December 23 2023
gratitude for 2023 and the preceding twenty years
I am grateful for all the correspondents sending in texts for the year-end post. What we have accumulated to date is already magical. The whole thing will go live on January 1 or 2, depending on how punctual they are and how industrious I am. Until then, some varieties of gratitude.
I am grateful for the unexpectedly big slice of P-Funk catalog available on Spotify. Let’s start there. We have, in fact, already started there. (The thumbnail in that playlist is a photograph of the room I am in now. George Clinton is our household saint.) If you don’t know Parliament or Funkadelic or any Clinton projects, let this playlist demonstrate the key attributes of his music: joyful, profane, ecumenical, and deeply unpredictable even if you play it a hundred times.
The first S/FJ entry was posted on October 1, 2003. This newsletter was very much a blog at that point, forming slowly, as was the field of blogs. S/FJ was a messy undertaking, as much a way of seeing and understanding the photographs I had begun taking as it was an opportunity to write for an audience. Many of the posts were intended for specific friends and some were written by those same friends.
For the first time ever, a week ago, I went through the archives. I was proud of the photographs but embarrassed by the inconsistency of the writing. I expected to be jealous of some bygone vitality and ended up feeling quite the opposite. My work improved when I left the world of big magazines, got sober, and started charging properly for my time. (Those were all different moments but let’s collate it all and call it 2019.) I am moved that so many of you read this and pay—that money pays for the dentist and oatmeal and for my Healthfirst Bronze Leaf Premier Plan, now that I have been booted off Medicaid. I’m not buying détourned bumper stickers with your money (at least not all of the time).
What I’ve realized is that the most important thing you, the reader, have helped me with for twenty years is giving me a place to figure out what and how I think. The last two months have been about being a comrade and finding comrades. Central to this experience, this living practice, is finding true humility. That means acknowledging your skills and your blind spots clearly and cleanly. I have to raise my hand when I need help, when I need to admit I don’t know how to talk to cops or how to chop a cucumber or start a new chapter of an affinity group or say “Do you want an apple or a banana?” in French. Someone recently said to me, “I like being in a chat with people who know more than me,” and I think that says a lot. My readers often know more than I do.
I have also had people ask me about the whole Substack & Nazis thing. To learn about this weirdness, read Talia Lavin’s take and BDM’s summary, which contains all the relevant links. This December 21 post by Hamish McKenzie, responding to all the Nazi News, is more troubling than the Nazi News itself. McKenzie hosted pseudo-science race loon Richard Hanania on his podcast earlier this year, yet he claims, “I didn’t know of [his] past writings at the time, and Hanania went on to disavow those views.” This is curious. Which of Hanania’s writings made him seem worth hosting, then? You can go to Hanania’s Twitter account, right now, and scroll through his 2023 musings. (Pay special attention to his support of Israel and demented gender riffs.) McKenzie lands on New York Times-style both sides-ism to frame his endorsement of Hanania, which certainly suggests that he knew exactly how Hanania thinks: “I think it’s important to engage with and understand a range of views even if—especially if—you disagree with them. Hanania is an influential voice for some in U.S. politics—his recent book, for instance, was published by HarperCollins—and there is value in knowing his arguments.” I am not sure what to say in response to the idea that someone’s views are worth considering because they have managed to publish a book with HarperCollins. As you likely know, HarperCollins has been owned by NewsCorp since 1989, though that is neither here nor there.
Let’s sample Hanania’s current writing. His Substack post from November 27 is impishly titled “Israel Must Crush Palestinian Hopes” and concludes like so: “Eventually, I think that we can get to a place where emptying Gaza becomes seen as a realistic option both within and outside the region. But it will require Israel to extinguish all hopes of Palestinian statehood first. The US can be useful here by continuing to provide support to Israel, refraining from putting pressure on it on humanitarian grounds, and trying to incentivize other nations to accept Palestinians as refugees.” Lil bulldozer! I would very much be afraid of going directly to hell if I was aiding and abetting this kind of thinking, but let’s think concretely about boycotts for a second.
