Summer Reading List, 2021

After a two-year absence, it’s the return of the Summer Reading List! This year we have reading recommendations from newcomers Carla Nappi, Maria Abrams, John Morrison, and Drew Burk, and from SRL veterans Lance Strate, Steven Shaviro, Lily Brewer, Ashley Crawford, Alex Burns, Joseph Nechvatal, Peter Lunenfeld, Paul Levinson, Howard Rheingold, and myself. We picked out a big pile of great books to take with you back out into the world.

Read on!

[Note: All book titles link to the book on IndieBound where you can order it online or find it at your local bookstore.]

Drew Burk

Wu Ming [trans. by Shaun Whiteside] Manituana (Verso, 2009): A collective of unknown communal Italian writers, writing a detailed and graphic re-depiction of the struggle for American Independence? Yeah. That’s a solid work. Bloodshed and peace treaties. Native Americans speaking three languages at once and others counting coup. Nothing delves into the meat of history better at times than a profound work of historical fiction. These folks are the crème de la crème. Or rather, la panna.. della panna.

Diana Walsh Pasulka American Cosmic: UFOs, Religion, and Technology (Oxford University Press, 2019): I don’t know, I haven’t read it yet. But to have an American philosopher write a work that references Immanuel Kant and the French scientist Jacques Vallée (played by Francois Truffaut in Close in Encounters of the Third Kind) in the same work seems like Summer Reading material to me. Now whether these materials are of terrestrial origin…. That’s a whole other question.

Audre Lorde Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches (Crossing Press, reprint Edition 2007): An Afro-American Lesbian Feminist who sought to undue structures of self-hate and to restore a liberation politics of self-love and self-care seems as prescient and important today as when she first penned the work in 1984.

Rickey Gates Cross-Country: A 3,700 Mile Run to Explore Unseen America (Chronicle Books, 2020): American Quixotes don’t come around that often. Rickey Gates is a well-known trail-runner and as Quixotic as they come. In this beautiful work and struggle— wandering across the American landscape from the South Carolina coast to San Francisco Bay— he sought to commune with common people and ordinary life to wander and dream and confront his own delirium as he overcame heartache and dehydration in the Nevada desert. 

Sylvain Tesson [trans. by Frank Wynne] The Art of Patience: Seeking the Snow Leopard in Tibet (Penguin Press, July 2021): Many have written about Tibet, only a true philosopher-poets knows how to turn the art of waiting into a lesson on stillness and wonder sitting in a frozen-desert landscape at 15,000 feet elevation, hallucinating mystical creatures at -20 celsius and partaking in the splendors of the void. Having thoroughly enjoyed reading this Prix Renaudot-winning work in French several years ago, this translation by Frank Wynne will be a generous poetic offering in sharing the work of a travel-writer and adventurer to a larger reading public.

Paul Fournel [trans. by Allan Stoekel] Need for the Bike (University of Nebraska Press, 2003): Fournel heralds from the poetic Oulipo group including the likes of Georges Perec and Jacques Roubaud. And while the Oulip group might need no introduction, Fournel is lesser known, however, and his wielding of words to express the art of taking up a quasi-mystical practice of cycling will serve any reader well both in the arts of poetry but also in how to truly live and experience the joys and suffering on what the French only refer to as “le vélo.”

Lance Strate

First and foremost, I would recommend the posthumously published first volume of writing by Christine Nystrom, entitled The Genes of Culture: Towards a Theory of Symbols, Meaning, and Media, edited by Carolyn Wiebe and Susan Maushart (Peter Lang, 2021). Nystrom was a colleague and collaborator of Neil Postman, and one of the foundational media ecology scholars of the late 20th century, her work focusing on language and symbolic communication, culture, and human relationships. Her work is absolutely brilliant, and at the same time highly accessible.

Second on my list is a very significant addition to philosophical thought regarding the human condition by Corey Anton, entitled How Non-Being Haunts Being: On Possibilities, Morality, and Death Acceptance (Fairleigh Dickinson UP, 2020). This insightful and wide ranging work incorporates rhetorical theory, psychology, systems theory, and phenomenology in a multidisciplinary tour de force.

A bit more down to earth, and relevant for educators and parents as well as scholars, is The Arts and Play as Educational Media in the Digital Age by Robert Albrecht and Carmine Tabone (Peter Lang, 2020). The need to step outside of our digital and electronically media environments, at least temporarily, has never been greater, and this book offers a practical guide and theoretical rationale for doing so.

Given the current state of things, we all could use a little help when it comes to financial investments, even for those of us whose funds do not extend beyond TIAA/CREF retirement accounts. For this reason, I am pleased to recommend Christopher Mayer’s How Do You Know? A Guide to Clear Thinking About Wall Street, Investing, and Life (Institute of General Semantics, 2021). Mayer not only provides sound and knowledgeable financial advice, but also a popular introduction to general semantics that can be applied to any human activity or concern.

Finally, what is life without a little poetry? Dale Winslow’s second collection of poems, Seeing the Experiment Changes It All (Neopoiesis Press, 2021) is an exciting and deeply meaningful volume that is perfect for those sunny summer days, and equally so for those cold winter nights.

