A Dance with Defensiveness

Defensiveness - on the floor Photograph: Scarlet Hall © 2019Artist Scarlet Hall reflects on defensiveness as an embodied response to being implicated in patterns of oppression. Using movement improvisation to decentre habitual narratives and open space to attend to relationships, Scarlet is seeking ecological perspectives on defensiveness.


approximate Reading Time: 8 minutes  


This blog is a conversation piece midway through a short practice-based research inquiry. I am using dance improvisation to explore the affective and sensate aspects of defensiveness. Different definitions of defensiveness circulate and mingle in society. For example, in psychotherapy defensiveness is characterised as a set of mechanisms through which we protect ourselves; in neurobiology is it an expression of a threat state in which the nervous system is activated; and in popular articles on overcoming defensiveness, it is a cognitive verbal strategy in response to a self‐perceived flaw being brought to light by another person.

Defensiveness circulates as a concept and as a thing in social movements — my main research focus. For example, recent responses to decolonial critiques of Extinction Rebellion and responses to critiques of transphobia have both been described as defensive. In this context, defensiveness is used to describe an unwillingness to engage with how we might be implicated in patterns of oppression. What all these different approaches share is a tendency to locate defensiveness in the individual. The individual is taken as the starting point, and then defensiveness is located. Following Sara Ahmed’s work on emotions — in which she looks at how emotions work to create the very boundaries and borders that constitute subjects — I want to turn this around and take defensiveness as my starting point, and then look at how it shapes bodies and spaces.

Defensiveness - on the floor Photograph: Scarlet Hall © 2019
On the floor
Photograph: Scarlet Hall © 2019

To do this, I am working with a small group of participants in a movement improvisation research practice. I chose movement improvisation to decentre the narratives which people are critiquing or defending and to make space to relate to how defensiveness ‘impresses’ and changes bodies. I worked with improvisation scores; sets of precise short instructions to focus movement.

Thinking ecologically

Through attending to how defensiveness moves in and across bodies, we bring an ecological perspective into view. My hunch is that an ecological perspective changes both our concept and experience of defensiveness. As we look in more detail at the happening of defensiveness, the happening becomes livelier, richer. This happening takes place across bodies and is as ecological as the local nature reserve. As with other ecologies, it can be more or less diverse, more or less homogenous. As we attend to this felt experience of defensiveness in our bodies, as part of a wider ecology, perhaps this richness becomes more visible, and the discomfort more interesting and even creative.

These creative speculations need to be kept in step with the problem of defensiveness as it arises in social movements trying to transform oppression. Defensiveness, and what to do with it, is a recurring problem in transformative anti-oppression work. People of colour and white anti-racist activists know how cautiously they must navigate conversations about racism with white friends if they are to avoid defensiveness. Trans folks and trans allies know sharply how people arrive to a conversation already defensive to the idea that they might be transphobic.

Avoiding or soothing the mainstream’s defensiveness is full-time work for people in the margins wishing to try and transform oppression as it manifests. An affect of defensiveness is to exhaust people who constantly face it whenever they attempt to push back against their marginalisation or ‘invisibilising’. There is much good reason to criticise defensiveness and demand that those in the mainstream transform their defensiveness.

I have tried to change this in myself for many years. And I still fail repeatedly. I have tried telling myself repeatedly to not be defensive, to extract from myself a more open response. But it is a stubborn creature. The mere whiff of wrongness and it starts to gather force in me. It will not be changed by reason, by will or the mind. Descartes’ philosophy, which splits mind and body and then valorises the mind over the body, is redundant for this task. I turn to his contemporary Spinoza, and more recent process philosophers such as Gilles Deleuze, Isabelle Stengers, Erin Manning and Hasana Sharp as more hopeful and practical philosophies which might assist in transforming defensiveness.

