By David L. Ulin, Los Angeles Times Book Critic
9:49 AM PST, February 13, 2013
I’ve been thinking about the New Inquiry for a long time now, ever since the digital magazine launched last year. Founded by Mary Borkowski, Jennifer Bernstein and Rachel Rosenfelt, it’s a great example of what new technology offers, published monthly and available by subscription, downloadable in PDF format to be read on your tablet or your phone.
The New Inquiry is more than that, of course; its website describes it as “a space for discussion that aspires to enrich cultural and public life by putting all available resources — both digital and material — toward the promotion and exploration of ideas.” But the centerpiece is the magazine, which blends the innovative with the traditional, using the digital space to produce highly curated issues, featuring long pieces on culture and an integrated design sensibility, each built around a particular theme.
Issue 13 has just landed in my inbox, and it’s a vivid example of why the New Inquiry compels. The theme is love — fitting, with Valentine’s Day looming — but the writers here avoid sentimentality in favor of something harder edged.
Natasha Vargas-Cooper uses Camille Paglia as a filter through which to see her own romantic obsession as “a fascistic impulse to dominate”; Whitney Erin Boessel defends dating online. These are pieces that, when they’re working, want to push us past our preconceptions, that want to provoke, not to reassure.
To some extent, that’s because the contributors and editors of the New Inquiry are young and looking to upend things, which is one of my favorite aspects of the magazine. For the most part, these are writers you haven’t read before, stretching out to take on real ideas.
This puts the lie to a couple of prevailing tropes, most notably the death of criticism: The writing here is criticism in the purest sense, critiques of culture, contrarian reads on subjects we think we know. That’s why the theme of love is so compelling, not because it’s groundbreaking but because it isn’t, because the very idea of it comes with so much baggage to discard.
Not every piece pulls that off; Mike Thomsen's interview with sex writer Mandy Stadtmiller is less revealing than narcissistic, and Erwin Montgomery’s “The Withdrawal Method” gets lost in its own theory, reading “The Jersey Shore” through the filter of Guy Debord.
But that’s the beauty of magazines, that they are hit-or-miss, that we must find our own way through them, that we pick and choose. And at least two contributions are as interesting as anything I’ve read recently: Malcolm Harris’ “When Lovers Die” and Adrian Chen’s “Don’t Be a Stranger.”
The first is a smart take on the movie “Amour” (“If love has the power to legally and semantically meld two people into one,” Harris writes, “then dying leaves a monstrous remnant”), while the second addresses material not dissimilar to Boessel’s dating essay, arguing for the authenticity of online relationships, romantic or otherwise, and the value of the Internet as open space.
“The online stranger,” Chen writes, “is the great boogeyman of the information age; in the mid-2000s, media reports might have had you believe that MySpace was essentially an easily-searchable catalogue of fresh victims for serial killers, rapist, cyberstalkers, and Tila Tequila. These days, we’re warned of ‘catfish’ con artists who create attractive fake online personae and begin relationships with strangers to satisfy some sociopathic emotional need.”
I agree with that, as I agree with his assessment of Facebook as anti-social, an environment in which “distrust of online strangers is embedded,” and “it is becoming increasingly unlikely for people to interact with anyone online they don’t already know.” But I’d never thought about it in quite these terms until I read Chen’s essay, which is the whole point of the exercise: to get us to see the world anew.
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