Friday, October 22, 2010

The deadline for proposals for a literature and environment conference is approaching, and I've noticed that many of the calls for papers, nearly all of them in fact, have to do with environmental justice. I submitted a proposal to a panel that I'm very excited about, but I had to admit that the novel I'd like to talk about doesn't have much to say about environmental justice. It has a heck of a lot to say about how we imagine climate change, and I wonder, should we ask it, or any imaginative writing, to do more than that? I don't mean to let imaginative writing off the hook. If it's got something to say about environmental justice--especially something that cannot easily be said otherwise--it should say it. But I do think we're getting ahead of ourselves if we expect all environmental literature to be environmentalist literature, or environmental justice literature. I think it's more than enough to ask of literature that it help us to think about environment. Because it's not easy to think about. And literature, maybe especially poetry, is good at helping us to think about difficult things. This is the kind of argument I make in my dissertation, about John Ashbery's poetry: that his expression is out of scale (unlike, say, "save the rain forests") and as such, it provides a form for ecological expression, or expression for an ecology of mind. Gregory Bateson suggests that an ecology of mind is a precondition for environmentalism, for caring for the survival of the circuit of ideas of which we are a part--but ecology of mind is not, in itself, environmentalist. This is basic. This is the problem for environmentalism, as anyone who has taken part in, or simply witnessed a conversation between someone who believes in global warming and someone who doesn't, can attest. The problem is not, fundamentally, what to do about environmental crisis, but how to understand environment at all. And a lot of bad environmentalism comes out of misunderstanding environment.

In my research, I've noticed that a lot of writers, writers who are otherwise very careful and exact, will use the phrase "like the weather" as if we can all agree that the weather is this or that. Once you start to notice this, I swear you'll start to wonder if you, or they, or anyone knows what the weather is. I was struck by this recently when I read Gertrude Stein's poem "Bon Marche Weather," from 1911. From conversation about the weather ("Very pleasant weather we are having. Very pleasant weather I am having. Very nice weather everybody is having. Very nice weather you are having.") the poem proceeds to conversation about "eating" and "travelling" and eventually "buying": "There are a very great many things everybody is buying. There are a very great many things you are buying ...." The editor's note in the volume I was reading remarks that Stein thinks that shopping is like the weather, but declines to explain how, exactly, shopping is like the weather. Maybe it is like the weather (I'm not convinced) but what strikes me as more interesting is how Stein's writing is like the weather (Kenneth Goldsmith would say it is) or better, how Stein's writing makes us wonder what the weather is like. And this wondering itself may be like the weather, because weather has a lot to do with wondering, and with not understanding, especially when it comes to climate change. The weather makes us wonder, "What is going on?" Not long ago I happened upon an odd and delightful entry in my Shorter Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, titled "Vagueness":
It seems obvious that there are vague ways of speaking and vague ways of thinking--saying that the weather is hot, for example. Common sense also has it that there is vagueness in the external world (although this is not the usual view in philosophy). Intuitively, clouds, for example, do not have sharp spatiotemporal boundaries. But the thesis that vagueness is real has spawned a number of deeply perplexing paradoxes and problems. There is not general agreement among philosophers about how to understand vagueness.
What strikes me, of course, is the presence of not one but two weather examples in this brief paragraph. We speak vaguely about the weather, and we intuit that the weather itself is vague. And while it does seem unlikely that there is vagueness in the external world, we would be right, really, to say that clouds do not have sharp spatiotemporal boundaries. Clouds have fractal edges, or edges that cannot be brought into focus. And as James Gleick points out in Chaos, clouds are scaling phenomena: "Their characteristic irregularity ... changes not at all as they are observed on different scales. That is why air travelers lose all perspective on how far away a cloud is. ... [A] cloud twenty feet away can be indistinguishable from [one] two thousand feet away." And chaos reveals that our understanding of weather is necessarily inexact. We cannot predict the weather because we cannot know what the weather is right now.

All of this is just to say that we mustn't get ahead of ourselves when it comes to weather and environment. That we might not know what they are does not mean we're helpless. Understanding our not knowing might, in fact, be a precondition for environmental justice.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Matter Happens

There’s some fascinating critical work being done right now on matter and materiality, much of it resonant with ecology (rock, water, waste, pollution), and with weather, which, at least since Lucretius, is a matter of matter. The latest is Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter: Bennett adopts Bruno Latour’s term “actant” to designate any thing which “by virtue of its particular location in an assemblage and the fortuity of being in the right place at the right time, makes the difference, makes things happen, becomes the decisive force catalyzing an event.” Her example is a Gunpowder Residue Sampler, which she calls an “object/witness” in a homicide trial; she cites an older legal example as well, the “deodand.” Bennett departs from relatively straightforward instances like these to argue that what she calls “vibrant matter” behaves as actant in other, less obvious ways. She describes the assemblage (after Deleuze and Guattari) involved in the massive blackout that struck Canada and the United States in August of 2003:

