Wednesday, December 16, 2009

... but maybe they should!

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The BBC reports that a remarkable project has been proposed for the 2012 Olympic Games in London, under the working title "the Cloud." The plan for the "sculptural spectacle" describes a number of plastic bubbles (the number to be determined by funds raised from "micro-donations") clustered atop lightweight towers. The Cloud would serve as both an observation deck and a display for "images and data"--in particular, "a custom feed of ... searches made by Londoners during the Olympics to give a real time 'barometer' of the city's interests and mood." The latter is drawn from a statement by Google, one of the project's supporters, which would presumably "feed" the information displayed, and which is also soliciting micro-donations for the "cloud-raising" at the top of its main search page (in England). The Cloud will moreover "harvest" potential energy from visitors scaling the towers. "It will be a monument to crowd-sourcing," one of the architects observes. The Cloud, in short, is a monument to the crowd, at once funded and powered by it, and projecting its "interests and moods" in phantasmagoric display. The "weather" visible in this sculptural "barometer" is not the sort we generally read in the clouds, but the condition of the mind of the crowd. (In particular, its questions, what it searches for. One wonders what sort of editing will go on.) The urge to overlay the real "display" of London's famously cloudy skies with a cloud-like "screen" seems to suggest that the weather is merely a convenient form for our questions and desires. But the Cloud also acknowledges that our minds are "clouded." Like tag clouds and cloud computing, it reveals a drift from the mind (of the crowd) to the digital to the weather (especially clouds) in recent technological development--as if we aspired to the condition of the clouds.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Is it raining, or isn't it?

In the process of trying to articulate the ontological instability of the weather, I've collected some beguiling anecdotal evidence--Hamlet's wonderful exchange with Polonius about resemblances in the clouds, for instance--but I'm not at all sure what to do with it. 

A friend once recalled an old vaudeville bit for me: Two gentlemen enter, one from stage right and one from stage left, and approach each other, each lost in thought, unaware of the other. One carries an open umbrella, presumably protecting him from the rain; the other carries a closed umbrella tucked under his arm. As their paths cross, they pause. The man with the open umbrella moves it aside. Both men look up, and each extends a hand, palm upward. The man with the open umbrella closes his, the man with the closed umbrella opens his, and they move on.

It's a neat joke, sharp and economical. And as is so often the case, the situation is funny because it's familiar. If it were not, we might laugh for a different reason. How silly that these gents can't agree that it's raining! But the fact is, we often can't say if it's raining or not, and it seems plausible that at precisely the same moment, in precisely the same spot, two people might come to opposite conclusions. This uncertainty is compounded by the performance, for we the audience know it's not raining on stage. Nevertheless we recognize "rain" in certain commonplaces: an umbrella, a glance skyward, an extended palm. The illusion reiterates the question raised by the bit: is it raining, or isn't it?

It's a question memorably raised in White Noise, in a conversation between Jack Gladney and his taciturn teenaged son, Heinrich. In the car on the way to school, Heinrich observes, "It's going to rain tonight." To which Jack replies, "It's raining now." Heinrich's retort: "The radio said tonight." (The inadequacy of language, particularly the language of authority, to events is one theme of the novel--see "Airborne Toxic Event.") "Look at the windshield," Jack insists. "Is that rain or isn't it?" Heinrich: "I'm only telling you what they said." Jack: "Just because it's on the radio doesn't mean we have to suspend belief in the evidence of our senses."

And again,
"Is it raining," I said, "or isn't it?"
"I wouldn't want to have to say."
"What if someone held a gun to your head?"
"Who, you?"
"Someone. A man in a trenchcoat and smoky glasses. He holds a gun to your head and says, 'Is it raining or isn't it? All you have to do is tell the truth and I'll put away my gun and take the next flight out of here.'"
"What truth does he mean? Does he mean the truth of someone traveling at almost the speed of light in another galaxy? Does he mean the truth of someone in orbit around a neutron star? Maybe if these people could see us through a telescope me might look like we were two feet two inches tall and it might be raining yesterday instead of today."
The "evidence of our senses," Heinrich indicates, is no guarantor of truth. And the resonance of the vaudeville bit suggests that you don't need to be traveling at almost the speed of light in another galaxy to wonder if it's raining yesterday or today. But I do think Heinrich's on to something, introducing distortions of distance in space and time into a discussion of the weather. You could argue that White Noise, a cold war novel, aligns the theory of relativity (and all that follows from it) with profound uncertainty, even paranoia: we can't even tell anymore if it's raining! But what if the weather anticipates this uncertainty? It is, after all, the imponderable model of the Epicurean atom in Lucretius' De Rerum Natura. Want to know what atoms are like? Look at the weather.

Most of the time, of course, we can tell if it's raining or not. We hear it, feel it, smell it. But it is also somehow not all there. (Dr. Johnson kicked a rock, not a raindrop.)

