2019 recommendations

Boundary Work: Year’s End

Running through my head all day today is the phrase “start as you mean to go on.” I don’t really believe that the first day of the year will somehow determine the shape of the rest, but, even if the specific point at which we designate the end of one year and the start of another is more or less arbitrary, I think it is still both useful and interesting to pause and take stock occasionally, and perhaps to draw a line under what is done, cut one’s losses, and think about what one would want to be different. Designating this kind of cut-off point gives a kind of shape to time and action. This is one reason that I actually like looking at all the end-of-year lists: even if there’s no reason to assume that all the music or books or movies of 2018 will have untying important in common, thinking of them all together as a piece gives us a basis for comparison, a way to see things in relation to one another, and so see them differently. 

In other words, by marking the boundary of a year at a specific point, we are in a sense making a claim that it makes sense, or is useful, to think about those 365 days as a unit or set that has some kind of coherence or meaning as a whole. In a circular way, it’s the choice to designate the unit that gives it such meaning. Boundaries are rarely simply given; they must be designated, which we do by choosing what to place on each side of them. 

In a post last year, writing about Teju Cole, I talked about the idea that a photograph necessarily makes a similar kind of claim to the viewer: that the things within its frame go together, in some way; that they should collectively be considered as an image, a sort of visual unit, and that the photo succeeds or fails to a large extent based on how well it supports that claim. “Framing Nature”, by Brooks Riley, draws attention to the artificiality of this, the way in which human-made images put limits on the visual field that don’t exist otherwise. In particular, the rectangular frame or shape of an image illustrates this point:

The quadrangle, so seldom in nature, belongs to us. It’s what we do. Not only do we build the boxes we reside in, and write on quadrate pieces of paper, but we are the inventors of the four-cornered frame. And it is this ubiquitous frame that separates us from ‘nature’s typical curvilinear palette’, and from nature itself. The quadrate frame has allowed us to defy the properties of the human eye, to declare that one’s vision stops here, to consciously limit our focus to the contents of a frame and the world it contains—not all the time, but increasingly so, as we peer at the frames of our smart phones or laptops, the frames of our selfies, the frames of the paintings in a museum, the frames of our TV screens, the frame of a billboard or traffic signs. We rarely use the eye the way it was designed to be used, with the field of vision spreading out to the periphery and beyond. Vision is broadly oriented, offering context to the chosen focus: Even as we home in on an object, the eye is poised to see what’s on the edge of that object, and all around it. These days we use that wide lens only occasionally, to get our bearings or to enjoy a view—like a wide establishing shot in a film—necessary, but immediately dispensable as we go back to our frames.

Further,

Photography introduced the frame to real life, taking it out of the museums and churches, and putting it on our tables, our walls, and in our books and photo albums. Aesthetic or not, the image within the frame came to define a place, a moment, a person, the content the result of a conscious choice.

Riley goes on to discuss how drone photography introduces a radically new perspective to photography: not just elevated, which has been a goal and a practice since Felix Nadar went up in his hot air balloon, but the straight vertical view. I’m not entirely persuaded this is quite as new as he thinks it is— some of David Maisel’s photos, taken from an airplane, look remarkably similar to the Riley’s examples—though certainly drones make it easier to achieve. But I also think it’s important to keep in mind not only the ways in which photography puts limits on human vision, but also the ways in which photography can extend it.

One of my favorite books read this year is Rebecca Solnit’s River of Shadows, which, among a great deal else, describes Edweard Muybridge’s great 360-degree panorama of San Francisco.

This, as Solnit points out, is “an impossible sight, a vision of the city in all directions, a transformation of a circular space into a linear photograph” (159-160). It’s not simply an image made from a position that’s difficult to get to (though this was also true, at least socially speaking— he made it from the window of Leland Stanford’s Nob Hill mansion); it’s a way of seeing that is literally beyond the capacities of the human eye.

Solnit’s main interest with regard to Muybridge is his motion studies, which allowed viewers to distinguish what was normally too rapid for human vision— most famously the fact that a trotting horse sometimes has all four feet off the ground.

