Global Warming and the Poetics of Experience; or WHINGE is my Factory Setting.

robert-smith

First, a personal whinge: In the months leading to my move to Sweden, I followed the local weather pretty closely in order to get a baseline. It seems that they had a late start on winter, but when the snow did arrive, it kept coming. All the way to April. As the months before my departure became weeks and days, I became far more concerned with what still needed be done in Toledo. And by the time I got on the plane, I had no specific idea about what kind of ground conditions to expect when I landed. But I had heard that things stayed pretty wet and cool until July, so I happily packed my rain jacket into my backpack with a near certainty that I’d have to pull it out as soon as I stepped out of baggage claim.

When I say “I happily packed my rain jacket,” I mean just that. I was happy. Not just that I’d be prepared, but because I like cool, dreary days. I always have. Mind you, I don’t walk around with black eyeliner and I’m not at all displeased that Friday I’m in Love is only Cure song most people know. And yes, there is a point of diminishing returns if it stays dreary for too long. But I generally like my days in grey tone.

For one, the heat is not a good look for me. I sweat a lot. And excessive sweat does ugly things to curly hair and a ruddy complexion. Ugly things. Imagine Dylan Thomas in a sauna. Or don’t.

For another, the sun has always seemed to me a sort of luciferian figure. Yes it illuminates the world for us; but when you actually walk around in the sunshine, your head is forever bowed. When it’s too bright, the ground in front of you is all there really is to look at. But on a grey day, light is less homogeneous. It breaks for the turn of a single leaf and the whole cityscape alike. The world is less illuminated, but the things in it are more vibrant.

And so my biggest disappointment in Sweden so far has been the weather. When I walked out of baggage claim at Arlanda Airport, I was greeted with a 30°C (86°F) day and blue skies. After two and half weeks without so much as a cloud in the sky (it’s been about six weeks in total), I unrolled my rain jacket and retired it to the closet. Stand down, soldier. Stand down.

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My new colleagues have made us feel extremely welcome. They’ve brought us gifts, organized parties, and demonstrated great patience for our cultural and linguistic missteps (of which there have been a few). But I can no longer count on my hands the number of friendly jokes about how this perfect weather was ordered up just to welcome us to Sweden. Since I don’t want to add any unforced errors to the growing list of faux pas, I continue to nod my head and chuckle obediently.

At this latitude, it’s understandable that the Swedes, along with other Nordic peoples, would be sun worshipers. But after six weeks of off-the-charts heat and (nearly) ’round the clock sun, this place is scorched. The understandable lack of AC means that windows must always remain open, leaving everything indoors caked with dust and pollen. A short walk or bike ride means coarse grains of dirt gathering in your molars. This land of 100,000 lakes is beginning to experience water shortages. And virtually every corner of the country is on high alert for forest fires. Locals are of course not unaware of these annoyances and dangers, but even the news outlets stubbornly continue to describe this weather as bra [good] and even vackert [beautiful]; whereas any possibility of clouds is dåligt [bad]. But what choice do they have? These descriptive frames are built into the language, just as they are in English and many others (though it’s decidedly more emphatic in Swedish).

And one can see why agricultural societies, particularly at higher latitudes, would have positive metaphorical values for the sun and the heat, and negative ones for rain and cold (premodern Christian descriptions of hell were, after all, icy). A long winter or a soggy summer could spell starvation and disease. But we’re living in a different time now, one where extreme heat is the real threat. In some ways, cool is at a premium. Obviously, global warming does not uniformly manifest itself as heat and drought. While the general trend is warmth, it is experienced in extremes, which include dangerous cold snaps and excessive rain. But how long can we live this way before it begins to affect our poetics of experience?

The Romantics (along with the Victorians who followed) were sun worshipers too. But insofar as the sun represented apollonic order and reason, they–the best of which were women–permitted themselves to explore the dionysian as well. This wasn’t a moral inversion of sun and moon, but the development of a more personal space, the contours of which were shaped by the limited mobility offered by the night and the rain. It was a literary framing of the head space we occupy when, for instance, we read a novel. A dark and stormy night became more interesting and eventful than a sunny day, even if those events were destructive. This reframing didn’t happen in a vacuum, and the fortunes of the dark and stormy night can be tracked alongside the rise of a bourgeois domestic sphere and a reading public, with all attendant social, economic, and ecological factors.

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I do not see a moral inversion of the bright and the warm with the cloudy and cool happening in our poetics of experience either (try as I might). And to be sure, it takes far more than the length of a literary period or two to penetrate the poetics of experience at level of cognitive-linguistic categories. But certain transvaluations of values can occur within a couple of generations. Right, Nietzsche?

For many people, global warming is still recognized as a political object alone, even by some who argue passionately for the science behind it. That’s because just as global warming does not manifest itself as a uniform increase in temperature throughout the year, it also doesn’t affect us all uniformly. The interesting thing about political discourse is that the people on one side of the debate generally agree that the object of debate is not (or should not) be a political object (because it’s a matter of nature or transcendent morality) while accusing the other side of artificially making it into a political object. Those who believe the object shouldn’t be political are of course, at the very least, turning it into a meta-political object so that what seems to be political for only some is actually political for all. Poetics works in almost the opposite way. While all aesthetic experience is absolutely singular, the language of aesthetic experience must be understood to be universal, even if that language–as is proper to poetics–is completely novel.

Any poetics of experience of global warming will have to be both novel and understood to be universally understood. We’ll have to wait and see what that looks like, but there is the odd clue in newer idioms. I’m thinking, for example, of the idiom the new normal, which is something everyone seems to be tossing around in the Anglophone world at the moment. As ‘metaphors we live by’ go, it’s not quite as poetical as saying that one has a sunny disposition or advising one to put on a happy face in anticipation of grey skies clearing up, but it certainly speaks to the extremes that characterize global warming. I’m not sure what the phrase’s origins are, but I don’t believe it actually began as a way characterize global warming, so that’s not a good start either. But it is nevertheless applied to global warming in addition to political corruption, economic inequality, social change, etc. That at least makes it a metaphorical frame of general experience.

The really interesting thing to see–since global warming is nothing if not a bad thing–is what the poetics of positive experience might look like in a warmed globe. Again, my vote is for a simple inversion of bright and sunny to cloudy and cool, but I don’t see it happening. Anyway, I wish someone would tell me quick so I can put a damper on the day of these sunny Swedes.

 

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