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.