Carla Nappi

In past years, I could imagine the summer as some kind of a coherent thing. It was when I didn’t have to prep courses and grade papers all week. It was a time for being outside, for planning trips, maybe. Bit of a rest, bit of freedom. I understood what June was meant to feel like, and July, and August. I knew what kind of thing the summer was, because I felt like I understood what it wasn’t. There was a rhythm, and then a release, and a new rhythm to take its place. If you had asked me what I planned to read over the summer, in past years, I would have been able to tell you a story that I believed at the time.

This year, as I sit to write this, I can’t tell that story. It seems that these 1.25 years (and counting) of pandemic time have decomposed my sense of rhythm and normalcy such that I have no sense of what the summer is meant not to be, and thus I have no sense of summer. (My days, work, and internal weather are consistently inconsistent, are reliably unpredictable and irregular.) I’m in my house, still. I’m masking up even when it’s optional, still. I’m not sure where the summer is, as a time-space I’m reaching to inhabit. And still, I’m reading, and what I can tell you is what I’m swimming around with right now.

Always, the comic books. This is what I tend to read before bed, and right now that looks like all things Loki-related, anything by Jeff Lemire, the second part of Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology series (Dark Horse, 2021), Jupiter’s Legacy (Image, 2020) and Karmen, (Image, 2021), but that will explode out into a big colorful cloud as issues of other series that I follow are released over the summer. I just finished James Albon’s The Delicacy (Top Shelf, 2021), which I highly recommend for any comic lovers who enjoy reading and thinking about food.

And speaking of food, the pandemic has brought a change in where I get my groceries: more farm share home delivery is available where I live, now, and as the summer produce rolls in I’m spending more time working in my kitchen. The pandemic has also changed how I cook and read about food: I tend to read recipes not as guides to make particular dishes but as collections of lessons in how to process the materials I have at hand. I’m often in my kitchen these days, processing garlic scapes or turnips or rhubarb, dehydrating tomatoes or ramps, without a clear idea of what I’m ultimately going to do with them. Glass jars and bottles of powders and things are scattered across my counter and fridge shelves, and they’ll eventually find their way into various experiments. It’s a mad science lab in there. For inspiration, I’m currently reading in Magnus Nilsson’s Faviken: 4015 Days, Beginning to End (Phaidon, 2020), Nik Sharma’s The Flavor Equation (Chronicle, 2020) and Season (Chronicle, 2018), and Nick Balla and Cortney Burns’ Bar Tartine (Chronicle, 2014) for inspiration on magicking with the dehydrator, Niki Segnit’s books, and anything Melissa Clark or Ottolenghi for help with basics. I may wind up writing about this, as part of a kind of freaky wild hybrid housekeeping manual and collection of very short fictions. We’ll see.

Soon, I’ll be reading Linda Rui Feng‘s new novel Swimming Back to Trout River (Simon & Schuster, 2021) and Carrie Jenkins’ Victoria Sees It (Strange Light, 2021), and finishing Josh Berson’s The Human Scaffold (University of California Press, 2021) and Dominic Pettman’s Peak Libido (Polity, 2020): four recent books by brilliant scholar-friends whom I find endlessly inspiring. And I’ll be looking for new scifi, after recently enjoying Nino Cipri’s Finna (Tor.com, 2020) and Defekt (Tor.com, 2021), Rivers Solomon’s Sorrowland (MCD, 2021), and Tamsyn Muir’s first two books in The Locked Tomb Trilogy (Tor.com, 2020). I’ll be rereading George Saunders’ A Swim in a Pond in the Rain (Random House, 2021), Robert Hass’s A Little Book on Form (Ecco, 2018), and getting back into ghazals.

As a teacher I’ve fully embraced ungrading as part of my pedagogy for a couple of years, now, and I’m currently reading Susan Blum’s Ungrading (West Virginia University Press, 2020) with a collective of other women as we think together about how to refine an ungrading methodology in our classes.

And for a project I’m working on, I’m continuing to swim around in two ponds that are shaping my work at the moment: books on Tarot, Lenormand cards, and other forms of cartomancy; and books on paleobotany, invertebrate paleontology, and bog bodies. Rot and goddesses. Goddesses and rot. That’s my current jam.

Steven Shaviro

Rivers Solomon Sorrowland (MCD, 2021): This could be described as a gothic or magic realist novel, but it has the alienating feel of the best science fiction. Vern is a young albino Black woman, living alone with her twin babies in the woods, caught between the repressive Black nationalist commune from which she fled, and the racist terror that characterizes the larger American society. The novel is overwhelmingly harsh and distressing, but it also ultimately about resistance and overcoming. It is continually, astonishingly inventive, continually surprising the reader as it reaches from the tiniest details of sheer survival in the wilderness, through a cold look at American political and economic realities, and all the way through them to a hard-won cosmic perspective. Sorrowland is by far the most powerful work of speculative fiction that I have come across in a good while.

