Weathering: Climate Change and the “Thick Time” of Transcorporeality
Researcher, Gender Studies, TEMA Institute, Linköping University, Sweden
RACHEL LOEWEN WALKER
Professor, Department of Philosophy, University of Saskatchewan
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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. (Colebrook2012, 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.