Rachel Rosenfelt is a co-publisher of The New Inquiry, the creative director for Verso Books, associate director of the department of Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism at The New School, and a 2017-2018 member of NEW INC. She founded The New Inquiry in 2009, along with friends Mary Borkowski and Jennifer Bernstein, and grew it into the thoughtful, critical, often provocative publication it’s now known as. Many of the most interesting and influential writers working today have appeared on the magazine’s masthead early on in their careers. Rachel credits the economic recession for her own politicization, and many of the perennial themes and the oppositional attitude of the magazine seem to be tied inextricably to its formative years, pre- and post- Occupy Wall Street. In a year when topics like anti-fascism and anti-racism are headlining basically all major publications, The New Inquiry’s near decade of critical essays and reportage in that vein feel as important as ever.
The New Inquiry has always been based on the web, and Rachel and the magazine’s editorial board are continuously experimenting with what it means to be a digital publication. In April, the magazine published a machine-learning tool called the White Collar Crime Risk Zones, built by Sam Lavigne, Brian Clifton, and New Inquiry co-publisher Francis Tseng, which seemed to me to indicate a new phase, and new level maturation, of that endeavor. I asked Rachel if she’d be game to talk about where The New Inquiry is now and where it’s going. Over the phone late last week she was warm and intelligent, and equally animated when recounting the publication’s decentralized beginnings as she was articulating its constant evolution and way forward.
I didn’t realize until I was doing research for this interview that The New Inquiry was a Tumblr blog when it started out in 2009. Were you still in school at that point, or just out?
I think I was out of school. Certainly when I started Tumblring in earnest I was out of school. But only just.
I wondered if you ascribe a particular significance to starting it on Tumblr, which at the time was not really used for this type of longform publishing. Since The New Inquiry is such a digital-native, and digitally-savvy, initiative, I feel like getting your start on a social media platform is prescient. But maybe I’m reading too much into it.
No I think you’re right. The New Inquiry started just as an accident with friends of mine, Mary Borkowski and Jennifer Bernstein, who I knew from college. What New Inquiry ended up becoming was very different from what we had in mind. At the time we had a lot of unstructured intellectual energy and a sense of urgency about intervening ideas, but it was less clear then what we were feeling urgent about. In retrospect, it was student debt and the atrophy in journalism and publishing, alongside the inability of the university system to structure the talent it was producing.
I had blogged pretty prolifically in college. There was a community of different blogs, which was pretty small scale in the scheme of things, but those were the people I thought were doing the most interesting writing. I thought, what if we could get the people on the Internet that we didn’t know, but who were similarly unstructured, to write under the same thing? And we’ll call it something that sounds real, like The New Inquiry, and we’ll just see what happens. But when something doesn’t exist, you have to cross this ocean between it not existing and it being something people are willing to donate their time to. You want them to see what you see, and feel what you feel. When you’ve got nothing—no funding, not even clear idea of what it is—it’s not easy to get people to contribute their labor and energy to help build something.
After failed attempts at trying to get something started on a Wordpress and other things, I noticed that the people I wanted to work with all had Tumblrs, and they were updating them all the time. Tumblr was a new and primarily visual medium then, and I just thought, I’m not going to pull teeth here, I’m going to go where they are. I thought, well The New Inquiry is a Tumblr then, whatever—if this is a medium that feels natural to people, who am I to question it?
We became one of the first magazines to use Tumblr as a primary medium, but also as a primary social media platform. It was in this process of experimenting on Tumblr that one of our writers posted a long, unedited essay, and there was a handful of people who followed us at that time, and someone highlighted a passage and reblogged it, and that reblog went viral. It was from there that all the momentum of the online readership took off.
I realized that by posting longform essays on Tumblr, the readers would pull out the most interesting aspects and that would have its own life. And I loved the idea of The New Inquiry being decontextualized and recontextualized on everyone else’s platforms. The design of Tumblr and the functionality of Tumblr was wonderfully collaborative. It made us collaborators of our readers. I loved that. So I just embraced it.
That sense of collectivity feels inherent to what The New Inquiry became. Did you also find you were getting contributors through Tumblr?
I don’t know. I think probably, but in a way that I can’t track. But the kinds of cultures that emerged on Tumblr, the youth-oriented, female, diverse, experimental communities—the kind of Teenage Tumblr Thug, that’s my ideal reader. I love this notion, even though we’re not really active on Tumblr anymore, that there is kind of this batshit cacophony of teenage girls that are in the DNA of this project.
