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Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Should we talk about the weather?

How to record unmanageable excitement about a thunderstorm that happened nearly 24 hours ago?! The barrage of thunder and lightning went on for an hour or more, with hardly more than a second between one strike and the next. I kind of wanted to blog about it as it was happening at 3 a.m.; I also wanted to watch it as a red blob on the weather.com radar map. This is because I'm under the influence of Tom McCarthy's amazing essay about weather as a form of media, "Meteomedia; or, Why London's Weather Is in the Middle of Everything," from London from Punk to Blair:
It is standard to think of the atmosphere as a medium, a 'pervading or enveloping substance' (indeed, the terms 'air', 'ether' and 'environment' all appear in the Oxford English Dictionary definition of the word medium) but we should go further. Weather is, and always has been, more than just a medium: it is also media.

Shakespeare understood this. In The Tempest, his great play about the weather, Caliban tells Trinculo and Stephano that the island's atmosphere is 'full of noises, sounds and sweet airs', the humming of a 'thousand twanging instruments' and 'voices'. He could be describing radio. Caliban is not so much consuming and decoding these transmissions as feeling them billow around him, finding form and losing it again, like clouds. The weather is a teaser. 'Weather writes, erases, and rewrites itself upon the sky with the endless fluidity of language; and it is with language that we have sought throughout history to apprehend it', writes Richard Hamblyn in The Invention of Clouds (2001). Easier said than done, though. Aristotle knew that epagogue, or linguistic reasoning, would never yield meteorological certainty; the best it offers us is speculation. Vladimir Jankovic, author of Reading the Skies: A Cultural History of the English Weather, 1650-1820 (2000) points out that since meteroros, 'rising', can refer to rising wind within the stomach meteoro-logeo means not only 'talk of high things' but also 'windy speech', 'high talk,' empty musings'. Shakespeare understood this too, as testified by Hamlet's ability to make the verbose see in the same cloud a whale, a weasel and a camel. Hamlet's deliberate mobilization of language's powers of indeterminacy is linked to weather throughout: 'when the wind is southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw', he claims,--an utterance that Claudius's spies and twenty-first century critics alike will busy themselves trying, and failing, to decipher.

When language grapples with the weather there is slippage and there is displacement. Samuel Johnson's quip that 'when two Englishmen meet, their first talk is of the weather' is an easy one to make; Gwendolen's intuition (in Oscar Wilde's play The Importance of Being Earnest of 1895) that 'whenever people talk about the weather, I always feel quite certain that they mean something else' is much more astute. For centuries manuals and charts have tried to map meteorological phenomena on to social ones, from The English Chapmans and Travellers Almanack for the Year of Christ 1697 (which aligns the ten-week frost with the Gunpowder Plot, the time when 'the whole heaven seemed to burn with fire' with the invention of the art of printing) to Election Weather Tables compiled by today's Met Office (Labour only wins in fair weather, apparently; that fateful day in 1979 was foul) or the Weather-to-Stock Market Correspondence Graphs studied by the more esoteric among our economists. The weather unfolds endlessly across non-meteorological discourses, across Other Stuff. It is an index both of truth and of all that is random, meaningless. Like all media, it bears a plethora of messages--perhaps even the message--while simultaneously supplying no more than conversational neutral, white noise.

But for the subject of the essay, I was initially skeptical of McCarthy's method here. He juxtaposes word origins, word origins cited from others, anecdotes, and famous quotations--source use habits that make me a little uneasy when they form most of the work of an essay--but he seems to be enacting in the form of the essay the same thing that weather reporting does. Each form relies on stringing a set of phenomena (cloudbursts or quotations) into a coherent form. The effect of so many sources cobbled together is greater than the effect would be if the subject were not how sources get mediated in the weather report. It's a cool medium is the message move with the essay form that's even more subtle than the nice recasting of Marshall McLuhan he does in the final sentence I quoted from him.

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Blogger Katy on Mon Jun 15, 03:56:00 PM:
This is probably not surprising coming from me, but I have always enjoyed the weather symbolism in "The Dead."