I write from Edinburgh, from a flat enveloped by the haar, a cold fog that comes in off the sea and whites out the world. The fog binds land with sea and sky. It feels like an apt place and time from which to respond, briefly, to two recent books by JR Carpenter – The Gathering Cloud and An Ocean of Static, both of which in their different, overlapping ways, interrogate the means by which humans have tried to know the world, as well as the failures and the costs that accompany such knowledge.
The Gathering Cloud, published by Uniformbooks in 2017, stems from a long-term writing project that exists primarily online and through a series of performances. The project is about clouds – both as an object of study and as a metaphor for weightlessness, in particular in relation to so-called ‘cloud computing’. Carpenter’s emphasis is on materiality: a typical “white fluffy cumulus cloud” weighs about half a million kilos, or one hundred elephants, she notes. Data is material too, and the environmental damage that Carpenter’s work is so alive to is both unimaginably vast and increasingly urgent.
The book is a combination of text and art. But a fair amount has been lost in the translation from web to print: a wealth of visual material and idiosyncratic formatting. What remains is a series of collages that splice images of environmental destruction or species loss together with landscapes and methods of measuring or recording: a USB stick shaped like a fish, paw-prints, a collection of dead birds. The texts are in hendecasyllabic verses, with words that would be hyperlinks differentiated, redundantly, in grey. Together, these verses form a chronology of symbolic and scientific understanding of clouds: from the sky as a calendar or clock in ancient times to Luke Howard’s 1803 essay On the Modification of Clouds, the paintings of JMW Turner and Heidegger’s role as a weatherman in World War One. Today, Carpenter focus on the so-called digital cloud, the carbon footprint of #lolcats and the environmental destruction wrought by the vast data centres needed to power the internet. The book’s collages reminds me of the causal link between scientific knowledge and species loss made by Rebecca Solnit in A Field Guide to Getting Lost:
Our discovery and categorisation of species increases at a manic rate, but so does the disappearance of both known and unknown species. More is known; there is less to know; we lose both what we know and what we don’t.
An Ocean of Static, meanwhile, released this year by Penned in the Margins, takes a different route through histories of technology, knowledge and discovery. The focus is on Atlantic voyages from the 16th-century tales of Richard Hakluyt to colonialism, nationalism, radio and GPS. Places are reduced to numbers; words to code. Where The Gathering Cloud is chronological and comparatively clear, An Ocean of Static draws from a wealth of diverse sources to create a whirling tangle of ideas, images and focal points: memory, the human body, the politics of travel writing, storms and measurements, divisions of time, a wind rising and falling. “Flocks of books open and close, winging their way webward,” writes Carpenter.
The urgency that Carpenter stresses is never simply a question of the over there – buried in books or out at sea.
While The Gathering Cloud issues a clarion call from the gloom, An Ocean of Static sometimes revels in getting lost. The effect is often strange, occasionally disconcerting. Sometimes the fog of words feels impossible to navigate. In places, the use of source code punctuation frustrates a straightforward reading experience. Narratives lose their specificity as the experiences of the individual merge into something larger. Despite a list of sources at the end of both books, origins get lost in the sea of time.
Elsewhere, the translation into Morse code of two sentences from Borderliners, itself a translation from Peter Høeg’s original Dutch novel De måske egnede, is a case in point. Not many will translate these lines so their effect is largely formal: a technical language transformed into something else (as artist Angela Mesiti has also done). But it’s worth taking the time: “To organise is to recognise. To know that, in an endless, unknown sea, there is an island upon which you have set foot before.” In Høeg’s book, I think this is meant to be reassuring; in Carpenter’s I’m not so sure.
If this commitment to unknowing is an implicit critique of certain Enlightenment values, it also makes the many moments of brilliance shine even brighter. Carpenter writes elegantly of static – “like the sound of thinking” then “like the sound of thought itself, its hum and rush”. There is a section where she writes of
Winds / from the parched / deserts / of the interior / heaped up / fine sand / minute / rounded particles / shells and corals / flying / along the ground.
and I wonder if this could be read as an analogy of Carpenter’s own compositional process, bringing disparate texts together with force or calm: each line a rounded particle, every word a piece of shell or coral. Then the poet herself figures as the wind. Maybe poetry is always sedimentary.
Elsewhere, I especially love a passage that imbues the landscape with linguistic, communicative, imaginative agency: “Ship explains the harbours”; “Peninsula prints the wave”; “Peninsula inscribes the gulf”; “Capes archive the mists”; “Coastline daydreams the canals”.
Such writing may imply a certain relationship to time, but Carpenter is simultaneously in no doubt that, these days, time is in short supply. “The scale of the cloud should fill us with urgency,” she writes of the rapidity with which the internet has become essential for the functioning of “industry, government, finance and commerce”. But it is not only a question of scale. In his introduction to The Gathering Cloud, Jussi Parikka issues a note of warning on interpreting the book’s title: “don’t be mistaken by the airy connotations of the word,” he writes, “the cloud is already well deep in our lungs as well as our minds”.
Carpenter is aware of this too. The human/animal body is an important presence in both The Gathering Cloud (where animals are mostly dead) and in An Ocean of Static. Carpenter revels in the strangeness of nautical language and the crossover between parts of the body and parts of the boat: “a throat in a sprit”, “an eye through which to pass a rope”, “a loose-footed sail”, “a jib foot”, “headsail”, “headboard”, “head cringle”, “tails”. This strikes me as timely: multinational accountancy firm EY have recently published a brochure entitled “When the human body is the biggest data platform, who will capture value?”, Like many systems of control, it is a combination of the meaningless and the terrifying and it is not always clear which is which. “Science is how capitalism knows the world,” wrote Solnit again. Unfortunately, the urgency that Carpenter stresses is never simply a question of the over there – buried in books or out at sea. As evening approaches and the haar clears, it is a question of the here and now.
JR Carpenter, The Gathering Cloud is published by Uniformbooks (2017).
JR Carpenter, An Ocean of Static is published by Penned in the Margins (2018).