In conversation: John Peters on ‘marvelous clouds’ and rethinking nature and media

From cultural references to the sky, to works of art and poetry, weather is a topic that people can’t seem to stop talking — and writing — about.

John Durham Peters, professor of English and of film and media studies, who joined the Yale faculty this semester, teaches a freshman seminar on “Literature, Media, and Weather.” The central theme of the class, he tells his students, is “why we want to tell stories about weather and yet why weather keeps interrupting them. We know that weather has to have meaning, and yet it’s always defying our efforts to find it. Despite our best attempts, weather will always elude us.”

Peters is also the author of the 2015 bookThe Marvelous Clouds: Toward a Philosophy of Elemental Media,” which explores the history of clouds and media in an attempt to rethink the similarities between nature and media. “It is a book that tries to rethink digital media. In an age in which we routinely talk about online storage as the ‘cloud,’ I thought it would be interesting to try to give a longer history of how we got there.”

In the book, the new faculty member compares the natural elements to media. “When you think about the ocean, fire, or the sky, it is clear that nature as we know it nowadays is deeply an interaction with human technology. It is hard to tell where media end and nature begins,” says Peters.

Peters talked to YaleNews about how nature interacts with human technology, the relationship between God and Google, and why writing is the “magic key.”

What follows is an edited version of that conversation.

What led you to write this book?

We tend to treat media as nature or second nature. With our cell phones and the internet we are just kind of immersed in all kind of media forms, and so I decided to pose this question: What would happen if we took it a step further and looked at nature as media.  If media behave like nature maybe nature can behave like media. And indeed, when you think about the five ancient elements —water, ocean, fire, sky, and ether or the quintessence — it is clear that nature on earth interacts profoundly with human monitoring and alteration of it.  It is hard to tell where media end and nature begins.

In one of the chapters in the book I write about God and Google. In it I explore the ways that Google has a religious vibe. “I’m feeling lucky” is one way of searching on Google: This is a classic religious invitation, to the open up your scripture at random, or to cast lots, or to read the tea leaves to see what the gods are saying. Google is clearly channeling a very ancient kind of human desire to make sense out of the universe. Even the idea of the search is a deeply human thing and a classic religious term. What does it mean that our everyday access to the internet is often cloaked in this type of language?

What are some of the key concepts that you hope your readers take away from book?

In some ways I think of writing a book as a gift, and so I don’t necessarily have a preplanned vision of what the reader should take away. Part of my philosophy of education and of communication more generally is that if you want to take control of reception then you’re going about it the wrong way. People are going to make what they want of a work. But I do hope readers get a sense of a vision of the world in which media are not simply television and the internet — as wonderful as TV and the internet are, and as life changing and world changing as they’ve been along with many other forms of media. I hope they get an appreciation of the historical depth of what we think of as new media.  So often we think “This is so new; this is unprecedented,” and there are a lot of things that do seem that way but what we think of as new shocks have been felt many times and many ways before us. 

What led you to study clouds and why did you decide to name your book after them?

The title comes from “The Stranger,” a prose poem by Charles Baudelaire [1821–1867]. Baudelaire is known for having a dark vision but also can have really ecstatic moments. The poem is a conversation between a mysterious stranger in which the stranger claims to love nothing — he has no relatives and or friends. The person talking to him says, “Well, what do you love?” and he says, “I love the clouds that pass, the marvelous clouds over there.” It is a poetic moment when even the most hardened misanthrope can’t resist loving clouds! Ralph Waldo Emerson, who is one of my favorite authors, describes the sky as “the daily bread of the eyes, the ultimate art gallery above.” Clouds are beautiful. They have a bum rap for being silly and inconsequential, but they are a kind of democratic theater or democratic cinema. Everyone can enjoy them.

I think if you really want to know how a culture works, ask how it reads the sky. Every culture has an account of the sky, and many cultures eagerly read the sky for signs, portents and meaning. Almost all cultures have invested meaning in, for example, eclipses or weather patterns, and in many cultures stars represent souls. In our culture, the idea that the sky is devoid of meaning is itself quite telling—and quite hazardous in a time of climate change. 

What do you hope students will learn in your classroom and from your course on “Literature, Media and Weather?”

I want my students to learn imagination, and to ask these questions: How do you think laterally across different subjects? how do you connect things that don’t seem to go together? Obviously weather is a fun topic because it cuts across so many areas. I want students to be attentive to how discourse (understood broadly) works. It could be a Turner painting, or a Shelley poem, or an article on climate change. Also, something really important that combines both of those skills is writing. Thinking and writing are inseparable. Writing is the magic key. It is not a simple question of mechanics or putting your thoughts into the words. Writing is like a sculpture. You are working with a material that pushes back, is stubborn, and wants to fight you, but you can get it to do wonderful things if you appreciate it.

How do you make use of resources on campus to reinforce the messages you are teaching to your students?

The class visited the Yale Center for British Art to view paintings by Constable, the Yale Center for Earth Observation, and the Yale University Art Gallery to look at an incredible series of cloud photographs taken in the 1920s by Alfred Stieglitz. What is interesting is that Stieglitz used photography to make abstract images, which we usually think of as something that painters pioneered, but clouds bring a kind of natural abstraction, if saying that doesn’t sound too weird.  Stieglitz’s small images are luminous, as is much weather art.

How is weather an interdisciplinary topic?

Weather is obviously a matter for meteorologists, mathematicians, oceanographers, and geophysicists. Weather forecasting requires a tremendous amount of data, so without computer science you don’t have weather forecasting at all. Weather is a lifeblood for news, and polls show that weather is the thing that people turn to the most when they consult the news. Extreme weather is also a social, economic, political, and cultural problem.  It is also a historical problem. There is a lot of interest in the history of climate because one way of thinking about the last 10,000 years — geologists call it the Holocene — is that we’ve been lucky to have an unusual spell of really nice weather in which civilization as we know it could develop. Weather is of foremost human interest for poets, philosophers, artists, and musicians who have been writing and singing about weather from the beginning. So many works of literature start with weather. The Bible starts with weather in Genesis. T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Wasteland” — which may be one of the most influential poems of the 20th century — starts with April showers and ends with the thunder.