Against Everything: The Epistemology of the Essay

Reviewed: Against Everything by Mark Greif, Pantheon Books, 2016.

Mark Greif’s essays in Against Everything are frequently unsettling.  But unsettling can be either good or bad.  It can mean the upending of our assumptions, a break from established patterns.  Or, it might signal a needling worry that something is amiss — more specifically, that something is missing.  Reading Against Everything, I repeatedly had the unnerving experience of recognizing an absence — not just a vague suspicion, but a precise knowledge of what was left unsaid.

For instance, Greif supplies us with a smart, sophisticated, and refreshingly non-moralistic discussion of something that, for lack of a better term, might be called the ontology of reality television:  What is televised, and in what sense is it reality?  But his answer somehow fails to consider the ways that producers lead and manipulate the cast, the distorting effects of editing, and the collapsing of time into manageable “episodes.”  Likewise, a personal reflection on his experience coming to belatedly appreciate hip hop begins by posing the admirably self-reflective question of why as a teenager he gravitated to punk rather than rap.  He offers some valuable insights into the roles of race and racism in American culture, the connection between the entertainment industry and the drug economy (and the role of violence in each), and the history of hip hop as it has developed since the late seventies.  What he does not discuss are the numerous ways that punk and rap music, and their related subcultures, have always been tangled up with each other.  There is a lot there not to mention: Grandmaster Flash opening for the Clash in New York, then the Clash’s use of rap techniques in “The Magnificent Seven,” followed by their profound influence of Public Enemy, Chuck D’s collaboration with Sonic Youth, and later, Fatboy Slim sampling “The Guns of Brixton”; Jello Biafra performing on an Ice-T album, and the two of them appearing together on Oprah to debate Tipper Gore; the Beastie Boys crossing over and crossing back so frequently it is sometimes hard to tell which direction they are moving.  Really, from a certain point of view, the question is not why fans choose one genre and not the other, but how there came to be a meaningful distinction.

It would be wrong to conclude from these remarks that I know more than Greif.  I do not; and I especially do not in these two cases.  I have hardly even seen reality television — I remember watching part of the first season of The Real World, and I have a vague memory of seeing America’s Next Top Model in a waiting room somewhere — but I have read some of what participants on such shows have to say about them afterward, and what I read was not nice.  Likewise, while I know a certain amount about punk rock, my knowledge of and appreciation for hip hop is almost entirely limited to the places where the two genres overlap.  Greif clearly knows more than I do about either of these chosen subjects, and he has certainly thought about them both more deeply and at greater length.  (For that matter, his essay “Punk: The Right Kind of Pain” suggests that he has thought more deeply about punk as well.)  But that is precisely why the gaps in his knowledge are disconcerting.  For the essays in question give every appearance of, not expertise exactly, but a robust and studied competence.  And the feeling that I, as an utter novice, might know something or have noticed some aspect that the author seems to have missed — and not some trivial detail, but a concern central to the argument he is formulating — seems to undercut that sense of authority.

I was relieved, then, but only more perplexed, near the end of the book, to read a pair of essays on subjects that I do know quite a lot about — the police and the ethics of warfare — and find them both to be extremely solid.  Greif’s observations about the police begin with what is observable: the visible and tactile aspects of police work.  He analyzes the police role in society based on what they do, rather than (as is more typical) interpreting their actions according to assumptions about their role (e.g., fighting crime).  Likewise, in thinking about the ways modern warfare both evokes and erodes heroic ideals he examines the details of specific conflicts in order to raise much more general questions about courage and loyalty and sacrifice and restraint.   With only a single lapse (which I will address shortly), I found both pieces to be well-informed, thoughtful, original takes on their subjects.

All of which makes me wonder about the gaps in his other arguments, about the sudden intrusion of naked ignorance into the crowd of well-made points and carefully sifted facts.  How does this happen? I wondered.  And how should it affect our reading?

