As Sectarian Review celebrates its first year of existence, I’m troubled that its purpose is hazy.
I've long been inspired by the legacy (perhaps the mythology) of this show's namesake, partisan review. It is a romantic notion I know, public intellectuals, not entirely shackled to university careers, engaging in passionate debate over the issues of day and the ways art might intervene in them. It all seems rather quaint in the light of the serious issues we as a society face, and I’m sympathetic to the argument that this image is that of a cloistered aloofness that theorizes, rather than confronts, public crises.
However, when i actually read the essays and reviews collected in those shabby covers, i find wisdom and insight that remains startlingly contemporary and even useful. It seems impossible that this group of intellectuals was just wasting its time. I urge the reader to take a little time to read its essays; insightful prose not mired in contemporary academic professional jargon (it is amusing that this is the field that thinks it - not the old public intellectual - is singularly capable of changing social reality).
The Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center at Boston University has made the entire run of PR available online here.
A translation of PR’s project to the digital era seems a natural thing for me to do, given my proclivities. Further, by most accounts, the public appetite for podcasting is voracious in our current moment, so much so that even venerable print publications like Vanity Fair have taken time to reflect on their significance. Yet the ascendancy of the form gives me more anxiety than exhilaration.
Growing an audience for the show is odious. I'm compelled by tradition to beg for iTunes ratings each episode (a task I nearly always remember to do now). Supposedly, the more activity that occurs there, the more listeners will descend upon the show. However, as I scan the shows that comprise the current podcast craze, the competition is overwhelming. The shows that are most important to the podcast ecosphere tend to be avatars of already established media. NPR and Slate programs dominate, as do celebrity intellectuals like Malcolm Gladwell and famous comedians like Marc Maron. For every Serial, the iTunes chart is littered with established, professional programming that represents not the democratization of ideas, but rather the colonization of a market by established media powers.
I believe it was Nathan Gilmour of the Christian Humanist Podcast who suggested to me that iTunes and Stitcher should begin to distinguish between podcasting, and procasting. In other words, create a "charting" system that might level an imbalanced economy of producers. Until that practice is adopted, however, I will employ the term "the little podcast" to describe the work that Sectarian Review attempts to do.
The term I suggest is an obvious variation on "the little magazine," a form characterized by journals like Partisan Review and persisting into our current moment in publications such as n+1. The title of the essay you are reading is taken from Lionel Trilling's introduction to The Partisan Reader: Ten Years of Partisan Review, which he titled "The Function Of The Little Magazine," which I quoted in the epigraph to this piece.
Trilling's essay (now collected in his seminal The Liberal Imagination) introduced a collection celebrating a decade of PR, yet its tone is anxious. The critic laments the fallen condition of the life of the mind in his time. Reading the essay today, it is startling how similar our moment seems to his. Trilling describes his epoch as one:
"When a mechanical literacy is spreading more and more, when more and more people insist, as they should, on an equality of cultural status and are in danger of being drawn to what was called by Tocqueville . . . The 'hypocrisy of luxury,' the satisfaction with the thing that looks like the real thing but is not the real thing."
Partisan Review, with its 6000 readers, stood only as a small resistance to this neglect of mind, a coterie as Trilling puts it, against the tidal movements of American culture.
As is common in Trilling's prose, there is lament embedded in the insight. The essay's tone suggests a touch of shame about the celebratory nature of the volume it introduces. Yet, despite the smallness of the ripple PR left, Trilling expresses gratitude for the efforts, concluding that we "must take into account what would be our moral and political condition if the impulse which such a magazine represents did not exist..."
the very fact that small groups of serious-minded, educated people worked to maintain cultural spaces like PR's pages represented hope. And the little magazine became a version of Noah’s ark, carrying the hope that imagination and mind might survive for future generations. And not to pick a fight, I maintain that it provided a far more necessary and moral ark than the one ken ham has recently squeezed out of evangelical donations in Kentucky.
Trilling's essay heartens my own efforts in maintaining and improving the show going forward, primarily because it alleviates my desire to be popular. I am not Malcolm Gladwell or Ira Glass. Nor do I harbor any desire to replicate a "morning zoo" aesthetic for Sectarian Review. Striving for that kind of cultural relevance bears a heavy moral price that conflicts with the goals of this show. Simply stated, my purpose is to help, in my own small way, to look after the Christian imagination.