Photographs fragment time as well as space, taking a single instant out of its temporal context; this too expands or extends human vision. (Perhaps not without costs; in Understanding a Photograph, John Berger describes what he sees as “the violence of the fission whereby appearances are separated by the camera from their function” [48]). A similar kind of argument could be made about long-exposure photographs, which make the passage of time visible in a way that is entirely distinct from human vision (or, indeed, video). So, a photo imposes limits, a frame or boundary that wouldn’t be there if we were simply looking; at the same time, photography makes it possible to see things in new ways, exceeding or ignoring the natural limits of the human eye. And, in any case, the image must have an edge or limit in order to work, for us to see it as an image, a unit, a whole— which of course changes how we see it. The frame is an ambivalent boundary, foreclosing some possibilities at the same time as it opens up others.

And maybe all boundaries are ambivalent in this way. “The Gray Scale” is an essay by William L. Fox, taken from a book of photographs by David Taylor. Taylor has traveled along the US-Mexico border to photograph “the 276 Boundary Monuments constructed by the International Boundary Commission in the last half of the 19th century from El Paso-Juárez to San Diego-Tijuana.” As Fox says,

A line marking national sovereignty is already something of a myth: a story that initially must be politely accepted by both sides and then constantly reaffirmed through negotiation. When the disparity between what is on the two sides of the line becomes too great — economically, environmentally, politically — people attempt to relieve the disparity by crossing. And that’s when governments begin to erect physical walls, out of fear. But a border becomes difficult to sustain when it is tasked with being a barrier, which is a very different entity.

The US-Mexico border has been much in the news of late, primarily as, precisely, a barrier. But if it were only this, it wouldn’t matter in the same way. The border is important in part because of the possibilities it opens up: it is only because there is a border, a boundary that distinguishes one jurisdiction from another, that crossing it can be desirable. Stepping onto U.S. soil triggers certain possibilities— most notably the request for asylum; if there were no boundary between the two countries, this could not happen. It is only because that step is regarded as leaving one place and entering another that it can have such meaning. As a threshold, the border creates possibilities; as a barrier, it forecloses them. Every border, perhaps, is always a bit of both, and what changes over time is the balance. (Among other interesting bits, the article mentions the “Great Hedge of India”, built by the British in the 19th century to help enforce the salt tax).

Of course, the border is also understood, at least by some, as the limit of a community as well as a jurisdiction, and for many it is that limit that needs to be reinforced by walls and fences. Every community has its own kind of boundary work— practices and rituals and shibboleths that distinguish between insiders and outsiders. A couple of years ago, I posted an article about a cruise for conspiracy theorists. It’s a piece I think about a lot, both because it is full of weird people and stories, and because the whole premise continues to strike me as strange: that such a varied group of people, with so many different…concerns, would expect to find some kind of common ground. There were people who believe vaccines cause autism, and people who believe that they are individually sovereign—beyond the jurisdiction of the U.S. federal government— and people who believe that the British royal family are secretly giant lizards. What these groups really have in common remains obscure to me.

I thought about this article again reading both “Four Days Trapped at Sea with Crypto’s Nouveau Riche”, by Laurie Penny, and “Inside the Flat Earth Conference, Where the World’s Oldest Conspiracy Theory Is Hot Again”, by Katy Weill. The connections there are pretty straightforward, but what sticks out to me now about the newer pieces is that everybody is looking to join, to define, or to reaffirm a community. Weill makes this explicit:

Sure there are schisms…But overall, the conference is a barrage of reinforcement. Earth is flat and you’re here with your Flat Earth family. Earth is flat and you’re here with your Flat Earth family. I take a break from a presentation to type in the lobby. Two strangers, a man and a woman, sit down across from me, and over the course of a long conversation, scooch closer and closer to each other until I relocate to another couch. For all the presenters’ talk of open-mindedness and debate, people are really looking for others like them.

The crypto cruise is definitely less…congenial, in a number of ways, but still, part of the reason a lot of people seem to be there is to convince themselves, and those around them, that they are part of the club:

…I realize that everyone on this boat is pretending to have a really good time, and doing the things that they imagine rich people do for fun: gambling, drinking, being entertained by beautiful women. But nobody seems relaxed. This isn’t the lazy entitlement of people born to money. It’s the anxious, aggrieved entitlement of the suddenly rich, of people just waiting to be told they don’t deserve everything they’ve ever been told to want. Utopia feels very far away.

