The Weather: A Report on Sincerity

I'm interested in the weather. Who isn't? We groom for the atmosphere. Daily we apply our mothers' prognostics to the sky. We select our garments accordingly; like flags or vanes we signify. But I'm interested in weather also because cultural displacement has shown me that weather is a rhetoric. Furthermore, it is the rhetoric of sincerity, falling in a soothing, familial vernacular. It's expressed between friendly strangers. I speak it to you. A beautiful morning. You speak it back. The fog has lifted. We are now a society. To say insincerity is foreign to weather is precise. Weather is the mythic equilibrium of the social, rising and falling in the numbly intimate metres of the commonplace. For a long time the rhythm's opaque to the stranger. Haltingly you begin to sing, during the long cab ride from the airport, the long chorus of place. You enter a new weather, an unfamiliar system of sincerity. You learn it by example. You begin to adjust, to settle; put in order; regulate. But you are a spy in sincerity. The real knowledge of weather is indigenous.

Should it come as a surprise that Britain's most profitable television export is not costume drama but weatherporn? Weatherporn. An atmospheric condition dallies with some lives and we drink its lusty spectacle from the screen. Description pries up, frees itself, briefly phatic, expresses a gestural plenitude, framed by but untied to the sociality of objects. This loosening is diction as rhythm. It crosses borders. The weather becomes a flickering social prosody. As it abstracts into rhythm it becomes commodified, universal. Really. It was a fireball, right through the front door, and out the back.

It's real. It's mythic. It's wild. It's a vernacular. It's didactic. It's boredom. It's ceaseless. It's a delusional space.

Stacy Doris says "In terms of geographies and nationalities, the best bet for poetry is delusional space. . . Any poetry that doesn't somehow begin in a realm of wild fantasy is not worth the writing." This weather's the wild fantasy. It seizes us. Together our faces tilt upwards. A wild dream of parity must have its own weather and that weather will always have as its structure an incommensurability. If each forecast is a fiction I prefer to add to that fiction alternate delusions-- a delusionary politics that describes current conditions as it poses futurities. I mean it.

Here is want I want to say. Sincerity has a rhetorical history. The history of the description of weather parallels the history of sincerity as a rhetorical value. The delimitation or purification of diction is common to both. Part of this delimitation is idiomatic; part derives from a tradition of quotation, of genre. When Virgil described the weather prognosticatons in The Georgics, he quoted Lucretius and Aratus' Diosemia, which in turn referred to Hesiod's Works and Days. James Thomson, in The Seasons, quoted Virgil, both structurally and substantially. John Clare learned an ideology of directly observed description from Thomson, as did Wordworth. Etcetera. But parallel to the literary and idiomatic geneology of the atmosphere, was the standardization of scientific rhetoric, the language of natural philosophy and early meteorology.

Here is a small history of that sincerity. In 1667 Thomas Sprat, the historian of the Royal Society, included in his account of the principal body of the new sciences a substantial manifesto on style. "The Purity of speech, and greatness of Empire have, in all Countries, still met together" he says, calling for "a close, naked, natural way of speaking, positive expressions, clear senses, a native easiness: bringing all things as near the mathematical plainness, as they can: and perferring the language of Artisans, countrymen and merchants, before that, of wits, and scholars." The purification of English diction was integral to the institutionalization of scientific discourse, but also to the normalization of national conduct, distinguishing English, and the English, from the rhetorical eloquence, the corrupt and feminine arts of pleasure and ornament that Sprat sees spread throughout neighbouring latinate languages and nations. He describes "The general constitution of the Minds of the English": "They have commonly an unaffected sincerity; that they love to deliver their minds with a sound simplicity. . . a universal modesty posseses them." For Sprat, sincerity, reason and plain speech are natural to the English people by blood, and by weather:

          "By position of our climate, the air, the influence of the heaven, the composition of the English
          blood, as well as the embraces of the ocean, seem to join with the labours of the Royal Society, to
          render our country a land of Experimental Knowledge. And it is a good sign that Nature
          will reveal more of its secrets to the English than to others because it has already furnished them
          with a genius so well proportioned for the receiving and retaining its mysteries."