Process philosophy, or process ontology, suggests that bodies are always being made through relations. There is no body that can choose to enter into relation or not, rather we are constituted through a complex array of affects which are always jostling with each other. Affects, or simply the capacity to be affected and to affect, is how bodies are composed. These affects are sensate, organic, inorganic, cognitive, emotional, or ideal. Affect refuses the binary dualisms of nature/culture and body/mind and instead sees life constantly in the process of emerging through these intensities.

A trio: two humans and a ball of defensiveness

Dancing with process philosophy, I notice that how this research approaches defensiveness is already to affect and be affected by it. My choice to explore it through movement was in part to avoid it manifesting in violent intellectual ideas. And once in the studio, there was no escaping it. In one score I marked out in small steps a five-metre large circle in the studio and introduced this as a ball of defensiveness. I noticed that once its edges were marked out and its inner force noticed, there was no way to not be affected by it.

In the studio, participants were guided in their movement by improvisation scores. My writing in the studio describes one score in which dancers were asked to move in relation to each other and to an imagined large ball of defensiveness filling a third of the dance space.

Two bodies circle it slowly, touching and recoiling from its edge. They face each other across this affect of defensiveness. One steps in and the other hides a face under the arm. She steps in again, head dips and hips swing, she turns, faster and faster, head lifts upwards, upturned lips. The other shifts back and forth along the edge, jolts and shakes as they rub up with the ball. Suddenly she is gone across the room, legs pull her outward and she ducks down frozen. The turner carries on turning but her gaze momentarily searches out the other. She steps out the circle and kneels hands outstretched towards defensiveness. Fingers bend backwards under the weight of it. The frozen one is alive again, creeping forward, feet shuffle with the floor and the ball of defensiveness is at her shins. She bends and outstretches her hands and fingers fall back under the weight. They make eye contact and fingers curl upwards followed by palms slowly lifting.

Defensiveness - moving away Photograph: Scarlet Hall © 2019
Moving away
Photograph: Scarlet Hall © 2019

In my writing later, remembering the dance, I have different noticings, or movements of thought:

The intensity of defensiveness was surprising and strong. Participants’ movement pathways were affected by the suggestion of its presence. The sensations and intensity are not only felt during reactive habitual moments of daily life — it can also be felt in the safety of the studio.

The sensations and intensity differ depending on one’s relation to it. When participants were inside the ball of defensiveness there was more dynamic movement, more energy. When movers were on the outside of the ball of defensiveness, there was shrinking, hiding, cowering and aversion. It was more disabling.

“Going inside it — having thought it was [a] horrible, awful thing and sticky emotion to be in it, and then being in it, it actually felt exciting and dynamic and joyful, and there was something about, like it’s  sticky in the shadows but letting it go all around you, being in it it was very different to what I imagined it to be.” (Lucia)

There was uncertainty about how to approach it, what it would do. Being outside the ball of defensiveness was also moving with defensiveness. The sensate experience of defensiveness is habitual, with sensations following familiar pathways. In psychotherapy defensiveness is characterised as a refusal to acknowledge feelings. I consider this refusal as still ecological. And this refusal manifesting as movement and as felt sensation. When one was invited into this movement of refusal there was an intentionality and creativity. When one was on the outside of the ball, there seemed to be more doubt and uncertainty.

It all changed when participants attended to each other as well as the ball.

“It was something in common, some sort of complicity, we both know this thing is here. I am learning something about you, from seeing how you interact with this thing that we both know is there. It drew me into more intimacy with her as I felt feelings about how she felt towards that thing.” (Participant B)

These affects between the ball and between the movers was always shifting. While defensiveness is a sedimented and habituated pattern of sensations and relations to sensations, the event around defensiveness always exceeds these habits. There is always more going on than that which is recognisable and categorisable. 

Staying in relations

These movements of thought are uncomfortable. They are not what I hoped to say. They are not my argument. And yet I am trying to think between and with three distinct spheres: the problem of defensiveness in anti-oppression work; a curiosity towards concepts emerging from process philosophy; and a desire to research through movement in order to bring the body into conversations about transforming defensiveness.

