May 2020

This is some of what I read and watched this May.

Q&A with Robert Adams and Gregory Crewdson (video)

Robert Adams is a photographer and writer. I’ve read and reread his essays more than I have any other author’s work, and I’ve given several copies of his book Beauty in Photography to friends. Adams is careful and concise in his writing, and he’s just as strong in this interview.

Some selected moments:

  • Adams's argument for physical prints is convincing. He says a print gives you “the opportunity to see [the image] on the wall at times when you haven’t asked to [see] it ... It helps you to know the picture better.”
  • One of his least favorite parts of art is explaining his work: “Trying to explain what you’ve done has the unpleasant, embarrassing implication that you haven’t done it effectively.”
  • When asked whether photographs can be absolutely objective, he says “who cares” and that this is the kind of question “that only boulevard intellectuals find nourishing.”

I think the entire interview is worth watching, and I'd particularly recommend it if you have any interest photography.

Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? by Mark Fisher

"It is precisely workers' subjective disinvestment ... which enables them to continue to perform labor that is pointless and demoralizing."

Capitalist Realism is about the ideology that makes capitalism so durable despite constant proclamations of its imminent demise. The core of Fisher’s argument is that unlike fascism or communism, capitalism doesn’t need propaganda or an explicit case in favor of it. Instead, capitalism works by elevating the importance of personal feelings while underemphasizing what people actually do each day. Capitalism doesn’t need true believers, it just needs people who will do the work.

This was a fun read. Fisher uses WALL-E, gangster movies, gangster rap, Supernanny, Office Space, and other pieces of pop culture to argue his points. He comes off grouchy and down on young people in a way that I can't help but find funny and endearing.

Capital and Time: For a New Critique of Neoliberal Reason by Martijn Konings

"Acute uncertainty tends to create its own kind of certainty - precisely not an ability to act on accurate knowledge of the future, but a definite certainty as to what needs to be done in the absence of such knowledge"

Capital and Time is about uncertainty, speculation, and why the most common critiques of neoliberalism are flawed. I picked this book up because the veb account recommended it in a thread about the nature of money.

I found the writing frustrating. There are plenty of fresh ideas in here - that speculation is the natural result of pervasive uncertainty; that valuation is a performance that can be self-fulfilling; that economic power often doesn't come from knowing the truth but can instead come from being known and increasing the world's exposure to your risk - but so many of them are buried in turgid prose.

I'm glad I read Capital and Time, but it wasn't fun. I'm planning on writing a more in-depth look at this book.

Here I Stand, at Age 80 (video) by Ted Nelson

“I have to be immodest because I have no one to stand up for me, only I have the big picture, and I can’t count on people figuring these things out after I’m dead. So here’s what I stood for from the beginning.”

In this video, internet pioneer Ted Nelson summarizes his life’s work. He’s done a lot, but he’s best known for coining the term hypertext and for leading Project Xanadu.

The video feels uncanny, like something out of film or television. I think it’s partially the contrast between Nelson’s spirited delivery (it reminds me of Justin Theroux’s performance in the miniseries Maniac) of his life story and the video’s low-fi, recorded-on-a-webcam aesthetic. It’s also that in films, the person-recording-a-video-explaining-their-life’s-work is a lazy and implausible trope for cramming some exposition in. It’s strange to see life imitate art’s least likely elements. I love this kind of thing.

Brick by Brick: How LEGO Rewrote the Rules of Innovation and Conquered the Global Toy Industry by David Robertson and Bill Breen

Brick by Brick is primarily about Lego’s history with an emphasis on its crisis years in the late 1990s to early 2000s and its subsequent recovery. The story of the crisis is particularly engaging. I didn’t know just how close Lego was to bankruptcy and how incompetent its leadership was. The book’s a little disjointed, though - Robertson initially set out to write a book about "rules of innovation" with several different case studies, and it shows.