Ungoo - The Reykjavik Grapevine

Ungoo

Ungoo

Published July 18, 2014

Part V: If Critics Cluck, Coffins Croonk

Part V: If Critics Cluck, Coffins Croonk

[Continued from Ungoo IV]

Granted, much of traditional paper-based publication is currently in crisis. Yet, most of Morgunblaðið, heavily decorated by ads from companies on friendly terms with the Independence Party, keeps going. (Buying ad-space in Morgunblaðið is not just a political act, but comes close to signing a manifesto.) Its sports pages persist. Without any empirical evidence, my hypothesis as to why they cancelled Lesbók, is that it was open to texts that Morgunblaðið‘s new masters simply would not understand. And what you don’t understand might be communism. Perhaps the old masters didn’t understand it all either, but that was way back in that period between 1991 and 2008, which still lacks a name, when tolerance was a catch-phrase. It was sweet, and it’s easy to get nostalgic, but let’s not get carried away: most people are tolerant to what they see as harmless. For a while it must have seemed to the right-wing as if they had disarmed the enemy for good, so why not let them babble?

You might go on and venture to hypothesize that Morgunblaðið‘s current masters are brutally anti-enlightenment, that they perceive modernity mainly as a matter of technological advances, rather than anything to do with our use of mental faculties. And still further, that this mindset can at any time bring us back to what we call the middle ages, without much notice, since our gadgets would remain impeccably smart. That might be over-dramatizing, though. Let it suffice to mention that even in its heyday as the outpost of liberal tolerance and publisher of Lesbók, the entrance lobby of Morgunblaðið‘s headquarters had one sculpture, a disproportioned caricature of a face, titled ‘Gaggrýnandinn’ – a wordplay with the hen-related onomatopoeia ‘cluck’ and Icelandic for ‘Critic’.

For those less patient, more politicized, young scholars and authors who were frustrated by the Lesbók‘s perceived compliance to established norms, the website Kistan.is (e. The Coffin), started in 1999, provided an alternative option to publish critical and playful texts. Kistan was founded by the late Matthías Viðar Sæmundsson, a prolific and charismatic scholar of literary theory, who brought such thinkers as Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida to Iceland, during a time when many of the country’s philosophers still responded to their works mainly with derision. As in: Who needs signifiers and the signified when you have meaning and denotion? As a freshman in philosophy around the turn of the century, I remember being dismissive in the way that comes easy when you know, basically, nothing. If new modes of thinking and new ways of writing can be threatening, Matthías Viðar came across as an arche-duke of such threats.

Matthías Viðar passed away in 2004, but his influence remains, not least through his students, including many among the country’s so-called post-modernist scholars and authors —here, post-modernist in the vague sense of being interested in both literature and theory. If I am not mistaken, one among Matthías Viðar’s students was Lesbók‘s aforementioned editor, Þröstur Helgason. Matthías Viðar’s name also lives on in mythical anecdotes: he is said to have carried a stuffed raven through the streets of Reykjavík at night, brought the raven to a bar, put it on a table, then sat down to converse with it. Whether this was a one-time incident, a habit, or even if the myth is purely fictional, such stories only add to the prestige of an intellectual seen as disruptive to convention —admittedly, perhaps even more so in the minds of those who never got to know him.

One of Matthías Viðar’s Kistan‘s novelties was endless space. As the first website of its kind, it didn’t demand cuts for such arbitrary reasons as running out of paper. This offered a certain lightness, compared with already existing media, and supported an openness to new kinds of whimsical writing, academic and literary, of various lengths. Coming about in the days when online publishing was still side-lined, and didn’t feel as institutionally real as print, I am not sure Kistan ever had to even consider the issue of copyright or other such formalities. Kistan felt liberatingly anti-institutional and pro-thought. The design always remained somewhat ugly, the background color always black, the whole thing as if it had something to do with punk. You could come there for the good stuff.

Kistan may have run for around a decade, but I lack clear sources on its end. Unlike Lesbók, Kistan was financed only minimally: its editor was paid, while the authors were not. The community-spirit of a struggle can go a long way to overcome lack of money. Kistan went through the hands of various editors, until it ceased publication around the same time as Lesbók did. The archives remained online for a while, somehow fittingly unsearchable through Google. Then, not long ago, they vanished altogether. The reasons why Kistan was dismantled are not clear to outsiders, but it appears to have had to do with its rather vague institutional background and lack of funds.

[To be continued …]
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