Madness and Civilization

Diagram mapping eye movements while observing a painting. From “Ways of Seeing,” Cabinet magazine (summer 2008).
Diagram mapping eye movements while observing a painting. From “Ways of Seeing,” Cabinet magazine (summer 2008).

On January 30, approximately 180 people overfilled an auditorium in the New York Public Library to witness an event titled (after Musil, in part) “Cabinet on Trial: A Magazine of No Qualities?” Forty-five issues into Cabinet’s run, which began thirteen years ago, a hefty compendium called Curiosity and Method: Ten Years of Cabinet Magazine is being published. This large orange tome defines itself bluntly, and early: “THIS BOOK IS AN ENCYCLOPEDIA.” Typical entries include “Mauve,” a short essay on the chemical and cultural components of the dye, and “Public Relations,” a history of the corporate push behind popularizing the banana in the ’50s. The model in mind for the book was the 1974 Encyclopaedia Britannica, “a thirty-volume effort to get the cosmos onto paper.” This collection had no index, though earlier versions did. Curiosity and Method, only 528 pages long, also lacks an index. The editors promise to publish one on the magazine’s twentieth anniversary.

But there is no need for an index, which is, obliquely, what the mock trial was about. The NYPL event echoed a 1921 Dada trial of Maurice Barrès, staged by André Breton to address Barrès’s collusion with nationalist groups like Action Française. (“Mock trial” is still appropriate in this case, as Barrès skipped town and was represented by a mannequin.) But the Cabinet event was much closer in mood and practice to the 2007 trial in Madrid of Anton Vidokle and Tirdad Zolghadr, charged with “collusion with the bourgeoisie and other serious accusations.” (Those judges and prosecutors, as at the NYPL event, were drawn from art magazines.) As “judges” Claire Bishop, Ben Wizner, and Hal Foster sat sternly at a desk, like docile but committed apparatchiks, statements were made against Cabinet and then rebutted. For the prosecution, writer Gideon Lewis-Kraus accused the journal of a variety of sins rooted in triviality, crowded soil in the age of meme cats and MacPaint editorials. “Take any issue at random,” he said, “and you’ll find a repetitive series of minor encomia to pendulums and bumblebees.” He dug in and said that Cabinet is “a forum where insecure academics get to mingle with insecure artists, a nexus for transactions whereby junior professors get to feel fashionable and artists get a taste of intellectual credibility.” This condemnation elicited a long, steady laugh—a tip-off that nobody was exactly nervous about the kind of verdict hanging over the magazine. Cabinet had set itself up while writing the house rules, making a point with someone else’s time, much the same way a Texas Hold’em player uses another player’s agitation to gain an edge in the game. The audience was invited not merely to deride but to figure out what kind of derision might be appropriate.

When accusations against the magazine had been weighed, the judges decided that Cabinet could not be charged with “lying” but indeed was guilty of “political irrelevance” and being “aesthetically corrupt.” That was one version of the punch line, though a more charming summary came from science journalist Natalie de Souza. She said, before the reckoning of the judges, “What are the consequences of an academic being a little cool?” The point, hidden in plain sight, is that Cabinet has apparently few worries about where it fits in the magnetized field of aesthetics and politics. Journals of a certain vintage have been negotiating this territory for years—call it the October Zone. When your publication is facing an academic audience of minimal size, and when the readers, critics, and contributors are likely the same twenty or thirty thousand people, contentions are just a part of being a subscriber. If New Left Review holds the fort for those still dissecting the various dicta of May ’68 (a version of resistance) and younger journals like n+1 give voice to millennials and scold established commercial titles like The Atlantic (a version of engagement), Cabinet floats above the community scuffles and board meetings. Decadent in its presentation—printed on heavy paper and perfect-bound from the very first issue, elegantly designed, and thick with marginal notes on marginalia—it replaces the pull of politics and aesthetics with curiosity and evasion. And this is certainly its own form of politics: If your work avoids the trap of utility and of easily referenced definitions, you slip outside the frame of exchange value. If you catalogue both the emerging and the nearly defunct, can you be co-opted? What if your cabinet neither opens nor closes?

Or, more to the point, the subtitle of the trial—“A Magazine of No Qualities?”—is a verdict founder and editor in chief Sina Najafi would likely not mind. Najafi has spoken in interviews of Cabinet as a space for academics to communicate in an “accessible” and “jargon-free” way, and the alternation between the work of academics and that of artists in the magazine helps decenter the mood, fruitfully. He has spoken of wanting Cabinet to capture both the “exuberance” of artists and their idiosyncratic ways of perceiving the world, and also of a need to reinvigorate the role of the public intellectual in America, two goals that are not at all redundant. But there is a line where dispersion skirts dilettantism. And as to whether Cabinet’s methods are indeed a form of curiosity, that can be answered only partly by this book (which—god bless traditional bookbinding—opens easily on any table). Cabinet, going forward, has to grapple with a field rich with journals and magazines that overlap with one another; staying relevant may involve nothing more than sticking to an intentionally loose program.