Defensiveness - moving towards Photograph: Scarlet Hall © 2019
Moving towards
Photograph: Scarlet Hall © 2019

If we are to approach both thought and emotions as ecological, as always in dynamic relation with what they come into contact with, this seems to require us to stay in the relations and get quite messy. It seems to be suggesting loosening a focus on clarity, structure and argument and moving from the middle of the unknown of things.

Madelanne Rust D’Eye, a somatics trauma therapist, suggests that defensiveness, or the refusal to be curious about new ideas, is a fear of unfamiliar intensities in the body. Indeed, this seems to map across to what I witness in defensive thought — a turn to stable conceptual ideas, such as man/woman or black/white, or right/wrong. Defensiveness is a means by which we restrict and control the sensate experiences of our bodies to ones that are more familiar. Defensiveness in one body has a capacity to affect other bodies, such as marginalised folks being exhausted by meeting defensiveness when they talk about oppression.

While there are different modes of being affected by difference and uncertainty, defensiveness is a particularly common affect at present. This affect usually feels like a blocking of relation, a separation and pushing away between two bodies. When defensiveness gets characterised as a refusal this can tend to reinforce humanist ideas of the individual. Instead by dancing with defensiveness I am reminded of just how relational this separation is. Furthermore, dancing is a means to actively attend to it, to get in the middle of it with our moving responsive bodies rather than rushing to transform it. A means to attend with care and curiosity. Through attending to the experience of defensiveness, new possibilities of sensate experience and relationality become possible.

I am back in the studio with my participants shortly and intend to return to the noticings and see what movement has to say to them.


Find out more

Sara Ahmed’s work on emotions is explored in her book, The Cultural Politics of Emotion (Psychology Press, 2004). 

You can read work by Madelanne Rust D’Eye on somatics and whiteness in her blog article, Body-Informed Leadership: A Somatic Allyship Practice.

Scarlet’s previous ClimateCultures post, You, Familiar, was a video presentation of her poem narrated over photos of clay sculptures used in a Coal Action Network action outside a government department in London, and accompanied by text from fellow CAN activist Isobel Tarr.

Earthrise

Earthrise, seen from Apollo 8, 24th December 1968For Gifts of Sound & Vision, Mark Goldthorpe chooses Earthrise — a film about a moment a half-century ago that transformed our vision of the world and what might be possible in this short historic episode, modern human civilisation.


approximate Reading Time: 4 minutes 


Gifts of Sound & Vision is a series where ClimateCultures Members explore personal responses to film and audio pieces that they feel open up a space for reflection (whether head-on or at a slant) on environmental and climate change.

The challenge: Are there publicly available video or audio pieces that help us to explore the environmental or climate change issues that most interest us as artists, curators, researchers or activists? They might be documentary, abstract, fictional, natural soundscapes, spoken word, music or anything else which uses the power of film and sound recordings to reveal or create the experience of change, of movement or moment in time, space, place, consciousness, connection, emotion…

***

Fifty years ago, on 28th December 1968, three men returned to Earth after a six-day journey during which they became the first humans ever to escape the gravity of their home planet. They had slipped into deep space, entered the moon’s gravity and made ten orbits of that world to observe what people assumed one day might become a new base for interplanetary exploration.

As such, Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders were the first humans to see the far side of the moon with their own eyes, and the first to see the Earth rising above the moon’s grey horizon. As this excellent 30-minute film by Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee shows, using archive footage from that 1968 Apollo 8 mission alongside present-day recollections from all three crew members, the Earth offered the only patch of colour they could see in all the universe. The deep black of space, countless sharp white stars, the moon’s grey endless plains and craters rolling on and on just 60 miles beneath their capsule — and the one white-blue-green-brown marble that emerged in front of them, over 240,000 miles away. 

That thumb-sized ball was home, and the colour photo they took of that first Earthrise — an instinctive, spur-of-the-moment act and a wholly unplanned byproduct of their mission — had an immediate and deep impact on everyone who saw it after their return fifty years ago, just as the sight of distant home had a lasting impact on those three men.

