liminal spaces (and books of 2020)

everyone is talking about liminal spaces these days.

we're in the final throes of a dying year, in the middle of a pandemic that's put so many people's lives in limbo. everything has changed and keeps changing, and yet every day to the next feels the same. nothing is sure. it's hard to know what next week will be like, much less next year. sometimes it feels like we're collectively holding a breath, our lungs burning for release.

before this year, i never quite realized how much of my life was set—if not in reality, at least in my mind. some of the details might have changed, here and there, but the bedrock of how my life would look and feel never really did. there was a deep-seated comfort in that, a comfort i didn't realize existed until i no longer had it. this year, though, that bedrock collapsed, in more ways than i could have possibly imagined.

when so much is in flux, most of it outside of your control, the natural impulse is to wait, to see where the pieces fall. many of us found ourselves in this place in 2020, suddenly contemplating moving back home (or at least somewhere cheaper) or taking a fellowship or switching to freelance work for a while or (for some reason, nearly ubiquitously) maybe going to grad school. ways to buy time, to figure it out or at least postpone figuring it out, in a socially acceptable or financially practical way.

on this subject, yuan wang writes:

A liminal space is a time between the ‘what was’ and the ‘next.’ It is a place of transition, a season of waiting, and not knowing. It is when you have left the tried and true, but have not yet been able to replace it with anything else. It is when you are between your old comfort zone and any possible new answer.

it's romantic—on paper. in practice? agonizing. it's the feeling of sitting in gridlocked traffic and knowing your destination is just a few blocks out of reach. it's waiting on an answer to a question before you can start on a task you need to complete. it's opening the door to leave the house, getting a text to meet half an hour later than previously planned, and then having to pass that time, poised to go but unable, anxiously scrolling through twitter because there's not quite enough time to do anything else. it's hovering impatiently by the microwave as the seconds slowly tick down to zero. it's knowing that something is coming, something is about to happen, because it must be, and it's feeling powerless to do anything about it.

i wish that i could write about this feeling in retrospect. i wish i could draw a straightforward arc of struggle and triumph, even just for myself. i first wrote the words "liminal space" back in july, when i was on the cusp of major life change, and i think i believed that all the other pieces would fall into place after that. but all i have now is a knotted mess of hypotheticals, plausible lives i could assume, none of which feel quite right yet. there were many times this year that making big decisions felt like entering a recursive loop, with so many factors weighing on each other that i reached stack overflow.

still, as messy and uncomfortable as liminal spaces can be, they're places of potential. they're doors that you thought were closed, slowly cracking open. the possibilities that had long dissipated in the process of shedding your childish wants begin to re-form. we aren't static; what we do, what we think, what we want, are always evolving, whether we realize it or not. and eventually we have to reckon with those changes in ourselves, what they mean for us. am i still the person who should be working toward these goals? or is holding onto them preventing me from growing into the person i'm becoming, the person i've become?

there's no right answer—there's never a right answer, i'm finding—there's only the day that you decide, one way or another. and then maybe you change your mind again, or you don't. growth happens in fits and starts, but it happens nonetheless. and then suddenly, the future, that place across the threshold, feels tantalizingly close.

here are some words on liminal spaces that coincidentally (or not, given that everyone is having the same thoughts at this time of this year) landed in my inbox as i was writing this essay, from one of my favorite writers, helena fitzgerald:

Liminal spaces cannot be inhabited. We push ourselves or are pushed through to the next active thing, propelled by loss or desire, by pride and need, climbing up the ladder into the story. Maybe I want to linger here, where nothing achieves anything, where nothing links up, where nothing leads to the next thing. Maybe I want to spin my wheels, a lost day like a hangover, a doorway like the kitchen at a house party, where everyone gathers and nobody accomplishes anything, bunching up in a small space to gossip and bother each other and take off our sweaters in the overheated room, sitting on counters, knocking over somebody else’s salt and olive oil. Maybe this is the party I miss the most, the empty end of the year without a desperation to get out the other side of it, the unmarked time and the useless paragraphs, something left over, time to waste. What we want from things versus what we think we want are rarely the same. Sometimes what I want from a party is the uselessness, how it has no point beyond itself. The spaces on each side of the doorway are narrative; they are goals, plotlines, successes and failures. The space in the doorway is a party and a party is sometimes a long day of doing nothing at all, without preparations, without resolutions, blank as the light through a door.


