PRINT May 1992


Strange Weather

Strange Weather: Culture, Science and Technology in the Age of Limits, by Andrew Ross. London and New York: Verso, 1991

OF NEARLY ALL cultural theorists and critics writing today, Andrew Ross has the most explicit, concrete, and sanguine political agenda. His latest effort, Strange Weather: Culture, Science and Technology in the Age of Limits, a collection of related essays, continues his ongoing project to locate positive and progressive possibilities for informed and effective political action within the imbricated discourses and concrete interests (both common and diverse) that exist among popular cultures, public institutions, and an elite military-industrial complex. Thus each chapter is a rigorous and historically informed meditation on a particular practice and/or figuration through which popular culture simultaneously absorbs, counters, transforms, and affirms the institutional culture of which it is a part.

“New Age—A Kinder, Gentler Science?” begins with the author attending his first Whole Life Expo for Body Mind Spirit and goes on to explore the “political lessons to be drawn from the shape and development of New Age culture” as it challenges the “established institutions of science and religion.” “Hacking Away at the Counterculture” looks at the way in which the contemporary confusion and collusion between body and computer has resulted in a historically novel “viral hysteria,” in which the language of biology (and HIV infection) is being used to meet the threat of a presumed computer security crisis. “Getting Out of the Gernsback Continuum” analyzes the historical “future” as it has been narratively produced by the science-fiction imagination, while “Cyberpunk in Boystown” counters the privileged vision of cyberpunk fiction as a post-Modern map of the contemporary datascape, arguing, instead, its adolescent technophilia as deadly male autoerotica. With an eye to “renewing left futurism,” “Getting the Future We Deserve” explores the implications of various past and current futurologies and considers the political and power relations between the new eco-capitalism and the new environmental futurology movement. Finally, “The Drought This Time” (perhaps the best essay in the volume) speaks from the author’s own fascination with the Weather Channel to explore popular interest in climatology and its relation to the rise of both managerial and progressive global consciousness.

In each essay, Ross’ analysis specifically teases out the complex and popular cultural (and countercultural) responses to the elite and controlling discourses of science and technocracy—all with an eye toward rejecting those extreme scenarios of the future suggested by both dystopian nihilists and utopian technophiles (many of whom are themselves cultural theorists and critics). Ross refuses the “twin legacy of a large-scale colonization of the future by elites and a powerful, dystopian impulse on the part of progressives to abdicate thinking about the future.” Indeed, describing himself as an advocate “of a cultural politics that is often termed left libertarian,” Ross sees Strange Weather as a contribution toward an emergent school of “green cultural criticism” that is concerned with visions of the future that are progressively “limited” and offer concrete ways of “living differently.” But he also sees it as a call for academic intellectuals fully to engage their present life world and to become sufficiently technoliterate to imagine, argue for, and actively intervene in the manufacture of a liveable future. Ross’ agenda is summed up in his introduction: “Better living or quicker dying through chemistry? It is high time that cultural critics, often typecast as technophobes, played more of a technoliterate role in challenging the inevitability of both of these judgements: the technically sweet, theme-park future already germinating in the ‘bones’ of science, and the dark, disastrous eco-future depicted in the survivalist scenarios. To mount that challenge and to contribute to alternative futures entails more than a schooling in technoliteracy; it also involves heeding a few historical lessons.” In accessible prose and through telling anecdote, Strange Weather gives us these history lessons as they constitute the very real and contradictory conditions and motivations of individual and social existence.

Consider “The Drought This Time.” Here Ross demonstrates how “the way in which we talk about weather patterns. . .is fundamentally linked to the dialectic of change and constancy that lies at the heart of a developed capitalist culture,” and points to key moments in “a dense social history in which ‘the weather’ has been shaped and appropriated by various state and commercial interests.” Historically and ideologically unpacking the logic of Paul Ehrlich’s statement to the effect that “a cow breaks wind in Indonesia, and your grandchildren could die in food riots in the United States,” Ross elaborates both the familiar struggles for power and the novel progressive elements of the new ecological, environmental, and global consciousness. On the one hand, the new consciousness results from “a perceived threat to Western dominance, so dependent on resources that are seen to be limited, or dwindling” and that inevitably link “events in the West and events in the Third World.” So, for example, theories of global warming have overthrown previous theories of global cooling, not because their scientific basis is any “truer” but because the nuclear-winter scenario that gave strategic climatic advantage to the United States during the cold war is no longer as popularly compelling as a drought scenario that links global crises of climate with global crises of Western capital.