Monday, October 26, 2009

Yesterday I saw the new film by the Coen Brothers, A Serious Man, which ends abruptly with the dark, swelling form of a tornado bearing down on the protagonist's son. The film is essentially a series of uninterpretable signs, the tornado being the last. The question that haunts A Serious Man, and that the protagonist, Larry Gopnik, asks on several occasions, is What does it mean? Why is this happening? At the center of the film lies the beautiful (and profoundly funny) vignette of "the goy's teeth," wherein a Jewish dentist discovers a series of Hebrew letters inexplicably carved on the inside of a series of teeth in the mouth of one of his Gentile patients. The letters read "help me, save me." The dentist ponders these words. He consults scripture. He translates them into numbers and rings up the resulting seven-digit sequence: a grocery store. He visits the store. Nothing. Finally he consults his rabbi, and discovers ... nothing. End of story.

Near the conclusion of the film, just as things seem to be looking up a little for poor Larry, he receives a phone call from his doctor. We are certain only that it is bad news. Then the tornado arrives. Given that A Serious Man is about God, and about signs, the lesson would seem to be clear: God just doesn't like Larry Gopnik. But instead, and brilliantly, I think, in its simplicity and subtlety, that tornado doesn't mean anything--or rather, it is uninterpretable. This is the lesson of the goy's teeth: we don't know. Earlier in the film, Larry gets into a car accident at apparently the same moment as his rival, Sy Ableman, and it means ... nothing. Or rather, it is uninterpretable. A Serious Man is not about the absence of meaning (no nihilists in this film); it is about the signs that God leaves around for us to find, Walt Whitman's handkerchief of the Lord--signs that we cannot read with any certainty.

Whether or not you believe in God, the weather is a kind of information. All weather is a sign of weather to come, and of other things as well, if only we could read it right. But for various reasons, it is likely that we will not be able to, that the signs will be uninterpretable--as Arden Reed elegantly puts it in Romantic Weather, the weather is "a kind of static or interference that distorts clear and distinct understanding." And the weather, after all, occurs between us and heaven. Which is all just to say, the weather makes a fitting ending for A Serious Man, and A Serious Man says something very important about the weather.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

I am delighted to discover that Blogger is a cloud.

(Image courtesy of the Cloud Appreciation Society.)

