April 8, 2008

Campus mag goes down in slander, flames

Gordian Knot, the idiosyncratic student-run campus magazine, is now accepting submissions for what will likely be the journal’s final issue. But the publication’s creators have no intention of going gently into that good night. Rather, they plan to take it out in “flames of libelous glory,” the theme of the spring issue.

Started in the autumn of 2006 by three friends and roommates, Gordian Knot does not lend itself to simple definition. In his second year, now–fourth-year Ben Platt developed the idea for a student-run magazine that would draw from a number of different disciplines to include poetry, prose, academic discourse, and visual arts.

“There was, in our estimation, no other publication on campus that really tried to incorporate all of the aspects of the University of Chicago student,” Platt said. “A lot of people have interesting things to say, but it mostly gets congealed.”

In order to get his publication off the ground, Platt enlisted the help of his roommates and friends, Aaron Webman and Seth Mayer. After applying for and receiving RSO status, Gordian Knot was born.

The vast majority of the submissions to the magazine have come from friends of the editors, a network which includes most members of Gordian Knot’s production staff. However, Platt and Mayer claim that at least a third of the magazine’s submissions have been independently submitted.

Yet no apparent heir has emerged to take the editorial helm when the current editors graduate this year, meaning the spring issue will probably be the last in Gordian Knot’s run.

Despite a relatively low circulation, the magazine has developed a devoted following. The roughly 1,000 copies published each quarter tend to disappear quickly.

“It certainly fills a special niche,” said Tom Gaulkin, the magazine’s webmaster. “I have seen copies of Gordian Knot next to other publications on tables, stairs, and radiator covers, but it alone occupies the space between my laptop and my wall.”

According to Platt, a classics major, the publication’s title came from the Greek myth of a knot that could not be untied. After countless failed attempts to untangle it, the impossible knot was enshrined in a temple with the prophecy that the individual who untied the knot would become king of Asia. On a detour through the Greek Isles, Alexander the Great solved the conundrum when he drew his sword and sliced the knot in half, claiming all of Asia for himself.

Platt related the name to the publication’s effort to approach academic quandaries from new directions.

“In the academy, there are these problems that we have that are so complex that they get enshrined; they get put in the temple. You can tug at different angles, but sometimes you just have to come and cut the knot,” Platt said.

Since the beginning, each issue has had an ostensible theme, though it typically served less as a hard topic than as a suggestion.

Inspired by the magazine’s apparently inevitable demise, the editorial staff decided that it would only be appropriate to send Gordian Knot out with a bang. In a meeting during winter quarter, staff members began throwing around ideas for potential themes. They considered the phoenix, destroying and rising from its own ashes, or going west like Huck Finn. Yet, both of these ideas fell short in one crucial area.

“They were too mature,” Mayer said.

Ultimately, the final product resulted from the synthesis of two suggestions: going down in flames of glory and libel.

Libel, a term for published, written defamation, is traditionally anathema to print publications that can face severe legal action for unfairly attacking an individual’s character or reputation. But since Gordian Knot was already on its last legs, the editors decided that unfairly attacking subjects was exactly what they wanted to do.

Though Platt and Mayer would not release the names of those they plan to libel personally, they say there is really no limit to the people and organizations they would like to see slandered.

Platt added that libel is something with which the magazine began to experiment in its most recent issue, with a sharp-tongued satirical article that took a Hyde Park realtor to task for its faulty service.

“We sort of stuck our toes in the water in our last issue with an open letter to MAC Property Management,” Platt said.

Gordian Knot’s faculty sponsor Malynne Sternstein has high hopes for the libeling abilities of the magazine’s contributors.

“Gordian Knot should take the time to craft individualized statements [for each and every person on campus]” she said. “Failure to do so will compromise Gordian Knot’s high standards.”

Although graduation approaches, Platt and Mayer both said that they wouldn’t be entirely opposed to the idea of someone picking up the torch and continuing to publish the magazine. However, Mayer said that he finds this unlikely.

“I don’t really see much need to continue the magazine unless there’s a huge demand for it, which is something I haven’t really seen yet,” he said. “I’m certainly not going to go out of my way to get someone else to do it because it was really something that was just sort of our thing.”

Platt said that he would be more than happy to see one last issue put out next year.

“If someone was interested in putting out a phoenix issue, I would definitely be willing ash to that,” he said.