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Required Reading

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While utopia often denotes otherworldly fantasy, unrestricted escapism, or sublime positivity, the late theorist José Esteban Muñoz, in his 2009 book, Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity, offered the idea of a queer utopia, one constructed with verisimilitude and operating against a history of lack and discrimination. Queerness belongs to the future, Muñoz claims in his study of performance, writing, and contemporary art, noting that it “allows us to see and feel beyond the quagmire of the present.” Utopia is the search for safe space in counternarratives where queer acts, longings, and urges fulfill personal and communal yearning—and where desire flourishes beyond the confines of mainstream white, gay culture. Such acts offer care and delight, a way out of the margins. As Joshua Chambers-Letson, Tavia Nyong’o, and Ann Pellegrini write in their foreword to the 2019 edition of Cruising Utopia, “For utopia, though it bears many positive qualities, also bears negation, as originating from the Greek for ‘no place’ or ‘not place.’” They add, “Queer utopia is the impossible performance of the negation of the negation.”

  • Seema Rao writes about this horrible year from the perspective of a museum worker with 20 years of experience. It’s a sensitive and personal piece we can all learn from:

My smoldering lack of creativity and productivity went into full flame of emotional trash fire when I let some criticism get to me. Listen, it’s not that I haven’t been criticized. (And, I’d assert criticism and critique are wholly different.) In the year since I took on the awesome task of writing this blog, I’ve often been told I’m not measuring up to Nina. And, hey, she is taller. Mostly, I took that as it was — the truth. We’re different. And, that’s okay. But this year, criticism hurt in ways I hadn’t imagined. 

It’s not surprising. Everything felt amplified, personalized. You might also feel that way. It’s because in the world before the epidemic, you had work and your personal life. You might have been the person who said yes to hobbies and a social life also. Your full life was a combination of personal conditions and personal choices. This year, that fairly full life got a surprise addition–doom. I’m going to mix metaphors, as I so often do. We were like servers, balancing a tray of expensive champagne. We were doing well enough. Then the owner, a person we rarely thought of, decided to add a dozen glass Christmas ornaments, unwieldy and unpredictable, on our tray. Hard, eh? That’s a bit like the way we’ve had to take on the extra mental load of the pandemic. But, then this owner decided, it really is better for everyone if you did this serving thing on skates. (I mean, IG is full of hot chicks on skates.) That is the level up we’ve all had to do with the cultural and economic changes that resulted from the pandemic. Basically, we’re loaded up, then the load gets harder to keep in the air, and then the method of keeping it up hits a snag. We’re doing more, with less, and under harder circumstances. 

If search began by systematically reducing texts to answers, then Google is now further reducing those answers to a single definitive one. But it cannot do this with its own products alone. As SEO expert Pete Meyers points out, the human-curated Knowledge Graph “can never keep up with the nearly infinite questions that we can ask.” That is why, he conjectures, Google launched “featured snippets” in 2014. Featured snippets appear in a box, usually at the top of the page, that makes them look just as authoritative as their more vetted cousins. This gives the impression that Google, rather than pulling the answer out of its ether, has found you an expert. This text is sourced, however, from wherever Google’s algorithms find it.

The first featured snippet I encountered in the course of writing this essay was an answer to the query “how large is the search engine optimization industry.” A large, bold “$80 billion,” with a few lines in lighter and smaller font underneath, appeared in a box at the top of my screen. Under most circumstances, I would have been satisfied. Many people would be: In June 2019, for the first time, third-party data showed that a majority of Google searches conducted in web browsers did not result in any clicks. Mine did. I found that the snippet came from a consulting agency’s blog post, which contained this sentence: “SEO statistics by Forbes cite Borrell Associates to emphasize that by 2020, businesses in the U.S. will be spending as much as $80 billion on SEO services.” This heavily hedged statement seems factual, if you don’t really read it.

How many times have I taken for granted a “fact” that may not be one at all, or mistaken my knowledge of a fact for understanding? 

  • I had no idea the classic steam-heated radiator, which is found in most old New York apartments and many places in the US and elsewhere, were popularized during the 1918 pandemic to allow people to keep their windows open. You learn something new every day:

The Spanish Influenza, which caused just over 20,000 deaths in New York City alone, “changed heating once and for all.” That’s according to Dan Holohan, a retired writer, consultant, and researcher with extensive knowledge of heating systems and steam heating. (Among his many tomes on the topic: The Lost Art of Steam Heating, from 1992.) Most radiator systems appeared in major American cities like New York City in the first third of the 20th century. This golden age of steam heat didn’t merely coincide with that pandemic: Beliefs about how to fight airborne illness influenced the design of heating systems, and created a persistent pain point for those who’ve cohabitated with a cranky old radiator.