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

An article in today’s New York Times on a United Nations meeting on climate change makes apparent the incommensurability of weather and climate. The Times reports that relatively stable temperatures during the past ten years have, for many, tempered the urgency of the climate crisis. Those who question theories of human influenced climate change are citing stabilizing temperatures as proof that there’s no reason to panic (and no reason to alter human behavior). (The Times names this group “climate skeptics.” Perhaps this is their own, self-applied label, but it seems off-key to me. Does this group question the existence of climate? Are they “climate deniers”?) But as the article explains, citing climate and ocean scientist Mojib Latif, “normal variation in climate” and “the long-term threat of global warming” can, and do, occur at once. It may be a beautiful day in New Orleans, but the big picture is just as dire as it was when Hurricane Katrina made landfall just over four years ago. It’s not that weather and climate have nothing to do with one another. Rather their relationship is incommensurate; weather does not act like the symptom we assume it to be. In this respect weather makes a poor advocate for environmental action. Unlike ruined landscapes and dwindling species, the weather as often as not seems to be doing just fine—just when we need it to demonstrate that things aren’t going well. “[S]ocial scientists who study how people understand and respond to environmental problems say it is not surprising that the current temperature stability has created confusion and apathy,” the Times reports. “Getting people to care about a climate threat that is decades away is hard enough, they say, without adding in the vagaries of natural climate cycles. At best, said Robert J. Brulle, a sociologist at Drexel University, global warming remains an abstraction for many people. ‘It does not have the direct visual or emotive impact of seeing seabirds covered in oil from the Exxon Valdez oil spill,’ he said.”
If “vagaries” make it hard to “care” about climate, then we are surely in trouble, for “vagaries” and “weather” are inextricable. (My computer’s dictionary, for one, illustrates the meaning of “vagary” with the phrase “the vagaries of the weather.”) As weather is weather, so it changes continually and unaccountably. Lisa Robertson, in her essay “The Weather: A Report on Sincerity” (linked in my previous post), quotes the nineteenth century cloud enthusiast Thomas Ignatius Forster, whose “rhythmically paratactic prolixity,” she observes, mirrors an “object of description itself in a state of constant transformation.” Of the Cirrus formation, Forster writes:
Comoid tufts, like bushes of hair, or sometimes like erected feathers; angular flexure; streaks; recticular intersections of them … which look like nets thrown over the firmament; forms of arrows; stars with long fibrous tails, cyphen shaped curves, and lines with pendulous or with erect fringes, ornament the sky; still different appearances of stars and waves again appear, as these clouds change to cirrocumulus or cirrostratus, which modifications also seem to form and subside spontaneously, in different planes, and with the varied and dissimilar appearances of flocks at rest, fleeces of wool, or myriads of small specks; of long tapering columns like the tail of the great manis, or of mackeral back skies, or of striae, like the grains of wood.
Forster’s description is caught up not only in his clouds’ suggestive resemblances but in their “process of transmutation,” expressed as “a series of phrasal modifications” (Robertson). Weather changes; but its changes are of a different sort from the “change” of climate change, at least as it is popularly understood (a change for the worse, an inexorable deterioration). As I have suggested in previous posts, weather is essentially disproportionate, or out of scale. This makes it a troubled synecdoche for climate, and especially for climate crisis, which suffers from its own problems of proportion. In “Towards a Deconstructive Environmental Criticism,” David Clark points out the scalar leap inherent to contemporary “environmental awareness,” whereby Bill McKibben can describe “the nation consigning itself to oblivion through the use of underarm deodorants” (47). Deodorant and other “minor” pollutants bear an uncertain relation to “oblivion,” an “optional” apocalypse whose character, extent, and date of arrival remain uncertain. Such an event does not unfold “in front of us”; it occurs to the side, as a “side effect” (rather than a symptom), the unintended consequence of one practice or another. One might even argue that it has already happened. (“[A] collapse into each other of imminence and immanence,” as Clark describes it [54].)
Clark cites David Wood’s description of a globalized “loss of externality,” and adds that “the future” is also no longer external to the present, the latter now “more and more a realm of inherited and accumulating accidents, after-effects and long term repercussions” (48). Appreciating the “rationally predictable but often extremely alarming” future immanent in the present requires “what Freud called nachträglich” or “anticipating now that ‘delayed action’ whereby something unnoticed or ordinary at one time may later emerge, in retrospect … as traumatic—or as ‘having been “traumatic,”’ for the time of the traumatic event is not locatable on any linear series.” Such an outlook threatens to induce a kind of scalar collapse, for “[v]iewed in terms of the deceptive rationality and scale of day to day life, environmental activists remain condemned ‘to get everything out of perspective,’ seeming to veer between a general priggishness about trivialities and an empty apocalypticism” (57). In other words, to recognize the present as having (already) been an after- or side effect is a perspective “out of perspective.” Environmentalism’s “empty apocalypticism” frequently lands it in trouble; that no one can say when or how “it” will happen robs it of all urgency—hence the “confusion and apathy” mentioned in the Times article.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

I like this passage from Jonathan Ames' "The Eleventh Commandment," published in Cabinet Magazine's 3rd issue, "The Weather," which came out in summer of 2001. I'm attracted to it in part because Ames' father and my own father share a predilection for dire weather reports; happily, my father's case is considerably milder than the elder Ames'. 
My father had a tremendous respect and terror for all things meteorological. He was a traveling salesman of textile chemicals and his livelihood depended on his ability to navigate, like a sailor but in a car, the roadways of the Eastern Corridor. Naturally, weather conditions were very important to him. So each night before retiring and then first thing in the morning upon awakening, he would listen to his special mustard-colored weather-radio. The thing was the size of a paperback novel and it possessed a twelve-inch antenna. It had no dials, you simply pressed a button and out came this staticky, nonsensical ticker-tape of weather conditions, read most likely by some rotating shift of prisoners at the white-collar federal penitentiary in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania.

I make this conjecture because no person of their own volition could possibly want to read a weather report non-stop for hours at a time. Clearly, it was a depressing job—one could hardly understand what the announcer was saying, the voice was always so deadpan and defeated, though my father was enraptured by these broadcasts and would sit on the edge of his bed in an attentive stupor. I can tell you it wasn’t healthy for the young me to see my father like that all the time—children of alcoholics will appreciate, I believe, this kind of early wounding.

So because of his brainwashing at the hands of this weather-radio, my father, with great foreboding in his voice, would make announcements to the family, like, “It’s going to rain on Thursday!” This kind of thing would usually be stated on a Monday, and I—a mere child of four or five—would be frightfully agitated until that rainfall occurred three days later, by which time I would have learned from my father that “Temperatures are going to drop on Sunday!” There was never a calm moment. I grew up in a constant state of atmospheric peril. The women were telling me to cover my head and my father was telling me that the sky was falling. It did make for a nice synergy, though. It’s called anxiety.

So mine was clearly a sheltered upbringing. I didn’t know until I was in college that people drove in the rain. And even in the snow! To me, this was a revelation, and I became rather rebellious. My freshman year at Princeton, I purposely would go motoring at night during snow flurries. “I am not my father’s son!” I would think triumphantly, as the snowflakes fell like white stars from the black sky.