K. Allado-McDowell Pharmako-AI (Ignota Books, 2021): This book is a collaboration between its listed human author, and the software program GPT-3, the most advanced computer system yet devised for generating meaningful prose. The human author provides prompts, and the computer takes off from there, elaborating on the prompts, and occasionally changing its tack as the author gently intervenes. The focus, provided by the human author, is more or less New Age-y, with lots of talk about how we have to understand our position in the universe, about how we need to listen to the plants and other life forms surrounding us, about transcending self and language and creating “hyperspatial art,” and so on. I personally don’t find the subject matter all that interesting (though I would not necessarily want to argue against it, either). But the book is powerfully disturbing nonetheless, because it almost makes sense. Sentence by sentence, it is fairly lucid and rational in its own terms. At times, it veers in directions I can’t quite follow — but when this happens, it doesn’t feel like an aberration that I know how to characterize. It is not delirious or raving, nor is it dogmatic or overly closed off, nor is it avant-garde, nor is it nonsensical in a dadaist manner. Instead, it hovers just beyond meaning, suggesting a kind of alien sensibility that we cannot quite make contact with, or a sort of intelligence that somehow subsists even though we know that GPT-3 is not conscious or intentional, and that a different human interlocutor would lead it off in quite different directions.

Carl Neville Eminent Domain (Repeater, 2020): This is a near-future, alternative-reality novel. It takes place in a Great Britain where a successful revolution in the 1970s and 1980s not only defeated Margaret Thatcher, but eliminated capitalism altogether and sent the royal family and all its upper-class minions and enablers into permanent exile. The result is the People’s Republic of Britain (PRB), a semi-utopia where work is minimized and shared equally, ecologically sensitive policies are a matter of course, drug- and music-fueled hedonism is widespread, and most political decisions are managed through decentralized cybernetic networks. There is also a shady bureaucracy that hasn’t quite given up secret control, and a certain degree of menace from foreign enemies (especially the United States, whose President seems like an odd combination of Donald Trump, Elon Musk, and a GPT-3 style language processor). The novel manages the feat of showing off all the society’s hidden imperfections and problems, while at the same time convincing us that it is nonetheless far better than actually-existing conditions in the UK or anywhere else. You can neither scoff at this utopia as being impossibly perfect, nor cynically dismiss it as being as bad as what it replaced — and this is in itself an astonishing triumph of utopian writing. At the same time, it has a compelling plot, and it is narrated through a blend of voices and styles in a way that really conveys a sense of altered-for-the-better consciousness, without being overly arty or incomprehensible. (This novel is actually part of a diptych, alongside the parallel dystopian-UK vision of Resolution Way [Repeater, 2016]).

Nino Cipri Finna (Tor.com, 2020) and Defekt (Tor.com, 2021): These are two short narratives (novellas) set in the same science-fictional environment, one in which an Ikea-like chain of furniture stores has colonized the multiverse, and it is up to a small band of plucky employees not only to fight inter-dimensional monsters, but also to resist the humiliations and deprivations imposed upon them by management. Fast-paced, hilarious, and unapologetically queer. In short, these books are irresistible fun.

Maria Abrams

During the summer months, I am drawn to any work that involves the sea, beaches, or large bodies of water. Especially now that I live in land-locked Colorado.

Michael McDowell’s The Elementals (Valancourt Books, reprinted in 2014) includes some of my favorite elements: Victorian houses wasting away on the shore, a family mystery, and evil spirits. What more could you want?

Alma Katsu’s The Deep (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2020) is a historical fiction novel about the Titanic and its sister ship, the Britannic. Katsu blends a paranormal element into the book that makes it appeal to horror and history fans alike.

Shea Ernshaw’s The Wicked Deep (Simon & Schuster, 2018) tells the story of a coastal town haunted by three witches. Once a year, the witches try to lure teenage boys into the sea in order to exact their revenge. The book is technically a young adult read; however, I found it to be the perfect, light read for a summer day. Plus, witches!

Paul Levinson

Andrey Mir Postjournalism and the Death of Newspapers (independently published, 2020): Easily the best media theory book I’ve read in 40 years.  I’m not as pessimistic as Mir, but his capacity to tie together the birth of newspapers and their reliance on advertising to the pummeling both are taking now by the screens of social media, and everything media in between, is brilliant, crucial, fascinating, and peerless.

Rob Sheffield Dreaming the Beatles (Dey Street, 2017): Just the best book on the Beatles ever written, teeming with insights that will surprise you, delight you, and confirm what you already knew in your heart of hearts.

Sergio Pistoi DNA Nation: How the Internet of Genes is Changing Your Life (Crux, 2019): Everything you need to know about how the marriage of DNA and social media is something to be prized and feared.

John Stith Pushback (Reanimus, 2018): A crackling, punch-in-the-face, vivid mystery by an underrated master of science fiction.

Elizabeth Hirst Distant Early Warning (Renaissance, 2021): This zombie novel has life, pizzazz, and soul. Somewhere between The Call of the Wild and The Walking Dead, and by no means either, but well worth your read.

John Morrison

Isabel Wilkerson The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration (Random House, 2010): Between 1916 and 1970, nearly six million African Americans migrated to the North, West, and Midwestern states, many seeking industrialized work and the promise of a better life. Journalist Isabel Wilkerson tells the story of this monumental event and the complex social and political dynamics that surrounded it.

Frank Kofsky Black Nationalism and the Revolution in Music (Pathfinder Press, 1970): A classic study of Jazz in the 60s and its interrelationship with the Black freedom movement. Written from a Marxist perspective, Kofsky explores the ways in which music and culture intersect with race and capitalism.

