As the title might suggest, Mark Greif’s essays found in Against Everything are specimens of cultural critique, delivered on topics as disparate as the tyranny of exercise and the emancipatory potential of a universal basic income, a taxonomy of reality TV and the true purpose of the police. Greif is at his best—his most penetrating and his most engaging—when delving into topics that land on the assumedly frivolous end of the spectrum (precisely because he doesn’t deign to treat anything with frivolity). At the same time, it’s those same topics that most transparently betray the current weakness of Against Everything: What Greif has to say, while it will likely remain insightful and even illuminating for some time to come, will also suffer from diminishing returns as its audience progresses further and further into the future.
Take, for example, “WeTube,” Greif’s essay about the world’s most popular non-pornographic video hosting service. It was first published in 2008 and, like many of the more temporally vulnerable essays in the collection, is accompanied by a short update that Greif wrote in 2015. Anyone who’s been watching videos on YouTube during that span of time knows that much has changed and will inevitably keep changing. While the forward march of time hasn’t completely denuded Greif’s observations of their value, reading his 2008 thoughts now in September of 2017—when practically every week is weighed down by events with the potential to derail the course of human history as we’d known it up until, say, November of 2016—gives one the faintest impression of having cracked open a time capsule only recently covered over with fresh earth. It may be decades before the capsule’s contents can legitimately be considered quaint. Still, they might already give readers the impression that they’re perusing thoughts that have started to expire.
This is perhaps most relevant in the case of Greif’s 2005 essay “The Reality of Reality Television,” in which he gives a short history of the genre, dividing the shows we know and love/hate into categories that helpfully demystify what aspects of our shared cultural reality they have the potential to help us think about them more deeply. So many of Greif’s insights still hold true. In this case, his 2015 update is particularly fascinating, laying out his thoughts about “why the strange formats of shows might be influenced by inexplicable or invisible social facts rather than… social or philosophical inquiries.” His case in point is the phenomenon of “house flipping” shows and the fact that their currency from 2005 onward could have served as early warnings of the impending 2008 collapse of the housing market.
In musing on 2015 (i.e., current) trends in reality TV programming, Greif asserts: “These shows would be our tea leaves or rabbit entrails for the next shock, if we knew how to read them.” How ironic it is then that Greif’s essay gives such short shrift to The Apprentice and how poetically unjust that Against Everything was first published in the fall of 2016, amid a transformation of our national enthusiasm for reality TV into a collective existence within an alternate televised reality.
And, yet, none of this should dissuade you from reading Against Everything. Greif’s prose is lucid and finely tuned, and his observations on modern life—however loosely “modern” is defined—are penetrating and potentially impactful. Though “entertainment” is likely not one of Greif’s primary (or even secondary) literary aspirations, there is a triptych of essays in the middle third of his collection that could be so identified: “Radiohead, or the Philosophy of Pop,” “Punk: The Right Kind of Pain” and “Learning to Rap.” But, whether the topic is pop-oriented or serious, mundane or transcendent, Greif has a rare and undervalued ability to think deeply about the things we see and feel and must endure in the course of lives that are far too often left unexamined.