One night, though, during some heavy flurries (I wasn’t so rebellious that I’d go out in an actual storm), I did skid and damaged a parked car. I tried to escape, but was spotted by a man walking his dog. In snow flurries! He was obviously a hardy gentile. Police were involved. It cost me a lot of money in fines and reparations. So it just goes to show you that the sins of the father are visited on the sons. If I hadn’t been trying so hard not to be fearful like my dad, I wouldn’t have scratched that poor innocent parked car.

And I am still in a state of rebellion against my father. Whenever I go home for a visit (traveling by train from New York to New Jersey), I’ll call a few days beforehand, and I will say to my dad, “I’ll be home on Friday and head back Sunday.”

“They’re calling for freezing rain on Saturday,” he’ll say, with the utmost gravity, even though my travel days—by train!—are Friday and Sunday. But in his mind, damaged by that radio of his, any bad weather within 24 hours of travel is to be feared.

“Well, let’s start worrying about it now,” I’ll say snidely, rebelliously, and things will be bad between us before I’m even home.

As in so many "sins of the father" narratives, the father's obsession visits horrors upon the son, horrors which the son perpetuates even after he has left his parents' house and is no longer subjected daily to his father's grim forecasts. That Ames compares his own subjection to the suffering endured by "children of alcoholics" suggests that weather obsession is the stuff of domestic tragedy. But the "atmospheric peril" that renews itself day by day echoes the parable with which Ames' piece begins, the story of Moses' lost "eleventh commandment." (To wit: "Wear a hat!") The threat of rain or falling temperatures, through the lens of young Ames' "anxiety," comes to resemble the ever-impending conflagration promised by a wrathful and temperamental Old Testament God. Which in a way it is, for the descendants of Adam and Eve, condemned to suffer the seasons and the weather. So maybe this is, quite simply, a "sins of the father" story. But I have to say that I find Ames' characterization rather unfair, even if his exaggerations are meant to amuse. The suggestion that "no person of their own volition would possibly want to read a weather report non-stop for hours at a time" belies the experience of, say, reading Kenneth Goldsmith's beguiling "poem" The Weather, or even the modest delight of discussing the weather at length with a pleasant stranger with whom, for one reason or another, one is stuck for a while (Lisa Robertson calls this "the rhetoric of sincerity"). What Ames describes as his father's "brainwashing" by weather radio might as easily be read as an involvement and delight in weather's vagaries. For all the dire certainty of statements like "Temperatures are going to drop on Sunday!" there is the very real possibility that it won't come true. I know that my weather conscious father, for one, finds some enjoyment in weather's departures from our expectations, and in simply paying attention to how it changes daily.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

It's too hot! Michael Jackson just died!

On a few recent occasions, there has been a remarkable consistency to the "status updates" on my Facebook home page. One occasion, not surprisingly, was the death of Michael Jackson, which I first got wind of on Facebook; within minutes, virtually every update (there were a lot right after the news broke) was on the subject. Most of the time the home page seems like an utterly arbitrary document, reflecting the scattered lives of a haphazard constellation of "friends," but this was a collective event, and while people were getting their news from innumerable outlets, the outpouring of response was basically uniform. The other two such recent occasions were an anomalous thunderstorm, and a heat wave, in which California's Sacramento valley (where I live) is still immersed. Given, these are more localized events, but I have a lot of local friends, and the collective response was striking. (Weather updates also take nonlocal forms, as when I posted "60 degrees and sunny" in March and collected bitter comments from friends in Ohio, or when a friend recently broadcast her relief at being far from the valley when the heat wave hit; she too collected bitter comments, from the valley.) 

I still don't feel that I grasp the full significance of the "status update"; posts among my friends range from the mundane to the obscene. But they are all prompted by the same question, the queasily intimate, "What's on your mind?" This suggests that on Sunday, when valley temperatures topped out at 110 degrees and most local updates read along the lines of "[Name] is too hot," weather was somehow occurring in the mind. And of course it does, in a way, within and without Facebook; we experience it and think about it, or in the case of punishing heat, can barely think because of it. 'Twas ever thus: I have read a number of weather diaries for my dissertation, some composed as early as the late seventeenth century, and those examples that are not purely statistical reveal weather's drift toward consciousness and back, a gist apparent in one sense of "climate" (defined here by the OED):
fig. The attitudes or conditions prevailing among a body of people, a nation, etc. Freq. with modifying word or phrase, as climate of opinion, economic climate, etc. Cf. atmosphere n. 4. 
The definition of "atmosphere" referred to here describes a "[s]urrounding mental or moral element, environment," as well as a "prevailing psychological climate; pervading tone or mood; characteristic mental or moral environment." These definitions tell us something about climate and atmosphere, just as describing the "weather" of one’s moods points to weather’s changeable character. Climate in its figurative use is "prevailing" (think of "prevailing winds") and describes "a body of people, a nation"; it is specific, and in place. Atmosphere meanwhile is more general, a "surrounding … element"; it too "prevail[s]," but in an "environment" rather than in a nation or among a people. Note the presence of thought and consciousness, in "attitudes," "tone or mood," the "mental" and "moral." Figurative climate and atmosphere suggest a mind turned inside out, an outward inwardness, if you will, as if consciousness might constitute a kind of environment. In this sense, updates after Michael Jackson’s passing and during a heat wave are both "weather reports."

