BY Jessica Loudis in Opinion | 13 OCT 20
Featured in
Issue 214

Can Magazines Still Give Speed to Cultural Revolution?

Jessica Loudis on the magazines attempting to upend contemporary media

BY Jessica Loudis in Opinion | 13 OCT 20

Fire!!, 1926, cover artwork by Aaron Douglas. Courtesy: New York Public Library

All good publications, whether they’re independent magazines or Substack newsletters, come into the world steeped in frustration and high on the ambition of revolutionizing the culture that produced them. Fire!!, the short-lived Harlem renaissance magazine spearheaded by Langston Hughes in 1926, was launched ‘the better to express ourselves freely and independently – without interference from the old heads, white or Negro’, as Hughes notes in ‘The Twenties: Harlem and Its Negritude’ (1966). In 1934, the Partisan Review declared in its founding letter its intent to ‘participate in the struggle of the workers and sincere intellectuals against imperialist war, fascism, national and racial oppression’. And a driving factor behind New York’s Village Voice, according to co-founder Norman Mailer in 1955, was to ‘give a little speed to that moral and sexual revolution which is yet to come upon us’.

As the past year has produced global drama best suited to a Michael Crichton thriller novel, much critical debate over how best to navigate the fallout has taken place on Twitter. (Which, like a magnifying glass, can both provide a clearer view of something and set it aflame.) This summer, the platform exploded when more than 150 prominent writers and scholars co-authored ‘A Letter on Justice and Open Debate’, published in Harper’s magazine – a so-broad-as-to-be-nearly-meaningless statement claiming that the right to free speech was being curtailed by a culture overly invested in policing political correctness. To say nothing of the many blind spots inherent in this endeavour, its release doubled as a publicity stunt for a new magazine by one of its signatories, the political scientist Yascha Mounk. Citing, in his opening editorial, ‘the erosion of values like free speech and due process within mainstream institutions’, Mounk launched Persuasion as what he termed a ‘counter-establishment institution’. Writing for New York Magazine, Eric Levitz called out Mounk for ‘making opposition to Twitter incivility the litmus test for commitment to “a free society”’, even as the publication’s editorial board includes ‘advocates of waterboarding, wars of aggression and upwardly redistributive economic policies’. 

Screengrab from Harper's Magazine. Courtesy: Harper's Magazine

A generous interpretation is that the Harper’s letter and Persuasion are inept responses to fast-changing norms. In the past three months, a number of well-known individuals in the arts have lost their jobs and reputations amid growing backlash to past behaviour and statements,and several longstanding organizations have self-immolated over controversies centred on race and language (including the National Book Critics Circle, of which I was formerly a board member). Underlying much of this is a society adjusting to the fact, now widely and rightly accepted, that racism is no longer understood to be just an expression of individual beliefs but, rather, something embedded in institutions, as Adam Shatz wrote about beautifully in the London Review of Books in June. 

Compounding that, the financial floor has all but fallen out under journalism, and establishment organizations are scrambling to find footing. In many ways, it is a terrible time to launch a new publication. But, on the other hand, what is there to lose? These are precisely the moments in which new voices emerge and, indeed, they have: in their first issue, the editors of The Drift – founded also in the summer of 2020 – chastised existing magazines for offering their readerships little more than ‘indoor lifestyle content’ and ‘mundane, self-pitying essays’ at a moment in which political disillusionment, economic hardship and a global pandemic have rendered the youth ‘fairly hopeless and dramatically isolated’. The Ballot, a US-based publication dedicated to covering elections all over the world (except the forthcoming US presidential election in November), reminds us that, in a media ecosystem drowning in solipsism, the mere act of looking overseas can be a radical one. The purpose of little magazines is not just to frame public debate, but to hold establishment publications to account when they get things wrong. They won’t fix the lack of a workable business model for journalism, but they might force everybody to do better. That is, until new players show up and the cycle begins again.

This article first appeared in frieze issue 214 with the headline 'Sense and Sensibility'

Jessica Loudis is features editor of Rest of World, an online magazine of technology and culture in the non-Western world. She lives in Berlin, Germany..