2021 recommendations

September 2021

Once again, a little bit of a random assortment this month:

Video: “When Stuff Gets on the Camera Lens,” by Mike Rugnetta

Mike Rugnetta used to be the host of Idea Channel, from PBS Digital Studios. That show used media theory and philosophy to think about pop culture, and somehow managed to walk an extremely thin line, neither dumbing down nor getting mired in academic jargon, taking phenomena like LOLCats and nail art seriously as cultural expressions without losing sight of the stakes. Idea Channel ended about four years ago, and I’m not aware of anyone who has managed to do this kind of thing nearly as well. Rugnetta didn’t make the show by himself, but I think it’s fair to say that his interests and his perspective were central to it. This video is, in many ways, like an Idea Channel episode, though it is longer and more in-depth than they tended to be, and a little quieter— not literally in its volume, but in the amount of stuff going on at any one time. It makes thoughtful observations about something you’ve likely seen without giving a lot of thought, connecting it to ideas in philosophy and psychology in an interesting and useful way. I really hope he keeps making these, and I will watch them as long as he does.


I’ve come across a bunch of good music this month. First is The North Water, by Tim Hecker

Next, Space 1.8, by Nala Sinephro

Mabe Fratti, whom I’ve posted about here before, also released a new record this summer: Será que ahora podremos entendernos

Finally, Honest Labour, by Space Afrika


Article: “A Brief, Fascinating History of Ambergris”, by Mark Wilding

I’m always interested in stories about where materials or specific objects come from, how they circulate, and so on— especially very common things that we generally see and use without paying attention to them. This story doesn’t meet the latter criterion, since ambergris is rare and somewhat mysterious, but that’s also interesting. There is a void at the center of the story: nobody knowns, precisely, what ambergris is. It’s been an object of speculation for centuries; theories have traced it not only to whales but birds, seals, and crocodiles;

The Hortus Sanitatis, an encyclopedia of herbal medicines published in 1491, cited theories that ambergris was tree sap, a type of sea foam, or some kind of fungus. In the 12th century, reports from China suggested ambergris was dried dragon spittle. It has at various times been proposed to be a fruit, fish liver, or a precious stone.

We now know that ambergris is produced, somehow, by sperm whales— but that was only confirmed through DNA analysis in 2020, andhow the whales produce it is still a mystery. A biologist named Robert Clarke published a theory in 2006 that it is formed when the beaks of squid lodge in the whales intestines and fecal matter builds up around them until the mass is finally expelled, killing the whale in the process. This is still the leading theory, but that is partly because there isn’t much competition— few scientists study ambergris, and it is so difficult to get that theories are difficult to test in any case. As Wilding points out,

Even the term ambergris is the result of a misunderstanding. The word is derived from the old French term ambre gris, meaning gray amber, distinguishing the substance from amber resin—fossilized tree sap that was also used in fragrances and found on beaches. Beyond this, the two substances bear no relation. Still, the misnomer corrected an even earlier error: amber resin likely took its name from ambar, the Arabic word for ambergris.

The idea that it is formed of fecal matter creates an obvious irony in the fact that ambergris today is mainly desirable as an ingredient in perfume. It’s value exceeds that of platinum, and it has occasionally been worth more than gold. This is despite the fact that it has been well-understood chemically since the middle of the 19th century, and synthetic alternatives have existed for a long time. It’s the rarity of real ambergris (you can really only get it by happening upon pieces that wash up on the beach), and the mystery about it, that makes it desirable, rather than any functional properties, and of course the price makes it exclusive; combine those and ambergris becomes desirable of a signifier of wealth and refinement. It is used in precisely this was in the movie Hannibal, where Lecter uses a scent containing ambergris that is then identified by perfume experts on the letter he sends to agent Starling. (I couldn’t find a clip of this scene online, but it’s actually the first thing I think of now when I think of ambergris).

This piece also reminded me of Katy Kelleher’s series The Ugly History of Beautiful Things, which is consistently good. (That link goes to the piece about lockets; I couldn’t find a page for the series as a whole, but there are links at the beginning to the other pieces.)

Along similar lines (and also in Smithsonian) is “The Feel-Good Recliner That Cures What Ails You”, by Deborah Judge Silber. The Adirondack Chair, though not invented with such use in mind, became successful in part because of the number of people who were coming to the Adirondack region in hopes of curing themselves of tuberculosis. Before antibiotics, the best hope was seen to be lots of time outside in clean, dry air; many places with such conditions became destinations for TB sufferers. The growth of sanataria in these locations led in turn to a demand for comfortable furniture for sitting outside for long periods; the Adirondack chair came at just the right time to benefit, though they remained popular just because they are comfortable.

A related side note: another big destination for TB patients was Colorado, and Colorado Springs in particular. One relic of this period are the TB huts that are found in some backyards today, as well as one on display in the city’s Pioneers Museum. My dad and his parents actually lived in one of these for a short time, not because anybody had TB but because of the national housing shortage that followed WWII.


Finally, Ophelia by Chrissie Dalziel is a photo essay, and it is sad and lovely in equal measure. Dalziel is on Instagram as theearlofbirds, and her work has a quality of slowness and sustained attention that always has the effect of arresting my scroll through the feed. (It has this in common— if not much else— with another photographer whose work I like a lot: Trevor Hernandez, who’s on Instagram as gangculture).

By Chrissie Dalziel


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