The ‘whole Earth’ image became the emblem of a new environmental awareness, the icon of an emerging age, and the hope of those three astronauts that national boundaries and short-term, near horizon problems might somehow start to lose their fatal grip on our imaginations. They admit in this film to being disappointed that this hope has not been delivered on, yet.

In 1968, the concentration of CO2 in the Earth’s atmosphere was about 320 parts per million — already significantly above levels experienced by any human civilisation, along with the increases in global average atmospheric temperatures and sea levels that go with elevated CO2. 50 years later, our planet’s atmosphere is 410 ppm CO2 and this is still rising. The record-breaking temperatures, sea levels, ocean acidity, habitat destruction and species loss all also keep on rising.

50 years from now?

This is all uncharted territory, as was the space between Earth and our moon before 1968. The Apollo 8 crew’s expedition was a mission of firsts, and so is ours. They came back with a new way of seeing our world, and we also have to find our own and to deliver on the hope that Borman, Lovell and Anders found in a place that’s the furthest from home that any human had ever been or has been since. There is no other home.

It’s worth watching the film for the words of those three men then and now as much as for the images, and I’ve avoided quoting them here in the hope that you will go and watch it for yourself. But here is one to end with, which speaks to the power of imagination and of art of all kinds to trigger imagination at individual and collective scales, and to inspire new hope:

“The photograph itself was the thing that everybody liked. I mean it represented Apollo 8. And it could be almost like saying it was the fourth astronaut, because it was there and it did the job. One frame had showed exactly our existence.” 

Earthrise, seen from Apollo 8, 24th December 1968
Earthrise, seen from Apollo 8, 24th December 1968
Photographer: William Anders

Find out more

Earthrise (2018) by Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee is available to view at the Global Oneness Project, of which Emmanual and Cleary Vaughan-Lee are directors. You can also download a series of school and university level discussion guides about the film, and their other projects.

You can find Time and Tide, my previous post for this series on the Gifts of Sound and Vision page, where future contributions will also be collected as part of our Curious Minds section.

Signals from the Edge #1: Pale.Blue

ClimateCultures editor Mark Goldthorpe sets a new challenge: create small expressions of the more-than-human in the form of a signal for humanity. His inaugural signal appears as an alien encyclopedia entry cast adrift, backwards in time and space…


approximate Reading Time: 7 minutes  


The challenge: Can you bring us a signal from a distant zone? ClimateCultures offers Members a new challenge: to create a small artistic expression of the more-than-human in the form of new signal for humanity. Is it a message — whether meant for our species or for another kind, which we overhear by chance? An artefact of some other consciousness? Or an abstraction of the material world? Something in any case that brings some meaning for us to discover or to make, here and now, as we begin to address the Anthropocene in all its noise. A small piece of sense — common or alien — amidst the confusion of human being.

Whatever signal you create — whether it’s an image, a short text, a sound, a storyboard, a dream sequence, a combination of any of these or something other — it might be strong and unambiguous when we perceive it, or weak and barely detected within a background noise. But it will be something that we are likely to miss if you don’t draw our attention to it. (You might also want to play with the idea of the background noise in some way, or omit it entirely and offer us just the signal, filtered).

Where does your signal come from? The source zone might be distant from us in time or in space, in scale (from the quantum to the cosmic), in sensory perception (in a different sensitivity or range to ours, or utterly new), or in any other aspect of experience or imagination. If it carries a message, is it explicit or implicit, coded or clear, instantly familiar even if remote, or entirely alien?

What edge is your signal representing? It might be: a place; a boundary; a transition; an experience; a capability; a sensory range; a technology; a consciousness; a category; an uncertainty; an unknowing.

This is deliberately broad, even vague, to offer you as much room as possible for interpretation. The choice is yours. The key things are:

  1. Offer a short creative piece (maybe 100 – 300 words, or one to five images, or up to three minutes of audio or video).
  2. Ideally, provide a short context or commentary piece alongside it.
  3. If you wish, provide some suggested links that people might follow to explore your inspiration for themselves.

