October 1998
s m u g
back issues
by Josh Allen


Harper's - The Naked Word

If you know me (and I feel like so many of you do, judging from the rather explicit fan letters I get and the uncanny way in which many of them touch upon my sketchy and I thought well-concealed erotic fascination with prosthetic devices), then you know I'm all about text. It's my bread and butter, it clogs my arteries, it twists my fingerprints. Don't get me wrong, I enjoy a good photograph or MIDI file or extrasensory transmission or cartoon as much as the next dude, but strip all that away, flay me open, and you'll find an endless stream of words, choking, throbbing, hemorrhaging.

Harper's Magazine is the same way: They've cut away the fat, the gimmickry, the charts, the lists, the perfume strips, the blow-ins, the centerfolds. What we're left with is just text - pure, blinding content, for better or for worse. Sexy, right? A welcome break from the visual onslaught of empty imagery and cheap bells and whistles that we usually get? Sort of. The problem is that the editorial scalpel just might be cutting out too much, leaving us with something that's too lean, too ascetic, too precise. An intellectual restraint, a distant perfection, that seems both oddly dated and perfectly in harmony with the times.

This restraint is present in every single aspect of the magazine. You'd be hard pressed to find any color except in the advertisements (which present the target demographic on a silver platter: classical CD clubs, mutual funds that specifically avoid the tobacco industry, Remy Martin, the Xandria Collection of sensual products). The cover image only takes up about a quarter of the real estate and depicts a row of monks, highlighting the main story about finding faith. Where you would normally see "Sex Tips of the Stars" and "Why Kids Kill Kids," you get: "Ignore the media. Defy consumerism. Dwell in silence. Seek Mystery. Be Alone." While monasticism is just this month's topic, it seems to be emblematic of the whole Harper's mindset: Separate yourself from the hoi-polloi, create a nice, polished wall of rational thought between you and the ugliness of human life around you. Shit, semen, slapstick, terror, spasm - these are to be reduced to a concept, a statistic, something to be bandied about in theoretical terms. It's academia for the 9 to 5 crew.

This tact works brilliantly when they let the text speak for itself. Or rather, they let it hang itself, implying their commentary in the mere presentation or juxtaposition of the material. The magazine is probably best known for the Harper's Index, which is simply a list of figures. Some are just current trivia ("Number of months since January that have not broken a record for average global heat: 0"), but most are there to make a point. The raised eyebrow can clearly be seen in items such as "Days a Denver school principal was put on leave last May for allowing students a sip of wine on a trip to Paris: 13" and "Number of air-traffic controllers ordered to take a two-hour 'refresher' course last spring: 10,000." This is Harper's at its filleted essence, everything cut out except for the fact and the tight-lipped smile.

Even better, though, is the "Readings" section, which knocked me out. It consists of snippets from various documents or transcripts or news items, each prefaced with a brief, purely descriptive introduction. That's it. No original material, no commentary, just text that they think might be of interest. And it's all great stuff, too, with horrible movie pitches from a screenplay magazine, sex fantasies about Jim Steinman (esteemed and evidently virile songwriter of "Bat Out of Hell" and "Total Eclipse of the Heart"), a report about straight edge kids kicking the asses of smokers and drinkers in Salt Lake City. But Harper's does provide a political context for this text - it's not just raw data to be consumed and interpreted on your own. Take a look at some of the other entries: an account of Jim McDougal (a Whitewater witness) dying in a jail cell due to lax medical treatment by the prison, a testimony that reveals the horrors of an Apartheid-era chemical lab, George Stephanopolous totally working over a lawyer at a deposition (this ruled, by the way; Amount of shit that George was putting up with: 0). This is the editorial process at its most subtle and sublime. There is absolutely no voice or bent behind the intros or the content, but the mere fact that they've chosen to present these particular snippets says all you need to know about the point that they're trying to make. I wish the whole magazine was just page after page of this stuff. I'd wallpaper my room with it and run naked from item to item, snickering.

But when this style is applied to more traditional essays and columns, even the fiction, you end up with something that's too tepid, too blah. There is a lengthy memoir from a poet about growing up around beekeepers that quickly degenerates into a zoology textbook. It was interesting enough, but I was left with a great deal of knowledge about bees and almost none about the author. The humanity seemed to have been stripped away. Why did they choose this particular excerpt from her work? And representing both the Internet and technology in general is Steven Johnson of the deservedly esteemed Feed, an intelligent and thoughtful individual but not the most visceral prose writer to hit the scene. Why can we not have both intellect and passion? Why can't the discussion of ideas not get a little more sloppy, a little more violent, a little more human? It's as if the gap between the stuff that makes you think and the stuff that makes you feel is now, at last, unbridgeable.

To be honest, when I sat down to write this column, a quill in one hand, the all-natural bosom of C. Ricci in the other, I had no idea what to say. I'd read Harper's cover to cover, tried to absorb it on as many levels as possible. I was intrigued by what I read, sure, it gave me some mental gristle to chew on, some tidy turns of phrase. It was fine. It accomplished what it set out to do. And that's when I realized that Harper's was so pared down, so liposuct'd and clean and tidy, that it defied an emotional response. It worked solely on the brain, which is great for stuff like the Index, but is that really the kind of cultural and political discussion we need to be having? Will a quiet chess game, in the end, be more satisfying and real than a sweaty round of nude mudwrestling?




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