Last Thursday evening, John Durham Peters visited campus to deliver the final Humanities on the Edge lecture of the semester. Entitled “Do Clouds Have Meaning? On the Relation Between Media and Nature,” the lecture raised fundamental questions about what aspects of reality we choose to imbue with meaning, what ways we find to interpret our environment, and what this relation may tell us about ourselves.
Peters began his presentation with the comment that his drive here from Iowa offered him the gift that rural Midwestern highways are particularly good for, which is to notice the clouds in the sky. With the view so unobstructed, the sky itself comes into focus to a degree which we are unused to in the city, so that this pervasive and ubiquitous backdrop, often taken for granted, invites us to recognize it again. Peters noted that when he looks at clouds in the Midwest, he looks for the sublime.
His comment opened the way for a closer look at clouds as a phenomenon that bleeds the boundary between nature and culture, between humanity and technology, and between media and the silent unreadable. As he remarked during the discussion following the lecture, the impetus for his book project The Marvelous Clouds: Toward a Philosophy of Elemental Media, which was the basis for the talk, came from a question one of his students asked in a seminar discussion: “Are clouds media?” A provocative question for Peters, because, he says, conversations in communications studies have traditionally referred to clouds as something meaningless – that which exists beyond the limits of media technology, opposite the effect of that technology to clarify or express. In the spirit of critical inquiry, Peters turned to the history of cloud interpretation to throw into question the conception of clouds as non-media.
When we look to the sky, we see constants, and we see variables. The stars provide the constant reference points, figures which humanity has long learned to predict and fill with meaning. Peters remarked that astronomy and its stargazing could be understood as the first human science. Immediately, several instances of stars taken as metaphors for stability in the face of chaos jump to my mind. There’s Russell Crowe as Inspector Javert belting to the Parisian sky (not so badly, in my opinion) of the stars “filling the darkness with order and light.” There’s Matthew McConaughey as the battered but surviving cynic Rust Cohle remarking that the stars tell the oldest story, of light versus dark, saying (in one of the most uncharacteristic lines ever to end a television series), “You ask me, the light’s winning.” And then there’s that quintessential theoretician of order and the knowable universe, Immanuel Kant, whose tombstone includes a passage from the Critique of Practical Reason, “Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the more often and steadily we reflect upon them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.” With such an historic cultural thematic of morality and stability surrounding our readings of stars, it makes sense that clouds, the variables opposite the stars, might be read as “wispy, subjective patterns of thought – flighty, untrustworthy, mutable,” as Peters noted.
However, despite or because of the subjective coloring of clouds, humans have long attempted to interpret them as well, though always maintaining a sense of the clouds’ ambivalence. Peters showed the audience pictures from an online series of photographs – “Clouds That Look Like Things” – put out by the British Cloud Appreciation Society, most of which look like various animals. He quoted the passage from Act III, Scene II of Hamlet in which the Prince of Denmark fools with Polonius:
HAMLET. Do you see yonder cloud that’s almost in the shape of a camel?
POLONIUS. By the mass, and ‘tis like a camel indeed.
H. Methinks it is like a weasel.
P. It is backed like a weasel.
H. Or like a whale.
P. Very like a whale.
Hamlet reveals Polonius’ opinions to be as mutable and untrustworthy as the clouds, which possess a subjective excess of figuration. A key here and in the photo series is the terminology, similar to words used in biblical prophetic visions of the heavenly throne room, of “looks like” rather than “really is” – the clouds are both full of meaning and empty of meaning at the same time, which consistently makes us nervous about policing the boundaries of what they really mean.
Peters followed this ambivalence through parallel historic tendencies to derive both divine and natural (read: meteorological) meaning from the clouds. These meanings have at times been intertwined. For example, Peters cited the passage in the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 16, in which the Pharisees and Sadducees ask Jesus for “a sign from heaven” (and “heaven,” Peters explained, has traditionally meant both the natural sky and heaven in the divine sense.) Jesus turns the question on its head in his reply, “When it is evening, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red.’ And in the morning, ‘It will be stormy today, for the sky is red and threatening.’” He subverts the question of the sky’s signs into a meteorological reference, thereby also preemptively undermining the tendency to think of meteorology as only a secular reading of the clouds. Throughout Judeo-Christian tradition, there has consistently been an injunction against cloud-reading because such practices amount to idolatry in that, as Peters put it, they mix up subject and object in the symbolic field.
