Weathering: Climate Change and the “Thick Time” of Transcorporeality
by ASTRIDA NEIMANIS, RACHEL LOEWEN WALKER
RACHEL LOEWEN WALKER—Professor, Department of Philosophy, University of Saskatchewan, Canada
The following is an EXCERPT
Introduction: Toward a New Imaginary of Climate Change
If there is something like climate change, perhaps it takes this form: not only a mutation of this climate (warming, depleting, becoming more volatile) but an alteration of what we take climate to be. (Colebrook 2012, 36)
Grand Manan Island, New Brunswick. August. Spruce trees at Swallowtail, root-toes curled around the rocky outcrop in a resigned sort of precarity. Made to coexist with the credence of the Fundy weather, these timbered lives are permanently swayed, their strong backbones constantly giving way to the wind. The weather-archive of their multiply ringed existences has stories to tell: of a hurricane’s landfall, or the eye of a maritime gale; of coastal droughts, and semidiurnal tides, and the Atlantic sun filtered through sea smoke and autumn fog and the clear-eyed blue of nothing at all. How has the hot breath of the earth, the battering of its rain, the reprieve of its gentle snows shaped my own sinews, my gait, the ebb and flow of my own bodily humors? Duration, spread across my skin with the slow sweep of the seasons. Like these trees, we are all, each of us, weathering.
Although framed in a language of urgency and impending crisis, “climate change” has taken on an abstract quality in contemporary Western societies. Melting ice caps and rising sea levels are “perceived as spatially and temporally distant” (Slocum 2004, 1) from our everyday lives. This distance is related to the time scale and global reach of the problem, but also stems from scientific discourses that “produce vast quantities of sometimes contradictory, abstract statistics and data” (Duxbury 2010, 295).
Commentators repeatedly note that climate change has become “difficult to comprehend or connect with in an appreciable way” (294). Claire Colebrook has argued that we suffer from a “hyper-hypo-affective disorder” (Colebrook 2011, 45) whereby despite being surrounded by warnings of resource depletion, predictions of changing weather patterns, and a growing cinematic imaginary of the world’s end, “there is neither panic nor any apparent affective comportment that would indicate that anyone really feels or fears [this threat]” (53). She describes this imaginary as one invested in the consumption of affect (transfixing news coverage of a “natural” disaster; the rush of an apocalyptic movie) without intensity—without any mobilization of responsivity or sense that our bodies and our time are mutually implicated in environmental changes. It is within this context that we recognize the need for a different kind of ethos in relation to climate change, one that would mobilize the responsivity and intensity of which Colebrook writes. We need to rethink the “spacetimematter” of climate change and our implication therein.
Like other climate change theorists and activists, we propose to bridge the distance of abstraction by bringing climate change home. As described in many climate change appeals, this home is a Western, urban, and domesticated home that more often than not seeks to extract itself from the weather-world. But we recall, too, that oikos is both “home” and another way of saying “eco.” In this paper we thus also invite our readers to be interpellated into the ecological spacetime of a much more expansive home, at once as distant as that melting icecap, and as close as our own skin. This home is a transcorporeal one, “where human corporeality… is inseparable from ‘nature’ or ‘environment’” (Alaimo 2008, 238). To bring climate change home, in this context, entails reconfiguring our spatial and temporal relations to the weather-world and cultivating an imaginary where our bodies are makers, transfer points, and sensors of the “climate change” from which we might otherwise feel too distant, or that may seem to us too abstract to get a bodily grip on. We propose that if we can reimagine “climate change” and the fleshy, damp immediacy of our own embodied existences as intimately imbricated, and begin to understand that the weather and the climate are not phenomena “in” which we live at all—where climate would be some natural backdrop to our separate human dramas—but are rather of us, in us, through us, we might ignite the intensity that Colebrook calls for.
To build this project, we draw on feminist new materialist and posthumanist approaches that help us to understand climate change and human bodies as partaking in a common space, a conjoined time, a mutual worlding that we call weathering. We maintain that this sort of concept-creation can help gestate the new imaginary we call for. Like the more immediately embodied interventions by eco-artists such as Kirsten Justesen, Basia Irland, or Roni Horn that have the ability to frame climate change in powerful and personally felt ways (Alaimo2009; Duxbury 2010), we argue, along with Elizabeth Grosz, that philosophical interventions can also “move [us] beyond the horizon of the present” (Grosz 2012, 15): concepts can supply us with “the provocation to think otherwise, to become otherwise” (22). Weathering is one such provocation. In creating this concept, we draw on Stacy Alaimo’s conception of transcorporeality to counter the fallacy of a bifurcated understanding of “nature” and “culture”—or of weather and humans—and propose instead an understanding of ourselves as weather bodies. The ebb and flow of meteorological life transits through us, just as the actions, matters, and meanings of our own bodies return to the climate in myriad ways. In order to better explicate the mechanics of these transactions, and the ontology they evidence, we also draw on Karen Barad’s theory of intra-action. Barad’s understanding of things as perpetually worlding—that is, as materializing from the intra-actions of always emergent things-in-phenomena—suggests to us the concept of weathering. With Barad, we recognize that relata do not precede relations (Barad 2007, 136): neither humans (replete with tools, products, and prostheses) nor the meteorological milieu of weather patterns, phases, and events can be understood as a priori relata. Instead, it is through weathering—the intra-active process of a mutual becoming—that humans and climate change come to matter.