books of 2020

i can't bring myself to write a retrospective of this year; i'm sure the sheer volume of reflections on 2020 have encompassed everything there is to say. BUT my biggest flex of this year is that i not only finished my goodreads reading challenge—i hit an unprecedented 360% (!) of my goal, reading seventy-two books.

i read much more this year than any other year after high school. staying home so much was undoubtedly a contributing factor, but more than that: i got a kindle a year ago, and i downloaded libby (thank you, freia), which allows you to borrow e-books from your library. what might sound like a minor improvement in ease of access was transformational: i no longer had to think about justifying the cost of each book (libraries! they're magical), or the inconvenience of getting a book, or the bulkiness of carrying physical copies everywhere. i usually read multiple books simultaneously—typically, at least one fast-paced fiction book and one denser nonfiction book—to lower the burden of pushing through a book when i might not be in the mood for it. i carved out time intended specifically for reading (this year, the bath was my sanctuary). i slowly built up my attention span from its lowest point in june. and finally, i got back into goodreads in earnest, which helped me find new books and got me engaging with friends about the books we were reading. so, if anyone wants to read more next year, that's the advice i've got.

and i do believe, more than ever, that most of us should read more. contrary to what i thought when my pocket usage was at its peak, a thousand articles and thinkpieces and op-eds don't quite add up to a single good book. there is so much intellectual and cultural wealth all around us, ready for us to access. books open new worlds—sometimes imaginary ones, yes, but also sometimes ones that were always right in front of us, hidden in plain sight. and the more worlds you open, the more still you discover waiting.

so, out of the books i finished this year, here are some of the best. many of these books changed me, in ways i don't yet fully understand, and if even one of them changes you, too, well, the time i spent making this list will have been worth it.


nonfiction

inventing the future by nick srnicek and alex williams

If power is the basic capacity to produce intended effects in someone or something else, then an increase in our ability to carry out our desires is simultaneously an increase in our freedom. The more capacity we have to act, the freer we are. One of the biggest indictments of capitalism is that it enables the freedom to act for only a vanishingly small few. A primary aim of a postcapitalist world would therefore be to maximise synthetic freedom, or in other words, to enable the flourishing of all of humanity and the expansion of our collective horizons.

this book, more than any other book i read this year, energized me and gave me hope. it made me realize how little we allow ourselves to want, that the notion of a post-work society is nearly unfathomable and doesn't even emerge on the horizon of the future for most of us. it reminded me partly why i fell in love with technology in the first place—because of this promise and potential. this dream of a radically better world that i had forgotten after years of working in tech to incrementally improve people's lives while ossifying the overall structure and shape of our society. maybe most importantly, it pushed me to think more critically about how to build the future i want.

capitalist realism by mark fisher

If capitalist realism is so seamless, and if current forms of resistance are so hopeless and impotent, where can an effective challenge come from? A moral critique of capitalism, emphasizing the ways in which it leads to suffering, only reinforces capitalist realism. Poverty, famine and war can be presented as an inevitable part of reality, while the hope that these forms of suffering could be eliminated easily painted as naive utopianism. Capitalist realism can only be threatened if it is shown to be in some way inconsistent or untenable; if, that is to say, capitalism’s ostensible ‘realism’ turns out to be nothing of the sort.

short, accessible, and to the point: this book does a really good job of turning a lot of common-sense ideas about capitalism on their heads. the title refers to the pervasiveness of capitalism and the impossibility of imagining any alternative, and once i learned this concept, it was impossible to unsee the ways in which it has shaped our culture, individually and societally.

the revolutionary ideas of karl marx by alex callinicos

This is the real Marx, for whom socialism is the self-emancipation of the working class—not something to be imposed on the mass of people, but something that they can only achieve by and for themselves, through their own struggles and organizations.

this year was supposed to be the year i read capital. i did not. but with so much chatter about cultural marxism and marxists taking over the democratic party (which is extremely funny to me), there remains little collective understanding of what marx really wrote and believed, on both the right and much of the left. i read this book to get a clearer idea of the ideology, and it was easy to understand, short, and specific. what always strikes me most about reading marx is how timely it feels—it's been hundreds of years, and yet it reads like it could have been written today—and how uncontroversial most of the points are. if you're unfamiliar with these ideas but want to be able to engage with them, rather than vague, muddled notions of them, i don't think you'll be disappointed with this read, even if you leave unconvinced.

