Til toppen

The marvelous clouds

This text was first published in . The topic is , the genre and the year of publication .

John Durham Peters
The University of Chicago Press: Chicago, IL, 2015
397pp, ISBN-13: 9780226253831 (pbk)

The marvelous clouds: Toward a philosophy of elemental media.

Expectations are high when John Durham Peters publishes a new book. He is an original voice in the media scholarly discourse, and his audience is growing. Peters’ newest book is called a philosophy of elemental media, and the most significant of these media, according to Peters, are the clouds – or “les merveilleux nuages” in Baudelaire’s original. The clouds are so marvelous that even the bitterest misanthrope could not help but love them (p. 387).

The non-human turn

The Marvelous Clouds is a stylishly pessimistic book. While it is not revealed until the book’s last pages, Peters has actually given up on the human race. We have managed to pollute even the clouds! It is only a matter of time before the humans will go extinct, and this apocalyptic perspective drives his analyses all through the book. “Perhaps some other intelligent species will evolve after millions and millions of years, and will do a better job,” he ponders (p. 387).

The Marvelous Clouds burns with passion for the natural elements, for strange and wonderful facts about dolphins, containers, fires, and clouds. Peters is determined to find meaning outside the strictly human and thereby making our sense of own-importance a little smaller. The book has a “putting the human in his place” – attitude that could make it a foundational text of the emerging “non-human turn” in the humanities.

What are elemental media?

“Elemental” here refers to how media are built on the four elements: water, fire, earth, and sky. Peters finds this ancient ontology from Aristotle good to think with, and he makes its lack of exactitude into a virtue. The Marvelous Clouds consists of seven chapters that all encircle the waterish, skyish, and earthish features of the world. The introductory chapter is strictly theoretical, but the others are “macro-historical” in McLuhan’s sense, with a range of insights from ecology, physics, anatomy, archaeology, evolution, history, and so on. There is a particular focus on what we could call traditional media – the creation of the book, broadcasting, the computer, Google, and other media-oriented material objects and processes. In some sections, there is such an attention to evolutionary history that it reminds me of Jared Diamond in Guns, Germs and Steel (1997).

Chapter 2 deals with water, and Peters describes the life of dolphins in this particular medium. It makes you think what humans would have been, if we lived underwater. It would have been possible, and that’s what the dolphin argument shows. Dolphins can collaborate on performing acoustic stun attacks on schools of fish, making a sound so powerful that the fish just faint and can be easily eaten by the predator.

This chapter was fun to read, with wow’s and I didn’t know that’s, and with an emerging understanding of what Peters means with “elemental media.” In other chapters, he supports his arguments with similar feats of explanation, for example, of the domestication of plants in Chapter 3 and timekeeping, calendars, and clocks in Chapter 4.

But along with his encyclopedic knowledge comes an occasional tendency for mysticism. Peters aestheticizes his observations, and sometimes this doesn’t really bring us anywhere. Here is a remark he makes about fire: “Fire, like mortals and gods, is contradiction itself. It destroys what it touches but also destroys itself. It dances in the most animated way and yet it is always cremating itself” (p. 137). While the sentence is beautiful, it doesn’t clarify much about fire as a medium.

A better example is Peters’ writing about writing. Peters’ favorite medium is of course the book, and he is especially fond of the Greek innovation of vowel notation in addition to consonants (p. 24) and the ways it was stored on paper in Greek, Latin, French, and English. “If there is an ocean all humans swim in, it is language. It is a primal element that bathes, nourishes, connects, and sometime betrays us […] Writing is the ship that makes the sea of speech navigable” (pp. 261–262). At his best, Peters is a great media scholar and a superb stylist.

Radical media ontology

The theoretical chapter is called “Understanding Media,” and it refers directly to the title of McLuhan’s classic. Peters associates himself actively with media ecology. “The effort to think ecologically and philosophically beyond the human frame is an effort that this book joins,” Peters writes (p. 121). He wants to refine the medium theory of the old masters.

Peters treats everything as a material phenomenon and a potential medium for meaning. Human communication is a part of the ecological system in a far more fundamental way than media scholars have been willing to realize. “Our technical know-how and bodily form have coevolved” (p. 51). Peters places the force of mediation in anything that can signify something, and his approach is radically new in media scholarship.

There are at least two sources for the radicalization in Peters’ new book: Latour and Heidegger. Peters is increasingly sympathetic to Latour’s actor network theory. “[Latour] is a philosophical pragmatist, one who recognizes both the making of facts and their terrific grip on the world, both the human shaping of nature and its recalcitrance to our plans” (p. 40). While Latour helps Peters to recognize the “non-human condition,” Heidegger helps Peters to see how nature and technology intermingle. Heidegger understood “that technology – Technik – is most important not for what it does to humans or society, but for how it reorders nature” (p. 39).

And indeed, Peters gives a credible account of how elemental media reorder nature. The theoretical chapter is very stimulating to read, and it reminds me of Paddy Scannell’s Television and the Meaning of ‘Live’ (Scannell, 2014), where the best parts found true theoretical novelty and ensuing weirdness. Peters and Scannell are two of the most interesting media philosophers in our time.

Too pessimistic

Peters has had an apocalyptic vision that the human race will go extinct. This may actually be Heidegger’s fault because his prose can instill a sense of extreme danger in reader, and Peters folds his cards when challenged by technology.

The most severe critique of Peters is therefore that he offers no solutions, although solutions are in all likelihood possible. Peters is concerned with problems and their explanations, and he explains them very well. But since he has already given up on the human project, he doesn’t need his insights to make a difference, to become procedures geared to the future, or visions for a better world.

This Weltschmertz characterizes Peters’ new book from cover to cover. In the Acknowledgements section, Peters lists several dozen universities that he has visited by passenger plane in countries all across the world, and he adds dryly, “you can see why I worry about global warming” (p. 394). Peters is a true human: always contributing actively to his own destruction and getting the blues in the process.


Diamond, J. (1997) Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. New York: W.W. Norton.

Scannell, P. (2014) Television and the Meaning of ‘Live’: An Enquiry into the Human Situation. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.