January 2021 Recommendations

One of the goals I’ve made for 2021 is to post here at least once a month. One symptom of the vast malaise that was 2020 was having my attention taken hostage by the constant drumbeat of crisis and catastrophe. For me, at least, it was like having an eye glued to a peephole— unable to look away, but with sight radically constrained. Writing more is one of the things I am trying to do to find a more positive way of engaging with the world this year. For later posts, I hope to something close to essays, at least some of the time, but this post is really just a roundup of links to some things I’ve enjoyed, or found value in thinking about, over the last few weeks.

In “Inexhaustible Precision”, Karl Ove Knausgaard is writing about the relationship between accessibility and quality. He starts out by saying that, whenever he gets immediate pleasure from lookin at a painting, he becomes suspicious, and can’t shake the feeling that what is easy to like can’t really be good or worthwhile. As he puts it,

“the quality and value of art for me is associated with some degree of resistance…Good is only that which does not open itself immediately, but requires lengthy effort on the part of the beholder in order to fully reveal itself—or rather no, that’s not the word at all, because a true work of art never fully reveals itself, holds no one answer, but must forever remain beholder-resistant.”

He’s not entirely comfortable with this idea either, though, even as he is unable to shake it. What follows is a kind of dramatization of his own internal debate— literally, at one point, when he stages a dialogue between his instinct for pleasure and his “critical voice.” Along the way, he does a thoughtful analysis of photographs by Sally Mann, among other things. There are a number of points I take issue with; for instance, Knausgaard suggests that “It would not be unreasonable to assume that extravagance and lack of resistance are held high in societies in which people must toil to survive, whereas resistance is similarly held high in societies in which everything is easily had.” In other words, only once some kind of art becomes readily accessible to most people in a society do artists begin to stretch, play with, or challenge the received or standard forms. In the case of the novel, for instance:

right from the beginning [it] was a mass medium employing classical narrative structures. It is only when the majority starts to read that the sophisticated, narrativeless or narratively experimental literature arises. Dickens, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy saw no reason to experiment with form; Woolf, Joyce and Broch did.

This is, at least, more complicated; it is true that there are “classical” narratives whose patterns are adopted (and adapted) in the first novels, but it’s also true that 19th-century writers like the ones Knausgaard mentions could only be seen as writing “standard” novels because centuries’ worth of books had been written to establish what that meant. Is Don Quixote,— written in the 1600s, well before mass literacy in Europe— simply deploying classical narrative structures? It uses many of the tropes of the chivalric romance, of course, but with the intention of satirizing them; the second part of the book (originally published separately, a few years later) involves the main character acting in response to counterfeit sequels circulating in the real-world— a move that seems more postmodern than “classical.” You can’t experiment with a form when the form isn’t settled; until then, everything is an experiment.

That said, I’ve had a similar internal argument; it might be more correct to say that I am constantly having it, and I probably thought more than ever in 2020 about the function and value of “comfort food” in movies, books, etc., and what I might be losing by resorting to them.

In the discussion of Mann’s photographs, Knausgaard claims that a tree depicted in one of them “is a simpler organism than us, and we know everything about what it comprises, what happens inside it and why…” “The Social Life of Forests”, by Ferris Jabr, shows how wrong he is about that. It’s focused on the career of botanist Suzanne Simard, a pioneer in the study of mycorrhizal networks— fungi that fuse themselves with the roots of trees, benefitting from the trees’ ability to photosynthesize sugars and, in return, making it easier for the trees to pull water and nutrients from the soil. Trees also use the networks to communicate, even across species. These networks, her work has shown, are vital to a healthy forest, and are one reason why homogenous forest areas planted by loggers often struggle. As Jabr describes it, “fungal threads link nearly every tree in a forest — even trees of different species. Carbon, water, nutrients, alarm signals and hormones can pass from tree to tree through these subterranean circuits.”

This turns out to have all kinds of possible implications for our understanding of evolution (and so touches on some ideas in Jabr’s also excellent piece about beauty in nature). It also implicates, even more generally, the assumptions we humans make about other species. We recognize some animals, like most monkeys and apes, as “social,” because they have relationships that we can readily see and which seem at least roughly analogous to our own. The findings of Simard and her colleagues suggest that this categorization ignores or discounts other sorts of connection. Her work shows that clear cutting a forest destroys not only the trees themselves, but the architecture of their relationships to one another.

Humans are not the only species that inherits the infrastructure of past communities…When a seed germinates in an old-growth forest, it immediately taps into an extensive underground community of interspecies partnerships. Uniform plantations of young trees planted after a clear-cut are bereft of ancient roots and their symbiotic fungi. The trees in these surrogate forests are much more vulnerable to disease and death because, despite one another’s company, they have been orphaned.

Somewhat along the same lines, I also recommend Geoff Manaugh’s post on BLDGBLOG about new sub-surface scanning and mapping technologies being deployed by the U.S. Geological Survey, as well as by archeologists.

What lies below, whether it is mineral or architectural, is becoming accessible to surface view through advanced technical means. These new tools often reveal that, beneath even the most featureless landscapes, immensely interesting forms and structures can be hidden. Ostensibly boring mud plains can hide the eroded roots of ancient mountain chains, just as endless fields of wheat or barley can stand atop forgotten towns or lost cities without any hint of the walls and streets beneath. The surface of the Earth is an intermediary—it is media—between us and what it disguises.

This video with graphic designer Eric Hu, talking about the history of typography in LA, is a few months old, but I just discovered it through Robin Sloan’s newsletter (which is also great, and which you should subscribe to). It’s fascinating, and goes in some really unexpected directions; he starts off talking about the Chinese Exclusion Act and the Zoot Suit Riots, and you might think the links between that and typography are going to be tenuous, but you would be wrong.

I’ve really been enjoying posts from My Analog Journal, in which DJ Zag Erlat plays sets like “Japanese Jazz from the 70s” or “Brazilian Grooves,” built mainly from his own (apparently gigantic) record collection. I’ve been putting the shorter Coffee Break Sessions, like this one, on while I have lunch.

(You can also get the audio by itself on his Soundcloud page.)

In a totally different vein, but also good, is the album Brass, by billy woods [sic] and Moor Mother, which came out late last year. Experimental hip-hop, it has a little in common with Shabazz Palaces, but expresses more of the DNA of 90s groups like X-Clan.

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