Syllabus: Week of February 7th

A list of interesting things new and old that I’ve read or experienced this week. I do not endorse or even necessarily agree with anything on the other side of these links.

Articles

Frank, Matthew Gavin. “Another Atrocious Man Named Clive; or, the Ass of a Sociopath,” Guernica. https://www.guernicamag.com/another-atrocious-man-named-clive/ — This is everything you want magazine writing to be.


Hogeveen, Esmé. “Going Medieval on Your Gram,” The Baffler. https://thebaffler.com/latest/going-medieval-on-your-gram-hogeveen— Designers keep insisting that typefaces are important. Maybe there’s something to that argument?

Poser, Rachel. “He Wants to Save Classics From Whiteness. Can the Field Survive?” in The New York Times Magazine. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/02/02/magazine/classics-greece-rome-whiteness.html — What was the classical world, and why do we pretend like it was full of white people? Scholars have been attacking the classical canon and the western civilization myth since the dawn of postcolonialism. Now the New York Times Magazine is on the scene, so I guess it’s real now?

McClendon, Blair and Jenny G. Zhang, Matt Christman, Merve Emre, Rosemarie Ho, Sasha Frere-Jones, Sophie Haigney, Tausif Noor, “‘Speak to the Moment’: Art and Culture Under Trump,” in The Drift.https://www.thedriftmag.com/art-under-trump/ — Unflinching , necessary takes on the last four years of our lives.

Warzel, Charlie. “I Talked to the Cassandra of the Internet Age,” New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/02/04/opinion/michael-goldhaber-internet.html — By now, it’s old news that the internet has rewired our brains and, as a result, rewired society. This article tries to claim that the subject is the guy who predicted that, but, you know, that’s not really possible. It is an interesting read anyway.

Video

I know these are old. If you haven’t seen them, maybe you’d like them.

Multiple Maniacs (1970)

Insomnia (1997)

Somewhere (2010)

Music

Archie Shepp and Jason Moran, Let My People Go


I’m writing a review of this album for this blog. Spoiler: I really like the album. Check out this video for the opening track:

Nihiloxica


Witch Egg

Books

de Botton, Alain. The Architecture of Happiness. New York: Pantheon Books, 2006.

My plan is to share at least one book of poetry in this space every week. Last week it was Cheryl Dumesnil. This week it is:

Sze, Arthur. Sight Lines. Port Townsend, Wash.: Copper Canyon Press, 2019.

I am between fiction books at the moment and didn’t enjoy the last one I finished. Nothing to share this week!

Art

Seizing an opportunity to share MedievalPOC is one of the reasons I saved that article about rethinking classicism up there. https://medievalpoc.tumblr.com/

Other

Here’s a preview of what traveling in Virgin’s (mostly vaporware) Hyperloop could be like. I’ll believe this when I see it.

Adding Flavor

Often when I’m cooking I think about something my friend, chef Adam Browne, said in passing a couple of years ago when we were walking around the campus at work. We were talking about barbecue and he said, “you should be adding flavor at every step.”

Hear, hear. I think that applies to more than just barbecue.

Anyway, I was just making dinner and that popped into my head.

Existential Angst

I am not a prolific worker. I swing from one overpowering interest to another, some times multiple times in one day, leaving a trail of bread crumbs of work behind me. Over time, those crumbs have piled pretty high; but the horizon of fascinating new things to think about, to read and write about, to do and make, is no nearer today than it was ten years ago. Maybe one day I can put the crumbs together into a loaf, but the older I get, the less likely it seems.

So here I am. Working on a million things that may never see light. What next?

I don’t have answers tonight, only anxiety.

It’s Alive! and Upcycling

Last night I noticed that the scallions I put in a glass on the windowsill have put out new growth and it felt like some kind of miracle. I frantically looked in the fridge for other produce I could save–we waste so much!–and saw that we have at least two more green onions I can use and re-use, along with some carrots and potatoes to plant in the new planter box (more on that project later). I’ve always been one of those people who claims to kill plants. Learning that it just takes a little patience and thought has been a real head-smacker. How could I have been so stupid?!

It’s Alive! Scallions reborn on the kitchen windowsill. Change the water every two or three days if you try this at home.