This may be more than is truly at stake in a Facebook update like "[Name] is too hot," but it occurs to me that on those occasions when weather is "the news," to paraphrase Thoreau’s journal, Facebook momentarily becomes a kind of weather diary. Perhaps from now on I will limit my updates to the weather.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Perhaps this explains weather's figurative richness: "troposphere" (where most weather happens) and "trope" derive from the same Greek root, tropos, meaning "turn, turning, way" (hello Daniel Tiffany).

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Oldest known photograph of a tornado (1884), from the NOAA's "Extreme Weather and Climate Events" webpage.

Monday, June 8, 2009

I just finished rereading Ando Arike's 2006 piece for Harper's, titled "Owning the Weather: the Ugly Politics of the Pathetic Fallacy" (I'd like to link it here, but Harper's online is accessible only to subscribers). As it visits a handful of figures and events in the twentieth century race to "own" or manipulate the weather (did you know that in 1953 Congress created the U.S. Advisory Committee on Weather Control?), Arike's essay makes the important point (if not particularly original, see Andrew Ross' Strange Weather) that the pathetic fallacy finds a curious corollary in climate change. If before we were wrong to "see ourselves" in the weather, now we are invited to do so--or at least to recognize the role of increased levels of carbon dioxide from our vehicles and factories in massive storms and in prolonged and disfigured seasons. The thing is, this is all accidental, or at least we didn't design our cars to have such effects. Arike suggests that in spite of attempts by the likes of Wilhelm Reich, John von Neumann and the Advisory Committee on Weather Control to alter the weather in focused and anticipated ways, we've been at it all along, with messy, disproportionate, and unpredictable consequences. 

What interests me most about "Owning the Weather," however, is a move that I think characterizes the struggle by theorists of weather, climate, and environment to describe the relations among human beings, history, and the (natural) world. Toward the end of the essay, Arike describes a "thermal anomaly" picked up by a weather satellite over L.A. on April 30, 1992. "[T]he satellite transmitted to earth a heat-picture of the anomaly's geographic parameters and various temperature zones," he writes, "locating it in the neighborhoods of south-central Los Angeles. ... The image was the thermal map of a social explosion[.]" A suggestive notion; I found myself at first suspecting (hoping?) that the sheer outrage of the rioters after the Rodney King verdict, their incendiary anger and refusal, might register as a concentrated flare of heat in a high resolution infrared image taken from space. But no: Arike writes, "In fact, Los Angeles, or part of it, was burning." How then can he go on to claim that "[a] riot that had itself arisen from the broadcast of a video-taped police beating was being broadcast back to us as a type of geophysical phenomenon"? Not the riot but the fires set by rioters were "broadcast back to us"; the satellite did not image outrage, merely heat. What it "saw" was not appreciably different from a forest fire or volcanic eruption. 

