Jon Baskin is the Founding Editor of The Point, a magazine based in Chicago that explores and questions the moral heart of modern life. Jon sat down with me to discuss the magazine, its philosophical and academic origins and what he himself reads. See Jon Baskin’s guest recommendations.
The Point’s online content is separated into four sections. What do those headings stand for?
So, the way the website is organized is really three sections – Politics, Examined Life and Criticism. I think most people understand what Politics and Criticism are, although the Criticism category is meant in a very broad sense. It doesn’t just refer to criticism of novels or artworks, but to the criticism of life. Examined Life is the most unique category to The Point. It speaks to our mission from the beginning, which was not just to convey information or to tell a nice story but to speak to how to live, in the Platonic sense of those words. So, Examined Life covers a lot of our most distinctive articles, articles that you would only really see at The Point, articles about how to parent, how to eat, how to love, articles about marriage – things about people’s ordinary lives that take a philosophical perspective. Philosophical not in an academic sense but in the sense that they consider what these things are really for, what good they do and what function they have in society. The Symposium, the fourth category that you refer to, isn’t a unique category in that an article could be in the Symposium and still be in the other sections. It’s a regular section in the print issue that specifically asks what something is for. So, our first issue asked: What is politics for? We’ve had What is film for? What is sport for? And most recently, What is privacy for? And we gather five or six responses to that question.
Where did the idea of questioning the purpose of an everyday event or thing come from? Is it these sorts of questions that you think people should be asking themselves more often?
The three of us that started the magazine (Jon Baskin, Jonny Thakkar and Etay Zwick), were all students in social thought at the University of Chicago, and we had this feeling that the stuff we were doing academically was really fascinating when we talked about how it impacted our lives, but when we turned to write for our professors the most important questions were lost. One of the inspirations for the title was the idea that academic writing never gets to the point. You get a lot of close-grained analysis of language where you compare how one thinker approaches an idea to another thinker but you never get to the question of what does this have to do with me? How do Plato, Nietzsche or Kierkegaard actually speak to my own experience in the world today or to my culture’s experience? And on the flip side we have the literary magazines of America, like Harper’s, The Atlantic or The New Yorker which write much more accessibly than the academic journals but often engage in a kind of intellectual tourism, where ideas aren’t taken seriously as factoring into decisions we make about our lives. Asking what something is for seemed to us like a way of asking a philosophical question without that question becoming academic. Plato always said that in order to know whether something was good or bad, you had to ask what something’s virtue is, and although it can sound abstract it is actually the most concrete question you can ask of any sort of intellectual phenomena or any kind of idea. We wanted to see if we could put that into practice as a guiding principle for a magazine.
“There’s often a shying away from the question of why something is good or bad in favour of just finding out more information about it.”
So is that moral or philosophical standpoint on everyday happenings missing in our cultural coverage today? And is it that void that The Point fills?
I think it is missing. The question of what it is to take something seriously has become very confused. There’s often a shying away from the question of why something is good or bad in favour of just finding out more information about it. So, if we ask what is a good novel? Or has Jonathan Franzen written a good novel, or an important novel? Well, you can analyse the sentences, you can say you really like this character, but ultimately the question requires you to ask what we turn to novels for in the first place. And then you can ask: Is this novel providing that or not? And that’s something that often doesn’t get asked. One of The Point’s popular articles was about the tiger mother debate in America, after Amy Chua wrote a book about tiger mothers and Asian styles of parenting. There was a debate going on about whether the Asian or the American style of parenting was “better”—but everyone was assuming we knew what the objective of parenting was. We had an article written by an Asian woman that said that Asians and Americans have completely different ideals when it comes to what kind of children they’re trying to raise. And I thought that that was an article that helped intervene in a debate that wasn’t asking the right questions.
