No. 59 | The North
Justin E. H. Smith
Events & News
News: The third volume in Cabinet’s “24-Hour Book” series, poet Matthea Harvy and artist Amy Jean Porter’s When Up and Down Left Town, is now available. Place your order here.
News: Artist David Scher’s Hail, Cretin!, the second volume in Cabinet’s “24-Hour Book” series, is now available. Place your order here.
News: Cabinet no. 59, with a themed section on “The North,” is now here. Order a single issue here (or subscribe and get it at a significant discount).
News: Wayne Koestenbaum’s new book, Notes on Glaze, has arrived. Order your copy now!
News: Cabinet editor-at-large Eyal Weizman's book The Conflict Shoreline, with photographs by Fazal Sheikh, still available through from us directly. Sold out everywhere else!
News: Support our work and receive a beautiful limited edition artwork by Terry Winters or Vik Muniz.
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Late Motörhead front man and Nazi-memorabilia collector Lemmy Kilmister once said of his preference for the German side’s kit that he would have collected and worn British uniforms from the same period had their khaki color not made whoever put them on look “like a fucking swamp frog.” Much the same could have been said of the US Army’s World War II uniforms, characterized by an ochreous, greenish, khaki-like color known as olive drab. And Lemmy was not alone in his disdain for the dusty greens and taupes favored by the Allies; indeed, he was late to the game. Almost as soon as the war was over, mutters of dissatisfaction with olive drab in the United States turned into explicit concern. Army brass began to feel a pressing need for an appealing, ennobling color that could distinguish the army from its rivals—the other (generally blue-toned) branches of the US armed services. Committees were formed, reports drawn up, and after much debate it was decided that olive drab had to go, no matter the cost; the all-too-familiar sight of plumbers, garbagemen, and service station attendants working in battered, shit-brown Ike jackets across small-town America had finally put an end to whatever glimmer of romantic, colonial swagger had once attached to khaki and its confreres.
And anyway, the colonial age was over, at least for the Brits—the war
had put paid to that set of fantasies—and something new was beginning:
call it the Cold War, call it the space age, call it the age of
advertising. Call it Pax Americana or the beginning of America’s long
I’ve always found it intriguing that canonical histories of early twentieth-century art and literature, usually so generous in their treatment of the emergence of the historical avant-garde, never mention its most spectacular development: the creation, and ultimate failure, of the so-called Italian Regency of Carnaro. In a certain way, this omission is understandable. What happened between 1919 and 1920 in the contested city of Fiume, when—under the leadership of writer Gabriele D’Annunzio—a peculiar alliance of soldiers, artists, and adventurers occupied the city with the initial intention of annexing it to Italy, complicates the most common narrative in which modern art and progressive politics by nature go together.1 But, as historian Roger Griffin’s excellent Modernism and Fascism observes, a number of avant-garde movements shared fascism’s aspiration to cure the world (or at least Europe) of anomie and a loss of vitality. These conditions were understood as by-products of modernity, and particularly so at the end of a war that made patent the failure of modernity’s promise of material and social progress. Both movements proposed a return, in the midst of crisis, to a primordial space where the envoys of a new humanity could gather the seeds for a future world. In Fiume, fascists and Dadaists, futurists and Bolsheviks, were, for a few months, in the same camp.
One great thing about the feminist revolution of the 1960s and 1970s was its ability to make a scene. Take the unforgettable “Dialogue on Women’s Liberation,” a panel that took place in New York City in 1971 in which four female delegates were tapped to speak in a discussion moderated by Norman Mailer, who had just published the decidedly un-feminist The Prisoner of Sex. Billed as a dialogue, the result—documented in filmmaker D. A. Pennebaker’s Town Bloody Hall—more closely resembled a riot. The teeming crowd became unruly even before the event had started, with one heckler yelling out above the din, “Women’s lib betrays the poor! Norman Mailer betrays the poor!” The audience, which included Betty Friedan and a soft-spoken Susan Sontag, came to hear about the burgeoning revolution. They came to see Mailer publicly attack, and be attacked by, the women’s libbers about the politics of sex. But most of all, they came to see Germaine Greer.
All cultures engage in some form of ball play. Ball games are a basic way for us to hone what computational neuroscientist Beau Cronin calls “the quotidian
spatiotemporal genius of the human brain,” and over the past two hundred years, they have come to dominate the popular imagination, with huge swaths of
airtime and large volumes of ink given over to the dramas of soccer, basketball, baseball, American football, tennis, golf, rugby, cricket—the list goes
on.1 All ball sports are aleatoric structures organized, to greater or lesser degrees, around bounce. Aleatoric structures—structures of planned
chance—produce a reliable kind of uncertainty. We don’t know who will win and who will lose, but we know that at the end of the day, there will be a winner
and a loser. A ball introduces a second, more uncertain, kind of uncertainty into the fray. Its bounce dances along the edge of our predictive capacity,
always almost but never fully under control. At least in the Anglophone world, this second kind of chance—the chance of the ball—seems to be especially
important to our contemporary understanding of play.2 While other kinds of contests are raced, run, rowed, and swum; wrestled, fenced, fought, and boxed;
timed, weighed, measured, and judged; ball games are played. And only an athlete who contends with balls (or pucks, or shuttlecocks, or other third
objects) earns the title “player.” We become players in and through bounce.