So climate is blood. The stylistic sign of sincerity, apart from the plain diction of common people, showed itself in a rhetorical economy: the experimental philospher must maintain "A constant Resolution to reject all the amplifications, digressions, and swellings of style; to return back to the primitive purity and shortness, when men delivered so many Things, almost in an equal number of Words." Nor was this economy merely metaphorical. One of the pragmatic purposes of the Royal Society was the improvement of manufacture; experimental philosophers were to propose better use of the new materials originating in America and elsewhere. Says Spratt "it has been the constant error of men's labours in all Ages, that they have still directed them to improve those of Pleasure, more than those of profit. . .what prodigious expense has been thrown away about the fashions of clothes? But how little endeavours have there been, to invent new materials for clothing, or to perfect those we have?" English inventiveness, plainess, reason, and sincerity made an efficient structure for the economical administration of manufacture, trade, and colonies. A formal Academy would not prove necessary. The 18th century blossoming of the sciences extended through all aspects of the political economy of the nation and its colonies, the new scientific rhetoric proving the ground for the radical nationalist literatures of the late 18th century. The public for the purified diction of Wordworth and Coleridge was already established in the late 17th century. Sincerity is a market, a decisive method, a nationalist politics, and an ethnic signifier. Lyrical Ballads are ethnic weather. They wear a blue bonnet. They read the weather signs for bombers.

The best parts of manifestoes are their lapses and practical failures. Wordsworth, in the Second Preface to Lyrical Ballads says "The language of these rustic men has been adopted. . .because such men hourly communicate with the best objects from which the best part of language is originally derived; and because. . . being less under the influence of social vanity, they convey their feelings and notions in simple and unelaborated expressions." Wordsworth was applying the Royal Society's notion of plain speech to poetry. The transposition of the rhetoric of sincerity from prose style to poetry wasn't entirely elided; Wordsworth stressed that good poetry and good prose have a common diction. He claimed as well that all knowledge, including the sciences, belongs in poetry. He wasn't the first to make this claim; he was reiterating an important theme in literary criticism. In the 18th century Thomas Aikens and Joseph Trapp wrote and lectured on the advisability of bringing the discourses of the new natural sciences into poetry. For these critics, the natural sciences would supply poetry with newness, variability and change-- the concern was pointed towards content. For Aikens and Trapp, the traditional form of the georgic would provide a structural ground on which descriptions of specifically english nature could unfold. The new style of descriptive rhetoric in the sciences didn't immediately replace poetic diction, but it did supplement the poem's content, previously a non-contentious iteration of classical formulations and phraseologies, with new values of authenticity and regional truth and specificity. In constituting this separation between content and form, Aiken and Trapp attributed to the poet a new agency, the potential of subjective choice. No longer genre-driven, the composition of poetry now included in its compass the possibility that content was a matter of individual choice, and the measure of the poem was no longer tradition, but authenticity. Wordsworth extended the trope from content to diction-- now the lexical choices and phrase formations enacted by the poet reflected the poets own subjective status rather than the learned apprehension of a tradition-based rhetorical economy. But Coleridge later pointed out how Wordsworth's poetry consistently exceeds its own claims for a pure diction, and accompanying proprieties of sentiment and structure, and that the poetry's value lies in the particular textures of Wordsworths transgressions of his own theory. Early 19 century scientific description also overflows its own rhetorical programme and stylistic norm. I've been monitering this overflow, specifically within the meteorological literature pertaining to clouds.

Clouds presented a specific formal difficulty to description and nomenclature-- if, as Sprat advised, the relation between objects and words should be equivalent, economical, the cloud challenged the propriety of this equivalence since its appearance as a thing was so ephemeral. In fact for a long time a cloud was not a thing. Clouds couldn't be seen for the sky. Robert Hooke, who reported to the Royal Society on A Method for Making a History of the Weather, proposed a lexicon for the sky. "But as for the faces of the sky, they are so many, that many of them want proper names. . . Let Clear signify a very clear sky. . . Checquered a clear sky with many great white round clouds. . .Hazy, a sky that looks whitish. . . Thicke, a sky more whitened. . . Overcast, when the vapours so whiten and thicken the air that the sun cannot break through" and so on, through the terms Hairy, Watered, Waved, and Lowring. The trouble with Hookes proposed diction was that it could not perceive clouds structurally, but looked at the sky as a face, a single figure to which the meteorologist could apply an interpretive phenomenology. The struggle was to see a cloud as particular, so that it could be enumerated, measured and described.

Then in 1796 Luke Howard invented clouds. A young Quaker man who was a chemist by trade and training, he belonged to a society of amature natural philosphers who would weekly meet to make reports on their observations. In a biographical letter to Goethe, he said of himself "My pretensions as a man of science are . . . but slender: being born, however, with observant faculties, I began even here to make use of them, as well as I could without a guide." His observations of clouds occured on his daily walks between his home and his chemical laboratory and were presented to the society, published in Tilloch's philosophical magazine, and later in the book Essay on the Modifications of Clouds. The names cumulus, cirrus and stratus resulted from his observations.

