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.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.