in defense of talking about the weather

In “Myth Today,” Roland Barthes talks about the weather or, more precisely, talks about talking about the weather.  For farmers to talk about the weather, he says, is reasonable, because it bears directly on their actions and their labor.  His subsequent analysis implies that for the rest of us to talk about the weather is to partake of a bourgeois pseudo-physis, because for non-farmers, talk about the weather is merely descriptive speech without meaning or relevance.

Here I encounter a dilemma.  I’ve often had the feeling, particularly in my recent rereading of his gorgeous, gritty Mourning Diary, that Roland Barthes knows me better than I know myself.  But I kind of love talking about the weather, and so I’ve been trying to figure out the mechanics of that pleasure.

The big almost-story here on the East Coast this week was the possible approach of Hurricane Joaquin.  It turns out that if we had listened to the European meteorologists and their generally superior modeling systems, we would have known days ago that there was no reason to worry.  But even when the menacing forecasts are given with uncertainty and in the language of “low confidence,” they still have a power and a draw, compelling us to check the weather apps on our phones (I have four), to stay up later to watch television meteorologists prophesy on the news, and to even, occasionally, look up at the sky.

Of course, those of us—like me—who have the incredible privilege of living in sturdy houses and cities with solid infrastructures (by global comparison, even creaking, dilapidated Baltimore is more than adequate in this regard) thus have the privilege of speculating about severe weather without too much fear for life and property.

Those of us—like me—who do not encounter the natural world through our labor, for whom outdoors is primarily a site of voluntary recreation, who generally have the option to stay in if we prefer to, often see, rather than feel, the weather.

From space:
from space

In views that are abstracted and disproportionate:abstracted

And riotously colored:


The people who engineer those meteorological visualities for the public make them pleasurable.  They illustrate the weather lavishly for us.  Our access to these phenomena is intensely mediated, dependent; in this regard, Barthes’s description of our alienation from the natural world is astute.

But this mediation (I think) grounds us more firmly in the natural world, contextualizing us anew within it every time the map refreshes on the screen. To watch the weather is not so much to disconnect ourselves from the world but to access it through a different sensory register, the one we must shift into when we encounter phenomena beyond our reach, our ambit, our defiance.  Certainly, it is possible to talk about the weather idly or emptily.  But when we talk about the weather in anticipation of something extreme, it can also be (I think) a confession of our limited capacities—to know the natural world or to change it—and an invitation for others to keep our humble company in that elemental powerlessness.