As suggestive as such events may be as figures for the LA riots, in truth they differ irreconcilably. Weather satellites do not register human anger, and fires are just fires, no matter how they begin. Which is not to suggest that Arike is completely wrong; Mike Davis, in Ecology of Fear, makes a related point when he describes how the riots were assimilated to a general narrative of disaster in L.A. But Davis, unlike Arike (whose piece ends on a frustratingly conservative note), is calling attention to perceptual habits and their political implications. So, too, I wish to suggest that it's important that our lives are not "geophysical phenomena," even as our actions precipitate (in messy, disproportionate, unpredictable ways) climate change. Human beings, history, and weather are not a good fit. We know this, better than Arike is willing to admit. This disproportion, and our ways of registering it, are what interest me.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Regarding the possibility of a politics of weather, mentioned in my previous post: Walter Benjamin hints at one point in the Arcades Project that weather might be an object of historical materialist analysis. Adapting Marx’s commodity fetishism, Benjamin writes in the Exposé of 1939 that “phantasmagoria” constitutes a nineteenth century “History of Civilization,” “a viewpoint according to which the course of the world is an endless series of facts congealed in the form of things” (Arcades Project 14). Phantasmagoria, the dream of the collective, takes the form of fashion, of architecture—and of the weather. 
[A]rchitecture, fashion—yes, even the weather—are, in the interior of the collective, what the sensoria of organs, the feeling of sickness or health, are inside the individual. And so long as they preserve this unconscious, amorphous dream configuration, they are as much natural processes as digestion, breathing, and the like. They stand in the cycle of the eternally selfsame, until the collective seizes upon them in politics and history emerges. (389-390) 
Architecture, fashion, and weather appear as “natural processes”  because of their “amorphous dream configuration”; phantasmagoric, they seem as “eternally selfsame” as “digestion, breathing, and the like.” This passage ends on a note of “good” Marxism (“until the collective seizes upon them in politics …”), but weather presents a challenge to historical materialism. It is more difficult to fathom weather’s phantasmagoria than that of architecture or fashion, two “things” explicitly belonging to what Benjamin calls “humanity’s life forms and creations” (14). What lies behind our dream of weather? What will weather look like once “history emerges”? I suspect that Benjamin makes this rather surprising assertion in part to insist that nothing lies outside ideology; that weather seems so evidently outside the dream of the collective suggests that it is all the more decidedly within it. Anything that “just is” is ideological. But in spite of its appearance alongside architecture and fashion, weather is largely unexamined in the Arcades. It appears several times in Convolute D, “Boredom, Eternal Return,” but in the beguiling, immaterial form of so many of Benjamin’s “dream configurations.” “Only someone who has grown up in the big city can appreciate its rainy weather, which altogether slyly sets one dreaming back to early childhood,” he writes. “Rain makes everything more hidden, makes days not only gray but uniform. From morning until evening, one can do the same thing—play chess, read, engage in argument—whereas sunshine, by contrast, shades the hours and discountenances the dreamer” (104). Or simply, “On the double meaning of the word temps in French” (106). Or, since “Boredom” is his topic here, “Among all the subjects first marked out for lyric expression by Baudelaire, one can be put at the forefront: bad weather” (111). Unexamined it may be, but this sense of weather as phantasmagoria is compelling. A passage from Brierre de Boismont suggests likewise that phantasmagoria behaves like weather. “Sufficient attention has not been bestowed on this misty phantasmagoria in which we live,” writes Boismont. “Those undecided forms, which approach and retire unceasingly, with a thousand tantalizing smiles, and after which we run with so much ardor, travel through our brains, emerge from their clouds, and become clearer and clearer …” (quoted in Terry Castle “Pantasmagoria” 57-58, my emphasis). 

Or as Michel Serres argues in The Birth of Physics
Meteorology is the repressed content of history. Of great histories and small, of the sciences and of philosophy. I don’t mean the climate, but meteora: clouds, rain and waterspouts, hailstorms or showers, the direction and force of the wind, here and now. And I don’t mean the prevailing wind. Meteors are accidents, occurrences. A chance proximity, an adventitious environment of the essential, the stance. This only interests those in whom the learned have no interest: peasants and sailors. Those whom the learned meet on holiday, when the things that they consider serious are put off until tomorrow. They scornfully deign to speak about it with the doorman, on the street. The time of meteora does not match up with the time of history, and their kind of order and disorder has only recently begun to be of interest to scientific rationality. (67)
Can something be at once accidental and historical? Perhaps weather is accidental only insofar as it is of interest to “peasants and sailors,” and not considered “serious” by “the learned”; it appears accidental because “[t]he time of meteora does not match up with the time of history”—“history” in this case designating the hegemonic history of the learned, as opposed to the (seemingly) accidental series of occurrences of the peasant, the sailor, the doorman, “on the street.” What may appear accidental or irrational from the perspective of power may indeed register as historical from another point of view, or when, in Benjamin’s words, “the collective seizes upon [it] in politics and history emerges.” Again and again we find that those “on the street” (in the Lower Ninth Ward) are far more vulnerable to the weather than those who can afford to escape it. We might read George Bush’s lax response to the flooding of New Orleans as a failure to acknowledge “the time of meteora.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

My brother recently passed along this clip of Stephen Colbert and Steve Carell discussing the weather on the Daily Show. The formula is simple: parody myopic Fox News-style outrage by "debating" the weather. Conventional right-wing formulas on taxes ("Today [the government is] controlling the weather and tomorrow, who knows, federal income tax."), guns ("If tornadoes are outlawed, only outlaws will have tornadoes."), immigration ("Clearly we must close our borders to undesirable foreign weather."), drugs ("If people can't get tornadoes here, they're just going to go down to Mexico where there's no regulation at all."), and guns, again ("Tornadoes don't kill people. Flying debris kills people.") seem absurd when the topic is "weather" rather than, say, "the liberal agenda." The audience's reaction is telling: the first big laugh comes when Colbert and Carell start bleating "baad" and "goood" at one another. Arguing over whether the weather is "good" or "bad" seems about as useful as arguing over the virtues of breathing: it just is, so what's to argue about? That weather just is calls attention to the empty pretensions of media punditry (two words that Jon Stewart points out "mean almost nothing"), but haunting this parody is the suggestion that weather might in truth be just as "political" as taxes, guns, immigration, drugs and so on. It's not simply that weather mirrors politics, or that weather performs political work (destroying seats of power, defeating armies, "punishing" Florida counties implicated in the 2000 election debacle). As Hurricane Katrina made so appallingly apparent, the weather is "about" economics, class, culture, law, property, race, infrastructure, and any number of other things that we tend to consider far less inevitable than tornadoes. Understanding how exactly weather is "about" such things requires some work.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Two recent novels, Atmospheric Disturbances by Rivka Galchen and Lowboy by John Wray, revolve around clinically paranoid characters who are obsessed with the weather. Wray's Will "Lowboy" Heller is a paranoid schizophrenic teenager who, released from residential treatment and off his meds, spends most of a day and night on the New York subway; certain that global warming will end the world in a matter of hours, he becomes convinced that "cooling down" his own body will hold it off. To a homeless woman he meets on a subway platform, Lowboy says, 

