Hello there 🙂
Welcome to issue eighteen of Manufacturing Serendipity, a loosely connected, somewhat rambling collection of the unexpected things I’ve recently encountered.
This newsletter is free to receive, but if you’d like to support me in this in this odd little endeavour you can buy me a coffee 🙂
Before kicking this thing off properly, I want to say a massive thank you to the lovely humans who took the time to message me following my last missive to reassure me that I’m not alone: that they too see no pictures in their heads, and when they close their eyes see only darkness and nothing else. You are my people and I heart you.
But on to this missive – grab yourself a suitable beverage my loves, let’s do this thing…
Part I: Things I’ve Encountered Online
This week I read Emily VanDerWerff’s Vox article: How Twitter can ruin a life. Possibly you’ve read it already, but if you haven’t, I’d highly recommend it.
The article concerns a trans woman who published a short story under the pseudonym, Isabel Fall.
In January 2020, her story, “I Sexually Identify as an Attack Helicopter”, was published in the online science fiction magazine Clarkesworld. Set in a future in which the US military has co-opted gender to the degree that it turns recruits into literal weapons, it tells the story of Barb, a pilot whose gender is “helicopter”. The story explores three core ideas: gender as an innate part of the self, gender as a performance for society, and gender as a (literal) weapon of the state.
When Fall’s story was initially published, the responses were largely positive. But, the combination of the story’s title (which co-opts a transphobic meme) and the relative lack of information about Fall fuelled a growing paranoia around the story and its author. Because there was so little biographical information available about her, the debate surrounding the story hinged largely on one question: Who was Isabel Fall?
Many people began to worry that Fall was a front for right-wing, anti-trans reactionaries.
As is so often the case online, things escalated, and turned nasty incredibly quickly. Fall said:
“I sought out and read everything written about the story. I couldn’t stop. It was like that old nightmare-fantasy. What if someone gave you a ledger of everything anyone’s ever said about you, anywhere? Who wouldn’t read it? I would read it; I would go straight to the worst things.”
One criticism above all got to her: that Fall must be a cis man, because no woman would ever write in the way she did. And because this criticism was so often levelled by cis women, Fall felt her gender dysphoria (the gap between her gender and her gender assigned at birth) increasing.
“Most of all, I wanted people to say, ‘This story was written by a woman who understands being a woman.’ I obviously failed horribly.”
Not long after this, Fall asked her editor to take the story down, and, suffering from suicidal thoughts, checked herself into a psychiatric ward.
After she checked out of the hospital, Isabel Fall ceased to be Isabel Fall.
“I had a few other stories in the works on similar themes, and I withdrew them; that is the most concrete thing I can say that I stopped doing. More abstractly, more emotionally, I have stopped trying to believe I am a woman or to work towards womanness. If other people want to put markings on my gender-sphere and decide what I am, fine, let them. It’s not worth fighting.”
Isabel Fall was on a path to living as an out trans woman with a career writing science fiction, and now, she says, there will be no more Isabel Fall stories. She is done writing under that name, and she now considers “Isabel Fall” an impossible goal to achieve, a person she will never be.
“I don’t know what I meant to do as Isabel, I know [that publishing “Attack Helicopter”] was an important test for myself, sort of a peer review of my own womannness.
I think I tried to open a door and it was closed from the other side because I did not look the right shape to pass through it. Isabel was somebody I often wanted to be, but not someone I succeeded at being. I think the reaction to the story proves that I can’t be her, or shouldn’t be her, or at least won’t ever be her.
Everyone knew I was a fraud, right away.”
Fall’s story is utterly heartbreaking.
This wasn’t just a twitter storm – her life was destroyed.
In the article, VanDerWerff highlights the difference between paranoid and reparative readings, and how paranoid readings likely contributed to the reception Fall received online:
“The delineation between paranoid and reparative readings originated in 1995, with influential critic Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick:
A paranoid reading focuses on what’s wrong or problematic about a work of art.
A reparative reading seeks out what might be nourishing or healing in a work of art, even if the work is flawed. Importantly, a reparative reading also tends to consider what might be nourishing or healing in a work of art for someone who isn’t the reader.”
VanDerWerff also cites Lee Mandelo’s post on this topic; his quote below is particularly pertinent, I think:
“Art does not exist to be evaluated on a scale of ‘harm’ to ‘uplift’…”
The scale of ‘harm’ to ‘uplift’ is an easy mental trap to fall into; particularly on sites like twitter. There’s so much noise, and so little context.
But this is not just a twitter problem, a broader social media problem, or an internet problem. It’s doubtlessly exacerbated by these things, but this stuff is also on us, right?