You mentioned that you didn’t really know what you wanted The New Inquiry to be in the beginning. How or when did the publication start to take shape in terms of content?
I can’t imagine having the whole picture in 2009, when everything was up in the air. I was very influenced by my two co-founders, Jen and Mary, and their sensibilities, even though they left New York before the project took the form you’d recognize today. Together we had at least established a basic politics that was oppositional. It registered itself mainly in literature. We were interested in avant garde literature, independent publishing, and the crevices of culture. At the time we were more literary. In my defense we were just out of college, god help us.
I became politicized around the circumstances of our lives. I saw the trend piece before it was written about the millennial as a class position, that what makes us a generation is that we came of age in the era of no future, without a clear sense of a way forward, or a way up or a way out. It was isolating. Everyone wants to hire you to be the social media manager but pay you nothing and not give you health insurance, so you’re updating the Facebooks or Twitters of 50 organizations alone in your bedroom, having a panic attack. And I’m speaking from and about a position of privilege! It’s dark.
I started reading Rob Horning’s blog Marginal Utility, which was published on Pop Matters. I began seeking out the people who were interested in certain subject matters. Who was an expert in the Southern Agrarians? Who was writing about culture and Marx in a way that’s not about party politics? I put up a little link to submit your essay through New Inquiry. People submitted, and in a sort of Forrest Gump-style, I constructed an editorial collective that was The Left. It was left of liberalism and, in most cases, left of socialism. When Occupy happened, suddenly all of these people I had brought in because of some attitude or sensibility I shared with them, they just ripped off their masks and had Guy Fawkes masks underneath. I’m talking about Sarah Leonard, or Malcolm Harris, Willie Osterweil, Natasha Lennard. Our primary interest was culture, technology, and art, and politics was the subtext, but it became the context of it over time.
We also made the decision that we would not go to print, that it would only be on the Internet, and that we only really cared about people on the Internet. We wanted the most people to read it as possible. We didn’t come out of a scene, we didn’t start out as friends, and the fun of it is that we would never have to be a scene. We could always live in that Tumblr space, having our work disembedded from its content.
I don’t think any of us were imagining that we were sharpening the political edge of The New Inquiry at that time. The internal clashes yielded what the contemporary politicized New Inquiry is. But the ever-present, and always constant, interest in technology on the level of the individual self, on the level of politics, on the level of culture—that’s always been an editorial priority. That’s the only thing I can say that’s remained consistent throughout our coverage.
You were going to design and code the original site yourself, but ultimately decided to save up your own money and hire a design firm instead, to save yourself some time. What is your background or interest in programming? Is it mostly a hobby, or something more formal?
Well, I was a sexless, friendless teenager [laughs], and was always on the computer growing up. I’ve tried to get deeper into coding. I worked right out of college for a constructionist learning theory nonprofit where I taught code to public school teachers in West Virginia. I have at various stages in my life been first in different programming languages. But it was never as much a tradable skill as it was a point of view.
For me it was centered around how authority is conferred. I had an insight throughout my life that technology was going to change the terms of authority. So I felt interested in that. It wasn’t that I felt like it would give me some sort of authority, but more that I lost all interest in existing systems of authority. Whatever technology brings, the definite outcome of our user-oriented insight around technology was that the institutions of power that I was being told to care about, I knew I didn’t have to. At least in the realm of culture, I didn’t have to kiss any asses.
I felt that there was a vertigo of authority: that whether or not high culture, or universities, or journalistic institutions, knew it, they didn’t have it. It was freeing in a limiting sense. A lot of the ways that people may have considered me bold was more just that I knew that none of it mattered. It’s not brave when you know the stakes are so low. When people think the stakes are high, they’re like ‘How could you have the conceit to start a magazine and act like it’s real?’ and I’m like ‘No, but no magazines are real!’ [laughs]. You know, like, ‘It’s cool, let’s all have a magazine now.’ It was more humility than it was a sense of ascension. It was a sense of break down.
I read an interview you gave Nieman Lab a couple of years ago, where you said, ‘It’s very challenging to think in the form of what it actually means to run an Internet magazine, versus what it means to run a magazine that you put on the Internet.’ I love how you worded that distinction. Can you talk about what the difference is to you?