This is what dignified Howards observations: he was able to invent a structural typology which could account for change. The face of the sky was revisioned as "certain distinct modifications." The basic three cloud types corresponded to zones or depths of the sky as well as to structural types-- cirrus, to the high, fibrous wisps, Cumulus to the conical heaps of the middle ground, and stratus to the horizontal sheets of mist which hug the earth. Clouds were translated from figurations, to-- not quite objects, but objective modifications. Weather became a system. These distinctions have become so very normalized that I think we can't really understand the absolute novelty of understanding clouds in terms of structural typology. After Howard, clouds were seen for the first time. Howard's nomenclature provided a lens. It entered the public knowledge quite quickly-- and the importance of his system can be somewhat gauged by its immediate use, not only by other meteorologists, but within the literary and visual arts. After Howard, Shelley, Coleridge and Goethe wrote cloud poems. Goethe gave the cloud treatise to the German, and Danish, romantic painters. In Modern Painters, Ruskin wrote long treatises on the perspectival representation of clouds. Constable completely reassessed his representation of skies, spending a full year doing little other than outdoor cloud studies, often 3 or more in an hour, with meteorological notations scrawled on the backs. People spend their lives researching and annotating these influences. I won't. What I want to notice here, though, is how the propriety and economy of Howard's system was almost immediately bloated with a descriptive and identificatory excess, which nevertheless managed to respect his proposed typology and structure.

After Howard, individual meteorologists gravitated towards specializations in the accounts of specific cloud types-- with some this is a stated objective, with others, a discernable inflation in descriptive balance. Rev Leonard Blomefield, for example, spent 30 years in Cambridgeshire observing the stratus formation. . . His accounts are not so much remarkable for the cloud descriptions in themselves, as they are for his strangely methodical obsession with low and creeping mists. Rev. Blomefield identified with fog. He observed its formation on a large grass meadow in front of his vicarage, and when as he described "circumstances were likely to favour the formation of fogs and creeping mists," he would place, at the far end of the field, a chair and a small table supplied with thermometres, hygrometer and notebook (kept always ready in the vicarage for this use). He would sit in the meadow and observe, taking account of all that occured relating to the fogs and creeping mists, from their first appearance to their dissappearance, if they did not continue all night. He explained, in his characteristically precise yet underdetermined manner "The way in which stratus gradually spreads itself sheetlike over a meadow, or at other times extends in lines and bands from one meadow to another, is very striking." He was inspired in these observations by his colleague Mr Wells, who wrote the "Essay on Dew". Wells also observed his chosen phenomena almost every night of his adult life. He described his method-- "Upon one serene and still night I placed fresh parcels of wool upon grass every hour, and by weighing each of them found that they had attracted dew." And so on. I can't help but read into these accounts a marvelous identificatory excess-- an identification which aligns itself with a method, in all its excessiveness, and which subsequently bleeds into a rhetorical economy of description.

Thomas Ignatius Forster, writing immediately after Howard, focussed at length on the Cirrus formation. His attempts to precisely describe the cirrus cloud reflect the need to extend descriptive grammar towards a rhythmically paratactic prolixity, when the object of description itself is in a state of constant transformation. Cirrus is the most formally variable of the modifications, and in traditional weather lore tends to be referred to using various animal and plant analogies-- Mare's tail, Mackeral back, the sea tree. Forster's cirrus description, rather than carrying out Sprat's economy of a word for each thing, refers to folkloric likeness, proceeding by a figurative logic of analogy and accretion, interleaved with a discordantly geometrical diction. Here is one sentence of his cirrus: "Comoid tufts, like bushes of hair, or sometimes like erected feathers; angular flexure; streaks; recticular intersections of them. . .which look like nets thrown over the firmament; forms of arrows; stars with long fibrous tails, cyphen shaped curves, and lines with pendulous or with erect fringes, ornament the sky; still different appearances of stars and waves again appear, as these clouds change to cirrocumulus or cirrostratus, which modifications also seem to form and subside spontaneously, in different planes, and with the varied and dissimilar appearances of flocks at rest, fleeces of wool, or myriads of small specks; of long tapering columns like the tail of the great manis, or of mackeral back skies, or of striae, like the grains of wood." Forster's cloud-sentence proceeds by a series of phrasal modifications, miming the process of transmutation in the clouds themselves, even discernably within the real time of those observed fluctuations. In this instance sincerity accrues by ornament, expansion, its rhetoric stretched to the point of contusion, within the authenticating timeframe of the plein air descriptive sketch.

