This essay is inspired by Kathleen Stewart's call to pay attention to the affective, material, and relational qualities of everyday life, and by the posthuman imperative that we recognize how we are imbricated with all creatures, objects, and forces in our worlds. It assembles little scenes of weather in everyday life, aiming for an atmospheric attunement to the elemental and domestic, and exploring these through some of the work of critical geographers on affect and atmosphere. As I meander through moments and events of weather in the everyday, I keep close to home, literally, in these scenes of ordinary life.
My intention in this essay is to attend to what is closest and therefore potentially most difficult to see. I am interested in the most ordinary scenes of everyday life, the routine spaces of homes and neighborhoods that are the sites for convergences of bodies, sensations, and relations. Domestic and inhabited spaces—homes, habitats, living spaces—as Gaston Bachelard suggests, are formed through relations.1 They emerge in the contours and meetings of architectures, living and non-living things, all sorts of objects and bodies, memories, imagination, emotions. Space is not inert and empty but animate, animating, always a lived and living space. Those qualities that animate it are not easily discernable or describable. They include emotion, as Bachelard notes, but extend beyond this to the more expansive notion of affect and the affective—that is, the capacity to affect and be affected, which exceeds human bodies and consciousness to form and reform through the “continual motion of relations, scenes, contingencies and emergences.”2 By locating my little scenes of weather in and near the domestic spaces I inhabit, rather than mapping encounters with people and places further out in the world, I want to keep the focus as close as I can to the nonhuman—or more than human elements—of these ordinary encounters. How can I describe how the light falls in a particular room in the late morning in midwinter in the tropics, the moment that the sun falls on the place where I sit and read, how I anticipate it and organize myself around it, how it shapes my thinking, feeling, and being? And this realization only comes through to me years later when I no longer live in that place.3
The Quality of Light
This room opens to the outside along one wall. All is light and air. Everything expands. The first time I walk up the wooden stairs I am lifted into a new way of being. Windows have been removed. Cyclone shutters are propped out, horizontal to the roof, hovering over open space, the view of sky and tops of trees. It's like floating in the air with your feet on the ground, inside and outside with no line between them. In the dry season the sky is almost always blue and clear. The angle of light moving along the floor, over the desk, and across the bed shifts with the months as the sun swings lower through the year. The light affects everything—where I sit to read piles of library books, the old table where I wrote my dissertation, what I can think, what I imagine I can become.
When someone asked me recently how many houses I had lived in, I counted twenty-six and as memories of them jostled for attention, it was their orientation to outside and to the elements of weather, atmospheres, landscapes, their affective potentials, and the earthly sensations that they provoked that came to back to me. The weather and the particular atmospheric qualities of these times and places are not merely backgrounds but central to the textures of the ordinary lives that are possible within them.4 While some of these homes were well populated by family and friends, and occasionally by pets, I have lived in the last seven of these mostly on my own. Perhaps, then, the relations formed within these spaces are particularly attuned to other-than-human aspects of ordinary life. The vignettes of ordinary spaces in this essay suggest some of the qualities and relations of those spaces through the subjective and limited vantage point of memories and sensory impressions.
The ordinary, Kathleen Stewart says in Ordinary Affects, is constantly in motion. It requires “modes of attention” that are adequate for mapping “impulses, sensations, expectations, daydreams, encounters, and habits of relating.”5 These modes include vignettes, memories, and precisely-described scenes that trace “how the potency of forces lies in their immanence to things that are both flight and hardwired, shifty, and unsteady… abstract and concrete… fractious, multiplicitous, and unpredictable.”6 These require experimental modes of writing—evocative rather than declarative, tangential rather than direct, subtle and inclined to the poetic, fragmented narratives without closure or resolution. These modes of writing are inclined to sensations, fleeting moments and impressions, images and textures. This essay intersperses italicized vignettes with more conventional prose. It resists linear teleology by refusing subtitles or sections, and by assembling musings and vignettes rather than accreting evidence for an argument.