Isabel Fall’s story has made me think a lot about both how I read or view, and indeed how I think about, and critique the various things I come across both on and offline. Things which could be considered art, but also things outside that sphere.
How often do I engage in paranoid, as opposed to reparative reading or viewing?
How often to I judge not just art, but virtually all content on a scale of ‘harm’ to ‘uplift’?
The uncomfortable answer, is that I do this all too often.
For clarity, I was not one of the many people who attacked Isabel Fall. Her story, and the debate surrounding it did not cross into my timeline, and as such, it was not something I engaged with at all. But if it had done, would I have engaged in a paranoid, or reparative reading? Would I have judged it on a scale of ‘harm’ to ‘uplift’?Would I have attacked her too? I can’t say for sure which side I might have fallen on, and this troubles me greatly.
I’ll leave you with some final words from Isabel Fall:
“The powerful want to say that we are entering a dangerous new era where ‘people disliking things en masse’ has coalesced into some kind of crowdsourced [weapon], firing on arbitrary targets from orbit and vaporising their reputations.
The use of mass social sanction gives the less powerful a weapon against the more powerful, so long as they can mobilise loudly and persistently. This is not new. Shame and laughter are vital tools for freedom.
[However] like all weapons, it will do the most damage when aimed at the least defended, the isolated, those with no one to stand up for them, publicly or privately. And we must be careful with the temptation to use it inside our own houses to destroy shapes we think are intruders.”
Moar serendipitous finds:
How shipwrecked yeasts could change the taste of your beer…
I don’t drink beer, but nevertheless, I found this fascinating. Apparently, long-forgotten yeast strains are being sought out from bottled beer found aboard shipwrecks, abandoned breweries and other locations in the hope they could be put to good use if resurrected.These forgotten yeasts could have applications beyond the production of beers and spirits: there’s a chance they could be used for bioremediation (to absorb pollutants in a contaminated environment), in pharmaceuticals, and of course in bread-making.
How seaweed shapes our past and future
A gorgeous essay from Jessica J. Lee which charts her changing perspective on seaweed. As a child she viewed them as “…things of another world that brushed at my legs as I swam, that evoked a rising terror”; today, she notes:
“From climate change and ecological collapse to carbon capture, seaweeds are repositories of our greatest fears and grandest ambitions for the future. They unpick scientific paradigms, politics, and nationalisms, all the things that ask for circumstances, species, and people to stay in place.”
The SEOs among you are likely well-versed in the problems of broken links, but here Jonathan Zittrain, highlights both the true extent of the issue, and the very real consequences:
“For example, President Barack Obama signed the Affordable Care Act in the spring of 2010. In the fall of 2013, congressional Republicans shut down day-to-day government funding in an attempt to kill Obamacare.
Federal agencies, obliged to cease all but essential activities, pulled the plug on websites across the U.S. government, including access to thousands, perhaps millions, of official government documents, both current and archived, and of course very few have anything to do with Obamacare. As night follows day, every single link pointing to the affected documents and sites no longer worked.”
He goes on to talk about some of his own research:
Inspired by cases like these, some colleagues and I joined those investigating the extent of link rot in 2014 and again this past spring.The first study, with Kendra Albert and Larry Lessig, focused on documents meant to endure indefinitely: links within scholarly papers, as found in the Harvard Law Review, and judicial opinions of the Supreme Court.We found that 50 percent of the links embedded in Court opinions since 1996, when the first hyperlink was used, no longer worked. And 75 percent of the links in the Harvard Law Review no longer worked.People tend to overlook the decay of the modern web, when in fact these numbers are extraordinary—they represent a comprehensive breakdown in the chain of custody for facts.
The parasite which turns ants into Dorian Gray
Regular readers will know that I love me a gruesome tale from the natural world. Well my loves, here’s another: There’s a parasite which gives its ant hosts the appearance of youth, and an unmatched social power in the colony.
“Deep in the forests of Germany, nestled neatly into the hollowed-out shells of acorns, live a smattering of ants who have stumbled upon a fountain of youth.They are born workers, but do not do much work. Their days are spent lollygagging about the nest, where their siblings shower them with gifts of food. They seem to elude the ravages of old age, retaining a durably adolescent physique, their outer shells soft and their hue distinctively tawny. Their scent, too, seems to shift, wafting out an alluring perfume that endears them to others.
While their sisters, who have nearly identical genomes, perish within months of being born, these death-defying insects live on for years and years and years.
They are Temnothorax ants, and their elixirs of life are the tapeworms that teem within their bellies—parasites that paradoxically prolong the life of their host at a strange and terrible cost.
