Twelve months ago, I entered the new year with some optimism. I was coming off a rough year or five, and I felt determined to apply whatever skills I’d acquired to shape for myself a better existence. I have always had an impulse for self-improvement. Even if I don’t hit goals, the process is important to me. And in recent times, new year rituals have become a little more concrete for me. Obviously, for me and for almost everyone else, things did not turn out as planned for 2020.
There isn’t much point in rehashing the past year or forecasting the one that’s just started—I have nothing insightful to share, there. To be honest, I feel tired right now. I’m sure that many, maybe all of you reading this can nod in agreement. This year, my hopes are humble. I have a handful of personal goals, resolutions, intentions—call them what you like. I’ll touch on a few of them here, and I’m also going to devote a few words to the books I read and the movies I watched in 2020.
I aim to finish a manuscript—finally. I’ll say more about it in the future. One challenge I’ve always had in completing projects is that by the time I make significant headway on something, I’ve learned and changed enough in the process that the entire frame has changed along with it. I then want to start over, from a different place, and start better. That’s a sure way to keep from finishing anything! Furthermore, I can’t take a summer or a sabbatical year to do significant research or writing, since I’m no longer an academic who can plan for that kind of a schedule. However, I am much better with my time management at this point in my life than even just a few years ago, when I actually was in academia. Funny how that works.
So my plan is to try it “slow and steady,” hundreds of words per day. I’ll lean into good consistent habits since I don’t have the luxury of a more wide-open sabbatical. I hope to have a media theory manuscript written before the end of 2021. I also want to write more in the way of fiction, essays, criticism, and poetry. Some of this will never see the light of day, I just want to have written it. Some if it, I’ll try to publish. So those are some goals that I’ve just made public.
I also have a few looser goals of unlearning that will affect my online interactions. In the time ahead, in keeping with the theme of trying to move away from FOMO, I want to part with the idea that I “should catch up with” this book or that movie. There are useful applications to this mentality, but that’s just it—they’re supposed to be applications. Discrete, specific. For me, it’s felt more often like a kind of pleasurable, generalized curse. I feel the urge to engage so many things. Too many things. If I scratch one of the thousand itches, two more replace it. I want to move further away from that mindset because it is untenable. Tantalus and Sisyphus together. No thanks.
Additionally, I intend to engage more with real thought, with friends or acquaintances or interlocutors, rather than “the Discourse.” It’s extremely demoralizing to me to see how stupid we are all invited to be through our current media environment. It’s everywhere. Words and concepts explode; they mean a thing and its neighbors and its opposite. They serve as oblique vessels for self-fashioning (and self-aggrandizement). People are allowing their own thinking to become meme-ified. I’m no different, except perhaps insofar as I don’t want to be meme-ified. I want conversations in which I can learn things, not confirm what I already know. I want conversations that have no price. Let all else that should burn down, burn down.
Although I’m always trying to read more, I’m relatively happy with the amount of books I got through this year.
My year in reading and thought had two dominant authors, Ivan Illich and Willa Cather. I also don’t want to write much about either of them here, because they may (or in Illich’s case, certainly will) come up in future dispatches. For now, I’ll say that the ways each of them had of looking at the world, and of addressing issues of feeling and action in the world, were profoundly important to me.
Otherwise, here are some highlights of books that I read for the first time:
Favorite novel: Gilead (Marilynne Robinson)
Short stories: Last Night & Dusk and Other Stories (James Salter)
Cultural studies + experimental memoir: The Undying (Anne Boyer) + Lose Your Mother: A Journey along the Atlantic Slave Route (Saidiya Hartman) + The Argonauts (Maggie Nelson)
Metaphysics: The Experience of God (David Bentley Hart) + Finite and Infinite Games (James P. Carse)
Criticism: Air Guitar & The Invisible Dragon (both Dave Hickey) + The Shape of a Pocket (John Berger)
Social theory: The Breakdown of Nations (Leopold Kohr) + On the Abolition of All Political Parties (Simone Weil)
In 2021, I hope to read a decent mixture of books that are very practically useful and ones which are useless; classic books that I’ve wanted to read for a long time, and obscure ones that you or I might not have heard of at the time that I’m writing this. I want to read openly, but not idly. And it’s important to embrace slow reading and re-reading, to carve out a good path more clearly.
I watched a lot of movies this year. I saw plenty in the evenings and on weekends, but also by waking up early many mornings and putting something on before starting the workday. Effectively, I skimped on sleep so that I could feed my endless drive to see more, more, more. As part of my aforementioned goals, I’m not going to do that so much in 2021.
I rolled out a Twitter thread on some favorite older movies I saw for the first time, if you’re curious. It is loose and unranked. The older I get, the more difficult it is for me to rate or rank favorites. Easier to gesture toward highlights.
Given how little I kept up with new releases in the Covid-19 era, I did see a number of recent films I liked quite a bit—for example, s01e03 by Kurt Walker, She Dies Tomorrow by Amy Seimetz, Time by Garrett Bradley, Point and Line to Plane by Sofia Bohdanowicz. Those are just a few. I wouldn’t be able to do a proper top ten list, if asked—not because I haven’t seen ten noteworthy films, but because I haven’t kept up enough to be a decent judge of what the year really looked like. I’m not Filipe Furtado!
However, I do want to highlight the work of Amit Dutta. Currently Mubi has up a number of his films. I’ve liked him a lot for years, but only at arm’s length—because until very recently, I had only been able to see a very small amount of his output. For the past two decades, Dutta’s output has varied widely in running times, genres, and production techniques. Ka (2005) involves stop-motion animation; Nainsukh (2010), often cited as ‘breakthrough’ film, is a lyrical historical biopic; he often incorporates different documentary forms and engages with art history and Indian visual culture. Two of his 2020 films, Tape 39 and Wittgenstein Plays Chess with Marcel Duchamp, are among the Mubi selection and represent some of the best new things I’ve encountered in the last twelve months.
Amit Dutta might possibly be my favorite filmmaker to have emerged in the 21st century. His mix of playfulness, inquisitiveness, respect for his subjects, his devotion to numerous forms of beauty—all make him a rare and deep talent.
I have also started reading through Srikanth Srinivasan’s Modernism by Other Means: The Films of Amit Dutta (Lightcube, 2020). I recommend the ebook, which is inexpensive, and which is proving to be a really valuable document on a great body of work.
So that’s a wrap for now. I’ll be back soon. In the meantime, as always, feel free to reach out, share your own year-in-review thoughts, and so on. Happy new year!