On the other hand, Ross also sees progressive possibilities in this new green consciousness—whatever causal scenarios and unholy alliances it represents. “Strange weather” may make strange bedfellows, but it also may inform the achievement of a “practical politics.” For Ross, the ecology and environmental movements have the progressive and emancipatory “capacity to encourage people to make consistent links between the social and emotional shape of everyday actions and a quantitative world-picture of physical causes and effects.” Further, they constitute a “politics of information and knowledge, exceptional among social and political movements in its overriding appeal to science for proof of the justice of ecological claims.” Thus, although ecological and global consciousness has led to “new forms of normalization and regulation” that discipline and punish according to old narratives of colonial development, dependency, and exploitation, it has also been “accompanied by new and emergent forms of politics, waged with scientific knowledge and information, around bodily and environmental concerns.” In sum, never simple but always readable, always informed by a vital and political urgency, Ross’ “history lessons” are both cautionary and supremely hopeful.

Therefore, it is particularly mysterious—not to say unjust—that in a recent issue of Dissent (Fall 1991), philosopher Richard Rorty singles out “Professor Andrew Ross of the Princeton English Department” in an essay that chastises leftist American intellectuals for losing sight of or evading their political function, and for taking “a kind of perverse satisfaction” in their current “ineffectuality and futility.” In support of his claim about the academic sphere (he also has it in for contemporary journalism), Rorty points to Ross as exemplary of those academics who (as he sees it) refuse to write in plain English, practice advanced literary theory, study popular culture, think themselves radical and “transgressive,” chant litanies of race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and colonial oppression, and—worst of all—redefine real or electoral politics as academic or cultural politics.

For Rorty, this redefinition is dastardly, collapsing what he sees as “real” political action (the use of democratic institutions such as the vote, the press, and community organizations to redress “real” social inequalities between the rich and poor) into intercurricular and cultural transformation in the academy (a transformation that, for Rorty, at best achieves a harassment-free forum for middle-class feminists, gays, and lesbians). Rorty maintains that “Professor Ross” and his intellectual ilk “have given up on the idea of democratic politics” and suggests they have institutionally legitimated and disciplined their hopelessness through the invention of academic “cultural studies.”

Borrowing the cheap shots and reductionist tactics used by the new conservative right in the “political correctness” scandals (to call them debates would be wrongly to suggest substantive communication), Rorty attacks cultural studies and Professor Ross from the old conservative liberal left. Viewing the study and critique of popular and mass culture as an enterprise antithetical to the intellectual’s nobler and more political project of appealing, as he puts it, to the “national conscience” and mobilizing a “literate electorate” into “the unifying force of shared moral indignation,” the romantic old leftist liberal in Rorty can only comprehend Ross’ work as inauthentic (merely self-justifying and not about the “real”), divisive (its emphases on intracultural difference, contestation, and contradiction promote fragmentation), and cynical (revealing, as Rorty puts it, “someone who always knew, deep down inside, that democracy was not going to work”). His attack ends as a utopian, romantically vague, and pretty simpleminded cry for hope and unity—hope “that any constitutional democracy with a literate electorate, a free press, and free universities will be able, eventually, to pull itself together and transform itself into a proud, confident, egalitarian, cooperative commonwealth.”

Other than getting the vote out, however, Rorty’s program for such transformation is pretty thin compared to Ross’. While Ross is no utopian and would decry the kind of totalizing unity of which Rorty dreams, his work overall and Strange Weather in particular articulate a belief that critical thinking about the complexities, contradictions, and struggles for power inherent in everyday life is the very basis for electoral literacy, that understanding the specific and historical investments that constrain particular forms of “freedom” in the press and universities and other democratic institutions might expand our actual possibilities for freedom, and that “pulling together” isn’t something one wistfully hopes will just happen “eventually,” but is a result to be forged out of the articulated common interest of diverse and often disputatious sectors of the population.

Against Rorty’s stronger (because easy) rhetoric stands Ross’ specific, committed, and more difficult exercise of his institutional and professional authority to call us to task. Reading Strange Weather is not easy—not because Ross uses the technical language of academic literary studies (he doesn’t), not because the fact that he bases his argument on the practices of popular culture is trivial (it isn’t), and not because he has collapsed distinctions between cultural politics and “real” electoral politics (he hasn’t). Strange Weather is not easy because it forces us to recognize that our own position as part of the literate electorate is one of constant vigilance and thoughtful choice. It shows us that our individual desires, interests, and commitments are much more complex and contradictory than Rorty’s easy liberal call to action would admit, and that it is hard work to shape a progressive politics from the messy contradictions and contestations of all our daily practices and public institutions. But, Ross shows us, it is indeed possible work.

Vivian Sobchack is the Dean of the Arts at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Her most recent book is The Address of the Eye: A Phenomenology of Film Experience, Princeton University Press, 1992.