the origin of capitalism by ellen meiksins wood

Almost without exception, accounts of the origin of capitalism have been fundamentally circular: they have assumed the prior existence of capitalism in order to explain its coming into being. In order to explain capitalism’s distinctive drive to maximize profit, they have presupposed the existence of a universal profit-maximizing rationality. In order to explain capitalism’s drive to improve labour-productivity by technical means, they have also presupposed a continuous, almost natural, progress of technological improvement in the productivity of labour.

obviously, from this list, i spent much of this year trying to better understand capitalism: what it is, how it affects us, and what might come next. the present and future part can be self-evident, but what's really not obvious is the past—we typically think of capitalism as a natural, inevitable consequence of historical events, or as the obvious continuation of the trade practices that have existed for millennia. the origin of capitalism goes back in history to explain why that's resolutely not the case, detailing the specificity of how capitalism came to be, in a particular place at a particular time under particular conditions.

manufacturing consent by edward s. herman and noam chomsky

We do not use any kind of “conspiracy” hypothesis to explain mass-media performance. In fact, our treatment is much closer to a “free market” analysis, with the results largely an outcome of the workings of market forces. Most biased choices in the media arise from the preselection of right-thinking people, internalized preconceptions, and the adaptation of personnel to the constraints of ownership, organization, market, and political power. Censorship is largely self-censorship, by reporters and commentators who adjust to the realities of source and media organizational requirements, and by people at higher levels within media organizations who are chosen to implement, and have usually internalized, the constraints imposed by proprietary and other market and governmental centers of power.

herman and chomsky do maybe the best journalistic work i've ever seen—ironically, while dismantling "real" journalism—by highlighting certain notable cases (the vietnam war, the 1984 nicaraguan elections, etc.) and systematically going through the media coverage to illustrate, overwhelmingly, how our mass media functions as propaganda. none of these ideas are especially novel now, especially after the last few years in political media, but even so, this book blew my mind again and again, and i learned for the first time about parts of history i had never known. the last quarter or so became a slog, but even if you don't finish, the first several chapters are worth the read. alternatively, i've heard that inventing reality by michael parenti covers much of the same subject matter but was written two years earlier and much more concisely.

communal luxury by kristin ross

Finding criteria for wealth that was distinct from the quantitative race toward growth and overproduction was the key to imagining and bringing about social transformation. We can see that understanding already manifest in the strategy governing Pottier’s choice of the words “communal luxury” in his text. At the moment in mid-April when the manifesto was composed, the phrase served to expressly counteract and defy the abject “misérabilisme” of Versaillais depictions of Parisian life under the Commune. Versaillais propaganda, directed against those whom they called the “partageux” who had seized Paris, and projected out onto provincial France, was mobilized to convince peasants in the countryside that the Commune, were it not defeated, would seize their land and divide it up among themselves. But it also had a second, no less important, goal: that of creating, more generally, the certainty that sharing could only mean the sharing of misery.... “Communal luxury” countered any notion of the sharing of misery with a distinctly different kind of world: one where everyone, instead, would have his or her share of the best.

i knew next to nothing about the paris commune before reading this book, and i hadn't had any particular interest in learning about it. but i was drawn to this concept of communal luxury, and i'm so glad that got me to read about it. ross considers the modern legacy of the paris commune in the years after occupy wall street, painting a vision of shared abundance, a dream of wealth that goes beyond individual capitalistic accumulation. if you're like me and have a soft spot for versailles-style decadence, communal luxury reframes that desire for art and beauty and, well, luxury into one that serves the people.

screened out by jean baudrillard

You put out an item of information. So long as it has not been denied, it is plausible. And, barring some happy accident, it will never be denied in real time and so will always remain credible. Even if denied, it will no longer ever be absolutely false, since it has once been credible. Unlike truth, credibility has no limits; it cannot be refuted, because it is virtual. We are in a kind of fractal truth: just as a fractal object no longer has one, two or three dimensions (in whole numbers), but 1.2 or 2.3 dimensions, so an event is no longer necessarily true or false, but hovers between 1.2 or 2.3 octaves of truth. The space between the true and the false is no longer a relational space, but a space of random distribution.

okay, a disclaimer: i think that much of baudrillard's writing is nonsense, but i also earnestly love it even when it is. in this collection of writings, there are astonishingly astute essays that transformed the way i think about a subject, and then there are passages that sound like they're pointing to ideas and connecting concepts but... never quite getting there. even so, the incisive parts (of which there are many) are entirely worth your while.

