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The First of the Year

The First of the Year

January 6, 2010

The First of the Month is a cultural and intellectual publication that is singularly lively, and no less strange. It started out in 1998, in tabloid format, as a “newspaper of the radical imagination” published in Harlem. First has been compared to Partisan Review, the legendary magazine of the New York Intellectuals that began during the Depression. But honestly, that's just lazy. Any time a bunch of smart people start a magazine, somebody ends up comparing to it to Partisan Review, especially if it is published in New York; but First took its name from a song by Bone-Thugs-n-Harmony, and while I’d like to picture Delmore Schwartz doing a little freestyle rapping over scotch at the White Horse Tavern, it’s a stretch.

Following what has become the contemporary routine, the paper gave birth to a Web site; this then replaced the print edition. An anthology culled from its first decade appeared last year as The First of the Year: 2008, published by Transaction. On first approach, the book looks like a memorial service for the whole project. And an impressive one: the roster of contributors included (to give a very abbreviated and almost random roll-call) Amiri Baraka, Greil Marcus, Lawrence Goodwyn, Grace Lee Boggs, Adolph Reed, Russell Jacoby, Armond White, Kurt Vonnegut, Kate Millet, Richard Hoggart, and Ellen Willis.

I meant to give the volume a plug when it appeared; so much for the good intention. But happily, my initial impression was totally wrong. While continuing to function online (and to have its world headquarters in Harlem, where editorial collective member and impressario Benj DeMott lives) First has reinvented itself as an annual anthology. First of the Year: 2009, has just been published, which seems worth noting here, in this first column of the year.

The viability of any small-scale, relatively unprofitable cultural initiative is a function of two forces. One is the good will of the people directly involved. The other is getting support from the public – or rather, creating one.

In this case, the process is made more difficult by the fact that First is sui generis. Which is putting it politely. My own response upon first encountering it about 10 years ago involved a little cartoon balloon forming over my forehead containing the letters “WTF?” It is not simply that it is hard to know what to expect next; sometimes it is hard to say what it was you just read. In First, political commentary, cultural analysis, and personal essays sit side-by-side. But at times, all three are going on at once, within the same piece. Kenneth Burke used to refer to such jostlings of the coordinate system as creating "perspective by incongruity." It signals a breakdown of familiar formats -- a scrambling of routine associations.This is stimulating, if perplexing. The confusion is not a bug but a feature.

One familiar description of the journal that I have come to distrust treats First as a bridge between popular culture and the ivory tower. An often-repeated blurb from some years ago calls it "the only leftist publication [one] could imagine being read at both Columbia University and Rikers.”

Good advertising, to be sure. But the better the ad, the more its presumptions need checking. The whole “building a bridge” trope implies that there is a distance to be spanned – a connection between enclaves to be made. (The ideas are over here, the masses over there.) But reading First involves getting oriented to a different geography. Some academics do write for it, but they do not have pride of place among the other contributors, who include poets and musicians and journalists, and people who might best just be called citizens. The implication is not that there is distance to be crossed, but that we're all on common ground, whether we know it, or like it, or not.

In the wake of 9/11, some writers for First (not all of them) rallied to the call for a war, and at least one endorsed George W. Bush during the 2004 campaign. Does that mean that First is actually “the only ‘neoconservative’ publication read in both academe and prisons”? Well, no, but funny you should ask, because it underscores the convenience made possible by pre-gummed ideological labels.

At times they are useful (I tend to think "social-imperialist" is a pretty good label for the idea that "shock and awe" was necessary for historical progress in Iraq) but not always.

The discussion of Obama in the new volume is a case in point. Both Paul Berman (a Clintonian liberal who supported the Iraq War) and Amiri Baraka (who takes his political bearings from Mao Tsetung Thought) concurring that the 2008 election was a transformative moment. This is, let's say, an unanticipated convergence. Meanwhile, Charles O’Brien (an editorial collective member who endorsed Bush in ‘04, on more or less populist grounds) treats Obama as a short-circuit in the creation of a vigorous radicalism-from-below needed for social change. “Of the Obama campaign, what endures?” he asks. “The new Pepsi ad.”