We actually thought about calling the magazine a magazine of ideals (as opposed to ideas), because it’s become habitual in intellectual life, especially on the Left, to pretend that most political problems in the world are practical problems, problems of resource allocation, problems of technology or implementation—as if we’ve already answered the big questions. Whereas in truth it’s especially the big questions that we have to keep asking over and over; they’ll never be settled.
Judging from what you’ve just told me and from what I’ve read, The Point is a left-oriented magazine. Is that fair to say?
Not entirely. It’s probably true that a majority of our writers come from the Left and we as editors would probably situate ourselves to the Left to some extent. But I think, first of all, what differentiates us from a lot of other small literary magazines is that we weren’t founded to forward any specific politics. We’re much more committed to the ideas that I’ve just been talking about, that you should reflect upon your beliefs and allow them to be challenged. We’ve published a lot of articles that I think a lot of left-wing magazines wouldn’t publish. We did a whole Symposium on conservatism in issue three, we did a piece by a gay person against gay marriage in issue seven. None of us agreed with the conclusion of that article but we thought it was an argument that was interesting and challenging to liberal orthodoxies that should get a hearing. So, I’d like to think we’re hospitable to conservative thought, and, more than that, there are a lot of things about us as editors that would be described as conservative, especially from the perspective of left-wing academia.
There is an essayistic quality to the articles you’ve described and there is a kind of academic rigour to that, but on the flip side there is something very open and accessible about The Point in a more journalistic way. Is that a key feature of magazine’s content, to blend those two disciplines?
Well, I’ll say this two ways. Yeah, initially when we started the magazine the idea was to combine the rigour of academia with accessibility and journalistic writing that people actually want to read. I mean, everyone knows that academic journals have become unreadable except to a very small group of people that are already convinced and interested in the topics and know all the relevant literature. So we wanted The Point to, as I said, really take ideas very seriously, be rigorous about them and not be sloppy. But at the same time to write about them so that a normal, educated person, such that you didn’t have to have a PhD in the subject to follow it, and not only to follow it but also to see why it was important to you. Our worst articles are the ones that fail to do that and still end up feeling academic. Our best articles combine that intellectual rigour with a journalistic, accessible style.
A second answer to that question is that the way philosophy was originally written and conceived was accessible. Anyone can sit down and read a Platonic dialogue about what courage is or about what politics is for and come away with something that speaks directly to their experience.
You’ve been speaking about very global topics, something that pertains to pretty much everyone. But it is a magazine based in Chicago primarily with writers from Chicago and the States, does it have a regional perspective in any way?
Not that much. The University of Chicago has definitely influenced us. In terms of Chicago more generally, we’ve tried to have an article or two in every issue that says something about Chicago, because to some extent it’s a city that is an underexposed cultural entity. There are so many magazines on the coasts, but in Chicago there’s not much in the way of intellectual or literary magazines. The fact that our writers are based here in Chicago means that we are able to cover things that many other magazines might miss, but in general that’s not a very important part of what we stand for. We feel like the magazine should be interesting to everyone.
To turn to your writers, you’ve mentioned that they come from philosophical and institutional backgrounds, are they exclusively academics or are there others with different backgrounds?
Well, it’s always been a mix of academics and journalists. We have academics who want to write for a wider audience and then journalists who are maybe wanting to do something a little more intellectually involved or write longer articles than they’re able to do for other publications, especially if they’re young writers. When we started the magazine it was a lot of our friends in Chicago but now we’re able to pay writers something and draw from a wider group of people. There’s a group of what I’d describe as small literary magazines now in America, almost all of them are based in New York, like Jacobin, n+1, The New Inquiry, or The American Reader. Within this group you start to see certain names pop up a lot, and there are times where I read a great article in n+1 and I’ll contact the writer with an idea to have them write for us. I see writers that I want from The New York Review of Books too but the likelihood of getting them to write for us is very low!
Do you ever look for established names or do you like to work with newer talent?
