Downwind

Consider a 2001 dust storm over China, captured in the impossible still of a photograph from the banal god’s-eye view (see Haraway 1988) of a NASA satellite. The mass of dust over China appears as China itself, a continent in the air at the same time doubling and obscuring the continent below. The land below is visible through the peepholes opened at the storm’s fraying edges or through skylights gaping and closing in the rush of air, held open in the photograph’s eternal present. The photograph is complete with a topography of ridges and valleys: land in the air.

Inline_china_tmo_2001097_lrg
Satellite image of the April 2001 dust storm. Photo by NASA.

Beginning in the early 2000s, consecutive years of drought combined with consecutive decades of inland land degradation and regional jet winds gave rise to the perfect conditions for large-scale and long-distance dust events, prompting a massive mobilization of state resources, expertise, and attention along the dust streams that pass over Beijing. New investments in remote sensing and a metastasizing network of on-the-ground dust-storm monitoring stations made meteorology and aeolian physics into the scientific and technical basis for visualizing the country’s broken land, framing it in terms of troubling weather for the Chinese capital.

Tracing the airflows that linked lands designated as dust-storm source regions revealed Beijing as an airspace traversed by national winds. Here, the capital is not simply the center of a confident new China, but a key point in the stormways carrying dusts that have become a meteorological signature of decades of breakneck economic growth. In the wind, the city’s resource frontier had also become its dust-shed. Controlling these modern dusts depended on tracing wind as the administrative architecture for experiments in geoatmospheric intervention. Along these windy zones (Ong 2006), national peripheries and centers were rearranged as upwinds and downwinds respectively, moments in the formation and passing of a dust event.

Even if administrative geographies—including those wrought in an aeolian politics (Howe and Boyer 2015)—demand spatial closure, the wind will not cease. In the circulation of the atmosphere and its revelation of relative up- and downwinds, every downwind is likewise upwind of elsewhere. For a dust storm is not simply the blowing open of planar politics into volumes and a politics of verticality (Weizman 2007). It also demands a novel political spatialization that attends to its processual dynamics, to a time-spacing defined by lags, anticipation, and the anxious mapping of the sky as a medium of meteorological and political proximity.

The 2001 storm passed over Beijing and left Chinese airspace to reach Seoul a day later. After another week, the Denver Post reported a column of haze rising miles over the Rockies, which they dubbed the “latest import from China” (Schrader 2001). In this alarm over dangerous Chinese exports, the Pacific emerges as a theater of operations for a relentless barrage of economic and meteorological invasions. Each one indexes an irresistible relation to China as the origin of an exogenous, traveling threat. Tracing dusts and commodity chains means fixing a gaze across the ocean as though looking backward, over America’s shoulder. Such tracing specifies chains of relation that make dust and commodity flows into commodity antifetishes. Relations are continually and anxiously mapped and then revised into vectors of threat pitched toward America, a fortress across the sea.

But winds are not commodity chains. Isomorphism stages a fantasy of subsuming one into the other. Can meteorological relations displace the reheated languages of international relations? Can their landlocked fantasy of sovereign integrity surprise us in a process that Debbora Battaglia (2012, 1093) describes as trans(re)lation?

As South Korean tree planters continually remind me while we build sand barriers and sink poplar saplings into the loose sand of northern China’s Qubqi Desert, a storm forming here will pass over both Beijing and Seoul. Wind is a thread they have pulled through two suspicious capitals. From the dust-storm source area where these South Korean planters make their annual expedition, both cities are downwind.

To be in the path of the same storm demands shared work for mutual protection, despite unequal responsibilities and exposures. They call this condition “friendship.” Friendship is a proposition for an ethics of downwind-ness. It configures two capitals through reference to the storms that skewer both their airspaces. It configures a political horizon set quietly against the peculiar atmospheric nationalism in South Korea, which blames poor air quality on a China drifting on the wind across the Bohai Sea. In the process, two states that lack a shared land border are bound together by the seasonal airstreams they share.

This meteorological effacement of national space might also be an injunction to reconsider, in tracing dust and airstreams, relations between nations in ways that skirt the languages of international relations. Friendship, or shared downwind-ness, is a way of positioning oneself so as to allow the wind to determine the distribution of ethical locations. Practices of meteorological blame sit uneasily aside its patterning of airstreams into communities of fate, as it asks for political relations to rework themselves along the path of a storm. Downwind arcs toward geographies of relation wrought as effects of the aeolian sequencing of a mobile weather event. China and South Korea shift from territorial sovereignties into the ordinal numbers of first and second in a stormpath, separated and bound by a day of dust-flight in the time-space of an earthly suspension (see Choy and Zee 2015) as it gathers and breaks.

References

Battaglia, Debbora. 2002. “Coming in at an Unusual Angle: Exo-Surprise and the Fieldworking Cosmonaut.” Anthropological Quarterly 85, no. 4: 1089–1106.

Choy, Timothy, and Jerry Zee. 2015. “Condition—Suspension.” Cultural Anthropology 30, no. 2: 210–23.

Haraway, Donna. 1988. “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective.” Feminist Studies 14, no. 3: 575–99.

Howe, Cymene, and Dominic Boyer. 2015. “Aeolian Politics.” Distinktion 16, no. 1: 31–45.

Ong, Aihwa. 2006. Neoliberalism as Exception: Mutations in Citizenship and Sovereignty. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Schrader, Ann. 2001. “Latest Import from China: Haze.” Denver Post, April 18.

Weizman, Eyal. 2007. Hollow Land: Israel’s Architecture of Occupation. New York: Verso.