Let Us Now Contemplate the Key

An Object Lesson in nine parts

by Hannah Stephenson

Next, gather up the other keys, those not currently in use. Keys in candy dishes, on bookshelves. Keys lolling in kitchen drawers next to can openers and rubber bands, tucked beneath chains in jewelry boxes. Keys in the toolbox in the garage. The gold key to an apartment from five years ago. In another state. A key that unlocked every dressing room in a Lazarus Department Store (gone for a decade). A miniature key that unlocked the diary you’ve since lost. A key that you played with as a child. Even now, you know the pleasure of the key as a thing, its small, certain presence in your hand.

Read this essay at The Atlantic
Birds in AMC's The Walking Dead

Fake Birds on Film

The nature of unspecial effects.

by Brian Thill

Birds on film are important not in and for themselves but as part of a relation of figure and ground, as foils, or as objects that help us appreciate artificially rendered scale. It seems as if their function is to lend weight and sublimity to the glorious expanse of humankind’s and Hollywood’s technological prowess. At some point, somewhere in the dark corners of some digital animation studio, a version of this exchange must have taken place: “How’s this giant robot fight sequence looking, boss?” “It’s looking dope, man, but you know what — you need to throw some birds on that!”

Read this essay at The Atlantic
Natalie Portman

Laughter Without Humor: On the Laugh-Loop GIF

When is Natalie Portman's laughter not Natalie Portman's laughter?

by Fran McDonald

Aristotle called laughter an “ensouling mechanism,” and the academic discipline of humor studies has built itself upon the assumption that laughter is a quintessentially human response to the socio-cultural discourse of humor. Laughter is offered as proof of our exceptional status as thinking social creatures; we are “the only animal that laughs.” GIFs that feature sniggering squirrels, cackling cartoon toasters, and rollicking robots would seem to undermine this selfish view of laughter as an exclusively human activity. But even worse, the laugh-loop GIF disassociates laughter from humor. By severing laughter from the context that incites it, the laugh-loop GIF reveals that laughter is not only a consequence of its sociocultural coordinates, but also a weird object in itself. Laughter, it seems, is not ‘for us’ but has its own alien being that has hitherto been masked by its everydayness.

Read this essay at The Atlantic
"Deep Down, I Don't Believe in Hymns," Dario Robleto (by permission of the artist)

Blankets, the Original Viral Media

How they uncover, communicate, and mediate life and death.

by Kara Thompson

Blankets cover things, like cold passengers during a long flight, or dead bodies after a tragedy. A blanket always acquires a life other than itself. We may take the blanket for granted as an object — quiet and inert. But when it becomes soiled — whether with food, bodily fluids, or perhaps even a virus — it takes on a kind of vitality. Yet the blanket presented as life-giving can in fact be deadly, too.

Read this essay at The Atlantic
Kryptonite Twizzlers

Kryptonite is Crap

The weird, dumb history of Superman's ill-conceived vulnerability

by Paul Fairchild

Today, “kryptonite” mostly works entirely absent Superman’s hero cape. It’s a term denoting a moral weakness, a character flaw. The idea being that humans are powerless in the face of this or that vice or guilty pleasure. Who cares why? It just sounds cool when people describe their shortcomings this way, confiscating Superman’s assumed virtue for themselves: “cigarettes are my kryptonite.” This kryptonite is metaphorical, a weaker, abstracted copy of a space rock that serves as a totem. But it makes more sense as a metaphor than as an object that’s just a cheap, flimsy deus ex machina.

Read this essay at The Atlantic
CHO Cells

Enbrel and the Autoimmune Era

How a banner biotech drug made in Chinese hamster ovary cells is changing disease even as it treats it.

by Anne Pollock

Enbrel is a lifestyle drug that promises to enhance life’s quality by reducing the impact of arthritis and related conditions. And yet, it can render the body vulnerable to forms of disease that were never really left behind: infections like consumption, degenerations like cancer. The apotheosis of contemporary biotechnical achievement creates a strange loop to the past. Even as we coax hamster ovary cells to emanate life-affirming resilience, we also summon old demons that might otherwise remain shrouded in the shadows.

Read this essay at The Atlantic
Domino's Pizza

Domino’s, The Pizza That Never Sleeps

The imagined community of mediocre delivery pizza

by Leigh Alexander

Memories of the Domino’s of my childhood are dim: red-and-blue sense memories of cardboard box, cardboard flavor. Industrial food for school parties, the stuff harried parents fed to you at a weekend sleepover. There was also the Noid, a creepy and ill-thought mascot now relegated to the museum of puzzling relics for adult children of a certain age, the kind of thing that gets referenced on Family Guy. A simulation of pizza.

Read this essay at The Atlantic