Interview: Sina Najafi: On Cabinet magazine, critical writing & ethics

by Claire Ruud

    Send comments to the editors:

      Email this article to a friend:

      Cabinet Flag

      Sina Najafi is a co-founder and the Editor-in-Chief of Cabinet magazine. …might be good caught up with him last month while he was in town as one of Arthouse’s Visiting Lecturers.

      …might be good [mbg]: I’ve heard that one of the reasons you founded Cabinet was to fill a gap you saw somewhere between journalism and academic writing. You saw that in Europe public intellectuals could publish in popular newspapers in a way that they couldn’t here in the States. Since then, have you perceived a shift in the presence of the public intellectual in the U.S.

      Sina Najafi [SN]: Here? No. It is shifting in Europe though, unfortunately for the worse. I think today there is less space for the public intellectual even in Europe, at least in newspapers. In Sweden, which is where I was before I moved to this country in 1995, there were four newspapers. Two of them were tabloids, and a friend of mine was editing the cultural pages of one of these tabloids, Aftonbladet. They were publishing interviews with intellectuals like Paul Virilio and Baudrillard. That blows away the content of the cultural pages of the New York Times, for example. In Europe at that time, it wasn’t unusual for academics and other public intellectuals to write for newspapers in a way that was both smart and jargon-free. These types of intellectuals cared about trying to engage in a larger cultural conversation and I felt like the New York Times—well, I have not read the New York Times for a long time, actually—

      mbg: Really?

      SN: I can’t read the Times anymore—I get most of my news online from European newspapers like the Guardian or Dagens Nyheter in Sweden—but when I still used to read it, people like Stanley Fish and Edward Said used to write for it sometimes. Then after a while Said’s views were considered too radical for the Times and they dropped him. On the whole, the cultural pages of the Times are—or at least were when I used to read it—highly disappointing.

      There are not enough non-academic venues in which intellectuals can publish. For that reason, I think, they end up being sequestered in academic journals, where they write in a particular mode, and their language atrophies. It’s very sad because what those specialists know can and should be of interest to a much larger audience. However, writing for a larger audience requires a different type of language that you have to practice to become good at. So, we thought of Cabinet as being—and this was one of the impetuses for starting the magazine—a place where we could encourage that mode of writing. About a third of our articles are written by academics. Many academics in the United States are dissatisfied with what academic writing offers them, so we’ve not been turned down by many—unless they’re about to get tenure and they know that, in that last stretch, writing for Cabinet won’t be considered relevant by their tenure committee. Other than that, most people are very happy to have the opportunity to write for our audience. Our audience is fairly small; we sell about 13,000 copies of the magazine and it’s usually estimated 3 people read each sold copy, so we’re looking at around 30,000 people. But that’s a lot more readers than the journal of 18th-Century French Studies, or wherever academics might usually publish.

      mbg: Do you find that academics are well-prepared to write for Cabinet’s audience, or do you have to work fairly closely with them as an editor?

      SN: Well, we interview a lot of academics, in part because I find that the interview format allows them to speak very naturally in much more accessible language. They do write for us as well, and sometimes we have to edit vigorously to push them towards a language that’s jargon-free. However, the academics we approach to write for us may be from a self-selecting pool. We can already see that their mode of writing is going outside of the traditional bounds of academic writing. There’s exuberance there, there’s speculation there, and you can see them busting out.

      mbg: As an editor and writer myself, I think a lot about what “critical writing” is or could be today. What part of critical writing do you think Cabinet is doing, or is it doing critical writing at all?

      SN: I’ll tell you components of critical writing that we are not interested in. The idea of critical distance is something we are definitely not interested in; this idea that I somehow survey the object of contemplation from a particular distance, which is the right distance, and from this right distance that is only available to certain people, I can then make judgments that are true or valid in some way. That we don’t like. We prefer the person who is too close in some way, who is passionate and makes no claim to being at just the right distance, the person who in some way acknowledges that her insights and blindnesses are deeply related. But we also prefer the person who is too far, who is too distant to have any engagement at all, including the act of judgment, and is providing almost a cold description of an object that most people would want to pass judgment on. I say “almost” because I don’t want to pretend that neutral description is possible, but there is a permanent delay in reaching a conclusion in this second mode of writing that I think is worth holding onto.

