odds and ends / 3.21.2019













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Daniel Rabel: Première entrée des fantômes, quatre figures (First entrance of ghosts, four figures). Costume design for ballet. 1632. Via Geisterseher.

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A. J. Johnson (photographs), William G. FitzGerald: A Human Alphabet, The Strand Magazine, 1897. Via Letterform Archive.

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Brodgar bench, by Gareth Neal and Kevin Gauld for The New Craftsman (photo found at Colourful Beautiful Things).

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Three pages from a Tibetian ceremonial music score with 'notation for voice, drums, horns, trumpet, and cymbals,' via Stephen Ellcock.


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In sentimental fiction, we encounter righteous solutions to problems that feel unresolvable in real life. Berlant held that American popular culture had been built, layer by layer, from “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” to “The Simpsons,” upon the assumption that identifying with “someone else’s stress, pain, or humiliated identity” could change you. “Popular culture relies on keeping sacrosanct this aspect of sentimentality—that ‘underneath’ we are all alike,” she observed.
Everyone has heartstrings. Over time, she wrote, we had grown addicted to having them pulled, rather than focussing on what the pulling could accomplish by way of political change. We’d replaced tangible action with affective experience. “What does it mean for the theory and practice of social transformation,” she asked in a 1999 essay, “when feeling good becomes evidence of justice’s triumph?” Somewhere along the way, doing good had come to seem irrelevant—or maybe just felt impossible.

Hua Hsu, "Affect Theory and the New Age of Anxiety: How Laurie Berlant's cultural criticism predicted the Trumping of politics." The New Yorker, 3/25/2019.

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Empathy is, in a word, selfish. In his bracing and persuasive 2016 book Against Empathy, Paul Bloom writes, “Empathy is a spotlight focusing on certain people in the here and now… Empathy is biased… It is shortsighted.” Bloom helpfully distinguishes between the more useful cognitive empathy—understanding what’s happening in other minds and bodies—and emotional empathy, trying to feel like or even as someone else. With a simple thought experiment—you pass by a lake where a child is drowning—Bloom shows that emotional empathy is often beside the point for moral action. You don’t have to feel the suffocation, the clutch of a throat gasping for air, to save someone.

Namwali Serpell, "The Banality of Empathy,NYR Daily, 3/2/2019. A terrific, troubling essay taking apart the myth 'that art promotes empathy.'

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Related: "Reconsidering the role of empathy in Hannah Arendt's concept of enlarged mentality."

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The difference between millions and billions.

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Fairy tale-ish: the hallucinatory realism of Rachel Ingalls; a new book by Helen Oyeyemi (YAY).

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Gravestones, clouds, flowers: the Romantic paintings of Matvey Levenstein.

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Emily Wilson on translating the deaths of the slave women in The Odyssey.

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Batia Suter's Cloud Service — a book of cloud and cloudlike pictures "interested in the visual dialog that emerges with the simple act of placing images in new relation to one another."

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In the nineteen-eighties, Apple called its headquarters the Robot Factory. “To understand the electronics industry is simple: every time someone says ‘robot,’ simply picture a woman of color,” [Louis] Hyman advises. One in five electronics companies used no automation at all, and the rest used very little. Seagate’s disk drives were assembled by women in Singapore. Hewlett-Packard hired so many temporary workers that it started its own temp agency. The most important technology in the electronics industry, as Hyman points out, was the fingernail.

Jill Lepore, "Are Robots Competing for Your Job?" The New Yorker, 3/4/2019.

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Teju Cole, in conversation with Krista Tippett for On Being: "There’s a beautiful Inuit word, qarrtsiluni. It means 'sitting together in the dark, waiting for something to happen.'"


sugar season











Horace Pippin, Maple Sugar Season, 1941.

Ad for offering books for maple sugar in The Vermont Republican, March 1, 1826. Found thanks to the American Antiquarian Society.

Garth Williams, illustration of making maple snow candy for Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder.

