2021 recommendations

May 2021

I’ll start off this month with some music, beginning with this playlist by Jace Clayton, for ArtForum. Jace Clayton is also DJ/Rupture, and he’s probably best known for finding and promoting interesting new music from parts of the world that aren’t the United States or Europe. (I quoted from his book Uproot, about the way that digital culture is changing music around the world, a couple of months ago; you can download Gold Teeth Thief, the mix that first drew a lot of attention to him, from his website). For many people in the U.S., at least, “world music” still tends, I think, to mean essentially folk music— traditional or classical genres and styles, preserved and listened to as a kind of anthropological exercise as much, or more than, an aesthetic experience. This tends also to create an impression of cultures frozen in time, or— perhaps worse— to suggest that the “authentic” culture is either vanished or vanishing, to be replaced inevitably by a homogenous, Western-dominated “global” culture. (David Byrne famously denounced the term “world music” in a New York Times op-ed back in 1999).

Clayton’s work, both in writing in as a DJ, highlights the ways in which people are actually constantly filtering what they hear through their own cultural, social, and aesthetic ideas, adapting what they like and ditching what they don’t, creating things that are very definitely of their own time and place but are in no sense isolated from the rest of the world. (The book’s chapter on Autotune, excerpted here, is a good example; it focuses on the way that technology has been adopted in the Mahgreb, where it blends especially well with regional musical tastes and traditions). This mixing and matching should, really, be what we expect, but I don’t think it always is. Anyway, this playlist is typically wide-ranging, with artists from all over the world doing very different kinds of things; like any very good DJ, Clayton somehow establishes a through-line anyway. The format is a little annoying, since each song is a separate embed from Bandcamp (and the rest of the album that song is on will continue playing by default, rather than the next song in the playlist), but that also makes it easy to go buy things and support the artists, if you hear something you like.

Along similar lines, this mix by Scratcha DVA focuses on recent club music from South Africa, especially gqom. It’s easy to hear the way influence is going back and forth between the UK, especially, and South Africa here.


I’ve been intermittently working on writing something about data centers (along with fulfillment centers and intermodal facilities) for a little while now. I’m interested in these things for the way that they are sort of placeless, or seem to be disconnected from their geographic and cultural context, at the same time as they form the infrastructure of globalization, linking specific places to one another. (Or something like that— it’s a work in progress). “The Sacred Fire of a Data Center”, by Donal Lally, isn’t exactly about any of that; he wants to highlight the way that data centers, which are responsible for a vast and growing share of global electricity consumption, in some ways mirror the very old human need to control fire. In the same way that houses and even towns were organized around fire in the ancient world, global infrastructure is increasingly organized around data centers and their operating conditions. If I’m honest, the sacred hearth-data center connection Lally draws strikes me, by turns, as both a little glib and a bit of a stretch, but I think there’s still a point here about our growing dependence on these structures, and the ways in which that dependence takes on material form in the built environment.


All of those data centers, and the devices that connect to and through them, are reliant on a few key materials. Two very different articles about mining— “Inside the Lithium Goldrush”, by Ivan Penn and Eric Lipton, and “The Dark Side of Congo’s Cobalt Rush”, by Nicolas Niarchos— illustrate the political, economic, and moral complexities of getting those materials out of the ground and putting them to use. Lithium is essential for newer battery technologies, including those being used in electric cars, and cobalt is in…well, basically everything that’s high tech, and a lot that isn’t. But there are vast differences between the circumstances of lithium extraction in the U.S. and cobalt mining in the Congo.

In the U.S., the controversies are mainly environmental; people (many of them Native Americans) living near a proposed lithium mine in Nevada are concerned about how much groundwater it would consume— over 3,000 gallons per minute— and how much it will pollute what remains. A different plan would extract lithium salts from beneath California’s Salton Sea; the salts are carried by steam that is already being used for geothermal electricity generation. I can’t claim to understand the details of that, but it promises to be a much cleaner means of production. The growth in demand for lithium for electric car batteries (among other things), though, more or less ensures that the “traditional” mine will probably go into operation as well, no matter how well the new process at the Salton Sea works.

In the Congo, there are certainly environmental and health concerns about the mining of Cobalt, but there are also some very immediate human rights issues; a lot of the work is being done by “artisanal” miners— people using their bare hands or simple tools, climbing down into deep pits that often lack structural support. Very small children are working to wash minerals out of ore (exposing themselves to toxins along the way), and miners are killed all the time. Whole towns in the southern Congo are so cut through with pits and tunnels they look like they’ve been bombed. (I was weirdly reminded of the description of the Sholtos’ estate in the Sherlock Holmes story The Sign of Four).