I want to tell you something ... I want to tell you something about the world. ... Everyone knows what's happening to the air--what we're doing to the air, I mean. The air is changing every single minute. It's thickening and flattening and building up speed. The air is getting hotter every day. ... But everyone knows it's not happening on a straight line--not at all. The air is getting hotter on a curve.
He returns to these themes repeatedly over the course of the narrative: everyone knows the world is getting hotter. It's getting hotter on a curve. Later in the novel, in a free-associative monologue to his girlfriend, Emily, we learn that Lowboy discovered his role in global warming with the help of his psychiatrist:

How have you been feeling Will? he asked me. I'm fine Doctor but right now I feel just a little hot. ... Would you like me to modify your regimen? Is that something you might like? I shut my eyes and mouth I didn't answer. Beyond that there's not much I can do he said. The whole world's getting hotter they say. I opened my eyes and looked at him. The whole world's getting what? ... The world was in my body and my body was hidden deep inside the world. In its guts Emily. It was the most interesting thing. I could feel it getting hotter even on the coldest days the windows fogging up from the degrees.
Seizing on the doctor's offhand remark, Lowboy realizes that the world and his body enclose one another. ("When the feeling came on of Too Many Degrees I'd put snowballs in my hands to make it colder. ... This past January was The Coldest In Recent Memory I'm quoting from the New York Daily News.") If only he can cool down, "he could keep the world from ending."

I won't go into how he manages it. Lowboy is an exceptionally good novel right up to its disappointing conclusion, which makes the whole weather-and-paranoia thing seem suddenly gimmicky. I really don't think this is a gimmick. Pairing paranoia--the sense of an indeterminately significant surround--with (altered) weather makes sense. Will's belief that "the world was in my body and my body was hidden deep inside the world" illustrates a scalar anxiety that is native to weather and climate. What I like about Galchen's novel, which is not as tightly written nor as finely observant as Wray's, is that it takes this anxiety seriously. We are never quite certain if her narrator, Doctor Leo Liebenstein (also a psychiatrist), is mentally ill. We do know that one of his patients, Harvey, believes that he controls the weather in Manhattan (it's interesting that both novels take place there) on behalf of the Royal Academy of Meteorology.

Weather in Atmospheric Disturbances is both the content and form of paranoia. Like his patient directing winds on the Hudson, Leo comes to suspect that he may be at the center of the weather: "Maybe I am the proverbial butterfly." He reads his condition in fellow of the Royal Academy Tzvi Gal-Chen's theory of single Doppler radar, and sees in Gal-Chen's diagram of a storm images from his life. He describes his predicament as the "Dopplerganger Effect," a doubled distortion "that, properly understood, [might] enable a more accurate understanding of the real world."

The narrator of Atmospheric Disturbances, and by extension the reader, is immersed in a climate of such indeterminate significance. This meeting of weather and paranoia is Galchen's tacit acknowledgement that anxiety about climate is itself a kind of climate. Anxiety surrounds, as Freud suggests; climate takes on the uncertainty of the subject, or as Jakobson writes of metonymy, our understanding of climate is always "digress[ing] ... from the character to the setting." Thus the weather takes on the texture of Leo's mind. Or is it the other way around?

Thursday, April 30, 2009

"Nice day." "Looks like rain." "Hot enough for you?"