I’ve been reading a lot lately about upcycling and product hacking. I’ve started about as simply as one can, by cutting the bottoms of my plastic drink bottles before recycling the rest and using them as little planters to propagate cuttings and seeds. It’s the tiniest of starts but one that I hope to expand upon this year.

Time to get the potting soil and cloche.

Knowledge Work, Emotional Labor

As a graduate student and “knowledge worker,” most of my life revolves around processing information. One of my academic fields–information science–deals with how people gather and disseminate information, and how people turn it into knowledge, while the other–history–involves gathering and interpreting a vast amount of data to craft an argument about the past. I use these skills Monday through Friday in a fairly specialized way solving (more or less) complex real estate questions for the State of Florida, while the rest of my time is devoted to academic work. So, on the whole, I spend a lot of time working, and a lot of time simply thinking about thinking. A couple years ago, I was vaguely unsettled by a tension between thinking materially and thinking digitally. Simply put, is it better to work with a pen and paper, or with computers? This tension has only grown as I’ve thought more about the problem, and now in my mind it has come to resemble a sort of civil war with the comfort and rigor of paper on one side and the flash and pomp of circuits on the other.

Maybe “civil war” is a little dramatic, but let me explain at least how these seemingly simple thoughts really do conjure up feelings. Electronics seem to wrap me in this warm sense of capability and convenience. I call it a siren song. Simply entrust your information and time to their care, they promise in honeyed tones, and your life will be both enriched and simplified. It feels good, like I’m firmly planted in The Now and remarkably productive. Pens and paper feel more active, more rigorous — like they allow me to channel some kind of Indiana Jones-style, rugged individualism in my work. It’s up to me to recall what I wrote yesterday, or last year, but I’m more likely to process the information because I had to embody the process by writing it down. 

But are either of these things true? I’ve spent the last several years wrestling with this question, straddling a line that is just as much emotion as it is intellectual, and I do not know. It is not a question I will answer today. But in the spirit of blogging through my confusion, as Gregory Gunderson proposes here, what I’m curious about today is the emotional dimension of this question. Ideas engender feelings, of course, and this one is no exception; but why should it be that I have feelings about paper and computers? And why do these feelings compete with one another?

I think these feelings have a lot to do with marketing. Marx rather famously argued that capitalism reduces human relations to commodity fetishism. In this view, producers and consumers do not see each other as humans in the round, but rather as inputs and outputs in the market. To the President of Samsung, in this view, I am not Chris, the graduate student and government employee struggling to understand why he has feelings about a cell phone, but Chris, a once and future customer with needs, fears, and desires that can be used to encourage me to buy another phone or tablet. It’s not the person who matters in this view, but the exchange.

Emotions smooth this exchange. For the last century, the market has carried out this act of reduction through significant psychological warfare. It is not a coincidence that the inventor of propaganda was also the inventor of modern public relations–a man who convinced women to smoke in the 1920s by suggesting that cigarettes were symbols of liberation before aiding the CIA in the overthrow of the Guatemalan government in the 1950s. Making people associate products with their identity brings them to the exchange. 

These emotions work toward marketing’s ultimate goal: segmentation. Tech not only benefits from segmentation–it is a several trillion-dollar market built on the inchoate promise of eternal “improvement”–it is now the primary platform by which segmenters work on our emotions. Like pretty much everyone born in the last forty years, I’ve been remarkably susceptible to this segmentation. I like tech, I think it is good; but as events over the last few years called this enthusiasm into question, there was another consumer identity ready-to-wear: the bohemian scholar, the rugged individual, whatever.. I won’t even get into how the culture of tech contributed to this workaholism in the first place, because the responsibility is all on me. But, really? I’m basing my identity on how I like to read and take notes? Something is wrong there.

Maybe that’s the breakthrough. I suspect it is just a detente, though, because tech and paper are just a synecdoche for the deeper problems that trouble us all. Is this smartphone spying on me? Am I free to read and think without being surveiled and manipulated at all hours of the day? Is the digital future really better than the analog past? I don’t know. Let me check my notes. 

The Daisy

I have a little yellow Daisy on my front porch that I’ve been trying to keep alive for a few weeks. I’m not doing a very good job of it. The flower lives life on a strange carnival ride of forgetfulness, swinging wildly from healthy, golden vitality to a state of near-death droopiness over the course of each week, and I feel bad for it. I feel guilty just long enough to give it another starvation ration of water from a measuring cup out of the kitchen, that is, and then forget about it for another few days. I really have no idea what I’m doing.