Nathaniel Mackey Atet A.D. (City Lights, 2001): A beautiful, bizarre, and compelling novel about a working Jazz band. Atet A.D. not only captures the Blues-rooted emotional tone of the Black musical tradition its use of surrealistic imagery makes it a truly unique work of fiction.

Claude “Paradise” Gray and Giuseppe “u.net” Piptone No Half Steppin’: An Oral and Pictorial History of New York City Club the Latin Quarter and the Birth of Hip-Hop (WaxPoetics, 2017):
As the booker for luminary Hip-Hop club, the Latin Quarter, and cofounder of X-Clan/The Blackwatch Movement, Paradise Grey is a key figure in our culture’s development. No Half Steppin’ tells a thrilling and informative history of the Latin Quarter and Hip-Hop’s golden era from the people who were there. 

Peter Lunenfeld

With City at the Edge of Forever: Los Angeles Reimagined (Viking, 2020) coming out in paper back in a few weeks, I’ve been trying to keep up with recent books on Southern California. Three that I’m looking forward to are: novelist Sesshu Foster and artist Arturo Ernesto Romo‘s ELADATL: A History of the East Los Angeles Dirigible Air Transport Lines (City Lights, 2021), a speculative tech rewriting of the Eastside; moving on to DTLA (as real estate types rebranded downtown) and the Westside, there’s Susanna Phillips Newbury’s The Speculative City: Art, Real Estate, and the Making of Global Los Angeles (University of Minnesota Press, 2021); and lastly, Ronald Brownstein’s revisiting of the city’s cultural imaginary across media in Rock Me on the Water: 1974, The Year Los Angeles Transformed Movies, Music, Television, and Politics (Harper, 2021).

Next year, I’m co-teaching a seminar and studio on environmentalism and social justice in Southern California, and one book that everyone has recommended to me as a way to get deeper into contemporary ecological thinking is Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teaching of Plants (Milkweed Editions, 2015).

Finally, because it sounds like a fundamental book to not just understand the present but to move into a better future, I’ve got a copy of Heather McGhee’s The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together (One World, 2021).

Alex Burns

Kate Crawford’s Atlas of AI: Power, Politics and the Planetary Cost of Artificial Intelligence (Yale University Press, 2021) is the result of 10 years of research into AI and its extractive political economy: a more cautionary and critical perspective on the utopian visions of AI and data industries in the early 21st century. Donald MacKenzie‘s sociology of finance research has influenced me: his latest book Trading At The Speed of Light: How Ultrafast Algorithms Are Transforming Financial Markets (Princeton University Press, 2021) is the best history yet of how high-frequency algorithms and firms have shaped online trading brokerages and indexes: a necessary counter to the 2021 frenzy in meme stocks, Reddit forums, and Robinhood trading apps. Hartmut Rosa’s Resonance: A Sociology of Our Relationship to the World (Polity Press, 2021) is one of the most detailed analyses of how we cope (or not) with a world defined by increased social acceleration and disconnection. Yuval Elmelech’s Wealth (Polity Press, 2020) details the microfoundations, macrofoundations, and the causal processes of wealth, financialization and intergenerational cumulative advantage, explaining how the 1% have benefited from economic inequality. Kean Birch and Fabian Muniesa‘s edited collection Assetization: Turning Things Into Assets in Technoscientific Capitalism (MIT Press, 2020) explains how assets can be capitalized and traded as a revenue stream: the intellectual property portfolio goal of today’s neoliberal universities.

Howard Rheingold

Joe Henrich The Secret of Our Success (Princeton University Press, 2017): This is the interdisciplinary study of human cooperation that I called for in my 2005 TED talk.

Joseph Nechvatal

Antonin Artaud (Trans. by Peter Valente and Cole Heinowitz) Succubations & Incubations: Selected Letters of Antonin Artaud (1945-1947) (Infinity Land Press, 2020): This selection of letters from Artaud’s consummate work, Suppôts et Suppliciations [Henchmen and Torturings] translated into English for the first time, provides  a vivid, uniquely intimate view of Artaud’s final years. Translated by Peter Valente & Cole Heinowitz with an introduction by Jay Murphy and wonderfully illustrated by Martin Bladh and Karolina Urbaniak.

Yoko Ono and John Lennon John & Yoko/Plastic Ono Band (Thames & Hudson, 2020): The history of the Plastic Ono Band Ono-Lennon conceptual art project that ended up as two ‘solo’ music albums in 1970: one by Yoko Ono and and one by John Lennon. My review is up on Whitehot Magazine of Contemporary Art.

Blake Gopnik Warhol: A Life As Art (Ecco, 2020): An amazingly in-depth new biography of the life and work of Andy Warhol. My review has been published at Whitehot Magazine of Contemporary Art.

Julia Frey Venus Betrayed: The Private World of Édouard Vuillard (Reaktion Books, 2021): Fascinating detailed biography of French painter Édouard Vuillard. My full review has been published at Whitehot Magazine of Contemporary Art.

Ashley Crawford

Blake Butler Alice Knott (Riverhead, 2020)
Jeff VanderMeer Hummingbird Salamander (MCD, 2021)

On September 29, 2020, reviewing Blake Butler’s stunning Alice Knott for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, critic Jeff Calder made a somewhat startling correlation between Butler’s book and author Jeff VanderMeer. “What we do have is Butler’s ‘gnarl,’ so to speak, a location of puzzling quantum glitch where he and his contemporaries, like Annihilation author Jeff VanderMeer, allow themselves to flourish.”