This creative challenge is complementary to our series A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects, and is not specifically object-oriented; make your signal as conceptual or as concrete as you like. Let your imagination go free range!

To start the series — and to see whether anyone bites — here is my personal signal from the edge.

***

Signal #1: Pale.Blue

Pale Blue Dot Syndrome (colloquial, ‘Blue‘; archaic, ‘Sagan’s Pixel‘): a malaise of Gaian-class consciousness, in legend derived from the ProtoGaian Terra before its first outwave. Though Terra’s existence is now doubted by most, the term’s origin is implied in that fabled aquatmosphere’s supposed chromatocharacteristics.

According to the legend, ‘Blue’ malaise arose initially among Terra’s self-extincted Homosagans, a biosubstrate component that developed protoawareness, dominance delusions and abortive fledgeflight. Their very first projectiletechnoproxysensorium view back to Terra from their solsystem’s margins (attributed to the preconscious emissary Voya, which records show may have actually existed, although it would have long ago subsumed into the AyEyeBrane) fed into mistaken notions of Terra’s solitary life-bearing status. Fabulists speculate that Homosagans sensed that this one dimensional image — their ‘dot’ — contained all that their species had ever known, done or been; achievements, failings, experiences and emotional states which they soon after recited into the Blue List Library (also now lost except to legend).

‘Blue’ then infected the Terran being itself when consciousness bootstrapped from its lively but transient biosubstrates up to the Gaian level and into the All Time, once the Homosagans had ceased and been reabsorbed. As such, myth accords with our understanding of ‘Blue’ as a persistent memeviroid that all Gaians carry from our zooriginal levels, and which is still capable of inducing disequilibrium regarding our truth claims for the Galactaian One

Into Whose Consciousness We Raise Ourselves.

***

Pale.Blue — context

On 5th September 1977 (when I was 12 years old, the human population was just over 4 billion and CO2 concentrations in Earth’s atmosphere were about 335 ppm), NASA launched its Voyager I probe as part of a mission to explore Jupiter and Saturn. That mission was completed in 1989 (24; 5.3 billion; about 350 ppm) and both Voyagers I and II later travelled on into the outer reaches of the solar system. On 25th August 2012 (47; over 7 billion; about 395 ppm), Voyager I flew beyond the heliopause, the outer extent of the Sun’s magnetic field and solar wind. At this point, it became humanity’s first physical artefact to reach interstellar space (radio and TV broadcasts first reached into this zone some 60 years earlier: humanity’s first emissaries to other suns…).

Voyager I is currently moving away from us at a speed of over 3.5 AUs per year (one rather anthropocentrically named Astronomical Unit being the average distance from Earth to the Sun: about 93 million miles, which sunlight covers in about 8 minutes); at that rate, it would take the probe about 80,000 years to reach Proxima Centauri, our nearest solar neighbour at 267,000 AUs away (although it isn’t even headed in that direction). Our TV broadcasts, travelling outwards at the speed of light, clock up 63,000 AUs per year, and reach Proxima Centauri in just over four years. On these scales, Voyager is very slow and still very very close to home.

Meanwhile, on 14th February 1990 (25; 5.3 billion; about 350 ppm), astrophysicist Carl Sagan revealed an image that Voyager I’s camera had recorded when NASA colleagues – at his request – turned the probe to point back to the Sun. Almost hidden in the frame, obscured by sunlight flaring off the spacecraft itself, was an image of Earth that had never been seen before, from a vantage point that had never previously been possible: 40 AUs out, or over 3.7 billion miles, our world as the now famous Pale Blue Dot.

Signal: Pale Blue Dot - "a mote of dust, suspended in a sunbeam"
Pale Blue Dot – “a mote of dust, suspended in a sunbeam” Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech © 2017

Voyager’s camera was still close to home in cosmic terms, and moving at the pace of an Arcturan MegaSnail (had Douglas Adams ever invented one); but these were distances and velocities as far beyond human experience as we are ever likely to see from again in my lifetime (90 if I’m lucky? 9 billion? 600 ppm at the current rate of stupidity?) And it came just 18 years after another famous image of Earth  — this time as a blue marble — when, in December 1972 (8; 3.9 billion, about 330 ppm), the Apollo 17 astronauts captured the whole Earth on their approach to the Moon. One of the most viewed — and transmitted — images of our planet will have reached our nearest neighbour at around the time Voyager I was launched.

