Do we begin with infrastructural or cultural, environmental or psychological breakdown? It’s a case of reader’s choice: Issue 49 finds The Baffler “. . . in Ruins,” surveying the wreck both head-on and slant. Emily Harnett makes a painstaking study of Centralia, Pennsylvania, “the site of a disaster that sounds too stupid to be real, a trash fire that will inherit the earth.” Conversely, in Houston, Jake Bittle takes stock of the federal buyouts of property flooded by Hurricane Harvey, much of which lies in a hundred-year floodplain. Michael Malloy visits the Berkeley Pit in Butte, Montana, where copper mining promises to contaminate the area for generations—he likens this gaping, poisonous hole to an abyss at the end of the world. With these cities and others in mind, Kate Wagner argues that by considering “ruin porn” in images of industrial architectural decay we might overcome our grief and “begin to judge ourselves more harshly.”
Looking back to a time lived in the human scale, George Scialabba considers a new two-volume collection of the essays of Wendell Berry, who eloquently rails against modernism on behalf of the Kentucky farmland he loves. “Like most antimodernists,” George writes, “Berry is very good at reminding us what we have sacrificed by embracing modernity. One such sacrifice is a sense of place.” In Berry’s own words, “it is only in the place one belongs to, intimate and familiar, long watched over, that the details rise up out of the whole and become visible.” It’s fitting, then, in his tale of returning home to his native Indiana in the wake of the financial crisis, that editor Jonathon Sturgeon found “the same subprime manipulations, the same moral hazard disguised as honorable lending, carried out by a family of pawnbrokers who professed to hate the bankers most of all. There is no cultural divide between the coastal financial elite and the petty usurers in flyover states; there is only the capitalism of small differences, the scalability of exploitation. The operations are the same.”
Meanwhile, Evan Malmgren travels the nation’s tattered highways and byways in a GMC Savana, attempting to evade the flash-crash of journalism by resorting to #vanlife. Instead, he discovers a more insistently networked existence devoid of temporal sanity. M. H. Miller hits the couch for a thorough examination of TV’s The Bachelor, or what he calls “the moon landing of trash,” and surmises that our “stupidest achievements” reflect upon us as much as our most glorious cultural monuments. Rachel Wetzler excavates the wastebasket of cable TV for “The Fox News Theory of Art,” which may convince you we’ve reached the sad endpoint of aesthetic history. And James Pogue decries the degradation of longform nonfiction writing, which is too often commissioned, written, and edited as “intellectual property” for Netflix and Hollywood. “We have a perfectly good word for the kind of writing and reporting this encourages,” Pogue writes: “trash.” Thomas Geoghegan sees a ray of hope for an elitist Democratic Party and a failing democracy in the idea of compulsory voting, which offers representation to the working class, whether squeamish liberals like it or not. But for now, proud America emerges as a grandly toxic Superfund site, a landscape of slag and gob. Slip on your whole-body decontamination gear, we’ve drawn you a map.