I have taken money from NewsCorp, Condé Nast, and Bertelsmann, all of whom scare me infinitely more than Substack. Substack is not publicly traded and the company has managed to raise plenty of VC funding. Unsubscribing from Substacks hurts the writers that use it much more than it does Substack, Inc. When you take away five bucks from a writer, only pennies from that were going to Substack—your boycott will have a negligible effect on the company while hitting the writer hard. (When you boycott Starbucks, for example, the stock price tanks but the employees still gets paid.) Were we to really engage in some effective collective action here, the writers would have to band together and strike, en masse. This withholding of labor is not going to happen. The most effective action available now may be to use Substack’s infrastructure, get paid, and report the hell out of the company’s creepy tendencies, as Jonathan M. Katz has been doing with The Racket.
I was grateful to rediscover “Against Lists,” Elena Gorfinkel’s brief Another Gaze piece from 2019. If I was going to tattoo something on my face, it would be this: “Metrics are our enemy, and the enemy of art and of political struggle.” As far as I can tell, Gorfinkel wrote this in response to year-end film lists though the terms of her resistance apply widely: “Lists pretend to make a claim about the present and the past, but are anti-historical, obsessed with their own moment, with the narrow horizon and tyranny of contemporaneity. They consolidate and reaffirm the hidebound tastes of the already heard.”
Critical consensus is a barrier to discussion. For example, many of these 2023 movie lists feature David Fincher’s The Killer (mid garbage dependent on the weakest of cinematic tricks [the voiceover]) and yet almost none of them mention Four Daughters, Kaouther Ben Hania’s astonishing blend of documentary and feature.
If you want to revisit the glory of semi-unranked lists, here is a Google doc someone put together of Sight & Sound’s 101 hidden gems, many of them with YouTube links attached. For music, Boomkat’s year-end lists are unwieldy, as a user interface, but worth transcribing as a shopping list. For music journalism, Todd L. Burns compiled this list of reader recommendations while running his newsletter (now winding down): “As part of the newsletter, I asked every person I interviewed about their favorite piece of music journalism—or something that inspires them.” And when a list becomes truly useful, it becomes an archive. Here is Laurent Fintoni’s fantastic new website that “catalogues music history-related catalogues, collections, archives, websites, social media pages and other sorts of wonderful preservation efforts.”
Free-floating love based more on recency than anything: I told Metrograph that my favorite film experience of 2023 was seeing A Simple Event at MoMA. That’s not wrong, and I think Sohrab Shahid Saless was possibly also a saint. I recommend Julia Mellen’s Yung Lean, Please Be My Yung Love, if you have a Metrograph At Home account and sixteen minutes to be charmed. The Arab Film and Media Institute is hosting a collection of Palestinian films through the end of December. The short film we loved (about a family that ended up moving to the States) is no longer up, so move quickly. I am also grateful for Le Cinema Club, now showing The Store, Frederick Wiseman’s 1983 documentary of “a holiday shopping trip to Neiman-Marcus.”
I am grateful that my friend Kaleem asked me about The Fall, which reminded me that I love The Fall, which led me to rediscover the triumph of Live at St. Helens Technical College, 1981, issued a few years ago by John Dywer of Osees.
I am grateful for New Pacific (free DL from the Internet Archive there), an album released in 1992 by Bali & Beyond. I can find no information about these musicians beyond what is on the J-card: upright bass, vibes, gamelan, sax, percussion. You get a sick cover of Miles Davis’s “Silent Way/It’s About That Time” and an overall “world jazz” approach. The date seems to have been led by vibes and gamelan player Cliff DeArment and though there are a few high school band moments, the whole thing has a real cohesion and energy. Also this Ziab Rabhani soundtrack from 1980? What is it? I love it.
I am grateful for my barber, Eric, who is from Tajikistan. His co-workers are from Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. They only learned their regional dialects at school—they speak Russian with each other and their families. The native variants are derived from Turkish and Farsi and other tongues. When spoken, they understand these dialects.
I am grateful for the hundreds of accounts on Twitter and Instagram and TikTok documenting the horrors of Israel’s miserable, soulless attack on Gaza. Bisan and Motaz are the heroes we do not deserve and may God protect them. All of these accounts will become infinitely important when the histories are written and the justice served. If you want to get up to speed, Verso and Haymarket joined forces to release a free e-book called From the River to the Sea: Essays for a Free Palestine. (Two of the authors have been killed since the book was completed.) The documentary, Israelism, is available to rent for $5 until January 1 and seems most likely to convert your skeptical family member, if anything is. The podcasts Makdisi Street and The Dig have been completely essential for the last two months.
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