What is n+1?

Question: What is n+1?

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Keith Gessen: n+1 is a literary magazine. It comes out twice a year, although we’re often a little bit late with it. It’s in the tradition of the Partisan Review, also the Russian thick journals, like Novyi mir. It publishes essays, polemical essays, and it publishes fiction. And the idea of it- and it also publishes a piece at the beginning which is authored collectively by the editors, called The Intellectual Scene, which tries to look around us and see what are some of the developments that are new in The Intellectual Scene, as we call it, with magazines, with readings, with idea- with the idea of reading. So these are things that are related to literature, mostly. And we’re trying to figure out what’s going on, what’s happening, what’s new.

Most of all, the magazine is devoted to understanding contemporary life, so when we were looking around, when we were getting out of school in the ‘90s, there were actually a number of these magazines. There was The Baffler, there was Hermenaut- The Baffler was a lot about labor politics, but also about the culture industry. Hermenaut tried to use philosophy to understand pop culture, and wrote a lot about movies and music. Lingua Franca wrote about- in a popular way- about what was going on in the academy. In 2000/2001, all these things collapsed. They all disappeared. So we were sitting around, and what we had was a lot of old magazines that were still doing a good job, but mostly they were interested in dead authors, or you know, not necessarily Flaubert but say, James Agee, you know, a great writer- Dwight Macdonald, a great writer, and yet, we’ve had enough about those guys, or there are definitely forums for writing about them. And in fact, I write about them. But we wanted to make a commitment to finding the people in our own time that we wanted to read and think about. And, similarly, we wanted to treat contemporary phenomenon like, you know, contemporary everyday life, meaning exercise, eating, the cubicle- we had a great essay on the cubicle- things that you see every day and think about them and ask what’s wrong with those things.

Why do we do these things? Why do we sit in cubicles? Why do we go to the gym? You know, how did this happen? And where is it taking us? And so the essays in the magazine are all highly argumentative, and they’re highly critical of what’s going on in America.

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Recorded: 3/18/08

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Keith Gessen, one of the literary magazine's founders, explains.

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An organism found in dirt may lead to an anxiety vaccine, say scientists

Can dirt help us fight off stress? Groundbreaking new research shows how.

University of Colorado Boulder
Surprising Science
  • New research identifies a bacterium that helps block anxiety.
  • Scientists say this can lead to drugs for first responders and soldiers, preventing PTSD and other mental issues.
  • The finding builds on the hygiene hypothesis, first proposed in 1989.

Are modern societies trying too hard to be clean, at the detriment to public health? Scientists discovered that a microorganism living in dirt can actually be good for us, potentially helping the body to fight off stress. Harnessing its powers can lead to a "stress vaccine".

Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder found that the fatty 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid from the soil-residing bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae aids immune cells in blocking pathways that increase inflammation and the ability to combat stress.

The study's senior author and Integrative Physiology Professor Christopher Lowry described this fat as "one of the main ingredients" in the "special sauce" that causes the beneficial effects of the bacterium.

The finding goes hand in hand with the "hygiene hypothesis," initially proposed in 1989 by the British scientist David Strachan. He maintained that our generally sterile modern world prevents children from being exposed to certain microorganisms, resulting in compromised immune systems and greater incidences of asthma and allergies.

Contemporary research fine-tuned the hypothesis, finding that not interacting with so-called "old friends" or helpful microbes in the soil and the environment, rather than the ones that cause illnesses, is what's detrimental. In particular, our mental health could be at stake.

"The idea is that as humans have moved away from farms and an agricultural or hunter-gatherer existence into cities, we have lost contact with organisms that served to regulate our immune system and suppress inappropriate inflammation," explained Lowry. "That has put us at higher risk for inflammatory disease and stress-related psychiatric disorders."

University of Colorado Boulder

Christopher Lowry

This is not the first study on the subject from Lowry, who published previous work showing the connection between being exposed to healthy bacteria and mental health. He found that being raised with animals and dust in a rural environment helps children develop more stress-proof immune systems. Such kids were also likely to be less at risk for mental illnesses than people living in the city without pets.

Lowry's other work also pointed out that the soil-based bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae acts like an antidepressant when injected into rodents. It alters their behavior and has lasting anti-inflammatory effects on the brain, according to the press release from the University of Colorado Boulder. Prolonged inflammation can lead to such stress-related disorders as PTSD.

The new study from Lowry and his team identified why that worked by pinpointing the specific fatty acid responsible. They showed that when the 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid gets into cells, it works like a lock, attaching itself to the peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor (PPAR). This allows it to block a number of key pathways responsible for inflammation. Pre-treating the cells with the acid (or lipid) made them withstand inflammation better.

Lowry thinks this understanding can lead to creating a "stress vaccine" that can be given to people in high-stress jobs, like first responders or soldiers. The vaccine can prevent the psychological effects of stress.

What's more, this friendly bacterium is not the only potentially helpful organism we can find in soil.

"This is just one strain of one species of one type of bacterium that is found in the soil but there are millions of other strains in soils," said Lowry. "We are just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg in terms of identifying the mechanisms through which they have evolved to keep us healthy. It should inspire awe in all of us."

Check out the study published in the journal Psychopharmacology.