Weathering, then, is a logic, a way of being/becoming, or a mode of affecting and differentiating that brings humans into relation with more-than-human weather. We can grasp the transcorporeality of weathering as a spatial overlap of human bodies and weathery nature. Rain might extend into our arthritic joints, sun might literally color our skin, and the chill of the wind might echo through the hidden hallways of our eardrums. But not coincidentally, the idea of weathering also invokes a certain perdurance—a getting on with, a getting by, a getting through. If transcorporeality is to be a meaningful theory for understanding climate change, then more careful attention to the temporalities that are an inextricable part of these relations is required. In part, we make this call because climate change as both phenomenon and discourse is thoroughly temporal: changing weather patterns, time-lines of the earth’s rising temperatures, and charts mapping its slowly mutating climatic cycles remind us that weather and climate are far from static events. At the same time, neoliberal “progress narratives” of human-directed salvation jockey for position in the dominant climate change imaginary with environmental “sustainability narratives” of holding onto or even reverting to a pristine almost-past (the incompatibility of these temporal orientations most often going unremarked). Our proposal to reimagine climate change as a transcorporeal, intra-active phenomenon, then, is one that pays specific attention to the temporality of weather bodies—both human and more-than-human.
This intervention in our cultural imaginary of climate change would enable us to think the relationship between human bodies and climate according to what we call “thick time,” a transcorporeal stretching between present, future, and past, that foregrounds a nonchronological durationality. This project shifts away from the dominant temporality of climate change discourse, where progress and sustainability narratives meld in the anticipatory mode of “what should we do to stop climate change?” and instead asks “how is climate change me?” We seek to cultivate a sensibility that attunes us not only to the “now” of the weather, but toward ourselves and the world as weather bodies, mutually caught up in the whirlwind of a weather-world, in the thickness of climate-time. In short, as weathering.
Importantly, this shift away from the “stop climate change” temporal narrative is not for us a weakening of possibilities for ethico-political engagement, but rather an opening up of a different sort of political and ethical orientation toward these questions: a politics of possibility and an ethics of responsivity. Whereas a politics of possibility rejects the idea that climate change can be stopped or solved according to predetermined actions, an ethics of responsivity recognizes that the dream of solution must give way to an ongoing engagement with a weather-world in flux: an engagement that must necessarily extend beyond our individualized “home” to the larger transcorporeal one that we share.
Nor does our proposal seek to denigrate other feminist analyses of climate change that underline the gendered, racialized, and colonial power politics at play in both how climate change is experienced and how responsibility should be attributed (for example, Alaimo 2009; Seager 2009; Cuomo 2011; Glazebrook 2011). In fact, it is in explicit recognition of the ways in which bodies are differently situated in relation to climate change that we call for greater attention to our own weathering. If climate change is an abstract notion, this is closely bound to a privileged Western life that is committed to keeping the weather and its exigencies out, and that is geared toward the achievement of a flat, linear temporality of progress undisturbed by those same exigencies. For academics (including feminist philosophers) and others similarly bound to a temporality of school terms, grant cycles, and publishing deadlines, we are pressed upon by the imperative to seal out the weather. Moreover, international air travel, transnational collaborations, and research or sabbatical stays are themselves weathermakers, and to live continuously across time zones can aggravate the cultivation of the sensibility of thick time we describe in these pages. Yet if such a life is the reality of our authorial we, and perhaps of your readerly one, too, we feel compelled to explore how an embodied existence more or less beholden to velocity, placelessness, and screen-based sociality can nonetheless nurture the sort of imaginary we call for. In other words, the interpellated “we” of this paper is fairly specific, even while weathering as a way of living this imaginary is not limited to this “we.” Weathering is already lived, in nuanced and particular ways, by the subsistence farmer, the young person sleeping rough, the woman who collects household water from a drying reservoir miles from her home, the wheelchair-user on a flooded city street (not to mention the spawning salmon, the baobab tree, the algal bloom, the Arctic ice). Each of these bodies has its own temporality, its own rhythms of weathering, yet we are all implicated in one another’s spacetimes as weathermakers. The ethos of responsivity we call for demands attunement to and acknowledgment of these other temporalities, and a more humble, generous, and self-reflexive understanding of how our own weathering may bear upon that of others.