Throwing the current Czar of the ‘Weird,’ or ‘New Weird’ – VanderMeer, in alongside the Heir Apparent of the ‘Experimental’ – Butler, was a risky gambit indeed. But it was also a remarkably astute observation.

Calder went on to note that: “In 1971, the critic George Steiner wrote, ‘We stand less on that shore of the unbounded which awed Newton, than amid tidal movements for which there is not even a theoretical model.’ In tomorrow’s fiction today, the uncertainty of such a model may, in fact, be the model. We don’t yet have a Theory of Everything to resolve discrepancies between the subatomic world and sidereal motion – you know, the bigger picture.”

Calder suggested that the realm where Butler and VanderMeer could meet was a form of literary Interzone: “This place is the forbidden mine of American letters, where our hands run along the phosphor seams of H.P. Lovecraft and… Thomas Pynchon; we guide ourselves to the surface, where, as Butler puts it, even the wind seems different.”

Both VanderMeer’s Hummingbird Salamander and Alice Knott are essentially ‘crime’ novels, but that’s where their similarities end. Hummingbird is an out-and-out riff on the detective genre, and it is also Vandermeer’s most mainstream novel to date. There is nary a hint of the ‘weird’ that Vandermeer has built his career on to date, and that lack strips the novel of the odd frisson that he has become renowned for. In that regard Hummingbird sits in sharp contrast with Vandermeer’s other ‘detective’ novel, the truly bizarre Finch from 2009 with its noir-ish talking mushrooms. Indeed, Hummingbird by contrast borders on the banal – it’s an out-an-out eco-thriller, a great beach read with only the briefest of hints of the imposing environmental Armageddon that Vandermeer usually wields with such force.

Alice Knott is also a great read, but in a very different way. Butler wants his readers to consume language like a drug, a psychedelic, hallucinatory drug that is not always palatable. It begins with an art theft of immense scale and then charts the increasing derangement of the arts patron whose work has been stolen. Alice is definitely for the brave of heart, a not always-easy narrative that rewards in multiples.

But Calder got something right when he suggested a literature of the ‘gnarl,’ and “a location of puzzling quantum glitch.” Although this doesn’t apply to Hummingbird, it did with Vandermeer’s Annihilation and it most certainly does with Butler’s Alice Knott. Whether they be ‘gnarl’ or ‘glitch,’ these are welcome literary mutations indeed.

Roy Christopher

Roisin Kiberd The Disconnect: A Personal Journey Through the Internet (Serpent’s Tail, 2021): “What if I’m addicted to the medium, and not the message?” Roisin Kiberd asks in the last chapter of The Disconnect. She makes the point, accurate by all estimates, that the internet and all of its attendant technologies of wares both hard and soft were built by men, for men. Her book further proves that men are not the best critics of that technology. Ellen Ullman, Zizi Papacharissi, danah boyd, Alice Marwick, Annallee Newitz, Patricia Lockwood, Anna Weiner, and Kiberd herself, just to name a few, are our real guides. In addition, Kiberd’s writing is as personal as it is critical. You’re not likely to read about Jaron Lanier’s online-dating activities or Cal Newport’s energy-drink experiments in their books, but those internet-adjacent experiences—as well as many others—are all here in stark detail.

B.R. Yeager Negative Space (Apocalypse Party, 2020): This is fiction from some scary area that feels all too real. This is conjuring something from somewhere else and then having to confront it without proper weaponry Yeager’s storytelling style puts you right in the heads of most of the characters but keeps you out of some very important ones, thereby making some things intimately known while simultaneously increasing your exposure to the unknown. It’s all liminal, interstitial, awakening the latent evil in the cracks of the everyday.

Joshua Chaplinsky The Paradox Twins (Clash Books, 2020): Three books in one, The Paradox Twins tells the story of a family fraught like any other, paralyzed by paradox, and weighed down by legacy. Chaplinsky’s allusions to the many films of Stanley Kubrick, especially 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), are subtle at times, over-the-top at others, yet always perfectly suited for the scene and story.

Lauren Beukes Afterland (Mulholland Books, 2020): In Afterland‘s post-apocalyptic world, the men are all but gone. Before you decide that Lauren Beukes has found the key to utopia, there are plenty of problems. For one, virus-induced, post-apocalyptic tribalism leads to an overnight state of complete anomie. It’s as if Children of Men were Children of Women, but with Beukes’ unique style and ample abilities, it’s so much more than that.

Terry Miles Rabbits (Del Rey, 2021): A few years ago, as I was on a Blue Line train on my way to Midway in Chicago, I was reading Tade Thompson’s Rosewater (Apex, 2016) and listening to Hole’s Celebrity Skin (DGC, 1998). At the exact moment that I read the phrase “all dressed in white” on page 57 of Rosewater, Courtney Love sang the same phrase in my ears on the song “Use Once & Destroy.” A few months later, I was clearing some records off my iPod to add a few new things, including the newly released Jay-Z record, 4:44 (Roc Nation, 2017). When I finally stopped deleting files and checked the available space, it was 444 MB. A few minutes later, while reading the latest Thrasher Magazine (July 2017), I happened to notice the issue number: 444. Welcome to Rabbits, a book about a game of synchronicities and discrepancies. Jumping tracks on the train of meanings behind things, it’s a wild ride to the end of the world. You might already be playing the next iteration.