      There are also certain genres that we are not interested in. All those catalogue essays, for example, I don’t know who reads them, to be honest. They have a certain mode that you know in advance—you know what they’re going to say and how they’re going to say it. I’m being grossly unfair here; there’s lots of fantastic writing in catalogue essays, but as a genre I feel it has no audience, and for good reason. We also don’t have reviews, for example, in the magazine because when we started to think about reviews we kind of fell asleep. People should trust tedium as a guidance system for what is good or bad. I don’t know many artists who are excited to read those big long articles in the middle of most art magazines, and if art magazines aren’t read by artists, then something’s going on. Part of what we wanted to do with Cabinet was bring different modes of writing —including new experiments in critical writing — and see if we could help dislocate some of these sedimented tendencies.

      mbg: So is there anything left to keep from critical writing?

      SN: From critical writing in the dominant mode? Yes, there’s carefulness and specificity, and that has to co-exist alongside the potential for abandon, exuberance, speculation, adventure. At Cabinet, we’re looking for writing that is anchored somewhere; we like the text to hit ground at some point and have traction. It’s not about creative writing, otherwise it becomes an exercise in just making stuff up and I don’t think that’s ethical or interesting in the context of our pages. I’m a traditionalist in this sense: academics have produced all sorts of great texts about the world and how it became what it is, and we have to take that work on board and think about it.

      mbg: Okay, so you’re talking about a kind of faithfulness to facts and histories of ideas that results in specificity. Where does critical processing come into this?

      SN: To take an example, if we have a fictional dialogue between Robert Smithson and Andy Warhol walking through New York—a text that Saul Anton wrote for us in 2001—we want the conversation to stage exactly what those artists could have and could not have said. This requires thorough familiarity with their work and writings, absorbing it, and then producing wholesale something that is built on all that research but doesn’t end up just rehearsing the same positions. The dialogue genre will itself produce new knowledge and insights into the two artists.

      Many texts that we normally think of as being critical share a strategy: they aim to show the reader the falseness of some other person’s position by carefully dismantling it. It’s in part a game of intellectual one-upmanship. These are very authoritative modes of passing judgment, and they have a lot to teach us, but these are exactly the modes of engagement that we try to sidestep. There’s a place for those traditional modes of critical writing, but we’d like to be a venue for modes of writing that undermine themselves, that are at times excessive or not appropriate, and they certainly don’t worry about decorum, or how things should be done. They might even undo their own authority by overreaching or by refusing to gather things up in the right way. They definitely shun disinterestedness as the primary criterion for criticality and they want to interact with the object in as many different interested ways as possible. They are experiments or essays in a deep sense, and they might fail, which is ok.

      mbg: So I have a couple different questions related to what you’ve said so far. You mentioned that artists don’t read art magazines very much. Anecdotally, this feels right to me. But I wonder whether you have any hard evidence about how much more artists read publications like Cabinet.

      SN: Hard evidence? No. Scanning through our subscriber list, I’d guess that roughly half of our readers are artists, just from the names I recognize. But then I have a skewed set of friends, you know? [laughs] Not knowing your readers is very helpful because the moment you start imagining the reader, you risk attempting to cater to that reader. When we’re editing a text, we never imagine, ‘will readers understand this?’ ‘will readers like this?’ ‘will readers be disappointed?’ None of those questions ever enter our heads.

      mbg: What are the questions that enter your heads when you’re putting together an issue?

      SN: Do we enjoy this? Are we learning something from it? Can we understand everything we are editing? We think of ourselves as the first readers. We’re a large group, so hopefully it’s not just one ego being refracted.

      mbg: I’ve always wondered how you come up with the themes of issues.