Consider an author, alone in the snow. Vladimir Nabokov has frozen still, caught out between the past and present as he drifts back into the memory of a childhood winter, its distant sleigh bells ringing in his ears. “What am I doing in this stereoscopic dreamland?” he asks. “How did I get here?”1 Suddenly no longer the small child with the puppyish gaze who spent “snow-muffled rides” hallucinating a role in “all the famous duels a Russian boy knew so well” but the impish old man of writerly legend, he rediscovers himself aged in his New England exile. (He and Vera have not yet left America to live at the foot of the snow-capped Alps in Montreux.) The memories are immaterial; “the snow is real, though, and as I bend to it and scoop up a handful, sixty years crumble to glittering frost-dust between my fingers.” So much is condensed in this handful of snow, now solid, now melting: a whole collection of memories and wonders. But what is the material supposed to mean? Perhaps you have to develop what Wallace Stevens calls, at the start of his poem “The Snow Man” (1921), “a mind of winter” to know.2 Snow, like so many other materials, keeps its own special area in our thinking, and has its own blizzard of effects on our minds.
The books and manuscripts were disappearing from a room no one seemed to be entering. Its doors were almost never opened, the room itself closed to public view. There was no believable explanation for where the materials might be going, so the least believable reasoning soon took hold. It was the work of the devil, the residents said. A poltergeist. A symbolic act of God meant to communicate something, if only they could interpret the signs.
This was, after all, a monastery—indeed, one of the world’s most picturesque, Mont Sainte-Odile, perched high in the mountains of France, nearly on the border with Germany—and its library was vanishing into thin air. A manuscript here, a bound volume there; five, six, a dozen, all quickly adding up to nearly a thousand key pieces of church scholarship missing from the shelves and tables.
D. Graham Burnett
It is perhaps not widely understood (outside the specialized domains of risk modeling and property insurance) that the last twenty years have seen the relatively rapid growth of a new kind of financial instrument: the catastrophe bond. I aim in what follows to offer the reader a brief introduction to these innovative money-things, which sit at the precarious nexus of mathematical modeling, environmental instability, and vast sums of capital. Techno-legal creations of considerable complexity (and some genuine elegance), “cat bonds“ circulate in the Olympian air of global high finance, where they afford investors an opportunity to place large bets on the occurrence (and non-occurrence) of various mass disasters: earthquakes, hurricanes, plagues, suitcase nukes. The lengthy, turgid, and highly confidential specifications that make up the prospectuses of these investments might be said to represent a special and entirely overlooked subgenre of science fiction: what we discover, turning the pages of such deals, are fanatically extensive metrical descriptions of countless doomsday scenarios, each story told in lovingly legalistic and scientific detail. Unlike most dystopian fantasizing, however, the worst-case scenarios played out in the appendices of cat bond issues come with very real-world prospective paydays, precisely priced and proper to the consideration of an imaginative portfolio manager looking to diversify her investments.
“Now, ladies and gentlemen, I have really something of great interest to the public!” The former vaudevillian Ed Wynn is providing the introductory patter
to a segment in an episode of his eponymous comedy show, broadcast live in primetime on 9 December 1949. Wynn, who would later voice the Mad Hatter in
Disney’s adaptation of Alice In Wonderland (1951), is a jolly host: he looks like a horned owl in a clown costume, plump and bespectacled with a rubbery
excitement to his expressions that suggests he’s already half-cartoon. His speech has an avuncular warmth, tumbling with a ringmaster’s glee through his
slightly pinched sinuses. The other treats on the show have included a special guest appearance from the famously deadpan actress Virginia O’Brien,
nicknamed “Miss Ice Glacier,” who sang “Bird in a Gilded Cage,” and blubbery Ed’s attempt to dance a ballet overture. The curtains behind Wynn that hide
the set from the audience are fuzzy, gray, and monstrously thick, looking like nothing so much as a carefully graded spectrum of various sorts of domestic
dust; the studio has the acoustics of a damp attic. Wynn tells the audience that they are about to have “the great privilege in seeing for the first time,
certainly on television, and alive, almost!”—an odd thing to say, don’t you think?—“one of the greatest of the great comedians of the silent moving-picture
days. Mr. Buster Keaton!”