All About the Benjamin

Walter Benjamin is best known as a cultural critic, but he wrote all sorts of other forms and formats. Poems, parables, fables, short fiction, rhymes, riddles, and jokes, as well as transcriptions of dreams, all found their way into his extensive notebooks. According to Sam Dolbear, Esther Leslie, and Sebastian Truskolaski’s introduction to The Storyteller (Verso, 2016), he also left behind a fully outlined a crime novel.

Further on in The Storyteller, Benjamin affirms Marshall McLuhan’s assertion that once a form has obsolesced, it becomes important as art, a transition possibly orthogonal to his to-do regarding the aura. “To give a name to this watershed,” Bruno Latour and Adam Lowe (2011) write, “we will use the word trajectory. A work of art—no matter the material of which it is made—has a trajectory or, to use another expression popularized by anthropologists, a career (Appadurai, 1986; Tamen, 2001)” (p. 278). Once the novelty has worn off, once the work is placed in another context, then moved to yet others, repackaged and fetishized, its meaning changes. It becomes something else.

“Walter Benjamin: Unpacking My Library” by Frances Cannon

Intentionally transforming one work into something else, Frances Cannon illustrates many of Benjamin’s aphorisms, poems, thoughts, and dreams in Walter Benjamin Reimagined (MIT Press, 2019). “While intoxicated on mescaline in 1934,” writes Esther Leslie in her foreword,

Benjamin doodled an embryonic shape of twisty lines that is composed of words from lullabies, and puns between the words for sleep and sheep–sleep, little child, sleep, my kiddikin, go off to sleep, sheep, little sheep. It is word and image at once (p. x-xi).

Lots of Benjamin’s writings lend themselves to lines, and like “Unpacking My Library” above (p. 56), Cannon’s drawings add a whimsy and a charm to some of his already playful words. It’s an excellent companion to other works by and about Benjamin.

Like that other work, Benjamin’s only autobiographical writing published in his lifetime, One-Way Street and Other Writings (Belknap Press, 2016), originally released in 1972, is enjoying renewed attention. “Reminiscences of self are reminiscences of a place,” writes Susan Sontag in her introduction to the 1997 version, “and how he positions himself in it, navigates around it.” Like his contemporaries, the Situationists, his goal was to lose his way in a place with which he was very familiar, to get lost within the known. The book is the same. As Greil Marcus puts it in this new edition, “writing not in service of any argument but that of the pleasure of its own form” (p. xx).

That thought reminds me of one of my favorite digressions in Benjamin’s writings from yet another collection: Chapter 6 of Walter Benjamin’s Archive (2007) is called “Daintiest Quarters: Notebooks,” and starts off,

Notebooks are a part of the fundamental equipment of writers, artists, architects, scientists, in short, all intellectuals who devise things—thoughts, images—that they need to record and register: Notebooks are handy traveling companions, places for the safekeeping of drafts. They provide storage space for ideas and data. When necessary they can release sheets to be passed on or inserted into another context (p 151).

Benjamin was nothing if not versatile. Radio Benjamin, edited by Lecia Rosenthal (Verso, 2014), compiles transcripts of Benjamin’s many radio broadcasts. In addition, the last section of the book features Benjamin’s various essays on the medium. Meanwhile, Benjamin and the Media by Jaeho Kang (Polity, 2014), considers his versatility—as a writer and theorist—and explores its implications. It’s the best introduction to his lasting relevance since Rolf J. Goebel’s edited collection, A Companion to the Works of Walter Benjamin (Camden House, 2009).

References:

Benjamin, Walter. (2016). One-Way Street and Other Writings. Belknap Press.

Benjamin, Walter. (2016). The Storyteller: Tales Out of Loneliness. New York: Verso.

Benjamin, Walter. (2007). Walter Benjamin’s Archive. Translated by Esther Leslie. Edited by Ursula Marx, Gudrun Schwarz, Michael Schwarz, & Erdmut Wizisla. New York: Verso.

Cannon, Frances. (2019). Walter Benjamin Reimagined. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Kang, Jaeho. (2014). Walter Benjamin and the Media: The Spectacle of Modernity. Cambridge: Polity.

Latour, Bruno & Lowe, Adam. (2011). The Migration of the Aura, or How to Explore the Original Through It’s Fac Similes. In Thomas Bartscherer (Ed.), Switching Codes: Thinking Through Digital Technology in the Humanities and the Arts (pp. 275-297). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Rosenthal, Lecia (Ed.) (2014). Radio Benjamin. New York: Verso.

Intertextual Orientation: The Pop Palimpsest

During my undergraduate days, my friends and I used to play a silly game. Whenever a situation or topic came up and they pointed to me, I would attempt to recite a relevant rap lyric. Sometimes it was a stretch to get Ice-T or the Beastie Boys to fit a late-night Waffle House run, but I was rarely stumped.

