by Stacey Levine

Revolt of the Masscult

by Chris Lehmann

(Prickly Paradigm Press) $10

The Companion Species Manifesto: Dogs, People, and Significant Otherness

by Donna Haraway

(Prickly Paradigm Press) $10

Given that there's so much offensive and wrong about conglomerate-driven book publishing, many small presses set out to take matters into their own hands. This is the case with University of Chicago-based Prickly Paradigm. This press' mission statement refers to the big-guns publishers' predilections for vulgar sweep-marketing and entertainment tie-ins, and it also cites the long-standing worry that today's corporate publishing will soon mean the end of books as conduits for ideas.

So, inspired by the figure of the 18th-century pamphleteer (a person who walked around town handing out pamphlets) and the British academic pamphlet publisher Prickly Pear, a University of Chicago anthropologist, Marshall Sahlins, helped start Prickly Paradigm. His intention was to revitalize "a stagnant academy." The result is pocket-sized "pamphlets"--actually small, shiny- covered paperback books--from maverick thinkers/theorists like Donna Haraway, Bruno Latour, and The Baffler's Thomas Frank. The press encourages such writers to be as off-the-wall as they want, which is a strength for the press as a whole, but also a weakness.

But the 2003 Prickly Paradigm list includes two pretty exciting titles; one is a smart, seething cultural analysis by Washington Post Book World editor Chris Lehmann, Revolt of the Masscult. This tract is rife with good, angry energy; messily and ambitiously, as if a work in progress, it takes on cultural studies and theorists dating back to the 1920s, when mass culture began to form in the U.S.

By turns rollicking and sour, the author takes a long look at last year's Oprah Winfrey/ Jonathan Franzen flap (in which the media mostly cast Franzen as a freaky elitist snob, and Winfrey, with her lowbrow book picks and pretense of authority about literature, as laudable). He links this episode to the larger issue of anti-intellectualism in "masscult" and America's monoculture of presumed cultural consensus and increasing dumb-downedness.

Though his analysis is not always consistent, the author is right to report this country is more hostile than ever to intellectuals. Now the right wing, or whoever they are, seem to have infected even liberals with the phobia of intellectualism (notice how the word itself takes on a rather icky tang as you read it here, now, in contemporary North America). Even some editorial workers and contributors at this newspaper seem dumbstruck with antipathy for investigating life's complexities and gray areas--the mark of intellectual analysis--instead of presenting the world via harsh binary splits between what's cool and what sucks.

Despite sometimes hairy and hyperadjectival sentences, Revolt of the Masscult is enjoyable, most especially its critique of Dave Eggers' memoir, which is essentially "TV on the printed page, compulsively wisecracking, garrulously self-narrating... and fearful of emotional engagement."

Another exciting offering from the Prickly Paradigm list is Haraway's The Companion Species Manifesto: Dogs, People, and Significant Otherness, a dense exploration of the Haraway worldview, most famously depicted in her well-known feminist essay "The Cyborg Manifesto." In sentences like long, marvelous trails, occasionally irritating, Haraway discusses dogs' existence vis-à-vis humans and the dog-breeding world, somewhat in the spirit of Foucault--ceaselessly pulling up and laying bare the jungly underbrush of socio-techno-cultural particulars that create, rule, and sustain our lives. Tonically, she writes: "Mine is a story told by a student of the sciences and a feminist who has gone to the dogs, literally. Dogs, in their historical complexity, matter here. Dogs are not an alibi for other themes; dogs are fleshly material-semiotic presences in the body of technoscience.... [I want] to understand companion species in both storied deep time, which is chemically etched in the DNA of [animals'] every cell, and in recent doings, which leave more odoriferous traces."

Haraway stabs the common idea that dogs are "furry children" for their owners, stating that "dogs are not about oneself. Indeed, that is the beauty of dogs. They are not a projection, nor the realization of an intention, nor the telos of anything. They are dogs: i.e., a species in obligatory, constitutive, historical, protean relationship with human beings."

Both the Haraway and Lehmann books contain the spontaneous-feeling, challenging sort of composition that is Prickly Paradigm's goal. These assets will make it harder for the press to survive, though it offers serious writers and readers a place to go.