“A Life in Theory: A Review of Mark Greif’s Against Everything”

In 2004, a group of friends founded the literary magazine n + 1. They wanted to publish a brand of criticism that they believed didn’t exist. In its twelve years of existence, the journal has become a powerful force. It can perhaps be most closely compared to McSweeney’s as one of the literary publications that changed the cultural landscape. One of its founders, Chad Harbach, went on to publish a campus baseball novel, The Arts of Fielding—a home run hitting critical darling. Another one of its founders, Mark Greif, has spent his time with n + 1 adjusting and readjusting his critical lens in wide-ranging essays. Now, a body of his work has been collected into a collection with a formidable, enticing title, Against Everything.

Greif’s essay walk the line between academia and commercial publishing, an arduous task to perform with any significant degree of success. If they aren’t quite academic, but not so easily digestible to be considered mainstream, who do they appeal to in theory?

Perhaps someone with a background in academic study with an interest in popular culture at large. Greif received his BA in History and Literature from Harvard, followed that up with a stint at Oxford, before rounding out his studies with a PhD from Yale. Reading Greif’s work, it becomes readily apparent that he has a lot going on inside his constantly turning mind. Even more so, it’s clear that Greif sees the world through a scope that often times is out of reach for those who don’t take the time to observe each angle of a phenomenon with care.

Despite the title, Greif isn’t really a contrarian in the traditional sense. There may be echoes of Christopher Hitchens across this varied collection, but often, Greif stops short of hammering his point into the point of no return—he remains somewhat of a theorist in many of his insights. And his theories are constantly tested against new hypotheses and outlooks.

Nevertheless, Greif does take on commonplace topics such as exercise and the consumption of food, offering takes on the former such as:

“The less respectable but even more powerful justification for day-to-day exercise is thinness. It involves the disciplining of a depraved will, rather than t he righteous responsibility to maintain the heath of the body-machine and its fund of capital.”

On the latter, he talks modernized society in first world countries:

“The reason to eat food is no longer mainly hunger. There is now no point in your day when if you were to go without a meal you would fall into physical jeopardy.”

He meditates on the philosophy of pop music, the makings of punk, and his efforts to learn and understand rap music. He discusses the market for children with the infamous case of Octomom. Greif gives reasons for the rise of Youtube and amateur content by relating it to society’s fascination with online pornography, specifically amateur pornography.

On the concept of war, Greif describes a sort of postmodern warfare, which is startlingly similar to the kind of warfare that we have seen across the world since 9/11. A long and thorough dissection of the meaning of a hipster follows closely after a look at reality television.

But the essays that bring the collection into a whole are his four pieces sandwiched throughout, each subtitled “The Meaning of Life.” These are his most luminous pieces. In “The Concept of Experience,” Greif writes,

“I mistrust any authority that is happy with this world as it is. I understand delight, and being moved by the things of this world. I understand felling strong in oneself because of one’s capabilities. I know what main is, the lust for powers not of the ordinary run. I sympathize with gratitude for the presence of other people, and for the plenty and splendor. But I cannot understand the failure to be disappointed with our experience of our collective world, in their difference from our imaginations and desires, which are so strong. I cannot understand the failure to wish that this world was fundamentally more than it is.”

Greif’s prose is a series of puzzles, contradictions and back and forth that eventually comes full circle when he gets to the point. And when he arrives, it’s clear that his thought process was meticulous.

But there is one essay in here, a piece entitled, “Seeing Through Police” that reveals some of his logic comes from a place too far ingrained in academic hierarchy. His theories on food and exercise and music are interesting because they attempt to examine what we feel within. However, when he moves his focus onto police, his theories are just that—their practicality is unpalatable.

He writes, “Part of the reason police seem at present unreformable is that they have no intelligible place in the philosophy of democracy.” After making this claim, he goes on to ponder what “desirable” role police could play in democracy. But he ends up chalking the state of modern police to corrupt government. He goes as far to say that police can only be loved on a personal level, or only for a moment. It’s not so much that Greif comes off as anti-police, but that he appears to not care for reform in actuality (everyone can agree that reform is needed). He simply thinks police do not fit in a working democracy. And for all of Greif’s radiant commentary on culture at large, this essay, which happens to be the second to last, gives the reader the sense that Greif is detached from what is plausible in practice, as he resorts to living in a world of cultural theorization.

Still, Against Everything is a strong collection of essays, specifically the four on what it means to be alive in this world.

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Steven Petite

About Steven Petite

Steven Petite received his Bachelor of Arts in Creative Writing from Cleveland State University and is currently pursuing a Masters in Publishing Studies at Southeastern Louisiana University. His journalism has appeared in Playboy, Huffington Post, Crixeo, Ranker, New York Game Critics Circle, and others. His fiction has appeared in Cigale Literary Magazine. He can be reached at stevenpetite@gmail.com.