The Marvelous Clouds

My awesome wife gave me John Durham Peters’ The Marvelous Clouds for Christmas, after seeing that a number of her colleagues at school were busy forming reading groups on the listserv to discuss it. Peters takes the tools of media studies (drawing from Harold Innis and Marshall McLuhan) and uses them to think about our relationships with three of the four classical elements: water, fire, and air, are compared to our writing, our language, and our gestures. Our bodies serve as “earth.”

By the second chapter, the book becomes a random roll in Smaug’s treasure hoard, more a bag than a string of pearls. What he says of McLuhan—“He had an outstanding library at his disposal and he read it well”—applies to Peters, too: in a single paragraph from his chapter on fire, Peters observes that many inks are produced from burning (hence the Latin encaustum); that “Moses’s burning bush could be a metaphor for the sacred text, kept aflame by reading but never consumed”; that one still has to swear an oath not to “kindle fire or flame” in Oxford’s Bodleian library to get a readers’ card there; and that Amazon’s Kindle and Kindle Fire might imply “mischief towards books as we know them.” This mixture of declarative statements have been composed with care, and the facts sorted carefully. I wonder if this diffuse approach, where the world is revealed by the slow accretion of detail, was the effect that Walter Benjamin was after as he shuffled and reshuffled the cards of his Arcades Project.

Originally published on Edited by Emily Keeler.