An Interview with George Scialabba

Saul Steinberg, “Labyrinth,” The New Yorker, 1960

 In February, New Inquiry editors sat down with essayist and critic George Scialabba to talk with him about his most recent collection of essays, The Modern Predicament, his definition of modernity, and his new work as an editor at the rebooted Baffler. Scialabba is one of the finest essayists working today, and it was an honor for us to interview him. We strongly recommend that you read his archived work and pick up one of his books at his website.


The New Inquiry: What, in brief, is the modern predicament? Which authors, and what lived experience in history, most shaped your understanding of it?

George Scialabba: Modernity is the ensemble of changes – intellectual, political, economic, social, cultural, technological, aesthetic – that have altered the world drastically since roughly the 17th century, until which time the world was, in the above respects, far less different from the world of any previous epoch of recorded history than it is from the world of today. The modern predicament is the set of problems these changes have bequeathed us.

One problem is our loss of ontological, social, and psychological embeddedness. Formerly, the meaning and purposes of life were, to a far greater extent, simply given for most people by the religious, family, and societal structures in which they were born and grew up. Very few people, and even those people to a limited extent, were expected or encouraged to become individuals, free to make fundamental choices about love, religion, occupation, political allegiance, even location. Only a tiny elite could aspire to an individual identity and an individual history.

Nowadays everyone, or at least most people in the rich countries – I realize that this still leaves out most of humankind – can be an individual. But that turns out to be difficult. Over millions of years, we evolved characters and psyches that needed to be held in and held up by intense bonds, usually provided by strong families and local communities. For many reasons – economic development, geographical mobility, religious tolerance, the rise of nation-states, the emancipation of women – those bonds have weakened over the last few centuries. The resulting freedom obviously has enormous benefits for the previously unindividuated. But for many people it also has costs: isolation, loneliness, purposelessness, powerlessness, and hyperstimulation.

The modern predicament, then, is the difficulty of finding a sane, harmonious balance among all the vast and various consequences of science, technology, democracy, mass literacy, feminism, and the other forms of modern progress.

My own involvement with these questions began in college, when the devout Catholicism in which I was brought up – I was actually a member of the traditionalist religious order Opus Dei – met and was vanquished by the 18th- and 19th-century secular critique of religion. For some years after that I was not only a passionate anti-clericalist and philosophical materialist (as I still am), but also a fervent believer in progress as a fairly linear process, a smooth upward slope in which all that was necessary was to complete the long march through all the orthodoxies, religious, political, and sexual, which the Enlightenment had begun.

Then, in my thirties, I encountered the two most important (for me) critics of modernity, D.H. Lawrence and Christopher Lasch. Lawrence was a kind of Hebrew prophet, not of righteousness but of the body, and against what he perceived (at least in early-20th-century-England) as a disastrous over-valuing of the mental, the conceptual, the explicit – what used to be called, roughly from Kant to G.E. Moore, the Ideal. He was a pagan, reasserting the importance of all the wisdom that had been forgotten in the course of the (necessary) rejection of traditional religion and metaphysics. He was also the finest prose stylist I had ever encountered, so I was (and still am) blown away. His essays, collected in the two volumes of Phoenix: The Posthumous Papers are one of the great neglected resources of European culture. I try to say why in the essay “Shipwrecked” in The Modern Predicament.

Lawrence was a bit archaic and exotic; Christopher Lasch was as American as apple pie or Walt Whitman. With different materials and a completely different intellectual and verbal style from Lawrence, he made a subtly parallel argument about the forgotten wisdom of pre-modernity, in particular of the producerist, or yeoman, or civic republican tradition. I’ve written about him at length in both What Are Intellectuals Good For? and The Modern Predicament, but I’m still coming to terms with him.


TNI: What is Pressed Wafer? Why is your relationship to them special? And what’s special about this collection?

Scialabba: Pressed Wafer is a one-man publishing venture in Boston, the work of poet and critic William Corbett. What’s special about it is that it’s a labor of love and not of commerce, part of what Lewis Hyde in The Gift described as the “gift economy,” rather than the market economy. Bill knew and admired a great many writers – chiefly poets, art critics, and essayists – who weren’t getting published, or published well, and he put his energy and resources into serving them and their art. Pressed Wafer hasn’t changed the world, and won’t, but a lot of us are intensely grateful for it.

I don’t know what, if anything, is special about The Modern Predicament. Certainly it wouldn't have seemed special fifty or sixty years ago, when essay collections were a staple of literary publishing. But they don’t sell very well now, so commercial publishers have lost interest.