And the Walls Wept
Cold, damp, dark. I found this place in a hurry when the last place was sold. A dim light seeps into the centre of the house from a skylight hacked into the ceiling over the kitchen table. This is where I work, grading endless papers, rather than in the little room where I set up my desk. It seems never to be summer here, and I have no joy in writing or thinking for this year. All I remember is the dampness of the walls lifting the edges of the wallpaper in the bedrooms, the curlworms that breed at the edges of the carpet, and the weeping yellow walls of the kitchen after the hailstorm. The gutters filled and water leaked into the ceiling cavity. Brown streaks and dribbles ran down the walls and couldn't be scrubbed away. Old rain filtered through the nests of whatever lived in the roof, staining, seeping, and sickening while I waited for the landlord to come and fix it himself.
The most amorphous and ephemeral of ordinary things may be those subtle and dramatic forces and events that we think of collectively in the everyday as “weather.” There is always a conflation of weather with atmosphere in definitions, and both are used figuratively as well as literally. Prosaically, weather is “the state of the air and atmosphere at a particular time and place: the temperature and other outside conditions (such as rain, cloudiness, etc.) at a particular time and place.”7 More precisely for geographers it is “the state of the atmosphere at a particular place and time with regard to temperature, air pressure, humidity, wind, cloudiness, and precipitation… used to describe conditions over short periods of time.”8 The atmosphere, narrowly defined, might be explained as “the gaseous envelope”9 or “blanket surrounding the earth.”10 Thus, although we are contained or wrapped within this gaseous invisible thing—whether blanket or envelope—the implication in these conventional quasi-scientific understandings is that despite being subject to it, we remain distinct from it.
Atmosphere is used much more expansively and figuratively in everyday life and it is these metaphorical uses of the word that have been most productive for critical geographers, and that have been explicitly linked to affective states. Ben Anderson, for example, is interested in affective experiences as those swirling “before and alongside the formation of subjectivity.”11 For him, atmosphere indicates “mood, feeling, ambience, tone and other ways of naming collective affects,” and particular atmospheres can be said to characterize “epochs, societies, rooms, landscapes, couples, artworks, and much more.”12 Conceptually, in this expanded cultural sense the notion of atmosphere can hold together opposites, such as presence and absence, materiality and ideality, definite and indefinite, determinate and indeterminate, singular and vague, affect and emotion. Another important quality is the ephemeral, quixotic, and always “unfinished” nature of what Anderson calls “affective atmospheres” as they “are perpetually forming and deforming, appearing and disappearing, as bodies enter into relation with one another.”13 They are “always being taken up and reworked in lived experience—becoming part of feelings and emotions that may themselves become elements within other atmospheres.”14 While Anderson reinforces the “uncertain, disordered, shifting and contingent”15 qualities of atmospheric affects, and draws briefly on Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari's tracing of affect and atmospheric phenomenon—meteors, rain, hail, wind, air, clouds, rainbows—he does not tune his argument into precise manifestations of atmosphere—little weather events—in the times and places of everyday life.
There aren't enough words for the ways the wind moves on my edge of the valley. In the middle of the midwinter night, the wind breathes, billows, sighs, swirls, surges. Unlike water, there is no rhythm or pattern to the wind, just these wild, billowing urges that lift and move and moan. The house is sealed tight, except for the slit under the front door where I forgot to block the seepage of the icy cold by pushing in the stuffed fabric door snake. Nothing outside is still. The blinds on the northern edge of the veranda flap against the neighbor's fence though I have tried many nights to anchor them down with ropes and bricks. All sorts of rustlings and shiftings of things outside. Potted plants tumble sideways, furniture falls or flies about. This wind pushes past sleep, and drags with it uncanny atmospheres and histories that I know nothing about. Bones rattle and chill, fear rises from the valley below.
In Ordinary Affects, elements such as rain or wind or sunshine do not feature often in the fragments and scenes that are assembled. The question remains open, suggests Stewart, on “what counts as an event, a movement, an impact, a reason to react.”16 Rain falls in Houston, TX, and creates chaos in the airport but the rain itself features only as an event that (dis)organizes people.17 Vermont composes itself around “incommensurate” elements and weather (fall leaves, snow) is buried amongst so many more human elements.18 What happens when weather is the starting point for an anthropological attention to the self in scenes of the everyday? The self, as the subject who is attuned to the environment, a being capable of experiencing, speaking, remembering, and writing, is the effect of the “coagulation of intensities, surfaces, sensations, perceptions, and expressions.” The subject is a “thing composed of encounters and the spaces and events it traverses or inhabits.”19 Becoming a subject—an “I” who claims a space for a moment in the world and in a text—means channeling, “like a live wire,” everything that is happening.
