Summers uses the word “interstitial” to describe where he fits into American intellectual life. “The interstitial life—the life lived in between institutions—is what many of us have been living,” he said in an email. “It does not mean we come from nowhere (that’s the conceit of the overclass, as if their perspective is the only one) but rather that we are partially known in lots of different places.”
He has populated the magazine with other interstitial thinkers, intellectual drifters dismissed by the academy for being too snarky, too strident, or too sincere. There’s Thomas Frank, of course, who remains on the magazine’s masthead as “Founding Editor” and regularly contributes articles and substantive input. There’s Lehmann, now the journal’s senior editor and an invaluable collaborator for Summers. (“Chris is a veteran editor, and I’m just playing,” Summers said.) There’s the radical anthropologist David Graeber; authors Susan Faludi and Rick Perlstein. Though many of the contributors have high public profiles, they are unaffiliated with academic organizations. They have found in The Baffler’s pages a home for ideas they can’t express elsewhere. Many of these ideas are gloomy ones.
Last year, Summers recalled: “I was in Brooklyn and somebody says, ‘When I think of The Baffler, I think of hope.’ I started laughing. ‘Hope? You mean Issue 5, Dark Days Ahead?’ I told Tom [Frank], and he started laughing. ‘Hope? Go to church.’”
The Baffler would argue that this hopelessness stems from the failure of our major idea-generating institutions—academia and the media—to actually generate ideas. To Summers and his contributors, media and the universities have abdicated their responsibility to challenge prevailing wisdom and encourage unprofitable thought. The most popular media outlets pander to middle-class prejudices and pieties. The most prominent universities sell bankrupt dreams to strivers. “You’ve got whole sections of the country that are over the cliff for risk,” Summers says. “Then you have cultural institutions that don’t want to make any fucking mistakes.”
The Baffler reserves a special scorn for academia and the corporatization thereof. The first issue of Summers’s tenure, which was published by MIT Press, spent 100 pages directly attacking the enthusiastic techno-utopianism that is MIT’s specialty, with particular venom directed at the “trivial, redundant, usually disappointing and often downright annoying output” of the MIT Media Lab.
One of the best pieces from the recent run, in Issue 20, was “Adam Wheeler Went to Harvard,” by the former Gawker writer Jim Newell. Wheeler became briefly notorious a couple of years ago after Harvard discovered that he had fabricated his application—and much else—during the course of his undergraduate career; he was caught after submitting a Rhodes Scholarship application filled with almost entirely fictional accomplishments. Wheeler was expelled, prosecuted for college‐credential fraud, and sentenced to probation; one of the conditions was that he was not allowed to say that he went to Harvard. But Wheeler did go to Harvard, wrote Newell, and his only crime “was that he saw Harvard degrees for what they are—items for purchase that cloak the owner with a manufactured prestige that, in our pretend meritocracy, automatically raises one’s market value upon the deal’s closing.”
As for the media, The Baffler snipes at easy targets—Politico, CNBC—but also takes shots at outlets that are less frequently criticized. The issue with the Wheeler piece also included Eugenia Williamson’s stinging takedown of This American Life, the beloved public radio program that, she wrote, specializes in “twee, transporting narratives” about harmless middle-class ambition. The article ran in the aftermath of a scandal in which monologist Mike Daisey was revealed to have fabricated details of a This American Life story about his trip to Apple’s factories in China. In Williamson’s telling, Daisey, like Adam Wheeler, was merely guilty of telling his superiors what they wanted to hear: in this case, “a dramatic nonfiction narrative in the form of a personal journey” that satisfied “the show’s habit of massaging painful realities into puddles of personal experience, its preference for pathos over tragedy.”