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.