Adrian Daub | Longreads | October 2018 | 16 minutes (4,170 words)
Physiognomy — the attempt to interpret a person’s character by means of their face — was one of those things that educated 19th-century Europeans knew wasn’t supposed to work. In his 1806 work The Phenomenology of Spirit, philosopher G.W.F. Hegel devoted a lengthy, indecipherable chapter to explain why physiognomy, and its cousin phrenology, had to be hokum. But even if Europeans knew they shouldn’t put stock in physiognomy, they found it incredibly difficult to resist the impulse.
To some extent this remains true today. During the Obama years, many of us were sensitive to representations of the new president, knowing full well that the way faces are read and analyzed could easily encode very old and deeply embedded racist ideas. Then Trump was elected. In a heartbeat, we were back to reading his face, playing with his face, and displaying it next to animal faces. Where does this temptation come from?
Adrian Daub | Longreads | August 2017 | 20 minutes (5,033 words)
“The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast Map was Useless, and not without some Pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters. In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars […].”
— Jorge Luis Borges, “On Exactitude in Science”
I spent my adolescence around maps of places that didn’t exist. An older cousin read The Lord of the Rings over the course of a hot summer when I was nine, and I watched in fascination as he traced the Fellowship’s progress across the foldout map that came with the book in those days. This, I decided, had to be what grown-up reading looked like.
Maps were my entrée into geek life, and they remained the medium through which geekdom moved: beat-up paperbacks handed around between school friends, boxed sets at the local game store — we probably spent about as much time poring over maps as we did reading or dreaming up the stories that took place within the worlds they represented. The science fiction we read did without them, but any cover featuring a dragon, a many-turreted castle, or a woman in a leather bra suggested you’d find a map the moment you peeked inside the book.
Adrian Daub | Longreads | December 2016 | 15 minutes (3,902 words)
You walk into a local multiplex a few minutes after the lights have dimmed. You find your seat to the first trailer, some confection involving superheroes or zombies. As the light flickers over you, strings churn from the speakers, interrupted at certain intervals by a massive blast of indistinguishable brass, like an alphorn next to an amplifier.
Does this sound familiar? At some point movies started braying at us like ships lost in a fog, and we have come to accept that as perfectly normal. Variations on this sound sequence — a simple string motif interrupted by sudden bursts of non-melodic noise — are everywhere in film soundtracks and trailers. It is the noise that goes with people in spandex standing in a Delacroix-style tableau, or so Hollywood has decided. It is the sound we know is coming when a trailer intercuts CGI objects slamming into each other with portentous fades-to-black.
The internet and the sound’s creator refer to it as BRAAAM. (If you think you’ve successfully avoided it, here’s a sample). It may sound synthetic, but it’s usually produced with brass instruments and a prepared piano. Although it has its roots in a scoring style composer Hans Zimmer employed for much of the early ’00s, the BRAAAM heard in seemingly every trailer was first recorded for Christopher Nolan’s 2010 film Inception, and has been adapted, copied, and even outright sampled ever since. Is BRAAAM something that happened to us, or is it something we, as moviegoers, desired?