I feel the same way about Twitter. Like the flower on my porch, I abandon it to time and entropy six days out of the week and overwater it on the seventh. It also gives me anxiety. I think, “I need to be better at Twitter.” I wonder, like most everyone with a high opinion of their own voice, “how can I get more engagement?” Just last night, I fell asleep thinking about how social media is a tool that I haven’t learned to properly use. Like an awl, maybe, which I also don’t know how to use. 

Unlike the flower, which needs me to live, there’s no reason for me to feel that way about Twitter. Twitter is probably demonstrably better without me on it. But I can’t help it. I fret over it, like the Tamagotchi I got in a kid’s meal from KFC in 1996 that quietly beeped its way into my psyche until I pulled the battery with a pang of guilt and a whoosh of relief two weeks later. It’s the same mechanic: press one button to clear a need, another to build a relationship.

I need to figure out why the internet makes me feel this way.   

Make it Yourself: Starting My Home Cooking Journey

This week I’ve been spending a lot of time in the kitchen. Like many Americans, I’ve spent my entire life on a weight loss “journey,” but the only times I’ve ever had any success have been those times when I truly take ownership of everything I eat and drink. This means planning meals and cooking for myself.

I’ve also been spending a lot of time thinking about what it means to live in a world being “eaten by software”—a world in which computer technology replaces our other technologies one by one, changing our lives forever in ways that we are only just beginning to understand. As food delivery and, soon, on-demand food “printing” and manufacturing powered by the web begin to take the place of home cookery, what are we losing?

With those things in mind, I decided this week to try something new: I don’t want to eat or drink anything that I haven’t made myself. No ordering out, no vending machines, no packaged “convenience” food. Just fresh, simple ingredients and food that I can feel good about.

Here’s my example from last night: Teriyaki Grilled Salmon with sautéed Asparagus and Roasted Sweet Potatoes. It’s not fancy, but it was healthy and delicious. Just as importantly, it allowed me to step away from the keyboard for awhile.

It’s more important than ever to make things by hand. We may not be able to go back to the analog world, but the planning, focus, and skill needed to make things for ourselves offer a powerful antidote to the digital doldrums. More to come.

Field Notes: Spanish Needles in the Mohawk Patch

There is an overgrown patch in the middle of my backyard that sprung up last month when winter began to gasp away. I remember it happened all of a sudden. The grass was not short—it rarely is in my yard, sadly—but subdued. More bohemian gardeners might have almost called it respectable. But then it rained one Thursday night, one of those surprisingly thunderous late winter gullywashers that sends the cats scurrying beneath the bed, and the grass woke up next to the fire pit on Friday morning with a wild mohawk and a raging sneer. Since then I’ve been ignoring the boisterous patch of turf like a shamefaced Baptist hiding in the back of the church. It feels too early still to tune up the lawnmower, a cantankerous old Snapper tractor that is probably busy popping its own front tires as you read this, and get down to work; but I know it’s going to have to happen if I want to stay on speaking terms with the neighbors and my dog, so I’m locked in a debate now between the slothful devil Chris on one shoulder and the industrious angel Chris on the other.

When I went home at lunch today I took the dog outside and saw that the patch had broken into an enthusiastic bloom of Spanish Needles. Most anyone you ask would call these weeds, and, well, they’re not wrong. But I’ve been reading gloomy articles about the insect apocalypse all winter, so I was a little happier than I should have been when I noticed that this patch in the yard was practically swarming with honeybees. My shame over avoiding the yardwork was transformed into respect and wonder for these little plants and the insects they attracted. Where would these bees be right now if I had cut the grass last weekend?

20190315_12144820190315_121436

I’ve read that the best thing we can do to save the bugs, aside from advocating for the more thoughtful regulation and use of pesticides, is to promote an insect-friendly environment in our own backyard. These little Spanish Needles on the rebellious mohawk patch taught me a lesson today: sometimes that means letting go, just a little, and letting nature work. As insects, water, and other precious things dwindle, it’s more important than ever before to balance management needs against the needs of nature. Next year I intend to promote this little weed, to make it an intentional part of the yard, along with other insect-friendly plants.

Until then, I probably need to cut the grass.