Decivilization and its discontents

The editors of literary magazine n+1 talk about the theme of their new issue, and why the world needs their work
By NINA MACLAUGHLIN  |  April 4, 2007

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That Mark Greif and Keith Gessen both grew up in Newton, were in the same class at Harvard, and didn’t meet until about four years after they’d graduated is unremarkable. Flukes like that - the stuff of dating-service testimonials - happen all the time. What’s remarkable is what Greif and Gessen did after they met.

“It was an auspicious moment,” Greif says of shaking hands with Gessen at a party in Boston in 2001. In a time of “pornography and publicity,” in a time thought to have a moribund literary culture or worse, Greif and Gessen, along with Marco Roth and fellow Harvard alums Benjamin Kunkel and Chad Harbach, did what lots of other ambitious wordsmiths out to change the world have done: they started a literary magazine. They called it n+1. For them, the name was “a metaphor for the possibility of progress, the infinitely open set.”

(Disclosure: my 20-year-old brother has been stuffing envelopes for the magazine since February.)

Since its debut in the fall of ’04, the magazine has been lauded and maligned - in the New York Times, the New Republic, the Utne Reader, and all over blogland (Gawker refers to it, snidely, as “The Most Important Literary Magazine Of Our Time”). People praise its ambition and intellectual heft, its respect for its readers, its “brio,” as Greif terms it. People criticize it for boys’ club snobbery, cocksure posturing, and an unremitting sense of brainy self-importance. What no one doubts: 1) n+1 has a point of view, and 2) the bi-annual magazine has made a splash.

A full-page ad ran in issue one: “Sign yourself up for the reinvigoration of civilization and, while you’re at it, n+1.” The bar was set. Civilization was at stake.

Issue five, just out and themed “Decivilizing Process,” emphasizes that a moment in civilization is defined as much by the most quotidian minutiae - our cell phones, our iPods, our teeth-whitening toothpaste - as it is by our grandest events and ideas - our wars, epidemics, and politics, our artists and writers and thinkers. The book opens with essays on e-mail, blogging (turns out when you refer to lit-bloggers as “the avant-garde of 21st century publicity,” they get angry, as Gessen can attest), and Internet porn. Those are followed by pieces on torture, the sale of atomic secrets, the choice between staying in school or joining the insurgency, the meaning of life. It’s n+1’s most conspicuously political issue to date. And the editors are taking the thing on tour. On Thursday, April 12, Gessen, Greif, and Roth will be in town to discuss this particular issue, and the magazine in general. The Phoenix recently spoke with Greif and Gessen. Below, is some of what they had to say.

On what the decivilizing process involves
Greif: Very banal things, in your daily life, can make big differences to the shape of civilization as we know it and live it, totally outside of a story of “rise” or “decline.” Hence the “decivilizing process” for us rather than the “uncivilizing process” . . . We live in a kind of paradise as the modern age imagined it, in which once you got rid of want, you’d have leisure time and quiet. They all believed we’d be strumming harps and talking about the best parts of government. But every moment in every regime winds up creating its own civilization, its own degree to which it regulates itself and decides on new taboos . . . We’re going in a totally different direction than what people thought.

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