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The Alchemy of Us

The Alchemy of Us: How Humans and Matter Transformed One Another

Ainissa Ramirez
MIT Press
2020
328 pp.
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The questions of how much of our humanity is due to material wealth and how our cultural values are baked into the materials we create are the subject of Ainissa Ramirez’s fascinating new treatise, The Alchemy of Us.

Ramirez’s meditation on the materials that have facilitated community is particularly illuminating. Here, she writes about the phonograph’s impact on how music was enjoyed. The ability to record music meant that the experience of listening to it no longer had to be a communal one and spelled the end of much homemade folk music defined by materials such as brass, wind, or strings, but it also opened up uncharted horizons. The recordings allowed a cross-fertilization of musical culture between jazz, blues, and rock and roll, even as the musicians themselves remained segregated by race politics.

On the subject of race, Ramirez argues that a society that is racist will reflect racism in the substances that it makes. Because dark skin absorbs more light than white skin, for example, early photographs of black people were often barely recognizable. And although the cultural bias embedded in color film was corrected through chemical reformulations, it reemerged decades later in digital photography’s automatic facial recognition, which frequently fails to detect darker skin tones.

The culture of innovation, Ramirez maintains, does not belong only to privileged elites; it can be found in all those who care enough to reinvent the material world and, as a result, themselves

For a full-length review of The Alchemy of Us, see here.

About the author

The reviewer is at the Department of Mechanical Engineering, University College London, London WC1E 7JE, UK.