieties of libertarianism that arose to sing the coming of the millennial technogasm. The media were gulled as usual: The free-market New Jerusalem was at hand, they agreed; the information utopia had arrived.
We disagreed, of course. This was the beginning of a high-tech “dark age,” we insisted, not a renaissance. It was a political triumph for particular interests masquerading as an age of enlightenment. If anything, the great Nineties info-glut marked the termination of certain forms of economic reasoning, the replacement of traditional democratic forms with the populism of the focus group. Oh, for a day of reckoning, some historical earthquake in which all the misconceptions were corrected and all the charlatans exposed!
In retrospect, the catastrophes that have befallen our friends in the “mainstream media” seem to have been almost inevitable. The industry was contemptuous of doubters like us. Its solons were dedicated utterly to the superstitions of the market, convinced in the face of all that is obvious that the formula for success was to drain the last bit of personality out of their product.
Although it’s hard to remember nowadays, the chieftains of monopoly journalism had arrogance to burn. Their product was tepid, even banal, but their attitude was Olympian. No sooner had their “golden age” commenced in the Seventies than they were celebrating themselves as “The Powers That Be,” as chuffed with their influence and as enamored with the customs and rituals of authority as have been any bunch of professional courtiers since the dawn of time.
And now. In the space of a few short years, they have gone from lofty lordliness to whimpering irrelevance. The wipe-out has been awesome in its sweep, and it grows more devastating by the day. In the legendary newspaper town of Chicago, both surviving papers are in bankruptcy. Labor reporters are gone; book review sections are just about extinct; newsroom staffs are being decimated; investigative units are disappearing. Towns go from two papers to one paper to no paper, and it generates not even a ripple of surprise.
We take no joy in watching this danse macabre. Newspapers may have done their job poorly, but the answer is hardly to renounce the job itself. With their eclipse is coming a parallel collapse of public knowledge, a catastrophic shutdown of scrutiny whose costs we will never be able to calculate. Places such as New York and Washington, of course, will always be over-described territory, abundant plains where the dwindling tribe of the pundits can hunt their game in perpetuity. But in the lesser metropolises of the republic, the lights are already going out. Already the people of those places don’t know much more about those who rule them than their rulers choose to divulge. We fear that TV producer David Simon has it right when he warns, “The next 10 to 15 years will be halcyon days for local corruption. It’s going to be a great time to be a corrupt politician.”
And so 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.What has precipitated the great journalism die-off, ironically, is a massive overproduction of content. The abundance of information and connectivity we were promised in the early days of the World Wide Web has duly arrived, trailing its clouds of glory. But it is the consumer, not the producer, who sings hosanna. The voracious news reader—and there are more of us than ever—has countless newspapers at his disposal, proffering their contents for free. But it seems free is not a very good price for publishers.
It is doubly ironic that we are losing our faculties of inquiry at precisely the moment when public-minded scrutiny of our institutions is most needed. The economic collapse of 2008 was a direct consequence of scrutiny’s demise, in his case as a result of the great political project of regulatory rollback. with bankers and brokers and mortgage entrepreneurs freed from the intrusive gaze of the public. Financial journalists, too, played their appointed role in the disaster, transforming themselves over the years into cheerleaders for the market and fans of this or that hero CEO. The coming collapse of journalism will merely finish the job of deregulation that the market’s allies began.
And surely it can only be described as a bonus triple-irony hat-trick that what the nation is doing to fend off the coming reign of ignorance—i.e., nothing—is already being described in the happy, reassuring terms of the very order that has brought us to these straits: “The marketplace will sort this out,” says Chris Anderson of good old Wired magazine, an institution that will apparently stand forever beyond the sobering influences of shame or bankruptcy.
And as we stand before the market’s judgment seat awaiting that great sort-out—which will undoubtedly cause all surviving journalistic organisms to evolve ever closer to the libertarian views of the foundations that will fund them—we can’t help but ponder the perversity of it all.
The great, long-running contest between art and commerce is coming to an end, and commerce is preparing to declare unconditional victory. From experimental novelists right down to journalistic legmen, those who work with words are to become society’s interns. We will all work for free, the market is telling us, or we won’t work at all.
But those who provide the useful social function of crafting derivatives and corporate mergers—why, nothing is too good for them. They can even crash the global economy, and society will reach out a helping hand to get them on their feet again. Art is short, but Wall Street is forever.
And so the culture war finally comes home. Not only is our criticism debatable; the very existence of journals like this one is a standing affront, a condition of which society will soon be cured.
For us, of course, that means it’s the perfect time to re-launch The Baffler magazine. As the world careens one way we faithfully steer the other. Print is dead, they say; we double down in our commitment to the printed word. Brevity is the fashion; we bring you long-form cultural criticism with an emphasis on stylistic quality. We look out at this upside-down landscape and are convinced that what it requires is not silence but a strong dose of our particular brand of scoffing: Strong ideas, elegantly expressed. And so, once more into the breach.