A quarter century of the Baffler

For the first time, the content of all the issues of the Baffler are available on-line.
For the first time, the content of all the issues of the Baffler are available on-line.

The Baffler, a journal of iconoclastic wit and cultural analysis, relaunched its Web site today with full access to its archives from 1988 to the present.

“That’s 25 issues of maximum alienation,” says editor in chief John Summers, “brought to you by the dubious science of outsourcing magazine digitization to certain Asian countries.”

The newly designed Web site also introduces a paywall that allows readers a limited number of free articles before prompting them to subscribe for access to the magazine’s “bad attitude” on cellphone, tablet, computer and paper.

Summers, who joined the staff in 2011, describes the Baffler as “a loose collective of disaffiliated culture critics, obsolete knowledge workers, poets, illustrators and closet utopians.” That group includes Baffler co-founder Thomas Frank along with Nicholson Baker, Barbara Ehrenreich, Susan Faludi, James K. Galbraith, David Graeber, Jed Perl, Rick Perlstein, Lydia Millet and many other clever writers who jostle conventional wisdom.

“Of course, if you prefer twee stories (er, ‘narratives’) suitable to put you to sleep, radio magazines like ‘This American Life‘ are always on,” Summers says. “Or if you want a dose of doctrinaire dissent, where you can anticipate the next two moves in the argument, that too lies in abundant supply. We’re looking to blow up the consensus while alighting on the third side of the debate, the side of irony.”

Naturally, that irreverent stance – toward the left and the right — can annoy some readers. But that’s fine with the editors.

Summers says, “A few of our longer essays on the rule of nerds and geeks have had surprising crossover appeal, even making Hacker News, where comments typically run along the lines of ‘The Baffler is smug and ignorant to the point of dangerously distracting incoherence.’ That there is house-ad material, friend.”

For fans of the magazine’s trenchant commentary, this new Web site is welcome news because the Baffler has not always been easy to find. Some years, its publishing schedule was erratic, and once or twice it almost vanished. In the 1990s, it moved from Virginia to the South Side of Chicago, where its office and most of its papers were destroyed by a fire. It’s currently published in Cambridge, Mass. (Read a brilliant, typically baffling essay about Cambridge’s digital start-up culture here.)

(Courtesy of The Baffler. Photo by Robert Birnbaum)
The Baffler editor in chief John Summers. (Courtesy of The Baffler/Photo by Robert Birnbaum)

At a time when many publications find that the Web seems to make more economic sense than print, the Baffler remains dedicated to hard-copy issues. “The formal limitations of print — from the fixed page sizes to the limited color spectrum — present a creative field that suits our style,” Summers says. “The work we commission for the magazine tends to come in long and seems easier to read on the page, accompanied as it is by so much art.”

Given the magazine’s caustic critique of consumerism and business culture, it’s not surprising that the Baffler doesn’t take advertisements. (It’s owned by the nonprofit Baffler Foundation.) And perhaps its audience will always be fit, though few. “We have approximately 20 percent of the subscribers we deserve,” Summers says. (Disclosure: I’m one of them.)

The staff is small, too, with just five full-time employees. In deference to its editorial philosophy, the Baffler has no slaves interns. Summers points with pride to an essay by Jim Frederick that the magazine published back in 1997 called “Internment Camp: The Intern Economy and the Culture Trust.” It ended with these depressingly prescient lines: “The glamour titans will have all the free labor they will ever need. And in a world where we are forced to mortgage pieces of our soul every day, we are increasingly going to have to give it away for free.”

The Web site redesign arrives just before publication of a new bound collection from the Baffler — its third — called “No Future for You.” And in September, the magazine will begin an eight-city tour offering discussions on feminism, technology, journalism and other subjects.

Prepare to be baffled — in the best way.

Ron Charles is the editor of The Washington Post's Book World. For a dozen years, he enjoyed teaching American literature and critical theory in the Midwest, but finally switched to journalism when he realized that if he graded one more paper, he'd go crazy.
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