Saturday, October 6, 2007

Real Illusion


"Cabinet is my kind of magazine; ferociously intelligent, ridiculously funny, absurdly innovative, rapaciously curious. Cabinet's mission is to breathe life back into non-academic intellectual life. Compared to it, every other magazine is a walking zombie."
-Slavoj Zizek, philosopher

One possible regret regarding the vast number of literary and little magazines published today is that individual bright stars could be overlooked due to the overall luminescence, and so not get the attention they so obviously deserve. It would seem all editors need admit that there are a few little magazines out there on the newsstands that are a bit more fantastic, a bit more wow than all the rest (and, in the end, wow is what everyone in the magazine world is going for, even if it is of the more conservative or ruminative kind). When such gems are stumbled across in the little magazine world, they are perhaps more precious than in other areas of publishing because of how few issues of these magazines are produced, how poorly most are distributed, and how short of a life span these magazines tend to have. When one is found that not only seems able to bring more attention and appreciation to itself but also to the general efforts of small artistic magazine production, a reviewer can't help but be a little ebullient.

Cabinet magazine is one of the sharpest little magazines out there, captivating for the most part due to its stunning originality. An issue of Cabinet is similar to a Basquiat or Twombly painting; like these painters who seemingly couldn't paint a boring line, the editors of Cabinet seem unable to produce an issue that isn't unique as a fingerprint. They take great effort to work beyond what is expected of them as a small arts magazine, pushing past the barriers of the newsstand to success in other publishing and performative venues. As a publisher, Cabinet is as diverse as its editorial content. Individual issues of Cabinet are divided into three sections:--columns, main, and a themed section--each issue then structured like a museum, where a reader moves from room to room. Also, in order to reach the maximum amount of readers and bookstores, Cabinet prints and distributes the same exact issues as both magazines and books (British lit mag Granta is another publisher who has successfully done this). Cabinet also publishes actual books on a variety of subjects and they put on Cabinet sponsored events around the globe.

For anyone interested in, well, interesting things, Cabinet magazine is one not to miss--and the entire run is not to be missed (excerpts are available on their website), not just this issue. The first 25 issues of the magazine cover a range of frightfully interesting topics largely unique to the world of little magazines, such as invented languages, pharmacopia, doubles, laughter, and ruins. Cabinet's last issue (26, pictured above and reviewed here) is, among a myriad other things, an eclectic study of magic in our political and social lives. Like a novelist always trying to trump their last work, the editors of Cabinet are not to be outdone by previous releases, but continue with each issue to impress with renewed creative vigor. (The next issue of Cabinet, which shipped to subscribers October 3, contains a themed section on, of all things, mountains--which, like everything else, the editors and writers at Cabinet have been able to make seem absolutely fascinating and original. They have taken Pound's maxim "make it new" more than to heart; they have made it their DNA. The coming issue contains the intriguingly titled articles "Mont Blanc Montage: Up the mountains, in fiction and fact" and "Making Sense at the Movies: Habit and memory by light of the silver screen.")

The subject of the last issue, magic, is a very popular one today on both sides of the Atlantic. True, most thanks goes to the billion-dollar industry of Harry Potter and his fictional magic, but there has also been a Hollywood resurgence in stage magic in the recent films "The Illusionist" and "The Prestige," both originally works of prose fiction. It is this type of magic which is the focus of the Cabinet issue--that is, the illusory magic of the sleight of hand, the levitating body, the woman sawed in half. This magic not of sorcery but of illusion is defined in the issue by Johns Hopkins professor Simon During as secular magic, or "magic that makes no claim to be in contact with the supernatural--it's not calling on hidden powers to act on the world." The same of course cannot be said of Rowling's Potter, whose magic comes from something Potter cannot fully understand or control, bringing about much of the amazement and drama of the story.

The enchantment of stage or secular magic is that it is "dealing with known unknowns....And by displaying the trick honestly, the audience's consciousness of the changeability of the world is reinforced." This definition is excerpted from Ian Saville and Sally O' Reilly's faux interview exploration into the Marxist implications and uses of the secular magic world, "I Can See Your Ideology Moving" (the picture of the ventriloquised Karl Marx is at right). Like many of the writings in the issues, "I Can See Your Ideology Moving" is very postmodern. It is a stylized play script which runs the gamut from a local British festival, to a ventriloquist acting as Brecht and Marx, to questioning the text as performance, to, finally, an argument for magic as a healthy defense against the persuasive ideologies of capitalism. It's a deft, nicely argued, and very humorous work, emblematic of the best pieces published in the issue--they all walk the line between funny and serious, expressive and representational. Form equals content for works published in Cabinet, resulting very often in strikingly illuminating views on previously less complex subjects.

The issue is a salmagundi (also name of one of the original American lit mags) of ideas and art, a well organized grab bag of insight. One can flip open the issue at any page and be impressed, caught off guard. The first article, "Talk to the Hand," is a revealing look at the history and scholarship of gesture, which once had, like composition, its own rules of rhetoric. Next is "A Minor History of Aquatic Ambulism," a timeline of human attempts of walking on water, with the occasional successes. In the middle of the issue is Cabinet's third installment of their collaboration with the London-based magazine, Implicasphere, described as a "unique theme-based periodical." The theme of this installment is stripes (previously they have been nose and salt & pepper). The installment begins, "Stripes appear bold, strident even, wearing their intentions on their sleeve. And yet they are sly shape-shifters that trick the eye," and the issue then continues on to explicate and illuminate the world of stripes, ranging from looks into the New Orleans' red light district, the stories of Rudyard Kipling, skunk stripes, and many more striped exhibits, texts, and occurrences in the natural world.

Like the famous 11th Edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica or seventeenth century cabinets of curiosities (of which Cabinet's own name seems to derive), issue 26 is yet another of Cabinet's disarming exhibitions into the magic of the world's minutae--only this time, they rove not only into the magic of the world, but the world of magic. A world, we come to see, both under appreciated and a part of our everyday lives--from President Bush's photo ops to our television addictions. "At some time or other we have all decided that life is one long disillusionment," wrote magician David Devant in a 1935 essay. "It is a platitude," he continues, "and like all platitudes it seems that each of us discovers it anew." Devant was one of the most popular magicians of his time, and, somewhat ironically, was also the first person to exhibit films in London, and so helped bring about the new dominant medium of the magician: the cinema.

1 comment:

Poet Hound said...

This is a great review, I usually skim through to get the gist but this time the whole article was riveting. As a result, I will be ordering/subscribing to Cabinet within the week. Thanks for clueing me in to this little gem.