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The Radical Politics of Keeping Your Head in the Clouds

How Gavin Pretor-Pinney’s Cloud Appreciation Society furthers a proud political tradition of doing nothing.

By Colette Shade


Stare at these clouds until you reach political enlightenment. (Photo: Daniel Boyd/Flickr)

“Aristophanes, the ancient Greek playwright, described the clouds as ‘the patron goddesses of idle fellows,’” Gavin Pretor-Pinney tells me via Skype, growing animated as he talks about how Aristophanes skewered Socrates. “He was talking about the way that lying back and finding shapes in the clouds is an aimless activity, and it’s one that’s not going to get you anywhere in life.”

The particular day I call Pretor-Pinney for this interview is the perfect day for cloud watching. It’s a sunny May afternoon, warm but not hot. Outside my door in Baltimore, azaleas are blooming pink and coral. In the sky, water vapor is piled high into great white and silver cumulus formations, the best cloud variety for watching. I, however, am indoors, and engaged in perhaps the least aimless activity of all: exchanging my labor for money.

Pretor-Pinney, now 48, knows a thing or two about doing nothing. The Somerset-based former graphic designer, along with his journalist friend Tom Hodgkinson, started a magazine called Idler in 1993. The magazine’s tagline was “literature for loafers,” and its namesake was a series of pseudonymous Samuel Johnson essays from the late 1750s that espoused the virtues of lethargy and contentedness.

“The Idler,” Johnson wrote in 1758, “habituates himself to be satisfied with what he can most easily obtain.”

Clouds belong to everyone. They are free to watch, study, and appreciate. Unlike the land below, rent cannot be extracted from them. Cumulus and cirrus formations cannot be bought and sold to the highest bidder.

And what could be more easily obtainable than joy from the sky above, joy derived from doing nothing at all?

Neither the 20th-century Idler nor its 18th-century namesake were unique in the ideas they put forth. Aristotle wrote in TheNicomachean Ethics that “we are busy that we may have leisure,” a notion subsequently embraced by all three Abrahamic religions, with their requirements about the sabbath.

Perhaps the treatise most in line with the ideas of the Cloud Appreciation Society, though, is Paul Lafargue’s 1883 polemic, The Right to Be Lazy. Lafargue — the son-in-law of Karl Marx — argued that capitalist societies’ reverence of work was “a delusion,” and “the cause of all intellectual degeneracy, of all organic deformity.” In addition to degrading the minds and bodies of workers, Lafargue argued, capitalism works perversely “to discover consumers, to excite their appetites and create in them fictitious needs.” The critique of capitalism for over-manufacturing consumer desire comes up again and again in leftist economic critiques — most recently from an environmental perspective put forth by scholars like Alyssa Battistoni and Naomi Klein, who argue that the only way to save the planet is to slow the economy.

The Cloud Appreciation Society, on the other hand, was not founded as an explicitly political project. It was, in fact, founded without much planning at all. It began in 2004, after Pretor-Pinney delivered a talk titled “The Inaugural Lecture of the Cloud Appreciation Society” at a literary festival in Cornwall. The society in question, when he delivered the lecture, did not yet exist.

“I thought it sounded like a weird, interesting name for a talk,” Pretor-Pinney says. The gimmick worked, and the talk was so popular that attendees began to ask Pretor-Pinney how they could join. Shortly thereafter, he launched the group in earnest, using his website as a place to connect cloud lovers around the world.

“I always say that cloudspotting is an excuse,” Pretor-Pinney says. “It legitimizes doing nothing, and I think that’s valuable these days.”

Pretor-Pinney goes on to complain about the way that social media and ever-present digital devices have robbed modern people of the ability to do nothing — and to derive philosophical pleasure from their idleness.

“We never allow the space for downtime of the brain other than when we’re actually asleep,” he says. “Pretty much the whole time, people these days are in the sort of concentration mode that comes from either doing work, answering emails, or looking at stuff online. They’re flicking through stuff on their smartphones. They’re always filling those spaces with brain activity. In the past, there may have been more spaces for downtime for idle mode of the brain.”

Not unlike Lafargue, Pretor-Pinney argues that such constant mental business decreases not only joy, but creativity too.

“I think this idea of stepping back, of allowing the brain to go into idle mode is really central to creative thought,” he says.

It’s hard to disagree with him. These days, I find myself barely able to go more than an hour without checking Twitter, Gmail, Instagram, or the front page of the New York Times. My labor and my leisure — which already bleed together for me as a freelancer — have both been colonized by the need to be constantly occupied (usually on the Internet). I am beginning to suspect that my ability to be truly creative, or even just at ease, is suffering as a result.

“The sky is the most universal part of nature,” Pretor-Pinney says. “We all inhabit the same atmosphere and we all have the same cloud formations appearing above us.”

I recently finished Jonathan Crary’s 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, which — while mainly devoted to an argument that sleep is “an affront to capitalism” — offers a compelling secondary argument about the way that social media has eroded our interior life. I found myself particularly disturbed by Crary’s discussion of Hannah Arendt, who believed that the private sphere is necessary for the political life of the individual. Crary argues that — more or less — this private sphere can only exist when we do nothing. According to Crary’s metric — I’ve yet to read Arendt’s The Human Condition — I have largely forfeited my private sphere, and thus my ability to engage politically.

After transcribing my interview with Pretor-Pinney, I was exhausted. My eyes ached and my shoulders slumped toward my laptop. I decided I would actually take his advice and give myself a break. Not a break halfheartedly scrolling through Twitter or Instagram. Not even a break reading a book. I would give myself a real break, one where I accomplished nothing at all.

I stepped outside and lay in the grass in my front yard. It occurred to me that I had not done this in a very long time. Certainly months. Maybe even years. I lay down in the grass and I looked at the clouds. At first, they looked like nothing. And then, slowly but surely, I began to make out images. There was a rabbit. There was a dragon. There was the state of New Jersey. I felt at ease in a way I had not in a long time.

“The sky is the most universal part of nature,” Pretor-Pinney says. “We all inhabit the same atmosphere and we all have the same cloud formations appearing above us.”

I thought of the commons in Great Britain, in which land was set aside to be shared collectively by members of the community. Clouds belong to everyone. They are free to watch, study, and appreciate. Unlike the land below, rent cannot be extracted from them. Cumulus and cirrus formations cannot be bought and sold to the highest bidder. Airspace is regulated by governments, but the clouds that grace it are not. The sky is our commons.