Everything that is happening can be glossed by Stewart's later term (borrowed from Martin Heidegger), “worlding,” which is what takes place in the everyday times and spaces of life, wherein the present is understood as “a compositional event” in which “everything depends on the feel of an atmosphere and the angle of arrival” and “bloom spaces” of possibility are always opening.20 These manifest in all kinds of bodies, including “atmospheres, landscapes, expectations, institutions, states of acclimation, or endurance or pleasure or being stuck or moving on.”21 Atmospheres for Stewart are “not an inert context but a force field in which people find themselves… a capacity to affect and be affected that pushes a present into a composition, an expressivity, the sense of potentiality and event.”22 This requires “haptic descriptions,” wherein we discover the “object of analysis” as we write through the time and space of the everyday,23 and it suggests “forms of writing that detour into descriptive eddies.”24 The object of analysis that emerges will be connected not only to the subjective and sensory experiences, but also to wider issues of interest—political, personal, aesthetic, environmental, and other concerns collide.
After days of summer rain, the afternoon is shot through with sudden light and birdsong, and we all shake our wings and start to move. I walk out the gate. The air is sharp and clean with ozone, eucalyptus oils, and wet bitumen. The high side of the curve of the road is matted with ferns from a hanging swamp. Bright green tendrils are pearled with drops of water. Orange Montbretia [Class 4 noxious weed] flowers in among the green from corms escaped from cottage gardens. They proliferate on every roadside. The hanging swamps endemic to this place rely on steady sideways seepage of water where impermeable ironstone interrupts layers of soft sandstone. Water filters through the swamps on its way into the creeks, and there are waterfalls hidden all through these forests. The Local Environmental Plan holds back high density housing developments to keep the rainwater supply moving through the soil, for the swamps and watercourses in the upper and mid mountains. What does heritage mean, in a World Heritage-listed area, and whose is this responsibility? I step over a millipede crossing the damp footpath, nod at the neighbors and their dogs out for a walk in the sun. The next local government election will see environmentalists facing off against developers. Brown pigeons line up on the clothesline as I walk in through the gate.
Atmospheres are accretions of affects in a particular moment in place and time. Atmospheres are central to “landscapes, architecture and homes” as they “circumscribe or fill the space we inhabit, and may define moments for individuals as well as for collectives.”25 Atmospheres can be understood as inherently non-representational, always in process and indeterminate, and therefore shadowy and unknown, cryptic and ambiguous, singular and irreducible.26 Any naming practices must emerge from “how the researcher is simultaneously orientated towards an atmosphere and dwells within that same atmosphere,” including the sensuous and emotional feelings that are evoked.27 Ben Anderson and James Ash examine an interior space, a medical waiting room, as a scene from everyday life that is constituted by “multiple atmospheres seemingly contacted or touched one another, while remaining affectively discrete.”28 This sort of attention to the affective in everyday life requires “a flattening and breaking down of distinctions between living and dead matter.”29 All things—even those that do not have a form or shape—have equal potential to impact an atmosphere. Anderson and Ash examine the collective atmospheres of the waiting room through breath, that is, the sighs exhaled by people waiting to be seen, and through light, that is, in terms of the qualities of light emitted by lightbulbs illuminating the waiting room. These are modes of attention that are “beneath the thresholds of humans' conscious awareness.”30 For researchers, documenting qualities that are beneath conscious awareness is meticulous and difficult work, requiring those experimental modes of writing and attunement to the ephemeral and elusive, the sensory, aesthetic, and material dimensions of everyday life.