It is peculiar, then, to note the periodic resurgence of those identifying divine omens in weather phenomena, not only in ancient society but in the modern era as well. One example of this (brought to my attention by fellow Watershedder Robert Lipscomb) involves the massive tornado that destroyed the town of Jarrell, Texas, in 1997, killing 27 people. A resident of Jarrell, LaDonna Peterson, remarks on an image captured of a funnel cloud preceding the storm which resembled a robed Jesus with his hands outstretched: “I got goosebumps as soon as I saw it. It just sent such a chill over me. But then it also put me at ease a little bit, because it made me think that he was there telling us that it’s okay, that he saw what was going on, and he came to get the people here that had died and to take them back with him.” Additionally, Peters cited Michele Bachman’s remarks in the wake of the 2011 earthquake that hit the Washington area and Hurricane Irene that hit the East Coast and Canada. She said, “I don’t know how much God has to do get the attention of the politicians. We’ve had an earthquake; we’ve had a hurricane. He said, ‘Are you going to start listening to me here?’” In both cases, catastrophic weather phenomena are interpreted as signs from God, where a naturally occurring event are perceived as manifesting subjective agential intentionality. Though as we see, the excess of meaning inherent to clouds offer readings of both comfort and curse, with resonances potentially both intimately personal and oppositionally political.
When Peters shifted his focus toward representations of clouds in Western culture, the ambivalent sense of lawlessness attached to clouds remained. At the beginning of modernity, clouds showed up frequently in visual art as one of the only permissible transgressions of the law of perspective newly applied to visual forms. Clouds, being inherently shapeless, can be represented subjectively without exactly following the metric rule of perspective. Additionally, during a time when the symbolic medium of writing dominated, the visual recording of clouds exhibits some of the first attempts to record non-representational abstraction (a feat which would only really be made possible by the introduction of analog audio and film recording.)
Painting clouds did not only allow a way out of the aesthetic laws of perspective, but for the Dutch Protestant painters of the early modern era, it also allowed a way out of the religious law against making images of God. By painting the beauty and ferocity of cloud-forms amid a sunset or during a storm, these painters were able to represent the divinely sublime ineffable while remaining wholly within the acceptable subject-matter. Later on, the Romantic painters of the 19th century similarly wanted to depict the sublimity of clouds, yet for them, within the Death-of-God movement, this natural sublimity served as substitute rather than a reference for God.
Toward the end of his lecture, Peters troubled the question further regarding the relation between media and nature by showing the increasing instances of representations of human-made clouds within the last two hundred years. These included J.M.W. Turner’s 1844 painting Rain, Steam and Speed – The Great Western Railway, which reveals, through the invention of the locomotive, humanity’s capacity to produce our own clouds. These clouds, though just as shapeless and shifting as purely natural ones, can signify clear meanings, at least in regard to their agential creation. Eventually we saw images of mushroom clouds as well, and as Peters showed the audience the picture of the atomic cloud over Hiroshima, he asked, “Would we now say clouds have no meaning?” With each strand of cloud-reading and cloud-representation through history, Peters makes it clear to us how cloudy the meaning of clouds really is. Hence the polysemy of the Silicon Valley’s symbolic use of “the cloud”: though the metaphor comes from the fact that the elements of computing networks are invisible to the user, the metaphor benefits from “the cloud’s” associations with the fluffy, whimsical, eco-friendly natural world and the divine Pillar of Cloud leading the lost children through the desert, at the same as the metaphor obscures the physical clouds of pollution produced by these companies’ carbon-spewing servers and machinery.
Finally, in perhaps the most radical shift for humanity in the representation of clouds, we are now able to look at pictures of clouds from outer space. Peters commented that what images of the Earth from outer space most immediately reveal is the Earth is a cloudy planet, and you can imagine my and everyone else’s utter delight when he then brought into this comment a reference to Joni Mitchell’s 1969 song “Both Sides Now.” In the song – written while flying in an airplane, looking down on clouds from above – Joni sings:
I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now
From up and down, and still somehow
It’s cloud illusions I recall
I really don’t know clouds at all
The more I think about this song alongside Peters’ compelling lecture – its thematic of clouds as media – the more I realize how wonderfully they go together. The song, like the lecture, passes through the various ways we interact with clouds: how we find shapes and representations of other things in their forms; how the activity of our lives are affected by them as producers of weather and environment; how these clouds begin to resonate with the most sublime, ineffable, and intimate themes to our experience, themes such as love or life or God. And yet, Joni Mitchell also reflects in her song that sometimes sad, sometimes wonderful feeling of disillusionment that comes from seeing a thing, which we once thought so familiar, as flipped on its head, made suddenly strange. After John Durham Peters’ lecture, I believe that many of us left with the feeling that we had seen clouds from both sides now, that we not only understood them and our relationship to them better than we ever had before, but that we also can now say with new confidence that we really don’t know clouds at all. This ambivalent effect exhibits Peters’ strength as a scholar and a teacher, because as he himself said, quoting one of his colleagues during the discussion following the lecture, “The point of academic study is to make the world cloudier, not clearer.”