Our ideal writer is one who is a newer talent. A good example is someone like Ben Jeffery, who’s Irish actually. He contacted us after reading issue one, especially my article on David Foster Wallace, and said that he had been writing short reviews for the TLS but wanted to write a longer piece about Michel Houellebecq that he felt was in the same vein as my Wallace piece. He ended up writing an awesome article about Houellebecq that eventually got made into a book. And funnily enough he also ended up at University of Chicago studying social thought, so he’s here now. Someone like that was a joy to work with. I mean, we certainly won’t turn down a big name if we find someone that wants to write for us but it’s not a priority of ours, our priority is to publish compelling writing, and a lot of time you get a big name and they send you something and it’s not their best work.
Right, or just a reworking of something they’ve already published previously…
Exactly. And it can be awkward trying to edit them.
So, the long form is a format that you believe in? And an article’s depth is important to you?
I believe in whatever is adequate to communicate an idea. But yeah, I think it’s something that’s a little bit distinctive to us that we don’t go in with pre-established word limits, we really feel that an article should be as long as it needs to be. Length is certainly no guarantee of quality, and sometimes it can be the opposite. I’m sure we some articles we’ve published would have benefitted from being shorter but in general we don’t shy away from something because it takes a long time to unfold, or takes up a lot of space.
“As I’m thinking about this question I feel I disagree with almost every magazine! “
You mentioned earlier about publishing ideas that differ greatly from your own beliefs. Do you think it’s important for readers to be challenged with beliefs that they don’t ordinarily share?
Yeah, for sure. I think that’s the biggest danger of the current Internet or media environment. People for a long time have been talking about not reading longer or more in-depth articles, but in fact the market for more serious writing has surprised us. The more serious danger of what’s happened in our media landscape is that everyone just reads things that confirm their own prejudices and opinions. And pushing against that trend is something that I do think distinguishes The Point from a lot of other magazines. We really do try to challenge what we take to be our readership in every issue. So to me, it’s important to what The Point does and I think it’s important in general.
Can you give me an example of a publication that you read whose opinions differ greatly from your own?
Obviously there are conservative magazines that I don’t agree with on a lot of things, like The National Review or National Affairs, and I read those sometimes. National Affairs in particular is a place that is trying to take somewhat of an intellectual approach to conservative ideas that is interesting to me. But as I’m thinking about this question I feel I disagree with almost every magazine! … Every month the Atlantic Monthly publishes something endorsing some form of scientific determinism, which I can’t stand. The one place that we did find reflected our position as a magazine was The New Republic’s books section which is now gone, but that was a place that spoke with a humanistic voice that we really identified with.
What role does the online format of the magazine play for you? And who does that reach that the print magazine doesn’t?
Well, it reaches a lot more people than the print magazine! People have to pay for the print magazine and it’s not so easy to get people to pay for content anymore, as everyone who works in this industry knows. Online has been a conflict for us as it has been for everyone in the publishing industry, especially the question of how much material to release for free. The ultimate goal of our magazine is not to make money but to disseminate these articles and ideas, so obviously we want our best material online. We’ve had articles that have been seen by 75,000 people online, and yet we only have 5 or 600 subscribers to the print issues. So, we want those articles out there but on the other hand to survive we do need to get people to pay sometimes. I remember we thought early on that our longer articles wouldn’t translate online and people wouldn’t want to read them but we just haven’t found that to be true. For example, Love in the age of a pick-up artist was a 12,000-word article in issue two which ended up being our most popular article online to date. But there’s no real divide in terms of how we see our online or print audience: it’s just much bigger online.
And, will it ever be subscription online, have you considered it?
We’re working on a system that will allow for a paywall online. What we’ll probably do is something like where if someone reads more than three articles in a month it’ll ask them to pay, because we don’t want to restrict new people from reading our content, especially if they’ve never heard of The Point. But we do want to have some way, first of all to reward people who get the print subscription so that they get access to everything online, and also to draw a few more digital subscribers if we can find a way to raise some revenue that way. We haven’t had the technology up until now but we’re working on that right now.