The quality of atmosphere as being beneath conscious awareness is noted by Tim Ingold, who emphasizes how weather is experienced through the senses, entering awareness “not as a scenic panorama but as an experience of light.”31 He wants to foreground our experiences of weather as multisensory with auditory, haptic, and olfactory dimensions that are closely entangled with the visual. We “see” weather because we can simultaneously hear, feel, and smell it. The sense of touch is particularly important because it is by definition close up and hands on, whereas sight retains detachment and distance.32 Rather than landscape, Ingold suggests the more potent concept of “weather-world,”33 which is a world “without objects”—everything, including the people who inhabit it along with other animals, elements, and other things, is “in movement, in flux, becoming.”34 Seagulls, for example, are swirling movements and sounds amongst the breakers, the grey ocean, and the sky, until they momentarily perch on a breakwater, and take on form. Attuning to the land with a perception informed by the sea means seeing both as “restless, in ceaseless motion and change.”35 Ingold argues that we need to learn to be attuned to the weather-world as a smooth space, in the Deleuzean sense: “to regain the currents of life, and of sensory awareness… . the generative movements of life, light, sound and weather.”36
From work, the wall of smoke looks higher than the mountains, but that is a trick of the angle, and the mass of smoke drifting and distorting as it moves across the plains. The back road is closed and the highway is packed with cars. Go home first, we are told, prepare your bushfire evacuation plan. Wait for advice. Windows are shut tight in the car and the air set to recycle, but everything smells of smoke. Houses are gone the radio says, a few ridges over. The “Fires Near Me” app on my phone says it's 4 kilometers (approx. 2.5 miles) away and we are not in immediate danger. I stand in the driveway at home, checking that my neighbor has somewhere to go, making calls. I stretch out my arms as ash floats down and settles on my skin like dirty snow. I collect someone else's child from an empty house and bring her home with me. Later, a sea of us sit on the grass by the hall, peer up at the yellow sky, count heads and friends, listen to men and women on megaphones prophesy which way the wind might blow, plan our escapes.
The agency of weather is ambiguous. It certainly makes people, animals, and things do things, think and feel things. It incites relations and provokes changes. These are most evident in a visible or dramatic weather event, but in an everyday sense the agency of weather remains elusive and difficult to articulate. It is not something that just happens to us outside ourselves, nor is it something we are separated from or can exclude by shutting the door behind us, literally or metaphorically. Taking wind as an example, Ingold contrasts the views of scientists that wind is merely the consequence of differences in horizontal and vertical atmospheric air pressure with Indigenous cosmologies that recognize that wind is alive and agentic. Wind is made subject, manifest within the “pantheon of beings” as “important persons that give shape and direction to the world in which people live, just as do the sun, the moon and the stars.”37 In an animistic environmentalism, we are not separated from atmosphere and its phenomena, but the inhabited world for humans and other beings is created by the “aerial flux of weather rather than by the grounded fixities of landscape.”38 The ground beneath our feet, all that we can see as landscape, is formed of weather, which is always “dynamic, always unfolding, ever changing in its currents, qualities of light and shade, and colors, alternately damp or dry, warm or cold, and so on.”39 The relational fields within which we come into being are not composed of points of connection between things (humans, objects, organisms) that are discrete and preexisting; rather, they are made of interwoven lines that envelop and create things: “not a network but a meshwork.”40 The “environment,” then, becomes a “domain of entanglement,” and “this tangle is the texture of the world.”41 In this ontology we do not merely occupy but we inhabit the world and by doing so we “contribute to its ever-evolving weave.”42 The strategy we need to understand meshwork is a wayfaring, following trails through the meshwork. Those trails might be our own, as we drag ourselves through scenes of the everyday, vignettes that start to show how things of all orders of being are thrown together.
Some scholars turn to concrete objects to make visible interactions with weather, or to bring the ineffable into awareness. A public artwork called Breathe is the focus of Sasha Engelmann's investigation of a “poetics of air” that might simultaneously be attuned to sensory, affective, and aesthetic experiences.43 The interactions of people and objects over time enable a “worlding of air and atmosphere as they fold and shape forms of life.”44 Also looking at breath, Maria Miranda and Norie Neumark's cross-media arts project Talking about the Weather draws attention to the ephemeral qualities of air and climate change through technology—collecting “breath” donations from people in the Netherlands, Beijing, and New Zealand to “blow back” global warming.45 After all, they say, paraphrasing Australian climate scientist Tim Flannery, “every breath you take makes you part of a dynamic system called the atmosphere, or the aerial ocean.”46 The videocameras and boom microphones they use with their participants make breath discernible.