Given the range of subjects Greif addresses in Against Everything, it may be that, like me, he knows a lot about some things, and less about others.  Perhaps it is just bad luck that I happen to have encountered, in at least a couple of cases, precisely the information that he has overlooked.  That poses the question, though, of what else he doesn’t know.  Or it may be that he does know these things, but for some reason he decided to leave them out.  That is no more reassuring, and may even be worse depending on his reasons.  Either way, the question arises as to how much else has been omitted.

This problem may be inherent to the essay form.  The persuasive force of an essay depends as much on the author’s voice as on his argument.  He speaks to us confidently, or treats us as confidantes, and we trust that he is not conning us.

But how do we know if that trust is deserved?  It is hard to say, since an essay, unlike an academic paper or a newspaper article, will often obscure its sources.  They may be mentioned in passing, almost casually, but the tendency is to present facts and ideas as though they are an organic element of the author’s experience, the product of observation and reflection rather than research, a report of what one finds in the world, not what one finds in the library.  (Greif, for instance, makes a single parenthetical mention of Oscar Wilde — but, having studied Wilde, I had detected his influence very early in the book.)  With no footnotes to check and few named sources, to some degree one must fall back on one’s own knowledge:  Do the facts that the author cites square with the world as I know it?  Of course the weakness of this practice is that the reader may also be mistaken.  We are on somewhat surer footing — though still far from infallibility — in judging on purely rational questions.  Do the arguments make sense? Do the conclusions follow from the premises?

But in an essay, precariously, a lot of the persuasive or provocative force will come down to our assessment of the author himself.  Does he seem reasonable and well-informed?  Does he seem serious?  Or alternately — does he come across as a fanatic, a crackpot, or an asshole?  This puts us firmly in the field of literature, with the question of reliable and unreliable narrators.  Our assessment will be shaped, often uncertainly, by an assortment of clues, hints, slips, details which may or may not be significant.  But there is this added feature:  in fiction, the author may employ an unreliable narrator for some deliberate purpose; in an essay, outside of satire, the author is the narrator.  Or rather, the narrator is a version of the author, and typically the version which, by the author’s own lights, will seem most sympathetic and persuasive.  Small slips may reveal, or at least suggest, that not everything a narrator tells us is true.  These sorts of mistake are placed in fiction deliberately to create a certain kind of character and to tell a certain kind of story.  They appear inadvertently in nonfiction, and what they reveal is something that the author would rather hide.  An essay’s credibility depends importantly upon the author’s, and the author’s credibility may be endangered by any mis-step.

Naturally the implied standard is unrealistic.  Obviously it is unfair.  Essayists are only human, after all, and human beings inevitably make mistakes.  They overlook important facts, they overstate their claims.  I am probably doing it right now, even as I write this.  What is an acceptable margin of error?  What is a tolerable level of ignorance?  Does it depend on the subject, or the audience?  And should it?  Does the fact that we expect less of authors writing about celebrity gossip or those publishing articles in Hustler actually let them off the hook?  Are our standards so flexible?

Mark Greif writes for — in fact, edits; indeed, foundedN+1, a well-respected literary journal; and he writes about the Grateful Dead, the Kardashians, and Octomom.  He does not only write about those things, but he does it seriously and well.  Judging by these essays, Greif’s intellectual virtues are numerous.  He is intelligent, reflective, curious, questioning, humble, decent, and sane.  His major flaw — and this, again, may say more about the form than about the man — is that he assumes, on the whole, that his perspective is in some ways universal, or at least generalizable.  In other words, he assumes that we are like him.

Within certain limits it is probably safe to think that the readers of N+1 will have a great deal in common with an editor at N+1 — similar concerns, similar outlook, similar tastes.  Pushed too far, however, and the habit becomes irritating or, worse, chauvinistic.  It leads Greif astray, for example, when he writes:

“Even a traffic stop . . . becomes a negotiation.  Here the negotiated outcome may be a ‘warning’. . . . it is a key moment when police, without breaking ‘front,’ without admitting deficiency, acknowledge that negotiation has been won by the citizen.”

