Get You Back Home


Back to The Benjamin Papers



Thought Cloud

(This is the original script for a radio programme that was aired on Radio 3, in the series Head in the Clouds.)


It was as I was watching an episode of a documentary called Inside a Lightning Bolt, on Sky 3, just at the point when a pilot in a light aircraft penetrated a storm cloud to see what it was like inside, I remembered the dream of the previous night. It flashed up. There, high in the sky, silvery grey in colour, Lenin’s face, made out of an arrangement of clouds. That was it, just an image that emerged and then dissipated in the dream, as it did in the recollection of the dream, somewhat in the way that clouds momentarily appear to form a shape and then disperse. This hazy memory got me thinking about clouds as entities peculiarly adept at forming things, or rather, forming the shapes of things, that is to say, of acting like metaphors. More nebulously, though, clouds might also be shaped not as things, but as thoughts. Clouds are amorphous matter whose shapeability, real or imagined, chance or otherwise, might provoke concepts, stimulate ideas, convey messages, information, data.

While Lenin himself was still alive, clouds were conceived in just such a way: as a surface for the projection of ideas. Tatlin’s tower, a Monument to the Third International, was designed in 1920 as a landmark structure for the young Soviet Union. Achieved only in model form, its mobile twin helixes jut peaklike into the sky, a tribute to machinic, dynamic modernity, At its summit was a revolving information centre, which incorporated a projector. On overcast days this beamed messages onto the clouds. Tatlin’s clouds are the scurrying clouds of utopia. They are the screens of a brave new world, a screen for thoughts, commands and provocations. Glance upwards and immediately be on-message. But such clarity of message, free of ambiguity or interference, is not one usually associated with cloudy thinking. More often cloudy thoughts are said to be blurry and vague. Clouded thinking evades clarity. Clear thinking can be clouded, but by what, indeed most often by thought itself. ‘Clouded by theory’, ‘clouds of obscure theory’, ‘lofty clouds of theory’, ‘dense clouds of theory’, these are all readily available metaphors for those intangible, impalpable befuddlements that fog up thought. The cloud’s association with dense thinking has been around long enough to be mocked in Aristophanes’ comedy The Clouds, which speaks of clouds as ‘great divinities to idle men; who supply us with thought and argument, and intelligence and humbug, and circumlocution, and ability to hoax, and comprehension’.

As much as clouds are associated negatively with obfuscation of thoughts, they are also tagged as instigators of ideas. Leonardo’s ‘Treatise on Painting’ listed clouds, along with mud, ashes from the fire and smudges and stains on walls, as triggers of the imagination. These formless splotches and patterns stimulate the genius of the painter to new inventions, fantastic compositions or the outlines of monsters.  Where there is cloud there is concept.

For the German critic Walter Benjamin there are clouds at the heart of language, unrollable infinities of meaning and inflection. For Benjamin language is cloudlike and first finding our way into it is like floundering. Only the child, or poet, welcomes this obscurity. Reflecting on his own shaky appropriations of language as child, absorbing vocabulary through mishearings and associations, Benjamin notes how he disguised himself in words that were properly clouds. Words and clouds alike are negotiated through their similarities, their homonyms and paronyms, their metaphors and similes, and, ungrasped or ungraspable, they become the shape-shifted building blocks of the child’s own invented reality. Indeed, the German language allows for a slippage between word and cloud. Benjamin takes advantage of this, shifting between Worte, words, and Wolke, clouds, just as the child slippily ‘disarranges’ the world through misunderstanding. Such disarrangement is productive, making word and world the child’s own. For the child-Benjamin, words are like flurries of snow whirling in the air, dizzyingly exhilarating, but none quite graspable, because another snow cloud always sweeps in, and its contents mingle with the previous one. Under such cover, it is possible to hide and play. The child distorts itself in the cloud that is language only vaguely understood, in order to play games in which it takes on the name of the door, the curtain, the under-the-table. The child melds itself with objects and environments, materials and spaces, words and concepts that are mutable and unfixed, like clouds. When Benjamin the child paints in watercolours he loses himself in what Benjamin describes as the clouds of colour on the palette. These clouds of colour, notes Benjamin, are clouds of fantasy, and fantasy knows only endless changing and elusive form. Clouds are continuously dispersing, just as imagination is a constant process of dissolution.

This cloud-like flightiness of imagination, its there-not-thereness, impels it towards another transient form: fashion. For the poet Stéphane Mallarmé the highest of the haute designers, Charles Worth, ‘knew how to create an outfit as fugitive as our thoughts.’ For Mallarmé such fashionable attire might well bear its own resemblances to fugitive clouds. Between September and December 1874 Mallarmé edited a fashion magazine, La Dernière mode, The Latest Fashion. The contributors, Miss Satin, Marguerite de Ponty, Ix, Marasquin and others, are female pseudonyms adopted by Mallarmé himself, in order to comment on the dynamics of fashion. The vocabulary of this magazine traversed the same ground as Mallarmé’s poetry, with an emphasis on the transitory, immaterial and the recurrence of such insubstantial things as ‘vapour’, ‘wafts of perfume’, ‘opal reflections’, ‘sky blue’, and ‘silvered clouds’. Mallarmé’s poetic work has barely a subject, or barely a presence: like the most fantastic puff of a dress worn for just one season or a night, it is all texture, weave, spaces, slightness, gaps and shifts. Like a certain type of fashion sensibility, his poetry relishes the slightest thing, the mere nothing, a passing cloud that is temporarily beautiful. From cloud to fashion to poem to cloud: there is something in these entities that pushes towards drift, metamorphosis, analogy.