In the background (more or less) of both cases is China. Chinese dominance in the production of rechargeable batteries has some people in the U.S. worried, leading them to present the development of domestic lithium sources as a strategic need as much as an economic one. In the Congo, many of the mines are at least partly owned by Chinese companies, and China is far and away the world’s largest buyer of cobalt. Meanwhile, it is of course for American companies like Apple that Chinese manufacturers are constructing many of the devices in which both cobalt and lithium are used.

So, while I don’t think it is likely that we’ll see child labor being employed in American lithium mines, these two substances, and the problems that their extraction presents, are inextricably linked together through the technologies and devices that consumers in the developed world carry in our pockets. In his novel10:04, Ben Lerner (paraphrasing David Harvey) refers to “the majesty and murderous stupidity of that organization of time and space and fuel and labor becoming visible in the commodity itself,” and that seems and appropriate description for the unimaginably complex way that all of this material and effort and intelligence and sheer human suffering are marshaled and directed.


I’m also ostensibly working on a paper about the history of photography and Native Americans— specifically, the use of photography as a way of recording or preserving native cultures that were supposedly on the verge of disappearing. (Edward Curtis’s The North American Indian is probably the best known, and also certainly the best, of these projects). As part of that, I’ve read a fair amount about photography and the camera as tools of colonial power, used to produce representations that glorified or justified the colonization of some peoples and places. (Teju Cole has written beautifully about this). So I was interested to see the comparison between the camera and the sewing machine that Catharine E. McKinley makes in this interview about her new book, The African Lookbook. She suggests that

Unlike the camera, Africans were able to quickly democratize the sewing machine, and you would find it in almost every household of some means, on the streets, in ateliers and as part of dowry lists. This made me think again about all the possibilities for this thing — not only in the sense that you can make something beautiful for yourself and others but that it really is an economic tool.

It’s striking, then, that the book is full of photographs illustrating the fashions that McKinley is interested in— some taken by African photographers like Malick Sidibé and Seydou Keïta, whose studios in Mali were producing work that Teju Cole elsewhere describes as “ripostes to the anthropological images of ‘natives’ made by Europeans in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.” I don’t think that makes McKinley wrong; certainly the sewing machine might have been widely taken up earlier, and been a much clearer means of economic support than photography. But, as in the music that Jace Clayton highlights, people will always find ways to take technology and make it their own.

One other interesting point from the interview with McKinley that I wanted to mention is what she says about the very sums that women in West Africa were spending on fabric in the 1960s— 12–19% of their income. McKinley says:

I think we have to look at that consumption as a kind of banking and an economic system. A lot of that expenditure on cloth would be used as a kind of capital, even if women were using it to sew a dress.

Dresses were sewn to still preserve the yard: They would never actually cut the cloth when making a skirt. Rather, they would fold the extra cloth inside so that the skirt could be reopened and there would be two or three yards to recycle or reuse. It was an important source of financial wealth, as women could use the extra cloth to make more clothes for themselves or sell the cloth to other women.

Women traders could get store credit from other female traders and then acquire more cloth and more income and insert themselves in the system. It’s a kind of interesting and very complex banking system.

If nothing else, that’s a reminder that the most obvious or straightforward seeming interpretation of things isn’t always the right one, and that to say that people have taken something from another culture and “made it their own” doesn’t refer only, or even primarily, to style or aesthetics.


These very close-up images of bees, made by Josh Forwood, are pretty amazing. Apparently the vast majority of bee species— 90%— are solitary, and don’t live in hives or other communities; the honeybees we’re familiar with are the exception, rather than the norm. Forwood set up a “bee hotel” with a camera that could capture the bees as they entered a tube leading into the structure, and these are the result. There’s so much more variation in the individual faces than I would expect (knowing almost nothing about bees). If you’re looking at these on a small screen, I recommend moving to a big one if you can; in many of the images, you can actually see structure of the bee’s eyes.

I think this one is my favorite.
I think this one is my favorite.

Finally, I want to tell everybody to read Entangled Life, by Merlin Sheldrake. You might think you don’t have any interest in a book about fungi, but I am willing to bet you are wrong. Entangled Life reminds me a lot of Ed Yong’s also great I Contain Multitudes, about the human microbiome, for two reasons. One is that they both have something about every other page that you will feel compelled to read aloud to whomever is in the room with you; the other is that they are both, in different ways, books about symbiosis. Many species of bacteria that live in the human gut couldn’t love without us, and we could not, at least, live as well without them; fungal mycelial networks are essential for most plants to extract vital nutrients from soil, in exchange for which the fungi get some of the sugar the plants produce through photosynthesis. Reading about all of this, it starts to seem more and more as though symbiosis is the norm, rather than the exception. This seems especially pertinent as we start to find our way out of the COVID.-19 pandemic. One thing this experience should have made clear is that “my” immune system is not located only in my own body, but in the bodies of everyone around me. Whether I get sick or not is, and always has been, a result of other people’s behavior as much as what is going on inside of me.

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