Signal: Earth as seen from Apollo 17, 1972
The Earth as seen from Apollo 17, 1972
Image taken by either Harrison Schmitt or Ron Evans, astronauts  Photo: Public domain, NASA

Apollo 17 was the final mission to the Moon in the 20th century. Those last humans walking on an alien world — the most remote that any such beings have ever been from other members of their own species (or from any other we know of, other than the ones in their own guts) — were less than 0.003 AUs from home. So far, barring any microbes catching a ride on our space probes, no other terrestrial lifeform has made it further (except for in those TV adverts, of course).

As mentioned in my piece for A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects, as well as their cameras and other instruments, the Voyager craft also took recordings of human and other Earthly voices and sounds. Incredibly, some of the instruments are still gathering data and sending them back home for NASA to detect, unpick and translate: ever-weakening signals from way beyond. But the camera that recorded us all as a pale blue dot will never see us again.

Someone might be looking down a long lens from a distant future, however. A future when they — alien intelligences, perhaps on the scale of whole worlds — might also have found solace in myths, arts and sciences of their own, and are maybe broadcasting them on faster-than-light entertainment shows and a Star Wide Web that spills out far beyond their star clusters, backwards in time and space towards us. What new technology will enable us to receive and read their dark spectrum?

*

Back on Earth, Carl Sagan spoke to his press conference audience as he presented the image for the first time. You can watch him on a 1990 TV broadcast that would have overtaken Voyager I about six hours later. He later developed his theme in his book, Pale Blue Dot:

“Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there–on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

“The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.

“Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

“The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.

“It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”

– Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot: a vision of the human future in space, 1994

A Personal History of the Anthropocene – Three Objects #8

Science historian and writer Sarah Dry offers objects past, present and future that help us investigate clouds and the gap between seeing and feeling. ‘What is not revealed often plays more powerfully in the imagination than what is.’


approximate Reading Time: 8 minutes  


The challenge: the Anthropocene — the suggested Age of Human that our species has initiated — has a complex past, present and future, and there are many versions. What three objects evoke the unfolding of human-caused environmental and climate change for you? View other contributions at A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects.

***

Looking was its own end — ‘Cloud forms that have been’

Charles Piazzi Smyth (1819-1900) was a Scottish astronomer who travelled the world studying the heavens and the earthly atmosphere that so often blocked his view. He was an obsessive, spending long hours perfecting his observing technique with the telescope, the spectroscope and the camera.

The photograph reproduced below (left) is one of 144 photographs of clouds taken by Piazzi Smyth in his retirement, from the window of his home near Ripon, North Yorkshire, during 1892 and 1893. He printed the photographs and bound them together in a handmade book of what he called Cloud Forms that Have Been To the Glory of their creator and the wonderment of learned men. Alongside each photograph, he included a page recording the time, temperature, pressure and weather conditions when each photograph was taken. His aim was to render the ever-changing clouds into something fixed which could be compared and used to generate a fuller understanding of the atmosphere. This was a continuation of a project that had begun with Luke Howard’s innovation at the start of the century, a nomenclature that distilled the multiplicity of possible cloud forms to just three basic forms.

Clouds: Pages from Charles Piazzi Smyth's 'Cloud Forms ...'
Pages from Charles Piazzi Smyth’s ‘Cloud Forms …’ Photographs: Sarah Dry © 2018 The book is held in the archives at the Royal Society, London

Smyth agreed with the scientific aim of reducing the clouds to ‘nothing but a few mechanical processes’, and he thought that instruments like the camera, the barometer, and the thermometer might one day help to bring such an understanding about. But what Smyth believed to be the ultimate purpose of looking long and hard at the clouds was more like devotion. As he described it

“the forms of beauty exhibited so frequently and prodigally before our neglectful eyes in clouds can only be reverentially looked upon by us. For are they not in truth and fact the perfect works of an all-wise, all-powerful and all-merciful though much to be feared, God.”