As Gorham and Gilligan (2006) put it, “media allusions represent an important way in which audiences make use of the cultural products around them to form relationships with others and build community out of shared media experiences” (p. 3). That is, we determine which texts are appropriate for appropriating and which resonate with the shared beliefs of our community (Linde, 2009). We run around in these collective “textual communities” (Stock, 1983). Members of said communities allude to the same, shared texts in their personal narratives. The shared texts are where we “compare notes” on our collective experiences, as I used to do in college. The fans of a particular cultural artifact (e.g., fans of the band Rush, fans of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, etc.) do not constitute a textual community; textual communities are constituted by their sharing of similar texts in their personal narratives (Linde, 2009). A lot of these texts come from song lyrics.

Sometimes this sharing is called intertextuality, but the term is often misused and abused (Allen, 2000; Irwin, 2004; Orr, 2003; Roudiez, 1980). As originally coined by Julia Kristeva in 1966, the term meant “the transposition of one or more systems of signs into another” (Roudiez, 1980, p. 15; emphasis in original). Therefore, while lyrics, media allusions, and conversational sampling can all be considered intertextual, their intertextuality does not indicate a cohesive system of signs.

Reguardless, intertextuality says there is something outside the text — more texts. Building on Gérard Gennette’s work in art and literature (see Gennette, 1982; 1987; 1994/1997) , The Pop Palimpsest: Intertextuality in Recorded Popular Music (University of Michigan Press, 2018), edited by Lori Burns and Serge Lacasse, aims to explore those texts in popular music. I did my own dissertation research on allusions in rap lyrics, so I immediately gravitated to the chapters on hip-hop: “Rap Gods and Monsters: Words, Music, and Images in the Hip-Hop Intertexts of Eminem, Jay-Z, and Kanye West” by Lori Burns and Alyssa Woods would’ve been invaluable in my earlier research; “Intertextuality and Lineage in The Game’s ‘We Ain’t’ and Kendrick Lamar’s ‘m.A.A.d. City'” by Justin A. Williams also immediately grabbed me; “Mix Tapes, memory, and Nostalogia: An Introduction to Phonographic Analogies” by Serge Lacasse and Andy Bennett overlaps with a couple of new areas of my research.

It’s not all rap lyrics and samples though: Everything from French Vaudville and Neil Young to Genesis, E.L.O., and Eurythmics get a spin. And it’s not all just research either: The Pop Palimpsest is that rare academic collection that’s exhaustively researched and meticulously assembled, but also damn fun to read. The book has inspired dueling desires: I wish it had not only come out earlier but also that I could have contributed.

References:

Allen, Graham. (2000). Intertextuality: The New Critical Idiom. New York: Routledge.

Genette, Gérard. (1982/1997). Palimpsests: Literature in the Second Degree. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press.

Genette, Gérard. (1987/1997). Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Genette, Gérard. (1994/1997). The Work of Art: Immanence and Transcendence. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Gorham, B. W. & Gilligan, E. N. (1997, May). And now for something completely different: Media allusions, language, and the practice of everyday life. A paper presented to the Language and Social Interaction division, ICA, Montreal.

Gorham, B. W. & Gilligan, E. N. (2006, June). Are you talkin’ to ME? The reasons for and use of media allusions. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the International Communication Association, Dresden International Congress Centre, Dresden, Germany.

Irwin, William. (2004, October). Against Intertextuality. Philosophy and Literature. Volume 28, Number 2, pp. 227-242. The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Linde, Charlotte. (2009). Working the Past: Narrative and Institutional Memory. New York: Oxford University Press.

Orr, Mary. (2003). Intertextuality: Debates and Contexts. Cambridge: Polity.

Roudiez, L. S. (1980). Introduction. In J. Kristeva, Desire in language: A Semiotic Approach to Literature and Art. New York: Columbia University Press, pp. 1-20.

Stock, B. (1983). The Implications of Literacy: Written Language and Models of Interpretation in the Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Media Literacy: Curing the Common Code

“Media literacy” is as socially contested a term as they come. Its meaning of has been debated at least as far back as 1933 (see Tyner, 2010).It’s not difficult to make the case that Marshall McLuhan‘s work in the main was about media literacy. Not to mention Howard Rheingold‘s lengthy and thorough work on new media and social media literacy.

So much has changed and changed hands since McLuhan left us. The computer moved from business and industry to the home and finally to every place and pocket available. In Coding Literacy: How Computer Programming is Changing Writing (MIT Press, 2017), Annette Vee argues that literacy is infrastructural. She explores two phases of its spread. One is where we adopt inscription technologies as material infrastructures. Then, as we adopt those technologies that affect the “quotidian activities of everyday citizens: literacy is adopted as infrastructure” (p. 141). She notes crucially that communicative practices such as writing and programming can manifest as actions and as artifacts. Vee’s approach addresses the social aspects of these literacies (i.e., understanding the actions), as well as their material underpinnings (i.e., understanding the artifacts). It’s an important new view of several serious issues.

Zooming out to the walls, rooms, and roads around us, Shannon Mattern’s Code + Clay… Data + Dirt: Five Thousand Years of Urban Media (University of Minnesota Press, 2017) takes up the mantle of media archaeology and “challenges the newness of the new” by looking back at infrastructure at large — our built environment. Our urban areas are the site of information access as well as media themselves. Citing Malcolm McCullough and echoing McLuhan, She writes, “Our physical landscapes inscribe, transmit, and even embody information–about their histories, their state of repair, their potential uses, and so forth” (p. xii). Mattern’s use of sound, inscription, voice, and code illuminates our environment in a different and generative light.