'pike's not a name, it's a fish'



A song for Luke Perry, who danced with me (the way he danced with Buffy) to this song in so many teenaged daydreams. 

imaginary outfit: somewhat warmer

Outside the window, yesterday's fine dusting of snow is receding, revealing a world of dull color: the dead greens and browns of grass and bare trees, a flat fishbelly sky. It's been a streaky, patchy winter: too cold, too warm, too wet, and not enough snow. Under the daily emotional turbulence of processing assorted political outrages, I find myself helplessly angry about the weather: that the seasons I've known my whole life with are becoming strange to me feels like a betrayal. I spent five days in New York earlier in February, freezing on a Friday and roasting on a Monday. 

One rainy day in January, Hugh and I went to the mall to look for caution signs: the yellow ones that pop up like plastic mushrooms in public spaces as soon as floors get damp. We saw a fair few: triangular tent pop-ups, plastic pillars, the classic sandwich-board a-shape, even absorbent towels printed with warning labels. The mall itself was gloomy; empty storefronts, sales on unwanted things, kiosk businesses hyping bathtub liners, creepily realistic animatronic companion animals, and "dragon's breath" liquid nitrogen treats. The stores were filled with resort wear—warm weather clothes designed for humans who live in other places or who have the enviable ability to escape Ohio Februarys entirely. 

I found myself thinking that one good thing about the retail apocalypse might be an opportunity for realignment. If what retail survives skews local and specific, maybe we will eventually get a fashion micro-season offering warm pretty things to wear in February and March (like this jacket by Szeki 7118). 

With melting snow, drab colors, and a particularly wonderful Neil Welliver woodcut print of a stump in mind, I made an outfit for the dreg days of an Ohio winter. 

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odds and ends / 2.1.2019








Pieter Brughel the Elder, Hunters in the Snow, detail of skaters, 1565.

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Roman rock crystal dice, 1st-2nd century. 

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Giorgio Morandi, Natura morta, 1954. Found thanks to Julia Ritson.

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“But, actually, from the very beginning photography was never objective ... Whom you photograph, how you frame it—it’s all choices. So we’ve been fooling ourselves. Historically, it will turn out that there was this weird time when people just assumed that photography and videography were true. And now that very short little period is fading. Maybe it should’ve faded a long time ago.”

Joshua Rothman, 'In the Age of A.I., Is Seeing Still Believing?' The New Yorker, 11/12/2018.

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Cal Newport on digital minimalism:

I don't fear missing out. I fear not giving enough attention to the things that I already know for sure are important.
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I think what's gonna save us is this idea that we don't need the giant walled garden platforms to attract the value of the internet. We would be fine if Facebook went away. A lot of the problems that we're facing—almost all the problems I write about—are an artifact of trying to consolidate the internet behind the walled gardens of one private company. You go back to the wild, decentralized social internet, and most of the issues that people worry about go away.

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In happy news of wild, decentralized social internetting: My friend Abbey is blogging again.

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I found parts of the show stunning and parts of it strange and underwhelming. I admired her ambition; I liked the idea of her. I liked the idea of her having finally been discovered, anointed, and I admired her faith that a more spiritually transcendent future class of people would appreciate the work that she knew would be misunderstood in her own time.

Lynn Steger Strong, 'She Was Sort of Crazy: On Women Artists.' The Paris Review, 1/31/2019.

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Best movie I saw in 2018: Network.

It’s easy to believe that, in 1976, Chayevsky and Lumet’s bleak view of television’s crassness and irresponsibility was deeply shocking. But the scary thing about re-watching Network today is that even its wildest flights of fancy no longer seem outrageous at all. The film was so accurate in its predictions that its most far-fetched satirical conceits have become so familiar as to be almost quaint.

I'd swap eerie for quaint, but yeah. Watching it is a cultural corrective, revealing so many particular  awfulnesses of today as old, old news. The writing is breathtaking; prestige TV feels limp and unambitious in comparison.

Best movie I've seen so far in 2019: The Mortal Storm (a favorite); runner up, First Reformed. (Lots of laughs around here.)

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Open access at The Cleveland Museum of Art.