Yesterday the news-aggregator site The Awl posted a reading of Mark Greif’s piece on abortion and gay marriage from the latest issue of n+1. It’s the old complaint, which boils down to: What is this intellectual mumbo-jumbo?? Speak English! I can’t understand you!!
Typically the people making these complaints can understand just fine. The pose of incomprehension is just that, a pose. Why this pose—which for a thinking person is really a disgraceful pose, if you ask me—tends to be struck most often by writers for the New York Observer is a mystery probably someone else should solve. Having said that, and looking at it again, I see there’s a certain amount he really didn’t understand. Let me help out.
Mark Greif is the reason we started n+1. His essays really were too difficult, too knotty, and his polemical positions were too extreme. There was no place for pieces like “Against Exercise,” “Mogadishu, Baghdad, Troy,” “Afternoon of the Sex Children.” His sentences really are sometimes too long—BK says that sometimes they sound as if they’d been translated from German—and you really do have to stare at them a while sometimes before you can figure out what they mean. But they do mean something—they are the product of a mind at work, I mean really at work, right now, today, trying to figure out what’s happening, and bringing to bear on it a great deal of reading, and emotion, and thought.
The piece in question about gay marriage and abortion is part of Mark’s ongoing investigation of what happened to our modern utopia—why, when we have been freed from factory work, do we re-invent the forms of physical coercion at the gym? Why, when we have been freed of hunger, do we re-import strictures and limitations into our eating? Why, when we have so many channels, don’t we do anything with them truly worthwhile? Here is the beginning of Mark’s piece on reality TV:
The utopia of television nearly came within reach in 1992, on the day cable providers announced that cable boxes would expand to 500 channels. Back then, our utopian idea rested on assumptions both right and wrong. We assumed network-sized broadcasters could never afford new programming for so many active channels. That was right. We also assumed TV subscribers wouldn’t stand for 500 channels of identical fluff, network reruns, syndicated programs, second-run movies, infomercials, and home shopping. That was wrong.
The whole piece (from Issue 3) here.
The latest piece, on gay marriage and abortion, makes the argument that the utopian promise of those two very recent developments in American life—that is, the right to choose one’s sexual partner freely, and the right to choose whether to have a child—has been abrogated in favor of a rhetoric of piety, where too much ground is ceded to the “values voters.”
Today gay progress is in an expansionist phase under the banner of the right to marry… Feminism is reduced to pleading for abortion rights, while the common sense of three decades ago is hemmed in by a secular right wing that has adopted the extremism of orthodox religion. Abortion defenders must pretend that it is a “tragic” but necessary evil; a redoubt of “choice,” just like any other choice.
Here is marriage: The division of humanity into closed couples, when modernity has given us a chance at something much better… [and given us opportunities to have so many of the things marriage used to give *without marriage*. And so:] When marriage has as its main purpose a total and unique defense against loneliness and isolation and anomie, then it’s been saddled with a function too grand and dishonest for it ever to meet; no wonder it will seem imperfect, disappointing, not yet the right, ﬁnal marriage.
On gay marriage:
And yet if you commit to marriage as your end, you win the piety battle, or, say, the war for harmless cuddliness. To marry is the closest adult thing to making your eyes big, your forehead rounded, and your hands into adorable little paws. Look at hubby-wubby! It is so responsible. It says that your desire is not for pleasure or fun, it is for ﬁtting in. It is for the maintenance of what already is. How can you refuse these sweet-natured, utterly ordinary and gentle people—gay marriage-ists—who want to sacriﬁce themselves to this really rather miserably difficult institution, one which doesn’t even work well for straights, who have it so easy? Opposing gay marriage is like denying the wishes of people who want to feed your pets or take out your garbage. For moderates, on the fence about bigotry, it really will be too cute to deny.
And on abortion:
Abortion, unlike marriage, is unlovely. It’s a basic practical necessity of modern values, like sports medicine and hotels, but it is being sentimentalized out of existence by its opponents. Defenders seem cowed by the climate of opinion the sentimentalists have created. “Choice” worked as a rallying cry for a long time. But it’s hardly enough if you can’t also say what abortion itself is really for, and why it’s not “sad but necessary” but right and good.
This is a tough and risky and controversial argument because obviously those legal rights, fought for by a previous generation, are real achievements. What Mark is suggesting is that by not being fought for now, more aggressively, they are in danger of being lost and eroded. Maybe he’s wrong about that, or maybe the argument is slightly different—not that they will be lost but that we’ll settle for them, when we should be demanding more.
Anyway, here’s the piece. See what you think.