John Barber, The Masses, January 1915

Editors’ Note | Circling the Drain

The Editors

It’s a truism that there are no new stories, that each narrative, no matter how novel it appears, is actually an iteration of one of three or seven or twelve archetypal plots. Maybe so, but the cultural landscape feels especially grim these days. 

After the shock of March 2020, something like a renaissance was supposed to play out — that’s what happens, the forecasters forecasted, when the patterns of ordinary life are abruptly unmade and then refashioned, forced to adhere to a new reality. But rather than galvanizing fresh artistic modes and formal innovations, all those days indoors seem to have yielded a product more akin to what they represented in the collective psyche. Boredom in, boredom out.

Across genres, we’re served up preformulated memes and bland, self-satisfied ideas. The sole agreed-upon Good Film of 2022 seemed engineered to push all the old buttons — #MeToo, cancel culture, generational gaps, gender and power. The rest of the talked-about T.V. shows and movies aimed for the same sweet spot — genuinely provocative four years ago, “thought-provoking” today — or else replicated the formulas that seemed to meet the moment during the Trump era. (The rich are stupid and undeserving? Say more, preferably in an idyllic setting, so we can enjoy escapist fantasies while still feeling morally superior.) The fastest-selling nonfiction book of all time appears to have resulted from a ghostwriter’s bid to milk his subject (a man who does not read books, couldn’t tell you who Faulkner is, thinks it’s erudite to have read Eat, Pray, Love) for embarrassing tidbits and confessions ready to be converted into screenshots and shareable sound bites. Marketing strategy has dissolved into raison d’être: prompting a response on the website that was supposed to implode dramatically but instead just got a little more boring, like everything else. It’s all designed to shock, and nothing’s the least bit surprising.

In this issue, we hope you’ll find writing that, at the very least, won’t bore you. Iman Mohamed tells us why Italian language classes in Somalia are not as innocuous as they sound, digging into the nostalgia for — and ongoing legacy of — the country’s colonial era. Zain Khalid reviews Salman Rushdie’s new novel, as well as mainstream reactions to his persecution over the years. In light of the laudatory reception of Rishi Sunak and calls to repatriate the Koh-i-noor diamond in the lead-up to this year’s coronation, Pranay Somayajula traces the transformation of anticolonialism from a radical political project into an empty aesthetic. Mitch Therieau asks what happens when cult favorite Adam Curtis turns off his famous narration. Looking at the history of insurrection in Korea and elsewhere, Nancy Ko points out what’s overlooked in contemporary assessments of capitalism and right-wing populism. Jameson Rich examines the sinister side of wearables and medical tech, and Max Norman wonders if we’ve projected contemporary ideas about diversity and body positivity onto the work of Diane Arbus. 

Our fiction, by Silas Jones, Clare Needham, and Magogodi oaMphela Makhene, will take you to a New England island in the off-season, Edinburgh during the Fringe Festival, and South Africa under apartheid. The poets in this issue — Joanna Klink, Rigel Portales, Timothy Donnelly, Gospel Chinedu, and Jessica Laser — have curated a selection of rare items, including ice-dust, truffles, gold-leaf wings, isotopes, and mango Jamba Juice. 

To cut through the bad-faith debates about “identity politics,” we interviewed Barbara Smith, who helped popularize the phrase as a founder of the black feminist Combahee River Collective. In our Dispatches section, we asked tech workers, critics, and other observers to weigh in on the state of the industry, taking stock of everything from union campaigns to megalomaniac CEOs. At the back of the issue, you’ll find Mentions on Laila Gohar’s shellfish topiaries, Glenn Gould’s humming habit, and other oddities. This is the ninth issue of The Drift, and we hope to continue surprising, delighting, and challenging you into the double digits.