TNI: What future have book reviews as a format? Do they serve the same function as they did when you started reviewing?

The future looks a bit dim, doesn’t it, at least in print venues? I hope your generation can reverse that. Books matter less now, with flickering screens everywhere, and so, inevitably, book reviews do too. Life is faster, and the cultural surround is much denser with signals, a great many of which are commercially-motivated noise. Whether or not books and book reviews survive in their traditional physical form, it’s essential to slow down and deepen the pace of life, or the culture will continue verging toward aimless, endless chatter.

TNI: What has it been like having an extensive web archive, and has it changed your intellectual community, your network of correspondence, and so on?

GS: A little, yes. People will see something I’ve written, google me, and up comes the website, where they can read more, and then sometimes they’ll write me, which is very satisfying. (I should mention that the real treasure on the site is not anything I’ve written but the collection of my favorite quotes.) Of course, the real payoff will come when the New Yorker or the New Inquiry or some other big, glamorous venue does a profile of me, which will bring me and the site to the attention of millions.

TNI: In a recent issue of Dissent, you wrote, “No doubt most epochs seem like emergencies to their beleaguered contemporaries. But compared with the decades in which [Christopher] Lasch wrote, the ugliness of American politics in the early 21st century seems almost to justify a neglect of long-term perspectives and wide-ranging theories.” What should today’s politically-engaged intellectual culture look like? What still matters from the intellectual history of postwar USA, and what doesn’t?

GS: A lot matters, too much to note here. Nader, Chomsky, I.F. Stone, Seymour Hersh, Glenn Greenwald – the tradition of citizen-critics and investigative journalists is indispensable as a counterweight to what I called, in What Are Intellectuals Good For?, the “anti-public intellectuals” of the right, who have been leveraged by their moneyed patrons into prominence and influence. Critically-minded historians like Lasch, Walter Karp, Howard Zinn, and William Appleman Williams matter. Cultural critics like Irving Howe, Dwight Macdonald, Ellen Willis, and Thomas Frank matter.

Perhaps most of all, that flippant slogan from the 1960s matters: “Question Authority.” A generalized, baseline level of skepticism toward established authority – private as much as public authority – is a prerequisite of robust democracy. This isn’t reflexive right-wing libertarian skepticism, that doubts government can do anything right. Right-wing libertarianism – more accurately called “propertarianism” – is philosophically incoherent and comes down, whatever the intentions of its adherents, to a defense of privilege. Left-wing libertarianism is another name for popular sovereignty or self-determination. The New Left’s opposition to the Indochina War got a lot of ordinary people thinking skeptically about America’s role in the world as well as about the fundamental fairness of American society – a very promising development. Unfortunately, Reaganism becalmed this popular restiveness, and the grim, hard-faced operatives of the New Right who came to power under Reagan and Gingrich – what Thomas Frank calls “the wrecking crew” – were fierce in their determination to roll back the Sixties. They’ve mostly succeeded, though not altogether. You can fool most of the people most of the time, but only if the people don’t think much, or read much, or talk to one another much. The left’s job is to get them thinking, reading, and talking.

TNI: In your review of Bill McKibben’s book on genetic engineering, you write that “we may find an increasing disproportion between our power and our depth.” Does it seem to you that technology merely contributes to the distractions of the modern, or do you see ways in which new technologies—of communication, information, even science—are deepening intellectual thought and intellectual life?

GS: Technology clearly helps get better science done. Whether it helps get better art and criticism done, at least directly, is not at all clear. The best thing technology can do for art and culture has nothing to do with its being employed in making art and culture. Rather, it would be for technology to be used – as it certainly might be – to increase leisure and economic security very widely, which would immediately and enormously increase the time, the energy, and the audience available to creative people, not to mention allowing many more people to find and follow their creative impulses.

Needless to say, that’s not what technology is generally used for now. It’s used for weapons, for marketing, for surveillance, for mass entertainment, for food processing, for agribusiness, for cosmetics, for superfluous pharmaceuticals, for finance, for luxury goods – the list goes on and on. In a class society, dominated by the pursuit of profit, the waste of technical skill is as egregious as the waste of natural resources. As long as that fundamentally irrational system persists, it hardly matters whether a few ingenious people manage to find ways to put technology to good uses within its interstices.

TNI: What is the “philosophy of limits” and what do we have to learn from it? Where do liberals/radicals err in their disdain of conservativism? Conversely, where is there still too much piety among liberals? Any chance of concrete right-left alliances, or just fertile intellectual possibilities?

