Consider the following premises. If you don’t begin to share them, read no further.
*People don’t talk about ideas so much anymore.
*Criticism has given way in even the best places to reviewing.
*A first-rate profile of an artist in a serious magazine like the New Yorker will tell you plenty about his life and loves, and you may finish the piece delighted to have made his acquaintance. However, it might occur to you later that you understand what this important thinker is thinking no better more than you did before.
*The cold war was, among other things, a clash of ideas. One ideology was pitted against another and people died for their beliefs. But the cold war ended, and the common attitude toward other people’s beliefs – Islamic extremists excepted – became, “whatever.”
*The Internet is conducive to scattered, rather than deep and focused, thought.
Jon Baskin, Jonny Thakkar, and Etay Zwick are students in the Committee on Social Thought, an interdisciplinary doctoral program at the University of Chicago. They are all very bright and intellectually restless, and school alone doesn’t do it for them. “I don’t want this to come out as a tirade against graduate school,” says Baskin, ‘but we felt frustration that there really weren’t forums for us to write about the ideas we were learning about as active forces in our lives and cultures. In graduate school you wind up writing about what Heidegger thought about what Hegel thought about Plato, and you never get to the point – which is how does this idea speak to us today? How does it help explain our lives?”
And that is one reason they have just launched a journal of ideas, The Point, that they intend to publish twice a year. The other reason is more specific to Baskin (someone I’ve known all his life), who between Brown and the U. of C. spent a little time in the publishing business. “I’ve felt a little frustration with the way supposedly literary and intellectual magazines like the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books have a relationship toward ideas that is not quite serious. They don’t really engage with the way these ideas function in everyday life. I think there’s a kind of intellectual tourism involved in a lot of it.” There is an essay by Baskin on David Foster Wallace in the first issue of The Point. Baskin has thought hard about Wallace in a way that is probably only possible if you’re young and responding to an artist who shaped you. Wallace committed suicide last September, and in March D.T. Max published a long profile in the New Yorker. “They did 12,000 words on Wallace,” said Baskin. “I was glad they did it and in some ways it was very well written, it flowed well, it was nice to read a lot of tidbits about Wallace’s life. But what was missing was any kind of exploration of what Wallace was doing in his fiction, and why it was important, and why it might have been more important than what other people were doing.”
It didn’t say, in short, what Baskin needed to say about Wallace, and has now said.
The Point isn’t formally connected with the University of Chicago, but the journal received $3,000 from the school’s student-managed UnCommon Fund, surviving the skepticism of a fund trustee who wondered why Baskin, Thakkar, and Zwick were mucking around with such an obsolete medium as ink and paper.
In reply, Baskin disputed the question’s premise. He thinks the trustees might have been less impressed by his riposte than by the roster of articles the editors already had lined up, including a piece by the eminent cultural critic Slavoj Zizek, but I consider his defense of print lucid, insightful, and from someone of his generation, high time. “First of all,” he tells me, “our articles are really long and we want to publish even longer ones. We all share the sense that it’s unsatisfying to read really long articles online, and not just long but really complex articles.”
(Musing on the restlessness so fundamental to the online experience, Thakkar writes in The Point, “We turn the world into a buffet; even if one dish is better than the others, we can’t restrict ourselves to it….We get to pick and mix our cultures and topics like jelly beans and licorice, to hop from island to island in search of distraction; nothing gives us pause.” Thakkar’s essay connects Facebook to Ovid and Montaigne, and if you’re thinking “How pretentious!” it isn’t.)
Secondly, says Baskin, print “is a way of differentiating yourself, a way of saying, ‘This is something we really think is important and worthy of putting on paper and binding.’” What’s more, “I feel a print publication has the potential to excite people in a way a web site doesn’t. You create something people can hold and put on a shelf, and also something people want to write for. Whatever you say about the death of print, people want to write for a print publication.” Hot off the presses, pristine copies of The Point were broken out of a box and proudly handed to the first wave of readers. “If we’d created a web site,” Baskin observes, “we couldn’t have had a launch party.”
I’ve reminded Baskin (but didn’t need to) that back in 1988 The Baffler came out of the University of Chicago in much the same way, made a national name for itself for its political and cultural criticism, and before its run was up saw cofounder Thomas Frank catch the befuddled left zeigeist in a book title with his What’s the Matter With Kansas? Whenever you see U. of C. grad students put their heads together, there’s always a possibility of being Present at the Creation.
Though The Point doesn’t intend to be fiercely local, Chicago writers have a long history of speaking to the world through the city, and Thakkar tells me The Point will continue that. And he wants the journal to give the city’s various arts what he thinks they need, a common forum for a collective conversation. Naturally, a new publication so ambitious is expensive and hard to find. For $10 you can buy it at Hyde Park’s Seminary Co-op and 57th Street Books, and also at Sarah’s Pastries and Candies on Oak Street. (A high school connection is at work there.) Or order it online, at thepointmag.com, a Web site that shrewdly offers only a taste of the writing.