In his experiment with non-representational methodologies and air, Derek P. McCormack uses an object—a balloon—to make visible the invisible, and so enhance “sensory and affective apprehensions of the world.”47 Air is also mobilized by Mark Jackson and Maria Fannin in their proposition for a new geography that is loosened from its addiction to solidity and territoriality. They argue that a geography more attuned to materiality and emergence would start not with disciplinary precedents and conventions, but “with the stuff itself,” whatever that may be.48 When that “stuff” is air, the swirling, invisible “absent presence,” scholars will learn the subtleties of attunement, modulation, and variation, and develop “new imaginative structures for thought and politics” beyond the habits of “destructive critique.” This enables a more “affective, fluid, and ecologically reflexive holism”49 that is more suited to the problems of our time.
Mornings when the depth and thickness of the fog over the back fence is paced out by tree trunks are why I won't get curtains. The glass doors open right out onto a wooden deck. In winter the fog fills the forest beyond the deck, past the fence, and hangs across the valley in the mornings. The horizontal line of sight doesn't shift, but the slender verticals of the eucalypts move nearer or further away depending on the texture of the fog. The pale forms of Eucalyptus oreades, the smooth-barked mountain ash; the darker limbs of Eucalyptus sieberi, the silvertop ash. They grow slender and straight, their many limbs lifting up to the canopy shaggy with leaves. Their trunks loom and hover in the thick white air. If I step onto the deck, the air is soft, damp, and cold on my face. Back behind the glass, I stand in a balancing pose, thinking straight and strong and still like the trees, holding up my arms, emptying myself like the fog. Breathing in, breathing out.
This place, where I live now—with its sandstone soils, its veils of fog and dripping water, its heat and surprise, its ridges and escarpments—is at the same time material and ephemeral and affective. It makes me other than I would be elsewhere. The potential for this atmospheric attunement is hinted at in the successful submission to United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization for World Heritage listing of the Blue Mountains:
The natural beauty and aesthetic importance of the Greater Blue Mountains lie also in a multitude of ephemeral attributes—harmony, contrast and diversity; colour, changing light and shadow of sun, moon and stars; mist, cloud, snow, rain, lightning, thunder and wind; birdsong and flowing waters. These qualities extend the natural beauty as strongly as the underlying bio-physical forces.50
These ephemeral attributes are more than markers of natural beauty, they are—despite their transience—constitutive forces and affective provocations. Even in the everyday moments of these vignettes, these fleeting moments in just one life hold the potential to change everything.
Finding a way of writing that is adequate to the affective resonances of ordinary life is difficult, in that there is no formula and no genre that might be replicable. Each project needs to find its own form. I have just begun with a few fragments, some minor weather events, and a sort of rhythm of intrusion into more familiar academic discourse. Anna Gibbs suggests that if “affective attunement is the first task of writing, [then] the second is affective resonance,” and this is only achieved when “writing finds the particular form adequate to what it describes.”51 There is a “vitality” in this writing, she suggests, that comes from rhythmic elements and structures, and the embodiment of the researcher in the text. The researcher's body becomes a “metronome,” attuned to the rhythms of the social and natural worlds in which she moves.52 These fragmented weather reports might as readily be poems, images, impressions, haiku.
Focusing on little weather events might seem trivial, when such large events are reshaping life for us and all others on earth, and the earth itself. For example, climate change, ocean acidification, global warming, and all sorts of bizarre weather events in this era we are coming to call “the Anthropocene” all demand our attention. This is part of a posthuman turning to matter, and a rethinking of what matters. After all, as Jackson and Fannin put it, matter is so present to us in these times that we have “no choice but to listen,” but we need to listen differently, and with all our senses, to better understand how we are immersed within the “fragile balances of earth, air, water, and fire.”53 This begins with closer attention to insignificant daily moments, events, and sensations—all those little ordinaries, the heres and theres, that make up the monumental and the global.