Words of Weather: A Glossary
Onassis Foundation, Athens, Greece, 2022
192 pp. Paper, 15 €
Fifty years ago, climate was a topic more generally discussed in schools under the rubric of physical geography. Along with data about the major agricultural and mineral assets, the prevailing winds, rainfall and temperatures were also referred to as distinguishing qualities of a regional entity demarked in other ways in a class called political geography. Weather, on the other hand, was a topic of casual conversation that was thought to be sufficiently neutral and beyond human agency as to provide a suitable ground for anodyne reflection, complaint or expressions of hope as holidays approached. Beyond choosing what to wear, whether to take a mac, carry an umbrella or go on a picnic was probably as far as the thinking about the weather went. Until recently the science of weather and climate were mostly concerns for the military, farmers, market gardeners, maritime and aviation professionals. Famously, in the late nineteenth century, Vice-Admiral Fitzroy, Captain of the HMS Beagle, established a science that we now call meteorology specifically for the safety of seafarers. After a devastating loss of life in a storm, he designed a barometer that he made publicly available at every port in Britain and devised a system of storm warning beacons to be hoisted for the safety of boats and ships. In the UK the Fitzroy barometers and storm warnings became an interface between science and seafarers that extended to a wider public and had a significant effect on the interaction between humans and the weather. The progressive percolation of the concern with weather as an individual experience that could be subject to scientific explanation and prediction seems to have tracked the changes in popular media form evolving from esoteric maps of fronts in newspapers to boisterous show biz with special effects. As a consequence, we now find the weather as an entertainment everywhere and an academic subject in virtually all disciplines. Certainly, contemporary social, economic and political text books along with mainstream media see weather and climate as a legitimate product of human behaviour. In less than 40 years it has moved from the margins to become an overriding part of the syllabus from kindergarten to post doc.
Intended to accompany an exhibition Weather Engines (https://www.onassis.org/culture/publications/words-of-weather-a-glossary) Words of Weather is also positioned as a stand-alone document. It is a pocket-sized book containing a collection of essays that claims to make an intervention in this history of geography as it proposes that the way that we talk about the weather changes it. At first glance this may seem like another glass bead game or clever sophistry, but the contributions and the introduction present a convincing case that indeed how we collect weather data, how we share it, how we label it and how we exchange ideas about experiences of weather do indeed impact on the phenomena. For example, by calling atmospherically distributed contamination ‘dispersal’ we condone smokestacks that accumulate particles that do indeed change the weather. Jussi Parikka and Daphne Dragona have curated a number of short reflections on weather in what they have called a glossary. Each essay follows a single word in the title and elaborates on the thesis that Parikka and Dragon lay out clearly in the introduction. With some 25 contributors described as “[s]cholars and practitioners, including philosophers, media theorists, sociologists, art historians, artists and architects” the constituency ensures that there is a colourful range of topics and approaches. Wrangling these into something that holds together could have proved impossible for the editors, but although each essay addresses the weather as a semantic construction (more or less) from a different point of view there is a sense that whatever this particular group choose to talk about (after they stopped talking about the weather) they would understand each other. Clearly this is a consequence of the selection of authors who have a strong background in the humanities but is also a reflection of the clarity of intention of the book, the precision of the invitation and a general spirit of intellectual generosity that is characteristic of most entries.
The context of this collection is informed by the ubiquitous and somewhat familiar conversation about climate change and human action. However, it avoids the mea culpa bandwagon and most essays take an oblique position in relation to the more common and overplayed discourses by making thoughtful contributions from another country so to speak. While they start with weather, they are almost all as interesting for what they have to say about other things like semantics, translation, time and history for example.
The book is neatly produced with care for resources and, despite its narrow margins and tight binding, wears well with frequent handling (my copy is now rather like a well-used street guide). In a clever indulgence there is a ‘free’ animation for the playful as a blue cast rises incrementally on each page so that by the end of the book the water level has risen to cover the last essay and submerge the contributors listed in the back. (Fortunately, flicking through from back to front drains it all away again – a metaphor for our agency perhaps?) The design is clear and lean. The use of opaque black printing ink on white paper is a welcome anachronism in the age of apparently mandatory faint fonts on pastel grounds. In keeping with its modest appearance this is a valuable and provoking book that sustains physical handling and many of the well referenced essays are sufficiently intriguing to reward re-visiting several times. As such Words of Weather is possibly both a material and intellectual marker that the weather is no longer a subset of other disciplines but has acquired an autonomy that might allow us to talk about it in relation to human agency in a positive way.