We academics do a lot of work to justify and perpetuate our own work, a lot of advertising for ourselves. This is not that kind of work. Both of these books are about current situations verging on crises, and both of them take a long, historical view of these situations. There is still much to learn about all of these constructs and all of their relationships. There is an entire network of literacies we all need to learn. Now.

References:

Mattern, Shannon. (2017). Code + Clay… Data + Dirt: Five Thousand Years of Urban Media. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Tyner, Katherine (Ed.). (2010). Media Literacy: New Agendas in Communication. New York: Routledge.

Vee, Annette. (2017). Coding Literacy: How Computer Programming is Changing Writing. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

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Many thanks to Alison Langmead, Lily Brewer, and the fine folks at the University of Pittsburgh and their Digital Scholarship Services for hosting and allowing me to crash the Willful Transgressions: Transdisciplinary Teaching workshop with Shannon Mattern. It was there that I was able to meet and work briefly with both Shannon and Annette.

The Alterity of Cool

William Melvin Kelley’s debut novel, A Different Drummer (Doubleday, 1962), imagines a different America, one where a slave revolt reconfigured the civil war and the nation thereafter. Three weeks before its release, Kelley flipped the term “woke” into its current common parlance in a New York Times Op-Ed piece. His central point was that the African Diaspora was responsible for the cool, “beatnik” slang of the time. One could say the same for hip-hop slang now. Some of it stays in predominantly hip-hop contexts, but quite a lot of it has traveled the wider world at large. As Biggie once rapped, “You never thought that hip-hop would take it this far.”

Say word.

I dare say it’s gone farther than Big could’ve imagined. In Muslim Cool: Race, Religion, and Hip-Hop in the United States (NYU Press, 2016), Su’ad Abdul Khabeer traces the elusive cool to Africa, arguing that it’s “not the sole purview of U.S. Black American expressive cultures,” but that it is “fundamentally Diasporic” (p. 140). Cool requires detachment. Alterity is inherent in Muslim cool. Raised as a Muslim in the U.S., Khabeer operates as an anthropologist, enabling to both cross boundaries and remain of her subjects. Embedded and embodied, she nonetheless recognizes how these factors mediate her work, writing, “…simply being Muslim was never enough. In fact, my race and ethnicity (Black and Latina), my gender (female), and my regional identity (reppin’ Brooklyn, New York!) as well as my religious community affiliations and my performance of Muslimness mediated my access–how I was seen in the field, what was said to me, and what was kept from me–as well as my own interpretations of my field site” (p. 20). Just being “cool” ain’t always so cool. Sometimes it’s about standing out. Sometimes it’s about fitting in. The diasporic distinction of cool is one of the many things Paul Gilroy points out in The Black Atlantic (1995): History without a consideration of race and place is not history at all. In her ethnographic approach, Khabeer maintains attention to both and then some.

As Gilroy himself puts it, “the old U.S. cultural copyrights on hip-hop have expired.” Along with the rest of the globe, Europe is in the house. Some of the best at it are based over there. Dizzee Rascal is a native and a hip-hop veteran. Fellow East-Coast emcees M. Sayyid and Mike Ladd relocated separately to Paris years ago. Ex-New Flesh for Old emcee Juice Aleem also holds it down in the UK, among countless others. There’s an entire chapter on Aleem in J. Griffith Rollefson’s Flip the Script: European Hip-hop and the Politics of Postcoloniality (University of Chicago Press, 2017). Sometimes to move ahead, you’ve gotta step back first. Rollefson investigates Aleem’s postcolonialism via pre-Enlightenment performative linguistics. It’s an Afrofuturist alternative history via precolonial tricks and tropes, not unlike Kelley’s reimagining in A Different Drummer. Aleem’s signifyin’ is one of many examples of Rollefson’s arguments regarding the postcoloniality of hip-hop.

“Hip-hop has come full circle at present,” South African emcee, Mr. Fat (R.I.P.) once said. “Emcees are like the storytellers of the tribe, graffiti is cave paintings, and the drums of Africa are like turntables: This is our ideology.” (quoted in Neate, 2004, p. 120). Indeed, as hip-hop has moved from around the way to around the world, mapping it requires a deft hand, a def mind, an understanding of the alterity of cool, and a handle on histories other than those in the history books.

References:

Gilroy, Paul. (1995). The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Kelley, William. (1962). A Different Drummer. New York: Doubleday.

Khabeer, Su’ad Abdul. (2016). Muslim Cool: Race, Religion, and Hip-Hop in the United States New York: NYU Press.

Neate, Patrick. (2004). Where You’re At: Notes from the Frontline of a Hip-Hop Planet. New York: Bloomsbury.

Rollefson, J. Griffith. (2017). Flip the Script: European Hip-hop and the Politics of Postcoloniality. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Schulz, Katheryn. (2018, January 29). The Lost Giant of American Literature. The New Yorker.

Wallace, Christopher. (1994). Juicy. On Ready to Die [LP]. New York: Bad Boy/Arista.