the longing for less by kyle chayka

ostensibly about the mainstreaming of decluttering, the longing for less is in reality a much more abstract exploration of minimalism in art, music, and architecture and what it has to offer beyond the commodified trends we have today. kyle chayka is one of my favorite cultural critics (he coined "airspace"), and this book was a nice way to step back into thinking about aesthetics and what they mean.

blockchain chicken farm by xiaowei wang

this book might be the best book i've read about china, delving into the rural countryside and how technologies have shaped those communities (and, in turn, been shaped by them). it's grounded deeply in personal anecdotes—you get an evocative picture of the people in these villages and what their lives look like.

how to do nothing by jenny odell

posing as a popular self-help book, this work turns out to be much, much more. odell thinks critically about technology but even more about nature, our locations in space and time, and our relationships with each other. bioregionalism, colonialism, and platform capitalism all come into play. if you, like me, expected it to be yet another book about putting down your phone, i think you'll be pleasantly surprised.


fiction

the dandelion dynasty (quartet) by ken liu

i have read everything ken liu has ever written or translated, but for some reason i waited to read this series—why, i can't say. it's really one of the best fantasy series i've ever read, with a rich, vividly rendered world and complex, nuanced characters. there's a sprawling grandiosity to it that has some of the texture of game of thrones (but hopefully the last book, which turned into two books set to release next year, will be much better than that was). also, these books made me hungry for more silkpunk (the name for this genre, coined by liu), so if you have any recs, i want to know!

exhalation by ted chiang

ted chiang is perhaps best known for stories of your life and others, the book of short stories that inspired the movie arrival. it was a really wonderful collection of short stories—thought-provoking, heartbreaking, achingly beautiful. somehow i think exhalation is much better. it's gorgeously crafted, a more mature incarnation of the same flavor of speculative fiction.

the green bone saga (trilogy) by fonda lee

i really loved this series, a fantasy trilogy the author describes as "the godfather with magic and kungfu." it has the feel of a wuxia epic (if you didn't know, i love wuxia) crossed with gangster films, and it works shockingly well—i devoured all of it. again, the third book isn't out yet, but it's due for release next year.

earthseed (duology) by octavia e. butler

this series was never finished, but the two books that exist are a gripping story of the 2020s, when the united states has largely collapsed because of climate change and wealth inequality. there are moments that are eerily prophetic, like a demagogue who becomes the president with the slogan "make america great again," propelled into office by the christian right and appeals to american power and prestige (that book was written in 1998!). what's maybe most compelling about this take on sci-fi is how much of the future is really just more of the past.

pachinko by min jin lee

i know that everyone who plans to ever read this book has done it at this point, but i read it at the start of the year and cried, a lot. east of eden by john steinbeck is one of my all-time favorite books, and pachinko is written in a similar style, but... better? it's an intergenerational historical epic centering on a family, and it's about racism and power and love and duty and grief, told in a way that cuts deep.

wayfarers (series) by becky chambers

it's a space epic but earnest and fun and profoundly human (well, not literally because a lot of the characters are not, in fact, humans, but what's another word for that personal quality we call "human"?). i raced through it. a lot of care went into building this world and the interpersonal dynamics within it—what might differ between alien cultures, and how might that affect how people interact and understand each other? and the effect is a universe that feels as socially interesting as it is technically. the first two books are really good (and really different!). the third was underwhelming, but you can't have it all. fun fact, this series was crowdfunded on kickstarter.

this is how you lose the time war by amal el-mohtar and max gladstone

i don't even know what to call this genre. it's a story of two agents in a time war—possible futures, warring against each other to determine the fate of the world—written in the form of letters to each other. they begin as enemies and fall in love. it's hard to keep track of all the strands of the story with the constantly changing narrators, especially since you're never sure what's real or imagined, truth or a lie, but even so, it's a pleasure to read.

the seven husbands of evelyn hugo by taylor jenkins reid and city of girls by elizabeth gilbert

these two books are not at all related to each other, but they are inextricably fused in my mind because i read them both at pretty much the same time, in the same place (the bathtub), and the plots are... similar. they're both stories of older women recounting their glamorous, wild pasts as young women, featuring many male conquests and show business (the seven husbands of evelyn hugo features a hollywood starlet in the 1950s, city of girls features a new york city theater girl in the 1940s). they're lush in the way that stories of fabulously beautiful women in those times can be.


thanks for the memories, 2020. goodbye, good riddance, and good luck.

have recommendations for books? stuck in your own liminal space? just like one of these songs? as always, responses are my single favorite part about sharing to this newsletter, so if anything sparks a thought for you, i would love to hear it.