The 2020 installation inverts that logic. Instead of installing “Untitled” (Fortune Cookie Corner) in a unique location and letting its constituent elements filter into local communities, Rosen multiplied the piece and filtered those facsimiles into a network, not of art viewers, but of art professionals. Here, the privileged and well-connected (among them artist Jack Pierson, collector Rosa de la Cruz, and museum director Franklin Sirmans) were invited to stage a questionable version of the original artwork, and to also perform their own experiences with it in front of global audiences via social media. Some people ate their cookies. Some tried sharing them with neighbors. Light Industry cofounder and curator Ed Halter’s family dog, Snoopy, ate some of his. Collector Tiffany Zabludowicz strewed hers on a cliff’s edge. But most viewers, industry outsiders, experienced the piece at a remove, by virtue of its ultimate platform: Instagram. In this way, with the experience explicitly offset for its intended audience by social media, the work was dishonored.

  • Pornhub, which attracts more visitors than Netflix, Yahoo, or Amazon, is under fire for its scary laissez-faire attitude towards underage sex and rape, which has led to many awful situations for those forced to endure revenge porn and other forces of online violence. Now Nicholas Kristof is calling them out. This story gutted me:

At 14, Serena K. Fleites was an A student in Bakersfield, Calif., who had never made out with a boy. But in the eighth grade she developed a crush on a boy a year older, and he asked her to take a naked video of herself. She sent it to him, and this changed her life. He asked for another, then another; she was nervous but flattered. “That’s when I started getting strange looks in school,” she remembered. He had shared the videos with other boys, and someone posted them on Pornhub. Fleites’s world imploded. It’s tough enough to be 14 without having your classmates entertain themselves by looking at you naked, and then mocking you as a slut. “People were texting me, if I didn’t send them a video, they were going to send them to my mom,” she said.

This year put the consequences of Ivy Plus-led publications in stark relief. Needless deaths of hardware store cashiers and bus drivers were framed in stories as the sacrifice of “heroes” rather than an outrage and injustice. Or workers were written out of news stories entirely. Early on, when there were shelter-in-place orders and people wiped down every item they bought from the grocery store, the media’s advice for surviving the pandemic tended to be tailored to the work-from-home upper-middle class — order books off the internet! get your groceries from Instacart! — ignoring the people who work at every point in the supply chain. These workers are trying to survive too! There’s been some excellent labor reporting this year, but there’s also been abysmal work — coverage of workers written gingerly with sanctimony and a pandering tone. This is what happens when media professionals live sheltered lives and have limited contact with those who haven’t attended elite schools.

“Judges ruled decisively that Trump’s side has not proved the election was fraudulent,” The Washington Post reported, “with some offering painstaking analyses of why such claims lack merit and pointed opinions about the risks the legal claims pose to American democracy.”

Yet the rubbish claims of fraud continue. Trumpism demands the profession of beliefs that are neither strictly literal nor exactly figurative, but instead statements of ideological values that don’t fit neatly in either category. These statements are not amenable to journalistic fact-checking, because they are not factual claims; they are assertions of identity and political legitimacy that are incontestable on their own terms. To announce loudly that you accept the proclamations of the Church of Trump, no matter how false, contradictory, or exaggerated, is to identify yourself as a member of that faith community; to deny them is to risk excommunication. As long as devotion to the Trumpian creed remains a central tenet of membership in the Republican Party, precious few elected officials will risk the brand of the heretic.

The Republican majority leader of the Pennsylvania Senate, Kim Ward, told The New York Times that if she had not signed a letter urging the state’s congressional delegation to toss out Pennsylvania’s electoral votes, “I’d get my house bombed tonight.” Brad Raffensperger, the Republican secretary of state for Georgia, and his wife have both faced violent threats since the state certified Biden’s victory and Raffensperger reiterated that there was no evidence of fraud. Among the Trump faithful, acknowledging the actual outcome of the presidential election is apostasy.

Required Reading is published every Saturday, and it is comprised of a short list of art-related links to long-form articles, videos, blog posts, or photo essays worth a second look.

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