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Posted by on Feb 3, 2009 in At TMV | 0 comments

The Flight and Foibles of Culture 11

Last week, five-month-old Culture 11 — an site that was part blog constellation, part online magazine, and part social networking community — announced that it was shuttering its operations and laying off its staff based on funding availability. At the site’s primary blog, The Confabulum, Culture 11 CEO David Kuo left the following explanation,

Sometimes there are simple stories. Culture11’s is one of them. We raised a certain amount of money last year predicated on the assumption we would raise more money last year. Then the Fall’s fall occurred and we stretched money as long and far as we could without incurring any debts. With no new money in the door the board decided the most prudent thing to do was suspend business operations.

Since its closure, rumours, speculation, and opinions have flown fast and furiously about whether the underlying reasons were financial, as indicated by Kuo and others, or whether there were deeper problems at play with the site.

No one seems to disagree that Culture 11 itself was an experiment. Often referred to as a “right-of-centre Slate”, Culture 11 sought to embark on a new course of writing, bringing the spheres of culture and politics into closer proximity to see what might fall out of that trajectory.

As Managing Editor Joe Carter wrote,

We also realized that America didn’t need another website that focused on politics. Conservative political content – the good, the bad, and the mediocre – could be found anywhere. But no one was consistently writing about culture from a conservative perspective.

We wondered what would happen if we wrote about books and television and movies and family and religion and all of the other things that most people care about more than they care about politics. We decided we wanted to be one of the select few conservative sites that considered culture more important than politics.

People didn’t know what to make of the site because we weren’t quite sure what we were making of it either. We didn’t easily fit ready-made labels because we couldn’t agree even amongst ourselves. We got tagged as a “center-right Slate” after we included that self-description in a pitch to freelancers. Numerous people latched on to that offhand description, though it never really fit us. We wanted to be something different, something unique, and most of all, “irresistibly interesting.” Sometimes we succeeded, sometimes we failed.

If you had asked me on any given day, as my boss often did, if I was satisfied with our content I would answer “no.” I thought we were a beautiful mess. Although I was almost always thrilled by the quality of our individual articles and blog posts, as a whole it didn’t always gel. Sometimes we were too insular, referencing the same blogs and writers as if we were at a private party. Sometimes we were too wonky and self-indulgent. Sometimes (especially when I was writing) we were just plain boring.

One of the most often noted noted ways that Culture 11 sought to break this mold was by going about the brave task of seeking out undiscovered writers to give voice to its “beautiful mess”. As Carter, once again, said,

But no sooner had we put the editorial staff together than we had a crisis of conscience about what we were becoming. We had compiled a list of potential contributors consisting of the top 100 conservative pundits. David took one look and the list and delivered his one word verdict: old. They were old. Almost every person on the list was over-40 (David was still a sprightly 39 at the time). Almost every name was an establishment figure that had a syndicated column or a writing perch at a prominent magazine. How would we be different, David asked, if we had the same writers as everyone else?

That was all the permission we needed to become, as David would often say, “Rolling Stone in the ‘70s.” We wanted to be the place that found the next Cameron Crowes and Hunter Thompsons. So armed with a hubristic sense of mission and our blogrolls, we began to search out our favorite smart, young voices. We reached out to the bloggers and writers we liked to read – whether anyone else had ever heard of them didn’t matter.

That commitment to organizing the site in a new and unique fashion that encouraged the involvement of yet unheard voices quickly provided Culture 11 will a loyal following who have sounded their grief throughout the blogosphere. Writing on the news, prominent Atlantic blogger Andrew Sullivan gushed,

It represented, at its best, a new and honest start for a thinking young conservatism, forged by a new generation of writers who, for the most part, were unafraid to think freshly – and showed up their elders by their courage and curiosity. I have a feeling that Culture 11 will one be remembered in the same way that Seven Days, the briefly brilliant New York City magazine that Adam Moss edited in the late 80s, is now remembered. One day, a conservative journal will emerge that is able to break from the stifling, clammy orthodoxy of today’s post-Buckley National Review and the often unhinged neocon catechism of the Weekly Standard. When it does, its editors will be able to look back and say that Culture 11 opened up the frontier.

However, not everyone was enthralled by the Culture 11 project and the criticism has been as striking in the site’s shuttering as the praise. Josh Trevino noted in his post-mortem,

Culture11’s subject matter was perfect for, say, summer 2000: heavy on pop and principles, light on policy and prescriptions. But it launched in summer 2008, when the national conversation was focused on war and economics. In that sense, it was marginalized from the start, and stayed that way: today, for example, the single largest item on its front page concerns the Culture11 “American Idol Watch Party.” This may be good fun, but it’s not particularly in touch with the national zeigeist — nor even the zeitgeist of those who read online publications like Culture11.

William Beutler from Blogging P.I. queried,

I’m not sure what Culture11 was supposed to mean, but it had the unfortunate connotation for me of 9/11, which in turn made me think the site was supposed to be or comment upon something like “a cultural 9/11? and I just didn’t understand. At least something like “Slate” or “Salon” conjures something: a place for writing and a place for talking, respectively. And while “culture” is interesting, it always seems less so when one calls it that.

And on a more biting note Robert Stacy McCain flayed,

From launch in August to collapse in January, Kuo burned through Culture11’s start-up capital in something short of six months. No Crowes or Thompsons escaped the flaming wreckage.

As an act of blogospheric honesty, I should note before I go on that while I have tried to make this piece as even-handed as possible, I was a frequenter and two-time written contributor to Culture 11, so as my own farewell to the site indicates, I am biased on these matters.

That said, I don’t think it is entirely coincidence that an off-the-beaten trail conservative website came into being and generated broad recognition, for good or for ill, at a time when most conservatives were staring a time in the political wilderness in the face. Like it or lump it, Culture 11 brought a different sensibility to online conservative discourse that succeeded in broadening the discursive horizons of any number of different issues, and conservatism on the whole is like better off for the short amount of time it managed to do so.

The criticisms of Culture 11 are not only valid, they are in fact valuable. Valuable insofar as the idea behind the site, as most seem to agree, is a good one that has an audience and a need not just in conservative debate, but amidst the American political melee generally, and those criticisms may help to inform the future ambitions of a similar project that many have expressed an interest in seeing.

Granted, Culture 11 may have been a deformed black swan that never really learned how to fly, but a majority of people seemed to enjoy and value watching it try. And sometimes the trying is what really counts.