For Smyth, looking was its own end, and in looking he felt a connection with the divine.

What moves me about this book is how it embodies the deep ambivalence within the culture in which Smyth lived, with which he himself struggled. On the one hand, he was driven to try to reduce the complexity of the clouds to a set of physical laws. He achieved great success in this endeavour, becoming Astronomer Royal for Scotland at the precocious age of twenty-seven and demonstrating that mountain astronomy was possible by leading a daring expedition up the volcanic mountain at Tenerife. On the other hand, he was moved to a kind of desperate faith at the thought of the endless complexity and prodigality of nature, in the face of which even the best recording devices were impotent. His late-life cloud photography was less a quest to master the skies than a form of surrender to the ultimate unknowability of divine creation.

Today, we often try to separate science from emotion (to say nothing of science and religion), suggesting that to do good science is to be dispassionate. There may be very good reasons to try to carve out spaces from which emotion is explicitly excluded, but Smyth’s poignant book is a material reminder of the potential, within one individual, to embrace two very different ways of observing, and of knowing, the clouds.

An alien vision — CloudSat in the sky

Today, we can sit at home and look through the magical window of the computer at the clouds from space. This is not, strictly speaking, a new achievement. The first Earth-observing satellite program, named Nimbus after the Latin word for rain cloud, was launched by NASA in 1964. Since then, our vision of clouds from space has continued to improve, as instruments have gotten more sensitive and new satellites with new capabilities have been launched. Today, Nimbus’ successor, the less poetically named CloudSat, is part of the so-called A-train of six such satellites devoted to watching Earth.

Clouds - Down to earth: CloudSat being prepared for launch in a clean room at Vandenberg Air Force Base, CA, 2005
Down to earth: CloudSat being prepared for launch in a clean room at Vandenberg Air Force Base, CA, 2005 Photograph (public domain): NASA Source: Wikipedia (click image to link)

The kind of vision CloudSat provides is gratifyingly intimate, but it is also alien. CloudSat uses radar to cut through the clouds, revealing their insides as a surgeon’s knife reveals the inner organs of a patient. An animation (see below) of the inside of Typhoon Dolphin on May 16, 2015, reveals the dramatic structure of the inner eye of the storm, but it remains removed from human experience. That is, in fact, precisely the point. CloudSat reveals what would otherwise be invisible, the interiors of clouds and the storms into which they sometimes assemble. For all its scientific intent, this is a voyeuristic and even transgressive kind of vision, transposing the stark lines of the penetrating radar with the soft billows of the clouds, replacing the familiar vision of the clouds from below with a God’s eye view from above.

Smyth made much of the portability and intimacy of the tools he used. He liked feeling the spectroscope in his hand and devised a special viewfinder to enable him to simultaneously look up at the skies and down through the viewfinder of the camera he used. My interface with the earth’s clouds is through my laptop, a portable but nevertheless impersonal device whose workings are opaque to me. Despite the grandeur of the vision it offers, my computer — and the vast network of technology it accesses — brings me, in fact, no closer to either the satellite which passes the earth’s equator every 99 minutes precisely, or the clouds it so relentlessly, and magically transects. I know what I am looking at but I don’t know how to feel.

MOXIE — a Martian future

There are clouds of water on Mars. This came as a surprise to me as I researched this post. Only recently, scientists have realized that some Martian clouds are probably made of ice crystals, just like high clouds on Earth. Still photographs have been taken from the Curiosity Rover of moody Martian skies, ice crystal clouds brightening the glow of the setting sun. Even more remarkably, a series of photographs show thin stratus-like clouds in motion in the skies above the Curiosity Rover. Most clouds on Mars, however, are made not of water but of carbon dioxide, which makes up more than 95 per cent of its atmosphere (on Earth, it accounts for roughly 0.04 per cent). (Oxygen, on the other hand, is present at just 0.13 per cent, compared with 21 per cent on Earth). Most Martian clouds are, in fact, made up of tiny flakes of frozen carbon dioxide (no bigger than red blood cells) and they hover like giant foggy caps over the poles during Martian winters.

