Happy Hanukkah <3!
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I have a complicated relationship to this time of year as a culture consumer because of the dizzying amount of “Best of the Year” lists that appear. On the one hand, I love them—a) they celebrate culture and cultural criticism, b) they’re organized and digestible and our brains just love that, c) I learn about great stuff I definitely missed.
On the other hand, there’s something obnoxiously categorical about them, which on a personal level makes me feel irrationally inadequate, and on a societal level may cause you to ask “why should I trust you, critic?” (Do I appreciate someone whose job it was to watch 1000 TV shows just to tell me what they liked? …yes and no.) Over time, one hopefully finds those critics they tend to align with, and whose opinions they trust. But since the end of year lists are like the criticism superbowl, I can’t help but remember how strange cultural criticism actually is. Critics have major talent and expertises, but their task is still to be expert opinion-havers, discerners of taste. Well, we are all opinion-havers and discerners of taste. The opinions and the tastes probably diverge (a lot), but the point remains: it is entirely subjective.
Of course, there is a much more pressing “why should I trust you?” issue. While major publications do seem to be successfully diversifying their writing teams and perspectives, white men still dominate as cultural critics. Critics are meaning-makers and gatekeepers; their cultural competencies and biases can’t help but have an effect on what they see as good, or best, or worth covering. Maybe I’ve found the critic whose opinions I share, but what if no one on any publishing platform thinks or looks like you? Historically, that’s been true for a huge swaths of the population, namely BIPOC. “We are only as good as our critics,” writes Elizabeth Méndez Berry in a terrific 2018 Hyperallergic article on why critics of color matter.
Long story long: as a cultural critic who humbly (maybe ironically, after this preface) offers you recommendations, know I am thinking incessantly about whose work I share, from what platform, and how my viewpoint informs my own analyses and preferences. I hope you’re all reflecting on a year of consumption unlike any other, with or without the help of the complicated yearly round-up.
Let’s digest, shall we?
NY Mag’s annual love letter, “Reasons We Love New York” is always something I look forward to. The list — even if you experienced nothing on it, lol — especially at this reflective time of year, reminds you of just why New York is so special, and why, therefore, we put up with it. This year’s shifted to past tense, Reasons We’ve Loved New York, and was a eulogy for 500 businesses New York lost during the pandemic. Along the list are short memory-vignettes from select places, which are sweet, funny, and, of course, deeply sad. While the list indicates the terrible pain and ripple-out effects of such seismic, all-at-once loss, I found it ever so slightly hopeful. As Carl Swanson points out, New Yorkers are used to constantly adapting: “It’s too big a city to live in all of it, so you find your corners, your go-tos. Sometimes they are long-running, but mostly they come and they go. It’s part of the Darwinian, self-alienating thrill of the place: More often than not, you outlive your landmarks.”
*plug!* I spent the last two years working as the managing editor on this new compendium on vernacular photography—the vast archive of utilitarian, personal, bureaucratic photos, not made for aesthetic purposes—which just won Paris Photo-Aperture Foundation’s 2020 Photography Catalogue of the Year! It has hundreds of amazing photos, like obsessive and quirky family albums, identification portraits, street signage in Japan, and TONS more, illuminated by twenty thoughtful, interdisciplinary essays by superstar writers. They explore and challenge the ethics and efficacy of the category “vernacular,” and its implications for power, ideology, race, gender, and more. It’s out of stock (!) at the moment, but link to purchase.
Funny and informative article by Fadeke Adegbuyi about why LinkedIn never seems to know itself, always coming across as just a little weird.
Very long, very compelling essay by Dr. Lyra D. Monteiro, a professor at Rutgers. In the wake of monuments toppling and protests for Black Lives Matter, she examines the inescapable, deliberate linkages of white supremacist heritage in the built environment of the US. She specifically explores the alt-right’s choice of Charlottesville, Virginia for their 2017 Unite the Right rally, whose classical statuary and architecture, designed by Jefferson, built by enslaved people, converge to form the ultimate example of dominance ideology. Monteiro offers in-depth histories of art and architecture’s role in nation-making and racial science, and shows how these “tools of heritage” appear everywhere with the express purpose of reinforcing the power of whiteness in the United States, to the point of total banality: “The patterns of this summer’s statue removals also points to the tenacity of this country’s white supremacy: as with all other institutions in our society, the existence of the extreme and overt racism makes all the rest of the racism that does not support their removal look tame.”
Floodlines - *Listen of the week*
Speaking of “Best of” lists, this is on all of ‘em. And rightfully so. It retells the story, through many first person narratives, in all its horror and needless error-making, of what happened after the levees broke in New Orleans post-Katrina.
The Canadian ecologist Suzanne Simard upended the idea that trees are individualistic, competing against one another for resources—survival of the fittest, in other words. She found that “while there is indeed conflict in a forest, there is also negotiation, reciprocity and even selflessness.” It’s fascinating, and always nice to give Darwin a run for his money.
This movie by Senegalese-French director Maïmouna Doucouré has been the subject of much scandal this year, condemned by right-wingers for portraying overly sexualized young girls. (Of course the loudest critics, like the hateful Ted Cruz, ignited the scandal around the idiotically conceived Netflix poster, proudly stating he had never seen the film.) It is undoubtedly a challenging watch, one that provokes an important conversation about, indeed, the disturbing sexualization of young girls, especially young girls of color, about social media’s role in learning behaviors, about policing young sexuality, etc. And if depiction of exploitation in order to condemn it isn’t exploitation too. For me, it was an honest and devastatingly touching look at the confusions, terrors, and joys of girlhood and adolescence, and played HEROICALLY by the young girls, especially the star, Fathia Youssouf Abdillahi. Available on Netflix, with French subtitles.
This short film by Artemis Shaw (little sis of a high school pal!) is a pretty wrenching 14 minutes, a satirical look at the insidious mechanics of PR in the #metoo era.