To the vital materialist, the electrical grid is better understood as a volatile mix of coal, sweat, electromagnetic fields, computer programs, electron streams, profit motives, heat, lifestyles, nuclear fuel, plastic, fantasies of mastery, static, legislation, water, economic theory, wire, and wood—to name just some of the actants.
She notes that, assemblages being what they are—“uneven topographies,” “non-totalizable sum[s]”—no person, organization, object, or event may be held solely responsible for the blackout, an admission that resonates with last week’s Congressional hearings on the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, an event (materially) resembling the blackout in a number of ways. British Petroleum’s various attempts to stem the spill have in turn been frustrated by material conditions a mile below the surface of the ocean, as well as the chemical properties of oil, water, concrete, etc. The event is riddled with unknowns, from the cause of the initial explosion to the volume of the spill, and as with the blackout, “no one” is to blame amid an assemblage of human, organizational, economic, legal, and material loci. One is reminded, as well, of Hurricane Katrina, an event that comes to seem less and less a “natural” disaster as it recedes into the past. The thing is, weather is not a thing, and indeed Bennett notes early in her study that one problem with the “thing” is its “latent individualism,” whereas “vibrant matter,” the actant, “never really acts alone.” Not only is weather not “individual” (even singular events like hurricanes—with names like “Katrina” and “Ivan”—cannot properly be called individuals) but it is not material in the manner of rock or metal. Weather is “matter-flow” or “matter-movement,” Deleuze and Guattari’s terms, or as Michel Serres writes (after Lucretius), weather is matter’s turbulence. We are more used to granting weather the role of actant. Weather happens, precipitating all manner of events: abundance and scarcity, flood, drought, fire, and killing frost. Which may be another way of saying that “matter happens”—but this is not Donald Rumsfeld’s “stuff happens.” On the contrary, for Bennett, granting that matter can act is a matter of ethics. So while it is essential to discern the historical and economic undercurrents of those horrific days in New Orleans in September of 2005, we would be wise not to forget that hurricanes are weather events, or better, assemblages of weather (or matter), history, economics, psychology, and infrastructure, to name only a few.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

On Clouds and Cloud Computing

I keep thinking about cloud computing: I can't say that I really understand what it is, and this may be in part because it names something that I have believed more or less all along: that the internet "is nowhere." Even when I had to connect my computer to a phone jack in order to get online, I never sensed that the internet "occupied" this or that server. Now wireless, the internet (or "connectivity") is dispersed, an atmosphere. Which is all just to say that the internet has been a "cloud" for some time. When Ted Stevens called it "a series of tubes," he caught hell for his "analog" image, but the idea is the same, I think: a passage, betweenness.

I've been spending a lot of time with Luke Howard's wonderful On the Modifications of Clouds (available to read or download here), the 1802 lecture to the Askesian Society that first named the clouds (cirrus, cumulus, stratus, etc.). Howard's classification is in some respects perfectly conventional (the sort of Enlightenment project Michel Foucault describes in The Order of Things), in other ways unprecedented. Most remarkable, I think, is Howard's choice of "modification" rather than "type" or "category." It is a term singularly suited to his object, denoting "the bringing or coming of a thing into a particular mode of existence" or "differentiation into a variety of forms or modes."

Such is the "manner" of clouds. They have no fixed "form or magnitude." (And as such lack two of the four "variables" of classification identified by Foucault: form, quantity, distribution, and magnitude.) Howard adapts classification to an object that would seem to dispute its very foundations. Cirrus, cumulus, and stratus, in turn, do not behave like conventional categories. Howard confidently asserts that "the principle modifications are commonly as distinguishable from each other as a tree from a hill, or the latter from a lake." But, he continues, "clouds in the same modification, considered with respect to each other, have often only the common resemblances which exist among trees, hills, or lakes, taken generally." No problem: we can accept that a palm and a beech are both trees. But things get weirder. In the case of clouds, "the same aggregate which has been formed in one modification ... may pass into another." Trees do not "pass into" hills, nor hills into lakes.

Cloud as "modification" is "bringing or coming into" existence as well as "passing on" from one "mode" of existence to another, and passing out of existence, dissipating. In this respect it is something like the "process" Alfred North Whitehead describes in Process and Reality: a "concrescence," first, and secondly a "transition from particular existent to particular existent." The "passing on" (his phrase) of process is, he writes, "'creativity,' in the dictionary sense of creare, 'to bring forth, beget, produce.'" "Process" as "production" describes, in turn, the "flow" of capital in described by Deleuze and Guattari. As "process," Howard's cloud anticipates the radical contingency of weather’s "sensitive dependence," or chaos theory, introduced in the work of the meteorologist Edward Lorenz and later adopted by economists to describe the vagaries of international capital. A cloud is a "deterritorialization," or "line of flight" (hence the inadequacy of "arborescent" classification). It is a "body without organs" in this sense: "that which serves as organs … is distributed according to crowd phenomena, in Brownian motion, in the form of molecular multiplicities." (See Lucretius.)

When we name Google a "cloud" we refer to the virtualized labor and resources of "cloud computing"--to the "cloud" of (deterritorialized) capital. Capital "is nowhere." Weather was this sort of "cloud" long before the internet, at least since the mapping of the trade winds (in the seventeenth century), or the advent of weather "networks." I suspect that its flow has always been entwined with capital's.