I think that there is a difference, and I think that I perceived it when I said that to the Nieman Lab. But at the time I knew that I didn’t yet have the tools to imagine it. There were small things, like since we have a subscription for only digital, we would distribute the magazine for paid subscribers in a PDF. There was this joke that nobody reads PDFs, but it’s the objectness of the PDF—the way in which you could ask someone for money for it, and they get this object, even if it’s just this uncomfortable, difficult object. That’s as opposed to access, which we don’t want to sell. Everyone should have access. But some get the object, and it’s the token or ritual of exchange that’s important.
There were also ways that we could just be absurd. We used to do barter contests on Twitter that were like, “What are you going to trade us for a lifetime subscription to the New Inquiry?” Of course, it’s free for us, we just put your email on a list. We dressed up New Inquiry in a Halloween costume as Craigslist one year, and it was so funny. It blew up. So all of these kind of low-concept, playful things.
Artist and programmer Sam Lavigne joined The New Inquiry about four years ago, and that was the beginning of the idea that he could be some sort of key to what I meant [in the Nieman Lab interview.] There is a critical substance to his work that I wanted to explore with The New Inquiry, but I couldn’t quite figure out how. And many years later I meet [New Inquiry co-publisher] Francis Tseng, and Francis had a clearer idea of what The New Inquiry meant to him, and how those same ideas were communicated through his work. It began coming together: it took seeing The New Inquiry through Francis’s eyes, and with Sam and Francis together we began to see this idea that a magazine online is a whole different object. It became something that we could realize, not just speculate about.
Francis came on in December of 2016 and the following spring The New Inquiry received a grant from the Brown Institute at Columbia to work on what you’re calling “rhetorical technology.” The first example of that is the White Collar Crime Risk Zones, a tool that uses machine learning to predict where financial crimes will happen across the U.S. How have you been thinking about the magazine differently recently, and how have you been thinking about how it will exist into the future?
The White Collar Crime Risk Zone concept came from Brian Clifton, who teamed up with Sam and Francis to launch it as a part of the Abolish issue, and it’s an indication of an expanded imagination of what a magazine can be. I see the White Collar Crime Risk Zone app as what a political cartoon used to be, when the form was at its height. Which would be like when cartoonist Thomas Nast brought down Tammony Hall in 19th century New York. That was when political cartoons were really powerful, and we see “rhetorical technology” as not unlike that. The challenge of imagining new forms that are in the service of our critical project is one of the more exciting frontiers that we are moving into.
Ava Kofman, the current editor-in-chief, has a very strong editorial vision. She brought on Aaron Cantú and Maya Binyam as senior editors, alongside Raven Rakia and others. We’ve been growing an amazing staff including Tiana Reid and Lou Cornum from there. Their first issue was the Violence issue, which came out in November of last year. You can also look at what was published in the aftermath of the election to see The New Inquiry’s priorities under their leadership. We stand by and are very proud of our response. The New Inquiry never does well in an election cycle because the concerns that pop up in other publications during the election cycle are evergreen concerns for us. But after Trump was elected, the kind of energy that rushed into The New Inquiry, and the response, was so good. I’ve never been prouder of anything than the things that we published in the immediate term after Trump’s election, and that is a line that we hold. We’re not responding to the news, we’re responding to these perennial issues that color everything.
Right. The issues that have been on everyone’s mind lately, and are being covered with new fervor in almost every publication, are issues that have long been the bedrock of New Inquiry.
We’ve been explicitly, and under no uncertain terms, anti-racist and anti-fascist. White supremacy and fascism have always been central concerns for us. There are articles that have been circulating organically through the internet recently, and the people posting them will refer to them as The New Inquiry’s response to whatever news event, without even noticing the publication date. It feels like a current response, but it’s just that our archive is very strong on issues that are just becoming more central concerns for other publications.
I think we’ve built up trust with our readership and our writers over the years. We’ve brought on more people with a background in investigative journalism, and more people who write about technology from an investigative standpoint. We’re growing a set of contributors who are doing more than just writing essays. It feels natural that we articulate and provide a sense-making mechanism for this political moment for those that are committed to anti-fascist, anti-racist, anti-capital, and anti-state values. We want to reach the people who read a magazine and engage with one because it is a grounding for a whole way of thinking, and a whole life. We are not pushing a political platform, we’re advancing a common sense.