It would be wrong to see First as yet another wonk magazine with some cultural stuff in it. Nor is one of those journals (edited on the bridge, so to speak) in which the latest reality-TV show provides the excuse for yet another tour of Foucault’s panopticon. Politics and culture come together at odd angles in the pages of First, -- or rather, each spins out from some vital center that proves hard to pin down. Margin and mainstream are configured differently here.

I tried to get a handle on First's particularity by talking to Benj DeMott, who edited the two anthologies and is now working on the third. We spoke by phone. Taking notes did not seem like a plausible endeavor on my part, because DeMott's mind moves like greased lightning – the ideas and references coming out in arpeggios, rapid-fire and sometimes multitrack.

But one point he made did stick. It was a consideration on holding together a project in which the contributorsdo not share a party line, and indeed sometimes only just barely agree to disagree. It sounds complicated and precarious. Often, he said, it comes down to sharing a passion for music -- for sensing that both democracy and dancing ought to be in the streets. Politics isn't about policy, it's about movement.

That does not mean celebration is always the order of the day. The indulgence of academic hiphop fans is legendary, but if you want to see what tough-minded cultural analysis looks like, check out the African-American film critic Armond White's reflections on white rapper Eminem in The First of the Year: 2009. The essay can be recommended even if its subject is now shrinking in pop culture’s rearview mirror.

“Rather than a symbol of cultural resistance,” writes White, “he’s the most egregious symbol of our era’s selfish trends. With his bootstrap crap and references to rugged individualism reminiscent of the 80s, he’s a heartless Reagan-baby – but without the old man’s politesse.... His three albums of obstinate rants culminate in the egocentric track ‘Without Me,’ making him the Ayn Rand of rap – a pop hack who refuses to look beyond himself.... Minus righteousness, angry rap is dismissible. Rap is exciting when it voices desire for social redress; the urge toward public and personal justice is what made it progressive. Eminem’s resurrected Great White Hope disempowers hip hop’s cultural movement by debasing it.”

Now, if you can imagine such thoughts ever appearing in an essay by Irving Howe -- let alone Irving Kristol -- then we can go ahead and describe First as inheriting the legacy of the New York Intellectuals.

Otherwise, it may be time to recognize and respect First for what it is in its own right: a journal of demotic intelligence, alive to its own times, with insights and errors appropriate to those times, making it worth the price of perplexity.

Only after talking to Benj DeMott did I read what seems, with hindsight, like the essay that best explains what is going on with the whole project. This is long tribute -- far more analytical than sentimental -- to his father, the late Benjamin DeMott, who was a professor of English at Amherst College. He was a remarkable essayist and social critic.

It is time that someone publish a volume of DeMott senior's selected writings. Meanwhile, his influence on First seems pervasive. The younger DeMott quotes a letter written in his father’s final years -- a piece of advice given to a friend. It offers a challenge to what we might call "the will to sophistication," and its hard clarity is bracing:

"Study humiliation. You have nothing ahead of you but that. You survive not by trusting old friends. Or by hoping for love from a child. You survive by realizing you have nothing whatever the world wants, and that therefore the one course open to you is to start over. Recognize your knowledge and experience are valueless. Realize the only possible role for you on earth is that of a student and a learner. Never think that your opinions – unless founded on hard work in a field that is totally new to you – are of interest to anyone. Treat nobody, friend, co-worker, child, whomever, as someone who knows less than you about any subject whatever. You are an Inferior for life. Whatever is left of it....This is the best that life can offer. And it’s better than it sounds.”

This amounts, finally, to a formulation of a democratic ethos for intellectual life. It bends the stick, hard, against the familiar warp. So, in its own way, does First, and I hope the website and the series of anthologies will continue and prosper as new readers and writers join its public.

 

 

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