Dery: "Head Case" in Cabinet Magazine


Mark Dery is guest blogger du jour until August 17. He is the author of Culture Jamming, Flame Wars, Escape Velocity, and The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium. He's at work on The Pathological Sublime, a philosophical investigation into the paradox of horrible beauty and the politics of "just looking."

As its name suggests, the Brooklyn-based quarterly magazine Cabinet is a wunderkammer between two covers, a Baedeker for psychogeographers, a random walk through the postmodern baroque.

Although many of its contributors are card-carrying members of the professoriat, a significant number are artists and some are "independent scholars," a discreet euphemism for defrocked academics; trust-fund autodidacts who've disappeared down the rabbit hole of their obscure obsessions; intellectual omnivores with a magpie's eye and a hummingbird's attention span who Want to Know Everything About Everything (a cardinal sin in an age of intellectual niche marketing).

Slavoj Žižek, the Plastic Man of continental philosophy, has called Cabinet "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." Zizek's emphasis on the importance of non-academic intellectualism is deeply political, a pointed jab at the intellectual foppishness and laughably extravagant self-regard of academe at its worst, typified by academic journals like October, a petting zoo for mandarins. Re/Search magazine's Industrial Culture Handbook, early Amok Press catalogues, and The Baffler and Hermenaut in their heyday, Juxtapoz magazine (when it isn't taking its studious lowbrowism to sub-Bukowski extremes), not to mention the art criticism of Dave Hickey's Air Guitar and Ralph Rugoff's Circus Americanus, the Ballardian urbanism of Geoff Manaugh's BLDGBLOG, the edgy enthusiasms of New New Journalist Ron Rosenbaum, and virtually anything by Mike Davis, 21st century socialism's unchallenged master of intellectual parkour: all of these examples of bracingly original analysis are a standing rebuke to the timidity and claustrophobic self-referentiality of too much academic cultural criticism. They remind us that the academy doesn't have a monopoly on the Act of Thinking Deeply; that some of the most critically engaged analysis of the world around us is being done by thinkers willing to wade hip-deep into it; and, to belabor the obvious, that intelligent analysis—intelligence, period—isn't an academic prerogative. (Yes, some of the writers mentioned above have been academics, but most of them keep one foot in the popular arena, and tap much of their intellectual voltage from non-academic sources.)

According to founder/editor Sina Najafi, Cabinet is committed to "the politics of curiosity." And that rage to know is evident in every one of its themed issues. (I've always loved the editorial coherence, the intellectual holism, of themed issues. Granta uses this device to brilliant effect. Why haven't more magazines followed suit, I wonder?) Its post-postmodernism notwithstanding, Cabinet exudes a Victorian gentleman-scholar eccentricity, a mauve-glove, pince-nez appetite for the curious and curiouser. Call it Richard Dadd-aism. A bouquet of titles, gathered from the magazine's 34 issues to date: "Speaking Martian"; "The Celestographs of August Strindberg"; "Incorruptible Teeth, or, the French Smile Revolution: Laughter and the Birth of Dentistry"; "The Golden Lasso: Wonder Woman and the Birth of the Lie Detector"; "The Human Telegraph: Francisco Salva's Shocking Invention"; "Captured Lightning: The Fractal Beauty of Lichtenberg Figures"; "A Minor History of Useful Corpses: Not All Bodies Molder in the Grave"; "Ingestion: The Beast Within—The Tale of the Tapeworm"; and, apropos of nothing, the "Condensed Directions for Using the Drake Electrical Vibrator, 1922."

As it happens, I've appeared in a number of issues, including the latest, Issue 34: Testing (Summer 2009). My contribution to the titular theme is "Cortex Envy," a psychobiographical essay on the IQ test in which I refract the social history of the Wechsler and the Stanford-Binet through the prism of my intellectual anxieties, rooted in a suitably neurotic childhood. Trying to make sense of the enduring effects of an IQ test I took in early childhood, I peel back the scientific "objectivity" of intelligence testing in American society, revealing a muck pond of eugenicist social engineering. Then, I guinea-pig myself by confronting the IQ test again, at the age of 49—a revealing, if harrowing, experience. (And no, you can't see my scores. But I do disclose some revealing details.)

A snip from my essay:

Fig24For much of their history, intelligence tests have been rotten with the cultural and class biases of their makers, a diagnostic deck stacked against minorities, immigrants, and those at the bottom of the wage pyramid.

[Louis Terman, inventor of the Stanford-Binet test] begrudgingly conceded that environmental factors might play some small part in IQ-test scores. For the most part, though, he was a thoroughgoing hereditarian. "High-grade or border-line deficiency…is very, very common among Spanish-Indian and Mexican families of the Southwest and also among negroes," he notes, in The Measurement of Intelligence (1915). "Their dullness seems to be racial…Children of this group should be segregated into separate classes and be given instruction which is concrete and practical. They cannot master abstractions but they can often be made into efficient workers."

At the very moment that intelligence testing was sanctifying the race-based educational neglect of blacks, Mexicans, and other textbook examples of the "defective germ plasm," legislatures in 33 states were writing the compulsory sterilization of the "unfit" into law, a stroke of the pen that would lead, over time, to the coerced sterilization of 60,000 Americans. The black stork of the eugenics movement was spreading its wings across America, and in much of the era's officially sanctioned bigotry, the IQ test was a silent partner. "While America has had a long history of eugenics advocacy," notes the historian Clarence J. Karier, "some of the key leaders of the testing movement were the strongest advocates for eugenics control. In the twentieth century, the two movements often came together in the same people under the name of 'scientific' testing."

Knowing what a blunt instrument the IQ test is, what a dark and storied history it has, why am I so nervous about taking the WAIS [Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale test]? Why am I so inordinately proud when I knock a few softball pitches—What is the speed of light? Where were the first Olympics held? Who was Catherine the Great? What is the Koran?—out of the park? Why do I experience a near panic attack when I can't name three kinds of blood vessels or (to my undying chagrin) the seven continents?

Read the rest in Cabinet 34: Testing, available—forgive product placement—here.

IMAGE TOP: Prison inmate taking the cube-pattern performance section of the Wechsler-Bellevue Intelligence Scale, 1939. From Paul F. Ballantyne, American Schooling, Administrative Reform, And Individual Ability Testing: Assimilation and Sorting before World War I.

IMAGE MIDDLE: Additive Structure of Human Intelligence, from Peter Sandiford, Foundations Of Educational Psychology (1938). From Paul F. Ballantyne, American Schooling, Administrative Reform, And Individual Ability Testing: Assimilation and Sorting before World War I.