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.

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