This book of Forsters was in the personal library of the East Anglian John Constable, a painter with a lifelong engagement with the representation of weather conditions within landscape. In 1820, shortly after the second edition of the Forster book, and the publication of Howards Climate of London, which included his theory of cloud modification and nomenclature, Constable began a two year detailed study of clouds. He produced a huge body of oil sketches on paper, executed out doors, representing cloud types in relation to larger weather patterns. This sketches, sometimes produced in 15 minute intervals throughout a series of days, serve as a sort of real time filmic meteorological sequence. On the back of each, Constable scrawled a notation of accompanying weather conditions-- for example "Sept. 10, 1821 Eleven o'clock sultry with warm gentle rain falling large heavy clouds a heavy downpour and thunder". Then, half an hour later-- "Noon, Gentle wind at west. Very sultry after a heavy shower with thunder. Accumulated thunder clouds passing slowly away to the south east. Very Bright and Hot. All the foliage sparkling." But similarily to the way these small scale sky sketches served as reference for the later representation of skies in his fullsize canvases, the brief weather annotations sometimes extended to full length descriptions with stylistic parallels to the prolix meteorological literature he perferred:

          "It may, perhaps give some idea of one of these bright and silver days in spring, when at noon large
          garish clouds surcharged with hail or sleet sweep with their broad shadows the fields, woods, and
          hills; and by their depths enhance the value of the vivid greens and yellows so peculiar to the
          season. The natural history, if the expression may be used, of the skies, which are so particularily
          marked in the hail squalls at this time of year is this: The clouds accumulate in very large masses, and
          from their loftiness seem to move but slowly; immediately upon these large clouds appear numerous
          opaque patches, which are only small clouds passing rapidly before them, and consisting of
          isolated portions detached probably from the larger cloud. These, floating much nearer the earth
          may perhaps fall in with a stronger current of wind, which as well as thir comparitive lightness
          causes them to move with greater rapidity; hence they are called by wind-millers and sailors,
          messangers, and always portend bad weather. They float midway in what may be termed the lanes of
          the clouds; and from being so situated are almost uniformly in shadow, receiving a reflected
          light only, from the clear blue sky imediately above them. In passing over the bright of the large
          clouds, they appear as darks; but in passing the shadowed parts, they assume a grey, a pale, or
          lurid hue."

This is a note written for the painting Spring. It is remarkable, to me, for its nuanced description of movement, the specific movements of clouds and light, coming from a painter whose primary medium could only be static, planar representation. Constables concern was to find a method of representing skies and weather as temporal phenomena, as metred fluctuation. His life long project was a natural history of the skies. Observational methodologies of natural history, and the descriptive rhetoric of modifications, were translated to a chiarascuro rendering of cause and effect. Constable's was a pictured prosody of weather.

What these natural histories of the sky share, in spite of stylistic modifications and developements in the rhetoric of descriptive sincerity-- and the dogmas and transgressions of that rhetoric--, is a participation in a broad cultural project, the enlightement project, to collectively describe and test the parametres of Truth. Even in the early Wordsworth, the methodological project, the experiments in diction and address, the romance of the perceiving subject, are aligned with a sceptical conservatism concerned with the description and promotion of static, enduring values. We see, in the history of clouds, the shift from description as ontological figuration, to description as notation of situational modification and change-- the delimitation or formalization of cloud nomenclature permitted perception to begin to annotate patterns of temporality, rather than properties of objects. Clouds, in a sense were invented at the point when sincerity ceased being a rhetoric, as in Sprat, and submerged itself in the cultural ontology of Romanticism.

Yet in the small, named, quantified world of the description, temporal improprieties can be observed. Like a little weather demonstrating formal inexhaustibility, the empirical description is the site of its own transgression. So it is sincere, and it is a model of uninterpretability.

What I want to do is to infiltrate sincerity-- not to dissolve it in sceptical critique, but to lift it from its maudlin imprisonment, return to it the rhetorical play of idiom, of scale, enjoy its identificatory intensities and climates as conditions or modifications that pass over the face. I am a spy.

The history of meteorology shows that the idea of "the weather" has consistantly been appropriated to a dominant status quo. In the enclopediac empire of taxonomies weather gained a scientific nomenclature. In the culture of warfare, forcasting was absorbed into governmental budgets. In the incipience of the nation state, as governments gained economic interests in aviation and agribusiness, the weather became a department of government. At the same time weather's everyday rhetorical status as commonplace, as phatic utterance, assured that the sociology of weather appears as nature.

Part of what I want to ask of the rhetoric of weather, is what other ideologies may it absorb? May I cause the weather to absorb the wrong ideologies? The issue is not to defamiliarize the language of weather, but to appropriate its naturalizing function to a history, an utterance, which is delusional insofar as it is gendered. A wild dream of parity must have its own weather and that weather will always have as its structure an inexhaustible incommensurability.

I'm interested in sincerity. Its usually invoked as a stoical value, a holy humanness. Moral and national weight attends it. I'm interested in studying sincerity because I want and don't want it. I mean, I want to be believed. But I also want to write through spaces that are utterly delusional. I need to be able to delude myself, for as long as it takes, as long as it takes to translate an emotion, a grievance, a politics, an intoxication, to a site, an outside. Sincerity says that identity is moral. I need it to be a tent, not a cave, a rhetoric, not a value. There's also the fact that my sex is a problem within sincerity. I want to move on. I want a viable climate. I'll make it in description.