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The Internet Is Exploding: 10 Must-Read Articles This Week

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I spent more time on the internet this week than I have the past few weeks. As COVID-19 spreads, it continues to take up more space everywhere. But people are also thinking and writing about it in reflective and nuanced ways. The internet was chaotic this week, but patterns are starting to emerge. 

Highlights: Mexico City’s water crisis, AIDS and coronavirus, the commodification of meaning, Sinéad O’Connor, falling, learning to swim, Rihanna made some music (!?!?!?!??!!?), Bob Dylan’s unreleased track, Europe’s oldest forest, and Tiger King. 

1. London Review of Books: Where water used to be

With everything happening as a result of COVID-19, it has been easy for the pandemic to, in some instances, overshadow other things happening in the world—at least for me. I haven’t paid as much attention to the global water crisis as I usually do. I’m lucky enough that I don’t have to constantly think about my water consumption on a daily basis, but that isn’t the case for residents of Mexico City. 

Mexico City is sinking, quite literally, writes Rosa Lyster, who is based in Cape Town, South Africa. “The city is subsiding as it draws more and more water from further and further below the surface, collapsing into the clay lake-beds on which it was built, and even someone who doesn’t know what an aquifer is can see it,” she writes.  Mexico City is different from Cape Town, however, in that it has more rainy days than London, and “the original Aztec city, Tenochtitlan, was built on an island in the middle of a lake, surrounded by other lakes.”

Lyster writes that in Mexico “the problem is not water scarcity, although it now presents itself as that. It’s a problem of water management, and infrastructure, and inequality,” understanding that “water is political and access to it determines the course of one’s life.” Mexico City and Cape Town aren’t alone in this, and “in five years’ time, two-thirds of the world’s population is going to be living in a state of ‘water stress’… Either we won’t have enough or it will be dirty or we won’t be able to access it without difficulty.” 

2. Slate: I Study Prisons and AIDS History. Here’s Why Self-Isolation Really Scares Me.

Steven Thrasher gets it right a lot of the time. He offers nuanced perspectives on his subjects with care and historical contextualization, and he doesn’t always offer a solution to the problems he is addressing, but various perspectives to take into account. He broadens his readers’ understanding of a subject. 

Thrasher covers three major topics regarding the pandemic and social-distancing that I’ve seen on social media: its impact on mental health and forcing some people to live in violent and abusive spaces, increased surveillance of public and digital spaces, and the similarities and differences with the AIDS epidemic. “This new crisis will change everything. Everything. Everything about how we work and socialize, everything about how we make love and make politics,” writes Thrasher. “The world will be rebuilt, and we have a chance to make it better—but this will only happen if we can figure out mutual care and mass mobilization with tactics that have never been used on such a scale before.”

3. Nemesis: The Umami Theory of Value: Autopsy of the Experience Economy

One of the hard things about writing a weekly column is that I often have to go with my first instinct on everything. I’ve gotten better at doing this over the years, but it still does not leave time for deep reflection on any one article I read each week—let alone 10. Within the past week our economy and the way we experience daily life has dramatically shifted. Since I read this essay a couple of days ago, it has felt more and more relevant, but I am still trying to understand what the death of the so-called “experience economy” means going forward. 

This essay, essentially a meditation on the sale of meaning over the last decade, relates the experience economy with the concept of umami, that ephemeral, savory taste in food. The experience economy commodifies experiences and feelings, rather than tangible goods or investments. Between the 2008 financial crisis and now, “the enrichment of financial assets over the creation of any ‘real wealth’ along with corresponding illusions of progress” made it difficult for capital to find “profitable places in which to invest itself.” Instead of investing in “building new productive capacity, infrastructure, or actually new things, money has just been sloshing around in a frothy cesspool.” The solution to this over the past decade has been to invest in meaning, and “meaning is always readily available to be repeated, remixed, and/or cannibalized in service of creating the sensation of the new.” And the language and methodology used to do this have eerily similar overlaps with the language used to describe umami’s three major qualities: “SYNERGY, IMPRESSION OF THICKNESS, and PARTS > WHOLE.” 

As an editor’s note at the beginning states, the article was written before the global crisis of COVID-19, and “was meant to be a sort of elegy to the economic and cultural cycle in which we were living, which was clearly coming to an end.” It has taken a new, and perhaps more relevant meaning. But that means it requires more time for reflection than I currently have. It also means that it warrants rereading, and rereading again as we all work our way through this pandemic rediscovering and redefining what meaning and experience mean to us as individuals, and to society as a whole. 

4. The Washington Post: Sinéad O’Connor is still in one piece

Before reading this everything I knew about Sinéad O’Connor was relegated to “Nothing Compares 2 U,” and that she tore up a picture of the Pope on SNL. I didn’t know about her abusive mother or struggles with mental health or her “12-minute plea on Facebook referencing suicide attempts and intense loneliness” in 2017. 

I’m conflicted about this profile, because while I’m grateful that it brought me newfound awareness of O’Connor, and I learned many facts about her life, I didn’t necessarily get a sense of her—I only got that from listening to her songs while I read this. But then I remember what Bob Geldof said in this piece: “It’s all soul.. It’s a troubled soul and it ekes pain and an attempt to find an understanding through her voice and through her music… [People] don’t quite understand the intensity or how a personal pain translates into a sort of empathetic rage. The point is, you don’t have to. You can just listen to one of her songs.”