This is, in a sense, a search for community from the other direction: not an effort at creation or recognition, but securing the right of entry— to lay claim to membership in a community that they believe already exists, has always existed, and was previously unwilling to admit them.

Of course, resentment and hypersensitivity about being excluded don’t mean people won’t act to exclude others, and in this case, there is a striking gender imbalance on the boat— imbalance in status as well as in numbers.

One of the ways men bond is by demonstrating collective power over women. This is why business deals are still done in strip clubs, even in Silicon Valley, and why tech conferences are famous for their “booth babes.” It creates an atmosphere of complicity and privilege. It makes rich men partners in crime. This is useful if you plan to get ethically imaginative with your investments. Hence the half-naked models, who are all working a lot harder than any of the guys in shirtsleeves…

I am as susceptible to fear of missing out, to the seduction of being surrounded by people who tell me I’m important, as any other elevated nerd. Lucky, then, that this ship’s sort of fun is explicitly designed to exclude people like me. Women, I mean.

Every boundary, again, is both a threshold and a barrier, and the impulse of those who have crossed the threshold to make it into a barrier for others is sadly common.

If every boundary is ambivalent, the end of the year may be especially so. It is distinctive in that on one side of the boundary is what has happened, and on the other is what hasn’t yet. It marks the point at which you know some things aren’t going to happen, but also invites thinking about what you might still do. It forecloses certain possibilities, and opens up others. It is a threshold, but only a barrier to going backward.

All of which is maybe just a long-winded way of saying: let’s all do better from now on.


I can’t finish talking about Penny’s piece, though, without noting how fantastic her descriptions are. A couple of examples:

By midnight on day three, the booze-infused insecurity is dialed up to 11. There is a pirate-themed ‘Russian dance party’ on deck. A hallucinogenic light show pulses over the black Mediterranean all around us, to the frantic heartbeat of music that sounds like a robot toddler having a tantrum in a trash bin. Models waft around listening to shouted explanations of Ethereum; investors spasm vaguely across the deck and neck drinks that were as free as they were, meaning that someone else had paid. Let us never speak of this dance party again.

And, particularly, her descriptions of Brock Pierce:

There are a hundred reasons you probably shouldn’t trust Brock Pierce, and if you’re me there’s the added fact that he‘s like a condensed composite of all the sketchy Burner boyfriends my sisters tried to warn me about. He’s five-foot-three, permanently dressed as a cowboy, and drifts about waggling his fingers and bobbing his chin to the miniature sound-system he carries around….Everybody around Pierce seems to want to protect him, mostly from himself, and his own capacity to unzip his heart and home and ersatz kaleidoscope of crypto-spiritual philosophies to everyone he ever meets…If he was anyone else, I would suspect Pierce was trolling this entire community to see how long he could talk like the back of a smoothie bottle before getting slapped. When he isn’t suddenly remembering that people can be cruel and abusive, Pierce is almost preternaturally trusting. This is a man who would be an excellent cult leader if he only had the essential malice and attention span.)

And, finally, a quick roundup of some other interesting things that I read recently:

“The Ugly History of Beautiful Things: Angora” is part of a series by Katy Kelleher (so far she’s done perfume as well). Among other things, it includes the cruel conditions inflicted on angora rabbits in Chinese mills, a Nazi program to promote production of angora textiles, and Lana Turner as the “sweater girl.” By the by, Kelleher did a roundup of some of the most prominent Pantone shades to go with the piece about Pantone that I posted a few months ago; it’s at the bottom, after the main text.

“China’s largest movie studio is vast, and so is its audience. But filmmakers have to toe the party line”, by Jonathan Kaiman, looks at the Hengdian World Studios, which claim to be the world’s largest and, in part because of state censorship, are dedicated mostly to historical melodramas.

“The Yoda of Silicon Valley” is a profilings of Donald Knuth, a pioneer in computer programming of all kinds, but the development of algorithms in particular. Knuth is also author of the vast and still-unfinished “The Art of Computer Programming,” as well as the creator of the LaTex typesetting system.

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