In his introduction to Romantic Weather, Arden Reed calls attention to
the sheer fact that the weather should be, as [Leslie] Brisman puts it, a "topic of conversation," that it should translate with apparently little difficulty into language so as to become the subject that "everybody talks about." Indeed, the propensity to discuss the weather seems to be strong enough that it can overrule good sense: "It is commonly observed," said Samuel Johnson, "that when two Englishmen meet, their first talk is of the weather; they are in haste to tell each other, what they must already know, that it is hot or cold, bright or cloudy, windy or calm." His lightly mocking tone notwithstanding, Johnson here points to something crucial, for he allows that, however trivial a "topic of conversation" it may seem, the weather can generate language independent of any significant referent; in fact, its very triviality attests to its power to produce discourse. Whatever else it may prove to be, then, the weather has a linguistic dimension.
This "power to produce discourse" (discourse whose content is presumably beside the point) appears in DeLillo's White Noise as well, when Howard Dunlop, the reclusive German instructor, describes reengaging with the world after the death of his mother through talk about the weather. "I began to come out of my shell, talk to people in the street," he says. "'Nice day.' 'Looks like rain.' 'Hot enough for you?' Everyone notices the weather." Roman Jakobson would categorize such utterances as "phatic," expressing the fact of communication.

Weather is a common subject of phatic speech. At the bus stop or in line at the bank, among strangers, weather offers a way to speak. I would also argue that weather is prosaic, in the sense of prose developed by M. M. Bakhtin in "Discourse in the Novel." Bakhtin argues among other things that prose is a "heteroglossia" of lived discourse, continually circulating, spoken, in use. One might add that prose in everyday use is frequently boring, tired, clichéd. Saul Bellow's lament for American language gets at this, I think:
In public life everybody uses the same formulas--presidents, former presidents, senior statesmen, secretaries of state, leaders of the legal and other professions, celebrity financiers, talk-show hosts, university presidents, disc jockeys, leaders of the various liberation movements, star athletes, rock musicians, artists, singers, Hollywood personalities, publishers, the clerics of all churches, environmentalists … Sportscasters, rap musicians, university rightists, university leftists, all employ the same language.
(I find this observation delightful, although I doubt Bellow was delighted by what he observed.) In advertisements and public service announcements, in the workplace or over a shop counter, prose is put to use--very often, in the form of talk about the weather.
To begin, in an interview shortly before the publication of Three Poems (1972), Ashbery describes his decision to write three long prose poems (totaling over one hundred pages) thus: "the poetic form would be dissolved, in solution, and therefore create a much more--I hate to say environmental because it's a bad word--but more of a surrounding thing like the way one's consciousness is surrounded by one’s thoughts." Frequently cited, rarely is this (really quite curious) statement interrogated. (Is one's consciousness surrounded by one's thoughts?) But what interests me most here is Ashbery's hesitation over "environmental." (This is an instance of paralipsis, an offering in the guise of denial.) Why is it a "bad word"?

Consider that by 1970, when Ashbery was beginning work on Three Poems, "environmental" was ideologically marked. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring was published in 1962; eight years later, the Environmental Protection Agency was established, and Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, deep ecology, the Endangered Species Act, and James Lovelock’s Gaia Hypothesis soon followed. Ashbery may express a distaste for such developments when he calls "environmental" a "bad word"; but I suspect that this designation has more to do with its being "marked" than with the beliefs and politics it entails. "Environmental" is a "bad word" for Ashbery in 1971 in the sense that "terrorism" is a "bad word" after September 11, 2001. It is overdetermined; it induces a constellation of association that overwhelms any simple denotative power the word might possess. One could argue that developments in environmentalism, and especially ecocriticism, have since marked even "surrounding," rendering it too a "bad word" But at the time of the interview, "surrounding" struck Ashbery as a good enough word for the effect of his long prose poems; and he implies, in exchanging the bad word for the good, that "surrounding" in this case means "environmental"--minus the ideological mark.

"Environmental" before environmentalism describes rooms as well as "natural spaces." As a synonym for "surrounding," environment denotes the space in which you find yourself and the air circulating around you, not to mention the sounds and smells, the light, other people, animals and things, even, arguably, your thoughts, sensations, utterances, and so on.

I mean here to suggest that trying to think "environment" beyond (before and/or after) environmentalism is useful and maybe even necessary to thinking the dimensions of the "environmental crisis," dimensions that, as a recent New York Times Magazine article argues, prove stubbornly unthinkable.

Here lies my attraction to weather, as well. "Weather," I believe, is not quite yet a "bad word." It's getting there. Depending who you talk to, that timeless pleasantry, "Nice day," may invite a reply along the lines of, "Yep. Global warming." But the fact that weather's relation to other things--climate, pollution, global warming--is still largely undefined means that it opens space for inquiry into environment's undecidability.

Don DeLillo's White Noise is by far the best work on weather's uncertain relations that I have read.

What This Is For

My graduate work is on environment (specifically weather) and the poems of John Ashbery. In my research, I run across a lot of material peripheral to my present work; this blog is thus a peripheral space (like the space of weather) (I'll explain that at some point) to work on such material. I love thinking about weather. My next project will pursue "our" ways of imagining climate change, and what I write here will allow me to keep this "in mind" (as Slavoj Žižek suggests we do with "environment") while I churn out my dissertation. So that's it.
I have a radio show of the same name on KDVS 90.3 fm in Davis, CA.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009