Mikhaila Redovian, University of California, Davis
On Friday, March 11, the Oecologies research cluster convened a virtual reading group to discuss work on Clouds, bridging the Sea and Sky focal points of our current research project. Led by Dr. Vin Nardizzi, the discussion addressed three works, Alison Calhoun’s “What cloud machines tell us about early modern emotions” (Romance Quarterly, 2021), Lorraine Daston’s “Cloud Physiognomy” (Representations, 2016), and an excerpt from chapter 5 on “Clouds” in John Durham Peters’ The Marvelous Clouds: Toward a Philosophy of Elemental Media (University of Chicago Press, 2015). Nardizzi opened the discussion by returning to topics from the November 19th meeting, particularly Melody Jue’s term “volumetrics,” and by targeting the idea of “surface reading” from Daston’s chapter. Each of these three pieces led to a questioning of surfaces that don’t conform to human control, which acted as a common reference throughout the conversation.
Initially, the conversation delved into Calhoun’s piece and the theatrical spectacle of clouds produced by seventeenth-century cloud machines. As Calhoun notes, these machines contributed greatly to the affective reception of the drama of their day. Part of the cloud machines’ affective success involves the spontaneity with which they produced their effects. But the machines themselves occluded the labor-intensive process of creating the desired effect. The fraught relationship between playwrights, cloud machine creators, and audiences provides a useful metaphor for considering how clouds alternately obscure and reveal complex processes, not just on stage but in everyday life: as Daston argues, people put hyperspecific names to objects that cannot be contained linguistically.
The ambiguities of clouds continued to animate the conversation. Do clouds obscure or condense knowledge? Do they block or do they protect humans from the face of God? When we look to the clouds, do we interpret shapes as they are observed, or do we project our thoughts onto them? Is there danger or clarity in naming or identifying clouds? The conversation shifted to The Tempest and Hamlet, whichprovide rich ground to contemplate these questions. Are we similar to Prospero, attempting to contain and control Ariel? How does identifying a cloud as a ghost change the implications of that object? Does the power dynamic inherent in Hamlet and Polonius’ relationship restrict Polonius’ response?
The conversation concluded with discussion of the limitations of language in describing or accounting for clouds. Daston closely aligns her argument with that of the art historian Hubert Damisch, both of whom question if Linnean classifications animate or deflate clouds. These inquiries invite us to consider what acts we engage in when we attempt to name or categorize the inexpressible. Modern media such as Godfrey Reggio’s 1982 experimental, non-narrative and wordless film Koyaanisqatsi similarly asks what other mediums might be suitable for representing the ineffable.
While textual questions animated much of the discussion, theorizing clouds offers a vital connection between Sea readings and Sky readings. “Clouds” offered an opportunity to continue conversations from November’s meeting while also moving toward the heavens.