I suppose for a middle-aged white PhD that is how it feels to be let off with a warning.  For anyone else, however, it may feel very different, especially if such warnings are a regular feature of your life.  It may seem, for example, like the warning is not really about your driving, but about going where you don’t belong.  It may also feel like the final verification of something you suspected the moment the  flashing lights appeared in the rearview mirror: that there was, in fact, no legitimate, lawful, reason for the stop.  Black drivers, in addition to being stopped and searched more often than white drivers, are also allowed to proceed without a ticket or even a warning more often than whites, suggesting that they are more subject to arbitrary pretext stops.  I doubt that a warning, in that context, feels very much like a successful negotiation.

Grief’s essays are weakest when he fails to second-guess his perceptions.  But Against Everything is at its best when he does look outside his own experience, tests its limits, and tries to consider what the world is like for other people.  Greif’s most interesting moments come, and his credibility is at its highest, when he admits to ignorance, or wonder, or surprise — when he discovers something he did not previously know, or even suspect, when he sees the world from a new angle and it looks for a moment like a new world.

That, too, is part of the essay form.  The very word derives from the French essayer — to attempt, to test — implying uncertainty, experimentation, and the possibility of either failure or discovery.  In his preface, Greif talks about growing up near Walden pond and playing in the woods around it, too young to have read Walden, but having long, daring, deep conversations with his mother about what Thoreau thought about and stood for.  He reflects:

“The most important thinker for me, ever, was just a principle when he mattered most, and his period of greatest importance was when I had not read him.  I knew a ‘philosopher’ to be a mind that was unafraid to be against everything.  Against everything, if it was corrupt, dubious, enervating, untrue to us, false to happiness.”

Thus Greif comments, giving his younger self entirely too much credit: “I taught myself to overturn, undo, deflate, rearrange, unthink, and rethink.”  The point, he argues, is to question, to journey, to grow — to discover.  Some of his best pieces emphasize this aspect of the essay form in their very titles — “Learning to Rap,” “Seeing Through the Police.”  Of these essays, Greif writes, “They all reflected an effort … to figure a few things out.  What I was living for, principally, and why so much around me seemed to be false, and contemptible, yet was accepted without a great collective cry of pain.”  Greif’s essays work best when the reader takes the same approach — a skepticism tempered with curiosity; a willingness to be against everything, in the sense of opposition, if opposition is called for; but also, in the sense of contact — direct, immediate, pressing.

Greif’s virtue is that he is willing to look anew at something we usually take for granted, to inspect and examine what is usually accepted and assumed — gym culture, hipsters, the police.  He interrogates the commonplace, precisely because it is commonplace. In so doing he finds what is strange in the ordinary — in its very ordinariness, sometimes in the very idea of ordinariness.  He considers the normal and he considers it fascinating; and, more often than not, his consideration of it is fascinating in itself. He shows us the banality of everyday life, but then, too, shows us how strange it is that we accept it as unremarkable.

The essay is, historically if not inherently, an individual form.  It favors the personal, the subjective, the confessional, and the distinct.  What stands out against everything else is the unique.

Greif’s strength as a writer is his ability to convey his own peculiar way of seeing, feeling, thinking.  The very strangeness of it — and his ability to make the boring and the usual seem strange — is its attraction.  His greatest weakness is his tendency to forget this gift of his, and to mistake the unique for the typical.  Paradoxically, it is precisely when he speaks as an individual that it is most possible to relate to him, and when he assumes a tone of universality that he most tends to alienate.

But maybe that’s just me.


Kristian Williams is the author of Our Enemies in Blue: Police and Power in America, American Methods: Torture and the Logic of Domination, and the forthcoming “Between the Bullet and the Lie”: Essays on Orwell.  He is presently at work on a book about Oscar Wilde and anarchism.