When the modern world was being born, the supposedly inescapable limitations of human nature was a conservative theme. Inherited traditional beliefs and forms of authority were held to be all that most people could understand or live by. To convince a wide public to reject these a priori limits and trust themselves morally and politically was the first, heroic task of Enlightenment intellectuals. Faith in progress was once a precondition of progress. It still is, to the extent that contemporary right-wing libertarianism insists that democratically controlled enterprises must always be less efficient than hierarchical ones like corporations.

But entwined with democratic self-confidence, there grew up a less reflective faith in unlimited material progress, based partly on a belief that human wants and needs would grow to match increases in productive capacity. This may have seemed plausible before the environmental limits to growth became obvious in the mid-twentieth century; but more important, it was also convenient for those who wished to deflect attention from the gradual and many-sided loss of autonomy that industrial mass production and bureaucratically organized medical/educational/psychotherapeutic expertise imposed on nearly everyone. As the state, the economy, and the institutions regulating everyday life all grew in scale, the only sphere of autonomy left to ordinary people was consumption. And so an entire ideology and technology of consumption arose, on the premise that happiness consisted primarily in consumption, which could apparently be increased without limit. And if that’s true, then our powerlessness doesn’t matter.

But it’s not true. Powerlessness and lack of autonomy do matter to our psychic health: they produce weak, immature selves and a culture of narcissism – the latter a psychoanalytic concept that has little to do with the popular notion of “narcissism” as mere self-absorption or self-importance. We can’t grow to psychic maturity through social relations on just any scale – they have to be on a scale that allows us at least a modest sense of mastery in work and community life and imposes personal, not purely impersonal, obligations. That scale may not be achievable in a mass society.

The people who understand this best at the moment seem to be conservatives of the “paleo” or religious variety, like those around The American Conservative, a very interesting (and quirky) magazine for which I’ve been writing occasionally in the past couple of years. But paleoconservatives often seem to think that the state is the primary agent of massification. Radicals know better (as Lasch did): the modern state is a creature of corporate capitalism, which can only be controlled through what Lasch called “completing the democratic revolution of the 18th century.”

I don’t have any clear idea (and neither did Lasch) how to combine modern technology, sexual equality, and democratic nationhood with a sense of limits, rootedness, and human scale. The most successful attempt I’ve seen to imagine such a society is Ernest Callenbach’s Ecotopia. But it’s only the beginning of a beginning.

About possible alliances: with the Tea Party and the paleoconservatives, yes. My experience with both is limited, but by and large, they seem to be groping and grieving honestly. The Republican Party, however, is wholly and irredeemably corrupt, demagogic, and malevolent. The Democratic Party, somewhat less so, though it’s still profoundly rotten. The left must formulate a strategy, and find the resources, either to conquer the Democratic Party from the ground up (as the New Right did with the Republican Party) or to construct an alternative party or a network of popular organizations, which can negotiate with the parties from a position of strength, as the Business Roundtable, Chamber of Commerce, and major industry associations do.

In this Dark Age of right-wing hegemony, I’m reluctant to hector liberals, but there is one liberal piety that urgently requires criticism: belief in American exceptionalism, especially regarding foreign policy. Reluctance to apply the same unsparing critical standards to American foreign policy that one would employ in judging any other country’s is sadly prevalent among liberals and even democratic socialists as well as neoconservatives. In particular, the notion that a main purpose of American foreign policy is or has ever been to foster democracy, human rights, and material welfare in the rest of the world is utter nonsense. Like virtually every other nation-state that has ever existed, the US has a ruling class. And as always, the main goals of domestic and foreign policy are dictated by the broadly-shared interests and beliefs of that class. In our case, those goals include maintaining a favorable international investment climate, access to resources and markets, and military-strategic advantage. As always, there are potential constraints on state policies: ie, the interests and beliefs of domestic and foreign populations, to the extent these have power to make their wishes felt. Ruling classes always seek to maximize legitimacy: ie, the consent of the ruled; which is why, as US policymakers have frequently observed off the record, a democratic façade is always preferable in client states. But democracy has its dangers, and the US has regularly been willing to sacrifice it – at home and abroad – in order to achieve more fundamental goals.

It’s not surprising that this view of American foreign policy is unmentionable in the house organs of the American ruling class: Foreign Affairs, the New York Times, the Washington Post. And neoliberal journals like the Atlantic and the New Republic are now virtually indistinguishable from neoconservative ones with respect to foreign policy. But it’s disappointing that more intellectually and morally serious journals like Dissent, The American Prospect, Democracy, and the New York Review can rarely bring themselves to characterize American foreign policy candidly.