One final caveat is necessary before proceeding. In both scientific and common discourse, one will not find the easy flow between and interchange of the phenomena of “weather” and “climate” (or climate change) that you will find here. As explained by phenomenologist Julien Knebusch, whereas weather normally refers to a temporary state in the atmosphere, climate is more likely to refer to “large meteorological time such as seasons.” When we sense climate, we do not sense only the immediacy of the weather, but the relative stability of the weather over time. As Knebusch writes, even if climate stability is, on a larger scale, a myth, “for human sensations such stability is not a myth at all” (Knebusch n.d., 5). Whereas climate illuminates patterns over time, weather events are often surprising, capricious, and (seemingly) isolated—they may fulfill these overall patterns, or not. Knebusch notes that the feeling of weather is in fact most palpable when it contrasts with or interrupts the “constancy over time” that climate suggests to us (6). Such distinctions promote a spatialized view of climate time (that is, as something that we are “in” and whose linear progression we are outside observers to), while also suggesting that weather has no temporality at all. We hope to show that these distinctions between climate and weather are tenuous. Attention to the material archive of weather in any body—a human, a starfish, a tropical storm—reveals the history of a lightning flash, or the thick present of a February heat wave. Excavating the thick time of a weather event also illuminates a patterning in the dense duration of all phenomena. Although we recognize the practical desirability of retaining a distinction between “climate” and “weather,” in the context of our arguments here a loosening of this distinction is necessary. Our aim is to reduce the distance between the enormity of climate change and the immediacy of our own flesh. If we can hone a sensibility of ourselves as weather bodies in thick time, climate change can become palpable in the everyday, just as the duration of our bodies, prostheses, and projects becomes diffused through the thick time of the weather-world.
Joseph Robertson, August 21, 2014:
The “thick time” of transcorporeality, the mutually responsive, fluidly intra-activating evolutionary mattering-weathering, time-transiting imaginary is a necessary step in the process of understanding the way in which we are tied into and co-extensive with the climate system. “Climate system”, of course, is shorthand for a complex of relational dynamics. So, the focus of this essay on bringing to light the temporal element—that we are never fixed, and always moving toward and away from, through and across, and being affected and transited by, weathers not unlike or detached from those we embody and motivate—of that complex of relational dynamics, with all of the mattering, embodying, weathering and co-constituting involved in this experience of being thoughtful phenomena in a vastness made of phenomena, gives us a very real sense of how that thing we call time can be “thickened” by including both ontological priors and outflowing frameworks.
In my own seminars—tracing the arc of contemporary thought from the renaissance through the modern period, then coming to grips with what becomes of ethical inquiry in the postmodern segment of the time-space-weathering of textually tracked human experience—I found the single most controversial and illuminating moment of inquiry was exploring the problem of viscous porosity: specifically that what we use to draw boundaries around our identity, our selfhood, our status, our nation-states, even our physical being, may in fact have no discernible impermeable boundary. The viscosity was well-understood, because it expresses our tendency to long for, look for, and cling to, variations on the theme of impermeable and identifiable uniqueness, being, and difference: identity. The porosity was troubling to most students, at first, because it implied inescapable vulnerability, and what many saw as the inevitability of entropy.
Worse still, the all-is-permeable paradigm would disrupt students’ faith in language, intellect and moral action. How, for instance, can we determine what words have real and reliable force, much less truth, if we cannot say whether there is a distinction between “I” and “other”? How, then, can we say that we actively “know” anything, that we have access to truth or can think about what sustains meaning, if we don’t know where that knowing would reside? Does not truth need to reside in knowledge, if we are to have access to it? If not, then what is truth? And then, with ethics and moral action, how can we say it is “my obligation”, or “my choice” or a “principle that I hold”, if “I” and “my” are convenient distortions of the existing outlay of action and intra-action?
What can we know, what can we be, and how can we do, if we are but a weathering of and a weathering by, and both of these at once, in relation to a viscously porous time-space-weathering of phenomena lost in, giving rise to and made by, one another?
I find this thinking rich and capacity-building, enlivening and illuminating; I find it helps to open up new terrain for understanding the ontological sustenance of what we call “the climate crisis”. I work on this problem, on explaining the ethics, and on motivating action, both practical and moral, and though this opening onto transcorporeality calls into question a lot of our tested vernacular—we don’t do this to that; we weather each other, and therein lies the rub… in fact, the rub, the crossing over and passing through, the friction of viscous within or against viscous, is what gives us the sense of distinct phenomena—I find it brings more force of imagining into the core of the climate question.
That core is, ultimately: how can I know, for sure, that while I exist, the climate is an existent I traffic with? And then what?