      SN: Sometimes one of our editors will suggest a particular topic. That happened with “Electricity” and “Ruins,” for example. Other times, the topic comes out of conversations between me, my colleague Jeffrey Kastner who’s senior editor of the magazine and is in the office with me, and one other editor who randomly walks in. “Insecurity,” for example, came out of a conversation in that way. And sometimes people from outside have suggested themes to us. “Shame” was suggested by a reader who was a professor at the New School.

      mbg: How do you decide whether an idea is a workable topic for an issue?

      SN: We would like the topic to be large enough so that it can extend into all the sorts of nooks and crannies of culture. Some theme ideas, even though we liked them, seemed too specific to two or three disciplines, at least given the amount of time and energy we have to devote to each issue. We also would like the topic to be untimely. If everyone is talking about a particular topic, we definitely prefer not to do it. We prefer something that has fallen out of favor or is marginalized. We liked “Shame,” for example, because it was important in 18th-century philosophical discourse before guilt sidelined it in the 19th century. We’ve in fact only done one issue that was timely, which was the “Animals” issue. We were doing an issue on “Evil,” and mad cow disease was happening. Those scenes of cows being burnt in England were so incredible that we decided to postpone the “Evil” issue and do an issue on animals. That was the one time where we responded to something happening in real time.

      Part of this is just functional. It takes roughly nine to twelve months for us to go from an idea to getting it together to publishing it to getting it back from Belgium where we print. Something that is timely would be untimely by the time we get to it. The other part of it is that if everyone is talking about something, I don’t see the point of being one more person talking about it. There are so many things to talk about.

      mbg: Your upcoming issue on education seems pretty timely.

      SN: To be honest, that’s a reason why we are uncomfortable with it. We’ve even thought about canceling it but we’ve already put it in the distributor’s catalogue and received submissions for it, so we’re going to go ahead and do it.

      mbg: And you recently had a show touching on the topic of education at your space—videos of classrooms by Darcy Lange. Do you think of your space as an opportunity to be more timely?

      SN: No, though Lange’s work is of course about pedagogy and education. In the 70s, he made a series of works in Birmingham and Oxfordshire in which he would put his camera in a classroom and film the whole class and then show the tape to the teacher, and tape the teacher watching the tape and having a discussion about his or her performance. Then he would show the tape of the classroom to the students and tape them watching the tape and having a discussion about their performance. I think it’s an incredible body of work and one that had never been shown in the United States.

      mbg: How do you understand the relationship between the space and the magazine?

      SN: Some of the shows have come out of the magazine. Recently we showed work by Victor Houteff, a Seventh Day Adventist from the 1930s who founded the group in Waco that was later taken over by David Koresh. Houteff’s paintings were part of his evangelical work and they’re amazing—many of them offer strange timelines of history understood through Houteff’s particular religious framework. We showed them in the magazine in 2001 and we all loved them, so now, nine years later, we decided to show them in the space. I don’t know many places that can show this kind of historical material on its own. Our shows will go back and forth between contemporary artists—our next show is with Mark Dion—and historical stuff.

      mbg: So the shows are just based on whim?

      SN: They’re based on what is interesting and would be great to see and learn from. Whim, in some sense, in that if we ever tried to get a grant for the space, I don’t know how we would describe the program, but not whim in the sense that we of course think that the work we show is absorbing and compelling.

      mbg: How do you fund the exhibitions?

      SN: We have a budget of about $2000 a year for it.

      mbg: No.

      SN: Yeah.

      mbg: So the work and labor are all donated?

      SN: Well, for example, with Darcy Lange’s show, they sent us the DVDs from New Zealand and uploaded the scanned pictures for us and we printed them out on a donated Epson printer and mounted them ourselves. The whole show cost $250, and I think it was a great show.

      mbg: And you use the same space in which you produce the magazine, eliminating those costs.