Saul Steinberg, "Artists and War," 1969, The Saul Steinberg Foundation

TNI: Occupy...?

GS: I bless it and am grateful for it. But as they know perfectly well, it’s only a beginning. And occupations, like demonstrations, are an inherently limited tactic. It seems to me that any successful long-range strategy for fundamental democratic change, in America or anywhere, must be built around activities that take place in homes, workplaces, municipal buildings, public libraries, church halls, colleges, and similar places, outside of working hours, with child care provided. In other words, they have to be activities everybody can take part in, every week, for years on end, without bending their lives out of shape. Most people’s lives are already too insecure and overstressed for them to do much politically, which is how the ruling class likes it.

TNI: You write about the “transparent society” in your essay on Foucault. Can you talk about what that means, and how you might consider the term in light of modern transparency via social media / constant communication? What do some of the writers you review have to tell us about laying claim to our privacy, to solitude?

GS: “Transparency” is a word, like “freedom,” whose valence is entirely dependent on its context. The freedom to say what one thinks or marry whom one loves is good. The freedom to dump PCB’s in Lake Erie or create huge toxic swamps in Ecuador while drilling for oil or evade taxes by parking money in offshore tax havens is bad. Transparency in the deliberations of corporate boards and democratic policymakers is good; transparency in the doctor’s office or the bedroom is bad.

Can we make any general statements about freedom and transparency? Yes. In general, the more powerful a person or institution, the more his or its freedom should be circumscribed by laws and regulations. The less powerful, the less circumscribed. The more powerful a person or institution is, the more transparent – open to public inspection or oversight – its activities should be. The less powerful, the less transparent.

In a recent essay on the subject, Sarah Leonard quotes Julian Assange, making this point cogently: “Transparency should be proportional to the power that one has. The more power one has, the greater the dangers generated by that power, and the more need for transparency. Conversely, the weaker one is, the more danger there is in being transparent.” That nails it, I think.

As for data mining and other commercial uses of information, I’m wary of it, less for civil liberties reasons than for reasons of mental hygiene. Marketing is a plague. We need to restrict it stringently, both in order to lessen our overall level of consumption and also to turn the economy back to producing for basic needs.

To the question about social media and solitude, my short answer is that I think Sven Birkerts’s The Gutenberg Elegies is still the wisest diagnosis of the consequences of consumer electronics for culture. Inwardness, deep reading, imaginative immersion – these inevitably become less frequent experiences for those who live increasingly in front of screens. Electronic media change our psychic metabolism. I know that well-designed social-scientific studies haven’t yet established this to everyone’s satisfaction. But really, wouldn’t it be astonishing if they didn’t have that effect?

TNI: Tell us about your future plans—are you working on anything special? What has it been like editing the Baffler, and will that continue?

GS: I have an essay on progress coming out in Salmagundi this spring that I hope some of your readers and listeners will look for. (The magazine isn’t online, unfortunately, so they’ll have to journey into the print world.) I’ll be writing a review for New Inquiry of the final volume of Morris Berman’s splendid trilogy on America’s decline. And I have another essay collection, a little more explicitly political than The Modern Predicament, coming out next year.

Editing the Baffler has been exhausting, and all I’ve been doing is occasionally giving John Summers moral support. What it’s been like for him I truly can’t imagine. It’s lucky that he’s young, 6’3”, and a former athlete. Putting out even a well-funded print magazine is a lot of work, but doing it while raising the money from scratch is … well, as I said, I can barely imagine; I only know he’s been working 10 to 12 hours a day for most of a year. Yes, I’ll keep helping, and more important, Tom Frank and Chris Lehmann will keep helping. But it’s his baby.

As for what I’ve learned in the process: well, when you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail; and when you’re a left-wing sorehead, everything is an occasion to damn the rich. When I think of all the hoops John has had to jump through to get just enough money to revive the best journal of cultural criticism America has ever seen, and then reflect that several times as much money is squandered on a single ad page – or maybe two or three pages, I don’t really know – of Vanity Fair or the New Yorker … Or that he, with two young children, has been working for considerably less than the minimum wage, while there are young twits on Wall Street who’ve been out of college for three years and whine that their bonuses are less than a million dollars …

But it’s worth it, of course. The rich twit will never be more than a rich twit, while John will have the satisfaction of publishing some glorious prose, and maybe even nudging the world towards sanity. There’s really no contest, is there?