“Weathering” is poetry, in the sense that it says, beautifully, what we know to be true already, but are not accustomed to saying directly. This is how poetry expands the space in which language operates, and so empowers us to say and to do more. It is also poetry, because it is not only a word, not only phrasing; it traces an arc of happening, a phenomenal implicit narrative that we live, even if we are unaccustomed to describing it.
We affect, and are affected by, vast incomprehensibly dynamic systems that reliably sustain life; this seems to many people to be an expression of power too vast and vulnerability too unceasing to make sense to the way they imagine their existence, as they move through it and fill it out. But, in fact, it is a simpler explanation than the alternative, by which we would be fully independent, somewhat magically construed entities, operating upon and against a vast interactivity of which we are not a part and with which we need not be concerned.
Environment surrounds us, but also permeates us, and in fact comprises us. This essay makes a very bold and resonant contribution that reforming of our imagining of “our place” in the mix and math of what exists, what happens and what feeds our future.
Joseph Robertson, August 21, 2014:
First, let me revise that last paragraph of my previous comment to read:
Environment is surrounding, but also an enveloping that permeates and, in fact, comprises us. We are co-constitutional with the weathering we perceive; in other words, our world is more vast, more intricate, and more pervasively intimate, than our conventional thinking tends to imagine.
This essay makes a very bold and resonant contribution to that particular reforming of our imagining of what we might call “our place”, the leeway and terrain for our dwelling in the mix and math of what exists, what happens, and what feeds our future and our futurity.
Next, let me add:
As a reporter on matters of ecological economics and an educator and organizer of citizen volunteer advocates for action to counter human-caused climate destabilization, I see great value in bridging the distance between notions of selfhood and of “climate impact”.
Over the last few days, volunteers I work with in Nepal traveled to aid in relief work required by one of an increasing numbers of landslides across the Himalayas. As we weather the world, the world weathers us, and our capacity for mutual endurance is strained, sometimes catastrophically.
It is not a small thing to find space in thought for descriptions of this borderless exchange of excess. I listened this morning, as this essay went live, to a first-hand account of the brutal devastation suffered by helpless innocent people, whose mountain dwelling space-time-matter unraveled, gave way to radical destabilization, and in the words of one of the locals, seemed like a nuclear blast hitting a small defenseless village.
To activate our capacity for participation, to engage our capacity to withstand the despair that comes with an understanding of our own hapless mischief, and its often grave ramifications, we need to see that we are co-extensive with the weathers whose behavior we watch with so much anticipatory unsettlement.
We are not all-powerful; we are vulnerable. Mutual vulnerability does not negate the possibility of mutual empowerment; in fact, it substantiates it, gives it life, allows it to gather force and meaning.
It may be that between the viscous porosity of what we call humanity and the viscous porosity of what we call the climate, there is a shared vulnerability and a shared power, and that we can inhabit an exchange of balance or an exchange of excess, but we cannot inhabit our existence, as weathering-infused phenomena, without that exchange of energy, that weathering of weatherings, that catch and release of momentum and variation.
And so, we can observe and address what we call impacts, which are extensions of what we would otherwise prefer to talk of as our social selves. We can expand our awareness of social network value to include the thick time of our eventuality—our coming into being and our weathering of the world we come into. We can duck and cover, blocking out awareness of what makes us up, what gives us space to breathe, what makes survival happen. We can abdicate our responsibility as citizens of a society founded on shared recognitions, various.
Or, we can engage, give not only witness and consciousness, but also the vibrational narrative momentum of constructive action, and we can weather into the weathering that comes at us, a more responsible responsive calibration of the phenomena we embody and enact.
Astrida Neimanis, August 25, 2014:
Joseph, you offer a beautiful parsing of this work. It extends the essay’s hopes and worlds these ideas in new and expanded ways.
Your comments about your students’ resistance to the idea of porosity are particularly worth contemplating. I have recently been thinking about the paradox I face as a feminist: arguing both for an autonomy of embodiment (‘our bodies, ourselves’; ‘get your laws off my body,’ etc) as well as an inescapable vulnerability and shared embodiment that transcoporeality underscores. Navigating these paradoxes is a pressing challenge for thinking what embodiment might be and do — for figuring out how to understand ourselves as both sensory interfaces and acting agents. .
On a similar note, one of the issues that I have come up against in discussing these ideas — particularly in climate change circles — is resistance to our suggestion that in weathering, we relinquish a sense of mastery or control over the climate. It has been suggested to me that this teeters on alignment with climate change skepticism. (As if to say: If we concede that we are not anthropogenic engineers of the climate, then we somehow won’t take responsibility for the weathering-of that we engage in).
Both of these cases seem to want it this way or that, both seem to refuse the thickness and aambivlance — and lack of guarantee — that responsiveness demands of us.
I will return to your comments and contemplations often. Thank you. I would be delighted to read more of your work.