One thing that makes Cabinet a reasonable bet is that academia represents, de jure, an investment of time. Najafi may want to move academics and journalists closer together, in terms of written tone, but Cabinet depends on the sensibilities of writers not tied to the news cycle. Both Sasha Archibald’s brief summation of US officials testing LSD on goats and D. Graham Burnett’s long, luxurious riff on loss, as understood through the aesthetics of art restoration, feel immersive in the way universities do, and should. Giving academics the room to go beyond white papers—to be interviewed, to adumbrate passions by cataloguing trivia—creates a space that is especially welcome when the entire academic project has become materially, concretely precarious.

For younger readers, used to the short entry with a shorter shelf life, academic engagement regains some of its appeal when topics aren’t treated at thesis length. Curiosity induces method. Encyclopedias, Cabinet’s or otherwise, encourage a leisurely browsing that will be comfortable to those raised on the rhythms of the Internet. Curiosity and Method does away with most taxonomies, though it does unfold alphabetically. For anyone engaged with Web 2.0, C&M may read like a high-quality Tumblr written in a conversational tone by academics with wide-ranging tastes. This is only a good thing—Curiosity and Method is addictive, tied to the spirit of both Dada and Foucault, goofy but interrogative, susceptible to the allure of the decorative but unafraid of theoretical knots. Curiosity and Method works as a book largely because it doesn’t ask you to consume it like a book at all. There is as much Book of Lists here as Continental theory.

Juxtaposition is a common Cabinet strategy for establishing a sense of humor and melting hierarchies. Derrida will be invoked while the word um is used liberally; a muted, personal rumination on rust flows right into a solid, thorough account of the “hermeneutics of absence” and abandoned buildings throughout history. The entry for “Joke” recounts “The Rachel Gugelberger Experience,” carried out in 2003 by the titular art curator and the staff of Cabinet. Inspired by Gugelberger’s unwieldy last name, the staff decided to mail her thirty checks for one cent each, made out to “thirty variations on her name.” Gugelberger’s bank at the time was Fleet Bank. Checks made out to “Emperor Ra’l Go’R,” “Rachel ‘The Pistol’ Glockman,” and “Raggie Googieboo” were all successfully cashed. (For technical reasons, two did not credit.) All thirty checks are reproduced in the book.

One of the best fusions of historical rigor and surprise is the entry on camping, “Tales of Desert Nomads,” written in 2006 by AUDC, an “experimental architecture collaborative.” In an effort to fight off both American Indian and Mexican forces in the Southwest during the late 1840s, the US Army had the logical idea of importing camels as a replacement for horses. They are “well suited to the arid environment,” after all. But things didn’t quite work out:

The animals did not adapt well to the rocky terrain, they scared other pack animals such as horses and burros, and soldiers found them foul-smelling and bad-tempered and complained about camels spitting at them.

By 1863, the camels had been sold off or “released into the desert where they became feral.” A Syrian camel driver hired by the army, Hadji Ali (“Hi Jolly” to locals), married a woman from Tucson and worked as a miner in Quartzsite, Arizona. After his death in the 1930s, the government of Arizona memorialized Ali by building “a small pyramid topped by a metal camel on his gravesite.”

A century later, Quartzsite has become a popular destination for snowbirds and their RVs. In their essay, AUDC make the case that RVs are postindustrial camels, stripped of the slightly awkward task of being soldiers. The trade of rocks—not all precious and not all quartz, but all you can find in Quartzsite, apparently—has become the town economy. The authors point out:

Often obtained from the surrounding mountains during leisurely hikes and having had minimal labor applied to their retrieval and processing, Quartzsite’s rocks circumvent any notion of labor or scarcity in economy. Nor are these rocks useful. At Quartzsite, the markets teach us of a new nomadic way of life beyond any idea of affluence or material desire. Instead, the products sold at Quartzsite’s markets are bought and sold to facilitate social relationships, not because they are needed or desired.

This is strong and basic language, an inviting way to bring a reader into the challenge of nomadic possibility and the omnipresence of exchange value. To end the essay, and to ground it in the academic soil, the authors follow with

Karl Marx wrote that the social character of a producer’s labor is only expressed through the exchange of commodities. But if there is no labor to speak of involved in bringing these valueless rocks to sale, exchanging them is a way for Quartzsite’s winter visitors to remind each other that they have escaped the capitalist system into a world in which they are nothing, making nothing, and do not need to labor.

This, of course, would be too pat a parallel for Cabinet, and it would ignore the vibrant links the journal has established with so many artistic communities. But it speaks to the strength of the magazine’s work, and Quartzsite hints at Cabinet’s ability to exist in a valley between mountains, quietly redefining value, beyond the law.

Sasha Frere-Jones is a staff writer at the New Yorker.