Weekend

Required Reading

This week, a cartoonish Vegas wedding chapel, the ancient DNA trap, the first photo book, explaining “cultural mulatto,” and more.

Artist Joshua Vides has designed a chapel in the Palms Casino Resort in Las Vegas hotel, for couples to tie the knot in an “Instagram-worthy” setting. More images at Dezeen (via Dezeen)

The larger question the show raises is this: We know that William Henry Fox Talbot aspired to create the first photographically illustrated book, The Pencil of Nature (1844–46)—but because of the laborious progress of that book’s production, the diligent Atkins beat him to it with her modest edition about seaweed. But why do we constantly cite Talbot as the first individual to create a photographically illustrated book (now adding the words “commercially available” for accuracy), and why has Atkins received so little credit on that front? What does it mean to succeed as the “first” in any medium or form?

BLVR: You’ve used the term cultural mulatto in your criticism, and it’s been used to describe you as well. The term mulatto itself isn’t used much today, but I think cultural mulatto is still very much present—post-racialism is perhaps an analog? Do you still see that concept showing up today, and where do you see that conversation that you started with Adrienne Kennedy now?

MJ: The term is tricky, so let’s instead think about concept, because it doesn’t work in every context. You can’t use a word like mulatto, or colored, or Negro without surrounding it with explications and qualifications that make very clear that you are stripping it of certain things and supplying it with certain others. You’re revising it and renovating it. I would say that intersectionality is in many ways a more sophisticated take on—or an extension of—what we might call cultural mulatto–ism. I’m thinking particularly in culture and the arts. But one could say the same thing in terms of politics. There are so many kinds of mixed people now, people of color who are mixed in various ways. You’re an example of that. We’re just really beginning to quantify and analyze and emotionally dissect that. I think that’s very, very fruitful.

I encountered it a lot in England, with Caribbean blacks, with South Asians. Whenever I talk to Latinx critics, women in particular. Writers like you are continually probing and dramatizing those states, and that move from what appears to be certainty to uncertainty. These [are] identity changes, not in terms of tragedy, but negotiations. Code switching is a term I’m getting tired of, but code switching. And also understanding that that is a performance that’s crucial to who you are. It’s performance as a form of truth, not of lying. It’s very tied to a different notion of authenticity that really now does include a sense of constructed, inherited identity that keeps reconstructing, and that you can negotiate and perform with. I mean, isn’t that what we think of as identity these days? It doesn’t mean it’s any less deeply felt.

There’s not much difference between how we built popular speculative single-family housing back then and how we build it now. The “death of craft,” meaning the rarity or end of certain skills such as plastering, stuccoing, or custom architectural details, has more to do with the introduction of newer, more flexible building materials such as plywood and drywall, which were more affordable and easier to install than plaster. The “death of craft” is also often invoked to bemoan the loss of “original craftsmanship” at the hand of mass production. But almost all of the ornate stickwork and architectural detailing from the mid-19th century to today has been mass produced (lest we forget, the Gothic cathedrals of France, which, of course, were built without any kind of prefabrication, took centuries to build).

While the controversy involving the photo pales in comparison to the awful tragedy, the Times’ decision to run the photo brings up the ethical question that editors everywhere grapple with any time there is a horrific event.

Should the Times have run the photo?

There is no easy answer.

The first question any news organization must ask when deciding to publish violent images is: WHY show it?

In other words, what is the news value? Does the public need to see such an image to fully grasp what happened? Does the public need to see such a photo to confirm or disprove the official account of the events?

The internet is growing less free around the world, and democracy itself is withering under its influence.

Disinformation and propaganda disseminated online have poisoned the public sphere. The unbridled collection of personal data has broken down traditional notions of privacy. And a cohort of countries is moving toward digital authoritarianism by embracing the Chinese model of extensive censorship and automated surveillance systems. As a result of these trends, global internet freedom declined for the eighth consecutive year in 2018.

Events this year have confirmed that the internet can be used to disrupt democracies as surely as it can destabilize dictatorships. In April 2018, Facebook founder and chief executive Mark Zuckerberg testified in two congressional hearings about his company’s role in the Cambridge Analytica scandal, in which it was revealed that Facebook had exposed the data of up to 87 million users to political exploitation. The case was a reminder of how personal information is increasingly being employed to influence electoral outcomes. Russian hackers targeted US voter rolls in several states as part of the Kremlin’s broader efforts to undermine the integrity of the 2016 elections, and since then, security researchers have discovered further breaches of data affecting 198 million American, 93 million Mexican, 55 million Filipino, and 50 million Turkish voters.

My next emotion was unexpected: I found that I was secretly thrilled. Jesus, I thought, I must look expensive. Like sex worth buying. Like one of those groomed women who has time to do Pilates during the day, blow-dry her hair for hours, effortlessly wear a Cavalli catalogue (in London, Celine) and don a Cartier cuff.

Soon enough, however, I was back to incensed: I asked to speak with the owner to try and rectify the situation. Over he came. I explained that I travelled for work and reminded him that I was a regular at his restaurant. That its receipts accounted for half of my personal tax-line items. That it was a brave thing to do, to eat out on one’s own. And this was their response?

In his recent book, Reich ranks the “ancient-DNA revolution” with the invention of the microscope. Ancient DNA, his research suggests, can explain with more certainty and detail than any previous technique the course of human evolution, history and identity — as he puts it in the book’s title, “Who We Are and How We Got Here.” Though Reich works with samples that are thousands or tens of thousands of years old, the phrase “ancient DNA” encompasses any old genetic material that has been heavily degraded, and Reich’s work has been made possible only by a series of technological and procedural advances. Researchers in the field ship or hand-carry the bones to Harvard, where clean-suited technicians expose them to ultraviolet light to prevent contamination, then bore holes in them with dental drills. These skeletal remains are often rare — one pinkie-finger fragment that researchers in a lab in Leipzig used to demonstrate the existence of a long-extinct form of archaic humans was one of only four such bones ever found. Minuscule portions of genetic code are isolated and enriched, then read by expensive sequencers; statistical techniques then plot the relationship between this particular sample and thousands more in enormous data sets.

Right. But do you realize how that sounds to be repeating that question and talking about ending suffering as Jack Dorsey, the billionaire, while the U.N. is calling for military officials in this country to be prosecuted for genocide? I’m just wondering if you see how your role is actually larger than just yourself.

I do, but I’m not gonna change the practice because of it and what people say. Like, this is the practice that Buddha laid out, and I’m not going to change it just because I have this particular role. I’m sharing what I practiced and what I experienced.

I guess what I’m asking is more … do you feel like you have more of a responsibility now, because of who you are, to bring up these topics because you have this huge platform and influence?

Yeah. I mean, I would love to go back and really understand that dynamic. I went for one particular reason which was meditation. And that’s what I was sharing, that one thing right. It wasn’t to represent Twitter, or—

But you do represent Twitter.

I realize that, but I’m also human. And this practice is good for me and helps me learn and grow. So that’s what I was sharing, and certainly act on all the feedback and everything that was going on. But that wasn’t the point of this particular visit.

Required Reading is published every Sunday morning ET, and 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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