The vaguenesses of clouds – which is also to say, the wanderings of clouds. Had the word ‘vague’, from the Latin for wandering, not been snapped up by ‘waves’, it might have applied to clouds, who too are known to wander. Vague, vagus, vagabond – wandering thoughts, wondering thoughts, as your eyes glance heavenward, up to realm of the sublime.

In 1816 Goethe asked the artist Caspar David Friedrich to paint him a series of cloud studies following Luke Howard’s systematising of those fugitive forms into the cloud types of cumulus, stratus and cirrus, and all the combinations in between. Friedrich refused – out of fear that, as he put it, ‘in future the light, free clouds must be slavishly compelled into these orderings’. For Friedrich’s sublime sense of nature clouds should remain vague, ungraspable – or graspable only by the empathetic imagination that transforms them into art. Friedrich’s own painting of 1830, titled ‘Scudding Clouds’, which is a scene from above the Brocken mountain, may originally have been observed en plein air, but the clouds only found their final form, captured on the canvas’ screen, some ten years after, once parsed through the symbol language of Friedrich’s Christian faith.

To experience the sublime, notes the philosopher Immanuel Kant, is to sense your own mind elevated in its own judgement of itself, when it contemplates awesome sights and states of excessively formed and deforming nature. Kant’s examples include the swirling sea, massive ice floes, a grumbling storm cloud, fizzing with lightning, or nebulae, those spinning clouds of gas and dust he had scientifically observed. Wild nature provokes in the viewer a welter of feelings - most notably a type of terror as the mind realises the immensity and indifference to humanity of that which is perceived, and yet this experience can still be contained conceptually, encompassed by human reason. As the mind contemplates an order unbounded by its usual schema of sense, it is lifted out of itself and up, as suggested by the word ‘sublime’, indicating a view from ‘under the lintel’, from up there. It is as if the mind transcends itself to peer out from the cloud’s perspective, with the cloud a kind of capital, severed from its column, holding up the sky.

If it seems odd to denote a cloud as a capital, a supporting clump of stone, then reflect on how the word ‘cloud’ comes from the word ‘clod’, a ‘mass of rock’ or ball of hardened earth, because those classic clouds, the cumulus clouds, looked more or less like clumps of petrified matter. The airy fairy shape shifting cloud is named after its opposite, whom it appears to resemble. Not clouds as cushy supports for lofty thinkers, but rather the cloud’s true inhabitant might be the etymologically similarly derived clod or clot or klutz, the dullard who stumbles around in an unthinking fug. When it comes to up there, everything is likely to glide into reverse.

Such shifts from the sublime to the ridiculous are the very business of clouds. The philosopher Ernst Bloch observed it in his study of The Utopian Function of Art and Literature. Clouds are the stuff of fairy tales, he notes. Clouds are indeed a ‘fairy tale quality of nature’. They are, so think children, ‘distant mountains’, entities in ‘a towering and wonderful foreign land above our heads’, a Switzerland in the sky. But, notes Bloch, the cloud is not only a ‘castle or ice-mountain to the fairy tale gaze’. It is also an ‘island in the sea of heaven or a ship, and the blue skies on which it sails resemble the ocean’. The fluffy clouds turn out to be solid mountains, in thought. The airy blue sky is imagination’s watery sea. The heavens are like a mirror, reflecting the Earth’s inversion. And so, if down here below is the world of body and action, up there above is the world of mind, thought, imagination and other histories, including better ones. The clouds are the fuzzy matter of utopian speculation for Bloch. They are moving screens onto which can be projected a revolutionary Not-Yet, the contents of an unbounded ‘anticipatory consciousness’. This vague awareness of a liberated life that takes shape blurrily in our daydreams is a stimulus for the real-world political action that seeks to concretise the wishes. In Bloch’s revolutionary eschatology, the clouds are to be brought back down to Earth. Our new, improved selves, lives, political arrangements will roll in from the clouds.  But if the clouds offer the opportunity for blue-sky utopian thinking, certain conditions might yet blow in – as Bloch saw only too clearly - the ugly clouds of dystopia.

Such are the clouds that scurry into the cinematic culture of Nazi Germany. They are blown in, according to the film critic Siegfried Kracauer, from the quintessentially German mountain films, popular in the 1920s, and close attention to them allowed for augury. The mountain films are replete with images of clouds, of mist and fog, of vapour and blinding light bouncing off snowfields into camera lenses. These puffs and flares obfuscate. The clouded vision they generate is meant to provoke emotion not rational thought. They are special effects for affect. Such clouded film  strips were for Kracauer portents of the unenlightened gloom to come. In the opening sequence of Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, a propagandistic reportage on the 1934 Nazi Party rally in Nuremberg, shots of clouds are meant to establish a lofty tone and a reverential encounter with German nature. These clouds part to reveal Hitler’s Junker aeroplane. The saviour of Germany descends to earth from above. The clouds, in German, ‘Wolken’, form a canopy uniting the ‘Volk’, the German people. These same fascist clouds are seen from below in the closing episode of Triumph of the Will, a backdrop to the marching SA men, who come to carry out their master’s transcendent will.