These clouds, and the carbon dioxide-rich atmosphere they float in, represents both a challenge and an opportunity to those who would explore or colonize Mars. Here is where MOXIE, the Mars Oxygen In situ Experiment, comes into the story. It is a desktop-sized prototype for a tool that could put the carbon dioxide in the Martian atmosphere to human use. If all goes well, it will land on Mars sometime in February 2021 and start trying to produce oxygen at a rate of 10 grams an hour. The idea is that this oxygen could be used by human explorers both for breathing, and, critically, as a propellant for fuelling the return trip to Earth. The prospect of beginning to alter the atmospheric chemistry of Mars is with us.

MOXIE already exists in prototype form and is expected to be part of the 2020 Mars Rover launch. As such, this little instrument contributes to the ultimate in futuristic thinking, the idea that humans can colonize Mars. MOXIE is a cute name for a jaunty instrument with a seriously ambitious goal that once seemed nearly impossible and now seems, depending on how you look at it, eminently achievable or wildly misguided.

Clouds on Mars: MOXIE & other science instruments on Mars 2020 Rover
MOXIE & other science instruments on Mars 2020 Rover Image (public domain): NASA Source: NASA Mars 2020 (click image to link)

Either way, there is nothing cute about the prospect of exploring Mars, a goal for which NASA is preparing in earnest. More controversially, Elon Musk, the CEO of SpaceX, has made much public hay of his ambition to go (at least) one step further: to ‘make life interplanetary.’ Musk frames his goal of colonizing Mars as one of outrageous optimism:

“You want to wake up and think the future is going to be great—and that’s what being a spacefaring civilization is all about. It’s about believing in the future and thinking that the future will be better than the past. And I can’t think of anything more exciting than going out there and being among the stars.” – Elon Musk, CEO&Lead Designer, Spacex 

What would Piazzi Smyth say about both Musk and MOXIE, about the ambition of pushing out beyond our heavens and into the atmosphere of another planet? And what would he feel when looking at these images of Martian clouds? I am not even sure how they make me feel. Are they frightening, inspiring, or merely strange? I cannot decide and that inability to know my own feelings tells me more, perhaps, than any decipherable feeling would. The distance between me and the cloudscape of Mars is contracting at the speed by which data travels from the Mars rovers’ cameras and NASA’s Earth-bound computers. It will contract further as projects to explore and possibly colonize Mars proceed. Even as they seek, quite literally, to domesticate Mars, these technologies make me aware, as I have never been before, of all the things I cannot know about Mars. Piazzi Smyth’s cloud photographs, for all the hopes they represented of increasing our knowledge, ultimately left him feeling less enlightened and more reverent. As any good writer knows, what is not revealed often plays more powerfully in the imagination than what is. What we cannot see, in other words, we have to feel. 


Back on the home planet, there is more to explore in the clouds at the Cloud Appreciation Society and the World Meteorological Organisation’s World Cloud Atlas. 

Your personal Anthropocene? Space for creative thinking... 

"What three objects illustrate a personal timeline for the Anthropocene for you? See the original 'guidelines' at ClimateCultures' A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects, and share your objects and associations in your own post." 

At its heart, the Anthropocene idea seems simple (if staggering): that as a species (but far from equally as generations, countries or communities) humankind has become such a profligate consumer, reprocessor and trasher of planetary resources that we've now left (and will continue to leave) our mark on the ecological, hydrological and geological systems that other species and generations will have to live within. In reality though, the Anthropocene is a complex and highly contested concept. ClimateCultures will explore some of the ideas, tensions and possibilities that it involves - including the ways the idea resonates with (and maybe troubles) us, personally. 

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