Keep your head in the clouds
Show me how a culture looks at the sky and I’ll tell you how a culture works. All cultures have made the sky a major resource — as a clock, calendar, map, compass, narrative, forecast, or religion. Sailors take bearings from stars and fortune-tellers discern celestial alignments. Farmers ask it when to sow and priests when to celebrate. Cities and emperors align their designs in harmony with it.
Modern western culture is unique in seeing the sky as open, empty, and blank. We talk of the wild blue yonder and see the air above as a place of freedom and possibility. We outsource it to experts to set our clocks and forecast our weather. We see historical change unrolling on earth and imagine the air overhead to be timeless and changeless. Good secular moderns know better than to try to read the clouds and stars lest we succumb to ancient or silly forms of divination.
In this we are heirs to Aristophanes, the ancient playwright, and his comedy The Clouds, in which Socrates pontificates airily about “meteoric” phenomena to his friends in “Cloud Cuckooland.” Here he is hardly the man who launched western thought; he is a ridiculous windbag. Aristophanes makes a mockery of trying to find significance in the sky. Only fools and oafs would try. Like the Broadway hit The Book of Mormon, The Clouds is a brilliant and vulgar take-down of heavenly aspirations.
Funny people have played an outsized role in teaching us how to talk about the environment. Mark Twain supposedly said that everyone talks about the weather but no one does anything about it. This saying always gets a reliable chuckle. Do something about the weather? What futility! What could better define the limits of human control? And Oscar Wilde supposedly said “Talking about the weather is the last refuge of the unimaginative.”
Should we believe the wits? Is it deluded to look to the sky, to do something or talk about the weather?
The ban on trying to read the sky can be crippling in a time of climate change. The sky is just as rife with history as the earth. Humans have radically changed the sky’s composition in the past two centuries. We have pumped the sky with carbon and other chemicals, divided it up into parking places for satellites, allocated wavelengths for radio and TV stations, drawn borders for national airspace, filled it with streams of data, placed surveillance cameras there, and weaponized it with bombers and drones. The sky is not the last untouched wilderness: it is the cutting-edge of human technologies.
Modernity is not the emptying of the heavens but rather their filling up. But as the sky has filled up, we have ironically lost the will to read it.
Last week while visiting California I saw a beautiful orange sunset, enhanced by the smoke of the fires. In recent weeks, I watched flamboyantly colored counterclockwise spinning swirls move slowly across my laptop screen — hurricanes, moving westward across the Atlantic. These ominous bits of eye-candy make me wonder if it really is so stupid to talk about the weather. No one does anything about the weather — really? Many of us have the jittery feeling that we have done all too much about it. Perhaps not on purpose — but enough to contribute, through chaotic chains of consequences, to storms, droughts, and fires.
Aristophanes was right that people can get entranced looking at the sky. He feared that we lost our reason when we stared at the clouds. There is no more gorgeous spectacle than a beautiful sky. And the temptation to read the sky for omens has not gone away. The rain that started to fall when Mr. Trump was inaugurated was seen, depending on your political position, both as the heavens weeping for grief and the cleansing of the earth. The sky remains incompletely secularized. The weather gods won’t go without a fight. The Weather Channel treats storms and ecological activists treat the planet as if they had names and wills. Aristophanes would find plenty to make fun of.
And such mockery has a place. We could use it against letting the IT industries get away with their fluffy talk of “the cloud,” which consumes 2–3% of our carbon-heavy electrical supply while pretending to be safe and green. Our fear of being mocked for looking too closely into celestial things enables this marketing heist. Let’s bring it down to earth and call it “the clod.”
But maybe we should otherwise resist the mockery. Maybe the desire to read the sky is a good thing. Maybe we should talk about the weather. Maybe we should look at the clouds, if for no other reason than their beauty. Maybe we should relearn the old art of looking to the sky in search of our fate, using both our oldest narratives and our latest scientific tools. Not to do so might be to miss the real sign in the sky: that we have changed it, perhaps irreversibly. Socrates was not wrong to have his head in the clouds. He was showing us, again, the way to ponder the human condition.
John Durham Peters is María Rosa Menocal Professor of English & Film and Media Studies at Yale University and a Public Voices Fellow with the OpEd Project. He is the author of “The Marvelous Clouds: Toward a Philosophy of Elemental Media.”