February 23, 2016

[Fractal Interpolation] EP24: GROWING UP FAHRENHEIT

Episode 24





Brecht/Weil - Nana’s Lied :: Wo ist der Schnee vom vergangenen Jahr?


Three days ago, I was wearing a sleeveless shirt and sweating. Two days ago I was thankful of this new (to me) weatherproof coat, and wishing I had more layers. Today I’m doing a sleeveless shirt and long coat because it’s the only thing that vaguely makes sense, plus it makes me look like an ill-specified occult underground figure, like Alan Moore designed by Grant Morrison, thus I attempt to synthesize the defining magical war of our time in an outfit. I’ve been thinking about the semiotics of fashion as an explicitly occult act. Maybe I’ll write about that next time.

So, how’s the weather where you live?

Growing Up Fahrenheit

I grew up in a rural part of the southern United States. This was back when seasons made sense, if you remember that, so in December it would snow, and I learned very early that 32 degrees is the magic number. Anything above that and the snow and ice would turn to slush and mud and rain, anything below and you could never be sure when the snow was going to stop.

Childhood was written in Fahrenheit. 32 degrees is when water becomes ice. 32 seems arbitrary, but as I reach back and try to determine at what point that became a basic structure of the universe rather than an effect, I can’t find that moment. 32 degrees was a law, alongside gravity and inertia (mostly explored by way of bicycles). 32 degrees was frozen into the fabric of my world.

Then, time happened, and among the other things I learned about Europe and the Metric System and all the other unpleasant discrepancies American children encounter between The Way Things Are Done and Oh Yeah Everybody Else Does Things Different But They’re Wrong And We’re Right.

These days I’ve been training myself to think in Celsius. Weather is to smartphones as time is to household appliances, it’s the first bell and/or whistle, a low hanging fruit of app development somewhere between Hello World and Twitter Client. A search on the Google play store for “weather” brings up 250 results. You can get your weather in text, or icons, or animations, you can get the icon in cornflower blue. But I haven’t been able to find an app that will simultaneously show me the temperature in Fahrenheit and Celsius. So I wake, look at my phone, see Celsius, briefly think I have been transported to Antarctica, then remember that I’m trying to train my brain. The act of switching to Fahrenheit, the metric of my childhood, is a strange reaching backward through time for sense memories and attempting to connect them to numbers so seemingly arbitrary in the present.

And then we get the hottest summer on record, every summer, and snowstorms that pummel the east coast, and things like this:

17°C in New Jersey in late December. This familiar place is glitching.

Everyone has their one thing, when it comes to Climate Change. I see this trend, when I look at reactions, where people who are actively concerned, and engaged with the issue on an intellectual level, have something experiential, undeniable in its haptic immediacy, that happens to them and they say “My God… this is real.” In Hyperobjects, Timothy Morton points to this in a lot of places, but here’s an example:

Global warming is not a function of our measuring devices. Yet because it’s distributed across the biosphere and beyond, it’s very hard to see as a unique entity. And yet, there it is, raining on us, burning down on us, quaking the Earth, spawning gigantic hurricanes. Global warming is an object of which many things are distributed pieces: the raindrops falling on my head in Northern California. The tsunami that pours through the streets of Japanese towns. The increasing earthquake activity based on changing pressure on the ocean floor. Like the image in a Magic Eye picture, global warming is real, but it involves a massive, counterintuitive perspective shift to see it. Convincing some people of its existence is like convincing some two- dimensional Flatland people of the existence of apples, based on the appearance of a morphing circular shape in their world.

If you’ve not read Hyperobjects, I highly recommend it. I’ve talked about it before, at some length, and since then it’s been increasingly informative in my philosophy. To sum up for the purposes of this discussion: Hyperobjects, of which Climate Change is the example par excellence, are systems which are so vast that they are incomprehensible yet so immediate as to be inescapable. Audrey describes them very well as conceptual tools that “we can’t use but have to.” I found that passage by searching for “raindrop”, as that is the image he keeps circling back to, the part of this vast abstraction we call “The Climate” that actually touches you, impacts you, both physically and metaphorically, and leaves a trace that you cannot deny.

For some people, that raindrop (to horribly mix metaphorical levels) is a 17°C New Jersey December, or a summer hot enough to make an Australian complain, or The Drowning of Hebden Bridge. These are all things that have happened to friends of mine. For me, though, it’s that memory of snow.

Which is especially weird because that’s a hoary complaint that traces a vein through culture almost as old as Plato complaining that all The Youth are reading books now. Nostalgia for how much nicer the snow was in the past goes at least as far back as Villon in 1462[1], and even that’s listed as an exemplar of a subgenre of literature known as Ubi Sunt, roughly translated as “remember the good ol’ days?”

So it’s disconcerting for me that what I think is a very personal memory looks like a Hallmark card and sounds like a medieval French rake on the run from the gallows. This is compounded by the fact that while I was researching this I realized that I had been misattributing the phrase “Where are the Snowdens of Yesterday” based on something a friend told me over 15 years ago. My history smells like fiction. And like the raindrop, it contains the spectre of an even deeper question: what else am I basing everything on that is wrong?

Which is an appropriate condition, I think, for this world where fact is no longer beholden to narrative logic. I feel uniquely adapted to a reality where “seasons” are dates on calendars that bear no relationship to the harvest cycle, where our sense of what’s natural is mostly nostalgia, where a raindrop can shorthand an apocalypse. When I try to translate from Fahrenheit to Celsius, I’m replicating the disconnect that we will all feel as we try to map our memories of how the world used to work to the way it actually does. And that gap is widening.


Thanks for reading this far. If you like what’s happening here (I mean, not the climate change, the writing about it), and want to help buy me the coffees that fuel this thing, it would be lovely if you’d check out my Patreon and kick in a few bucks if you feel like it. If you would like to just drop a tip, or pay me for something you’ve particularly enjoyed, Square Cash is really easy. Until I actually get regularly published, you folks are what keep me fed, and I thank you.

E. Steen Comer
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  1. Thanks to Darran Anderson for fortuitously sending me down a Villon research hole as I was writing this.  ↩