The brooding soul of the German people is projected by Nazism into the clouds. But Riefenstahl did not go as far in her pathetic fallacy as Walt Disney did some nine years later. The opening sequence of the anti-Nazi cartoon Der Fuehrer’s Face, featuring Donald Duck, features a brass band with musicians Hirohito, Goering, Goebbels and Mussolini goose-stomping through a little German town under clouds that have taken on the shape of swastikas. In this little detail the cartoon conceptualised something profound about the relentless reach of the totalitarian mode, in which even nature is made to conform to the master’s ideology. The photomontagist and Communist John Heartfield encapsulated a similar sentiment in his ‘O Tannenbaum’ poster of 1934 – the Christmas tree’s branches are bent to form swastikas.

Disney and Heartfield were joking, in all seriousness. But the ambition to mould nature into concepts both goes back further and extends into our present. On Christmas Day 1892 Captain Ronald Scott tried to project things onto the clouds at Acton Hill Electric Light and General Engineering Works, using a searchlight. His aim was to find a new mechanism for advertising. Skywriting took up this baton thirty years later. Oil smoke trails from a light aircraft’s exhaust twist and twirl their brief messages across the sky, in mile-high letters, before their dispersal by the wind. The contemporary version of this is a cloud maker that can mould shapes of any kind. A mixture of soapy foams and gases lighter than air is passed through stencils in re-functioned artificial snow machines to make ‘Flogos’, floating advertisements, messages and logos, which waft off and upwards to cruise in the sky for up to an hour. There is something so efficient about this direct and industrial production of clouds – unlike Tatlin’s reliance on an overcast day to broadcast his messages, the Flogo machine makes the manufactured cloud itself the communicating device.  Perhaps one day the machine could be hard-wired to the brain so that our interior monologues, our innermost thoughts be turned into cloud form, floating up and off from our heads to be viewed by all. Thoughts in cloud form have not yet actually been invented, but thoughts contained within clouds have long been familiar to us.

Since the early twentieth century it has been the convention in comic strips that a cloud shape, loosely connected to a character by a chain of ever-smaller bubbles, encloses the words of an internal monologue. Likewise a panel frame with a cloudy edge is meant to be read as a fantasy or dream image. The cloud’s wavy contours stand in for the contours of the head or brain that entertains the thoughts or fancies. Mr Daydream, from the Mister Men book series, is, of course, a blue cloud.

There was always room for invention here. A stormy dark-edged cloud with a bolt of lightening poking from it could indicate furious thoughts. Snoopy the dog and Garfield the cat are non-speakers both and only use thought clouds to communicate, and not necessarily to their fellow comic pals, but to us, casting, thus, an ironic glare into the strips’ events. Thought clouds have fallen somewhat from fashion – they came to be seen as awkward vehicles for stiltedly conveying plot elements or providing details that a character would surely already know and not need to think to themselves. Nowadays these clouds of thought are more likely to be filled with stream-of-consciousness style fragments or psychotic, obsessive thoughts that are clearly awry or maybe jumbles of words, part-sentences, pictograms or drawings, in a rejection of the idea that we think grammatically or indeed in words.

While thought clouds have adapted themselves to the evolving needs of an ageing medium such as comics, new cloud types, have emerged elsewhere in the azure skies that were first seen in 1995 through Microsoft’s Windows. Text clouds, word clouds, speech clouds, tag clouds, data clouds, collocate clouds – these are names for clusters of information that now float through the crowded skies of cyberspace. These clouds indicate a page’s contents or show the most searched terms on the site across chosen periods of time. They are comprised of words abstracted from a webpage’s contents and huddled together, often as hyperlinks, their relative frequency or weight signalled through font size or maybe colour. The recent US elections led to a flurry of related clouds, speech clouds, where the words uttered by the contending politicians are weighted and arranged in a cloudy shape for comparison. How big does America loom? How big God in this cloud? How big change? There are programmes such as Wordle available for generating these clouds on any computer. Words become image. Words become de-grammaticised. Words are positivised into an instant apprehension, a bundle of words. The particles of speech that determine the sense are obliterated in the cloud.

These clouds are amassing. In fact the whole web is now to be conceived as a cloud – a fuzzy, all-encompassing, shifting, mobile conceptual environment – it is often depicted as a cartoon-style cloud in diagrams of computer networks. Beyond the windows to the cloud, to cloud computing, cloud applications, cloud clients, cloud infrastructure, cloud platforms, cloud services, cloud storage, cloud architecture and so on. The cloud is information. The cloud is our environment. Our atmosphere is all cloud. Our future appears distinctly overcast.


Get You Back Home


Back to The Benjamin Papers