Excerpt from “Finite Jest,” an essay about David Eggers from the June 19, 2000 issue of The American Prospect.
The early 1990s produced a bumper crop of small-circulation journals uniquely attuned to the cultural moment–that is, the three- or four-year window during which the newsweeklies and chat shows were exchanging one conventional wisdom about Eggers’s twenty-somethings, the slacker/Nirvana/grunge hypothesis, for another, the energetic/can-do/e-generation hypothesis. (For a good illustration, compare Time’s scolding 1990 cover story “Twenty-something” with one from 1997,”Great Xpectations.”) Three in particular stand out today: Eggers’s Might; Hermenaut, founded in Boston by Joshua Glenn in 1992; and the Chicago-based Baffler, which was founded in 1988 by two agnostic grad students named Thomas Frank and Keith White, but seemed to find its voice during the Gen-X craze of the early 1990s. “You wonder about the nature of twenty-somethings?” Frank and White raged in a 1992 essay, aiming at the Boomer media mandarins who were commissioning so much of the drivel. “Here’s your answer: we are twenty-nothing, forever lost to your suburban platitudes, lost to the simple blather of your TV, deaf to your non-politics.”
Each of the three has taken slightly different approach. The Baffler, as may already be obvious, tends to favor polemic (favorite targets: the “alternative” music industry, Fast Company, and Wired). Hermenaut operates as a sort of freelance department of philosophy, minus the jargon and tweed. Might, when it was still around, had a more satiric, prankster sensibility: One memorable article faked the death of child star Adam Rich as a take on celebrity memorial journalism. (There are also a few notable successors: Adbusters does advertising criticism almost as well as The Baffler, and Suck.com’s pseudonymous pamphleteers include many contributors to Hermenaut, Might, and The Baffler.)
But whatever the mode of attack, they all share a sense of the basic problem at hand. Commerce has thoroughly colonized culture; real dissent–cultural, political, artistic–is being replaced by, as Frank once wrote, “soaps that liberate us, soda pops that are emblems of individualism, and counterhegemonic hamburgers” (Or, as Frank & Co. put it in the more overtly political formulation of their 1997 collection, Commodify Your Dissent, “Contemporary capitalism has marshaled the forces of culture, whatever they are, to ensconce itself in power and to insulate itself from criticism to an almost entirely unprecedented extent.”) There is also a sense that consumer culture has achieved a certain apogee with their own generation–the first for whom television, thoroughly embedded in the cultural landscape, has become the chief source for just about every kind of information, art, and entertainment.
Significantly, both The Baffler and Hermenaut, founded by refugees from academe, aim specifically at resuscitating generalism. Academic-style criticism–with its hyperspecialization, obsession with theory, and love of relativism–is not only conspicuously absent from their pages, but conspicuously maligned. Their writers aim for accessibility and, within the confines of somewhat erratic publishing schedules, some kind of topicality. Like most people of a certain age, they tend to be intimate with the mundanery of American pop culture, comfortably situated in its mutterings even while criticizing it ferociously. There is plenty of irony to go around, of course, but it is the redemptive kind: a means, not an end, a pair of X-ray glasses, a way of filtering out distractions and homing in on what is real