Book Review: JDP’s Marvelous Clouds

I forgot to post this one:

Journal of Communication Media Studies (2018)

Book Review: John Durham Peters. The Marvelous Clouds: Toward a Philosophy of Elemental Media. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015. 410 pages.

Reviewed by Nathanael Bassett

University of Illinois at Chicago

John Durham Peters has already cemented his legacy in the field of communication with Speaking into the Air (1999). Written towards scholars focusing on effects and connectivity, the book discusses communication’s untapped potential for understanding affectivity and human relationships. The Marvelous Clouds: Toward a Philosophy of Elemental Media (2015) has a similar promise to be a foundational and inspirational book for students and scholars of communication, media studies, and other disciplines, as well as an enjoyable (yet difficult) journey for general readers.

Peters posits media theory as succeeding metaphysics in the scope of its study and the insights it grants. This is not an understatement; units of analysis here are the classical elements, from the air, earth, fire and sea, as well as Aristotle’s aether. Like tarot suits associated with notions of will, intellect, heart and hearth, our understanding of these elements unveil the affective qualities of nature itself, often forgotten as a medium in media and communication studies. Nature and humans are linked together in the production of meaningfulness, for all living things. It is somewhat inadequate to say that Peters makes a compelling case for interdisciplinary approaches to understanding media theory. Through seven chapters and excursions into biology, astronomy, geology, climatology, alongside mythology, theology and lots of philosophy, Peters dissolves the boundaries between humanities and natural sciences in a manner consistent with post-humanities scholars like Haraway (2003) and Flusser (2012), both of whom have been essential in making way for a book like this.

The cross-disciplinary leaps in this book are chiefly made possible by McLuhan’s (1964) well known media theory, but also the work of Kittler (1999). North American scholarship has recently begun to benefit from interest in German media theory, and Kittler’s concerns have led to approaches like media archaeology, with its keen concern on materiality. This is not the case here, as Peters notes that media falls between the materiality of the physical world (physis as well as technē) and the immateriality of symbolic operations and content of traditional media (music and the spoken word, for instance). The reader is then treated to a good deal of the strange but not quite the truly weird – which may explain Peters aversion to object-oriented- ontology as described by Bogost (2012) and others, as well as his affinity for cetaceans rather than Flusser and Haraway’s (2016) tentacular cephalopods.

 

The seven chapters of the book wind their way to Peters’ objective, which is to reveal the importance of the environment as media, and media as the ordering devices of civilization. Chapter One provides an overview of various approaches to philosophizing media, with an emphasis on infrastructuralism and the ontology of a technical world with technical beings. Chapter Two uses the sea, with its whales and dolphins, as a parallel for thinking about humans as contextually specific to the medium of dry land. Chapter Three involves fire as a medium, in its domesticated form of “vestal fire,” as well as the transformative wild-fire and the fire within (through the various chemical reactions that power life). Chapters Four and Five look to the sky, with thechronos offered up by the sun and our attempts to capture time through clocks and hourglasses, and the kairos of seasons and the opportunities they offer. Chapters Six and Seven may be a relief then to less adventurous readers, as they bring us back to more traditional media of orality and literacy, and then to the aether of digital media, big data and the never-ending archive.

It does each subject a disservice to summarize them so briefly, but The Marvelous Clouds is a book tha t invites r ea der s fr om ma ny differ ent approaches and then communes with them, in a space that has not yet been well mapped out. Media theory as metaphysics is a compelling concept for anyone interested in the way humans create and share meaningfulness, and it acknowledges that we do that with and among forces and actors who are not like us. Phenomenology is the quiet guide that leads us through this journey, and while it is hard to divorce human intentionality from that exploration, Peters once again revisits the intertwining of ourselves with others. Geistcomes from the intertwining of subjects with objects, just as Peters argued inSpeaking into the Air (p. 118). The Marvelous Clouds makes the case of media’s inseparability from nature and the richness of meaning that comes from those relationships.

References

Bogost, I. (2012). A lien phenomenology. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. Flusser, V., & Bec, L. (2012) Vampyroteuthis infernalis. trans. Pakis, V.A.

Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Haraway, D. (2003). The companion species manifesto: Dogs, people, and

significant otherness. Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press.
Haraway, D. J. (2016). Staying with the trouble: Making kin in the Chthulucene. Duke

University Press.
Kittler, F. A. (1999). Gramophone, film, typewriter. Stanford University Press. McLuhan, M. (1964). Understanding media. New York: Mentor.
Peters, J. D. (1999). Speaking into the air. Chicago: University of Chicago

 

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