Trilling traced the decline of literature to the ascendancy of the media competing with it - "the radio, the movies, and certain magazines." he then went on to note (somewhat cryptically) that they were "antagonistic to literature not merely because they are competing genres but also because of the political and cultural assumptions that control them." i take from this that Partisan Review was better suited to do its moral work at the margins of society, shunning the controlling ideological assumptions (i.e. capitalism) of ascendant radio and television.
Wise as ever, however, Trilling recognizes that the margins offer no guarantee of the moral high ground, writing that while the word "coterie" is nothing to fear for the writer seeking significance, "neither should it charm us too much; writing for a small group does not insure integrity any more than writing for the many; the coterie can corrupt as surely, and sometimes as quickly, as the big advertising appropriation." more than simplistic elitism, his defense of the coterie is just that there is an accountability in small groups that is different than the kind that business plans and accountants provide. The small audience of PR actually, in Trilling's mind, supported its mission better than the larger readerships of, say, life.
Likewise, I am fine with the coterie that assembles itself around this show as it requires of us nothing more than our values. In addition, I look forward to responding to the imaginative and intellectual discipline it provides as Sectarian Review forms itself into whatever it will become.
As to that last point, what the show is or might become, well that is still an open question.
A quick perusal of our first year's output is potentially bewildering. The show has covered abstract human concepts like "voice," genres of popular culture (horror), specific works of pop culture (Daredevil and Jessica Jones), politics (Trump), historical subjects (David Barton), interviews with artists (J. Kwest, Chris Bernstorf), sports (football), and critiques of Christ-centered art (Pure Flix).
I pray that SR's audience maintains its patience, but I wish to make a claim for a unity in what we've produced already.
The Wild Goose Festival episodes explicitly dealt with another abstract notion, that of "hipness." during those two shows, I attempted to make a claim on the kind of marginal ethical spaces that PR sought out. That philosophical concept operates as a stance, a posture from which to participate in culture(s), sacred and secular - with intentionally fuzzy boundaries between the two. I propose that this posture characterizes nearly every episode.
In short, from a position alongside both secularism and sanctity, the show reviews both. The term "sectarian" - suggested by Nathan Gilmour - therefore necessarily contains a double meaning. Our criticism of culture operates from a claimed ethical position, Christianity. We are the sectarians in that sense. At the same time however, as we strive to occupy the edges of Christian culture, we simultaneously "review" Christendom’s sectarianism(s). Sectarians commenting on sectarianism. The show's organizing question is therefore something like:
"what is the machinery that causes us to think the things we think, to do the things we do, and to imagine the things we imagine?"
a hyper-awareness, of institutions and their workings, therefore characterizes the approach and subject matter of SR. This is the clearest way to understand our idiosyncratic topic selection as, in fact, unified and determined.
The coterie the show has brought together so far has provided great satisfaction to this endeavor. Further, it has shaped the mission as stated above. Perhaps the aspect of the show I am proudest of is that, from an early stage, it has been pushed by its listeners, many of whom become contributors and hosts. This is far more satisfying than a thousand iTunes ratings (though please don't be discouraged from leaving one). Sectarian Review has reached the point where each show topic, as likely as not, originated from listeners and other contributors. Our own coterie seems to have a sense, however vague, of what this little podcast is.
Thus I must thank each participant (both on air and behind the scenes) of Sectarian Review by name (in no real order):
Drew Van'tland, Allison Backous Troy, Thom Dawkins, Mark Trump, Todd Pedlar, David Grubbs, Nathan Gilmour, Michial Farmer, Mike Farmer, Victoria Farmer, Ed Simon, Carla Ewert, Michael Kimpan, Kristen Filipic, Chris Ebenezer, Jordan Poss, Jay Eldred, Jamie Mcdaniel, Kierstin Murosky, Carter Stepper, And Megan Von Bergen. And the list grows.
This is a coterie I can live with.
The Sectarian Review Podcast is hosted by Danny Anderson, who is an Assistant Professor of English at Mount Aloysius College in Cresson, PA.