5. The Believer: Fall Risk

This was the most confusing article I read this week. I started reading it because the header image is from Ana Mendieta’s Silueta series (1973–77). What kept me reading, though, was that the piece and the confusion it gave me mirrored that of that of its writer, Madeleine Watts, and her search for the “weakness, with no known cause” that caused her to consistently faint in the winter of 2017–2018. It was the idea of “impacting on earth” that Mendieta used in her work. Watts quotes from the artist Hito Steyerl’s 2011 essay “In Free Fall” to discuss the idea of falling, that “we cannot assume any stable ground on which to base metaphysical claims or foundational political myths. At best, we are faced with temporary, contingent, and partial attempts at grounding.” Steyerl continues: “the consequence must be a permanent, or at least intermittent state of free fall for subjects and objects alike.” The idea is that falling can be a disconnect between the head and the heart, between grounded stability and free falling. 

I don’t know when this personal essay was written, and I have read Steyerl’s essay in full, but it was striking to read this particular week. I’ve been feeling a bit of societal free fall recently—with the closing of my school, cancelation of my summer plans, and everything else. This offered an interesting lens through which I might understand my own experiences.

6. New York Times: Learning to Swim Taught Me More Than I Bargained For 

Both of my parents were collegiate swimmers. My mom made a career as a swimmer, transitioning to aquatic facilities management and then to health and wellness programming. My mother ran the most popular swim classes in our area, and I don’t remember learning to swim—for as long as I can remember I’ve always just been in pools. 

I learned to swim before I “could ever consider being afraid,” as Jazmine Hughes writes. With swimming, I’ve never “felt true, tangible fear; not anxiety, not nervousness, not stress, but the high kick your brain does into a true panic with a real reason.” Hughes spent a lifetime on beaches during trips and vacations, feeling “drawn to the water, calmer when I was near it,” but didn’t learn how to swim until she was 28. She learned to swim around the same time she came out and “the two experiences — coming out, learning to swim — kept braiding together, a second adolescence, and then a third.” All of the years Hughes sat on beaches and could not swim, she was jealous of the people in the water, “not of their skill but of their willingness to go out and learn, to get what they wanted and then to have it every day.” She “needed to know I could save myself,” and in coming out and learning to swim, she did. 

I don’t remember learning how to swim, but I know what swimming teaches me: when to hold things in and when to let them go. 

The pool I normally swim at closed for three months of renovations the week before coronavirus hit the US and everything closed. Since I already knew I wouldn’t swim for a while, I savored that last swim. I stayed after the group I swam with left. I went underwater and listened to the sound of my hands sculling and watched my bubbles float to the surface. I went underwater and felt its weight pressing against my body. I went underwater to be suspended alone with my thoughts. I went underwater and was completely surrounded by stillness. I knew as soon as I went to the surface to breathe I would lose some of the water’s lessons. Now I’ll have to wait longer. 

7. YouTube: PARTYNEXTDOOR & Rihanna - BELIEVE IT

I must say, when I sleepily saw a clip of this posted to Rihanna’s Instagram account around 1 a.m. Friday I most certainly DID NOT believe it. At first, I thought Rihanna was trolling everyone by naming R9—what her fans, the Navy, have dubbed her much-anticipated ninth studio album—Believe It. It took me a good couple of minutes to realize that the post (sadly) was not announcing R9, but instead a feature on PARTYNEXTDOOR’s new song. I do not, however, want to downplay how exciting this moment is because it is the first new song she has been featured on since 2017! The Navy is surely rejoicing. But one must also wonder, DOES THIS MEAN R9 IS ACTUALLY GOING TO HAPPEN?!?! I’ve almost given up on the album! 

8. YouTube: Bob Dylan - Murder Most Foul

Thursday night Bob Dylan released a 17-minute song—his longest ever—about JFK’s assassination. According to his website, “this is an unreleased song we recorded a while back that you might find interesting,” and Dylan urged his fans to “Stay safe, stay observant, and may God be with you.” The song unfolds over an orchestral backdrop and flows between descriptions of the assassination and other cultural moments of that time—as with everything Dylan, the lyrics are sublime. 

9. Lit Hub: Journeying into the Depths of Europe’s Oldest Primeval Forest

On the border between Poland and Belarus sits Białowieża, Europe’s largest patch of Primeval Forest. The forest has, “by mass, more dead than living wood… Funguses with ghoulish names like wet rot fungus and jelly rot fungus feed off the lignin and cellulose of which wood is comprised.” The dead wood feeds the funguses and is home to larva and insects, making “the claim that over 50 percent of the forest’s wood is dead appears somewhat meaningless, as much of what we’re walking through is dead and alive at the same time. The dead and the living are constantly in the process of becoming each other.” But the forest and its dance with life and death are disappearing and “the story of the forest’s disappearance is the story of agriculture, that great, world-changing shift from foraging to farming.” But the land of Białowieża is dense with the ecological history of the past, and absent of the human history that has colonized most of the land it once covered. 

10. Vulture: A Debate About Tiger King Between Me and Myself

I have not seen Tiger King, but EVERYONE is talking about it. The docuseries follows “a guy named Joe Exotic and his decades-long effort to keep big cats in an unregulated zoo in Oklahoma,” but “every time you think you’ve gotten a handle on what exactly the crimes are in this true-crime series, Tiger King throws you another curveball.”  

By all accounts, including this one, the show is highly binge-able, but, as Kathryn VanArendonk questions here, is it any good? As in “is Tiger King good in a moral sense? Is it humane? Is it compassionate? Is it an ethical piece of filmmaking?” From the accounts that I have read, this is a challenging question with evolving answers. 

All images taken from reference articles. Have a suggestion for next week? Email afoehmke@bmoreart.com with the subject line “The Internet is Exploding.”

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