Climatic Media: Transpacific Experiments in Atmospheric Control by Yuriko Furuhata
Duke University Press, 2022
Reviewed by Claire Fitch
Yuriko Furuhata’s Climatic Media: Transpacific Experiments in Atmospheric Control contributes to a contemporary turn in media studies in which environments are considered as media, regarded as active substrates through which information is transmitted and mediated. This involves expanding definitions of media to include a vast array of natural and synthetic mediations occurring within an environment: both the elemental materials composing them, as well as human techniques of modifying them. Alongside scholars such as John Durham Peters, Nicole Starosielski, Peter Sloterdijk, and Tung-Hui Hu, Yuriko Furuhata’s engagement with environmental media examines the relational exchanges between human social worlds and more-than-human material worlds. For Furuhata, this imperative manifests in an investigation of air conditioning as social conditioning– the way atmospheric control is instrumentalized to mediate the bodies that move through it. With this, she builds a multi-agential narrative of Earth systems, where “Climatic media interact with one another in a series of ecological and political feedback loops.” As Furuhata deftly crafts this balance between the ecological and the political, Climatic Media pushes contemporary media scholarship forward by calling for site-specific political attention to the socio-material legacies of imperialism and colonialism that continue to mediate all human relations with environments.
The method of inquiry utilized throughout Climatic Media is what Furuhata calls, following Sloterdijk, explication: the elucidation of the taken-for-granted aspects of our worlds. Furuhata argues that in its current state of control, engineering, and design, the atmosphere has already been explicated, to the extent that its artificiality has receded from awareness. Through its attention to various atmospheric media and their socio-political functions–fog art, meteorological forecasts, surveillance, tear gas, air conditioning–Climatic Media does double explicative work: both revealing the capacity of the environment-as-medium, as well as the capacity of science and technology to direct this medium. The process of explication, Furuhata argues, must always be consciously situated within the historical, material, geopolitical and environmental site-specificities in which explication of the atmosphere occurs. In her study of Japan’s various investments in atmospheric control, Furuhata takes up this task by attending to the geopolitical, philosophical, cultural, and socio-technical contexts in which climatic media emerge as the confluence of each of these dimensions.
The overarching question the book addresses is how climatic media emerge as a product of what Furuhata names “thermostatic desire:” the inclination to create artificial spaces of atmospheric control in which society is safely insulated from climatic unpredictability. Furuhata examines thermostatic desire as an expression of three primary drives: to control, dominate and organize nature; to accumulate territory as a means of strengthening a political body; and to continuously expand the sphere of this accumulation. Throughout the book, Furuhata guides her readers to witness thermostatic desire as a transference of these territorial projects into the air. Her activation of the air as a political site works to illuminate how geopolitics saturate and modulate all Earth systems. The atmosphere, as a substrate that exceeds and flows between political borders, poses a geopolitical problem. Attempts to control the atmosphere is therefore strategic political work that resists the fallibility and imagined nature of political territory. Furuhata explains this as a shift from thinking of national territory as actual to potential, enabling imperial expansionism to take place in the sphere of the air as well as the imagined future. This is what Furuhata refers to as the “fantasy of scalability” of thermostatic desire, showing how the same thermostatic desire can be witnessed in architecture, urban planning, geoengineering, terraforming, and geopolitical strategy. Climatic Media draws the reader through multiple scales in which thermostatic desire operates, methodically tracing how it permeates these scales through design, culture, philosophy, and technology. The focal points of the book are the futurologists and Metabolist architects of the University of Tokyo’s Tange Lab, whose impact Furuhata unfolds through a geopolitical inquiry into Japanese imperialism and postwar socio-technical relations with the United States. She demonstrates how the Tange Lab’s scientific design movement exemplified the confluence of national development projects with concurrent developments in cybernetic strategies for the technical optimization of
informatic systems. The Metabolists envisioned the city as a living organism and believed that the project of urban planning was to facilitate its vitality and growth. Furuhata points out that as this propensity for the managed expansion of life was incorporated into the national political agenda, it expressed the colonial and expansionist ethos underlying Japan’s nation-building strategies. Just as the Metabolists’ mobilization of biological metaphors was co-opted to express imperial geopolitical strategies, their use of cybernetic theories also became integrated into the nation’s development plans. Pairing the biological metaphor of the city as an organism with the cybernetic model of closed informatic systems, Tange Lab and the Metabolists modeled Japanese cities as self-regulating organizations, posing that a city’s vitality depended on the control of information circulation through space. Cybernetics’ concern with directing flows of information paralleled the Japanese government’s investment in controlling a sphere of influence. As such, Metabolist architecture was enrolled in Japan’s imperial projects of expanding its living sphere, which joined technical design and engineering with a logic that optimized control over territory would secure the proliferation and survival of the Japanese population.
By foregrounding the transpacific Cold War context, Furuhata does crucial work to incorporate climatic media within the context of broader milieus of mediation, national territories, cultural exchanges, design aesthetics, technological progress, extractive capitalism and geopolitical relations. It is with this move that Furuhata constructs a wide-spanning media ecology, tying multiple scales of socio-material mediations into relation. The popular frame of media ecology–which is used to understand relationships between humans and technologies as producing a new ecosystem and coevolution–is itself critiqued by Furuhata. While skillfully utilizing the affordances of media ecology as a method of inquiry, Furuhata also remains mindful that such ecological analogies have been co-opted by many in the fields of technology, infrastructure/development, informatics, and finance by using biological and organic presuppositions to naturalize their designs. Furuhata draws attention to the fact that these analogies and the assumptions they presume often mask the complexity of relations involved in a media ecology taking form, encouraging her readers to consider how all media ecologies–and all studies of media ecologies–are continually shaped by the legacies of imperialism, colonialism, and extractive capitalism.Through the case study of postwar Japan, Furuhata details the ways specific climatic media materialize from and operate within complex geopolitical situations, broadening media studies to include the geopolitical as a medium itself. With this political intervention, Furuhata provides a site-specific model of contemporary media scholarship that understands the complex functions of media through the socio-technical, environmental, political, and cultural contexts within which they emerge. Her thorough investigation of the way postwar transpacific relations manifest in climatic media provides readers a particularly strong case study for revealing the imbrication of political territorial projects with technological developments in environmental control. Furuhata’s examination of the ways the legacies of colonialism and imperialism shape these complex intersections exemplifies a practice of media scholarship attuned to the site-specific and multi-scalar operation of the geopolitical through socio-technical environments.