The tapeworm-laden ants didn’t just outlive their siblings, the team found. They were coddled while they did it. They spent their days lounging in their nest, performing none of the tasks expected of workers. They were groomed, fed, and carried by their siblings, often receiving more attention than even the queen—unheard of in a typical ant society—and gave absolutely nothing in return.
The deal the ants have cut with their parasites seems, at first pass, pretty cushy. Foitzik told me that her team couldn’t find any overt downsides to life as an infected ant, a finding that appears to shatter the standard paradigm of parasitism. Even the colonies as a whole remained largely intact. Workers continued to work; queens continued to lay eggs. The threads that held each Temnothorax society together seemed unmussed.
Only when the researchers took a closer look did that tapestry begin to unravel. The uninfected workers in parasitized colonies, they realized, were laboring harder. Strained by the additional burden of their wormed-up nestmates, they seemed to be shunting care away from their queen. They were dying sooner than they might have if the colonies had remained parasite-free.
At the community level, the ants were exhibiting signs of stress, and the parasite’s true tax was, at last, starting to show. “The cost is in the division of labor,” Das said. The worms were tapping into not just “individual [ant] physiology, but also social interactions,” Farrah Bashey-Visser, a parasitologist at Indiana University who wasn’t involved in the study, told me.
Down to the molecular level, the parasite is pulling the strings. Sara Beros, Foitzik’s former doctoral student and the paper’s first author, told me she has split open Temnothorax abdomens and counted up to 70 tapeworms inside.
From there, the worms can unleash a slurry of proteins and chemicals that futz with the ant’s core physiology, likely impacting their host’s hormones, immune system, and genes.
What they achieve appears to be a rough pantomime of how ant queens attain their mind-boggling life span, a feat humans still don’t understand. (The tapeworms’ grasp of ant aging is far more advanced than ours.) The parasites are effectively flash-freezing their host into a preserved state—one that will up their own chances of survival, and help guarantee that their species lives on.
The worms’ MO is subtle and ingenious. They are agents not of disaster, but of an insidious social sickness that sets reality only slightly, barely perceptibly, askew.
Infected workers get a taste of invincibility and status, swaddling themselves in youth and the benefits it brings. They also form resource sinks that sap the energy of those around them. They become echoes of the microorganisms they harbor.
They are, in the end, parasites themselves.”
Read this twitter thread, it is delightful:
& if you liked that, you’ll love this.
Stephen Doyle’s Book Sculptures
Stephen Doyle describes his interconnected book sculptures as “miniature monuments, testaments to the power of language and metaphors of imagination.”
The New York City-based artist lobs off parts of sentences, tethers phrases together with an unrelated word, and generally obscures the author’s intended meaning, producing arbitrary and striking connections within the text.
Although the paper sculptures are tangible manifestations of language, Doyle tells Colossal that he originally envisioned the spliced works as satirical commentaries on digital diagramming. “I first started when ‘hypertext’ was a novel term of the internet: blue underlined text was a portal, linked to another document in the ether.
Linking one text to another seemed rather DADA in intent, abstract, random, and capricious,” he says.
A commonly touted piece of writerly wisdom is to “kill your darlings”; here Austin Kleon offers up an alternative to this murderous advice, and it’s one I’m infinitely more comfortable with: rather than murdering those darlings, relocate them, so you might re-home them later.
Part II: Books I’m Reading Right Now
Persepolis, by Marjane Satrapi is an autobiographical graphic novel, divided into two parts; Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood; and Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return. The former narrates her childhood in Tehran during the Islamic Revolution, and the latter tells the tale of her return to Iran as a young adult.
At the beginning of the graphic novel, as readers, we see the Islamic revolution (and the huge changes which occurred as a result) through the eyes of Satrapi as a 10 year old. As the story progresses, things get worse for Satrapi as Iran descends into war. Demonstrations are brutally shut down; dissenters jailed, tortured and killed; and ‘decadent Western’ behaviour like having parties is prohibited.
As a result, her parents send her to Austria at the age of 14. But although Austria offers greater freedom for her, the strain of culture shock, adolescence, neglect (her relatives in Austria effectively abandon her) and trauma from her experiences in Iran overwhelm her, and she ends up taking drugs and living on the street.
Eventually she decides to return to Iran where she begins to rebuild her life, going on to study art at university. In 1994, with her parents’ encouragement, she leaves Iran for Europe “for good”.
Persepolis offers a rare insight into life under this regime. One quote in particular has stayed with me:
“The regime had understood that one person leaving her house while asking herself, ‘Are my trousers long enough? Is my veil in place? Can my make-up be seen? Are they going to whip me?’, no longer asks herself, ‘Where is my freedom of thought? Where is my freedom of speech? My life, is it liveable? What’s going on in political prisons?’
It’s only natural! When we’re afraid we lose all sense of analysis and reflection. Our fear paralyses us. Besides, fear has always been the driving force behind all dictators’ repression.”
It’s a truly incredible book, and I’d highly recommend it.
Next up, Lote by Shola von Reinhold. This is a thoroughly brilliant debut novel which concerns the removal and obscurement of Black, female, and queer voices from history.
We meet our protagonist, Mathilda, who, while is interning in a national archive uncovers a Black Scottish modernist poet, Hermia Drumm. In an attempt to unearth everything she can about Drumm, she enrols in an artist residency dedicated to opposing extravagance and aesthetics.
The reader follows Mathilda on a series of escapades including various petty (and not so petty) thefts, art sabotage, and an experimental lotus-eating cult. There’s whimsy aplenty for sure, but ultimately the novel acts as a rallying cry against the diktats of Eurocentrism and it’s ace.
This fortnight I also read Hark by Sam Lipsyte.
Here, our titluar character, Hark is a standup comic who peddles fake spiritualism to tech executives. What began as a joke has now become a new faith known as Harkism. In the novel, we meet the crew of disciples that trail him whilst he preaches “mental archery”, which combines yoga with an imaginary bow and arrow to achieve FOCUS.
Lipsyte has delivered a fun, frothy piece of satire here; but to be honest the novel left me a little cold. Possibly I’m suffering from a sense of humour failure. Dear reader, this book just wasn’t for me. However, having read a bunch of other reviews online it appears that many people really loved it, and so if this sounds like your bag you should definitely go get your mitts on a copy.
Part III: Things I’ve Been Watching
I really enjoyed On Becoming a God in Central Florida, Netflix. The series primarily concerns Krystal Stubbs (played by Kirsten Dunst), a woman whose husband falls into a cult-like pyramid scheme company called FAM (Founders American Merchandise).
Her husband quits his day job to full-time FAM; and then, in a bizarre twist of events (which I don’t want to spoil), Krystal unexpectedly finds herself as a single mother up to her eyeballs in debt. The series then follows Krystal as she attempts to turn things around.
I’m still not 100% sure how I feel about how season one of the show concluded, but I really enjoyed the ride. If you like your humour dark, surreal, and a little silly then I think you’ll enjoy this one.
Whether or not we’ll ever get to see season two of this show remains to be seen. Showtime apparently reversed their decision to renew it, but I’m hoping that possibly Netflix or another network will pick it up.
My friend Alex recommended I watch Bo Burnham: Inside, Netflix; the special Burnham wrote, directed, performed in and edited alone during Covid lockdown.
It’s fair to say this is not so much a comedy show, as a a trip down the rabbit hole of isolation. It’s frequently bleak, claustrophobic (it was all filmed in a single room), and definitely not easy to watch, but it is really interesting, and there are moments of brilliance. Burnham is fantastically talented at writing weirdly affecting, catchy, subversive songs: highlights for me included the “sock puppet”, the recursive “reaction to a reaction, to a reaction” video, and “welcome to the internet”.
As I mentioned before this isn’t really a comedy show as such, but there are comedic moments. However, not all of the comedy landed for me. For example, “white woman’s instagram” started out funny, but then I felt he went too far with it – seeing a white dude lambast a group who arguably enjoy less privilege than he does, isn’t a great look.
That said, overall this is a really impressive piece of work, and whilst clearly it won’t be for everyone, if this sounds like your bag, I’d recommend watching it.
Part IV: Things I’m Doing
Dear reader, I feel like I’ve been a little lack lustre on the creative front of late. I have folded (or mis-folded) no origami, I have attempted no half-assed art projects, I have not stitched, I have written no words of fiction or poetry.
I fully plan on correcting this.
This Saturday I promise to make a thing. I’m not sure what I will make, but I will make a thing and take a photo of it, and put it in the next edition of this newsletter.
Now I have written this I have to do it – you all unwittingly act as excellent accountability buddies for me 🙂
The Business of Content
On the 26th August I’ll be speaking at The Business of Content, a virtual conference.
The line up looks ace, and includes Alice Chandrasekaran, Nick Eubanks, Rand Fishkin, Kameron Jenkins, Joel Klettke, Daisy-ree Quaker, & more.
The first 1,000 tickets are free, but spots are going fast – register here to attend.
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