      SN: Yes; whoever is in the office working also oversees the gallery. That’s the only reason why we can pull it off. I love having no budget on certain things. I love the fact that at the end of this year we’ll probably spend less than $2000 having done about eight shows. I like the ethics of being tiny. Olafur Eliasson will forgive me, but his waterfalls piece is antithetical to what the ethics of the art world should be, I think. With that much money, you could have 1,000 great art projects instead. That’s one a day for 3 years. Those kinds of enormous projects should be rejected out of hand. I’m not saying it’s comfortable to do things with the budget we have, and I’m not saying it’s fair to everybody who participates because we can’t offer any fees, but all the participants know that we’re not getting any money for it either, so in that sense we’re not abusing them, or if we are, we’re abusing ourselves first and inviting others to join us. If it’s unethical, it’s a shared unethics.

      mbg: As you’re talking about ethics, I want to go back to something you said earlier. You mentioned that what you called “creative writing” unethical in the context of critical writing.

      SN: Not creative writing per se, obviously, but creative writing in the mode that we are interested in at Cabinet. We want to look at historical materials and the pre-history of the contemporary. If we un-tether the texts completely from the factual and historical, if the speculative, the imaginative, the creative, the unbound, the adventurous become our only guidelines, then we would end up with what I mean here by creative writing. We want an attention to style, and we also like to offer the freedom to mix genres and voices within the same text, but we also want to always signal our commitment to the factual and historical and the idea that there is some stake there that needs to be taken seriously.

      mbg: I have another question about ethics. I get why the idea of a Cabinet of Curiosities is attractive for its rich juxtapositions, but I sense some ethical danger here, too, given the place of such cabinets in the history of colonization.

      SN: There are dangers in what we’re doing. Historically, certain types of curiosity, women’s curiosity for instance, has been highly regulated and censored. And of course, with the figure of the collector, there is the danger that the objects, whether textual or actual artifacts, are simply there to reflect the collector himself.

      But dilettantism is another way to discuss this. If you learn a little bit about something, this may seem like dilettantism from the specialist’s point of view. But gaining little bits of knowledge about many things can also be an additive process whereby you start to care about the histories and the artifacts that surround us. You begin to think, “my god, this window next to us, when did this become the dominant way to decorate a window frame? Where is this wood from and who made this thing?” All of these little bits of knowledge become a way of thinking around the social, material world around us. Those little bits of history, I think, if offered to you in the right way, can help to shift your perspective. We become more careful about thinking about why the world is the way it is. In that sense, I do think what we’re doing at Cabinet is ethical.

      mbg: I think you’re right, in an ideal world that’s how the magazine functions. It doesn’t always function that way, though. Cabinet’s aesthetic seems to play right into a trendy, mostly cosmetic antiquarianism right now. I still read The New York Times, and last summer they printed an article about the “new antiquarians,” 20- and 30-somethings in Brooklyn who are collecting relics of a colonial past, but are completely disassociating these objects from any kind of historical, political context.

      SN: Well, first, I think collecting objects is a little bit different than putting texts together around ideas. Texts are harder to fetishize than objects. Second, that is a trap that we have certainly fallen into at times: a bad issue of Cabinet may have too many articles about “19th century fads,” as one of our editors put it. That’s a danger, but I hope that a good issue of Cabinet is not just about antiquarianism. And I hope that many of our articles can be read as a pre-history of what happens today and help us understand our relationship with the world today. Sometimes this is explicit in the articles, and sometimes it’s not, and we’re trusting the readers to make the connections. If they don’t, that’s a failure of our part and we need to then address that in some way.

      mbg: Or also a failure of all texts in some way. You can’t, of course, guarantee the reader will read the same thing you wrote.

      SN: Which is maybe why it’s best not to think too much about the reader. [laughs]

      Apr 23, 2010 | 7:43am

      great interview, claire…

      Jonelle Seitz
      Apr 27, 2010 | 8:50pm

      Fantastic discussion! Thank you.

      Add Your Comment: